My New Fear of Boats


Wandering around Africa’s west coast has needed a few boats from time to time. Our first canoe ride, between the Gambian and Casamance border, got us across the river, but not legally into Senegal, only stamped out of Gambia. The next boat we searched for was a ferry from Bissau to the islands of Bijagos Archipelago. Once in Bissau, we realized it’d be hard to find water, electricity, and money, but didn’t expect how hard it was to find out if and when the next boat was going to Bubaque, the main island in Bijagos. We did find out the once weekly ferry was broken down, which usually went on Wednesdays, Fridays or Sundays (we’re still not sure), but knew that sometimes canoes made the journey instead. We wandered around the hangout for half an hour, talking to the market sellers, military soldiers and fisherman, before finally finding a boat that went at 10:30… no 11…. Actually it left at 12… But that’s still good time in Africa. The journey took 4 hours on a hard wooden plank, but with shade, a cool breeze, smooth seas and the tide in our favor, it was much better than the 5-7 hours the canoe could take.

Next boat to find was one to take us from Bubaque island to the national park at Orango. That boat was also only once weekly, on Saturday, but we wanted to go Sunday or Monday. Through a gay Spanish guy on the island, we met a local fisherman’s brother, his lover, who agreed to take us plus two other backpackers to Orango on a wooden canoe. We agreed to pay for 50L of gas plus some extra to pocket, but he only bought 25L and we set off, saying that the small engine wouldn’t need more. 5 of his homies came too, and we had to drop one of them off in the middle of the jungle where she lived. Once we arrived in Orango, 3 hours later, we had no gas left. Thus, we couldn’t cruise around to see the salt water hippos, or return home for that matter. After negotiating with the captain of a fishing boat, we bought another 25L of gas, and set off back home.

Then, we had to stop again at the village, to pick up the girl again plus half the village’s supplies. With a chicken and some more cargo, we set sail just before sunset. But, we didn’t make it far before the engine stopped working. After some small efforts to fix it, the sun disappeared behind the sea, and we were left floating in the dark, miles from shore and even further from Bubaque, our destination. We and the chicken got more and more restless, as the cockroaches on the boat started exploring the bottom and sides of the canoe with the cover of dark. Dolphins popped up around us, but we could only hear their splashes and blow holes exhaling, since not even a moon shone down on us. No boats were in sight, but once in a while the bioluminescent creatures in the sea sparkled in a wave.

After about 5 hours of floating hopelessly, wandering what to do and using the only phone on the canoe that had call credit, we reached the same fishing captain from Orango island to come rescue us. After 2 hours of them searching for us in the pitch black, they found us, but then began an hour of quarrels about needing more money and gas from us white folk to get the canoe to land. We basically did what he said, just so we could leave the canoe, since he started threatening the fisherman with the military for “stealing his clients without paying.”

We returned back to Orango at midnight, got well fed with the days catch, and slept like angels in beds we never thought we’d see again. The extravagant bill for the rescue mission, dinner and hotel came the next morning, and we were still far far away from Bubaque. We then found a hotel shuttle boat to take us, for another large cost, and finally got home to our wallets and backpacks to settle all our debts.

The only blessing in disguise from that catastrophe was the fisherman, who offered to take us the following day back to Senegal in his speed boat. Needless to say, that also turned into a small disaster. Our supposed 4 hour transfer took 9.5 hours, after the GPS broke and we lost sight of land. We weren’t sure how lost we were, but no one knew how to head east according to the sun except me. We then almost ran out of gas, but finally made it back to Casamance after a small lifter-upper – a pod of dolphins had greeted us on our way and surfed the waves of our boat for a small moment of beauty in all the stress.

The next boat was supposed to be an 18hr ferry from Ziguinchor to Dakar, but we had quickly had enough of sea travel, and decided to take a shared taxi by land instead. That journey turned into 13 hours instead of 6, since the car broke down twice and we needed to wait for yet another boat to make the ferry crossing through Gambia. After finally arriving in Dakar, I’m happy to say the future of my west Africa trip lies inland, and I don’t have to deal with any more boats or ferries, just a whole lot more taxis that always take twice as long as they’re supposed to.