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Day five of our passage across the Atlantic and all is settling into a comfortable rhythm. We have smooth seas and following waves and are cutting through the cobalt seas at a bracing six to seven knots. The sun is shining and all is good!
It is morning here in the Gambia and the breeze is still cool despite the glowering sun rising over the canopy of trees that cling to the river. The trees themselves form a dense tangle of a million shades of green broken by the occasional flash of colour as birds dart amongst the foliage. Also moving through the canopy are dark shapes that screech and chitter as they crash through the leaves – monkeys for certain but which species? It’s hard to catch a glimpse in the mysterious gloom behind the bright green, and besides, the hippos in the river are snorting and grunting and it is hard to pay attention …
Leonie and I are sitting on the deck of the Waterhouse at the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project camp on the River Gambia. For once we have left our yacht behind and hitched a ride up-river in more conventional transportation – a four hour trip passing through rutted roads, small villages populated by circular mud huts and smiling children, and of course through an endless vista of arid grassland populated by towering termite mounds and grinning baboons (the smiles of the children were genuinely friendly while the baboon grins were clearly intended to show us the pointy nature of their dentition). When the journey was finally over and we stepped into the shady haven of the River Gambia National Park we both felt we had stepped into a dream.
We have been privileged over the last 12 months to pass through some amazing wilderness and to meet some amazing characters, but the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Projects stands out as something special. Starting with the ambition of re-introducing captive and orphaned chimps into the wild, the project encompasses some of the most pristine wilderness remaining in the Gambia and protects a whole host of species including the endangered red colobus monkey, green monkeys, patas monkeys, olive baboons, genets, hippopotamus, hyena … well the wildlife here is far too diverse to start a list. And let’s not forget the chimps. Observing wild chimpanzees amidst the dense foliage of the river bank is a thrilling experience, and one that leaves a lasting sense of wonder.
But for now there is no time to wonder too much as there is so much more to see in this amazing reserve.
These days we wake at dawn as the sun rises in a golden glow over the mangroves that surround our anchorage. In this quite cool before the sun grows angry the world is filled with the twitter of brightly coloured birds, the erratic splish and splash of fish flitting on the surface, and the occasional chatter and crash of monkeys moving through the mangroves. Later, the sun burns with an intensity that turns the sandy trails through the scrub to a temperature sufficient to burn bare feet. The local women work topless in the fields and seem unbothered by the barrage of UV rays but there are times at the hottest part of the day where we seek shelter and, as they say in these parts, have a relax.
While we are able to temporarily withdraw our bodies from the attack of midday, we have had to devise some alternate strategies to protect some of our gear from the perils of this climate. Leonie has been busy stitching a sun cover to protect our dinghy from the direct glare of the sun and I have already patched one hole caused by the sharp oysters that line the roots of the mangroves. To protect ourselves from the mosquitoes and other buzzing bugs that abound in these parts we have set up a net fortress over our bed and regularly apply liberal doses of mossie repellent and burn mosquito coils. Meanwhile we have been dosing the dog with various solutions to keep down the attack of the ticks, fleas and mites that cover the local population of monkeys, dogs and cats at Lamin Lodge. More worrying are the mango flies, which crawl onto dogs when they sit in sandy soils. The larvae of these horrible little beasts burrow into the dogs skin and grow to the size of a peanut – we have removed two already but think we are now mango fly-free.
Our war on parasites has benefited by the advise of the local vet in Kololi, Micha Meyer, who has helped us set up our defences from the onslaught. In providing tips he also helped us diagnose the increasingly sulky behaviour displayed by our dog. It turns out that after her first heat she has developed a false pregnancy! Her mammary glands have been developing in preparation for lactation and she had been developing a “nesting” behaviour ready to look after her phantom puppies. This is all perfectly naturally in a wild dog pack were non-breeding females enter false pregnancy in order to be able to assist breeding females in the raising of their puppies – but apparently our Sparrow would have faces a crushing depression when no puppies were eventually forthcoming. As we had been considering getting Sparrow spayed already this was the final push we needed to book the operation. We hate the idea of playing with her biology but it really is the best thing… right now she is recovering from a successful surgery and back to her normal energetic self.
So for now the midday heat has dissolved into the more pleasant temperature of the afternoon and the vista of African scrub is starting to stir as birds again flit amidst the branches after having their own siesta. Time for us to get back out there and explore.
