Kenya, Coast Province - Learning Swahili

The surfEXPLORE Group takes on big sharks, ambergris and the inconsistent waves of Lamu and Manda Islands on the Swahili coast of east Africa

Camouflage-striped Jambo speaks no words, but I feel his presence. Poised with indecision, I lie on my board, staring, until I meet the black mirror of his pupil. Eye contact answers all our questions. His burnt stare scorches my nerves and I accede to his position at the apex of the food triangle. In the God’s country, always honour the God. Twelve feet of carnivore glides with the current. My heart pounds, but I feel strangely calm. I spin and paddle over to Cheyne Cottrell.

Cheyne Cottrell and Sam Bleakley discussing their options at the left point on Manda Island, home of Jambo, the Tiger shark

 “Tiger shark,” I said, aware that the Cape Town-based goofy footer knows a thing or two about predators. We stick like glue, walk back up the left point between rides, deliberate if it was worth paddling back out. But we do. No flashy turns, just safe surfing. Jambo appears again, but less threatening, drifting with the ebbing tide. He knows what we’re doing. We know he’s boss. In Africa, you’ve always got to be in your senses. Don’t challenge nature, adapt. Stick with your animal instincts. We walk back from Ras Kitau point with photographer John Callahan to our Manda beach bandas. The skies open. The smell of rain on dust. Our African safari has begun, with a warning: stay tuned.

The Swahili Coast of Kenya, like the language itself, is a melting pot of different cultures and peoples in the same areas of East Africa

“Safari”, the Swahili word for travel originated in Kenya and ninety per cent of the tourists who visit this nation come to see her legendary wildlife. But alongside the Masaai rangelands, savanna plains and Great Rift Valley is 480 kilometres of palm-fringed Indian Ocean coastline. A handful of surfers pay homage to the peelers at Mombassa and Malindi. But we knew of none who’d ventured further north. Close to the Somali border, Manda Island lies two degrees south of the equator. Part of the Lamu Archipelago, her seven islands and multitude of islets abound with dense mangrove forests broken by sand dunes, coral reefs and potentially decent waves.

Group of surfers walking on the beach of Manda Island with limestone rock formations

Culturally the archipelago is fascinating, shaped by ten centuries of colorful heritage. Most of these settlements flourished as small trading stations blending East African Bantu roots with Arab influence. The Arab traders would arrive in their dhows with the kaskazi North East trades, and return on the South Easterly kuzi. As these small colonies blossomed a distinct Afro-Arab Swahili culture emerged, stylized by the local wind, tide and terrain. A place where culture has learnt from nature.

Local man adjusting the sail of his dhow on Manda Island

“There’s plenty of Tigers out beyond the reefs,” said Nils, a white Kenyan seadog and brother of the owner of Peponi Bar on Lamu Island. “Must be all the rains and murky waters, ‘cos it’s rare to seem ‘em so shallow. But surfers are more rare in these parts. You’re the first we’ve seen.”
 “Always exciting to explore somewhere different,” I said. “You only live once.”

Group of surfers walking in the sand dunes on Lamu Island, Kenya

 “It ‘ain’t no dress rehearsal,” said Nils, buzzing on rum and breaking into a boogie as the music funked up. Nils’ relentless enthusiasm encapsulates the attitude of the eclectic bunch of transplants this corner of Africa has attracted. The Swahili style has always been to welcome the new and sophisticated. Swahili is not a tribe, but a mixing - Bantu, Islam, Indian, European and East Asian. Our gaggle of international surfers will be embraced. Another stitch in the social tapestry that make these islands so fascinating.

Randy Rarick carries his longboard past the castle on Shela Beach of Lamu Island, which has an eclectic community of expatriate foreign residents.

“Whale shit!” exclaims John, at one end of the bizarre bar scene.
 “Yes, ambari – ambergris - whale shit,” said Patrick, a Swahili Rasta. “You find a piece of the waxy stuff on the beach, sell it to an ambari dealer and you can buy a new home.” At the other end of the bar sits local landowner and engineer, Brendon.
 “Madame Peugeot (of the car dynasty) has just moved in with her poodles to that Moorish looking castle built by the Italian architect Claudio. He used to be a mercenary in the Congo. She was out walking her poodles on the beach and an eagle swooped to attack them, so now she employs two Masaai warriors to guard her dogs.”

