Wednesday, April 24, 2019

April 21st – Sun and Sand in Walvis Bay

If you don’t like sand, you’re not going to like Walvis Bay. Just the view from the ship across the town is beige – the whole city is built on sand. The residents must constantly be sweeping up the windblown desert out of their houses.

I joined the “Treasures of the Desert” tour which took us around some amazing Desert scenery, and showed us some unique flora and fauna, that had somehow adapted to the terribly inhospitable conditions of the parched Namib desert. Actually, even though they have less than 20mms of rain a year here, there is some moisture for the plants to live on. In the morning, the desert is cloaked in a thick mist that had blown in from the ocean, mist that the plants were able to harvest for just enough moisture to survive.

So, with the fog rolling in, it was pretty cold first thing in the morning when we got to the tall Dune 7. And, to generate some heat, as I do every time, I attempted to climb to the top. Normally I try a full frontal assault up the steepest section, where the soft sand saps your energy as you take one step forward and one step back. But, after repeated failures on my previous visits, I was told a sneaky way to get round to the top up a ridge without expending too much energy. For the first time I was able to conquer Dune 7 – all those hours in the gym are working.

Next we ventured into the bleak moonscapes of the Namib, and we were pointed out delicate lichen fields which came alive (miraculously turning from black to green) on contact with water. Then we saw the unique welwitschia– a primeval looking plant that looks like a triffid rather than a flower. Patience is a virtue for this slow-growing plant – the ones that we saw were about 600 years old, yet were still considered to be juveniles.

The Namib desert is a place that constantly surprises you with its stark beauty, its crazy rock formations, and the changing colours of the shifting sands. I really wouldn’t like to live in a place like this, but for a couple of days, you can have some unforgettable experiences.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

April 16th-18th – An Amazing 3 Days in Cape Town

How do you sum up a fun-filled, action-packed three days in Cape Town? Not very easily is the answer. So, I will do this in shorthand:
  • Catching up with friends – wonderful, fun, boozy.
  • Spending Time at the V&A Waterfront – chilled, First World, great food.
  • Visiting the new Zeitz MOCA Gallery – amazing architecture, superb staging, variable artwork.
  • Catching a steam train into the winelands – atmospheric, rattling, relaxing.
  • Meeting Nelson Mandela’s private secretary – enlightening, inspiring, hopeful.
  • Having lunch in a winery – gluttony, excellent wines, fantastic entertainment.
  • Visiting Robben Island – humbling, slightly depressing, moving.

Over the last few days we’ve heard a lot about the apartheid regime and had a chance to ponder South Africa’s future. A couple of things struck me – firstly, everyone concentrates on about what a magnificent man that Nelson Mandela was, in that he could forgive after so many years in prison. This is undoubtedly true – with his grace, intelligence and humility he was a man in a billion. But, we forget about all the other political prisoners who also put their feelings of bitterness aside to help create a new South Africa. Our excellent guide at Robben Island, Kgotoso ‘Glen’ Ntsoelengoe reminded us that in that respect, Nelson Mandela wasn’t that different to him or the others.

Secondly, I was struck how Mandela and his comrades weren’t just fighting for the freedom of black South Africans. To some extent, the whites needed to be liberated from Apartheid too. They too were living an undemocratic police state, where censorship was rife, propaganda was constant, and where the government controlled who you could associate with and where you could live.

South Africa has come a long way since then, but I wonder how long the shadow of apartheid will continue to affect this beautiful country?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

April 14th – Sampling Xhosa Culture From East London

Seeing as we were visiting a South African version of London today (East London), it felt appropriate that we were greeted by grey skies, and that the weather was cold and damp. 

Which didn’t exactly make for ideal conditions to be visiting an open-air cultural village, whose chilly windswept setting made it seem totally different to the Africa of our imaginations. However, the enthusiasm of the greeting we got from the energetic young dancers was just enough to warm our cockles.