We had a very tranquil journey from Senegal to the Gambia. Well … as tranquil as it gets in this part of the world. We did have a couple of moments of excitement including the realisation that the surges of phosphorescence criss-crossing the wake of the yacht were, in fact, caused by rather large sharks that followed us throughout the night. I was also rather concerned by a big trawler that suddenly materialised in front of me in the early hours oft he morning. I had gotten used to dodging the small canoes bearing torch-waving fishermen, but when a huge fishing ship with no lights, with trawl arms extended, and seemingly with the intension of reversing directly into us appeared in the starlit night I must admit I was rather nervous. In the end we pulled in the sails and motored full steam in the opposite direction, but he continued his dogged reverse pursuit for some time … weird.
The chaos continued upon arrival at Half Die in Banjul (named literally because half the population died of a cholera outbreak). The name is not exactly encouraging and as a first introduction to the Gambia it leaves a lot to be desired. To be fair we arrived on Friday (Prayer day), which was probably a mistake – but we definitely got the feeling that the immigration and customs officers saw us as nuisance. There were a few friendly people at the immigration office, but generally we were dragged around, interrogated, told that our boat was anchored too far away, told that our boat was too hot, told that our immigration officer was very hungry, told that our food wasn’t good … and then we worked the game out. It took a rather blatant message from the uniformed officer: “I am a very unhappy man, usually you should give me a present”… oh … the whole performance was an exercise to extract bribes! We gave them small change in Senegalise Franks and they were on our way.
After this hot (over 35 degrees) and bothered start our visit to the Gambia took a dramatically better turn. After the tide turned we nosed our way into the small complex of mangrove lined creeks behind Banjul. Abruptly the clamour of the docks was left behind and we were surrounded by wildlife. Cranes, pelicans, egrets and kingfishers darted around the waters edge and fish flitted and jumped over the turbid water. We worked deeper and deeper into the maze of twisted passages, past the derelict wrecks lining the shallows, past the locals collect oysters in the mud and past the fisherman in their battered wooden canoes until we took the final turn and Lamin Lodge was revealed before us.
The Lodge is now abandoned and falling into a state of rickety disrepair, but we will tell more of it’s history in a later blog. Right now it is a pocket of tranquillity with cheeky green monkeys vying with the local fisherman for our attention. The water is a balmy 30 degrees which makes it perfect for a morning swim to wake up. Life here is a few paces slower than anywhere else we have visited but we are loving it!
The last week we found ourselves busy with last minute shopping and last minute fixing of numerous small broken things on the boat, all to prepare us to return to Africa. While the intensely burning sun in the Canary Islands already announced the southern realms, the city of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria was very much a European town, with all the luxurious shops, restaurants, bars and clubs that come with it. Granted, hot showers in the morning are nice, but we longed for a change in scenery.
So, last Sunday we once again boarded our faithful little yacht Widdershins, and headed South. Almost 300 nautical miles lay before us, and rarely has the sailing been so relaxing. During the day we got rid of most our cloths, burning our skins in the blistering sun in many hidden places still harbouring our Arctic moon-tan! The north wind was moderate, and with the sea sheltered from the Canary Islands barely any waves rippled the surface. Instead, myriads of dolphins accompanied us for much of the way, and the further south we got, the more diverse the birds soaring around our mast became.
Then, finally, at the end of the third night, a long peninsula enclosing a wide lagoon became visible on our radar – and with it dozens upon dozens of fishing vessels leaving the shelter of Dakhla harbour. Normally, that would not pose a big problem, but most of the boats were not illuminated, or if they bore a light, it was so faint that one could only just make it out when the ship was a few hundred meters away. Granted, occasionally some would jump up and wave a faltering torch erratically in our direction, but the final approach ended up a wild careering race with the tide at our heels and various small dinghies providing a hair-raising slalom course!
When the sun raised over the horizon in a splash of orange a landscape different to anything we’ve seen so far on our trip unfolded. White, low banks glared in the morning sun before climbing into distant cliffs and arid plains – all barren and burnt by the merciless sun. Once we tied up in the busy fishing harbour, and fought our ways through endless bureaucracy, we discovered a place bare of any vegetation, with long, dusty roads leading to the remote village of Dakhla. We are yet to explore this town but it already has that smell of adventure clinging to it …
April fools day arrived in Morocco to see two rather sorry fools gazing at a square package that had been occupying almost all of their combined attention and energy over the past month. I have to admit to dreaming on at least two occasions of finally placing my hands upon this very package – yet rather than the waves of relief that my dream counterpart experienced, I found myself gazing rather dejectedly at our long-awaited delivery. Though this square package did indeed hold the promise of providing us with propulsion at last, the package was bound in several layers of twisted wire with imposing lead seals featuring the star of Morocco. Clearly the intention was to deter us from any audacious thoughts of actually laying our hands on the gleaming brass propeller we new lay within.
