The Kenyan coast and the history of it's coastal towns

The Kenyan coast and the history of it's coastal towns

The Kenyan coast is an area stretching from the Lamu archipelago at the Northern end, to a horseshoe-like shape encompassing the island of Mombasa, to the South coast which stretches to the Tanzanian border – a distance of nearly 500 km!

This stretch of coastline comprises of bays, rocky coves, inlets which are harbors for boats of various types, and beaches of glistening white sand, fringed by the clear aquamarine waters of the Indian ocean. The beaches are idyllic and have been listed in the top 20 best beaches in the world by an independent survey conducted by a travel website called Expedia who held a competition and the winner was financed to an all-expenses paid trip to research the beaches of the world.

The colors of the tropics are unbelievable, so vivid and intense – the shades of aquamarine, crystal clear sea water close to the shore, merging into the deeper azure shades beyond the reef, the scintillating sandy beaches fringed by swaying, whispering palm trees, and the colors of the rioting bougainvillea, pink and white frangipani, red hibiscus, and orange flame trees are an artist’s palette painted by a Master Hand.

And not only the colors, but the indescribable scent of the tropical coast – a mix of salty sea breezes, scented blossom, dried grass, coconut oil, blistering heat on red soil roads, the subtle smells of foods from little eateries and charcoal braziers -  all add to the unforgettable ambience that is, Diani,  the coast of Kenya.

Diani can be reached either by plane or road. From the Moi International Airport take a taxi to the Mombasa island and from thence to a picturesque ferry which crosses the sea inlet to the docks, landing on the south coast mainland; Likoni, and from there a drive of about 25 km to this small paradise. Additionally, you can fly directly from Nairobi to Ukunda airstrip and take a taxi to your hotel or villa (the airstrip is close to all major hotels).

Diani was just a fishing settlement about 40 years ago, but saw a boom in the 70s when tourists wishing to come to Africa found Kenya the ideal place, as there was peace here compared to the strife and problems being experienced in other African countries.  Hotels mushroomed along the 5 mile coast road, which was tarmacked at that time from a dusty track. A small airport was built, literally by hand (and blessed by the late first Kenyan president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta); and Diani beach has since continued to develop to the cosmopolitan resort it is now, without losing its charm and simple ambience.


The Kenyan coast is an attraction to visitors from all over the world, commanding more than 60% of all visitors to Kenya.  The tourist hotels stretch along the north and south coasts, on either side of Mombasa Island – to the North as far as Malindi and offshore islands on the Lamu archipelago; on the South coast as far as Shimoni, a deep-sea fishing center and to the Tanzanian borderDiani is situated about half way between the crossing from the island along the main road to Tanzania, about 25 km. from the ferry crossing.


The coastal architecture is outstanding.  Magnificent beach hotels with soaring makuti (coconut leaf thatch) roofs front the beaches on the south coast, with miles of sparkling white sand and safe lagoons, protected by an offshore reef all  along its shore. The reef  helps keep dangerous sea predators like sharks at bay, making the beaches safe for swimming and other activities.

Diani is a renowned beautiful vacationing venue, yet 50 years ago it was just a fishing village, and there was no tourist development at all.  In fact, tourism in Kenya as a whole had not taken off, and there were only about 6,000 beds in the capital and about 1000 at the coast.  There were some hotels in Mombasa geared for businessmen, but there was nothing on the beaches, north or south of the Mombasa island.

The North coast was the first to develop beach hotels in the late 30s - 40s. What is now Whitesands, part of the Sarova chain, was first built as a simple hostel for upcountry residents and Nyali became next to be developed. All the while, Diani remained a quiet peaceful spot until the tourist boom in the 70s when hotels sprang up along the 5 miles stretch of newly built coast road. The first was Jadini Alliance, then Tradewinds and later Two Fishes.

Today, there are more than 20 different hotels of varying styles and designs, all idyllic venues for local and international tourists. They offer a luxurious, relaxing beach holiday destination, with magnificent pools, pristine beaches, safe sea swimming and a wide variety of sea sports. Modern shopping malls, and evening entertainment spots are also in plenty. Several local business owners offer sea and land safaris.

