My trip to Kilifi for the new year celebrations doesn’t get off to the best start.
There is a problem with the Airbnb my friends chose (it’s double booked) and we subsequently have nowhere to live. The drama unfolds as I’m about to board an eight-hour flight from London to Nairobi, and continues while I wait for my connecting flight to Malindi, a town on the North Coast of Kenya.
A heady mix of red-eye travelling and Christmas fatigue doesn’t exactly fill me with energy for three incoming days of dancing with east Africa’s top DJs, singers and MCs in 30 degrees celcius heat (as fun as that sounded eight earlier when I was doing the booking).
Still, things have a way of working themselves out.
The accommodation issue is sorted with relative ease (more of that later), while Kilifi New Year (KNY) is not, it turns out, your average festival.
KNY, the official name of a contemporary African alternative and electronic music festival, is accodring to its official site: ‘‘A contemporary African alternative and electronic music festival held under the stars and in the shade of thousand-year-old baobabs in Kilifi town on the coast of Kenya from December 30, 2019 to January 2, 2020.
Set on 20 acres of pristine lush plateau, home to secret wild orange and lemon orchards, bamboo forests, in the upper reaches of Takaungu Creek on the Indian Ocean, Kilifi New Year is a melting pot of global cultures, a brilliant source of inspiration and a haven for freedom of expression, with a strong commitment to conscious living and sustainability.’’
After a refreshing shower, I grab a taxi to the KNY site. It’s not far—roughly 10 minutes on a motorbike. On arrival, the first thing you notice is the setting.
Located in Kilifi town near Takaungu Creek on a 25-acre plateau (known as Beneath the Baobabs), you’re surrounded by lush green valleys, wild orange orchids and thousand-year-old baobabs trees. Forget muddy fields festival sites, this is like a yoga retreat on smack.
After picking your way through a winding forest, you’re greeted by an oversized green chameleon (made from recycled material) and a ''Welcome Home'' sign. As you wander further in, there’s plenty of distractions to keep you entertained: A giant climbing frame, a five-metre log swing, a water slide, and a wooden elephant which you can climb into.
And that’s before the music has started. Once night falls, the place transforms into a twinkling wonderland. I head to the main stage, and buy a drink from the bar (it’s token based, and run by the festival organisers, so you need to visit the voucher stand first).
At 8pm, it’s still relatively quiet. Now in its fourth year, the KNY festival is small but growing. This year, the number of tickets sold more than doubled (from 1,500 last year to 4,000) after a marketing push on social media, print and online. But it doesn’t ever feel too busy, which is a touch.
Several hours later, however, and the New Years Eve party is in full swing.
There are four stages, including the Baobab Deck, which fast becomes my favourite.
Set under a giant baobab tree, it’s an impressive wooden platform hanging over the valley’s edge. Look out over the railing and the vast expanse of green trees makes you feel insignificantly small, the same way watching a film about space does. By day, the area is a chill-out zone complete with brightly-coloured cushions, by night, there’s something very fun about partying in a giant tree.
As the New Year rings in, the crowd is under the spell of Nairobi-based DJ Dylan-S. Known for playing house and techno sounds merged with East African rhythms, the crowd is visibly jumping up and down as the clock strikes midnight. It might have been dark, but it was still incredibly hot. I was sweating and dancing somewhere in the middle of the crowd.
Several hours later, in the early hours of 2020, I catch a Tuk-Tuk back to my house. Accommodation-wise, I was lucky. A different friend had a spare room in their Airbnb, which I successfully managed to nab. A spacious house run by a lovely British family, their place was actually much closer to the festival and I spent less on taxis (so it turned out for the best).
The festival also offers free camping site (you just need to bring your own tent), while a campervan costs Ksh5,000 ($50) per vehicle. This year, they also teamed up with Tarpo (a Kenyan tent manufacturer) to provide boutique glamping options (prices start from Ksh9,300 ($93) per tent for three nights).
There are plenty of Airbnbs available in Kilifi, just book early. If you’re not camping, you do need a way of getting about—the festival site is off the main road down a long, sandy track. I would advise hiring your own car or finding a driver and sticking with them (though there is no shortage of people at the entrance plying for your business).
The next day, KNY marketing manager Chia Kayanda’s words ring in my head: “There is more to do than party, party, party here.” And thank God for that, too. There’s plenty of independent food vendors at the festival, selling everything from paneer tikka to fish and chips.
You can also take a yoga class at KISIMA, the Mind, Body and Soul area, attend a panel at the Kilifi New Year University on everything from sexual consent to youth and suicide, or play a game of volleyball.
I head over to The Sanctuary (previously called The Psych Area), which is a “calm space” for “anyone going through anything” says Kayanda. It’s a drug-free zone, but they’re here to support everyone without judgement (a sign reads: “In case of emergency, call Krishy” and provides a phone number).
If you’re feeling weird, someone will talk to you, cool you down and play relaxing music. Even if you’re not, it’s very soothing. I escape the heat and busy-ness early mid-afternoon and lie my sore head down for a bit. As Kayanda points out: ’It’s therapy at a festival, which I think we can all use.”
After three days, the festival ends with “The Burn.” A large recycled wooden structure is set alight to mark new beginnings. I watch as a thirty-foot mask is engulfed in a ball of orange flames. Little flecks of fluorescent fire float off into the air. New Years can often be stressful, I think, but when it works out it's worth it.