Travels with my Lilo
By Craig Rogers.
Travelling with surfboards is not easy. Travelling with SUPs is even harder.
If the airline graciously lets you on the plane with your quiver, there’s usually a wallet-melting surcharge to pay (and even then they make you sign a disclaimer against damage).
Modern day piracy.
When you arrive at your destination you retrieve what’s left of your boards from the carousel before lashing them to the roof of a rusty taxi/hire-car before spending the journey worrying that the (lunatic) driver is going to have a prang and ding your favourite board.
Now that I have kids I also have to lug prams, car-seats and cots to the out-of-gauge belt.
If you travel to Kenya (as we do) the baggage allowance on internal flights is a pitiful 15 kilograms.
A solution to the problem became apparent – an inflatable SUP!
I’d never ridden an inflatable before so I called Dave at Triocean Surf and he kindly let me try out a Red Paddle Allwater 9’6”. It was a small summer’s day at Bantham (South Devon) but I quickly realised that – whilst the board was slower and less stiff than a traditional construction SUP - it caught waves really well and was a whole lotta fun! I then set about researching inflatables for bigger surf.
After lengthy deliberation I settled on a Starboard Astro Widepoint 8’2” (Deluxe).
It was short with removable quad fins and plenty of rocker.
My final pre-departure paddle was on the River Thames on a murky December day. Dressed as Father Christmas with 40 other happy Santas (and 1 Rudolf) we set off from Kew Bridge and paddled down-stream to Putney.
The little iSUP generated a lot of interest from the other Santas, many of them promising to add it to their Christmas list. Arriving at the boathouse in Putney I had a mince pie, smugly deflated my board and boarded a double-decker bus for the short journey home.
The next 2 days were filled with panicked calls to find a replacement for a broken paddle and some last minute shopping, before rushing off to the airport.
Check-in at Heathrow Airport was a breeze (no complaints from British Airways check-in staff about my “surfboard”) and we were soon relaxing in the departure lounge with Eggs Benedict and a glass of fresh orange juice.
We arrive in Nairobi to be met by my father. Dad has lived in Kenya since the late 60s and is accustomed to us arriving with mountains of surf gear. This time, no complaints about the Starboard-branded rucksack – the only ostensible clue to its contents.
We spend 3 days in Nairobi, catching up with friends and acclimatising before flying to the Kenya Coast.
Checking in at Wilson Airport with the SUP and all our bags, we are well over the 15kg baggage allowance. Thanks to Cheryl at Air Kenya (and the Wife who convinces check-in staff that they should off-set her heavy bag against her featherweight light frame), we escape without an eye-watering bill for excess-baggage.
The Air Kenya Dash 8 flies us out of the sprawling city, over the game park, and south towards the Coast. After an hour we make our approach to Lamu; as the plane loses altitude the kids’ in-flight meal makes an unwanted reappearance.
We touch down in Lamu, swapping pallid safari-khaki tourists for their suntanned, flip-flopped equivalents, before accelerating off the runway again. We fly low over the sleepy old-town of Lamu before swooping over sand-dunes towards Malindi, 120 kms to the south.
After recovering our luggage we make the short transfer to Watamu in the hotel bus. My old friend Nic Cahill had planned to meet us at the airstrip but had been called out to deliver snake-bite serum to the victim of an ill-tempered puff-adder.
Hemingways was originally designed as a deep-sea fishing lodge (named after the great American author and keen fisherman) with a bar and a few simple rooms. Nowadays it’s a comfortable, family-friendly hotel with 2 swimming pools and a magnificent fleet of boats delivering visiting fishermen to the North Kenya Banks.
After settling into our room we sit down for dinner by the pool - the cold & stress of Europe washed away by the warm tradewinds and crash of waves on the distant reef.
The following morning the kids are up early. We cross the hotel gardens (so hot already?) and into the dining room, open-sided with vaulted, palm-thatched roof. We enjoy our first of many enormous breakfasts – pancakes, freshly cooked omelettes, bacon, acacia honey from the highlands, hot Kenya coffee.
