Saturday, April 23, 2011

40 Hours on Maryvana

I am here writing about the possibility to go by boat from Libreville to Sao Tome. But before you read on. Are you impatient, restless or just bad at relaxing? Well, if that is the case, read no more. The paragraphs that follow are not for you. What I am about to tell will make painting the third layer of a very white wall seem like Christmas Eve to a six year old, in comparison.

The harbour of Libreville.

I am impatient, restless and bad at relaxing. Etc. But let me start from the beginning. When I suddenly found myself in Libreville, Gabon with a visa to Sao Tome & Principe two hours after applying for it, I was pretty excited about going there. I have the reasonably expensive hobby of collecting countries. All of them. That also puts Sao Tome & Principe on the list. Gabon is one of a very few countries with an embassy and a direct flight, making it a perfect starting point. (Note that Sao Tome & Principe does not give you a visa upon arrival. If you manage to get on a plane or a boat without a visa, you will be sent back the same way, on your own expense.)

The ferry. Allegedly. I was later told by a Danish reader that it was built in Norway, my home country, in 1965
and that it until 1999 sailed in Danish waters between Marstal on Ærø Island to Rudkøbing in Langeland.
Hence the name Marstal.

The wrong Wednesday
But this was a Wednesday. Not just the normal kind. It was Wednesday before Easter. That Wednesday. I was on a normal Easter vacation, not even thinking that airlines would change their schedules during Easter. It is only fair to point out at this stage, that I am not talking about just any airline. I am talking about Ceiba, the airline of Equatorial Guinea, allegedly one of the most peculiar countries in the world.

M/V Maryvana, the real mode of transport. To the left.

Ceiba is for instance banned to fly in Europe. But that’s not all, and let me quote from Wikipedia:

Media reports said that in 2009, the boss of CEIBA, a Senagalese citizen of Gambian origins named Mamadou Jaye, left Equatorial Guinea with a suitcase with 3.5 billion CFA francs (about five million euros or 6.5 million United States dollars) and spare ATR aircraft parts to negotiate trade deals with Côte d'Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, and Senegal and to establish a West African office for CEIBA. Jaye never returned to Equatorial Guinea.

That kind of an airline. It turned out that Ceiba did not fly to Sao Tome on this particular Friday (even though they normally fly to Sao Tome only on Fridays and Mondays – Good Friday is Good Friday).

So there I was, on Wednesday before Good Friday finding out that I could not go to Sao Tome via air until Monday. Which would be too late.

There was always the possibility of flying via Luanda, Angola, but with no direct flights from Libreville, and at substantial cost. That left the boat option to cover the 300 kilometers of ocean.

Offloading. Or a balancing act?

Harbour hell
I walked down to the harbour, asked my way to the Sao Tome ticket office, and found some sort of a shack where they sold other tickets. I asked for assistance, and one of the guys behind the counter took me to a friend, a guy called Ricardo on a very small cargo boat named Andrea, carrying loads of colorful mattresses and some oil barrels. I frowned.

This is the boat to Sao Tome? It would sink if a seagull shat on the wrong side of it.

And yes, Ricardo was definitely going to Sao Tome. But not until the following day. Did I need to leave today?

- Yes!

- OK, OK. Wait, I will check.

Off he ran, soon coming back with a guy titled the Financial Manager of the docks. He asked me, via translator in charge Ricardo, whether I had a visa. I showed him. He looked at it and discussed my two hour old visa with some guys standing nearby before suggesting that we follow him. We walked into a run down, badly lit warehouse. It was not exactly designed based on carefully monitored customer behavior pattern in Harrods, rather designed based on the mind of Alfred Hitchcock. A metal shop, two sleeping workers, a stairway, a narrow hall and an open door later, there were to my surprise no thugs to be found, but two lovely ladies. I asked how long it would take to go by boat to Sao Tome.

Old fashioned?

- 15 hours, Ricardo said.

Well, this is Africa and they are trying to sell me something. I’ll add 30% to that. 20 hours is still bad, very bad actually, but given the options....

I nodded. They started writing out my ticket, I paid for it and I felt safe. Kind of. Until they told me, again through Ricardo, that my passport had to go to the police and would be returned before the departure of the vessel.

Damn, I hate leaving without my passport.

On my way back to the docks, I picked up 1.5 litres of water and 1 litre of apple juice plus 6 bananas and 4 oranges.

Enough for 20 hours when they include a night.

M/V Maryvana. Seen from the bow.

The boat part starts here
After getting my ticket, I had to wait for over 2 hours to board the ferry. Or, ferry I thought. Marstal of Sao Tome was docked, being loaded, and seemed pretty ready to leave. So, how fast can that ferry go, I asked Ricardo, who seemed to have finished his duties of the day and was chilling next to me on a bench in the shadow in the harbour.

-          Well, you are not taking that ferry. That one is going to Cameroon, he said.

-          So, which boat am I taking, I asked.

-          That one.

He pointed past the ferry to a pretty run down cargo vessel.

Beautiful (where is the symbol of irony?)! From a shabby ferry of the type that could have been seen roaming the fjords of Norway only 20 years earlier to this, this, this floating thing. Bloody hell! Consider the options, consider the options…

Half an hour later I was on board the thing, aka. M/V Maryvana. On board were also five fellow passengers; Two Sao Tome & Principe guys whom I had actually met in the Embassy earlier, two girls and a baby. The time was 17:18. Of some reason I checked it.

