On May 7, less than a week after getting home from the World Voyage, we set off again to drive to Blacksburg, Virginia for a memorial service for our friend and world travel companion, Lee Wolfle. His lovely family had delayed the service so that his friends on the world cruise would have an opportunity to attend. Some others would have liked to attend but for logistic obstacles, but Robert drove down with us and Karen drove up from her home in North Carolina.
You may recall in our first post about this cruise, back on January 4, we mentioned that this voyage was a reunion of sorts for the seven people who sat at our table in 2016. We were all back at the same table for the 2018 cruise, picking up where we left off as a happy & compatible group of travelling friends. None of us was more enthusiastic about that prospect than Lee Wolfle, who had tee shirts made for all of us showing the itinerary and titled “Around The World Together Again . . . Table 65.”
Like the first world circumnavigator, Ferdinand Magellan, Lee didn’t make it back from the trip. He began feeling poorly probably in New Zealand, was never able to get his strength back & had to leave the ship in Singapore. He was diagnosed with leukemia in Singapore and was flown as far as Los Angeles, where he entered Cedars Sinai hospital for treatment. But that didn’t work out & he died there in the middle of April as we were approaching Banjul.
All of Lee’s friends on the ship were shocked at the speed of his demise. Many of us were walking on the beach with him in the South Pacific just six weeks before he went into the hospital and at that time he seemed hale & hearty. Lee was a very big man, about 6’7”, and very active (he took an expedition to Antarctica last year) so it was hard to picture him as being so seriously ill. Needless to say, his ordeal cast a pall over the remainder of the voyage for all of us.
The memorial service in Blacksburg was not a somber affair. It was more a celebration of Lee’s life, with friends and relatives taking turns recounting memories and anecdotes about him. We were happy to meet Lee’s family, about whom he talked a lot. We spent two nights in Blacksburg and had an opportunity to see some of the town. It is the home of Virginia Tech university where Lee had been a professor and he was an avid fan of their football team. Statues of their mascot, the “Hokie” (a turkey we think), were all over town dressed up in varying painting styles. We found a street named for Lee (probably originally named for Robert E Lee, but not while we were there) and visited the local library (of course) which had an interesting exhibit of quilts. We would have enjoyed having Lee there to show it all to us, but the closest we ever got to Blacksburg with Lee was the Due South restaurant, where we shared barbecue lunches a couple of times.
We only knew Lee for about two years. But he was a good friend & the nicest guy you will ever meet. We all miss you, big guy.
On a voyage around the world there is no avoiding a lot of sea days at the end crossing the Atlantic Ocean. On this trip there were seven sea days between the Cape Verde Islands and Fort Lauderdale, broken only by the day in San Juan that was the subject of the previous episode. That doesn’t mean that everyone is napping in the sun the whole way though, since there is always plenty to do. This included the crew shows by the Indonesian & Filipino crews, a goodbye assembly featuring the officers and crew, and good-byes to all your friends on board (not to mention packing, which we won’t).
The crew shows are always entertaining, colorful and very well attended. The crew members put a lot of work into these shows, rehearsing in the little spare time they have away from their jobs. The Indonesian crew show was on April 24, the day before we reached Puerto Rico. It started with a sort of glove dance, involving interactive movements by crew members lined up and wearing white gloves.
Next up was a group of three singers, then a very impressive Indonesian dancer (who had been our waitress in the Pinnacle the day before). Note how expressive her hand gestures are; our hands won’t bend in that way at all.
A group of crew supervisors performed in sunglasses and glittery costumes, then two women danced wearing long yellow scarves.
Next was the monkey dance, depicting a story from Hindu mythology. The guys sitting on the floor are all monkeys, an evil spirit comes to take away the queen & the good king shows up in the end to make everything come out right (we may well have the story garbled). One of the guys sitting on the floor was our assistant waiter, Leo.
Then for the finale many of the performers came back on stage to play a couple of songs on sets of tuned sticks, each of which makes a note when shaken.
The Filipino crew show was on April 26, the day after our stop in San Juan. It started with a rousing full cast number then, in contrast, a solo guitar set from a very good guitarist.
After an appearance between acts of an angel (played by Kaye, our wine steward), a group of women with straw hats performed a hat dance, with hats moving from head to head.
Another group of women did a dance using large scarves, which they later folded into turbans. Then Nestor, another wine steward who works near our table and produces the show, sang a solo song. The song was not in English, but he was dressed half as a man and half as a woman. We don’t know what that was about, but Nestor is a very good singer.
The last performance involved a large group wearing white gloves that glowed in the dark. They put their gloves together to form different pictures and messages. It was quite impressive and showed a lot of work. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get a decent picture until after the lights went back on. Then everyone was back on stage for the Finale.
On April 27, the day before we arrived in Ft Lauderdale, there was a final assembly in the Queen’s Lounge for summing up and farewells. Captain Mercer and Hamish the cruise director both addressed the assembled passengers and there was a special moment as they celebrated the retirement of Barbara the location guide after some 25 years and countless voyages. She was very good and will surely be missed.
On April 24 we had a good-bye lunch in the Pinnacle with the usual crew and later a group picture at Kathy, Corinne, Kay and Karen’s table downstairs in the main dining room
Amsterdam was headed for a weeklong dry dock after it dropped us off in Ft Lauderdale and they began preparing for that work as we crossed the Atlantic. Outside our window workers were putting down a plywood covering over the teak deck. Meanwhile, inside our cabin our suitcases were being packed with what seemed like a lot more stuff than we started out with.
Our last sea day was dark and wet. During the afternoon the Captain came on the loudspeakers to inform us that a waterspout had been spotted off our starboard bow. A waterspout is basically a tornado occurring over water rather than land. We had never seen that before so we went out on deck to see it. There were actually two waterspouts, one of which moved toward and then past the other. Quite a sendoff from the ocean!
We had our final night on board then disembarked the next day, April 28. We picked up our car and drove to St Petersburg where we spent three delightful days with Mary’s aunt & uncle, Irene and Michael. Then home, where we began posting all the episodes of this amazing voyage to the blog, where you are reading them. Ending an epic voyage like this one and saying good-bye to all your friends and acquaintances is sad, but getting home after four months away is always a good feeling (even if you do have to start cooking and cleaning for yourself again). Hopefully we will get to do this again one day.
April 25 found us docked in San Juan after five sea days. This was the last port visited on this voyage and we were looking forward to getting home.
Maybe we were just tired, but for whatever reason we did not get up early enough to see the sail in, which is a good one (we did see it once, about 10 years ago). We decided to spend the day walking around Old San Juan, the original settlement here in 1509. It is situated on an island joined to the rest of Puerto Rico by several bridges and it is also the location of the cruise ship port. So after breakfast we left the ship to walk up to one of the two great fortresses here.
On the way we walked through Plaza de Colon, named for Christopher Columbus whose statue dominates the square. Although the square is much older, the statue of Columbus was erected in 1893 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his (European) discovery of the island in 1493. The square is lively a little later in the day; when we were there the vendors were just setting up all around the plaza. On the downhill edge of the plaza is the Teatro Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, built in 1824, which hosts ballet and other cultural events. A number of old trees were blown down in this square by Hurricane Maria in September, 2017, about seven and a half months before our arrival but the plaza seemed in pretty good shape when we were there.
We walked on to the Castillo San Cristóbal, completed in 1783, the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World. This is one of two fortresses in San Juan: San Cristobal was designed to defend against land attacks and El Morro to defend against attacks by sea. Today they are both under the jurisdiction of the US National Parks Service, which sells a ticket that admits you to both forts. US citizens of a certain age can buy a lifetime pass that gets you into all American national parks. We bought ours a few years ago when it was $10, an incredible bargain, but recently the price has been raised substantially (still a bargain if you want to visit a number of parks, as you should because they are wonderful). Anyway, we had to pay for admission to the fort; we had left our lifetime passes at home because we would be travelling abroad where they would be of no use, forgetting that our last port would be on US territory. Never again!
The fort has upper and lower courtyards connected by a labyrinth of tunnels that enabled soldiers to rush from one rampart to another without being exposed to enemy fire. In the tunnels was a chamber that was used as a dungeon. It had drawings on the walls that were made by a prisoner in the 19th century.
In 1942 pillboxes were added to enhance the defenses. Through the narrow opening facing the sea is quite a view of the coastline in both directions.
From the ramparts one has a nice view of the upper courtyard and of the city beyond. The domed building is the Puerto Rico capitol, completed in 1929.
Three ships were in port this day and you could see them lined up from the ramparts of the fort. Amsterdam seems pretty big when you are standing next to it but you can see from the picture how small it is by modern cruise ship standards. On the right is a Royal Caribbean ship, the Something (behemoth?) Of The Seas, in the middle is the Carnival Magic, and the little guy on the left is the Amsterdam. We like the smaller ones the best.
The Spanish built five huge cisterns under the fort, holding a total of more than 850,000 gallons of water, with an elaborate system to direct rainwater into them from all over the fort. When the US Army occupied the fort in 1898 it shut down the cisterns out of concern that the retreating Spanish might have poisoned the water. They were reopened in 2011 by the National Parks Service to provide only non-potable water to the fort’s facilities. Amusingly, Rick found a sign in a restroom that contained only a toilet warning not to drink the water because it wasn’t potable (people don’t drink from toilets and dogs can’t read the sign). The Spanish accessed the water in the cisterns from wells dug in the floor of the fort that were surrounded by masonry cylinders. Above the wall overlooking the lower courtyard fly the flags of the United States, Puerto Rico and the Spanish Empire.
We didn’t come across a library in San Juan but we did visit La Casa del Libro, a tiny book museum. For some 10 years it had been without a permanent home but about a year and a half before our visit it was re-established in the house that had been its original home. It has an extensive collection of antique books dating to the 15th century but most of the permanent displays were not open when we were there. We did visit a temporary exhibit of very tiny printed books.
We walked over to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. Completed in 1540 on the site of an earlier church, it is the oldest Catholic cathedral in the Americas (there is an older one in the Dominican Republic but it wasn’t always a cathedral). Inside is the tomb of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, founder of the city.
Across the street from the cathedral is a very nice park called the Plaza de la Catedral. This has been maintained as an open space since 1521. A whimsical nautical sculpture sits in the park. The street between the cathedral and the park is paved with cobblestones in the shape of bricks. What is unusual is that the bricks are shiny blue, as can be seen throughout Old San Juan. These bricks were made from slag discarded by Spanish iron foundries and brought to Puerto Rico as ballast in Spanish ships. An early example of efficient recycling!
By now it was mid afternoon and we were hot and tired, so we continued up the street to find a place to sit down and have something to eat. Because of the hour few restaurants were open,but we finally found one called Ostra Cosa. The food was good and the beer was refreshing, sitting in a long room open to the outside. We had a view across the street of San Jose Plaza, named for the church of the same name that sits on the plaza’s east side (left in the picture below). The church was built from 1532 to 1735 and Ponce de Leon was interred there until 1836 when his remains were moved to the cathedral. After eating (a long time because the service was exceedingly slow) we walked over to see the statue. We couldn’t visit the church because it was undergoing renovation.
We walked back toward the ocean and the city walls and first came to the Plaza del Quintro Centenario, built in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to America. It is pretty impressive, if a little sterile. The plaza is dominated by the 40 foot high Totem Telurico, a sculptured column made of clay gathered from across the Americas, representing the origins of the indigenous peoples of America.
We walked toward the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the fort guarding the entrance to the bay. It is an impressive structure, built in the 16th century. The National Parks ticket we bought to enter San Cristobol would also have admitted us to this fort but it was getting late, we were hot and tired and we had been to El Morro once before. So we just walked by it. In front of El Morro by the water is the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, opened in the mid 19th century. It is filled with above-ground stone tombs and has a nice stone gateway to the older section of the cemetery.
We walked along the old city walls toward San Cristobal. At the end of the 18th century these thick walls completely surrounded the city but some inland ones were taken down in the1890’s to permit the city to grow toward the east. Outside the wall on the water’s edge is La Perla, which has been a shanty town housing poor people since the late 19th century. The buildings are painted in very bright colors but many were badly damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017. On the whole San Juan appears to have cleaned itself up nicely, at least on the surface, but we did see a few instances of what looked like hurricane damage. Situated outside the walls and exposed to the sea La Perla didn’t have much of a chance when the hurricane arrived.
There is an inclined road over a retaining wall running parallel to the city wall built by the Spanish in the 1760’s. It was paved in 1960 for automobile traffic. Somehow the 18th century Spanish engineers didn’t anticipate modern cars and the wall collapsed in 2004, probably from traffic vibration and air pollution. The original façade of the wall has since been restored and strengthened, but we’re not sure we would want to drive over it.
After this we visited a few shops as we walked back to the ship. Actually, walking the streets of San Juan is one of the best things here, for they are lined with different colored colonial era buildings. As we walk back to the ship, here is just a small sample.
And so we took our leave of San Juan, the last port on this world wide voyage before disembarkation.
We spent April 14 docked at Praia on Ilha de Santiago, the capital and largest city of the Cape Verde Islands.
The Portuguese discovered these islands in the mid-15th century and in 1462 established the settlement of Ribeira Grande, the first European colony in the tropics. Despite their name these islands have a very dry climate and are not very green; the name was taken from the nearest point on the African continent, Cap Vert in Senegal (where Dakar is situated). Most European colonial settlement involved suppression and/or enslavement of the indigenous population but the Cape Verde Islands were uninhabited when the Portuguese arrived. The absence of an indigenous workforce to exploit was soon overcome by the importation of slaves from western Africa so that by 1582 there were 100 Europeans and 13,700 slaves. Situated at the crossroads of shipping routes among Europe, Africa and America, Cape Verde became an important re-provisioning stop for slave ships and later a warehouse for slaves destined for the Americas. Independence from Portugal was achieved in 1975.
Our excursion took us first to the center of Praia, a fairly small city for a capital with a population of about 135,000 (about a fourth of the country’s population). The city was founded in 1615 on a spot where an earlier settlement had been destroyed by Sir Frances Drake in 1585. We walked down a pedestrian street called Avenida 5 De Julho (the date of independence), where they are trying to develop a canopy betweem trees on each side (not quite there yet). It was still early morning so the streets were largely empty.
We visited the market, consisting of many food kiosks contained in a large building on this avenue. Even though it was early morning this place was already bustling. It must get quite crowded later in the day. A plaque inside seemed to indicate that it was built in 1924.
