Author Archives: Leonie

Shoeless and clueless

lizardFirst of all: if you were wondering if we still exist: yes, we do. Why we haven’t updated the blog? What we’re up to these days? Where we are? Well … we’re currently in Prickly Bay, Grenada, after having spent quite some time in Carriacou: a small island belonging to Grenada. We’ve been busy, and then again, also lazy. We’re excited by the beauty of the Caribbean all around us, and then again … also a little tired of it all. The tourists, the touts, the heat and the hassle … oh yes, I am very aware that many of you would give a lot to swap with us right away, and don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m all that keen on sitting in an office again, goodness, no.

But after nearly two years of constant travelling from one extreme of the world pufferfish(cruising through icebergs) to the other (up to 30°C hot tropical water over colourful coral reefs) our tough old sailboat is slowly starting to show her age. Small things have been falling apart for a while, most of them easy enough to fix. But now some bigger things are also starting to break, most recent of them the rigging of the roller furling, which of course is crucial if you want to keep sailing. Our funds are starting to dwindle, and our morals are threatening to follow suit. We’re now at a point where we’re seriously considering calling an end to the adventure. Selling the boat and taking the easy way home (i.e. by plane) suddenly sounds sweetly tempting.

hummingbirdHowever, one way or another (i.e. whether we’re traveling on or selling the boat) we need to fix the boat up first. Fortunately enough we found a marina with second hand furlers for sale, but before tackling this big job, we decided that Widdershins definitely needs a new coat of paint. While sitting for over six months in the mangroves of The Gambia evil rust has made an appearance and slowly started to paint ugly orange streaks on the deck. So the last couple of weeks have seen the two of us bent over the deck, tackling the rust with grinder, sandpaper, primer and paint.

waterfallDespite having occasionally low morals we are also trying to enjoy ourselves. Just the other day we decided to explore some of the beautiful waterfalls of Grenada. Well, one cramped bus-ride with a suicidal driver later (wheels: smooth as a baby’s bum. Speed limit: to be ignored. Blind corners: who cares. Seat belts: hanging unused behind the seat … you get the picture) we found ourselves hiking up some steep hills through banana nutmegplantations, past houses on high stilts and trees bearing the national fruit of Grenada, the nutmeg. The first (and most commonly visited) waterfall was a bit of a disappointment, surrounded by tourist traps and touts, but we decided to follow the river further upstream, where apparently some more spectacular waterfalls were hidden in the rainforest.

It soon became quite clear that some preparation would not have gone astray – the path became more and more overgrown by the jungle and of course we didn’t bring a map. And the fact that we were entering the proper rainforest meant, well, that everything got a little wet. And muddy. Very muddy. Not good for flip flops, I can tell you that. But far from being beaten that easily I decided to eelkeep going barefoot, and soon enough our efforts were successful! The second waterfall! A much more impressive gush of water tumbled down a high, moss and creeper covered cliff, into a clear pool of cool water – a perfect spot to cool down after the heat of the ascent! Luckily we found the eerie eels half hidden under some overhanging rocks only after we got out, or I probably wouldn’t have touched that water with my big toe.

After this refreshing break we kept on climbing and skidding up the slippery slopes that only got muddier, along a path that got ever harder to find, through the forest that seemed to grow ever denser and darker and quieter – a fantastic adventure! Unfortunately it also got later and later, and being close to the equator dusk doesn’t last long, so being barefoot I wasn’t all that keen on clambering through the mud using a torch. Yes, surprisingly we did bring a torch. Then again, we also brought a tent, so we were not completely helpless. Once it became clear that we wouldn’t get out of the forest before night fell we started to look for a flat place (easier said than done in this jungle) where we swiftly set up our small tent, devoured our meagre dinner and promptly collapsed on our rather uncomfortable inflatable mattresses.

campingThe next morning we woke up to a spooky, silent forest, with mist creeping around the trees and our tent and every branch dripping from the night’s rain. Not a chance to get the tent dry, so we stuffed the wet material in the backpack and went off again. After yesterday’s mammoth struggle through the unending jungle, a mere ten minutes stroll brought us to the end of the forest, and soon afterwards we found the first small road. Another hour later we sat once again in a cramped bus, survived the suicidal ride (this time the driver actually took the time to change three of the tires, although the new ones didn’t really have more profile) and soon sat down to a decadent lunch of real Italian ravioli – admittedly one of the advantages of a tourist island.



