Ali Barbour’s cave revisited

What you need to know:

  • Face to face with the Forty Thieves in Diani at barbour’s famous cave restaurant .

It started with Ali Barbour, the one of the Forty Thieves fame. However, this Ali Barbour didn’t have to go so far as getting rid of the 40 thieves hiding in the enormous jars. He just found an enormous cave by the sea.

Actually, the story goes – and it’s from George Barbour himself who could pass for Ali – he’s baked brown in the sun from many years to match the legendary figure from the Arabian tales –that one day, one of the workers found the hole in the ground while building the family home which is now the boutique hotel, Flamboyant within a two minute walk of Ali Barbour, the internationally-famous restaurant in a natural subterranean limestone cave.

“In those days,” says the lithe and lean maverick who grew up in Kitale, “there was only bush here.” He’s talking about the 1950s.

“There were buffaloes that came to the beach and people would fly in and land their airplanes by the sea,” continues George. “The last time buffalos were seen on the beach here was in 1958.”

It’s not hard to believe for just inland from Diani beach are the Shimba hills where the last coastal herd of the buffaloes and the endemic Sable now reside in the Shimba Hills National Reserve, derived from the Digo word for the sable, shambi.

Walking through the coral rag forest filled with scrub and ancient trees like the baobab, the cave was indeed a find.

“There was a leopard with her two cubs in it. She finally left when we started to go in but the white-tailed mongoose hung around for a while.”

I ask George if he has photos of the leopard and the cave then. “I didn’t have a camera in those days,” he recalls.

“The cave was full of bush. There were vines hanging in it and the land snails would climb down them and couldn’t get back up. So they fell down to their graves.

“Anyway, a friend commented ‘this would make a bloody good bar.’’ And that is what sowed the seed. George approached an architect with the idea.

“It’s crazy. Don’t even think about it,” came the reply.

Luckily, the advice was ignored. “The house was finished and I had the builders with me.” They were his workers from Kitale.

“We cleared the cave and in April 1983, Ali Barbour’s Cave Restaurant was opened – the name chosen from a hatful of suggestions from diners. It was an instant hit and has never since lacked diners seeking a novelty of eating like cave man – only this cave man has evolved over millennia to eat in a sophisticated restaurant lit by a string of 200 bulbs cleverly hidden in the natural holes. “It took 10 days to string the lights in the cave and the first time we switched the lights on, it was like the coral was on fire. It was just too bright, like a curtain rising. It was amazing.”

We stroll into Ali Barbour’s. A flight of stairs leads down to the cave lit beautifully – much subdued from the first lighting. Eastern lanterns hang from the ceiling. Diners sit at their tables with a menu rich in fresh seafood.

It’s a varied menu with meat and vegetarian included. We dine on lobsters and prawns with a starlit sky peering through the gaping hole. A silver moon with the Orian travel across.

Slowly the sky begins to disappear and then reappear. It’s the false roof being slid across by a person.

“I designed the roof myself so that people could see the stars.” It’s theatrical. “The roof is like a tent on wheels. Sliding roofs all over the world stem from my idea,” states George. “I should have had it patented.”

Soft music wafts though the cave and we stroll to the far end which also acts as the theatre on theatre nights.

“The cave has amazing acoustics because of the uneven surface of the walls,” explains George. “It’s like a recording studio.”

Internationally-acclaimed plays like the ‘Love Letters’ written by A.R. Gurney and others have been acted on this stage.

A short stroll out of the cave, the party continues at The Forty Thieves Beach Bar, the one and only barefoot bar-restaurant. It’s a perfect way to end a meal followed by dancing under the stars on the huge expanse of white beach cleaned by the spring tide.