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Sailing the Volta Lake in 30 Hours

Floating down the second-largest human-made lake in the world, sharing stories through the night.

sunny 30 °C
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The Yapei Queen

The Yapei Queen

Slowly floating down the second-largest human-made lake in the world is a relatively lax affair. The bar is loaded with beers, the captain walks around to greet the passengers, and the big-shot yam trader is sleeping on a foam mattress on the upper deck. Africa is – as always – full of surprises. Also surprisingly, the ferry, MV Yapei Queen, had gotten a new engine. The 430 km used to take anywhere between 36 and 60 hours – now the journey takes 30 hours sharp. Dare I say; it’s not very African of them.

First Class

First Class

30 hours is still a lot longer than the 10 hours the same distance would take in the bus. But after months of road travel, the alternative of travelling by the Yapei Queen was an unmissable opportunity for covering some distance with comforts not found on even the best of roads here in West Africa. The buses don't have a bar. Nor does most of them have A/C. And none of them has two first class cabins with bunk beds, one of which Bo and I managed to secure by booking a few days ahead. Otherwise, we would have shared the upper deck with the yam-trader. I know, but after ten months here, I’m happy that I don’t have to rough it all the time.

Volta map

Volta map

I’ve always liked to travel slowly, and the fact that we ‘only’ used 30 hours was almost too short. We left Akosombo, on the lake’s southern extremity, at 7 pm. Monday and arrived a Yeji in the north at 1 am. Wednesday. Only having one full day to enjoy the ride seemed almost too short. Especially, because sailing down the lake, big as a small ocean, was peaceful bliss. No wind, no waves. Just a mirror-like surface. Just for the sake of giving you an idea I've made a rather primitive map showing the trip. anyone really interested in boats, timetables or geography will probably have to look up the lake... Then again, few probably are...

Bo on the Upper Deck

Bo on the Upper Deck

The Harmattan wind – a meteorological phenomenon where strong trade winds blow dust from the Sahara down over most of West Africa, for months at a time, between November and February – was lying like a blanket of foggy dust on the rugged shores. We almost felt like sailing through a thick soup, perfectly isolated from the rest of Africa. From the rest of the world.

Bo and I used the evenings sipping beers on the upper deck with a couple of other pale travellers. Sharing travel stories and comparing destinations long through the night. My 30 years of age and 88 countries travelled made me both the youngest and least travelled of our group. Let’s just say; the stories weren’t boring.

Sailing the Volta Lake

Sailing the Volta Lake

Arriving in the small port of Yeji at 1 am wasn’t optimal – to put it mildly. Certainly not because we needed to cross to the lake’s opposite shore 7:30 that morning to catch the one daily bus leaning from the even smaller Old Makongo on the other side. The captain was kind enough to let us stay in our cabin until 4 am, but didn’t tell us that the ferry would sail out at that exact time. So when a shipmate knocked on our door at 3:58, yelling, "we’re moving!" we weren’t ready at all. Five minutes later, we’re running off the boat, hoping we haven’t left anything behind. No matter now. Less than twenty seconds after our feet touched the harbour’s dirt, the Yapei Queen pulls off and leaves us in the dark.

Fishing at first light

Fishing at first light

The port – no more than a long pier made of dirt and rocks – is pitch black. A few stalls make a small harbour market, with a few traders sleeping on benches and a transistor radio playing reggae. A little wooden cart is standing off to one side. As we have been told that the small boat that makes the 5 km crossing to the other shore also leaves from here, we simply decided to nap on that wooden cart until daybreak woke us up a few hours later.

The bus to Tamale

The bus to Tamale

The short crossing only took an hour, and our bus showed up at 9.00 but didn’t leave town until a little past 11 because of no particular reason. From there we had a four-hour dusty and bumpy ride on Ghana’s northern roads until we arrived in Tamale, the main city of the north. To be honest, we quickly began to miss the tranquil life onboard the Yapei Queen...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:22 Archived in Ghana Tagged boats travel ferries sailing ghana ferry travelling west_africa volta yapei_queen lake_volta Comments (0)

23 Hours Delay and a Missed Boat

Sometimes I'm surprised that African public transportation have schedules at all. At other times, I'm greatly frustrated. But most times, it - God knows how - all work out. Though rarely without me being put through plenty of trouble first.

all seasons in one day 28 °C
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Pirogues (in Senegal)

Pirogues (in Senegal)

“The pirogue you were written up for departed this morning at 3 am.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that was pretty much what the women told me in a mix of Portuguese, broken French and sign languish. In my rage and disappointment, it was rather difficult to reply in any way that would be understandable for the women. If it had been worth a damn I’d probably yelled at her, “but yesterday I was told to come back here at 10 in the morning!” The reason for my anger. I’d been told my boat was the only boat this week.