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Ready to leave

Finally, after over a month in the Cape Verdes, it seems we’re about ready to leave. The new satellite phone that was delivered with UPS express (“max 4 days delivery time”) finally arrived after four weeks, and we only had to pay a small fortune to get it released from customs. I guess sometimes we keep forgetting that we’re still, after all, in Africa, and some things just work on a different pace here.

But not for much longer! All that’s left now is to restock on perishable goods like eggs and veggies, refill our diesel and water tanks, and get everything on board shipshape so it doesn’t fly around as soon as we hit a big wave. Then we’re ready for the biggest crossing of our journey yet: two to three weeks open sea without any place to duck in if anything should go wrong. But the weather forecast looks very promising, stable winds and waves not exceeding 4 m, although personally I would prefer a smaller swell. Ah well, at least the fish won’t go hungry

Anyway, if all goes well, we should arrive in the Caribbean mid-February! We’ll try to upload some blogs whilst we’re under way, but that depends on so many factors to work in synchrony that we can’t promise it. But we’re definitely going to let everybody know when we’ve finally arrived!

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Happy New Year

dreikoenigskuecheOnce again we are spending far longer in one place than we ever anticipated. Christmas passed with a food frenzy, the new year arrived with yet more good food and fireworks on the beach, Dreikönig (three-New-yearkings-day) saw some home-made three-kings-cake (well, it’s really a bread, but cake sounds better), and now we’re already well and truly into January.

You may wonder what’s keeping us in this place for so long? Alas, it’s once again the age of our boat. There are thousand things to repair (amongst them fixing the salt water and bilge pimple-fingerpump, the stove, the air ventilation of the water tanks, the boom runner, the anchor storage, the pole fitting, pat-sparrowremoval of the eternal rust, sealing of small leaks in the windows, etc etc etc – some of them with undesirable side effects, e.g. an infected splinter in Pat’s finger) or, when they cannot be fixed, new parts must be ordered in. Of course over Christmas and New Years ordering things in is a little tricky, and we only now just managed to buy a new satellite phone (which of course is still in the process of being delivered), and will still have to look for a new EPIRB in case we should need rescuing. Bloody expensive stuff, but you don’t really want to cross the Atlantic without the bare minimum of safety equipment.

leonie-sparrowWell, nobody ever said that cruising around on an old steel boat would be easy. But sometimes, just sometimes, we are dreaming of living in a spacious, nice, clean, functioning house, where we could employ somebody to do all the cleaning for us, and where our dog could run free in the big garden. Oh, and don’t forget the nice, big supermarket and other shops in the neighbourhood, where you could just buy anything you needed, where you wouldn’t have to run around for two days stuttering in a foreign language to just buy a plug for your sink (the old one the %&”*#± dog must have hidden somewhere on the boat – one of her favourite tricks, after chewing socks of course)… no, no, we’re not really sick of sailing just yet, but sometimes … it can become a little frustrating.

sao-vicentegrasshopperAnd then again there are days where we just take it easy, sleep in, go for a walk in the beautiful hills surrounding the stunning bay, and all the hardship is forgotten. And then, sometimes, I think of my former life where I had to sit in my office day in, day out, struggling with things that seemed so important back then, and that just don’t have any relevance here anymore. I’m still proud of my PhD, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t regret for a minute that I’ve sold most of my belongings back home and put my career in science on hold for this experience. Here, I simply feel alive.

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Christmas in the Cap Verdes

Mindelo-bayIt’s been more than a week now that we’ve arrived after a straining passage in the lovely bay of Mindelo on the island Sao Vincente, Cape Verde. Here the cobbled streets are crowded with a cheerful crowd of locals mixed with a bunch of often slightly forlorn looking tourists, most of them sailors. The weather is much more benign than in The Gambia, temperatures seldom exceeding 30 degrees, and the eternal trade winds blowing constantly from North-East make even the higher temperatures very comfortable. Here we also find quite well-Christmas-starstocked super markets, wireless internet in the marina, bakeries with yummy pastries for breakfast and busy fish-markets with a variety of fresh local fish – in short, it all feels very civilized and laid back.

