A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about sailing

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)

Mishaps on the Gambian River

As a local warned me before I took off, “the River doesn’t like foreigners.” That turned out to be very, very true.

sunny 35 °C
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The Gambian River

The Gambian River

Ever since I began contemplating travelling in Africa, I’ve been dreaming of taking on the continent’s major rivers. Drifting downriver, passing crocodiles and hippos, like a late nineteenth-century explorer. The ultimate price would be the Congo River, but being far from the Congo and having just arrived in The Gambia, the Gambian River would certainly do.

Finding myself in the eastern-most part of The Gambia, what in my mind seemed an easy, leisurely five-day float between the towns of Basse Santa Su and Janjanbureh quickly turned out to cause me plenty of troubles.

River crossing

River crossing

I knew there weren’t any public transportation on the river itself. Except a handful of ferry crossings, which really isn’t much of river exploration. Instead, I hoped that there would be some commercial movements on the river. There were, but the only ships trawling the waters from Basse were the ships transporting groundnuts (peanuts) to the coast. Symptomatically for my luck on the Gambia the ships had just departed. The day before I arrived in town.

The boats I wanted

The boats I wanted

So I began looking for alternatives. The bulky metal cans that were ferrying people across the river alongside the ferries would not do. They were too heavy. There were, however, a few smaller wooden boats tied down alongside the riverbank. So, as the hopeless optimist, I am, I started to inquire the boatmen on the riverside about those. Between the few friendly guys on the shore, one quickly mentioned that his “fat uncle had a canoe that he is too fat to sail.” That sounded promising, simply because the uncle apparently was so big that he wouldn’t be using the boat anytime soon. Before he had lost a couple of kilos, that is. I just had to come back the next day.

Glass-bottled Guinness

Glass-bottled Guinness

While I waited for the day to pass, I spend the day constructively drinking Guinness at a riverside bar. Glass-bottled Guinness, in what is the coolest colonial left-over ever. Here, the locals were very interested in my plan, though not very optimistic on my behalf. They warned me that there would be both hippos and crocodiles in the river. One old guy even told me – in a drunken whisper as legendary as the words themselves – “the River doesn’t like foreigners.” Not as a treat, through his rusty voice made it sound like that, but as a concerned warning. I was, however, much determined to take on the river, while the promise of both hippos and crocs did give me butterflies.

When I returned to the riverside the following morning, I didn’t find exactly what I’d expected. Instead of one of the small boats, the boatman had gotten me a narrow, tradition canoe. I quickly found out just how difficult these things are to balance. The very first thing I did, getting into the canoe, was to capsize it, soaking myself from the waist down. These things sit just five centimetres above the water’s edge, and I barely had to shift my body weight at all to make it wobbles dangerously.

My canoe on the river

My canoe on the river

I should probably have given up there and then. Instead, I stubbornly decided to spend an hour paddling around in circles on the river to get familiar with the canoe. To great amusement to the local spectators. Managing this without getting myself wet again, I could happily proceed back into town to buy food for the five days. Water, bread, cheese, canned tuna and sardines, crackers, bananas and mango juice. Not very exciting, but it would get me through.

With the canoe loaded with the provision and my baggage, I happily sat out, down the Gambian River.

I managed about four hours on that first half day. The river was calm and conditions were more or less perfect. My shoulders were sore from the paddling and my bump numb from sitting on the hard would. But that wasn’t too bad. However, the amount of energy I had to use to keep the canoe steady in the water was incredible. My entire body, and especially my legs ached from tightening throughout the journey. There would simply be no way I could complete this trip in five days. I’ve just been going half a day, and I was completely used out because of this balancing issue. So I decided to paddle back to Basse the next morning.

Croc in the river

Croc in the river

It wasn’t without a certain notion of failure that I put up my tent. But bedding down on the shore of the Gambian river, with monkey hauls, lizards’ sprinting through the grass and a hundred birds being the only noises around me made it hard to stay blue. Everything was less bliss the following morning. The weather had decided to take a turn for the worse. Rain clouds threatened above and winds created waves on the river.

These waves gave me more troubles that anything else. Keeping my balance in the canoe was just impossible. I managed less than 50 metres back up the river before I had to give up and come ashore again. I was simply not going to loose all my belongs to the river due to another capsizing. To make matters worse a quick shower, lasting just ten minutes, soaked me to the bone. I tied up the canoe, got my backpack and prepared myself for spending the rest of the morning walking back to Basse. Adding insult to injury, my camera slipped out of my pocket as I tied the canoe down. Disappearing into the muddy water, I simply had to abandon it.

Beyond saving

Beyond saving

A good four hours later, back in Basse, I found the boatman and set out to retrieve the lost canoe in hit boat. It still took three hours to reach the canoe (and three hours to get it back to Basse). The only positive thing was that the low tide had arrived and relieved the location of my camera. I spend most of the next day trying to fix it. In vain. I’ll just have to get a new one once I reach the capital of Banjul...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 16:25 Archived in Gambia Tagged traditional travel river sailing africa travelling crocodiles canoe west_africa hippos gambia gambia_river Comments (0)

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