March 9, 2005 -- We just left Aden this morning. Things were kind of up in the air when we heard about some yachts being attacked by ocean going pirates. Since they were friends of friends we considered staying a little longer. The two sailboats were coming down the Gulf of Aden and were traveling 35 miles off the coast of Yemen. They were approached by 2 small wooden motorboats in the glare of the late afternoon sun. Many of which are used by the local fisherman, but also the people smugglers that come up from Somalia and Yemeni pirates. As the small craft approached shots were fired with an automatic weapon at the two sailboats. One of the sailboats ended up with 14 holes to their hull and sail. As the motorboats got closer, the men tried to come onboard. In an effort to protect themselves, the yachties increased their boat speed as much as possible, but it was no match for the smaller boats with powerful engines. One of sailboats rammed the motorboat as one of the pirates grabbed a hold of their lifelines causing it to break in two. The other sailboat pulled out a 12 gauge shotgun and fired at the other pirates and their engine. It is quite possible that there may have been some fatalities on the side of the pirates. The sailboats called out for help repeatedly on the VHF radio on all emergency frequencies, but they received absolutely no response from the cargo boats passing in the vicinity. Additionally, there was no sign of any Coalition Force vessel over the radio. Thankfully, the 2 sailboats were able to get away safely and 2 days later limped into Aden harbor. We considered staying in Aden to offer emotional and technical support to these yachts, but in the end decided that it might be better to keep out of the situation. As I understand it, grudges and hostility run very deep in middle eastern culture. Muslim religion and culture demands an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. For the two approaching sailboats, this could be an additional complication. There are still large sections of the country that are without government control. After 10 years of civil war, it is like the wild west out there. Who knows what kind of retaliation they may have faced. As the two boats dealt with both the Yemeni and US governments, they had the unfortunate experience of learning how little these two bureaucracies could do to help the situation. They were given an armed escort for all the local travel they did within the city of Aden. After a few days the sailboats decided to leave this part of the Middle East behind and caught up with us in Eritrea.
May 9-12, 2005 -- Tonight we are passing through the Bab El Mandeb which stands for “the Gate of Sorrows”. This is the narrow southern entrance to the Red Sea. Passing through the “Bab”, as we affectionately call it, was a unique and rather exciting experience. Since this is a bottleneck area, the winds really whip up. We waited for the right weather window before leaving Aden. Initially we had a calm ocean with gentle breezes, but as we neared the Bab the winds began to increase. We flew through the Bab as if we had been shot out of a cannon! As the winds grew higher (35-45 knots), the waves grew bigger. The ocean which only 6 hours ago had been flat calm turned into white water rapids with Exit Only slaloming over the crest of each wave. We were seeing 2-4 meter waves and the wind was howling like there was no tomorrow. Exit Only handled all this excitement wonderfully. However, the AutoPilot decided that it just could not handle the rough seas. So Dave, being the wonderful captain that he is, braved the cold ocean spray and rolling waves outside as he steered the boat. The rest of us stayed inside with all the doors and hatches closed. We hoped that as we exited the bottleneck area of the Bab that both the wind and the waves would lighten. But after 2 hours of steering the boat, Dave decided that we had better seek some shelter. So in the company of 2 other boats, Duetto (New Zealand) and Balmacara (USA), we headed for a bay called Ras Terma. It took us another 3 hours to get to Ras Terma. What we found there was a little better -- smaller seas, but the wind was still howling at 35-40 knots. We settled in for a bumpy night hoping that the weather tomorrow might be a little better.
The following day I got my first real look at Africa. In Ras Terma, we were surrounded by large sand dunes and in the distance were high and jagged mountains. Right there on the beach was a small encampment. We could see men and women walking up and down the beach carrying large bags. Occasionally they would stop and look out at the 3 sailboats that had stopped in their part of the world. I can’t believe that I have finally touched down in Africa! What a thrill! The wind continued to howl through the anchorage. As the wind blew, sand began to fly through the air. That meant closing all the hatches and doors in an effort to keep the sand out. But somehow the sand always managed to sneak in. It became absolutely suffocating inside the boat, so every 10 minutes or so we would pop outside for a breath of fresh sand. David and Dave decided to get a little creative and donned their safety goggles so that they could lounge outside in the cockpit. Let’s just say they ended up with a very fake looking tan! Slowly, but surely Exit Only was dusted with a fine layer of reddish brown sand. Now how the heck are we going to clean the boat out here in the middle of the Red Sea! I’m nominating David for the job!