The kids get stuck into bowls of mango and pawpaw; equal quantities in mouths and on tablecloth.
Nic and his fiancé Maja join us after breakfast. Nic “Gupta” Cahill is an old school chum, full-time safari guide, part-time snake charmer. He and Maja fled suburban Nairobi for the more sedate lifestyle of Watamu. Whilst their house is being built they are camping at the snake-farm; in exchange for room & board Nic rises at dawn to milk the snakes for anti-venom.
We unwrap the iSUP (no dings!), pump up and go for a paddle.
Nic has been surfing for 20 years but has never been on a SUP – the lagoon an ideal learning environment. Watamu is a marine park and the ocean full of life - turtles, parrot fish, darting rays, bright starfish. Even the Wife decides she wants to try the iSUP (convinced that she can get a killer body and a killer tan at the same time). Buoyed up by this new incentive she sets off and paddles around the lagoon for an hour without falling off. Returning to the beach she is forced to admit she likes it – a new convert.
In the evening we meet Nic and Maja (and the rest of the expat community) at Ocean Sports. The beach bar is propped up by old Colonels in khaki shorts who believe that Kenya is still a British Colony. In holiday season the old duffers are outnumbered by English public-school kids, in obligatory “kikois” and Havaianas.
We meet a bunch of people from our school days and pretend to remember their names, before stumbling home.
On Sunday we get up early to meet Ben Kelliher from Tribe Watersports. Ben and his clients are doing a SUP-safari; we tag along. Ben leads us out of Watamu Bay and north along the rocky cliffs. At “Blue Lagoon” (a horse-shoe bay, guarded by 20 foot coral stacks) we scrape through a jagged arch, paddle across the glassy lagoon and fetch up on the beach. We pay a local fisherman a few shillings to keep an eye on our kit before walking through a narrow passageway to the road and “Bahati Gelateria”. The ice-cream parlour is run by Andrea, an Italian exile, and serves an array of homemade “gelati”, pastries and the best coffee this side of Milan. I order two scoops of ice-cream, a selection of Sfogliatelle and a machiatto (in the interests of research) and settle down on the terrace as a herd of goats ambles down the high-street.
After this breakfast of champions, we paddle out of Blue Lagoon, along the reef and soon find ourselves back in front of Hemingways, where we part company with Ben and his “wageni”.
That afternoon we head to Ocean Sports for the Christmas Craft Market. Every “Mzungu” for miles around has converged on the hotel; the grounds are filled with stalls offering Festive wares with an African twist. I snap up a brace of Christmas stockings made from a patchwork of Kangas (a colourful fabric worn by local women or used to swaddle infants) and buy a few stocking-fillers for my own infants. Christmas shopping completed, we settle down to Sunday lunch and cold Tuskers. The wind has picked up so we order another round of drinks and give up on any idea of an evening surf.
The following day, I settle the Wife on a sunbed with her Kindle and go in search of a wave. The swell is forming in clean lines, peeling gently down the reef. There is a “Mlango” (channel) in front of Hemingways which makes for an easy paddle out. After a few failed attempts Nic paddles into his first wave. He takes the wave left, shapes and trims down the face like a pro. The session is a short one - the life of a safari guide has endowed Nic with additional (unwanted) buoyancy fore and aft. As we head back to the Tribe base at Medina Palms the expression on Nic’s weary face is unmistakeable – he’s caught the bug!
24 December and Boris arrives bearing gifts like one of Santa’s elves - a carbon paddle to replace the one I broke. Boris, a former tennis pro, is one of the old boys of the Kenya SUP scene.
The tide is dropping and the wind threatening to build so there’s barely time for Boris to get a coffee before we’re slapping on sunscreen and launching off the beach. The surf is bigger today – knee to waist high – but still very mellow. Nic catches his second wave, and then a third, as he learns to paddle the board in a wide-arc, generating enough speed for the wave to pick him up. It’s a fun session and great to be in the water with old friends.
Christmas Day and the kids wake up early. They empty the contents of their stockings all over the room before settling on favourite gifts: in Oliver’s case a Land Rover expertly fashioned from old coat-hangers.
