Bliss Beach

After leaving CAT, I was able to sleep on in the mornings until my chronic pain ebbed enough to be able to get out of bed more easily. In these winter temperatures, it was exponentially harder to push myself to get up at 7am instead of 9am, and doing it would make me feel disproportionately sick. When I asked Sampson, how, scientifically, this could be the case, he answered that I was like a 40 year old Mercedes 9/11 that takes a while to warm up and function properly – unlike a Ferrari body like Zola’s which immediately revs up ready to go!

On our way out of Nairobi, I was deeply sad to be just too ill to visit Mwalimu Gregg Tendwa, an inspiring multimedia artist, DJ and cultural facilitator I’d met in Cape Town in 2012. A vibrant and fascinating character, I had been looking forward to seeing him in his element at his home in Machakos (as I had Deji in Lagos and King in Bamenda). Once again, ME was depriving me of an opportunity to connect with people I care about.

As always, it felt better to be back on the road. As the altitude dropped from 1000m to 500m on our way down the busy highway towards the coast, Sampson gave me a wonderful blow-by-blow account of his UK visit with all the gossip from friends and family.

The baobabs were back, we saw meerkats and zebras by the side of the road, and it was getting warmer all the time.

Goodnight

That first night I felt such a sense of relief and freedom to be out of the city.

Good morning

The next day, we only had 100km to go to Mombasa but Sampson was still stressing out because Ruby was due to land in less than 24 hours.

A not unusual sight along the road to the coast

About 4pm, Big Reg arrived at Moi International airport, a surprisingly quiet spot surrounded by grassy lawns. Zola and I went for a little walk/unicycle respectively and there were dozens of tiny monkeys scampering about. Watching us from the base of huge tree nibbling on a yellow mango, one sat back on his haunches and displayed duck-egg-blue balls!

After all that driving on the hectic highway, Sampson crashed soon after Zola’s leftover curry and mash, but I decided to stay up rather than not be able to cope with being woken at 2am to leap out of bed. Amazingly Ruby got wifi on her RwandAir flight so we were chatting on WhatsApp. She was worried they’d left Cape Town half an hour late so she now had less than 30 mins to get through airport checks in Kigali and transfer to the Mombasa flight. It was nail-biting to imagine the progress of my still 16-year-old daughter from my bed. Especially as Moi International experienced power cuts twice during that time – when the whole airport went dark, I wondered would that affect the landing lights or signals from the tower?

Ruby finally arrived about 3.30am on 16th June 2018, Youth Day. She walked out pushing a trolley balancing an enormous gaffer-taped big wave board her Dad had persuaded her to bring which she’d had to run across Kigali airport with, bless her. Not a single official had asked to see her Parental Consent Affidavit, and she told us that the lights had gone out on her plane as well…! It was awesome to be all together again.

We decided to head north not south because we heard the new bypass was not yet open. It was the less larney side of Mombasa but still thick with five star hotels, where we stopped to ask for waste vegetable oil. The Duty Manager at the first one unceremoniously threw us out of the carpark at 11pm, furious that her predecessor hadn’t observed permission protocols. Whether she thought we were the security threat or the ones at risk wasn’t made clear…

Big Reg drove 100m up the road and parked instead outside the far more welcoming Maasai Resort. This late night on top of the previous one, combined with the effort of calming Sampson’s flat panic, cost me a lot of spoons. In the morning, we had to thread our way through back streets between the fancy hotels along the narrowest of public paths to get to Bamburi beach. The kids were appalled to see another huge dump of plastic waste right next to this sign:

It was reminiscent of Ghana: best front forward for the international tourists, but beware the layers of poo just behind. There was a similar amount of badgering on the beach to buy boat-trips, camel rides and trinkets. But shoo it was wonderful to be back by the sea, with a stiff cleansing breeze. The air felt tropical again at last.

