Travel in East Africa – Do you take Oyster…?

Apologies for the lack of blog time – I’ve been on the road, and away from internet access. It’s been quite refreshing, though I’ve also been itching to check in and keep everyone informed of what I’ve been up to. Mombasa was different – I was right on the East African coast, and the climate was more humid than the dusty heat in Nakuru. And this is their Winter! Now I was told that I may need my Oyster card for this amount of Travel… I certainly wouldn’t need my iPod.


Because of the gradual spread of the Arabic races down the East African coast over the centuries, the Mombasan people and architecture display strong Muslim characteristics compared to the heavy Christian bias in Central Kenya. More women wear full head dress, and very few men wear football shirts (Premier League teams being especially popular in Nakuru) which is possibly an example of the slight anti-Western atmosphere which has been reported south of Somalia. The UK Foreign Office warned of slight tensions up the coast before I traveled, though thankfully Mombasa is far closer to the Tanzanian border than that of Somalia. Interestingly the brand of Kiswahili spoken along the coast is also apparently ‘purer’ than that spoken in Nairobi or Nakuru – something the Mombasans are clearly proud of – there is very little mixing of English and Swahili within the spoken phrase.

From Mombasa

After spending an enjoyable Tuesday in a holiday apartment south of Mombasa, with four of my fellow Nakuru volunteer friends (who were all coming towards the end of their trips) I was keen to move out of the tourist trap of Diane – as beautiful as the beach was, I no longer felt I was in Kenya! The orphanage I’d arranged to visit Wednesday was near a town called Mtwapa, the other side of Mombasa and 40km north of Diane. While being dropped off in Diane early Tuesday morning in search of accommodation, I asked our taxi driver for advice on how to get to Mtwapa. He described a fairly complicated series of changes involving several matatus, a ferry across the main river and more of the same the other side. I also knew that once inside Mombasa, I HAD to get back to the coach station and book my ticket back to Nakuru – I was NOT going to sit on that back seat again!

The taxi driver stated he would pick me up from Diane, and drop me off at Mtwapa for the sum of Ksh3500 – a figure I managed to barter down to Ksh2500. After an 11 hour bus journey on which I managed almost no sleep, I was tired, hungry and grumpy. That taxi ride seemed a very attractive proposition indeed. And if I’m honest, at that moment (I was stood next to a sunny apartment with a poolside bar) not even going to the orphanage, but spending a second day in Diane seemed like the easiest and most sensible option. However, I’d not come to Kenya to sit on a beach. As much as I felt I deserved a day off from the perpetual frenzy of activity in Nakuru (and I needed one to get over the bus journey anyway!) this was not planned as a holiday. Therefore I made no decision, and took the cabbie’s number just in case.

Motorbike Travel

Wednesday morning I got up at 8am sharp, was itching to get busy again, so decided to brave the African public transport. I had no idea how long it would take me, and I don’t mind admitting I was apprehensive to be doing it alone, but as long as I got to my destination and it cost me less than Ksh2500 (£19.20) I’d be happy!
After packing my bags, my first task was to get to the main coastal road which runs North into Mombasa, as I knew this would get me to the ferry point. Thankfully, Mark, one of the volunteers I was rooming with, had hired a motorbike and offered to drop me off part of the way. Mark – a proper Londoner who I’d spent the previous evening listening to his many travel stories and picking up more cockney rhyming slang – dropped me off at the first matatu we saw. Phase 1 – cost Ksh0.

Matatu 1

The first step of securing travel on a matatu ride is negotiating the ‘best price’ – whatever price a Kenyan is charged (and this amount is secret) you can guarantee a mzungu like me will be charged almost three times as much, unless you’re prepared to barter with a big smile. A matatu is a small and battered mini bus with about 12 seats – however, you often see them speeding by with about 20 Kenyans squeezed in! As well as a driver (who rarely speaks, but controls the outrageously loud and bassy stereo) you have the main attraction – a guy who controls the slide door, collects fares, and when the matatu is in motion, hangs off the side like Spiderman, shouting at passers by, to attract customers.

Bearing in mind that Mombasan roads seem to hold more matatus than any other mode of transport, competition is fierce. When the bus is ready to move on (normally barely after the new passenger has got a single foot onboard) the doorman bangs on the side of the vehicle, and the driver puts his foot down – regardless of what traffic is coming in either direction!

I agreed a price of Ksh100 to get to the ferry (he wanted 300, I offered 50) and very quickly the bus filled up. There are no bus stops as such – they simply stop if someone wants to get on or off the matatu. It was a hot morning, and the streets were full of people, shopping and trading. We were in a pretty rural area, and I’d love to have taken some photos, but judged that getting my camera out in such a poor area while trapped in a matatu with two bags was not the best idea. Those images will have to stay with me… After 30-40 minutes I got to the ferry point, which is based around a bustling market. A guy who got off the matatu with me offered to show me onto the ferry, as it was pretty frantic around there to say the least. He said he was a policeman although I didn’t believe him, and judging from some of the stories I’ve heard about the police out here, that’s no guarantee of your safety anyway.


Mombasa is one of the largest ports in East Africa, so the river mouth is very wide, and three ferries travel back and forth all day taking both vehicles (who pay) and pedestrians (who do not). Both times I’ve crossed it, the queues of pedestrians have been monstrous, yet my ‘policeman’ friend walked me straight to the front, and after the vehicles had loaded up, we walked straight on. I didn’t trust him, but I’ll take whatever help I can get! After disembarking the other side of the river, I came to the highlight of the journey. After a brief walk up the bank with the other foot passengers (and I would estimate 500 per crossing) I found what I can only describe as a ‘matatu circus.’

