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Photo: AFP

Diane Armstrong visits a World Heritage-listed island off the African coast.

In Lamu a traffic jam is what happens when a donkey laden with bags of cement tries to pass a wooden barrow piled with soft drink bottles. In the narrow streets of this ancient town donkeys have right of way and pedestrians flatten themselves against the doorways when they hear the clatter of hooves.

Donkeys are the sole means of transport on this small island of 18,000 inhabitants off the coast of Kenya. There are only three cars. One of them belongs to the district commissioner, though how he manages to drive along these streets without scraping buildings on both sides, I can't imagine. Another serves as an ambulance - and it's no surprise that the third is devoted to taking sick donkeys to the donkey sanctuary.

This sanctuary, where the animals are treated without charge, is located on the waterfront, which bustles with activity.

In front of a parade of cafes, restaurants and hotels, motor boats disgorge tourists, dhows unload blocks of coral limestone or sacks of cement and touts offer their services as guides or boatmen.

But they do it in a good-natured way, without hassling. "Jambo, how are you today? Karibu, welcome, have a nice stay," they say with a smile when we refuse their offers. The people of Lamu have an innate grace and the friendliest attitude towards travellers I've ever encountered.

Everyone greets you and even the children say "jambo" (hello) with a big smile when they pass by. Whenever we asked directions people invariably offered to accompany us and later asked whether we'd found what we were looking for.

Lamu, the oldest and best-preserved town in East Africa, became a World Heritage site in 2001 because of its Swahili heritage and well preserved architecture. Its coral and mangrove timber buildings, with their inner courtyards, verandas and elaborately-carved wooden doors, are the product of an intriguing mix of Arab, Portuguese and African influences.

More than a thousand years ago Arab merchants traded cloves and cinnamon for the coral and mangrove timbers of Lamu. They settled here, brought Islam, and later transported slaves from the interior.

There's an air of picturesque decay about the old town, many of whose buildings have recently been bought and renovated by expats. We spent hours wandering around these streets, fascinated by this exotic place and enchanted by its friendly people.

At the outdoor fruit market under awnings made of sacking, women wrapped in black bui-buis selected their mangoes, pineapples and guavas while, inside the meat market, butchers hacked great slabs of beef.

Hawkers grilled corn cobs or turned spiced beef skewers on portable burners, girls in high heels gossiped with their friends and boys from the madrasa, in white skull caps and violet robes, filled plastic containers with water.

In the tiny barber's shop on the main street the walls were covered with Liverpool banners and photographs of the football team. In small workshops silversmiths fashioned delicate jewellery and woodworkers carved the distinctive Swahili doors. "Karibu, come in, welcome," they all said as we passed, without trying to sell us anything.

Much of Lamu is dilapidated and mouldering but this adds to its charm. Every few moments we had to jump aside to make room for donkey riders galloping past.

Donkeys are one of this island's unique features and it's amusing to see them peering into shop windows, but their appeal has a downside and, while walking around, we had to be very vigilant to avoid stepping in it. The heart of Lamu town is the square beneath the crenellated tower of the old fort. All day, throngs of people streamed past.

Men in traditional long robes or modern trousers sat in the shade of the almond tree, an imam in white walked past swinging a shopping bag full of limes and tomatoes, mothers with babies on their backs headed for the market and men pushed large wooden barrows.

A sheet of paper pinned to a wall advertised the current attraction at Lamu's only movie house. In a room above the square they were showing a Jet Li film and an educational video about the environment.

After a morning spent exploring the old town it was delightful to return to our guesthouse at Shela Beach. After a 10-minute boat ride we were in this exclusive area of colonnaded white villas spilling with bougainvillea, where a lovely beach stretched for kilometres.

In our spacious room at Royal House we slept in a regal king-size bed draped with a mosquito net. We ate our meals on a large terrace that overlooked the sea on one side and a flower-filled courtyard on the other.

Arnold, our obliging young waiter, brought meals whenever we wanted them and the chef cooked whatever we asked for. Our first dinner consisted of an indecent amount of the freshest, most succulent crab I've ever tasted, accompanied by a spicy salsa.

The following night when we asked for lobster, he was very apologetic. Lobster wasn't part of our package so he had to charge us $12 each!

Strolling along the beachfront we passed dhows whose names included Beyonce, I'll Be Back, and See You.

Boys splashed in the water, washing their donkeys, young girls in black bui-buis sunned their toes - the only part of their body that was visible apart from their eyes and hands - and children skylarked on the white sand.

We always ended up in the Peponi Hotel for lunch. In their whitewashed dining room, decorated in Portuguese style, we ate crab and avocado pancakes, drank wonderful espressos and gazed at the idyllic seascape.

One morning we took a dhow trip to the village of Matandoni. It seemed as though we were the only ones on this vast expanse of water lined with dense mangroves.

There was no wind but whenever Afan the boatman made the peculiar sound he called his wind song, a breeze sprang up.

When we reached this remote village, Mohamed, the village elder, was waiting on the pier. A slim, dignified man in a wraparound sarong, he showed us around his village where guavas, mangoes and papaya grew in profusion.

In the shade of a tamarind tree women sat weaving baskets and mats. Under a palm thatch awning a man made nails over an open fire, using a brown paper bag as bellows. Friendly young men lounged beside the clear blue sea whose shore was strewn with rubbish.

As we passed the little thatched classroom where children sat on the ground, they all waved excitedly. On the door of a building someone had scrawled: "Love without kisses is like tea without suger [sic]." Although the village had few amenities the people looked contented and everyone seemed to have plenty of time.

Yahia, the dhow captain, reflected on the nature of time as we sailed back to Lamu. "You know," he said in his slow, compelling way, "25 years ago there was time for everything and the day was long. Now everyone hurries. Now is May and next day it's December."

For most western visitors, however, Lamu is one of those rare places where the day is still long and December is far away.

The writer was a guest of Peregrine Adventures.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there: Qantas and South African Airways fly to Nairobi via Johannesburg.

Staying there: Lamu is a four-day trip extension on Peregrine Adventures' Kenya itineraries. The Lamu extension costs $490 twin-share ($665 for singles) and includes three nights in a guesthouse and breakfasts and dinners but doesn't include air fares from the mainland. For information phone Peregrine Adventures on 1300 854 500 or see www.peregrineadventures.com.