Do you like to travel? Are you in need of a holiday? Tired of long cold days doing the same old thing? Do you crave a break from it all to just relax? Are you longing for a new environment, filled with new people and exciting adventures?
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Well unfortunately, I’m not here to tell you about an amazing holiday package offering a 4 night getaway to a beach location for only 10,000 shillings.
However, I can show you how to make the most out of that vacation you so require and desire.
The most popular holiday destination in Kenya: Mombasa. It makes sense, everybody loves the sunny beach and the deep blue ocean. Personally, I have been to Mombasa one too many times. Okay, maybe three times. There must be somewhere else for a relaxing coastal destination, right?
Well, there is this small tourist town called Diani. Plenty of activities to do over there. You can land on a small plane at the Ukunda airstrip and skydive on the other side of the road. Leisure yourself at the expansive Diani golf course. Or go on a water excursion to Kisite-Mpunguti Marine Park, inclusive of fun activities like snorkeling and diving. You might even spot a pod of lovely dolphins if you’re lucky. All for 100 US dollars, or slightly more. If you are swimming in money, then this is ideal. You can even charter a plane in a few hours and be on your way to beach paradise.
But what if you’re living on a budget? What if you don’t own acres of prime land, or dine with the richest in the land? Then you already know that these options are completely out the window. If you’re a non-working student, it’s even worse. Especially if you lack a generous sponsor. The question is, can you really experience Diani without breaking the bank?
The answer: Maybe.
Allow me to guide you through this. The first thing you probably need to determine as a traveler is where to stay. If you’re four people or less, you can book a cheap hotel or campsite near the beach. But if you’re in a larger group, why spend money on expensive rooms when you can rent a villa or cottage for a lower price?
With a villa, you get the rare opportunity to cook for yourselves, make a foreign place your home, and even swim in the warm pool at night (that is if you are lucky to have one). As you pick a location always remember, TripAdvisor is your friend.
Once you’ve booked your accommodation, the next thing you need to think about is how to get there. You may decide to take the high road and travel for at least 8 hours. Longer if you’re coming further from Nairobi. Though time-consuming, it is way cheaper than getting an air ticket.
Whether you travel by bus or a personal vehicle, you will come across the flat semi-arid landscape of Eastern and Coastal Kenya. Injected with rolling hills and lonely bumps. You will also catch sightings of the standard gauge railway being constructed. And you will ask yourself, wouldn’t it make more sense to first expand the two lane Mombasa Road which is supposed to be a highway – so as to have a side lane for the slow-moving trailers? And two for the rest of us fast riders?
If you choose to fly, which takes one hour or less, you don’t get to catch these interesting views. The changing landscape and vegetation. A few zebras grazing lazily by the road. Bars upon bars upon restaurants arranged in little towns along the highway. Clustered mud huts, and tiny house structures covered with nylon which remind you of another part of Kenya you only see on TV. Or locals riding to their destinations on their local metal bicycles. You also miss the women with lesos tied around their waists selling sacks of charcoal by the road side. To whom they sell to, you wonder.
The bright side of flying is that you evade the scary careless truck drivers. And the rough dusty road diversions that are a result of road repairs. Instead, what you do see are white fluffy clouds beneath, that look like large cotton fields.
Meanwhile on the ground below, you think you’ll never reach Mombasa. An hour or so after Voi, you will spot palm trees and town activity and convince yourself that you’re there. But nope, it’s only Kaloleni. So you grudgingly bear on through the next 18 km, which feels more like 100 with the heavy truck traffic.
But there’s no greater feeling than finally seeing the ocean.
Mombasa looks like an ancient Nairobi by the ocean. It has its own Kenyatta Avenue, Moi Avenue, Haile Selassie Road, and Biashara Street. There’s even a supermarket there called Bacchus. Just like Nairobi, it is crowded with both human and vehicle traffic. It is noisy and stuffy. Complete with its own jams and policemen controlling traffic at roundabouts. Mombasa is your typical Kenyan city, but with more mosques and white prehistoric buildings.
