Fear and Loathing (and a whole lot of love) on the Rainbow Bus (part 2)

With Apologies to Hunter S Thompson

PART 2 – CAPE TOWN TO SWAKOPMUND

All of my images from this trip can be found here

The group which will travel across southern Africa, together, has met up in the hostel the previous night and we now decamp, immediately after breakfast , stopping along the way on the northern beaches, just out of Cape Town, where we pose on the beach for our departure photos and for a final view of Table Mountain across the bay. From here we head north across the Western Cape to Cederberg.

Cederberg is a gentle introduction to the trip. A pleasant green lawn to camp on, bar and pool. It is here that Jeff discovers his fate which is to share a tent with me for the rest of the trip. No amount of cool will save him from this fate.

We receive instruction on tent erection, which Jeff and I manage not to hear properly thus taking twice as long as anyone else to erect our tent. There are no particular disasters on this day but instead I receive a bonus of free and cheese tasting for some unknown reason related to my bookings having been changed to a different date than those I originally booked.

The main events are swimming and wine tasting events which, when taken together, can often have a mixture of hilarious and disastrous results. In our case, aside from being regaled with tales of naked swimming by previous visitors, which seems to have provided a degree of voyeuristic pleasure to the owners and seems to be aimed at persuading us, without success, to do the same, the evening passes uneventfully, if pleasantly, in a haze of sunshine, wine and food.

Evening on the Orange River

Day two brings us to the Orange River. named after the Dutch royal family (the House of Orange). It’s the longest river in South Africa and a key provider of electricity via its hydro station. On the other side is Namibia. The main activity here is swimming the river and illegally entering Namibia though, for anyone other than committed drug smugglers or poachers, it might be a long walk to the nearest town.

The river and associated campsite is quite a beautiful spot especially in the soft morning and evening light and we collectively add to the several million photos that must have been take of the river since the advent of digital cameras. We are treated to an ongoing display of swimming and fishing virtuosity by a resident darter bird.

In the morning a committed few take a kayaking trip on the flat water. There are seven of us who go, myself, Hannah, Mike and Kerry, Ceci and Nico and Sonya.

This is a good opportunity for anyone to argue over ownership of the Malvinas or how long it will take the UK to become a fifth rate country, once it leaves the EU and has to survive on its own, and confront Iceland over fishing in Icelandic waters.

Fortunately, Mike and Kerry have approximately the same levels of kayaking skills as Eddie the Eagle had ski jumping skills and were so far behind the rest of us that the second Malvinas war was avoided.

Rumour has it that they were still on the river the following morning and had to be rescued by Gift in order to ensure that we left on time. Indeed such was the stress of their paddling feats that they strained their only paddling muscle and were unable to wash up for a week.

The rest of us had a pleasant paddle, though Sonja, my paddling partner, was more interested in adding to her portrait portfolio than paddling. Hannah, according to our river guide, did not paddle at all and was fortunate to be saved, according to the guide, by his innate grace.

So far as we can tell, however, it was that guide who fortunate to survive the trip such was his level of sexist bravado. Beyond that the main complaint was from the local narcissists (Hannah, Ceci and Nico) who having posed for photos then complained that they weren’t shown at their best.

Day 3 and we were headed for the Fish River Canyon which is claimed to to be the world’s second largest canyon after the Grand Canyon, although like all these things it depends how you measure it. For example the The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, along the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet, is regarded by some as the deepest canyon in the world at 5,500 m (18,000 ft). It is slightly longer than the Grand Canyon in the United States.

First though, we have to cross the border into Namibia which, like all border crossings, is an exercise of mixed bureaucracy and futility in which we are all required to disembark for the bus to be searched and to pass through a border post in which a few border inspectors seem to inspect our passports with an overwhelming sense of disinterest.

The roads through the Western Cape and Eastern Namibia are long and dusty but the scenery is spectacular, a cross between the Dakota Badlands and the central Australian deserts around Tennant Creek.

En route we pass Aussenkehr the main Namibian table grape growing area – which thrives for three reasons, the water of the Orange River, the climate which allows grapes to reach the European market more than six weeks earlier than those from anywhere else, and the cheap labour.

The day is hot, dusty, windy and long and the tedium encourages various tour members (mainly Rie) to spend half the day leaning out of the window in an attempt to entertain passing elephants or anything else she thinks she might encounter. Being Rie, it is entirely unclear what is on her mind. Perhaps the company has driven her to suicidal thoughts or, possibly, she is merely trying to have random protein intake by catching a local fly?