Finally, after 3 days of non-stop wind the weather started to co-operate! We were all so excited to head out of Ras Terma for open waters. I hear that the coastal islands of Eritrea and Sudan are pristine with white sand beaches and fabulous coral!
March 13-15, 2005 -- Sailing up the coast of Eritrea to the port city of Massawa, we stopped at several different islands: Umm Es Sahrig, Adjuz, Shumma Islands. We finally got a chance to stretch our legs on Shumma Island. YAHOO, terra firma after almost 2 weeks of sailing! The Shumma island anchorage was within an atoll formed by coral. The water was a brilliant shade of aqua and absolutely crystal clear. Shower time!! This was a beautiful desert island with white sand beaches covered with seashells. There no palm trees here, just scrubby bushes and lots of rocks. As we walked around the island, we found traces of people long gone -- animal shelters, marked graves, and crumbling buildings. From what we read in our Red Sea Guide, the British were here during World War 2 and we did find some remnants of whatever encampment they had, including a dilapidated dock, a concrete water holding tank, and gun outpost. I became an impromptu tour guide for David who was filming the island. Being the tough director that he is, David had me scramble over the 7 foot wall into the water tank. The only complication was getting back out!! Let’s just say that it took a helping hand and few words of encouragement, and now he has some great bun shots! Guess that I will have my 15 seconds of fame whenever he finishes our world travel video project.
March 16-20, 2005 -- We arrived in the port town of Massawa this afternoon. We are finally catching up with the Red Sea Fleet. There must be about 15 sailboats here, besides all of the other offshore and local fishing boats. From what we hear, this is the place to find Italian food. I know exactly what David is thinking: PIZZA! The Italians colonized Eritrea at the end of the 19th century and brought all their cuisine with them! But a lot has changed since then. The Italians of course have left, and what remains in Massawa reminds me a little of a ghost town. After the Italians, Eritrea was passed from the hands of the British and then the Ethiopians. For 30 years, Eritrea fought for their independence from Ethiopia. The Ethiopians bombed the port city of Massawa and almost leveled it in the early nineties. There are bombed out and wrecked ships all over the harbor. In 1993, Eritrea became Africa’s newest country. This country is one of the poorest in the world. They have been plagued by financial problems, drought, and continuing hostilities with Ethiopia and Sudan.
Walking into Massawa is like stepping into another time. Most all the buildings in the port section of town were built by the Italians in the early 20th century. It almost feels like I am exploring the narrow streets of Florence. The buildings have faded to dusky pastels and the balconies may be falling apart, but somehow it manages to retain its charm. The small shops are selling Italian wine, provolone cheese, and salami. Except of course, everyone here is African, there are bullet holes in the wall, many of the buildings are in disrepair, and we are the only tourists. The UN and UNICEF have a definite presence here. We have seen their cars driving around town. There is not much to see in the port town so we are planning a trip up to the capital city of Asmara. We have heard good reports from other yachties -- delicious food, good markets for provisioning, and a spectacular drive up through the highlands and the mountains. Now it is just a matter of finding a car and driver.
We have gotten a group of yachties together and rented a van for the day. Our Eritrean driver, Johannes (who is an says he is a Christian, but speaks Arabic), tells us that it will take approximately 3 hours to drive up to Asmara. He hopes that his old and beaten up yellow van will make it to the top of the mountains. But this trip alone ($120 for 8 people) probably is more than what he makes in one month. As we head off, we pass by metal sheet shanty towns, camels carrying loads of firewood, burned out cars, rusting armored tanks, and old Italian fortresses. Then we hit the desert. It is flat, flat, flat. But ahead, we can see the highlands starting to rise up towards the clouds. Along the side of the road are scattered tents and encampments. Johannes tells us that these are both Ethiopian refugees and Bedouins. How is it possible to feel safe in your own country when you have hostile refugees living here?
