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A Guide To The Best Of Mombasa
History Of Mombasa
Gloss over Mombasa city and you run the risk of losing out. Apart from its reputation as a well-liked beach holiday destination hotspot, Mombasa has another distinctly colourful side.
Gazing across the Nyali Creek towards Mombasa Island, it’s easy to imagine exotic visions of the past. From a 14th century Portuguese ship sailing down the creek sails roll up, slaves pulling the oars, its cluster of brass cannon firing of lead balls at Arabs on the beach, while attacking the walls of Fort Jesus. These are the scenes that form the colourful history of Mombasa.
The history of Mombasa dates back to when Portuguese invaders built their massive fort to help facilitate their spice trade routes to India in the East, fighting the Arabs from Oman who had formed allegiances with the local Giriama and Digo tribes. The Portuguese were only incidental in East Africa with their only legacy being Fort Jesus.
The history of Mombasa begins with slavery. At English Point, there is a magnificent cross and a series of graves that are set in gardens beautifully looked after by Friends of Fort Jesus. The cross stands in memory of Ludwig Krapf who was the first-ever missionary to establish a calling in East Africa.
Further evidence of slavery can be found at the entrance to Nyali Bridge- on the left heading towards the island. Here you will find the obscure ruins of what is now known as the Kengeleni – meaning bell in Kiswahili and hanging from a much-weathered archway is an ancient-looking brass bell. The original bell was stolen in the 1980s. A plaque summarizes the fact that in 1870 Sire Bartle Fere, her Britannic Majesty’s representative in East Africa declared all slaves to be free men.
This proclamation was largely ignored by slave traders who continued to capture the so-called free men and force them into slavery. It was for this reason that Reverend Peel established an armed compound for free slaves at this spot and the bell was toiled every hour to signify that the guests were awake sparing the legend that if a slave could only manage to reach the bell and ring it he would automatically become a free man.
Directly opposite the Kengeleni on the other side of the Malindi Road, is a church that was founded in 1889 by slaves from all over Africa who had earlier been abandoned or simply dumped in Mombasa. Their descendants worship in this church to this day.
There is also a single-track railway line that was constructed as a link between Mombasa and Uganda only accidentally via Nairobi which was not in the initial plan at the time. This changed dramatically as docks and permanent government buildings were constructed.
The west side of Mombasa Island became known as Freetown after anti-slavery declarations: its name was later changed to Bombolulu and to cross the Nyali Creek a rickety boat pontoon. In the 1930s the growth in the vehicle caused the pontoon to be replaced by a kind of floating bridge which was fixed with massive battleship anchors.
The present Nyali Bridge was built by the Japanese, it was initially a donation by the Guinness family to the people of Mombasa. Mombasa has continued to grow over the years and has become a huge city with a port that features vast new container docks which serve entire East Africa and the Great lakes region.
The airport in Mombasa was also built as a response to the growing tourism. Bamburi Cement was also once the biggest employer in Mombasa. The digging of cement resulted in an ugly mess that featured sterile canyons that lined the Malindi road. When Rene Haller took over the company, rehabilitation was done to the open cast mines. They were converted to what is Haller Park a mini-paradise and environmental wonder of a game park.
Diani is currently one of Kenya’s tourist meccas especially in December where thousands flock to spend their holidays here. Mombasa is an exciting city and the Old Town with its narrow footpath streets and charming Arab décor evident in ornate studded doors and filigree carved balconies. It stands as a reminder of the historic mix of locals.
All the tours of Old Town begin at Fort Jesus which, stern and forbidding and built of solid coral block and was used as a prison right up to the 1950s. Two fairly modern artillery pieces were mounted outside the walls. One came from the British cruiser, Pegasus which was sunk off Zanzibar during World War I by the German battleship Konigsberg, from which the second wheel-mounted gun came.
Another fascinating aspect of Mombasa is the Swahili people, their sweet language of classic Arabic mingled with traditional Bantu. If you know your antiques then you can find some great bargains here. Generally, the shopkeepers here know far more about Chinese porcelain and ships compasses.
Ladies here also have concoctions of hand-mixed perfumes which although deliciously scented lack a proper fixative and soon loses power. Every shop has displays of superb genuine African artefacts. You can also indulge in halva, a sweet confection not unlike Turkish delight which can be washed down with thimblefuls of traditional Swahili coffee poured from a brass kahawa (coffee) pot.
Eating Out And Entertainment
Eating is a favourite Mombasa pastime, particularly in the evenings and during the religious period of Ramadhan There are food vendors everywhere. Be warned however on the level of food handling. Especially with pre-cooked goat or lamb shishtaki kebabs. Fruits with peels such as mangoes and bananas are a delightful and safe experience. Madafu- which is fresh coconut milk is just the best experience on the hot humid streets but make sure a whole fresh nut is opened directly in front of you.