Unfortunately, much of the indigenous forest was destroyed in the process and wild animals no longer roam the area. However, efforts are being made to maintain the natural beauty of the coast, and protect the endangered animals such as the colobus monkey. In fact, there is an ongoing campaign by Colobus Conservation Diani, geared towards the conservation of these beautiful creatures. Tour agents organize Village tours and sightseeing trips for the surrounding countryside which still retains its charm and natural appeal.

Marine Parks

This concept didn’t arise until the ‘70s when an Italian resident in Diani came up with the idea of creating a protected area for the marine life, where guests could visit marine parks at the south coast.  He felt the only way to do this was to gazette an area of the Indian Ocean as a marine park. So, he made a proposal to the government of the day, which happened to have forward thinking individuals who were wise enough to accept the idea.

At the time Kisite Marine Park and Mpunguti Marine National Reserve were gazetted as nature reserves.  Lying a varying distance of 3 to 8 m. off the shoreline, extending to about 6 km north of the Tanzanian border, it became the first gazetted marine park in Kenya (there are now 4 around the Kenyan coast).

This decision did not please the locals, especially the fishermen whose primary source of livelihood had been affected by this action. So, they made representation to the government, creating quite a conflict at the time; but eventually it was settled by reducing the area of the Kisite Marine National Park to 11 sq. km. and Mpunguti Marine National Reserve to 28 sq. km.  The park is currently managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service and the only people with a right to fish in the reserve are the local fishermen who must only use traditional methods and possess a license from the government to do so.

The main central area of the marine park, is inviolable, and remains a water wonderland containing a high diversity of marine species, sea-grass beds, extensive mangrove areas and submerged coral reefs.  The three islands within the Reserve are important nesting areas for seabirds and marine turtles and they have spectacular fossil coral deposits, with very old and mysterious graves indicating the influence of an ancient Chinese culture.

The collecting of shells and other organisms in not permitted in order to preserve the delicate ecosystem of the reserve. Over the years, this protected area has become an underwater paradise for snorkelers and divers. It is visited by many marine giants, including the sea turtles which can live to over 100 years and two kinds of dolphins; humpback whales and whale sharks.  A sea safari to see these creatures and a chance to snorkel at the reef, is a unique and thrilling experience.

Diani has so much to offer visitors looking for a coastal holiday of a lifetime!


Mombasa is the oldest city in Kenya. Set on a 14 sq. km/9.5 island, it has a population of around half a million people, a thriving cosmopolitan city of many cultures, all living in harmony in a blend of antiquity and modern-day culture.

It is the biggest sea port between Durban and Suez.  Widely referred to as The Gateway to East Africa, Mombasa is the main point of access to cargo coming by sea on route to landlocked countries like Uganda, Ruanda and Sudan.  Huge container ships and passenger liners enter the channel which once was the passageway for the ocean-going dhows. Visitors en route to Diani whilst at the Likoni ferry, can witness these huge seagoing vessels sailing majestically along the channel to dock at Kilindini harbor, often accompanied by small, bustling, hooting tugs.

Mombasa has been a port of call to sea explorers and traders for thousands of years. From Milton’s book ‘Paradise Lost’, it is clear that settlements now known as Mombasa and Malindi were in existence as early as 4000 B.C. and the region now known as East Africa was once a thriving civilization back then and had trading links with the Chinese, Phoenicians, Romans, Persians, Greeks and Arabs.

Earliest Records

‘The Periplus of the Erythrina Sea’ written by Diogenes, the Greek merchant who explored south from Egypt around the year AD110 described places for sailors in the Indian waters, recording sailing times from one place to another. He also traveled inland as far as the great lakes and snowy mountains from where the Nile River drew its source. These features were included in the world map drawn by Ptolemy, important to historians.

By the end of the 2nd century A.D when merchants from the Roman Empire frequented the coast, there were already established trading villages where some Arabs had settled and inter-married with the local people.

