Supplement your next East African safari with a foray to Kenya’s easygoing coastline or seek out Watamu as a destination in its own right. With spectacular snorkelling, forest elephants and endearing turtles, this visa-free trip might be the postcard holiday you’ve always imagined
There’s something undeniably eerie about floating in Coca Cola-coloured water, especially since you can’t see the bottom. Alas, here I was, cruising down a causeway through a mangrove forest, encouraged by the river current and headed for the open arms of the Indian Ocean.
It was my first trip to Kenya, and instead of visiting one of the iconic parks on safari, I made for the country’s coastline and the languidly laid-back waters north of Mombasa.
Tidal Creek Float
Nestled between pristine, creamy-coloured beaches licked by translucent blue waters and a lush forest, this beach town was appropriately placed for a traveller like me, with equal parts nature, adventure and next-level nosh. I didn’t know it then, but the Tidal Creek Float was the perfect way to start my stay and summed up almost everything I loved about the cheerful town of Watamu.
Available for just eight days each month – two days before and after the new and full moon – the Mida Creek current slows enough for visitors like me to wade in. Guides accompanied us downstream and instructed us on exactly where to lift our feet in the shallows, or the correct direction we needed to aim to miss the camouflaged rocks lurking below the murky surface.
Thanks to the sea-salted nature of the creek, floating was easy and my back quietly ‘walked’ the water. The narrow channel where our journey began soon spilt out into the larger Mida Creek river mouth, where we floated alongside dhows, fisherman and eventually, towards the sea.
An Italian Favourite
We beached in a sheltered bay, welcomed by a Swahili-style breakfast laid out on the shore. The table brimmed with green bananas and organic peanut butter, mandazi pockets (a vetkoek-like pita bread) stuffed with mbaazi (wholesome beans cooked in coconut), all washed down with hot, soothing Marsala tea.
All refuelled, it was just a short, scenic stroll along the water’s edge back towards the quirky towering stay that is the gorgeous Watamu Treehouse – and the brains behind this atypical aqua adventure.
From the river mouth, we passed whitewashed resorts perched along the postcard-perfect beach and deeply tanned holidaymakers who waded the shallows. Most of them Italian. Later, I learned that Watamu has long been a favourite holiday spot for these Europeans and the town is also a culinary chest of artisanal gelato, authentic pasta and other Italo-treasures catering to this predominant tourism market.
Conservation In Action
Aside from its delicious dining, I also discovered this was an effortless place to find conservation in action. The magical mangrove forest I floated through earlier that morning is part of the Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve, established in 1968 as one of the first protected marine areas in Kenya.
The dazzling coral reef is still safeguarded and lies a few metres offshore from where we walked, boasting 150 coral species and brimming with more than a thousand species of radiant reef fish.
On a snorkel safari the following day, I plunged my masked face below the waters to discover a wonderland where batfish, porcupinefish, boxfish and little chocolate dippers, that I recognised from the reefs further south at Sodwana, all roosted in their rocky marine mountains.
It was some of the most intoxicating scenery I’ve ever seen underwater, and we were blessed with dolphins joining us too. This oceanic garden is also crucial for sea turtle feeding, and the alluring sands back on land are indispensable breeding sites for the ancient reptiles.
The Local Ocean Trust visitor centre sits right behind my treehouse stay, so I pay it a visit. The organisation runs the Watamu Turtle Watch programme (among many other important conservation projects), which helps to protect and monitor the turtles that lay their eggs on this section of Kenya’s coast.
For a minimum of six hours every night, volunteers patrol the shores before, during and after high tide when the sea turtles are most likely to land and lay their eggs. Since the beginning of the programme in 1997, the organisation has monitored and recorded 897 nests in total. In 2018, they observed 75 nests, a record-breaking annual number and great news for the often unforgiving work that is conservation. The highest number ever managed before was 59.
A Delicacy and a Cure
Turtle eggs (and the turtles themselves) are considered both a delicacy and cure for everything from asthma to an enticing aphrodisiac. Each season, a female turtle will make roughly ten visits to the beach and lay 1 000 eggs, but the mortality rates are horrifying. Just 1 of 1 000 tiny turtles will make it to maturity. The beaches of Watamu are a favourite nesting site for green turtles, while hawksbill, olive ridley and leatherback turtles are often seen feeding in the water.