There are several restaurants in downtown Mombasa. The Blue Room and Cyber Café, a red brick evening on Haile Selassie Avenue, is pretty good value but most of the others produce indifferent Western-type fast-food- hamburgers, chicken and chips. Occasionally you may find a gem of a café such as the Jahazi Coffee house on Ndia Kuu Road or the Indo Africa also on Haile Selassie Avenue. At Indo Africa, the Singhs specialize in delicious Punjabi dishes that are served in modest but clean and air-conditioned surroundings.
The downtown Mckinnon Market is interesting but chaotic. Handcarts of fresh fruit, sacks of new ground spices from Zanzibar and loads of Kiondos or tote bags and other woven products jostle for position. Mama Ngina Drive, which skirts the promontory near the Likoni Ferry is a favourite spot for many in the early evenings. Ladies in colourful saris promenade in the cool sea breeze and food hawkers of Indian delicacies such as kebabs and bhajias abound.
Across Nyali Bridge there is, even more, going on: especially at night. Tamarind Mombasa restaurant also offers lunch or dinner on Arab sailing dhows that cruise Nyali Creek. Above the restaurant is the Golden Key Casino and for anyone on a winning streak wishing to stay until the early hours, a visit to the Harbour restaurant at the nearby Tamarind village is a must. It is the place for a good, home-cooked English breakfast – everyday anytime from 6 am.
All along Silo Road so-called because of the huge Bamburi Cement silos that discharge the raw product into special ships anchored in the Nyali Creek – are some of the interesting places. There is a place called- Just Drinks which serves a mean Martini Cocktail and there’s the Captain Andy’s overlooking the creek and further along. You will also find Hunter’s Steak House where you can eat sizzling steaks beneath the glassy gaze of the stuffed game trophies hanging from the wall.
Nearby is the Nyali Cineplex which features 3 movie theatres showing the latest movies from Bollywood and Hollywood. There is also Roberto’s which offers good Italian food including some top pizzas and right next door there are Bollywood Bites which is for strict vegetarians.
On the other side of Nyali beyond the smart residential areas, past Nyali Golf Course and Mamba village with its grotesque concrete crocodile outside and swinging disco inside is another shopping centre just after the Japanese restaurant, Misono.
Moving down the Malindi Road past Bamburi brings you to Kikambala and Yul’s Beach Restaurant and Sea Sports. Most of Mombasa’s beach resorts offer sea-sports. There’s surfing at English Point, wind and kite- surfing anywhere along Bamburi, water-skiing at Nyali Beach and off course numerous deep-sea fishing options, most of which depart from the Tamarind jetty.
The Nyali Hotel also has a scuba diving centre at Mombasa’s offshore coral reef which has been abused and pristine dive sites are rare. Golf at the 18 holes Nyali Golf Course is popular and visitors can obtain special daily membership rates and hire clubs. The public 9 hole Mombasa Golf Course which is situated at the west of the Island is a bit rough and ready but challenging all the same.
Getting about Mombasa is pretty easy. The ever-present matatus are everywhere, as are the three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxis. Alternatively for short journeys, you can also balance on the rear seat of a Boda Boda bicycle or Boda Boda motorcycle. Regular saloon taxis are available at all the resorts while car rental is usually handled by established tour operators and mobile taxi apps.
Buses travelling to Mombasa are many, most of them haphazardly moored in the road blocking terminuses that line Digo Road or at the nearby Mwembe Tayari. Just walk along the road and you will find transport to Lunga Lunga, on the Tanzanian border, Lamu or Nairobi. Overall it could be said that Mombasa is safe in terms of personal security. Mombasa is a port city just like any other city, it attracts pickpockets and snatch – thieves who lurk in the denser downtown streets and close to places like the Likoni Ferry.
There are also con men who masquerade as beach boys and pester visitors who walk the beach. If you give them the smallest entrée you will be opening a can of worms. For first-timers to Mombasa and budget travellers arriving at the Moi International Airport, dozens of reliable guides meet the incoming flights and offer affordable transport and low-cost accommodation in just about every area of the town or anywhere along the coast
Kenya Airways flies daily from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). Fares start at $98 – return.
Fly 540 flies daily from JKIA and fares start at $ 40 – return
Nairobi – Mombasa- Nairobi
The journey to and from Mombasa takes about 9 hours
Modern Coast Bus Services also travel to Mombasa on scheduled times. You can find out more details on their website.
Mash Bus Services
One way fare on the 9.00 am. The rates are available here. The buses run throughout the day. A more detailed scheduled is also found here. Bus terminals are located at River Road/ Accra Junction in Nairobi and Bellevue Street, next to Kenol Kobil in Mombasa.
Standard Gauge Railway (SGR)
The Nairobi – Mombasa train departs from the Syokimau train station. If coming from Nairobi, you can board a train headed to Syokimau from Nairobi Railway Station (downtown) every day. The detailed scheduled times can be found here.
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