Travel: The Shopping Forecast
Saturday 03 April 1999
No 9: Sisal
Once a highly respected - and sought-after - raw material in the West, sisal these days has been relegated to producing such frivolous items as bags, baskets and fashionable flooring. As soon as nylon was invented, its days as the substance behind sturdy sacking and rope were numbered, not least because the crop requires such a large amount of investment - it takes six years from planting to harvesting (itself highly labour- intensive) - and man-made fibres are inevitably cheaper to produce.
In Kenya, however, sisal has always remained important. The crop can cope with unreliable water supplies and infertile soil and is a versatile resource for local people, as well as providing a useful supply of baskets, bags and mats for visiting tourists.
If you want to see sisal production at its source, fly to Mombasa and journey out to Jumba la Mtwana, a national monument 13km beyond the coastal city. The site, once a slave-trading settlement, was recently excavated and is now run by the National Museums of Kenya. According to the Footprint Guide to East Africa (pounds 14.99), a small entrance fee buys you visiting rights to three mosques, a number of tombs and eight houses, as well as a wander through one of Kenya's prettiest locations, close to a beach with shady baobab trees. Don't stay too long though, because a little further north, alongside Kikambala beach, you'll come to the Vipingo Sisal Estates (00 254 12 532 204) with fields and fields of spiky green sisal plants.
The property includes sisal factories, housing for the workers and mango and cashew plantations. From the road, you can see the leaves being cut by hand. Tours are sometimes possible, by prior arrangement.
On the way back to Mombasa, just outside Mamba, is the Bombolulu Craft Centre (00 254 11 471 704) where, for 320 shillings (pounds 3.20), you can do a tour of the workshops.
The centre is open from 8am to 5pm and you can buy good-quality sisal baskets here at prices from approximately 960 shillings (pounds 9.60) each.
In the UK, a large, bright sisal basket from House (01258 454884 for mail order) costs pounds 13.25, so buy 115 in Kenya and sell them to your friends back home.
You'll make enough profit to pay for the latest deal from The Holiday Place (0171-431 0670): 14 nights half-board accommodation at the Plaza Beach Hotel in Mombasa for pounds 419, leaving Gatwick on 11 April - and return next year.
Gadget of the week
For those who feel the need to dress well on holiday, this week's gadget could become a necessity. The Shirt Press's 60 different pure cotton shirts, they say, never need ironing.
You simply wash them, hang them up to dry overnight and put them on, crease-free, in the morning. The shirts cost from pounds 60 each and can be sent via mail order on 0171-430 1433.
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