Ruth Karisa has worked here for eight years and guided us around the humble centre. She shared how the head pattern of a turtle is always unique to each individual, like a human thumbprint, and she showed us some of the “patients” currently in for care.
As carnivores, some species of turtle are often brought in as bycatch by fisherman, but there is a hotline number to call if this happens so that Local Ocean Trust can retrieve and later release them.
Back at the Watamu Treehouse once more, I met an American, my neighbour staying in the room below. She had been working in Kenya for six months. Over the wholesome breakfast spread the following day, I asked about her highlights.
“I’ve been to Diani, south of Mombasa, Malindi and now Watamu, which I think is the best. It’s more of a sleepy beach town. Everyone loves Diani, but it’s busy there. No one bugs you here.” Her last statement is especially so in the forest.
The Arabuko-Sokoke Forest is the most extensive remaining belt of indigenous coastal forest in East Africa. Measuring 42 000 hectares, the forest was once part of a strip of land that stretched south all the way to Mozambique (just imagine!).
According to the Kenya Forest Service, the forest is home to 20% of Kenya’s bird species, 30% of its butterfly species and some very special mammals, such as the rare golden-rumped elephant shrew and its far larger namesake, the elephant. Forest guides believe about 300 of the world’s largest land mammals have found sanctuary in this forest. To see them, I have to make like a local.
Jonathan Baya has been guiding in this forest for decades and shared some of the woodland’s wonder with me. Long, tentacled cycads, “the dinosaurs of this forest”, he said, plus the tiny suni antelope, trumpeter hornbills, the red-bellied coastal squirrel and even the odd-looking, elusive shrew.
A definite peace came over me as we wandered through the trees and I remembered an article that named this sensation. According to Time magazine, Dr Qing Li (the author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness) describes it as “shinrin-yoku”. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.”
So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses. The good doctor teaches the act of forest bathing saying:
“The sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees, the sunlight playing through the leaves, the fresh, clean air — these things give us a sense of comfort. They ease our stress and worry, help us to relax and to think more clearly.”
Although I had just one short afternoon below the boughs of the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, like Dr Qing, I couldn’t help but feel this arboreal realm had benefited my being.
To end off the fantastic forest excursion, Jonathan took us to the eastern edge of the protected park. With such peace at its centre, it was easy to forget that a working world still lived on the outskirts.
A village lives on the periphery outside the electric fence and many rely on the forest for fuel, honey and more besides, but Jonathan tells us that it’s a precarious act, enforcing the balance between utilisation and conservation. The sun was dipping ever lower in the sky and people gathered at the boundary to witness the day’s forest finale.
I sat with my camera and about 15 children, perched together on an anthill that overlooked a waterhole. A man watching over them struck up whispered conversation as shadowy giants moved towards us. “At school, they write ‘e’ for elephant, because they are our neighbours,” he motioned to the eager children.
Although brief, the forest elephants gathered to drink water in the dusk. It was beyond encouraging to see these children so enamoured with their elephantine neighbours and recognise the importance of their neck of the woods. Whether visitors are bathing in the forest, sea or Mida Creek, Watamu is sure to float any travellers boat.
When to visit July to October is said to be the best time to visit. It’s dry with cool coastal conditions plus sunny skies, but I visited in December and it was terrific.
Safety Watamu is in the tropics and malaria is present, but the risk is relatively low. Wear repellant at night, sleep with mosquito nets and take anti-malarial medication if that makes you more comfortable.
Costs The currency is Kenyan shilling (KSh) and it’s easy to draw money in Watamu, otherwise, bring US dollars to change. Staying at Watamu Treehouse was a treat, but it comes with a quiet stretch of beach, unusual architecture and absolutely incredible food. B&B from $97,50 per person sharing.
Getting around A tuk-tuk is the easiest way to get around and loads of fun. Ask your hotel what the rate should be so you don’t get ripped off.
Food If you fork out for one dining place, make it the Crab Shack. Built on stilts in the mangrove forest, the Crab Shack Restaurant is a community project and boasts beautiful, watery views. Cheers the sunset with an Aperol spritz and their famous crab samosas. For gelato, head into the actual town of Watamu and seek out Non Solo Gelato.
Travel Tips Bring a rash vest or t-shirts to protect your body from sunburn while snorkelling and a dry bag for cameras. Speak a little Swahili, say Jambo!