Monday, February 28, 2011

February 25th – On Safari from Richards Bay

There's not much to the town of Richards Bay, (other than the dubious distinction of being the largest coal terminal in the world), but the reason for coming here is that it's so close to some of KwaZulu Natal's biggest and best game reserves. On our first day here, I took a safari to the fabulous Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park (for the correct pronunciation, imagine that Sean Connery is saying it).

We climbed into our jeep and set off into the open landscapes of the park – quickly passing a family of warthogs and a water buffalo wallowing in a waterhole, although animal sightings thinned out after that. Our driver had an amazing ability to see the animals in the distance in spite of their good camouflage, and we'd zoom off to get close up views.

The park is most famous for saving the white rhino from extinction (from just 11 left in the park in the 1930s, to now well over 2,000 of them), so we saw a family of rhinos being hassled by a male who wanted some action with the mother.

The best sighting was a close encounter with a 12 feet tall bull elephant, who was happily demolishing a tree when we chanced upon him. He seemed unconcerned with our presence until he suddenly looked up straight at us, and marched in our direction. Seeing as we were only 20 metres away and he weighed about 7 tons and we only weighed 2.5 tons, it was a little alarming. So alarming that a couple of the passengers started to frantically shout "get us out of here!", which apparently is the wrong thing to do, as the noise can only anger him more; but our driver remained calm and just took off the handbrake and we silently rolled out of his path – it seemed that all he wanted to do was just cross the road and we had been in his way.

Other sightings were of zebras crossing the road in front of us, baboons, deer, giraffes, a camera shy hippo, and countless colourful birds. So, we only saw 3 of the Big Five, and the animal sightings were quite spaced out, but that did make the sightings we did get a bit more exciting, and of course, the landscapes were majestic.

February 24th – Maputo, Mozambique

Mozambique and its capital Maputo have had a pretty tough 20th century. Years of exploitation by the Portuguese colonial government left the majority its people under-educated, then there was a war of independence, then, in 1975, pretty much all of the Portuguese left overnight, leaving behind little expertise in how to govern the country. This was followed by the economic mismanagement of the new Communist government and a long and bitter civil war in which 1,000,000 people died.

Which is rather a long explanation of the fact that Maputo is now a bit of a state – crumbling pavements, peeling buildings, and a serious litter problem. However, it's far from being a depressing place – democracy returned in the 1990s, and the economy is growing again, as can be seen from the modern office blocks and smart banks around the city centre. As you explore, you pass by plenty of run-down art deco buildings that point to Colonial Maputo being pretty well off in the 1930s – hopefully the country is on the right track to regaining that position.

On a drainingly hot day, we ignored the cheeky taxi drivers who told us that the town was "too dangerous for walking", and walked from the port into town, passing by the magnificent old train station, whose dome was designed by Gustav Eiffel (he of the tower fame) – it's so impressive, that it was used as a double for a posh colonial hotel, in Leonardo di Caprio's film Blood Diamond.

After that, we called at the mosque (mainly to go to the loo), and then to the busy market, where the fish section was one of the more stinky I've been too, and where we picked up a bag of peri-peri – dried chillies that spice most Mozambican cuisine. One thing we noticed, was that the people don't smile very readily here (perhaps not surprising considering what they've gone through in the past decades), but once you break through their icy exterior, they're as friendly as anyone else. Certainly, the country is in its very early days of tourism, so maybe they need to have a few lessons on charming the money out of the hapless tourist.

Next we went to the gleaming white art deco Cathedral to have a nose around, and then to the grand City Hall building left behind by the Portuguese. Like the rest of the city, City Hall had a rather sleepy atmosphere – you'd expect the large square in front of it to be congested with chaotic traffic, but actually, there's very little traffic here at all.

Our next destination was the National Art Museum, which had lots of colourful paintings and sculptures from the last few decades. It was sad to see how so many pictures had guns or gloomy faces depicted in them – again, a reflection of the impact of 17 years of civil war.
After a stop at the old Portuguese fort, we had a lunch in a pavement café, where we fended off the constant offers to buy stuff we didn't want from the street hawkers – fortunately, these guys do take no for an answer, so it didn't get too annoying.

