FEBRUARY 25 – RABAUL, PAPA NEW GUINEA (Maiden Call)
In the early hours of September 19, 1994, the two volcanic cones on either side of the harbor exploded with little advance warning. Over the next two months – continual eruptions buried the entire town of Rabaul (the capital of New Britain Island) in over 8 feet of volcanic ash. Boulders as big as cars were vomited from deep inside the crater before landing on structures a half mile away. Both volcanos stopped spewing in early 1995, however, “Turvurvur” continues to pump out a billowy cloud of sulfurous gas – with it’s telltale “rotten egg” smell. Scientists expect another major eruption at any time. We passed Mother Nature’s handiwork on the way to our anchorage (see pic). It was an awesome sight.
Shortly after Rabaul was destroyed, the capital was moved to Kokopo. Many people chose to stay and rebuild. About one third of the town was “dug out”. Most is still buried. We saw rooftops peaking out of ash. Staircases leading to nowhere. Trucks buried. Many structures where just the shell remains. Piles of silky ash and mud were everywhere. Super fine dust flew through the air, coating everything in sight. When the monsoon rains hit the ash turns to mud and the hillsides give way. Roads disappear. Still, they stay.
Tourism (mostly scuba diving to see WWII wrecks) vanished with the eruptions. Very few people come here anymore – so the Queen’s arrival was a very big deal. I for one, was thrilled to be landing in such a primitive place. Beyond the dock, hundreds of locals sat on blankets covering the wet ash – selling handicrafts. We were unabashedly stared at by everyone. Especially the kids, many of whom had never seen a white person. As we strolled towards town, we accumulated families along the way. They just smiled and walked with us. It was the strangest thing. I would stop to take a picture… and our little entourage would stop too. When we started moving again, so did they. Many spoke broken english and we were bombarded with questions along the way. Where did we come from? Where do we live? Where’s America? What’s a Maine? Why are you so tall? (Steve, not me) Where are you going? What’s wrong with your eyes? (that was my favorite – blue eyes don’t exist here) What’s that? (pointing to the binoculars around Steve’s neck). I felt like we were in a National Geographic Special.
We walked around for hours, marveling at the volcano’s destructive power – still so apparent after 15 years and the “Valium-like” mellowness of the people – which there is a good reason for. Most of the adult population is deeply addicted to the fruit from the Betel Nut Tree. They mix it with powdered lime to create a chewing gum. It induces euphoria, heightened awareness, and a general sense of well being. The “chewers” were easily identified by the condition of their mouths. Their teeth were eaten away by the corrosive acid in the lime and what’s left of them are pointy (Dracula style). Their gums are an unnaturally bright pink color… a cross between blood and Pepto Bismol. I had to turn away the first few times someone grinned at me, the sight was utterly repulsive. Many of the older people just have nubs left… and we wondered how they could chew anything at all. Dentists would be busy, if there were any, which there were not. We only saw a few food stores around with rusty canned goods on the shelves. Everything else is in Kokopo, which although geographically close, is a world away. Diabetes is also epidemic here.
Our last stop was at the working waterfront. We were delighted to witness a bunch of boys diving from a splintered boat wreck and rusted hull of a barge. They live in a half sunken boat – commune style – with several other families. The poverty here is profound.
On our way back to the dock we picked up a new set of tagalongs. We were getting used to the attention now… but it was still quite bizarre. We stop. They stop. We move. They move. A few questions this time, but mostly just walking slowly in companionable silence.
I love that the Queen Mary had a place like this on the agenda. No doubt, many of the haughty types wondered why we stopped in such a “vile” place. We thoroughly enjoyed every minute of our time here. I got a few mosquito bites… let’s hope the Malaria medication does it’s job.
After leaving Rabaul we headed south through the Coral Sea to the east coast of Australia and the 1,200 mile Great Barrier Reef. We picked up a Australian “Reef Pilot”, which is required by law for any vessel traveling to the mainland through this fragile World Heritage Site. On the ship right now, the Australians dominate the passenger profile at 956. I love their accent and their propensity to never be in a hurry. They are so laid back and incredibly friendly. Remember the movie Crocodile Dundee and that guy that was on Animal Planet for a long time (The Crocodile Hunter) before he got a little to friendly with a Stingray…? They talk like that. It is so interesting to be surrounded by accents totally unlike my own. I say I don’t have one… but the Aussies and Brits completely disagree. Apparently I have a heavy accent. Go figure. The UK’ers come in second at 747, Americans at 242, Germans at 112, Netherlanders at 81, New Zealanders at 71 and so on. There are passengers from 34 different countries on the ship right now.
FEBRUARY 28 – WHITSUNDAY ISLANDS, AUSTRALIA (Maiden Call)
The “Whitsundays” (on the northeastern coast) are comprised of 74 mountainous islands that were separated from the mainland after the last ice age when ocean levels rose. Aboriginal people lived here for over 8,000 years before “European” history started with Captain James Cook’s landing in 1770. He sailed through the passage on Whit Sunday (the 7th Sunday after Easter) for the first time, hence the name. Only 7 islands are inhabited and the entire area is part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. I had to wrap my head around the “reversal” of seasons here, as compared to home. Right now – it’s late summer. NORTHERN Australia is hot and humid. SOUTHERN Australia gets lots of snow in the winter. The sun still rises in the East… but it moves through the Northern sky before setting in the West – instead of the Southern sky. I know, you know this… but it is still so strange to experience.
The areas of the reef open for exploration via snorkeling is very limited (as a way to keep human impact low) and we had heard that the expedition companies pack 300 people onto the platform at the reef. It was also rumored that there was not enough equipment to go around. Also, it’s over an hour each way from the ship to the reef which would leave no time for seeing the local area by foot. From the complaints we heard from people who went – we are glad we opted to stroll around the Airlie Beach area instead. I would love to see the Great Barrier Reef someday… but not with so many people and such a tight schedule.
