Fatuma's Tower

»The difference between desert island and dessert island«


“I’m sitting on the deck eating fresh fruit.” Just another day at the office for Gillies Turle, co-owner of the exquisite Fatuma’s Tower on the island of Lamu. He and his partner Fiammetta have made a home here that welcomes yogis from all over the world. Fatuma’s Tower is a retreat that is pretty far off the beaten track. The island can only be reached by boat, and has no roads for the only two cars in residence. This leaves plenty of room for the calm Lamu is famous for, as well as the glorious birds and monkeys that inhabit the gardens of Fatuma’s Tower. Here, and in every other part of the retreat, the Turles’ dedication to living a life of ease, joy and good health is apparent in every corner.

  • What we love
  • The unique property of the fully restored Fatuma’s Tower
  • The lovely Turles, owners, residents and hosts
  • Eclectic range of visiting teachers and daily in-house yoga classes
  • Impromptu beach and full moon parties in the village of Shela
  • What to know
  • If travelling from the UK, check the Foreign Office website for any overseas travel warnings and insurance advice
  • The island is beautifully isolated - not for nightclubbers
  • June is the rainy month
  • Travel vaccinations are redundant on Lamu
  • Why go
  • A blissful retreat in all senses of the word
  • Family-friendly
  • Car-free, welcoming locals, ocean air

Fatuma’s Tower, in Shela Village on the Kenyan Island of Lamu, is a place for retreating in all good senses of the word. Yes, it has the Internet, but the connection is not reliable enough to pump in all of the bandwidth-heavy communication that crowds our day. Yes, there are groceries for sale. However these are more likely to be whole fish fresh from the ocean, or kids offering homemade samosas for sale on the beach, than heavily packaged goods from an impersonal supermarket chain.

While Fatuma’s Tower is primarily a destination for visiting yoga teachers and their groups, this is also the inviting home of two very dedicated yogis who offer their own evening classes. These are taught by Gillies and his colleague Morris to all who are here, whether part of a booked retreat or not. It’s a little like being in the home of a yoga-loving relative, if that relative lived on an island that is among the most beautiful of the world’s tranquil and far-flung spots. Gillies took the Sivananda Teacher’s Training course during one of his many trips to India and his quarter-century of yoga practice has brought him into contact with a myriad of teachers before and since. His colleague Morris shares the teaching of the inhouse classes as well as freelancing by giving private lessons, and he is described by Gillies as being “a natural yogi who began practicing with me and was taken by one of our guests to an Ashtanga Teacher Training course in South Africa.” Despite the depth of all that training and experience, Gillie’s self-deprecating humor ensures that his guests’ focus is on the yoga rather than his teaching. “Huff and puff” is how he describes his sessions - a no-frills way of reminding us that yoga is all about the breath.

Group bookings at Fatuma’s Tower are an erratic affair, often affected by the UK government’s travel warnings on the area. Most of the retreat’s business comes from the UK, and if such a warning is put out (when the weather gets heavy or there is unrest in neighboring Somalia) then travel insurance is effectively negated. No insurance means no travellers, certainly not in groups, and so the exquisite peace and beauty of Fatuma’s Tower may lie fallow for months at a time. This is a crying shame for the UK’s yoga travellers, especially in light of the fact that this area is now the safest it has ever been. Such deterrents to UK groups are a boon for solo travellers though. It’s times like these that Fatuma’s Tower has vacant rooms, and as the property’s entire accommodation consists of just ten double rooms (the room numbers are kept deliberately low to avoid losing the intimacy of this tropical paradise), this situation is not a common occurrence.

The double rooms within Fatuma’s Tower are a delicate balance between luxury and authenticity in keeping with the island’s culture and environment. Furnished with all the necessities like fans, solar hot water, mosquito nets and ensuite bathrooms - and some comfortable extras like banks for lounging - they are nonetheless a far cry from the mass produced identical rooms of your average hotel. Each has its own character and while some are sized perfectly for two, others are more like apartments and are ideal for groups and families. Accommodations are dotted around the property: some are in the original Fatuma’s Tower - named for the Swahili woman who lived here more than a century ago - some are in the Sand Castle and still others are in the Garden Cottage. Families are welcome here, and there’s nothing like open airy spaces, beach access, and a relaxed atmosphere to have a ‘gearing down’ effect on children as they ease back into their natural rhythm, far from school bells and alarm clocks.

Fatuma’s Tower is tucked between vegetation-covered sand dunes and a high coral wall. Over that wall is Shela village, from which the Turles and their guests can smell the fragrant dishes being cooked, and hear the celebrations of weddings as well as the eerily beautiful call to prayer fives times a day. The local shops are wooden-countered affairs, lit with paraffin lamps at night, and nothing here is plastic-wrapped. Homegrown fruit and vegetables and freshly caught fish are popular items, with produce being brought in by donkey from the Lamu market.
Donkey is the primary mode of transport on land here, with boat making up the water-transport quotient. In the true yogic spirit, this requires an understanding of the natural environment. Waiting for the tide is far removed from our normal daily habit of tapping our foot impatiently while we wait for a delayed train. Similarly, anyone who has dealt with donkeys knows that while they are mostly reliable, there comes a time when they simply refuse to move until they are good and ready. A common sentiment from guests here is that have “finally caught up with themselves.” And that, Gillies says, “is the best result we can have from a guest at Fatuma’s Tower.” Little wonder that so many return here.
It’s always difficult to know whether or not to write about a center. Will the publicity ruin the unspoiled atmosphere that makes it so great in the first place? Sometimes the answer is yes, but in the case of Fatuma’s Tower, the answer is much easier. This is a home as well as a retreat - opened to guests but never to hordes. A chance to ease back into the gentle pleasure of doing nothing, time spent here is never time wasted.

About the area: Lamu Island

A small cutaway of Kenya on the edge of the vast Indian ocean, Lamu Island is easily accessible by boat from Lamu Airport on neighboring Manda Island (it’s actually Manda Airport but called Lamu Airport). There are two main towns on Lamu. Lamu Town proper, and Shela Village. Although both are well-populated, neither they nor the island as a whole have lost the relaxed and easy lifestyle retained since the heydays of the Swahili Coast. Turquoise beaches, abundant sea life, friendly people, clean air - all of the elements that an idyllic coastal holiday should have. The climate is much the same year-round. The Equator runs through Kenya so although the water may go down the drain a different way depending how far south you are, the weather is much the same all over the country. It’s always hot: 25 - 35 degrees C (77 - 95F) year-round. The only thing to be aware of is rainy season. Well, rainy month; June to be exact. Any other time of year this is a blissfully temperate place to be.

Image credit: Fatuma's Tower

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