The Island where time stood still
Perhaps it's the absence of cars, or the alleyways that weave through the town, or the Arabic houses with their riveted wooden doors, but walk through Lamu town and you could be forgiven for thinking you'd stepped back to a former time.
The hustle and bustle around the port is that of the old trading post it once was, in the bygone days of the trade routes. Still today, you'll see heavily laden dhows sailing into port, and men unloading them onto the backs of waiting donkeys.
Still today you'll see ladies draped in hijab or burqa strolling down the alleys and shopping in the markets. Still today you'll see boys in prayer caps and girls in headscarves converging on the Madrasa, and hear them chanting the words that have been spoken for centuries. Lamu Old Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Stories abound of ships from as far a ﬁeld as China and Persia docking here over a thousand years ago, and the beads, porcelain and earthenware found here would seem to conﬁrm this.
However, the ﬁrst written testimony of the island dates to 1441, when an Arab traveller met a judge from Lamu in Mecca. Several ruins remain from that time.
Takwa Ruins, on Mandaisland, was a Swahili trading town of mosques, tombs and houses, all aligned to Mecca. Siyu, on Pate Island, was once a centre of Islamic scholarship. Fazawas destroyed by Pate in the 13th Century, and rose again only to be destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th Century.
Today's Lamu is calmer. Most of the dhows plying the channel are carrying not traders looking for a deal or invaders trying their luck, but tourists basking in the Lamu sunshine and ﬁshermen returning to the island with the delicacies the sea provides. From the seafront Lamu House, visitors can watch the dhows docking while sampling what the ﬁshermen brought in. Shela village, just along the coast from Lamutown, is home to whitewashed Arabic houses, boutique shops and the enduring Peponi Hotel at whose bar punters swig a Tusker or sip its signature cocktail: the Old Pal.
Across the channel on Manda Island, visitors can bask in barefoot luxury at Manda Bay, and look out over the pristine seas of Kiunga Marine National Reserve.
Contrary to yesteryear's travails and turbulence, tourists today spend their days strolling along the white sand beaches, windsurﬁng, water skiing and wallowing in the warm waters. Those who want to go further hop on a dhow and sail down the channel, out to any of the outlying islands, or to snorkelling sites where the range of colours of coral and sea creatures has to be seen to be believed. And of course, those who delight in stepping back in time just have to wander the alleys of Lamu town, or the ancient ruins of Takwa and Pate, with a guide whose tales will transport them through the centuries.