Saturday, April 18, 2015

April 15th – Not Arriving on Ascension Island

Ascension Island is a strange place. As you approach it from the sea, it appears to have nothing going for it – it's a largely barren piece of volcanic rock, and it's pretty much in the middle of nowhere (760 miles from St Helena, the nearest piece of land, and over 1,000 miles from the nearest continent). But, as you get closer, you can make out various transmitters, satellite stations, and the apparatus of the US Airforce Base that has turned this tiny island into an incredibly important strategic spot.

Plus, because of its extreme isolation, and because human settlement is limited by the military, there's a fascinating ecological dimension to one of the most untouched places on the planet.

However, sadly we weren't going to see much of this today, because the waves were too high for the tender to operate safely – something which happens regularly in Ascension. Having put a fair amount of effort into giving a lecture on the island, and giving a narration from the bridge as we sailed in, this was particularly annoying for me, but Ascension is not somewhere that I'd have liked to be stranded, so the Captain made the right choice.

Instead, we had to settle for our views of the island from the sea, and in meeting a delegation from the island's conservation team who gave us a presentation on their work on Ascension, and sold a few Ascension souvenirs.

I guess that it was appropriate that we saw nothing on the island that's "on the way to nowhere".

Friday, April 17, 2015

April 13th – Sampling St Helena

So, at last I was back in the UK, as we visited the tiny British Territory of St Helena. The inhabitants of this remote island live a fairly precarious existence, stuck in a vast expanse of South Atlantic, largely cut off from the outside world.

This isolation is a double edged sword – they're cut off from many of the stresses and strains of modern life (this is one of the few places in the world which doesn't have a mobile phone network), but everything is fairly expensive and they're cut off from many of the conveniences of modern life too. For the time being, the only thing that's really keeping the local economy going, is funding from the UK, to the tune of about £25 million a year in taxpayer's money.

The big hope for the economy, is that Britain has funded the construction of a new £250 million airport on the south of the island, that it is hoped will bring in much-needed tourist revenue, and make living costs cheaper. We went to see the airport, and there's clearly quite a lot of work to do, before it opens next year and regular flights to Johannesburg begin. It remains to be seen whether the island (which has no beaches) has enough attractions to draw in the tourists in sufficient numbers, and it's interesting to note that no hotels have yet been built to handle the expected influx of visitors.

Most of the islanders I spoke to weren't looking forward to the opening of the airport, which they felt would "change things too much". A couple of them questioned whether the British government had ulterior motives in building the airport. Because, with the Argentinean government getting ever more strident in their complaints about the Falklands, maybe an extra airbase in the South Atlantic might be a useful weapon? Especially, if the Americans ever decide that they don't want to let the British use the airbase on Ascension Island (that last bit sounds a bit unlikely, but it is a possibility).

We'll have to see what effect the airport has on St Helena, but for the time being, this remains an utterly charming place of innocent attitudes to life and extreme politeness. Many of the people on my tour were totally surprised by the lush green landscapes that greeted us in the interior – from the sea, St Helena looks a forbidding and barren place, with a ring of steep brown cliffs, but once you're on dry land, it looks like a more hilly version of Cornwall. The steep green valleys were populated by cows and donkeys, and broken up by small villages that looked like they were from 1950s Britain.

Our tour went round most of the main sights on the island, most of them associated with its most famous historical resident – the deposed French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, who was exiled here in 1815, and lived in a state of depression for the next 6 years until his death in 1821. We visited his "prison", the rather grand mansion that is Longwood House, and we visited his grave in a beautiful location in Geranium Valley. Napoleon really hated his time here – beautiful though St Helena is, it can't compete with the Champs Elysee or the Louvre.

On our return to Georgetown, the island's little capital, we stopped for a drink in the pub – as we stopped to contemplate what it must be like to live here. The pace of life is slow, everyone knows everyone, there's not much to do – all those things can be good and bad. I wonder what the next decade will bring to the island – hopefully prosperity without too much change to these simple ways of life.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

April 9th – Wonderful Experiences in Walvis Bay

If yesterday was about exploring Namibia's history, today was all about discovering more of its fantastic nature. While Tracy was out exploring the wildlife of the desert, I joined the ship's tour taking a boat trip to Pelican Point, where we got up incredibly close to a wonderful array of bird and sea life.