We enjoy a splendid breakfast before heading out to the hotel reception and the arrival of “Father Christmas” on a wood-cart drawn by a hapless donkey. Kenyan Santa dispenses gifts to the kids (sweltering in his red suit) before he disappears to deliver presents to children in the village.
The Wife ordains it Christmas a “Day of Rest” (no Supping). After exchanging presents (Quicksilver T-shirt for Nic, surf-wax and some condoms for Boris) we hop in the cars and drive in convoy to Che Shale for lunch.
On the way we pass through several police check-points, primarily designed to catch out truck drivers who have overdone the egg-nog. The policemen are keen to share in the exchange of Christmas gifts; a few carefully chosen words in Swahili guarantees smooth passage.
Leaving the main road we weave through villages of wattle and daub, along a sandy track overlaid with coconut husks, before parking the trucks in the shade of lofty doum palms. We spend the afternoon at Che Shale, a barefoot, low-impact retreat, nestled in a secluded bay and constructed entirely from local materials. The Sabaki River (merged from the confluence of the Galana and Athi Rivers) travels the breadth of Kenya and empties its silty contents into the ocean a few miles away, lending the beach a dusky countenance.
We watch the kiters for a while before settling down to a meal of barbequed fish and fresh salads. The afternoon is spent drowsily lounging on Lamu day-beds, sipping Kenya-Libré (Cuban rum replaced with local cane spirit). It’s a long way from a European Christmas but we wouldn’t swap it for all the snow in Alaska.
In the evening we return to Hemingways and settle into the bar. It’s adorned with trophies of prize marlin, sailfish and yellow-fin tuna. With cold Tusker on tap, attentive barmen, and large Pelagics keeping a watchful eye on proceedings, it’s one of the finest on the planet. One of the guests landed his first billfish – an 80 lb sail. In keeping with tradition he has to buy a drink for everyone in the bar. We congratulate the lucky fishermen and enjoy a few more beers before retiring.
Boxing Day is our last in Watamu and I get up for an early SUP. I put my leash on and paddle out from the beach alone. It’s completely still in the lagoon, the only ripples on the water are from my board. I zigzag past the slumbering fishing boats and through the “mlango” as perfect swell lines roll in and break in an orderly sequence. The tide is still dropping and, in the silence, the waves make a loud “crack” as they break over the shallow reef.
I surf for a couple of hours, catching waves off the A-Frame mainly left on my backhand, but occasionally right. The board is responsive under my feet, the short length and wide nose making foamy re-entries easy, the quad fins fizzing a few inches above the reef. As the tide rises I head back to the beach, passing Boris on the way out: “you should have been here 2 hours ago, ndugu!”
We pack up, throw the boards on the roof of Boris’ truck and say tearful farewells to Nic and Maja. We skirt the Arabuko Sokoko Forest and southwards towards Mombasa. We stop for a late lunch in one of the big malls in Nyali and then press on through downtown Mombasa, jostling with Matatus and Tuk-Tuks, dodging potholes, livestock and handcarts laden with coconuts.
We arrive at the sweltering queue for the Likoni Ferry, buy Cokes from a street vendor, and watch life unfold around us: old ladies crouching over “jikos”, stalls piled high with mangoes, goats grazing amongst smouldering embers of fires.
Eventually the ferry arrives, offloading matatus, safari vehicles, a lorry stacked double with mattresses. After the vehicles, a sea of humanity floods off the boat, heading home after a day on the mainland.
Our time comes and having paid 50 shillings for the privilege, we skid up the on-ramp and take our place on the ferry. We stand on the wheel arches to get a glimpse – in the far distance – of the points and reefs at the mouth of Mombasa Harbour. The wind is whipping the tops off the churning surf. “Much better in July” Boris whispers ruefully.