Manda Island features several accommodation providers offering traditional thatched huts made from locally sourced, organic materials. No concrete here.

We live in a world of snap shots. Tourists come and go. People visit these islands, fall for the mesmerising enclave of traditional Swahili architecture, the lack of cars, the unfussy barefoot atmosphere and acceptance of new boho folk, but fear the place will soon be ruined. Overdeveloped, over priced, over visited.
But Manda and Lamu have been hosting new names forever. The future is in safe hands. Swahili is organic and dynamic, absorbing and adapting. Crucially these islands resonate to something more profound. What persists is the underlying beat. The rhythm of the landscape. The baobab trees. The relentless winds. The pulse of the tide. The mangroves.

Sam Bleakley, surfing at Shell Beach on Lamu Island.

A gnarled mass of impenetrable mangrove roots surrounds us. Like giant spiders standing high on the inlet banks. The air is humid. The tide low. The water still. A stagnant soup of stinking mud. In a confusion of the Swahili clock - which starts at six am - we have mistimed high tide.
At Takwa, in south Manda, where the estuary encroaches the island, the tide rules life. The rendezvous with the dhow is impossible since it’s low water. So we squelch through the silt. Eventually the estuary opens deep enough for the dhow. Waiting. Sinking. Fiddler crabs scurry into their mud homes and we think of the venomous green mambas that lurk close by. I climb up the tangled branches of salty mangrove. Our Cornish host, Rachael Feiler, holds her cell phone up high: one bar. She sends an SMS to local employee Julius back at the Diamond Beach Resort she owns.

The Lamu Channel, a center of maritime commerce on the coastline of East Africa for more than a thousand years

 “Answali and Abu on way in Ronaldo,” he replies.
Ronaldo, the name of their wooden dhow, after the Brazilian footballer, breaks the horizon, and stops.
 “Are you sure there’s no alligators in here?” I shout to Rachael as I dive into the estuary to swim out to Ronaldo. “How about crocodiles?” I add, spurting out a mouth full of water.
 “We cannot get the dhow over this shallow bank,” said Answali. I stop splashing, stand, and realise it’s only knee deep. We swim back to John and Rachael.
 “No Papas (sharks) in here,” said Answali, who has a loose open ocean technique, learned from a visiting Japanese swimmer that has crowned him Lamu Channel crossing champion three years running. But he was cautious about training in the channel for this year’s race now ‘Jambo’ was watching. Answali leads us through the chest deep estuary edge. John hoists his camera gear above his head and doesn’t get a splash of salt on his kit.

Cheyne Cottrell, surfing in the Indian Ocean on Manda Island

We climb aboard the dhow, but it instantly runs aground, so we wade a hundred yards through silty water up to our thighs, taking over the job of the wooden engraved eyes that have led these weathered vessels through the Arab world for centuries. I push and heave.
 “Haraka, haraka: hauna baraka – haste, haste: there’s no blessing it,” said Abu.

Boarding a Dhow. With no cars on the island, boats are a preferred form of transportation

Northwest Manda - the ‘plane rumbles to a halt in a swathe cleared in the thick mangrove. I remember the aromatic blast of sultry heat that engulfed me when I arrived. Then I’m slack-jawed to see a longboard being unloaded. Mine was sent on a larger ‘plane to Mombassa, another to Malindi and then by bus and boat to Lamu. Only Sunset’s Randy Rarick has the bravado to squeeze nine feet into the six feet deep hold of a 35 seater SAAB 370. The team is complete: Italian charmers Emiliano Cataldi and Nik Zanelli from Roma and Ravenna respectively and cool Californian Stanford graduate Nicholai Lidow, fresh from adventures in Ghana.