You NEVER go swimming from ANY of the beaches in Queensland, Australia during this time of year. There are many varieties of Stingers (aka Jelly Fish) that will kill you slowly and painfully. It seems so unfair. The beaches are gorgeous and the water about 80F. Instead, people swim in man made “lagoons” near the beach. Australia has more poisonous creatures that deliver a lethal bite or sting then any other place on the planet. You always have to watch where you step. Even a single ant delivers a nasty bite.
We enjoyed a delightful day of walking on the beach and people watching – although it was much too hot and humid for our taste. Not quite as exotic as Rabaul… but we got to witness the ritual mating behaviors of the local teenagers.
After leaving the Whitsundays we headed southeast to New Zealand. It looks close on the map… but the distance to Auckland is over 1,100 miles. We would turn our “clocks ahead” for the last two times during these three days at sea.
MARCH 4 – AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND
By the end of the day today, we had fallen madly in love with New Zealand. It is even more spectacular then we had heard, and, the people are awesome. Genuine, warmhearted, just downright wonderful. We will definitely be coming back here in the future. Seems like the perfect place to spend a Maine Winter.
The country of New Zealand is made up of two islands, North and South. Our first port was Auckland on the Northern Island. It is known as the “City of Sails”. There are more yachts here per capita then any other city in the world. It is estimated that one in four families own a boat.
We docked in the heart of downtown and rented a car for the day to drive along the coast to Coramandel. Steve took to driving on the “wrong side of the road” very quickly (this was not his first time), although shifting a manual transmission with his left hand took some getting used to. And, he never did quite get the blinkers mastered, flicking on the windshield wipers instead… which resulted in a squeaky clean view throughout the day. It was 70F and brilliantly sunny. Unusually cool (we lucked out) for this time of year. It should be in the upper 80’s for another few weeks. Neither of us had been in a car since January 2nd… and it was completely liberating. The only thing that nags at you is the “deadline” for being back on the ship. You don’t want to miss it.
The drive was absolutely gorgeous. Rolling hills that were denuded for sheep and cow grazing coupled with large stands of pine trees made for a stunning mosaic of texture and color (see pic). The coastal road was narrow and “missing” in some places making it an exhilarating ride. I reminded Steve to “stay left” occasionally when his brain wanted to drive on the other side. We got more excitement then we needed on the way back to Auckland. The traffic was at a crawl about 10 miles out of the city – heading back in. We had two hours before the car was due back. No worries, right? Wrong. There are only 1.2 million people living here – but every single one of them was on the highway with us. There is such a huge “sprawl” of housing and businesses that public transportation is inefficient for commuters. We made it back to AVIS with 3 minutes to spare before they shut down. Part of me was upset that we made it. Our next port of call was only 3 hours up the coast – and we could have kept the car, spent the night somewhere, and met up with the ship the next day. Se la vie.
MARCH 5TH – PAIHIA, BAY OF ISLANDS, NEW ZEALAND (Maiden Call)
Right up the east coast from Auckland is a grouping of 140 islands which make up the area called the “Bay of Islands”. In 1769, Captain Cook sailed the HMS Endeavor into the bay for the first time. Prior to that, Abel Tasman had charted the islands as “Nieuw Zealand” (named for Zealand province in his native Holland) more then a century earlier. He lost some of his crewmen to a Maori ritual feast, which effectively delayed further exploration (gee, I wonder why?). Cook got a hostile greeting, but left without incident. A French expedition followed a few years later, but the Maori tribe captured and ate the party. Eventually, a new British colony was established here in 1839 and was ruled from New South Wales (Australia). The new territory had gained a fearsome reputation for it’s blood thirsty headhunters and battles with the Maoris continued. Eventually, treaties were signed between the British authorities and the Maori Chiefs in 1840. After years of cross breeding with the Brits, “full blooded” Maoris only make up about 15% of the population today.
We spent the day ogling the scenery, strolling the beaches, perusing the various craft fairs (set up for us), and talking with the locals. It was a delightful day of about 75F and low humidity.
After leaving Bay of Islands, New Zealand we headed west towards Sydney, Australia. We are due to arrive tomorrow at 6 PM.
Australia started it’s British history as a vast penal colony in 1788. Bad apples from England were unwillingly shipped here, a horrible place at the “end of the world”. Many of the convicts had done nothing more then steal a few loaves of bread, but colonists were needed on the new continent, and volunteers were in short supply. Anyone who went such a great distance in those days were unlikely to see their homeland again. Over 2,000 prisoners and their jailers sailed from England but less then half made it alive. Violent weather crushed ships and disease raged. The tattered survivors arrived in Sydney Harbor and began to build. Can you imagine how frightening the land, people, and animals must have been? How about seeing an aboriginal warrior for the first time? A pitch black naked guy… sneering with a fearsomely painted face… and stabbing the air with a poison tipped spear. My guess is that the natives were less then pleased about the onslaught of new arrivals. What about the oddity of the kangaroo with it’s comical clown like feet? Nothing in jolly ol’ England could have prepared them for this sight.
Australia is about the size of the United States, but there are only 22 million inhabitants in the entire country. 4 million live in or around Sydney. Compare that to Mumbai, India at 17 million people spread across a mere 20 mile radius! Why so few people? The only sustainable areas are on the seacoast. The interior is bush/desert with little water and searing heat. Here, you will find an occasional cattle ranch that encompasses 1,000 square miles and supports only 70,000 animals. They eat dried grass that dies off quickly after the virtually non existent rain and dream about living in California.
MARCH 7TH – ARRIVAL IN SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – 6 PM
We arrived on a Sunday evening, which was a real treat. As we approached the jagged cliff lined harbor, hundreds of pleasure boats streamed towards the ship to escort us. Thousands of people on the shorelines watched us pass by. It was such a heart warming welcome, I couldn’t help but weep. Helicopters flew over head, tug boats greeted us with a water gun salute, ferries and tour boats packed to the brim with people waving and yelling “Aussie Aussie Aussie!”
We lucked out being on the starboard side this time. We got the stunning skyline view. We are docked here until midnight tomorrow evening.
