Sailing on a traditional Swahili Dhow along the East African coast is one of Kenya’s most memorable experiences. Dhows are commonly to get between the islands in the Lamu archipelago and the mangrove islands south of Mombasa but, for the most part, these operate more like dhow safaris than as public transport. Although some trips are luxurious, the trips out of Lamu are more basic. When night comes you simply bed down wherever there is space. Seafood is freshly caught and cooked on board on charcoal burners, or else barbecued on the beach on the surrounding islands. Most of the smaller boats rely on the wind to get around so it is quite common to end up becalmed until the wind picks up again. Some boats, however, have been fitted with outboard motors so that progress can be made even when there is no wind. The larger dhows are all motorised and some of them do not even have sails.
Arabic Dhows have been sailing along the coast of East Africa for centuries, and numerous dhow ferries still operate between the mangrove islands that line the Kenyan coast. These ancient vessels are distinguished by their triangular sails ( lateens ), although today many rely on a mixture of sail and motor power to get around. Dhows range considerably in size, from huge ocean-going jahazi with broad hulls designed to withstand constant bumping along rocky shores and coral reefs, to small kijahazi, used as ferries and fishing boats up and down the coast. Kenyan jahazi have a perpendicular bow while Zanzibar dhows have sloping bows, but you are only likely to see these larger boats on dhow tours around Mombasa.Kihajazis are much more common and are widely used around the Lamu archipelago. There are excellent models of the various types of a dhow in the Lamu Museum. It is theoretically possible to travel by dhow between Mombasa and the Tanzanian islands of Pemba and Zanzibar, but first of all, you have to find a captain who is making the journey and then you will have to bargain hard to pay a reasonable amount for the trip. The best place to ask about sailings is at Shimoni, south of Diani Beach. There is a tiny immigration post here, but there is no guarantee they will stamp your passport so you might have to go back to Mombasa for an exit stamp.
Most resort hotels south and north of Mombasa have sailboards for hire, and conditions are ideal – offshore reefs protect the waters, and winds are usually reasonably strong and constant. The sheltered channel between Lamu and Manda Islands is one of the best places to windsurf on the coast. Kilifi, Mtwapa and Mombasa all have sailing clubs. If you are experienced, you may pick up some crewing at the various yacht clubs, eg Mombasa Yacht Club, although you need to be a temporary member. While it is not hands-on, a traditional dhow trip out of Lamu in an unforgettable experience.
Taking a dhow trip is almost obligatory and drifting through the mangroves is a wonderful way to experience the islands. You will be approached by would-be captains almost as soon as you arrive but it is worth shopping around to find a captain you like and a price you are happy with. More than five people are not recommended because these dhows are not very big. Most trip meander around the channel between Lamu and Manda Island and the price includes fishing and snorkelling, although both can be disappointing as the fish tend to hide amongst the coral during the day. Longer trips head for Manda Toto Island, which has better snorkelling. Lunch is usually served up on a beach on Manda Island and typically consists of a barbeque of anything you have caught or simply barbecued bait! The better captains bring emergency fish with them just in case there are not biting. Make sure you take a hat and some sunblock as there is rarely any shade on the dhows. Cameras of the more expensive kind are easily damaged on dhow trips, wrap them up well in a plastic bag. And take the clothes and drinks you would need for a 24 hours spell in the Sahara-you will burn up and dry out otherwise. Dhow crews think it is all very amusing. Depending on the wind and tides to carry them around, early Swahili traders lived in constant fear of colliding with coral reefs and sandbanks.To minimise the chances of this happening, dhows were equipped with a pair of it, wooden eyes,to allow the boat to see obstacles below the water and protect it from spells cast by enemies using the evil eye. The tradition persists to this day on the East African coast, although the eyes are now symbolic, featuring emblems such as the star and crescent and the red flag of Zanzibar. Carpenters in Lamu do a lively business in ornamental ito, which make great souvenirs.
