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At sea off Africa


The once black, now sun-faded grey, Suzuki Escudo sped along the deserted roads of the city.  Nobody seemed to want to share the soft dawn with the vehicle’s occupants, a reluctant driver and sleep-smeared passenger who struggled to suppress feelings of trepidation as he faced the prospect of a ferry ride expected to last 24 hours. Superfluous traffic lights blinked in rejected control as the palms of the suburbs gave way to the city centre.  The sun rose pink in welcome to the wary traveller, whose driver dropped him at the iron gates marking the entrance to the ferry terminal and, with a squeal of tyres, disappeared back in the direction of his recently abandoned bed.

I had been in Tanzania for two months by the time of this maritime journey and was wise enough to understand that such a smooth start probably only foretold future agonies.  I was travelling, once again, to the southern border town of Mtwara.  However, on this occasion, the delicate state of the outboard engine I accompanied meant that I had to find a smoother method of travel than bus transport.  Subsequent enquiries had revealed that the ferry route from Dar, past the muddy waters of the Rufiji Delta and on to Mtwara, was in operation, though running at fifty percent capacity because the government vessel following the same route had recently sunk.  So it was, that morning in late May, with a ticket safely buttoned in my shirt pocket and the familiar weight of my pack on my back, I crossed the iron threshold of the gates and went in search of the good ship MV Safari.

Mtwara is an unglamorous destination and the ferry serves a predominantly domestic clientele.  There is little international custom and so no foreign currency to prompt a concern for comfort and appearance.  Therefore, unlike the departure point for the Zanzibar ferries, there is no waiting room, just a buckling concrete apron and the occasional relaxed posture of a customs official, normally bursting out from the confines of the navy blue uniform.  Like many government institutions in Tanzania, the infrastructure suggested prolonged abandonment.  Small shrubs sprouted from rents in the concrete; smashed window panes remained unreplaced; great cranes rose skywards, movements so encrusted in rust that their most recent operation must have been recorded in Imperial ledgers.  But the dock was not abandoned.  As I stood and surveyed the scene, in an effort to identify where it was I had to wait, I became aware of a creeping movement across the open dockside.

The people seemed to have passed osmotically through the fence to share the morning with me.  I had only been aware of one entrance, but there were obviously more. The people advanced steadily, as if in imitation of First World War infantry, along a broad front toward the water’s edge.  They came adorned in all the glory of the travelling African, bearing luggage that defied description in the extent of its diversity.  The rising sun grew in intensity and, as if in appreciation of the mass of colour slowly assembling, cast a greater light on the scene below.  I followed the crowd to the point of increasing density, which, in the absence of a ferry, seemed a promising place to be.

I learned later that the absence of the MV Safari was due to the owner’s belief that he could only guarantee the safety of his vessel by ensuring that it spent as little time at the departure dock as possible.  The MV Safari is a small passenger ferry who probably spent the early years of her life transporting the genteel around the delights of the Aegean Sea.  Her capacity is limited to a moderate cargo hold and sufficient seating on the upper and lower decks for maybe five hundred souls.  There were far more than five hundred souls thronging the dockside that day.  Therefore, the Safari would take all of her cargo onboard at a different dock further down the bay.  Then she would chug in, push out a single gangplank, take on board as many passengers as possible (with engines idling) and depart; leaving the frustrated to try their luck three days later.

All this I know now, but I only learnt it through experience.  Whilst working closely with elephants in South Africa the year before, I had learnt that it was important to trust and respond to my intuition and subconscious observation if I was to operate successfully and safely.  The same applied when using public transport in Tanzania.  Standing amongst the jumble of the growing crowd, at the edge of an empty dock, listening to snippets of conversation and watching the massed faces, I could sense a growing anticipation.  My suspicions of an unregulated embarkation were confirmed as a murmur of voices greeted the approach of the Safari and movement rippled through the crowd.  Children were gathered to their parents, luggage was resolutely grasped and the jostling for position began.

The Safari was a small vessel when viewed from a distance that, rather paradoxically, seemed to become smaller the closer she came.  My eyes were playing tricks on me or, more likely, responding to the concerns of my brain, which considered the ship alongside the knowledge of the distance to be travelled, the seas to be encountered and the load she must carry.  In truth, the Safari appeared to be a sound ship, if in need of a coat of paint.  She seemed dwarfed alongside the stationary bulk of the dock.  The single gangplank led to the open upper deck, protected from the sun by a stretch of awning.  From there, a pair of gangways led the brave – or the unwary- down to the confines of the lower deck.  The cargo hold was at the rear of the ship, open to the elements, and with a stern so low it promised to be never far from the churning wake.

At the top of the gangplank, the Arab owner stood and appraised the crowd below.  There was not a flicker of concern on his face; regarding him one could almost imagine that the waiting mass was no more than five elderly ladies on a day trip.  Below him rose the black bulk of a customs officer.  The officer, far exceeding his tax collecting duties and probably in exchange for a few thousand shillings, had decided to attempt to regulate embarkation – with the aid of one long, steel tipped, stick.  The crowd began to press forward; I widened my stance, hoisted my pack onto my shoulder and hardened my attitude.

