MS Expedition West Africa Cruise 2014

(All in-line images are original, but the featured images at the end of this post belong to Gary Arnt of Everything-Everywhere and are licensed to the author but otherwise copyrighted)

A few days before embarkation I had the pleasure of spending a few days with Dave Van Niekerk of High Constantia. Dave, who those of you who read the blog of my previous trip will know was the wine aficionado who enthralled a shipload of discerning travelers with one of the most unusual interpretive travel presentations anywhere.

High Constantia - Cape Town

A glass of Champagne at High Constantia

This, incidentally, is one of the most unique and pleasing aspects of this trip. Who would expect a trip of Africa to feature wine? But wine is very much a valid aspect of South African culture. Indeed, the Cape is the oldest wine growing region in the southern hemisphere, by a great many years, and although hardly conforming the grit and drama that one would associate with Africa, wine is nonetheless fundamental, and just one of many fine aspects of this amazing trip.

But anyway, I digress far to soon. I landed at Cape Town International and hired a care and proceeded to get lost in a city where getting lost is not that easy, bearing in mind that great navigational beacon of Table Mountain. But the journey in a city like Cape Town is at least as important as the destination, something also quite true for the more substantial journeys of life, and no less true for this much larger journey that I was preparing for. I arrived at High Constantia a few hours later, set under the pleasingly dappled shadows of aged oak and plane trees, and walked into the last minute activity of assembling the wines for embarkation on the MS Expedition on this, its second journey along the west coast of Africa.

Karen!’ Dave called to his Girl Friday, the moment that he saw me enter the yard. ‘Please pour Mr. Baxter a glass of champagne…!’

And so it was that I was able to snap the selfie featured above as I availed myself of few glasses of High Constantia Glos Andre, technically a sparkling wine, but practically one of the most desired and sought after champagnes in the Cape.

Then, a little later, leaving Dave to his task, I walked a short way down Groot Constantia Road to the Jonkerhuis and sat down under the gentle muses of a Cape evening, and ordered a cup of coffee. As I was thus occupied a miniature Airedale terrier trotted across the old cobbles and paused for a moment to sniff the leg of my trousers, before he cocked his leg and squirting a few drops of a less aromatic fluid than the wines of this august region. As he hurried off again I thoughtfully pondered this most grave of insults, delivered by a stray dog with a pedigree, and thought to myself that perhaps I should not get too comfortable in Constantia.

But perhaps the omens were graver than I thought. The following day, nursing a hangover acquired by the grace of some of the Cape’s finest reds, I drove north to Wellington to fly fish the Witte River at the top of Bainskloof Pass, just outside the town of Wellington, only to encounter a gale at the summit that was roaring up the kloof, and that effectively destroyed any chances of fishing the high waters on a light fly.

So it was. I arrived a little later at the Commodore Hotel and picked up my passport which had been delivered by a visa service, and discovered that the Moroccan Embassy had confused my dates and given me a visa for April not May, and thus my plans to fly fish in the high Atlas mountains also disappeared. Hence that fact that the blog I intended to write on fishing the extreme north and the extreme south of Africa has not yet appeared in these pages.

But nonetheless the trip went ahead. The expedition meet and greet was followed by receiving the key to my room at the Commodore Hotel on the waterfront district of Cape Town, and discovering therein a jet lagged David Conrad in his underwear, clearly disorientated, not terribly pleased to see me, and obviously much in need of sleep.

That less than delightful encounter was followed by a reminder to myself that that I had intended to plead with Susan not to bunk me with David Conrad on this trip. David is one of those with a richly diverse repertoire of snoring that varies between the left side and the right, and on the stomach or the back, and is distinctive only in that it matters not which – he snores on whichever side he sleeps.

