GEOGRAPHY OF MOMBASA

Mombasa County is a place of great importance to Kenya and the greater East African region despite its small geographical size. Within the 212.5 km2 area that is administratively referred to as Mombasa County, the geography of this region has greatly influenced the lives of its residents, past and present. In this article, we will look at how residents of Mombasa have built their lives around the geographical aspects of the area from centuries gone by to the present day.

The old town of Mombasa is located on the island in the eastern, seaward end. Kilindini, the modern deepwater harbour, separates the island from the Kenyan mainland to the south. While the old Mombasa harbor and Tudor Creek separate the island from the northern mainland. Mombasa island is linked to the mainland by the Makupa Causeway to the northwest, by the Nyali Bridge to the east and by the Likoni Ferry to the south.

Satellite map of Mombasa showing Mombasa Harbour and Tudor Creek to the North and Kilindini Harbour to the South. The A109 links Mombasa island to the mainland via Makupa causeway. The B8 links Mombasa island to North Coast via the Nyali bridge while the A14 joins the island with South Coast via the Likoni ferry.

Satellite map of Mombasa showing Mombasa Harbour and Tudor Creek to the North and Kilindini Harbour to the South.
The A109 links Mombasa island to the mainland via Makupa causeway. The B8 links Mombasa island to North Coast via the Nyali bridge while the A14 joins the island with South Coast via the Likoni ferry.

Mombasa Island has a deep natural harbour, a feature that allowed large trade ships to call on the town for centuries. Mombasa started as a harbour town and grew to be an important centre in the Indian Ocean trade. Up to the late 19th century, Port Tudor to the North West of the island served as the port for Mombasa. The old harbor enabled the city to exist and thrive for close to a millennium. Despite being less than 500 meters wide, the Mombasa harbor has great variation in depth from sea level at the edges to 50 meters below level at the center of the harbor.

The old Mombasa harbour as seen from the air. Large ships would approach Port Tudor from the ocean and snake through this deep natural harbour. (Image c/o 'Life in Mombasa')

The old Mombasa harbour as seen from the air. Large ships would approach Port Tudor from the ocean and snake through this deep natural harbour. (Image c/o ‘Life in Mombasa’)

The great natural harbor enabled big ships to call on Mombasa and the town grew from the resultant trade. The ships would approach Mombasa island from the ocean in the East and snake through the harbor, passing by the present location of Nyali bridge and further onward to Port Tudor. Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to Mombasa tried to make way through the channel but was shipwrecked due to their unfamiliarity with the depths of the sea bed.

The mouth of Mombasa Harbour as seen from Fort Jesus. Nyali is on the opposite side while two large ships approach the island from the ocean. From this position on the Eastern edge of the island, all approaching ships could be seen from Fort Jesus.

The map shows the depths of the sea bed at different places around Mombasa island. (Click on the image to enlarge and  see the depths)

The map shows the depths of the sea bed at different places around Mombasa island. (Click on the image to enlarge and see the depths)

Mombasa’s accessibility and involvement in the Indian Ocean trade was observed by the 16th-century Portuguese voyager Duarte Barbosa who claimed that, “[Mombasa] is a place of great traffic and has a good harbour in which there are always moored small craft of many kinds and also great ships, both of which are bound from Sofala and others which come from Cambay and Melinde and others which sail to the island of Zanzibar.”

1572 Mombasa from Civitates orbis terrarum by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg. This old map shows the location of Mombasa Old Town and ships in the Mombasa Harbour. Can you spot the big ship at Port Tudor in the background?  (Image c/o Wikipedia)

1572 Mombasa from Civitates orbis terrarum by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg.
This old map shows the location of Mombasa Old Town and ships in the Mombasa Harbour. Can you spot the big ship at Port Tudor in the background?
(Image c/o Wikipedia)

In the early 20th century, a new, bigger port was constructed in Kilindini Harbour, another natural harbour to the south of Mombasa island. The city was thurst into a new era as the gateway to East and Central Africa.

The mouth of Kilindini Harnour as seen from Mama Ngina Drive on the eastern edge of the island. Large ships approaching the port at Kilindini are guided out to sea by smaller boats so that the ships sail through the deep parts of the harbour.

The mouth of Kilindini Harnour as seen from Mama Ngina Drive on the eastern edge of the island. Large ships approaching the port at Kilindini are guided out to sea by smaller boats so that the ships sail through the deep parts of the harbour.

Mombasa’s accessibility by sea brought an exchange of ideas, goods and culture, taking advantage of its coastal location. The history of the city is a mixture of African, Persian, Arab, Portuguese and British influences which contributed to the rich cultures found in the city today. The Swahili culture that arose along the East African coast found a place to thrive in this island.

