It went from hippie haven to celebrity playground, but the Kenyan island kept its charm. Can it survive the twin threats of terrorism and development?
MISFITS, hippies, adventurers, utopian idealists, celebrities, millionaires, royals — the tiny Kenyan island of Lamu has entertained them all. Among the most peculiar to call it home: the great white hunter who would capture cheetahs by pouncing on them from the back of his galloping horse; the illegitimate son of Edward VII who converted to Islam before declaring himself sultan of his own Tanzanian island; and the 19th-century anarchists who arrived on Lamu in the hope of one day carving out a utopian idyll somewhere among the foothills of Mount Kenya, only to degenerate into drunken debauchery before they even made the mainland.
Lamu’s history is rich in such foreign eccentricity, and in more recent years, this little blob of sand in the Indian Ocean has become a sandy playpen for the rich and famous. Sting, Jude Law and Sienna Miller have holidayed here. Hollywood film producers, business tycoons, French actresses and European royals — and well-heeled Britons — own houses on the island.
Yet for all its illustrious connections, Lamu’s fortunes have plummeted in recent months. A string of brutal attacks on the Kenyan mainland in June, including the shooting of 13 people in a village less than 10 miles from Lamu Town, prompted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to slap a travel warning on Lamu County.
The attacks were blamed on the Somali insurgent group al-Shabaab. Many locals doubt this theory, blaming greed instead of terrorism — long-simmering land disputes that have finally boiled over.
Whatever the truth, the FCO warning has devastated the island’s tourism industry. Gone are the dhows offering sunset cruises, gone the packed bar at the Peponi hotel, and gone the rich jet-setters strolling the pristine white beach behind the peaceful village of Shela, on the island’s southern tip.
Guesthouses and cafes lie shuttered, and flights to and from the island are almost empty — I had a twin-prop plane all to myself on the flight back to Nairobi. The once buoyant property market has been paralysed, too: no foreigners have bought on the island since December. The local economy, which had grown so reliant on tourism, has been ravaged.
“It’s destroying people’s lives,” laments the wispily bearded captain, Nawa Athma, 38, as we tack across a narrow channel between mangrove forests in a dhow owned by a French lady who married Athma’s brother. “Many locals have gone back to fishing. But they can’t sell their fish because there are no tourists.”
So is Lamu a paradise lost, or can the island’s fortunes rebound? And what exactly attracted the rich and famous in the first place? For some, the source of enchantment lies in its natural beauty: the long stretch of unblemished beach that curves along the island’s remote and largely uninhabited southern flank; the lush mangrove forests; the rolling sand dunes. For others it’s the narrow, winding alleyways, the wailing muezzins of this predominantly Muslim island or the ornately carved wooden doors of the historic old town, where donkeys jostle for space with women in flowing black robes and bright headscarves.
Then again, perhaps it’s the treacle-slow pace of life. There are only four vehicles on Lamu: the governor’s Land Rover, one ambulance for humans and one for donkeys, and a tractor to pick up rubbish. If you don’t own a donkey, then you walk, picking your way around donkey droppings as you go. On the dusty squares, men in traditional embroidered hats sit on wooden benches playing checkers beneath Indian almond trees.
But it’s not just that things move at a donkey-slow plod. Time itself appears to bend. The silhouettes of ancient dhows, with their lateen sails, still slice across the deep green mangrove forests as they have done for more than 1,000 years — ever since Arabs rode the monsoon winds to trade in leopard skins, tortoise shells, slaves and ivory.
The coral buildings in Lamu Town — a subtle fusion of Arab, Swahili and Indian architecture — are renovated with the same materials and techniques that the islanders have used for hundreds of years. “People fall for the antiquity of the place,” explains Errol Trzebinski, 78, a British author who first visited Lamu in 1973, on a yacht belonging to the French consul in Nairobi. “They have houses here because they love the slow life, the continuity of the place. Everything is made as it was.”
Enamoured with the island’s “beautiful silence”, Trzebinski later bought a holiday home in the old town with the money she received from her book Silence Will Speak, which became a source for the Oscar-winning 1985 film Out of Africa. Her 18th-century townhouse — a perfect example of the Swahili-Arab architecture so peculiar to the island’s golden age — cost £1,500 in 1986.
In 2001, the old town was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site, and property prices rocketed. Her home, which has mangrove-pole rafters, an open courtyard draped in purple bouganvillea and thick whitewashed walls built from coral, would now fetch upwards of £200,000.
When Trzebinski first came to Lamu, it had already established itself as an African equivalent of Kathmandu. Barefoot and with hair unkempt, hippies paid 9p to stay on rooftops in the old town. Cafes selling muesli and yoghurt, banana pancakes and chai “with all the right spices” tied them to the island.
Meanwhile, something was happening on the southern tip of the island. Here, a 15-minute dhow ride from Lamu Town, Europeans were slowly discovering Shela, a tiny village of thatched mud huts ringed by sand dunes, with seven miles of virgin Indian Ocean beach beyond. Gillies Turle, a British antiques dealer who owns guesthouses and a yoga retreat, recalls Shela in the early 1970s as a “few ruins with everyone cooking under thatch”.
