West Africa Cruise with Gary Arndt: Week 3

May 5, 2014 Gary Arndt

Join Wanderer-in-Residence, Gary Arndt as he travels up the coast of West Africa on G Adventures’ very own MS Expedition. We’ll be sharing a collection of his posts each week. Tune in to find out what this adventure of a lifetime is like first hand from Gary.

Day 19-20, At Sea, Off of the Coast of Liberia and the Ivory Coast

I thought this would be a good time to talk about life abroad the ship and the ways that the West Africa Cruise differs from when the Expedition is in the polar regions.

Smooth Sailing and Sea Sickness
The truth is, you can barely tell the ship is moving. The coast of Africa is not Antarctica. There are few major storms in this region, although we do occasionally encounter a rain squall. We are usually 12-20 nautical miles from shore, so we seldom experience the rougher waters found in the open ocean. Moreover, the ship is equipped with stabilizers which prevents the ship from excessive rolling.

Food and Drinks
Several members of the staff have worked on other expedition class ships, and there seems to be almost universal agreement about the quality of the food on board the ship. The passengers are in agreement. The danger aboard the Expedition is that you’ll gain weight during the trip. Chef Tony and his crew are extremely talented. There is an ample selection of wines and other beverages available and many of the passengers have a bottle of wine which they use over the course of several nights dining. Everyone on board has an account so any drinks you purchase can be settled up at the end of the trip on your credit card. Prices of everything on board are in American dollars.

The staff is specifically chosen for their expertise in Africa or African culture. The expedition leader is an expert in African birds and birdwatching. We have an African historian on board who has written several books. One of the staff members is an academic who has been studying West African art and culture since the 1960’s. We have a zoologist who lives in South Africa and specializes in African wildlife. Even the resident musician is someone who specializes in African music and speaks several African languages. The wine tastings on board are run by a man who owns and operates a vineyard just outside of Cape Town. That doesn’t even include the geologist, artist, photographer and other staff which are on board and lecturing. There is also a full time doctor on board who was also originally born in Uganda.

We have been sailing along the coast of Africa just a few degrees from the Equator, so as you can expect the temperatures have been hot. Air temperatures most days have been between 30-35°C. The water temperature has been around 30°C during this stretch of the trip. The change in water temperature has been much more dramatic than the change in air temperature due to the Benguela Current which runs up the coast of Namibia. When we started, the water temperature was around 14°C. I expect the water temperature to drop a bit once we begin to head north.

Being cooped up on a small ship for several days can quickly lead to boredom if you don’t have anything to do. While we are at sea the staff will put on several lectures per day as well as doing a wine tasting before dinner. There is also just a lot of talking amongst the passengers, who are a very well traveled lot of people.

Day 18, Takoradi, Ghana

Our objective for the day was to visit several of the slave forts along the coast. We visited two forts: Cape Coast Castle and the Elmira Castle, both of which are part of the same UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The first fort we visited was the Cape Coast Castle. Originally built by the Swedish Africa Company (yes, the Swedes were involved in the African slave trade) it was eventually possessed by the Dutch and then finally the British. We then headed up and went to the nearby city of Elmina where we walked through the town to reach the second fort. The people and the town were by far the more interesting part of this stop. Elmina is a fishing village and the day we visited all the boats seemed to be in the harbor. It was an incredibly colorful collection of boats and flags. Each boat would fly a different flag, be it for another country or a football club, so they can be identified from shore.

Fisherman in the Elmina Harbor.

Fisherman in the Elmina Harbor.

As with many of our stops, Elmina doesn’t get that many tourists, so the people seemed as interested in us as we were in them. We also got a chance to see more of the great business names which Ghana is famous for. My favorites were the “God Rules Internet Cafe” and the “Triad College of Theology and Computer Training”.

Day 17, Accra, Ghana

Accra completely changed everything I thought about West Africa. It is at a different level from all the other cities we visited. The roads were paved. Grass was mowed. The monuments were clean and kept in good condition. There were business ranging from large to small. Most people were driving cars, not motorbikes.

We began the day be getting a tour of the highlights of Accra. Our first stop was a place which made coffins. Ghana is famous for the custom designed coffins which people can order to reflect some aspect of their life. If they were a fisherman, they can get a coffin shaped like a fish. Movie lovers can get one that looks like a film projector. If you like beer, you can be buried in a giant beer can.

The coffin makers of Accra.

The coffin’s of Accra.

After a visit to the Kwame Nkurma memorial we drove past several other highlights in Accra before heading 90 minutes out of town to a place which manufactures beads from recycled glass. The drive there was as eye opening as the initial impressions I had of Accra. The countryside is, as you would expect, not nearly as developed at the capital. Nonetheless, there were signs of progress I saw in every village we passed through.

I think that is what I came away with from Ghana. Whatever Ghana is doing, at least relative to their neighbors in West Africa, is working. I had a real positive feeling about Ghana and absent a coup or some other disruption, they should keep moving foward.

Day 16, Cotonou, Benin

The stilt city of Ganvie.