We continued south to Alexandre Albuquerque Square, the center of downtown. We visited the Igreja Nossa Senhora da Graca, built 115 years ago to serve a diocese several hundred years older. At the southern border of the square is the city hall, built in the 1920’s, and beyond it the Presidential Palace, built at the end of the 19th century to house the Portuguese governor and recently renovated.
We passed a huge obelisk commemorating the discovery of Cape Verde in (it says) 1460, then came to a large statue of Diogo Gomes. He was a Portuguese navigator who has been credited with discovering these islands, but that claim is now in considerable doubt. But the statue is there next to a wall overlooking the expanse of Gamboa beach and its neighborhood. A new casino built by the Chinese (or maybe someone from Singapore) is in this area. By the statue was a black and white mosaic sidewalk of the type we have seen in many other Portuguese areas.
At the left in the photo above is an island about 130 yards from shore called Ilheu de Santa Maria (formerly Quail Island). Praia was the first stop on Charles Darwin’s famous voyage on the HMS Beagle in 1832. At that time this area was Praia’s harbor and the Beagle anchored at Santa Maria island. Darwin made his first geological observations on Santa Maria island. The island is uninhabited today, but on the island are the ruins of some buildings built hurriedly in the 1850’s to house the victims of a cholera epidemic on one of the other islands.
The Supreme Tribunal of Justice was built for Cabo Verde’s highest court. This building is still in use at least for criminal matters. Our last stop in Praia was the Quartel Jaime Mota, a military barracks built in 1826 and still in use (can’t recall whether its for police or military today). It is one of the oldest buildings in the city.
We drove just a few miles to visit Cidade Velha, the “old town,” which was established as the first settlement on Cape Verde in 1462. Its original name was Ribeira Grande. Vasco da Gama stopped here in 1497 on his way to India, Christopher Columbus stopped here in 1498 on his 3rd voyage to America and Ferdinand Magellan stopped here in 1522 on his voyage around the world. It was sacked twice: by Sir Frances Drake in 1585 and by the French in 1712. Then over ensuing decades much of its population moved to Praia and in 1770 the capital was officially moved there from Ribeira Grande.
Our first stop was at the fort, Real de Sao Filipe, that overlooks the town from above a 3500 foot hill. Built in 1590 after Drake’s sacking of the town, it was intended to prevent a recurrence, but the fort itself was sacked by the French in 1712. Near the entrance was a group of young people intermittently singing as we walked by.
From the fort were some great views, both of the town below and of the river valley to one side where there is some agriculture being done. From the fort we could see the ruins of the old cathedral in Cidade Velha, completed in 1693 and presumably razed by the French in 1715.
We drove down (the path probably would have been more fun) to visit the town. We walked up a street called Rua de Banana, the oldest street in the town built in the 15th century. It is lined with restored small stone houses with thatched roofs.
Up a hill and a block over from Rua de Banana is the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosario, the first church built in the tropics in 1495. There are 16th and 17th century tombstones in the floor and the remains of perhaps 1,000 more people are buried under the floor. The walls have many old tiles and the step in front of the entrance appears to have been made out of an old tombstone as well. The church has been restored and is still actively used today.
We walked down to the central square of the town past numerous houses with flowers and succulents outside. A craft market had been set up in the square but the most interesting thing was the Pelourinho, a column with four metal arms extending from the top. First built in 1520, this is a pillory where disobedient slaves were tied to the metal arms for public whipping. It is preserved as a momento of the town’s history in the slave trade and a memorial to those who suffered here.
After leaving Cidade Velha we drove through the dry and rugged interior and up into the mountains where we ate lunch at a spot with excellent views.
After lunch we drove through the island’s interior to the botanical gardens, located near a town called Sao Jorge dos Orgaos. It was not the best botanical garden we have ever seen but included some nice flowers and a lot of cactus.
We drove back to the ship through some scenic landscape and a few towns along the east coast of the island.
We had a lovely sail away just as the sun was setting. There was a party going on in the Lido (which we understand ended with passengers jumping into the pool) but watching the sail away from the aft deck was more appealing. We spotted a nearby vessel labeled CIA, but it turns out to be just a ferry that transports people and cars among the islands.
As the ship sailed west we retired sometime after dinner, in the comforting knowledge that there would be five relaxing sea days before we reached our next, and last, port.
On April 17 we were docked in Dakar, the capital and largest city in Senegal.
The Portuguese began shipping slaves from this area in the 15th century and in the 16th century it was an important stop for Portuguese ships headed to and from India. The Portuguese established the first European settlement in the mid 16th century just off the coast on the Ile de Goree, which became one of the most important slave depots. The Dutch and English occupied this area for some time as well before France finally took control in 1677. Senegal has been independent since 1960. Dakar is the westernmost city in the Old World. In fact, since it sits west of the Prime Meridian, it is actually part of the Western Hemisphere. Its urban population is almost 2.5 million.
We spent the morning on an excursion to the Ile de Goree, an island less than 2 miles from Dakar. We walked to the ferry for the 20 minute ride. We exited to the island on a pier in a small harbor in the middle of the island.
Some 1500 people live on the island today but most of the buildings are hundreds of years old. Many are painted in very bold hues that made striking images in their contrasting shapes and colors as we walked past them. Colorful flowers decorated many of the streets as well.
We walked to the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves). Goree Island was an important center for the slave trade for about two centuries so this was the last glimpse of Africa for many who were torn from their families and brought unwillingly to the Americas. During its heyday there were perhaps a dozen slave detention houses on Goree that served as depots for transferring them to waiting ships. This one, built around 1780, is the only one that has been preserved and restored as a memorial. The museum was opened in 1962 and restored during the 1970’s. It has since hosted many visitors, including most famously Nelson Mandela and Barak Obama. The small building was filled with visitors when we were there and the director of the museum gave a talk in the front courtyard about the slave trade and the project to preserve and restore this building.
Inside the first floor were the remnants of cells and at the very back is an open doorway called the “Door of No Return.” Through this door slaves were taken down a ramp to boats that ferried them to anchored slave ships never to see their homeland again. It is a matter of some dispute how many slaves left from Goree but this place is not important so much because it was one of the largest or most important slave depots but because it is the only one left that can be visited. A visit here can be quite moving.
We walked to a square with a large Baobab tree and the guide explained what makes these trees unique. Most of the several types of Baobabs grow only on Madagascar, with one or two growing in Africa and Australia. They can grow almost 100 feet tall but are distinctive for their wide trunks, which can reach more than 35 feet in diameter. In those trunks they store water, often tens of thousands of gallons, to sustain them through droughts. They are extremely long-lived, with some having been determined to be more than 2,000 years old. In the last decade or so many of the oldest Baobabs have suddenly died and, while the cause has not yet been determined definitively, climate change is the most widely suspected culprit. The fruit, sometimes called “monkey bread,” is very dry and nutritious. It is ground into powder that is added to many types of dishes. The trees are deciduous and had no leaves while we were visiting.
We walked on and up the hill (there is only one prominent hill on the island). We saw the church and an artist’s village, then walked up a path lined with Baobabs.
Near the top we stopped into the Dougoub Galerie where an artist was making sand paintings. Different colors of sand are imported from many places in Africa. After spreading glue on the backing he applies each color to a part of it by sifting it out of his hand. He then lifted it up and the excess sand dropped off, leaving a surprisingly sharp sand picture you wouldn’t have known was there during the process.
We walked around the top of the hill, seeing what there was to see.
From the top were some particularly good views, both of Goree and of Dakar about a mile and a half across the water.
We walked back down the hill by a different route then across to the fort, passing animals, flowers and more brightly colored buildings.
The interestingly round Fort d’Estrees sits at the far end of the island on the edge of the harbor. It was built by the French in the 1850’s to protect the Dakar harbor but saw no action until 1940. In September of 1940 the British and Free French attempted to take Dakar from the Vichy government. A naval task force arrived but the area was not taken. During the Battle of Dakar the Tacoma, an allied merchant ship, was sunk just off shore of Goree Island. It is still there, marked with a buoy so the ferry can avoid it, and it is somewhat popular with divers.
The rooms ringing the courtyard of the fort contain a museum with a wide range of subjects. We particularly liked the Muslim mosaics in one of them.
The tour was now ended and we walked back along the waterfront to the harbor area where we would catch the ferry back to Dakar.
Back at the dock we stopped into a café for a beer. Across the square was a craft stand selling the colorful baskets made in this region, which we had also seen in The Gambia, very different from what we saw in South Africa. In the square and on the dock as we boarded the ferry were a number of local folks in striking clothing.
We got back to the ship early in the afternoon and decided to take the shuttle bus to Independence Square, the center of Dakar. On grand voyages HAL often provides a free shuttle into town when the ship is docked further than walking distance. This is often a good choice when you don’t have anything scheduled since it gives you an opportunity to explore the town in leisurely fashion for free. But not here! We learned later that a number of passengers had been harassed by locals in town and by vendors if they didn’t buy anything. One crew member’s phone was actually stolen on the dock (we heard later that the other crew members had pooled their money to buy him a new one). It seems that this stop is the one that most merited the warnings we received from Barbara and Captain Mercer.
But we didn’t know any of this when we boarded the shuttle to Independence Square. Then just before we left one of HAL’s security staff stepped into the bus to warn us, in no uncertain terms, not to walk back to the ship but to wait for the bus. We had never encountered anything like that before. As we headed downtown a Senegalese guide began narrating the trip. When we got to Independence Square he said the folks near the bus stop looked dangerous to him and asked everybody to stay on the bus and he would take us on a drive past the highlights of town. No one got off so off we went. The guide was very good and we drove on past the presidential palace, the National Assembly, the IFAN Art Museum, some resort hotels popular with French vacationers (some surrounded by razor wire), then back to the port via the coastal road. It was a bit of a whirlwind and we really can’t remember everything we saw, but here are some pictures we managed to take on the way through the bus windows.
As we had seen in Banjul, there was a craft market laid out all along the dock in front of the ship. This one was much bigger though. We walked around and even bought something. A lot of these things look interesting but after a while most of it fades into “more of the same” and you had to bargain just to find out how much something might cost. Not really what we like. From the ship you could see in the distance the silhouette of the African Renaissance Monument, the tallest sculpture in Africa, completed in 2010 to mark 50 years of Senegalese independence. It is impressive in size but many consider it an ugly example of Stalinist art. Not having seen it up close we have no opinion.
We sailed away as the sun was setting. We passed the Ile de Goree glowing in the late afternoon light & looking back our final view of Dakar was golden, a fitting farewell to the fascinating continent of Africa.
April 16 found us docked at Banjul, capital of The Gambia.
But before we get to that we have to tell you about something that happened 3 days earlier when we crossed the Equator for the fourth and last time. During his daily afternoon announcements the day before the Captain told us about a ship that was sailing in the Pacific on the eve of the first New Year of the 20th century. It seems that it was near the international date line at the time, so its captain decided to alter course a little so that midnight would find them straddling the spot where the Equator crosses the date line. At that moment half the ship was in Winter (above the equator) and half in Summer (below the equator). Half the ship was in the last day of December (on one side of the date line) and half the ship was in the first of January. But the really unique thing was that half the ship was in the 19th century and the other half in the 20th century.
Anyway, the Captain mentioned that we would be crossing the Prime Meridian as well as the Equator, but not at quite the same time. So he was later presented with a petition from some passengers requesting that he alter course so we could cross the point where these two lines intersect and he agreed to do so. It would be around 11:00 at night so the cruise director scheduled a “pajama party” in the Crow’s Nest to celebrate. In the end many were disappointed because the ship missed the mark by about 20 feet. But since the Amsterdam is more than 100 feet wide it seemed to us that if its GPS said it was within 20 feet then part of the ship must have passed over the spot. We have no evidence for this, but we prefer to believe that the cabin where we were asleep at the time passed smack over the intersection of the Equator and the Prime Meridian!
Of course, this intersection was nothing like that of the 19th century ship detailed above. Amsterdam was half in Winter and half in Summer, but that is true any time you cross any part of the Equator. The special thing about this particular intersection is that it is the only place on Earth that is zero degrees latitude and zero degrees longitude. So, as the Captain said, navigationally speaking this spot is the center of the world! This is pretty arbitrary, though, since the Prime Meridian is just a line on a map drawn in the late 19th century to pass through the observatory in Greenwich, England. In any event, the only thing to see there (even when it isn’t night out) is water. As you can imagine, then, there are no pictures.
Getting back to The Gambia, it is a tiny country that includes only the land on both sides of the Gambia river. Except for its seacoast Gambia is bordered entirely by Senegal, which surrounds it. Gambia became a British possession under the Versailles Treaty of 1783 and achieved independence in 1965. “The” was added to its name to avoid confusion with the sound-alike country of Zambia. Gambia’s first president held office for almost 30 years, then a military coup installed Yahya Jammeh as president. He held onto office for 22 years and was voted out in a surprise electoral upset in December, 2016 . A few days later he rejected the electoral result and vowed to hold onto power but a military incursion by several African nations finally forced him out in late January, 2017. So when we arrived Gambia was only 15 months into its first democratic government.
Banjul, the capital, is on an island at the mouth of the River Gambia and has a population of only about 35,000. Its name derives from a Mandinka word for bamboo, which grew plentifully here a few hundred years ago. After the British abolished slavery they built a fort on this island in 1816 to stop the deportation of slaves from the area, with mixed success. From where we were docked we had an expansive view of the port.
It took longer than expected to clear the ship for disembarkation so we had some time to watch the ferry traffic in the port. People of a certain age will remember LaVar Burton’s breakthrough role as Kunta Kinte in the 1970’s TV series Roots, based on Alex Haley’s book of the same name recounting the slave history of his family. In the series and in real life Haley’s presumed ancestor Kunta Kinteh was captured and sold into slavery in Gambia. Today there is a nearby island named for him and we saw a ferry named for him as well. A lot of people disembarked from these ferries, probably commuting to work in Banjul. An alternative way to cross the river or travel upriver is by pirogue, long thin boats we saw beyond the ferry dock to our right. At the end of the dock next to the ferry dock was a half sunken ship, which had apparently been there awhile since they had arranged floating lines around it.
We were scheduled for a bus excursion through the area in the afternoon so we caught the ship’s shuttle to the Albert Market in the center of town. It isn’t too far to walk but we were told that the area in between might not be safe. The Gambians have a reputation (well deserved in our small experience) for friendliness – Gambia is nicknamed the “Smiling Coast” – but we decided to play it safe in this unfamiliar territory and, in fact, some of the streets looked a little uncertain. They dropped us off in an alley at the back entrance to the market.