My guess is that the languish difficulties between my broken French, their broken French and the sign languish had coursed the misunderstanding. That something along those lines had indeed happened, was made clearer by a guy from Mali, who was able to act as a translator between us – although it took some time since his English also was in the category ‘broken’. To my surprise, there was a pirogue to my destination at 10, but that was not my pirogue. It was simply another pirogue – and it was now full...

The Bijagós Islands

The Bijagós Islands

My trouble had started the day before. Though everything, in the beginning, seemed to go smoothly. I was trying to get to the Bijagós Archipelago – one of the most beautiful, but also most isolated, parts of Guinea-Bissau. I’ve signed up for one of the few weekly pirogues the afternoon before. Signing up was necessary to secure a spot. Even more so because the former Greek ferry, which usually sail a weekly trip between the main island of Bubaque and Bissau, had been sidelined with engine problems for the past month. My name was only the fifth name on that list. Sweet, now I was told that all I had to do was to be at the harbour at noon the following day for the 1 o’clock launch.

Bad Weather

Bad Weather

Arriving at the dock, ready for the six-hour crossing the elements wanted it differently. Heavy winds blew up considerably waves and dark clouds were threatening rain on the horizon. The Bijagós pirogues have a reputation for being rather unsafe due overloading and occasional capsizing, so the port authorities didn’t want to let any pirogues leave the harbour with those conditions roaring. After four hours of waiting, chaos suddenly broke out on the harbour. Everybody quickly packed up their luggage and began moving to another of the port’s piers. A rumour had apparently started that the Greek ferry was ready enough to make the crossing after all. Two hours of screaming between less-than-official looking port officials, the inpatient passengers and the ship’s crew (which were busy relaxing on the deck when I first arrived at the scene) made it clear that the ferry was going nowhere.

Low tide

Low tide

By this time low tide had arrived. Something that is clearly visible in these parts of the world. The difference between ebb and flow is more than five metres. As a result, my pirogue was now firmly situated on the wet mud that had been the ocean floor a few hours earlier. So even though the wind had now died down, there would be now boats for the rest of the day. “Demain, demain” [Tomorrow, tomorrow] I was told. Figuring that the officials knew me by now, I had spent plenty of time at their table during the day trying to figure out what was going on, and believing that there was only one pirogue heading for Bubaque, I simply asked what time tomorrow the pirogue would leave for Bubaque and was told “10 in the morning.”

More Bijagós

More Bijagós

With the clarity of hindsight, I should, of course, have found the list with my name on, pointed to that and asked what time mon pirogue was leaving. In that way, I would probably have been given the time for the right boat.

The result, however, was that I stood on the harbour, stranded. With my boat gone and the only other one left booked out. To make matters worse were my visa running out (and I had already arranged my next visa for Guinea) so postponing everything anywhere from a few days to a week didn’t seem like a splendid option.

Ready to jump (on) ship

Ready to jump (on) ship

Again the Malian guy came to my rescue. He asked me to wait for the boat. First, he tried to explain the situation to the guy making the roll-call for the people who had actually be written up for this pirogue – but here he made little headway. So, when everybody had boarded, I was still standing on dry land. However, he had another trick up his sleeve. Once the harbour police (which job it is to make sure that the captains don’t overload the boats past their capacity) had left, the crew started to take off a lot of the heavier goods from the boat. Because extra passengers pay better than goods, as my friend explained. Sacks of flour, sugar and rice, as well as boxes of wine were off-loaded by the scores. Apparently, those could be transferred to the islands by fishermen during the night. While the goods were being thrown off the boat, me and my Malian friend positioned us to jump on it once they had finished off-loading. There would only be room for so many extra people, and it would be first come, first served.

As the last few things were being tossed off the pirogue, we threw our bags in the opposite direction. Luckily, one of the crew members signalled that I could jump aboard just before the last sack was taken off. That gave me that second of a head start that I needed, and I could smoothly jump onto the boat – which was already pulling off the pier to make sure that not too many people jumped on.

Inside the pirogue

Inside the pirogue

My Malian friend also made it, and we were soon on our way to the Bijagós Islands. The clock was a little past noon. I had not only missed my boat and been delayed 23 hours, but I had also gotten a bit more adventure than I’d bargain for. Nonetheless, I was on my way. Then it mattered less that the boat was overcrowded in a way that made me think of the Mediterranean crossings. The mood on this pirogue, though, was a lot better. People chatted and laughed, read and some even played Ludo...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:53 Archived in Guinea Bissau Tagged islands boat travel transport ferry travelling guinea pirogue bissau guinea-bissau bijagós bubaque orango Comments (0)

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