Once on shore and back
In the 1950s, there were only a few artificial harbours between Dakar and Lagos where ships of our size could dock. For unloading and loading, especially of bagged cargo, one lay in the roads for weeks with other freighters and waited for one's turn. With the distant, unknown coastline before our eyes, the longed-for shore leave often remained a pipe dream for a long time.
Once, however, when we were anchored off the coast of Dahomey, now Benin, a daring group of four managed to get ashore on a lighter loaded with general cargo. However, I almost excluded myself from this land excursion. While climbing onto the lighter, standing on the cargo in the transport net, I almost got one leg caught between two crates. Yes, even movement in the Japanese net has to be learned.
At that time Cotonou did not have a deep-sea port. An iron jetty, still dating from colonial times, led out of the shallow shore waters about 80 metres into the open sea. Wooden barges towed by small, one-man steam-tugs operated a transport chain to and from the anchored ships. Several mobile, steam-driven cranes, were used to load and unload the lighters. Unfortunately, I failed to capture this scene from a bygone era. Some of the locals working on the jetty still spoke German.
The old anchorage of Cotonou with the iron jetty. The GENERAL DUFOUR far to the right, behind another ship and the MALOJA to the left, far out (light coloured hull)
With a population of about 30,000, Cotonou was then a sprawling indigenous hut village, incidentally the largest along this stretch of coast. Rows of similar, lightly built reed huts in the white sand marked the village character. People cooked, ate and lived under the canopy. A look into the single, clean but sparsely furnished interior attested to a modest but orderly life of its inhabitants. The standard of living in the French colonies was visibly higher. When we four excursionists finally wanted to return on board, tired but satisfied, after an extended photo safari, it was evening and the ship's shuttle service was suspended. Due to the rough sea, all steam tugs and barges were heaved to safety on the jetty. We therefore had no choice but to look for a safe place to stay for the night. We found what we were looking for in the "Hotel de la Plage" directly on the sea side, apparently the social centre of the colonial French. The local bell boy at the reception was able to offer us two cheap double rooms in the annex of the hotel complex.
In the meantime, the French hotel manager had joined us. He examined each and every one of us and did not fail to explain to his young guests, who had arrived without any luggage, the rules of conduct that applied in his distinguished hotel. Among other things, it was strictly forbidden to drag non-hotel guests to the room. The man attached particular importance to this point.
We quickly checked into our two rooms and met for a "sundowner" in the hotel bar after the much longed-for shower. As we heard there, an open-air film screening was scheduled for the evening in the hotel park to entertain the mostly French guests. A French classic was shown, of course. Sitting on our beds on the first floor, we even had box seats. After the end of the performance, the late evening held another unexpected surprise in store for us.
The hotel receptionist suddenly appeared and asked with a meaningful smile for our further wishes. Still impressed by the manager's discussion/explanation points at our arrival the only thing we could think of spontaneously was the hot wish for cool drinks. Well, the philanthropist let us know that he would also be the right contact person for other needs. By the way, his strict boss was in bed long ago, as he reassured us. Since we saw nothing but water for several weeks, before we arrived off to this corner of the world, we allowed ourselves to be persuaded, despite the warning, to add a few items to our wish list. As passive hotel guests, we left the necessary activities to our local “Fixer”’. Indeed, the man had not promised too much. Our guess became certainty, some pretty, young ladies soon showed up.
Early in the morning, after a short, but fulfilling night in comfortable hotel beds, we went back on board. The return journey to our "General Dufour" was a bit rough and the subsequent climb up the swaying rope ladder turned into a daredevil climb. However, all participants agreed that our unplanned African hotel night in lively company was the highlight of our land excursion. It was, let's say, our very personal contribution to the much-needed international understanding.
Heinz Läuffer, 26th. April 2019The less romantic side of seafaring or my first ship