The Star (Nairobi)

1 February 2013

Kenya: Historic Arrival of Cruise Ship in Lamu

IT was a sight to behold as history was made in Lamu -a historic town with a rich cultural heritage.

The sea was unusually rough and turbulent, as though it had noticed a not-so-familiar occurrence and was preparing to welcome the strange happenings.

This is when some 320 tourists and 245 crew members on board a cruise ship-MV Astor arrived in the resort town last Saturday.

And unlike other similar events at the Mombasa port where cruise ships dock at the berths, this one anchored at the high seas, five nautical miles from the shore (about 40 minutes ride to the Lamu jetty). This was because the vessel, according to KPA Captain Nikolas Wamryakale, was big and could not reach the harbour due to the shallow waters.

The adventure began at 4.30am when our speed boat and another engine boat comprising immigration and customs officials, marine police, port health officers and other officers, set out to meet the ship.

Due to the roughness of the sea, Captain Wamryakale, who was on board the engine boat that at some point had to wait for the sea to calm down, shifted to our boat, which was faster. He explained that he had to board the German-flagged vessel, and make sure she is anchored at the right position.

As we approached the vessel, with the rough waters almost seeming like mountains and water spurting all over our boat, the Captain explained that the sea is very hostile since we were in the high seas.

"Don't worry guys, I know you are surprised by this but with time you will get used to it. It is normally rougher near the vessel," he said calmly as he prepared to board MV Astor, which had arrived from Seychelles.

Being the only lady in the boat, my male colleagues were apprehensive that I would not tolerate the torrential waters, keeping in mind that a few other colleagues chose to remain behind due to their phobia of the deep sea.

Those on board had frequent chats, but at times the silence was deafening, as people posed to catch their breath because of the turbulence. Then we were awed by the magnificent sight as part of the ship became visible.

Her size, colour and body was breathtaking and as we approached, KPA officials in our boat and the other kept communicating with the vessel's captain over how far they were and if they were okay to anchor.

MV Astor's Captain Oleg Pancheko had on several occasions said, with a heavy Italian accent, that he was at the right place, but wanted direction, prompting the KPA Captain to instruct the pilot of the boat we were in to move faster and closer to the ship.

Finally, at 7am, the exit of the ship was opened and two crewmen drew some strong ropes towards our side, and in a dramatic leap, he got himself to the vessel.

After a few minutes, the second engine boat arrived and the other officials were ushered inside the ship.

By then, daylight was approaching and we could see some tourists doing some morning exercises at the topmost deck of the ship, while others walked luxurily from one room to the other, and others sipped some drinks from the restaurant.

After the checks were done, some tender boats were lowered from the sides of the ship and driven to the exit door, and the tourists ushered one by one, to start their sail to Lamu island.

They waved and smiled as they did, an indication that they were pleased to have a daylong tour of Lamu town, before leaving for Zanzibar the same evening.

We all headed back to Lamu jetty, where a warm reception organized by the Kenya Tourism Board, awaited the group.

Cultural and religious dances were performed as the tourists received gifts from KTB staff, and were assembled at one point by their tour agents, before being taken round the town.

The KTB Managing Director, Mureithi Ndegwa, who was part of the delegation to receive them, showed them maps of the Coastline and answered any questions they had, while accompanied by KTB's customs relations officer Cynthia Kinyeru.

Stakeholders expressed hopes that with the Lamu port project, prospects of having bigger cruise vessels docking at Lamu were high.

"This is definitely a shot in the arm for Kenya's tourism and this particular region, and we know, with the coming up of the port, more is yet to come. We urge our international partners to encourage other cruise liners to choose Lamu as a destination place, since there is a lot to be offered," he said.

Lamu port project manager, Engineer Peter Oremo, noted that the construction of the port, that will have at least 35 berths, and a channel of 18 metres deep, will in future see more cruise ships tour the region.

"The procurement is going on to identify the contractors, and we hope that by next month, we shall do the ground breaking, so that construction starts. This will be the biggest port in the region and is set to improve infrastructure, without interfering with the cultural heritage of the area, since it will be a modern city outside Lamu," Oremo said.

Peter Schulze Isfort, a German official from KD Bereederung, that deals in product management shore excursions, said it was a good decision for them to chose Lamu, adding that they were seeking for new opportunities.

"It will be easier for us to reach other areas as well for the future, and I am sure some of our colleagues will follow us," he added.

The 1st Officer of MV Astor, Chris Leuterbach, said the vessel, which was constructed in 1987, and renewed in 2010, has 25 years experience of travelling all over the world, with the next target being the Australian continent, after Africa.

Lamu West District Commissioner, Julius Chepkwony, said there was adequate security in place and encouraged other tourists to make Lamu their tourism destination.

"The fact that over 500 tourists are in Lamu is a clear testimony that they believe we have enough security in the area; there is no reason to fear, and we also encourage domestic tourists to also come," he said.

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