Rie contemplates the end, of what we do not know

The 16000 migrant labourers who care for the vines earn a pittance and live under deplorable conditions. They live in a settlement of rudimentary reed and zinc structures two kilometres from the grape farms, and have endured decades without potable water and other basic services like electricity and sanitation facilities. Yet another example of Western nations benefiting from the virtual slavery of others.

As we approach the Fish River Canyon we encounter the aftermath of the rains that preceded us and have turned the Victoria Falls, as we later discovered, from a trickle into a seething torrent. As a result the camp at which we were supposed to be staying was closed and the staff appear to have moved almost the entire contents of the accommodation out into the sun to dry.

All is not lost however, as the owners have assembled a classic collection of vintage cars which allows those of us that are 65 going on 16 to spend a few minutes reliving our driving experiences as 14 year olds. Nico is especially at home as he gears up for his starring role in Blues Brothers II.

64 Going on 16…?

The alternative accomodation turns out to be a more upmarket resort where, to our great pleasure, we are allocated very comfortable resort style rooms instead of the campground and have pretty much sole use of a good swimming pool. We don’t even have to carry our own luggage which is delivered to our rooms, all of 100 metres away, by donkey cart. Everyone is happy.

Room Service in Namibia

Before dinner we take a drive to see the Fish River Canyon which is, indeed, very impressive and much more so illuminated by the setting sun. The shadows of the evening sun provides 3D relief to the Canyon which at the height of the day is “flattened” when the sun is overhead.

We are warned by an adjacent sign not to hike down into the Canyon, something that precisely no one seems inclined to want to do, even if the time permitted.

No day strolls into the Canyon (photo Jeff Davis)

Apart from the statutory requirement to take 20 photos of the canyon each, a further 20 selfies, and group photos, we are mainly entertained by the resident and extremely photogenic local lizard.

Here, we are treated to the first exhibition of drone flying by Rie, which involves repeatedly obeying Rie’s instructions to look at and wave at her drone, as we collectively pose for drone photos, and fervently hoping that the drone doesn’t crash into and kill any of us since it is, apparently, not functioning as it should.

We are travelling in the famed Rainbow bus, which is actually a truck with a bus body on a flatbed. It rattles its way across the landscape and we rattle with it. Whoever built and maintained it clearly has a sense of humour, since they fixed some seats far enough apart that you could be a giraffe and still have plenty of legroom whereas a couple of the seats are clearly designed for midgets or for Hannah/Rie who are the closest thing to midgets that we have.

To compound it someone thought it would be funny to have one seat which was screwed to the floor at an angle of about 75° so that one person has twice the legroom than the person next to them.

Please, please don’t leave me. I know I was mean but….

We’re fortunate in that a bus designed for 22 (11 bench seats), has only 12 people on board, including Gift, meaning eight of us have a seat each, the two couples each share one and there is a seat spare for extra luggage.

The extra space makes it much more tolerable, with the main issue being that, for reasons known only to the safari company, they have decided to have a bus equipped with curtain hangers but no curtains. So if you are on the sunny side of the bus you can use the wires to hang your favourite sarong and give you shade but, if you leave the windows open, you risk having it sucked out never to be seen again.

While we may have “A” class guides we are definitely in the “B” class transport, as we note whenever we are passed by the air conditioned G Spot buses. On the other hand the cost on G-Spot – an 18 day trip is AUD3739 compared to our 21 day trip for AUD2000 however –  is twice the cost. Beggars can, indeed, not be choosers.

We arrive in Sesriem in the early afternoon. Here we are surrounded by endless skies, endless mountains and mountainous dune systems. The light is translucent, much like Australian and South African light. There is something about the light of the southern hemisphere at around 35° south that has a different quality to almost anywhere else on earth, in my experience.

Aside from the views the principal points of interest are the swimming pool and its attendant wildebeest mother and calf. Given what we will see later in the trip, the presence of a mere two wild wildebeest generates an amazing degree of excitement, somewhat akin to someone from the desert seeing the ocean for the first time.

Consequently we have a “who can pose best with the wildebeest” competition, like a sort of wildebeest beauty competition, one won by Hannah and Rie who, if it were possible to be orgasmic over a couple of wildebeest, certainly approached that state of excitement. The ageing cynics and grinches on the other hand were largely unmoved.

