SOUTHERN AFRICA, THE LESS CHARTED COASTLINE FOR EUROPEAN CRUISE LINERS

by
Janine Maré
20 March 2015

As I nudged my golf ball off its tee, the ship swayed ever so slightly to the right, correcting my bad putt and depositing the ball neatly in the hole nine levels above the sea. I looked around me and the metropolis of Durban, from which we were departing, started to appear more and more like its famous Mini-Town replica. As I tried to find my sea legs on the deck of the MSC Opera I waved South Africa a wobbly goodbye, and reflected on how we had come to be playing golf on a boat.

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Early posters advertising the Union Castle Line.
The modern MSC Opera leaves Cape Town, Africa’s southern most port. ©MSC

The first “cruise” ships arriving in South Africa were not the luxury vessels we know today but passenger ships carrying Europeans looking for a new life in the Cape towards the beginning of the 19th Century. But by the late 1800s people started to see cruising as more than the only way to travel overseas. Unique holiday options were offered and ships were replete with casinos, lounges, dancing girls and a plethora of activities for everyone to enjoy during the journey. In 1980 over 1.4 million individuals embarked on a conventional cruise, a number that increased to over 19 million passengers in 2011, with the worldwide cruise market estimated at US$29.4 billion that year.

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By 2009 the total number of cruise vessels calling on South African ports was up to 196 per annum with an average vessel carrying 587 passengers. In comparission the 13-deck ship upon which I was practising my putting, had just over 2,000 passengers and a crew of over 700, while her sister ship, the MSC Sinfonia, which will return to the Southern African circuit later this year after a complete refit, will be able to carry a bounteous 2,680 passengers. It’s a tight squeeze travelling with such a large crowd, but we found respite on our cabin’s private balcony where we could completely relax and enjoy the pace of slow travel.

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Fishing dhows are a common site off the coast of Mozambique. ©Janine Maré

Slow Travel

Even with the plethora of other travel options available today, there is something romantic about a cruise liner, complete with the sense of olde worlde journeying, and fun to be had along the way. While we may have got lost trying to navigate the cruise liner’s halls, there was something new awaiting us around every corner – be it the Mongolian dancers who didn’t seem to have a bone in their body as they performed on the theatre stage or the game show-style parties going on poolside complete with cocktail-induced fancy dress competitions.

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A postcard illustrating a game of cricket on the deck of a Union Castle ship.
The author depends on the ocean swells to guide her golf ball into the hole aboard MSC Opera. ©Ryan Avery.
MSC Opera’s wake leaving Durban harbour. ©Janine Maré
An ocean cruise epitomises the essence of travel:
to travel for
travel’s sake

An ocean cruise epitomises the essence of travel. In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.’ Cruising allows you to experience this – the journey truly is the destination. The coast of southern Africa is not synonomous with cruising thanks to the heavy seas, strong winds and a lack of port infastructure. So cruising this coastline can be one hell of a journey.

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Lesser Known Waters

In a study done in 2009 Southern Africa was seen to welcome less than one per cent of the global cruising industry. This turbulent coastline is a difficult, often costly, region from which to operate vessels, as evidenced by the dramatic sinking of the MTS Oceanos that went down off the Transkei coast in 1991. Thankfully a spectacularly well-co-ordinated rescue effort saw all 571 passengers airlifted to safety by navy helicopters.
But cruise line companies are starting to see the appeal of southern Africa, taking advantage of austral summers and unique destinations. The 2014/2015 season saw more than 80,000 passengers board the MSC Opera with cruise passenger levels in South Africa projected to climb to between 200,000 and 1,000,000 passengers by 2025.

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Maputo from the waters edge. ©MSC.
The train station in Maputo features designs by Gustav Eiffel who also happened to design a tower in Paris. ©Rosino
Romantic cruise appeal without the fall-off-your-deck-chair pricetag

But the stormy weather this coast is renowned for even sent the ship I was on heading for the safety of Maputo, Mozambique’s capital city. While some people might believe Maputo is a place best avoided, there is a certain charm to the place where historic forts juxtapose crumbling modern buildings, and tuktuks whisk you to the central market where you can pick up handfuls of chillies, dried fish or roasted chashew nuts and a wide selection of fresh seafood. We spent the day guiding ourselves through the city, taking in the architecture – including the beautiful Gustave Eiffel-designed train station. Others indulged in seafood lunches at Clube Navale overlooking the yacht marina, and some people embarked on a guided tour of the city’s monuments.

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Portugese Island, which we visited after our brief sojourn in Maputo, is a popular cruise ship stop. Situated adjacent to Inhaca Island in the waters off Mozambique’s capital city, this unhabitated speck of land offers South Africans a taste of that romantic cruise appeal without the fall-off-your-deck-chair pricetag. A restaurant, shade areas, volleyball court and a curio market is set up on the beach, but we spent the day away from the crowds walking around the entire island, and into the forested centre where we explored the ruins of a leper colony. While others zipped around the flat water on tubes, or tried their hand at stand-up-paddle-boarding (often to laughs from the crowd on the beach), we ventured off for a bit of snorkelling. Those rough seas had stirred up the sea-bed resulting in poor visibility, but it was bliss just to float along with the current gazing at colourful coral and sea slugs, and the few fish that we could see as they flitted in and out of the reef. Turtles, dugongs and a multitude of aquatic species call the island’s coastline home so we will just have come back again, and hope for better luck and better visibility.

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A typical Mozambique beach.
©MSC
No other destination can match a cruise combined with a wildlife safari

While a southern African cruise may be a little bumpy at times, and passengers may need stronger sea-legs than in foreign parts, there is something to be said for cruising here. The fact that you can combine a cruise with a wildlife safari, or that you can step off a cruise liner onto desert dunes to explore ghostly old diamond mining towns, like Ludertiz on the Namibian coast, is something that no other destination can match. For those looking for the appeal of beaches and bikinis, there are cruises to Mauritius, Reunion and Madagascar where you can enjoy turquoise warm waters without the European crowds and walk among baobabs and creatures found nowhere else on earth. A cruise through the Mediterranean may be dotted with pictureque towns, but a cruise along southern Africa’s coastline offers long stretches of untouched nature reserves, and beaches so long and devoid of people that it’s like stepping back in time.

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A Coquerel’s Sifaka lemur, one of many fascinating creatures you can see by combining a cruise with a Madagascan wildlife safari.
©Frank Vassen.
A Mauritian resort like this could await you on a cruise to the islands off the east coast of Africa. ©MSC

Cruising allowed me to appreciate the beauty of slow travel. There were no rushed airports, no jets whizzing me from city to city, no stress of the road, and no multiple check-ins to contend with. This was travel for travel’s sake and I sure enjoyed the ride.africa-geographic-logo

Book your cruise:
Cruising with MSC along the Southern African cost offers an affordable holiday, especially for families as two children under the age of 18 stay for free when sharing with two paying adults. Book your cruise here.

At the time of publishing, news broke of the terrorist attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia. Our thoughts go the victims who were travelling aboard the MSC Splendida and Costa Fascinosa, the local Tunisians and their families.

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