The craft market had kiosk after kiosk of wood carvings, masks, baskets and other interesting items. Nothing had a price on it; everything was about haggling. Many people enjoy that but we aren’t among them. You couldn’t just ask for a price either. The response was always “How much would you offer?” The vendors were aggressive in asking you to come in and look at their wares but they were always friendly and never curt or demanding. We bought a few things and learned some lessons about shopping in this environment.
After lunch we boarded the bus for our excursion. First stop was the National Museum, a small but interesting facility. No photography was permitted inside, which housed a large collection of vintage photographs and a room full of interesting musical instruments among other things. Outside were a number of bronze sculptures, one of which we understand is a likeness of former president Jammeh holding a baby that once stood at Arch 22, which we would see later.
We drove on to Bakau, crossing what we understand to be the River Gambia. On the way we passed the National Assembly building, a mosque and wetlands with mangroves and many birds.
We passed what we took to be the Bakau Craft Market on the way to the nearby Kachikally Crocodile Pool. This has been a pilgrimage site for several hundred years and women still come here to douse themselves with water from the pool as a fertility aid. You walk through a bit of forest to reach the crocodile pool. The most noteworthy item along this walk is a tall Beobab tree, although we also saw a crocodile that had somehow gotten himself far into a covered water trench. Apparently the crocodiles are permitted to run free as they like & are sometimes found in neighboring yards and on porches.
Kachikally is, obviously, a tourist attraction as well as a sacred site. Many of the crocodiles are said to be quite docile and well used to humans, but we don’t think we would test that. On the other hand, there is (or was) a well known crocodile here named Charlie, 70+ years old and 9 yards (feet?) long, who allows visitors to touch his back without a problem. We have read, though, that a number of different crocodiles play this role and all are referred to as Charlie. Be that as it may, there was a crocodile in a spot near the pool with a line of visitors waiting to pet him on the back. Mary took a pass, but Rick got in line & touched the crocodile. He was so still that we were unsure whether he was alive or dead until Mary saw him blink his eyes. I wouldn’t try this at home (or in Australia)!
Leaving Kachikally, we drove through Bakau’s somewhat desolate back streets to visit a school, which had a small library across the road. We also passed a vendor selling batik pictures, looking quite pretty as they blew in the wind.
We stopped for a local Julbrew beer in the courtyard of a guesthouse called “Smiling Coast.” Musicians were setting up for their show later in the evening. The beer was very good.
We drove to Serekunda, Gambia’s largest city with a population of 350,000, where we visited a batik and tie-dying workshop. Some workers were applying wax to a cloth in preparation for dying a batik picture.
We drove back to Banjul, passing a mosque and driving under Arch 22. The arch commemorates the coup of July 22, 1994, that put former president Jammeh into power for 22 years. Before Jammeh was ousted we couldn’t have driven under this arch because only the president himself was permitted to do that. A monument of an “unknown soldier” (that some think resembles Jammeh) used to sit in a traffic circle in front of the arch, but we think we saw it at the National Museum earlier today (shown above). The arch is more than 100 feet tall, one of the tallest buildings in Banjul, and is remarkably ugly, consisting of a triangular building on top of two groups of pillars. Some folks got out of the bus to photograph it but it was so ugly and was built to celebrate oppression, so we just waited on the bus. We did see it from the ship, however.
Our last stop was the Albert Market. The bus stopped in front of the market while the guide and about half the passengers went inside for a quick walk-through. We had been there this morning, of course, and it had been a long day so we elected to wait on the bus. Many of the Gambian women dress in very bright, colorful clothes. You have seen a few already, but a number walked by the bus in front of the market, some carrying items on their heads.
Back at the port a large impromptu market was set up along the dock in front of the ship. A group of women there were performing some lively song and dance.
We sailed away from Banjul as the sun was setting, with some boats still out in the water, and headed north for the short trip to neighboring Senegal.
On April 10 we were in Luanda, a port that is rarely visited by cruise ships (we could only find one other cruise ship scheduled to stop here this year). Angola has a long history and it isn’t pretty. It was a Portuguese colony for some 400 years (with a 7 year hiatus of Dutch rule) and for 250 years they used Luanda as a hub for the slave trade, especially to Brazil. It obtained independence in 1975 and immediately fell into a civil war that lasted until 2002. They are still recovering from that civil war. Today Luanda is one of the most expensive cities in the world and its plentiful oil reserves have created a class of very wealthy folks, both Angolan and foreign, who can afford to live here. But most of its 6 million residents are quite poor and have trouble making ends meet in this expensive economy.
When reading up about Luanda before the trip the main theme of advice was that this was a dangerous place to visit. Avoid walking the streets by yourself, and taking pictures of most places is forbidden with possible confiscation of your camera. This was reinforced by Barbara, the port guide, who presented a long list of safety admonitions, including not only avoiding drinking the local water but avoiding even touching it. After this we received a letter from the Captain repeating many of these same admonitions, along with an additional warning to be skeptical of anyone who speaks good English!
As you can imagine, the question everyone was asking after all this was: why are we even stopping here?
As it turned out this port was interesting and not unpleasant at all (at least for most folks). It seems that the Angolans would like to have more cruise business so they were very welcoming. We heard of no one who had a problem with the police & several police were on the dock when we left enthusiastically waving goodbye. No one tried to interfere with taking pictures; in fact we heard that on one of the tour busses the guide was taking pictures as much as the passengers. So maybe things are slowly improving here for visitors.
With this port’s reputation for being dangerous, it seemed before we arrived that the only safe options were to take a HAL tour (expensive & short) or stay on the ship. We travel to see new parts of the world and sure didn’t want to just stay on the ship all day. So we signed up for a HAL bus tour. As it happened, we saw a number of passengers who went out on their own and walked all the way to the fort (between one and two miles) without problem. Several small buses made up our excursion & we travelled together in a caravan with a police & ambulance(!) escort.
Our first stop was about a third of the way along the Marginal. This is the long expanse of waterfront between the port and the Fortaleza, a large fort on a hill across the bay. The Angolans are in the middle of a 15 year project to upgrade this area. The first part, completed in 2012, is a concrete path along the waterfront with its edge descending into the water, a number of small foot bridges and very colorful gardens along the way. There was a noticeable police presence (just for cruise ship day? we don’t know) and it felt very safe. The slanted concrete leading to the water was not safe; we heard that two people fell in (despite Barbara’s warning not to touch the water) and one had to be rescued by police.
Tracking the Marginal across from the water is one of the city’s main streets. On the other side of it were some pretty drab looking buildings. Maybe the redevelopment plan will get to them later. We suspect that while the Marginal park appears to be safe for visitors, walking a few blocks into the area across the street might be asking for trouble. We heard later that one passenger was accosted in that area and was rescued by local folks. Of course, he was carrying a lot of expensive looking camera equipment, despite the captain’s warning, so his running into trouble shouldn’t really be surprising.
A block or so from the Marginal, just past the blue building below, is a small 17th century Portuguese church that is often featured as one of the sights in this city. But we didn’t see it. Luanda lacks a professional tourist infrastructure so our tour was kind of ad hoc. The guides were recruited from other day jobs, mostly because they could speak English. Our guide normally worked as a translator, not a tour guide. So they are amateurs. She walked with a few of the passengers in our bus to see this church but because she never said a word about it to the rest of us we didn’t know it was there until we saw them crossing the street on their return. Very frustrating, but that is pretty representative of the current state of Luanda’s facilities for travelers.
Boarding the buses we drove along the Marginal, past the Fortaleza and out onto the Ilha do Cabo. We passed the pink National Bank of Angola (a local landmark), the monument to the unknown soldier, and the Largo de Baleizao, a plaza laid out in 1765 that served as a slave market.
No longer an island since it was connected to the mainland by a bridge, the Ilha is a 5 mile long sandy outcropping, no more than 550 yards wide at its widest point, that separates the bay from the ocean and makes it one of the largest ports in Africa. It is a popular beach spot and houses many bars and restaurants popular with Angolans. No one was swimming today, but we saw many people along the road. At the end of the Ilha was a candy colored lighthouse.
We drove back to the first stop across the bridge to the mainland, the Fortaleza de Sao Miguel (St Michael Fort). First erected in 1576 it was improved over the centuries through 1916. It has served as a slave depot, a prison and a museum. During the Angolan war for independence between 1961 and 1975 the Portuguese used it as their central military command post.
We spent most of our visit on the ramparts looking at the panoramic views of the city and the bay. We were told later that there are a couple of rooms with old Portuguese tile walls worth seeing but, true to form, our amateur guide didn’t tell us about them.
On the ocean side of the fort was a neighborhood with a lake or inlet where fishermen were plying their trade. Some of the houses don’t look too shabby, but we were told this is a poor neighborhood.
In the central courtyard on the first floor of the fort was a row of large statues. From left to right the first three are Diogo Cao (the first Portuguese to step on Angolan soil), Paulo Dias de Novais (founder of Luanda), and Salvador Correia de Sa (governor of Angola). Outside the walls was a giant statue of a 17th century African queen named Njinga, widely celebrated here and in Brazil for standing up to the Portuguese (although she also sold some 200,000 people to their slave traders). Inside the fort is a bust of Jose Mendes de Carvalho, a celebrated fighter in the war for independence who was killed in 1968. The front gate includes pictures of fighters from the civil war or the war of independence on the left and resisters to Portuguese slavers on the right.
We had one more stop after leaving the Fortaleza, the Mausoleum of Dr Antonio Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first president. He died in Moscow in 1979 after a cancer operation and the Russians made a start on building this monument in 1981. They soon abandoned it and it finally opened only in 2012, completed by Brazilian and then South Korean companies. Inside is supposed to be his sarcophagus, but we were only allowed to view the outside from the gates. This is a soaring, if somewhat ugly, metal monument shaped like a rocket, visible all over Luanda. There was a bust of Dr Neto in the Fortaleza. Behind the mausoleum one could see the shiny pink dome of the new National Assembly building opened at the end of 2015, looking a little like the Capitol building in Washington.
After our excursion bus returned to the ship we walked out to a market that had been set up in a square outside the port gates. Locals were selling mostly clothing and paintings. We bought a little something (remember, this is one of the world’s most expensive cities!) then walked back to the ship for the sail away.
As we sailed out of the harbor the hillside on the starboard (right) side of the ship was covered with hovels, slums that are called musseques in Angola. Luanda was a town of about 60,000 in 1940 and grew to about 475,000 by 1970. But during the 40 years of the war for independence and the civil war tremendous numbers of refugees fled from the strife in the countryside to the relative safety of Luanda. Today the city has some 6 million inhabitants and a very large percentage of them, mostly former refugees and their descendants, live in these musseques that surround the city. For a country so rich in oil revenue it is quite a sight. Maybe after they finish building the high rise office buildings in the city center for the oil companies they will do something to improve the lot of these people. On top of the hill were many nice looking houses and modern buildings, while along the water line in front of the musseques stood long lines of huge oil tanks.
As we pulled out past a long cliff extending to the sea looking very red in the late afternoon light, we saw a rainbow. Bidding Angola farewell, we headed out for five restful sea days on our way north.
Before sunrise on April 7 we docked in Walvis Bay, Namibia. A colony of Germany from 1885, what is now Namibia was incorporated into the British Union of South Africa after World War I. Namibia gained independence in 1990 but did not gain dominion over Walvis Bay until 1994. This was because Walvis Bay is the only deep water harbor in this part of Africa; it was once a haven for the whaling industry. Thus its name, which means Whale Bay.
Eastern Namibia is a very dry place, home to the Namib Desert which is one of the driest in the world. We set out today on a 4X4 expedition that would take us through some of this desert area. We met our driver on the pier; ours was one of a number of individual cars apparently recruited from among the locals that would travel together for this expedition. We were lucky in that our driver spoke very good English. It was a very cloudy & gray morning, although the weather greatly improved throughout the day.
Our first stop was at the Walvis Bay Lagoon, home to a large number of flamingos as well as other birds that migrate here on a regular basis. Flamingos are naturally gray & get their pink color from a dye in the tiny shrimp & algae they eat. You may notice that some of these flamingos seem to be off the standard diet. They submerge their heads in the water to eat because their bills are built upside down: the scooping section is on the top. They are quite something to see en masse, but you can better appreciate their graceful lines individually or in small groups.
We drove north along the coast to Swakopmund, a town founded by Germans in the 19th century. It is supposed to be interesting but we just drove through it on our way to the desert.
The area we visited next is called the Valley of the Moon because of its stark and craggy landscape. We stopped on a promontory and walked around.
On this hill were a large number of Singing Rocks. They look like ordinary boulders, but if you strike some of them with a metal object they emit a musical note like a bell. Each rock has its own tone, probably reflecting its size and the amount of iron it contains. Some of our fellow passengers had a hard time tearing themselves away from playing the rocks to look at the rest of the area.
We descended into the dry bed of the Swakopmund river and drove through the valley for a while. The bumpy drive made photography pretty dicey. There were quite a few impressive rock formations we passed on the way. The weird looking lights in the sky are reflections on the car’s window.
We stopped at a spot known as the Lichen Koppie, a little hill with various colored lichens growing on rocks. They were very flat and drab looking but when one of the guides poured a little water on them from a cup they suddenly unfurled into leafy plants. It was quite startling in the suddenness of the transformation. Apparently this is their lifestyle, shrunken and dry most of the time waiting for just a little moisture to really come alive. Below are some before and after pictures.
Nearby were some desert plants, one looking dead (but not we think) and one with tiny flowers on long stalks.
Next they took us to see a most unusual and interesting plant called Welwitschia. It only grows in this part of West Africa and is known to live upwards of 2000 years, even though it looks like its already almost dead. On the way we passed some more interesting rock formations.
The plant is named after a guy named Welwitsch (how else would it get a name like that), its first European discoverer. It has a deep taproot, maybe 10 – 15 feet depending on age, and only two leaves, which get divided into multiple strands by weather. There are male and female plants, each with distinctive reproductive parts growing up from the middle. A small bug (looks like a beetle but isn’t) called the Welwitshia Bug is often found in the plants and some think it is instrumental in fertilization. We were told the plants we visited were more than 500 years old.
As mentioned above in one of the photo captions, many of the mountain ridges are topped by black rocks that we were told were a mineral, perhaps basalt.