MARCH 8TH – SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA
We woke up predawn to a cacophony of high pitched screeches radiating from the Royal Botanical Gardens across the inlet. Through binoculars we zeroed in on the culprits. Huge white parrots were swooping through the tall branches belting out discordant tunes. It made our ears hurt! We had to investigate! We woofed down a quick breakfast and headed out on foot as the sun spread over the tree tops. It was already quite warm and humid at 7 AM with temps expected in the low 90‘s. We caught up to the parrots as they were in full baby feeding mode. Their “song” have been known to shatter ear drums.
As we continued walking through the Gardens we heard more noise in the distance. A creepy chattering that sounded like a sound track for an Alfred Hitchcock movie. As we got closer to the source, I looked up and nearly fell to the pavement in shock. Above us in the trees were thousands of bats! In broad daylight! Okay, technically, they weren’t bats – but “Grey Headed Flying Foxes” coming back to roost after a night of sucking on insects and fruit. They looked like big squirrels with veined wings, and they were everywhere. Demonic beady eyes surrounded by black furry faces assessed us cooly from 20 feet above. It was downright freaky. I always thought that bat-like creatures hung out in caves or other dark places during the day. Not these. They hang upside down in the hot sun, biding time until dusk. We arrived when they were jockeying for positions, hence the noise. I could barely move my stiff neck the next day after staring up at them in amazement for over an hour. Steve finally had to grab my arm and tear me away. Nothing could top this. Nothing.
Next, we strolled by the famous Sydney Opera House. The tourist information will tell you that the roof was designed to look like boat sails. This is a falsehood. Apparently, the chosen architect was peeling an orange as he sat working on his design… and Wah La! The roof mirrors the peels of an orange. It’s less romantic then “sails”, so most visitors don’t know that the building was inspired by an afternoon snack.
On the waterfront we hopped on a commuter ferry and headed to the old town of Manly. One side of this beach town borders the pounding surf of the Tasman Sea. We watched from the safety of a park bench as knuckle headed surfers ignored the “Danger – Strong Rip Tide” signs and headed out to get clobbered by monstrous waves. It was about 15 degrees cooler here then in Sydney, so we wiled away a few hours strolling on the promenade and trails. Manly is a throw back in time. Many of the buildings from the early 1,900’s still exist on the pedestrian mall.
Back in Sydney, we walked across the Harbor Bridge with hundreds of others as traffic thundered across and shook the entire structure. Looking down induced vertigo. High above us, there were people who actually paid over $150 per person to inch along the span to the tippy top of the bridge. They were given a breathalyzer test before taking the first step and forced to wear harnesses and neon jump suits. Why neon? If the harness fails, then their splintered bodies will be easier to spot in the swirling water several hundred feet below. A group of 10 people set off every 15 minutes, all day long. I bet when the city was building the bridge back in 1930, they had no idea what a money maker it would be.
We headed back to the ship via the Gardens to check on our furry friends. They were silent and fanning themselves with one wing to create a breeze in the stillness. Steve had to drag me away again.
We knew the foxes would take flight at sunset so we sat on our balcony and waited for lift off. The sky soon filled with eerily silent dark shapes that flew off in every direction before disappearing from view. From a distance, they looked like birds. We knew better. I wonder how far they go?
The ship left at midnight and we heard that over 100 pleasure boats escorted us from the harbor. We were fast asleep, and didn’t hear a thing.
After leaving Sydney last night we headed south and then west towards Adelaide. The coastline was often in view along the way. As we passed Melbourne, Tasmania was off to the south. I’d love to go there someday, to see if the island lives up to it’s exotic name.
MARCH 11 – ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA (Maiden Call)
Adelaide is the capital of Southern Australia and is neatly laid out with wide boulevards and parks galore. It is the only territory that was specifically designated for free immigrant colonization. The first arrivals were English, but the “bavarian-like” hilly terrain also attracted German settlers. We rented a car today and Steve adapted quite quickly again to driving on the left. He still hasn’t mastered the whole “blinker vs. windshield wiper” conundrum that plagued him in New Zealand, and he really doesn’t appreciate me telling all of you about this mental deficiency (again).
It was unseasonably cool. Yippee! Gorgeously sunny and about 70F. Our destination was the Cleland Wildlife Park about 20 miles west of Adelaide. It came highly recommended by some Aussies on board, although they looked at me funny when I said I was PSYCHED to see a kangaroo in the flesh! To them, the kangaroo is a nuisance on the roads, like our white tailed deer and moose in Maine. If you hit one, your car is totaled. This was going to be our only chance to see indigenous animals in a “quasi” natural habitat. Why? First of all, most Australian marsupials are nocturnal because the heat is so brutal during the day. And, we did not have the time to penetrate the bush to see them on this trip. I’ll take what I can get… so off we went.
I got to scratch a kangaroo behind the ears and pet wallabies! How cool is that! These animals live in a fluffy version of Club Med, waiting for foreigners to ohh and ahh while feeding them pellets of approved food in a large open field. In the wild, these guys can be nasty. If they feel threatened and kick you, chances are you will not live to tell the story. We also got to see Koalas, although they were sacked out. Most people tack on “Bear”, after “Koala”, but they are not. The people at Cleland are constantly correcting this misnomer with patient well worn sighs. They are marsupials. Another highlight was the Tasmanian Devil. We also saw more brilliantly colored parrots feeding babies. The Dingos were sleeping and we only got to see one. It looked like a cross between a german shepherd and a wolf.
And wouldn’t you know it… just after we left the Park, two HUGE kangaroos bounded across the road about 10 feet in front of us. At high noon no less! They stopped on the opposite side to taunt us (I swear they were laughing) and leapt off into the woods.
We meandered back towards Adelaide on deserted country roads with lots of twists and turns to see how close we could get to knocking off the side view mirror. Once back in town we had time to wander through an outdoor pedestrian mall where we came across the delightful Pig Sculpture pictured below.
