Thursday 26 April 2018

Kenya: The deepest blue on an Indian Ocean safari

African adventures

Alfajiri Villas in Diani, Kenya - probably the most luxurious villa on the Indian Ocean
Alfajiri Villas in Diani, Kenya - probably the most luxurious villa on the Indian Ocean
Jamie is caught up by the lyrical beauty of the Indian Ocean

Jamie Blake Knox

Diani has until recently been a well-kept secret known only to a few. It is located an hour's domestic flight from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

With its pristine white beaches, glistening blue waters, boutique hotels, new vibrant dining, laid back beach bars and shopping, it has attracted a growing celebrity following with our own Bono and other celebrities rumoured to be fans.

No wonder then that this strip of coastline on the Indian Ocean is fast becoming one of the countries most popular destinations.

I flew from London to Nairobi with Kenya Airways, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. The flight was extremely comfortable, the on-flight food was excellent, and, after a few crisp Tusker beers, I was able to sleep soundly.

Diani has a thriving cultural scene and is home to some of the most luxurious hotels on the coast. The highlight of these is undoubtedly Alfajiri Villas, a beautiful collection of clifftop villas overlooking the ocean.

It was while working as a wind surfing instructor in 1979 that co-owner Fabrizio Molinaro first fell in love with Kenya. After two decades of repeat holidays, Fabrizio and his wife Marika launched Alfajiri.

Jamie is caught up by the lyrical beauty of the Indian Ocean
Jamie is caught up by the lyrical beauty of the Indian Ocean

The cavernous open-air lobby area is filled with pieces from the couple's extensive art collection and opens out on to a huge infinity pool tiled in a giraffe pattern.

The decor is bright and airy with vibrant zebra and leopard print fabrics, large carpets and numerous local African sculptures. "Marika worked for a long time in fashion, and she designed the villas herself, supervised the construction of the building and picked out all the furniture," Fabrizio explains.

Her background is evident and she effortlessly blends local artefacts, fabrics and objects, with Moroccan, Indian and Italian influences.

My room had an Indian feel with a spacious airy bathroom and fantastic shower. Aside from its own pool, it also had its own private veranda with a panoramic view of the horizon and the Indian Ocean.

It was impossibly romantic, and it was all too easy to see why this was apparently the location where Brad and Angelina's doomed love first blossomed. It was the ideal place to just sit and relax as traditional dhows cruised by.

That night under bright blood orange moonlight I was treated to an extraordinary meal.

Renowned house chefs Muzungo Ngala and William Budala served up a mixture of local dishes and Mediterranean food prepared with products from adjacent farms or fish from the ocean.

The chefs are genial and come out and talk to guests, and tailor meals to their needs. They prepared a delicious feast of local delicacies for me.

Many of the dishes had a strong Indian influence, highlighting the culinary fusion of Kenyan food. Pulao rice with local dorado fish, chapati, and beans in a light creamy coconut sauce were accompanied by seasoned kale with spinach and delicately spiced Swahili calamari. The taste lived up its promise.

Most people going on safari in the Samburu and Maasai regions arrive hoping to see the big five - rhinoceros, cape buffalo, lion, leopard and elephant, but I was looking for a very different kind of giant. With its temperate turquoise waters, Diani is increasingly a destination for sea safaris.

The ocean is not only crystal clear but it is also teeming with life - more than 600 species of fish have been recorded in the nearby Watamu Marine Park alone. Endangered sea turtles nest on its beaches several times a year.

It is the perfect place to go snorkelling. Gliding over the top of rugged coral reefs I saw a dizzying array of tropical fish, octopus, (harmless) sting rays, and even the occasional sea turtle and shark swimming by.

It is also one of the best places to see the world's biggest fish - the whale shark. These majestic plankton feeders dwarf the basking sharks that visit our waters in the summer. They grow up to 30ft and weigh more than 20 tonnes.

In the Kiswahili language it is called "papa shillingi" - which translates as "shark covered in shillings". The local legend says God was so pleased with this beautiful fish that he gave his angels handfuls of gold and silver coins to throw down from heaven on to its back. That's why whale sharks have their magical markings and swim near the surface, catching the sun on their backs, as a way of saying thank you to their maker. Unfortunately in recent years they have suffered from over-fishing with locals using their liver oil to seal fishing boats against rot.

Alarmed by what he saw, the Swedish diver-turned conservationist Volker Bassen devised an initiative to combat the threat of extinction launching Whale Shark Adventures in 2013. On weekends, he runs water safaris, offering the once-in-a-lifetime chance to swim alongside these incredible creatures.

Bassen insists that he puts the money he makes from hosting safaris back into his whale shark conservation project Giant Sharks and that it helps to educate local fishermen in how to process cashew nut shells into oil to be used on their boats.

He uses small boats that are unlikely to disturb the whale sharks and a spotter plane flies overhead to locate them. When one was seen we were all swiftly in the water.

Swimming alongside these giants is an overwhelming experience, and I was immediately reminded of the story of Jonah and the whale. Thankfully although they are sharks, they are entirely docile.

It is breathtaking to watch them peacefully and majestically cruise by, then dive into the deep blue.

There is now more local debate about ethical, sustainable fishing. Much still needs to be done but if it is successful in harnessing its abundant sea life Kenya will be at the forefront of global eco-tourism.

Its marine life is spectacular and has the possibility to rival any of the natural wonders found in the Samburu and Maasai regions.

Getting there

For more information about Kenya visit magicalkenya.com.

Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com) offers flights from London-to Nairobi from €605 economy; €2,300 business class.

Safarilink (flysafarilink.com) offers return flights from Wilson to Samburu from €330, and from Wilson to Ukunda from €260.

Alfajiri Villas (alfajirivillas.com) offers full-board accommodation from €405 per person per night (based on two sharing), including transfers, community visits, snorkelling excursions and massage.

Whale Shark Adventures (whalesharkadventures.org) offers whale shark, dolphin and turtle tracking expeditions for €160 per person.

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