A Birthday Trip to Mombasa

Kathrin wanted to do something special for her birthday. 2023 was a “round number” for her and it deserved more than a cake on our dining room table. After careful consideration, and after hearing some positive opinions from colleagues, she decided on Mombasa, Kenya.

We stayed at the former Condor crew hotel, the Severin Sea Lodge, an oasis of calm and relaxation (so they claim on their website.)

Being experienced world travelers, you might expect that we planned for everything. Well, that wasn’t true on this trip. On the day of our flight, Kathrin chatted with a colleague who mentioned, “as long as you have your visa” – What, wait a moment – Visa? We were suddenly in emergency mode. We both jumped on our laptops and found the government website for visa issuance. Gladly enough it was possible to apply online, but it suggested to give three days for processing. Well, we only had a few hours.  We frantically started filling out the required forms. Our panic didn’t end once we submitted them and paid the fee. What if we don’t get them in time? Finally, Kathrin called the Condor station manager in Frankfurt, to ask if we had a chance to get on the flight without the visa, hoping they would be processed before we would arrive in Mombasa. This was, unfortunately, not an option but she contacted Willi, the station manager in Mombasa, and asked for his help. Within a couple of hours, before leaving for the airport we had our visas. Thanks to Willi, he was a lifesaver! It’s good if you know people.

After all this stress our flight was uneventful. Willi greeted us right at the jet-way and assured us that everything was fine. Our moment of relief ended after clearing customs. We were greeted by hundreds of taxi drivers all vying to take us where ever we wanted to go. We randomly picked one and followed him to his car. About an hour later, we arrived, safe and sound, at our hotel. Lesson learned: organize a transfer with the hotel booking, saves a lot of hassle.

An Oasis of Calm and Relaxation

Our arrival at the Severin Sea Lodge was just as I imagined an African destination: thatched roofs, lush tropical vegetation, and smiling faces on the welcoming staff. A greeter led us to a pair of armchairs in the open-air reception, gave us a fruity drink, and took our passports to the reception staff. We never had such a comfortable check-in experience.

The resort grounds are beautiful. There are two pools to choose from. The bigger one is open to the bar and is where the water entertainment takes place. There is a smaller one on the other side of the restaurant that offers a quieter place to relax. Our hut was nearest the larger pool, so that’s where we spent our time. On this day-of-arrival afternoon we relaxed by our pool, and I slept most of the afternoon away.

One day melted into the next at the resort. We would stumble out of bed and head over to the restaurant for breakfast, where we would pick from their buffet, which always included an omelet for us. Afterwards, we would find a lounge chair to relax in which Hamisi or one of his colleagues was more than happy to arrange.

11 o’clock was water aerobics time. Since my calendar was empty of appointments, I always joined in. One of the animator staff would lead us through a gentle round of movements in the water, and the event would always end with the group joining hands, moving in a circular pattern, and singing Jambo Bwana, a fun sing-along song made famous by Them Mushrooms.

Not long after we finished with the aerobics, we would feel the first pangs of hunger. So we would order a lunch, usually a sandwich or hamburger to share, and have it delivered to our lounge chairs.

The resort lies directly on the beach. As nice as that sounds, there is a dark side. There are sharks trolling along the beach. Not the finned type, but local people, waiting for guests to leave the sanctity of the resort to offer clothes, souvenirs, boat tours, city tours, or snorkeling adventures. It really makes the beach unpleasant. Eventually they will leave after enough declines to their offers. Then there are the women offering massages. They are not nearly as persistent, just one offer and they accept a no. Kathrin and I ventured onto the beach a handful of times. Once to put our feet in the Indian Ocean, once to go to a restaurant for lunch, and twice to get a handmade wood carving of a giraffe from a local artisan recommended by a Condor friend.

Beware of the Sharks!