The stilt city of Ganvie.

Arriving in Coutonou, I immediately noticed several differences between it and Lome, Togo. For starters, there was much less litter on the ground. This was something which was confirmed the more we traveled throughout the day. (As we later found out, the President of Benin started a campaign against litter which has made a huge difference). Also, the roads, at least in the city, were in much better shape than in Lome. The major buildings also appeared to be in much better condition. All the other passengers and staff I spoke with shared the same observation: Cotonou was subtly, yet significantly, nicer than Lome. It didn’t hit you over the head, but it was obvious if you took the time to look.

Our first stop of the day was the stilt city of Ganvie which was located on Lake Nokoué. When I say it was located on the lake, I don’t mean it was located alongside the lake. It was ‘on’ the lake. The town has approximately 20,000 inhabitants and was established about 400 years ago as people fled to escape slavers. All of the people of Ganvie have to use boats to get from place to place, transport products and fish.

Our afternoon encounter was in the city of Ouida (pronounced wee-da). Ouide was the first of the several slave trading posts we were to visit on our trip. The fort we visited in Ouida was a Portuguese fort, but there were actually forts from several countries which were established in the area. Slaves were brought from upcountry by local tribes who captured them as spoils of war.

At the end of the day, the thing I found most facinating about Benin was being able to compare it to what we saw the day before in neighboring Togo. Two countries with similar geography, histories, ethnic groups and languages, yet they developed in different and significant ways.

Day 15, Lome, Togo

In Akato Viepe, we were greeted with full fanfare by the village chief and his entourage.

In Akato Viepe, we were greeted with full fanfare by the village chief and his entourage.

In the last two updates I said that our next stop was going to be Cotonou, Benin. Togo is clearly not Benin. What happened was a classic case of West African bureaucracy and being able to adapt. Day 15 was actually Easter Sunday. Despite the fact that this trip had been planned for over a year, it was less than 24 hours before we landed that we were told that the port in Benin was closed for Easter! In the end, they managed to switch around our days in Togo and Benin and everything worked out.

After a dance show at the port, we traveled 45 minutes outside of the capital of Lome to the village of Akato Viepe. In Akato Viepe, we were greeted with full fanfare by the village chief and his entourage. The people of the village gave us our warmest reception we’ve had to date. I can’t help but think that part of this was the result of visiting the village on Easter Sunday. (There was a service going on in a nearby church during our visit and it sounded like quite the celebration.)

In the afternoon we headed back to Lome and visited an African art museum, a artist market and…the fetish market. To understand the fetish market, you have to understand that in Togo, traditional religion, often called voodoo, is still practiced by a very large portion of the population. The fetish market is a market for dead animals and animal parts which are used for voodoo religious purposes.

Day 14, At Sea, In the Gulf of Guinea

In theory, day 14 was supposed to be our most ‘dangerous’ day at sea. I put dangerous in quotes because it wasn’t really dangerous at all. Nonetheless, it is worth talking about some of the issues the G Expedition has to face in this part of the world and the security precautions which were put in place.

While piracy has become a full blown industry in Somalia, in West Africa there have only been a small number of cases of piracy, and those have only involved oil tankers. That being said, it is possible there could be a first time, so there have been security measures put in place to ensure the safety of the ship. Here are some of the things which have been done:

  • The stern of the ship has been covered in razor wire. As this is the lowest point of the ship where someone could climb on board, this part was given the most attention in terms of security. Most piracy attempts involve putting a ladder against the ship or throwing up a rope, so by securing the lowest accessible point of the ship, you can do the most good. In addition to the razor wire, several fire hoses were installed which point outward on the stern of the ship.
  • Most of the piracy incidents which have occurred in West Africa have come near the coast of Nigeria. That is the reason why we didn’t visit Nigeria on this trip. Also, as we traveled from Principe to Benin, we didn’t take a direct route. We took a roundabout path which was a bit longer, but was further away from any potential source of danger.
  • A team of former special forces soldiers were brought on board in Swakopmund. These guys are trained in courter piracy measures and one is on security duty at all times during the cruise. None of them are allowed to drink during the trip. (Which I know because several of us have tried to buy them a beer :)
  • The entire crew has been trained in security procedures in the event that something should happen. The fact that you’d have to deal with so many people is one reason why hijacking passenger ships isn’t a good business decision for pirates.
  • During periods where we are closest to Nigeria, we’ve been running at night with most of our lights out. You can still see some lights out the windows, but it has been minimized.
  • We we fortunate to have a Turkish warship in the region this year. I’ve also understood that there is usually one or more naval vessels in the region all the time. That means if pirates did try something, they have to deal with armed soldiers within a few hours. Again, that is bad for business.
  • This is actually a very busy stretch of water. Along Togo and Benin we saw dozens of ships including container vessels, oil tankers and other ships with actual, sellable cargo. They are much better targets than a passenger ship filled with retirees.

So, while the threat was minimal to begin with, the security procedures put in place has made it such that none of the passengers have been seriously concerned about our safety, myself included.


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