To get to your destination Diani, you have to cross the ocean at Likoni. So far, the ferry is the slowest and coolest ride I have ever experienced. It’s too bad we weren’t allowed to take photos or videos in it. Your mouth would probably be watering with desire right now.
I was quite surprised to find that Likoni looks like some part of Eastlands. You will see lots of open markets, and even more open dumpsites. But as you inch closer to Diani things become quieter and cleaner. The drive is way faster and more serene than Mombasa Road, which is a huge relief. Few buildings begin to pop up but they all have a deep coastal feel. Scattered in between palm trees and other indigenous vegetation. There is so much greenery flanking both sides of the road, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in the highland countryside. Like Murang’a. Or even Kitale.
With God’s grace and protection, you will finally arrive at your accommodation site. Once you’re settled in Diani, here are five cheap activities you cannot afford to miss.
This is one of the best ways to explore the coastal town. On our way to our villa we met a couple of riding tourists and we knew we had to try it out ourselves. As you ride your 500 shilling rented mountain bike on Diani Beach road, you may observe a couple of things.
Number one: Diani is the home of monkeys. Colobus monkeys to be specific. It even has a colobus conservation center. It is highly likely that you will spot members of this rehabilitation center crossing the road ever so casually. Or a mother carrying a baby on her back. Some of them choose to hang out by the roadside like humans.
Be prepared to share the two lane road with motor bikes and personal vehicles. But the most common vehicles you find here are tuk tuks. They are the slower and smaller matatus for the private beach location. I say that because they also have the matatu culture; honking drivers in tiny three-wheeled vehicles covered with graffiti. Or stickers of their favourite European football clubs.
With clean air and green trees, Diani environment is relaxing for both humans and monkeys. This is one of the things that makes it such a special holiday destination. It almost looks like a leafy part of Nairobi, like Gigiri.
One more thing I noticed is that Diani people are a very curious people. As you ride around feeling like a cool kid with Twenty One Pilots playing in the background, they will stare. They will make you feel like you are the attraction, and they the tourists.
If there’s one thing you need to do at the coast, it’s snorkeling. All you need is a boat, and someone to sail it into the ocean. Oh, and don’t forget your swimming experience. The equipment and instructor shall be provided to you, at a small fee of course. This fun activity is best done in the morning when the tides are low. The hardest part about it is learning how to breathe solely through your mouth. But once you master that, you can snorkel for as long as you desire.
In your underwater expedition, you’ll probably feel like one of those deep-sea divers in National Geographic. Well I’m here to tell you that it’s perfectly okay to feel this way, even though you’re only a foot underwater. This is because you are no longer a tourist; you become a water explorer. Or a part of the feature film Under The Sea. Snorkeling is truly a rare experience that allows you to closely admire the beautiful marine life.
Oh, and there’s a reason why they say as slippery as a fish. Good luck trying to catch or even touch one.
Once you’re tired of snorkelling, the coral reef and island is your beach. This is your opportunity to hang out with multicolored starfishes and take Instagram-worthy photos with them. There are also a number of sea urchins which harbour there. Just don’t get close to them, especially the black ones. I have heard enough horror stories involving their long spikes.
Personally, I think it’s pretty useless to go all the way to Diani just to eat fries and chicken for supper. Or kebab. Unless it’s late at night and you just came from clubbing. Instead of your usual western foods, go local. Visit a place that serves chicken biriani and pilau. Or samaki wa kupaka. (That’s fish in coconut sauce). And if you have some extra cash to spend, you can go for more exotic seafood like prawns and crabs. I mean, you are next to Indian ocean gaddamit.
Are octopuses your thing? I thought so.
To save even more money, why not eat in a kibanda? Forget the fancy restaurants whose cheapest meal costs 500. Ain’t nobody got cash for that! There’s this one local place we visited that had chapati for 10 shillings and mahamri (a coastal pastry) for 5 shillings only. They tasted good!
You’d also be glad to know that not a single case of food poisoning was reported.