Now it is almost impossible for most normal people to injure themselves severely on an entirely flat piece of sandy ground, absent any rocks or obstructions but I am pleased to report that yours truly, aka “The Idiot Traveller” succeeded in doing exactly that.

Proceeding in a leisurely fashion towards the washing line, in the near dark, I succeeded in tripping over the wires, cunningly placed by the campground management, and designed to trap the clumsy and unobservant, namely your humble servant.

It later turned out that numerous people, including Munya, had succeeded, historically, in tripping over those wires (revenge on the white man??) but none had succeeded in ripping off half their shin, and then nearly amputating their following foot. Yes, another first for the Idiot Traveller.

The image you all wanted to see: “Still Scarred After All These Years” (apologies to Paul Simon – Still Crazy after all these years (esp. for Rie)

This relatively minor accident had consequences, for most people on the trip, extending over most of the next week or more. Initially it was the litre or so of blood that I lost through tearing off about 15 cms of skin on my left leg that concerned me but by the morning my right foot was so swollen that it was painful to walk. Worse to come.

Dawn sees us assembled and ready to roll in the dark. We take the Rainbow Bus through the mountainous dunes. For Australians they are reminiscent of the Simpson Desert, though with less vegetation and more irregular in shape and size. As the sun rises the dunes turn from deep red to orange, in parts, and to pinks and whites and a sort of shimmery silver in others and, in shape, like giant sails of sand.

We and then transfer onto smaller four wheel drive transport for another 20 minutes deeper into the sand country to get to the Sossusvlei, which is a salt and clay pan surrounded by high red dunes, located in the southern part of the Namib Desert, within the Namib-Naukluft National Park of Namibia.

Changing light, changing colours

The name “Sossusvlei” is often used in an extended meaning to refer to the surrounding area, which is one of the major visitor attractions of Namibia. Specifically though,  “Sossusvlei” roughly means “dead-end marsh”. Vlei is the Afrikaans word for “marsh”, while “sossus” is Nama for “no return” or “dead end”. Sossusvlei owes this name to the fact that it is an endorheic drainage basin (i.e., a drainage basin without outflows) for the ephemeral Tsauchab River

Sossusvlei – Photo (Jeff Davis)

The Sossusvlei area belongs to a wider region of southern Namib extending over about 32.000 km²) between the rivers Koichab and Kuiseb. It’s characterized by high sand dunes of vivid pink-to-orange color, an indication of a high concentration of iron in the sand and consequent oxidation processes. The oldest dunes are those of a more intense reddish color. The dunes, in the Sossusvlei area, are among the highest in the world; many of them are above 200 metres, the highest being the one nicknamed Big Daddy, about 325 metres high. The highest dune, elsewhere in the Namib Desert, Dune 7, is about 388 metres high (source: Wikipedia).

The walk into the Sossusvlei is the first tests of my injured leg (foot in particular) and it’s not pleasant so, rather than walking around the salt pan I sit and watch which, in some ways is better since you get a birds eye view of the scale of the area in contrast with all the little figures walking around below.

Image Jeff Davis

The bigger challenge, however, is on the return where we stop to climb Dune 45 where even the idea of the view from the top is not sufficient to overcome the idea of a dragging painful foot up 145 metres of sand dune. I am joined in my idleness by Hannah.

Rie, initially, decides to stay also but suddenly changes her mind and then proceeds to run up a dune, that most can scarcely walk up, in order to catch up with the rest of our party. This simply reinforces her image as some sort of Viking. Fortunately, it seems there is no one she wishes to drag away by the hair, as was the mythological technique allegedly used by Viking raiding parties.

We return to camp where, we find, our camp ground has been invaded by a group of G-Spotters. Talk turns to what degrees of sabotage we should inflict on their tents, bus in response to them spurning Yvonne, etc but we refrain from taking revenge.

Gift watches the punters and reflects on”The black man’s burden”

The following day is the “longest” day. A hot bone jarring drive across the deserts to Swakopmund via Walvis Bay. The passengers are pummelled into a stupor by heat, a burning wind, the sound of the engine and the jolting of the bus. The discomfort is not assisted by the fact that I can no longer sit for long periods with my foot at ground level without intense pain and so everyone has to put up with my right foot poking over the top of their seat or resting on the arm of their chair.