Knowing that every few minutes a fresh load of pedestrians come off the ferry, matatus are lined up 4 or 5 deep, jostling for space at the front, honking their horns and shouting at each other. All of this along side another busy market of street vendors selling everything from fresh fruit and sweets, to phone cards and today’s newspaper. It’s a little stressful carry two bags, trying to ensure you’re getting on the right matatu, and negotiating a fair price, while two guys are simultaneously trying to hassle you into buying a pair of fake sunglasses and a bag of cashew nuts! As much as I was on my guard, I also felt alive with the energy of the place – it was amazing!


Before heading to Mtwapa, I had to get my coach ticket for when I travel back to Nakuru Thursday, but I had no idea where the office was. Therefore I asked a market vendor (one who appeared a little less frenzied than everyone else) and he advised me to travel on a tuk-tuk (small, motorised taxi) rather than try to find the right matatu from amongst the mayhem. He took me over to a small gathering of tuk-tuks, where being the only white guy around, they all started trying to gesture me into their vehicle. The vendor picked one, and I asked him – “How much?”
“400” came the reply. “Forget it!” I said with a big smile – “No more than 100.” He started laughing too, and the market vendor was encouraging him to give me a good price in swahili. We eventually agreed on Ksh200, and I threw my bags in. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for…

Considering tuk-tuks appear to be me little more than three wheeled motorised umbrellas, it’s amazing the agility with which they travel (fly) around the roads. I found the tuk-tuks in Bangkok to be exhilarating, verging on dangerous, at times. However, this guy was something else. I was sure that before the journey was over, he’d have either have ploughed us head on into an oncoming lorry, or at best, I’d have suffered cardiac arrest. He was insane, and no road rules applied at any point in the journey. If he had brakes, he certainly had no intention of using them, and I felt like I was in a cartoon. During the journey he asked me where I was going (alarmingly, he insisted on turning round regularly to talk to me) and when I told him I was going to Mtwapa, he offered to wait for me outside the ticket office, and then take me the rest of the way. I politely declined, and paid him his money! Current travel cost – Ksh300.

Matatu 2

After booking my coach ticket home (still no VIPs, but I did manage to get a seat only two rows behind 🙂 I was told by a member of coach staff I’d need to get two more matatus to Mtwapa – the first of which should cost me no more than 20 shillings. Therefore without even asking the price, I handed the doorman a 20 shilling coin, and jumped in. He looked down at the coin, and then again at me, obviously unimpressed that I’d not given him the opportunity to extort more money out of me. I smiled at him. 5 minutes later he opened the door, and pointed roughly to where I’d need to get the next one. Before I could ask him anything, he’d banged on the side, and they were off. Phase four travel cost: Ksh320.

Matatu 3

A little lost, I surveyed the scene, and thankfully a friendly Kenyan approached me, and showed me exactly which matatu I’d need. My final matatu journey took me out of Mombasa, and into Mtwapa – a reasonable distance, so I knew I’d have to barter. I agreed a price of Ksh150 and jumped in. At this point I relaxed a little. I knew when I next got off, I’d nearly be there, and there was also more space on the bus, so I got my camera out. The doorman was a real character. He spent the entire journey hanging out of the door, a huge bundle of notes in his hand, shouting “Mtwapa” at anyone who he passed. Literally constantly. Sometimes he got out to approach people, and the bus would move off, yet within a minute, he’d be back, often with customers and shopping bags in tow. I wish I’d been able to film him in action, but didn’t want to offend him.

At one point a young Kenyan woman got on board with two heavy shopping bags, and sat next to me. We chatted a bit, and she found it funny that every time we stopped for five seconds, the matatu was approached by street vendors trying to sell me produce. I’d been on the road well over two hours at this point, and had still not seen a single other white person, so I must’ve really stood out, even on a matatu! One guy stood at the door with bags of sugar cane (they looked like big sweets), and behind him I could see teams of other guys, stood on the side of the road with machetes, chopping the raw cane into bite size chunks, and putting them into bags. It looked like hot work, so I asked the girl how much a bag was. “10 shillings” she said – which is about 7p. I motioned for the guy to come over, and bought a bag. She showed me how to eat them, which is basically to take a bite, suck the sugar out, spit the left over piece out, and throw it out the window. I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth, and this stuff was SWEET; (I should’ve guessed – it was pure sugar!) After one bite, I gave the girl the whole bag!

Travel via Piki-Piki

Eventually, we got to Mtwapa. It was rural, and the pavements were sandy. I got out, having paid only Ksh470 so far. My last leg, was to get a piki-piki (unlicenced motorbike rider) direct to the orphanage. I approached a group of motorbike riders who were sat in the town, waiting for customers. They all sprung into life, but I just picked the nearest one. He insisted he knew where the orphanage was, and told me he wanted Ksh300. We eventually agreed on Ksh150, so I jumped on the back of his bike. You rarely, if ever get a helmet to wear – you just hold on tight, and hope you’ve not picked a maniac rider! We got there within 10 minutes, although it was very much off the beaten track, and a little hairy at times. When I got off the bike, I paid him with a Ksh200 note, although he’d failed to mention he had no change, so he ended up getting Ksh200 anyway. I knew he was probably lying, but shrugged and thanked him with a smile anyway – I was there!

Total journey time – 3.5 hours. Total cost Ksh670 (£5.15). Experience of travel through Mombasa alone on public transport – priceless!

More travel stories soon, take it easy… x

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