After a morning spent trying to find out exactly what we were supposed to do next (there was no instructions or paperwork associated with our tardy delivery) we fearfully envisioned another convoluted dance through swaths of red tape. Than we realised it was April fools day! Being a glass half full kind of guy I quickly congratulated the witty humour of the faceless bureaucrats who had been holding our package for ransom for over a month, and chuckled as I snipped the seal.
Inside our box lay a very shiny new Brunton’s Autoprop – and as opposed to the one-bladed chunk of brass that had propelled us south from our last harbour, this version had three blades!
Buoyed with giddy optimism I donned my dry suit, took a glance at the murky harbour, found a spot free from any conspicuous floating hazards (we once counted 12 condoms on a walk down our weir), and dived in. I can’t say what followed was particularly enjoyable, but to be honest a job, which I had feared for some time, turned out to run rather smoothly. True the visibility only extended about as far as my arm, but having had quite a long time to think things through (over a month!) we had a system in place for every eventuality. With Leonie handing me tools, the dog barking in disgust, and me flailing in the gloom we actually only took half an hour to detach the mangled mess that had powered us through the arctic. In a jiffy we had restored our boat to mobility with the addition of a gleaming new propeller.
Next stop: the Canary Islands!
I guess some of you are wondering where the hell we are? Well in a sense so are we!
After the rather shocking discovery that our three-bladed propeller has somehow managed to adopt the latest internet dieting craze and lose weight through the amputation of two of its blades, we recently found we were in a rather inoperable state. One blade flinging around does actually propel the boat forward but the result is an unbalanced and ugly situation that does not bode well for the long term health of our boat…. I guess that stands as a warning: dieters beware!
While this came as a bit of a blow, we figured we could fairly quickly order a new propeller in. So upon arrival in Agadir we thought that soon we would be on our way. Again I find myself suffering the curse of the eternal optimist! It has now been almost a month since our propeller was impounded (entirely unnecessarily) by customs, and during this time … well we have not been doing a lot of exploring.
Don’t get me wrong, Agadir is actually a lovely town, but it is a little far removed from the “real” Morocco we witnessed in some of the less developed coastal towns we stumbled upon during our jaunt down the African coast. After a disastrous earthquake in 1960 the entire town has been re-built leaving one of the cleanest and most comfortable locations to be discovered … but for us it lacks that gritty unpretentious feel we fell in love with in places like Mohammedia and Cabo Tafelney – here the western influence and the hordes of tourists (including us!) seems to have robbed the locals of a little of their “local”-ness.
So … I guess this is just an update to appease the various folk that have been expressing concern over our resounding silence. We expect to get our propeller tomorrow (fingers crossed) and after that we will resume our adventure. Sorry for the lack of input from this end but to be honest the highlight over the past week has been lounging on the beach with a beer …. Not really worth a blog!
While in Mohammedia we had the chance to take a train to Rabat where we were flung into the chaos of street stalls that made the medina of our humble port of entry seem like Zen therapy. Rabat is the administrative centre of Morocco and while it is by no means the most bustling market town, after the wide spaces of the ocean we were a little overwhelmed by the crush of the crowd…. But not too much to appreciate the exotic sights and smells and consume enough sugared treats to make the psychedelic colours of the stores spin (they like things sweet here!).
After the train ride back home (memorable only for the dogs earnest protest at the indignity of beiong stuffed into a back-pack – a requirement of the trains here), we boarded Widdershins and made all ship shape for a dash south towards Essaouira. The trip was rather longer than expected but the occasional dolphin pod was there to keep us company and the brown coast of Africa was always in sight to inspire us with dreams of adventure… and we got a pretty happy dose of adventure when we arrived!
After anchoring for the night outside the harbour we pulled in the anchor for an early entry into the harbour. What we forgot to do was a) turn on the radio and b) check the tides. Fact a) resulted in us missing the fervent efforts of local skippers telling us that we should not enter the harbour. Fact b) meant that we didn’t realise that a particularly low tide combined with the fact that the port had not been dredged since perhaps the Phoenicians were trading dyes from this craggy rock meant that the sea was not quite deep enough.
