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South Africa & Namibia by Sea
Published on Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Monday, March 19, 2012- Durban, South Africa: The long flights behind us, we arrived in Durban and were transported to our lovely hotel, the Fairmont Zimbali Lodge. Although tired, many of us explored the hotel and environs before we gathered at the outside bar for pre-dinner cocktails. We had a wonderful presentation by a local Zulu group displaying their energetic and athletic dancing style, accompanied by heart-thumping percussion. All participants were given the opportunity to show off their moves, an excellent thirty minutes of high-charged energy before our trip began.
Tuesday, March 20 - Durban / Embark Clipper Odyssey: After a leisurely morning, we enjoyed an al fresco lunch overlooking the ocean. Then we were off to Durban where we visited a local market to absorb the atmosphere and interacted with the stallholders and shoppers alike. We also visited the Botanical Gardens, spread over many hectares, and appreciated the many indigenous plants and birds. Finally, it was time to make our way to the Clipper Odyssey.
Wednesday, March 21 - At Sea: After a leisurely morning, David Conrad began our lecture series with his presentation, The South African “Anglo-Boer” War (1899-1902), followed by Don Kennedy and his reflection on African History and Some Literary Consequences.
In the afternoon, Giovanna Fasanelli gave her presentation, Clash of Currents: A Look at the Marine Realm of South Africa, after which we enjoyed ice cream upstairs and traditional henna tattoos of Goa. Jonathan completed the day with his presentation, Wildlife of South Africa.
Captain Peter Fielding welcomed us for cocktails and dinner prepared by our onboard chefs. Tempting desserts delighted us while coffee and tea refreshed us, some continued the evening in the bar while others headed for bed.
Thursday, March 22 - Port Elizabeth: After an early breakfast, we headed out for the day. Split into two groups, we came together over lunch at the Kwantu Reserve where we heard about the rehabilitation and conservation work of the Reserve. One of the conservationists ‘wore’ a Burmese python as an accessory while he spoke!
After lunch, one excursion was aboard a ferry lazily making its way along the serene Sunday’s River, flowing through the renowned Coastal Dune Fields. We had stellar sightings of black-headed, grey, and purple herons, though the star attractions would have to be the kingfishers. We also enjoyed watching white-fronted bee-eaters dart in and out of their nesting holes in the mud banks.
The other group rode safari vehicles through Kwantu Reserve and saw plenty of antelope, giraffe, and ostrich, as well as several secretarybirds. A part of Kwantu Reserve’s work is the rehabilitation of predators; they look after a number of lions, including the stunning Kalahari lion with its blue eyes sparkling beneath a white mane. A highlight was a visit to the Kwantu Elephant Sanctuary where we met four young elephants, ranging in age from 9 to 18 years old. The youngsters were well-behaved, though you could sense their eagerness to move closer; they knew they were in for some treats! We had a unique opportunity to feed these magnificent animals, letting them nudge us with their muddy trunks or opening mouths to welcome pellets into their gaping grins.
Friday, March 23 - Port Elizabeth: Our second day at Port Elizabeth gave us the option of going to the renowned Addo Elephant National Park or to visit the townships of New Brighton, Kwazakhele, and Zwide. Our driver and guide led us through the streets of these legendary townships and passionately told us the story of how these had been the breeding grounds for the many South Africans who led the resistance movement that eventually led to the end of apartheid. We visited the inspirational Ubuntu Education Fund facility, founded in 1999 by an idealistic white American teenager, Jacob Lief, and a dedicated black South African teacher, Banks Gwaxula. Today Ubuntu is reaching over 40,000 children and through them, they assist the entire family to make a future full of potential.
We visited the Red Location Museum of Struggle located in the township of Red Location, one of the earliest to be formed and named after the red corrugated iron used to form the walls and roofs of humble dwellings. It commemorates South Africa’s turbulent apartheid history and the long struggle towards freedom.
We had lunch in far more salubrious surroundings overlooking Algoa Bay. As we sat on the veranda of the Beach Hotel and shared a lovely meal, we talked about the difficulties facing this nation.