Group of surfers walking on Shela Beach on Lamu Island at sunset

A kilo of the strongest kolombo miraa pokes out from Hasan’s pouch. He chews the red-green bark shrub with some bubble gum, sailing “Ronaldo” across the deep estuary to Shela beach. Water laps against the shark-liver oil stained hull while the triangular lateen sail stretches taught in the South East wind. Miraa (an amphetamine-like stimulant) apparently makes your sight sharper, but Hasan still manages to beach the dhow when he drops us off. We spend the next thirty minutes lifting and hoisting the weighty boat back into the Indian Ocean.

Colours and textures of the Swahili Coast of East Africa

Shela is a 12-kilometre swathe of sand that the locals consider crowded if more than ten people can be seen. As we walk to the exposed west end of the stretch, collect fragile sand dollar shells, look out for priceless chunks of ambari and play hide-and-seek with the sand crabs, Muhammad follows with a fresh batch of his mother’s fish somas. Randy builds a WindanSea-esque shack to shelter from the equatorial sun, Emi names the wave “Samosas” and we all revel in the rippeable four feet conditions.

British longboard champion Sam Bleakley at Shela Beach on Lamu Island

That age-old flow of air from high to low pressure is relentless right now. This coast has two seasonal trades, the strong South East kusi from May to November and the North East kaskazi from December to April. It is early August. A month after the rainy season the mud from the Tana River still silts the wave zone. Come the kaskuzi the weather is clear and the exposed spots offshore, but unless there is a rare cyclone swell, it’s flat. Despite it dusting up the line-up, the South East trade was our saviour, her fetch creating the consistent, if imperfect surf. Maybe when the kuzi is at the point of switching to the kaskazi, winds are slack while there are still a few weeks of head high swell. But we quickly concluded “Into the wind,” was the motto in our Swahili surf safari.

Cheyne Cottrell and Emiliano Cataldi, rush hour on Manda Island

Have you ever woken up in a towering 500-year-old baobab tree? Rachael and Helen Feiler have built a tree house around their beloved baobab at Diamond Beach Resort. The branches burst through the palm thatched roof and walls, tangling the large veranda. The baobab’s resilience is legendary. Lasting thousands of years she’s able to endure seemingly endless periods without water and is near impossible to kill. Burnt or stripped, she still grows. When she does die, she simply rots from the inside and suddenly collapses, leaving a heap of fibres. In African folklore, they don't die at all, but simply disappear, like magic. I smile at the sunrise illuminating the Shela dunes. The wind is so strong there’s no rush to surf. I walk down to the loo with a view. ‘If it’s yellow let it mellow, if its brown flush it down’ are the toilet tactics in this sanctuary of simple living where fresh water is limited.
Clusters of bright birds flit from branch to branch. Julius serves Kenyan coffee and mango, papaya and banana drizzled with lime. Turquoise and red Carmen bee-eaters and Kingfishers court and dance. The atmosphere of Manda is seductive - you meant to stay a week, a month later you cannot imagine leaving. Diamond Beach Resort is a model of ecotourism. Cornish jeweller and artist Helen Feiler holidayed in Manda three years ago and was so moved by the landscape and the people that she knew it would be an inspiring place to come and paint in the winter.

Rachael Feiler at the entrance to Diamond Beach on Manda Island

“Mum bought this one acre plot and came back the following year to build Diamond,” said Rachael. “I finished my Cultural Studies Degree at Bristol University, flew out and couldn’t believe what she’d achieved: A bar, kitchen, six sleeping bandas and tree house locally designed and all built in two months.” Next on the agenda was creating the magnificent yoga studio for acclaimed teacher John Scott, who bought a group out for a course. “Then we made two traditional mud homes and fitted flush toilets so the health officers certified the resort,” said Rachael. She now runs the business while Helen spends six months at her Newlyn gallery in Cornwall and the remainder of the year painting in Kenya.
But it’s far from plain sailing creating an ecolodge in an African paradise, where Western amenities are scarce.
 “There is a problem,” said the soft-spoken Swahili electrician to Rachael. “The problem is we need to solve the problem, then the problem will be fixed,” he said, scratching his head, clearly perplexed by the problem, which he fixes three hours later, closing the open electrical circuit. His patience is incredible. “Little by little fills the jug,” goes the Swahili saying.