As for Christmas: the plan was to have lots and lots of prawns with other snacks for Christmas lunch, and then a big roast for dinner. As it turned out, they only had a two kg pack of frozen green prawns for sale. Surprisingly lots and lots and LOTS of prawns for lunch was too much for the two of us – even though Patrick kept insisting that once he ate 1.8 kg of steaks all by himself. Well, Christmas lunch was extended to Christmas-LunchChristmas dinner: prawns fried in garlic butter are yummy too! And Boxing Day saw a brilliant roast à la Lewis, delicious!

Although we had to rest for a couple of days afterwards to digest all these goodies, we’re now busy getting ready for the Atlantic crossing. prawn-plethoraThere are a lot of smaller repairs and some big ones to be done, entry requirements for the Caribbean to be checked (having a dog on board does not make things any easier), and of course the island wants to be explored too! We didn’t get much of a chance yet to explore the barren hills around Mindelo, but hopefully we’ll go for an end-of-the-year hike soon to celebrate the completion of one of the most eventful years either of us has ever seen.

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Back on board

It’s been a few days now that we’re back on good old Widdershins. It’s great to be back – the slow rocking of the boat whenever there’s a slight breeze, the wind in the rigging, the quiet mornings between the mangroves … and not least the food! Admittedly it has been quite nice to be served every meal up at the chimp project, but daily doses of rice with either red or green sauce (we disdainfully called it red or green monkey poo) just gets old really quickly. Hamburgers, steak or even porridge on the other hand … as I said, it’s good to be back.

solar panelHowever, it’s a lot of work, too. Since we’ve come back we’ve done a major clean up trying to streamline our belongings (any read books or watched DVDs must go, any cloths for less than 20°C were put in storage, and any food that didn’t look like it’s up for an Atlantic crossing was chucked out). Of course a few things have also broken in the time we were gone – the stove keeps playing up (then again that thing must have been carried over from medieval times), the alternator that charges the batteries from the engine has broken, and the solar panel never actually worked … so, we scraped our leftover dalasis together, and purchased a new generator, a new solar panel and a new alternator. However, however … this is still The Gambia. Of course the new generator broke after half an hour of use. So, back into town, to get an upgrade. The screws of the regulator of the solar panel broke off during installation, rendering the whole thing useless and making a furious Patrick ride once again back into town to get yet another upgrade. We haven’t gotten a chance to install the new alternator yet, but knowing our luck … ah well, T.I.A., this is Africa.

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Back to the Blue

colobus-massageDuring a job interview I once answered the question about where I would see myself in three years time quite truthfully (but of course also very naively) with “oh, I have no idea. I stopped making plans that far ahead, cause they never turn out as planned anyway.” Surprisingly, I didn’t get that job … but I still believe that there’s something to my answer. We had so many plans for this journey, hell, Patrick spent the better time of two years trying to find the best route for a two years journey from pole to pole. But then the autumn gales hit early in Iceland, our engine broke down, and after fixing Widdershins up it would have been close to suicide to battle the countless low-pressure systems roaring mercilessly over from Greenland. So, what to do? Of course a change of plan was the answer. Forget Canada, forget the USA, Europe, here we come! Oh, and Africa, too.

After another few unexpected twists and turns we found ourselves managing over one hundred chimpanzees in the middle of the River Gambia, having signed a contract that would potentially keep us in the green jungle for one and a half years. However, however … well. To cut a long story short: we had a fantastic time, learned a lot, made many new friends and will never forget this time in The Gambia. But in the end our views of the project differed significantly from the views of our director, and under the scenario she envisaged we were simply not prepared to stay on.

So … what to do? After carefully considering our options we decided to hop onto our tiny Chinese motorbike, pack our few belongings and the dog in the backpack, and slowly make our way back to the coast. Camping along steep river cliffs, crossing the River Gambia on dodgy little ferries, marvelling at the iron age stone circles at Wassu that are mirroring their cousins from further north, admiring the wildlife and of course enjoying a not-so-fast ride past dubious trucks, donkey carts and TOUBAB screaming kids was a really good way to slowly say good bye to this country that was our home for more than half a year. Finally, after three days on the road, we got back to Lamin Lodge, where a very, very faithful Widdershins had battled all the rain, wind and thunderstorms of the past months by herself and was still happily afloat. Now we need to fix up a few things on the boat, and then we’ll be sailing once more into the blue! Next stop: Cape Verde Islands.