We stopped for lunch at a place in the desert called Goanikontes Oasis. Native people inhabited this oasis in the 18th century (Goanikontes is a Nama word meaning “the place where you can remove your fur coat,” although its hard to imagine why anyone would even have a fur coat in this hot environment). In 1848 Europeans first established a farm here. It is still a farm but also a restaurant and a lodging. We ate at picnic tables under the trees, the most memorable item being Kudu lasagna. You may recall that we ate kudu at the safari lodge, but it was better in this form because the ground kudu isn’t as tough. A peacock walked among the tables while we ate.
Pens of animals were near the picnic tables, notably goats and llamas, and the palm trees in the desert landscape were also interesting.
On the way back to town we stopped at a desert viewpoint. Quite a vista with a mountain in the background.
Our last stop was at “Dune 7,” reputedly the largest sand dune in Namibia and one of the tallest in the world. It is also a recreation area with a parking lot and people cooking on grills. Some folks climbed up the more than 1200 feet to the top, then sat down and slid down to the bottom.
You probably will not be surprised to hear that we did not climb up there. But Rick did climb a smaller portion on the side of the dune that some folks were using as a less steep path to the top. Although smaller it was still a challenging climb through sand.
On the ship that night there was a song and dance performance by a group of young Namibians. It was interesting and the performers put a lot into it; it would probably have seemed much better if we had not just seen the South African group (at least in the opinion of Rick, who liked the South African group better than Mary did).
This was a taxing, though very interesting, day out in the heat of the desert, and as we went to bed we were grateful to have two sea days before our next West African port.
Since we had missed most of the first day in Cape Town April 4 was our day to explore the town. But first we had to explore the ship. You may recall that the HAL bigwigs boarded at Reunion Island to sail as far as Cape Town. It seems that while we were away they threw a big party throughout the ship, complete with plentiful singing, dancing & drinking. The ship’s public areas were decorated with groups of long glass tubes lighted with different colors that were intended, we were told, to emulate South African kraals, enclosures for domestic animals surrounded by thorn tree trunks and branches (the word “corral” apparently has the same root). Whether they looked like kraals we don’t know, but they were very colorful. We were told that the ship’s personnel had been busy constructing these for most of the cruise, with several humorous difficulties along the way. They were later dismantled and given to local folks somewhere in West Africa. Because we had missed the party Hal left in our room a bottle of South African wine decorated with shorter versions of the colored pipes (the wine bottle is shown in two parts because they wouldn’t stitch together correctly into a single picture).
People have lived in what is now South Africa for well over 10,000 years. The first Europeans to colonize it were the Dutch in 1652. Their purpose was to establish a re-provisioning station for their ships headed to the Dutch East Indies. It was taken over by the British in 1806. In 1834 Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire, including in South Africa. Resisting this, the Boers (mostly descendants of the early Dutch settlers) then moved north into the frontier and established two new states: Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
At the end of the 19th century the Boer War was fought between the British and the Boers. The British were badly outfought at first but eventually overpowered the Boers. However many Boer fighters continued in a guerilla campaign. The British then established concentration camps in which they placed the families of the Boer guerillas, many of whose homesteads they also burned down. Conditions were dire in the concentration camps and the death rate, including mostly women & children, was quite high.
After World War II the country instituted the apartheid system, which brutally repressed nonwhite residents. This lasted until 1994, when Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were released and the first democratic elections, in which adults of every ethnicity could vote, were held. Nelson Mandela was elected the first president of democratic South Africa.
A day and a half is not nearly enough time to explore Cape Town. We decided to take the Hop On Hop Off bus and go to the top of Table Mountain, a huge flat mountain in the center of town that can be seen for many miles out to sea. To catch the bus we had to walk to Victoria and Alfred waterfront (not a typo, Prince Alfred was one of Victoria’s sons), Cape Town’s original harbor but much too small for modern ships. This took about 20 minutes, walking past the old red clocktower (built in 1882) and over a swinging bridge. There are a lot of interesting stores at the waterfront, in particular one that had almost life size sculptures of African animals made of various media. Mary was taken with a large elephant made entirely of strings of tiny beads.
We sat on the open top level of the bus as it drove through the city from the waterfront. We passed the dry dock, where a Chinese ship was being refurbished. Then we drove through the downtown area, passing many interesting old buildings that we can’t identify. Much of the city near the harbor was built on reclaimed land.
Leaving the downtown area, the bus drove up the foothills toward the lower cable car terminal for Table Mountain. Even at this level we began to see impressive vistas over the city to the water.
Many people live on the lower levels of Table Mountain in order to obtain a view similar to this. But to preserve the mountain’s beauty a line was established beyond which it is illegal to build. One developer found a way to violate the purpose of this law without contravening its wording, building a complex of three residential towers in the 1960’s that sit below the line but rise 17 stories to a height well above it. There is always someone! Predictably, the Disa Park towers are unpopular with the locals (other than the folks who live in them), who call the buildings the “toilet rolls” or the “tampons.”
From the lower cable car terminal the one on top of the mountain looks very tiny and the cable car is suspended very high in the air. The floor of the cable car rotates so everyone has a chance to see the view in all directions. In particular, you get a very good view of the complex rock formations on the side of the mountain as you rise past them. We were the first in line at the door to the cable car but people pushed & shoved past in all directions. Unnecessary since the floor rotates, but we did get a place by the window. We were very lucky that it was such a clear day as the cable car stops running when it is cloudy (frequent).
Upon reaching the top the first thing to do is walk along the edge of the mountain overlooking the city & gape at the stunning views.
Despite its rocky appearance, Table Mountain is rich in flora & fauna. The mountain hosts close to 1500 varieties of plants . . . more than in the entire United Kingdom.
As for fauna, we saw lizards & birds & Dassies (an animal that looks like a rodent but actually is the closest related species to the elephant). Sadly, the only Dassie we were able to photograph (they are quick & pretty much wanted no part of us) refused to look in our direction.
The top of the mountain has many hiking trails & a lot of people were using them while we were there.
We walked around the mountain top as well, greatly enjoying the views. From the back you could see out along the cape & from one side you could see the beach communities.
We went back to the cable car terminal, which now had about a half hour line to go down the mountain. Eventually we made it down and re-boarded the HOHO bus which then continued its route through the beach communities we had seen from above.
The side of the mountain facing the beach is called the “twelve apostles” because of the row of massive buttresses. You don’t have to count . . . there aren’t 12 buttresses, although there were twelve apostles.
As the bus took us back to the city we passed the Green Point Lighthouse which has been operating in this spot since 1824. We also passed the football (soccer) stadium. We stayed on the bus back into town for some shopping. We looked through the Pan African Market, which had a plethora of vendors selling every kind of African art. Unfortunately, we were the only shoppers there, no prices were marked (it’s all about haggling) and the vendors were pretty aggressive marketers. We left there and walked to the open-air Greenmarket Square. This was also filled with vendors selling all kinds of African items from kiosks, but there were quite a few shoppers here and the atmosphere was more relaxed. So we did make some purchases here.
We walked all the way back to Victoria and Alfred Wharf. At the wharf is Nobel Square, an open space with statues of South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Prize winners (l-r): Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. All were involved in the elimination of apartheid and the construction of a democratic political system.
We understand that this square is often used as an open performance space. On this afternoon we saw a delightful singing and dancing performance by a group of young people wearing colorful clothes and some with painted faces. They were quite energetic and very entertaining.
We stopped for a very late lunch at an outdoor café right by the water in front of the Victoria and Alfred mall. It was, thankfully, a beautiful day and we had a wonderful view of the harbor and of Table Mountain from our table. At one point a seagull flew in and sat on a post by our table, just as if he were one of the party. After a while he became disgusted with our failure to drop any crumbs and flew away.
We walked back to the ship, passing a sculpture of a sort of robot version of the Incredible Hulk and an artists’ foundry topped by a family of bronze warthogs. It seems there is always something interesting to see in this city.
We went to the upper deck of the ship to catch the view of the mountains in the setting sun. We were not disappointed. Table Mountain is big enough to have its own weather system. It is often covered with a low cloud creeping over the edge, which is known as the table cloth. We were lucky it wasn’t there when we were on the mountain (some other HAL passengers weren’t so lucky). A cloud was there this evening, but it was mostly over Devil’s Peak, and barely covering the top edge of Table Mountain. This was pretty dramatic in the setting sun.
After dinner there was a local group singing and dancing in the Queen’s Lounge. Their show was a review of South African song and dance through its history. One of their songs would be familiar to most Americans. It dates back to the 1930’s and is called “Mbube,” the Zulu word for lion. It was first recorded in the United States by the Weavers, with Pete Seeger, as “Wimoweh” and then in 1961 it was a number one hit for a teen group called The Tokens (with an English chorus added) under the name “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It was also later included in the soundtrack of “The Lion King.” We heard this a number of times in South Africa, even on the HOHO bus soundtrack. As an aside, when Rick was in high school at Fairview High in Dayton, Ohio, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was played over the loudspeaker every morning for a week before the football game against the rival Meadowdale Lions.
Anyway, getting back on track, the show was extremely energetic and upbeat with a group of musicians who all could play most of the instruments, which included a number of marimbas.
You may be wondering why our two days in Cape Town are combined in one post. The third day, April 5, was a little short since sail away was at 5:00, and we decided to spend most of it at Victoria & Alfred waterfront exploring all the shops. Therefore, little to tell and very few additional pictures.
We walked to the waterfront over the swinging bridge, just like yesterday. In the parking lot outside the cruise terminal we encountered an interesting small bird with a grand name: Greater Crested Tern.
At the waterfront we saw a building we had noticed from the bus the day before that had a tower with a long pole on top with a red ball around it. Built in 1894 this was used to signal the exact time to ships in the old harbor. Sort of like the ball dropping in New York on New Year’s Eve, this ball would slide down the pole at exactly noon every day. While we visited a lot of shops with really interesting artifacts in all price ranges, from cheap tacky souvenirs to expensive works of art, we did most of our shopping in a large mall of shops called The Watershed. It was actually a lot of fun.
We returned to the ship for the sail away. True to form, Cape Town bade us farewell with a memorable image as we headed out to sea.
It was still quite dark out when we were awakened on April 3, our departure day from Camp Shawu. We had originally been scheduled for a morning game drive before leaving for the airport, but the night before there were several calls from the main lodge giving mixed signals. When we went to bed we were told there would be a truncated one hour game drive before departure, but 3 of our group decided not to go. Now we were told that our game drive would take us to the main lodge and the other 3 would be brought in a second car with all of our luggage. But in the end we were told that there would be no game drive at all and all seven of us would be driven directly to the main lodge. Such confusion (not to mention irritation).
We had, of course, gotten up well before dawn each morning at the camp but this was the first morning in which we were still there to see the sun rise over the lake. It was really worth seeing.
As the sun rose above the mountains we went out on the veranda for some final pictures before departure. We noticed that the trees at the end of the lake were filled with egrets at first light, probably from fear of crocodiles (or maybe just fear of the dark).
After all the mixed signals about the morning’s activities it was finally decided by the folks at the main lodge that we would have to skip even the truncated game drive and come there right away. This was a disappointment to those of us planning to go on the game drive, but we all climbed into the safari vehicle and Safiso headed out to the road to the main lodge. But we hadn’t gone more than 5 or 10 minutes before we were stopped by a group of four male lions stretched out across the road.
We had heard them howling during the night & Safiso said they were probably feeling lazy because they had enjoyed a good meal. They looked quite beautiful, sometimes almost glowing in the early morning sun.
These guys were seriously relaxed & couldn’t have cared less about our being there. It must be good to be at the very top of the food chain and not have to be afraid of anyone else. After we had been there a little while most of them lay down & went to sleep.
Safiso had sent out a call to other safari vehicles about the lion spotting. We couldn’t do anything to rouse the lions before the others had a chance to get there and it was a much longer drive if we turned around and went a different way. Eventually a number of other vehicles showed up, most on the other side of the lions. None of this disturbed them however.
Before we left the ship Rick had been claiming that he would take a picture of Robert with a lion on the safari. So while we waited he did so! Not what we might have hoped, since the lion wasn’t close and wouldn’t look in our direction. But a picture of Robert and the lion it is, just as promised.
By the way, take a look at the zoomed shot of the lion in the fourth picture below. He appears to have one dark blue and one yellow eye. Just like Washington Nats’ ace Max Scherzer! I wonder if he can pitch? This condition is called Heterochromia Iridum.
Just when Safiso was about to turn around and take the long road to the main lodge for fear of missing our flight the lions grudgingly stood up and walked into the grass to the left of the road. They lay there in the tall grass, some watching us and some not, while we finally were finally able to continue our journey.
We made it back without further incident to the main lodge where we were given a sumptuous buffet breakfast. Then we headed out to the airport in buses that were not quite as uncomfortable as the ones that brought us from Maputo. It was a pretty long drive & we did see a number of animals but the bus was too bouncy and the windows too small to get decent pictures for the most part. When we crossed the river there was a Cape Buffalo lounging on the shore, the only one we had seen with its face turned toward us. It was on the other side of the bus so we couldn’t get a picture, but our friend Mike shared one with us.
One more thing before we leave Kruger National Park. Here are some of the flowers we saw during our stay, some in the wild and some at the lodges. Actually, there were surprisingly few actual blooms considering all the bush area we passed through.
The flight to Cape Town was uneventful. Unfortunately we were seated on the aisle next to a wing, so we were unable to see anything of the South African countryside during the flight. Not a typo . . . we were both on the aisle, one in front of the other, and we were not the only couple separated like that. We have never experienced anything like that on an airline before. There was a meal served, but it was cold (like just out of the refrigerator). This wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been a sandwich, but Rick’s meal was meat and noodles, cold and clammy. If you know Rick you will not be surprised that he ate it anyway.
We made it back to the ship in late afternoon, but we were pretty tired so we didn’t go anywhere. It turned out that when the ship arrived in Cape Town that morning a cargo ship that had been there a few days was docked overlapping Amsterdam’s docking location by a few feet. So Amsterdam had to sail around in circles for a few hours before its berth was cleared for docking. The Captain was beside himself & declared that he had never seen anything like it in his long career at sea.
After dinner we went up to deck 6 to see Cape Town at night. It was well lit and made for some nice pictures. Tomorrow we would venture out and see what is there.
We were awoken early again on April 2 for our predawn game ride. Our first big game spotting was . . . a large snail crossing the road, leaving a wet trail behind him. We also saw a bird that is probably a buzzard or a vulture, a greater blue eared starling, and a giant termite mound built against the trunk of a big tree.