There is one more heart quickening piece of drama to share…
The last Cunard shuttle bus back to the ship left downtown Adelaide at 4:45 PM. We were on it with only one other passenger. “All Aboard” was at 5:30. The ship leaves at 6 PM. We had plenty of time to get there… or did we? The bus driver commented on the “thicker then usual” traffic as he thrummed the steering wheel with his beefy fingers. Then, he said he’d never seen it this slow, as anxious sweat popped out at his hairline. 5:30 crept by… 5:45 came and went. We secretly delighted in the knowledge that three passengers had the power to delay the Queen’s departure. As we inched towards the port on the cusp of 6 PM, we realized that all the vehicles were funneling towards the ship to see it leave. A few minutes later, a police escort roared up on a motorcycle and motioned for the bus to follow him into oncoming traffic! With lights flashing and siren blaring, the cop forced motorists off the road so we could pass. The picture proof is attached below. The bus driver asked Steve to shoot video with his phone. This would certainly elevate his status with the guys back at the depot.
We boarded the ship at 6:23PM, pumped up with self importance, as the gangway was lifted inches behind us. Thousands of spectators once again lined the shore and pleasure boats cruised with us as we left the harbor. All in all, a delightful day, and an excellent story to tell over dinner.
After leaving Adelaide we headed west and then north to our next stop.
MARCH 14TH – FREMANTLE, AUSTRALIA (Maiden Call)
Fremantle has a population of 27,000. Perth, just up the road, about 1.2 million. Here’s a good one for “Trivial Pursuit”…
Perth is the most isolated city on the face of the planet. Adelaide (over 1,300 miles to the southeast) is the closest area with a significant population. Indonesia is closer to Perth then Sydney. Get the picture? Tourism is limited to a handful of cruise ships that come each year.
We really weren’t interested in going to Perth (we’ve seen enough cities) and decided to rent a car and head south. We were forewarned to leave plenty of time on the back end for “ship ogling” traffic. Once again, a maiden call, which means that everyone who lives within a 40 mile radius will be there to watch us leave. My guess on the number of 6 AM spectators when we berthed was about 6,000. I know, unbelievable.
We picked up the car and Steve threatened to make me drive if I harp on his blinker deficiency again, so I won’t. I’m quite sure we needed to refill the wiper fluid midday because it was nearly empty when we picked up the car…
We headed 30 miles south to the coastal town of Mandurah. The guide books told us it was charming and it was, in a sleepy kind of way… for now. Surprisingly, it is the fastest growing town in the entire country and caters to the retiring baby boomers from Perth. The topography is similar to south Florida and new construction was everywhere. Houses were packed together in endless subdivisions. It felt claustrophobic and forlorn. Our plan was to meander back up the coast and enjoy water views on a scenic road. This became a futile enterprise. The coast road was mostly blocked by rows and rows of featureless abodes. We enjoyed small stretches of scenery, but the frustration wasn’t worth it. Further up the coast was a 10 mile stretch of “Industry” that further blocked the view. Live and learn.
About 5 miles out of Fremantle the traffic crawled. We were going to explore some more, but decided to play it safe with the time. Our next stop was 6 days away and we didn’t have our passports.
On hindsight, we should have just hung out in Fremantle. We had a few hours before “all aboard” and enjoyed our time walking around the town. Many of the buildings from the early 1900‘s are still there and well preserved.
The most exciting part of the day was our send off. Everyone who owns a boat must have been in the water with us. It was awesome. See the photo below of our aquatic escorts.
Our “sampling” of Australia left us wanting more. We will be back!
5 days at sea (heading west) coming up before spending the day on the island of Mauritius to stretch our legs. You will need to use a magnifying glass to see it on the atlas.
After our last stop in Australia, we headed mostly west and then a bit north towards the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The sea caressed us with deep undulating swells, spaced far apart. Steve doesn’t think “caress” is a fitting description, but I’m the writer, so it stays.
MARCH 20 – Port Louis, MAURITIUS (Maiden Call)
In 1598 the Dutch navy landed on the uninhabited shores of Mauritius after being blown off course by a cyclone on their way to the Spice Islands. They named it in honor of Prince Maurice of Nassau. In 1638, they established the first permanent settlement with colonists from Holland’s Indonesian communities. They clear cut centuries-old ebony trees, and replaced them with sugarcane (a prolific weed) that drained the soil of nutrients and made it impossible to grow anything else. Unfortunately, there were no ecologists to warn about the irreversible environmental damage. The flightless Dodo bird became extinct a mere 60 years after the Dutch arrived. How deplorable is that! They were killed off by the animals the settlers introduced and by destruction of habitat. If only evolution hadn’t taken away their wings, they could have had a fighting chance. The small community struggled against severe weather patterns and the harshness of isolation before deciding to abandon the island in 1710.
Soon after, the French, who already had a colony established at the nearby island of Reunion, claimed Mauritius. The settlers were plagued with the same problems as their predecessors, but they persevered and the settlement grew. The British took control during the Napoleonic Wars. They brought indentured workers (glorified slaves) from India to toil in the sugarcane fields which were (and still are) harvested by hand. It took them five years of grueling labor to “work off” the fee they were charged for the boat ride from India, before making any wages.
Mauritius gained their independence in 1968 and the majority of the population is Indian, which seemed so odd, considering the island is an african nation. The population of Port Louis, where the ship docked, is about 1.2 million. We decided not to rent a car after reading that the traffic builds to a “horrendous volume” in the narrow streets by mid morning and that most drivers don’t have licenses and/or are uninsured.
I know you are tired of hearing me complain about how hot and humid some of the stops have been… but Mauritius was even worse then Singapore. We were coated in sticky sweat within seconds of leaving the ship. We walked from the shuttle stop to the expansive local markets. The main building was divided into sections. The first floor was devoted to produce, and what struck me first was all the tantalizing colors and variety of fruits and vegetables on sale; most of which were imported. Any fleeting thought of tasting something new was squelched when we witnessed the merchants splashing dark brown water on the greens to keep them from wilting in the stifling heat. The second floor was dedicated to touristy items. These merchants were overly aggressive and “in our face” whenever we dared to glance at an item. We had not seen that level of intensity since being in, well, India. There was a marked difference in attitude though. The people of India were very friendly and conversational as they haggled with us over price, enjoying the good natured game. Here, the merchants were humorless, in a “give us your money and get out” kind of way. The energy of the city was languid and apathetic. No one smiled.
