My family has developed quite a penchant for cruises. We did our first cruise over Christmas to Mauritius four years ago and we all enjoyed it. Lauren and my parents did a longer cruise from SA up to Italy last year too. There are plenty activities to keep you busy (if tanning and swimming are not enough already), professional theatre shows after dinner, and for the duration of your time on the boat there’s not a smidgeon of cooking or cleaning to do, which really makes these trips great for proper relaxation.
We booked another Christmas cruise this year. Coincidentally, friends of ours, the Meyers, had also done so. When we worked this out we organized to sit together over dinner. It was great to sit with friends rather than other arbitrary passengers. It wasn’t a joint holiday, but it was really enjoyable to come together at the end of the day over a meal and swap stories.
The cruise departed from Durban, so we organized to fly up a couple of days early to visit the KZN cousins down at their vacation home in Bazley Beach on the south coast. I managed to get my first sunburn of the summer, which I guess meant the holiday had officially started. We spent our time on the beach, swinging clubs at the driving range, tasting craft beers, playing FIFA, and just generally enjoying each other’s’ company. I even squeezed some birding in around the golf course and Bazley itself, scoring four new bird species for my southern Africa list, and many other firsts for the year.
Our first port of call after embarkation was Portuguese Island, and we reached it overnight. Portuguese Island is just offshore from Maputo, the Mozambican capital, and is separated by a small channel from the better-known Inhaca Island. MSC hosted all the guests onshore at a big beach party, with volleyball, beach soccer, a beach kitchen, drinks and ice cream bars, etc. There was also the option to go on a number of excursions. We tried to go snorkeling, but that was all booked out, so we decided to explore neighbouring Inhaca Island for a few hours. The Meyers joined us for a walk through the town. There isn’t too much do except laze around drinking beers and cocktails or swim in the beautifully warm seas, which suits some people, but our two families weren’t really feeling it. I splintered off from the group to try do some birding, although by that time it was after 11 am, and above 30°C and high humidity. Inhaca Island is described as a birdwatcher’s paradise, but there was little to show for it. Indian House Crows and House Sparrows dominated. The local bar owner says they’ve culled over 2000 crows on the island, but the birds were still rampant. I took a walk down the western coastline but achieved little except to sweat through my clothing within five minutes. I had maybe six species on my list after an hour and a half, so I stripped down to my underwear (the beach was deserted) and took a dip in the tropical water. I headed back towards town, and after rehydrating with a few 2M beers I joined the line for the boat back. However, as I waited I noticed the tide moving out and a few shorebirds appearing nearby, so I left the queue to investigate. The birding finally picked up as the low tide exposed the shoreline. Many of the shorebirds were common species that you can expect to find even as far south as Cape Town, but two stood out as they were completely new for me – Lesser Crested Tern, and Greater Sand Plover. The latter I’ve been searching for the last few months in the West Coast National Park as there is a vagrant bird hanging around, but to no avail. So I was glad to become familiar with the species here, and there were five or six running about. Originally I had the Sand Plover down as my 600th species for southern Africa, so I celebrated with yet another 2M. But after getting back on the ship I perused my list and found a few that I had added by accident, or added on call only before I knew you had to see the thing to tick it. So my list took a hit of 5 species, landing me back in the nervous 90s. Inhaca Island is very beautiful, and I left feeling like there was still plenty more to explore. I would definitely be keen to return one day if circumstances allow. I tried to snap some photographs of this very photogenic location, but my only wide angle lens was on my iPhone, so that had to do.
We had a full two days at sea before stopping again, so we took the opportunity to work on the suntans. A highlight along this stretch was the Crossing the Capricorn party, where ‘King Neptune’ is invited onboard to be given a key to the ship, and for him to grant permission for the vessel to cross the Tropic of Capricorn. The passengers who choose to be part of the ceremony all sat around the edge of the pool and had to go through a number of trials to please him before this happens. My father reprised his role of the last Christmas cruise as King Neptune, and condemned everyone to kiss his son (an octopus), be showered in champagne, and covered in a series of tomato paste, cream, milk, and cocoa powder before relenting. The pool goes a murky grey after everyone jumps in and cleans off, and they have to drain it, clean it, and refill it. In the meantime, bizarrely, King Neptune and a couple of staff led the parade in a rendition of YMCA, before retiring back to the depths of the Indian Ocean.
The island itself is a UNESCO Heritage Site. This is mostly due to the significance it held as a Portuguese settlement along the all-important trade route. Vasco da Gama is credited with ‘discovering’ the island, even though there was an advanced local civilization already inhabiting it when he arrived. The Portuguese built the fort of San Sebastian, which still stands today, even though it has clearly been left to rot and ruin and its only function is an excuse for tourists to entertain themselves while visiting. In its heyday the fort was instrumental in holding off Dutch invasions, and maintaining the Portuguese hold on the trade route to India for over 100 years. The locals still use the same traditional fishing ‘dhows’ that da Gama was so fascinated by when he happened upon the place. One has to wonder why less labour-intensive and efficient fishing methods and vessels had not been introduced. Of course, there’s a matter of tradition, but you have to imagine that over hundreds of years that people would have modernized if they had the means. The town is littered with the ghosts and vestiges of colonial rule, including a number of statues to obscure and famous Portuguese navigators, a clash of African and European architectural styles, and, of course, the language.
The island is in so many ways a microcosm of greater Africa. There is so much potential for growth, but overcrowding, mismanagement, and lack of resources has stifled any prospects of prosperity. There are clearly areas that are meant for tourists to see which are well kept, colourful and well run. Areas not so close to the popular beachfront and landing area told a very different story. It was very clear that poverty, unemployment, and lack of education were rife. Many people lived in absolute squalor is broken down mud and thatch shacks densely packed up against each other. Probably 70% of the local people I saw were children under 12. The further you moved from the tourists areas the more blatant and unapologetic the begging became. I felt very out of place. A white male, DSLR camera with telephoto lens slung over one shoulder, a spotting scope and tripod in a backpack, and iPhone in the pocket, traveling through a community of impoverished black Africans where the bread winners probably don’t earn the value of those possessions even in a matter of a few years. But you still got the feeling that most people were welcoming or at least curious about my presence. Walking through streets of Cape Town or Johannesburg would never result in so many friendly waves, smiles, and greeting of ‘Amigo!’ I felt safe at all times, and even appreciated by locals who depend almost entirely on fishing and tourism for their livelihoods. I was invited to play soccer with a group of local kids, which I declined because of paranoia about where to put my belongings safely. But I wish I hadn’t worried, as I would have treasured a game with them, and my valuables were probably as safe on the side of the makeshift field as in my hand. I, by complete accident, managed to achieve what the Dutch had failed to do with a full blown naval assault. I had wanted to photograph the southern hemisphere’s smallest chapel at the back of the fort, but didn’t fancy paying the entrance fee to explore the fort itself. So I walked along the rocks on the coastline to try get a glimpse of the chapel. I eventually found that once I reached the chapel I was in fact inside the fort’s walls, thereby completing my stealthy invasion of the military installment that thwarted the entire Dutch fleet. I was incredibly disappointed at the state of the place, and after a few photographs I made my way back to the queue for the boat back to the Sinfonia.
The injury withstanding, it was a very special trip, and a wonderful way to spend a family Christmas. All that remains is to wish everyone who had the stamina to get this far a very blessed Christmas and New Year!