Living in an island has its advantages, a key one being the ability to defend the territory from invasion. The Portuguese took advantage of this when they finally conquered Mombasa in the 16th century and built Fort Jesus to defend their dominion. The site of Mombasa Old Town and Fort Jesus at the mouth of Mombasa harbor enabled Mombasa rulers to wait for approaching ships which had to pass through this narrow channel in the harbour where they would be attacked. Multiple wars were fought for the control of this island over the centuries such that the island was infamously called ‘Kisiwa cha Mvita’ or ‘Island of War’ by the local Swahili.

The canons on Fort Jesus face the mouth of Mombasa Harbour where all approaching ships had to pass on their way to dock at the old port at Tudor. Enemy ships would be fired upon if they approached the island. This made the island easier to defend.

The accessibility of Mombasa as a destination was further enhanced by the trade winds that aided navigation along the Indian Ocean. The Northerly winds would enable sailing up the coastline to Arabia and beyond while the Southerly winds would guide the ships back to Mombasa. Geography had once again lent the city a favourable hand.

The coastline along most of Mombasa and indeed most of the Kenyan coastline is flanked by coral reefs. By virtue of its location as a tropical coastline, Mombasa is similar with all other coastlines that straddle the equator in having coral reefs. The algae in the tissues of most corals require light for photosynthesis and require warmer ocean temperatures ranging between 20˚c-30˚c found along the equator. The coral reef acts as an important ecosystem and it is estimated to be a source of food and shelter for a quarter of all ocean species.

An image of Mombasa from space. The coral reef is marked by the white 'line' running parallel to the beach. Notice the different colour of the water on both sides of the reef indicating the depth of the sea bed. The floor of the ocean drops to 200m below sea level some 7 kms from Mombasa island. (Image c/o @astrosamantha of ISS)

An image of Mombasa from space. The coral reef is marked by the white ‘line’ running parallel to the beach. Notice the different colour of the water on both sides of the reef indicating the depth of the sea bed. The floor of the ocean drops to 200m below sea level some 7 kms from Mombasa island.
(Image c/o @astrosamantha of ISS)

For the residents of Mombasa, the reef system has proved to be an important source for fishing, building material and in the recent history, a tourist attraction. Kenya has recognized the importance of these unique ecosystems and established four marine parks along her coastline, including Mombasa Marine Park. Threats from overfishing, pollution and global warming continue to hang over Kenya’s reef system.

Mombasa is also blessed with a number of beautiful sandy beaches that stretch from Shanzu in the North to Shelly in the South. The beaches have the luxury of majestic views and the cool ocean breeze. This has determined zoning in Mombasa County where the affluent neighborhoods are located by or near the beach while the level of affluence decreases further inland.

Shanzu Beach

Shanzu Beach

Abundance of resources has not extended to the most important of all, water. Like all coastal towns in Kenya, Mombasa has suffered and continues to suffer from water scarcity. There are no permanent rivers that drain near Mombasa County. Wells have been the main source of water throughout Mombasa’s existence. In the modern times, piped water has been sourced from Mzima Springs in Tsavo but the supply has not kept up with increased demand from a growing city. Wells continue to be the source of water for many residents.

When it comes to vegetation cover, Mombasa has patches of mangrove growth in the creeks near the island and along the shore. Palm trees abound thriving in this tropical coastal location. They provide locals with food, building and cosmetic products. Haller Park stands out in terms of vegetation due to its sheer size. The site of the extensive park that also serves as an animal sanctuary is a former limestone quarry that was rehabilitated to become the ecological paradise that it is today. It stands out in what is otherwise a concrete jungle. So massive is the park that it is visible from space.

Haller Park is visible to the left of the image, the dark patch running parallel to the beach along the mainland.

Haller Park is visible to the left of the image, the dark patch running parallel to the beach along the mainland.

Like most other places in the world, Mombasa’s development, history, growth, culture and lifestyle is intrinsically linked to its geography. It has provided contact with new people, allowed for the growth of a unique culture and determined day-to-day matters like what to eat and how to get water. It is a prime example of man exploiting nature to make the most of life.

About the Author

Galimo Askumo
An explorer, an infomaniac and a hippie. I got tired of wanting to read detailed, long form articles on various topics that interest me so I decided to write about them. My username is an ode to the last two known members of my family tree which goes back 11 generations.

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6 Comments

  1. Neemo

    Great stuff!!!!

  2. David Gray

    Great read Askumo. And the origin of your name….Killa msee!!!!

    • Galimo Askumo

      Thank you, Mr. Gray. Took me long to get the perfect moniker but I’m there now.

  3. Lemmy

    Great read, very informative.

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