Sand Island

We like beaches. So I’ve worked a few into our travel plans. Our very first are the famed beaches on the Kenyan coast. We started at the Baobab Resort in Diani Beach for a few days. It is a nice place with good rooms, huge buffets, three swimming pools, a beautiful beach of fine white sand, and it’s all inclusive, including alcohol : ). But eventually we don’t want to be in a hotel.

Sometimes I surprise myself by my planning. Or may be it is dumb shit luck. Turns out that for the next few days we were booked at a “self-catering” cottage on a beach about 15 km north of Baobab. We drove up to Sand Island and all five of us took a collective deep breath and let it out slowly.

Simple thatched whitewashed cottages. Rustic furnishings. Ancient baobabs. Palm trees heavy with coconuts swaying in the breeze. A rolling open lawn leading down to a beautiful empty stretch of sand. A tranquil turquoise lagoon with a sand island! Rollers crashing on the reef.

Next morning Jo and I sat on a palm log bench at the beach at sunrise and did nothing for a long time. A lone fisherman walked into the lagoon and up to the sand island. The kids woke up slowly and read in bed for a while. We made eggs and bacon and toast and oatmeal for breakfast and sat outside at the dining table and ate. And read some more and played Uno. And enjoyed the sights and sounds of the ocean.

We got samosas from a lady who they call Mama Samosa. And Binty, our cook, helped me buy fresh fish from the fisherman who told us he would bring back fresh squid for us tomorrow. And we got some fruit from the fruit guy. And four fresh green coconuts with their tops cut from the coconut guy. And I made arrangements with someone called Amos for a guided snorkeling trip to “starfish village” at noon. There are lots of brightly colored starfish right there in the sand, he said. Sure, I thought.

We rode out to the starfish village in an aging bleached fiberglass and wooden boat poled by Amos over the shallow waters of the lagoon. Soon Amos was pointing out large colorful starfish on the sandy bottom and in the sea grass. We jumped off onto a sand bank in a couple of feet of water and Amos returned a moment later with a pile of starfish. They looked like plastic fakes. But Amos handed them out and we turned them over and their suckers were waving out of the five slits along their bottom side. One tried to attach itself to Evan’s hand. Definitely not fake. Amos was a bit of a naturalist and told us about starfish. Then he explained that locals used to collect the starfish to sell to tourists and the population was depleted. So the fishermen and Sand Island cottages formed a coalition to protect the starfish. Now the fishermen make some money by taking tourists out to see the starfish. We marveled at how quickly starfish move. One climbed up to and over Jo’s reef shoe in minutes. Then we got ready to snorkel back. But there was a problemo. Sea urchins. Thousands of them covering the bottom of the shallow lagoon just a few feet down. Stick your knee or hand or elbow in the wrong place and you’ll get a painful reminder. We were wearing reef boots borrowed from the Sand Island office so our feet were safe. After a couple of attempts Evan didn’t want to snorkel. Jo and Vivian were doing an amazing job – it was Vivian’s first attempt and Jo’s second (her first hadn’t gone so well, 14 years ago during our honeymoon in Hawaii but that was also when I hit a giant sea urchin and got a dozen foot long spikes in my knee).

Back to Kenya. By this time, the old boat had gone to give another group of tourists a tour. Just as Jo and I were wondering how a non-snorkeling Evan would get back to the beach about half a kilometer away, Amos asked if he could carry Evan back. Evan readily agreed. And so the three of us carefully snorkeled back and looked at reefs and fish and other marine life while Amos carried Evan and walked back bare feet through fields of sea urchins. The kids will remember this adventure!

photo credit to “JB in Nairobi” (

The next day the fisherman did return with a kilo of fresh prawns and four largish squid. Binty cleaned the seafood and taught me how to make coconut fish curry. I watched how she extracted milk from the coconut. She brought in a big folding wooden contraption with a small circular metal grating blade on one end, sat astride it and grated the insides of two fresh green coconuts. Here’s a photo I have borrowed from a blog on African cooking. The grating contraption is called a mbuzi, which is the Swahili word for goat.

photo credit to

Then Binty poured the finely grated coconut into a long tightly woven tube closed at one end. I had seen it hanging in the kitchen the evening before and wondered about it. It’s called a kifumbu and it is alternately wrung and fluffed to squeeze the milk from the coconut. I got three drops when I tried. Here’s a photo of Binty’s hands working the kifumbu. And a photo of Carol and Binty. Along with excellent coconut prawn curry, Binty made us fresh hand battered calamari rings. Yum. Evan’s favorite food in the whole wide world. The next day we had fresh charcoal grilled snapper and calamari.

Evan asked Amos if he could keep the mask and snorkel a bit longer and mastered snorkeling by himself. We spent many a lazy hour wading over to Sand Island in low tide or walking along the beach and watching the ghost crabs scuttle away from us. One afternoon we got back in the boat and went to Africa Pool – an African shaped indentation in the lagoon a couple of miles south. Carol gamely joined us didn’t complain even when we almost tipped the boat over multiple times. Both Vivian and Evan enjoyed snorkeling at Africa Pool and there were a lot fewer sea urchins.

It takes a few days to settle into a slower rhythm of life. You wake up with the sunrise and look at the tides. Games of Uno on the sun drenched patio punctuate hours of reading and silence. We find different places in the house and property where we go off to, reuniting at meal times. Gringo, the white cat, and Kimmel, the old black lab, show up when we eat. We go to bed with ocean breezes coming in through open windows and the music of rollers breaking on the reef in our ears. Just when we think we can do this for ever it is over and we are off to Ukunda airstrip for our flight back to Nairobi and the world outside.

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