On 28 November 2017 I reach Egypt in a rather unusual way. I hear from people involved in my passage from Marseille to Alexandria that boarding a container ship as a passenger would only happen in exceptional cases. And indeed, a lot of discussion, people and negotiations were involved in making this crossing possible. The reasons behind my wish to travel on a container ship are both of practical and sentimental value.
In fact, I believe the roots of those wishes reside in my teenage years, when, around the age of 12, Philippe Meert, current President of the BelgoEthiopian Association, sponsor of Bike with Diabetes, invited me to board a ship in the port of Antwerp, in Belgium. At the time, Philippe was Director of Reuse nv, a shipping company catering to the African market. Like any boy at that age, I was fascinated by big machines, bulldozers, cranes, trucks and the likes. Imagine what boarding a 200 meter-long ship transporting hundreds of containers meant to that curious boy! And what about the size of the engine we were visiting and the heat and chatter it was producing? The engine alone was probably the size of three bulldozers. That fact was enough to impress me. The visit probably didn’t last more than one hour, and that memory slowly faded, burying itself in deep corners of my subconscious.
A few years ago, when researching about travel across the USA, I came across quite an interesting alternative way of doing it: freight-hopping. That practice, nearly inexistent in Europe, is relic of gold rush, great depression and later hobo culture of the USA. It is still alive and there are several websites dedicated to that practice. The most interesting, in my opinion, is NorthbankFred, as it thoroughly covers and documents the movement. Here is a short video to give you an idea of what freight-hopping can be like: https://vimeo.com/254828076
My interest shifted to the crossing of the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans on container ships. I came across stories of travellers, but the price they had to pay was beyond my budget. Moreover, it was a big stretch to go from freight hopping for free to a 3.000+ € crossing. I asked Philippe what he thought about the idea and if he knew of any alternative way to organise such a journey. To my deception, he told me that the legislation around passenger traveling on such vessels evolved a lot in the last decades. Boarding a ship now involved a lot of paperwork and was hence becoming extremely complicated, even for family members of the crew. I dropped the idea and let it settle in a corner of my mind.
Yet, I realised that all those travel ideas were ways of avoiding me from confronting my biggest childhood dream: travelling across Africa. As you may imagine, Bike with Diabetes isn’t the kind of project that is easily pulled off, especially if you combine the chosen itinerary with the transportation mode and the needed logistics around the treatment of diabetes. After some hesitation and a lot of thought, I finally decided to go for it.
As soon as I announced it to him, Philippe supported the project. Always to the point, his insight confronted me with very practical issues I might face both with the preparation as well as during the journey itself. This didn’t come as a surprise, given his experience in Africa and of traveling in general. He hiked across the Sahara desert in the 70’s !
At some point, while bringing the pieces together, the idea of sailing on a container ship resurfaced as:
1. I had decided to take the East African route to reach Cape Town;
2. the political situation in the Middle East prevented me from reaching Egypt by land;
3. I wanted to avoid taking a plane to transport my bicycle, as this, often, results in material damages;
4. the whole project being out of the ordinary, why not go the full monty?
Philippe suggested me to contact the new director of Reuse who replaced him when he retired to see if he could help me find a ship to sail on. This is how, about a year before leaving Brussels on my bicycle, I met with Tomas Steppe in Antwerp. I exposed the project to him and, as he liked the goals and the message behind Bike with Diabetes, he promised to do what he could to help. That said, the final outcome would depend on other actors who would need to collaborate to make my wish come true.
Luckily, Reuse is part of an extensive network of partners which allows her to always bring a logistical solution to her customers. Among those partners, there is Transcausse, a company based in Marseille and whose director, Xavier Lassalle, agreed to contact a Turkish ship owner, ARKAS Holding, which they represent in Marseille, to ask if they would accept to let me embark on one of their ships on the « Marseille – Alexandria » route.
A few weeks before reaching Marseille, I was put in contact with Hélène Lambert, from Transcausse, who was in charge of my file. Hélène went out of her way to adapt to a very unusual procedure and collected all the needed documents, making it possible for me to board on Gisele A, one of the ARKAS ships. A few days before reaching Marseille, she put me in contact with AFCC, a company that provides administrative support, acting as a liaison between the shipping company, the ship owner, and the port authorities.
It is hence through the collaboration and the intervention of many people that this journey was made possible. I will never thank them enough!