In no time we’re off the ferry and out on the open road. We pass immaculate settlements of mud huts, women carrying enormous bundles of fire-wood on their heads, men sitting in the shade idly playing “Bao”. Some 50 kms short of the Tanzanian border is the turn-off at Ukunda - a thriving dormitory town, housing the waiters, cooks and chamber-maids who work in the tourist resorts. We drive swiftly past the commercial strip of Diani Beach before turning off the main road, through the dense sub-tropical forest, emerging at the Sands at Nomad. We’re met with an iced drink and necklace of frangipani before being led past the pool to our ocean-front suite.
The Sands at Nomad is set in 25 acres of indigenous forest, with a huge beach frontage and 37 rooms sparingly dotted along its length, guarded by enormous Baobab trees. The focal point of the Sands is the beach bar: a shower of tiny lights cascading like stars onto polished mahogany, topped with soaring canvas.
Our room has uninterrupted views of the Indian Ocean, a four-poster Lamu bed, and a jacuzzi on the terrace. The kids are more interested in the TV and bars of chocolate in the minibar. After an early start and a long day on the road, we grab a bite to eat before sliding into bed, the airconditioning gently ruffling the mosquito-nets as we doze off.
Before dawn the next morning I find myself back at the hotel reception, jumping into Boris’ truck. Groundhog Day. We drive down to Kenyaways Kite Village at neighbouring Galu Beach, grab boards and paddle out, squinting into the sun as it peeks over the horizon. The reef is further out than in Watamu – about 1.5kms off shore – but it’s an easy paddle on a SUP.
The dip-and-draw of our paddles startles a shoal of sleek, needle-beaked Garfish - they skim across the water’s surface, dangerously close to our legs. It’s rare for them to hit surfers but on one occasion Boris had to take a windsurfer to hospital to have a Garfish removed from his ass.
We surf “Craigie Reef” – a reliable left-hander which gets hollow at size. (The right doesn’t have a name but should be called “Urchins” because of the spiny critters lurking on the inside.) The waves are breaking clean, chest to head-high, overhead in the sets. It’s easy to sit on the shoulder and take the wave towards the safety of the channel, but best results are found on the inside where the wave pitches over a slab and then runs the length of a tapering reef.
As the sun (and wind) begins to rise, Boris drops me back at the Sands. Finding myself locked out of the hotel room, I join my wife and kids at the breakfast table, still wearing my rash vest (pretending not to see the sign which says “no beach-wear”).
That afternoon, after recouping some brownie points, I go windsurfing. The wind is blowing 25 knots, sideshore, with great ramps and down-the-line waveriding. In the evening we find ourselves drinking Tuskers at “Madafoos Beach Bar”. We’ve done Diani in a day and many more to come!
The following morning we go for a session at “Ladrones” – a classy wave where the right is as good as the left (and breaks over a pristine sandbar on the inside). Neil joins us – a Kenya boy now living in London. The line-up is choppy but the surf is solid and sucking hollow on the inside.
Boris puts in a text-book performance, nailing 2 set-waves to open the scoring, whilst I fail to get any points on the board. Neil is also suffering from lack of confidence and keeps his knee-caps firmly rooted to the board, floating deep in the channel. After some encouragement he paddles into a succession of set-waves taking the drop on his knees, sometimes making it; more often getting clattered.
Boris, with his short stature, has a great talent for making small waves look big. I play camera-man, riding on the shoulder and filming the diminutive Frenchman with the GoPro.
As the wind picks up I head back to Nomads for a massive breakfast – pancakes, omelettes and 2 pots of strong coffee. In the afternoon reinforcements arrive in the form of the Wife’s parents (their meagre baggage allowance monopolised by an emergency supply of nappies and baby-milk).
On thelast day of the year we score the best session of the trip.
I sneak into the restaurant to pick up “mandazi” (Swahili donuts) and paddle to Craigie Reef to meet Boris. The surf is solid, well overhead, angry lumps pitching and breaking in a shallow bowl. I produce the donuts from my hat; Boris has not brought the coffee.