We stop several times en route to take in the Mad Max type scenery and, in true tourist style, to take a picture of the sign announcing that we are crossing the Tropic of Capricorn. Hence I am able to capture the archetypal cliched shot of a group of 20 and 30 year olds, of the Instagram generation, staring longingly at a rusty battered sign in the middle of nowhere (with apologies to Ceci who is not really of the Instagram generation and who, I know, was just supervising the children).

The Insta generation proving they were in Namibia

En route to Swakopmund we also pass through Walvis Bay which had been planned as a 30 minute stop to take in the pink flamingos in the Walvis Bay lagoon and to pick up lunch. But I have been to Walvis Bay before en route to Cape Town by ship and I know that the Slowtown Coffee Roasters is the only decent cup of coffee within 1000 kilometres, leaving aside the fact that it sells a mean cheesecake.

Flamingo central

As anyone knows one should never stand between the Idiot Traveller and a good coffee/cheesecake, so I suggest a diversion to stop for good coffee and cake. Gift is reluctant. Apparently on previous trips he has made changes to the itinerary, to meet the requests of punters, only for some other whining bastard to complain about those changes. Hence he requires an unanimous agreement to divert.

There is no hesitation from the crew and especially not from Rie who sees her opportunity to consume sufficient calories to maintain her normal muscle mass.

Walvis Bay is a slightly bipolar town that doesn’t really know if it wants to be an industrial/port centre or a tourist town. It’s stuck in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the South Atlantic on one side and by deserts on all other sides with the nearest town of any size being the Namibian capital Windhoek, 400 kilometres away across the Namib desert.

The curse of the cruise ship industry

It’s the major port for a large part of southern Africa including Botswana, Congo and Zambia but is also a tourist destination with the port having a cruise ship terminal. So it’s a mixture of very ugly practical buildings but with an entire marina, and surrounds, with seafood restaurants dedicated to the tourist trade, most of which is focused on visiting the surrounding deserts.

After our brief tourist stop to see pink flamingos, coffee and cake, we press on to Swakopmund, Namibia’s principal resort town. Like most of Namibia it has a strong German influence, so Marlou and Sonja feel right at home. Except of course we are not really sure if Marlou is German since her home town never existed.

We have our second non-camping stop and are housed in the cabins of the “Adventure Village ” and adjacent adventure travel centre through which we will book our activities of which there are many options including balloon rides, skydiving, quad biking, marine cruises, skydiving and sandboarding or, if you are Hannah, you can commune with parrots.

Five of us, Rie, Ceci, Nico, Jeff and I choose to go sandboarding. This is a great choice for me since I haven’t done anything remotely similar, apart from a bit of surfing, since 1980 when I ripped my ACL in two skiing, and, as well, I have a swollen foot to squeeze into a boarding boot.

In addition one has to climb some of the world’s highest dunes in the heat of the day and no one over the age of 40-odd seems to think it’s a good idea – it’s just me and mostly 20 year olds. But I am never one to be deterred by common sense.

By the time we have climbed the dunes about 4 times I am pretty much rooted and labouring with an increasingly sore foot. I hand over my board to the Danish Amazon to carry for me.

Rie is undeterred by carrying two boards and, it seems, doesn’t realise that it involves physical effort to climb up the dunes. I whine and moan about being too old and unfit but Rie, nicely, points out that half of the big group of Swedes, who are all about 40 years younger than me, gave up long before me. Which makes me feel better even if it doesn’t improve my sand boarding skills.

The Sandboarding video

We return to base. By the time we are due to go out for dinner I am hobbling like a 90 year old. Swakopmund marks, pretty much, the end of the desert section of our trip. Tomorrow we will have one more stop in the desert, at Brandburg, where we will visit the cave paintings and then it’s on to the game parks.

Part 1 of this trip blog can be found here:  Fear and Loathing (and a whole lot of love) on the Rainbow Bus – the Crew

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The Ship of Poles

We are a ship of Poles. 22 to be precise plus one Ukrainian, 2 Germans and one Australian. We slip slowly down the river, in the Belgian winter fog, out of Antwerp bound for Cape Town via Porto, Vigo and Wallis Bay. Our ship, the six year old, 200 metre, 30,000 tonne, Blue Master 2.

