Stories from an Equatorial Outpost - By Craig Rogers
We were children of great fortune – our father was shipped to East Africa on an expat assignment in the late 60’s and my two brothers and I were born in Nairobi. Whilst he missed out on Flower Power, Free Love and the music of Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, we grew up in a tropical paradise with year-round sunshine and a swimming pool in the garden. I learnt to swim by the age of 3 and started windsurfing at the age of 6. We’d spend long-weekends in tented-camps pitched on the shores of the Rift Valley; when we weren’t windsurfing or sailing we would be competing with the local hippos and crocs for shoals of spiny tilapia and whiskered cat-fish.
Like most expatriate families, our long holidays were spent on the Kenya Coast. A “makuti” (palm-thatched) cottage would be home for 3 weeks. Fishermen would come to the door every morning with baskets of red-snapper, squid and occasional lobster. Local kids would appear with “madafu” (young coconut) which I’d trade for old tennis balls.
With another family, we invested in an Alpha 365 windsurf board and 2 rigs. The board was heavy, narrow and slippery and we were constantly thwarted by the tie-on-boom which was never more than approximately attached to the mast.
Rabbiosi and Rogers boys, Mombasa, ‘79. Poling around the lagoon, Vipingo, ‘84
Subconsciously we discovered SUP in those innocent days - poling around the lagoon with a splintery bamboo pole or a paddle borrowed from the dinghy. We’d explore the coral heads with mask/snorkel and (from time to time) free ungrateful inmates from carefully laid crab-traps.
Windsurfing was still fashionable in those days, with equipment in every hotel and local instructors teaching tourists in 5 languages. We were sent to boarding school and then University in the UK but flew home to Kenya at every possible opportunity.
Sunrise at Galu Beach The next generation…
We’d spend our holidays hanging out at (the now extinct) Jadini Beach Hotel – windsurfing, playing beach volleyball and chatting up girls. Windsurfing quickly became an obsession, with all our pocket money saved up and spent in windsurf shops in the UK.
I convinced my mother that we needed a semi-sinker with foot-straps and whilst the lack of a dagger-board frustrated her, the combination of low volume, foot-straps and a luminous yellow harness enabled us to zip around the shallows, startling flying-fish and emulating our hero Robby Naish in the waves.
New Year’s day, 2009. Marc and Ted (foreground) still on a mission!
As worldwide interest in windsurfing waned and kitesurfing took off, the Kenyan coast (with steady tradewinds and shallow lagoons protected by outer reefs) proved to be perfectly suited to this spectacular new sport. My middle brother, Jason, was one of the first to kite in Kenya. In 2003, together with Eno and Boris Polo (both former tennis pros), we secured a lease over a beach-front shack, built sail racks and set up Kenya’s first kite/windsurf school. (The boys also ordered a pair of bright-yellow pedalos but the less said about that the better…) Since then kitesurfing has exploded and on a windy day in January/February or July/August you’ll see up to 50 kites between Forty Thieves Beach Bar on Diani Beach and the Kennaway Kitesurf Village on neighbouring Galu Beach.
Perfect morning, Nomads, January 2012 Bird’s eye view of the lagoon
Whilst I tried kitesurfing (with limited success and numerous salt-water enema wipeouts) I was quite happy to windsurf when it was windy and surf when it wasn’t. The challenge with surfing in Kenya, and the South Coast in particular, is that the reef is in some places 500 metres off-shore. This involves an exhausting paddle (especially on a 5’10’’ Fish) and leaves you a long way from safety if anything goes wrong. Local fisherman will take you to the reef on their “dhows” but this requires a degree of forward planning and organisation altogether at odds with the “Hakuna Matata” vibe. Thus the development of Stand-Up Paddlesurfing was a revelation! We could now paddle to the reef in ten minutes, surf for 2 hours and still have enough energy to kite or windsurf all afternoon!
Eno “teaching” at 40 Thieves Eno on a tiddler at Nomad Reef
And if it wasn’t windy it didn’t matter – rather than sitting on the beach getting bored we could take a bunch of people out to SUP on the reef, paddle and spearfish in the lagoon or explore the mangrove swamps.
Boris started by ordering a pair of Naish Nalu 11’6” SUPs and has since added a Nalu 10’0”, a Mana 10’0” Soft-top and a Hokua 8’10” to the line-up. There’s a small scene in Kenya and Boris is the only importer of SUPs; there are no other surf shops but from time to time we get our hands on boards from Starboard, Surftech and other manufacturers and get to experiment with different shapes, fin configurations and constructions.
I take great pleasure in introducing people to SUP. There are very few sports where you can get so much enjoyment in so little time – whilst beginner surfers can take years before they catch their first green wave, anyone with good balance and a little desire can catch good waves in their first session.
H2O crew, Nomad lagoon, January 2012
So after years of cajoling I finally bully my youngest brother, Marc, into trying it. He’d windsurfed for years before converting to kitesurfing but was always more interested in fishing than surfing. It’s January – the hottest time of the year – air and water temperature equal at 30 degrees (86 Fahrenheit). An early morning wake-up call, a bleary-eyed bowl of muesli and we’re in the car on the way to Nomads. As the sun rises over the Indian Ocean we take boards out of racks and fight over the carbon paddles. The water is mirror smooth as we paddle out, disturbed only by the dipping of paddles and Neil occasionally falling in. It’s a good chance to chat, coach the newbies and warm up the shoulders. It’s 3 hours before low-tide and the water in the Mlango (Swahili for “door” or “channel”) is deep enough for a dry paddle-out.
