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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Beach Safari to Tiwi Beach, Kenya

You may have heard about Blogspot's recent problems or noticed that the site was inaccessible for a couple of days. I originally published this post about visiting Tiwi Beach on May 11. Shortly after, it was deleted as a byproduct of Blogspot's big crash. Their customer service people are saying that as of May 19, most posts have been restored. This one wasn't, and from cruising through the "Help" section, I see that many other bloggers are still missing posts and still asking for help. So my cousin Chris, who subscribes by email, emailed me back the post and I copied it back into the blog. Thanks, Chris! If you missed this post the first time, here it is.


Easter turned into a five-day holiday in Tanzania, thanks to one of our many "public holidays" added on Tuesday. So Anna and I joined my Kenyan friend Cynthia (with whom I previously visited Mkadini Beach) and her husband Lema and daughter Amaya on a road trip with border crossing to spend two days at Tiwi Beach near Mombassa, Kenya.

This was my first time to cross an African border by car, and I was a bit nervous about it because I've heard so many stories! We drove up to the Tanzanian side and walked into a small, rundown office with three immigration officers sitting behind a counter. They exit-stamped Anna's and my passports with no questions. Cynthia had to discuss things with them for a few minutes because she showed her Kenyan passport and Amaya's American passport and apparently the Tanzanian immigration authorities wanted to protect America from illegal babies leaving Tanzania. Meanwhile, Lema was visiting a series of offices to authorize the car to cross the border (so he did the difficult part). Anna and I were waiting for him to finish so we could drive over to the Kenyan office (brand new and more official-looking than the Tanzanian office) a few hundred meters away. But then a bus pulled up and dozens of locals and tourists and some of Anna's coworkers from the School of St. Jude flooded into the Tanzanian office. We hopped up and trotted over to the Kenyan side so we could be first in line ahead of all those bus passengers.

We did get in line first, with one entry card from the office counter filled out and ready to present. But when we reached the head of the line, the immigration officer handed us a second card to fill out. By that time, most of the bus passengers were crowded in right behind us. So we filled out the second card and rotated to the back of the line, where we waited about 20 minutes to get our visas and entry stamps for Kenya. The visa costs $25, and must be paid for with U.S. currency. In Tanzania, nobody will accept U.S. currency from earlier than 2001. Somehow, I ended up in Tanzania with two $50 bills from 1996. So I tried to pass one off to the Kenyans. They had accepted old bills from Cynthia on a previous visit. But this time, the immigration officer checked the date and wouldn't accept it. Darn! Next, we returned to the car, where an "agent" of some sort was waiting to escort us to an insurance office so we could buy the required international insurance. This guy trotted in front of the car while we followed, with Lema laughing and going a little bit faster all the time just to see how good the agent was at his job. He guided us to a row of tiny wooden shops which included a hair salon and three insurance offices. A quick purchase and we were on our way into Kenya.

The road was tarmac on the Tanzanian side. And it looked like a major highway on the road map.

 But the first 100 km was just like this. Lema laughed and said, "This IS a major highway." 

It passes through Tsavo West and Tsavo East National Parks and the Taita Hills Preserve. And, judging by the truck traffic, it really is a major road. Kind of.

Lema drove us in a safari-designed Land Cruiser from his company, Serengeti Pride Safaris.  

That turned out to be a much better choice than my Suzuki, also under consideration. The Land Cruiser skimmed over the bumps, and the Suzuki would have bounced on every one. Plus, two days after we got back, one of the Suzuki's shock absorbers broke loose. That was easier to handle right in town than out here. Also, Lema can drive a lot faster than me!

The Taita Hills.

Amaya took an instant liking to Anna, and Anna to Amaya.

We stopped in the town of Voi for lunch.

Amaya got some new shades at a nearby shop. I can definitely see her as a future president, like the t-shirt says, but will it be Kenya, Tanzania, or America?

 Voi's not that big, but if you read the sign on the corner, you'll see that they have a Kindgom Hall (I took this picture for my high school friend, Elaine, who is a Jehovah's Witness. She has knocked on many doors in her time, but I bet she hasn't knocked on any doors here in Voi!)