Emiliano Cataldi and Cheyne Cottrell at the beach break on Manda Island

I wash the sand from my feet in the open clay pot at the foot of the tree house. Kahindi has just laden it with bougainvillea petals. More than all the Kenyans I have met, Rachael’s employees stand out for their genuine friendship, humour and honesty. Like the ever-helpful handyman Mwembe, they subscribe to the view that one favour deserves another and greediness leads to destruction. And Rachael pays them well, supports their family’s education and works intimately with the local community.
 "My aim for the future is to put a percentage of our profits into Manda, to supply water and to help the farmers so that we can buy all our produce on this island, rather than Lamu."
“I find it soothing,” said Emi, referring to an African muezzin Nik plays on his ipod. Fitting perhaps that we sail into Lamu on Friday. Before long we tangle in Lamu’s maze of streets so narrow that you can shake hands with your neighbour in the house opposite. Swahili women, draped in their black bui-bui veils, glide through the shaded alleys, silent and inscrutable, only to vanish around a corner into an ornately carved wooden doorway. Up from the bougainvillea and into the cooler interior of the courtyards we sit on the verandah at Petley’s Inn - the oldest and most atmospheric hotel in town. One of two places that serve beer in this alcohol-free culture, the inn was built in the late 19th century by Percy Petley, an extravagant Englishman who was said to have been able to hunt leopard with his bare fists. Filled with donkeys, cats and carts, Lamu is charged with mysterious energy, where time moves to ancient rhythms. But the host population is used to visitors and has embraced tourism without losing its soul.

Lamu Town on Lamu Island, a center of commerce and Muslim culture in East Africa for more than a thousand years

Barefoot, we find ourselves outside Jumaa Mosque (‘sword sharpening place’) kicking a football with the local kids. The excitement turns into a free kick fest, then a penalty shoot out. Then comes the third call to Allah of the day.
 “Hello, God is great. God is great,” but we still play and play. The muezzin on the PA gets louder and louder and louder, until it erupts, “Italia, England, USA, STOP PLAYING FOOTBALL!” Not surprisingly I cut my toe at that moment on a blade-like stone. The cut flared up into a tropical infection that required a course of antibiotics on my return home. Karma clearly inhabits Islam. The 23 Mosques in Lamu actually contribute to a much-respected Islamic teaching area. For faithful participants, Maulidi, a weeklong celebration of Muhammad’s birth, is so laden with baraka (blessings) that some say two trips to Lamu are worth one to Mecca in the eyes of God.
“If we could get a birds’ eye view of the islands,” said Randy, “We’d figure out where to surf in no time and be able to make a direct hit in the dhow and tractor.” After planning the travel schedule for Endless Summer II, Rarick knows that ‘planes are the most efficient exploration tools in the quiver. We walked up the beach at Manda to Simon and Carolyn Roumeguere’s extravagant home to ask if Simon could use his personal six-seater ‘plane to help us explore. A dhow silhouetted against the amber sunset: the quintessential sight in these parts. I had a feeling the dhow eye was going to be the only way to see the areas waves. Simon was away with his wings on business, but Carolyn still invited us up to the tree house for some ginger tea served by her Masaai waiters.

Cheyne Cottrell, surfing the left point on Manda Island between Tiger shark sightings

Strikingly tall and slender, dressed in an ensemble of brilliant red cloth tied over one shoulder, the Masaai have abnormally huge feet and thick ankles. Nomads: evolved to walk long distances. Armed with spear, sword, club and braided hair these warriors developed a fearsome reputation during the European “Scramble for Africa” in the 19th Century. They called the Europeans, who came swaddled in clothing, “Yoridaa enjekat - those who confine their farts”. Pampered by an arch superiority complex and a diet of milk and blood, romantic literature prevailed. Today the tourist industry offers the Masaai a new outlet for their cultural pride, colourful beadwork and basketry. Roumeguere’s Parisian mother migrated to Africa and raised Carolyn in a Masaai community in northern Kenya. Carolyn’s Masaai inspired jewellery, with worn silver and substantial minerals gathered from all over the continent, is a must for the posh Lamu regulars like Princess Caroline of Monaco.
Accepting that we would have to see the islands by tractor, dhow and foot we walk back to Diamond. Chef Dansen swiftly delivers a feast of grilled king fish, coconut rice and spinach. This is followed by Sylvester’s ginger beer and rum cocktail, while we sprawl in the hammocks by the acacia tree. Kombo lines the pathways in the warm glow of paraffin lamps. The plan was to sail over to Shela for some socializing at Peponi, but Hasan had beached the dhow at spring high. We would need to wait till 2 am for the dhow to float. “Hakuna matata – no worries,” is balanced by the fact that Hasan is one of the few Ramadan-breaking locals. He’s happy disobeying the Koran, buying bulk loads of beer for Diamond from the one outlet in Lamu and hiding it in the dhow to avoid public scrutiny. We had scored a healthy supply of Kenyan brewed Tusker and happily settle for a night ‘round the campfire-talking story. The sky lights up with stars. Unlike Lamu, a place of sounds, Manda is silent. The only beat is the music of the tide and the wind in the mangrove.

