The cows didn’t smell as bad as I thought; hardly at all in fact. This had been my initial worry when I realised I would be spending three days and four nights at sea with them.
There were 500 in total, crammed into a series of pens on three tiers of decking. There was also a fourth deck – the forecastle, at the bow of the boat, loaded with covered straw bales for the cows, and a quarterdeck of sorts at the stern, which is where I and the crew spent most of the time. This consisted of a bridge and two cabins, around which a covered wooden decking allowed movement from one side of the vessel to the other, and access to one of two long drop toilets either side of an enormous wooden rudder. More on that later.
A large wooden wheel manned in six-hour shifts by one of the four pilots dominated the bridge, to the right of which the engine controls, a compass and small GPS were fitted.
Behind the bridge a bare-floored central cabin provided space for crew to sleep. This gave access to the aft-cabin – a cozy carpeted space that contained two berths, one for the captain and the other kindly offered to me. Attached to the captain’s cabin was also a small cubicle for a bucket shower. All in all simple, but fairly comfortable and sufficient quarters to pass time at sea I thought.
The boat, the Shahe-Al-Sabir – so named after the owner’s son, measured 39m in length by 11m in breath and was built almost entirely of wood. Like the crew it was Indian in origin; both from a place called Salaya in Gujarat to be more precise.
According to the captain around 100 similar vessels, known as vahans, ply the seas of the Gulf of Aden, mostly transporting livestock from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and foodstuffs on the return voyage. All those Somalian goats and sheep I’d seen weren’t being consumed by Somalilanders, but Arabs in Saudi Arabia, Oman and other gulf nations.
On the third day another vahan carrying 5000 goats from the port of Bossaso in Puntland (another autonomous region of Somalia) came close by. The crew, like the crew on all vahans, were also Gujarati. As for the cows I was accompanying, well they had come from Ethiopia. This was a long journey to the slaughterhouse.
Other than the captain, Sabir, and the first engineer, Salim, none of the crew (15 in total) spoke English. They were all young guys in their twenties, not only coming from the same town in Gujarat, but from the same extended family.
Despite the barrier in communications I made the effort to learn everyone’s name and quickly felt welcomed onboard. Chai was frequently offered and meals were shared in typical Indian fashion.
One goat and four chickens started the journey with us. Ayai, the First Cook, and his younger brother Riswan, the youngest crew member at 19, served these up in hot oily sauces with rice and chapattis during the voyage, cooking on the starboard side of the quarterdeck over a couple of simple covered gas hobs.
The sea was relatively calm during the 660 nautical mile journey through the Gulf of Aden. The 1200CC 12-cylinder engine that Abid, one of the Engineers showed me, powered us along at a gentle 8-10 knots in speed. What little spray did come over the bow ended up giving the cows on the open section of the third deck a refreshing cool-off.
During the hotter months of the year on a crossing with little wind this would have been an uncomfortable journey for both crew and cargo. When there was a lull in the sea breeze during the second day the crew attached an awning for the cows out in the open, and blew air through the use of two large fans for cows on the lower decks. For most of the time a large sail channeled the sea breeze to cows on the lower decks.
The cows were silent most of the time, although mid-morning for one reason of a bovine nature seemed to be a time of increased activity within the pens, with many an attempt at procreation taking place. Considering how tightly packed the animals were this required much manoeuvring on the part of certain cows in order to hit the target so to speak.
The bales of covered dry straw were fed to the cows once a day, just before sunset. As for water, despite the boat carrying 10,000 litres for them, which Salim said they would receive on the third day, the poor animals never got a drink. Naturally 500 cows urinating on an open wooden deck shortly before arriving in Salalah would have created quite a mess for the crew to clean up, which I assume is one of the reasons they didn’t get their drink.
As far as I could tell when we did dock, all of the animals had survived, although I’m sure a number of kilos in their body mass would have been lost during the time at sea.
As for my diet and digestive system, the daily diet of chapattis and apprehension of squatting 5 metres above the sea in open view only seemed to block me up, which reminded me of an episode of Micahel Palin’s 80 Days Around the World when he took a sea voyage to India.
