Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Into the South Atlantic

Tuesday 19th April

On the Munich -Johannesburg flight, in addition to the passenger display of speed, height, distance to run and the rest, there was a camera showing the outside of the aircraft. I've been in aircraft with 'belly cameras' which can be a bit off-putting during landing but this camera was mounted at the top of the tail, giving a God-like view looking down on the aircraft. I noticed they cut the feed during landing, but restored it once we were parked at the gate.

After a meeting with one of our suppliers in Johannesburg, I returned to O. R. Tambo airport. My large bag was already checked through to Cape Town so I only had to find a Bag Drop. I'd already got my boarding pass, so I only had to make my way to the spacious South African Airways lounge to wait for boarding time. The lounge had a fast internet which I made use of. To my surprise, when I embarked, there was a man standing on the air bridge just outside the aircraft door collecting suitcases checked as cabin baggage. He gave me a hastily-completed official receipt, so I made no protest. I assume they were trying to reduce congestion inside the aircraft, particularly during boarding when there are frequently delays as people attempt to stuff baggage into the overhead lockers. I did wonder if I'd ever get the case back.

We had a reasonable flight to Cape Town, during which they served light refreshments. As I left the aircraft at Cape Town, I enquired about my case and was told it would be on the luggage carousel. This had been an internal flight so there were no immigration procedures allowing me to go straight to the baggage hall to see how prompt they were clearing the hold. Within a couple of minutes, both my bags arrived so it was on to the 'meet and greet' point. I wasn't quite sure from my itinerary whether I was being met or not. I thought not and, indeed, having scoured the displayed names decided I was on my own. There were a couple of touts displaying 'Taxi' signs so, too tired to wonder if this was an official arrangement, I spoke to one of them. He immediately directed me to a young fellow standing a little way back and, reaching agreement, we set off towards his car.

Any doubts about how official this hire was were removed when, once we were outside the terminal building, my young man called to a group of people sitting around and one of them threw a bunch of car keys to him. So it was no surprise when we headed for the car park and a rather tatty saloon. You know the sort of thing - the rear window mechanism was clearly broken as the window was being held upright by a screwdriver used as a wedge. The words came back to me (as they often do on these jaunts) 'I wonder if this is altogether wise?'. I was miffed when, without discussion, the driver allowed two (fortunately respectable-looking) young ladies to climb aboard. There then followed a few minutes of pantomime whilst the young fellow struggled to extract a ticket from the nearby parking ticket machine. I was so amused at the obvious irritation of the young ladies at this delay that I couldn't be cross. Eventually our driver returned triumphantly with a ticket and we set off, with me registering a token protest about the uninvited passengers. After a few hundred yards, he pulled up at a filling station and the rear seat passenger got out. We carried on towards the city at a furious pace. I couldn't tell the speed because, as you would expect, the speedometer was broken. On the journey, the girl in the front seat fuelled the young driver with some sort of cooked snack she was carrying. We arrived safely at the Cape Grace Hotel and, clutching his fare money, the young driver took off at his accustomed high speed.

I was expected at the hotel and quickly conducted to my room, this time at the front of the hotel, overlooking the road to V&A Waterfront and one of the docks. Last time I stayed, I'd been booked on a Robben Island trip but it had been cancelled by the tour operator's at the last minute. The Concierge attempted to book me on the early tour to Robben Island on the following day but the Internet booking system said 'fully booked'. We agreed to review the situation the next morning. I decided upon a short walk, around part of the V&A Waterfront and continuing along the other side of the dock in front of the hotel then looping back to the hotel at the landward end of the dock. By now I was fairly tired so I decided to take a meal in the hotel's 'Signal' restaurant and then retire. I slept well in the huge bed.

Wednesday 20th April

Next morning, I took cooked breakfast in the restaurant. The morning 'Cape Times' had an article about work-to-rules by Robben Island tour staff making the tour very unreliable. I decided to give up on Robben Island and, instead, see if I could visit Simonstown (sometimes more properly called Simon's Town) by train. I had the foresight to arrange a late check-out for 1.30 p.m. and I set off on foot for the railway station. It was a sunny morning but, fortunately, I took a hat and lightweight coat.

The station is very unimposing from the street - it just looks like a series of shops - but, passing through the doors, there's a huge concourse linking 24 platforms. I managed to purchase a return ticket (good value at 25 Rand - about two pounds 50) and made my way to Platform 1 for the 08:40 all stations to Simonstown. All the platforms have now been fitted with automatic barriers with two glass doors which part to let passengers through but these have not yet been commissioned, so I was directed to a staffed barrier where the lady pushed the glass doors apart, checked my ticket and let me through. As it was almost departure time, I jumped on in the middle of the train. Shortly afterwards, the doors closed automatically but, almost immediately, a terrifying banshee wail was sent up by a portly black girl waiting to board. To my surprise, the guard released the doors and more passengers got on. A few minutes late, we slowly made our departure from Cape Town.

