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To Zanzibar the Hard Way

December 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Travel


Travel0There is nothing to worry about. I know many people in Kipumbwe,’ says Mr. Iddy, looking at us the way you look at a child who is worried about their first night away from home, ‘I will come with you. Everything will be fine, yes?’

After a month in Pangani spent teaching English and slowing down to the rural pace of life, my wife Jane and I feel ready for a change of scene. Pangani is a lazy fishing town on the Tanzanian coast, with a beautiful beach that welcomes the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. On a clear day you can catch a glimpse of Zanzibar, perched on the horizon. Most tourists fly there from the mainland or take the big fast ferry from Dar es Salaam but those options are too expensive for us. Mr. Iddy, our Pangani expert on everything, recommends the sailing boat from Kipumbwe, a remote village further down the coast.

‘Kipumbwe is actually closer to Zanzibar so it won’t take as long to get there,’ he continues. ‘I will come with you to arrange things with the captain.’

We are starting to learn the way things work here. We know that ‘arrange things with’ really means ‘collect my commission from’, but we trust his judgement. And so, at two o’clock on a hot and humid Thursday afternoon, we find ourselves at the edge of the Pangani River waiting for the bus to Kipumbwe.

‘It’s only a short way, right Mr. Iddy?’

‘Yes, of course. It is only 35 kilometres. This should take maybe one and a half hours.’

The bus is overflowing with people, as every bus in Africa is, and we are lucky to get seats. On this typically hot May afternoon the smell of 60 bodies’ worth of sweat fills the bus as quickly as the bodies themselves. While we are in motion, there is the slightest of breezes through the window. This bus, however, is the mechanical equivalent of a game of American football: 10 seconds of action followed by a three-minute break. Or 10 minutes if luggage needs to be hauled off the roof. Or 20 minutes if some part of the wheel falls off and some guys have to bang around randomly underneath until it is fixed. Or 25 minutes if the bus reaches the spot where the sun is shining most brightly into our window and there is no shade, and the driver gets out to have a chat and a joint with his buddy. Actually I don’t know if he is smoking a joint but anyone who takes three hours to drive 35 km must be under the influence of something.

‘No mosquitoes? On the coast of equatorial Africa? During rainy season?’ I respond doubtfully.

Darkness settles like a mosquito net over this remote edge of the African mainland. The bus limps into Kipumbwe, the end of the road where, being the day’s only traffic, it is greeted by the entire village swarming around it. Amazingly, in a country where staring at foreigners seems to be the national pastime, none of these people are interested in the two sweaty white people who tumble out of the bus, except for our curiosity value. This is probably because they have nothing to sell us – there are no taxis, no onward buses, no safaris, no hotels. The bus stops here for the night, blocking the only road in or out, and heads back early the next morning.

Kipumbwe is a tiny settlement on the beach that happens to be the closest point to Zanzibar on the African mainland. Only the most intrepid or cost-conscious, or foolish wazungu – foreigners like us – take their Zanzibar voyage from a place like this. The only accommodation in Kipumbwe is a nameless guesthouse opposite the bus. To describe the rooms as ‘spartan’ would be a disservice to those thrifty Greeks of years gone by. Had our room been offered to the hardy soldiers of ancient Sparta, I think most would have gone AWOL and opted for the resort 20 kilometres up the coast.

The guesthouse is six tiny rooms around a central open-air atrium. The rooms even have traveller-friendly names like ‘Paris’ and ‘American’ as well as less romantic sounding ones like ‘Pakistan’ and ‘Iraq.’ The atrium is in fact merely a concrete floor with some puddles; puddles that look like water but, on closer inspection seem to at least partly consist of urine. The shared toilet, to the side of the atrium, is simply a roofless enclave that doesn’t even have a hole in which to deposit anything. Instead, it seems, you just pick a spot on the floor and let fly.