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News from the Jungle

First of all: apologies to anyone who was worried that the jungle or the sea may have swallowed us … we’re still very much alive, although usually pretty much off the grid.

Our lives have yet again taken an unexpected turn, and these days Patrick and I call ourselves “managers” (it’s even written on our Gambian ID cards, so hah, there you go, must be true!). If you wonder what we might manage, well, it’s a long story.

chimpAfter our propeller broke down in Morocco we found ourselves stranded for an undefined amount of time, realizing that we probably wouldn’t be able to cross the Atlantic before the next hurricane season would hit the caribbean. To counter our frustration we applied for a variety of jobs, and a few months later we found ourselves in the Gambian bush, looking after chimpanzees and other primates (i.e. mostly humans).

The Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project is the oldest project of it’s kind: in the late 1970ies the first chimpanzees were re-introduced in the Gambia – more precisely on the baboon islands, a group of islands in the middle of the river Gambia. These islands were (and still are) home to the the last patches of undisturbed gallery forest in The Gambia, and ideal to become a new chimp home: whilst they provided a natural habitat and (at least some) food for the chimps they also provided a natural enclosure for the chimps, who cannot swim and are thus stuck on the islands. Furthermore the islands were un-inhabited and thus no conflict between humans and chimps could arise. The originally released chimps were mainly orphaned west-african chimpanzees, with an additional few ones originating from laboratories of the United States. Well, and those chimps have been on these islands ever since, happily multiplying. These days three generations of wild-born chimpanzees live on the island – including the last three babies born just a couple of weeks ago there are now 109 chimps to look after!

walking-chimpThis “looking after” is probably quite different to what most people would expect. The chimps are being left undisturbed and no human has set foot on these islands for decades (unless an emergency arose), so there’s no cuddling of cute chimp babies involved in our work. Unfortunately the islands don’t provide enough food for the chimps though, so their diet has to be supplemented. And as we can’t do that from the land, we have to do it from the river, by driving boats close enough so the food can be thrown onto the islands. This way the chimps can also be medicated if any need should arise, and as our staff knows every single chimp they can be monitored on a daily basis.

But this feeding and monitoring is just one aspect of our work. We’re also patrolling the national park so no visitors from outside get too close to the chimps (which is to protect both the chimps and the people – chimps can be quite dangerous if they feel threatened), we have a huge education program where kids of all ages are being taught about nature, and of course we have tourists staying at the camp four days a week. All in all over twenty local people work for the project, which in itself can sometimes become quite challenging. On the other hand, there’s definitely never a dull day.

But more about our daily adventures some other time! For now we just wanted to let you know that we’re still alive …

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Bridging worlds

squirrel-thingThese days I spend almost every waking hour in front of my laptop, which is a bit bizarre, since I’m in such a beautiful country with birds and monkeys and crocodiles all around me … well, the crocodiles not so much, luckily they’re quite shy, but still. Bridging the somewhat surreal world of science (“Is the up- or down-regulation of certain genes dependent on altitude of origin of a Swiss collection of weeds?”) and the very real world of tropical Africa surrounding me is not always easy.

But luckily weekends also exist in The Gambia. Curiously, one Saturday per month is official clean up day: in the whole country no traffic is allowed, no shops are open, you’re not even supposed to walk around. Rather, you should stay at home and clean your house and compound. bee-eaterIt’s surprisingly strictly enforced – between 8 am and 1 pm there’s not a single car on the road, no shop open and only a few daring people out for a stroll …

As I’m a good citizen/tourist, I followed the government-imposed rules today and … well, I didn’t clean up the boat, although it’s in dire need of a good scrub. But I did stitch together a new cover for Brad, our inflatable. The old one – made of old “Mama Africa” rice bags – unfortunately only withstood the merciless UV-light for one month and simply started to disintegrate. I’m quite proud of the result and really hope the new tarp is going to last a little longer!

new-tarpNow I’m back at my rented room, and a little bit nervous, as there’s a chance of rain today. And here rain always comes with strong winds – I just hope that Widdershins won’t be blown away while I’m gone!