Sampson got cracking with local auto man Mr Edward Ronald who took several hours to extricate both alternators to replace voltage limiters and give them a service. After Zola’s Maths exam, the kids played in the Maasai Resort pool. I think this was the last time Ruby was able to physically dominate her brother – trying to stop him as he dragged himself around the rim with crossed legs. She’s so strong but has such a high-pitched giggle; his laugh was now so deep and guttural. How they have grown and yet stayed the same!

Back in the tropics

It was wonderful to listen to my teens reconnect over a sparkly makeover. I couldn’t get off the bed to sit with them but managed to sneak these pics out of the window. When they came in to show me, their stance reminded me of an old photo which I found in the mini-album in my cupboard. They’ve been playing the same game since they were toddlers!

I was so grateful Zola cooked his special dahl that night, ‘cos I was flat out.

The next morning, Sampson and I walked half the distance along the beach because I’d overdone it the day before. I got only 20% of the hassle I’d had when alone. I spent the rest of the day lying down, talking Ruby through how to link concepts in her history essay on Rwanda, loving her enthusiasm, before photographing and emailing all of Zola’s exam scripts to FHHS.

We moved on to ask for oil at the five star Serena Beach Resort and Spa, which was beautifully designed, with a bijou villa feel in contrast to the grand blocks all around. Duty Manager Herman asked us lots of questions as we sat drinking welcome lime cordials and green coconut juice. He told us Mandla Mandela was his mate, and when he was invited to Qunu to meet Madiba in 2012, he’d taken 12 Maasai with him!

Herman showed us Serena’s famous turtle hatchery and we were delighted to discover that their once weekly turtle talk for tourists was tonight!

At 7pm we attended a fascinating presentation by conservationist David Orlando, who told us all about the common Green turtle, the more rare Olive ridley and omnivorous Hawksbill sea turtle, the latter most endangered by the destruction of the coral reef. He was an entertaining speaker – describing soft Leatherbacks, in contrast with Loggerheads, as the “saloon car version”!

Each female lays up to 100 eggs in a nest at high tide. It takes 60 days for the young to hatch but the lower the temperature, the longer the incubation period. The higher the temperature, the more females are born. This apparently is the opposite of crocodiles. Like salmon, sea turtles go back to the same beaches they were hatched upon to lay their eggs, receiving an imprint from its unique sand that acts like an inbuilt GPS. They can swim from Kenya as far as Mozambique and even South Africa over decades but they always come back.

Female sea turtles can retain sperm “like a built-in sperm bank” and lay clutches of eggs in 2 week intervals between March and June, but then don’t return for 2 or 3 years. For every 1000 hatchlings, only 1 survives to sexual maturity – that’s about one for each mother every 5 years. Unlike crocodiles, turtles provide zero parental care and the hatchlings have to run the gauntlet of mongooses, crabs and sharks to reach the sea.

David explained that providing 24 hour security to nesting female turtles on remote beaches was impossible, but the hotel works with local fishermen, offering them incentives for conservation such as chest freezers. Recent Kenyan legislation now gives turtles the same protection as rhinos and elephants – poachers risk 20 years in prison or a KSh20million fine.

Turtles are a flagship species to assess the health of the marine environment. Alongside the threat from natural predators, they are in danger from discarded nets, garbage dumped on nesting sites and sea level rise. As they feed on jellyfish, sea turtles are also very vulnerable to swallowing plastic bags; David told us that the banning of them in Kenya in 2017 had led to a 10% reduction in deaths.

Serena spends around $30 on each nest, protecting and preserving habitats and raising awareness through beach cleanups and education. Under their stewardship programme, they had nurtured over 55000 eggs and 46000 hatchlings so far. It was no surprise that alone amidst Kenyan hotels on the global stage, Serena had been awarded a Gold Eco Tourism rating since 2016.

It was so unusual to be out ‘of an evening’, let alone taking notes in a lecture; I felt a little giddy with excitement and exhaustion afterwards as we made our way through the beautifully lit grounds back to the truck.

The next morning, while we were doing our exercises in the landscaped gardens, a gaggle of journalists and cameramen arrived for a press conference. Apparently the Deputy President was in a meeting inside.

