Shimba Hills National Reserve may be only 30km south of the busy port of Mombasa, but its coastal rainforest habitat ranks among the largest in East Africa. After a short drive from Mombasa’s international airport, a brisk 40-minute hike brought my guide and I to the edge of a dramatic escarpment, where we enjoyed a picnic of fresh fruit, cooled by a welcome sea breeze. To the east lay the bright blue swathe of the Indian Ocean; to the west the green Taita Hills, rising to over 2,000 metres.
The reserve’s dense forest, grass and bush provide ample hiding places for the reserve’s endangered sable antelope, but the giraffes and elephants are easier to spot. In fact, Shimba has the highest density of elephants in Kenya, and incursion to neighbouring farmland is a thorny issue, only partly resolved by the creation of the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary to the north of Shimba.
The reserve’s accommodations are basic. And don't expect a lot of choice. Aside from a couple of campsites, there is just the Shimba Hills Lodge. I love luxury but the short stay I had here was filled with memories.
A magical lodge dinner overlooking the busy watering hole was followed by a night tour with a brief but thrilling glimpse of a leopard and I woke up to a view of Mount Kilimanjaro through the morning mist.
An hour’s drive south took me to the small coastal town of Shimoni, once a place where the continent’s slaves were chained in dark seashore caves awaiting shipment to the infamous slave market on the island of Zanzibar. The caves are eerie, disquieting – the studs where the chains were fixed still visible on the cave walls. It was with some relief that I left the caves, headed for the dock and boarded a lovely old dhow for the half-hour hop across the bay to the island of Wasini.
Without cars, without roads even, Wasini has something of the feel of Lamu, the low-key Kenyan archipelago favoured by the super-rich but now off-limits due to the risk of Somalian pirates. Wasini is a similar size, but completely off the grid. During the rainy season, locals harvest what drinking water they can, importing the rest from the mainland, and the only electricity comes from the odd petrol-powered generator.
Whilst this all makes for a great back-to-basics trip, it can be rough on the locals, so I was glad to discover that one of the island’s main attractions is run completely by local women to benefit their community directly. The Wasini Women's Boardwalk is a 1.5km raised timber walkway through the island’s coral gardens. The project generates income through a small charge to visitors, and it safeguards these unique coral formations which are submerged at the month’s highest tides but otherwise dry.
A lunch of fresh local crab and seaweed chapati set me up for an afternoon on the ocean. On boat tours here, spotting schools of dolphins is practically guaranteed as Wasini’s southern coast looks out to the waters of the Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park. But I wanted something up-close-and-personal. Plumping for the snorkelling trip, I had a blissful half hour swimming with a pair of wild dolphins with all the colour and beauty of the reef below.
At the end of the day, most visitors return to the mainland and the extravagant resorts of Mombasa and the nearby coast. But it’s worth staying behind – even for just one night – as things get even more peaceful and the locals relax when the daytrippers depart. I did a spot of night fishing, and hunkered down in a simple but charming lodge, with oil lamps for reading and solar heating for the showers, without a second thought for a luxury lodge.
Jane Egginton (with picture courtesy of Albert Besselse)