Boosted by the mandazi we line up and carefully pick waves with a solid peak and low shoulder. As the tide drops further the lefts appear to be breaking in two sections – a bowly inner section, and a second section where the lip throws over a shallow shelf. This second section keeps catching me out – whilst I can make the take-off (often dropping into thin air for a split second) I don’t have the speed to make it around the second section. The iSUP seems to be held back by its thick rails, fizzing fins and dragging coil-leash. Boris, on his more gunny Naish, makes it round with ease, whilst I get repeatedly drilled – the iSUP popping out the whitewash like a cork.
We continue for an hour and a half – exaggerated “Greg Noll” stance - before the wind increases and waves corrugate.
I bid farewell to Boris and paddle back to the Nomads “Mlango” skating through a keyhole in the reef (hardly wider than my board) before paddling through the lagoon, dodging coral heads and skirting seams of exposed reef. At one point I follow a team of fishermen – working in teams. The men in the “Ngalawa” pole upwind, laying the nets in a wide arc, before turning and running downwind to form a loop around the shoal, whilst the men in the water thrash about to herd the fish into the trap.
On New Year’s Eve we go to “Sails” restaurant– a beautiful beach-front restaurant – at Almanara Resort. We are plied with “Dawas” (Kenyan caipirinha) and treated to a feast of lobster and crab. We toast the New Year with champagne and a spectacular firework display before dancing until sunrise at Blue Marlin – local DJs playing house-music with an African twist.
On New Year’s Day the Wife insists she is “dying” and refuses to get out bed. The “ayah” (nanny) entertains the kids whilst we sleep-off the excesses of NYE.
In the afternoon the wind is up, I go for the first windsurf of the year, dodging turtles on the reef and riding the first swells of 2014. At one point I look back towards the beach – there is a tornado on the beach. As I approach I realise it’s not a twister but a helicopter! The chopper has landed on the beach, amidst swathes of local people. I sail in for a closer look, wary of the backdraft from the rotors. The helicopter is owned by a local politician who has popped in for pizza! It’s a gross display of wealth in a country where the average annual income is around $700.
A couple of days later I wake to the sound of crashing surf. The Spring tide swell is clearing the outer reef and breaking right in front of the room. I sneak out and paddle into perfect, 3 foot waves. My GoPro has failed to charge and in desperation I ask one of the “Askaris” (night-watchmen) to take some snaps from the beach. Askari John has never used a digital SLR before but he is a quick learner. The waves are small but a beach-break session is a huge bonus.
On the third day the waves are closing out; the only worthwhile GoPro footage is a tube-ride. I paddle, cut, stall and tuck getting a few microseconds of cover-up before getting smashed into the beach. On my final attempt the board gets sucked up the face and my back foot goes with it, twisting my toe (locked in the traction-pad) at an excruciating angle. I’m spat out in a wet sandstorm, losing paddle and camera in the process. I clamber onto the board and survey the damage. Purple-black bruising shows along the top of the toe. The pain is matched by the frustration that a waist-high close-out has wrecked my trip. (The injury is later diagnosed as a torn ligament).
Resigned to a day of inactivity, we take the family down to Kenyaways Kite Village for a curry lunch. There are nearly 60 multi-coloured kites on the water - Dutch, Danish, Italian and English kitesurfers competing in a European contest to see who can pull the coolest trick in 2 inches of water.
The next morning I jealously eye the surf as I shuffle towards breakfast, toe showing purple over a blue flip-flop. Later a group of Masai Moran (warriors) set up curio-stalls and perform a dance for the tourists. It’s very contrived but the visitors are entertained and the Masai are (over)paid for their wares so there’s a degree of mutual exploitation. The warriors are intrigued by my “spear” – a carbon shaft with a t-bar at one end and a tear-drop blade at the other. They are unanimous in their view that it would not be much use either as a spear or a shield, and wholly ineffective for hunting lion.
Our final day in Kenya and time to hand over the keys to the iSUP. Linzi and Ian (the managers at H2O Extreme) come to Nomads and I give them a quick demo before saying a tearful farewell to the Starboard.
I go for a final swim in the Indian Ocean. I lie back in the lagoon, close my eyes and try to memorise the sensation. I reluctantly walk back up the beach, pay the hotel bill, and get an air-conditioned minibus to Mombasa airport. A quick hop to Nairobi before boarding the midnight flight to London.