When not seeing to the cows, which didn’t take up that much time, the crew spent most of their day preparing and chewing betal nuts. This practice is to some Indians what qat is to Somalians. While eating was very much a communal affair, and the job tasks on board were shared, each crewmember appeared to have his own stash of betel nuts and chewing tobacco. The sound of betel nuts being crushed with a pair of pliars was a familiar one, both day and night, during the voyage. Once the nut was crushed into small pieces it would then be mixed with tobacco and a white powder I never identified, before being thrown into the mouth. This made conversation with the captain, who seemed to chew practically the whole day, somewhat challenging, unless he’d just leaned over the deck rail and spat the contents of his mouth – a reddish liquid, into the sea below.
If not chewing or sleeping the crew would be watching videos on their phones. I never asked what salary any of them made, but almost everyone had a smartphone, although that’s not really a big deal these days. There seemed to be a happy harmony amongst them onboard.
During June and July they told me they would be back in India with their family, leaving again in August with a cargo of rice for Somalia. This simple life didn’t seem like a bad one to me. Out at sea under the immensity of a cloudless sky in a vast expanse of blueness beneath, all of the World’s problems seemed far away.
Several large navy ships came into view on the third day. I had by this stage asked the captain about pirate attacks in an area of the World renowned for them. Well that was the case several years ago. Of late there have been very few incidents of piracy in these waters, owing in large part I guess to international navy boats, such as those we saw, patrolling the seas. A boatload of cows and an Indian crew also didn’t seem like great booty. I had already imagined smearing myself in straw dung and hiding in one of the pens should we have been attacked.
A forecast of stronger winds on the third day had the captain changing course slightly so that we steered closer to the Yemeni coast. When I first thought about this trip back in Tanzania, Yemen had been included, but with the current insecurity there was no way I was heading there – a shame as the towering mountains that rose out of the sea looked dramatic.
Sunrises and sunsets were special, although dinner always seemed to be served about 5 minutes before the latter. It was only me who paid any attention to what for everyone else was just another period of time in the day.
Shortly before sunset on the third day, some 10 miles or less off the Yemeni coast and just after the crew had fed the cattle for the final time and thrown the remaining straw overboard, we saw a pod of dolphins, perhaps 50 or more, playing in the sea close to the boat. This the crew did take more interest in. I had been told it was common to see dolphins and sometimes whales. It was a magical sight and I was partly sad the journey would be over the next day.
When we did dock in Salalah the following morning I was in no particular rush to leave the boat. Small tins of blue paint were the first items to come aboard, almost immediately after we tied up. At first I thought this was for the crew to do some touch-up work on the boat’s paintwork, but they were soon amongst the cows marking the backs of all of them with a zero. This, I was soon told, was to identify the owner.
A crane arrived soon after and so began the process of unloading all 500 cows, a job that took most of the day. It was somewhat saddening to have spent several days with these animals, who must have been in discomfort, to watch them being taken away to a slaughterhouse rather than some open green pastures.
‘Do you want to borrow my phone to call your people here’, asked the captain, who assumed I had friends in Salalah. Back in Berbera I had mentioned something about having friends in Salalah as an assurance that if there were a problem when I arrived I had contacts who would assist me. I knew no-one here.
By the time I’d got my Omani visa and bought a sim card to connect my phone it was afternoon. Salalah was 15km away. No hotel was going to come at the prices I was familiar with in Africa, so I asked to sleep aboard another night. This wasn’t a problem, so I shared a final dinner with the crew and sent photos I’d taken of them during the journey to their phones.
When I did leave the next morning it was time to pay the captain. Not once had he ever asked for money. Back in Berbera it had been me telling Maulid the agent that I would pay for the voyage. I’m sure the captain must have thought I would tip him, but it required some effort for him to accept the $100 bill that I pressed into his hand. For him, the crew, the shipping agents, immigration and so many other people, the fact that I was with a bicycle and choosing to take a passage at sea for 4 nights with 500 cows and 15 mostly non English speaking crew was surely because I couldn’t afford other means to travel.
For me the experience and adventure had been priceless. I would have happily spent another day at sea, or longer with this crew. Now though it was time to explore a new country; one that I imagined to be very different to any in Africa – Oman.
A map showing the course the boat took from Berbera-Salalah can be viewed at the bottom of this page.