Magnificent scenery, astonishing wildlife and excellent wine – Frances Marcellin sets sail on a Viking South Africa cruise from Durban to Cape Town.
Driving through the acacia thornveld and open grassland as part of my Viking South Africa cruise, suddenly our jeep skids to a halt and our guide, Milton, is reversing fast up the dusty ochre tracks. He has spotted giraffes, and not just one or two, but an entire tower.
We watch in hushed excitement, the only sound the soft whirring of cameras as everyone strives to capture the best images possible. At one point a male giraffe saunters through the wild grasses to cross the road in front, dazzling us with his honey-gold patches.
Just like fingerprints, each pattern on a giraffe is unique, helping them keep track of each other. A little family of warthogs also appears, snuffling and chomping as they twirl around like enthusiastic Labradors.
Shortly afterwards we see even more giraffes gathering under a shadowy tree grove. “It’s their wedding venue,” says Milton.
We had only arrived in Durban the night before, to sunset orange skies, and already this first shore excursion of our South Africa Viking cruise on board Viking Sun has surpassed all our expectations.
As well as the giraffe we see water buffalo, scores of stripy tail-flicking zebras and impala and a female rhino with her calf. We don’t get too close as Milton explains Mum has a bad temper – hardly surprising when you learn poachers had left her for dead when they attacked her for her horn, since removed to protect her.
That night at The Restaurant on Viking Sun, I pick the African-themed Destination Menu, including grilled peri-peri black tiger prawns and seared black bass with fava beans. Culinary Director Anthony Mauboussin tells me it takes 12 months to create the menus for Viking’s 242 destinations.
Our sommelier Andrej, who serves up impeccable wine pairings at every meal on board, has chosen a white Sauvignon blanc from Cape Town’s Stellenbosch wine region and a light red, the Marras Trickster Pinotage, its notes of cranberry in perfect harmony with the delicacy of the fish.
The next day on our South Africa Viking cruise there are chances to taste authentic African food on a trip from East London to meet the Xhosa people at Khaya La Bantu village. We arrive on a grassy hilltop to be greeted by a traditional song and dance, led by the village matriarch, Nkollie. After sampling dishes including amagwinya (fried dough bread), the villagers show us how they grind maize traditionally, with a large stone.
In the afternoon we join an excursion to East London’s museum, which is home to the world’s only existing Dodo bird egg. Now extinct, the last sighting of this giant flightless bird was in 1660. One of two existing Dodo skeletons can still be viewed at Durban’s Natural Science Museum.
The next morning we sail into Port Elizabeth as the sun is glistening on the sapphire-blue ocean. Some of the guests have opted for a three-day overland tour of the Garden Route from Mossel Bay to Plettenberg Bay, others are heading to Addo Elephant Park and many are joining the included excursion that presents the highlights of Port Elizabeth.
But I’m heading for the Pumba Game Reserve, which is about 20 minutes south west of Grahamstown, with the promise of seeing the big five: elephant, black rhinoceros, cape buffalo, lion and leopard.
Before we set off our safari guide, Phumlani, advises us not to speak and to click our fingers if a snake falls in our lap so he can remove it. Slightly concerned, I’m one of the last in the group to realise Phumlani is joking.
Just 15 minutes into the safari we spot a serene white male lion with a bushy mane lazing by a tree. There are only around 300 white lions left in the world. Then we find a pride of mixed lions. We see a king tucking into fresh prey while the lioness hungrily waits for her share. The male always eats first, Phumlani tells us, this is the law of the lions.
With the small network of safari guides radioing each other whenever they spot wildlife we see kudus, giraffes, impalas and buffaloes. We even see the top of a baby hippo’s head while balanced on his mother’s back in the waterhole – though she stays hidden beneath the surface.
While heading towards the lodge for a lunchtime braai (barbeque) and African fusion cuisine, we spot an elephant family in the bushes, and a young bull elephant pulling out tufts of grass.
Unperturbed by the whirring of the jeep’s engine, we are close enough to see the skin folds around his knees and marvel at how he relaxes his trunk straight down before curling it around to pluck the plants out.
The following day of our South Africa Viking cruise is a sea day and an opportunity to try out the Nordic Bathing Ritual in The Spa on board Viking Sun. There is an exact Nordic science to the ritual and therapist Thomas explains the benefits include reduced stress, an improved immune system and endorphin release. Not usually one for pampering, afterwards I feel surprisingly uplifted and relaxed.
After this I feel well prepared for our final port of call: Cape Town, where excursions on offer include a cable car ride up Table Mountain and wine tasting in Stellenbosch, a town in South Africa’s Western Cape province.
After breakfast at the World Café on Viking Sun (where I could have stayed forever marvelling at the view of Table Mountain), we spend the morning exploring Cape Town. We photograph the city from the cableway level, but incredible weather also means long queues, so we don’t do the ride itself, exploring the popular Victoria & Alfred Waterfront instead.
Viking runs free shuttles every half an hour to and from the waterfront, which makes getting in and out very easy. Before returning to the ship we stop by the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa and listen to lively African street music filling the air by the white fairground-like Cape Wheel.
Our entire South Africa Viking cruise has been unforgettable, but watching the sun casting its amber cloak over Table Mountain from the infinity pool on board Viking Sun is a moment that will stay with me forever.
The 245-day Ultimate World Cruise on board Viking Sun, which includes South Africa and 52 additional countries, departs on 31 August 2019. It costs from £68,590, based on two people sharing, including return flights, drinks with meals and 111 guided tours. Find out more information by calling 0800 298 9700 or visiting vikingcruises.co.uk.