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I know that travel means in Africa are not the most pleasant and that any means of comfort are often not expected.  But, one means of transportation that went beyond the lowest standards you could ever expect was the Overnight Ferry from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam, with Seagull Ferry.  (oh yes, I threw the name in the middle!)

Going to Zanzibar with the regular day ferry was a breeze.  It cost $35, was air-conditioned, showed poorly translated movies (which are fun, actually), and took a total of 2:15 hours to get there.  Not bad at all.

Overnight Ferry form Zanzibar

Now, on the way back it was trickier.  I had to plan with mad precision a ferry, train, and a few buses that would take me all the way from Zanzibar, Tanzania, to Lilongwe, Malawi.  Oh, and I didn’t want to spend a night in Dar es Salaam since that city is a hole.  It is!

So, after deliberately thinking about it, the overnight ferry seemed like the “wisest” choice.  My friends, Dave and Hugh also came to the same conclusion, though once in Dar they would hop on a bus to Moshi.

We would get to Dar early enough to catch our train/bus respectively, without any unnecessary layover in Dar.

Not only would we be saving money by taking the cheaper overnight ferry, $25, but we would also save on accommodation.

Perfect!  The plan sounds great as an idea, but once executed, the reality was far worse than what we expected.  We all knew that we shouldn’t expect a cabin or any place to sleep or lay comfortably.  We were fine, to a degree, with sleeping on a seat.  And, we were expecting similar conditions as in the day ferry, but just 8 hours long.

How wrong were we…

Once we boarded the Seagull ferry (about an hour before departure), we saw the crude reality we’d had to live for the next 8 hours.

The ferry was massively overbooked.  There was not a single seat available, in either of the two floors.  People were standing in the hallways, on the three feet wide exterior balcony, and taking every single space that they could call their own for the rest of the night.

Bags and boxes were piled up high.  Children were screaming and crying.  Chickens were carried in banana leave baskets.  People walked up and down the hallways as if they had nothing else to do (well, they didn’t).

But the worst was…  people were, um, how can I say… um, smelly… no, not smelly… they had strong body odor.  Add to that, no air conditioning and no operable windows for ventilation.  The place was an oven.  Ugh…

The conglomerate of hundreds of sweating bodies, with strong body odor, and no ventilation, created the perfect environment for the next bubonic plague.  Or at least it smelled bubonic to me.

Dave, Hugh, and I headed to the second floor.  It was just as bad as the first.  Without any other option, we sat on the floor and hoped for the best (with little expectation).

Dave asked for the time.  It was 9:29 pm.  It had only been 29 minutes since we departed, but it had already seemed like an eternity in this hell.  We needed to do something.

Hugh wandered around for a while and came back with a small, yet uplifting, sign of hope.

“The entrance door from where we came in is open, and there’s a space next to it where we can sit on the floor.”

Ventilation!  We didn’t care about a seat; we wanted to breathe and have ventilation for the sake of our lives.

And that we did.  We sat, next to the open door, as the ferry slowly navigated to Dar.

Overnight Ferry form Zanzibar
Dave and Hugh making the best of the situation…

The breeze was barely noticeable at times, but still, it was much better to sit next to the open door, which felt at least 5 degrees cooler, than to seat anywhere else.

There was time to read, to listen to music, to talk about how horrible this experience was… anything…. Anything but to move from our spot, or else it would be long gone in a second.

After about two hours, and a terrible local movie in Swahili that was blasted through every possible speaker in the ferry, we could see the bodies of old and young, ours included, covering every inch of the floor.  It was the unofficial bedtime.

Overnight Ferry form Zanzibar
Our current condition…

I, feeling tired enough, sneaked myself even closer to the door –sticking my head as close as possible to it– and zoned in and out for the rest of the night.  The heat was still uncomfortable, yet bearable.  I spent the entire night sweating like a pig.

Finally, at 6:00 am, we could see the pier at Dar.  As soon as the bridge touched the ferry, we all jumped out of the ship, like rats trying to escape from a sinking ship.  Well, we really were trying to escape.

I had never been so happy to be out of a ferry!

I know I will be back to Zanzibar in the future.  The island is wonderful and so culturally rich.  But, I will NEVER, ever, take that Seagull night ferry again!  And I seriously don’t recommend it to anyone.  EVER!

Have you had an experience like this?

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  1. we are going to think of this post every single time we’re about to complain about the nyc subway or the dc metro.

    formerly, we always thought of this to feel better:

    1. hahaha!! Oh yes, now I can think of this when I go back to NYC… the subway is peachy compared to that ferry, or that picture you linked, btw! haha… hilarious!

    2. The SEALINK overnight is a shipping vessel. How you got on it is beyond me. It almost makes me think you are lying.

  2. I was just informed that Seagull JUST sunk! Crazy! I’m hoping not a lot of people lost their lives… Still waiting to hear about the death toll etc… Terrible!

  3. I know everything in Tanzania is a hustle.
    But this article is very unfortunate. The descriptions that you are pointing out are some of the things that make some of these trips memorable.
    As Africans, we are trying to get to that level in Europe and in some of the first world countries, we are not yet there. We believe we shall be there in some years to come.
    The experience I had in Dar es Salaam was both painful and thrilling. That is their identity and that is the adventure that keeps some of going back to Tanzania countless times.
    I find it very hard to read some of these comments.
    No offense, it is well written but kills the readers’ enthusiasm.
    Emma Onyango
    East African Business Week

    1. Hi Emma!

      I’m sorry you consider this article is unfortunate, but it is the reality of how things were at the moment. As a travel writer, I feel like I must tell my experiences as they are, good or bad. While the ferry was a horrendous experience, I now look back at it and laugh, because it is a memorable travel experience.

      I don’t believe you have to get to the levels of Europe or any other place to deliver something “good”. I had so many good experience in Africa, and quite honestly they were not to the “level of Europe”, but they provided something different that allowed me to experience Africa as it is.

      Like you said about your experience in Dar es Salaam, it was “their identity”. Africa has its own identity, but the fact that it is its identity doesn’t mean that it has to be good. The ferry, well, very unfortunate that it was a bad experience (and even more now that it sank), but as for the rest of Africa, its identity proved to be the best thing I liked about it.

  4. This Seagull/Skaget ferry sank today. In Chumo area, Zanzibar, coming from Dar es salaam. It carried over 250 people, 30 being children. 24 people have been reported dead and around 100 have been rescued. The rest are still missing.

  5. Yes, the Skaget ferry capsized on 18 July 2012 on it en route from Mainland Tanzania to Zanzibar killing many many people.

  6. Nice story! I know how it feels being stuck in a furry with people who have body odor. You should have covered your nose with a cloth and pretended to have some colds.

  7. “I know that travel means in Africa are not the most pleasant, and that any means of comfort are often not expected…” This I can’t.

    Travel means in “Africa”? In all of Africa?? ANY means of comfort? ANY? I have budget traveled and luxury traveled a bit and the part where comfort is not to be expected is budget travel so please specify that because your general claim is honestly very insulting.

    Your picking one substandard choice does not make all other choices suck. It’s your picking that sucks. Get your facts right.

    1. The facts are not wrong. Like you said, budget travel is not comfortable. You’re just saying that luxury travel can be comfortable, which is true too, but if you’ve taken a look at this site (other than this post), you’ll understand that this is a budget travel site. Everything has a context.

  8. The first paragraph of this post is so disgusting. I would expect something better from someone who considers themselves an experiences traveler.

  9. Hi Can any tell me is it is safe to travel from ferry with a 3-year-old kid.? please tell me the best ferry which would be safe and secure for women travellers…