Manda Island rests in the Lamu archipelago, located on the northern coast of Kenya, just south of the Somali border and consequently directly off most traveler’s maps. It has a dangerous reputation as in 2011 a French women was kidnapped at dawn by armed gunmen in a motorboat, and that might be the only time Manda Island has ever made the news since its prominence as a stop on the Swahili trading route some 600 years ago.
The large Mkanda channel sweeps the sand slowly out to sea along the southern shore of Manda, separating it from Lamu Island. Fishermen with weathered hand woven dhow sails tack to and fro across the channel, and the channel itself branches off, slithering silently through the heart of the island until it is slowly strangled by a mangled maze of mangroves.
The towns of Lamu and Shela are perched on the opposite shore, just beyond the reach of sound, sitting on the horizon like paintings of the ancient Swahili ports. It feels like a very private place, with just a handful of luxury vacation homes set back in the bright green acacia trees, sharing the space with the exclusive boutique The Majlis Hotel and the discreet palm woven treehouses of Diamond Beach Village. It is barefoot chic.
Hardly anyone lives on Manda due to the paucity of fresh water, making footprints on the beach a surprising discovery. Rush hour is just before sunset when a handful of travelers float ashore in a pilgrimage to the Manda Beach Club. It is a tranquil mecca crafted from driftwood, decorated with whale bones, covered in comfortable pillows and shaded by hammocks draped amongst the acacias. This is a place to come for a drink and stay for the afternoon, taking dips in the channel and enjoying the views back in time of Lamu and Shela towns.
Even fewer people venture into the island, but those who do use the secret water passageways through the mangroves, only accessible at high tide. After twisting through channels in a small fishing boat, one emerges as if through a spellbound portal into a land truly lost in time. The mud of the mangroves reveals the Takwa National Monument, constructed of petrified coral mined from the heart of the island. These are the ruins of a Swahili trading post that flourished around the 1500s, defined by the remnants of an ancient mosque and dated by the grove of plumb baobab trees, which sprouted between the crumbling walls.
The ruins are set on the western coast facing the open ocean. Here the beaches are windswept and deserted, offering the chance to walk endlessly along the sand dunes. However, you will need a guide from the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust (LAMCOT) to find the Green and Hawksbill turtle nesting grounds in one of the unnamed crescent coves. The tiny turtles emerge from the sand disoriented, but then slowly paddle their way towards the water, and bravely charge into the crashing surf.
However, the outgoing tide transforms the mangrove passageways into swamps of knee deep mud, trapping those who linger too long in magical land of baobabs, crescent coves, baby turtles and Swahili ruins. It is time to retreat to the lazy beach at the mouth of the channel, eat ginger crabs from the mangroves, and enjoy the silent serenity of Manda Island.