Thus our grand entry to Essaouira came to a rather sticky end. Well at least we got to know the locals as they spent a couple of hours hauling on lines to drag us through the mud so we could tie up alongside the local coast guard vessel. The Captain wryly mentioned that we should probably have our radio on, but overall I think the whole catastrophe provided them with a nice diversion from the normal throngs of tourists that seem to outnumber locals here. It is an amazing town with rampart walls and twisting streets filled with enthusiastic vendors, but the fact that it’s hard to find a local shopping on the street lends it the air of a theme park. Oh well … we are one of the tourists I suppose.
We left the port of Sines in southern Portugal with high hopes of adventure as we set off for the passage away from Europe towards a new continent. The winds seemed to take their lead from our own elation and we were soon skimming across the Atlantic Ocean at an exhilarating seven knots with the rocky coast or Portugal rapidly diminishing in our wake. Dolphins leaped at our bow and the occasional leatherback turtle peered at us from the choppy seas.
After only two days at sea, our second dawn saw the sun rising above the hazy horizon which soon revealed the low hills of Morocco and the harbour of Mohammedia. By lunch time we were tied up in a tight little harbour surrounded by rafts of slightly dodgy fishing boats and were attended by a swarm of well-wishing locals all shouting enthusiastic recommendations on how to tie our lines to the dock. In the background the wailing of a Muslim call to prayer pierced the general clamour of the harbour and the warm breeze carried exotic smells. Soon we had the customs and immigration clambering (somewhat unsteadily) on board and beginning the arduous round of paper-work.
Once we had signed all the required forms, had our passports stamped and (with some trepidation) handed over all our ships documents for the duration of our stay, we were free to explore our first stop in Africa. With only two days of sailing we have truly arrived in a different planet. The warm climate has nurtured a profusion of green growth – the alleys are lined with palms and bright flowers and every spare patch of ground seems to play out a vegetative battle for space ending in a leafy profusions. Cats wander everywhere, leaping out of bins at the most unexpected moments and harassing enthusiastic puppies. Winding streets make a maze through the old medina where stalls of exotic wares dazzle the eyes and the prominent minaret of the local mosque is the only landmark. Folk dressed in traditional veils and robes mix freely with more liberal elements with modern clothes and cheeky children take full advantage of the fact that I didn’t know the work for “no” in Arabic – one child climbed all over me and had a good attempt at pulling poor old Sparrows tails off! Seems they are not used to dogs and scruffy sailors in these parts …
You may have noticed less exploring in this blog of late and more mooning around in cafes, wandering the pleasant streets of Spanish and Portuguese towns, vino verde at sunset and long strolls on the beach. Let’s be serious – not really the stuff of adventures! Well, let me just say … All that is about to end!
We are presently in the town of Sines on the southwest coast of Portugal. Yes, I know ….not exactly a remarkable escapade …but wait. Finally we have reached our last stop in continental Europe and are about to turn toward the vast unexplored tracts of Africa. Indeed the last weeks have been spent stolidly preparing for the coming adventure and the highlights are …well … Rather low.
In Lisbon we ran helter–skelter around the crumbling remnants of the empire to get the required visas, to take liberal samples of the dogs blood to double check that she is not rabid (accompanied by a pitiful whining yelp that made our knees go weak), had our own shoulders jabbed by various needles full of inoculation (the dog looked amused) and stocked up on various odds and ends to keep us going over the next few months.
We did manage to have some fun on the way. We met a lovely couple who invited us to a fantastic Portuguese meal in their flat overlooking the harbour. Actually … they really invited the dog who happened to be born on the same day as their Jack Russell pup, but we were allowed to tag along. I almost got arrested as an innocent bystander in a Lisbon drug bust (apparently I was ordered to stand against the wall and submit to a search but my non-existent language skills left me standing with a confused look on my face – the officer took pity on me and ignored me). We also roamed around the city in pursuit of various odds and ends and emptied our wallets to pay for the privilege of tying up to the ancient stone wharfs of this beautiful city.
But all this is now in our wake. After a final day of preparation we will soon wave goodbye to Europe and head south to Morocco where camels, sandy savannahs and my seventh continent await. And from there we will head to the Canary Islands, Senegal, the Gambia and then Guinea Bissau. Since I was a child I have always dreamed of Africa … It has taken a while to get here but I can’t wait. For those faithful readers who have borne with us through our rather dull ramble through Europe we can promise a return to our initial focus of wildlife, wilderness and high adventure … we hope you’ll be there for the ride!