The inaugural G Adventured MS Expedition 2013 West African Cruise kicked off from Cape Town on April 6, 2013. This was a cruise adventure with a difference. An expedition cruise. The good ship MS Expedition is more typically found in the polar regions, in real expedition cruise territory, but this year, while transiting from south to north, G Adventures decided to try applying the vessel on an adventure cruise from Cape Town to Senegal, the bi-polar regions, visiting a diversity of destinations in ten African countries.
The MS Expedition West African Cruise offered a very different take on the standard template of African cruises. On board were a hundred and twenty or so passenger, mostly older travelers, but some within the thirty to fifty demographic, and all tending to be highly accomplished people in one field or another. The staff compliment was made up of a number of experts in history, ecology, photography and ethnography, among whom I was honored to be numbered to discourse and entertain on the subject of African imperial history. The idea here was to provide and interpretive aspect to the various countries and territories visited, to foster a deeper understanding of the history, culture and natural history of each country, which actually worked very well.
Apart from a general series of lectures delivered at scheduled times, an evening recap offered thoughts and explanations on odd phenomena encountered during the day. Often this took on the character of a question and answer session, with passengers offering insight and observation, sometimes quite serious, at others quite entertaining.
I chose as my subject the imperial styles of the British, the French and the Belgians, while my colleague David Conrad focused on the art and ethnographic history of West Africa. In addition contributions were made by Dr. Steve Boyes, Conrad Hennig, Wolfgang Kaehler, Bronwen Clacherty, Lucia Deleiris, David Van Niekerk and Rob Caskie.
An interesting point here is that Dave Van Niekerk, of High Constantia Winery in Cape Town, offered interpretive guiding of a very unique nature, conducting several wine tastings on board that showcased his own wines, those of South Africa too, and a handful from other wine producing regions for their comparative interest.
Brief Trip Log:
The first port of call after leaving Cape Town was the Namibian port of Luderitz, where a short tour of a rather dour and strange town on the edge of the Namib Desert was followed by a visit to the abandoned mining community of Kolmanskop. The following day the MS Expedition docked in Walvis Bay. Here we toured the hinterland of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund in a fairly general road tour of local scenic spots, followed by a light lunch provided by the historic Swakopmund Hotel.
Things started to get interesting, though, a few days later when the MS Expedition docked in the Angolan Port of Lobito. It had been anticipated that this would be the commencement of the real African journey, and in many ways it was, but it was also quite surprising. Angola experienced one of the longest and most divisive civil wars in modern African history, so my expectation certainly, was that the urban structure of the country would be in ruins, but nothing could have been further from the truth.
In fact Lobito was almost a showcase of that lovely Portuguese colonial architectural style that I am more familiar with in Mozambique, but which was actually more pronounced here, suggesting that Angola had in general been a wealthier and more populous colony than its Indian Ocean cousin, and in fact it was.
Our tour covered the twin cities of Lobito and Benguela, and it was conducted with enormous fanfare, almost a celebration, in recognition of the fact perhaps that Angola very much wanted to encourage tourism, and that we were one of the first major tourist events to occur in the city. In a convoy of busses our entire compliment of passengers and staff took off on a rambling motorized tour of both cities, accompanied by a paramedics ambulance and several police vehicles and motorcycles each announcing every turn in the route by a massive cacophony of sirens.
There were two notable points to the day. The first was a rather stiff and canned dance performance and market set up for us in the picturesque central square of Benguela that began initially with a little bit of confusion and uncertainty, but which very quickly devolved into a rollicking street party as people from all around gather to the sound of drums and singing, and to the whole thing a degree of authenticity that not even the organizers expected. The second surprise was an unexpected train excursion back to Lobito within a venerable line of railway carriages dating from the 1930s, and harking back to grand old days of train travel. For many this was the highlight of the day – a slow, rather elegant shamble through the crowded shanty towns and open spaces between the cities, seeing and being seen, and absorbing the wonderful ambience of dark wood interiors and the musty airs of an age long past.
Our next stop was a little darker and less pleasant. We paused for an odd day at the Congolese port of Point Noire. Our arrival into port had been accompanied by the apocalyptic sight of multiple oil platforms burning off methane on both the far and near horizons. Port itself was congested with oil related shipping. We were greeted in a cheerless way by a convoy of busses, and, after passing acres of enormous indigenous hardwood logs stacked for export, we were conveyed through a dour, rather featureless African city that seemed to offer almost nothing in the way of unique feature. As we cleared the city and entered the countryside a somewhat derelict social environment greeted us, with nothing in the way of established African village life notable anywhere.
The obvious conclusion here is that oil and timber account for the local economy, beyond which no industry is attempted at all. This certainly seemed to be the impression. The highlight of the day was a large and cold Primus beer drank on the pool deck of the plush Atlantic Hotel in the company of the local expatriate community and a few French soldiers. I was not sorry to leave the Congo Republic.
Sao Tome and Principe
After a slow and easy sea day, the Island of Sao Tome appeared on the far horizon as daylight touched a wet and blustery Atlantic Ocean. After the environmental ruination of Congo Republic it was a pleasure to see this rugged and verdant island emerge out of the gloom chocked with forest and greenery. Access to port was by a zodiac shuttle, and from the onset there was a colorful, musical and extremely beguiling atmosphere to the island.
Once again in a convoy of busses we set of on what was becoming a customary commencement to every day. This time the route wound up through the compacted village life of a densely populated and heavily vegetated landscape. After a brief visit to the Saint Nicholas waterfall near the settlement of Trinidade. Thereafter we paused at the Monte Café coffee estate for a taste of the local brew and a splash of local entertainment before returning to Sao Tome for lunch. The day was rounded off by a rather perfunctory visit to a local Portuguese fort, a brief and somewhat rain soaked street performance and a short stop at a local chocolate outlet.
The Island of Principe offered a much different day. The MS Expedition docked a few hundred meters off the Bom Bom Beach Resort, after which a zodiac shuttle was established with the beach. Thereafter a combination of beach and nature was punctuated by an on board lunch and a considerable amount of leisure.
West Africa proper was reached when the MS Expedition docked in Cotonou in the small enclave country of Benin. Known during the colonial period as Dahomey, Benin is a highly cultural nation with an acute sense of history and a weighty legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and of course the regional epicenter of the local Voodoo religion.
There were three notable highlights to our day in Cotonou. The first was a visit to the uniquely interesting Ganvie stilted village on the north shore of the tidal Lake Nokoue a short distance out of Conotou. Ganvie is a deeply traditional fishing village that seems to tolerate tourism poorly but at the same time benefits from it, which is an interesting and unusual juxtaposition in Africa. The village was originally established in order to provide a refuge against the predations of Dahomey slavers but has since become a thriving fishing and trade settlement.
From here we drove out to the village of Ouidah, an old Portuguese slaving settlement and currently a center of voodoo culture. This strange synthesis, along with a heavy overlay of African urban life, presented a very interesting picture. The dominant feature of the town is the collection of spiritually orientated statuary featured just about everywhere. One of the many Gates of No Return that feature large on the West African coast, and which commemorate the awful Atlantic Slave Trade, is to be found here, along with a Sacred Forest that needs a little interpretive guiding to appreciate, and a few other odd shrines and temples associated with voodoo make up the interest of the town. Certainly a worthwhile spot to visit.
Togo appeared to me to be a very depressed nation with very limited interest. The entire tenor of our day in the city of Lome was ruined by a visit to the Fetish Market which showcases voodoo fetish devices and instruments, dedicated mostly to mummified animals – mainly primates and avian species, but also a smattering of dogs painted with spots, cats and other domestic variations. The smell was horrendous, the ambience disgusting and the concept vile. As Ghandi remarked: The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. Lome in this regard did not measure up well.
It is also true that the moral development of a nation can be assessed by the quality of its art, and so a visit to the Musée international du Golfe de Guinee, a private collection dedicated to West African art, tended to redeem the day somewhat. West Africa has nothing if not multiple layers of art and culture, and here an extraordinary cross section of regional art – sculpture mainly – reveals the antithesis of the dreadful mistreatment of animals that defined the first visit of the day.
The MS Expedition visited two ports in Ghana. These were Tema and Tokoradi. Tema is located close to the capital city of Accra, so some part of the day was involved in transiting this large and messy West African capital. Our first stop was Mr Cedi’s bead factory which proved to be very profitable for Mr Cedi who sold a significant number of his recycled glass beads. Here we enjoyed a light lunch before rounding a long day off at the local artisan market where passengers were treated to hard sell Africa Style.
Our visit to Tokoradi was a little different. Here the day was split into two. A handful of passengers opted to visit the Kakum National Park canopy walk, which seemed like a bit of a disappointment, proving what tends to be known, that West Africa is a better cultural than wildlife destination. The remainder opted to visit the Cape Coast and Elmina forts which served for centuries as international entrepots of slave transfer from inland to the coast, and thereafter to the Americas. The visit was extremely somber, but nonetheless extremely worthwhile.
Our visit to Freetown offered a quick glimpse into a city made famous by war and the horrors associated with the blood diamond conflicts of the mid to late 1990s. Freetown is an odd city. It is punctuated by wonderful remnants of British colonialism, with names such as Waterloo, Gloucester Road and Cockle Bay Road, but beneath this it is a seething, colorful and energetic African city. Yes it bears the unmistakable scars of a terrible phase of African history, but its compact, noisy and irrepressibly personality seems to rise leagues above those years of horror.
Our tour really comprised a lengthy bus haul through the horrendous city traffic of Freetown, during which everyone had the opportunity to absorb the atmospheres and ambiance of a very African city indeed. There were a few stops…markets, churches and suchlike, but really the interest lay in just being there.
The city of Banjul is the capital of Gambia. The first impression as we steamed into port was how clean the air smelt and how absent was the noise, bustle and confusion of the other West African cities that we had visited thus far. Gambia lies in the Sahel region of Africa, and is characterized less by verdure that dry savannah type ecology punctuated by baobab trees. Our journey through Banjul revealed a cleaner city than most, less compacted and much slower in pace.
Our first stop was the Abuko Nature Reserve a few miles west of the city of Serekunda. Here we were all treated to a magnificent birding experience, guided and interpreted by Conrad and Steve. Abuko is a small reserve, totaling just over 105 acres, but it is without doubt the most important and accessible. It boasts over 500 bird species and a small number of antelope and primate species, with occasional sighting of crocodile, porcupine, bush baby among others.
We then paused at Makasutu Cultural Forest, an important cultural site in the local Mandinka mythology, located not too far from the town of Brikama, and offering music and dance, a restaurant and bar, and of course a craft market, all nestled in the shade of a baobab grove reflecting very much the indigenous local ecology. We were treated to a selection of western Sahel tunes and rhythms before embarking on the busses for the return journey, and a visit to a fabric market in Serekunda, featuring batiks and tie-dye fabrics and clothing.
Day two in Gambia involved steaming up the wide Gambia River after which the zodiacs were launched for a brief few hours of exploration upriver, and through the many inlets and tributaries, rounded off by a short visit to the slave fort of James Island.
Our much anticipated arrival in Senegal began with all the mayhem of disembarkation as passengers and crew disengaged from the MS Expedition. This wonderful ship had been our home for the month prior as we steamed up the West Coast of Africa on one of the most superb adventures imaginable. Like Gambia, Senegal appeared crisply cool and dry on the horizon, with none of the sights and smells of concentrated human commerce that had tended to characterized most of the other West African cities that we had visited. Besides this, and very much unlike the Gambia, there was about the dockyards, and the city beyond, the unmistakable aura that this is an important regional capital, and a center of very significant importance in West Africa.
Historically Senegal, like many other parts of this region, was a center of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and one of the most iconic landmarks of this is Goree Island, located a few miles offshore from Dakar, was where we made our first stop for the day. Goree was one of the French urban Communes of the colonial period, with the ghosts of its slaving past now buried under many layers of pleasant French Provincial styling that served the administrators and business elite of the late 19th and early 20th century with a comfortable bedroom community away from the hustle and bustle of Dakar.
Nowadays Goree Island is a little tourist haven, surprisingly intact, but just grubby enough to stamp it with an unmistakably African flavor – and while on the subject of flavors, lunch was taken in a beautifully appointed quayside restaurant, and in a uniquely island style. Here, against a backdrop of melodious Sahel string rhythms, and the hustle and bustle of a small fishing community, we could all taste the rustic breezes of a bygone age that drifted through the compacted avenues of the extremely atmospheric little social relic of Goree Island. Lovely.
After a quick ferry ride back to the mainland we split up into two groups. The first made their way back to the Dakar Novotel to wind up their adventure a little early, while the rest embarked on two busses for a whistle stop tour of the capital city. Here, to no one’s real surprise, we encountered a modern, clean and functioning city of a style and character very different to anything that we had seen since leaving Cape Town. As usual the most interesting part of the journey was the bus ride itself, which is always the best way to absorb the nuances of any new city, with stops at a local artisan market and a rather humble art gallery to punctuate, and round off, an extremely interesting day.
Back at the hotel sad farewells were exchanged, groups broke up and dispersed while a number of riotous farewell parties began to warm up. The MS Expedition staff enjoyed a wonderful group meal before signing off on an outstanding adventure, with all of us hoping for, and indeed anticipating, another meeting next year along the fragrant – more or less – West Coast of Africa.