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THE LAST PRE-COVID CRUISE
Skirting Africa’s Southern Coast
Story and photos by
Brad Hathaway
High on Adventure, September 2020

Map of African cruise

How far in the past just nine months ago seems!

It was another world before the emergence of a virus named COVID-19. Today, with at least the short-term future of ocean cruising for fun and adventure so much in doubt, we thought we’d take a look back at what it was like, just those few short months ago.

It was just last January that we embarked on a voyage aboard Oceania’s 685-passenger MS Nautica for visits to ports along the southern coast of Africa. We departed from Cape Town, South Africa and sailed as far northwest as Namibia, and as far northeast as Mozambique.

Capetown elephant wall at airport
A South African greeting.

We knew we’d arrived in Africa when we were greeted by this elephant.

Actually, the elephant is part of a sculptural wall in the passenger corridor of the Cape Town airport. This is the only picture taken on land in Cape Town that you will see in this story for reasons which will become clear later on.

Our flight arrived - as scheduled - just hours before our ship was slated to sail, so we simply took a cab to the cruise terminal to board the Nautica which sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean at sunset.

After a day at sea to reach Namibia, we pulled into Walvis Bay, a container port serving that country and the neighboring states of Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, which are landlocked and, thus, have no seaports of their own.

Namibia Walvis Bay Heavisides Dolphins
Walvis Bay is home to these Heaviside’s Dolphins. Photo by Joachim Huber

The name translates to “Whale’s Bay” although we didn’t see any whales. What we did see were more than a dozen Heaviside’s Dolphins swimming and leaping alongside our ship. These six-foot long dolphins, named for the naturalist who caught the first specimen to be catalogued, are native to these waters and the Atlantic off the coast of the Cape of Good Hope.

Namibia itself is now a Presidential Republic with a population of two and a half million people. It had been a colony of Germany before the First World War. When Germany lost that war and was forced to surrender its colonies, the League of Nations gave neighboring South Africa the mandate to administer it. It wasn’t granted independence until the South African system of apartheid fell apart in the early 1990’s.

Once we cleared immigration we walked a short way along the beach to a restaurant we’d found online before leaving home called The Raft. Friendly people, some good seafood and cold beer on a warm afternoon.

Namibia Walvis Bay The Raft Restaurant
The Raft Restaurant on a pier in Namibia.

Then it was off to walk through the town of about 60,000. We found many of the residences were fenced from the street, but restaurants, shops and churches all simply fronted on the street. We walked through about half of the downtown that first afternoon and then covered much of the other half the next morning before our ship’s departure.

  Namibia Walvis Bay residential decorated fences   Namibia Walvis Bay-Crazy Mamas Restaurant  
         
 
Namibia Walvis Bay Pleroma Church
 

 


Namibia Walvis Bay shopping street

 
The city of Walvis Bay has a distinctive architectural feel.

Sailing back down the western edge of Africa and rounding the continent’s southern tip we passed the Cape of Good Hope about noon on the fourth day of our cruise. Everyone gathered on deck to take pictures of the Cape … including us.

South Africa Cape of Good Hope
Passengers gather to watch the Cape of Good Hope slide by.

I had always thought that the Cape of Good Hope was the southernmost point of African land. But, no, that honor goes to Cape Agulhas nearly 100 miles farther around to where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean. It was named by the early Portuguese sailors for the phenomenon that true north and magnetic north coincided at that point at that time (around the year 1500) and, therefore, their compass needles pointed due north - “agulhas” is Portuguese for “needle.”

Unfortunately, once we got to that cape, we were too far away from shore to see the point or take any pictures.

Our first landfall in the Republic of South Africa was Port Elizabeth, a modern port and resort city of nearly one million with fabulous beaches.

South Africa Port Elizabeth Beach
South Africans flock to the beach in Port Elizabeth.

This is South Africa’s “Windy City” and we got a taste of that when we stopped at the hill-top Donkin Reserve, an open space established by Sir Rufane Donkin, who founded the port and named it for his late wife, whom he memorialized with a pyramid bearing a plaque reading “To the memory of one of the most perfect human beings.”

That pyramid shares the “Reserve” with a laser-cut steel sculpture of children greeting and being greeted by Nelson Mandela.

  South Africa Port Elizabeth Pyramid in Donkin Reserve   South Africa Port Elizabeth Nelson Mandella Sculpture in Donkin Reserve  
 
The pyramid honoring Rufane Donkin’s late wife.

Steel sculpture shows children greeting Nelson Mandela in Port Elizabeth.
 