During the 2013 trip Dave and I had shared a berth, and I discovered myself then to be in close proximity to a genius. For fifty years or more David Conrad has traveled and studied layers of human, social and artistic history in West Africa to the extent that he is comfortably regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts in the field of African social anthropology (correct me Dave if I have that wrong). But I have been left with two impressions of that particular experience, each amusing and scarring in equal measure. The first is Dave, semi-naked in the tropical heat, draped across his bunk, his Macbook balanced on his belly, stabbing the finger pad with thoughtful vigor, and swearing periodically under his breath for no apparent reason. And then the long nights of murderous contemplation as I listened to him snore.

Susan I adore thee! When I was assigned my cabin I found it to be dedicated to me alone, and Dave, accommodated across the passage way, pleasantly surprised likewise to discover that he was not sharing a cabin with me. I told him why, and I am happy to say our friendship endures.

Leaving Cape Town

Leaving Cape Town

I found the demographic on this trip to be distinctly different from the previous. I would guess that the average age hovered around the early to mid-sixties, with nationalities tending towards a preponderance of Australians, some fewer Kiwis, and fewer still Brits, Canadians and Americans. However, among the academic staff were many of the same faces – Conrad Hennig (naturalist), Dave van Neikerk (vintner), Bronwen Clacherty (musician/ethnographer), David Conrad (history), of course, and myself (imperial history). The new faces were Yvonne Ankerman (artist), Paul Teuolis (photographer) and Norm Lasca (geology). The trip was administered and coordinated by a woman who is never less than impressive, Susan Adie, a veteran of several decades of maritime expedition travel, and one of the most extraordinarily able human beings I have ever met, assisted by Lyn Mair, a beautiful and gentle woman, further assisted by Andrea Machacek, among the youngest on board.

The sequences of the journey this time were much the same as last, and for that have a look at my blog written last year to accompany that trip (additions were Western Sahara, Canary Island and Morocco). The differences, however, were in texture and tone, and those had much to do with the fact that this was the second time around, and everyone was by now a lot more comfortable in their roles. I certainly was. This time I had had the benefit of a year to prepare a program based around what is basically my core subject, the History of Rhodesia, and I felt fairly comfortable that this would work, bearing in mind the deep layers of joint history that we as southern African whites share with the Antipodeans and Canadians as fellow scions of the British Empire.

This time too I was not delivered the shock of being the first one to speak, as I was last year, so matters proceeded fairly well as a consequence of my first presentation, which is featured on the front page in full. A comfortable familiarity was also evident in Conrad’s presentations, or perhaps lectures, which might be a more applicable term.

Conrad Hennig is a very interesting character. He is a challenge to any writer trying to sum him up, because at the moment that you feel you might have defined him he reveals a new facet or two, that tend to turn a few simple sentences into quite a few complicated stanzas. So it is. He is an extraordinarily accomplished individual, both within the parameters of his professional field, which is zoology in my humble interpretation, but even that fails to embrace the full spectrum of what he knows. He delivered a handful of complete lectures that began with an examination of African primates, ranging in content from the very earliest moments of life on this planet to the evolution of hominids and the great threat that exists to our nearest living relatives in this increasingly constricted world. From there he continued with a fascinating dissertation on the various deep sea divers, including whales, turtles and seals; which concluded, interestingly with the appearance of a pod of blue whales alongside the ship, which generated much excitement and a great chorus of shutter clicks.

Conrad is also one of the most expressive individuals I have ever encountered. His facial expressions are tactile, and his vocal expressions joyous, uninhibited and strident. He reminds me of a fire cracker in a tin can. There is far too much creative energy to be contained within one body, and when it goes off it bounces in all directions in a flurry of noise and motion.

But that ebullience should never hide the fact that here is an extraordinarily intelligent and accomplished man, and he gives this trip a peculiarly theatrical intellectual flavor that I think it would be impoverished a little bit without.

David Conrad, on the other hand, is a much more accomplished academic in the very traditional sense of the word. A great deal more phlegmatic, considered and precise. If you allow your attention to lapse for a moment during a lecture, you could loose a century of history. The same was always true for Norm Lasca, whose subject is geology. Such a great layering and density of knowledge oozes forth from every lecture that again, a lapse in attention could lose a listener an entire epoch of geological time.