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A dog in the backpack

While Patrick is pushing his way through the frozen sea in Svalbard, I am sweating in The Gambia, both from the heat and the unfamiliar brain activity. I am working for two months again on my research, trying to tie up loose ends and publish some manuscripts. This sounds easy enough, but remember, I am in Africa. Alone. On a small sailboat. Without electricity. But with a dog … and as if this were not enough, it just gets unbearably hot during the middle of the day. Try thinking about an analysis you don’t really understand when the sweat is slowly running into your eyes …

Well, but one’s got to earn a living somehow (at least sometimes), so I’ve decided to take the bull by the horns. I bought a motorbike and rented a small room with a desk, a bed and, heavens, electricity! Sort of, anyway. Apparently, there’s just not enough electricity available for everybody in The Gambia, so every now and then, it’s just gone. Sometimes for half a day, sometimes longer, but there’s hardly a day without a power cut. Luckily there are a few restaurants nearby who run diesel generators to charge my laptop when the power is out again, but tss …

Of course I cannot leave Widdershins, our sailboat, unattended for too long. So, in the morning I try to get up real early, to avoid the worst of the heat, pack the laptop, a few other things and the dog in my backpack, row ashore and ride into work. Yup, the dog comes along. I’m not sure what the locals make of me – a toubab (white person), a woman (!), on a motorbike, with a big leather jacket on in the heat and a little dog-head peeking out of the backpack. It probably just confirms for them that most toubabs are a little bit strange, if not plain crazy.

dog-in-backpackBut anyway, I ride the 20 km into work, first over sandy dirt roads (getting better at that), then through murderous Gambian traffic. I dodge around donkey carts, try to avoid temperamental taxis, do my best not to overrun unpredictable pedestrians and cyclists riding on the wrong side of the road, and by the time I get to my room I usually need a drink. Or two.

But the place I’m staying at is really nice and quiet, a big compound with lots of shady trees, dozens of old cars, three grumpy dogs (it took a while, but now Sparrow finally gets along with them) and friendly people. Heinz, the owner, runs (amongst other things) an NGO that builds schools and health centres. The whole thing is financed through car rallies from Germany to The Gambia. Check it out on:!

So, every day I try to get my work done (progress is slow, gah), and sometimes I stay for the night, just to avoid the journey. But at least every second night I spend on the boat, making sure everything is fine there as well. All in all not too bad, but I can’t wait until Patrick comes back and life becomes a little bit easier and less lonely again!

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Two in the blue goes green

red-colobusA couple of days ago we returned from our trip up to the River Gambia National Park. It has been a fantastic experience with encounters of some of the most threatened mammals on earth. The national park consists of five islands in the river Gambia, where since the 1970’s many orphaned and abandoned chimpanzees found a new, undisturbed home through the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project. In addition, the area teems with wildlife: the rare red colobus monkeys swing through the trees around the camp, baboons roam the realms, warthogs trot through the undergrowth, hippos grunt at the opposite riverbank, while pythons, cobras genet and crocodiles only add to the excitement. We even got the chance to witness the release of a usually nocturnal and very elusive genet that had been caught and brought to the camp by some nearby villagers. Sparrow was initially a bit disturbed by the plethora of new smells and sounds, and was rather devastated when she lost a piece of bread to a cheeky green vervet monkey. But before long she made friends with the two resident camp dogs, and went off to explore the area with them.gekko

baboonsOur trip upriver was not entirely for our own pleasure though. A few months ago we applied for the newly vacant position of project manager for the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, and got invited by Janis Carter, the director of the programme, to get a first hand impression of the project. As it turned out … she offered the position to us! Provided the Gambian government has no objections, we will be spending at least another year here in The Gambia, managing staff, tourists and chimpanzees! Well, first Patrick is flying toLifan-moto Spitzbergen for some Arctic adventure in two days time, while I will be working on publishing the last work of my PhD thesis. To facilitate my stay here, we also just purchased a new motorbike, my first (on land) motorized vehicle ever! Let’s hope that I’ll soon get better at driving on soft sandy back roads (I already dropped the bike once, oops). All in all we are very excited about the admittedly unexpected turn of events, and hope the two in the blue adventure will continue to excite despite the newly green environment!

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