Driving Down to Sand Island

Des, Yael, Cameron and I woke up early for a dive before driving south to a place called Sand Island, where there was a mini conference happening for people running Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs). Sadly our dive had to be cut a little bit short, as the Coast Guard boat had broken down and needed to be towed back to shore. The irony of the situation definitely wasn’t lost on us. However once we had rescued them we did manage to squeeze in a quick dive and get back to the house for breakfast before starting our journey. We weren’t too sure how long it was going to take to get there, it might take couple of hours or it might four or five. We just didn’t know. We also didn’t have anywhere to stay overnight and I was trying my hardest not to be stressed about the distinct lack of planning that had gone into this little trip. ‘It’s all going to be fine’, I told myself. ‘We can figure it out when we get there’. Oh how I love not having a plan.

The conference was supposed to start at 9am and we left Shwari house at 11am, but Des didn’t seem to mind and we set off once everything was in the car. I watched out of the window as we left behind the familiar roads of Kuruwitu and started heading towards more built up areas. We passed the Aquarium Supplier that Simon has been working for and took pictures of it from the outside. It looked perfectly innocent but we booed at it as we drove past, because we knew what went on inside.

We drove through Mtwapa, a large town about forty minutes away from Kuruwitu. I watched the street vendors parading up and down the roads, carrying their wares in wicker baskets. Small packets of cashews would be thrust towards the open windows of the car as the salesmen shouted their unbeatable prices. It was busy and dusty and the hot air brought smells into the car that I didn’t recognise, kind of like burnt peanuts mixed with tar.

“Keep an eye out for good shop names,” Des said, “There are some really funny ones,” We would call them out to each other as we drove by.

“Oh look – Fatrash Beauty Salon,” I said, laughing as we zoomed past it. After Mtwapa we reached Mombasa, one of Kenya’s major cities. It definitely felt weird to be back in such an urban environment after so long at the coast in our remote little haven. The streets were crowded and noisy as people jostled past each other, shouting greetings and prices across the road. Stalls of every kind lined the roads, some loaded with bananas hanging from ropes strung across the flimsy posts of pop-up shops alongside piles of watermelons, mangos and pineapples. Some were selling knock-off bags and sunglasses, tacky bangles, beds and even one selling coffins. Quite the variety.

We drove onwards until we got to the ferry where we were stopped by some men in uniforms who wanted to see Des’s driving license. There was also an expired insurance permit on the windshield of the car that they wanted to know about. Des quietly slipped the security guard a note, which is what he’d clearly been going for the whole time, and we drove onto the ferry.

The car does not have functioning air conditioning and no one liked the idea of being broiled alive inside whilst we were on board so we tried to get out. The only problem was that the cars were all so closely packed in together that we couldn’t open the doors enough to actually move. The right hand side of the car was up against some railings so Des came up with the idea of climbing out of his window to get out. One by one we scrambled over the seats in the car and shimmied ourselves through the gap.

We were very pleased with ourselves until we realised that we would somehow have to close the window and be able to open it again without being inside the car. Des climbed back in and we inched the car forwards until it pretty much touched the bumper of the car in front, giving us just enough space to open the driver’s side door. Problem solved. We walked up the stairs to the upper level of the ferry to wave goodbye to the hustle and bustle of Mombasa’s city centre and watched the small needle-nose fish chasing each other at the surface. Yael didn’t have any shoes on and the black metal of the ferry floor was boiling hot so she shared Cameron’s flip-flops.

It was very funny to watch them hop up and down the stairs of the ferry, trying not to career into the other, slightly disgruntled, passengers on board. The channel we were crossing was actually la really beautiful shade of turquoise blue, surprising for such an industrial area, and we enjoyed looking out over the water until we had to clamber back into our seats in the boiling hot car.

We drove off the ferry, all of us relieved to have air moving through the windows again, and continued on our journey. Fortunately the site of the conference was two and a half hours away instead of the five that I had feared and so about forty minutes later we arrived at the Sand Island Beach Cottages. The area was beautiful. There were small, evenly spaced white-washed bungalows nestled amongst the trees, looking out over a preposterously white sandy beach.

We were greeted by a nice man who recognised Des and tried to entice us to stay in one of the cottages overnight, at the price we all slightly balked and politely declined, before taking us up to where the conference was happening. We arrived just as lunch was being served and a woman with a strong American accent and kind eyes invited us to join them. There were about ten or fifteen people at the conference, all from varying different projects and co-management areas. After we had had some delicious food a man stood up and declared,

“We’re now going to walk over to see the fish paintings,” That sounded right up our street, so we followed the stream of people that were heading towards one of the cottages. Once inside we saw that all over the walls there were these beautiful life-size paintings of different reef fish, most of whom I recognised from the fish species identification training we had done for the last eight weeks.