The train was one of the elderly class of electric multiple units I'd seen before, covered with graffiti inside and out. The plastic windows are hard to see through because of the graffiti but, if you're lucky, the upper window sash can be forced part way down for ventilation and, if you're prepared to stand, you have a reasonable view out. A lot of passengers boarded at the first two stops and, at each subsequent station, plenty of people left and joined the train. Looking at the range of physical appearance of the passengers and the variety of styles and colours of dress reminded me that South Africa calls itself 'The Rainbow Nation'. The suburban stations are very close together, so it was stop and start for around three quarters of an hour before the sky to the east became lighter and suddenly, we were running on a rocky ledge above a sandy beach with regular waves coming in from the ocean which in this area is called False Bay. I counted over 30 surfers practising as we stopped at Muizenberg. The regularity of the surf here has made it a centre for training surfers. We continued running along the coast, usually very close to the beach and fifteen to thirty feed above it. The railway has adopted an interesting method of protecting the foreshore and breaking up the power of the waves - thousands of used concrete sleepers have been dumped along the margin. The line was routed a small distance inshore passing through Kalk Bay which retains a working fishing fleet of small boats, then the railway again ran close to the sea, with masses of exotic-looking seaweed swaying with the surging water and hundreds of birds - geese, seagulls and cormorants. At first, I thought the dampness was spray from the sea but, as it got worse, I realised it was raining. Fish Hoek is a relatively major station. The town boasts one of the best swimming beaches and is one of the county's few 'dry' towns. The land for development of Fish Hoek was donated on the condition that no alcohol was sold here! Beyond Fish Hoek, the line becomes single, following the twists and turns of the coastline through Glencairn in a very attractive manner, reaching the terminus at Simonstown. The late 19th century station boasts three platforms but only one is used by the typically hourly sevice. The departures were crudely chalked up on a board and I decided I had just under a hour to catch an impression of Simonstown before getting the train back to Cape Town.

The main road on the landward side of the railway is the main route into town, so, in what had become quite heavy rain, I started walking along what I discovered is called 'The Historical Mile'. I didn't quite complete the mile but I saw lots of interesting buildings and passed the South African Navy Yard (once operated by the British). The Navy Yard includes various substantial jetties, with one imposing warship and at least two other Navy vessels moored. Just inside the Navy Yard was an old metal structure clearly built for an aerial ropeway. A number of other towers could be seen leading up the steep hillside on the landward side. I learned later that this aerial ropeway had been built to link the Navy Yard to the Naval Sanatorium at the top of the hill. I turned back at Jubilee Square (formerly the Market Place) to ensure I didn't miss my train. I made a small detour to Simonstown Museum. I didn't have time to tour the museum, but I bought a couple of books for later study. Commenting on the rain, the lady in the museum said 'Oh well, it is the beginning of our winter'. I peeked in St. Francis's Anglican church next door, where a number of people were moving chairs around in preparation for some function. One of the ladies enquired where I was from and, referring to the rain said 'We expect this now our winter's started'. Just before reaching the station, I found a short road leading down to a sandy beach, so I had a quick look at what is (accurately) called Long Beach before completing my journey to the station. There were a dozen or so waiting passengers, some in Navy uniform.

Our train arrived about right time - this time an electric multiple unit of a more modern design which appeared to have electronic control of the motors. We had gone less than a mile from Simonstown when we were stopped at a red signal. A few yards ahead, a gang of men were working on the track - a fact which was probably related to our stop. After a minute or two, the driver sounded the horn and passed the signal at danger. The rest of the stop - start journey to Cape Town was uneventful, but the rain was continuous. At Cape Town, I had a quick look for taxis but they appear to hide when it's raining just as they do in the UK so I walked back to the hotel, arriving somewhat damp. A quick shower and a change of clothes fully restored me, leaving just enough time to finish my packing and check out.