Are you 18 and over? Then you have to experience Diani night life, just to see how the locals and foreigners party alike. Luckily for you, there are so many nightclubs situated on the Diani Beach Road. The best ones I’ve heard about are Tandoori and Shakatah. So spoil yourself one warm night, or all of them.
And if you like yourself a whole lot, you can visit a bar next to the beach and party by the ocean like you’re in Ibiza. I bet you’ll have a wild story to tell the next day.
(Mine’s a secret.)
This chill activity is perfect for those hangover mornings. Those moments when you don’t feel like doing anything with yourself, and all you want to do is lie on your back and relax.
Well the best part about sunbathing is that you don’t even have to swim. Sitting by the pool or ocean in the company of friend(s) under the sun is more than enough.
You might get tempted to become more active after a while. If you do, feel free to play cool games in the water. Here are some ideas: Tag, tug of war, childhood games like “a ring a ring of roses”. Or that interesting game where you swim in between your friend’s legs. It’s pretty harmless, trust me. No precious organs were injured in the process.
Ultimately, there is only one reason why you have to visit Diani at least once in your lifetime. Here it is. Diani has some of the whitest beaches I have ever laid my eyes on. (Pun intended.) The sand and ocean and palm trees create the most gorgeous views you have ever seen. As a photographer – aspiring included – you can never go wrong with taking the best scenic photos of your life there.
Diani beach is equivalent to the perfect background picture.
After four beautiful days at the sunny coastal town, we had to go back to our routine lives in Nairobi. Also, our money had run out.But the ride back was not devoid of its intrigues. I remember chuckling when I spotted a building branded “Shika Adabu chief’s office”. Seriously, that’s what it read.
But funny aside, beware of risky drivers on the road. One major lesson I learnt on my trip, is that Kenyan drivers are berserk. It’s like some us have this gene called careless driving embedded in us. No wonder so many accidents happen on our roads. If you plan to arrive alive, drive cautiously and let stubborn drivers have their way. It is better to sacrifice your pride than your life.
I cannot guarantee that your ride will take the recommended 8 hours timeline. The road diversions and heavy trucks between Mombasa and Voi make the journey unnecessarily long. Also, try and avoid driving at night as the whole highway has no streetlights. Yup, not even a single one.
And of course be mentally prepared to meet cunning police officers along the way. Count your blessings if they don’t stop your vehicle. They will search high and low in order to catch the slightest mistake. All this so that they can pocket some loose cash. Even if they find no fault, you might have to part with your money for you to proceed with your journey. Don’t you just hate that?
I guess this is the part flying wins.
Despite the stressful and inconvenient road trip, we tried our best to enjoy the rolling views outside our windows. The best part of the journey back had to be watching the sunset. A huge orange ball sinking behind thin white sheets of cloud. In what felt like less than a minute, the only evidence it left was a red-orange haze in the sky. The best moments are truly the briefest. And in that moment, I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was to catch the sunset. How lucky I was, to see.
So what happens when you don’t accomplish every activity on your holiday list? Maybe your cash runs out earlier than expected. Perhaps your partner(s) in crime fall sick and get late. Or luck just isn’t on your side. Well you know what, it’s fine.
A holiday is not about what you didn’t get to do. It’s about what you did. You don’t have to do everything at once. Enjoy what you can. And if you don’t fully check off your list, you can make that a reason to come back and accomplish the rest of your dream activities.
With that I’ll leave you with one travel tip: Don’t expect your hotel or cottage to look the exact way it did on the website or brochure. When I first got to our accommodation site I almost thought we were at the wrong place. It took a friend to explain that I was the one who was wrong. You see, advertising really does a good job of bringing out the best of venues; even the shadiest of places. So unless it’s a 5 star hotel (that you’ve been to before), please don’t set your expectations high. Be ready for anything. That way, there’s less disappointment.
So what are you waiting for? Book that holiday you’ve been dreaming of for months. Bring along your boo, or comrades (if you don’t have one).
Have a local adventure. Go for the simple things. The cheap thrills. Eat a juicy mango. Drink coconut water. Experience the Kenya coastal life wholeheartedly.