Local Capetonian vintner David van Niekerk, who I have mentioned already, was included on the inaugural voyage on the recommendation of Conrad Hennig, in order to offer passengers some insights into this particular aspect of the South African cultural landscape. This time David, who is a very natural and entertaining raconteur, spread the wine tasting to more far flung regions, modifying his presentation into a virtual floor show that showcased some of the most exceptional wines available, with one or two that are not available. The wine tastings this year really were one of the most accomplished and successful aspects of the Discovery Lounge presentations.

There was also a greater sense of fine tuned organization on this journey, which on the one hand made the whole process easier for everyone, but at the same time it tended to strip away some of the raw adventure that characterized the inaugural journey last year. But even so, Africa by its very nature is unpredictable, and it is a fool who embarks on a journey anywhere in Africa with the expectation that everything will go according to plan. A perfect example was the fact that the Togo and Benin dates had to be switched around because of the strange fact of the port of Cotonou in Benin being closed on Palm Sunday – this being a predominantly animist/vodun (voodoo in popular terminology) society – requiring the vessel to divert to Togo instead, only visiting Benin the following day.

Approaching Freetown

Approaching Freetown

The most profound impact of the journey for me, however, remained the striking imagery of poverty, urban decay and environmental pressure that so characterizes this region. This journey is not a sensory travel experience in the manner of a Caribbean or Mediterranean cruise. Far from it. If you are looking for the open plains and the thundering hooves, or endless sun kissed beaches and the bronzed bodies of massed ranks of European tourists, then look to the east coast, and such destinations as Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya. Here you will encounter very much the soft underbelly of Africa, and the scarred psyche of a region introduced to modernity under the bitter lash of slavery. It is sometimes hard to comprehend that twenty million or more of the best and brightest of West Africa were exported in the three hundred years or so prior to the final removal of the trade in the late 19th century, followed almost immediately afterwards by the burden of colonial exploitation, and then, of course, the self inflicted horrors of the post independence era of wars, coups and lunatic dictators, all of which have left this corner of our planet conspicuously disfigured and reduced…

But also I hasten to add very much alive, vibrant and aggressive. In a way there can be no better showcase for all of this than Sierra Leone. I must be careful here because brevity is not my most notable talent, and I can lose myself quite easily in the multiple layers of life and interest contained in this crazy country. But consider for example that you can smell the damned place twenty miles out to sea. Plumes of trash drift out to greet you as you bear down on the port. The hillside city that dips its toes in the ocean breaths from a distance with an audible inhalation that clearly informs you that this is a human centrifuge like no other.

Sierra Leone was the vortex of an apocalypse in the mid to late 1990s that was part of the blood diamond’s saga, and the rise of the West African warlords. The level of violence that this nation suffered is best defined I suppose by the practice of amputating young children, and the residual image common these days of twenty and thirty something amputees presenting us all with a daily reminder of that terrible time.

It is hard to describe Freetown as anything other than a human cesspool. It is grotesquely overcrowded and degraded, with almost incomprehensible traffic congestion and a furious pace of activity that is breathtaking to behold. A hardy few amongst the passengers took an evening trip through the city in the midst of the Independence Day celebrations, which, in a city without a power grid, or meaningful sanitation, or indeed any civic services at all, was an extraordinary experience. A journey of a few miles took a couple of hours, most of which was spent nosing a tour bus through a seething knot of compacted humanity without hint of violence or aggression.

I heard often repeated expressions of marvel at the physiques of these people – and certainly the strength and vitality that they displayed made a majority of corpulent westerners seem, and feel, effete by comparison. And yet the filth within this city is almost diabolical – like some sort of Hieronymus Bosch portrayal of hell. My memory is of watercourses dribbling down off the surrounding mountains through piles of trash, raw sewage and effluent, but yet with mothers washing clothes in revolting pools of water, and infants thrashing around in it too, people bathing, and I am sure drinking the same water. The fact that the city has not been engulfed in an epidemic of medieval proportions is nothing if not a testimony to the physical superiority of the African people, that very fact that brought about the downfall of their race in the horror filled days of the slave trade.