Another windy crag we visited was Fort Frederick, built to protect British shipping during their war with France in 1799.

South Africa Port Elizabeth Fort Frederick
Port Elizabeth’s Fort Frederick is a hilltop site.

And then it was down on the flats to view the Port Elizabeth City Hall that was rebuilt on the plans of the nineteenth century original that had been destroyed by fire in 1977. We next drove over to the 46,000-seat Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, a soccer and rugby stadium built to host some of the matches of the 2010 World Cup.

  South Africa Port Elizabeth City Hall   South Africa Port Elizabeth Nelson Mandella Stadium  
 
The City Hall of Port Elizabeth.
Port Elizabeth’s stadium, named for Nelson Mandela.
 

Another stop before returning to the sea was to view a unique memorial - honoring all of the horses killed during the Second Boer War of 1899 - 1902. It is hard to imagine how many horses died in the wars of the Calvary era before there were mechanized tanks and trucks. A 1917 book Horses, by Roger Pocock, maintains that the British forces in that two-and-a-half-year war lost 340,000 horses!

South Africa Port Elizabeth Horse Memorial
Port Elizabeth honors the horses that died in the Second Boer War.

Then it was back to sea to reach Durban, South Africa’s third largest city (after Johannesburg and Cape Town), with its population of over three million people.

South Africa approaching Durban
Durban’s skyline is dominated by the arch of the Moses Mabhida Stadium.

The city was originally named D’Urban in honor of Sir Benjamin D’Urban who was the governor of the Cape Colony from 1834 until he was dismissed over his treatment of Black Africans (spoiler alert: he didn’t like them).

It is the principal city in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Under apartheid it was just Natal but now KwaZulu has been added meaning “Place of the Zulu.” The Province of KwaZulu-Natal is divided into eleven districts and the one in which Durban is located is named eThekwini. There is some controversy over just what that word means. Some maintain that eThekwini is simply Zulu for “Durban” but others point out that it can translate as “one testicled thing.” They even point to the shape of Durban Bay, which, when viewed from a particular hill, they claim, looks like a bull’s half-full scrotum. I didn’t visit that hill so I couldn’t express an opinion on that point even if I knew what a bull’s half-full scrotum looked like.

We found a bustling city with crowded streets, stores and markets like the Victoria Street Market with hundreds of stalls. It is just down the road from one of South Africa’s largest mosques, the Juma Masjid, with its capacity to host as many as 7,000 worshipers at prayer.

  South Africa Durban Victoria Street Market Zulu handicrafts   South Africa Durban Victoria Street Market spices  
At Durban’s Victoria Street Market you can buy handicrafts, trinkets, souvenirs and spices.

South Africa Durban Juma Masjid Mosque
The-juma-masjid Mosque’s golden dome can be seen from many parts of Durban.

Things were less hectic as we passed Durban’s city hall and drove through the central business district. The city hall was constructed at the turn of the twentieth century on plans meant to resemble the City Hall of Belfast in Ireland. It now houses government offices and a Natural Science Museum. The central business district, on the other hand, is a collection of high-rise buildings that includes a tower filled with the offices of law firms. It sports a ten-story painting of Anton Lembede. He was an early leader in the fight against apartheid.

  South Africa Durban City Hall   South Africa Durban high rise painting of Anton Lembede  
 

Durban’s neo-baroque style City Hall.

 

A ten-story painting of Anton Lembede is displayed on the side of an office building on Anton Lembede Street.
 

Then we paused at the Moses Mabhida Stadium where its 56,000 seats were all empty on a Tuesday afternoon with no soccer game in progress. The stadium features a 344-foot high steel arch to which cables are attached supporting the roof over the seating areas. This leaves the soccer field itself open to the sky.

By the way, you know you aren’t in the USA when you find the city’s grand stadium is named for the former General Secretary of the South African Communist Party.

  South Africa Durban arch over Moses Mabhida Stadium   South Africa Durban bust of Moses Mabhida Stadium  
 
The arch supports the roof of the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
This bust of Mabhida sits in front of one of the entrances to the stadium.
 

For real tranquility a highlight of the day was a visit to the Durban Botanic Gardens, Africa’s oldest surviving botanical gardens having been established as early as 1849 as an outpost of London’s Kew Gardens. In addition to plant life, the birds made for interesting viewing.

  Durban Botanic Gardens Plaza   Durban Botanic Gardens flower  
         
  Durban Botanic Gardens tropical pond   South Africa Durban Botanic Gardens birds  
Durban’s Botanic Gardens, an oasis in the city.