“It was a fishing village — then it got discovered,” says Turle, wandering through his sprawling sandy courtyard, adorned with a plunge pool, giant clams and palm trees.
He describes the first wave of Europeans to buy land in Shela as “a bunch of social misfits”. Among the best known was a charming Briton with gypsy blood, Bunny Allen — a name now synonymous with the island’s foreign invasion. A handsome hunter who took part in three royal safaris to Kenya, Allen had once helped the Duchess of Gloucester catch cheetahs so she could race them against greyhounds in London. An accomplished shot and serial womaniser, he had affairs with Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner (who was married to Frank Sinatra at the time).
Allen built some of the first, somewhat shaky, houses for foreigners in Shela, where he later retired to read the poetry of Rupert Brooke, make marmalade and, in his eighties, occasionally yell at his Kenyan staff from a balcony: “Is my grave ready yet?”
Other “misfits” included a British lady who became known as the “witch of Shela” after a European she cursed — the man had one of her prize siamese cats “deported” to a nearby island — dropped dead days later. The “witch” could often be heard singing opera from her rooftop terrace.
Yet Lamu’s discovery by Europe’s elite owes little to the cast of eccentrics who made it home and more to one of the island’s most famous spots — the Peponi hotel.
Initially a private residence owned by a Nestlé heir, it was transformed into the whitewashed elegance of today by a Danish family who bought it in the 1960s. The family’s two sons ran fishing safaris, which by the 1980s were attracting the likes of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall. Barack Obama would later describe a fishing trip he made to Lamu in his memoir.
Other celebrities followed as the secret of the island’s laid-back charm slipped out. Nairobi’s fashionable, wealthy elite sat in Shela’s social nerve centre — Peponi’s small, humming bar — in the hope of glimpsing an increasingly star-studded cast.
Many attribute the next swing in Lamu’s fortunes to the arrival of Prince Ernst of Hanover and Princess Caroline of Monaco. Drawn to the island’s promise of simple, barefoot luxury, the couple built the imposing Beach House and renovated three other villas in Shela. The superrich soon followed.
As European-built luxury villas began to pop up all over the village, mothers brought their teenage daughters to Shela in the hope that Princess Caroline’s dashing young son might spot them dancing at Peponi — or so the story goes. Locals began to refer to their village as the “richest in Africa”.
Soon, the new residents were talking of paving the sandy lanes that wind between the villas. (The last one was sold in December for £1m.) Others salivated at the thought of Hermès and Bulgari boutiques lining the beachfront. Shela, luckily, has resisted such change.
Just across the narrow channel, the island of Manda, home to the airstrip, has been less successful. The large, gaudy houses — all mock fortresses and faux turrets — clash with Shela’s understated charm. There’s a darker side, too: one long-term European resident in Shela held her hand to her head and imitated firing a gun at the mere mention of the villas on Manda.
Here, next to a villa owned by the British choreographer Wayne McGregor, Somali pirates kidnapped a disabled Frenchwoman from the beach in 2011 and whisked her off to neighbouring Somalia, where she died in captivity.
Tourism plummeted, but visitors had begun to trickle back when the recent attacks nearby sent Lamu’s fortunes nosediving once more.
Residents — locals and foreigners alike — believe the FCO travel warning and the curfew that followed were unjust. “The trouble is all on the mainland. We all feel safe here,” says Angelika Schuetz, a 57-year-old German who has spent 21 years on the island and manages several villas, including the Beach House, in Shela. Almost everyone on the island agrees, but until the travel advice is changed, tourists are likely to stay away.
Perhaps the biggest cause of uncertainty, though, has less to do with security than with the march of modern development. Kenya plans to build a 32-berth container port on the mainland, 10 miles north of Lamu and connected by railway lines and oil pipes to Ethiopia and South Sudan. Once completed, the £16bn project will be the largest port in East Africa, and will include a Las Vegas-style resort city with nightclubs and casinos.
No one on the island is quite sure what impact all this will have. Some believe it will speed up the gentrification of Lamu Town — the oldest continuously inhabited Swahili settlement on the planet — as locals leave in search of work. “The question is, will Lamu survive as a living museum or become a dead one?” said one expat.
Others believe the port could turn the island into the backwater of old, when its isolation attracted misfits and hippies to its shores.
On my last day on Lamu, I watched bare-chested men wrapped in kikoys chant in unison as they scooped and heaved sand from the mahogany bowels of a traditional dhow, using baskets made from palm fronds. Wading through the sea, they dumped the sand in piles on the promenade before loading it onto a row of compliant donkeys. Scenes like this have changed little in centuries, but for how long can the island’s antiquity resist the world’s modern traders?
What is certain is that, for those foreigners who call Lamu home, and the expats who continue to holiday there from Nairobi, the island remains a paradise. Gillies Turle, the former antiques dealer who lives in Shela, is confident that it will weather the storm. At the very least, oil and shipping executives from the port will want somewhere to stay.
“At my age, who would not want to retire here or live here?” asks the barefooted Turle. “It’s paradise. With all that is happening in the world, one of the most beautiful spots to be is this island right here.”