As we start to reach the highlands, I start to see greenery! What a change from the dusty and barren land we have seen in Oman, Yemen, and Eritrea. The hillsides have been cultivated with hand-built stone terraces for acres and acres. Small herds of goat and cattle are moved along by young boys and girls. The women here wear brightly colored robes of yellow, orange, and red. The people in the highlands look like they are better off than those living down in Massawa. The small villages we drove through seem to be thriving. Again it feels like we could be driving through Italy. We see Tuscan-style villas and catholic churches perched on hilltops. Every other minute there seems to be another outdoor café, restaurant, or bar filled with people enjoying the afternoon sun. So we drive and drive and drive, and finally reach the top of the mountains. We are above the clouds now. And Asmara is not far away.
Asmara is the cultivated capital of Eritrea that sits above the mountains. Things appear to be in much better condition here than down in Massawa. The Italian mark is all over from art deco architecture, old Fiat cars, palm tree lined streets, and women wearing western dress instead of veils and scarves. There seem to be more tourists here enjoying a machiatto or gelato in a sidewalk café or a evening passeggiata. We wandered along the narrow streets checking out the local shops and the downtown market. The market was beautiful, piled high with fruits and vegetables, colorful lentils and beans. But it does seem that the Eritreans receive quite a bit of food aid from the US. The vendors had made shopping bags out of the used USAID wheat bags. From the market, we headed straight for the pizzeria which cause much rejoicing in Abbott family. We enjoyed authentic Italian pizza baked in a wood-fired oven with our friends from Balmacara and Duetto.
My goal for the day was to get to the US Embassy. One of the joys of this trip has been seeing all of the stamps piling up in my passport -- Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Maldives, Oman, Yemen, and now Eritrea! I am down to one page in my passport for the next set of stamps, so David and I headed for the Embassy. There were armed guards at all the entrances. As we headed for the door, we discovered that the Embassy was closed on a weekday. The guards informed us that the Embassy would not be seeing anyone today. Now what is up with that?! Aren’t they here to protect and serve 24/7?! So we politely explained our situation, then escalated to pleading, and then finally to outright threatening! (do I have to call my senator, my congressman …) After finally saying, this is an emergency, I am only here in Asmara for one day, and I demand to speak with someone who actually works in in Embassy, they finally relented and let us in. And what do you know, they do work on weekdays at the Embassy!! So I got some new pages in my passport and now I am ready for all the countries to come in the Med!
After 6 hours in Asmara, we were all ready to head back for the boats. We began to descend through the clouds and the mountains just as the sun began to set. It made for some beautiful panoramas, but also for some exciting driving. Our driver, Johannes, decided that going down the winding and narrow road should be done at mach-10 speed!! He must be a distant relative to Mario Andretti or something! So there we are careening around sharp turns and dodging other vehicles in this beat-up yellow van with all of our groceries, holding on to our seats for dear life. And who knows what could be out there or wander across the road. On the way up we saw herds of camels, goats, and cows that seemed to roam wherever they pleased. Dave had to ask him to slow down a few times and finally he relented. Thankfully, we all made it back to Massawa in one piece to sail another day.
March 21-25, 2005 -- We are more than ready to leave Massawa. It’s time to get away from the dirty port city and head for clearer water. We head out with 4 other boats: Balmacara, Duetto, Zephyrus, and Emocion. We have tentatively called ourselves the Med Mob. Our first stop is the island of Sheik El Abu. It is another beautiful, but desolate island surrounded by pristine reef. As we walk around the island, hundreds small hermit crabs scurry out of our path. David has decided that he has to a whole montage of hermit crabs for our travel video, so he is down on his hands and knees following the crabs around. We have a real thrill when we come upon some sea turtle tracks in the sand. These beautiful animals typically come out of the water when they are about to lay eggs. Somehow or another, they make it back to same breeding ground where they originally hatched. We can see a small pile of sand that has been dug up. Somewhere around here, there are turtle eggs. As we walk further down the beach, we spot what looks to be a manmade stone structure. When we get closer, we discover that it is an old stone structure that has been turned into a nesting area for a sea eagle (AKA osprey). There are no eggs in this nest, but it is a really huge nest!