I loved these giant chess pieces modelled from over 2500 recycled flip flops by Ocean Sole. One set commemorates marine life presided over by a king and queen turtle; the other documents the life cycle of a butterfly, acknowledging Serena’s other important conservation project: the Butterfly Park, which hosts 67 of the 871 different types found in Kenya. Passionate project manager Maurice Unda has been going out in the early mornings to catch, mate and then nurture butterflies since 2002 when he began with only 6 species.

The kids took advantage of the enormous pool to play piggy-in-the-middle with their Dad, but I wasn’t strong enough to go in. When our friend Bryan Piti unexpectedly called in on his way back from visiting his aunt, Sampson and Ruby went up to the lobby to chat to him but sadly I had to stay in the truck and rest to preserve my energy for the eMzantsi AGM on Zoom that evening. I hated how my severely limited capacity was forcing me to choose between work obligations and friendship.

I finally managed a dip in the pool at the hottest time of the afternoon on the following day, just before we left, straight into traffic on the road going north. Sampson had identified a potential empty beach by a gap in the reef about 20km away. It proved difficult to identify the right dirt road and as dusk was descending, he was on the verge of giving up and going back to the main road when I insisted we persevere, determined to sleep next to a sea breeze. Finally we found the turn off, and Big Reg bounced 2km down the straight and narrow road, luckily with no low trees. As we reached the fork at the end, a glorious cobalt blue sky greeted us and I felt a thrill of promise.

My deserted beach honing radar instinct does the business once again

Sampson ran ahead to check for firmness and came back whooping, before steering Big Reg carefully down the final 100m of sandy path and pulling into the most perfect open spot by the empty beach. By then, it was too dark to see much, and I was far too tired to get out, but the next morning (after a heavy rainstorm thrashing so hard against side of truck made it rock violently) I was delighted to wake to this:

What a place to have arrived at just in the nick of time for Zola’s 14th birthday! In my diary I called it Bliss Beach – to luck into finding it felt like a reward for getting through the trials of the last few months.

Zola’s haul of birthday presents was impressive: 4 books from Ruby, a range of Masi Massive drip she had picked up for me from our favourite local brand in Masiphumelele, headphones and a shirt Sampson brought from the UK. Zola was very chuffed with his new clothes and a chunky ring from Ruby but his face when he saw the watch his Dad had got him in UK! And that was before the pièce de résistance – a skateboard from Uncle Paul – left him completely gobsmacked. Well done team!

As per Sampson family tradition, Ruby also got presents on her brother’s birthday (especially as we weren’t going to be together for hers next month): skate shoes from Paul, 3 books, headphones, a waterproof speaker, a massive box of Maltesers and a plum hardcover suitcase. My present was five days here doing nothing but recovering now number 1 had arrived safely and number 2’s exams were finally over.

Like ‘the President’s Right’ in Ghana on the west coast back in 2014, Bliss Beach was our equivalent deserted paradise on the east side

After Sampson introduced us to local spear-fishermen, muscle-laden Juma and Harold, I was so tired I had to lie down. The PEM in my arms from restarting exercises was terrible. I did manage to read a whole chapter of Romola – it felt amazing to give the effort I usually spent on homeschooling to myself. The kids took themselves for a walk as a tropical squall came over. ‘Truckulence’ felt within reach.

Once again, instead of taking the opportunity to be alone with his wife, Sampson continued to stress out, today’s panic being about transferring video to hard drives which had suddenly become urgent from nowhere. He pushed past me after I had the temerity to point out how this unnecessary angst was poisoning our hard won calm. In the shower, I tried not to sob. He tried very hard the rest of the day.

We were surprised by a visit from village elders at 9am. I wasn’t yet washed, but managed to quickly sweep the floor before welcoming the chief. After ten minutes’ standing talking while all the men sat at the table, I was so dizzy and overwhelmed I sheepishly had to ask to sit down. After they left, I had to lie on the seat until the world stopped spinning. Sampson didn’t come back to check on me, but took himself into the surf. I didn’t know whether he thought I was shamming or was just not coping with me being this weak.