An overnight voyage from Durban brought us to Richards Bay, the deepest natural harbor in all of Africa. It was named for the British commander during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, Sir Frederick Richards.

Our interest wasn’t in the port or city, however. It was in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, which is located fifty miles inland from the city. An hour and a half drive by bus took us up South Africa Route 2. We passed mile after mile of “timber farms” where millions of trees - principally eucalyptus hybrids - are grown for paper, pulp and lumber. Then we passed through the village of KwaMsane and over the Umfolozi River.

  South Africa Richards Bay Timber Farm   South Africa Richards Bay trainloads of timber  
South Africa Route 2 passes miles of timber farms following train tracks with trainloads of timber.
         
  South Africa KwaMsane village   South Africa Umfolozi River  
Once past the timber farms, we got a taste for the rural side of South Africa.

When we arrived at the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi reserve we passed the thatched-roof entry and boarded a converted pickup truck holding seats for seven intrepid passengers looking for wildlife in the nearly 400 square miles of hilly country.

The tour operators don’t guarantee that you will spot any wildlife during your visit, but the drivers of the dozens of cars and trucks out in search of game do a great job of sharing information on sightings by radio. Once one driver finds a spot, many parties converge on the good viewing places.

South Africa Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve zebras
The zebras didn’t seem to mind our intrusion into their world.

Our first success was a small herd of zebra munching the grass alongside one of the dirt roads that cover the reserve. They didn’t seem to mind our approach. I suppose they are used to the constant stream of humans wanting to see and photograph them.

South Africa Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve impala
The impala was a bit more cautious, keeping an eye on us.

Standing further away from any human approach was one of the many impalas, a medium sized antelope native to this area of Africa.

South Africa Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve warthog
The warthog grubbed.

Much less photogenic were the warthogs that grubbed for tasty roots in grassy patches. The one we photographed didn’t look much like Pumbaa, the character in Disney’s The Lion King.

South Africa Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve wild dog
The wild dog turned and trotted away when we pulled up.

A bit harder to spot was what a lot of people think might be a hyena but is really a wild dog. Our driver told us that wild dogs are the most endangered species of all the wildlife in the reserve. That is why they all wear a collar with a radio transmitter. The park officials monitor the transmissions and if one of the animals doesn’t move very far over a day or two, they send out a ranger to see if there is a problem and if the animal needs assistance.

South Africa Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve water buffalos
A small herd of water buffalos on the way to a watering hole.

  South Africa Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve water-buffalo in stream   South Africa Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve water-buffalo-move-for-rhinoceroses  
         
  South Africa Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve watching water buffalo move for rhinoceroses   South Africa Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve rhinoceroses  
         
The pecking order of nature is revealed as water buffalo relinquish their spot for the rhinos.

Our driver received word of the sighting of some water buffalo at a wide spot in one of the reserve’s streams. When we arrived there were perhaps half a dozen water buffalo enjoying the muddy waters. Not long after that, however, a couple of rhinoceroses came down to get a drink. There was no confrontation between the species, but it was clear from the way the water buffalo quietly moved to the other side of the stream that the larger rhinos were higher up the priority list for this resource.

The rhino’s unchallenged primacy was short lived, however. Not too long later we saw the real top of the chain arrive - an elephant that wanted his access - and the rhinos gave him a wide berth.

South Africa Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve elephant
But the elephants hold the top of the pecking order.

As our tour was in the middle of the heat of the day there were no sightings of cats, no lions or tigers that are more nocturnal hunters during hot weather. But we counted ourselves lucky to have seen as many different species as we did.

Back aboard the ship we watched an unusual sight as the pilot who had guided our ship out of the port was taken off the Nautica, not by the usual pilot boat, but rather he was picked up by helicopter.  Who knows why this procedure was adopted? The Nautica doesn’t have a helipad, so he was winched up on a cable to the hovering copter.  Since no explanation was forthcoming from the staff and crew, we, too, were left hanging - so to speak.

South Africa Richard's 'Bay ship's pilot lifted off by helicopter
The pilot lifted off our ship by helicopter.

The next day we arrived in Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique. As a history buff I was excited to visit the spot where a little-known event transpired which has fascinated me since I first stumbled on it. Here’s the story. (In brief.)

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 there were hundreds of Americans in Japan and nearly as many Japanese citizens in the US. An exchange was negotiated and a ship with the Americans left Tokyo to meet up with a ship carrying the Japanese citizens from the US at a neutral spot - the Portuguese East African port of Lourenço Marques.