Those going to Addo Elephant Park traveled through the dense Albany thicket savanna of this famous park, third largest of South Africa’s national parks. After an early arrival, we located some of the area’s special avian residents such as Knysna woodpecker, southern tchagra, and red-necked spurfowl before boarding our game drive vehicles. Once into the park proper, it wasn’t long before we encountered the park’s most famous denizens: African elephants in the hundreds! After watching the antics of these relaxed pachyderms—feeding, drinking from a waterhole, and slowly shuffling by—we felt we had had a taste of how this area would have looked at the dawn of time. The park’s other attractions, such as Cape buffalo, black-backed jackals, the sleek yellow mongoose, and giant flightless dung beetle, were also appreciated by all. After a great buffet lunch in the park, we returned to Port Elizabeth, stopping to explore an orange processing plant for which the Eastern Cape is so renowned.
Saturday, March 24 - At Sea: The morning began with Shirley’s introduction to the indigenous people of Southern Africa with her presentation, The Khoisan: Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa. Due to poor weather we were unable to visit Mossel Bay, as the authorities closed the port. Our captain decided the best course was to head for shelter behind Gansbaai. After lunch we watched Invictus, about the embryonic years of South African democracy under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.
We had a fabulous wine and cheese tasting before Don’s presentation, Climate Change and a Look at the Future of the Cape. That evening the South African expedition staff shared their varied experiences and perspectives on growing up in pre- and post-apartheid South Africa. This was an honest and heart-felt sharing of the difficulties this country endured and is now trying to address in today’s South Africa.
Sunday, March 25 - Gansbaai: The seas were much calmer as we anchored not far off the little fishing town of Gansbaai. Split into those going to De Hoop Nature Reserve or those going to Elim and Cape Agulhas, we boarded Zodiacs and headed for this beautiful little village.
Founded in 1824, Elim is an Afrikaans community where every resident must be a member of the church. As it was Sunday, we had the privilege of joining the morning service. We continued to Cape Agulhas, the most southerly point of Africa. After visiting the lighthouse, we walked along a boardwalk taking in the sea air while encountering the coastal fynbos, or ‘fine bush’ flora. For lunch we had a South African fish braai (barbeque) at a venue boasting the southern-most restaurant in Africa. We then visited Birkenhead Estate winery and brewery near Stanford where we tasted a selection of wines and visited the wine-making operations on the estate.
Others visited De Hoop Nature Reserve, a large area of pristine coastal fynbos centered around the large De Hoop wetland system. Our journey to the reserve traversed the extensive wheat-lands that cover most of the southern tip of the continent, and we stopped to enjoy the sight of South Africa’s national bird, the blue crane. Once in De Hoop, we immediately encountered good numbers of bontebok and eland. We also finally located the dapper Cape Mountain zebra, a small herd that entertained us with their antics.
Monday, March 26 - Gansbaai / Hermanus: Our morning started with an early wake-up call, announcing the beautiful weather and calm seas. The Shark Group disembarked first to the anxious farewells of companions and headed out for their anticipated encounters with great white sharks. Aboard our little, purpose-built boat, we were launched into the water and off we went. A mixture of minced shark appetizers was poured into the sea and we waited. Sure enough, the first of what would be 13 individuals fell for the bait and tried to do away with their found food. We went down in four groups, the cold water worth the opportunity to see these magnificent predators up close, some so close you could touch them! Others decided to stay on board and were rewarded with fabulous views of the sharks as they swam majestically around us.
The boat cruise around Dyer Island kicked off when a playful pod of bottlenose dolphins joined us, providing perfect photographic opportunities against the backdrop of the Cape Fold Mountains. Once at the island, we saw thousands of Cape fur seals and Cape cormorants, and a smattering of African penguins. But the great white shark is the largest attraction for Gansbaai, and on our way back towards the harbor we made a stop at the cage shark-diving operation, watching our fellow travelers screaming with exhilaration as these giant animals cruised past.