Sam Bleakley, surfing the beach break on the back side of Manda Island

The unusual racket of a tractor engine approaching the beach at breakfast encourages outcries of Cornish farm jargon. A Red Massey Ferguson 165 with trailer pulls up outside the drift wood entrance to Diamond. Quilted with foam mattress and pillows we all load into the back, searching for surf in a tractor.
 “It’s about how much you want the shot,” said John, standing solid at the stern of the trailer, camera at the ready, dodging the lethal snakes and foliage that fly past as we bounce through the heart of Manda. Past the coral rag quarry. Past dhow captions Abu and Answali’s maize farm. Past pairs of tiny dikdik antelope. Beyond the ruined village of Takwa is a right point break. At high tide (the spring range is four metres) the inside section bent into the wind enough to blow cross offshore. This is Manda’s Malibu with a rough edge, where Randy and I enjoy navigating the nasal passage over the shallow coral blisters. I stroll to the tip. Settle. Hover. Hang. One of those moments that remains for much more than a moment.

Perfect offshore wind, just needs to be a meter or so bigger to be a fantastic wave

Emi navigates us through the partially restored coral walls, giant baobabs and acacias at Takwa with his hand held GPS. Takwas doors all face northeast towards Mecca, but the colourful mosaic cistern for washing feet outside the central mosque hasn’t been used since the 17th Century. Takwa was abandoned because the wells had become salty and no longer potable. Her inhabitants crossed the channel to Lamu Island and established the town of Shela.
 “I think we should turn left. The GPS says so,” explains Emi. Like a trail of ants, Nik, Nicholai and I turn left, following the coral lined path, following Emi, following his GPS, following the eyes of a satellite. Cursing, Emi hurls his GPS at the floor.
 “Hercules kills a lion with a stick. Emi kills an ant with his GPS,” says Nik.
We took the tractor as far east as possible, walked through the dunes and surfed Turtle Beach, the heaviest shore break in Manda. Emi redeemed his ant attack and styled into the fastest, hollowest wave of the trip. Nicholai, Nik and Randy were charging and Cheyne was boosting huge airs, gaining hero status amongst the local goat farmers and coral miners. They reacted by performing acrobatic back flips on the beach. We walked back to the tractor past the goat farm and turtle nests.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing the beach break on the back side of Manda Island

“Turtle actually tastes really great,” said Randy at dinner in Peponi. Carol Korschen who owns Peponi with her husband Lars wasn’t impressed. She runs the turtle sanctuary in east Manda. Literally translated ‘A place in the wind’, Peponi was our sanctuary that night. Described in the guidebooks as “utterly hedonistic,” New York Times writer Christine Muhlke said, “Peponis’ cocktail hour will tell you all you need to know about Shela in the high season.”
Since the Sixties Lamu has been known as the Katmandu of Africa - remote, fascinating, and seemingly untouched by the 20th century. It's much the same today, although in the busy Christmas season Lamuans do well from the tourists. But it still feels like a place removed from the rapido of the West. A place where the wind blows all the steam away.
 “Life is like an acacia tree; you need little to survive,” said Ali, who makes a living selling dhow excursions to tourists and hiring windsurfers. “One tourist supports thirty jobs,” he added.
Although windsurfing has left its innocent mark, there is a refreshing lack of surf culture here. But in recent years the area has found favour with the international glitterati of boho folk, “reveling in its Marrakech-on-the-beach potential,” wrote Muhlke. Money-no-object Shela regulars include Prince Ernst of Hanover and a multitude of well-to-do Europeans. Modeling rumpled linen shirts and adopting the Swahili kikoy skirt, they clink cocktails with their glamorous, yet earthy wives, thickly glad in ethnic jewellery and flowing sequined dresses. Peponi certainly reveals all you need to know about the social scene in Shela. For Randy it was yet another classic Africa adventure.

