Any true Nairobian will tell you—sometimes the walls close in a bit and a rapid succession of utterly bizarre and exhausting happenings will send you scurrying for solace outside of the big bad capital city. Typically, Kenyans in need of such an escape head for the city of Mombasa on the Coast region, which can lead to being exactly one’s problem if, they are trying get out of the Nairobi fishbowl for a while.
One can find beaches to be overrun, the hotels overbooked and all the good watering holes laden heavy with Nairobi escapees. In order to avoid such awkward problems as running into the same co-worker you’ve been avoiding, there is only one true option within the Kenyan Coast: Kilifi town. To get there you’ll have to go north from Mombasa, but it is a bit of a mission, especially, if you’re going by bus. After transfers and negotiations just north of Mombasa in the pleasure-seekers town of Mtwapa (famous for gambling, prostitution and other assorted vices), you’ll find yourself rolling over tarmac covered in waves of heat on the way towards Kilifi. You can’t really miss the town, after fields of sisal that sprawl out endless for at least 20 kilometers across a singular massive plantation, you’ll cross a bridge into the very heart of Kilifi town.
It doesn’t much register as being a ‘destination’ and that’s kind of the essence of Kilifi. There’s a singular midsize grocery store and it borders one of two liquor hole-in-the-wall-shops that are usually crawling with ex-pats clammering for gin to supply the endless weekend ahead. There seem to only be two types of visitors to this sleepy highway junction town: Those who’ve long since carved out their niche of coastal vibes and have been coming out to Kilifi’s jungle haven for years and those who’ve accidentally stumbled upon it for the first time, probably from word of mouth somewhere in a popular Mombasa nightclub.
The ultimate point is this: Many quiet places that should’ve never become loud have been deafened by the very tourists they had originally tried so desperately to cater to. This is the case in other beach front towns on the Kenyan coast; Diani in the South, Nyali beach north of Mombasa, Mtwapa farther north still and high-end town of Malindi (a favorite of Italian expats) one hour further north on the highway from Kilifi. Despite the nearby tourist havens, Kilifi hasn’t yet succumbed to the same crushing tourist traffic. Its roads still wind empty into the deep reaches of the bush, where only the occasional house’s compound breaks up the acacia and views down into the ocean.
The bushes still crawl with geckos, pheasants, chameleons and incredibly deadly snakes. Prices are still low and the pace of life still idly slides by, one day churning into the next; one can suddenly realise that it’s two weeks later and they’ve missed their flight out of Kenya entirely. Part of the town’s advantage in being overlooked is its geographical layout; the town is wedged between the white sand expanses of Bofa Beach and a bridge that opens into a massive bay some 20 kilometers square. Many hotels chose to be built in the wilds of the bush, overlooking the bay or the channel leading into it rather than further out along the beach escarpment and further away from the town proper and the highway economy that helps to drive it.
Along the edge of the sand you can find small cafes on the dirt roads leading away from the beach, selling bottled water, coconuts, sliced pineapple and freshly caught fish. Local joints closer to downtown such as the Kilifi Club and the Boatyard churn out pizzas, fresh seafood, beer and international football matches on TV sets straight out of the 1970s.
That’s how it’s remained seemingly unchanged for decades now: Mango hawkers still pepper the roads trying to sell their wares, the dance clubs often are converted boat building yards and harbour the feel of abandoned warehouses and some of the Kilifi fabulous would rather take a motorboat across the bay for cocktails than hop over on the bridge. At night, one can find oneself having a few too many glasses of mnazi (locally brewed palm wine) that everyone in Kilifi seems to have within reach and wander down the winding intricate paths towards the still waters of the inlet. Stick your feet in and splash to watch hundreds of bio-luminescents shoot away from your feet, forming their own constellations in the water that seem to reflect the very stars in the sky above them.
Many a soul has discovered some of the Kilifi secret features and now is somewhat of a loyalist: Every December loading a car or duffel bag full of shorts, leather sandals and bottles of booze before tearing off through the Mombasa highway away from Nairobi and away from the everyday mundane happenings of life in the big city.
This is a town for the experienced traveller, of someone who’s seen their fair share of desperately long bus rides and found the hidden gems outside of the norm to match.