Linzi on a small day at the Rivermouth
I coax Marc into a small one, he takes the drop, goes left – not pretty but it’s one under the belt. As the session progresses he gets more comfortable, generating more speed on the wave and turning the board off the tail. We convince Neil that taking the drop on his knees is ill-advised and he too bags a couple of good rides. Linzi is on the 8’10” Hokua – she’s lighter than the boys but finding it tough pumping the low volume board down the small faces. Boris and me are sharing waves, getting footage on the GoPro and larking about – he’s pulling his signature pants-down pirouette and trying handstands. It’s barely 8:30am but the tide is dropping and wind increasing so we head in for breakfast.
That afternoon we hang out on Galu Beach, windsurf and kitesurf, and play with the kids in the pool. Our cottage is just down-wind from the fisherman’s village and suddenly we hear a terrific commotion coming from that direction. The locals are launching dhows, frantically detangling nets and piling into the ocean. We run down to investigate. The lagoon is boiling. Sleek silver bodies rolling and thrashing in a great mass, alight in the dipping sun. It’s the start of the sardine run. Young boys shepherd the fish into waiting nets; old women scoop up bucket-loads of briny water, dump the contents on the beach and return for more; others snatch out writhing handfuls.
Sifting through piles of sardines, Galu Beach, Kenya
As quickly as it started it’s over and the bait-ball dissipates. The beach is now covered with a shimmering blanket, fish piled 3 feet deep in some areas. Spoils are divided, middle-men appear with bicycles and baskets to ferry the catch to market. We leave with 4 kilos of sardine for supper. Our chef cleans them before deep-frying and serving with chapatti and sukuma-wiki (a local spinach not dissimilar to kale). It’s been a long day and after the freshest of meals, and a few Tuskers, we collapse into bed exhausted.
The next day we go again. The boys are up before I am and raring to go. We paddle out, squinting into the sun as it slowly rises above the horizon. The waves are breaking right into the channel – a sure sign that it’s bigger. The swell has built overnight – it’s breaking chest to head high, super-clean at about 14 second intervals.
One shapes for me, I paddle for it but realise I’ve drifted too far right with the current. It’s too late to pull out and I drop, crank a bottom-turn left onto my backhand, grab the rail and tuck under the lip. It goes dark for a second and then I race out into the light, along the line and kick-out into the Mlango. It’s going to be a good session!
Boris digs into a bottom turn at the Rivermouth, July 2012
Another big set looms on the horizon. Boris and Marc line up for it. I start filming. They both paddle for the same wave, a solid A-Frame. Boris is deeper, drops, goes right and steams down the line as it jacks up behind him. Marc is too shallow; he takes off late and plunges into the pit. The board pops out the back of the wave like a champagne cork and we all hoot and holler.
I think nothing of it and follow Boris with the camera as he completes his ride. As I paddle back out I hear shouting. Marc is lying on his board, he’s lost his paddle and blood is staining the white deck of his board. We get him over to the relative safety of the channel, recover his paddle and survey the damage. He has a gash above his right eye – it’s about 2 inches long but clean, more likely an impact from the rail of the board than a coral cut. It’s not life-threatening and – typical elder brother – suggest he paddles in and gets stitched-up at the dive school. Marc’s feeling dizzy and reminds me that he faints at the sight of blood (he can’t even stomach an episode of ER) so I reluctantly paddle back with him. Safely on dry land we apply iodine before carting him off to Diani Hospital.
Shark Bait On The Slab
Tetanus and local anaesthetic is injected directly into the wound before he is expertly stitched up by Dr Lennox (the “fundi”) and discharged.
Back at the cottage we meet up with Neil, Boris and Linzi. Not only had they caught a hat-full of waves but they encountered 2 pods of dolphin and watched a sailfish – barely 50 yards away – leaping clear out of the water as it chased a shoal of dorado.
We had another 3 or 4 sessions that holiday before heading back to London and bleak mid-winter, but conditions were never quite as good. Marc’s scar is barely noticeable (a testament to fine needlework) but his big brother hasn’t yet forgiven him for the lost session.
Boris is now training to compete in the SUP World Tour with the first event in Hawaii – it’s nearly 11,000 miles from Kenya but we have no doubt he can share the Hakuna Matata vibe (and his naked-pirouettes) with surfers and paddlers on the other side of the planet.
* Hakuna Matata means “no worries” in Swahili.
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 from Jomo Kenyatta International to Mombasa. Charters operate directly into Mombasa (charging a nominal amount for board carriage). Diani Beach is 45kms south of Mombasa Island, involving a short ferry ride (with occasionally lengthy queues) followed by a 30 minute drive through plantations of coconut, mango and cashew.
Alternatively Safarilink Aviation operate daily flights from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport to the airstrip at Diani Beach.
Extreme Safari, a tour operator specialising in sports and adventure travel in Kenya, can arrange accommodation at the Sands at Nomad as well as other hotels and self-catering cottages in Diani. They will also take care of domestic flights and transfers, 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
tel: +254 721 495 876
© Craig Rogers, 2012
Not to be reproduced without permission.