I board the ship after two days in Antwerp, a fleeting visit to Amsterdam and a two hour pursuit of the immigration office around the port of Antwerp. In keeping with the tradition of something always needing to go wrong on every trip, the agents, Slow Travel, despite having to do little other than provide basic information in emails have clearly been unable to check that the immigration office is still at the address they have previously given.

This, and the fact that they have failed to notify the security office of my passage aboard the ship, thus involving a long delay at the gate, adds $40 to my taxi fare, for which I shall seek my pound of flesh.

I cross the docks playing chicken with 100 tonne cranes, forklifts, trucks,

A myriad of utes and other vehicles and board the ship. I am well prepared for my 27 day trip with 10 books loaded on my iPad, miscellaneous ideas for writing and a guitar to be learned (an exercise in wishful thinking judging by past experience). I also have Spanish, French and Italian grammar in case I find myself unable to sleep.

The security officer at the top of the gangplank summons someone to take me to wherever they plan to take me which turns out to be the ship’s office. There I am greeted by one of the engineers, who advises the crewman to summon the Captain and the Steward.

Most of the action, for those who are not working, takes place on the so-called Poop deck.

Aside from providing a degree of childish entertainment to passengers (aside from its English meaning, poop means to fart in German) this deck, one level up from the main deck is where the mess rooms, kitchens, and ships office are located.

From here going up it’s up past A and B decks (crew quarters) and then on up to C where my cabin in located and D decks which are both accomodation for officers and elite passengers (Eduard and Renate – my German fellow passengers). Above this is just the bridge.

Further below are the four levels of the engine room and the two levels of holds. At the bow you also have the front the upper deck and the foc’sle.

The foc’sle (otherwise known as the forecastle in normal English) is the topmost deck right at the front. There is nothing here except for the structure for the forward radar  and forward lighting structure, plus a few rolls of razor wire which, in certain ports are wrapped around the hawsers to prevent stowaways climbing the ropes. There are three radars of which the ship uses just one at sea, under most circumstances.

From my perspective the foc’sle is the most important deck on the ship. Here at the front it’s entirely quiet save for the sound of the sea and wind. It’s also the best place for watching for dolphins, whales and flying fish among other things. In good weather one can make like Kate Winslet and stand meditating on the rushing water, wind and waves.

 

Crossing the equator, there are thousands of flying fish and I also expend a myriad digital images trying to photograph them as they emerge from the water just in front of the bow and flit away across the ocean, effortlessly traversing 200 metres of water in a single flight.

These days, though, the ocean is a sadly empty place. We see just a handful of pilot or other small whales, two pods of dolphin and almost no birds aside from a handful of migratory swallows and a dozen or so terns and other seabirds which I don’t recognise.

Of the once mighty great albatross and the frigate birds which once used to haunt the path of all the large ships, there is not a single one. The ocean is a desert.

The ship is like a living, breathing thing. No matter where you are, except right at the bow, you cannot escape the sound or vibration of the engine, seven, giant, Japanese made, cylinders powering the single prop. In addition to the engine the ship creaks and groans continually as it labours over the incoming swell.

From stern to bow the ship is 199 metres and to get to the bow one walks along the main deck five metres above water level. For me, at least, this is quite mesmeric; the rushing sound and motion of the passing water and the endless changing patterns and colours, light, dark and foam. Looking down into the water one has the sense, as the dark patches swirl past, of looking down to the centre of the ocean.

When not in ones cabin, the mess or foc’sle, the passengers spend most of the time on the bridge or passenger deck (deck D) soaking up the sun or sitting on the bridge, with the watch officers, watching the world go by.

Our ship of Poles are a friendly bunch although almost all our interaction with the crew is with the Captain, Mariusz and the first mate, Bogdan, second mate, Sambor, third mate, Kamil, and the steward (Severin). Suffice to say their last names are unpronounceable, except perhaps to other East Europeans, as are almost all Polish last names.

I get the sense that the passengers are tolerated, so long as they are relatively normal and not too demanding. They are a sort of inconvenient added burden.

My two German fellow passengers, are Eduard and Renate. They are in their late fifties and are good and humorous company. Eduard is a failed public servant, in the sense that he worked for the German Government for most of his working life as a senior overseas aid person in various places around the world.

He administered and supervised German aid programs but now sees all aid programs as largely racist and paternalistic and, thus, a failure which, far from aiding developing countries actually hinders them.

Renate is a pharmacist and researcher and they are on their way to Namibia (Formerly German SW Africa) to do some research on the German history in Namibia.