My favourite Instagram pic of 2018: the view from my bed out of the side door of the truck

After I made myself lunch, I lay down to start editing. In the heat of the day, I took this amazing picture from my bed of the glorious view out of the door, but the effort it cost me leaning up on my elbow to get it – causing my heart rate to spike – was shocking. The realisation of quite how weedy I was brought me to sudden tears. As I was apologising for being in this state, Zola was next to me and Ruby was saying “It’s fine, I didn’t want to do loads this holiday anyway, I’m really really tired and need to rest as much as you do”. She was so kind, so comforting, so everything her Dad was failing to be.

After resting the whole afternoon, at 5pm I was able to get out for a 100m walk along the beach with Zola to the overhang of volcanic rock at the end. I ended up sitting down making mini sandcastles with Adnaan 12, Bamba 10 and David 7. A young man passing stopped to chat. Recently qualified Dr Denis Chilumo studied medicine at the University of Nairobi and had come back to Kilifi County Hospital “to serve my people” – unlike local politicians whom he ruefully stated prefer “to grab rather than to serve”. Bless him. It was an honour to meet him, but I had to eat supper lying down because this extra 10 minute conversation took me past my limits.

We watched Get Out again. Sampson loved it.

On the bright side, in this warmer climate by the sea, I was no longer having hourly hot flushes like the last couple of weeks, far fewer. Mombasa’s average high in June, July and August was 27˚C (low 20˚C) compared to 22˚C (12˚C) in Nairobi, and that extra 5 degrees was easing pain as well as freeing up energy I had been using trying to stay warm. I used it to handwash my sweaty bed clothes. We gave a pile away to the local kids who would come and play in the afternoons.

Sampson did a brilliant job of editing the video footage Ruby had filmed of her friends at school for her anti-FGM PSA message. I can’t believe they managed it in one day, while Zola was working out the soundtrack song on the keyboard!

Sampson was saying that after Ruby went back to school, the truck needed to go into a garage for a service. The prospect of another couple of weeks’ exposure to fumes and noise of workmen led me to research the cost of flights to Edinburgh. While slowly going through blog photos of Alexandria, I weighed up the pros of going to visit dear friends amidst festival jollity against the cons of potential costs to health and cash that might be needed for truck or kids. At first I though I would gather myself and push through to manage it – mostly because I thought we needed the break and perspective to save our marriage. But after mulling it over for two days, in the end the stress of too many variables plus airport deadlines felt overwhelming and I resolved to just kick back and let the coast warmth heal me.

If you too would like to experience this stunning spot, search for Maweni House on AirBnB – it’s the pink and white 5 bed mansion (with staff) at the other end of Bofa Beach pictured above – or check out the more affordable Distant Relatives Eco-Lodge and Backpackers, which hosts a famous New Year party at Kilifi.

My husband was being so much kinder to me since Ruby got here. Was that due to her presence, or influence? Either way, my body very much appreciated being allowed to rest. I hadn’t cooked this whole week.

I loved this beach. The emptiness, the wind, the calm. I felt my body could reset here.

On our last morning, when the others were elsewhere, a very little boy with big eyes that I hadn’t seen before materialised next to the truck. He was on the verge of tears, couldn’t speak, and seemed in shock – symptoms of PTSD. I came down the ladder and sat down on the grass next to him. I couldn’t speak words of comfort in his language, but I repeated “it’s OK” gently and touched his hand until his breathing calmed. Looking out to sea in companionable silence, we shared my banana, mango and yoghurt breakfast.

I tried not to feel overwhelmed by how woefully inadequate this was.

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1 Response to Bliss Beach

  1. john pearce says:

    Hi Sam,
    A comment cannot be sent without a URL! I do not have one that I know of! Well three years ago you were very weak are you weaker or stronger now? Keep truckin’ on gal!

    Johnnox

    ________________________________

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