Monday, February 28, 2022

February 27th – Up Close With the Elephants From Port Elizabeth

I don’t think that there’s any wild animal that I enjoy watching close-up more than the elephant. You could sit for hours watching their endearing interactions, as they nudge into each other, spray water or dust all over themselves, or take a bath in the mud.

Today’s tour from Port Elizabeth took us to the Addo Elephant Park – one of the best places in the world to see large groups of elephants close up. The park is home to roughly 600 of these magnificent beasts, and as you drive around the centre of the park, it can feel like they’re everywhere to be seen – big family groups at the lakes, gangs of adolescent males hanging around at the waterholes looking for trouble (teenagers are the same the world over), or herds strolling through the bush having a feed.

Addo’s landscapes aren’t particularly interesting or varied – undulating mainly treeless plains with low bushes, but that makes the elephant-spotting easier; plus, the guides know where all the popular water holes are, so you’re almost guaranteed to see some. I’d estimate that we saw at least 100 elephants, ranging from huge bull elephants confidently striding past our jeep (no more than 6 feet away), to gorgeous little babies that were gloriously uncoordinated as they stayed close to their mother’s feet. How the mothers didn’t step on the babies I’ll never know, but it was lovely to see just how tender and delicate these enormously powerful beasts could be.

What a fabulous tour! 

PS. In stark contrast to the wonders of the natural world, the bits of central Port Elizabeth (now re-named the almost unpronounceable “Gqeberha”) that we drove through had an almost post-apocalyptic feel to them – so many Victorian buildings abandoned or boarded up, rubbish-strewn streets, groups of people just hanging around aimlessly. Quite depressing.

February 26th – A Low-Key Day in Mossel Bay

Mossel Bay on the beautiful Garden Route is a rather low-key holiday town that holds a special place in South African history, as this was the first place that the Europeans actually set foot on the country’s soil. That was when the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias first ventured ashore here in 1488.

Actually, given the waves and swell that our tender had to deal with to get us into the small port here, then I think that Dias did pretty well to come ashore. But, other than the Dias connections, there’s not a huge amount to discover in the town, although its lovely beaches have now turned the place into a relaxed holiday resort.

So, if you want to discover Mossel Bay’s history, you have to visit the Bartolomeu Dias Complex to go to its small Maritime Museum where the star exhibit is a copy of the caravel that he sailed all those thousands of miles on from Portugal. When you see its diminutive size, you really do marvel at the sailing skills (and sheer bravery) of those hardy Portuguese mariners all those centuries ago.

We also saw the famous “Post Office Tree” where the early sailors would leave their messages in a boot, for any passing sailors to collect and bring home on their next epic journey. Seeing as some of my Christmas cards didn’t arrive until February, it was probably more efficient than some postal systems!

Other than the (predictably) underwhelming shell museum, that was it for my sightseeing in Mossel Bay. Fortunately, Tracy did a much more interesting walk along the Cape Blaize trail, taking her along some lovely coastal scenery, and giving her some close encounters with the cute-looking dassies, furry little creatures that look vaguely like groundhogs, but are somehow related to elephants.

Friday, February 25, 2022

February 22nd–24th – Back to Civilisation in Cape Town

Cape Town is always a spectacular place, but when you haven’t been able to set foot in an actual town for the best part of 5 weeks, then it’s verging on mind-blowing. Over the course of our 3 days here, I joined a few of the ship’s tours and had some pretty special experiences.

Day 1 showed me the finer things in life, as we went for High Tea at Cape Town’s oldest hotel, the venerable Mount Nelson. It was all very luxurious, and if you only visited “The Nellie” (as it’s affectionately known) and the V&A Waterfront (where we were docked), then you’d be forgiven for thinking that Cape Town is a super-wealthy place. However, the drive there saw us pass a large number of tent encampments on pretty much any open space in the city centre, to remind us that this is still a city of huge inequalities.

To confirm this, Day 2 saw me join a trip to the large Langa Township - Cape Town’s oldest Township, founded in 1923. This sprawling low-rise township is populated almost exclusively by African Xhosa people, and it contrives to be both uplifting and depressing at the same time. Some parts of Langa were much better than your stereotypical view of a township, while others were shockingly poor – overcrowded and dilapidated shacks on the verge of collapse.
We visited a kindergarten where the over-excited children were adorable – of course, they don’t see colour or class, just people to play and laugh with. And, to keep the uplifting spirit going, we visited the township’s Community Centre, where local artists produce some exceptionally skilful arts and crafts in what seems to be a really supportive environment. The whole experience was incredibly eye-opening – I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to escape the traditional tourist bubble.

