Out of Africa

Sunday, November 21, Tsitsikamma National Park, continued.

Ashley woke up this morning with the announcement that he had the flu. This sent me hurling out of bed in the “duck, tuck and roll” response usually reserved for nuclear attack. I really don’t want to be vomiting on the flight home, nor sitting next to someone who is. After analysis, it turns out his definition of the flu differs from mine and luckily does not include vomiting as a required symptom. I would define his malady as a head cold. At any rate, he’s not up for hiking the 3 km to a waterfall along the Otter Trail.

The Otter Trail, so named after a local indigenous beastie, is 45 km long and is normally covered in 5 days and 4 nights, with the hikers bringing all their gear and food, except shelter and sleeping pads, which is supplied at 4 huts along the way. It is “the” challenging hiking trail in South Africa, which I thought was a bit much, since an average of 9km a day means covering just around 5 and a half miles a day, at sea level. South Africans seem like a sturdy bunch, so what is the challenge there? I still thought this during the first 1 km of the walk. Alison, Malcolm and I set out at a speedy pace through pretty shrubs blooming yellow and purple. Then we slowed down. The picture below on the left shows the stairs climbing out of the bay waaay down there. The picture at the right shows the actual “trail”.

Once we returned to dirt and shrubs, the trail became almost jungle gym-like, with high clearances at our feet and low clearances at our heads. This is why it takes 5 days to cover the distance. With a full pack, it would be a balancing act. We don’t go all the way to the falls. We stop top watch 3 guys with loaded packs negotiate another stretch of open rock. They plunge into the brush, re-appearing 5 minutes later down the way, looking like startled prairie dogs (or more appropriately, meerkats), then disappear back into the brush, not to be seen again. Good luck, boys.

After waking Ashley from his cold-induced nap, we bid adieu to Alison and Malcolm, who are heading further east before flying back to the UK on Friday. They have been a real bonus to our trip and we hope to see them again in the UK or the US. We’ve met some very nice people along our trip and it’s sad to say good-bye.

Monday, November 22 the first leg home

I guess it’s time to leave – it’s raining. This is only the second rain of the trip, so we’ve been really lucky. We’ll fly out of Port Elizabeth up to Johannesburg, stay there for a day, then do the 16 hour flight to DC tomorrow evening. 6 weeks of up close and personal with Ashley has gone quite well, as it’s a lot of togetherness for two people who don’t live together. Ashley was perched this morning on the throne in the bathroom, humming his favorite 4 note tune (actually it’s his only tune). Disturbingly, the only other time he hums this tune is when he is parking a car. Should he ever get these locations confused, he will have a terrible mess on his hands.

It will be odd coming back to the states where nobody pulls over into the soft shoulder to let you pass. Ashley enjoys this, and is now passing people with vigor. Maybe it’s the sight of a car ahead of him on an otherwise deserted lane that makes him want to overtake them. I feel like I’m dating Seabiscuit.

At the Port Elizabeth airport we debate whether we should get our luggage plastic wrapped, as both P.E. and Jo’burg have reputations for having baggage handlers with sticky fingers. We decide not to, and leave only clothes in the luggage. At Jo’burg, we leave the luggage in overnight storage and take a cab to Ashley’s niece’s condo in Yeoville, the area the guidebook said not to drive in during the day. The cabbie says that they call that area of Jo’burg “Africa” because you can find somebody from everywhere there. Ashley’s niece is definitely a minority on the street. Her condo is in a restored 1930’s building and has a lot of room, but she has two main doors to pass through, a hall door, and two doors to her actual condo. That’s a lot of keys to carry.

Tuesday, November 23 – Jo’burg to home

This morning’s tour of Yeoville confirms the cabbie’s definition of the area being “Little Africa”. The small businesses, shops, coffee shops, quickie marts, clothing stores, an open air market, are all busy. Nobody hassles us, but it is an odd feeling to be the only white people for blocks.

We take a Jo’burg and Soweto tour with Niki, an East Cape native and his wife, from Zimbabwe. Soweto, short for South West Township, is an area of 4 million people now. It mostly resembles a relatively decent suburb and the area where Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and the student uprisings against being forced to learn in Afrikaans, is very nicely done as a series of museums.

Ashley’s niece, Kezia, at the Nelson Mandela house.

Shacks still provide a lot of township homes on the fringes.

Coca Cola has the broadest brand penetration of any item anywhere.

After Soweto, we go over to Kliptown, a fringe township, that our driver states is a complete failure of the current government. Subsidized housing is being populated by the middle class, not the needy. A brand new hotel never functioned and the square around it is regularly vandalized. Unemployment is rampant, and “the people don’t care.” New houses to replace the shacks are falling apart after 3 years. Niki says: “This is not the white apartheid government that did this – these are our brothers.”

And on that note, we bid South Africa adieu. An 18 hour flight from Jo’burg to DC awaits, as does my Dad, his wife Marie and her extended family for Thanksgiving. It’s been a spectacular trip!



Green Africa

Saturday, November 20, Tsitsikamma National Park

Our tablemates at breakfast at the Inyathi Guest House, above, were two German girls on vacation. One of the them lives in Dubai, the other in Hamburg, both doing marketing for telecomm companies. After checking out we wander down to the harbor entrance, one of the most difficult around. It’s only 120 feet wide and has a ripping current running through it.

Only 50 miles up the highway is Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park. Tsitsikamma is the Xhosa word for “place of abundant water.” Despite this, they are having a pretty hefty drought at the moment and we are asked to conserve water if possible.

Despite being the weekend, the park is not even remotely crowded, and families of all shades of color (hallelujah!) have their kids playing in the still cold waters of the Indian Ocean (64 degrees). At what age do we suddenly realize water is cold? Whatever it is, we’ve achieved that age, since we opt for a scuba dive off the shore, and are squeezed into 5 millimeter wetsuits with head hoodies, transforming us into the Michelin Man’s cousins. We sidle into the water right in front of the patio in the picture and motor around for about 45 minutes. The visibility wasn’t great, but the crazy colors of the soft coral – blue, purple and yellow, were fantastic. There was an amazing grey starfish with filigree tendrils growing out of it in all directions. The divemaster said he’d been keeping a watch on that one for three years (as starfish don’t move much) and had been watching it grow slowly.

The day is overcast, the air temp is perfect and this is not what I think of when I think (thought?) of Africa.

Our bungalow overlooking the ocean from the trees.

The Garden Route

Wednesday November 17, Montagu

It’s still howling with wind when we left the B&B outside of Wellington at the foot of Bain’s Kloof Pass. A kloof is a sharp valley or canyon, and there are a lot of them around here. This whole area is a mix of open valleys being farmed and sections of 4,000 feet tall mountains jutting up out of them. Thomas Bain built the road through the pass from 1848-1852 and it hasn’t been changed since, except for pavement. It’s spectacular, with orange and yellow rocks, waterfalls and flowers. The view into the valley is like Napa on steroids. The next valley over is yet another vineyard area, pretty and green. We stop in the wine producing town of Robertson for a spectacularly bad lunch. Evidently finding a restaurant the guide book recommends requires us to actually fall over it, because despite getting directions from both the visitor’s bureau AND the local police department, we manage to not find it. Thus we opt for “The Sopranos” bar and grill (what were we thinking?). The water tasted odd, the coffee odder, the waiter had a really poor dye job on his (now reddish) hair, we were the only ones there for lunch and the food still took a half hour to surface, not helped by the fact the waiter left in his BMW to pick up his kid while we were waiting. Maybe the kid was the cook, because the food came out 10 minutes after he showed up.

Local taxi service.

Further down the road in the old sleepy town of Montagu (more vineyards, horses, wheat fields) we make a wrong turn (surprise) and find a tree absolutely overflowing with nesting birds. There are ibis, large cranes, small cranes, herons, little cute white birds with orange tufty heads, etc. Great descriptions of the birds are available on the bird hide next to the tree, but no explanation of why the birds choose to nest here.


We see this a lot in the museums and park – you get a “what” description, but not a “who, why or how”. Maybe a good imagination is part of the South African culture.

