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Published: February 9th 2009
The nearly ill fated dhow boat. © Adrianne Yzerman
Zanzibar, a small island off the coast of Tanzania, had captured my imagination ever since learning about the exotic spice island in my history class. As if the prospect of going to this tropical paradise wasn't enough to feed my fantasy, an opportunity to travel there by traditional motorized, cargo dhow boat was more than I could resist.
Eager to escape the stinking cesspool of Mombasa my travelling companions, Pamela, another Aussie, Will, from the UK and I arrive early at the dock for our voyage. ‘Excuse me, which boat is going to Zanzibar today?’ Pamela asks a grimy African wearing a well worn grease stained T-shirt who stares at us blankly. Appallingly, Pamela points at all the boats and yells ‘Zanzibar, Zanzibar’ as if he is deaf. After much gesticulating with his peers, we find the right boat. ‘Oh my God, it’s not what I expected’ mumbles Sue with her jaw dropping in disappointment. Spotting the rickety wooden vessel, I too try and imagine the next 200km and four days travelling in it. Like extras in The Pirates of the Caribbean, we embark by walking the plank, tightly hugging our packs. I didn’t have anything valuable in there, but I’ve grown very fond of my two sets of clothes during the last year of backpacking. Staking my claim to a slimy area of the deck, it isn’t long before the results of a hearty curry, from a local Indian establishment the night before, become an instant concern. ‘Excuse me, but where is the toilet?’ I ask urgently. My third world naivety makes the African deck hands laugh loudly in obvious mockery. Desperately wanting to take on the persona of a hard core backpacker, I pretend not to care and secretly tremble at the prospect of hanging my delicate white female ass over the side of the boat in full view of twenty African men. In a frightful mood of anxiety, I practice tightening sphincter muscles and decide to relieve myself in the moonlight when every one was asleep. Planning ahead, I scan the boat for any life jackets to reduce the likelihood of reaching a most undignified end to my life. Noticing a complete absence of any, I resist further ridicule by asking after their whereabouts.
Perched on our packs, we patiently wait for our scheduled departure time of twelve noon….African time as we later discover. After a while Edward politely asks ‘what seems to be taking so long?’ In broken English, the explanation is the cargo hadn’t arrived yet. Just as I contemplate the prospect of spending the next two nights sleeping on a hard, diesel infused deck, the goods appear. Excitedly, we welcome the freight as a truck load of useful foam mattresses are unpacked! Over the next few hours, our prospective bedding is being passed overhead and underfoot by Kenyans who are completely oblivious to our presence. I begin to wonder if this is some kind of Guinness Book of Records stunt to ascertain how many it would take before the dhow actually sinks.
Inevitably, yet another delay presents itself in the guise of engine trouble. Whilst the “mechanics” set about to repair the problem, we spend the ensuing hours under the searing sun, swimming in our sweat on the plastic covered mattresses. After another string of hold ups, Edward’s well-mannered stiff upper lip facade crumbles into a tirade of tense obscenities and threats. Pamela does her best to placate him as it will do little to hasten our departure time. Finally relieved, at dusk, we set sail. With the day's pantomime of hindrances behind us, it really couldn't have been a more perfect time to leave. I lay back and watched another typically perfect African sun set over serene, balmy, waters as we cruise out of the bay into the Indian Ocean. Several hours pass as the hypnotic drone of the engine, fused with the warm tropical breeze gently lapping at my face, cause me to drift into a heavy slumber.
With a start, I awake as a large, heavy drop of rain plunges down and hits me right between the eyes. Quickly orientating myself I realise darkness has fallen, and the weather has unexpectedly taken a turn for the worse. Unfortunately, the ancient leaky tarpaulin cover isn’t providing much protection from the torrential downpour, which has suddenly developed. With the swell now a couple of metres, we decide to move to the vessel’s centre for safety reasons. Amongst the panic and wretched escalating seasickness, we manage to wedge one of the mattresses horizontally between the piles of vertical ones to form a barrier against the turbulent conditions.
Adding to our paralysing fear, we could no longer hear the steady noise of the engine. The coastal lights diminish in the horizon. We are powerless in Mother Nature’s unrelenting force. Soaked to the bone, we desperately cling to each other as the waves mercilessly toss the dhow and dares to engulf us. Anticipating a capsize with the next rapidly approaching wave, a loud sharp bang echoes my terror. Utterly relieved, it is only a forty four gallon drum hitting the deck as the wave passes under us. A slight reprieve in the swell allows me to steal a glance in the direction of the coastal lights. To my horror the distant shore lights are hidden behind a wall of water threatening to swamp us. Convinced of a certain watery death, the dinghy fortuitously negotiates its way over the colossal swell. In spontaneous, compulsive sobs, Pamela and I embrace each other while Will in his posh accent, becomes quite irrational, constantly muttering that this trip was a mistake.
Finally, we hear the glorious sound of the engine choking but struggling to start. It manages to maintain momentum and I am infinitely thankful to discover the crew decide not to jeopardise our lives further and put us on course straight back to Mombasa. We spend the return journey recuperating from seasickness with intermittent crying and huddling to keep warm in our saturated clothing.
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