Almost as soon as we set sail, enormous Pelicans were swooping down to the boat to eat the fish that was being offered to them by the crew members. These comical creatures look so ungainly on land; but in the air, they glided alongside us effortlessly until greedily stuffing a fish into their massive bills and choking it back. The more intelligent birds just sat on top to the roof of the boat and tried to grab the fish when the crew weren't looking – unfortunately, they appeared to have a problem distinguishing between fish and human heads, so anyone who walked past them got a bit of a pecking.

Our next visitors were a group of five African dolphins, who lazily bobbed around in front of our boat. They weren't putting on much of a show for us, so the captain put on some speed so that they'd have some wake to jump around in – they duly started leaping around acrobatically as they raced alongside us, better than any dolphinarium show.

If the dolphins were quite close, our next visitor from the sea decided to climb aboard, as a large seal lumbered onto the back of the boat to get some fishy handouts. It was an amazing (and slightly unnerving) experience to be just 2 feet away from a wild seal, and get to observe him so close up. He wasn't particularly smelly and he actually had quite good table manners, as he gulped down the fish, and let the crew show us his fur (it's totally dry under the top layer).

After he got off, we went to see a few of his colleagues at the seal colony that inhabits the tip of the peninsula. When I say "a few", there were 70,000 of the seals, that turned the sea into seal soup – as they barked, swam, and leapt playfully out of the water. I've never seen so many seals in one place – it was seal sensory overload.

To round off a marvellous trip, the crew served us up a platter of delicious oysters washed down sparkling wine – life doesn't get much better!

But, this was just the start of a wonderful day in Walvis Bay - that evening, we were joining the Silversea Experience to have a Dinner in the Desert. The location of the dinner was different to previous occasions – this time, we weren't surrounded by dunes, instead we were in an atmospheric gorge of an otherworldly, moonscape of rocks and canyons. It made for a quite magnificent location for what was a most enjoyable evening.

As the sun went down, a rainbow came out to greet us, and we were serenaded by a fantastic choir who put a real energy into their performance. It was an almost surreal combination of experiences – desert scenery, a world class choir, and great food and drink, you almost had to pinch yourself to make sure it was real. Perhaps the most amazing thing was wondering how they were able to serve up such a great spread, when we were right in the middle of the desert?

I'm running out of superlatives for this World Cruise – there's just been so many wonderful experiences.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

April 8th – Exploring The Ghosts of the German Empire from Luderitz

As we walked down the decaying main street of what was once one of the richest boom towns in Africa, its crumbling buildings slowly being consumed by the desert, it felt like we'd entered a film set of the Wild West. Wallpaper fluttered in the breeze, doors hung off their hinges and huge piles of sand crept in through glass-less windows. It was hard to believe that this spooky little settlement in the barren desert had once been an opulent boom town that produced 20% of all the world's diamonds, but now was forlornly succumbing to Mother Nature.

We were visiting the ghost town of Kolmanskop, about a 15-minute drive into the desert from the port of Luderitz – one of the most evocative reminders of the brief German Empire in South West Africa, and a reminder of the time when enormous fortunes were suddenly made out in the barren desert when vast quantities of diamonds were discovered just lying in the sands.

When diamonds were discovered in 1908, people flocked to Kolmanskop to make their fortune and a town quickly sprung up from the sand, a town whose luxury was out of all proportion to its location. Water had to be shipped in at enormous cost all the way from Cape Town, yet we were able to visit the ice-making plant using the latest in early 20th century technology, to help keep the town cool. Life out in the burning desert must have been pretty comfortable – the houses were fitted out with all the latest mod cons of the times, while we visited the bowling alley, the theatre, champagne bar, cigar room, butchers and bakers, and even an enormous open-air swimming pool.

But, what makes Kolmanskop so remarkable is that the town curled up and died almost as quickly as it sprung up, as a bigger supply of diamonds was found elsewhere. So, by the 1930s, the town was pretty much abandoned, and its once-grand houses and buildings were left to be taken over by the desert. We could explore its ghostly houses, entering into its rooms enigmatically taken over by great drifts of sand that had forced their way in through the windows, as we tried to imagine what life was like out here in the desert.