Next we headed over to the meat markets where the buildings were labeled; Lamb, Beef, Goat, Poultry, and Fish. Walking into the Poultry arena nearly turned me into an instantaneous vegetarian. I walked out, but not before I saw a wire cage packed with live chickens piled 10 deep… where the ones on the bottom had to struggle for breath as they were crushed by the weight of the bodies on top of them. It was dreadful and inhumane. In the goat house, mountainous piles of bloody body parts buzzed with flies as the scowling merchants smoked cigarettes and talked on their cell phones. They couldn’t be bothered to say hello or even acknowledge us. Granted, we were clearly not potential customers, but they made an extra effort to be wholly indifferent. Nothing was refrigerated and the buildings were airless tombs.
In the fish house, there were cats roaming around scrounging for scraps. Some were shedding on the fish bodies and sporadically licking them, without being shooed away. Oh, did I mention the smell? Do I need to?
We worked our way back to the ship, having seen enough. Back on board, I only found one person who had a positive reaction to Mauritius, and he spent the day snorkeling offshore from a catamaran. Everyone else had viscerally negative feelings. I found it to be absolutely fascinating that the island’s bad mojo could contaminate so many people. We learned from the Destination Speaker that Mauritius is slowly sinking, and in a thousand years or so will disappear. Perhaps the island is suffering from a millennium melancholy that has poisoned the local people. Or, perhaps it is the vengeful spirit of the collective Dodo birds who will not forgive their transgressors.
Whatever the reason, we put an X through Mauritius as a potential vacation spot, although the mountainous backdrop was absolutely stunning.
We left Mauritius yesterday, and spent our time at sea packing for our second “overland” adventure.
MARCH 23 – ARRIVAL IN DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA
We arrived in Durban this morning. It is the third largest city in South Africa, with a population of 3.5 million. It is the busiest port in Africa. The first known inhabitants arrived from the north about 100,000 BC, according to carbon dating of rock art found in area caves. There is no written history of the area until it was first mentioned by portuguese explorers who came to the KwaZulu-Natal coast while searching for a route from Europe to India in 1497. Durban dates from 1824, when a party of 25 men arrived from the Cape Town colony and established a settlement. The British started the sugarcane industry in the 1860’s. Farm owners had a difficult time attracting Zulu laborers to work on the plantations, so the Brits brought thousands of indentured workers from India on 5 year contracts. Sound familiar? As a result, Indians make up a large part of the population. Does Durban suffer from the same affliction as Mauritius? We did not spend enough time in the city to “read” the energy. At least the modern inhabitants aren’t being pursued by the curse of the Dodo bird…
MARCH 23 – 25, PHINDA GAME RESERVE
We left Durban shortly after docking to drive North to the Phinda Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It was a tedious 4 hours in a mildew scented bus. Each side of the highway was banked with an endless procession of sugarcane fields and eucalyptus tree farms.
The safari experience is new to us (petting Kangaroos in Australia doesn’t count) and we booked this two night Cunard Overland trip as a “taste test”. Why a game reserve? Sadly, all of the “naturally wild” game animals in South Africa have been killed off by egomaniacal hunters over the past century.
Phinda comprises 55,000 acres and is surrounded by a 30 foot high electric fence. It is effective in keeping in all the animals except the occasional leopard and monkeys. Both can easily pole vault from trees over the fence and they come and go at will. After the animals are placed, they are left alone to live out their wild lives. There is minimal intervention, other to control the predator population. If all the zebras and impalas are eaten, it would hurt tourism.
We were transferred from the main gate to the Phinda Mountain Lodge in open jeeps. Our pilots were the rangers that would later be our guides. All white, all South African, all under age 30, and all looking like they just leapt off the set of a National Geographic Special. The main building, perfectly camouflaged in soothing browns and greens, melted into the lush landscape. We ate our meals here, buffet style, in an expansive wall-less room with sweeping views.
Each of the 22 guest cottages are secluded and nestled even further into the bush down a steep hill from the main lodge. There are no fences, so we were required to take an armed escort to and from our room after dark. An overfed human is easier prey to pick off then a wildebeest. Our air conditioned room had a private patio with a personal dipping pool, chaise loungers, and an outdoor shower (just in case the indoor one was tied up). On top of the fully stocked gratis mini bar was a bountiful bowl of Malted Milk Balls (yum yum) and dried pineapple rings. The king sized bed was wrapped in sumptuous sheets and a fluffy down comforter. Clearly, we were “roughing it”.
We were instructed to meet for tea and treats at 4 PM before embarking on our first game drive at 4:30. Not hungry after eating lunch an hour earlier, we showed up at 4:20, raring to go.
The jeeps were wide open with 3 tiered benches, so everyone got an unobstructed view. Ian was our ranger and Thomas ((who lives in the nearby Zulu Village) was the spotter. Hundreds of narrow dirt roads criss cross the reserve. The jeeps take off in different directions, but keep in touch via radio to share sightings of the more elusive animals. The first afternoon we saw giraffes, zebras, rhinos, wildebeests, and elephants. The highlight for me was a newborn wildebeest who darted around like a sugar injected toddler, testing out his new legs. Young male elephants put on a show by shoving each other to test strength. Eventually, this “play” will turn into hierarchic battles, sometimes fatal. We passed by the aromatic carcass of a “loser”. Not a pretty sight. After it got dark, Thomas used a powerful spot light to look for the reflective eyes of nocturnal animals. We saw a lone jackal hiding in the grass and a huge owl who regarded us with a cool stare.
A Cacophony of Stripes
Warthog is such an unfortunate label.The wildlife sightings continued after returning to our room. The door was a mecca of “creepy crawlies”. A spider the size of my palm was weaving an intricate web over the doorframe. Steve almost hit it nose first. Toads in assorted sizes were stuck to the door while bathing in the glow of artificial light. The challenge was to open the door, get in, and slam it shut without anything tagging along. We succeeded, or so we thought, until we noticed an army of crimson colored centipedes marching around the room. There was a generous crack under the door so diminutive visitors could come and go at will. I spent the next hour coaxing them onto squares of toilet paper before releasing them into the wild on our back deck. I finally gave up as more troops joined the brigade. No reading material needed in the potty… we kept an eye on the lizards scaling the walls instead.
