By Helen Bergan

This is an excerpt from Helen’s book, Climbing Kilimanjaro: An African Odyssey which is available for purchase by clicking here.

I had lived in Ethiopia for three years and had traveled extensively in that country. Now I wanted to see other parts of the African continent.

Ever since I was young in Minnesota, far from any ocean, I had wanted to take a sea voyage. Perhaps it started when I read Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl, who described being alone on his raft surrounded by sparkling water below an azure sky. I might have liked the romantic notion of taking off on a raft, but the closest I could come to that would be a journey by cargo ship.

In Ethiopia I ordered books on freighter travel and explored the possibilities. I discovered there were cargo routes at least part way around Africa. Just one thing worried me. I read the chapter in one book about medical restrictions to freighter travel again and again, looking for loopholes. “Many cargo lines do not allow persons dependent on canes or crutches to travel on their ships because of the possibility of injury. Most ships do not carry doctors or medical professionals.” Blast it!

Since contracting polio when I was twelve, I had walked with forearm crutches. Despite that, I had led a fairly normal life. Now some paperback book was telling me I could not travel by cargo ship because I might get injured. The book indicated that ships operated by the United States were the most restrictive, but that freighters operated by other countries did accept passengers with disabilities. Some allowed exceptions with written information from a doctor-and a waiver of liability in case of an injury. That was the loophole I was looking for.

As I dreamed I might, I had indeed arranged to travel by cargo ship for part of my trip back to the United States. Guessing that I could physically handle it, I had bought a ticket on the Straat Johore of the Dutch Royal Interocean Line. My ship would leave from Mombasa on the Kenyan coast and proceed to South Africa.

The first thing you learn about freighter travel is that passengers don’t count. The ship’s purpose is to carry freight. The ship could be days, or even weeks, late leaving port, as mine was. To travel by freighter means you do not care when you leave or when you arrive at your destination.

I took a taxi to the New Harbor in Mombasa and there was my ship. I checked in with the officer who greeted me at the bottom of the ship’s gangplank and told me where my cabin was. I climbed the sloping gangplank with the traditional ropes on each side. Although they offered no support, I had no trouble. My cabin was up another ten steps, but there was a good railing. So far, so good, I thought.

Later than evening I stood on the open deck and watched as we slipped out of the Mombasa harbor. The ship made its way slowly down a channel, then out into the Indian Ocean. I was very excited, though a bit nervous about how I would be able to walk when the ship was moving on the open ocean. So far, it was no problem, but here the water was very smooth.

The water glistened as we sailed off. The lights of Mombasa faded into the moonlit night and then darkness surrounded us. I stayed on the open deck for a long time before returning to my cabin where I chose the bed located below two good-sized portholes. I lay down for my first night of being lulled to sleep by the ship’s movement. During the night I awakened and looked out the porthole at the ocean as light from the stars and moon were reflected on the water.

I felt very content. I was on board a cargo ship heading south. I had done it! This was the cargo ship trip I had dreamed about.

(The complete story of Helen’s trip to nine African countries, that included two cargo ship journeys – one on a Dutch ship and the other Nigerian – is told in Climbing Kilimanjaro: An African Odyssey by Helen Bergan. Read more about the book and excerpts from it at The book is available from BioGuide Press, P.O. 42005 – G, Arlington, VA 22204. Send a check for $14.95 plus $3 shipping, or call (703) 820-9045 to order using a credit card.)