The following day, we head off for Difnein Island another 30 miles to the north. Most of our passages up the Red Sea have had to be done in short jumps because the prevailing winds are unfavorable. By the time we get to Difnein, the wind has decided that is really going to kick up, so we sit tight for the next few days. Dave, David, and I went in to explore the island and get some shots of the osprey that lived on the island. We discovered that the island is essentially an elevated plain of ancient coral. When you looked at the ground you could see fossilized shells, coral, and tube worms. How amazing! A little further inland, there was a small lake and marshy area with white spoonbill birds balancing themselves on skinny legs. David tried to get a closer shot with the video camera and all of a sudden began to sink into the mud up to his knees! It was pretty fun to see him stuck there because I had just warned both of them about the soft mud. When he tried to pull up a foot, his flip flop would come right off. Both of his legs and feet were covered in gooey brown muck! Thank goodness we don’t have a shortage of water around here.
Well, the adventure of Difnein Island did not stop there. When we finally got back to the boat our friends Carmen and Vitallo, on Emocion called us frantically on the radio. They were really concerned about us because they had read in the Red Sea Guide that there was a minefield on Difnein Island. That was enough to worry us, so we borrowed their updated edition of the guide and discovered that we had been walking all over a minefield that afternoon. The map showed a minefield extending from the beach all the way back to the lake. Minefields have to be the most stupid thing in the whole world!! So many people killed or injured needlessly. We believe that this particular minefield was left after the civil war between the Ethiopians and Eritreans. We suspect that the mines were left by the Ethiopians. So if you go to Difnein Island in the near future, don’t get off the boat!!
We were still at Difnein Island when both Donna and I, Jeff on Duetto, and Harold on Zephyrus develop high fevers, chills, fatigue, no appetite, and extreme body aches. It was all I could do to actually get up out of bed in the morning. All we both wanted to do was sleep. Tylenol became my very good friend. Dave took a look at us. We all determined that we had been bitten by mosquitoes while in Massawa. The differential diagnosis came down to influenza, Malaria, or perhaps Dengue Fever which are all endemic to this area of Africa. We finally ended up with a diagnosis of Dengue Fever (AKA break bone fever -- this is no understatement) when we are started to develop rash about 1 week into the illness. My feet and ankles went completely red with a scarlatiform rash, but Donna and Jeff ended up with rash on their forearms. Since Donna and I were both sick, Dave and David had the privilege of sharing kitchen patrol! Let’s just say that their diet was much less varied for the next few days while we recuperated. David did the majority of the cooking, and I have to say that I feel like a lucky women being engaged to him. He decided to get creative a few days after non-stop P&J. Donna and I watched him whip up sugar cookies, omelettes, spaghetti sauce, pizza, and bread. Definitely, a man to love.
March 26-29, 2005 -- Once the winds had finally died at Difnein Island a few days later, we headed off for the anchorage of Kohr Narawat in Sudan. It was an overnight passage which David and Dave handled without our help, since Donna and I were still down with Dengue Fever. There were coral reefs all over, so that meant keeping a really tight watch during the day and night. The anchorage was beautiful. As one looked in to the beach, you could see camels moseying along on the beach. What an experience to see where the desert meets the ocean! From here we headed to Talla Talla Saquir. We had heard from friends passing through the Red Sea the previous year that this was a great spot for fishing and snorkeling. I enviously watched from the boat as Dave and David went in to the island to explore, Diana, Richard, and Cathy went snorkeling. Being sick with Dengue Fever stinks! They found shells all over the beach, tons of fossilized coral, more osprey nests, and pristine living coral right off the beach. We were pinned in Talla Talla Saquir Island for a few days while the wind whipped up again. It made a great place for recouperation. Since all Donna and I would do is eat jello and mashed potatoes while lounging around we made it through the whole first season of Alias on DVD. The one day that my appetite came back and I tried to cook, I was so exhausted by the end of the cooking process that I just watched Dave and David gobble it down!
March 30-April 6, 2005 -- We are off for Suakin this morning. The winds have decided to give us a little reprieve and we have turned on both engines full throttle to make it there before the sun goes down. The area that we are sailing through is dotted with small islands and corals reefs, so a good watch is in order. Dave spotted one reef that had been marked with a large stick coming out of the water by locals that we could not find on any chart. Now that is a scary thought! We know of one boat this year, a single-handed sailor, who hit a reef and had to leave his boat behind as a total loss. He must have fallen asleep at the wheel!!