The small aluminium picket gate at the foot of the gangplank was swung back.  The first passenger, propelled from behind, closed on the official obstruction of the customs officer.  White teeth shone in grimace, the stick flashed, impacting silently on massed flesh.  Passengers were ready for boarding.

The main cause of the overcrowding was that in addition to those who had pre-purchased tickets from the yellow shack outside the dock there were hundreds who had not.  Those with tickets did retain a priority over those without, but you had to breach the front of the crowd and brave the crack of the nightstick to claim that benefit.  In the mean time, those without tickets still strove to press for advantage, bolstered by the knowledge that they only had to be able to press enough cash into willing hands to get onboard.  I assimilated this knowledge as I overcame the reserve and polite behaviour instilled in me over so many childhood years to hastily use my size and sharp edges and so claim the gangplank. 

That dockside crowd was a frightening place to be.  One could not try to oppose the forces surging through the mass, but rather direct them to ones advantage, like guiding a canoe in a flowing flood. Though a low barrier had been placed to prevent people falling over the edge of the dock to the swirling waters below, I did not have any confidence in its ability to fulfil this role.  I could imagine only too well the swoop of fear in the stomach as I fell; fear swiftly evolving to terror as salt stained eyes viewed the rising wall of steel, thoughtless crusher of life.

The much-vaunted African humanity was nowhere to be seen; she must have taken the bus.  Everywhere small eyes regarded the herd with terrified incomprehension.  Women with small babies tied to their back were crushed as comprehensively as the single man.  Children old enough to walk clung to the legs of their parents, further hampering their progress.  The strength of desperate grip was repeatedly tested as arms extended in an effort to retain offspring pulled suddenly away by a surge running counter to the one that propelled the adult.  There was neither time nor space for the shuffles of the old.  Yet amazingly nobody fell.  Blows were endured and, one by one, the passengers boarded the ship.  I was spared steel-topped encouragement, probably because my shouldered pack had almost sent the officer over the edge and down into the water below.  There are some benefits to a large chunk of ones youth spent learning the dark arts of the rugby scrum.

Having safely negotiated the gangplank, I secured myself a seat on the top right hand corner of the upper deck.  I had read enough tragic newspaper articles about the death toll resulting from the sinking of overloaded ferries to risk a berth below decks.  In addition, little imagination was required to comprehend the fetid atmosphere of an under-ventilated space into which the unwashed were packed in close proximity to the overwhelmed toilets.

The seats were steel benches, topped with cushions of exhausted sponge and cracked velour.  They were the sort of seats that one sits in thinking, ‘Ah.  This won’t be too bad.’  Only to immediately become aware of numbness creeping unrelentingly through the body.  Understanding that space would be limited, I placed my sack, upright, between my legs, in order to claim the greater area of the bench and so enable future movement, however small.  I then waited for the embarkation to conclude and our journey to begin.

Released from the dockside madness, the passengers filed calmly to their seats; progress only interrupted as oversized luggage became lodged against unyielding steel or women paused to offload the burdens balanced on their heads.  Seats were taken; any flat surface became a seat; women sat on the floor; eventually, when there really was no space a murmur of anticipation told me the gangplank had been withdrawn.  The journey had begun.

Observing the people around me I was struck not by their colourful turn out, to which I had become familiar, but by the tangible sense of trepidation that they all seemed to contribute to.  Passive endurance, that often worn expression, was edged with fear.  I understood when I remembered a ferry ride to Zanzibar, completed on placid seas years before, during which a large proportion of the Tanzanian passengers had been afflicted by seasickness.  That affliction promised to continue.

The diesel engine throbbed, nursed by grease monkeys in tattered overalls apparently not long descended from the pirates of yore.  Our captain appeared on the wing of the bridge and surveyed this upper echelon of his passengers.  A short man, whose grubby string vest gathered the opulence of his swollen stomach like a profitable trawlerman’s net.  Pushing the last of an unidentified breakfast into his mouth, he grunted and ducked into the bridge house.  The MV Safari chugged across the waters of the harbour, past beached fishing craft and floating refuse, into the turquoise expanse of the Indian Ocean.

I always knew that this would be a long journey.  Like my bus trips, it was the subject of much mirth for friends who made their journeys by air, or at least air-conditioned vehicle.  In truth I rather naïvely welcomed the opportunity for ‘experience’ that my impecunious organisation provided. I believed myself to possess the correct mindset for prolonged endurance, and appropriate supplies: four litres of water and a kilogramme bag of cashew nuts.  I was content to survive, not prosper and had no desire to join the queue for the slopping toilets.

