In a world where privacy is rapidly becoming an unattainable luxury, hiring or renting your own private island on the unspoiled lush archipelago 70 kilometres south of Mombasa is the way to go.
Swaying palm trees, sheltered creeks, salt wedge estuary and thickets of mangrove jungle are just a few of Funzi Island’s delights — which are attracting Kenyan buyers searching for solitude deep in the Indian Ocean.
When you set foot on Funzi Island and the three entirely deserted islets - Kigamboni, Kinazini and Milimani - you feel like you are the only person on the planet.
Delighted with the exclusivity, Carol Otieno, one of few Kenyans who owns an island, says she would go on vacation in Funzi and spend days exploring the mangrove islets when she fell in love with it.
Five years ago, she decided to buy land on Kigamboni Island. She built a five-bedroom ultra-luxurious eco-lodge which she hopes to open by April.
“There is no place like this place. Funzi is like heaven on earth... and the villa offers unbroken views of the sea,’’ says Ms Otieno who is a large-scale farmer in Kilifi and lives in Mombasa’s upmarket Nyali estate. The eco-lodge sits on one and a half acres of land on the private island.
‘‘The land cost Sh6 million,’’ she says, adding that despite the lonely island being ‘‘in the middle of nowhere,’’ it is safe.
Commit to conservation
For those who fancy owning an island, Ms Otieno says, a buyer has to be committed to conserve the mangrove ecosystem and balance luxury with sustainability. One gets a permit from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Kenya Forest Service (KFS).
“There are set rules you have to adhere to. You cannot cut the mangroves or throw rubbish into the waters among other things,” she said, adding that they protect rare species of flora and fauna, nesting grounds for marine animals like turtles and birds such as leatherback, loggerhead, green, hawksbill, and olive ridley sea turtles.
There is also the option of hiring the private island. Property owners can lease land for Sh20,000 to Sh500,000 per year depending on the size.
“You first apply to the chief conservator of the forests requesting to be allowed to carry out eco-tourism services. Then KFS will access the area on its sustainability before the decision on occupation can be given or rejected,” said George Wara, the KFS ecosystem conservator in Kwale.
On another reclusive Kinazini Island, there is Hassan Shapi whose property sits on one and a half acres which is rented.
He owns Kinazini Funzi Dhow Day Safari, a restaurant which can accommodate up to 300 guests. Crushed seashells line up the path towards the restaurant nestled in long palm trees. It is the only property on Kinazini Island.
It has laid-back ambience, traditional makuti-thatch roofs and built from locally sourced stones.
“We have rented this land from the KFS. We don’t interfere with the environment, we do not touch the mangrove forests. We also make sure that all non-bio-degradable waste is taken back to the mainland,” said Mr Shapi.
“The amount charged a year depends on the size and number of businesses that someone owns. It could range from Sh20, 000 to Sh100,000.”
Mr Shapi who also organises cruising tours up crocodile-infested Ramisi River where the estuary meets the ocean says the beauty of the beach, the seclusion, the calmness and unspoiled nature attracted him to the island.
On the islands, you can see almost everything. At Kinazini, one can take a walk on the coral sand that encircles a jungled centre or just sit and watch monitor lizards, banded mongoose, turtles and birds. Or find thrill in creek fishing.
A few minutes away from Kinazini Island, there is Milimani Island where another eco-lodge is under construction.
A few years ago, most private islands scattered in Indian Ocean (Funzi, Wasini, Mpunguti and Chale) were owned by wealthy foreigners but now Kenyans are beginning to buy or rent a spot in the exclusive hideaways.
A sizeable number of Italians and other nationalities are drawn to Malindi, Watamu and Lamu, according an Inside View Report by Knight Frank.
For instance, Alessandro Torriani, who had settled in South Coast and built Funzi Keys resort which closed recently due to low tourist arrivals, is said to own Funzi and four other small islands. A few years he put some of them up for sale.
He was selling one for $16 million (Sh1.6 billion), a price tag that raised eyebrows among local residents who have clashed with him over ownership of the islands and cutting down of an indigenous forest aged about 100 years old. Some of his gazetted islands were reclaimed by the government.
KWS issued a warning, saying that some of the uninhabited parts of islands such as Chale, Mpunguti and Kisite are marine reserves and no more developments would be allowed.
Eric Aduda, the KWS warden in charge of Kisite-Mpunguti, a serene location that attracts lovers of dolphins and snorkelers, says they work together with the KFS to sensitise the existing investors on sustainable development.
“We ensure areas with the mangroves are protected. We create awareness that has led to the owners coming up with their own ecosystem protection initiatives,’’ said Mr Aduda.
Chale, Funzi and Wasini Islands in Diani are still famed for their exclusivity and privacy. The islands continue to attract high-spenders who fly in on private jets.
However, there is a new crop of holidaymakers searching for exclusive retreats and they hire dhows which are cheaper and sail to destinations such as Funzi where they can hole up in pampered seclusion.
Hotels in islands such as The Sands at Chale resort has been attracting more domestic tourists following the launch of direct flights to Ukunda.
‘‘Most guests come from Nairobi, thanks also to the local airline connection directly to Ukunda and we also seen an increase in guests from Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria, Tanzania and Ethiopia,’’ said Richard Glaser, the group sales and marketing manager at The Sands at Nomad and Chale Island in Diani in an earlier interview.
Mikoko Cove, another eco-lodge on Funzi Island also attracts honeymooners looking for new romantic experiences such as dining on sand banks during low tides. The eco-lodge reminds someone of life in village, unspoilt by modernity.
It has four bandas that can accommodate 14 people. The hotel is built with locally quarried stones and its roofs thatched with traditional makuti.
The sisal-woven chandeliers hang almost carelessly from the unfinished roof with unpolished bamboo. Outside, the tall trees are un-manicured and we wade our feet in big leaves that are effortlessly rustic beautiful.
“We run on solar and generator. Our guests mostly come with a boat through Bodo village,” said Sophia Murage of Mikoko Cove lodge.