We saw a herd of zebras, one of wildebeest & one of warthogs. We also spotted a couple of black-backed jackals walking up the road toward us, but they were gone before we could stop and get a good picture. I have included a picture of a jackal we didn’t see, taken by someone who was at a different camp, just so you can see better what they look like. There was also another female lion hiding in the tall grass.
Then there were more birds, some new some old. We saw a European Roller, a Red-billed Hornbill, a Steppe Buzzard and a little gray bird that might be an African Dusky Flycatcher. There was also a Red-backed Shrike sitting on a thorny acacia tree. We were told that giraffes like to eat these trees, but it’s hard to imagine having all these long thorns in your mouth.
We found another family of cheetahs, the supposedly elusive species we have now seen for the second time in two days. This time it was a mother with four or five cubs, but the cubs were a bit older & bigger than the ones we saw yesterday. Cheetahs are an endangered species with only about 7,000 left, a majority in South Africa. Lions and other big cats prey on their young so that only about 5% live to 2 years, which is about when they can go out on their own. Cheetahs are also the fastest land animals in the world, capable of 60 to 70 mph in short bursts. It is hard to tell the adult from the cubs unless they are in a picture together, so we will make our best guesses about that.
We stopped for our mid-morning snack. While we were out on the ground we saw a huge striped centipede trying to hide under a rock & a large dragonfly with transparent wings, each with a large spot.
By this time we had seen four of the “big five.” which include Lion, Elephant, Rhinoceros, Cape Buffalo & Leopard. Seeing these five species is the general standard for a successful safari and often advertised by safari companies. But the “big five” was originally compiled as the ultimate goal for hunters because these were the hardest to bring down on foot with a rifle. This would seem to have little relevance for a modern photo safari, but it is still considered a test for a successful safari. Since this was our last full day on the safari we were beginning to wonder if we would see a leopard, which Safiso had told us was often impossible to find.
Then Safiso received a call on the radio from another safari driver who told him they had found a leopard in a tree. Safiso told us it was a long way from us & that it could well be gone by the time we got there, but we all agreed we should try. Determined to get us to the leopard on time Safiso gunned the engine (as much as you can in an open vehicle on a dirt road). We called it a Ferrari Safari and it was bumpy and fast. Still, it took about half an hour to get there & by the time we arrived the other vehicle was gone and the leopard was nowhere to be seen. Safiso thought there was a good chance the leopard was still hiding in the area so he took our vehicle off the road and explored through the bushes. Sure enough, eventually he spotted the leopard hiding in a bush. It’s hard to understand how he saw it since we had trouble seeing it there even after we were told where to look. It was disappointing to think that we were this close and still unable to really see it, but then the leopard got tired of playing hide and seek. It stood up and walked to a nearby tree, then climbed the tree and spread out on a large branch to watch us with legs hanging down on either side for balance.
Not satisfied with this view from behind, Safiso pulled the vehicle around to the other side of the tree where there was a beautiful view of the leopard from the front. She didn’t seem to mind, maybe because she felt more secure up a tree.
While she was settled on the tree branch we were able to get a number of close portrait shots.
We spent a long time with the leopard (we took more than 50 pictures altogether) before returning to camp for breakfast. Safiso said this was the longest game drive he had ever done, & he’s been doing this for many years. On our way back to the camp we encountered a mixed group of herbivores on the road: giraffes, zebras and warthogs. There was a mongoose running down the road ahead of us, too far & fast for a good picture, and a large bird that may have been a bustard.
After breakfast & a shower we went back to the veranda of the main lodge to relax for the rest of the day until time for our sunset game drive. Our old friends the hippos, egrets, Blacksmith lapwing and Egyptian geese were still there. We also saw some black-headed herons and some impalas across the lake. And a bold little bird was standing on our our shower head, possibly a crimson-breasted shrike.
Across the lake we saw a family of elephants hurrying off to our right after drinking their fill.
A rhino came down to drink on the other side of the lake. He was accompanied by four egrets who were jockeying for about three seats on the rhino’s back. No picture of it, but at one point an ejected egret perched on the ground behind the rhino was covered by a huge rear-aimed spray of urine from the rhino. Yuck. I guess this is just one of the hazards of earning a living.
There was another black-headed heron in the marsh on the other side of the lake. A wildebeest put in an appearance. And we spotted a skull from a Cape Buffalo on the other side as well. Daniel told us its story. One night a large herd of buffalo wandered up the shore of the lake on the side where the camp is located, a pretty narrow area. As they walked past the camp a pride of lions appeared at the other end. They tried to go back the way they had come but another group of lions was stationed there. With nowhere to go the buffalo spent the night by the shore in front of the camp’s cabins. In the morning they left, but about half a dozen of them didn’t make it past the lions. This skull belonged to one of them.
Another highlight this afternoon, an old elephant with very long tusks came walking up the shore right in front of our verandas. Daniel said he is a regular visitor.
We all ran up to the veranda of the last cabin to keep him close and coming toward us as long as possible. Rick got there about the same time as the elephant, who turned to see what the commotion was. Don’t worry, there is an electrified fence between the elephant and the veranda. The elephant then stepped into the water again for a few steps.
At that point we noticed there was another large elephant just across the lake. They looked at each other for a while & we thought there might be trouble, but the elephant near us eventually looked away and walked on.
The elephant across the lake was actively drinking and bathing. After a while he turned around and lumbered away past a resting wildebeest & the buffalo skull. Meanwhile the elephant on our side of the lake continued his walk away from Camp Shawu.
During the afternoon we took some pictures of our group hanging out on the main veranda. As game drive time approached Safiso showed up so we were able to include him in some pictures.
We set out on our last evening game drive. We saw several birds, including a Black-shouldered Kite, a Wooly Necked Stork, and a Pearl Spotted Owl.
We came across a family of elephants as the sunlight began to dim. This is really the day for elephants! They walked by us, then away past a tree.
We ran into a female waterbuck. Safiso thought it was a kudu, a species of antelope we had eaten for dinner the night before, but further research indicates he was mistaken. They look very similar but female kudu have a white strip across their noses, while waterbucks have a distinctive white circle around their behinds, which you can barely see part of in the second photo. A pretty easy mistake to make when the animal is far away and behind some bushes!
We had a very beautiful sunset this evening.
We stopped for our usual sundowner with the other camp vehicles.
On the way back to the camp we came upon a Marsh Owl standing in the road. We also saw some trees filled with bird nests. Safiso told us that one very large nest was home to a large number of birds at a time. We also saw a Secretary Bird, a huge bird with a goofy looking head. But as soon as he was caught in the spotlight he took off, much too fast to get a picture.
When we got back to the camp the moon was shining brightly over the lake. Thembisile came out as she always did before a meal to announce the menu, & told us that unfortunately there would be nothing for dinner. Funny, but hardly credible at this place! In fact we had a particularly fine going-away dinner, highlighted by delicious grilled lamb chops & a passion fruit cheesecake that was truly memorable.
After dinner we were about to go back to our cabins when we were told to stay put. Then we heard a rhythmic beat in the kitchen and out came Daniel, Thembisile & Pretty dancing and singing. The rhythm was beaten out with a wooden cooking spoon on a plastic food container. It was quite a show & something we certainly weren’t expecting. A few of these pictures were taken by Rick (you can see him doing it in pictures 9 & 10 below), but most of them were extracted from a phone video taken by Robert. Despite efforts to improve focus and contrast in the extracted photos they are rather below standards. Don’t get me wrong, Robert’s video was great; it is just the photos made from the extracted frames that aren’t so hot. But they do give you a pretty good idea of what was going on.
After a while they induced a few of the guests to join in the dancing, following Thembisile’s lead.
They danced out the door into the kitchen, with Daniel still beating the rhythm on a plastic food container.
So a great time was had by all, a perfect end to an extraordinary day.
We were awoken shortly after 5:00 AM by a knock on the door (no telephone for a wake-up call). It was still very dark out. We dressed and headed for the main lounge where coffee & rolls were waiting. Soon Safiso showed up & we all piled into the safari vehicle & headed out to the bush in the dark.
We (meaning Safiso) spotted several birds, including what may be a Burchell’s Coucal (looking like he hadn’t really woken up for the day) and some Helmeted Guineafowl running down the road in front of us. There was also another Lilac-breasted Roller and a European Roller, both of which stand out from their surroundings with brilliant coloring. And what is probably a Temminck’s Courser was standing in the road.
We passed some warthogs, a hyena, a wildebeest & a hippo skull. Safiso spotted a male lion sitting on a fairly distant hill perusing the area and we passed an elephant making tracks away from us. Then Safiso got a call from another driver that they had seen a leopard. He told us that leopards & cheetahs are the big animals most likely to be missed since they often see them only once or twice a month, so we sped to the spot some distance away. The other trucks were gone & so was the leopard, but we saw what was left of the impala the leopard had for lunch hanging from a tree. We were told that leopards are the only cats that drag their prey up into trees to dine.
One of the ways Safiso could tell what animals had been nearby was by looking at tracks in the mud on the side of the dirt roads we travelled. Another was by identifying what kind of animal had left piles of poop! We don’t really remember which animals Safiso said these belonged to, but will make a guess.
We saw a grazing rhino accompanied by his egrets & a group of female lions looking sleepy, perhaps after a meal.
Safiso spotted a tawny eagle & a grey shrike for us. Then in the distance we saw a large and diverse gathering of non-carnivorous animals, looking like something out of The Lion King.
We stopped for a morning snack of coffee & rolls (they wouldn’t want us to go more than a couple of hours without eating). It was in an open area that must be considered safe since we were allowed to exit the vehicle.
We continued after our snack, spotting what is probably a tern, a yellow hornbill, yet another European roller & some Southern Ground Hornbills with bright red faces out in the tall grass. We have read that this last is an endangered species
We came upon a herd of zebras & a group of giraffes.
We saw a groups of impala and of warthogs.
On our way back to the camp we saw more birds. Probably another coucal perched in a distant tree, a couple of what are probably Pin-tailed Whydahs with very long tails and a yellow-billed stork perched at the very top of a tree.
Back at the camp it was time for breakfast. The table was set with good sized bowls of yoghurt, fruit & cheese. There were also baskets of rolls & toast. We began to eat all this, then the Thembisile, the chef, walked out to take orders for eggs. After that was done she brought out a huge platter of pancakes. Nobody goes hungry at Camp Shawu!
After breakfast we went back to our cabin to shower. The electricity is off for most of the middle of the day so we wanted to use the shower before the hot water went off. The shower is outside with a view of the lake. The cabins are covered with screen & canvas on three sides, have a thatched roof & the solid walls are made of buffalo dung. How’s that for authentic? Inside they are roomy, with a large bed inside mosquito netting, a bathtub, a woodstove and an overstuffed leather chair. Outside by the lake is a private veranda.
We spent most of the rest of the day before leaving for our sundown game drive sitting on the veranda of the main lodge watching the animals. The hippos were a never-ending source of entertainment.
There is a well known children’s book called “Everybody Poops.” That includes hippos. When the urge came upon one of them he or she would stand up just out of the water, start its tail spinning rapidly like a propeller & let fly. The result is just what you would expect when “the sh*t hits the fan!” All accompanied by a loud wail. The urge seemed to be catching as several more of them did this after the first one. Sadly, we didn’t have a camera handy and it was over way too quickly to fetch one. We hoped they would do this again before we left for Cape Town, but no luck. Its sad that there are no pictures because it was quite a show.
The banks of the lake were lined with many varieties of birds, most of which you have seen before, including white-faced ducks, Egyptian geese & egrets.
A crocodile came by. The hippos don’t seem to mind the crocodile, probably because (we were told) they only eat fish & leave the hippos alone (which seems like a good strategy). But at one point a Fish Eagle flew down & landed on a rock near one of the hippo families. The hippos were outraged, milling about & raising quite a din; some of them even moved away. The eagle seemed to be wondering what their problem was.
And, to top it all off, yet more hippos, opening their big mouths in play (we think).
After our afternoon snack we set out on our evening game drive, which began with a herd of Impala.
We came across some giraffes & some wildebeest.
Then came one of the day’s highlights, a cheetah with her two cubs only a month or so old. You may recall that we had been told that cheetahs are often hard to find so we were glad to see them. And the cubs, who were unbelievably cute, made it really special. After we first saw them Safiso pulled the vehicle around to a spot where the cubs would be walking toward us, giving us a great view. The mother had a very big belly, looking like she was pregnant, but Safiso told us that she had actually just had a big meal.
After passing our vehicles the cubs rejoined their mother and they all continued walking down the road ahead, turning once for a last look at us before heading on to the left.
As the sun dropped toward the horizon the landscape began to glow. We saw some monkeys climbing a tree. Then Safiso noticed that the bright orange sun was in a perfect spot behind the tree and pulled up to enable Rick’s favorite picture of the entire cruise!
After this inspiring sunset we met the other vehicles at a dam for a sundowner. This may be the dam that created the lake outside our camp, but we aren’t sure about that. A Goliath Heron was standing on the dam looking downriver & we saw some hippos emerging from the water on the other side of the water for a nighttime foraging excursion. These pictures were taken after sundown, so aren’t as clear as one would hope.
It was night by the time we headed back to the camp from the sundowner, so we were mostly searching for animals with the spotlight. We saw a tawny eagle & a porcupine. The porcupine panicked when the light hit it & took off so fast it was impossible to get a decent picture, but here is what we have. It looked a good bit larger than we would have expected.
We also passed a group of Cape Buffalo (not sure of the timing; this might have been before the sundowner). Unfortunately they were all so intent on eating that they never turned in our direction or lifted their heads. No pictures of their faces, therefore, just a couple that show their distinctive horns from the back. Not very cooperative of them!
Finally, we encountered a pair of Spotted Hyenas who appeared to be out hunting in the dark (until our spotlight found them). They walked down the road ahead of us, then one went off into the bush on our right while the other waited in the road. After a while they went off to the left & split up, apparently trying to surround a small Springbok that leaped over the bushes & ran away to the right of the road too quickly to photograph. As Safiso said, the Springbok would easily outrun the hyenas, so they would have to look for a different meal.
When we got back to camp we had dinner. We had Kudu for dinner; OK, but a little tough. It had been a long day & there would be an early wake-up call again the next day so we went to bed right after dinner.
We docked in Maputo early in the morning on March 31. Maputo is the capital and biggest city in Mozambique, with a population in excess of 1 million. Until after independence was achieved in 1975 Maputo was called Lourenço Marques, after the first Portuguese visitor to this spot in 1544. Mozambique is still struggling to rebuild its economy and infrastructure after a lengthy civil war that ended in 1992.
