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The famous elephant tusks in MombasaThe Kenya Coast is a series of long bays between coral headlands, punctuated by occasional river creeks. It has 7 districts namely Kilifi, Kwale, Lamu, Mombasa, Taita Taveta, Tana River and Malindi. It is lined with waving palm trees, Mangoes, Casuarinas and gorgeously flowering hibiscus, Oleander, Frangipani and Bougainvillaea.

The beaches are great sweeps of white coral sand, while about half a mile out in the Indian Ocean runs a coral reef protecting almost the whole length of the shore from sharks and creating a series of lagoons where the water is crystal clear and an enormous variety of tropical fish feed on the coral. The skin diving - known locally as goggling - rivals the Caribbean's and so does the big game fishing.

It would make a superb backdrop to a James Bond story. All down the coast lie the mouldering remains of the Arab Sultanates established here from about 900 AD onwards. Surprisingly their tenure only officially ended on Kenya's Indipendence, when the Sultan of Zanzibar, subsequently deposed, surrendered his legal right to the 10 miles wide 'coastal strip'. The British had recognised this claim throughout their rule of the country.

The Arab colonisers exported Ivory, Ethiopian gold, Leopard skins and Rhino horns from the interior and also slaves, a practise that has left its mark on Arab-African relationship today, even though the slave trade was put down by the British in the 1870s. However, Arab culture has also imparted a well-mannered, unhurried aura to the coastal way of life. Arab intermarriage with the Giriama, Bajun and other African coastal tribes produced the swahili people and their language.

Links with Arabia were maintained by the dhow fleets that plied down to Mombasa and Dar es Salaam on the north-east Monsoon, the Kaskasi, in january; and returned to the Arabian Gulf and India in May on the south-east Monsoon, the Kuzi. The headquarters of the province are situated in Mombasa - Kenya's second largest town after Nairobi - having the largest port on this coast north of durban and is strictly speaking, an island connected to the mainland by the Makupa causeway. It is an island that has seen plenty of history.

Almost certainly known to Phoenician sailors who circumnavigated africa in 500 BC, it is identifiable as the port named Tonike in a sailing guide to the Indian Ocean published in Alexandria in AD 80. The first European to land, Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese navigator, met with hostile reception from the Arabs here in 1498 and sailed on to Malindi. The Portuguese occupation that followed was only routed by the Arabs in the Eighteenth century, and the town remained a key possession of the Sultan of Muscat's Empire until in 1832 when he transfered his court to Zanzibar.

The opening of the railway in 1901 revived Mombasa as the gateway to East Africa and the train remains an excellent way of getting to Nairobi. you go overnight in a sleeper, well fed in the restaurant car, and saving a night's hotel bill. Alternatively Kenya Airways runs flights each way every day and offers excursion fares. The most fascinating part of Mombasa is the Old Town that lies between Makadara Road and the old harbour (see map).

The town has only recently been declared part of Kenya's heritage spot. Its narrow streets are overshadowed by high houses with elaborately carved ornamental balconies. Everywhere there is hustle, life and a multitude of languages. Mombasa, in fact, has the same cosmopolitan feeling as Hong Kong, Singapore and other world spots. Both old and new parts deserve a visit.

 
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