Obviously, the experience of visiting a “cultural village” is a long way from the experience of visiting a real Xhosa village where the kids probably dance to hip hop rather than traditional music, and where the iPhone and Instagram probably have more attraction that the old customs and rituals that we learnt about today. However, it was good to learn a bit more about these traditional ways of life before they disappear.

The men and women were separated, as the women were told about marriage rituals, while us men shuffled uncomfortably in our seats while we were regaled with the excruciating details of the circumcision ceremony that the young Xhosa men are subjected to as they come of age. Curiously enough, we were being told about all this by one of only three white men to have gone through this torture – he had volunteered for this potentially dangerous ritual because he had become fascinated by Xhosa culture. Thank God I only found it interesting rather than fascinating!

At the end, we were treated to some more singing and dancing – again, there seemed to be a genuine enthusiasm to it all, rather than the jaded “going through the motions” feel that you can often get at other cultural villages.

Monday, April 15, 2019

April 13th – Durban’s Urban Dimension

The cosmopolitan city of Durban is an example of South Africa’s great potential, and an example of its pitfalls.

On the positive side, the city has an amazing natural setting, with superb surf beaches on one side, and a huge natural harbour on the other. The city is surrounded by beautiful and fertile countryside, and its people are a heady mix of Indians (who make up a third of the population), whites and Zulus.

But, on the negative side, the centre of the city (which has a great collection of grand Victorian buildings) is showing clear signs of urban neglect. On its busy streets, we scarcely saw a white face, as the white population have abandoned the city centre for the safety of the suburbs. In their place, there’s been an influx of immigrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and other impoverished African countries, while supposedly parts of the city are in the hands of Nigerian crime gangs. Even our incredibly positive guide (who holds high hopes for the future of the country now that Jacob Zuma has gone) had to admit that the centre of Durban has become a pretty dangerous place.

We visited Victoria Market right in the midst of this urban chaos, and it acted as a safe haven to browse its stalls of spices from India, bead jewellery from Zululand, and tat straight from China. We then moved onto the super-modern Moses Madhiba stadium, which was built for the 2010 World Cup. In a metaphor for what’s happening in the city at large, the cable car that used to take tourists for soaring views over the stadium and the city has broken down, and there’s no indication of when (or whether) it will be fixed.

We went up to a lookout over the city in a neighbourhood of nice houses sitting behind high walls, electric fences and razor wire; and then we went down to the attractive botanical gardens where families (of all races) were having picnics like they didn’t have a care in the world. I guess that life in Durban, whether you’re at the top or bottom of society is about making the best of what you have, and ignoring the worst aspects of the city as much as you can.

This place has all the potential to become a tourist hotspot and an economic powerhouse– it needs some good government and a healthy dose of equality and education for it to achieve that potential.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

April 12th – 3 out 5 for Hluhluwe

We come to Richards Bay for one reason only – to see some of the amazing wildlife that KwaZulu Natal calls home. So, I joined the ship’s tour to the Hluhluwe National Park to see how many of the Big Five I could see.

The problem of visiting a proper National Park like Hluhluwe, where there are no fences and the animals can wander at will over vast distances, is that it’s not always easy to find the animals in a short game drive. This is the best place in the world to see White Rhinos, and last time I was here we saw loads of them – unfortunately, this time, the animals didn’t get the memo that we were coming, so sightings were a little short on the ground.

However, that does make the excitement levels rise when you get your first glimpse of an elephant in the distance, and it does make you concentrate a little more on the beautiful birdlife on show here. Unfortunately, it made some of my jeep companions a little over-excited when they got their first up-close sighting of a rhino mother and baby. The shouted “wows” were enough to make them scurry back into the undergrowth.

So, we managed to see three of the big five – Cape Buffalo, elephants and rhinos – but no lions or leopards (which I have never seen there). We also saw impala, kudu, a lone giraffe and plenty of warthogs trotting down the road. And, the wide open landscapes and sense of space were never less than magnificent.

A trip to Hluhluwe confirms that Mother Nature is wonderful – even if she doesn’t always play ball with the eager animal hunter.

