A Travellerspoint blog

Walvisbaai. Again

Walvisbaai was covered in a surprising grey layer of mist, and it had rained a bit during the night. It was also, if not cold, then much chillier than expected and on my previous visits. My grand plans for shore, inevitably, came to nothing. Most estimates had us coming into the dock around 5-6am the following morning, which would have been perfect. Instead, we were in early (a good thing in most terms) at 23:45, a particularly useless time for me. I have been to Walvisbaai a couple of times, and that prior experience tells me that midnight on a Sunday is not necessarily the best time to visit. With the possible exception of a 24hour garage, a bar or two, and maybe a brothel, everything would be shut and the streets empty.

It's 1am, we are in Walvisbaai and I am about to go to sleep whilst many of these containers get loaded

And so I went to sleep, amongst the rattle, noise, shouting and lights that accompany any port stop. I was up early the following morning to watch the loading and inquire as to it's progress. The Chief told me around 6, that we were due to sail at 9, and that pretty much, was that. Regardless of when we would actually sail, and both of us expected that it would be later, the captain would not be able to allow me leave to go ashore due to lack of time and formalities: the ship sure as heck would not wait for me if the cargo was complete and I was not back onboard.

Loading continues in the morning

And so I had to scrub my shore ideas. Instead of going ashore, I just watched for a few hours as the containers were loaded and the harbour crew buggered about. It was, indeed, a later departure than expected, and by the time we left, our projected 8hours alongside had taken 12, and we had been in sight of Walvisbaai for over 48hours. This delay may affect our schedule, but it might not. There is a lot of water, weather, wind and current to pass before we reach Vigo, and lots of opportunity to catch up time, or, indeed, be further delayed.

But finally, and happily, we are not back at sea and have nothing but open water ahead of us for the next 10days or so. I can't wait.

Posted by Gelli 14:38 Archived in Namibia Tagged boating Comments (1)


Being a cargo ship means that things are not always as smooth as on a passenger boat or a cruise liner. We had made good time to Walvisbaai, and were in anchorage outside by midday on the 3rd day. The trouble was, so were many others. At one point i could count 18ships at anchorage, with more arriving every few hours, and all awaiting clearance to dock at the quay.

On arrival, we were number 7 or 8 in the queue, even though at least a couple of the ships ahead of us had not yet arrived. As is the way with port authorities, we were just told to wait and listen out. Rumours and guestimates abounded. And so we waited 33hours without any information except what we could ascertain with our own eyes before being given clearance to proceed (several hours earlier than most guesses). It was almost another 3 hours – just before midnight on day 4 - before we were finally berthed in Walvisbaai. A cruise ship that had arrived earlier went straight in without even pausing outside.

The Cruise ship that went straight in, at the quayside, one of the most scenic docking areas on the cruise ship world tour...

Anchorage is one of the most frustrating times for most sailors and seamen. It involves – sometimes protracted (one seaman told me they had once spent 3.5weeks at Panama with no information and then another week once they had traversed the canal) – waits, generally with no information. You can see land, but can't do anything about it. You are also ready for the work of socking and then doing cargo movements: In our case, we had about 130 containers to load, and yet all you can do is sit and twiddle your thumbs.

And as a passenger, it can be even more frustrating: You know that you have no duties in port, and in normal situations can get off and go and explore for a few hours. I could see the sand dunes. I could see the town in the distance. And I had ideas of having a walk and stretching my legs, doing some bits of shopping for extra supplies and maybe finding an internet cafe for an hour or so and checking up on the world. But that mean't nothing. I just had to sit and wait like everybody else.

Sand dunes outside Walvisbaai, taken on our eventual departure. It would be over 10days before i saw any land again

Posted by Gelli 04:36 Archived in Namibia Tagged boating Comments (0)

Life on a cargo vessel

Cargo ships are not cruise ships. That sounds a pretty obvious and straight forward statement, and indeed it is, providing that you understand what it really means. A cargo ship is a working vessel, with a few also transporting as many passengers (in this case, one – me – though had I had any friends there could be as many as 2 passengers on board) as they have spare rooms. The days when you could pitch up at a dock of your choice and be signed on as working crew within a few days have long since gone, although a few smaller companies still offer discounts in part for working. Most cargo ships no longer accept passengers, due to increased paperwork and especially since 2001, security considerations: allowing random passengers onto an oil tanker, for example, is not necessarily always a clever idea.


In the case of many ships, including the Green Cape, this means just one cabin is available: known as the owners cabin, it is generally used by shipping company dignitaries or guests, occasional family or friends of the crew, and if none of those, passengers. It also mean't that I pretty much had the best accommodation on board: a 2 room-suite comprising a bedroom and sitting room, with a private WC/shower and windows in two directions for views out to the side and the aft of the ship. If it had had a small kitchenette, it would have been bigger and swankier than some apartments and rooms that I have lived in.