After lunch in picturesque Hermanus, we made a visit to a commercial abelone operation on the outskirts of town, before enjoying the opportunity to visit Fernkloof Nature Reserve. The Reserve was established in 1975 to protect both the coastal and mountain terrain and features fynbos growing only in the Cape. There are 92 species of birds that frequent the Reserve and we had good sightings of Cape sugarbirds, sunbirds, jackal buzzards, and black eagles. Those of us lucky enough to be exploring the Reserve with Shirley also saw evidence of the San hunter/gatherers who once lived in these areas. She found some rock paintings at a small waterfall flowing into a rock shelter. Recognizing this as a good habitation site, she explored the sandstone walls and found three paintings of humans, never before noticed by the rangers and natural history guides of the Reserve!
While we were out for the day, the ship had relocated to Hermanus where we rejoined the Clipper Odyssey.
Tuesday, March 27 - Hermanus / Cape Town: This morning we went by Zodiac to Hermanus, leaving the ship to relocate to her berth in Cape Town. Those choosing to join our naturalists for a trip along the coast, visited Betty’s Bay, Pringle Bay, and Gordon’s Bay.
The natural history tour followed the scenic coastal road from Hermanus around the Onrus Lagoon. The first stop was in the seaside hamlet of Rooi Els, where our quarry was the Cape rockjumper, one of South Africa’s most colorful and sought-after endemics. A beautiful hike through the coastal fynbos rewarded us with fantastic sightings of these charismatic birds, along with Victorin’s warbler and an elusive mammal, a pair of klipspringers. The African penguin colony at Stony Point was equally appreciated by all, with penguins going about their business at close range, and small numbers of the endangered bank and crowned cormorants nesting on the rocks. An outdoor lunch offered an excellent sample of fynbos flowers before we resumed our semi-circumnavigation of False Bay, running from Cape Hangklip around to Fishhoek.
The rest of us headed inland over passes through the Table Top Sandstone Escarpment, leading from the coastal plane into the Cape Winelands, with Franschhoek, Paarl, and Stellenbosch, the heart of South Africa’s wine industry. As we climbed we passed apple orchards, vineyards, pine and olive plantations, and rolling, golden hills with patchwork farms marking the countryside.
Climbing down from the escarpment through Franschhoek Pass we could see our first stop, Franschhoek, a spectacular vision below us. From there we passed Paarl and spent the rest of the morning at Fairview Estate where we sampled their wines, beautifully paired with delicious cheeses. Our lunch was equally lavish with salads, cheese, and meat platters followed by large quiche slices and finally cheesecake. Stellenbosch is the second oldest settlement in South Africa, dating back to 1679 on the banks of the Eerste River. Dutch settlers arrived later looking for suitable soils to plant vineyards and in so doing established the wine industry.
We all made our way to Cape Town in the afternoon, passing by miles of townships before finally reaching the center and our docked ship. Rolling clouds fell down the slopes of Table Mountain, a regular feature of this breathtaking landmark.
In the evening we listened to Mervin Wessels over cocktails and his special presentation, Wild About Cape Town: Conflict between Nature and Man.
Wednesday, March 28 - Cape Town: Clear blue skies and a soft breeze greeted us this morning as we disembarked and headed towards Table Mountain and the Cableway that would take us to the top. We had a stunning 360 degree view of Cape Town and the narrow coastal strips edged by steep escarpments that stretch back to either side of the peninsula. The fynbos vegetation on the mountain is composed of over 1,460 different species of plants. A highlight was the blue and cluster disa, lovely orchids of the fynbos. Descending from the top with breathtaking views as the floor of the cable car revolved, we had our last bird’s-eye view of Cape Town below.
We continued our exploration along the scenic Chapman’s Peak Drive coastal route to Hout Bay with glorious views of steep rock faces emerging directly from the foaming surf, and quiet bays nestled between dramatic headlands. After winding along the narrow coastal road we arrived at Cape Point Nature Reserve. We stopped at the Cape of Good Hope and took in the wild beauty before traveling further up to the ridge of Cape Point and its projection into the Atlantic. We had lunch at a restaurant nestled below the Cape Point lighthouse, famous for guiding ships around the treacherous waters. Again, fabulous views greeted those who walked or took the funicular to the lighthouse.
During our final stop at Boulder’s Beach we walked along the boardwalk over dunes to view African penguins nesting, some parents returning to feed unfledged and plump young ones, while others stood contentedly surveying the colony and preening their glossy plumage. The naked skin around their eyes is a real feature of these little penguins and is thought to help release heat from their bodies in the warmer climate of the Cape.
