Africa is one of the most fascinating continents in the world – and as Julie Peasgood discovered, it’s easy to explore by ship
One of the top items on my bucket list has always been to visit Africa – only I had never imagined doing so on a ship. I had pictured myself going on a big game safari, or driving along South Africa’s Garden Route, or maybe flying to Cape Town to relish its many delights. But as multi-tasking is my mantra, the fact that I can easily do all of these – and more – in just one trip, has considerable appeal.
Most excursions on cruises are more of an introduction to a destination rather than an in-depth view, but they are great for whetting the appetite – and Fred. Olsen’s Black Watch offered a variety of well-planned tours, so sometimes it’s even possible to pack in a couple of trips in a day. Tour Manager Sandra Harvey is blessed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of this vast continent, and was very happy to advise us about what was on offer.
Our first African port of call was Banjul, in The Gambia. I was a little wary because of the recent tension, but our visit was trouble-free, except for the bold monkey that snatched my husband’s Panama in the Bijilo Forest Park (it didn’t even suit him).
It was when we reached Namibia that we all felt we were properly in Africa. Dating back 80 million years, the lunar-like Namib desert is the oldest in the world, and it’s also home to the highest sand dunes in existence. In Walvis Bay, Namibia’s chief port, intrepid travellers can drive a quad bike to the top of Dune 7 and then sandboard down.
But simply witnessing this wind-sculpted sand mountain is heart-stopping enough. It’s difficult to comprehend when you first see it. The Atlantic waves crash onto the shore like anywhere else. It’s just that in Namibia the sand and the dunes keep going back for hundreds of miles. Sand, sand and more sand. Dune after dune.
Walvis Bay is also an ornithologist’s dream, with an abundance of flamingos, pelicans and Jackass Penguins. A tour on the natural lagoon is a wonderful way to see them, and we were astonished when a seal jumped into our boat. We fed and stroked him before he plopped back into the water to party with the dolphins cavorting around us, while we enjoyed bubbly and Walvis Bay oysters.
The West African town of Lüderitz was our next port of call, and you can’t help but notice the architecture here. Namibia was a German colony, and in the old town there are wooden houses and bars that wouldn’t look out of place in a Bavarian village. There’s a strange familiarity that’s very welcome given the Martian terrain of the desert.
The top attraction here is a trip to the eerie ghost town of Kolmanskop. Once famed for its diamonds, the deserted buildings are gradually being reclaimed by the desert sands and make for some haunting images.
But my camera got most use in Cape Town. With two and a half days in this stunning, sophisticated city, we were spoilt for choice as to what to do first.
A trip to the top of Table Mountain, or the penal colony of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in captivity? Whale watching or sampling Stellenbosch on the award-winning Wine Route? We were delighted when we discovered we could enjoy both whales and wine on the same tour, to the quaint coastal town of Hermanus, which boasts a 13-mile beach into the bargain.
Wherever you are in Cape Town, Table Mountain watches over you like a guardian angel. Even when the clouds are draping themselves over the the lip like a badly laid table cloth. On these days the locals actually call it Table Cloth Mountain.
I was also eager to sample Cape Town’s renowned waterfront market, and so I made a beeline for the craft and curio markets at Victoria Wharf. They didn’t disappoint, offering traditional, South African hand-made treasures and hardly any souvenir-type tat. But the market is only the beginning. When you get under the skin of Cape Town you begin to realise what a truly amazing city it is. From the colonial magnificence of The Lord Nelson Hotel to the relaxed resort of Camps Bay, located a few miles out of town, where the wealthy and beautiful people hang out, it offers a winning combination of refinement and rugged charm.
Sitting at the tip of Africa looking out to sea, it slowly dawns on you that the next stop is Antarctica, and those rolling waves of the Southern Ocean that pound its shores is why Cape Town has been a safe haven on the edge of the world for as long as man has sailed the seas…
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Cape Verde and Africa Cruise
Julie visited Africa as part of a longer cruise, but a 14-night cruise with Fred. Olsen departing on 6 December 2013 from Tenerife, calling at Cape Verde, The Gambia and Senegal, starts from £1,339pp, based on two sharing, including flights. For more info call 0845 485 6602 or visit fredolsencruises.com
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