Freetown gained its name from the freed slaves who populated it at the time of its founding, and slavery defines this country no more or less than any other along this coast, but somehow the naked elements of slavery as a living and breathing phenomenon are most shockingly illustrated in Ghana, and the two slave forts that we visit as part of the itinerary – Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle.

Both of these historic sites lie on the coast of Ghana, and represent one of the last vestiges of a comprehensive human trade that ravaged the coast and interior of this region as the industrialization of this ancient trade occurred with the plantation economies of the emerging colonies of the Americas.

Sierra Leone Dance Troop

Sierra Leone Dance Troop

The quality of guiding often defines the extent of one’s appreciation of the gravity of this experience, and the guiding at Cape Coast Castle is generally of a higher standard than Elmina. On both occasions that I have visited Cape Coast, a deadpan delivery from a guide of extremely high caliber drilled home the grotesque nuances of a subterranean chamber packed with humanity, bewildered, frightened and chained in  a dark and damp dungeon. A simple explanation that in 1978 the floor was cleaned of several feet of compacted human waste from a century earlier spoke of the horror that hundreds of thousands of human souls endured before the punishing middle passage, and a life of labor and brutality on the plantations of the new world that degraded their lives to chattel and livestock.

To just be in one of those chambers is sobering at best, utterly chilling at worst. One does not visit a place like this for the pleasure of it, one visits for reasons much less easy to define. A reminder of our history – not a race history – but a human history – because in truth all races were complicit in the African slave trade, and all profited, and in some ways all suffered. It is a blight on our collective conscious, and well it is from time to time to be reminded of that fact.

But it is always refreshing to get out of this zone, and as the MS Expedition began to round the heel of West Africa, and creep northward towards the Sahel, and the countries of the Mediterranean, the oceans cooled, the breezes freshened and the mood lightened considerably. The Gambia in my mind is characteristic by the Kora music, and a removal from that pulsing, visceral blood rhythm of the drum that forms the very pulse of tropical West Africa. This is a far more musing and thoughtful type of music. Lyrical, accomplished and querulous in some ways – although I know that is a poor choice of words – but nonetheless, a very different experience to the exciting, but elemental and primal rhythms of the south and west.

For me the journey ended in Puerto del Rosario, on the Canary Island of Fuerteventura. My visa snafu in South Africa prevented my landing in Morocco, and so I found myself lifting off from this rather tame, but nonetheless photogenic island, and winging north to Madrid for one pleasant evening before the arduous journey back to Portland.

My residual impression of this trip, and for those looking for a few words to sum this journey up, are that this is cerebral travel, not sensory travel. It is an opportunity to rub up in an intimate way against a part of the world that offers both the very best and very worst of the human condition, all confined in a tight package of pulsating life that you would truly have difficulty experiencing in any way other than this. We do not penetrate anywhere with particular depth, and often the choice of destination on shore days are chosen for the sake of the journey, not the destination, since it is quite often just the drive through cities and countryside that offers the most interesting insights. But nonetheless, the various vignettes stitch together into a quilt of varied experiences that leave a taste of Africa very much lingering on the senses.

Sign up only if you are a traveled person. Let this not be your first venture into Africa. It is not cheap, and it is not easy to fathom. It is an older person’s journey, a person who has tired of the fleshpots, and wants to see the world.

Below are pics of the Sierra Leone leg taken by Gary Arnt from Everything-Everywhere…of the MS Expedition 2014 West Africa Cruise just completed…

  • Brainerd Minnesota

    “I want to feel alive in my life. When I die, I want to know that I’ve given absolutely everything I can to lead a truly extraordinary life. A life that I love”. I want this too and when I die, I want to look back without regretsBrainerd Minnesota

  • mabuto thongjur

    hi peter baxter
    iam from south sudan tribe dinka aliab