That first night was endless as phantom beasties slithered across our exposed flesh. At 1 AM, I traversed a minefield on the way to the bathroom. Lying in bed, I willed the time to pass speedily. When the sweet sound of the buzzing alarm clock announced 4:30 AM, we were ecstatic. The centipedes snoozing on the comforter were not.
The sky was brightening as we scurried to the main lodge to meet our group at 5 AM. Impalas foraged on the tender grass that lined the walkways. Bird calls punctuated the stillness. Everything was covered in dew and a misty sheen hung in the air. It was glorious. After a quick cup of tea, we headed to our jeep. We had 3 hours to look for animals before it got too hot for them, and us. The highlight of the morning was spotting 3 cheetahs and 2 lions. Cheetahs hunt around dawn and dusk to avoid competing with the big guys who are active at night. When we saw the lions at 7 AM, they were looking for a comfy spot to slumber the day away, although they did gaze lustfully at a throng of zebras before flopping down in the shade.
Our next game drive wasn’t until 4 PM, so we booked an excursion to a nearby Zulu Village to learn about the people and their customs. We had no idea what to expect, and were stunned by what we witnessed. A local guide took 6 of us to see a “Sangoma” (healer and fortune teller) at her home. In the Zulu culture, a “guiding spirit” chooses one person they want to communicate through. If that spirit no longer feels the “vessel” they are using is worthy, or if the vessel dies, they will move on to someone else. It is not a tradition that is handed down through the generations, like in some cultures. The Sangoma had a younger woman with her, who had recently been “chosen” by a spirit and was learning the proper ways to open the “channel”.
In rural villages, many generations of a family tree live in a single compound. The one we visited was comprised of 7 one room buildings with thatched roofs. Some had concrete walls, others were built from mud. The spongy floor? Cow manure. No windows. No electricity. No running water. Farm animals barely stirred in the static air. Grim faced kids watched us in eerie silence. No one had shoes.
We were summoned into an airless room where the Sangoma and her apprentice crouched over smoldering herbs. We sat facing the action. Two other women picked up drums as the herbs were mixed into a liquid that was smoking, like dried ice. After a long incantation and fierce drumming, the potion was consumed. Within seconds, the healers disgorged guttural unearthly sounds as their entire bodies convulsed. It was wild! After a few minutes they calmly opened their eyes… and we were no longer looking at the same people. There was something (someone) else sharing their vision. Our guide translated the spirit’s messages, and asked if we had any questions. I was speechless (I know, impossible to believe, but true). Steve was teeming with questions and quickly became the “Sangoma’s Pet”. If he wasn’t already married… she would have attempted to match him with her 16 year old daughter. Payment to the bride’s family is always 11 cows. Steve was a little short, so I guess he’s stuck with me.
We ate a late lunch back at Phinda, and had a couple of hours to relax before heading back to the jeep. I couldn’t wait to take a shower. We opened our (creature free) door and stepped over the welcoming committee of centipedes. As I started peeling off my sweat stained shorts I notice that the sliding door to the patio was open. Hmmm… that’s funny… I’m sure we shut it before we left…
OH MY GOD… our room had been ransacked!
We quickly checked the in-room safe and it was still locked tight. Phew… we still had our passports and money. Hey, why are my Q-Tips all over the floor? Did the intruders stop to clean their ears? Where are the Malted Milk Balls! What happened to the emergency Pepto Bismol? You’ve got to be kidding me… swiping sunscreen, are you serious!?! Don’t tell me they stole the vitamins! The pineapple was gone too! Wasn’t there a bottle of olive oil on the mini bar?
As we stood there utterly baffled, Steve glanced outside and saw a huge monkey regarding him, unperturbed, from a nearby tree. He was holding a Zip Loc bag of Mercury Free Omega 3 Fish Oil Capsules in his thieving fingers. Did he bow before bounding away? I think so. I swear he was laughing too.
How many monkeys were in the room? We don’t know, but they marked the territory by peeing at the threshold of the sliding glass door. Now we know why the floors are concrete. Steve went outside to see if they left anything behind, and found most of our stuff strewn in the woods behind the deck.
Back inside, I started to clean up monkey feces with a handful of tissues… swearing like a sailor each time I bent over. But, something seemed “off”. Granted, I’ve never analyzed monkey poop before, but this stuff was perfectly round, super light weight, and hard. Single balls were everywhere, no piles. Under the sink, on the bed, under the couch, on a throw pillow, and in the bathtub. When Steve came back with a bagful of chewed trash, he saw my perplexed look. In a flash of genius, my brilliant husband figured it out.
Those dastardly primates sucked the chocolate off the Malted Milk Balls and tossed the cores around the room!
Remember how we skipped Tea yesterday? Well, apparently, the group was gravely warned to close and latch the sliding glass door when leaving the room. Opps.
We never did find my SPF 30 Sunscreen.
On our game drive that afternoon we headed about 20 miles north over deeply rutted roads to track an elusive leopard that one of the rangers had seen earlier in the day. We found him! I got one blurry photo! We lost him! We plunged into a deep hole trying to track him! It was pitch black by the time the “boys” (Steve included) extricated the jeep. Securing the picture below (I later used for blackmail) was worth it.
I slept better that night, passing out from sheer exhaustion. Steve dreamt of being devoured by monkeys. The last morning we saw hippos and more cheetahs. We spent over an hour watching a male giraffe patiently teach a youngster how to bend his neck. That may sound boring… but we relished every minute of it.
We had to leave at 9 AM to drive back to Durban and catch a flight to meet the Queen in Cape Town. This adorable Impala foal (below) was just outside our door, where “Mama” had stashed her before going off to forage.
MARCH 25 – PHINDA – DURBAN – CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
After our final game drive this morning, a mind-numbing travel day reunited us with the Queen around 6 PM in Cape Town. Today, 1,428 passengers got off, and 1,432 got on. The last leg of this grand voyage starts now. We have sailed over 33,000 nautical miles since leaving New York on January 4th.