Unlike the entire rest of the world they view Angela Merkel as a German disaster story who is more interested in staying in power than anything else (they quote, for example, her decision to close the German nuclear industry which they say was not driven by good policy but to simply keep the Greens onside and thus keep her position). They think the German energy policy Energiewende is a disaster and are they are climate sceptics.

Inevitably this produces some interesting breakfast and dinner time conversations, as we traverse the fields of politics, climate change, world wars, overseas aid, energy, human development, identity.

Eduard is quite talkative, which is fortunate for him because he is able to compete with me, while Renate is much quieter. They have an interesting dynamic no doubt developed over 40 or so years. As an example, Eduard, has a habit of saying to Renate at least a couple of times each meal “Correct me if I’m wrong.” Which, of course she does, frequently and with alacrity. This seems to imply that Renate often thinks Eduard to be wrong.

Eduard and Renate have three children, Eduard II, Elsa and Marie. Eduard II lives in Luxembourg and is a currency trader or some other such activity designed to produce wealth but with no other discernible benefit to humankind. Apparently, like the Americans, there is something of an unfortunate tradition, in Germany, to name your first born son after his father.

I’ve always seen this as a very egotistical and patriarchal tradition that, I assumed was restricted to the US, like the vast majority of stupid practices. Leaving aside the questionable ego involved in naming your child after yourself (and the inevitable confusion involved), why does this seem restricted just to men? Why not Renate II?

I guess, once again, women are not so foolish.

Like all the best parents, Eduard and Renate are slum landlords, with an apartment in Berlin for which they extort large sums of money from their two daughters and, presumably, provide no maintenance in return.

The quid pro quo, however, for Eduard in particular, is that his eldest daughter, Elsa, is attempting to re-educate him in an attempt to make him into a good human being instead of a scion of capitalist, conservative, society.

As a part of this she buys him books for his birthday which she thinks may improve his understanding of society. Currently he is reading ‘The Lies that Bind’ – rethinking Identity (Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Culture). But it is not clear to me which of Eduard’s many failings Elsa is trying to address with this book.

Fortunately both Eduard and Renate appear to understand my sense of humour and Eduard takes the frequent jokes at his expense in good humour.

The Polish crew members, on the other hand, seem someone bemused and some look a little put out. I have to assure them that I am only joking, it is just Australian humour which, frequently, relies on taking the piss. This seems not to translate well into Polish humour, however, or is simply lost in translation.

Others, less kindly, might simply argue that my humour it is not Australian humour, at all, but simply Chris Harris humour which is understandable to only one person on earth or is, perhaps, just not funny.

Aside from meal time entertainment the trip is largely taken up by sleeping, lying in the sun, reading, taking photos and writing. I started the trip with pretensions to writing for two to four hours daily and to producing, at the end, my best-selling Man Booker prize winning novel. Sadly the first week produces nothing but five or six desultory, five to ten page long first chapters, all of which end in the bin.

On day seven I decide that, given my inordinate success at novel writing, I will gracefully retire to writing my periodic blog based on a series of sequential events over several years. By day ten I suddenly realise this looks more like a memoir than several unconnected blogs and by the end of the second week I have written 50 pages.

From this there emerges, unasked a section which I, realise, would have the good makings of a novel. I then proceed to write an outline including the characters, their stories and the plot lines.

Suddenly from nothing I have an accidental memoir and an accidental novel, or, at least, the first twenty pages, which is ten pages longer than I have every succeeded in producing previously. But, I caution myself, completing ten laps of a 100 lap race is no guarantee of finishing.

Aside from this the other events of note are a Saturday barbeque, a tour of the engine room and visits to Porto, in Portugal and Vigo in Spain. We get six hours in Porto which turns out to be sufficient to have a good walk around the old city and find a fine coffee shop and spot for lunch.

Porto is a beautiful city with lots of gracious old buildings, wide streets and interesting old quarters which are decorated with good street art. But despite everyone’s ravings about it I don’t find it more or less interesting than a myriad other beautiful old European cities.

Vigo, the northeast most city of Spain, in Galicia, is the reverse. Despite being told it’s not very interesting I find it an interesting city of friendly people, wide gracious streets and people friendly boulevards. Importantly I also find a supply of organic crunchy peanut butter and six good avocados to substitute for the sausage breakfast.

