It would have been simpler, needless to say a whole lot safer to leave Zanzibar on one of the regular high-speed ferries that shuttle back and forth to Dar es Salaam. The moment one approaches the port there is no shortage of commission-hungry touts waiting to escort you to one of many ticket offices. Here the ticket price will be quoted in US dollars (double or several times the local resident price) and you will be whisked away in air-conditioned comfort on a boat that maintains a schedule. Travel in places where there are lots of tourists is sometimes just too easy.

Taking a dhow on the other hand is something foreigners generally only do at sunset – one of the listed ‘things to do’ in many guidebooks to the island I’m sure. Great if you’re romancing a girl on your holidays, less so if you’re not. Yet for centuries this is how everyone arrived on or departed from the island.

Coming from the mainland most would have started their journey in Bagamoyo – at one time the capital of German East Africa, and before that a terminus for thousands of slaves who’d been marched eastwards out of Central Africa. Those that survived the journey dubbed the town ‘Bwagamoyo’ – meaning ‘crush your heart’. Here they awaited a sea voyage, first to nearby Zanzibar, and then across the Arabian Sea towards their final destination somewhere in the Gulf.

It’s also where all those 19th Century explorers arrived on the continent and set off into the interior with their enormous entourage of porters. Stanley, Grant, Burton, Speke, and most famously David Livingstone all came here. For the latter it was where he would end his time in Africa – he arrived dead having been carried 1500 miles by his porters from Lake Bangweulu in Zambia.

Bagamoyo has long since been replaced by Dar es Salaam, 70 km further south, as the centre of commercial activity along the Tanzanian coast, but it remains the shortest sea route between island and mainland (just 20 nautical miles), and that obviously favoured by boats which rely on sail power.

Well it was a sail-powered boat to the mainland that I was interested in, but there was no ticket office advertising the journey. That is probably because there aren’t tickets for dhows plying the Zanzibar-Bagamoyo route on a daily basis. These are essentially cargo-boats, as they always have been, transporting anything from charcoal and cement, to tomatoes, salt, used-clothes and scrap metal. Passengers, if there any, sit on top. There is no time-table. Boats go when sufficiently loaded (very often overloaded) and the captain decides.

Before leaving Zanzibar a large veiled woman at the immigration office made me write my own declaration – stating something to the effect that the captain of the boat would bear no responsibility for any eventuality on his boat. This was tempting fate. Moments before I’d stopped beside some graffiti that made me contemplate whether taking a dhow back to the mainland was a wise thing to do.  The graffiti read: Never die.

Stone Town Graffiti

The dhow that was to take me contained half a dozen or more freezers and refrigerators, plus a lot of old car tyres. Besides me there were 12 other people aboard: 10 crew, a man carrying several DVD players he said he was going to sell in Dar (how could these have possibly been cheaper on Zanzibar I have no idea) and a teenage boy who spent half of the 4-hour crossing vomiting over the side.

Dhow port: Stone Town

Before getting underway I lashed my bike with bungee cords up against the wooden mast at the front of the boat. It wasn’t going to move, but within minutes of clearing Stone Town, colliding with a partially submerged small tanker on the way, it was soaked. Very soon after so was I. But what I feared to be a boat too heavily-laden actually seemed to act in her favour. She rode over the 2-3 metre waves most of the time, but we were too close to what was a choppy sea and the southerly wind was strong enough (Force 5?) to ensure this would not be a dry journey. Had the dhow been empty however we would have rolled all over the place.

Bike onboard

It was dangerous journey in many respects, (there were no life jackets, I didn’t know the captain’s experience, the weather could have suddenly changed) but sitting at the stern with a jovial crew eager to hear my limited Swahili as I watched them steering this age-old vessel to shore was one of those journeys you don’t forget.

Sleeping crew

Dhow crewman

I almost lost a pannier on arriving at Bagamoyo. The dhow ran aground several hundred metres from shore and we would need to take a small paddle boat to reach dry land. The problem was it was dark, and moving a bicycle with 6 bags when you are alone means you either leave things out of your sight for some minutes or you hope someone nearby will aid you. Well a mzungu in such a situation is usually always aided in Africa. Once I paid the Captain 10,000tsh ($6) for the journey (a sum that hadn’t been discussed before we left Zanzibar, but I knew was close to what a passenger should pay) I was lifting bike from one boat to another and being paddled towards the shore.

Arriving alone in unfamiliar African towns in the dark is always best avoided. As I started to re-attach panniers to the bike – having had them carried by the boat porter as we waded through the shallows to the beach, (I carried my bike) I realised one of the front panniers was missing. I turned round and the boat porter had disappeared back into the darkness. Great.

For the next 20 minutes I stood on the beach next to the crumbling remains of Bagamoyo’s old Customs Office assessing what my losses were. The pannier was still in the small paddle boat surely, but I couldn’t just leave my bike and bags and go back in search of it.

Old Customs House: Bagamoyo

The passenger carrying the DVD players came to the rescue. He spoke more English than I do Swahili. Guarding his ‘Simsung’ DVD players he disappeared back into the shallows and emerged triumphant with the missing bag. Hurrah. I had made it to Bagamoyo – body, bike and bags intact. Now I just had to find a place to watch the Rugby – not so easy in this part of the World.

Bagamoyo beach

Waiting women

Dhows in Bagamoyo

Fish fryer on Bagamoyo beach