Travel Writers: Doubtful Dhow

by Adrianne Yzerman

Location: Mombasa, Kenya

The island of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania long held visions of exotic, tranquil serenity ever since I had learned about the Spice Island in my history books. As if the prospect of going there wasn’t enough to feed my fantasy, an exciting opportunity presented itself to travel there by a traditional motorized, cargo dhow boat.

My traveling companions were an Australian compatriot, Sue, and an Englishman, Edward. On the morning of our departure we arrived at the dock, and after much gesticulating we successfully found the right boat. To our dismay it turned out to be an old, rickety wooden dinghy. After a hearty curry of dubious origin for breakfast, nature called, and my first mission on board was to ask where the toilet was. My shameful naivety gave me away as several Africans laughed loudly in obvious mockery. Desperately wanting to take on the persona of a hard core, well-seasoned backpacker, I pretended not to care. Okay, so I’m not the world’s most hardened traveler, rather pathetic actually, and I trembled at the prospect of hanging my butt over the side of the boat in full view of twenty African men. So in a mood of frightful anxiety, I practiced tightening my sphincter muscles and decided to relieve myself in the moonlight when every one was asleep. Noticing the absence of life jackets, I resisted ridiculing myself further by not asking their whereabouts.

We patiently perched ourselves on our packs and waited for our scheduled departure time of twelve noon….African time as we discovered much later. After a while we politely inquired as to what the delay was. It was explained that the cargo had not yet arrived. Just when I was contemplating the prospect of spending the next two nights sleeping on a hard, filthy deck, the goods turned up. I happily welcomed the freight that was in the form of useful foam mattresses! Over the next few hours, our prospective bedding was being passed overhead and underfoot, by Kenyans who were totally oblivious to our presence, while we were beginning to wonder just how many more mattresses could possibly fit on the tiny dhow.

Inevitably, yet another delay presented itself in the guise of engine trouble. Whilst the “mechanics” set about repairing the problem, we spent the ensuing hours occupied under the searing sun, swimming in our sweat on the plastic covered mattresses. After another set of hold ups, the usually very polite Edward vented his frustration by releasing a tirade of tense obscenities and threats. This did nothing to hasten our departure time, but at dusk we finally 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 yet another typically perfect African sunset over serene, balmy, waters as we cruised out of the bay into the Indian Ocean. After several hours had passed, the combination of the hypnotic drone of the engine, and the warm tropical, balmy, breeze gently lapping at my face, had mesmerized me as I drifted into a heavy slumber.

I awoke with a start as a large, heavy drop of rain that plunged down and hit me right in between my eyes. Quickly orientating myself I realised that darkness had fallen, and that the weather had uncharacteristically taken a turn for the worse. Unfortunately, the ancient leaky tarpaulin cover was not providing much protection from the torrential downpour, which had suddenly developed. With the swell now a couple of metres, I had decided to move to the centre of the vessel for safety. Amongst the panic and wretched seasickness that had escalated, I managed to wedge one of the mattresses horizontally between the piles of vertical ones. At least in this way a barrier would be formed against the turbulent conditions.

Adding to our paralysing fear, we could no longer hear the steady noise of the engine. The coastal lights were slowly diminishing in the horizon. We were powerless in the unrelenting force of nature. Soaked to the bone, we desperately clung to each other as the waves tossed the dhow about and threatened to engulf us. Anticipating a capsize with the next wave that was rapidly approaching, a sharp loud bang resounded with terror. To my relief, a forty four gallon drum had hit the deck and rolled to and fro as the wave passed under us. A slight reprieve in the situation allowed me to steal a glance in the direction I expected the coastal lights to be. To my horror the distant shore lights had been swamped behind a wall of water coming directly at us. Just when I was certain that the wave was going to take my life, the dinghy had fortuitously negotiated its way over the colossal swell.

In our obvious relief, both Sue and I burst into spontaneous, compulsive sobs. Edward, in his ‘stiff upper lip’ English accent, constantly reiterated that going on this trip was a mistake. Finally, we heard the glorious familiar sounds of the engine choking. I was infinitely relieved to discover that the crew put us on due course back to Mombasa. We spent the return journey crying, huddled and clutching each other in the aftermath of the peril. We had truly been to hell and back.

All texts © Adrianne Yzerman 2003

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