Vigo

Our interesting tour of the engine room simply serves to demonstrate to me my ignorance of all things ship. This starts with the revelation that this ship, along with most large vessels, has a single engine and prop where I had always imagined they would all have twin engines and screws.

Vigo

The ship, built in China, has a Swiss designed, Japanese made engine and whereas I still had images of a dirty oily edifice, the engine and its surroundings are an immaculately clean and entirely computerised operation comprising its seven cylinder 11620 kw engine which consumes 28000 litres of fuel oil daily.

There is also a desalinating plant capable of producing 20,000 litres of drinking water daily, several massive compressors for starting the engines and generators as well as other bits and pieces such as plant for separating oil from water and an air conditioning plant. The workshop than can do pretty much anything other than repair a broken prop or drive shaft.

 

My cabin is a gracious and comfortable seven metres by six metres with ensuite, desk, table, wardrobe, TV, radio, drinks cabinet, dining table and chairs. This used to be the fourth officer’s cabin but, like the rest of the transport industry, crews have been downsized and have lost fourth officers and radio officers.

There is also a satellite modem connected to a piece of metal whirling around somewhere in the sky. With this I can communicate, via data, with the rest of the world for a cool 150 times what I pay for my internet ashore. So it’s limited to transmitting WhatsApp and email. A large attachment or photo, if one is so ill advised to download one, can set you back $1 a pop.

One of the downsides of a life at sea, at least for those who are not engaged in the manual labour of constantly maintaining the ship, is that life is almost entirely sedentary with the sole exercise being that involved in climbing the endless flights of stairs between the main deck and the bridge, six floors up.

This lack of exercise is compounded by efforts to feed the entire crew into a stupor with three cooked meals a day. The food is what I would describe as canteen food.

As such it is a mixture of the very good (soups for example) and stupendously awful (every third breakfast is a single Polish sausage which both looks and tastes disgusting). If you were a vegan you would surely starve. But given a single person has to cook for 25 people in a single sitting at the same time then it is a noble effort by Robert, the cook.

In the event that 3 meals a day is insufficient, the pantry is always stocked with bread and meat which you can slip down and consume in case the late night hunger pangs suddenly hit your well engorged stomach.

One might imagine that one could do one’s daily 10,000 steps around the main deck but in reality the main deck is an obstacle course of pillars, protrusions and slippery decks that pretty much guarantee that anyone foolish enough to contemplate using it as an exercise area will quickly find themselves exchanging pleasantries with the insurance company.

Not to be deterred we have noted that the ship’s owner has obligingly provided us with a gym and a swimming pool.

It would be fair to say, however, that maintenance of the gym is not the highest budgetary priority for the vessel’s owners. The equipment consists, firstly, of six aerobic trainers that appear to have been purchased in a garage sale circa 1990. Assuming they were ever completely serviceable their physical decline appears remarkably similar to mine.

The rowing machine works not at all, much like my memory on a bad day. The two bikes are operational providing you have no desire to know things such as heart rate, distance, time etc. The weight resistance machines look as if Henry Ford used them to keep fit and the static weights appear to have been used for training by Dean Lukin (who won gold for Australia in weightlifting around 1980) when he was a child.

Undeterred, you finish your session and look forward to a few cooling laps in the pool. Suffice to say that it’s possible that the average tadpole or small goldfish might manage to keep fit in the pool but for anyone over about a foot long swimming laps might prove to be awkward. In addition, unless either of those animals had miraculously obtained lungs their ability to breathe would be somewhat constrained.

As for the crew and passengers, plunging into the plunge pool would tend to leave them winded or worse if they failed to notice that it was permanently empty. This is leaving aside the slight illogicality, in a ship traversing the tropics, of an indoor swimming pool in a windowless room below decks.

Not to be deterred, however, one may pass a pleasant fifteen minutes in the sauna in the event that, the tropical heat, on deck, is insufficient. Or, that would be possible if the sauna was anything more than a lined timber box permanently at a temperature of 20ºc.

Having enjoyed the pleasures of the pool and sauna, I make a mental note to research the address of the German office of Fair Trading, or its equivalent, and write them a friendly note regarding the accuracy of the ship’s advertising.

Given the situation of the gym and the main deck the Captain, Mariujs, has wisely decided that he will take his exercise on the bridge. He thus appears three or four times daily for a spin around the outer reaches of the bridge trudging his domain once every forty seconds or so in a clockwise direction.