Back on board the ship we had a wonderful evening poolside enjoying our cocktails while being treated to jaunty tunes sung by the famous Cape Minstrels. Playing old favorites, we sang along, at one point forming a conga line with these infectious musicians.
Thursday, March 29 - Cape Town: Our last day in Cape Town and we woke to find low, dark clouds and a distinct bite in the air. Cape Town, being true to form, shared with us in just three days all its manifestations. We experienced a day of scattered clouds, with the famous cloud ‘table cloth’ spreading down from atop Table Mountain on our arrival, then the crystal blue skies showing off the best of this beautiful city, and finally, today, the gray gloom that keeps the gardens wet and the Capetonians chiming, “You can have all four seasons in a day!”
We had three choices for our last day, Robben Island, Kirstenbosch Gardens, or the ‘birding marathon’ complete with binoculars and cameras.
Robben Island was used as a prison until 1996, holding not just criminals but political prisoners as well. It is here that Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. We took a ferry across to the island where we boarded buses for a tour. Our guide pointed out places of interest and told stories of those unfortunate enough to find themselves on the island. We then had a guided tour by one of the former inmates of the cell blocks, some communal, others single-cell with no facilities in them whatsoever. The only ‘furniture’ was a small table and chair, a bucket and a couple of blankets to pad the floor and to keep the cold off.
While some chose to visit the world renowned Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, a band of hardcore birders explored some of the birding hotspots of the Cape Peninsula, including the wetlands at Strandfontein, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, and the strandveld vegetation of the West Coast north of Cape Town. Large numbers of ducks, including the localized maccoa duck and the hottentot teal, were the highlight at Strandfontein, while Kirstenbosch’s wildflower displays produced great sightings of southern double-collared sunbird and forest canary. Our time in the strandveld yielded a flock of the endemic white-backed mousebird and a group of plumaged spotted thick-knees.
This evening we set out for our journey towards Namibia, some 520 nautical miles away.
Friday, March 30 - At Sea: Today was a glorious day to be at sea. Our lecture series began with David and his presentation, The Herero Uprising: German Oppression in South West Africa, followed by Jonathan’s enthusiastic lecture, Swamps to Dunes: The Fascinating Wildlife of Namibia. After lunch Don gave his presentation, Namibia: Dealing with Water and Temperature. Ice cream was served before we had our final presentation of the day, Kevin Clement’s surprising finale, An Evening with Rudyard Kipling.
Cocktails were served outside, hosted by Zegrahm Expeditions and Stanford.
Saturday, March 31 - Lüderitz, Namibia / Kolmanskop: We continued to sail north along the west coast of Namibia, the treeless coast barely visible portside. Shirley took us back 6 million years and to our origins with her presentation, Out of Africa: From the Cradle of Mankind to a Colonization of the World.
As we ate lunch we came into Lüderitz, our first port of call in Namibia. Once ashore we boarded our buses and set off for our exploration of the town and environs. Our first stop was the infamous Shark Island, a place of genocide where the German colony set about exterminating the indigenous population if they refused, or were unable, to work on building the railroads or surrender their land.
From there we traveled to Kolmanskop, named after an Afrikaner trekker, Jani Kolman, whose ox wagon became bogged in the sand. Kolmanskop was once a thriving community with a bowling club, casino, and theater. However, a slump in diamond sales after WWI and the discovery of richer diamond sites at Oranjemund left it deserted by 1956. Perhaps we will remember this ghost town for the unrelenting wind blasting us with fine sand. At the time it was a nuisance, however, for those who lived here, it was typical.
Back in Luderitz we explored a wonderful museum full of cultural and natural history, the Lutheran church, perched high on a hill overlooking the town clinging to the coast, and a house, built in just nine months in the early 20th century.
We finished our visit at the local Yacht Club where there was a gathering of locals watching Rugby Union on this fine Saturday afternoon. We were treated to a wonderful array of food including lobster, calamari, prawns, and quiches with champagne and beer.
