A close brush with 'hell' in my Malindi escapades

There are some things that you may never believe until you experience them. For example I had no idea that a flight from Kigali to Bujumbura takes a mere 10 minutes. I found this out one morning while on a flight to Nairobi from Kigali that went via Bujumbura. When I heard the pilot talking about landing in Bujumbura yet we had just left Kigali I thought it was a prank he was pulling on us.
(L) Standing above Hell's Kitchen. (R) The majestic Rothschild giraffes and some warthogs. (Allan Brian Ssenyonga)
(L) Standing above Hell's Kitchen. (R) The majestic Rothschild giraffes and some warthogs. (Allan Brian Ssenyonga)

There are some things that you may never believe until you experience them. For example I had no idea that a flight from Kigali to Bujumbura takes a mere 10 minutes. I found this out one morning while on a flight to Nairobi from Kigali that went via Bujumbura. When I heard the pilot talking about landing in Bujumbura yet we had just left Kigali I thought it was a prank he was pulling on us.

I was still trying to disentangle my ear phones when in that weird pilots’ tone – that makes them sound like there are not getting enough air in the cockpit – I heard that we were now landing in Bujumbura. I almost yelled out, “Gerarrahiaa mehn” but remembered that such behaviour on an aircraft can get you thrown off and then investigated for terrorism. The Bujumbura airport had this mysteriously inviting architecture much as it still looked like a ghost town from those small aeroplane windows.

 

We eventually continued with our flight to Nairobi and on arrival we were driven to the Kenya Wildlife Service complex which also houses the offices of the Kenya Tourism Federation as well as the East African Tourism Platform (EATP). Here the regional coordinator of EATP, Carmen Nibigira gave us a quick tour of their offices which by the way border Nairobi National Park so from some office windows you can see some primates wandering around nonchalantly.

 

Feeding the playful giraffes

 

The occasional sightings of wildlife through the windows didn’t count for much as our trip was only beginning. We soon hopped back into our vans for a short drive to the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife commonly known as the Giraffe Centre where endangered Rothschild giraffe are bred before being reintroduced back into the wild. The exciting thing here is being able to feed the giraffes from a raised observation platform.

It was so much fun that once we run out of the food pellets, we started picking any that had fallen. Some tourists were more adventurous than yours truly, placing the pellet on their lips and consequently getting a kiss from the giraffes. I didn’t try that because I imagined getting some strange skin disease that would turn my skin into one that looked like a giraffe’s and I would spend the rest of my life explaining to strangers that it was not one big tattoo. The centre serves as conservation and education centre with other animals like tortoises and warthogs.

Overnight road trip to Watamu

After a late lunch at Hemingways Hotel in Karen, Nairobi we headed to Mombasa road to catch our bus to the coastal town of Malindi. The bus arrived a few minutes after 8pm and as soon as our bags were loaded we set off for the long journey. The bus made a brief stopover at Mtito Andei for passengers to get some refreshments and stretch their limbs before continuing with the journey that ended at daybreak.

At Malindi we were picked up by our amiable guide, Ann Cheptumo who helped us check in at Turtle Bay Beach Club and after some freshening up we were ready to see what the Indian Ocean had to offer. Coming from a landlocked country, our colleagues from Tanzania and Kenya were eager to rub in the fact that we had no coastline and so this was to be a ‘huge’ experience for us. They were actually right because we were not just in Watamu but at Watamu Marine National Park. After all, I had never thought of a game park being on water.

If you love snorkelling and scuba diving then this is the place to be. After heading out on a boat we got to the area where these activities are done and the boat stopped. Our guide first offered us bread crumbs that we would throw into the water and lots of fish would show up close to the surface to eat. It felt like being on top of a crowded giant aquarium.

Later the boat captain beckoned me not to be a coward and I took up the challenge, I undressed to my briefs and jumped into the water and with swimming goggles, I was able to get a good look at the various fishes that were milling around the boat for the bread crumbs. It is an incredible sight I tell you. I would call it an aquatic fashion show for you get to see fishes of all sorts of shapes and colours. I don’t know the names of the different kinds of fish I saw but none of them has ever been on a plate near me.

Watamu is also a known sea turtle nesting spot and I understand there are over 500 species of fish that feed on the corals. After asking around I was also told that Watamu means sweet people. It is alleged that Arab slave traders had this trick of giving locals sweets before taking them as slaves. This is definitely a place I need to visit again for the full treat.

Marafa’s Hell’s Kitchen

Our next stop was at the village of Marafa at a place with a rather weird name, Hell’s Kitchen. Yes, I can safely say I have been to hell and came back in one piece. Hell’s Kitchen is a strange sandstone canyon sometimes referred to as the Marafa Depression. Some people confuse it with another tourism site in another part of Kenya (Naivasha) called Hell’s Gate. I am not sure why Kenyans are this obsessed with hell. 

The name Hell’s Kitchen as we were told by the area’s dreadlocked guide comes from the high temperatures that it experiences sometimes reaching 50 degrees Celsius. It is therefore advisable to visit during sunrise or sunset. Expectedly, there are so many folk tales associated with the place.

One version regarding its formation is that the expanse of Hell’s Kitchen was once occupied by a rich family of the Wakiza clan. “The family was very selfish and never wanted to share anything with neighbours,” said the guide. “They used to even bath using milk from their cows.” So God punished them by flooding the area and the entire homestead sunk, resulting in the current landscape.

The scientific version refers to the area being made up of different layers of rock which allows the softer areas to be washed away by erosion while the harder ones emerge as hills inside the gorge. The area therefore has these jagged gorges with different colours of sandstone. Visitors are given guided walks around the picturesque area. If you love taking photos this place is like one huge colourful studio. The backdrop of the multi-coloured gorges, clear sky and later on the sunset is the envy of any photographer.

The locals also have a name for the place, Nyari which means, “The place broken by itself”. The depression is still expanding even today due to soil erosion. The most important thing to note is that there is nothing evil about this place and even though it is called a kitchen no food was served to us as we walked in and out the depression. 

Malindi has other attractions like the Snake Farm, the Gede ruins and other historical sites like the Portuguese chapel built in 1542 and Vasco da Gama’s pillar marking the spot where he landed when he first arrived in Malindi. Today the town is also known for having a significant population of Italians as many of them visit and decide to stay for good. I don’t blame them given how beautiful the place is.

One destination, unique tourism products

Visiting Malindi helped me understand the fact that although East Africa is positioning itself as a single tourist destination it is important to know the unique tourism products that each country has. Some countries have the big five, others have mountain gorillas, and others have marine parks while each country has unique cultural products to sell.

What all this means is that tour operators in the region must make an effort to acquaint themselves with the gems in the region even beyond their own borders as this is crucial when marketing the region and explaining to tourists how they can exploit the single tourism visa that allows one to visit Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya.

For our tourism industry to get to the impressive figures of the South Africans or the Egyptians, we have to encourage more East African to visit different places within the region and for foreigners to spend more time when they visit East Africa. We can do this!

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