The ocean tide flows in from the deep sea in the late afternoon, putting aside any thought of visiting a little-known fort at the tip of the channel between the isles of Lamu and Manda – unless we want to battle the ocean current.
Instead, we decide to chill at the rustic abode called Diamonds on Manda Island, swinging bed under the shade of a rustic makuti and mkeka shack. Altogether, it is not actually a shack, but more a hand-constructed ensuite room of palm leaves and twine.
“This place is a labour of love,” says Rachel Fesler.
It’s a little hard to find when you are sailing in from Shela. It’s name make it sound like a flashy resort. I’m a little lost looking for Diamonds until a boat-man points to a simple entrance at the beach. Walking in, its simplicity is seductive.
“I come from a family of artists,” says Rachel, leading us past the seafront bar and dining area to the large shed full of novels, easy beds and and yoga mats placed on woven mkeka. The plan is to spend the night in their gigantic baobab tree. It’s my first time atop one. The only issue is the thunderous rain the previous night that’s wrecked the thatched roof. It rarely rains on the isle but when it does, it makes up for lost time.
Manda had its time in history, between the 9th and 10th century, as a wealthy trading centre with the Persian Gulf. Dhows sailed away full of elephant ivory, mangrove poles and more. Even the Chinese were trading here.
With the wealth came the fine living. Swahili merchants built lavish houses which, according to historian-archaeologist Neville Chittick, were built of square brick and stone and cemented with lime – unique to Kenya’s coastal lands and islands. The coral rag bricks are thought to have been ballast brought on dhow from Oman because they measure a uniform 18 cm.
But sometime during the 19th century, the island was abandoned because it ran out of fresh water.
“There was no permanent settlement on the island,” says Abu Bakar, a Bajuni fisher who farms here. “We settled on Shella but our farms were here.”
It’s a different story now. Multi-million dollar villas line the beachfront, interspersed with a few groves of acacia and bush. In the eventide, the fishers make to their abode. A lone fisher by the edge of the ocean puts down his woven basket with the day’s catch and quietly kneels, facing Mecca and oblivious to the world, saying his prayers as the sunk sinks over the dunes.
“People who come to stay here want to stay in a hut to experience the beach life,” continues Fesler as we feast on fresh crab and pizza.
“Why Diamonds?” I ask.
“Look out there,” she replies. It’s a night sky full of sparkling stars, like diamonds in the sky.
The night water glows with the phosphorescence of miniscule planktons that absorb sunlight during the day.
The night passes and at the crack of dawn we walk the beach to the abandoned fort on the coral rag. It’s tiny, with a rusty cannon pointing at the channel and another lying inside. There’s nothing to tell about built it and when; no story to reveal the battles fought.
The tide is out and the stroll back hot until we pause at a natural pool by a coral rock that’s perfect to call a spa.