That evening provided yet another contrast, as we were treated to an amazing World Cruise Experience of music and food in a spectacular setting inside an old quarry which had been converted into a magical semi-open-air venue. It’s easy to get blasé about the effort that gets put in to impress and entertain us, but this was definitely one of the best.

On Day 3, my final activity was one of the definitive Cape Town experiences – catching a cable car up to the top of the awesome Table Mountain, and then doing a hike around its rocky peak. The hike was only a 5km round trip, but the going was incredibly rough – at times we were virtually scrambling on hands and knees, or clambering up metal chains – but all the time we were strengthened by the fabulous views from our lofty position. What an end to a superb 3 days back in civilisation!

Cape Town never disappoints.

Friday, February 18, 2022

February 17th – As Remote as You Can Get in Tristan Da Cunha

It took us 5 days sailing through the rough South Atlantic to get to the most remote inhabited island in the world – the British Overseas Territory of Tristan da Cunha. Quite understandably, on an island with a population of just 243, without an airport, with just a small hospital (with no ventilators), and 4 days sailing from Cape Town, they just weren’t willing to risk us setting foot on the island (we have one case of Covid onboard).

However, we did the next best thing, by jumping into the zodiacs and having a tour around the coast of the neighbouring Nightingale Island to see its prolific birdlife. On a gorgeous morning, there were so many birds swooping around – gulls, terns, petrels, skuas, albatrosses – but, when the nearest bit of land is over 1,000 miles away, it’s not surprising that this little haven is so popular.

We cruised up to a wonderful colony of Rockhopper Penguins, decorated with those beautiful bushy yellow “eyebrows”, living up to their name as they hopped about the cliff face with remarkable agility for creatures that look so ungainly. They shared the amazing volcanic formations that form the island with a large number of fur seals, slipping in and out of the water with ease.

All the while, the volcanic shape of the main island, Tristan da Cunha, loomed in the distance, like the forbidding lair of an evil Bond villain. We sailed over to have a closer look at one of the most fragile communities in the world – protected from the pandemic and the cares of the modern world by a huge moat that means they have to be as self-reliant as possible (they get visits from supply ships about 9 times a year).

There’s only one slice of land that’s habitable – Edinburgh of the Seven Seas – a scattering of houses surrounded by a small section of pasture (we could see cows dotted around the grass), and a small area of allotments called Potato Patches (you’ll never guess what the main crop is).

So, visits from outsiders are pretty rare – which meant that school stopped as soon as our Captain sounded the horn, and the children ran down to the coast to wave at us in the distance. I wished we could have come ashore and said hello – but this was the next best thing, enjoying these views that very few people on this planet get to see.

Friday, February 11, 2022

February 11th – A Penguintastic Day in South Georgia

If the wildlife viewing in Antarctica was great, then today it was off-the-scale in South Georgia. Looking out from the side of the ship, you could hear so many cries, calls and squawks echoing across the ostensibly barren bay, welcoming us to this utterly unspoilt environment.

Just catching the zodiac into Fortuna Bay, you could see plenty of seals and penguins hanging around the coast, but as we approached our landing point, it was hard to believe the amount of animal life on offer. There were so many seals and penguins swimming in the water, that the Expedition Team had to almost shoo them away to clear a space for us.

It was hard to listen to our briefing with so many super-cute baby seals all around us – their fluffy fur and huge dark eyes making them look like cuddly toys. They were so inquisitive and adorable that you really had remind yourself that these were wild animals who should be treated with caution; while, the King Penguins looked as immaculate, and endearingly clumsy as ever.

We did a hike over to the Penguin colony about 20-minutes away, walking through a field of so many seals – pups suckling on their mothers, others laid out lazily like corpses (we did sadly see one pup who hadn’t survived), and mothers trying to keep us away from their precious young ones. 

Every now and again, a mother would decide that someone was getting too close (often as they were actually walking away), and would charge at us snorting or barking. At this time of year, seal aggression levels are way down and these were only mock charges, but it was still pretty alarming. The young pups obviously seemed to want to copy this behaviour, but they were just too damn cute to take seriously.

We climbed up a rock to see the penguin colony – it was simply awesome in its size - home to around 50,000 penguins huddled together, preening and squawking, all of them smartly dressed in their formalwear. They really are the most photogenic of creatures – you’re torn between constantly taking photos of them, and just sitting back and watching their awkward waddling and affectionate interactions.

This was another day where you really had to pinch yourself to be watching all this live. If I ever get complacent about the opportunities that cruising provides, please remind me of this day.