Perhaps the best kept secret in all of the Coast and maybe Kenya at large is the white sand expanse that is Bofa Beach. The sands of Bofa run for approximately 15 kilometers and the sensation of space and emptiness is being overwhelming at times. Some clever people noticed how empty it was long ago and built white-walled Swahili style villas that dot the hills looking over that beach proper like clams clinging onto a reef. Several hotels are scattered up and down the palm tree spine of Bofa, but they run their operations in distant view of each other, without the wall-to-wall hustles that come along with Kenya’s better ‘brand name’ beaches.
The sands are startling empty, with only the lazy sounds of surf of the bathwater warm Indian Ocean to meet you. Gone are the beach boy hustlers, the sellers of trinkets, the fly-by-night weed peddlers that all too often fill up seemingly every metre of space on other beaches in East Africa. In their stead is a sense of tranquility. One can wade out into the gentle sloping shallows of the Indian Ocean amid the great turquoise expanse and simply not be bothered. Even the waves are kept at bay by a huge reef that sits a five minute jet-ski ride from the shore.
Along the edge of the sand, you can find small cafes on the dirt roads leading away from the beach, selling bottled water, coconuts, sliced pineapple and freshly caught fish. Local joints closer to downtown such as the Kilifi Club and the Boatyard churn out pizzas, fresh seafood, beer and international football matches on TV sets straight out of the 1970s.
This is however, still the equator and one can find themselves having a sudden onset draining of energy within a matter of hours of the sweltering sun reflecting off the beach into their eyes. Good thing that Kilifi is a town built on a foundation of sundowner cocktails. It is long rumoured that the small city originated the dawa; a favorite ‘coastie’ cocktail of vodka, honey, lime and ice, but such claims fall on disputed ears farther up and down the ocean front towns.There a couple of well hidden watering holes that a weary traveller in need of strong drink, good company and coasterian sunsets can venture to. As the sunset, it’s a borderline necessity to take a rowboat out to the dhow (Swahili style wooden ship) that bobs at anchor in the bay of Kilifi. Several souls now live on the vessel full time and it also doubles up as a floating dormitory for the backpackers that reside on top of the bluff above the inlet of the bay. While the ship turns in space illuminating the light-up life within the bay’s water, the sun will set slowly, usually drawn down by the strumming of a guitar, the slow seduction of song or the experimental set of whichever DJ is visiting that particular weekend.
Don’t be seduced by the pace of it all, unless you have an open-ended ticket and no real plans; talking to the usual suspects in the Kilifi scene, the story can often blend with the same tones and themes,
“I just came out here two years ago on a three day weekend,” they’ll tell you, typically over their third Kenyan made White Cap beer, “I just loved the energy, and suppose that excuses for extending out here kept being made.”
Indeed they do, and if you hop off the Musafir and wind up the reclaimed tire path up the bluff, you too can find the reason for everyone finding themselves in the beachside jungles of Kilifi: The bar of Distant Relatives Backpackers.
This has become the hub of those on the road, the kitchen churning out Coasterian coconut beans and English style breakfasts, happy hours zooming by over pitchers of desperately strong cocktails at the poolside, lights strung up in the baobob trees that litter the grounds farther down the bluff. There’s no better place to play a game of pool and find strange company than the cured wooden bar top of what locals refer to simply as ‘backpackers’.
The intoxication of it all seems to hang heavy in the humid air itself, one would be wise not to start a bar tab in Kilifi as it has claimed many a rent check for travellers that gave into indulgence. Residents of the region are quick to share questionable legends of ‘witchcraft’ and assorted coastal juju, and such memories will quickly come back into your mind as you stare wide-eyed at how much you owe a barman for gin and tonics.
As you emerge from the overhanging jungles of Kilifi, sunglasses on in the back of a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled covered motorised rickshaw) and start to head back towards whatever life you’ve chosen for yourself, a feeling will come over you that strikes all those who venture into the vibes of Kilifi for the first time: That just thirty minutes from any place you know is something incredible that only you have uncovered.
Simply put, a week in Kilifi will reignite your desire to find what’s over the next hill or hiding in the cove just beyond the beach you know. Sometimes it’s wiser just to give over to impulse.
This article was written by ALEX ROBERTS.