This is only the third port we have “overnighted in”. The other two were Hong Kong and Sydney. We got the “good side” again. From our balcony we saw the iconic Table Mountain as a back drop to the city. A climatic quirk causes clouds to settle on the 1,300 foot plateau and spill over the sides like a colossal waterfall (think Niagara). This visual effect is known as the “Table Cloth”. We saw it once, and I don’t think the words exist to properly describe it. Even Hollywood would find it impossible to mimic.
We fell into a deep coma at 9 PM after staggering into our bug free bed. Our waiters thought we developed narcolepsy while away.
MARCH 26 – CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
Those of you who are well versed in modern history know that Apartheid ended here a mere 19 years ago. The dictionary defines it as…
“A system adopted by the successful Afrikaner National Party as a slogan in the 1948 election, apartheid extended and institutionalized existing racial segregation. Despite rioting and terrorism at home and isolation abroad from the 1960s onward, the white regime maintained the apartheid system with only minor relaxation until February 1991”.
1994 was the first democratic national election. The transition to an integrated society was considered to be peaceful, but racial tension is palatable here. Our white shuttle driver from the airport refused to produce identification to a black gate agent when returning us to port. He was rude and dismissive as he drove off, before a white officer stepped in front of the bus to halt us. It was clear to us why it happened. Our guide from the airport wistfully reminisced about the days before blacks were allowed to live within city limits. She cautioned us to be careful; evil doers brandishing deadly weapons are on the rise. We heard of two waiters and one passenger who were mugged at knife point in the wee hours of the morning. The passenger asked a group of black guys “where he could exchange money”. The police brought him back to the ship whimpering in his skivvies. Taking his clothes must have been punishment for sheer cluelessness. I mean, come on, a speck of common sense please!
Our plan today was to explore the dramatic coastline near the city. After picking up our rental car, we headed off. Steve has now completely mastered driving on the left, although the dyslexic blinker behavior continues to cause trouble. I wouldn’t be surprised if Avis slaps us with an extra charge for Windshield Wiper Fluid, after the group of rental locations we’ve patronized tally up the lost gallons.
We drove half way up Table Mountain to the gondola terminal to see the sweeping view of downtown and Table Bay. We opted not to take the gondola to the tippy top. The queue was huge, and we didn’t want to take the time. Wise choice.
Next, we headed south and drove along the craggy cliffs that fringe the Atlantic Ocean. The vertigo inducing Chapman’s Peak Drive is chocked full of staggering vistas. The frenzied surf beckoned from 1,000 feet below.
Back at sea level, we were seduced by over 3,000 rock sculptures, for sale in a roadside field. Handmade by African artists, and perfect to dot around our yard. An exhaustive “narrowing down” process ensued. Five pieces entered the negotiation phase. Steve hadn’t done any serious haggling since Oman, and he was electrified. We were seconds away from handing over a credit card when a tiny voice in my head whispered… “scrape the stone with your fingernail”, so I did. A waxy substance flaked off to reveal unpolished rock below. Whoa! Wait a minute! We learned that the glossy surface is achieved by frequent “wax jobs”, and that reapplication would be necessary once a week to keep it. I DON’T THINK SO. We assumed the finish came from buffing. So we left, downtrodden, but thrilled that we hadn’t made a huge investment in yard art we would have been pissed at, every time we saw it.
We lost two hours, and now we had to rush. We zipped down to the southern tip and drove through the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. A hiking nirvana, if we had more time. On the way back to Cape Town via Simon’s Town, along False Bay, we encountered a family of baboons strutting along the road. Traffic halted to watch them. We were warned that they are aggressive and vicious when food is present. If you have it, they want it. We’re not talking cuddly monkeys that break into rooms here. A large male jumped onto the hood, shielded his eyes from the sun’s glare, and leaned forward to see if we were chewing. I stopped gnawing on my gum, but not before he saw my jaws move. While bearing his humongous teeth, he tugged back a windshield wiper and repeatedly thwacked it against the glass. I dropped my camera and raced to crank up the window, while thanking the “voice in Steve’s head”, telling us not to upgrade to the shiny red mustang convertible for a pittance of $20 more per day. With startling speed, our tormentor sprung onto the roof, and tried to peel down my window before hoping to the ground. After he was safely harassing the car behind us, I lowered my window a few inches to take a shot of three youngsters sitting on a nearby wall (below). They watched attentively as Mama taught them how to terrorize the tourists.
We cleaned the slobber off the windshield when refueling the car, and stifled giggles when the Avis rep asked if we enjoyed our day.
The ship set sail at 6 PM, heading east in the Southern Atlantic Ocean on the way to the island of St. Helena.
After leaving Cape Town we headed northwest toward the Island of St. Helena. A freckle on the atlas in the South Atlantic Ocean.
MARCH 30TH – JAMESTOWN, ST. HELENA (Maiden Call)
St. Helena is 10.5 miles long by 6.5 miles wide. It is 1,200 miles from the coast of southwest Africa and 1,800 miles from the coast of South America. The closest land is Ascension Island, 703 miles to the northwest. There is no airport. The only way to get here is by boat. The RMS St. Helena steams back and forth to Cape Town every 3 weeks. This is the only way for the locals to get off the island. A supply ship arrives every 2-3 weeks. We’re talkin’ remote.
This uninhabited island was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1502. It ended up in the hands of the British (is there anything they didn’t steal?). The Brits used it as a place of detention for many unsavory characters throughout history. The most famous being Napoleon Bonaparte. He was exiled to the island in 1815 and remained here until his death in 1821. He was permitted to roam freely. Where was he going to escape to?
4,255 people live here. 3,800 inhabit the Queen Mary 2. Our landing fits the definition of an Invasion. We anchored a half mile offshore near the capital of Jamestown (the only town). The swells from the Atlantic Ocean are routinely over 6 feet at the primitive dock and ships often cannot discharge passengers, at all. Imagine the mutiny, after being incarcerated for 4 days. It made us question why such an “iffy” port was chosen to begin with.