To pass the time I read a little and gazed out at the sea.  I wore no watch, content to divine passing time by tracing the passage of the sun, rather than obsess about the progress of a clock face. The waves were rising in a gentle swell, which I found rather pleasing, but my companions feared to be a herald of impending doom.  There was little of the normal conversation, people sat quietly, grasping small black plastic bags in preparation for inevitable production.

The variety of the eventual vomiting interested me.  Some gushed in exorcism; others swept small, almost genteel, belches into black plastic.  There was no embarrassment, a social critical mass was soon reached at which point more had vomited than had not and so the practice was quite acceptable.  Despite this sickness, they consumed vast quantities of food and drink.  Samosas, nuts, biscuits, dried fish and discs of sugar cane were all produced from carefully packed sacks or purchased from the popular kiosk deep in the bowels of the ship.  This of course ensured a future round of sickness and, as neon pallor replaced the light of day, the huddled and sprawled unfortunates soon began to resemble the stricken patients of some hospital ward.  I was one of the few individuals who did not suffer from the seasickness.  I drank sparingly from my water and consumed a drip feed of peanuts, my nose facing the wind to escape the vomit laden air.  My relative health did not go unobserved.  A young man seated behind me, a student returning to Mtwara from the northern region of Kilimanjaro after two years away, tapped me on the shoulder and solemnly enquired as to the magic I used to keep the nausea from me.
The hours passed slowly.  I slept lightly for brief periods; my head lolling like a partially decapitated mannequin, as I was unable to move – even slightly- from my bolt upright, legs splayed position.  Feeling had long fled from my lower limbs and I idly considered the chances of still being able to walk at the end of the voyage.  The night was clear, with a half moon; the waves reflected a luminescent glow, our progress a nautical point-to-point drift through the southern stars.

Dawn came and the strip of green on the horizon showed that Mafia Island was behind us and so just over half the journey remained.  The journey started to become difficult at this point.  The crew was telling the passengers that landfall would be made in two hours, but even my rudimentary grasp of geography told me this was highly unrealistic.  Pain caused by unremitting constriction, which had been ignored for so long, screeched through my nervous system and concentrated for a noisy protest in my brain.  There was nothing I could do.  There was no room to move.  Even if there was, the only direction was down into a hold where I was sure the air had to be carved and wading would be obligatory. Eventually, after much shifting of buttocks and silent whinging, I pulled myself together, thought of Kipling and tried to emulate to endurance of the African.

The Safari continued her gentle rise and fall and the hours passed.  Leaning over the side and looking at our wake it was sad to see our progress confirmed by a substantial trail of floating litter.  The detritus of sustenance discarded into the sea without a thought. We drew closer to the coast and it soon became possible to see the multitude of swaying coconut palms that gave their name to the marine park bordering Mtwara harbour.  I was now confident that I would survive the journey, though I doubted ever being able to lose the aural hallucinations I had developed.  I had spent so much concentrated time in the company of the twenty or so people that surrounded me, watching their body language and facial expressions, listening to their voices, that I had formed distinct impressions of the individuals they were. However, not being fluent in the language, my brain could only draw upon a vocal catalogue of English voices.  Therefore, in my inner ear, as I watched my close companions, the domineering matriarch of a cluster of females held court not in Kiswahili, but with the abrasiveness of a Lancastrian fish wife; the thin fellow, dressed in ghetto-fabulous training wear with a pencil thin moustache, confided East End intrigue to the shoulder pads beside him and snotty children whined with the screech of the Estuary, ‘I want.  Gimme…’ 

What can I say, other than it was the end of a long journey?

Disembarkation was a relatively relaxed affair when contrasted against the frenzy of Dar es Salaam; the passengers comfortable in the knowledge that the Safari would be tied to that particular dock for the next twenty-four hours at least.  I was slightly surprised by the appearance of a shrouded head and shoulders that popped up from beneath my bench; the dubious darkness of which had obviously been her retreat from the realities of maritime travel. I waited for the human flood to lessen and then eased my numbed frame into an upright position and walked – more from memory than feeling – down the gangplank and into the searing sunlight of Mtwara.

Chaos reigned once more.  All of the assorted paraphernalia that had been so carefully loaded in Dar was now unloaded with bewildering speed.  Crates of soda bottles, mattresses, obscure boxes, refrigerators, bicycles and petrol drums were all shoved and rolled along two wooden planks that spanned the shifting drop between the hull of the Safari and the dock.  The goods were received into the arms of a jostling gang of sweating porters and manhandled to the collection of trucks, Landrovers and taxicabs waiting to provide transport to the town beyond.  Families strained for the first glimpse of loved ones; immigration officials lurked with mendacious eyes and sweaty palms, eager for profit in this administrative outpost.

Captain Stringvest, attempting to remove excess stains from his uniform shirt in preparation for shore leave, produced a key for the Safari’s strongroom; thus reuniting me with my outboard engine.  The engine, my bag and I entered the relative banality of a white taxicab and headed for the comfort of the Paradise Guest House.  And after thirty two hours, it was Paradise indeed.

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