Our room is almost exactly how I imagined Nelson Mandela’s prison cell to be, minus the law books. It is a two-by-three-metre concrete cube with a thin mattress laid across a raised concrete ledge. The window, barred and partially covered by a limp, tatty curtain, has mosquito mesh, but this is riddled with so many holes it defeats the purpose. The landlady notices us noticing this and says something in Swahili to Mr. Iddy.

‘She says they have no mosquitoes here’, he translates.
‘No mosquitoes? On the coast of equatorial Africa? During rainy season?’ I respond doubtfully.
‘That’s what she says.’
‘Then why do they have mosquito mesh on the windows?’
‘Aha, you make a good point.’
‘We’ll take it’, I say in mock enthusiasm. The landlady smiles; Jane frowns and mentions how many insects and spiders she has counted in the room so far. At around US$1.50 for the night, the room is probably quite fairly priced.
‘Right, that’s that sorted,’ I say positively, ‘Now, Mr. Iddy, take us to Kipumbwe’s finest restaurant.’

After dinner we retire to the Paris suite to count the cockroaches while Mr. Iddy heads to the beach to negotiate the terms of our passage with any boat captains that might be going to Zanzibar. It is a quarter to midnight when he knocks on our door, unsteady on his feet and smelling strongly of beer.
‘I found the boat that is leaving tomorrow.’

‘Oh good,’ I say, anticipating a good five or six hours of sleep before an early sailing as the sun rises. ‘What time do we leave?’
‘The problem, you see, is that they must leave when the wind is best. So the boat will go at two o’clock.’
‘We have to wait around here until two in the afternoon?’
‘No, no, 2 a.m.’
I go back inside to update Jane on developments while Mr. Iddy heads back to the bar.
‘Are you all nuts?’ Jane asks me, ‘Sailing in a little boat on the open sea in complete darkness for four hours?’
‘Well, Mr. Iddy said it usually takes three hours – and we have a torch … Besides, we don’t have much option; this is the only boat leaving today. Hey, how bad can it be?’ I really must stop saying that.

At 1.55 a.m., without having had any sleep, we are collected by Mr. Iddy and we walk down to the dark beach with our tiny torch. The drizzly rain has stopped and our path is lit by the incredible array of stars that covers the sky, like a bowl of sugar spilt on a black tablecloth. Being near the equator, I can’t work out whether we see the northern or southern hemisphere stars here. It looks like both, just judging by the sheer number of them. At least once a minute a shooting star appears for a brief moment, zipping across the night sky.

We have paid US$25 each for this voyage, five times what locals pay, so we expect that there will probably only be a couple of other passengers and we will have our pick of seats.

It’s too dark to see the vessel moored a little way out from the shore, in deeper waters. We imagine a simple but sturdy engine-powered boat for our voyage. The captain will be experienced and courteous and maybe even speak some English. We have paid US$25 each for this voyage, five times what locals pay, so we expect that there will probably only be a couple of other passengers and we will have our pick of seats.

There are actually about seven or eight other people waiting on the shore. ‘Are they on our boat?’ I wonder out loud, a little snobbishly but surprised that we are sharing with so many others.

‘Okay then, have a nice trip,’ Mr. Iddy slurs as we shake hands on the shore. ‘I’ll see you back in Pangani.’
We are helped into a little dinghy that paddles us out to the main boat. ‘It looks a good size,’ Jane says optimistically as the shadowy dhow starts to emerge in the darkness. Indeed it does, probably 10 metres long by three across, very basic – no fancy electronic navigation gizmos or safety equipment here – but strong-looking. The basic design of the dhow has changed very little in over a thousand years. It is basically a hollowed-out hull with a mast and a strong canvas sail. Our boat only varies from this ancient design by the addition of a small outboard motor at the back.