We were signed up with our travel agency for a 4 day/3 night safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park so we had no opportunity to explore Maputo. Our group met in the Ocean Bar for an expected early departure, but we didn’t leave until the local officials cleared the ship after 8:00. We would be driving to the safari camp in what turned out to be an incredibly cramped little bus. It had no room for luggage above or below the seats, which were themselves way too narrow. So we had to keep our carry on luggage (a backpack with our electronics, primarily) on our laps the whole way. This crowding, along with very small windows, made photographing from the moving bus difficult. That’s why some of these pictures aren’t very sharp.
We drove through Maputo, past the iconic 100 year old railway station and through some rather run down neighborhoods. We don’t know whether there are better areas of Maputo than we passed through but what we saw looked pretty basic.
Outside Maputo we continued driving toward the border. We passed markets, a mosque & many local folks.
We had to leave the bus twice at the South African border. First we had to pass through Mozambique customs, then board the bus again for about 100 yards, then go through South African customs. Near the customs buildings were some interesting flora and some buildings. South African customs went very slowly at first because they were photographing each entrant & scanning their fingerprints, but the machines were not working properly. This was frustrating because there was another line on the other side of the desk that was moving briskly with no photographs or fingerprints. Finally, they dispensed with the photos & fingerprints on our side as well and we moved through customs much more quickly.
After clearing customs we drove to a parking lot where we were given box lunches. We drove on a highway, which had an interesting sign at the entry gate. We listened carefully, but never heard the “boom.” We crossed the Crocodile River & entered Kruger National Park by the Crocodile Bridge Gate. Then we drove to the main lodge of our safari camp.
On the way to the main lodge we got our first taste of wild animals. Some wildebeest were lounging near a group of Impala. A warthog was bathing (hopefully not dead; we didn’t see him move). In a creek we crossed, a giraffe looked out at us from behind a tree and some rough looking birds were perched in a dead tree. Note: We have a book about Kruger animals & will do our best to label them all in the pop-up captions, but this is not easy & they may not all be correct (if you don’t know how to access pop-up captions, see “About This Blog” button at the top),
Our lodge, Camp Shawu, is one of three that are run by a single company in an area a little north of the Crocodile Bridge Gate. Our bus took us first to the main lodge, called Shishangeni, where many of the group would be staying. It is in a wooded area & monkeys felt free to enter the lodge, although the kitchen & dining room workers used squirt guns to chase them away. It was very nice, but beyond the monkeys there was little in the way of wildlife. After the long ride on the cramped bus, it felt good to get out & stretch our legs here.
Originally, Robert, Mary & Rick were to be the only Amsterdam passengers at Camp Shawu. The reservations for this safari, less than half the cost of HAL’s similar Kruger safari, filled up well before the deadline so we were too late to book it. Then they obtained additional rooms at the other two camps run by this company. Most of the overflow passengers ended up at Camp Shonga but we didn’t make that cut either. We thought we had been shut out, but then our travel agent obtained two rooms at Camp Shawu & we grabbed them. This turned out to be a great development for us because Camp Shawu was (at least in our opinion) the best of the three lodges.
Apparently some other folks backed out of reservations at Camp Shawu because while we were at the lodge our group leader, Tom, announced that two more couples were to be assigned there. The two couples, Terry & Marsha and Rob & Marlene, completed what turned out to be a very compatible group. Occupying 4 of the 5 huts at Camp Shawu, the seven of us turned out to be the only guests there. We all climbed into one of the game drive vehicles for the trip to Camp Shawu where the manager, Daniel, greeted us with refreshing drinks on the central lodge’s veranda.
Our drive to Camp Shawu was through the Park, so of course we encountered more animals. In particular, our first zebras & another giraffe, with tiny crazed-looking Oxpecker birds riding onboard. We also encountered two male lions hiding behind a bush. We had actually gone by them when Mary called out “Lions!”, then our driver backed up so we could see them. One of them never bothered to look in our direction but his brother watched us apprehensively the whole time we were there. We were told that the animals see the vehicles as other animal, which they know are harmless from ample experience with them. We were told not to stand up because that might destroy the illusion and lead to trouble.
Camp Shawu was named after an elephant who lived in this area for some 60 years and had the longest tusks ever measured in South Africa. It included a central building with a lounge area, a dining area and a veranda, and 5 individual sleeping huts, four of which were occupied by visitors when we were there. Raised wooden walkways connected all the buildings & an electrified fence surrounded the compound, so it was safe to walk between buildings even at night. The small size & excellent and friendly staff were great, but what really made Shawu special was its location on the edge of a lake created by a downstream dam.
Game drives are scheduled in the morning, leaving before sunrise, and in late afternoon, returning after dark. The late morning and early afternoon represent free time (at least when you aren’t eating, which occurs frequently). Mostly we sat on the veranda of the main building watching the wildlife in and near the lake. The primary occupants of the lake were hippos, which were there pretty much all the time. They are nocturnal eaters, leaving the lake after dark to seek vegetation, and spend their days lolling around, sleeping or playing or fighting (its hard to tell what is playing and what is fighting). The hippos were quite loud; they sound a little like Jabba the Hut.
During the day the lake shore was lined with many kinds of birds. On our first afternoon we noticed White-faced Ducks, Egyptian Geese, Yellow-billed Storks, and a Spotted Thick-Knee wading in the water.
The lake also serves as a watering hole for a variety of animals. On our first afternoon we spotted impala, rhinos and an African Fish-Eagle on the other side of the lake.
After yet another snack, in late afternoon we boarded the game drive vehicle and set out on our first actual game drive. On some safaris I have read that each vehicle has a driver/guide and a tracker sitting at the front to spot game. Our driver, Safiso, was also our guide & tracker. He has extraordinary vision, time and again picking out animals and birds so hidden or distant that the rest of us had difficulty finding them even with binoculars. Our game drive vehicles were open on the sides with a roof, providing plenty of visible space along with protection from sun and rain. It seems that having a tracker sitting in front would often have cut into the view of the animals and landscapes we were there to see. The seats are tiered so that everyone sits higher than the person in front of them, giving everyone a good view. We rotated seats throughout the visit and, since there were only seven of us plus Safiso, everyone always had a window seat.
A case in point was Safiso’s spotting of some baboons with a herd of impala very far away early in our evening game drive. They were so far away that none of us would have seen them at all without Safiso’s sharp eyes & experience.
We saw some unusual birds: a striking Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, a Swanson’s Spurfowl and a Lilac-breasted Roller (of which we would see many later).
We had a long & close look at some White Rhinos. White birds called Cattle Egrets hang out with them & on their backs, eating insects. You will notice the long white lines on the rhinos’ face and back, which result from the birds on their backs doing what birds often do after eating! The rhinos don’t seem to mind (little fashion sense, I guess).
We encountered a herd of wildebeest and one of impala. The impala are called “McDonald’s” by the folks in this area. This is partly because they are very numerous & often make a delicious snack for the carnivores. More specifically, though, when their tails are down their backsides look just like a McDonald’s golden arches sign!
As dusk turned everything darker, Safiso spotted buzzards in a distant tree & a Red-backed Shrike. Darkness and distance made the pictures pretty blurry though.
As the sun set each night we met the other safari vehicles carrying Amsterdam folks for a “sundowner,” which includes drinks & snacks. Always have to have something to eat!
As we drove back toward Shawu in the dark Safiso used a hand-held spotlight to search for game. We didn’t see any game this time but we almost ran into a small owl standing in the middle of the road, possibly a Marsh Owl though it is hard to tell in the dark. Another bird in the road may have been a Dusky Lark. Above, the moon & clouds made for a dramatic sky.
When we returned to the camp it was time for . . . guess what? Dinner! We were read the menu, could choose from two entrees, then ate too much. The food here was very good in addition to being plentiful.
After dinner we retired to our room/ hut. From inside the hut the hippos sounded like they were right on our veranda. We actually looked to be sure & they were nowhere near us. Others had the same feeling in their rooms. Despite the loud hippos we had no trouble getting to sleep since it had been a long and eventful day. Good thing because our wake-up call was scheduled for 5:00 AM!
The morning of March 27 found us docked at La Possession, a commercial port on Reunion Island. This was not on our original itinerary but when the Madagascar stop was cancelled because of an outbreak of plague(!) this island, about 300 miles to the east, was added. Discovered in the early 16th century by the Portuguese, it has been French since the 1630’s. It has a diverse ethnic mix, most of the non-Europeans having come as slaves or, after slavery was abolished in 1848, as indentured servants. Today it has a population of about 850,000 and is a department of France, with seven deputies & three Senators in the French legislature.
We spent the day on an excursion that circled the entire island. Reunion has several large volcanoes at its center, but there were fairly low clouds all day so we couldn’t see them. We started out to the north toward Saint-Denis, the capital & largest city of Reunion. The highway runs between the sea and large cliffs that are held up by wire mesh because in the rainy season they are unstable. A new highway is being built on risers over the water, which will presumably protect it from mudslides and storm surges. We did not stop in Saint-Denis, driving by it on the highway, so all we have is a few pictures from the bus window.
Our first stop was at an unusual church, Eglise de St Anne, which has a very elaborately decorated exterior. We were told that it was built by Hindu craftsmen, from whom it got this decorative style. The church also had a nice garden in front.
Reunion is a volcanic island and Piton de la Fournaise is still very active. It last erupted in July, 2017. We visited a large field of cooled lava from this volcano called Grand Brule. It was not clear to us when this lava formed, but we think it was in 2007. The lava goes all the way down to the ocean. Unfortunately the low clouds prevented us from seeing up to the mountain itself.
In Saint-Philippe we visited the Garden of Perfume & Spices, a botanical garden containing some 1500 types of flora, many of which produce perfume products & spices as the name suggests. We started out at a hut with a veranda (and a gift shop), then proceeded with a guide provided by the garden. He speaks only French so our overall tour guide translated for us.
So fasten your seatbelts; we saw a lot of unusual flowers & plants.
But we thought the most exotic flower was the one we were told was a called a Black Widow flower. Google tells us, however, that it is a Black Bat Orchid. Whatever its called (it looks more like a spider), it is quite spectacular.
We had lunch in a restaurant at Cap Mechant (naughty cape). The restaurant was just OK, but out back were some lava cliffs being pounded by surf from large ocean swells.
We headed for home up the western side of the island, but first stopped at a large beach. Swimming is not allowed here, or in many of the other beaches on this side of the island, because of a rash of shark attacks over the last decade or so. But we weren’t planning to swim anyway & this beach was a nice area to relax, with large palm trees lining it.
Every year the CEO’s of Holland America & its parent, Carnival Corporation, come aboard the ship during the grand world voyage for about a week. This year they boarded in Reunion Island & so there was a big sail away party by the Lido pool, complete with band & free flowing alcohol. Of course the Lido pool is inside (with a roof that opens) so you couldn’t actually watch the sail away (and it was a beautiful evening), but not many passengers seemed to be sober enough to enjoy it anyway. We would have to say, however, that the party was a success.
After the party & dinner in the main dining room (which had been largely empty at the early seating because of the party) we went to bed. Next stop, the continent of Africa.
On March 24 we docked at Victoria, on the beautiful island of Mahe, the largest of the 115 islands that make up the Seychelles. About 90% of the Seychelles’ population of around 90,000 live on Mahe and Victoria is the nation’s capital. It has a French & British background, gaining independence from the UK in 1976. As we left the ship we were greeted by dancers and musicians on a small stage on the dock.
We had signed up for a private excursion to tour the island. Our first stop was in the town of Victoria. In the center of town is a small clock tower that is a copy of the “Little Ben” Vauxhall clock in London.
We walked over to the Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke Market, an open air market surrounded by walls that dates back to 1840. An egret was perched near the entrance, perusing all who entered.
The first floor was mostly a food market, with a lot of fish (this is an island, after all).
From the ground floor we could see the sculptured roof of a Hindu temple. From the top floor, where there were mostly clothes & handicrafts for sale, we looked down on the umbrellas covering the market’s courtyard.
We climbed back into the van & headed for a beach. Mahe is rich in beautiful beaches, not to mention green mountains & breathtaking views. Really a beautiful place. Sadly, we don’t know the names of these beaches but they are worth looking at anyway. We think this one might be called Grand Anse, but are not sure.
The Seychelles are famous as the home of many giant tortoises, and Mahe has its share. We went to a hotel where about half a dozen of them live. They are huge and looked worn out by the heat. But some friends saw some of these guys mating in another spot & told us they were surprisingly quick when they wanted to be.
These giant tortoises seem to be pretty popular around here as we saw a number of artistic renderings in shop windows.
We drove up into the mountains and stopped at an overlook with some gorgeous views.
We drove higher up to the Mission Lodge. Now just some ruined walls, this was a school for freed slaves near the end of the 19th century. On the path to the overlook are several interesting varieties of trees, some of them labeled.
Quite a lot of colorful flora are to be found on this tropical island and a good percentage are in this area. So this is a good place to post some of them.
From the mountain we went, where else, to another beach. This was a very large beach with an island off shore and some large boulders on the beach. It was very nice, with a good surf, & we spent some time there walking on the sand.
The Seychelles are known for the Coco de Mer, an unusual type of coconut native to this island. It is a double nut in a large and very heavy shell. It also floats & we were told that sailors found these floating in the ocean before discovering this archipelago. The trees are male & female and you can’t tell which yours is until it reaches fruit bearing age. After planting it takes something like 7 years to sprout, then 25 years to mature. If it turns out you have only female or only make trees, you are out of luck! The female trees (obviously) grow the large nuts & the male trees don’t. You should never stand under a female tree bearing nuts because one of these falling on your head will be the end of you. Other food plants we saw here included vanilla, papaya and breadfruit.
We visited one more beach with incredibly clear water & an offshore island where some people were swimming & kayaking.
Our last stop was at a craft village. It is a former plantation with 12 separate studios. But most of them were closed & the ones that were open were selling souvenirs that didn’t look much like real crafts. So, really, it looked to us more like a tourist souvenir village than a craft village. Then, on the way back to the harbor, we passed a very upscale condo development on reclaimed land just off shore. There was a yacht harbor filled with impressive boats. We stopped to walk through a mall to the yacht harbor, a pointless effort when we were ready to be back at the ship after a fairly tiring day.