There weren't many people around, so it was a slightly spooky feeling walking around these abandoned houses, all noise deadened by the sand apart from the occasional squeaky floorboard or rush of wind from the desert. Some of the houses were so taken over by the sand that you had to stoop to get through the internal doors, while climbing the stairs, you felt like the floor could give way at any point. If I were going to write a post-apocalyptic zombie movie, this would be a pretty good set for it.

If any place can be described as desert-ed, then this is it. This was one of the most evocative set of ruins that I've ever visited – maybe because it was just so recent that the town died, but you could almost hear the conversations of it inhabitants.

So, after our fascinating visit here, we returned to Luderitz – a town that also did pretty well from the diamond boom (as the array of grand early 20th century German buildings attested), but which didn't go into quite as terminal a decline as Kolmanskop. The colourful set of old German buildings all seemed at odds with the bleak surroundings of cold seas and bleak sands, but at least there was some life out on the streets.

Namibia is normally a place that's all about nature (not surprising in the second most unpopulated country in the world), but today was proof that this young country has a fascinating history.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

April 6th – Journey To The End of The World at Cape Point

On our final day in Cape Town I joined a tour that was heading down to the stirring landscapes of the Cape of Good Hope at the very point of the Cape.

A lot of people assume that the Cape of Good Hope is the southernmost part of the African continent, but that accolade actually belongs to Cape Agulhas, a bit further along the South African coast. But, what gives Cape Point its distinction is that this was the stormy peninsula that western explorers had tried and failed to round for decades before the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias finally rounded the Cape in 1488. Once they'd got around that Cape, the route to the East was now opened up to the Europeans, and so set off the great global empires of the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. So, the sign at the Cape is careful to point out that this is "The Most South-Western Point of the African Continent".

We didn't have to face any stormy seas to get there, but the drive down to the Point was fairly spectacular - the road hugs the cliff edge as we passed a succession of gorgeous white beaches below us. On one of them, the spectacularly wide Noordhoek Beach, Tracy was doing her first ever horse ride – she said that it was quite gentle, and she wasn't walking like John Wayne when we got back to the ship.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather – the wind had made sure that the skies were razor sharp, while those stormy seas that the area's famous for never made an appearance. So, there weren't any elemental conditions to contend with, but there was an end of the world feel to the place, as we looked South and knew that the next piece of land you'd hit was Antarctica.

After catching the funicular up to the top of Cape Point, and enjoying the magnificent views, we headed to the other side of the peninsula, to visit Simons Town – home to the South African Navy, and more relevant to our visit, home to a gregarious colony of African penguins. Having seen all the African Big Game on our safaris over the previous days, it seemed odd to be viewing penguins out here in Africa, but these ungainly penguins are always fascinating to watch as they waddled about and quarrelled grumpily with each other. You couldn't help but make up the conversations in your head that they could be having with each other as they lumbered around on the beach, before staggering over to the incoming waves and suddenly transforming themselves into graceful sea creatures.

When you get up close to a penguin colony, you quickly realise that their seafood diet makes them pretty stinky, so for lunch we decided that if you can't beat them, join them – so, we had a lovely fish dinner.

After a whole load of food and a couple of drinks, our stamina for sightseeing was waning a little by now, but we just about kept the energy levels up for a visit to the beautiful Kirstenbosch Gardens back in Cape Town, before it was time to get back to the ship.

Many of the passengers have commented that our three days in Cape Town made this their favourite port of the World Cruise so far. We had time to do this wonderful city in depth, and to explore its wonderful range of sights in depth. It's a great place for urban sights and history, or natural sights and wildlife, while if you just want to go shopping, or eating, or drinking, then Cape Town has all of those covered off. What a great place!

April 5th – Exploring Cape Town

Whenever we've been to Cape Town, we've always done at least one day on its excellent Hop-on Hop-off buses – they're really cheap (scarcely more expensive than getting a couple of taxis), and a great way (and a safe way) to get around. Plus, as it was Easter Sunday, not too many of the museums or city centre shops were open, so it was a good way to get the most out of our day here.