Fortunately the remainder of our vessel appears to be in better shape than the gym, pool and sauna. However, in the event of an emergency, it seems likely that, unless the emergency were catastrophic, the entire contingent of crew and passengers are more likely to be seriously injured by a prospective evacuation in the lifeboat than by the emergency.

Such an evacuation involves boarding what looks like a large orange slug perched some twenty metres or more above the ocean. On being released it hurtles rocket ship-like at high speed, off the ship, like some malfunctioning fairground ride, until it plunges into the sea. At which point every occupant presumably suffers severe whiplash at best. Those with a fear of heights who will have both whiplash and PTSD as a result of being dropped, effectively, off a cliff.

Our only obligatory task, as passengers, is to attend the weekly boat drill. The general assumption seems to be that the average passenger is a moron since, regardless of how many times one has done the drill, one is required to wait in ones cabin until the steward arrives to guide you to the muster station, 30 metres away. Here the three of us stand, among the crew, where we are instructed to obey the Master’s orders..

For most this might appear straightforward but, for me, it is a somewhat traumatic idea since I have spent my entire life disobeying my Master’s orders, no matter from whence they come.

In the event of a critical emergency, where obliged to evacuate, this occurs via the previously mentioned rocket ship. One removes shoes and dons ones survival suit. Then you squat, a somewhat amusing exercise if the entire crew were to do it collectively since it would look like some sort of communal bowel evacuation. All together now.

 

Then donning ones lifejacket you board the orange rocket ship. This particular rocket ship is not designed to launch one into space but, along with a maximum of 39 other people, to launch you semi-vertically downwards, twenty+ metres to the waters surface.

Here, if it does not break apart, as the third office and safety officer, believes it is likely to do, you will hit the water surface with the impact of a speeding bullet and enable the medical world to study 40 simultaneous cases of whiplash and worse.

Alone, on the world’s oceans, far from land, in your orange rocket ship, you watch your ship go down and wonder if you will ever be able to turn your neck again.

The likelihood of such an eventuality seems remote given the ship is just six years old and well maintained. The life of the average seaman (the ordinary seamen and the able seamen) is a never ending life of maintenance. In this way it is similar to the maintenance of the Sydney harbour bridge where you start painting at one end and when you finish you go back to the beginning again. Everything has to be regularly sanded and painted or oiled and greased to keep rust at bay.

It’s a life of routine and, presumably, unless you have a mass of videos or a an avid reader (I managed to read more books in a 27 day trip than in the previous few years) of some boredom. It is to some degree subject to unknown schedules determined by wind, tides and the exigencies of available berths and pilots, such that the ship can end up anchored or drifting off shore for days at a time as it once did for four days off Durban.

On day 18 we reach Walvis Bay the principal Namibian Port. This is very much just a port city and pretty much everything is focused around serving the cargo ships and occasional cruise ships that call here to give their passengers access to the Namib Desert and adjacent nature reserves.

From the point of view of entertainment it doesn’t have much to recommend it and pretty much just comprises a single long main street and an esplanade with a bunch of good restaurants that service the tourists passing through on their way to elsewhere. Fortunately, for me, it also has a great coffee roasters and coffee shop where I spend a pleasant couple of hours each day.

A twenty minute walk due west and one hits the Namib Desert but surprisingly, even in February, Walvis Bay is cool due to the mixture of fog and cloud created by the cold Benguala current and the cool winds blowing north from the Antarctic across the southern Atlantic ocean.

Having been both a German and, later, South African colony, when it was known as South-west Africa, until liberated in 1990 by SWAPO (the South West African People’s Organisation) it retains influences of both. There is still a significant non-Black population evident. Like Zimbabwe and South Africa it confronts similar issues with large areas of the country still owned or managed by the remnants of the former colonial powers.

We depart Walvis Bay late on Sunday night to a glorious sunset and the sight of two of the world’s largest drill rigs lit up like Las Vegas as they seek to find additional fossil fuels with which to put an early end to humankind’s stay on planet earth or, at least, the existing technological society. It seems no number of calamities or warnings will stop the climate criminals.

From here it is two and a half days to Cape Town. For most of those two days we see little of anything due to the fog created by the Benguala current and the fact that it is flat calm and almost windless. Even the summer sun fails to completely burn off the fog at any time of day. Arrival into Cape Town is a different story, however, with glorious sunshine, views of Table Mountain and a pod of whales to greet us.

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