The dinghy pulls up and we climb aboard the dhow, calculating the best place to claim a seat. I turn on our torch and slowly pan the length of the boat. That’s when we see them. Masses and masses of human bodies, squashed together like sardines in a tin. Every possible inch of this boat is covered by a passenger’s body or their typically eclectic luggage. Some people have sacks of rice, some have suitcases, others have baskets full of tiny fish and one is even clinging to a bed headboard and frame. There must be 50 people on board this vessel. In normal circumstances it would have a capacity of maybe eight or 10. Most of them are asleep, no doubt having boarded when the boat arrived hours before. They cringe and shield their eyes when our torch beam hits them so I switch it off again, leaving us with only the light of the stars.

Someone calls out something that includes the word wazungu. Passengers groan and reluctantly retract an extended leg or roll onto their side until there is enough room for us to squeeze aboard. We realise that the inflated amount we paid for our passage will buy us no preferential treatment on this boat. The two of us have exactly enough space to sit on our backsides on the deck, knees up to our chests and bags clutched tightly in the darkness. The boat is sitting very low in the water, thanks to all the passengers and cargo. We can reach over and touch the sea from our seats. The boat floats around for another hour while the dinghy delivers more and more passengers. Somehow they all manage to get on. The outboard motor is finally started up with some vicious yanks of the cord at around 3 a.m. and we head out to sea. We are very uncomfortable. Our pampered western backsides are not accustomed to long periods sitting on hard wood and our limbs and joints are not flexible enough to be in such positions for any length of time. We concentrate on the beauty of our surroundings – the breathtaking night sky and its reflection on the gentle waves of the Indian Ocean. After all, the journey will only take three hours. Half an hour out to sea, the motor is cut and the sail hoisted. It’s an old-fashioned dhow sail with the distinctive Arabic shape and it puffs up elegantly as the wind catches it. The 50 or so people and their assorted sacks and suitcases and bed frames clearly weigh a lot and the bulwarks of the poor old boat are barely above the water line. Any time we hit a wave on the wrong angle, a good portion of it drenches those of us seated around the sides. After one or two of these, we are soaked through.

‘Are you all nuts?’ Jane asks me, ‘Sailing in a little boat on the open sea in complete darkness for four hours?’

I check my watch: 4.15 a.m. The distant lights of the African mainland still seem less distant than the distant lights of Zanzibar. Perhaps three hours was a bit optimistic. Wouldn’t it be funny, I ponder during a shivering moment with my head between my legs, if the sail and the outboard motor both broke? Ha! What would we do? There’s no mobile phone coverage out here, we’re a million miles from land in any direction and there is no safety equipment whatsoever on board, not even so much as a lifejacket. I guess we could all hang on to the wooden bed frame. On the positive side, the sea is very warm.

Shortly after I close this internal conversation and begin a much happier one involving a seafood buffet, a loud ripping sound from above jerks awake the sleeping passengers and causes panicked shouts among the crew. The sail has snapped off the masthead and torn. The crew lowers it to investigate. Even from where we sit in the dark it does not look good. But, serious though a ripped sail is, we still have the outboard motor. All heads turn to the back of the boat. The outboard motor guy pulls the string with a flourish. Nothing. Another tug. Nothing. A nervous smile then five more tugs in quick succession, this time with a little more desperation. Nothing.

The captain impatiently makes his way to the back of the boat and has a try. Tug. Tug. Tug. Still nothing. The frightened cries and uneasy attempts at humour have stopped. There is an eerie silence. We are swaying silently in the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean, an unlit, uncovered, overloaded old dhow with no lifeboats or lifejackets. Radio communication is many years away from this part of the world – no one on the shore knows where we are. It is the dead of night. We are past the point of no return but nowhere near the point of nearly there.

No longer propelled forward by anything, the boat is rocked by the heavy ocean waves. Left. Right. Left. Right. Gaining momentum on each tilt like a playground swing. People begin to shout to each other in Swahili. Children start to cry. No one is asleep now. At one point we lean so far to one side that we dip under the water line and the sea slurps in over the bulwarks, before the boat is hurled back the other way, splashing more water into the already wallowing boat. Two men are steadily bailing out but the ship’s only bucket cannot compete with the endless waves. I begin planning our post-capsize strategy and get as far as ‘scream for help.’ It was only a week or so ago, we learn later, that a dhow sunk in almost identical circumstances and all of its passengers drowned.