When we land in London it’s cold, dark and raining. .
As we sit in rush-hour traffic it’s strange to think that barely 12 hours ago we were floating around the Indian Ocean in boardshorts.
We cross the Thames and the sun makes a brief appearance. I start planning the next trip…
Equatorial Kenya is a year-round travel destination with air-temperatures rarely dipping below 30 degrees at the Coast. The beaches at Diani and Watamu are protected by the coral reef - flat water lagoons and wave breaks a short paddle off-shore.
Kenya offers an equal share of rights and lefts. Best to go with a local surf school as reefs are very shallow at low tide and access can be tricky.
The big-wave season is June-September, during the “Kuzi” southerly monsoon. Expect chest to overhead, often bigger. This is also a windy time of year so is particularly well suited to kitesurfers / windsurfers who want to SUP in the mornings. December-February is the northerly “Kaskazi” monsoon – again expect to rise early for SUP as the wind picks up mid-morning (20-26 knots). Traditional wave size is 3-6 foot; passing cyclones can send larger swell.
The shoulder seasons (March-April and October-November) are usually still and better suited for flat-water paddling, with occasional swells. Most resorts are closed in May.
Model: Starboard Astro Widepoint Deluxe 2014 (Inflatable)
Dimensions: 8’2” x 32” x 4” - 130 litres - 9.05kgs
RRP £1069.00 / $1428.95 / €1090.00
(Prices for “Deluxe”. Expect to pay £200 / €200 less for the “Fun” model)
In the bag: repair kit, pump, user guide, stickers, a whole lotta fun.
Guide to Swahili Phrases
Mlango - literally “door” but used to refer to describe a channel through the coral reef
Wageni – literally “people” but often employed to refer to safari clients
Matatu – privately operated minibuses; alternative to public transport
Dawas – medicine; cocktail of sugar-cane spirit, limes and honey
Ndugu – literally “brother” but also used to refer to close friends
Ngalawa – fishing dugout canoe, with fabric sail and outriggers
Wananchi – collective term for local Kenyan people
Mzungu – white person, European
Boda-Boda – motorcycle taxis
Bundu – bush, backcountry
Jiko – charcoal-fired stove
Askari – security guard
Moran – warriors
Nic “Gupta” Cahill
John Khayemba (“Askari”)
- Major airlines fly to Kenya from most Europe cities (British Airways, Kenya Airways, Emirates, KLM, Swiss and SN Brussels amongst others).
- Scheduled airlines fly to Nairobi, with a short connection to Mombasa. Charter airlines operate directly into Mombasa.
- Diani Beach is 45km south of Mombasa Island.
- Alternatively Air Kenya operate daily flights from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport to the airstrip at Diani Beach.
- Watamu / Malindi is 2 hours by road from Mombasa. Air Kenya operate daily flights to Malindi, via Lamu.
Extreme Safari, a London-based tour operator, specialises in sports and adventure travel in Kenya. They can arrange accommodation at Hemingways, the Sands at Nomad and Kenyaways Kite Village as well as internal flights and transfers. Extreme Safari also offer a range of safaris and other activities (from Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro treks, to white-water rafting).
tel: +44 208 874 6712 / +44 7816 764 653
Diani & Galu Beach (4 locations)
tel: +254 712 121 974
Watamu (Medina Palms)
tel: +254 718 553 355
Marc @ Extreme Safari
Nic Cahill @ Safari Lifestyle, Watamu
Boris Polo @ Expeditions East Africa, Diani
Ben Kelliher @ Tribe Watersports, Watamu
Dave Hackford @ Starboard / Tushingham, UK
Paul @ Active 360, Chiswick, UK
Dave @ Triocean Surf, Kingsbridge, Devon, UK
Rosaria, Claudia and Richard @ The Sands at Nomads, Diani
Ian, Moses and Salim @ H2O Extreme, Diani
Justin @ Che Shale
Cheryl @ Air Kenya
Linzi @ Kenyaways Kite Village, Diani
… and my wife, Jenny, for her enduring patience.