Randy Rarick, surfing the beach break on the back side of Manda Island

“Hi, I’m Randy.”
 “I’m not,” replied the not so horny Cape Town girl on Rarick’s first trip to Africa in 1971.
These days Randy’s name equates with cutting edge surf culture, surf tech models, board auctions and contest directing. Rarick has arguably more Africa travel under his belt than any surfer: Mauritania, Senegal, Ghana, São Tomé, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi and Egypt to name a few of the continent’s coastlines he’s ridden.
 “I’ve always had an affinity with Africa because it’s so different to where I live in Hawaii. In 1971 I was invited to South Africa to represent Hawaii at the Gunsten 500. I hooked up with Rod Sumpter and Peter Drouyn to film Oceans. In the 23 times I’ve been back I’ve never seen J-Bay and Cape St Francis as good as it was on that trip. That was the beginning of my love affair with Africa.”
“I came back in ‘73 and travelled through South West Africa in a Land Rover we bought from Pretoria. We even put Hawaiian plates on it. Angola proved to be fascinating. I remember arriving from Namibia at the Angolan border half an hour before it closed at 6pm. The guards were too lazy to do the paper work, so they told us to come back in the morning. We pitched our tent right there next to customs. But up the road in Angola was a cantina that was happening after dark. We couldn’t resist, so we hoped over the fence and walked up the road and all these Portuguese soldiers were in the cantina drinking and dancing. They were stoked to see new faces and stacked up the spirits. With the Portuguese influence it was so different from the rest of Africa. Food was cooked in olive oil and it was much more vibrant and lively. But at 2 am it got pretty intense when these generals took us out in the jeep with a spotlight shooting leopard and deer. Next morning the officials we’d been drinking with stamped our passports – officially.”

Surfing on the Swahili Coast of East Africa - a unique and distinctive culture

“It was probably one of the best adventures in my life. We were breaking new ground and drove the whole 950-mile coast. If there was a road to the beach we were going down it. ‘Leave no stone unturned’ - that was my motto. We broke a half shaft in the Namib Desert, nearly got trampled by a herd of elephants, Luanda was like the Wild West and I came back with malaria. But we surfed so many perfect empty points. I continue to travel because what’s around the next corner always excites me. I never give up. But these days I’m an observant traveller and don’t profess to be any authority. I come and I observe and take in the good and the bad, but I’m aware that everyone is a product of the environment that they grew up in. You’ve got to remind yourself you’re always a visitor. Just go with openness to engage, give something back and you’ll reap the rewards.”
Unique places attract unique people. Take Wayne McGregor’s group Random Dance that were training in their Manda studio. Despite the use of different terrain, dance and surfing have a similar emphasis on cool style and expressive body language. Rachael invited the international group of ten around to Diamond for a fish barbeque. We were fascinated by the fact that they were famous dancers who’d just done the choreography for Harry Potter 4. They were fascinated that part of our lifestyle was to explore. An interesting mix of scenes ensued.
Khamlone, a dancer from Laos explained that choreographer Wayne is currently Research Fellow at the Department of Neuroscience at Cambridge University. The project they are preparing in Manda, Amu (from Lamu), meaning “of the heart”, is part of his exploration into the interface between mind and body. Science and performance art fused – like surfing.

Randy Rarick, surfing at the beach break on the back side of Manda Island

 “The cutting edge has never been sharper,” said Times dance critic Donald Hutera. He had four days to get his story on Random Dance and Manda. The humble surf journalist, whose mind is on the trip, and the broadsheet journalist, whose story is on the deadline. Different language, different cultures, both inspired by the same unique place. Like all travel, Kenya was more than a surf trip. For those who look, there’s more than meets the eye.

