The Lamu archipelago is a cluster of hot low-lying desert islands, which runs for some 60 km parallel to the coastline of northern Kenya. The last survivor of a one thousand year-old civilization, Lamu was founded by the Arabs in the seventh century and traded for centuries thereafter in ivory, rhino horn and slaves.
Kipungani Explorer, Lamu, North Kenya Coast
The oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, Lamu is a centre for the study of Swahili culture. Although founded in the 13th century, the majority of buildings date from the 18th century. Like Mombasa and Malindi, Lamu was a thriving port and sultanate during the 18th and 19th cetnrues when it was frequently at war with its neighbouring island kingdoms of Pate, Siyu and Faza. For 60 years Lamu controlled all trade in the region until the British forced Zanzibar to sign an anti-slaving pact. Thereafter the port was blockaded and missionaries and explorers such as Stanley started to assert their authority. Today the town is a living monument to its past. The old houses, built with coral walls two-feet thick are built with a series of alcoves rather than rooms, whose size is decided by the length of the ten-foot mangrove poles that are used for both floors and ceiling. Many are three-storeys high and feature winding staircases, vast carved doors, intricate fret-work screens, balconies and flat roofs. In the winding streets, the majority of women are black-veiled, while the men wear traditional Swahili dress. The majority of the population are Muslims; and the town echoes to the call of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer at the 23 mosques of the town. Lamu also hosts the important Maulidi Muslim Festival.
The Islamic population observes the three-day feast at the end of the month of Ramadan (dates vary) called Idd-il-Fitr. The first day is an official holiday for Muslims, but celebrations on the next two days occur after working hours. Maulidi, which takes place soon after Idd-il-Fitr, is a festival in celebration of the birth of Mohamed, which takes place in Lamu and attracts pilgrims from all over Africa.
All Kenyan towns and cities have a mosque. Many have several but one usually serves as the focal ‘Friday mosque', which is attended by the whole community. Most Muslims in Kenya belong to the Sunni branch of the faith, the remainder belong mostly to the Shi'ia branch, of which there are three primary sects; Ismailis, Ithnasheris and Bhoras. The Ismailis, followers of the Aga Khan, are perhaps, the most influential of these sects, not least because the Aga Khan has powerful interests in Kenya, both business and philanthropic.
The Kiunga Marine National Reserve, Lamu
A pristine string of rugged coral isles, ringed by rainbow coral reefs and a part of the enchanted Swahili realm of the Lamu archipelago, this Reserve offers living coral gardens, sculpted coves, wheeling seabirds, rare turtles, magical dugongs and an underwater world of unbelievable colour, discovery and vibrancy.
Altitude: sea level - 30 meters.
Area: 250 sq km.
Location: Lamu District, Coast Province.
Distance from Nairobi: 976 km. Distance from Malindi 372 km.
Climate: the coast is humid with a mean annual temperature ranging from 22-34 degrees centigrade. Rainfall is around 500mm per year.
Vegetation: microscopic marine plants and dugong grass, coastal scrubland and mangrove swamps.
Marine life: fringing offshore reef with approximately 50 coral islands hosting an abundant reef fish population. Dugong and turtle (olive ridley and leatherback) are also common.
Birds: there are many seabirds in large nesting colonies and internationally significant numbers of crab plover and roseate tern.
When to go: the Reserve is open all year round.
What to take: footwear (to protect your feet from the reef), T-shirt, snorkel, mask, fins, camera, sunscreen and plenty of drinking water.
How to get there: by road: Kiunga is a remote unspoilt village on the mainland about 150 km north-east of Lamu.
By sea: from Lamu you can get to Kiwayu Island by dhow or speedboat.
By air: there is a nearby airstrip at Mkokoni on the mainland.
The Lamu Archipelago
The Reserve is part of the Lamu archipelago, a cluster of hot low-lying desert islands that run for some 60 km parallel to the coastline of northern Kenya. The last survivor of a one thousand year-old civilization, Lamu was founded by the Arabs in the seventh century and traded for centuries thereafter in ivory, rhino horn and slaves. Today it offers a unique showcase for the traditional Swahili culture, a bustling historic town and some of the most pristine beaches in Africa.
Islands in the stream
The Reserve is made up of a chain of 51 coral islands lying some 2km offshore, but inshore of the fringing reef. They run adjacent to the mainland's Dodori and Boni National Reserves. Varying in size, the islands are composed of old, eroded coral and shelter lesser kudu, bushbuck, monkey, porcupine and wild pig.
Reefs, the rainforests of the sea
Coral reefs are one of the most fascinating ecosystems on earth, sheltering nearly one million different types of marine life. Forming only in warm seas, they are made by battalions of tiny polyps, miniscule sea anemone-like creatures that live together in colonies; some create a hard skeleton outside their bodies and it is this which eventually forms into stony coral. Coral comes in many shapes, size and colours including the open-branched stag's horn coral, the pincushion-like acropora coral, the wavy-branched and plate-like pavona coral, the massively solid favia coral and the convoluted brain coral.
What to see
The reef provides food and shelter for an entire community. A shifting rainbow of small fish, worms, shrimps, octopus and clams hide in the gaps while blue and yellow parrot fish use their hard beaks to chew off lumps of coral. Snappers, rubberfish, zebrafish, butterflyfish and scorpionfish shimmer in the clear waters while hunting sharks, rays, turtles and starfish prowl the reef in search of prey. Fierce moray eels hide in holes while small crabs, wrasses (long, spiny-finned fish) and sharks lurk in the caves; sea urchins, sea cucumbers, brittle stars and numerous species of mollusk feed on algae and transparent prawns dance wraithlike through the waters alongside shifting clouds of tiny demoiselle fish.
Haunt of mermaids?
The Reserve's creeks and inlets also serve as a substantial breeding ground for the rare mermaid-like creature called the dugong. A completely aquatic, warm-blooded mammal, the dugong belongs to the mammal order sirenia, a name derived from the ancient legends of Odysseus and the Sirens. Thought to share a common ancestry with the elephant, dugongs have an average length of 2.5 to 3.2 meters, may weigh anything from 140-170 kg, and live on the marine grasses growing in the shallower waters of the Reserve.
Realm of the seabirds
The outer islands of the Reserve host many seabirds. Species nesting here include roseate tern, sooty gull, white-cheeked tern, bridled tern and brown node. Crab plovers are also plentiful while other migrant waders frequent the more sheltered flats and creeks.
Snorkelling, diving and swimming
The best time for snorkelling over the reef is two hours either side of low tide, which is the time when the greatest amount of marine life is revealed. Kenya's coastal waters are warm all year round, so diving without a wet suit is also rewarding.