Diving into Mombasa

It’s crazy to think that almost exactly a year before our trip to Kenya, we were looking forward to a much anticipated, yet ill-fated dive adventure in the Philippines. We were all booked and ready to spend four days diving, and then three more days island hopping and beach camping. It would never happen because just a few days before our flight, I had a climbing accident that left me with a severely broken leg. A couple weeks later, Covid 19 hurled the US into shutdown, indefinitely tabling any travel plans.

One of the sad ironies of this whole ordeal was that I actually love SCUBA diving more than I do climbing. I get to climb more often because it’s more accessible from where I live, but there is nothing that compares to weightlessly drifting through an underwater landscape surrounded by corals and fish. Sacrificing an entire dive trip due to a freakishly unlucky evening at the bouldering gym was a terrible trade-off that would result in my having to wait a year and a half since my last dive to finally get in the water again.

When Rachel and Jared asked if Vince and I wanted to join them in Kenya, we quickly agreed and then posed the idea of a short stop in Mombasa. This would give the group a chance to take a break from game drives for a couple of days, and for me and Vince to go diving. Amy and Andrew decided to try out SCUBA for the first time as well, so I made reservations with a dive shop operating out of the Serena Beach Hotel.

A late-morning flight from Nairobi Landed us in Mombasa around midday. Jared had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the airport, and he arrived in a comically small vehicle that we miraculously managed to Tetris all six of us and our luggage into. Our driver, Hussein, ended up making up for the cramped car by eagerly sharing his music with us. It turned out he was a local rapper who goes by the moniker HBK, and he rapped along to a bunch of his tracks for us on the drive out to our villa in Serena Beach.

Shabijay Villa was a little difficult to find at first, but it did not disappoint. The six of us had the entire house to ourselves, which included three comfortable and stylish bedrooms on the second floor, a first floor kitchen, dining room, and living room, roof access, and a nice swimming pool steps away from the front door.

Vince, Amy, Andrew and I didn’t have time to settle in because we had to get to Serena Beach Hotel for our dive briefing and for Amy and Andrew to do some pool training. HBK drove us the short distance to the hotel where we went through a covid screening (pretty standard at most establishments in Kenya), and then headed over to the dive shop. The resort was luxurious and beautiful, and very nearly empty save for a few guests hanging out in the pool’s swim up bar. We made our way through the grounds and found the dive shop, where we went over pricing and the next day’s itinerary.

Our divemaster took Amy and Andrew to do their pool training first, and Vince and I went to a nearby restaurant to get some drinks while we waited for our turn. Since it had been so long since our last dive, we would have to do a short refresher in the pool. Vince and I sipped our respective Tusker and passion fruit juice as we eagerly anticipated getting in the water. I could hardly wait to get in the pool, let alone the ocean, so after paying for our drinks we strolled over to the pool to see how training was going.

Andrew had been worried about clearing his ears, but they both seemed to be doing really well. Once their session was done, Vince and I donned their gear and hopped into the pool. We just had to demonstrate a few basic skills to prove we still had a clue of what we were doing. We had to clear our masks, drop and recapture our regulators, and clear our ears, all of which thankfully still came naturally to me. Then we got to swim around in the pool for a bit since there was still a bunch of air left in our tanks. After a couple of laps, I resurfaced and our divemaster called out “Pole pole,” Swahili for “Slowly slowly.” Apparently I was a little over eager, which is understandable after spending the entire summer of 2020 on dry land due to my leg hurting too much to swim. I was beyond excited to find that the motion of swimming no longer hurt at all!

Once we were all clear on the plan for the next day, we headed back to restaurant, the Jahazi Grill, to get a much-needed lunch. Then we hit the beach, where we were immediately approached by a man leading around the biggest camel I’ve ever seen. Vince and I went for an epic camel ride in Giza, and we’d seen many tame and wild camels while driving through Jordan, but this camel was something else. His name was Charlie Brown, and in addition to being unreasonably large, he also looked surprisingly well cared for.

Charlie Brown’s owner asked if any of us wanted a ride, and then said it would cost 2,000 Kenyan Shillings (nearly 20 USD). This was too much for us so we said no thanks and continued walking along the beautiful shoreline. We all knew that wouldn’t be the last we would see of Charlie Brown, and soon enough, he and his owner had caught up with us and the haggling began. I’ve never haggled while being trailed by an eight foot tall camel before, so that was something new. We eventually settled on a price, and soon Vince and I were up in the saddle, lurching down the beach as Amy and Andrew filmed us.

Charlie Brown carried us to the end of the beach where we dismounted and thanked the man for the ride. Then we poked around in the sand for a bit, looking for shells. Amy found a hermit crab, always a favorite of mine, and we watched it scuttle across the sand for a while.