Following the guidebook (again) we walk up the remains of a river that flooded 2 years ago but is currently a trickle. The guidebook promises a 2.2 km walk along a river bank to a hot springs resort. We feel misled until the washed out river turns into the scenic trail promised. Except for a Dutch couple behind us (with the woman walking in wedgie sandals) we are alone with the birds, the reeds growing everywhere and the river trail which quickly turns into a really gorgeous canyon of the same twisted orange and beige rocks we’ve been seeing through this area. The trail winds and winds, frequently crossing the river in a series of ever-increasingly creative bridges. Suffice it to say, no spare bit of wood goes unused. The trail ends almost shockingly at the resort, which contains a massive hotel, a water slide and a putt putt golf course. The front desk clerk pursed her lips in disapproval at our sweaty appearance, but we wandered around anyhow.

We stayed at a really nice hotel, breaking the B&B habit. We had the room on the end in this picture, right in front of the pool. Niiice.

Thursday, November 18, Oudtshoorn

We enjoyed a slow breakfast outside in the garden. It will be rude having to return to the reality of making my own breakfast, which will not contain all the nicely chopped fruit we’ve been enjoying. There are wildly colored songbirds having their breakfast out of the feeder next to the patio, including an orange and black one and a black and white one with an outsized tail twice his body’s length. This bucolic scene is broken by the manager’s cocker spaniel, who saunters up to make a deposit under the bird feeder. This elicits a speedy response by the manager and provides a fair amount of entertainment, as coping with this event requires a hose, a watering can, a shovel (large) and a bucket. Yeesh, the dog wasn’t that big.

Leaving Montagu behind, we travel through more minor mountains, twisty passes and green valleys to Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of the world. During the turn of the 20th century, ostrich feathers were worth more than gold for world wide fashion, and this area boomed, then crashed after the feathers went out of favor. Now they are raised for feathers for carnivals around the world, meat and hides. Oudtshoorn itself is rather unprepossessing, at first glance, although we didn’t dig around too much. Like 70% of shops, houses and public buildings in anything bigger than a village, everything is behind a gate or wired fence and one must be buzzed in after being assessed as non-threatening. Banks have a double set of doors with an airlock style portal in between. This is eerie. We drove past a minimum security prison on the way through town before I realized it was really just a retirement community.

We found a B&B, which like most B&B’s here, is really a very small hotel in a residential area. This one has a great pool, a great bathroom with a massive shower, and an overenthusiastic owner who seems to feel that pushing drinks is the only way to up her profit margin.

Dinner at a local recommended restaurant is fun. The food is fine (ostrich-y) and the table next to us provides the entertainment. The old british guy with white fluffy hair and a slightly more than raised voice kept regaling his long suffering wife about “The Way Things Are” according to him, including how to cook ostrich and how their local butcher in East Lower Bumswaddle (or wherever they live) really knows the best cut of lamb, don’tcha know, bwah ha haa. Then he turned his knowledge on the restaurant’s owner, which I’m sure she really appreciated.

Other guests at the B&B included a German/Dutch couple who met 35 years ago when they were both working in Mozambique, he as a gynecologist, she as the newly minted coordinator for orphanages and old people’s homes. They’ve lived in Lesotho, Nepal, South Africa and Germany and raised 4 kids doing it. Wow – my life sure is dull!

Friday, November 19 Knysna

Ostrich farm tour! Kitschy, silly, but fun. 45 minutes of basic info; the eggs weigh 3 to 5 lbs, take up to 2 hours to hard cook if boiled, birds weigh up to 220 lbs, they don’t stick their heads in the ground, they mate for life, plucking a “ripe” feather doesn’t hurt and they don’t reproduce until they’re mature at 4 years.

Ashley getting a kiss, me giving a handout.

150 more kilometers of crazy winding dirt roads gets us up, over and into the coastal range. I think it’s possible to travel across South Africa into all the major cities without hitting a paved road. The dirt roads are in pretty good shape, so it’s really not bad, but getting to Gamkaskloof will take a while That sign is in KILOMETERS, so that’s a calculated speed of 12 miles an hour, approx. Pack a lunch.

Knysna, pronounced nye-zna, is right on the coast and is part of the green and lush Garden Route of the southern Cape. The forests look like something you’d see along the Oregon coast, except there are a few elephants still running around in these woods. We have found a bizarre B&B that has a jungle motif and 11 separate cabins climbing up the slope of the hill. It’s very cool, comes with a tortoiseshell cat and a jack Russell and free wi-fi. Life is good.

Ostriches on the Beach

Friday, November 12 – Cape Town    

The RMS St Helena got into dock about 11:30 AM after being escorted in by a pilot boat.

The final bells (the tune of which sounds just like “Pop! Goes the Weasel”) for lunch are sounded. I thought this was a really nice touch, but it’s really to distract us from the fact we’ll wait 2 hours before getting off the ship. First, SA Immigration must come aboard, then we line up for them, then we wait to disembark and collect our luggage for the minibus ride back in groups of 10 to the Mission for Seafarers where taxis wait for us. There are no tearful good-byes – everybody pretty much wants to get on their way. We’ve arranged to meet Alison (oops – I’ve been misspelling her in the previous blogs) and Malcolm in Franschhoek in the vineyard are in a couple of days.

 We make our way down the Cape to Simon’s Town on the east side, the Indian Ocean side, of the Cape. Simon’s Town is where Ashley’s mother grew up, as her family was stationed there with the Royal Navy. It’s really beautiful and stretches along the coastline. It’s known for its penguin population.

They are not speed demons on land, and mostly just sit around looking cute. We end up in a B&B with a spectacular view of the ocean, several Jack Russell “guard” dogs, and resident geese who live on the roof. It’s an old house, complete with servant’s bells to summon them to the appropriate rooms. Ashley did not respond when rung. Hmm.

The view is beautiful, and it would be a great place to live, assuming the geese didn’t poop on your head as you exited the house.

Saturday, November 13 Simon’s Town

We went 20 km down the road to the Cape of Good Hope, which is NOT the most southerly point of Africa, nor where the Indian Ocean officially meets the Atlantic, those are both Cape Ahgulas 150km, but nobody seems to care. What I cared about is that there are ostriches at the beach!! The baboons also apparently come down to the shore to eat mussels. Tada! This is Cape Point, and this is the Cape of Good Hope and a bunch of tourists who were never gettting out of the way, so they have now been ‘blogged.’

After scampering up and down the hills, which has done nothing to get rid of the vast amount of food we ate on the ship, we went back to Simon’s Town to check out the museum (small), the streets (steep) and the South African Navy Base (meager). There are a smattering of homeless around, but much like all races in Simon’s Town’s past, they seem integrated into the town and not worrying anybody.

We return to our seaside house and tackle the door. This one has a two split doors on top of the normal lower half door. This makes opening the door difficult, and requires three arms and two curse words to close it. Why does this split door style persist? It only serves to keep small children and barnyard animals out, not marauding English or baboons. There are more odd basics here, much like England. Since electricity is 240V, they are big on not getting electrocuted so there are no sockets or light switches in the bathrooms. The switches are outside the bathroom (or down the hall under the stairway, etc) which is difficult if you are desperate for a wee at 3AM. It also doesn’t explain why switches and outlets are allowed in the kitchen, where there is a lot of water sloshing about, too. We’ve encountered an interesting electric space heater, also. It’s effectively a 2 feet by 2 feet hot plate turned sideways and attached to the wall; hot enough to cook an egg on. Sooo…. No light switches in the bathroom – too dangerous. But, a griddle the exact height and width of a toddler – now that’s OK. Oh yeah – I keep whacking myself in the head with all the doors that don’t open outward onto the street to let all the screaming patrons out of the burning hotel/restaurant/disco as is federally mandated in the US. Instead, these doors open inwards, thus protecting the people walking by from getting hit in the head by the screaming patrons getting out.

As we go to bed, I notice that the windows are thumping a bit. Poltergeist? Penguins wanting inside to snuggle by wall heater? Geese with dyspepsia? No – a wicked wind blowing in off the Indian Ocean. As this house was built before storm windows (and light switches of any kind, so I should probably stop feeling sorry for myself), the windows rattle impressively. There are a lot of windows, so it was a noisy night.

Sunday, November 14, Franschhoek

This morning we discover that there is a walking race from Cape Town to Cape of Good Hope and back, so some of the roads out of town are closed. This sends us up and around our elbow to Franschhoek, in the southern portion of the wine country. It’s a lush, green and very wealthy area with huge estates supporting the vineyards.

We met back up Alison and Malcolm to tour around some of the vineyards. They’ll be drinking, I’ll be driving and assessing the pretentiousness of the other wine tasters. The “p-factor” increases if the taster actually spits the wine out after swishing it around. Ashley and Malcolm swallowed, and this is Ashley recovering from the afternoon, fly unzipped.

Monday, November 15
Out of Franschhoek and north through various farm and wine towns to the bread basket of South Africa, the Swartland. We cruise through to the Cederberg, a triple thick line of mountains to the east, part of the CapeNature conservancy group. There is no one else at the cabins, just two people at the campground, so we go skinny dipping in the river (no wild animals, no pictures). The air is hot, the water is cold, so we dip, instead of swim.

The cabin is comfortable, right by the river, and only populated by this ENORMOUS spider. That’s a teaspoon next to it. Ech. We negotiate and agreed to a peaceful division of bathroom territory. The spider keeps the corner by the shower, we get the rest. It’s all cool.

Tuesday, November 16, Swart Land

We get up at 6:30 to beat the heat and start our hike up to the top of the Radegart River waterfall. It’s beautiful, completely spring fed, and not what you’d expect to find in the middle of dry dry mountains. It’s hot (95) by the time we get back down the hill at 9:30 AM, so I swim through the river to chill down.

We’re off to the coast now, to check out the Atlantic coast and the western fishing and crayfish towns. They are a weird mixture of fishing village and over-built vacation homes and the economic downturn has hit them hard. There are a lot of unfinished developments.

After inspecting the coast, we turn inland and south again, stopping short of Bain’s Kloof Pass. We check into a B&B just in time for the wind to kick up to a gale. It must be blowing 50 mph during the gusts. The house has corrogated metal sheets on the roof, which normally do not bend, but these are starting to flex. Ashley maintains that if the roof rips off, he ain’t paying for the night.


On the Boat Again…

Monday, November 8th, RMS St. Helena 250 miles sailed

We left last night at around 7pm, after dark, so we didn’t get to see much of the island as we departed. We’re up on “A” deck in a larger stateroom than before, with a porthole and an RV-sized toilet and shower. VERY exciting. This does unfortunately mean we’ll get 1/3 the exercise as the last trip, since we’ll have 2/3 fewer stairs to climb.

On board we have a bunch of Saints leaving to visit families for Christmas, and a few sailors that will be competing in a couple weeks in the biennial Governor’s Cup Yacht Race from Cape Town to St. Helena. There are a few Boy Scouts that will be on an all Scout international crew. They went sailing with Ann, the Scottish financial official right before we left and she reports several got seasick. That’s going to be a long 9 days on a small boat. Ann’s boat, a 42 foot schooner, is making the trip to Cape Town with us, lashed down on the cargo deck.

Since the prevailing winds and seas make the sail to St Helena pleasant and fast and the return miserable and long, the RMS will be returning all the sailboats to Cape Town over the course of 2 trips. There are a couple other ex-pats we haven’t thoroughly investigated yet, but the trip has just started.

Dress-up cocktail party is tonight, but I decide to skip it, as I feel rather yucky. I suspect something I’ve eaten, not the waves, as that would feel yucky a bit higher up. I rally for dinner (surprise) and the ridiculous “name that tune” contest. Our group of Brits, Australians, Danes and Norwegians comes in 3rd, mainly due to Malcolm and Allison having paid attention during the 1960’s.

Tuesday, November 9th, RMS St. Helena 620 miles sailed

We move the clocks forward, and I sleep through breakfast, which is not a bad thing. Cricket is set up on the sun deck and the passengers lose to the crew 150 to 130. I have a stunningly bad turn at bat, whiffing 4 balls and then getting my bales knocked off (google it – I can’t begin to explain). I was better on defense, catching an out and knocking someone else’s bales off (ha ha!).

I’ve asked various other passengers whether they would take a 6 month job on the island if it fit their skill set. So far, only one person has said yes. Nobody lists the isolation and lack of commodities as the reason, instead they fear that the island “manana” attitude and the British government bureaucracy would make it impossible to get things done and the isolated social life of talking to the same people again and again and the gossip would drive them mad. I agree – it would take a very laid back person to be happy there.

The ship has a bigger pitch coming back through the oncoming seas and people are wobbling around in the corridors. It makes climbing the stairs fun, as you become alternately light and heavy on every other step or two.

Our Pub Quiz re-assembles itself for the contest tonight and names itself “We Was Robbed”. We finish 1 point out of first, and are keeping track of other team’s scores, lest Claude the Purser decide to do some fancy score keeping.

Wednesday, November 10th, RMS St Helena, 970 miles sailed

Closest land is somewhere in Namibia. 16,000 feet of water beneath the hull. Really – why do they tell us that? Any more than 6 feet and I’m in trouble.

The new group of Saints has pretty much wall-papered the sides of the Sun Lounge, where continental breakfast, tea, and the salad bar lunch is served. I’ve taken to walking down the outside of the ship to avoid the visual inspection each time I go through the lounge to the sun deck. We talk to a young South African couple who are returning to Cape Town after a month on the island. She was there teaching basic business optimization skills to adults. The class had originally been offered to the government groups but they then opened it up to private groups, too. She said it was successful and that her time management and document management techniques were being embraced already by people who could see their direct applicability, which runs counter to other messages we’d heard about outside techniques being ignored or rejected.

We are given a tour of the galley by the chef. The galley is the size of the main dining salon, and has 5 walk in fridges to handle the three weeks of food for 5 meals a day for 175 people. All food is prepared on board, including all the baked items. The chef works with 5 cooks and cleaners from 5AM to 10PM. The kitchen crew works 2 months on, then has 2 months off.

Ha haaa! We win by two points at the pub quiz tonight. There are five teams of 6 and we now have a bunch of groupies listening to the quiz questions. Some of the answers are pretty entertaining, especially when the team knows they don’t know the answer. By the way, elephants have the longest gestation period of any animal, and the longest duration non-motorized sporting event is the Tour de France (we got those wrong).

The crew and officers put on a cabaret. This ranges from guitar playing by a very talented crewman to ridiculous cross-dressing routines by the crew. Most of it is clever, and they thankfully do not engage the audience.

Thursday, November 11, RMS St. Helena 1340 miles sailed

I can now say I’m officially tired of eating. Never thought I’d say that, but I am. I don’t think I’m equipped for long ocean passages, either, because I’m also tired of reading, and I think I’m tired of sleeping, too.

It is Armistice Day, the day the peace treaty was signed ending the first World War. It’s equivalent to our Veteran’s Day for the UK, except it isn’t a holiday. It has been marked with more care since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A brief ceremony at 11 AM was organized by the older contingent of Brits. One of the little old dears from Cape Town stopped the two German guys and invited them to come, too. They asked what Armistice Day was, and I thwacked Juergen on the shoulder and told him “It was when we beat you guys the first time”, to which, thank God, he laughed heartily. After the service, I asked his partner Harald if Germany commemorates the end of either World War, which has got to be an awkward situation. He said no – they just have a general “Day of Sorrow” to remember all fallen soldiers and civilians in all conflicts.

The Pub Quiz was hotly contested. We came in second 2/3 of a point out of first. John Wayne’s horse was named Duke, by the way. The Pub Quiz has been a blast, reducing mature adults to childish cattiness. I finally chatted with “The Gang of 8”, as they’ve been dubbed. It’s a tour group of 7 women from Cape Town led by one guy. He’d prefer to be known as “Eric and his harem” but the name has stuck. “Art Deco”, the lady in her 80’s with dyed hair and over-abundant makeup and her daughter are in the group. The daughter is a perpetual student, whose goal in life is “to be a daughter”. This would be fine if she was 16, but she’s easily in her mid-fifties. Eeek. A discussion of the national parks and the vineyard area northeast of Cape Town reveals that the older the white person one talks to, the easier it is to detect a whiff of apartheid South Africa in the air. Some of them are just overtly prejudiced, flat out.

After wolfing down our final 4 course meal, we adjourned to the main lounge for a form of group Pictionary. One person from each group lined up to get an assigned item to draw and once the item was guessed, another member ran up to confirm it and get the next item to draw. This resulted in the fleetest footwork of the trip as people shot across the crowded lounge and demonstrated skills they hadn’t used since standing in the lunch line in second grade. Our team pretty much stunk at drawing and guessing and butting in line, so we ended up somewhere near the bottom.

Friday, November 12, RMS St Helena – Land ho!

I’m ready to get off the ship. I sleep in while Ashley showers, packs his bag then leaves for breakfast. I peer down out of my top bunk to see his suitcase tidily perched on the desk, surrounded by an explosion of papers and the clothing I left out last night. The chair is wedged in front of the door to the toilet and both keys to the stateroom are missing. They say disorganization is a sign of genius. Let’s hope so. Let’s also hope he hasn’t packed the keys away into his luggage.

Dinner with the Governor

Thursday night, Sunflower Café, St. Helena

Our insider connections with Malcolm and Allison, the very nice and very funny British couple we met on the train, have paid off! Their friends, the chief public defender and his wife, have invited us to dinner. The restaurant is a day care facility during the day then converts to a private banquet facility at night. It’s got a great view of the sunset across the front lawn, framed nicely by swing sets. We are dining with the St. Helena Governor, his wife, the Speaker of the St Helena Parliament (Cathy from the ship), her husband and three Scottish ex-pats working in various finance roles. Despite this collective brain trust, it took 5 minutes for us to figure out how to sit boy/girl around the table.

As I am unlikely to ever plunk myself down next to the California governor and say “Hey Arnie, pass the butter, please,” I took the opportunity to snag one of the seats next to this Governor. Allison grabs the other seat, as she’s no idiot, either. Andrew the Governor (his last name is Gurr… really!) was very interesting. He worked in the private sector for years, then got offered the chief administrator (or similar) job on the Falkland Islands. After 5 or so years of that, he retired, but got lured out of retirement to be Governor of St. Helena, with a goal of getting a commercial airport put on the island. That hasn’t been going so smoothly and seems to be stalled. The Guv, despite being on the far side of 60, is freakishly fit. One day he and his other extreme walking buddies covered 29 miles, with a vertical gain of 6000 feet. Considering the island is only 10 miles long, that’s a lot of zigging and zagging.

As designated driver, I pile Ashley, Malcolm and Allison into the car. After turning on the car backwards because everything including the shift is on the wrong side, I lurch to the left side of the road and attempt to turn the car around in the Sunflower Café/Day Care Center’s driveway to head back down the road. I wait for the car coming down the road and the car coming up the road to go by. Instead both cars stop, wait and turn their headlights off, presumably not to blind me, but instead makes it seem like a scene out of a Steven King movie. I execute a 4 point turn on the 5 foot wide road with the inside light on because I can’t see the automatic shift, and see that the car lurking below us is a cop. Evidently I look like a tourist, because I don’t get pulled over for stupid driving. Malcolm and Allison do me the courtesy of not jumping out and hitching a ride with someone else – anyone else.

Friday, November 05 – Thompson’s Valley, St. Helena

After dinner last night, I’ve determined that the real currency on the island is gossip, not the St Helena pound. This is like a small town you can’t leave. Simply talking to someone on the street is enough to put you in a relationship with them in the eyes of the island. It would be like living in a fishbowl.

We took the Governor’s advice and went on the Thompson’s Valley hike today, heading down toward the water from one of the ridgelines on the southwest corner of the island through pine trees, massive aloe plants, trees that live only here, prickly pear cactus and lots of rocks.

Evidently the Guv is also a professional mountain climber, because that’s the only we could find to get down the last 200 vertical feet to the beach, so we decide to turn around, lest we end up upside down on a prickly pear. It’s also only an 1800 vertical gain, which I think the Guv does before breakfast.

Saturday, November 06 – St. Helena

We visit Briar Pavilion, the house Napoleon crashed at while his home away from home across the island was being converted from a barn to a livable abode for him and his 27 person entourage. His exile was more like a retirement, since he had all the comforts of his previous life, just with an armed guard all over the place. Briar Pavilion is very pretty, nicely situated up the valley from the main town of Jamestown. The guide is a Saint, very knowledgeable about history. We are joined 10 minutes late by the overly chatty South African environmentalist who lives with his mother. Being around him is like having the verbal equivalent of a swarm of moths around your head. He’s harmless, but overwhelming. He is on the same schedule as we are, so we see him again as we walk through Longwood House, Napoleon’s final house. Most of the furniture is not the original, due to decay and outright theft before the French government purchased the property, but some has been retained or restored. I asked the guide there about the type of people that visit the Napoleonic sites. She said the oddest visitor was a woman off the very occasional cruise ships that visit the island. This woman, presumably French, knelt and wept by Napoleon’s fake death bed! Bizarre.

The mist on the high reaches of the island has held off, so we aim for Diana’s Peak, the highest part of the island and one of the wettest. You can really see the

ridgelines and valleys, all covered in the flax plant they now can’t get rid of. The trail is part grass, part steps and part mud. Both of us slide out and slam down on our backsides on the way down, but only I look like I fell in a pig sty.

We have dinner at one of the two hotels in Jamestown. The conversation with the other passengers staying there quickly turned into a gossip session on the annoying over-talking South African environmentalist. One of the other passengers is less than impressed by the Governor, and reports that some island business people are very unhappy with him, but I suppose some will always be unhappy with the government. On a small island it’s more personal.

The ship back ought to be interesting, as people now know each other well enough to really dish some dirt on those they don’t like and avoid the ones they can’t stand. It’s not that big a ship, so there are only so many places to hide on it.

Sunday, November 7, Leaving St Helena

We pack up our clothes (damp from the washing machine), close up the house (leave the money on the table and the key in the lock), say goodbye to the resident chicken and the neighbor’s donkey and take the luggage down to the dock for x-raying and loading into cargo containers. The ship isn’t here yet, since it was delayed at Ascension Island to pick up a new chief surgeon for the hospital, as the last one got fired last week. As the ship is the only way to get off the island maybe he’ll be in the cargo hold on our trip to Cape Town. He’s been fired for “mistreatment of two patients” and a new inspector of police who’s coming from Northern Ireland will be leading the investigation. (I bet he thought he’d be getting an easy sojourn on a united island!) The newspaper says no more, so we’ll rely on Malcolm and Allison to fill us in if they can. We return the car, which was a deal at $15 a day and are now back in the Consulate Hotel using the internet. The mint tray has been removed from the sitting room. I think they’re on to us.

There are two radio stations on the island, one seems bent on playing oldies from the 50’s. The other one is a bit of a renegade, so none of the public places play it. Cable and Wireless provides the phones and the internet and the TV for the island. The phone book is great – it lists everybody’s email address as well as their phone number. All the payphones are listed. There are 31 of them, and they are tucked in some unlikely nooks and crannies across the island. There are no traffic lights (South Africa calls them “robots”) and there is only one stretch of road that a car could use to get out of second gear, and that isn’t very long.

We’re both ready to leave. The island has been far more interesting and fun than I anticipated, but I’ll be happy to get back to a road that goes straight, not in a loop! This will be the last internet access we’ll have until next Saturday, as the ship doesn’t provide it.

On the Island that Time Forgot

Monday, November 1st – Yew Tree Cottage, Pouncey’s Corner, St. Helena Island, South Atlantic Ocean

This island has more microclimates than I can count. It’s like someone cut the top off of Hawaii and slapped a good portion of Scotland on top of it. It can be hot on the leeward shoreline, then cold and misty in the cloud forest on the top of the highest peak (2300 feet, approx). Some areas are scraped clean of vegetation, others are lush pasture land. We’ve learned that sheep, beef cattle and pigs are raised here, but I’m only aware of island pork being sold. I know the British health organization forbids the sale of local milk because they don’t have mainland-style pasteurization available (you can drink your cow’s milk yourself, but selling it to your neighbor is forbidden). Electricity is generated by diesel, so it is expensive. Our shower has an on-demand heater, which works great even if the water flow is poor. The house has a barrel sized immersion heater for general hot water, which we’ve used only once for laundry. The phone numbers are four digits long, as are the license plates. Our rental car started out in Hong Kong and it still has a parking permit in Chinese on the windshield. St. Helena will be its final resting place, and possibly ours, since we suspect the exhaust system is leaking into the car.

This morning we hike from Rupert’s Valley west of Jamestown into Banks Valley to see the old British fortifications. They range in age from 250 to 50 years in age. Half of them are falling down, but there are no warning signs and no mounds of trash. They cling to the sides of the cliffs and I can’t imagine using human and donkey power to get all of the stone, mortar and ammo up there. Most of the key areas of the island are fortified (mostly against the possible Dutch, French or German invasion threat over the years).

The trail is not maintained, and has a couple areas that are really exciting to walk over. One slip and there would be a splash about 500 feet later. We return the long way to our house, avoiding “rush hour” in Jamestown, which really means all the downhill headed cars waiting for the uphill cars to squeeze by. During the day you can hear horns honking from around each bend as people let the oncoming car(s) know they are there. At night, headlights serve the same purpose. As there is no stretch of straight road longer than 200 yards, there is a lot of honking.

There are 3 channels on the cable TV – sports, BBC America and American evening drama (mostly Law and Order). Ashley gets really excited that Dr. Who will be on after Dancing with the Stars, so he leaves Dancing with the Stars on, only to find that the cable channel switches from BBC America to a South African provider at 10PM. He is displeased.


Tuesday, November 2, St. Helena Island

It is eerie how politically involved Europeans are, vs how uninformed the average American is. A lot of the Brits are eyeing the US mid-term elections to see what happens. Me too!

We visit the island museum at the base of Jacob’s Ladder. It does a pretty good job of covering the history, 80% of which is military. At 12:30, we go up to High Knoll, to visit High Knoll Fort (duh). One of the industrial archaeologists does and excellent two hour tour, going over the structure of the fort, the complexity of keeping powder dry and spark/flame free, and how miserable it was for the soldiers stationed there.

Afterwards, we checked out Longwood House, which was purpose built for Napoleon’s exile here, then we walked to his temporary tomb. He was there only 20 years before the French took him back. There is no writing on the tomb, because it was too politically charged to either put “Emperor” or “General”, so they just left it blank. We gave a Saint a ride over to Longwood House, and contrary to my assumptions, the traffic accidents are not usually because of idiot tourists, but weekend drunk drivers.

We go to dinner at the Farm Lodge, a farm turned lodge (again, very consistent naming conventions here). The owners worked on the RMS St Helena and her predecessor for 20 years. The food is very good, plentiful and the vegetables are home grown. The farm’s puppy, a 14 week old mutt with a cheerful attitude, makes sure everybody is happy, mostly by gnawing on people’s shoes. 5 other passengers from the RMS are staying there, a retired telecomm exec whose two grandmothers were born on the island, his British wife, a semi-retired nursing instructor who turned down a 2 year gig on the island 20 years ago and wanted to see what she’d passed up, and another retired couple who don’t talk much. Have you noticed the “retired” trend? Regardless, about 25% have climbed the Ladder, and all of them have, if not their first spouse, at least an age appropriate spouse/partner. No trophy wives or boy toys on this trip.

Wednesday, November 3 – St Helena Island

We drive down to Sandy Bay Beach on the steepest, twistiest road yet. It’s just a series of hairpin turns, ending in a dirt road at the beach. This is a really nice beach and valley, which presumably did not become the main town because it is normally getting blasted by the prevailing winds. There is almost no vegetation on the black, red and grey valley walls, but water must come tearing through the valley every so often, because there is a lot of erosion. We are on our way to Lot’s Wife’s Ponds. Lot and Lot’s Wife are two very large rock formations near the coast, and her ponds are tidal pools at the base of the valley.

It’s a way steeper hike than I anticipated – I keep forgetting altitude is in meters! The trail is pretty eroded and there are a couple places where we hang on with our fingers as we shimmy along with faces pressed to the wall. The last piece involves using a rope to get down to the tide pools, which were warm enough to swim in, but the skies were overcast and there were really large bright orange crabs absolutely everywhere that looked hungry, so we declined.

If in the afternoon, we went to the Governor’s House to meet the 5 resident giant tortoises, gifts from the Seychelles over the years. Jonathon, the oldest at over 200 years, was chowing down on neatly trimmed grass when we showed up. Jonathon has cataracts, so hopefully was not aware of Ashley goofing around next to him.

We are finding that the Saints in general, ranging from the deli lady at the supermarket to the gardeners at the Governor’s House, are very welcoming and want to make sure we’ve seen and done all the good stuff on the island. The island only gets 1,000 visitors a year, but probably gets that many more in temporary workers. The Saint genetic mix is European, Malaysian, Indian, Chinese and African, so everyone is tinted appropriately for the blazing sun. I’m impressed that they don’t get sick of white people showing up, acting paternalistic, telling them how to do things then leaving. Maybe they do, but they’re still very polite. Can’t say that for all the British ex-pats on the island. The day of the carnival the chief administrator of the local government was fawning over Ashley, thinking Ashley was the friend of the chief public defender. When he found out Ashley was not, he virtually kicked him to the curb and started fawning over the proper person.

Thursday, November 04, 2010St Helena Island

We’ve arranged to meet “Buffalo” to go dive on the wreck of a 1941 freighter torpedoed in the harbor by a German U-boat. We show up at the waterfront, merrily walk down the working dock area that we had to be bussed through as disembarking passengers of the RMS and got issued all our gear out of a storage locker whose back wall and ceiling are the overhanging cliff face. We walk off the edge the dock steps to start our dive, where I discover that my buoyancy has increased, most likely due to the food consumed on the RMS. Buffalo gets more weights, I sink nicely, and we head out towards the Papanui, which still has a fair amount of superstructure visible. There is a decent amount of fish life, including massive giant clams, which is remarkable, since this is a working harbor and in the US most of the sea life would be long dead. We only dive to about 30 feet, the water temp is great, around 67 degrees.

After diving, we stand around watching a 45 foot sailboat get hauled out by the construction crane. The boat is being delivered by a Dutch crew from SA to somewhere in South America and has sprung a leak. I thought they could just put their fingers in the leak – I mean, they are Dutch, but apparently not. The boat gets hoisted quite easily, but boat stands are non-existent on the island. We left as they were propping the boat up next to two containers strapped together, and were shoving 2×4’s under the hull. If it hasn’t turned into a pile of fiberglass by tomorrow, they’ll probably be OK.

We’re back at the Consulate Hotel, using their internet. It’s expensive – 5 bucks for 30 minutes, so we’re eating all their mints in the lounge, too.

RMS St. Helena to St. Helena

Thursday, October 28 continued…

Dinner ends with the ship’s doctor, who either speaks to nobody all day long and must get his social fix in the evening, or is studying for a psychiatrist license on the side and using passengers as subjects, asking the two Germans, “so does Germany want Hitler back?” Dead silence, then a Teutonic “NO!” from the lead German, and slack jaws from the rest of us as the doctor goes on a 10 minute speech about Hitler and Napoleon being master human manipulators and very smart men (fair enough) and equal to Abraham Lincoln (huh?). Everybody retreats from the table before the cheese course.

Claude the Purser corrals almost everyone to play another quiz game, this one involving throwing darts before answering the question, and getting points based on the dart throw and your answer. Our thrown together team did OK, but we better get our fighting edge back for tomorrow, which is the final of the Pub Quiz. We’ve been evil-eyeing the team we’re tied with and have tried to trip them in the stairs.

We’ve noticed that although the Saints play all the active games, they hang out permanently around the edge of the Sun Lounge talking quietly amongst themselves. They are there from 8AM to 8PM dinner. Andy the pocket-size archaeologist (and apparently, social anthropologist) notes that they are found in highest abundance during food service times, and don’t hope to beat them to the first pass on salad or sandwiches, since those get hoovered up immediately. I’ve actually taken to going out on the deck to get to the stern, since I feel like my every passage through the sun room is getting tallied, Madame Dufarge-like. At least no one is knitting.

Friday, October 28 – on board the RMS, 220 miles to go

Finally! We’re signed up for a tour of the bridge at 2:30. After breakfast we all go to the Main Lounge (the ship’s only 340 feet long and half of that is cargo area, so you use the stairs a lot and see everyone repeatedly) to hear Chris the Napoleonic Professor chat for an hour about Napoleon’s 6 year stint in exile on the island. Chris is a very good lecturer, is at least 6’3″, so does not have the eponymous complex, and compresses Napoleon’s stay on the island to a handy one hour review ( he pretended he wasn’t in exile, he was charming to the point of creating a cult of personality, he was really fat and developing stomach cancer, which eventually killed him). Towards the end of his talk, the ship took a pronounced turn to starboard and slowed down, which had everybody peering out the windows for whatever we’d dropped overboard, not looking at Chris. Turns out they just shut off the starboard engine and prop because we were going too fast and there is no point arriving at 3 AM at a port you can’t access until daylight.

Lots of information about what to do to disembark is handed out:

  1. Pay your bar tab;
  2. Fill out your customs form;
  3. Fill out your immigration form, which demands an explanation about how you will support yourself while on the island (!);
  4. Prepare your proof of health insurance because the British public health system is not interested in free treatment, thank you very much;
  5. Produce 18 British pounds (pro-rated for length of stay);
  6. Pack your luggage and put it outside your stateroom/broom closet before 4:30 for loading to cargo area;
  7. Be prepared to carry nothing in your hands when you disembark, as a launch will be carrying us to port from the anchorage.

Tour of the bridge finally lets us see the entire ship. The front half is loaded with refrigerated and unrefrigerated containers, crates of stuff, and a lot of telephone poles. As the island produces pork, broken rock for road building, fresh water, a few vegetables and NOTHING ELSE, absolutely everything must be brought in on this ship. The only reason the island is supported is that it would be useful in event of a really big war, and somebody else might grab it if the Brits left. The actual running of the ship is pretty boring, since after we clear Cape Town we are out of the shipping channels and there is nothing out here. There have been no ships sighted in the last 4 days, and we’re in over 15,000 feet of water, so we’re not about to run aground. The officer of the watch doing the tour tells us that they’ll all be running around like headless chickens when we get to port, which I believe. The staff is ferociously hard working and they do multiple tasks. The waiter whisking your tea cup away at breakfast is likely to be vacuuming the hallway, refilling the sandwiches and salad after the initial lunchtime incursion and loading the luggage later. Nobody sits down unless they are an officer, it seems.

Our Pub Quiz team, “Go with your Gut” re-forms for the playoffs against the “Gin and Tonics” and the other runners-up. The ex-pat islander with the crucifix around her neck gets all the biblical questions wrong and asks us not to tell the bishop. I remember Bush defeated Kerry and Duncan the chemical engineer knows a lot about movies, and we come in second behind the team from Durban, SA, which didn’t do too well in the first round. We’re hoping the average scores have us beating them, as they announced before the second round “that they have more MENSA members than any team ever on this ship, I’m sure, bwah haa haa, don’t you know”. Oh please. If we win I’ll say we’re striking a blow for the intellectual proletariat when we claim our prize.

Dinner is served on the after-deck and is a BBQ in true South African style of meat of all sorts. The entire hindquarter of a cow is on display next to sausage, chicken, and ribs. Ben, the other archaeologist, joins us at the dinner table and downloads his knowledge of the island, which he’s visited 5 times for work. Despite the entrenched presence of at least 5 different religious faiths, there is a relatively loose attitude towards relationship bonds. On one of his trips, 5 French mountain climbers arrived to tackle the island, which they did in more ways than one. Their visit resulted in the end of 4 relationships, the creation of two unwanted pregnancies and the spreading of a host of unwelcome STDs. Bloody French.

There is a native bird, the wirebird, which is only found here and is a white and black bird with long legs and a determination not to be seen. One of the Saints, a big Rastafarian guy, is “the wirebird man” and has produced excellent pictures of them with the equivalent of an old Instamatic, to the astonishment of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and their telephoto lenses. Ben says a couple of the RSPB’ers even came out to the island to meet Wirebird Eddie and go with him to see the birds. They asked him how he got such excellent pictures. His response was, “ya pick da wahrbird up, ya take da pictchah, ya put da wahrbird back down, mohn.” Except for Wirebird Eddie, who has apparently listened to too many Bob Marley tracks, the Saint accent is a strong mix of what sounds like Australian and Irish, which is hard to understand. The women have a much lighter accent then the men, for some unknown reason.

Augh! Claude the South African ship’s Purser has announced that the South African pub quiz team has beaten us! There is corruption in the ranks, I think. Bloody South Africans.

Saturday, October 29, St Helena

At 6:30 we come topside to see the south shore of St. Helena sliding by a half mile away. The island is only 10 miles long and 6 miles wide and is a dead volcano. There are no flat surfaces anywhere and the valleys and shoreline are very steep, reddish black in color and inhospitable. Despite this, the British saw fit to bash up the volcanic rocks and build further fortifications on top of promontories to defend themselves in case somebody got testy and wanted the island. As they took the island themselves from the Portuguese by invading overland from the west side of the island, I guess they had the right to be nervous. Everybody is hanging off the port side railings taking pictures, except for the hardcore Saints, who are in the Sun Lounge, waiting for tea to be served. We pull into Jamestown harbor and drop anchor and after taking pictures for a while, I realize nobody is on deck. Wondering whether I missed an announcement, I go inside and downstairs, but the halls and main lounge are empty. I then remember that breakfast is being served early and for a limited time, so I go to the Dining Salon, where there is a near rumble going on as the entire passenger manifest (minus me) is scarfing down what you would think is going to be their last meal. I elbow a couple little old ladies aside and get my piece. I am, with the possible exclusion of the environmentalist who shuts his eyes the entire time he talks to you, the youngest of the tourist class. Ashley is probably the next youngest, so we do pretty well competing for food.

After the breakfast scrum, we stand in line for immigration, which is on the ship, then get a numbered card for getting onto the launch. The launch seats about 30, so things move rapidly and we get a good view of the ship on the way in. They have an “air taxi”, which is a cage with seats that is lowered to a barge for people who can’t manage the steps and the scramble to the launch and then the dock. Clearing customs is quick – a quick x-ray of hand baggage and a sniff by the drug spaniel (cute) and we’re done. The caretaker of the cottage we’re renting is waiting for us and she walks us around town to get our St Helena driving license (the police just record we have a US license, and that’s it), changing money at the bank and going to the garage to pick up the rental car. By garage, I mean garage, with tires and metal bits lying around. Ashley signs a piece of paper saying he’ll bring the back they way he got it, and that’s it. It is an automatic, the A/C works, the brakes are mushy, the horn works and it comes with a slightly scratchy Talking Heads tape in the player.

We drive after the caretaker up through town, which is 1 house wide on one side of the street and 3 houses wide on the other. The valley is very narrow, and the roads going out of it are steep and 1 ¼ lanes wide. Frequent honking is needed to not plow into someone coming the other direction. The view is great, though. We get to the top of the cliff above the town, which features a fort at the top of a 699 step stairway cut into the sloping cliff face. The stairs used to be part of a railway used to bring supplies up to the fort and remove donkey dung from the town below. The stairs are called Jacob’s Ladder and are a standard challenge for tourists to try. The fort is called Ladder Hill Fort, which sets the tone for the rather obvious place names here – Sandy Beach, Green Valley, Big Rock, High Hill, Deep Valley, Green Hill, etc.

2/3 of the way to the cottage I realize we’re going to get lost when we try to do this ourselves, since although the island is small and rugged and well signposted, there are little one lane roads all over the place. We end up on a one lane road that leads past the radio station and a primary school to our cottage. The cottage is palatial compared to C deck on the ship; it has 2 bedrooms, a sitting room and dining room, kitchen, bath and laundry room. It is decorated in 1980’s grandma chic, complete with Hummel figurines, but has cable. It also has a veranda overlooking the hills and the ocean, a couple of guava trees and a bunch of feral chickens.

Since we’ll be feeding ourselves this week, I go to the grocery store. A lot of the shelves are bare, since it’s been two weeks since the ship has been here and the cargo hasn’t been unloaded yet. The local bakery produces bread, but it is out. There are very few local vegetables grown, since it seems people simply don’t want to. I get some gas for the car – 7 liters for 10 pounds, which I don’t even bother to convert into gallons and dollars, because it’s not like I have a choice, but I think it’s expensive. Augh! I just did the math! It’s $8 a gallon! My first impression of the island is “Communist Caribbean” – tropical weather, relaxed people, Virgin Islands architecture, but no selection in the stores, few cars and frequent electrical outages. Ashley sniff’s that his Cornish village with half the population has ten times the carnival of St. Helena.

Tonight is the island’s carnival, which is a parade through town to the waterfront, a fair amount of food, and music and dancing.

Sunday, October 31, St Helena, South Atlantic Ocean (that’s really their mailing address!)

We drive down to Jamestown to go on a round-island tour in a 1929 Chevy Charabanc, imported to the islands in the early 1930’s. The owner (not the original) claims the car has not been off-duty for parts or repairs, despite needing to get tires from the Czech Republic, and needing to top off the radiator every hour or so.

The island is covered by flax plants, which were grown for a cash crop to make cloth until nylon came in the 1960’s and destroyed the industry. Nothing destroyed the plants, because they spread easily and enjoy growing on cliffs. They are driving out the endemic plants on the island, and keeping them off the limited pasture land there is.

The final stop of the tour is at Ladder Hill Fort, overlooking the town from the top of the ladder.

We finally get motivated and walk up the ladder, Ashley making it in 12 minutes, I did it in 13 (huff huff). Neither one of us have the knees to go back down, so we hitched a ride in a pick up back down the crazy 2 way road into town and the car.

The island really is aware that the ship is their link to the world, and tonight the Anglican church together with the Salvation Army, 7th Day Adventists and Baptists, put on a thanksgiving service at the Anglican church to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the launching of the RMS St Helena! The archbishop presided, each pastor read something, the combined choirs sang, incense was waved, all the accompanying music of the Salvation Army Band and the “Get it Going” orchestra. The snare drum and the tuba players were particularly noteworthy. [There’s a collection: Lynne whispers she has no money, Ashley shows all he has, Lynne helps herself and leaves Ashley with 30p to contribute! – Ashley’s Ed]**

** All facts submitted by guest contributors subject to verification. (Never leave your laptop alone…)

Cape Town and aboard the RMS St. Helena

Sunday, October 24, Cape Town

Back to the same restaurant for breakfast, to be waited on by the same waiter, a gorgeous black guy named Delight. Across the street, a local church proclaims an interesting sentiment.

Table Mountain is out and visible, so we’ll take the Blue line bus around it through the high end residential areas east and south of town and towards the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and the fishing village of Hout Bay. The foliage immediately changed as soon as we rounded the mountain and became a very lush tropical version of the drier areas on the other side. Hout Bay, pretty cut off from the rest of the city parts, is a real commercial fishing village with hawkers selling fish of unknown types on the docks. We take a tour boat for 45 rand (6 bucks) for an hour out to a fur seal colony and along the coast under a highway that had so much damage to it and the cars on it from rock slides that they’ve built protective cages above the entire roadway.

The tiny little line above the white cliffs is the road. Eeek!

We decide to improve our education and go to the South Africa Museum, which is unfortunately is having a massive dinosaur exhibition. Unfortunate, because that type of stuff can put me to sleep on my feet. We gave it a good try for an hour and a half, then went to dinner at a nice local restaurant. Ashley had the Great White Hunter platter of wild boar, crocodile, springbok and ostrich.

Monday, October 25 Cape Town

The contents of our luggage has expanded and gained weight, which is making it a little hard to get everything back in for the transfer to the ship for St. Helena. We soak up the last bit of internet capability we’ll have for a while and call for a cab to the water front at noon. The cab does not arrive, so the hotel’s shuttle serves as a cab. Ashley and the driver get into a brisk argument, er… discussion about where we are supposed to go, which is not the ship itself, but instead the weirdly named Mission for Seamen to get screened for security and to get our luggage loaded by porters. After careening up and down the dock, we were deposited at the right place, which the driver insisted was called something else. The “security screening” entailed checking our last name on the passenger manifest – apparently this ship is not a high profile terrorist target. The waiting lounge inside the mission was on the other side of a chapel and a bunch of Rotary literature. Apparently soul saving is not a lucrative business, because the place had diversified into serving beer, nasty pub food and had a Lady Gaga video playing on a widescreen TV at the back of the bar. Odd. Our British buddies from the train from Jo’burg, Malcolm and Allison, are already here, but few others are. Perhaps the seasoned travelers know to show up at the last moment.

We were herded onto mini-buses where we get to know some of our traveling companions by sitting in each other’s laps. We are then driven… across the street, where we poke each other in the eye getting out of the mini-bus in front of the ship. I’m not sure why we couldn’t have walked across the street and up the gangplank with our luggage, but that is apparently a no-no. Ashley and I are on C deck, in a stateroom smaller than our train compartment. Malcolm and Allison are in a 4 berth stateroom on A deck, which they’ve invited us to visit if the air starts running out down where we are. We said we would, as long as they don’t mind too much the smell of bilge water wafting along with us. We walk all around the ship, seeing everything once and remembering where nothing is. It’s not a big ship, so I imagine we’ll get un-lost pretty soon. We go through the obligatory life jacket drill, which Malcolm describes aptly as “a right cock-up”, and makes us all look like orange puff pastries.

The purser lectures us about not throwing cigarettes or trash overboard, how to ring the fire alarm and how futile rescue attempts will be if you fall overboard, so don’t do it, please (so British). I’m guessing half the 105 passengers are tourists, including 33 people on a Napoleon tour (some of whom are well over 5 feet tall!). The rest are returning “Saints” or people coming out for short or extended work periods on the island. I chat with one Napoleon nerd (Tony from Dublin) and one chemical engineer (Alistair from Scotland) who is traveling with 3 other engineers to the island to do a feasibility study on improving the island’s water treatment system and who is already predicting that close quarters with his co-workers will lead to homicide before long.

We are supposed to set sail between 4 and 7, and an oyster and champagne bon voyage party will commence at 5:30. Everyone is keeping to themselves a bit and peering over the edge of the ship to watch the now seemingly endless loading of cargo. The ship has its own crane on the cargo deck and it’s still shifting containers at 6 pm. I go below for a shower while we’re still stationary and when I return find that the champagne has loosened the group up substantially and strangers are now talking to each other. The 6:30 dinner seating departs to do their gustatory duty and we drift forward to look hopefully for the pilot boat to take us out of the harbor. It would be a bit of a downer if we spent the first night on the dock. At 7:45 we finally get boosted off the dock by pilot boats and led out of the harbor for the 1700 mile trip to the island. Most of the 8:00 pm dinner seating is still getting loaded on the Lido deck with the leftover champagne, so not many people are looking at the fading lights of Cape Town. We’ll get to St Helena 8 AM Saturday morning and there is no land between here and there, so I take a good look at the lights. St Helena is exactly in the middle of nowhere in the Atlantic, serving only as a provisioning stop for the Royal Navy and is now supported by massive British subsidies.

Dinner is fantastic on a couple levels. The food was quite good – a choice of items from salad, soup, entrée and dessert courses, then a cheese board if you could handle it. Our dining companions were a couple of older German men dressed alarmingly alike in horizontally striped shirts and square rimmed glasses, a British guy who is one of those Know-it-all, Been-there-done-that, You-can’t-pay-me-to-smile stereotypes, and the ship’s Kashmiri doctor. I kept a straight face when the Brit said this was his third trip to St Helena, “for the walking”. Even though I know “walks” are hikes in Brit-speak, it is frankly bizarre to travel over a continent’s worth of water to walk around a puddle of an island. I disengage and go for the two Humpty Dumpty looking Germans, who are on vacation from Mannheim, a good place to be on vacation from. They are very polite and speak excellent English. Our conversation is derailed by the ship’s doctor and Ashley and the other Brit launching onto a political debate about Europe, England, Turkey in particular, Israel (?!) and the world Muslim population and the fear of a European Caliphate. The Kashmiri doctor admires Israel because he says they are honest about their motives for doing things. This made the Germans’ short hair bristle even more. I contemplated going for the inflammatory trifecta and throwing abortion out there as a conversational topic to see if I could make a mushroom cloud appear above the table, but dessert hadn’t been served yet, and it looked good.

Tuesday, October 26 – aboard the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) St Helena, 1,340 miles from St Helena

Greetings from the poop deck. Being in an English speaking foreign country is kind of like being in a parallel universe; to wit:

  1. They drink Coke, Coke Light and Tab (remember Tab?)
  2. Palmolive is a hair shampoo, not a dish detergent
  3. One “does the washing up” to wash the dishes
  4. “Pleasure, pleasure” means “you’re welcome”, not a solicitation for a red-light activity
  5. A solicitor is an attorney, not a prostitute (I know, I know…)
  6. They SMS instead of texting
  7. Bunny chow is curry in a bread bowl, not rabbit food
  8. “Gobsmacked” is a serious statement of shock, and should not be laughed at, lest your boyfriend implode at you
  9. A “return ticket” is a round-trip ticket, not an exorbitantly priced one-way ticket back from where you’re going
  10. “Wash powder” is laundry detergent


Since the scenery is going to be the same for the next few days, the main entertainment is the people, the cruise-ship style activities, which are so ridiculous they are entertaining, and the almost punitive amount of food that is being served. The king bed sized pool has been filled, and ostensibly “heated” by piping the water over the engines, but those that have been in it think that might be a lie to make us feel better. Two little old ladies were dog paddling around in it at 7:30 this morning and I complimented them. “It’s nothin’ dearie – oi’m numb.”

7AM: tea and coffee

8AM: Continental Breakfast at the Sun Lounge, Full Breakfast in the Dining Salon, including breakfast fish, blood pudding and fried bread.

9AM: Crossword puzzle and brain teasers are distributed

10AM: Lecture on Napoleon, since St. Helena is the final resting place of M. Bonaparte

11AM: Skittles tournament (9 pin bowling, team of 4 – we lost horrifically), Beef tea (beef boullion) served in the Sun Lounge

12 noon: noon whistle, Lunch in the Dining Salon and Salad Bar (massive) in the Sun Lounge

1:15PM: Scrabble tournament (we did slightly better) or movie (The Informant)

2:30PM: Tour of the bridge if you signed up early enough (we didn’t)

3:00PM: Tea served in the Sun Lounge

4:15PM: Island information overview. They REQUIRE non British residents to have permanent or temporary health insurance and proof thereof before you come ashore (what, I’m going to come all this way just in case I need a free heart transplant?)

6:00PM: Pub quiz – our group, Ashley, I, Malcolm, Allison, Cathy the British islander and Duncan the British chemical engineer tie with the mostly retiree Napoleon tour group for first.

6:45 and 8:00 Dinner

9:30 Frog Racing – 5 people use a string to jimmy a plywood frog the length of the dance floor. People place bets on the contestants, and the pot goes to the island charity. It’s surprisingly difficult to do, but the competition gets fiercer as the night goes on. The officers of the ship compete against each other and rampant cheating ensues, with the assistant purser, the 2nd engineer and the doctor flipping their chairs and themselves over backwards. I bet on the assistant purser because he’d spent 4 years in Washington DC with his parents when he was a kid.

It’s really quite stressful having such a full schedule. We’ve done the laundry and I’ve hopped in (and immediately out) of the pool, but otherwise it’s been very hectic keeping up with all these recreational demands

Wednesday, October 27 – aboard the RMS St. Helena, 940 mile from St Helena

Damn! All those Napoleon biddies got up early and signed up for today’s bridge tours! What the heck!?

People watch:

A group of islanders “Saints” returning from competing in long-distance rifle shooting in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India. Two archeologisst doing an impact statement about the proposed airport. A handful of Saints coming home for extended vacations from England. A microbiologist and his wife moving from Harare, Zimbabwe, for a year. A policeman transferring from Gloustershire, England to the island for two years. A Brit-turned-Saint returning home to her islander husband of 35 years. A man with fuzzy ears who has binoculars permanently attached to his eyes and keeps to himself viewing seabirds. A collection of very well made-up little old dears on the Napoleon tour. A teacher from the UK coming for three weeks to help work on the science program in the lower and upper school on the island. A Danish/Swedish couple that used to work for the EU investigating South Africa as a potential retirement option. Another chemical engineer, doing a feasibility study for airport development and water consumption, which has nothing to do with the chemical engineers who are doing feasibility studies for the entire island’s water consumption, both studies already having been done several times before by prior versions of the British government. Inefficiency apparently is not a monopoly of the US government.

I plugged my poor little 120V American travel hairdryer into the plug converter, and it let out a 240V howl of resentment, which settled down to a yell when I put it on low. I finished fast before it burnt up or blew out. The clothes dryers and the water heaters here are on full power, too. It is easy to fry yourself on a metal button coming out of the dryer or poach yourself in the shower. Africa is a dangerous place…

Thursday, October 28th – on board the RMS St Helena, 642 miles from St Helena

It is Ashley’s birthday, which I’ve informed the purser of, so hopefully there will be a mildly embarrassing announcement over the PA, or perhaps birthday cake for dessert at dinner. We play a completely crazy game of cruise ship cricket, which involves netting off the sun deck so most of the balls don’t go flying overboard or into spectators and using balls made out of a turk’s head knot of synthetic cord. A real wicket is stood up on one side, chalk marks are made on the deck to indicate scoring zones and the passengers and the crew muster teams. It’s kind of like playing golf with a flat baseball bat, only someone is pitching the ball to you, trying to knock the bales off the top of the wickets, or to catch your pop fly, which is of course not called a pop fly. I score 3 “runs” before getting the bales knocked off my wickets. I did manage to catch a pop fly, so I did defend America’s honor somewhat. The crew hit 4 balls overboard, to us hitting only 1 overboard. The passengers managed to beat the crew quite soundly, which local passengers say will mean there will be a re-match.

I’ve met the lone other American, who has actually lived in England for 45 years, so I’m really the only representative of the US on board.

I was quietly typing this in the Sun Lounge when Claude the Purser (think Julie the Cruise Director from The Love Boat) comes perking in with British Bingo, which doesn’t look like American bingo sheets but operates on much the same concept. I am immediately drafted to play because Claude, despite being about the size of a beach ball, does not take no for an answer. It’s hard to pay attention, because each number called has a ritual saying that goes with it: “4 – 0, life begins at 40!” which makes you want to slit your wrists. I manage to win the second game, whose prize is… 2 bottles of wine. As it was Ashley’s turn to buy wine for the dinner table tonight, and it is his birthday and I don’t drink – voila – last minute birthday present.

I meet a couple passengers in the stairwell whom I haven’t even seen so far, much less talked to. That’s odd, since there aren’t that many of us and there’s not many places to hide. Maybe they don’t like Bingo.

Ashley gets a birthday cake at dinner and a birthday card signed by the captain!  Wahoo!

Around Cape Town

Saturday October 23, Cape Town
Without reading any info, we head up to the cable car for Table Mountain. We therefore get in the veeery back of the line for the tickets. Table Mountain is the iconic landmark that towers over Cape Town and provided tourists a place to cable car up and local mountaineers a place to climb. We stand in line to get across the road to stand in line for tickets, then stand in line some more for the elevator to go up two stories to get in line for the cable car. Several tours of Chinese sidle by us, bristling with cameras and polyester and a weird get-out-of-my-view sense of entitlement. The whole group amoeba’s along in a human peristalsis until we finally get on the cable car. The view is great!

A very nice volunteer for the park service leads us over the mountain for 1 1/2 hours, informing us about the denizens of the Cape Floral Kingdom (more plant types per square inch than anywhere else in the world) and the details of the geology (I can never remember any of it, but I’m always happy to learn). Derek the guide let us hang over the edge of the mountain, because we’re not in the US.
After walking out to the peak and viewing the fog that’s swept in, we relax at the cafe and watch a wedding party pose for pictures. A lady stopped by, told them she was Iraqi and belted out a great wedding ululation for them that was a real crowd pleaser. The only other wild action were the dassies, rodents that look like furry footballs with legs and bad attitudes.
The weather changes on a dime here, and we currently have a good view down the coast towards the Cape of Good Hope, which contrairy to my belief, is neither the southern most point of Africa, nor where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet – that’s 150 km to the east. We decide to be total tourists and get on a hop on/hop off double decker bus for a city tour. It takes us, with GPS determined multi-language information on our little red earphones, through the Riviera section of Cape Town, where all the trendy shops and restaurants are, and where you can’t see the beach for the people. You can see the water fine, because nobody is in it, since it is around 50 degrees. The waterfront are is very nice, with big playgrounds, picnic areas, and walkways. Everybody, black, white and colored (yep, it’s OK to say it, it refers to anybody who is neither black or white) is walking around. There is a cottage industry of parking attendants. I don’t know if they work for the city, the stores, or if they just have a reflective vest. They seem to work a section of parking spots, both on the street and in front of stores. They whistle and wave to cars to indicate a free spot, help you back in, and for a tip, watch the car to make sure nothing happens while you’re gone. That, and the omnipresence of nasty jagged glass, metal or razor wire on top of all fences is the only signs of heightened security. As we cut through the totally deserted downtown finance area, we did notice the big bruiser of a black guy ahead of us keeping a conscious watch over his shoulder, so maybe we should have been more cautious.

The tourist waterfront area is a mix of shops, street performers, overpriced curio stands and restaurants and working fishing boats. We watched a fur seal playing in the water, then got really interested when we saw she was doing headstands and hanging there for a while, blowing bubbles.

We’re off to St. Helena on Monday, so I’m not sure when I’ll have internet access again. Most likely not on the ship, and that’s a 5 day passage. Hopefully the Atlantic won’t have us hurling our high tea – 5 days is a long time to be seasick…