The resort lies directly on the beach. As nice as that sounds, there is a dark side. There are sharks trolling along the beach. Not the finned type, but local people, waiting for guests to leave the sanctity of the resort to offer clothes, souvenirs, boat tours, city tours, or snorkeling adventures. It really makes the beach unpleasant. Eventually they will leave after enough declines to their offers. Then there are the women offering massages. They are not nearly as persistent, just one offer and they accept a no. Kathrin and I ventured onto the beach a handful of times. Once to put our feet in the Indian Ocean, once to go to a restaurant for lunch, and twice to get a handmade wood carving of a giraffe from a local artisan recommended by a Condor friend.

a picture of our giraffe wood carving

The giraffe carving turned out to be quite the misadventure. The “artisan” spoke passable German and Kathrin negotiated a deal for a 30-inch-tall giraffe. At the same time, another wood carver (there were plenty in this alley) was desperately trying to get me to buy something. Eventually I agreed on two animal carvings that I planned to give to Lucy and Declan, my grandkids. We both overpaid, but we figured what the heck. These people are in terrible circumstances. The giraffe carver promised to send pictures of his progress, and would deliver the carving on the Friday after our return. Unsurprisingly, we saw no pictures during our safari adventure. When we got back, Kathrin sent him a message saying she doubted he was working on it since she had received none of the promised pictures and would not pay the balance due. He immediately got his act together, got to work, and she got regular updates. He got the job done, a day later than promised. We have forgotten the hassle and are enjoying our giraffe in our living room.

Safari Time – Let’s Get Wild!

Eventually, Kathrin’s birthday came around. She had planned on an overnight safari to celebrate. The itinerary included a “safari in route” through Tsavo East National Park, to the Voi Wildlife Lodge, where we would have dinner, then another short evening safari. The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we would go on another safari in route back to the Severin Sea Lodge.

Salim, his nephew, Kathrin, and I pose for a group shot.

Salim, our driver, along with his nephew, picked us up right on time. To our surprise, his vehicle was empty. We were his only two passengers, so the day was a private tour, just for us. We learned from him that it would need three things for a successful safari: patience, luck and Salim. It turned out he was right and we had all of it. During the four-hour drive to the park, Salim told us about Kenyan life and culture, and about the various tribes, Masai, Kamba, Kikuyu, as we drove through each’s region.

Lunch time came around, so we stopped at a touristy café on the road. Salim and his sidekick went to an area for drivers, where they enjoyed some peace and quiet. We, along with the rest of the tourists, went to the public area, where local merchants surrounded the lunch tables, offering their handicrafts for sale. What was most interesting to me, and several others, was the Yellow Weaver bird. Their nests hanging in a tree towering above the building from behind. It was quite the sight to watch them fluttering about.

Once back in the van, we eventually arrived at the park. Salim had to take care of some administration with the authorities and get our entry pass while we waited at the vehicle. The locals, seeing new arrivals, came by to offer us hats, maps, laminated wildlife guides, and so on, none of which we needed.

Now the fun began. Because of recent rains, the main road was the only route open to safaris. Still, it proved to be worthwhile, as we saw plenty of wildlife. Salim kept in contact with the other “bush men” drivers to maintain a situational awareness of interesting sightings. At times he would suddenly stop when he spotted something, and other times he would stop talking and speed along the road when he got a tip of a sighting from another driver. His efforts paid off, as we caught sight of 2 lionesses lounging in a shady spot, and a cheetah strolling through the savanna on day one, while on day two, we spotted a lion. Of course, there were elephants, zebras, giraffes, and various species of antelopes and gazelles to be seen. We also said hello to Zazu, a hornbill bird made famous by Disney’s Lion King. We really enjoyed our time in the park with Salim. His enthusiasm made for an unforgettable experience.

Late afternoon we arrived at the Voi Wildlife Lodge. I would rate it as a 3-star hotel. It doesn’t compare with the Severin Sea Lodge and is a different price class altogether; good, but basic. The room had a ceiling fan instead of air conditioning. We shared it with quite a few moths and other insects, mostly hanging out on the sliding glass door to the balcony and the other walls. I killed as many as I could and hoped more wouldn’t find their way into our room overnight. Fortunately, I didn’t see any mosquitos. There were two signs warning against wandering around the compound at night because of wild animals. It added an element of excitement and really drove home the fact that were in “wild Africa.” The best feature of the place is the watering hole a hundred yards from the restaurant patio. There’s also an elevated viewing platform that offers a close-up view of any animals that may be quenching their thirst. We only saw what looked to us like a pair of zebras at the water’s edge at night. Still, it was exciting to be in the middle of Africa’s wild country.

When we arrived at the restaurant terrace, I made it a point to mention that Kathrin was celebrating her birthday. The server wished here a happy birthday, took our order, and went back to the kitchen. Our food arrived, we ate, and…nothing. No celebratory dessert, no staff singing happy birthday, nothing. Hmph, so we went back to our room, and I gave her the presents I smuggled into my backpack.