My suite here is comfortable and functional without being luxurious. It includes a kettle and coffee machine (with coffee!); a hi-fi with cassette and CD players (obviously, there is little radio signal out at sea) and a monitor with VCR/DVD player and a stack of Video's for the VCR which are generally either bad action films or soft porn in genre, with a few home made harder porn ones for variety: After all, most sailors are away for long periods, and can go weeks without seeing a single female. There is also a small collection of books, mostly left by previous passengers, many in German, and including the obligatory Bible.

Part of my lounge

Entertainment is solely of your own making: the appliances provided in your cabin and anything you bring with you (in my case, a stack of books, Ipod with speakers and a laptop with lots of documents/blogs/emails to write and some films etc to watch) are all you have. Bottles of cheap spirits could be bought from the captain at sea, and beer was available from the saloon. On the Green Cape (all ships have different rules depending on the owners, captain and cargo), whilst at sea I have free reign of the ship and can go anywhere I want to – I can wander the deck amongst the cargo containers, hang over the aft of the ship watching the water glide past, or go and watch the world from the bridge. If i had wanted to slip over the side and disappear, it would have been very easy (especially at night) as i would not have been missed until the next meal time, and possibly not even then. Many of the crew were fairly bored when not on duty (and often, on duty) and happy to talk to me, play cards or chess or drink, although my Polish is limited and many of the crew spoke only very basic (or pretty much no) English, but essentially you are left to your own devices.

There is no phone, no TV, no internet, no contact with the outside world at all. Just you and a group of hulking Polish men and the occasional small boat full of attacking and very, very lost Somali pirates.

The fact that a cargo ship is a working ship means that everything is based on the crew and it's needs. Meal times are fixed and tend to be earlier than you are used to: Dinner service finishes at 18:00, for example. And food is prepared according to the crews tastes and requirements. As a passenger, you get served with the captain and officers, and over the years, I have done several short cargo voyages and thus know enough that given the choice, I will always plump for one with a Malaysian or Filipino crew. Certainly a South East Asian one , as they tend to have the tastiest food. For me, on a German owned ship with a Polish crew, the fare is hearty and filling if mostly unexciting. Eggs or Sausage plus bread, coldcuts and coffee for breakfast; lunches are the main meal of the day and comprise juice and soup (which have mostly been delicious) followed by some kind of meat and potato plus often a bowl of communal salad. Dinner is a simpler affair and tends to be tea or coffee plus something like Beef and cabbage goulash or stew, or a Polish specialty of thick fat soup (I don't know it's real name and can't describe it any other way, though it is pretty good) or sometimes fish. Occasionally something an extra appears: a yoghurt at breakfast, a beer at dinner for example. Portions are rarely huge, so you learn to make good use of the extras, like the bread, salad or fruit. Potatoes have abounded, appearing 2 or 3 times a day on this ship. There is no choice, and if you are a fussy eater you pretty much starve, and for those with a a sweet tooth, it is not the place to be: Desserts do occasionally appear, but tend to be fairly token and uninspiring: frozen cheesecake, basic ice cream etc, although a large bowl of changing fruit makes a daily appearance.

It is also not always that cheap. I paid 1800euros for my journey. Maaret, by contrast paid only 300euros for a return from London to Johannesburg, though that is cheaper than most people pay. But you don't travel by cargo ship solely as a means of transport, and certainly not for cheap travel. Instead, it is an experience, a way of life. My 1800euros works out around 100euros a day, but for that I get a decent sized accommodation, all my transport and all meals plus some drinks, as well as the intangible benefits and enjoyment of the whole unique experience. It really isn't so expensive when you think about it.

And for somebody who loves being at sea, is in no special rush to get back to Europe and is happy with their own company (that sounds like i'm a master masturbater, although it's not mean't to), it is a wonderful way to travel

Posted by Gelli 14:34 Tagged boating Comments (0)

Passing RMS

It was coming to the end of the my first full day at sea. Cape Town is now but a distant memory. I was just before 18:00 and I had just come up from dinner. I still had my coffee, and went for a look outside. Usually, I go out on the Starboard side on A Deck, but unaccountably, on this occasion I decided to go out on C deck, and to the Port side. For whatever reason, I had timed it absolutely perfectly: Barely 1.5km away, and just about to pass us heading south was the RMS St. Helena.

She is unmistakable in design and i realised immediately: If there were any doubts a quick trip to the bridge confirmed it. Probably the only ship in the world that I could recognize at distance and at sea without any hesitation, and the one ship that actually means anything for me. From my advanced height, I was amazed at just how small she looked – I have seen bigger fishing boats. She was also looked quite low in the water, but i kind of knew that it was partly an illusion, especially seeing her from an angle I never have before.

At 6pm, the bar would be open and they would be preparing for the first of the evenings dinner services. Dots of people were clearly seen on the outside deck, and I wondered who might be on it: Which of my friends, acquaintances and doubtless family members were leaving the island this time?

