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South Africa: Cruising

Sailing Into New Waters : After a few nights of rough seas, they're just happy to be on land--and, oh, what beautiful land it is

November 24, 1996|CHRIS CARD FULLER | Chris Card Fuller is freelance writer based Deerfield Beach, Fla

IN THE INDIAN OCEAN — When the first 40-foot wave hit, I lay frozen to our stateroom bed, my eyes squeezed shut. Seconds later the second 40-footer slammed down and the 28,000-ton M.S. Star Odyssey nosed its way through with a thud and a groan.

I cradled my neon orange life jacket. My husband, Christopher, snored.

Jack and Mae McPeak, two cruise veterans, had easily persuaded us that the stupendous approach by sea to Cape Town, South Africa, was an experience not to be missed. Starting in Mombasa, Kenya, we could look forward to 12 days at sea and such exotic ports of call as Zanzibar; Nosy Be, a tiny island off the coast of Madagascar; and St. Denis on the French island of Reunion. After that, we would head south through the Indian Ocean to put in at South Africa's storied coastal cities of Durban, Mossel Bay and Cape Town, whose approach by sea was heralded by Sir Francis Drake as "the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the Earth." Optional South Africa land excursions and an add-on ride on the famed Blue Train made this trip sound too good to pass up.

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We had just visited Kenya and the Seychelles islands on a similar cruise/land package six months earlier, but this time we'd be getting to see South Africa at a crucial point in its history with newly elected Nelson Mandela at the helm of the country. Having recently read James Michener's "The Covenant," I thought traveling by ship might be a way to understand the allure South African coasts held for foreign explorers.

But a night of rough seas dispelled any esoteric musings about following in seafarers' footsteps. My strongest desire was to see land--any land.

By morning on the ninth day, the high winds subsided and a dull light revealed the fuzzy outline of South Africa, so we ventured out of our cabin and headed to the Penthouse Lounge for a view of the churning sea that had knocked television sets across cabin floors during the night. Durban seemed but a hand's reach away--until one unknotted the patchwork of swells. Four hours behind schedule, we had no chance of reaching port before noon. A whale flipped its tail with insolent ease as it cut across traffic lanes to our starboard.

Passengers scrutinized the dented prow railing. We wouldn't get a good look at the rust-bleeding prow, bashed in from the previous night's swells, until we docked at Durban.

"Did you notice they bolted down the piano this time?" said a slight woman who wore her gray hair in a pixie cut. She was a 10-time cruise veteran. "You should have seen the piano slide the time we crossed the Bay of Biscay!" She had been in typhoons. Last night wasn't bad.

Her words reinforced the truism that, just because our last Indian Ocean cruise had been fair sailing, there aren't any guarantees at sea. If I had begun to think of luxury cruises as merely floating hotels, this was my wake-up call.

(The Star Odyssey withstood the damage, and since our sailing in November 1995, it also has weathered the financial woes of parent company Royal Cruise Line. Earlier this year, the Norwegian firm Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines bought the Odyssey and renamed it the M.S. Black Watch. A $6-million upgrade will prepare it for its next Africa tour in January.)

But, we had arrived safely. From the deck, we surveyed a crisply starched span of high-rises towering over an orderly grid of concrete. Located on the south coast of Natal Province, Durban, with more than a million people, is South Africa's third-largest city and one of its three capitals. It's best known for its Golden Mile beachfront of hotels and parklands.

Since we already had received a briefing from guest lecturer and former CNN correspondent Charles D. Jaco about rising crime in Cape Town and Johannesburg, we were glad the cruise offered shore excursions and the safety of bus tours through South Africa's major cities.

Once we had climbed into our tour buses, I temporarily forgot about the perils of seafaring. We were headed for the Valley of 1,000 Hills, 15 miles outside of Durban. In the late afternoon, the sunbathed hills looked like honeyed gumdrops tumbled out of a tin.

Seated in a makeshift amphitheater in a Zulu village perched on one of the 1,000 hills, we watched Zulu dancers stomp up dust. "This is not some choreographed dance troupe from the university," our white South African guide said as she bounced a dancer's toddler on her knee. She knew the village women all by name; "Tulani means 'quiet one.'

After the performance and picture taking (for dollars), the village chief, still wearing his leather crown, climbed into a Land Rover with his extended family and drove off, leaving behind the setting sun and the valley at no extra charge.

"Maybe we could fly from Durban to Cape Town," I suggested to my husband, remembering that we would soon be back at sea. Just the names on the map were enough to start my stomach doing flip-flops: Danger Point, False Bay, the Cape of Good Hope--which had originally been called the Cape of Storms.

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