(a shorter, edited version of this has appeared as a Boots story)
Tanzania, June 1984
I awoke to the gentle flapping of my tent plane and the rolling of waves on the beach. Still groggy I crawled out onto the sand. The previous evening had been long as I finally met other travellers to talk to. We sat around a crakling campfire until the small hours, smoking a joint rolled from the entire page of a newspaper. It was the biggest reefer I have ever seen, but the grass was rough.
We were joined by an Irish overland group on their way to Kenya. It was the first happy group I had encountered, they sat together all evening talking and laughing.
It was only seven. I caught a lift to town with Misha Feinsilber, an Israeli who had settled in Kunduchi. Misha spoke 14 languages, including German.
I the harbour I learned that the boat was not due to leave before tomorrow but laterthat day a Dhow would leave, one of the traditional boats made of wood and coconut matting with big triangular sails. I left a 100 sh deposit for my fare and left to celebrate with a large breakfast.
A guy sitting opposite me in the coffeeshop watched with amazement as I put away countless pastries fried in coconut oil and we struck up a conversation. When he heard that I had to wait until the evening before sailing to Zanzibar, he invited me to his office and introduced me to his colleagues and we ended up spending much of the day together. After lunch, I wrote my notes under the whirling ceiling fans in the shady cool of the office, then he took me back to the harbour.
A sizeable crowd had gathered on the pier, apparently I would not be the only passenger. I stepped onto the dhow next to the pier and took off my rucksack but the person who had waved me to climb on board now signalled to go on.
“What? Is this ship not sailing to Zanzibar?”
“Not today, go on.”
The boat tied up behind it, a smaller dhow was also not the right one. Behind the two, a vessel got ready to sail. Not a dhow but an old metal ship, lying deep in the water under a heavy load of sweet potatoes, tomatoes and about a hundred passengers with their luggage.
“I wouldn’t go on that,” my friend Hamed said.
“Do I have a choice?”
“I don’t like it,” he said again when I bade him good bye. He had a worried frown on his face. I laughed and waved him off, shouting I’d meet him when I was back in Dar.
I was disappointed that the crossing would not be in one of the romantic dhows that had sailed the sea around Zanzibar for millenia, but at least we would be going to the Spice Island. I sat down on one of the potato sacks and lit a pipe. Departure was “scheduled” for eight.
At ten thirty I felt a slight irritation in my bladder. I looked around the vessel. Next to the captain’s cabin there was a small wooden scaffold hanging over the side. I had an idea about its purpose but wsn’t keen to use it in the harbour where people on the pier could see inside. I held out for another hour, then asked one of the other passengers, a guy with a golden wristwatch, who spoke English.
“Just go,” he said: “I’m sure we’ll still be here for hours”.
He even accompanied me to ask the guards about toilets. They pointed straight ahead and I started to jog. As I did not see any (they were there but quite some way away) I crouched behind a wall, past caring at this time, and ran back to the boat where my new friend pulled me on deck urging: “We are about to sail! We have just been waiting for you!”
We left minutes later in a thick cloud of diesel fumes. I found a place to stretch on a tarpaulin and tried to block out the droning of the engine. All the passengers were packed tightly together but when the sun had set the temperature fell so I was grateful for the mutual warmth of our bodies. Soon I went to sleep.
A banging sound from below deck startled me, but I went back to sleep thinking nothing of it.
Moments later, so it seemed, the crew suddenly came to life. My neighbor had jumped up and searched frantically among the clutter on deck before tossing two plastic buckets dowen the hatch to the engine room. One of the crewmembers began to rip off the tarpaulin covering the load on which we cowered. Along with the other pacsengers, I rushed towards the bow.
“What is going on?” I shouted.
“We are sinking!” one of the Indian guys shouted back: “We are SINKING! Damnit!!”
I stared back at the harbour, just a collection of dots at the horizon indicated where Dar was. We had passed the ships anchored in the bay and they barely seemed nearer than the coast. There was only darkness around us.
The crew started to jettison the load. Sacks of poatoes flew overboard, splashing into the black water beneath. Each splash lit up in a greenish glow as tiny plankton fluoresced in response like stars of the deep. It was eerie: the fluorescence below, the starry sky overhead and the dots of light at the horizon — there was light everywhere.