Though I can't really explain it, I was immensely happy – if a bit sad that I was not either on board her, or heading to the Island – to see her. It seemed to add a nice touch to the end of my trip, and as the call at Walvisbaai will also do adds to the closing of a circle for my time in Africa on this trip.

Barely 20minutes later, we had passed and the RMS was now just a small dot in the distance as she headed for Cape Town. The excitement (mine, not the crew's - for whom she was just another ship - or anybody on the RMS, for whom we were just a passing diversion) was over, and our mutual voyages continued into the increasing twilight.

The RMS St. Helena, en-route to Cape Town

Posted by Gelli 14:31 Archived in Namibia Tagged boating Comments (0)

End of a continent. For now, anyway.

Though there is still a short port stop back in Walvisbaai, Namibia, to go, Africa has now ended for me, on this trip at least. With luck, I will be back next year on a short visit at least: some people will be kicking round lumps of leather around, and I have some pieces of paper allowing me to watch some of them.

For now, it is over. In any substantive way, this has been my first visit to Sub-Saharan Africa. It has certainly been the first one where I have had had any chance to be any kind of tourist. Watching the waves slide by and the sun going down from the deck of the Green Cape, I started to reflect on it all. For most people, 'Africa' is still kind of seen as one large scary poor and backward place, and more than I did before i got here, I can kind of understand where that comes from. Though a mass of individual tribes, cultures, languages and backgrounds, much of sub-Saharan Africa really is not actually all that different to each other.

A majority theoretically speak English; Many of the local languages are descended from the same Bantu routes, and local customs and laws do not always differ as much as might be expected. Colonial history, and the struggles since independence (economic as well as violent) still weigh heavily on many places. The people are almost all extremely friendly, and optimistic about the future. Racism – with the exception of that by white Boer's – between blacks and whites is generally hidden at the very least, though i certainly wouldn't say that it was gone. Instead, tribal conflicts seem to be of more relevance in many areas, although to many people, a white person still means a rich person.

Politics, political leadership and governance are still lacking by Western standards and ideals, and corruption is still rife throughout public office. That is not to say that all of Africa is corrupt and poorly governed and all of the West is not. Definitely not. But certainly everyday dealings with public officials in Africa requires very different skills than in many other places, and in some areas are best being actively avoided. And at higher levels there are still depressing trends of nepotism (to family, friends and tribes), regular changing/manipulating of rules to cling to power, and corruption on grand scales.

It is a vast and beautiful area, with any number of natural treasures, landscapes and scenes hidden away: But it can take time, money and effort to visit and see many of them. Some of the greatest gems are the people themselves, especially rural ones away from major tourist trails and infrastructure routes.

Much of Africa is extremely poor, but to the average traveler, tourist or backpacker it is not cheap, and that comes as a bit of a shock to many who expect it to operate more like South East Asia or India where things are much cheaper. Much of the backpackers world is entirely unconnected to that of the locals: hostels and tour groups are often owner by expats, and can be almost entirely self contained, meaning only small amounts of money trickle down to a few locals employed in lower level jobs. Prices, whilst possibly cheap by Western European standards are not as low as expected by many. Supermarkets and more western shops/restaurants tend to be Expat owned or South African chains. Crafts and Transport are the exceptions where locals and tourists tend to mix more, but even then tourists tend to use more luxury lines than the local majority (and buses in general are not as cheap as often imagined), whilst on minibuses and at craft markets backpackers fall into one of 2 categories: those who pay what is asked as its only a short holiday and its not worth the hassle of haggling, or those who haggle hard and are often offended at how ridiculous the price markup is, simply because they are white/tourists. At least buses/minibuses are the great reducer, due to the sheer number of people that get crammed in: For many, this is the only true local experience they ever get.

The food can be delicious, but tends to be quite bland and nothing to write home about. Filling and cheap is traditionally more important. Fruit, left to grow naturally and not full of additives, modifiers or grown out of season is normally excellent. Beer tends to be pretty good, although some local brews are literally death-in-a-cup, as are many local spirits and home-brews.

But from a personal perspective, what did I enjoy most or will i miss most?

Honestly, I don't know. I have lots of great memories but lots of regrets. Many great experiences, but also knowledge of things missed: not one single incident or moment stands out as the best, or, indeed, worst. Sadly, there is not a single country that I feel completely satisfied with what I saw/did, meaning that I pretty much have to return to all of them. When I first arrived here, I had no plan (or idea) beyond a few weeks at random in Namibia and then see what happen and how the mood took me. In a way, I think I expected to stay in Africa 2 or 3 months before moving on somewhere else. 9 months later, things went very differently and I could not have guessed or envisaged how things would turn out. Many parts were certainly unexpected. But I have no real complaints. Heck, even Hamish taught me many things and gave me several unique experiences.

And at the end of the day, I think that is all I am really looking for when I travel: that it teaches me about myself and the world, and that I get new and varying experiences and perspectives from it.

Posted by Gelli 22:26 Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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