By now, the stifling heat meant that we were pretty exhausted, so we wearily trudged back to the port. On getting back to the ship, a few of the passengers told me that they found the city too run-down for their liking, but most people I spoke too, found it a fairly positive place, where you could see that the people were working pretty hard to get the city back on its feet. I certainly didn't find the street life anywhere near as menacing as South Africa's big cities (it wasn't a place where you were afraid to go down the side streets), and found the city a pretty optimistic place to be. Let's hope Mozambique can get some funds to continue to improve things.

Friday, February 25, 2011

February 23rd – Meeting the Xhosa in East London

Even though we drove down an Oxford Street, a Fleet Street, and passed by a suburb called Belgravia, the city of East London in South Africa couldn't be much more different from London in the UK. For a start the sun was shining, plus there was lots of semi-tropical scenery around town; however, the deprivation here was also fairly prominent, with lots of groups of young unemployed men hanging around.

We were making a trip to a Xhosa cultural village, but on the way, our guide took us on an impromptu visit to the school he used to be a headmaster at. This school was a real showpiece for the Rainbow Nation – a class full of white kids (both English heritage and Afrikaans), Xhosa kids, Indian kids and mixed race kids, all joining together to sing the national anthem for us with pride – it was touching and heart-warming to see, and everyone was struck by how polite and bright the children were.

After that, we went to the Khaya La Bantu cultural village to see traditional Xhosa ways of life and culture – both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki were from the Xhosa tribe. When we arrived, we were greeted by a line of women and children singing lustily and dancing enthusiastically to an infectious drum beat. Even though this was obviously a show put on for us tourists, it was great to hear and watch – even a person of no natural rhythm like myself was bobbing up and down to the music.

Without getting too spiritual, the rhythms and harmonies really did touch your soul, and when they sung the national anthem for us, I must admit that I began to get choked up – I guess it was seeing the immense pride that they sung the anthem with, considering that a Xhosa would never have felt any pride in being a South African until 20 years ago, after apartheid fell.

The men were separated from the women, and we went to the kraal (cattle pen) to drink traditional beer (eye-wateringly horrible to my taste buds), and hear stories of the male circumcision rituals that brought tears to your eyes; while the women were treated to an insight into preparing Xhosa girls for married life by a charismatic 92 year old lady called Mama Tofu. Afterwards, we ate some tasty but basic traditional Xhosa food and saw yet more fabulous high-energy dancing. A truly uplifting day.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

February 21st – Arrival in Cape Town

After a gruelling overnight flight from London surrounded by crying children, we arrived bleary-eyed at Cape Town Airport to join the Silver Wind for a seven week trip twice around South Africa, and then up the West Coast of Africa to Lisbon.

Within 20 minutes of leaving the airport, you're already in touch with the realities of modern South Africa – the gleaming airport and high quality roads would grace any First World country, while you drive past depressing townships of corrugated shacks and litter; then passing comfortable suburbs surrounded by razor wire, and then shanty towns again.

However, our destination was the bright showpiece of Cape Town – the sparkling and vibrant developments at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, where the ship was berthed. You don't get places much more attractive than this – a wonderful blend of converted Victorian buildings and modern facilities full of trendy bars, restaurants and shops, all in a relaxed, crime-free environment (there were security guards everywhere). Of course, it's all framed by one of the most spectacular backdrops in the world – the amazing Table Mountain, with the swirling cloud of "the Tablecloth" creeping over the edge.

Having checked in, we went for a wander around the busy waterfront crowds enjoying the weather and the alfresco bands, although we were by now, so sleep-deprived that it felt that we were walking in treacle.

As I have two lectures scheduled for tomorrow – a very, very early night followed.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Travelogue on Twitter

If you have a twitter account you can now follow me on or @JonFlemingUK

Silversea for 2012 World Cruise

I have just found out that I will be travelling with Silversea on their 2012 World Cruise - very exciting news.

Check out the itinerary: