Cruising: you’re either going to get into it or you aren’t. Life aboard a cruise ship is a peculiar parallel reality that you can’t quite explain. But JUSTIN FOX is going to give it a try.
Every summer, Starlight cruise ships find their way into South African waters to ply their trade out of Durban and Cape Town. With names like Opera and Sinfonia, you know you’re in for a bit of song and dance on the high seas. The prices are reasonable and the idea is to cater for a wide cross-section of the South African market. Perhaps too wide.
Our embarkation in Durban was organised chaos and I had to wait at the back of a thousand-person queue. There was tropical tat for sale and plenty of beer swilling: my prospective shipmates weren’t wasting time getting into the swing of things.
When we emerged from the hangar, the ship towered above us like a white apartment block. I found a hole in its side and stepped into the air-conditioned interior; smiling crew led me to my cabin.
An intercom announced we were leaving harbour and I made for the upper deck. Almost imperceptibly the ship began to quiver: massive diesel pistons waking the leviathan. Passengers crammed the rails, cellphone cameras happily clicking as we separated ourselves from the pier.
The ship headed lazily northward and Durban’s skyline slipped beneath the waves. Some of my fellow passengers, particularly those who’d segued seamlessly from terminal beer to shipboard brandy and Coke, were on top form. A large farmer from the Free State danced solo to synthesised music courtesy of chap in a Hawaiian shirt. The farmer langarm-ed gracefully across the deck, singing along to Elton John and Beatles covers. By now the ship was rolling on an open-ocean swell and his dance moves were at times not as fluid as he may have wished, and at other times too fluid.
Other imbibers started to look green around the gills. Perhaps they should have found their sea legs before they’d lost their land legs to the tipple. I foresaw a nasty few hours ahead. Indeed, there was soon the whiff of vomit on the stairs, but the staff were instantly there with wet and dry vacuums and deodorisers. All hint was swiftly erased.
Snooping round the ship, it soon became apparent that we were a microcosm of South African society. Actually, not just South Africa: although the passengers were mostly local, the officers were mainly Italian (this being a Mediterranean Shipping Company vessel) while the rest of the crew comprised more than 20 nations.
Our giant, floating wedding cake was in some respects an ‘ideal’ society – well, a class-conscious belle époque society, to be precise. The upper class and nobility (officers in their starched white uniforms and suite-cabin passengers) lorded from the top decks. Our happy group of middlebrow travellers occupied the middle decks and were waited on hand and foot by the denizens of the lower decks. It seemed that from the bowels of the ship, like some Wellsian sub-class, emerged the Malaysian, Philippine and other workers who mopped and scrubbed and polished.
To keep us content, we of the middle classes and decks required bread and circuses every minute of the day. Hence the packed food-and-entertainment programme.
Not long after leaving Durban it was time for the Compulsory Emergency Drill. At the signal – seven short and one long blast on the ship’s siren – everyone had to grab lifejackets and muster at their lifeboat stations. The more lubricated passengers blew on their lifejacket whistles and cracked crude Titanic jokes. I tried to point out this was not the done thing, but was shouted down.
“Women and children first!” called out one gent.
“Hooray!” cried the elderly dame with the floral hat. “Then I can leave Henry behind!”
After the drill, day moulded itself into dusk and KwaZulu-Natal shrunk to a charcoal line. In only a few hours the passengers seemed completely in tune with life at sea. Was the transformation promised in the brochure really happening?
The cruise director was responsible for our entertainment and introduced us to his team of dancers, singers and comedians in the ship’s theatre. We were given a pocket history of Mozambique: Da Gama to Independence in three-and-a-half minutes – just enough for toddlers and those of contracted attention spans.
The cruise director told us some of the silly questions he gets asked by passengers. Such as, ‘Does the ship have its own electricity supply?’ (No, madam, we drag a power cable behind us from Durban.) Or, ‘Do the staff live on board?’ (No, sir, they sleep in a submarine that trails the ship and are transferred by dolphin.)
First night was the Captain’s Gala Cocktail Party, followed by a formal dinner. We queued for an hour to have our picture taken with the captain, his ferret-sized moustache and gold braid buffed for the occasion, then waited for a short welcoming speech and the first dance. The captain plucked a blonde from the audience and his officers followed suit. Soon all the blondes were used up. I made do with a mousy brunette.
Then came dinner. You’re assigned a table for the length of your cruise and must sink or swim in conversation through seven-course meals. Our table comprised an ensemble of singletons: a mix of Pretoria horticulturalists and BEE businessmen. We swam, just.
A word about food. Cruise ships float on their stomachs. There are seven official meals a day – from the early-bird buffet to a midnight feast – and plenty of in-between opportunities to indulge. In fact, judging by the corpulence of some of the passengers, the ship was only an incidental means to the buffet end.
Each night after dinner we were treated to a cabaret show. You had to marvel at how the showgirls in dental-floss outfits and matching feathers managed to keep time on a stage that moved unpredictably under their feet. When the rest of us hit the disco later, we had no such dexterity. Or was it the strawberry daiquiris?
One night saw a tropical party on the pool deck billed as ‘the biggest floating disco in the Indian Ocean.’ Incredibly, I found myself in a 300-person conga line and then, alas, I ‘did the Macarena’, (quite well, actually). I also somehow ended up repeatedly pointing at the sky and at the deck, singing ‘Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive’ at the top of my lungs. I even succumbed to the ‘YMCA’, with attendant hand movements.
Our itinerary offered three opportunities to go ashore: Portuguese Island, Maputo and Inhambane. We woke on the first morning to find ourselves anchored in the lee of a tropical isle. The sea and air were impossibly blue; waving palms, transparent shallows. Passengers were ferried to the beach in Zodiacs.
It felt a little strange landing on a deserted island with 500 companions to frolic in the sun for a few hours, enjoy a barbecue lunch and then be whisked back to the ship. Mozambican trinket sellers hotfooted it (paddled? swam?) from nearby Inhaca Island to sell their wares and were kept at bay by vigilant crew. Some lads sold Dois M beer from cooler bags. In a display of uncharacteristic salesperson honesty, during the course of the day their cries changed from “Ice-cold beer” to “Cool beer” and finally, just before we left, to “Nice hot beer!”
The next day’s Maputo stop provided a full day of shore activities. But I wanted some down time and chose to wander the town taking photos. Everywhere I bumped into fellow cruisers and we greeted like old friends. They stuck out a mile in their bright shorts and floppy hats, trailing an entourage of would-be guides and trinket merchants.
Our next stop was supposed to be Inhambane, but such things are weather dependent and a heavy swell put paid to Zodiac landings. So the captain turned us south in search of better weather.
An alternative programme was hastily devised. On the menu was line dancing, vegetable carving (my favourite), golf chipping (into the swimming pool) and something ominously called ‘Noot-4-Noot’.
Fascinating as it all sounded, I bunked the lot and found a place to sunbathe on the Calypso Deck. From my lounger I could watch the social tableau as it played out during the closing acts of the cruise. Take the two lovers, for instance, who’d fought so bitterly on day one (referring to each other in the third person at dinner), and who were now making up, flagrantly. Or the teenage troop of boys who’d finally teamed up with the corresponding girl gang. There was much conspicuous smearing of suntan cream and undoing of bikini straps for ‘better tanning’. Or the boatman on the next lounger who confided he’d taken a young woman to the bows – ala Titanic – to ‘do a DiCaprio’.
On the last evening, long after the galley slaves had drained and netted the pool, I stood at the rail watching the great slabs of white water churned by our propellers. Flash bulbs went pop, insignificantly, against the eternity of sea and sky. And I mused on this cruising thing.
It’s a mollycoddling business: you’re protected, pampered, fed and entertained. Time stands still as each day revolves to unchanging nautical and gastronomic rhythms. There are games and sports, but they are soft: no-one gets hurt, everyone is a winner.
There is, too, the seductive notion that all the hassle has been taken out of travelling. You wake up one morning and you’re at your destination. Not the kind of waking up you do on an aeroplane after an overnight flight, with an unwanted neighbour’s drool on your shoulder and feeling like a family of meerkats has taken up residence in your head. No, the journey itself is like a pleasant dream dreamed to the ship’s gentle rock.
But standing there at the rail, something was bothering me. I knew it had been there all along, but I’d kept it at bay thus far. The juxtaposition of a ship of merrymakers and the ocean: implacable, dangerous, indifferent, just a thin sheet of metal away. Out there lay 73-million square kilometres of dark water, sinking to a depth of more than 7,000 metres. It seemed to me, then, that treating it as a mere backdrop to our hedonistic pleasures was folly.
I thought of the many ships that had been lost off this coast. Such as the Nova Scotia, sunk by a German U-boat, its thousand-odd passengers bobbing for days as they were slowly picked off by sharks. Your existence narrowed down to fixation on a circling fin. A shiver ran through me, despite the tepid air. Time to go below for some mindless cheer and dancing into the wee hours to Britney and Shakira … ’cause when we woke the next morning, a dreamy Durban would have pulled up alongside. DM
All photos by Justin Fox.
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