Sunday, April 1 - At Sea / Walvis Bay / Swakopmund: We enjoyed another leisurely morning, complimented by an extra hour as Namibia came off daylight savings. Shirley took a few through some invigorating yoga poses, while others trickled into breakfast. Although the day began with some visibility, it wasn’t long before we were wrapped in fog and the captain ordered regular blows of the ship’s horn to identify our presence in the thick mist. Heavy fogs are frequent off the Namibian coast, a result of the cold Benguela current flowing from Antarctica.
Giovanna spoke with passion as she presented, Sharks of Southern Africa. She was followed by Kevin who gave the last presentation of our voyage, Lord of the Fowl and the Brute: Castaways of the Cape of Storms in his usual entertaining manner.
An afternoon pilgrimage to the desert plains outside Swakopmund rewarded us with photographic opportunities of the bizarre, desert-adapted plant, Welwitschia mirabilis, along with great sightings of two desert-adapted birds: the highly localized Gray’s lark and confiding tractrac chat. Heading south towards the dune sea, we scoured the arid river bed of the Kuiseb River for Namibia’s only true endemic bird, the salmon-colored dune lark, finally finding a pair scuttling between the red dunes.
Others of us opted for a visit to the nearby town of Swakopmund, but our journey was soon endangered by our vehicle’s failure to move forward! While a replacement bus was located we had a walking tour of the port town of Walvis Bay, quiet on this Sunday afternoon.
Finally on our way, we passed long strips of residential development along the coast before reaching the pretty town of Swakopmund with its Germanesque architectural style. We visited what was once the railway station, now beautifully appointed as the Swakopmund Hotel, followed by a wonderful little museum with a surprising range of displays. Before re-boarding our buses, we spent time with two sisters from the Himba tribe, a semi-nomadic pastoral group located in northern Namibia.
Monday, April 2 - Walvis Bay: An action-packed morning’s catamaran cruise across Walvis Bay towards Pelican Point filled our memory banks and memory cards with a kaleidoscope of experiences that ranged from bow-riding bottlenose dolphins and enormous pelicans catching fish in their cavernous pouches, to Cape fur seals confident enough to allow us to run our fingers through their wet pelts. Once at the point itself, the sea was alive with thousands of cavorting seals, along with a few dusky dolphins and fantastic views of both Heaviside’s dolphins and the rarely encountered, bizarre ocean sunfish, largest of all the world’s bony fishes.
After an incredible seafood lunch of calamari and Walvis Bay oysters, washed down with champagne and good local beer, we followed the coast 30 miles south to Sandwich Harbor. Our route was punctuated by frequent stops to appreciate the wildlife, search for barking and web-footed geckos, and to enjoy the spectacular scenery, with huge red dunes of the Namib Dune Sea sweeping down to meet the Atlantic Ocean. At Sandwich Harbor, we clambered up the immense dunes, with an incredible moonrise and panorama of the waterbird-thronged lagoon below.
Those wanting a quieter dune experience traveled back to Walvis Bay on our catamaran to board vehicles and travel inland over the dunes. We discovered a Topnaar camp where one individual stayed on to harvest !nara melon, a thorny desert plant and the main food of these semi-nomadic people. These plants used to be owned by individual families who fought bitterly to retain rights over them in the past. Now all plants are jointly owned by combined groups of the area. Topnaar populations are now severely reduced and no longer needing strict ownership controls over their basic source of food. A visit to another Topnaar camp gave us the chance to see a small but deadly sidewinder and scorpion of the Namib Desert.
Back on board we hurried to pack and clean up for dinner. Following our last dinner on board we were treated to Mike Murphy’s slideshow, highlighting the many adventures we had over the last few weeks. It was joyous to recall the many sites we had visited and the friends we had made, but our delight was bittersweet knowing that tomorrow would be our departure.
Tuesday, April 3 - Walvis Bay / Disembark: Our morning was one of farewells. After sixteen days of exploring the coasts of South Africa and Namibia, discovering the fabulous and unique flora and fauna of these regions, and engaging with the many local people, it was time to make our way forward to other destinations or to head home. We departed the Clipper Odyssey, leaving behind our ship family and taking with us many memories.