Within what seemed like moments, the potatoes had vanished overboard. The seriousness of the situation began to sink in as I got my spinning head around the situation we were in. I started to shake uncontrollably. I thought about the newspaper reports, then corrected myself — nobody knew where I was at this moment. My last mail would not arrive home for another month or so. My relatives may never know what happened to me.
I thought about sharks. There were well over a hundred people on board. There were no life rafts and no signalling devices. The whistle I carried in my survival pouch was useless this far from shore and the wind blew from shore — nobody could hear us anyway. We were invisible. Through my binoculars I could make out cyrillic writing of the ship nearest to us. I could see movement on deck. These people had no idea about the tragedy unfolding unseen in the dark sea below them.
The crew had started to bail water with frantic speed — using the two plastic buckets my neighbour had thrown down to them. The vessel was tilting more and more to the side in the waves and the Indian guy said it looked “Rough!”
Luckily I still had a little of my hideously expensive import tobacco left. I smiled as I noticed myself carefully catching the crumbs and putting them back into the pouch and lit what might be my last pipe, brushing the final bits of tobacco carelessly away but returning the pouch to my pocket. Above us, the pale smoky whisper of the Milky Way acted like a beacon of infinity in this strange night which would not have a dawn. Would the “Harbour of Peace” be the harbour of our final rest?
Sudenly a sharp command was bellowed: “Nyuma, nyuma — back, back!”
I was herded to the back of the vessel along with the other passengers. As I stumbled back, I passed the hatch and caught a glimpse of the engine room. I saw grey water boiling into the room from a sizeable hole in the hull. It was remarkable that the engines were still bellowing out smoke in the deluge.
The crowd pushed on and eventually I ended up somewhere starboard at the railing. We pressed tightly together. A boy about my age stood next to me. There were many mothers with babies strapped to their backs. Most of these people would not be able to swim, but everybody was calm, accepting whatever fate may have in store for them. I seemed to be the only one who was scared.
I contemplated jumping into the sea and swiming up to the Russian ship for help, but I dismissed the idea. The crew was not likely to notice me. Only rats leave the sinking ship.
The crew had re-formed their bailing chain. The buckets flew from hand to hand. Everybody’s life was at stake. The boy who stood on deck tossing the loads into the waves, dressed in rags as they all were, kept jumping up and down and circling his arms, urging on his mates to go faster. Fighting against the ocean.
So far we had been pottering around in circles instead of steering towards the cost or other ships, but suddenly the captain regained control and righted the course. The engines continued to churn.
I looked up at the stars: “Hamdulillah!”
I had said it out loud. The boy next to me smiled.
“Are you Muslim?” He nodded. “Sorry about my shaking,” I looked down at my hand: “I’m scared, I can’t help it.”
“That’s alright,” he said.
A meteorite fizzled out silently in the sky above, soon followed by another. I had just one wish: Safety.
Some people had started to jettison pieces of luggage. I saw peoples’ belongings fly overboard as dark shadows, flashing yellow-green as they hit the water. For the first time I allowed myself the luxury to think about what the hell I would do without my rucksack in the middle of Africa.
The Russian ship loomed larger. We crept closer metre by metre. The crew was still bailing. The engine suddenly seemed louder, would it stop?
We were very close to the ship now. To my disconcertment, the captain had not turned towards it. Had he taken leave of his senses? Then I saw the crew emerge from the engine room one by one, looking shattered, but smug. We picked up speed and made for the harbour. The hole had been fixed. We were safe!
The crew immedediately set about making tea and chapatis fried in coconut oil. It was the 28th day of Ramadan and most of them had probably not eaten anything until now. The man with the wristwatch, who had vanished until now, offered me some tea. I accepted gratefully; I was still shaking as if I had malaria. The shock combined with the chilly wind blowing at my clammy clothes which stuck to my skin. The boy next to me prodded me.
“Do you smoke hash?” he took a long toke and passed me a sizeable joint.
And then the harbour. The lighthouse. Lights to either side. Land.
“Ah bad luck,” Mr. Wristwatch said: “We’re turning back.”
“You hadn’t noticed? Be glad that we are alive!”
“I thank Allah thousandfold,” the boy next to me whispered: “We are safe.” and he began to pray in Swahili and Arabic.
Then we were on shore. Disbelieving, I stumbled onto the gently swaying dhows and onto the pier. My backpack was still there. I turned back to the ocean and saw that the sun had started to rise on the first day of the rest of my life.