Dhows from Lamu to Mombasa are relatively straightforward though the other direction is virtually impossible. Once you have found an agreeable captain and assuming it is the right time of year(roughly once a week fro December – March ). The procedure starts with a visit to the District Commissioner’s secretary’s office for a form absolving the captain and the government of all responsibility in the case of a mishap. Then take one copy to the captain, which he will present to customs, on the first floor across the courtyard, when he files his crew and passenger manifest. They will tell you it is a 36hrs trip to Mombasa, but count on some doldrums and allow up to three or even four days. Bring fruit and anything else you anticipate needing to break the monotony of unvarying fish and ugali meals. Shimoni frequent cargo dhows to Pemba and Zanzibar. Customs and immigration have offices in Shimoni. The journey is much more difficult the other way, however,as many boats are smuggling goods from Tanzania into Kenya and do not want to complicate matters by carrying foreign passengers.
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Luxury dhow cruises around the harbour are very popular in Mombasa and,not-withstanding the price, they are an excellent way to see the harbour, Old Town and Fort Jesus and get a slap-up meal at the end of it. Topping the billing is Tamarind Dhow run by the posh restaurant Tamarind Restaurant in Nyali.The cruise embarks from the jetty below the Tamarind Restaurant and includes a harbour tour and a fantastic meal.There is a choice of seafood, steak or vegetarian dishes. Prices include a complimentary cocktail and transport to and from your hotel.Another company which is offering dhow cruises in Mombasa is Jahazi Marine. They do cultural trips, sailing around Mombasa in the morning, lunch at their otherwise expensive Jahazi Restaurant overlooking Tudor Creek, and an afternoon spent at the floating market, visiting a traditional herbalist and dhow builder. They also offer Mombasa by night dhow cruises, including a sonet-Lumiere performance at Fort Jesus, and a French-style lobster dinner inside served by waiters dressed up as Portuguese, supposedly to remind you of the good old days when the only tourists were heavily armed raiders.
Seahorse Dhow offers dhow trips including snorkelling and seafood lunch. The office is at Colliers Centre, Diani Beach. Dhow trips start from Gazi Beach in the morning and they organise transport from/to your accommodation. Another company is Funzi Sea Adventures which runs more luxurious dhow trips to Funzi Island and up the Ramisi River. Funzi is a small mangrove island about 35km south of Diani Beach. It is stunning and much quieter than Wasini. As with other islands along the coast, dhow tours to the village at the southern tip of Funzi becoming increasingly popular, and crocodiles and dolphins can be spotted in the inlets.
Just off the south coast of Wasini Island, Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park is one of the best marine reserves in Kenya. The park covers 28 sq km of pristine coral reefs and offers excellent diving and snorkelling. You have a reasonable chance of seeing dolphins in the Shimoni Channel and humpback whales are sometimes spotted between August and October. It is easy to organise your own boat trip with a local captain. The dhow trip normally includes lunch and a walk in the coral gardens on Wasini Island. A good place to start looking for a boatman is the office of KWS, about 200m south of the main pier, where you will also have to come to pay the entry fee to the reserve. The best time to snorkel and dive is between October and March. Various companies offer organised dhow tours out of Shimoni. Transfer from/to your accommodation is organised. The friends of Kenyan Dolphins have set up the Dolphin Dhow, office at Barclays Centre in Diani Beach, a dolphin-spotting and snorkelling trip around Wasini Island. The dhow leaves from Shimoni jetty daily in the morning . The price includes snorkelling equipment, soft drinks, a Swahili seafood lunch and the marine park fees. Pilli-Pipa is another expat-owned company offering full-day dhow trips to the marine park, this time with lunch at the Pilli-Pipa restaurant on Wasini Island. The office is at Colliers Centre in Diani Beach. The price includes snorkelling, lunch and alcoholic and soft drinks. If you come on a dhow trip, you can also avail yourself of some of the cheapest scuba diving on the Kenyan coast. Another option is Wasini Island Restaurant & Kisite Dhow Tours, office at Jadini Beach Hotel in Diani Beach. They run popular snorkelling dhow trips to the marine park including a nature walk on Wasini and a very good seafood lunch at the Wasini Island restaurant. Trips leave in the morning from Shimoni jetty.