Voi sits at the junction of the road to the border and the truly major road that connects the port of Mombasa to the capitol city of Nairobi. As we approached Voi, we drove over a few kilometers of transitional road--it was tarmac, but there were so many potholes that cars (including ours) actually drove on the dirt shoulder to avoid the tarmac! At Voi, we turned toward Mombasa and cruised onto a smooth tarmac road. I'm not sure if that made things easier, though, because of the incredible number of heavy trucks hauling shipping containers between Nairobi and Mombasa. The highway passed through desolate country. The soil was orange with short, scrubby forest. Villages were far apart, and consisted of only a few houses. But it seemed that a roadside culture based on trucks has developed.

This is one of many car washes catering to the big trucks. Yes, really! In front of the little tree, you can see two black jerry cans, and some makeshift benches there next to the tree. Along this road, that's all you need for a carwash.

Here's another one. The jerry cans are there in front of the trucks. This was the only one I saw with so many trucks parked around. Most of these car washes were empty and waiting. Occasionally, we passed one with two or three men throwing water from the jerry cans onto one big truck.

These odd little car washes were strung out all along the road through this desolate landscape. We wondered why wash your truck when you're only halfway through the dusty part? These car wash entrepreneurs were using everything dropped by cars and trucks along the road as business infrastructure. We saw lots of truck tires used as benches. Signs were built from the tires, as well as from the occasional chrome wheel cover or other odd bits of metal. 

The only other vendors in evidence were selling charcoal in white fiber rice bags about four feet long. Some offered three bags. Some displayed pyramids of a dozen bags stacked on their sides. A few ambitious vendors offered both charcoal and car wash in one place, kind of a convenience store of the veldt. (I know veldt is probably incorrect here, but it's so nicely alliterative to convenience.) But if you wanted to buy fruit or vegetables or barbecue, you'd be out of luck.

We found our way through the bustling big city of Mombasa and down to the ferry dock. While we waited in a long line of cars, vendors came by selling cashews, candy-coated baobab seeds, newspapers, undershirts, and who knows what all. I didn't see any charcoal, though. Police patrolled the line. In sharp contrast to Tanzanian police, the Kenyan officers all carried automatic rifles and were very serious. All pressed dark uniforms and not one hint of a smile. The ferry makes the five-minute crossing from Mombasa, which is on an island, to Likoni every 15 or 20 minutes. The cars drive on first, then pedestrians flood into the pedestrian decks, and then into every gap between cars on the car deck.

After a short drive on a small dirt road, we reached Tiwi Beach in late afternoon. Tiwi Beach is a long stretch of white sand backed by a few budget lodges that appeal mostly to the backpacker crowd. Just to the south is Diani Beach, which is more built up and caters to more expensive tastes. We checked into Coral Cove Cottages, one of the budget options, but still pretty nice. 

Here's our two-bedroom cottage, complete with kitchen (which we didn't use) and verandah (which we did).

A troop of vervet monkeys haunts the resort grounds. The proprietor warned us to always close up the cabin when we left, because these guys will go inside looking for food. Sure, he looks cute here, but even as I snapped this photo, the monkeys were grouping up to mount an offensive on the neighbor's cabin.

The next morning, our first day at the beach dawned...

...cold and rainy. We ate a leisurely breakfast next door at Twiga Resort and watched the rain pour down.

Then we read on the porch, under the roof.

We shared the roof with this six-inch long bat, who roosted under the thatch all day.

The annual Ultimate Frisbee Tournament was scheduled for the long weekend. And rain or no rain, the frisbee must fly.

Two teams getting organized for a match in the rain. 

Arusha sent a team, which included several people from the School of St. Jude. That's why we saw Anna's coworkers at the border. The teams were mostly a mix of young locals and foreign volunteers. There was even a powerhouse team from Uganda. One of the Ugandan players kept saying hello to Anna, but she was having none of that!

Finally, in early afternoon, the rain stopped and the sun almost came out. So we hit the beach, even though it was still a bit chilly.

Anna took this picture of me on the beach. Maybe she was feeling a little off balance this weekend.

Anna off to enjoy the almost-sunny beach.

Grey Heron.

A lovely afternoon was had by all...and then...

...after sundown, the termites swarmed! A few dozen got inside the cottage. Outside, they were everywhere.

Anna was sitting out on the porch reading amidst the termite swarm. A big vervet monkey leaped onto the porch and started plucking up termites that had dropped their wings and eating them like candy. Anna waved her arms at him and he ignored her. Then she stood up and shooed him. He ignored her. And he was darting all over snatching up termites. So she got freaked out and came running inside and slammed the door! Which is exactly what I would have done!