At 7 AM we waited like coiled vipers ready to strike. Two tenders were sent on a reconnaissance mission. The Captain’s pronouncement on sea conditions was eminent. Eureka! Permission was granted to go ashore! We raced for the loading area, knocking down the Ancient Ones with walkers who got in our way. We knew freedom could be revoked at any moment if the ocean decided to scratch it’s back. Not many on the ship move as stealthily as we do, so making the first boat was child’s play. Good thing we did. With only one tender operating due to limited docking space, the unloading process was interminable. The “step” from the tender to the dock was a doozy, for the vertically and spatially challenged. It took several hours to get everyone off. The Crew’s “leave” was cancelled due to the monstrous queue.
On shore, the first thing we noticed were clusters of gleeful kids. School was cancelled due to our visit. We were Superheroes. Every school bus and any other vehicle that was remotely road worthy was allocated to move around passengers.
Our first priority was to climb Jacob’s Ladder; a perpendicular staircase leading up the precipitous slope surrounding Jamestown. It has 699 steps with 12 inch risers. It is 900 feet long and 700 feet high. It was originally built in 1829 to link the town with the garrison on top of Ladder Hill. Soldiers used it to haul up ammunition and supplies. I doubt they scaled it for bragging rights, like we did. Now it is used by those who don’t own cars, or can’t bum a ride up the mountain. Residents say it will “break your heart going up, and break your neck coming down”.
We sprinted to the base before it got jammed up with people who thought carrying food laden trays for 3 months qualified as aerobic exercise. We didn’t want their unconscious bodies blocking our way. We were humming along just fine, until I made the grave mistake of pausing to soak in the view around me. I wasn’t expecting to see such a sheer drop behind me and dizziness took hold as my heart galloped. I was paralyzed. Steve knew I had “ladder issues”, and took control when he heard me sniveling behind him. Shifting to my backside, he coaxed me upwards by imploring me NOT to look around until we reached the summit. He reminded me again and again that I couldn’t “plummet to my death” because he was right behind me. He soothed my irrational fear of flying backwards with profound gentleness and patience. My knight in sweaty armor.
When we made it to the top, I was elated and cocky. I remarked to Steve that due to the significant discrepancy in our leg length, I actually climbed double what he did. He didn’t buy it.
There were 15 Islanders encamped at the peak offering kudos. Watching tourists attempt the climb is a popular spectator sport on the island. There was also a team of EMTs stationed nearby, ready to take action. It’s a good thing we went early. The Ladder was soon clogged with aggressive tailgaters bullying the throng. If I was forced to take my hands off the railing to step around someone, I might have become a permanent resident of St. Helena.
You could tell the locals were starved for conversation with “new blood”. As soon as we stopped panting, they descended with a litany of questions. We were delighted to share information about our ship, the voyage, and ourselves. We felt like royalty. After a time, a couple offered to give us a “lift up the hill” (which ended up being 5 miles) and drop us at the Plantation House. We readily accepted.
It’s a pretty colonial structure built at the end of the 1800‘s. The governor lives here, but he’s not the star attraction. Jonathan, the giant tortoise, is. His age is estimated between 150 and 200 years (he kept getting older with every person we talked to). No one seems to know how he ended up on the island. We had a theory. We learned while visiting the Galapagos Islands (on a previous journey) that tortoises can live for up to one year without any food or water. In the old days, explorers would pluck them from their native lands, stack them upside down in the hull of a ship, and nosh on them over several months as an easy source of fresh meat. Jonathan must have escaped with his lightening speed.
After meeting the local celebrity, we started trekking back to town. We declined the plentiful offers for a ride. It felt great to stroll and stretch our legs. After a few miles, we heard a “Yoo Hoo!” and looked up to see four ladies waving daintily at us from the front steps of a sprawling home. A sign nailed to a tree at the bottom of the drive read…
Open House from 10:30 am to 2:15 pm
for visitors from Queen Mary 2 and others.
All are welcome. Please drop in for Tea Coffee Eats.
No Charge, but kindly give donation for the Haiti Appeal.
Thank you. Enjoy your Day.
How could we not stop? The owner, Patsy Flagg, was the “poster child” for island hospitality. She gave us a tour of her 120 year old home, then ushered us into the dining room where she stacked our plates with homemade treats. We were offered coffee or tea before adjourning to the porch. Steve drinks neither, but graciously suffered through a cup. I was reticent, simply because it was foreign water. We hoped that the high temperature would kill off any intestinal nasties.
Two of the ladies (in their 60‘s) had never been off the island, which blew our minds. We flirted with a variety of subjects before landing on natural remedies and Yoga. Before long, I was demonstrating “Downward Facing Dog” on the front porch. They were all intensely curious and tried out the position. Although I would have loved documentation… Steve felt it was exceptionally tacky to take a shot of our 5 butts swaying in the breeze. When we left an hour later, the ladies posed for me (upright) and made us promise to come back for vacation.
We sauntered back to the top of Jacob’s Ladder after chatting with every Islander we met on the road. It was jammed when we got there. Those arriving at the top, bent over and wheezing, were scrutinized by the EMT squad. I casually mentioned to a few of the more fit specimens that if they had enough energy to walk another mile or so up hill … there was a group of engaging ladies who would love to meet them. Did you know up is a dirty word? Taking The Ladder downhill was not an option. I needed both hands on the rails; an impossibility with two way traffic. We took the serpentine road instead. Wise decision. Without the feeling of impeding doom suffocating me, I could freely glance around and marvel at the astonishing landscape.
Back in town, we stopped by the tiny St. Helena Distillery for a tour. They make a spiced rum and coffee liqueur from local beans. Their speciality is “Tungi”, made from the flower of the island’s Prickly Pear Cactus. I sampled it, and couldn’t feel my Tongue(e) afterwards. We bought a bottle of each. We had to. The thick glass is shaped like Jacob’s Ladder with “St. Helena” embossed on the side.
Jonathan moved faster then the queue for the return tender. We were glad to have a fresh bottle of SPF 30 sunscreen, as we sizzled in the equatorial sun.
A few more days at sea before arriving in Rio De Janeiro.