October 19, 2018
Katie G. Nelson
The ancestry of ancient spirits, legendary adventurers and drunken writers, the entanglement of cultures and sacredness of crumbling ruins, the vibrance of turquoise waters running over white sand beaches…these are the elements that make up Watamu. There, the past runs deep.
Hugged by coves of tangled mangroves and surrounded by crystalline waters, Watamu is a catchment of the Indian Ocean’s best elements. It is also where history and myth are combined with the audacity of nature at its most raw; a place much more than a weekend destination but a paradise all on its own.
It was ten years ago that I made my first visit to Watamu, my first love seated at my side. I was a fresh-faced 20-something on a quest to cut my teeth as a writer in a foreign land. I was already falling for my second love – a life in Kenya – but much of my heart remained with my first. While his inclination was toward stability, he supported my wanderlust enough to fly from Midwest America for an extended holiday on the coast. That’s how we found ourselves on a 12-hour matatu ride from Nairobi to Watamu, our bodies worn limp with exhaustion, our souls drunk with adventure and young love entwined.
My memories of Watamu are still vivid, but while my love affair with Kenya has remained, our love did not. When I was asked to revisit my former bliss alone, I was wary, afraid my love of Watamu was too closely shaped by a past I no longer lived and a man I no longer knew. Still, curiosity gnawed at me. I wanted to know if the place that provided a point of direction for spice traders, adventurers and a disorderly writer or two could offer some guidance to me as well.
A longtime favourite among Italian exiles and British families who came and never left, Watamu – which translates to “sweet people” – has maintained much of that small-town feel. My first stop was Gedi Ruins, a sprawling archaeological site of Swahili-style mosques, palaces, homes and tombs connected by criss crossing pathways enclosed in crumbling walls. Once a bustling hub, the eleventh- century village was suddenly abandoned and the cause still remains a mystery.
Some claim the spirits of Gedi guard the ruins, along with gangs of roving monkeys that scale the walls with nimble grace. While the site seems to be succumbing to the encroaching roots of nearby trees, the history of Gedi is still palpable if only in the intricate stone carvings and elaborately adorned tombs within it.
The sun beat down as the call of Islamic prayer rang over the ruins. I decided to forge on, seeking asylum at Papa Remo, a favourite for long and lazy afternoons indulging in cold chardonnay and Swahili crab to panoramic ocean views.
An extended afternoon sounded divine but I found myself drawn – barefooted and windswept – toward the ocean. I boarded a glass-bottomed boat commandeered by Captain Kanga of Hemingways Hotel, setting off just a few meters from the hotel’s stunningly manicured grounds, a recent revamp striking a perfect cord between casual and luxurious coastal aesthetic. Peering at the turquoise waters at my feet, I felt a pang of nostalgia remembering our last ride on a ramshackle boat hailed from a shifty fisherman ten years earlier.
Kanga ushered me toward the side of the ship, his broad smile far bigger than his tiny blue speedo which he revealed before slipping into crystal-clear water, snorkel, fins and all. Bobbing above the surface, he waved me in and I obliged. What lived below took my breath away.
Scores of vibrant coral covered in a thousand tiny fingers pulsated to the curvature of the tide. Neon green, blue and yellow fish swirled en masse, my hands outstretched as they danced around my limbs. Below my toes, Pufferfish cowered under coral rock emerging to inflate, their cheeks comically wide before sinking into safety.
“Amazing!” I yelled to Kanga, my awe ringing through my mask. He grabbed my hand and propelled me toward another reef covered in the shape of a million tiny fish which broke and reassembled on repeat.
Eventually we emerged wrinkly, covered in salt and exhausted but exhilarated. I let out a sigh, disappointed the tour was over. But Kanga had one more stop.
“This island is only visible for three or four hours a day,” he said as he plopped down on a sandbar. Rubbing his arms, legs and face with fistfuls of sand, Kanga was soon covered in a million specs of white, no inch of skin spared. I couldn’t control my laughter. “See?” he laughed. “It’s like a European spa!”
I thanked Kanga and disembarked at Hemingways, my heels pointing toward the bar named after the famous author Ernest Hemingway who came to Watamu to chase the biggest catch. I wanted to spend my evening writing with a glass of whiskey but knew I needed to revisit one last thing; a Watamu sunset.
We boarded a dhow on Mida Creek – a tidal inlet that’s home to a myriad of exotic birds, fish and sea turtles. I was charmed by wind-swept ships set on flickering waters surely named after King Midas, a man whose touch could turn anything into gold. There was something familiar and exotic about them, their history held in the old moans of creaking wood planks, their masts having witnessed decades of celestial turns around the sun.
I watched the cusp of the sun’s curvature disappear toward the other side of the world. I still had lingering memories of time spent here with my first love, yet, I found peace in knowing our love could still be found under the orange and red sun setting in Watamu. There, the past runs deep.