From the hypnotic port city of Mombasa south to the border with Tanzania, this stretch of the Kenyan coast is anything but ordinary. Where else can you see snow-white beaches framed by kayas (sacred forests), soft-sailed dhows and elephant watering holes, all in one day, returning by night to your digs along one of the most beautiful beaches in Africa?
Governed by Swahili rhythms and the rise and fall of the tides, life here moves to its own beat. Thanks to the long interplay of Africa, India and Arabia, this coast feels wildly different from the rest of Kenya. Its people, the Swahili, have created a distinctive Indian Ocean society – built on trade with distant shores – that lends real romance to the coast’s beaches and spice to its food, and to Mombasa, a city embraced by poets for many centuries.
Highlights in South Coast
With a flawless, long stretch of white-sand beach hugged by lush forest and kissed by surfable waves, it’s no wonder Diani Beach is so popular. This resort town scores points with a diverse crowd: party people, families, honeymooners, backpackers and water-sports enthusiasts.
But if that sounds like your typical resort town, think again. Diani has some of the best accommodation in Kenya, from budget party hostels to funky kitesurfing lodges and intimate honeymoon spots. Most places are spread along the beach road, hidden behind a line of forest.
When lazing in a hammock gets tiring, visit the coral mosques with their archways that overlook the open ocean, venture into the sacred forests where guides hug trees that speak in their ancestors’ voices, or take in the monkey sanctuary – all are good ways to experience more of the coast than the considerable charms of sun and sand.
Mombasa Old Town
Mombasa, a melting pot of languages and cultures from all sides of the Indian Ocean, waits like an exotic dessert for travellers who make it to Kenya’s coastline. Having more in common with Dakar or Dar es Salaam than Nairobi, Mombasa’s blend of India, Arabia and Africa can be intoxicating, and many visitors find themselves seduced by East Africa’s biggest and most cosmopolitan port despite its grime and sleaze, which somehow only adds to the place’s considerable charm.
Indeed, the city dubbed in Swahili Kisiwa Cha Mvita – the Island of War – has many faces, from the ecstatic passion of the call to prayer over the Old Town, to the waves crashing against the coral beaches below Fort Jesus and the sight of a Zanzibar-bound dhow slipping over the horizon. As the Swahili people themselves say in an old proverb: ‘Mombasa is famous, but its waters are dangerously deep. Beware!’
Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary
This sanctuary is a good example of community-based conservation, with local people acting as stakeholders in the project. It was opened in October 1995 to create a corridor along an elephant migration route between Shimba Hills and Mwaluganje Forest Reserve, and comprises 24 sq km of rugged, beautiful country along the valley of the Cha Shimba River. The main attraction here is the 150 or so elephants, with sightings guaranteed, and you’re likely to have the place mostly to yourself.
Shimba Hills National Reserve
This park is among the easiest to visit in Kenya, within spitting distance of Diani Beach, with numerous driving routes and a couple of hiking trails. Its gentle grassy hills are interspersed with patches of forest which together provide a home to elephants, leopards, warthogs, buffaloes, baboons, a variety of antelope species and a small population of Masai giraffes, but the park is best known for its population of magnificent sable antelope, which occur in no other Kenyan park.
The final pearl in the tropical beach necklace that stretches south of Mombasa is the idyllic island of Wasini, located about 76km south of the Likoni ferry crossing. With its faded white alleyways, Swahili fishing vibe and fat, mottled trees, this tiny island (it’s only 5km long) feels like a distant relative of Lamu and Zanzibar. It’s ripe with the ingredients required for a perfect backpacker beachside hideaway: it has that sit-under-a-mango-tree-and-do-nothing-all-day vibe, a coastline licked with pockets of white sand and Kisite Marine National Park, the most gorgeous snorkelling reef on the coast. In fact, the only things it doesn’t have are regular electricity, banana-pancake traveller cafes, backpacker hostels and cars, and it’s all the better for it.
This forest, sacred to the Digo people, is the only one of the area’s sacred forests that’s open to visitors. Visiting this small grove is a nature walk, historical journey and cultural experience. As you make your way across tangled roots and chunks of ancient coral, the guide points out various plants used in traditional medicine, and there’s the chance to transmit your fears and worries to an ancient tree by hugging it. Expect to tip your guide.