We survived the termite swarm and the monkey attack. Only to be rudely startled awake around midnight by the woman in the next cottage out on her porch SCREAMING out a fake orgasm! It was really loud and really dramatic. And it went on for a long time. I wanted to yell out, "She's faking!" But I just waited for it to end.

So, after surviving the termite swarm and the monkey attack and the dramatic fake orgasm in the middle of the night, we awoke to a beautiful sunny day at the beach.

So we headed down to end of the beach away from the Ultimate Frisbee players and set up for some serious lounging.
Cynthia, Amaya, and Lema. They lounged for awhile, but they didn't have the endurance of me and Anna and ended up driving down to Diani Beach to see the shops.

Gee, thanks for the sunscreen, Mom.

We did have some shopping at Tiwi, though. The top line is kikoi, a traditional Kenyan fabric worn as a wrap around skirt (among other uses). The bottom line is Tanzanian khanga.

Cynthia, Anna and I each bought a kikoi. But we had a group intervention first and forbade each other from buying the same color we always buy for clothes. Anna could not choose blue. Cynthia could not choose black. And I could not choose peach or orange. But there were plenty of colors and we all found something!


Great Egret.

Baby Sea Cucumber? I think? It was about eight inches long.

Monday morning, and it's good-bye, Tiwi Beach. Lema couldn't take anymore relaxing by the ocean. He kept muttering about Wameru (his tribe) being from the mountains.
Mombasa is known for mangoes. Here's a basket we picked up on the way back through the city. Many of Lema's relatives back in Arusha had asked for Mombasa mangoes.

We headed back through all the car washes to Voi. It was easier today, with very light truck traffic. And then back to the rough road heading for the border. Really rough...

Here's our first flat tire, out in the middle of nowhere.


It's very important to stay hydrated in these situations. Me, Amaya, and Anna.
Lema very efficiently went to work and changed the tire...

...while the rest of us were fooling around taking pictures (Cynthia's behind the camera).

He changed the tire in 15 minutes flat. It's important for safari drivers to make quick repairs in case animals are nearby. For example...

We came across a small group of elephants only 2 or 3 km farther along the road.

This was Amaya's very first elephant sighting. She kept saying, "Njo," (come here) and waving them over. No, they didn't come.

Not too far from the border and tarmac, we had a short stretch of flooded road. No problem for the safari Land Cruiser.

Even closer to the border, a second flat tire. Again, no problem because the Land Cruiser carries two spares and Lema changed it again while the rest of us goofed around some more.
This close to the border, I started getting a little nervous. Cynthia had crossed the border at another place not long ago, and the Tanzanian authorities had required yellow fever vaccination cards due to an outbreak of yellow fever somewhere in Kenya. I have the vaccination, but it hadn't even occurred to me to carry the card with me. And Anna had lost her card when her her purse was stolen. We thought we might have to get the vaccination right at the border. Or maybe pay to get the card without the actual vaccination. 

When we reached the border, we were the only travelers there. We breezed through the Kenyan office. Then, I breezed through the Tanzanian office. Nobody asked us for yellow fever cards. One immigration officer didn't like Anna's Tanzanian visa, though, and was reluctant to let her back into the country. He raised an obscure argument against the validity of her visa, but a woman officer said, "Things change. We don't know how that visa got there. But it's in her passport, so let her in." Or something along those lines. So we proceeded home to Arusha without further incident.

If you'd like to see more photos of this trip to the beach, click here to view a Picasa photo album of 98 photos.


  1. Hi Barbara,
    I'll be visiting Tiwi beach at the end of August, hopefully staying at the same cottages as you did, along with 2 friends, and was wondering if you could offer any advice on how to get from Mombasa to Arusha - where we need to meet other friends.
    Thanks, Fleur

  2. Well, I took the easy way, riding in a friend's private car. But I think the easiest way on public transport is by bus. The buses looked to be in pretty good condition and there were many of them. You'd have to find a way to get from Tiwi Beach back to the ferry that takes you back to Mombasa (a 3-minute ferry ride) and then to the bus station. An acquaintance was talking about this while at Tiwi Beach, and she said they'd hired a taxi to go to and from the ferry and bus station, and that it was a bit expensive, but worth it because it made the timing of things much easier. Sorry that I can't give you all the details, but I can tell you it shouldn't be too hard to take the bus to Arusha. It took about 6 hours by private car.