So, from the V&A, we caught the bus into Downtown and did a bit of a walking tour around some of its most historic sights. We spent some time in the Company Gardens – the place where the Dutch East India Company first planted their vegetable gardens to supply their ships on the way to the East. The gardens are now a lovely city centre park, and they were busy with lots of families enjoying an Easter Egg hunt. We stopped off for a coffee in the trendy cafe in the centre of the gardens – it had a very European atmosphere and a fairly upmarket clientele. It felt like we were in "yummy mummy" atmosphere of Kensington or Clapham back home. I'm not sure if central Cape Town is always this relaxed and family-oriented, but this was the most chilled out and friendly that I've ever experienced it.

Next, we walked past the extravagant City Hall (the place where Nelson Mandela made his historic speech to 200,000 people on his release from prison), and headed over to the impressive Castle of Good Hope – the sturdy castle built by the Dutch back in the 17th century to protect their valuable possession on the Cape. Inside its solid fortifications, there was lots of history to discover, and some great views across the city from its walls. It was strange to think that the castle once guarded the waterfront, but was now around a kilometre back from the sea, as landfill has extended Cape Town into the sea.

It was time to hop back onto the bus, to take us to Camps Bay for lunch, but first it took us up to the cable station at the foot of Table Mountain. Fortunately we didn't have any plans to catch the cable car, because strong winds meant that it was shut; but the views across the sprawling city in front of us were pretty good anyway.

So, it was Camps Bay for lunch – for me, the most "liveable" part of Cape Town. When you have as beautiful a beach as this, a line of trendy restaurants facing onto it, with a stunning backdrop of the Twelve Apostles behind it, it's a winning combination. We had a delicious lunch, soaking up the relaxed atmosphere – it felt like a combination of South Beach in Miami, Brighton in England, and the best of South Africa. My only worry was that it was still almost pre-dominantly whites only (apart from most of the people working there) – 20 years on from the end of apartheid, it still seems that the races still socialise separately. Even if the falling value of the rand made the prices seem pretty cheap to me, I'm sure that the prices would have been beyond the majority of the Capetonians. However, it was a great place for a relaxing afternoon.

After the bus for a couple more stops, we decided to walk along the lovely beachfront promenade down to Green Point – this was much more multi-cultural, and again had a really good vibe to it.

Our day in Cape Town has once-again proved to us that this magnificent city has all the ingredients to make this one of the most liveable cities in the world – it has plenty of problems to overcome along the way, but it seems to be heading in the right direction.

April 4th – High Tea in CT

For our arrival in Cape Town, a cool wind was blowing in and Table Mountain was hiding behind a thick layer of cloud, however over the course of three wonderful days in this cosmopolitan city, the weather just got better and better.

The "new" cruise terminal in Duncan Dock is still not very prepossessing, but it's just a quick 10 minute walk to the vibrant Victoria and Alfred Wharf, with all its bars, restaurants and shops. By the next time we come, that walk should be much nicer, because the huge old grain silos we pass by are now being totally redeveloped to turn them into a multi-million dollar art gallery.

After a morning of exploring the V&A and doing a spot of retail therapy, we got ourselves ready for another World Cruise Experience, which was taking us into the centre of Downtown Cape Town for an opulent High Tea. The event was being staged in a beautiful old Victorian bank building that's now been turned into a really cool venue.

We were greeted by a fabulous female jazz trio on stage in the middle playing electric violin, electric cello and saxophone. The music was wonderful, while the fact that they also happened to be incredibly beautiful managed to keep the interest of most of the male guests. Later, they were joined by a fantastic vocalist – when she first started singing I thought that it must have been a backing track, it was that good. It all contributed to a really good vibe.

That vibe was certainly helped by the copious tastings of South African wines that we were downing along the way (there was also a tasting of 6 different teas, but the wines were more popular). This was also washing down a massive range of cakes, sandwiches and every possible choice of tea food you could think of.

The idea of a High Tea was a simple one, but the execution of it all was excellent – great food, great drink, great music, and just a great atmosphere. I wouldn't say that I'm a major frequenter of teas, but I don't think I've ever had a better High Tea.