Conte-Nast-Traveller

Conte Nast Traveller

…on Manda Island just across the channel from Shela. He brought in a huge sound system and did his best to flood the island with pop music. He has since backed down and his property, The Manda Beach Club, now confines itself to serving lunch to guests ferried over from hotels in Lamu town. Shela residents have now set up an environmental committee to monitor further encroachments. Now is the time to visit: to sample the traditional Swahili culture of Shela, the wonderful beaches. the water sports on offer at Peponi and the sense of security and calm. Sometimes the beach boys, who offer rooms to rent, dhow trips and dope (in that order), can be a bit trying. But they have known Lars for years, and they never push things too far. There are no security fences around Peponi, and guests rarely feel the need to lock their rooms.

No trip to Lamu would be complete without a visit to Lamu town, about 10 minutes by speedboat from Shela. There few towns in sub-Saharan Africa whose infrastructure has survived so intact. Life still revolves around the harbour. Maritime industries form the basis of the Lamu economy (the old trade in ivory. hippo teeth and rhino horn has long been banned). ‘Walking the length of the main drag, Harambee Avenue. can be exhausting. Every inch is lined with wooden stalls selling a cornucopia of goods, from touristy artefacts such as necklaces to an array of vegetables, grains and chocolate bars; furniture makers can rustle up a safari chair in a matter of hours. Judging by the constant exchange of greetings, it seems most of Lamu town’s 20,000 residents know each other. Nobody hurries. It is hot and dusty. I felt as if I was walking in treacle.

Until now, accommodation in Lamu town has been limited to basic back-packers’ rooms and two mid-market hotels. Now, however, there is a new place to stay. Baytil Ajaib, or ‘House of wonders’, is the stuff of dreams, or at least one man’s dreams. Peter Weaver is an American from Michigan who met his friend and business partner, Norbert Herget, when he was working as a banker in Germany. They started visiting Lamu regularly more than a decade ago, and in 1989 found a dilapidated 18th-century town house and bought it for a snip. Weaver has been on Lamu ever since and converted to Islam, assuming a new name. Abdul Malik Bilali, in the process. Malik, as he is known, is now a prominent figure in the town’s religious community: a slightly eccentric, disarmingly charming character, his enthusiastic chatter laced with references to the Koran.

Over the past eight years Malik has painstakingly restored the house, preserving and enhancing the original features (basic Swahili homes are centred around a large courtyard, with inward-facing rooms), and dividing it into five apartments. Baytil Ajaib is extravagantly decorated. The ceilings are made from mwangati wood, painted traditional black and red: the walls are made from five types of lime-coral stone, including snail shell, with alcoves engraved with turtles, representing fertility and resistance to evil spirits. Malik has amassed treasure troves of African and Western ornaments and objets d’art. including German Meissen china.

I was Malik’s first visitor, his guinea pig. Ideally, he said. he would like to attract discerning travellers who would stay for a week or two — the kind who are writing books, perhaps, or who just want time to think. For inspiration. they could do worse than to sit on the huge roof terrace, surrounded by the sights and sounds of Lamu town, which never seems to sleep.