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Discover a hidden tourism gem at the fringes of Kenya’s coast

  • It’s an excursion where goats would dread and angels would fear to tread.  
  • Freshwater River Sabaki meets saltwater Indian Ocean in one of Kenya’s natural marvels.
  • Sand dunes resemble those of the Arabian desert in Dubai.

“Look,” said Karisa Junior, pointing at the crab. It was the size of a grown man’s fist, its claws arched upwards as if readying to bite. He inched towards it.  With a stick, he tapped it slightly from within the trap of the fisherman’s net. “Careful.”

A few minutes earlier, Karisa, 5, had been riding with his father Amani on a motorcycle across the beach to where we were. The motorcycle wheels dug a twisty rut on the sand. The ruts looked like a giant anaconda going for a swim.

Amani Karisa, a local tour guide who has been conducting impromptu tours to this little-explored locale in Malindi.

Hidden Gem Bubbling with Potential

We were at Manjenje beach in Malindi. It is a hidden gem bubbling with untapped tourism potential. It is here that one of Kenya’s foremost natural wonders plays out: A freshwater river meets a saltwater ocean and their waves overlap in a tussle for dominance. And as this spectacle takes place, another natural wonder –sand dunes that resemble the Arabian desert in Dubai- overlook it.

Karisa gestures at the Sabaki River mouth, where the river pours seamlessly into the Indian Ocean. It is said to be Kenya’s largest estuary.

“Here, nature writes its own rules and man lives by them,” says Amani. He has been an informal tour guide here for 10 years. Over this period, he has seen the place transform from a windy wilderness to a favourite spot for the intrepid traveller.

“So-and-so has bought land here to prospect on the Titanium-rich sands; an Australian is building a cottage over there,” he says, gesturing. But still. The place is as remote as it was when Vasco da Gama first landed in Malindi in 1498. 

Why Go to Dubai?

The sandy dune rise and fall like the arms of an orchestra conductor. Why go to Dubai while you can gallivant at this beach? The sands are rich in Titanium. This has attracted several prospectors.

The beach is about five kilometres from Mambrui town – as the crow flies. The town itself is just about eight kilometres from Malindi town along the Malindi-Lamu highway.

You take a right turn just past the Sabaki bridge, past some shops, past civilisation, and into the wilderness. It’s an excursion where goats would dread and angels would fear to tread.  

Luckily, we were in a capable 4×4. It forded the dunes and wet sandy beach with gusto, its engine purring like a pre-historic creature.

The windswept beach feels like an Indiana Jones expedition. The wind tempers the coastal humidity in this area largely unperturbed by humanity.

As we arrived, a flock of flamingos in their pink and white livery was frolicking at the water’s edge, nibbling at small crustaceans at the ocean’s edge, taking in the salts. 

They arrive from Lake Nakuru, 660 kilometres away every August, says Amani. In April, when the long rains upstream  dirtify their favourite nibbling spot at the estuary of River Sabaki and the Indian Ocean, the birds spreen their feathers and fly back to Lake Nakuru.

Magnet for Birdlife

But with or without flamingos, the beach is a magnet for birdlife. Some of the birds, including gulls and terns, are said to migrate from Canada, USA, and Australia.

Abundant food such as Karisa’s giant crab nourishes birds, man, and reptiles that lark in the mangrove forests nearby. Upstream, semi-aquatic hippopotamuses live side by side with crocodiles, and gallant fishermen.

It is not unusual to encounter crabs the size of a grown man’s fist. The river and the ocean sustain a vast diversity of wildlife including hippos and crocodiles.

Amani has no qualms diving into the raging waters even as the hippos growl nearby, possibly eyeing a snack.

 “The river and ocean are both sources of sustenance,” he says. “In the same way they meet, animals and people also meet. Sometimes, the conflict can end in death. But each has learnt to keep his distance.”  

Distant Source

River Sabaki begins life in Gatamaiyo Forest, 390 kilometres away. It is born as Athi River but matures as Sabaki. Others call it Galana River. Along its path that traverses Tsavo East National Park, it attracts diverse wildlife.

Lobsters are among the most-sought-after foods of the sea. At Sabaki, they are trapped and fried as you watch.

Along the banks of this river, Amani and a group of friends have set up an informal tour guide business. They will wshow you the beach, dunes, estuary, crocs and hippos and top it up with a delicious meal of fresh fish, prawns and lobster. Oh, not forgetting crabs. It was why Karisa junior was so eager at the beginning.  

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