Above: Bajuni fishing boat at Kipini. Copyright Rupi Mangat

From the archives: January 2014

It’s 7 a.m. and we’re at the mooring bay in Kipini where the fishermen take a break from the deep sea and for their dhows and mashuas to be repaired. Their lives are centred around their fishing vessels with makeka’s spread on the sand covered with mosquito nets where they have spent the night. Local Pokomo women prepare breakfast for the men on the other side of the boats. We’re waiting for the boat to arrive from Ozi to sail us up the delta and it’s blazing hot.

Leisurely life - dhow transport sailing by villages along the river - rupi mangat - one time use only (800x600)
Leisurely life – dhow transport sailing by villages along the Tana Delta. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Wandering around, l strike a conversation with Bajuni fishermen from Pate island. Shali Sharif’s specialty is catching lobsters which are exported live to China and Dubai. The lobster season is from January to April, then from May to August. Kenya’s lobsters, thanks to a lobbying group in Lamu, are fished pretty ethically. At the start of the millennium, an investor provided local fishermen with scuba gear to fish out lobsters with the result that even the immature ones where caught. Traditionally, Kenyan fishermen have dived for lobsters – holding their breath long enough to reach out for the mature ones – which is now the practice.

Our boat arrives from Ozi and we’re in – that a group of Pokomo and Orma men from the local conservation groups being trained on bird identification by Kenya foremost birder, Fleur Ng’weno.

Within minutes of setting sail, snouts and beady eyes appear on the surface of the water – it’s a pod of hippos. The river banks are lined with groves of mangroves and all nine are found here. The bird list begins to expand – Caspian terns, grey herons and the stately African Fish eagle perched on a tree every few meters.

Pokomo fishermen at Ozi near Kipini prawn fishing with net - rupi mangat one time use only 8th Feb 2014 (800x600)
Pokomo fishermen at Ozi near Kipini prawn fishing with net. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Sailing along Ozi forest, the mangrove forest gives way to the fresh riverine forest. The birds are amazing. Mangrove kingfishers colour the forests, pied kingfishers hover above the water for the perfect time to dive for a fish and the crocodiles just float by.

Water canals create a maze branching from the main river. Betel nut trees heavy with nuts line the river’s edge planted by the Arabs of yore. Beautiful white flowers drift by on the rich earth waters of the Tana – they are from the Baringtonia racimosa tree. We’re not sure is it’s a mongoose or an otter that quickly scuttles along the muddy banks and disappears into the grass.

A Green backed heron lands on the shores – it likes to eat prawns. We pass by rice fields and banana plantations where the Pokomo use the bore of the river to keep their fields watered. It’s an ingenious method. When the Tana floods and fills the lakes, the rice is planted. As the water dries, the rice continues to grow. The Pokomo use the bore of the river to keep the rice fields watered. “Seawater is denser than the fresh river water. So when the tide comes up, the farmers open the gates of the channels to water the fields with the fresh water at the top,” Fleur explains.

We turn into the ‘Suez Canal’, sail past Kau an old Arab village where a stunning Albizia spreads a crown of saffron red and orange flowers. The old rice mill still stands built by the Arabs.

Mangoes being transported by dhow from villages upstream to kipini - rupi mangat one time use only 15 Feb 2014 (800x600)
Mangoes being transported by dhow from villages upstream to Kipini. Copyright Rupi Mangat

It’s the season of mangoes. The men sail the dhows to collect the fruit to transport to Kipini and beyond, Pokomo fishermen sail in their tiny wooden canoes fishing for prawns and women tend to their chores.

We reach the high banks and the grasslands. Herds of cattle browse the lush grass – they belong to the pastoral Orma.

Yellow billed storks by lake Mbilio on tana delta - rupi mangat 15 feb one time use only (800x600)
Yellow billed storks by lake Mbilio on Tana Delta. Copyright Rupi Mangat

The banks are full of birds – literally in their thousands of waders. There are African skimmers, several Pacific Golden Plovers from Siberia to spend summer in Tana and hundreds of Yellow billed storks feeding at Lake Mbililo. “That’s the Shetani Matwari (the devil’s drum beat) forest,” points Omar Ngama Salim one of the birders from Ozi Community Conservation group. He’s knows all the hotspots here.

All this time, we’ve seen crocodiles slip into the water, swimming or lazing by the banks. “That’s a village of hippos,” jokes Diwayu, founder of TADECO, a conservation group committed to the sustainable and wise use of the Tana Delta.  While the pod of hippos slumber in the midday heat in the ox-bow lake, two male hippos battle for territory in the middle of the river with mouths agape, their enormous teeth barred and snorting and splashing. I’m happy that we’re using the other canal to sail back.

To sail the Tana Delta

It’s 20 kilometers upstream. For keen birders, it’s heaven on earth.

Kipini is along the Garsen-Lamu road. The turning to Kipini is 55kms from Garsen and 67 to Lamu. From the turning to Kipini it’s 21 kms – and it’s all sand.

Mama Lucy's homestay at Kipini. Copyright Rupi Mangat. One time use only (800x600)
Mama Lucy’s homestay at Kipini. Copyright Rupi Mangat.

Stay at Mama Lucy’s – it’s a lovely 3 bedroomed guest house with Swahili deco. Call 0724 332288. From Kipini you can drive on to Lamu, 50 kms north.

Or stay at the very basic Mamba Camp which is bandas.

For community guides and boat ride contact Nature Kenya at Tana Delta office  tanadelta@naturekenya.org or call +254725401684