Leaving Libreville
At 18:20, everything was loaded, unloaded and the boat unhooked from the big ropes. We were off! There is not much to say here, really, except that the boat moved exceptionally slow at 7 knots (10-11 km/h). I also befriended Fidele, the chief engineer.

Fidele, Chief Engineer of M/V Maryvana.

- Fidele, like Fidel Castro, he said in decent English when introducing himself.

He has a sister working in a hotel in Oslo, he told me. And then he complained about African wages and said that he wanted to move to Europe.

Not having planned for this boat trip, I had no sleeping bag or blanket in my backpack. Only clothes, toiletries and my laptop. I found a pretty quiet spot on the 58 meter long but narrow boat and laid down on some plastic covers that were tied up. Kind of soft. Softer than the steel plates, at least. I tried a couple of dozen sleeping positions and eventually fell asleep. After a while I was woken up by one of the girls. It had started to rain a little. She spoke no English, but she handed me a blanket. Hers. And she pointed me to underneath the roofed part in front of the cockpit area. I was too tired to protest and laid down on the blanket on the steel plate. I somehow kind of managed to sleep again. I soon wake up after feeling big rain drops on my face. A storm was approaching. The captain ordered us below deck to the galley. It was cramped down there, but no rain. The storm could still be heard and very much felt. One of the Sao Tome guys puked a couple of times.

Fit for six passengers during a storm?

I was woken by Fidele at 07:00 in the morning. I went back up on deck. Still pretty rough, but no rain. We’d been at sea for almost 13 hours. But I could still not see land. Why not? I checked my phone with built-in GPS.

Me, where I woke up after the first night.

We’re only 40% there. Fcuk!

We’d with the same speed need another 18 hours to get to Sao Tome, totaling at over 30 hours, twice as much as what Ricardo had told me.

Where’s the voodoo doll when you need it?

What to do, what to do?

I considered a variety of self torture methods in order to rather experience physical than mental pain. None were evaluated as cruel enough, and I somehow managed to convince myself to start looking at this as the perfect possibility into self realization and meditation. I have always loved the sea breeze and smell of the sea, so it kind of worked. But slow it was, slow it was. And my self imposed meditation was made less effective by the occasional Ceiba curse. At 15:10 (14:10 Sao Tome time) we started seeing the outline of a mountain, of Sao Tome.

Typical view.

Awesome! It can’t take more than 6 hours, from here.

9 hours later we were close. Really close. Maximum 20 minutes away. Then the engine stopped.

What the?

The anchor was dropped.

- What’s the problem?

Second night on deck
Fidele translated. The customs had closed for the night, so we couldn’t go to shore. I had two options. Exploding, or not exploding. I chose the latter, but it didn’t work. Another night on deck.

Lovely, really.

Who got me into this?

This time, I took my backpack and used a t-shirt as a pillow and a shirt as a blanket on the steel. Not too bad. With the gentle sea breeze and a great view of the stars. But two nights in a row on deck of a cargo vessel? And with only a few bananas and orange to eat?

I was woken by local fishermen in boats with outboard engines at around 6. My fellow passengers were already up, seemingly enthusiastic. For no reason. It took another 2.5 hours until the captain could start the engines and navigate us to the docks. And then we still had to stay aboard 30 minutes for the customs officers to go through the boat (after all, being called Maryvana, drug smuggling would not be a surprise) and check our passports.

At 09:17, I was on land, yet again. 39 hours and 59 minutes after boarding.

Bloody hell!

With a fellow cargo vessel outside Sao Tome.

In retrospect, a nice trip though. To ride a boat that was never intended to carry passengers has a certain charm to it. If you have the time and patience. And it is much more memorable than a 45 minute plane ride. If you go with someone, bring a case of beer or two and enough food, it can probably be totally ace. And after arrival in the tiny town of Sao Tome, you can easily walk from the docks downtown in 5-10 minutes.

If you want to do this trip, just don’t tell your loved ones at home that you’ll be unavailable for only 15-20 hours due to lack of phone coverage (as I did). They might end up being sleepless in Seattle or Stockholm, waiting for your first sign of life. Which may, as demonstrated, take ages. Telenor (the 7th biggest mobile network operator in the world), my phone carrier, has for instance no roaming agreements with the carrier here (nor in Djibouti, Myanmar, Somalia, Vanuatu, North Korea (surprise) and Nauru), so there was no signal to be picked up, even when anchored outside the island.

Location: Libreville docks (or Sao Tome docks for return)

Buying ticket: 15:30
Boarding: 18:18 (Gabon time)
“40%” there: 07:24
Sao Tome in sight (barely): 15:10
Arriving just outside Sao Tome: 23:38 (Sao Tome time)
Docked and tied up: 08:47
Feet back on ground 09:17 (10:17, Gabon time)
Total travel time: 39 hours, 59 minutes.

Precision docking in Sao Tome.

Ticket price: 95,000 XAF (probably overcharged, half of it was “tax”), you shouldn’t pay more than 50-60,000 if you can haggle a little and you’re not desperate because of Easter.

Bring: A blanket, enough food and drinks and a deck chair/bed if you are really sophisticated. The crew of nine are not mean, they just don’t have more food than they need themselves.  

There are cargo vessels going several days a week, so this is a realistic option if you are not too impatient. There is also supposedly a passenger ship (Marstal II, the sister ship of the ferry I thought I was going to take) that runs occasionally. That should be somewhat faster, but without the "charm" of a cargo vessel.

Bye, bye, Marivana!