I awake to find my noses inches from black, swirling water, the dhow lurching from side to side in the pitched dark.
I dimly see Mohamed, the bosun, frantically hauling in the sails, and the boat begins to steady.
That early squall blown out, we hit a limp wind, and it quickly becomes apparent we aren’t going to get to Lamu anytime soon.
Another problem presents itself – I need to pee. “How much longer?” I ask Mohamed, puffing on his cigarette in the darkness.
His English isn’t great, but I sense from his gruff reply that we have a few hours yet.
Taking the slow boat to Lamu from Kiwayu, a supposedly six-hour journey in a lateen- sailed dhow, had sounded oddly appealing.
For centuries, traders have plied the same routes, catching the same breezes. That my dhow nods to modernity with its small Yamaha motor scarcely dampens my mood.
As we pull into little-visited Pate Island – still a good two or three hours from Lamu – my need for a loo break is desperate. Mohamed reluctantly agrees to escort me up the seaweed-strewn beach and stand guard.
As I disappear into the shrubbery, I hear an altercation between him and another man, doubtless unhappy that a woman is squatting just a few feet away.
Back on the dhow, I try to relax into the journey. Mid-morning tea becomes lunch, and I fantasise about a little café on the seafront.
But as we run aground in a narrow channel at low tide, my romantic notions of sailing into Lamu stutter to a halt. “Could we start the engine?” I plead.
As we enter the harbour of Lamu town, our dhow nudges in between overloaded passenger boats, packed with traders, shrouded women with babies, and commuters.
I clamber up the slippery, mollusc-encrusted steps of the jetty to be accosted by touts looking for business. “Mama, come with me,” shouts one, another lunges for my bag.
Within moments, I am ushered into the labyrinthine streets of the town, powerless to prevent my entourage from taking charge.
Protest is useless. When finally they deposit me at my lodgings, Lamu House Hotel, we are more or less back where we started.
I escape with relief into the quiet embrace of the hotel with its sun-drenched courtyard and pool beyond. I wander up the seafront promenade to look for something to eat.
After a brief wait, a waitress slams grilled garlic fish down on my table. As I start to eat, my stomach begins to churn, and I set half my meal aside.
“The food is not good,” she barks. “No, no, it’s great,” I stammer. “I’m just not feeling that well.” Hands on hips, she snarls, “Get some medicine.”
Instead of looking for a chemist, I plunge into the melee of the old town, where donkeys, laden with cement, or hauling mangrove poles for construction, doggedly clip-clop.
Weaving my way through the donkey dung, I stop to sip juice proffered by cross-legged coconut vendors, and pinion myself to the alley walls to allow the passage of hand-pushed carts.
A visit to Lamu Town, designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2001, is sometimes described as stepping back in time. But there is little static about it.
Despite the appearance of activity, nobody seems in any great rush.
Middle-aged men in embroidered kofia caps play draughts in the main square in the shade of an enormous fig tree, others engage in energetic debate, while shopkeepers lean on ornately-carved doorways half-heartedly drumming for business.
The hum of traffic is blissfully absent here; only a couple of official vehicles and a tractor for cleaning are allowed on the island.
Rarely has the Swahili phrase, “Pole Pole,” or slowly, slowly, seemed so apt.
Later, I find myself on a dhow heading out into the channel. Nik Mitchell, the ebullient manager of my hotel, hands me a feta samosa with lime.
I crunch it contemplatively, wondering when the famed ‘coastitis’ will sweep over me.
The sun starts to set, and we silently tack along through the mangrove, sipping wine. I feel I’m beginning to slip into the rhythms of the island. Or perhaps it’s just the wine.
In some respects, Lamu still feels like something of a backwater, a thought that’s not entirely disagreeable.
Western travel advisories – a response to kidnappings of foreigners in the area at the turn of the decade, and a spate of deadly attacks on the nearby mainland in 2014 – have shattered the economy here.
Tourism died a slow death, and hotels and villas were all but shuttered and seasonal staff laid off. The effect feels less pronounced in Shela.
Many visitors bypass the old town altogether to head here, thanks in part to its miles-long sweep of beach.
It has a sleepier feel to the old town, and its community retains a sense of distinction, even having its own Swahili dialect despite the mere two-mile separation.
Shela, says Angelika Schuetz, who manages Prince Ernst of Hanover’s villa in the village along with others, has always had “a certain type of luxury that is not luxury-luxury.”
“The luxury here is that you don’t have to wear shoes,” she said as we sip coffee on the seafront verandah at Peponi, the whitewashed boutique hotel that put Lamu on the map.
“You’re not in a resort, you’re embedded in a local community. The village is right here, you’re part of it.”
The recent decision by the British Foreign Office to lift its long-standing advisory against travel to Lamu island has given Shela a much-needed boon.
But its effect is felt much less in Lamu town, which has struggled to compete with Shela for the tourist dollar.
Back in the old town, I run into Captain Smiley, a grizzled old-timer, on the jetty. As we talk, he reminisces about the good days, when he was almost daily out on the water, guiding tourists, and taking them on sunset cruises.
Then came the problems, and a six-month curfew, where everyone had to be indoors after dark, devastating to an economy that is heavily reliant on night fishing.
“Our grandparents were fishermen. We started out on the sea, too, but our other job was tourism,” he says. “Now tourism has slowed, we have to go fishing. But if there are no tourists, then it’s not a big market.”
He says gloomily of tourism: “We feel it has gone for good.”
Some are banking on the new port that is coming to Lamu, and which is already under construction. Conservationists hate it – the rich snorkelling grounds at Manda Toto, it is feared, will disappear.
Others see it as an opportunity for work. It could also be the saving grace for Lamu town’s hotels, with businessmen gravitating towards the island.
I leave the jetty, and thread my way back to my hotel. As I walk, the muezzin is calling the faithful to prayer before the town hunkers down into siesta mode.
Lamu seems to meander at its own slow pace while the world around it races on. But it’s a timelessness that is under threat, and I can’t help but wonder how long Lamu will be able to resist.
Photo Credits: Abdalla Barghash, Brian Siambi, Tahir Karmali