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November 2013 travel news 23
They’re not real, of course, the buffalo and the giraffe. They’re made
of metal and beginning to suffer severely with rust fatigue. Rather
like the ones in the front lawn by the car park. As we sweep in, my
sister observes with a laugh, ‘Oh look, like going on safari’. The
trying-to-be-goods roll their eyes, ‘They’re not real, you know, mum’.
Disconcertingly though, the buffalo, by the time we leave, has turned
around and his rear end, complete with pawpaw proportioned crown
jewels faces us rather than the lowered horns that met our arrival. The
man on the mower might have had something to do with that.
We march the children down the dart straight broiling hot cement
walkway to the sea so that I can measure just how far the ocean
has receded. Half a kilometer I calculate, as I pace and count. Half a
kilometer in fifty years as the Sabaki River has steadily tipped its silty
deposit into the ocean turning the beach the colour of caramel.
Eden Roc, which was built just after the Second World War, is unrecognizable from the
place it was half a century ago. So is the Sindbad (once the unimaginatively named
Malindi Hotel) which was built at the same time and is now collapsing to the surrounding
bush so that it looks more like a relic of the Gedi Ruins further to the south than a glitzy
hotel once patronized by Michael Caine. Now the only visitors are plastic bag grazing
Of the old hotels that remain, the only one to have benefitted from a recent face-lift is
Lawfords, which the management tells me was the first hotel to be built on the Kenyan
coast right next to the ocean, in 1934. (Although my research suggests they were beaten
by two years by Brady’s Palm Beach Hotel). No matter, whatever proximity to the high
tide line was enjoyed back then has been compromised a little as the dunes have
stretched and the sea retreated.
It was founded by Commander Thomas G. Lawford of the British Army and provided
a seaside epicentre for the aristocracy at the time, such that Karen Blixen described it
as ‘Golden Happy Valley’ and the newspaper at the time, the East African Standard, as
‘The pride of the Kenyan coast’. Its luxuriously furnished rooms, with their huge four-
poster beds, brass and porcelain, provided regular beachside forays for an eclectic
clientele which included Ernest Hemingway and Sir Alfred Vanderbilt. But an illustrious
beginning did not sustain beyond independence. The hotel changed hands on numerous
occasions morphing from the holiday choice of Lords and Ladies to that of package tour
Germans during the seventies before going bankrupt.
Renovated and rehabilitated, it was reopened in 2005. Husband and I spent an evening
there. The rooms are generous, the showers are bowl-you-over powerful, the pool water
winks it’s so clean, the staff are delightful, the breakfast superior to many hotel breakfasts
I’ve taken, but the place is empty, the dearth of guests made all the more obvious by
the great rolling gardens, 45,000 m2 of baobabs, palms, frangipani, bougainvillea and
frangipani, enveloped by the horseshoe of the hotel’s rooms and suites. Every one of
them, each double the size it was as room numbers were slashed from more than 160,
has a garden view.
‘When will you have guests?’, I ask the waiters over breakfast.
‘In November’, they say, ‘maybe’. It’s a shame because it’s trying hard and it’s worked
to retain some of the old, and the old fashioned, within the context of New. Their Beauty
Farm is still a circa 1980’s farm and not a newly spangled spa.
Malindi is, indubitably, Kenya’s coastal backwater. Complaints against it range from too
close to Somalia, too far from the Happening end of the beach to too few teenagers and
too many Italians. But it exudes a charm: it’s still small and manageable and remnants
of my childhood sustain that sweet nostalgia. The boutiques we frequented, late in the
afternoon when the sun had tipped and taken the worst of the heat with it, after a long
body buffeting surf followed by tea and jam sandwiches, are still there. My daughters
scratch about in bowls of blackened silver anklets just as I did, admire kikois as we used
to (though in the absence of the modesty preserving one tied around their waists that
my mother insisted I wear in deference to the Swahili).
And the indefatigable Driftwood is still there, the fish and chips is still delicious, and
I’m too old to care for Anwar’s Disco, as he probably is too. It’s still a glorious place to
lizard-lounge by the pool as we did as teens, whilst our brothers peered over the wall
monitor-like to squint at the topless bathers on the beach.
Really though, Malindi isn’t that close to Somalia and the Italians bring with them
fantastic coffee (Karen Blixen for a mid-morning cappuccino) and excellent food (try
Osteria on the seafront for paper thin, heavily topped pizza or the Italian supermarket for
a plethora of authentic groceries). The tuktuks sputter, the cats caterwaul, the muezzin
calls the faithful to prayer and the ladies of the night still mince in sky-high stilettos and
extensions down to their waists.
' How long does it take to do that?' I hiss at my hairdresser whilst a client sits feet away
as four girls work on braiding tresses to her scalp. ‘About four hours’, he whispers back.
She’ll be in the Stardust disco later, another surviving remnant of my youth, batting her
false eyelashes at potential punters.
So I have ascertained the distance from the hotel terrace to the sea. My geologist
brother-in-law would be more interested in the evolving coastline than my nephew and
nieces are, though they are intrigued to hear that the dogs and I met a puff adder on the
beach, clinging to the piece of driftwood he doubtless came down the river on, looking
a little shell-shocked and thankfully, after his journey, too tired to strike the Labrador
But they have been good and so an ice cream beckons. For that’s the other thing the
Italians have brought with them: excellent gelaterias. All three press their noses to the
glass as the girl behind the counter sweetly lets them try every single one on a tiny
spoon before they make their carefully considered choice.
And now it’s my turn to be patient ...
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