We decided to walk back to Shabijay since it wasn’t far away, and stopped in a couple of souvenir shops along the way. It turned out these shops had all of the same items we’d been seeing at shops in Naivasha and Maasai Mara, but were charging absurdly cheaper prices. So we bought a wooden giraffe that turned out to be way too tall for my suitcase.

Back at the villa, Rachel and Jared were already in the pool. The four of us jumped in to join them, and we discussed a very important topic: food plans. Shabijay has an option to hire a chef, Shadrack, by the day, so we planned out the following day’s breakfast and dinner with him. Then we dried off, and headed back out to the street to find a restaurant for dinner.

It was dark by now, and we used a couple of headlamps, provided by Andrew and Amy, to find our way down the areas dirt roads. After leaving the neighborhood’s guarded gate we ran into none other than Charlie Brown the camel, wandering freely along the roadside. Shortly after that, we found a restaurant called the Tavern Inn, and decided to give it a try. The menu turned out to have lots of East African items that we were eager to try. I ended up ordering a samosa, kachumbari (a salad of fresh tomatoes and onion), and chips masala (fries smothered in spicy masala sauce). We all thoroughly enjoyed our meals, and returned to Shabijay, were went to bed with bursting stomachs.

Vince and I had the earliest wake-up call the next morning, and we stumbled groggily downstairs to the kitchen, where Shadrack was already preparing a breakfast of fresh fruits, tantalizing mahamri (a fluffly doughnut-like bread), sausage and beans, and fresh mango juice. It was the perfect way to start the day, and we felt great as we left the villa for our early dive. We caught a tuk-tuk right outside of the neighborhood gate, and before we knew it, we were back at Serena Beach Hotel, wriggling into wetsuits.

It was a cloudy morning, so we weren’t counting on great visibility as we set out toward the reef on a small boat. The captain steered us out to the far side of the reef, where we had a short briefing on our first dive before gearing up and rolling into the water. Of the various methods of entering the water on a dive, rolling backwards off the boat is my absolute favorite. Something about it feels more exciting and elegant than slogging into a shore dive laden with heavy gear, or slopping off the end of the boat. I was a little nervous about how long it had been since our last dive, and about my leg with its new internal hardware would perform under (literal) pressure. After the roll-off though, I felt nothing but pumped and ready to dive.

We let the air out of BCDs and sunk down to the ocean floor which was covered with a beautiful reef and countless waving anemones. The current was somewhat strong, and we had to go with the ebb and flow of the water as we swam above the reef. Visibility wasn’t great, but we saw all sorts of colorful fish, and a couple of moray eels on our first dive.

I struggled a bit with negative buoyancy, but eventually got the right amount of air into my BCD to counteract it. Towards the end of the dive, we approached a hypnotizing school of sweet lips. I still had 100 bar left in my tank when we started our ascent back to the surface, and I was surprised to realize that we’d spent 45 minutes at the bottom because I’ve rarely finished a full dive with half a tank of air left.

We made our five meter stop, and then burst through the surface of the waves near our waiting boat. While we waited out our surface interval (an amount of time spent between dives so nitrogen can off-gas from your body), I ditched a kilo off of my weight belt to solve my negative buoyancy problem. Before long, we were back in the water, descending back toward the reef. This dive was very similar to last, but we caught a glimpse of a hawksbill turtle and saw a massive lobster, a leaf fish, and got really close to a guinea fowl puffer.

Again, the dive felt short to me, and again I was left with a half tank of air by the time we surfaced. I was happy to realize that my leg felt totally fine, in fact if anything it felt a little more loose and comfortable than normal. By the time we got back to the beach, Amy and Andrew had arrived for their shallow dive, and they gave us some leftover mahamri from breakfast. Rachel and Jared weren’t far behind them, and the four of us hung out on beach chairs for a little bit before walking back into town for some souvenir shopping and a delicious lunch at a pizza restaraunt called Yul’s. After lunch, Rachel and Jared took a camel ride, and then we returned to Shabijay were we spent the afternoon relaxing in the pool–or in my case half relaxing in the pool and half stalking agama lizards around the yard.

Between swimming and lizards, I went inside to chat with Shadrack for a little bit. Amy and Andrew got back to the villa just in time for the most thrilling item on the agenda: our next round of covid tests. We needed negative PCR tests both to get into the airport in Nairobi and to reenter the US, and Jared had arranged for our samples to be collected at the villa, so a man named Rolex came decked in full hasmat gear to swab our noses poolside.

After a few more hours of simple relaxation (and a lot of listening to HBK songs), it was time for dinner, and Shadrack had outdone himself again. All of the food was absolutely delicious. There was more fresh juice, tilapia for the meat eaters, fresh chapati, and a coconut vegetable curry. All in all, our time in Mombasa had been a welcome reprieve from the long days of driving, and we all went to bed feeling rejuvenated, and excited to travel to Amboseli the next morning.

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