We sailed into Suakin in the early afternoon. Along with 10 other sailboats, we are harbored right off an ancient ruined city. It’s like taking a step back to biblical times. The old city has crumbling and deserted buildings made of coral. It had been a trading city since the 10th century, but was abandoned in the 1930’s when Port Sudan was developed. Up until the end of WWII, Suakin had the oldest working slave-trading post. Many of the slaves may have been Christian Sudanese men and women who had been captured in the south of the country and then traded to other countries in the Middle East. Sudan has a long history of civil and religious war divided between the north and south ends of the country. It has only been in the last few years that a tenuous peace has been reached. But somehow I don’t think that the people in Suakin seem to take the political situation into account. Life goes on for them. It’s a simple life, but as far as I can tell, they are lacking for nothing and rather happy. Everyone we have met has been extremely friendly. All the little kids ask for you to take their picture. Everyone wants to test out their limited English, and we test out our limited Arabic.
I’m finally up to exploring after my bout with Dengue Fever. On the outskirts of the old city, shanty towns have been built from sheet metal. There was a lovely market at the center of town selling everything from locally grown fruits and vegetables (beautiful tomatoes & eggplant, and huge piles of watermelon), freshly baked bread hot from the wood fired oven (flat little loaves that tasted much like English muffins), fly covered meat (for all I know, it could have been camel! Won‘t be trying that anytime soon) … Vendors have stalls set up with everything from canned food, dry products, soda, and clothing. We see many more Bedouin men and women walking around. The men wear flowing robes and turbans, while the ladies wear vibrant and multi-colored swirling robes and veils. All you can see are their smiling eyes peeking out. They take all the advantages of living in a small town, such as the market and bus system, but continue to live in their tents and with their goats outside of the town. When we took the bus into the larger city of Port Sudan one day, you could see their tents scattered everywhere along the side of the dusty road.
On our third day here, we decided to test the local transportation system and ride the bus in to the large town of Port Sudan. There are no real bus schedules here. We discovered that the basic rule of thumb is as follows: once the bus is as full as it can possibly be, than it can leave! We were packed in like sardines all with the locals. The bus had jumpseats in the aisles, and extra seats up by the driver. It seemed like the bus was a family business. Our driver had his son with him acting like a conductor of sorts, collecting fees, calling for stops ... We drove past miles of dry and rocky desert. But every so often, there would be a patch of green where someone had planted a small field of tomatoes or watermelons or millet. Camels and goats wandered wherever they pleased.
As we got closer to the big city, more and more vehicles appeared on the road, including the small tuktuk taxis that were common in Thailand. Never thought I would see one of those again. Small adobe huts gave way to larger apartment buildings. And suddenly, there we were in the middle of a vibrant and bustling African city. The energy was incredible ... dodging packed buses and tuktuks, walking through crowds by the local market, watching people bargain for goods, seeing the colorful dress of many women, smelling everything from animal dung to barbecuing chicken ... We walked all over town just exploring and enjoying the sights and sounds and smells. The open air market was huge. It had everything one could ask for. What we could not figure out was where to find the bus to get back to Suakin. We asked so many people but could not get a straight answer. Finally, a driver of a flatbed truck said that he would take us to Suakin for a small price of $20 (it's over 70km away). We were extremely grateful, so we all piled into the back. As we took off, people would be pointing and laughing and shouting hello as we passed by. Five minutes later the truck stopped and the driver came around to tell us that we had arrived! "No, no, no," we said. This could not be right, but then we realized that he had simply taken us to the bus station for Suakin that was at the other end of town. He told us laughingly not to worry about paying him. We said our thank you's and made it back to Suakin in excellent time. I had such a fun time in Port Sudan, that I went back with some Kiwi friends, Pat and Jeff, from Duetto. We had wreck of bus take us in to town. We stopped twice so that the driver could pour water into the radiator. But to find the water, his young assistant had to run into the nearby Bedouin village to borrow a bucket and buy some water. On the bus I met a very nice young Sudanese man who told me that he enjoyed listening to P Diddy and Eminem. Do we live in a global culture or what?!
The wind pinned us down in Suakin for one week. We had a great time exploring the town, making new friends, and learning about a new culture. It was an amazing place to visit. In our spare time, we did boat work -- hauling water, washing laundry, cleaning a jellyfish out of an intake hole, having a book swap, windsurfing, and recovering from Dengue. Once we got a break in the weather, we headed straight for Egypt!