Two surfers walking on the beach of Manda Island near the remnants of the Portuguese Fort

We hire a boat to explore Manda Toto (Baby Manda), where we find the aptly named, “GI - JOE Point”. Then we take the last tractor ride across Manda. Randy, John and I make the two-hour walk to the last headland just in case. That perfect wave wasn’t around the corner. That pristine peeler wasn’t over the sand dune. But it’s a great feeling – circumnavigating an island, exploring an archipelago. Chasing the chance that the next place might be happening. We had done a lot of walking - like the Masaai who have roamed this chunk of Africa for centuries - and a lot of sailing - like the dhows that ply these waters.
This corner of Swahili culture has four good consistent waves. Closest to Diamond is Ras Kitau point.

Cheyne Cottrell, surfing in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean on the coastline of Manda Island

“On its day the long lefts exceed 300 metres,” said Nik, who connected sets with Nicholai all the way through to the inside beach. At lower tide the current is strong and the walls shifty, but at high tide the wave sits over the flat reef, the current slackens and the point is excellent. Trouble is, being right at the mouth of the estuary, it’s sharky. “I was constantly looking out the corner of my eye for a slicing fin,” said Nicholai. “One of the local fisherman confessed that he was waiting for us to be eaten alive,” adds Nik. “I loved counting my legs after each session: one, two, one, two...” Despite his affinity with ex-Portuguese colonies, Emi remembers, “One evening session when Randy almost died trying take pictures from the top of the ruins of a 16th Century Portuguese fort. The whole corner gave way and Rarick fell six feet in broken coral and canon. Callahan rescued unconscious Randy from the thorn bushes and they spent an hour looking for his camera in the bushes.”

There are many sea urchins on the reefs, the locals do not harvest nor eat them so they proliferate in every crevice

A short dhow sail across the estuary is Shela beach. “A huge sandbank blocks the swell on the east side,” explains Emi, “So you have to walk two kilometers to the west.” At the base of the massive sand dunes is, “A punchy, consistent, whackable beachbreak, best at mid to high tide,” said John. “It was totally deserted but for a few locals filling sandbags for cement (to mix with the coral rag from Manda) onto the back of donkeys. With incredible timing, Muhammad would appear at the end of every session out of nowhere with a basket of fresh samosas,” said Emi.
A snaking track across Manda Island is Takwa point and Turtle beach, “to rinse away the epic safari-style tractor ride,” said Nik. With “perfect afternoon light,” said John, Turtle beach was where local twelve-year old Johnny experienced his first surf. "Cheyne and me were pushing him into the waves on Randy’s 7’6” and got super tired because he wouldn't give up. He just kept saying ‘Just one more, one more,” recalls Emi. By his next session on a longboard with Rachael at Shela, Johnny was styling and Manda had its first homegrown surfer.

Cheyne Cottrell, surfing at the beach break on the backside of Manda Island

Night changes the sea. The sun rose on the last morning, the wind was abnormally calm and Ras Kitau point was looking classy. By now we were familiar faces to the few locals we encounter walking to the point. The endless Swahili greetings that are central to Kenyan sociability: "Mambo, Jambo, Hujambo, Sijambo, Habari.”  Habari - literally, news - can be combined with anything to form a variation of "How are you today, how did you sleep, how did you wake up, and how are you since yesterday?”
The trip felt complete. Surf adventures are full of heroic accounts of conquering and claiming. We conquered nothing, claimed nothing. We never found any ambari. We didn’t discover a new surfing Mecca, but had a fantastic adventure sensing the rhythm and spirit of this remote African island: An intertidal world, afloat with the wind and buried in mangrove and sparkling white sand, blessed with a Swahili culture, cool-headed in the heat of change. I like to think we left without a trace. Take only photographs, leave only footprints.

Rachel Feiler, pulling in Ronaldo the Dhow for an evening trip across the Lamu Channel

Text © Sam Bleakley
Images © John Seaton Callahan
A surfEXPLORE® feature

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