By the 9th century Mombasa, and Malindi and Lamu were important commercial and trade centers between India, Arabia and Africa.  The coastal traders did not travel far inland and relied upon the people of the interior to bring them goods for trade, exchanging items such as grain, oil, ghee, glass, beads, cloth, metal tools for ivory, slaves, spices like cinnamon, frankincense, gum Arabic, tortoiseshell and live animals. (It is recorded that in the year 1415 the ruler of Malindi sent a giraffe to the Chinese Emperor as a gift accompanied by a caretaker to look after the animal, such fascinating stories!).

Dhow Trade

Mombasa’s rich cultural history was largely developed from the trading with Asian and Arabian countries by dhows which crossed and re-crossed the Indian Ocean, sailing with the prevailing monsoon winds, guided only by the stars. Occasionally working dhows can be found in the small harbor in Mombasa Old Town, but sadly they no longer conduct trade as they have done for thousands of years.  They mainly transport mangrove poles for use in the building industry, and many are adapted to carry tourists on sea safaris.

These three townships were centers of all that was new then; in technology, business, literature, arts and crafts.  They were bustling and thriving communities and during this time Swahili was developed – a language formed by mixing Arabic and the vernacular language of the coastal people. Kiswahili is now the national language of Kenya but English is the official language.

Arab architecture and the Islamic religion and culture developed at this time, spreading far and reaching tentacles which still dominate Kenya’s coastal towns today.

Portuguese Invasion

Arab rule continued until Portuguese explorers like Bartholomew Diaz in 1496 and Vasco da Gama in 1498 arrived via the Cape of Good Hope and commandeered this thriving seaport, spreading the Christian gospel and influencing the area while opening up trade between the region and their own countries. But they were not left at peace.  They met a hostile reception from the Arabs.  For the next 200 years, Mombasa was repeatedly at war and from 1593 to 1596, the Portuguese build the renowned Fort Jesus on the eastern shore of the island – a spectacular edifice with great stone ramparts which still guard Mombasa’s outlet to the sea. Although no longer needed for defense, it still stands and remains one of the most visited places in Mombasa.  It wasn’t until the end of the 17th century that the Arabs were successful and, in the following century, they drove the Portuguese out leaving the Imam of Oman the sole ruler of the coast once again dominating trade in this part of the world until the 19th century. (Fort Jesus is now a national monument and has been named one of the most brilliant structures of the 16th century and became UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011).

In addition to the Portuguese attacks from the sea, Kenya’s coastal settlements in the 16th & 17th centuries faced danger from the Galla who also over-ran southern Ethiopia and large areas of Somalia and north east Kenya.  The people in the coastal settlements north from Mombasa abandoned their homes and fled from these attackers, either to Mombasa or to Tanzania. A ghost city on the north coast, Gede, is witness to a thriving community abandoned overnight.

European Arrivals

The British arrived at the end of the 19th century, and made the 20th century one of development and colonial administration. The railways being built from the coast as far as Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria, which by far opened up the interior. It was however, built with great hardship, from disease, to wild animal attacks, to resistance by the local communities; (the film Lions of Tsavo reflects this period of Kenyan history). At this time workers from the British protectorate of India were brought over to work on the railway, and many stayed behind after the completion of the railway line and make-up for part of the mixed population found in Mombasa today.  White settlers came in to develop commercial farming and business interests, especially trade through the port of Mombasa, up until the 1960s when Kenya achieved its independence.

Because of these visitations and invasions by people from many different cultures, the Kenyan coast, and Mombasa in particular, has developed its own remarkable style of life, blending both the indigenous people and the immigrants languages, food, religion, culture and architecture.  Side by side it is possible to see, alongside each other, attractive modern structures and ancient buildings from the past still preserved and in good condition.  The National Museums of Kenya have a renovation program to maintain Mombasa Old Town, with its narrow streets, overhanging balconies and carved doors and window shutters, and many old buildings in the city are now gazetted to preserve Mombasa’s historical past.

Mombasa remains a unique and mysterious place for tourist’s making it one of the most interesting places in the world to visit and explore

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