Chet sitting at the breakfast table of the Voi Wildlife Lodge, enjoying the scenic savanna.

The next morning, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast buffet, then met Salim for the en route safari and the drive back to Mombasa. We came across more of the antelopes, gazelles, and zebras, but the none of the “big five” this time. Eventually, we drove through the gates and said goodbye to Tsavo National Park. As we left, a light rain started falling. Before long, it got heavier, but nothing serious. The drive back included the obligatory stop at a café for a hot drink and an opportunity to buy souvenirs. By the time we got back to Mombasa, several streets were flooded. Some had turned into rivers. It didn’t pose a danger to us, however traffic on the road leading to our hotel came to a standstill, so Salim went around it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t familiar with these side roads, so we went around in circles a few times. He even stopped and asked for directions (which only helped a little.) The funny thing was, we had an offline map running on our phones and could watch our route. We offered it to Salim, but he assured us he knew what to do. After about an hour of driving around eastern Mombasa, we eventually made it to our hotel. 

Back Home, But Who’ll Stop the Rain?

The rain didn’t stop for 3 days. It was coming down in buckets. There was a full-time squeegee person in charge of keeping the rain water from flooding the terrace connecting the restaurant with the bar and reception area. The guests kept to their rooms except for meal times for most of the day. The more adventurous would walk to the bar/lounge area to talk, read, or otherwise pass the time. On the third day it slowed down and the Animators invited people to join them for water aerobics. I figured why not? The pool is wet, rain is wet, what difference does it make. We all had a good time.

We were fortunate enough to have witnessed a few memorable events at the hotel. On one evening at dinner time, we noticed a couple sitting at an isolated table. As we sat on a couch a few steps away, waiting for the evening’s entertainment, a conga line of staff emerged from the restaurant, banging on plates or pots, and singing “Jambo Bwana” followed by “Happy Birthday.” It was the woman’s “big day” and her boyfriend had arranged something special. Kathrin was a very impressed, and envious, of the care and enthusiasm the staff made for their guests.

As the woman was taking in the dancing and celebrating, unbeknownst to her, two other staff members brought out a huge banner and unrolled it behind her. It read, “Freddie, Will You Marry Me?” The singers pointed behind her. She turned around and read the surprise message. It was a very exciting event to have witnessed.

There were a few more occasions where the staff came parading out of the kitchen, dancing and singing their way to a table where someone was celebrating their birthday. Each time, Kathrin would say how she wished she would have stayed here for her own birthday.

The wonderful staff here at the Severin Sea Lodge, from the servers, to the pool boys, made us feel special every day.

Touring Mombasa

Being so close to the town of Mombasa, it was clear that we wanted to see it.

In Kathrin’s research for this trip, she found a number of “must see places” in the city. So one day, after the city dried up, we jumped in a taxi and headed into town. We drove to Fort Jesus and started our city tour from there. The “sharks” that I mentioned earlier were also here. As we walked around the perimeter of the fort an older man approached us claiming to be security and followed us around, pointing out some details and generally acting like a tour guide. After 30 minutes I told him in no uncertain terms that we didn’t need a security escort, and he quietly walked away. The rest of the tour was, for the most part, underwhelming. The city is very poor, not a lot of interesting, enticing places to attract your attention. The only thing I can say was interesting were the crossed elephant tusks arching over a street. That really gave me the impression we were in Africa. We stopped in a “farmer’s market square” that Kathrin found online and right away, an herb salesman lured us into sampling his wares. Some of them were so tempting that Kathrin ended up making a purchase. We quickly explored the rest of the area, found nothing particularly inviting, and continued our walk. We came across some parts of the town that had me looking over my shoulder, it did not exude a warm, cozy feeling. Not dangerous, just run down. On the flip side we walked through a historical part of town with eye catching architecture from the city’s colonial times. We ended the tour with mixed emotions. One the one hand we thought it would be a shame to travel all the way to Mombasa just to sit in a hotel – as luxurious as that may be. But on the other hand, Mombasa does not have much to offer tourists. Still, I’m glad we did it. One of the aspects of traveling that makes it so appealing is seeing other cultures, people, and ways of life.

Once again, we left Africa with a good impression. The wonderful people, beautiful natural landscapes, and fascinating wildlife makes a trip to this continent a memorable occasion. We will certainly come back to Africa.


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