Category Archives: Senegal

Greasing palms and monkey charms


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.

monkeyThe 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 swimming-in-laminmangrove 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!

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Converging worlds and diverging ways

The past couple of months have seemed a little like a parallel world, or indeed it has seems like we have flitted through a number of such isolated realms. From the cosmopolitan beaches of Las Palmas with languid white tourists idling on the beach to the dusty dessert of Dakhla where we trod through thick dust midst the locals kneeling in prayer on the cracked pavement. Here in Senegal we have slipped between the laid back enclave of ex-pats at the yacht club on Hann beach into the dense jungle of the Hann zoological Park where the rich locals promenade in designer western clothes, and then into crumbling resort hotels made for the droves of tourist that never quite made it (last night we literally dined in the lion’s jaws). Then again into the bustling metropolis where the touts and vendors accost you at every corner with such violence that you end up jumping into the first cab that comes along clutching your back pocket to protect your wallet!

disembarkingSince I lost my bank cards in Morocco I have also been living in a strangely cashless society where a loan from Leonie marks my entire fortune. Luckily a few pounds in your pocket and a smile gets you a long way in Western Africa, but my empty in-the-parkpockets has driven one fact home: our collective kitty is running very low! Thus the real world has come crashing in to disturb us at odd moments as we wander amidst the throngs and dine on ambiguous meat sandwiches at the roadside stalls ….

And as our expenses begin to run away on us we have begun to consider more mainstream approaches to managing our finances … well mainstream may be a little too far. After a few days of weighing up the pros and cons I have decided to accept another season working as a tourist guide/naturalist showing people the spectacular wildlife of the Arctic. This has a couple of big benefits (including some much needed cash) including the chance of getting back into the icy elements that have ruled my life for the past decade, and also a respite from the relentless tropical heat of West Africa!

Meanwhile the plan is to leave Leonie stranded in the yacht in The Gambia. Yes … I hear the cat calls and boos and the cries of “you insensitive lout”. But then again Leonie has her own adventure ahead …

leonie-lionWe have arranged to leave the yacht at an isolated anchorage near an abandoned tourist venture dubbed “Lamin Lodge”. After talking to various local yachties we have discovered that this little piece of paradise is surrounded by wilderness and is the home of a small community of wandering yachties that all look after each other. Granted water has to be ordered via donkey cart from the local well but all in all it seems a very idyllic place to spend a couple of months. It will also give Leonie a chance to catch up on some of the science work that I dragged her from when we set sail. So come June we will both be stepping a little more into the real world, though I guess we are certainly keeping up our present spirit of adventure.

But for now … we have resupplied the ship and repaired various broken bits of equipment and are prepared to set sail. Next stop .. The Gambia.

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R&R: repair and recuperation

senegalese-kidsThe hot sun of the tropics has been roasting our skin into a slightly alarming shade of brown since we arrived in Senegal. Meanwhile the same sun has been taking its toll on our equipment. In the last passage we had a rather heavy casualty rate! Not only did we have a torn mizzen sail, but out tiller arm (the bit you steer with) broke, the pole that we use to hold out our genoa sail snapped, our mainsail broke loose, one of the cupboards caved in after I collapsed rather too enthusiastically after a long watch, and our fridge has turned into a heady soup of rotten meat juices thanks to some stray steaks from Morocco. On top of that, my computer took one too many falls and the wires connecting the screen to the computer were severed, rendering the computer useless.

soldering-computerThus our past few days have been spent in repair mode. Leonie has stitched and repaired the mizzen sail while I have tinkered with various bits of equipment and with the help of a borrowed soldering iron convinced them to work. However, while our own ingenuity is enough to solve most problems, in some instances you have to turn to the locals for help.

new-tillerIn this instance we had a fantastic experience with Sow – a local carver camped in the empty shell of a building just down the road from where we are moored. We came to Sow bearing the battered remnants of our broken tiller arm and asked him (in broken French) if he could knock together a replacement. Two days later we were holding a beautifully carved piece of African hardwood embellished with crocodiles, turtles and hippopotamus. Our tiller now stands in pride of place as the most fancy part of our aging yacht and we couldn’t be happier.

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From Dakhla to Dakar – arriving in West Africa

dakhlaDakhla, our last stop in Morocco/Western Sahara, turned out to be a far cry from the touristic hotspots of Essaouira or Agadir further north. First, we were greeted by no less than five different authorities boarding our small sailboat: the civil guard, the police, the customs, the military and the port authorities all wanted copies of our ships papers, passports and various other documents. Once these obstacles were surmounted we briefly explored the town, a short taxi ride away from the harbour. Walking through the long, dusty roads our little Jack Russel “Sparrow” sought shelter from the merciless sun wherever one of the artificially watered little shrubs would allow it, whilst Patrick and I longed for a cold beer – a rare refreshment in this Islamic town. Strolling amongst men in long dresses and women in long floating, colourful scarfs skilfully wrapped around the whole body, we felt like we once again entered a different world. However, the obvious presence of Moroccan military and UN soldiers, paired with one of the most hostile climates we’ve yet encountered, also made us feel slightly uneasy. Indeed we were almost a bit relieved when after a couple of days we set our sails once again to head further south.

pilot-whaleTo reach our next destination, Dakar in Senegal, we had to cover the distance of over 600 nm, more than 110km, which is the furthest non-stop passage of our trip yet! The most comparable journey took us from Svalbard to Jan Mayen across the North Atlantic. In comparison, the present crossing can only be described as benign, with the biggest challenge being posed by the burning midday sun. Low to moderate winds from the North gently pushed us further south, flocks of shearwaters and storm petrels accompanied us for much of the way, and occasionally a pod of dolphins jumped around our bow. One day we even spotted the big blow of a giant rorqual, possibly a fin whale, from a distance, the first big whale we’ve seen since leaving Iceland. Not much later a pod of large, black pilot whales briefly followed us, waking memories of cold Norwegian fjords, the last time we’ve come across this species.

sunset-mauretaniaDuring the third night Patrick suddenly cried out: “Léonie, come up, quick!” Sleep-drunkenly I stumbled on deck, to be told very enthusiastically: “Look, the Southern Cross! We’re on our way home!!”. Indeed, hovering just above the horizon were the five stars that make up the symbol of the southern hemisphere’s sky. We were definitely on the right track!

Two days later our chart told us that the “Cap Verde”, the green cape that Dakar is built upon, lay only a few miles ahead. It took some time to penetrate the haze that lies over the African continent but finally the ephemeral silhouette of the westernmost tip of continental Africa appeared through the shimmering air.

arriving-dakarShortly after we dodged around small, buzzing banana boats, uncharted ship wrecks and a handful of sailboats on anchor, until we finally dropped our own anchor in front of the “Cercle de la Voile Dakar” yacht club. Once we stepped on the rickety jetty leading ashore we received the warmest welcome of our journey yet: located between flowering bushes, acacia, papaya and palm trees lay the picturesque buildings of the yacht club, with a big terrace overlooking the bay crowded with a cheerful mix of yachties, European ex-pats and locals. We were quickly offered a cold beer, all arrival formalities were postponed to the next day, and after a cold shower we felt more home than we had anywhere for a long time.

But talking of home: back in Switzerland another very important event is taking place: my nephew turns five years old today! Dear Maxim, we wish you all the best and hope you have a fantastic birthday! This little video is just for you!

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