Friday, April 12, 2019

April 11th – Signs of Progress in Maputo?

Maputo (in Mozambique) is a difficult city to sum up. After a day here, I’m not sure if the city is going forwards or backwards. 

Certainly there are a lot of signs of progress – a brand new bridge spanning the Maputo River (built by the Chinese of course), new skyscrapers and shopping malls along the waterfront, and generally more traffic out on the streets. But, if you scratch below the surface, it doesn’t seem like much has got better for the majority of the people – judged by GDP per capita, this is the 7th poorest country in the world.

There was a real desperation to the street vendors that I hadn’t detected here before – they weren’t particularly pushy, but it looked like they weren’t far from despair. The country’s economic growth is clearly passing a lot of people by.

Our guide blamed (in no particular order), colonialism, corruption, and latterly the Chinese who he said were taking Mozambique’s resources and then using them to sell inferior products to the locals that they don’t need. To this catalogue of woes, I would add the rampant population growth that is holding the country back – you only had to be out on the streets to see that there were too many people, with too little to do. Groups of people just hanging around on the streets gave the city an unfulfilled air, rather than a particularly menacing one.

But, for a contrast, you only had to venture up to the upscale Polana district to see that some people were doing very well – all the international restaurants and sports bars seemed like they inhabited a different world from the ramshackle atmosphere of central Maputo, just 20 minutes’ walk away. The fact that all the larger houses had high walls, security cameras and electric fences around them was a sign of a terribly unequal society.

All this makes Maputo a fascinating place to visit, with its mix of rich and poor; of crumbling buildings and shiny modern developments; grand colonial set pieces and ugly concrete blocks; SUVs and tired old tuk tuks. I just hope that a more efficient government and a more equal society will help this country achieve its potential.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

April 8th – Loving the Lemurs of Nosy Komba

Madagascar is a country that’s been on the slide economically for the past 50 years. A combination of corruption and mismanagement has left this unique country woefully short of the infrastructure that could take advantage of its enormous tourism potential.

Not only does the country have a unique set of weird and wonderful wildlife, but it also has a superb set of beaches that are crying out for international tourists. However, the part of Madagascar that we were visiting, the island of Nosy Be in the north of the country, is about as touristy as the country gets – it’s now on the receiving end of low numbers of visitors (there are direct flights from Milan), but there’s still a feeling of visiting tourism’s wild frontier.

Of course, there’s no point visiting Madagascar if you don’t see any lemurs, so we joined the ship’s tour to visit Nosy Komba with its colony of wild black lemurs. I absolutely love lemurs, so I made sure to bring a banana with me to attract these beguiling little creatures. It worked like a dream – within seconds of meeting them, I had lemurs jumping down from the trees onto my shoulders, softly grasping my hand with their velvety fingers, and gently nibbling away at the bananas.

I don’t know if it was my imagination, but it seemed like they were a little more grabby than last time we were here – this might be the danger of too much exposure to us tourists. In fact, just to show that these were lemurs behaving badly, as I stood there with a lemur on each shoulder, I thought that I could feel a warm glow of happiness at being so close to nature. It turned out that I was actually feeling the warm glow of lemur pee spreading down my back!

I am now able to confirm that lemur pee absolutely stinks to high heaven, although it did seem like the lemurs I met afterwards were a bit more friendly – maybe the smell made them think I was one of their own.

Anyway, a little bit of pungent lemur pee was not going to spoil my day, so I had a fantastic time exploring the island, having boa constrictors draped round my neck, seeing brightly coloured chameleons that looked like they couldn’t possibly be real, and running the gauntlet of the rather desperate vendors that live on this very basic island.

On the one hand, Madagascar so badly needs more tourists to bring some much-needed foreign currency into their beleaguered economy; but at the same time, they need to be careful that tourism doesn’t spoil the nature that makes this country unique. It’s a fine balance and it will be interesting to see which way Madagascar goes; but for the time being it feels like a real privilege for us to be able to come here.