So, after a successful day exploring most of the island of Mahe, we found ourselves back at the ship shortly before sunset. As the sun began to set there was one more look at the harbor. The harbor had a number of windmills producing electricity set up on both sides of the entrance. High on a nearby mountain was a villa owned by the Sheik of Abu Dabi who vacations here often. He apparently travels from his yacht to his villa via helicopter. From the size of the villa he must bring quite an entourage with him.
Since we were setting sail late at night we had a local dance show after dinner. It wasn’t one of the most interesting we have seen but it was entertaining. The people here have basically two kinds of dances: sega & moutia. The most interesting involved dancing with feet on either side of a pole.
And so to bed, with one more island before we reach to African continent.
March 20 found us in Sri Lanka. When we visited here in 2016 we walked some 13 miles round this town, quite exhausting in the heat & humidity. We saw a lot, which you can see here:
This is the last episode with a reference back to 2016; all the ports from here on out are new to us (except San Juan, Puerto Rico, which we visited many years ago).
So this time we decided to sign up for an all day HAL excursion that said it would take us to see Galle, a city on the southwest corner of Sri Lanka with a very long history as a major stop on the east-west trade routes. This turned out to be a somewhat dishonest description, but more about that later.
Galle has been important to sea trade since at least Biblical times, when it is thought to have been Solomon’s source for gold, ivory and other exotic things, referred to as Tarshish in the Bible. It was important enough to be included in Ptolemy’s world map of 125-150 AD. The Portuguese came in 1589 and it was captured in 1640 by the Dutch, who fortified the entire town. The British gained control in 1796 and held it, along with the rest of what they called Ceylon, until independence after World War II.
As we left the ship there was a very polished Sri Lankan dance company performing.
We headed out of town through some rather impoverished areas, then south on a highway. Our first stop was at the Handunugoda tea plantation. Sri Lanka, of course, was called Ceylon when it was a British colony & Ceylon tea has been famous for quite a long time. Among other things, this is the only plantation in the world that makes what is called “White Tea,” which is never touched by humans before it is consumed. The owner of the plantation told us that this originated as a drink only for the Chinese Emperor & the story goes that it was tended & picked by virgins & the first human flesh it touched was the Emperor’s lips. Today it is quite expensive and the plantation sells the white tea exclusively to a restaurant in France. The plantation’s tea factory uses equipment that is more than 140 years old.
After spending time in the tea tasting room, where many kinds of tea grown here were for sale, we were taken upstairs to a kind of dining room where we were served tea and cakes. We saw some interesting flora & fauna at the plantation, but were not taken to see the tea fields or the owner’s house as promised in the tour description.
Our second stop was to see stilt fishermen. This was once a serious way to make a living, unique (as far as we know) to Sri Lanka. Today fish are caught by more modern methods & these guys are strictly employees, paid by the hour to sit out for tourists to photograph.
We drove on to the south, passing Galle, then stopped about half an hour later at a hotel where we had an excellent Sri Lankan lunch. The hotel had a very dramatic staircase, lined with metal sculptures.
There was plenty of leisure time after the meal to walk around and take pictures. We took a few pictures of Galle in the distance across the water. But the unnecessarylength of the lunch stop would add to the problem with this excursion, as you will see.
We got back on the bus and finally headed for the headline destination for this excursion, the only reason we decided to purchase it (it wasn’t cheap). After driving half an hour back we entered the Galle Fort, which is what the old city is called. We parked in front of the library (yay!) & were told we all had to go into the Maritime Museum across the street, where we would have 10 minutes (!) to walk through it. If we didn’t go into the museum, they said, we might not be able to find the bus. And this 10 minutes was our ENTIRE stay in Galle! No going up to the walls, exploring the famous old Dutch Church or “the narrow streets, old churches, cloistered courtyards and shuttered mansions,” as HAL’s excursion description promised.
We hurried over and took some pictures of the library while others were exiting the bus, then we followed the group into the Maritime Museum. The museum is housed in the Great Warehouse, built by the Dutch in 1669 to store spices. It was moved to this location after the original museum was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. As you can imagine, there could be no lingering to actually learn about the museum artifacts during a 10 minute run-through.
As we left the building to board the bus we saw a couple apparently having wedding pictures taken near the museum and also the Archaeological Regional Office of Sri Lanka across the street.
That was it. The bus drove around the main street to the gate & we left the fort & headed back north to Colombo. On the way we passed a Buddhist temple and a funeral, among other things, but our stay in Galle . . . the title and supposed central destination of this excursion . . . was a total of 10 minutes in a maritime museum. That’s not what we came for and we never would have signed up for this long and expensive trip if we had known that only 10 minutes of a 7.5 hour excursion would be spent there. It certainly took a lot of gall to title this excursion a trip to Galle! After complaining (we weren’t the only ones) we were given a 15% refund, but in our opinion that was pretty lame compensation for not only failing to provide what was promised but also using up our only day in Sri Lanka in the bargain.
Perhaps the best part of the visit was the sail away. Its always good when you sail away from a large port at sun down and Colombo’s port is situated where you can see a number of landmarks from the ship as you go. We saw the candy striped red and white mosque, the brand new lotus blossom tower that was scheduled to open the week after our visit & the huge stupa on stilts over one of the entrances to the port. Then the sun set as we sailed past the last lighthouse & out to sea.
So after dinner we went to bed, having left our last repeat port until San Juan, Puerto Rico. From here on in it’s all new to us, which certainly increases the sense of adventure.
We docked in Phuket on the morning of March 17. Last time we were here we had a great time riding elephants & visiting temples. See it here:
So this time we decided to go in an entirely different direction. If you have seen the movies “Man With The Golden Gun” or “The Beach” you have seen the craggy limestone islands that lie a ways off the coast near Phuket. We joined a private tour by speedboat to see these islands & maybe do some snorkeling there & have lunch.
We got off to a good start, driving to the nearby boat dock & boarding the speed boat. There were about 15 of us, more or less, and the boat was open on the sides & back for a good view while also protecting us from the sun with a roof. It wasn’t too long, however, before we began to encounter some very high waves & swells. Not only did this slow us down substantially as the boat was constantly rising on the waves then crashing down after, but a couple of people began to get seasick (one a member of our family). So the sea conditions (and the condition of the passengers) prevented us from going to the islands we had hoped to see. Instead we headed for some closer islands.
We landed at Khai Nok, a tiny island with a hill and a beach. It was crowded with visitors, who were taking pictures on the beaches, sitting in the many beach chairs under umbrellas and shopping at the many food stands. We were told that a large percentage of the visitors were Chinese, who do not swim but just take pictures of each other standing in the water. This was not what we had hoped for at all, but at least we were able to relax for a while on dry land.
In the ocean near the island were a number of fishing boats & there were some rocky islands visible in the distance.
A few people went in the boat to a nearby island to snorkel, but they were snorkeling right off the boat so most of us stayed behind and relaxed on the beach. When they returned we all boarded the boat and headed for another island where our guide hoped we could be accommodated for lunch. Since our itinerary had changed the place where we had lunch reservations was too far away. The guide went up to the restaurant on the first island but they didn’t have room for our party. So we headed off to another island where she was confident we would be served.
On the next island we hit pay dirt. Not only would they host us all for a delicious Thai lunch with fresh caught fish, but no other tourists were there to spoil the beauty of the long beach. We went ashore & headed down the beach to the open air restaurant.
An old wooden dock extended out into the water and a number of fishing boats were in the area.
We had a delicious & very plentiful lunch at tables set up on a platform open on three sides with the kitchen at the back. The dog who lives here was sacked out for the duration & next to the platform we found a pair of fish lying on the sand . . . no, wait, those are actually sandals.
After a last look at the still deserted beach we headed off to the new floating dock to board our boat for the trip back to Phuket. We got a close look at some fishing boats that were tied up to the dock.
We sped away from our lunch island and headed back to Phuket. As we neared the port we passed some navy ships at anchor.
After some shopping in the market set up on the pier we sailed away shortly before sunset. We could see in the distance Thailand’s Big Buddha sitting on top of a mountain. It had not been finished when we saw it in 2016, but now it is, we were told, the largest sitting Buddha in the world, surpassing the Big Buddha we visited on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.
After dinner we hit the sack after a day that turned out much better than it started.
On March 15 we set out on foot after breakfast to see the Gardens By The Bay, a huge horticultural installation built about a decade ago containing some 250,000 plants. You won’t see pictures of all of them here but by the time you get through this long episode you might feel like you had.
There is a very long covered walkway leading from the port along the waterfront to near the Gardens By The Bay entrance. We stopped to talk to our daughter on the way there.
We reached the nearest entrance to the Gardens, which appeared from there to be a large park with lots of trees & flowers. So here are the flowers we passed as we walked down the path from the entrance.
After meandering along a nice stream among all these flowers for quite a while we suddenly came to the main event: two huge domed greenhouse buildings. The Flower Dome, the first we entered, is the largest greenhouse in the world.
The flora, gathered from all over the world, is divided into separate gardens. We started in the cactus/succulent garden.
There was a Palo Borracho tree, with a fat bottom, & a Baobab tree, with Desert Rose flowers in front of it. We saw some Queensland Bottle trees & some Monkey Puzzle trees. There was also a grove of Olive trees, some said to be 500 years old.
Some whimsical sculptures were scattered throughout the gardens. For example, in the succulent garden were figures from Alice in Wonderland (called “Aloes in Wonderland”). Some wood sculptures appeared to have been carved from bundles of wood, most strikingly a spectacular dragon overlooking the cacti.
To make a long story a little shorter, here is a grab bag of other flowers on display in the Flower Dome.
We left the Flower Pavilion and walked next door to the Cloud Forest Pavilion. In this giant greenhouse was a mountain of flowers with an artificial waterfall more than 100 feet tall. A group of school children entered at the same time we did & each one exclaimed “Oh my God!” as he or she walked in. They were very cute.
This pavilion is designed to show plants native to higher and higher altitudes as you climb the mountain. As we walked the path up the mountain we passed incredible numbers of very colorful flowers hanging out from the mountain, along with ferns & other leafy plants. Quite lush. We came out at one point on a platform behind the waterfall, from which you could see Singapore & the Ferris wheel on the other side of the river.
We continued up the spiraling path around the mountain, seeing ever more flowers. As we gained altitude we got a different perspective on the mountain & waterfall.
The paths near the top veer far out from the mountain, giving you a good view of all the flowers hanging there.
After leaving the second pavilion we walked over to the grove of Supertrees. On the way we saw some more exotic flowers & a floral clock. The clock is about 25 feet in diameter & is operated by GPS technology.
The giant Supertrees are made of metal and have vines & flowers growing on them to make them green. It looks like maintaining these takes quite a lot of work. At the top is a pathway where you can walk among the treetops; the view is probably good but we didn’t spend the time & money to go up there.
At night a light show illuminates these supertrees with various changing colors. It made quite a show from the Amsterdam’s aft deck.
We left the Gardens by the Bay & headed across the bridge to the city. We passed the ArtScience museum, looking like a giant lotus blossom, and what looked like an inflated playground.
We walked on over the double helix bridge, called “The Helix,” which is lighted at night & looks like a strand of DNA.
At the other end of the Helix Bridge we came to the Merlion fountain. What is a Merlion, you ask? Well, it is a mythical animal worshipped by the ancients in this area . . . not! Actually, it was created by the local tourist board several decades ago to be an advertising emblem of the city (although Singapore does mean “Lion City,” so its not entirely made up). Passing the fountain we walked up the waterfront to find a place for lunch. We ended up in a tiny restaurant where we had excellent fish & chips & local beer.
We walked back to the shuttle bus stop for the return trip to the ship. On the way we walked by the Theaters on the Bay. A very controversial building that many consider to be ugly with its spike covered domes. It is known locally as “The Durian,” after the notoriously foul smelling fruit that is endemic in this area of the world.
Today was Mary’s birthday. In the main dining room on the Amsterdam the waiters gather around and sing an Indonesian birthday song when there is a birthday, and a birthday cake is also provided. The waiters seem to enjoy this ritual & you hear the song once or twice just about every night. Mary’s birthday was no exception & she held up to it well even though she really doesn’t like this kind of thing. We divided the cake into 9 pieces so our waiters & wine steward could have some, in addition to the three couples at the table.
If you thought we were finally done with this long episode, you were wrong. That evening we attended a performance by a Singapore cultural group, presenting song and dance of various ethnic groups in this diverse city. In particular, there were Malay dancers (Singapore was once part of Malaya), Chinese dancers, Indian dancers and a lion dance. There were two guys inside the lion, and when the lion stood up the front guy jumped onto the other guy’s arms.
So that’s more than enough for today. After a very full & taxing two days in Singapore we went to bed as the ship headed for Thailand.
March 14 found us in Singapore, a very diverse city of historical interest and full of attractions. We spent more than two days here in 2016, which you can read about here:
We were docked at a different wharf this time. Some folks were disgruntled (well, really, there are always some folks disgruntled) because it was a good walk to the subway & you had to go elsewhere to buy two day subway passes. But we actually liked this one better because there was a good view of the city from the ship & there was a shuttle bus to a convenient (for us) location in town.
Today we decided to visit the Sultan Mosque, which was closed the last time we were here, & do some shopping on nearby Arab Street. So we boarded the shuttle bus for a short drive to the drop off spot at a shopping mall in town. It was only about a 15 minute walk from here to the mosque, but we managed to make it into an hour walk by turning the wrong way & finding ourselves next to the Singapore Flyer Ferris wheel instead of the mosque. But eventually we found ourselves walking along the interesting ethnic streets near the mosque.
The mosque was closed for another hour for midday services so we spent that time scoping out the stores on Arab Street. This is a small street across from the mosque that is lined with textile stores, each stuffed to the gills with every kind of textile you can imagine, many at bargain prices. Some of the stores also sell finished clothes, rugs & other middle eastern items. It is extremely crowded & hectic and after a few minutes it becomes difficult to pick out the patterns you actually like from the myriad others surrounding them. As you walk past a shop, each of which is open to the street with goods displayed on both sides of the sidewalk, the shop owners call out and invite you to come in & peruse their wares. It’s not our favorite shopping environment, but we did not come away empty handed. Then it was back to the mosque.
The Sultan Mosque was built in the 1920’s on the spot where a mosque had stood since the 1820’s. Sir Stamford Raffles had made a deal to recognize as sultan the brother of the sitting local sultan & they agreed to this spot for a mosque and a Muslim district. To enter the Sultan Mosque we had to take off our shoes & leave them in a rack near the door. We were appropriately dressed (long sleeves & pants), but visitors wearing shorts or tank tops were provided with a long robe to wear inside.
