Watamu is a great place to take your children on an educational family holiday. Linda Markovina recounts her time there, as well as recommending some other key spots along the coast. Photographs by the writer
he mangroves begin to close in on us as our guide, Kahindi Chagawa, leads us towards a small inlet between the gnarled arches of Mida Creek’s network of village pathways. This elaborate and intricate ecosystem, made up of tangled forest roots, is our family’s playground for the morning. Our merry group of adults and teenagers prepare to wade through the tidal waters that flood the grounds twice a day. Kahindi rolls up the legs of his trousers and all of us follow suit as we form an orderly line and begin our three-hour walk towards the coastline.
As the Animal Welfare and Community Outreach & Awareness Programme Coordinator for NGO Local Ocean Trust, Kahindi is a non-stop source of information about every nook and cranny that we are exploring. “Look here,” he says, pointing into the mangroves. “See how these amazing roots dig deep into the muddy soil. That way they provide stability for the surrounding coastline and act as a protective home for small fish and a place of refuge for turtles and birds.” While the air might be stiflingly humid as the density of our surroundings blocks out any wind, the sheer beauty of this ecological treasure trove distracts us. The kids giggle as we stumble through the water, while Kahindi tells us about the 32km creek, which stretches from the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest to the coastal town of Watamu, where it meets the Indian Ocean.
On a small headland 105km north of Mombasa and 15km south of the bustling town of Malindi, Watamu has come a long way from its origins as a small trading outpost some 600 years ago. This was once a place where passing fishermen would find shelter in the forest; yet now the cosmopolitan community boasts a range of hotels, watersports centres and Italian-inspired restaurants filled with sunseekers from all over the world. This small area, with its stretches of perfectly white sand and emerald tropical waters, has more to offer than just delicious dollops of rich ice cream and good kitesurfing. Tucked away between the sun-soaked beaches and lush vegetation is a wonderland of natural flora and fauna filled with creatures big and small. It’s a budding ecologist’s heaven and ripe for exploration by both locals and tourists. “I am absolutely devoted to the work we do here for the environment and the people of this area,” says Kahindi, as we pass a young woman walking through the mangrove pathways, a bucket of water balancing perfectly on her head. “I’ve been doing it for more than 11 years and every day I feel so blessed because I get to spend it outside in this beautiful place.” I can only nod in agreement. This is indeed a natural wonderland.
After a few hours of climbing and crawling through the roots, we are met with heat-relieving winds coming from the lagoon and heading out to the sea. Olive ridley and green turtles call these waters home, and getting the community involved in their conservation is something that each member of Local Ocean Trust fosters very carefully. This is made evident in the organisation’s turtle rescue and rehabilitation project, which we were lucky enough to witness first-hand with Fikiri Kiponda, who coordinates the Trust’s By Catch Net Release and Nest Monitoring & Protection Programme. “In the beginning, the fishermen were not very sure of what we were doing,” says Fikiri, as we take biometric data from a small olive ridley turtle. Volunteers, both adults and children alike, are welcome to assist with daily activities, from taking turtles for X-rays at the local clinic to releasing them back into the sea. “The fishermen were only bringing turtles to the centre, but with patience and time we developed strong relationships in the communities. Now we have our little mobile turtle car that goes out and collects any that have been caught in nets. We tag them, take their data, check for any signs of trauma or sickness and, if all is well, send them on their way.” It’s time-consuming work, especially in the midday heat, but as with everything else in this little haven, it is done with passion and purpose. “We get around seven calls a day,” Fikiri says with a beaming smile as he lifts the turtle into the back of the truck, while the children watch transfixed. “But I don’t mind going out because every day we are making a difference.”
Later, back in the lagoon, the younger members of our troupe set off down the shoreline. They are on the lookout for harvested mangroves that will need repair and replanting in the coming months. The kids’ favourite moments included passing through local villages, releasing green turtles back into the ocean and trekking through a sacred forest in search of elephants.
The true beauty of Watamu is that it is more than just a beach holiday destination. Yes, come for the sunshine and sand, but stay longer to connect with a unique part of Kenya’s coastal environment, and enrich your understanding of what it means for the community and conservation to thrive together on land and sea. And this is a destination that will engage and delight both young and old, so take the whole family — teens, too. It will leave you and them wanting to return time and again to discover something new.
• Getting there Several international carriers, including South African Airlines, fly into Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, from where you can fly to Malindi with Kenya Airways. Malindi is a 20-minute drive to Watamu. Alternatively, you can take the bus or train, which is often an all-day or overnight journey from Nairobi to Mombasa, and then onwards to Watamu by road.
• Where to stay For something unique, the chic Watamu Treehouse (doubles from about US$270) is excellent. If luxury is your goal, pick Medina Palms (doubles from US$242). There are also some spectacular beachfront properties available to rent, such as the chic and gorgeous Jabali House (from about US$315, sleeps eight), which is perfect for families.
• When to go Watamu is a great year-round destination, although July to October is the best time to visit if you want clear, sunny skies.
• Health Go to your local travel clinic well in advance to check which vaccines you need and to buy antimalarials.
• Further reading The Rough Guide to Kenya by Richard Trillo; Bradt’s Kenya Highlights by Anthony Ham.