Portuguese East Africa is now Mozambique and the port of Lourenço Marques has been renamed Maputo. I was astonished to find that our ship was to dock at the same pier where the exchange took place in 1942: the actual spot where 1,677Japanese walked behind a screen from the MS Gripsolm to the MS Asama Maru and 840 Americans walked in front of the screen from the Asama Maru to the Gripsolm.

As we departed our ship I looked down to see my own feet on the very site of the exchange! That was a thrill only a history buff like me would appreciate.

    Mozambique Maputo Hathaway feet on pier  
Our ship at the historic pier and the author’s feet on the historic spot.

Then it was time for a city tour of modern-day Maputo. We started with a walk past a hotel and bar that has been in business since the early days of the twentieth century, and proceeded a few blocks further to a park for a full briefing on the layout of the city from our local guide. While he spoke, I took a photo of an interesting modern building behind us only to have him say a moment later “…and don’t take any photos of that building as it is the headquarters of the national bank and considered off limits for security reasons.”

  Mozambique Maputo Old Central Hotel   Mozambique Maputo briefing  
The start of the walking tour of Maputo.

We stopped at the nineteenth century Maputo Fort - Forteleza de Maputo in Portuguese. It is now decorated in front with fishing nets and floats while cannon guard the rear. Then it was on foot to the Central Market where local merchants hawked incessantly to the group of tourists who found lots of trinkets and souvenirs to take home.

 

 


Mozambique Maputo Fortaleza de Maputo nets and floats

  Mozambique Maputo Fortaleza de Maputo Cannon  
The Fortaleza de Maputo or “Fort Maputo.”

Across the central square from the market is the Central Railway Station, a lovely structure built in the beaux-arts style just before the First World War. Our guide took pains to correct what he said was a persistent, erroneous rumor that the dome over the entryway was designed by the French engineer Gustav Eiffel. He pointed out that it was actually the work of Portuguese architect José Ferreira da Costa.

Inside the station, we stopped for a Maputo specialty called “Pasteis de Nata” - a custard tart that was served with coffee, tea or soda.

  Mozambique Maputo Central Market   Mozambique Maputo Central Market vendor  
Maputo’s Central Market draws crowds of locals and tourists.
         
  Mozambique Maputo Central Railway Station   Mozambique Maputo Central Railway Station pasteis de nata  
 
The Central Railway Station with its ironwork dome.
Sampling Pasteis de Nata custard tarts.
 

Things took an unexpected turn after our ship left Mozambique to return to the Republic of South Africa. High winds, which made for choppy seas didn’t mean we had any discomfort from pitching and rolling but it did bring a change in plans.

South Africa Oceania Nautica waves at sea
High winds churn the surface of the sea off of Cape Town Harbor.

Half way to Cape Town from Maputo, the captain announced over the public address system that Cape Town’s port had been closed due to these high winds. We had been scheduled to dock there and have a day or two to tour the area. Instead, we stayed at sea and waited for a change in the weather. That lasted all day and then all night. The ship’s televised tracking map showed we simply sailed in circles up and down the coast outside of Cape Town.

South Africa Oceania Nautica map of circling
We circled up and down the coast of South Africa awaiting a change in the wind.

Finally, when it was too late for us to do any sight seeing in this beautiful city, we were cleared to enter the port and proceed to the dock. Looking on the bright side, the view of the city and its famous Table Mountain was completely clear of any of the usual smog.

Capetown from the sea
Capetown after the windstorm had not a touch of smog.

Once we cleared passport control and all of the luggage was offloaded we only had time to catch a cab to the airport. Ah, well. Next time!

And speaking of “Next Time” - it is too early in the current pandemic to predict what the cruise situation might be after the virus crisis is over. Will there even be a cruise industry? My intuition tells me there will be, and that there will be some enticing discounts available on fabulous cruises. But first there will be a shakeout and restructuring for the industry.

If and when pleasure cruising takes up again, it most likely won’t include some of the features that we enjoyed on this, our last pre-Covid cruise, but, then again, some inconveniences and irritants may be eliminated - it will be fascinating to see.

Looking over this last pre-virus voyage, I’m struck by a few things we may not see again. Most of our shore tours involved a crowded bus ride (or two). The cafe where we took most of our meals featured serve-yourself buffet tables. The on-board evening entertainment programs and enrichment lectures were presented in a crowded lounge and, of course, the outdoor decks were lined with un-masked sunbathers. These things may never again be part of the adventure of ocean cruising.

But, until things change, our roll-a-boards are stowed (but ready to roll) on the top shelf of our closet.

     
 
 
 
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