Charlotte Metcalf finds a hidden paradise on Kenya’s Swahili coast
Last November I took my four-year-old daughter to Africa for the first time. We flew in a tiny plane from Lamu, travelling up Kenya’s Swahili coast to the Kiunga Marina Reserve where the Pelizzoli family owns and runs Kiwayu Safari Lodge. The ‘lodge’, in fact a collection of about 20 huts, lies on a sheltered semi-circular curve of pristine white sandy beach on the Indian Ocean.
Kiwayu was built in the 1970s by Alfredo Pelizzoli, an Italian with a passion for Kenya and a keen eye for property. I met Alfredo in the late 1980s when I was living in Nairobi, but only now have I made the journey to Kiwayu. The lodge has changed hands several times, but about ten years ago the Pelizzolis wrested back ownership. Today Simone, Alfredo’s middle daughter, lives there with her two-year-old daughter and runs it with her husband, George.
Years ago Alfredo tried to advertise Kiwayu in The Spectator. ‘Come and enjoy delicious fresh crab served by beautiful black angels,’ was a typical example of what he wanted printed. After Alfredo had built a honeymoon suite on its own island, complete with baobab tree house, he tried again: ‘Having trouble conceiving? Come and try our lovers’ paradise, the Baobabs of Kitangani.’ Even the non-politically correct Spectator balked at running such provocative copy. Alfredo died three years ago and there never was an advertisement for Kiwayu in these pages.
The Pelizzolis have a knack for making places beautiful. Here, they have allowed the wild, natural beauty of the surroundings to dominate. The huts blend into the environment with mukutu roofs and makeke flooring. They are decorated simply but exquisitely with shells, driftwood and local textiles, and comfortably furnished with vast beds under mosquito nets, hammocks full of oversized cushions and carved Victorian day-beds from Lamu. This is luxury with none of the glitzy, discordant luxe like brass period fittings and heavy, colonial-style furniture provided by some Kenyan camps that can make the visitor to Africa feel queasy.
Every hut has a big wooden chest in which to keep valuables safe from monkeys. There are no windows or doors. You wake up and look straight out at the ocean. For a security-conscious European accustomed to privacy, it can seem bizarre to shower virtually in the open or to stroll off down the beach without a key, but after a couple of days, testament to the friendly staff and secure family atmosphere, you are worrying about nothing more than the crabs that scuttle over your bare feet as you roam the beach. I have never been anywhere that has so successfully eliminated my anxieties about the past or future. My daughter was entirely happy, relishing the freedom of an empty beach and the warm, clean Indian Ocean. She even loved the crabs — they were bright pink. I slid into a state of contentment and looked ahead only as far as lunch or dinner. The food is excellent with an Italian bent: pasta, lobster and crab are daily fare.
If you want to do more than eat, drink and languish in a hammock, the camp is renowned for its deep-sea fishing, and there are plenty of marlin, sailfish and yellow-fin tuna to be had. My friend and I took our children out on a boat and her seven-year-old son caught four kingfish that were served later for dinner. You can take a boat all the way to Lamu or just drift around on a dhow enjoying the sunset.
If you are staying ashore, staff will bring a picnic to one of the many sheltered spots along the bay. I walked along a second beach to a hut where a delicious lunch of salade niçoise and lobster was served. I climbed the dunes behind the beach and the view over the Dodori National Reserve took my breath away. I canoed deep into some of the world’s most unspoilt mangrove channels.
Kiwayu is a mere 30 miles north of Lamu but remains relatively untouched. Over the past 20 years, developers have swarmed over Lamu, turning sleepy Shela Beach, site of the world-famous Peponi’s Hotel, into a bustling little town. Then in April, Kenyan transport minister Chirau Ali Mwakwere confirmed the construction of a second port in Lamu. The port will be bigger than Mombasa and is part of a $22 billion development plan that includes roads, airports, railway lines and a pipeline to link northern Kenya with Sudan and Ethiopia. The potential devastation to the environment can only be guessed at. Wily developers are already looking north towards Kiwayu’s magnificent wilderness. Go quickly before paradise is lost.