I had to bite my lip to stop myself from butting into conversations where people started haphazardly identifying different the various species.

“That’s er… a soldierfish I think,” one older man said to the person standing next to him.

“It’s actually a bloodspot squirrelfish,” I couldn’t help myself from saying.

“Oh really? I thought the spines meant it was a soldierfish,” he mumbled in reply.

“They look very similar but the way to tell is to look at the patterns. Soldierfish are always uniform in colour whereas squirrelfish have stripes like these,” I followed the markings of the fish with my finger.

“The easiest way to remember is soldierfish are uniform in colour because soldiers wear uniforms,” I added.

“Ahhh okay,” He said, nodding. “Good to know,”

The pictures themselves were fantastic. Clearly all done by someone with far more artistic talent than I could ever dream of summoning, they felt like they could almost swim off the walls. We admired them for a little longer before being summoned back to the main meeting room to listen to a man talk about his project ‘REEFolution’. As far as I was concerned, I was already sold. They were combining puns with marine conservation which ticks all of my boxes.

There was a central table with a projector and some chairs and the room quietened to hear him talk. Their project sounded really interesting and he explained the coral gardening techniques they were using to try and aid the recovery of a reef that had recently become a Marine Protected Area. They had some coral ‘trees’ that looked almost like minimalist Christmas trees made out of metal piping that small, juvenile corals would be attached to so that they could grow. They also inserted wine bottles into tubs of cement and then attached corals to the lips of the bottles so that they could grow outwards. It seemed like a really good way of using up waste materials, but it was clear that the project faced challenges as well. Due to such extensive overfishing, algae was growing over the gardens much faster than the coral, so the corals were being outcompeted.

Another speaker that hadn’t been able to come in person was suddenly available on Skype so the poor ‘REEFolution’ man was cut short and people started to crowd around the small laptop screen to be able to hear what the next person had to say. This man was from a terrestrial charity called Impala and didn’t sound nearly so interesting. Des whispered to us that this could be our cue to leave so Cam, Yael and I took it and snuck out to go to the beach to go for a snorkel instead.

The beach was beautiful. It was narrow, with imposing rocks peering out towards the water where we tucked our clothes and sunglasses away so they’d be out of sight. We plunged in but quickly realised that this snorkel was going to be a bit tricky as the water reached a maximum of about one foot deep. We found it was actually easier to push yourself along on your hands than it was to swim and the area was so sandy we only saw two corals in the whole lagoon. I think I’ve definitely been spoiled for life after the snorkelling that we have back in Kuruwitu. But nonetheless we are all water people and so we enjoyed forty five minutes of hot, shallow, sea urchin filled ‘swimming’ until Des came down from the conference.

“How was it?” I asked, slightly worried that we had missed out on something cool.

“Um…” Des said and paused, “It was okay. Definitely not a must-see,” He looked slightly longingly out at the water, “I think you guys made the right call,” By now it was about five thirty so if we wanted to get to Diani, another apparently exquisite beach just a bit further along the coast, in time for sundowners we would need to go now. So we piled back into the car and drove along to a lovely restaurant called Nomads. When we first walked down to the beach I was spellbound. This beach was impossibly huge, the sand stretching for miles in both directions. It was wide too, and soft. I don’t think I’ve ever felt sand so soft in my life it was like walking on flour.

“Pretty nice, eh?” Yael said turning to me.

“Er… yeah it’s alright, I guess. If you’re into that sort of thing,” I said feigning nonchalance and burying my toes deeper into the silken sand. “Seriously though how to they get sand this soft?”

“I think we should take back a few tonnes and put it all over the floor in the volunteer house,” Cameron said, “Then we can have it all the time,”

“Now that,” I said, “Is an excellent idea,” We walked out towards the water, now splashed with gentle pinks and oranges as the setting sun filled the sky with pastel colours. As the sun dipped down below the trees we walked back up to Nomads. We still didn’t know where we’d be sleeping that night, but for once in my life I was okay with not knowing. I was okay with there not being a plan. I breathed in a deep lungful of sea air.

It would all work itself out.



Itinerary:

25/02/19

  • Early morning dive with Graham, a friend of Des’s
    • Saw three stingrays and a lovely crocodile fish
  • Working on the new Fish Species Identification presentation
  • Writing the Volunteer Guide
  • Making a Safety Presentation for the project
  • Sundowners on the beach with Graham
  • Finishing The Truman Show

26/02/19

  • Early morning dive in Vuma
    • Had to tow the Coast Guard boat back to shore
  • Drive to Sand Island Cottages
  • Conference
  • Snorkel in the lagoon
  • Drive to Nomads
  • To be continued…

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