After leaving the mosque we decided to walk to Fort Canning Hill & look for a lunch spot along the way. At this time of day, mid afternoon, it was hard to find a place serving lunch, but we finally found a German restaurant that suited. This is a very cosmopolitan city with every kind of cuisine available. Just before we reached the hill we passed the beautiful National Museum, with a huge India Rubber Tree sitting out in front. Originally built in 1887, this was the National Library and Museum until 2004, when the National Library was moved to a new location (which we visited in 2016).
We did not have time to visit the museum (maybe next time), so we walked on to Fort Canning Hill. We were happy to see a huge escalator up the side of the hill, but it turned out to be broken. So we had to treat it as a staircase; much less satisfactory.
Fort Canning Hill has a long history. In the 14th century it was probably the seat of a Malay kingdom, and it became known as Forbidden Hill because the last ruler was thought to be buried there. It was forbidden to climb the hill. When the British came in 1819 they unhesitatingly ascended the hill and erected a flagpole, then a house for the British Resident. None of the locals would accompany them up Forbidden Hill so they took Malays up with them to build the house & renamed it Government Hill. In 1861 a fort was added & the fort & its hill were named after the Viceroy of India, Viscount Canning. In the 1920’s a barracks was built, used today as an arts center, and an underground complex was built in 1936 to house the British Far East Command. Called the Battle Box, this is where the decision was made to surrender Singapore to the Japanese in 1942.
The Battle Box was our main objective on the hill, but it was closed by the time we got there. Among the things we did see on the hill were an old Christian cemetery, which operated from the 1820’s until the 1860’s. The most interesting graves were built into a long brick wall leading up to the Arts Center. There is a sculpture garden on the hill and some interesting flowers, a few of which are included here, but this is only a small taste of the flora you can see in the next episode.
We walked back to the shuttle stop and rode back to the port. The night brought another beautiful view of the lighted city from the ship. And so ended our first day in Singapore.
In the morning on March 12 the Amsterdam sailed up the Saigon River to Phu My & docked among the container cranes at a very industrial pier. There was nothing to do near the pier so we signed up for an excursion that would drive us the 1.5 hours into Saigon, drop us off for 5 hours on our own, then pick us up for the return to the port. Apart from spending 3 hours in a bus seat, this turned out to be a good trip. We visited many places we had seen on our tour in 2016, but this time we could set our own schedule and wander where we saw fit. To see our last visit to Saigon look here:
In Vietnam, as in most of Southeast Asia, motorbikes are kings of the road. You see whole families on a single motorbike: parents, children & babies. People use them to move surprisingly large things too. We once saw someone on a motorbike dragging a 12 foot ladder behind him. Another interesting thing here is that many people cover up their whole bodies and faces despite the withering heat and humidity. We were told that this is to prevent suntan because pale skin is considered more attractive here. If you have ever seen the movie “The Invisible Man,” that will give you some idea of how this can look.
Saigon is a huge city with many millions of people. There is construction everywhere, from a project of high rise residential buildings across the river called “New Town” or “New Saigon” to a subway in the middle of town being financed partly by the Japanese. The construction downtown actually made it somewhat difficult to get around.
The bus dropped us off in front of the tallest building in Saigon, near where the broad boulevard Nguyen Hue meets the river. This boulevard has streets on either side of a very broad pedestrian walkway. It was still dressed up for the lunar new year, but was mostly empty on the day we visited.
We walked up the boulevard, past the Rex Hotel where the American military press briefings (known to journalists as the “Five O’Clock Follies” because they were not easy to believe) were held during the war, to the Hotel de Ville. Built by the French in 1908 as the center of city administration, today it houses the People’s Committee responsible for governing Saigon. It is quite beautiful and is fronted by a park with a statue of Ho Chi Minh in the middle.
The park in front of the Hotel de Ville has many colorful flowers. So here are a few.
We walked over to see the Opera House, whose official name is the Municipal Theater. It was built by the French in 1898 and has elaborate carved stone details & fountains on the grounds. It was closed to the public but we were able to see the lobby through the glass door.
In front of the Opera House was a promotion for a play consisting of a whole lot of bamboo fish traps attached to a bicycle. Walking on, we came to a small park full of flowers and passed a monument in a tiny park commemorating something that happened on Christmas Eve in 1964, but we can’t read Vietnamese so we didn’t know what that was. We have since learned that this was the bombing of the Brinks Hotel in Saigon by the Viet Cong.
It appeared from signs we saw (again, we can’t read Vietnamese) that the city was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive that was a major turning point in the war. Although many more Vietnamese were killed than Americans in that battle, American confidence was shaken by the Viet Cong’s ability to invade the American embassy in Saigon. Tall sculptures of lotus blossoms decorated a number of street corners. We don’t know whether these were there for a special purpose or just normal. We walked around a little, visiting some stores & getting lost until we found ourselves back by the river. The streets of the city were pretty interesting in themselves.
Finally discovering the correct route (we had turned in the direction opposite from where we wanted to go), we walked up to the Post Office, built by Gustave Eiffel in 1891. The outside is bright yellow with carved stone decoration, including busts of famous European artists and philosophers. There is much hustle and bustle outside with street vendors selling, among other things, very colorful folded cards that open up like children’s pop-up books to display a Vietnamese building or scene. Inside is a vast hall with iron pillars and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh displayed prominently on the wall in the back. Its really an interesting building.
Across the street is the Notre Dame Cathedral, built by the French in 1880. It looks like brick but it is actually made of red tiles from Marseilles covering granite walls. It appeared to be undergoing renovation as it was mostly covered in wide scaffolding. Down the street to the right of the post office is the building where, we were told, the last American helicopters left Vietnam as the Vietnamese army was closing in on the city. It is the subject of a rather iconic photograph showing the desperate people left behind.
We had done a lot of walking on a hot & humid day, so we stopped for a late lunch in a restaurant next to the post office. We had pizza & beer, very refreshing. Unfortunately it was open on three sides & not air conditioned.
After lunch we walked down to the Ben Thanh Market, built in 1913 by (yes, again) the French. Inside are hundreds of vendors in booths divided largely by subject matter: clothing aisles, food aisles, etc. It is very crowded & busy and as you walk down an aisle each vendor jumps up to point you to their wares (as if you couldn’t see them yourself). Lots of bargaining going on and the shops have spilled over onto the surrounding streets.
After that we met our bus (having to fend off dozens of street merchants who kept approaching us as we waited) and drove back to the ship. It was a shame we had only one day in Vietnam this year.
On March 9 we were scheduled to go on a HAL excursion to Lantau Island In the New Territories, a part of Hong Kong that is somewhat closer to mainland China. So, after the long trek through the cruise terminal, we boarded the bus & set out.
Our first stop was rather useless. It seems that about 10 years ago China completed the Tsing Ma Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world, between Hong Kong & Lantau. Before crossing the bridge we stopped at a sort of park that was built as a visitor’s center for the bridge. Why would you want to go to a viewing station for a bridge? That’s a good question, to which we never got a reasonable answer.
We saw some nice flowers in Hong Kong & many of them were in this park. So here is a selection.
So we crossed the bridge and entered Lantau Island. After the crowded skyscrapers of Hong Kong it is rather a surprise that Lantau has so much undeveloped green area. And to keep it that way they have instituted strict environmental regulations. Most notably for us, only vehicles certified as meeting Lantau’s environmental standards are permitted to drive there. This meant that shortly after entering the island we had to stop and change to a bus that satisfies the regulations. They have begun work on a tunnel under the bay between Kowloon & Lantau, which is expected to make travel there much easier. Lantau was pretty much a backwater until the new airport was built there in 1998 (the old one was where our ship docked this year). Today it also houses the Hong Kong Disneyland, in addition to the attractions we visited while there.
Our first stop was to visit Tai O village, one of the oldest fishing villages in Hong Kong. It was once the center of Lantau’s thriving salt trade with mainland China. Today it is a regular stop for visitors to Lantau but still engages in fishing and has several good seafood restaurants. It is situated on both sides of a channel between Lantau and a smaller island; once you had to cross on a boat but today there is a bridge.
After crossing the bridge onto the island side you come shortly to what our guide told us is the Kwan Ti temple. Built around 1500, it is dedicated to the god of war. Next to it is a tiny temple dedicated to the god of sailing that looks just as old.
The roof of the Kwan Ti temple is lined with what looks like colored ceramic figures of beasts, including a lion and a bird that may be a goose, along with a number of people who may represent former residents of the town. They are looking very good if they have been outside on the top of a building for 500 years of squalls and typhoons.
We spent some time walking up and down the streets of the village. There were a number of shops open to the street (lots of tourists come here), including several food shops, some with blowfish hanging from the awning & some with live fish that can be purchased and carried to a restaurant for preparation.
Leaving Tai O we drove to the Tian Tan Buddha, a massive structure known colloquially as the Big Buddha. It is cast in bronze and is well over 100 feet high and weighs about 250 tons. Until recently it was the largest seated bronze Buddha in the world but our guide told us that a bigger one was opened recently. We were expecting to be able to walk up the 268 steps to the Buddha, sitting on a bed of lotus petals, but apparently we were behind schedule since they drove us to the top instead. On the walkway below the Buddha are large bronze sculptures of three maidens making offerings to him.
The Buddha is on top of a mountain, so there are some great views from there, including one of the Lin Po Monastery below, where we had lunch.
We drove down in the bus (boo) & walked along a promenade lined with statues of old Chinese generals toward the Monastery. We did not get to tour it, but we did eat a very good vegetarian Chinese lunch at a restaurant in the Monastery.
After lunch we walked back up the promenade to a commercial area of restaurants (Starbucks) & souvenir shops called Ngong Ping Village. Its not really a village at all, but it is the terminus for the cable car to Tung Chung, the town near the airport. We climbed in the gondola, which is suspended from a cable very high in the air. It took about half an hour to go over the top of a mountain and down to Tung Chung. As we left we had a nice view of the Big Buddha sitting on top of its mountain and as we neared the end we had a gut-wrenching but beautiful view of the airport far beneath us. One woman in our gondola kept her eyes shut the whole time!
We transferred to the bus at Tung Chung and drove back to the cruise port. On the way we passed a tall building under construction covered in bamboo scaffolding, which is common here (take a closer look at the scaffolding in the first Tai O picture), as is wash hanging from the balconies of high rise residential buildings. Our guide told us that because electricity is quite expensive in Hong Kong people wash their clothes in machines but hang them outside to dry for free.
We sailed away at sunset and passed a stilted village on the other side of the harbor. After dinner we went to bed as the ship sailed south toward Vietnam.
We woke up on March 8 in Hong Kong, on the Kowloon side of the harbor. Unfortunately we were docked at Kai Tak terminal, a converted airport half an hour’s drive from the center of town, instead of the ocean terminal right by the Star Ferry where we docked last time. You can see that three day visit here:
Conditions were pretty poor for a visit to Hong Kong. It was cold, windy & drizzly. Kai Tak is a terrible cruise port; you have to walk about a mile (really!) from the ship to reach the bus terminal. Then once the shuttle bus finally leaves it is a half hour drive through nasty traffic to the drop off at the Peninsula Hotel, near where we docked last time & the Star Ferry Terminal. And once we arrived there our bus had to circle the block three times before finding a place by the curb where we could get off. So, after all that, you can start your visit to Hong Kong. We were told that the building on the left in the picture below is the tallest in Hong Kong, which is saying something because Hong Kong has more skyscrapers than any other city in the world.
We wanted to take the HOHO bus around Hong Kong island, which required us to take the Star Ferry across the bay. The Star Ferry is a venerable institution in Hong Kong, begun in 1898, & still costs well under a dollar for a ride. Well worth it, since its also fun. We crossed the harbor & boarded the two tier bus, taking seats with a view on the top.
The HOHO runs a circular route through the city, allowing you to see a great deal as you go & to get off at any stop you would like to explore on foot. We passed the tram station for going up to Victoria Peak (bad day for this because it was covered with clouds), the botanical garden, the mid level escalators that climb halfway up toward the peak, all of which we visited last time. It continued through Happy Valley which contains a famous race track & out past several bays and the Ocean Park amusement park.
We finally reached the first of two objectives for the day, a remote spot called Stanley. Today it is a high priced residential area, but in the 19jth century it was a fishing village and a base for pirates. Stanley has a large bay that was beautiful even on a dark & cloudy day.
Most people come here to visit the Stanley Market, a crowded maze of stalls selling every kind of Chinese souvenir you can imagine in a large range of prices.
We re-boarded the bus & headed for our second destinatiion, Aberdeen. On the way we passed Repulse Bay, once a pirate hangout that got its name when the British Navy drove them away. Its beach has been a popular since the 1920’s and on nice weekend days it may have tens of thousands of bathers (but certainly not today!). On the hill above is a large curvy blue residential building with a large hole in the middle that was dictated by Feng Shui, the Chinese system of architectural arrangement.
Aberdeen is a town built around a harbor that was once crowded with Chinese junks on which families lived and sold fish, flowers and other items. Today it has a lot of boats parked in rows but it doesn’t appear that many are actually living on board. We were told that most of the families who once lived on the boats here were moved into the residential skyscrapers lining the harbor, which house some 60,000 people.
We toured the harbor on a sampan that was decorated profusely with plastic flowers and lanterns.
We spent about 20 minutes sailing around the harbor, up and down the rows of boats. Are any of these house boats? We don’t know. It was raining so there was no activity on the boats. We don’t know what it would be like on a nice day. This is a very active fishing harbor, bringing in about a third of all the seafood in Hong Kong.
Two huge floating restaurants sit in Aberdeen harbor, one called Tai Pak and the other called Jumbo. We were told that these restaurants are an experience but that the food has gone downhill in recent years, although that on the top floor of the Jumbo is making a comeback. Our sampan sailed around these restaurants. They are brightly lit at night, but of course we weren’t there at night.
We re-boarded the bus to go back to the pier. It had become very cold, windy & drizzly while we were at Aberdeen, so we decided to sit inside rather than on top. Unfortunately the bus was quite late & by the time it got to us the inside was full, so we had to sit on top. The cold wind made for a very unpleasant ride, but we made it (without getting sick, surprisingly). We crossed back to Kowloon on the ferry & rode the shuttle bus back to the ship.
That evening there was a Chinese cultural show. It was pretty much the same one we saw here two years ago but it was still good & fun to watch. The highlights were the dragon dance & the fellow who changes faces (masks) so quickly you can’t see it happening. We were told this is a highly respected art in China and the one we saw is one of the best.