There is a call from the bow end – the sail has been patched up. Everyone watches anxiously as it is hoisted and attached to the mast. Any extra-strong gust of wind could tear it again beyond repair. I check my watch again – 4:30 a.m. I’m reminded of Einstein explaining his theory of relativity: ‘One minute spent talking to a pretty girl seems a very short time but one minute with your hand on a hot stove feels like forever. That’s relativity?

The sail holds out, although every gust of wind causes the mast to creak and everyone on board to hold their breath. The waves are strong out here and we continue to pitch from side to side. The antinausea pills we popped before getting on board are no match for this kind of situation. ‘I feel sick,’ groans Jane, who never feels sick. She twists as far as she can without kicking anyone and aims off the side of the boat. Her lack of gag reflex means she can’t produce anything more than some spit. I have more success when my turn comes. I point my head downwards but the ship is so low in the water that I don’t need to. Last night’s dinner of egg and chips is recognisable even in the dark as it floats out to sea. One portion of vomit doesn’t make a clean break from my mouth and ends up blowing into the shirt of the man downwind from me. He doesn’t even flinch.

Four hours in, it’s six o’clock and we don’t seem any closer to the glow of Zanzibar’s lights than we did two hours ago. The water continues to soak us and increase the layer of salt on our faces. We can’t lick our lips because they are covered in warm salt water and we can’t dry them with anything because everything is soaking wet. At around 7 a.m. it begins to get light, just as the drizzle starts. We hardly notice it. The man sitting next to – and I mean right next to – Jane has to pee. Without even standing up, he just slides the leg of his shorts up and relieves himself on the deck, letting out a little sigh of relief.

Still no sign of Zanzibar. The lights from the towns have gone out and the grey sky is blocking any view of land. We are both shivering from the wind on our wet clothes; our teeth are chattering. We have lost all sensation in our backsides and I start to get cramp in my legs. As we close in on Hour Six, we wonder what else could possibly go wrong. In our sleep-deprived, broken-spirited state, we think we can see the Pirates of the Caribbean on the horizon but it turns out to be just a lone fisherman beating the morning rush. We are thankful for small mercies. The sun that starts to push its way through the clouds is symbolic, the start of a new day, offering the possibility and hope of finally arriving somewhere. The faint view of some hills appears on the horizon. Either we have gone in a big circle and are heading back to Kipumbwe or we might, just possibly, be within sight of Zanzibar.

It is only another one-and-a-half hours before we make landfall at the small town of Mkokotoni. The boat drops anchor 30 metres from shore and a series of little metal dinghies race out to pick up passengers, at 100 shillings (about US$0.20) a head. There is a lot of push and shove to get on the first dinghy and we can’t blame people for being in a hurry to get off this thing. The man and woman who win the race quickly climb onto the dinghy but their haste causes it to capsize, bags and all. They flail around in the water, not sure which piece of baggage or floating item of clothing to retrieve first. We feel sorry for them, but our sympathies are not shared by the rest of the passengers, who howl with laughter, clutching their stomachs and pointing at the poor couple like schoolyard bullies. We feel sorriest for the dinghy ‘captain,’ who must now haul his upturned boat back to shore with the prolonged guffaws of the passengers ringing in his ears, knowing he won’t get any revenue from this boatload.

It’s 10 o’clock when we touch dry land: 27 hours since we slept; eight hours of sea-borne agony on a trip that had been described to us as three hours of romantic comfort. There will be time for recriminations later. Wet, cold, stiff and stunned, all we can think about is getting down to Stone Town, Zanzibar’s capital, and finding a hotel with a soft bed.


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