Wild life

Bankrupted by paradise

28 November 2009

11:00 AM

28 November 2009

11:00 AM

Kiwayu Island, Kenya

I came on a holiday to unwind and decompress but I have just been handed the bill and so I think I will have that heart attack after all. We are at Mike’s Camp on the desert island of Kiwayu north of Lamu, my favourite place in the world. This is where Claire and I had our honeymoon ten years ago. Our anniversary coincided with a scare from my doctor, who says that for health reasons I should cut down on several activities that underpin my very identity.


The journey to Kiwayu was set about with temptations. We flew to Lamu and lunched at Peponi’s Hotel while we waited for Mike’s speedboat out to the islands. From now until after Christmas the terrace at Peponi’s is a non-stop party. It was really hard to avoid getting sucked into the bar area. Here you quickly fall into the trap of drinking cocktails called Old Pals. These are so expensive you have to sell your children to pay off the tab. I avoided that, and when the boat arrived, we even zoomed past my friend Gerald Johnson’s floating bar. ‘Where alcohol is not only for breakfast!’ is the way Gerald advertises his place.

Claire says I am the stingiest husband ever when it comes to family holidays. My response is that I have a farm to worry about. A farm is like keeping a goldfish, only bigger. You can never walk out on it. Another reason is that I am a freelance journalist, so I am too insecure about missing work to take a break. A third reason — and I am too ashamed to confess this to her — is that the worst part about me being a journalist is that I want holidays for free. When I was younger, I would score freebies in decent hotels by penning articles in travel magazines. But these are as boring to write for as they are to read, so I gave it up — and so ended the junkets.

I suspected Claire was going to take it very badly if I failed to acknowledge our anniversary in some extravagant way, so I asked Mike straight out for a big discount because we were old friends. ‘Sure thing!’ he said. That was easy, I thought. I then schemed that I might be able to turn it into a freebie by bringing in 500lbs of food and drink. Even paying the excess baggage on the local flight was worth it. I justified this strategy to Claire by telling her that Mike probably would not have any food anyway. Some years ago his camp ran out of fish and meat and he had nothing to give his tourists until somebody found a python. He served this up and it tasted like chicken. They would not have complained had he not told them.

The route to Kiwayu is north between mangrove-lined islands, past fishing villages and American Special Forces camps monitoring the border of Somalia just a few dozen miles away. There is now the added threat of piracy, with Somali boats operating several hundred miles from shore. The result is superb: a pristine Ocean, amazing birdlife and no crowds of ghastly tourists or Kenya’s latest form of pollution, which involves rich white people developing their nasty villas along the seashore. Mike’s camp is unmatched for its simplicity: showers from buckets with water delivered by donkeys, coconut-thatch huts, hammocks made from old fishing nets and, actually, excellent food.

Mike was so delighted with the supplies that I thought I was definitely going to get off lightly. Some of the guests reminded me of the cast from that TV series Lost, and there were definitely a couple of Lord of the Flies moments, so we took off. We zoomed about on Mike’s boats in the lagoons, we went kayaking, snorkelling on perfect coral reefs and swimming in clear-blue sea. The climax for me was taking my seven-year-old son Rider out fishing. We found ourselves surrounded by a pod of humpback whales. They blew sprays of water and flapped their tails and breathed bubbles that surfaced in circular marks that looked like huge footprints tracking across the ocean. We caught big yellow-fin tuna and a wahoo. Rider reeled in a dourado that was almost as big as he is and he could not believe it.

I clean forgot that fishing and speedboats do not come cheap. When the bill came I could hear the sound of blood vessels bursting in my head. Now I have this peculiar feeling that I sometimes also get at Christmas. I feel happy, rested, I have totted up lots of family brownie points, but at the same time I feel utterly traumatised by the thought of the money I have to make to get back to square one.

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