Improbably, the meeting point for passengers on the 'St. Helena' was the 'Mission for Sailors', just inside the dock gates. The hotel arranged a taxi to ferry me and my luggage there. A crowd of passengers were standing around outside and there were more people waiting inside. My cases were whisked away and two rather harassed shipping company staff marked me as present. A couple of people carriers with luggage trailers were providing a shuttle service between the Mission and the berth for our ship and, after a short wait, it was my turn to be transferred to the ship. We paused at the security station leading to the quayside whilst the car ahead of us was thoroughly searched. The driver of the car was also required to don a high visibility vest before he was allowed to proceed. It appears that Health and Safety procedures are quite strictly enforced. Staff quayside were also required to wear hard hats although I was amused to note that many people chose to wedge the hard hat on top of a baseball cap - I'm not quite sure what that does to the effectiveness of the hard hat! Once the car had moved off, we were waved through with a smile. Our ship was just a couple of hundred yards away and we pulled up next to a short gangway on the starboard side leading to the main reception area on 'B' deck. manned by Purser's staff at a counter in the reception area were quickly checking passengers in and directlng them to the Main Lounge on 'A' deck immediately above for immigration formalities. A rather brusque lady from Immigration asked where the photocopy of my passport was. I apologised and said I wasn't aware that it was a requirement. I returned to reception to enquire about a photocopy but was told 'No - it's only people travelling on South African passports who have to provide a photocopy'. Puzzled, I returned to the Main Lounge. This time, the male immigration officer was also free and he stamped my passport saying 'You don't need a photcopy, the ship have agreed to give us a full passenger manifest'. No apologies from either officer, of course.

I was thus free to go to my cabin B34, also named 'Bellstone' after a location in St. Helena. It's a 2-berth cabin, one single bed above the other with a removeable step ladder to reach the upper bed. When used as a single cabin, the upper berth is hinged flat against the wall, making it reasonably spacious. There's one writing desk with tea-making facilities, four storage drawers and a chair, one chest of drawers with eight drawers, a round table with another chair, two wardrobes, a 'fridge and a separate compartment with wash basin, W.C. and shower. A non-opening porthole provides welcome daylight. All-in-all, quite a reasonable space to spend a few days.

So, half past three in the afternoon on board RMS 'St. Helena' berthed at Cape Town and the Ship's Alarm had just sounded. But we'd been advised this would happen - it was summoning us to the Safety Briefing in the Sun Lounge. Attendance was compulsory, complete with the lifejacket from the cabin. After the briefing, we had to demonstrate that we could correctly don the lifejacket and then we were allowed back to our cabins. Shortly after 4.0 p.m. our voyage started.

A tug, the 'Blue Jay', had attached a line to our bow so as to pull our bow away from the quay. Meanwhile, a shore party was attempting to detach the aft lines from bollards on the quay. Hands on the 'St. Helena' were using electric winches on the stern deck to slacken each line but the difficulty was that, since the 'St. Helena' berthed, another ship had moored astern of us and three of her lines, still under tension, were attached to the same bollard but on top of ours. The shore party managed to get enough slack to remove the loop at the end of each of our lines but it still required the power of our winches to disentangle our lines from our neighbour's lines and pull the loops free. As we sailed towards the open sea, we had good views of the variety of ships using the docks. Shortly, we passed the outer breakwater and the stern deck was crowded with passengers watching the city, with its famous backdrop of Table Mountain, slip behind us. Our course took us somewhat west of north so that we were angling away from the coast north of Cape Town. Once the hills on this section of coast could no longer be seen, we would be out of visual contact with land until we arrived at St. Helena.

At this stage, the ship was moving in the swell in a rather uncomfortable way and a number of people were unwell. Some passengers went to see the Ship's Doctor to obtain an injection to counter motion sickness. Dinner was arranged in two sittings at 6.45 p.m. and 8.00 p.m. I was allocated to the second sitting on Table 18 but only myself and two other guests took dinner on Wednesday. We met the other three table guests on the following day. Once dinner was finished, I was ready for bed and slept quite well.

Thurday 21st April

I enjoyed a splendid breakfast in the dining room with waiter service to your order. I had porridge followed by an English breakfast with tea and white toast. It's free seating for breakfast and lunch so, by moving round from meal to meal, it's easier to get to know some of the other passengers. Many of the passengers were residents of St. Helena returning home, the balance were of various nationalities seeking a more unusual cruise, including quite a few residents of South Africa. There's a programme of events each day but I, like a number of passengers, passed the time exploring those parts of the ship accessible to us, watching the sea from the sun deck aft or just relaxing.

The 'St. Helena' is a working ship, not principally a cruise ship. She provides the lifeline to the Island, carrying food and all the requirements of life. The forward third of the ship is cargo holds accepting normal freight or 20 foot containers. Containers are also carried on deck. Two large cranes on the foredeck allow the ship to load and unload itself without requiring external facilities. Two sections of the sun deck at the stern open to give access to smaller rear holds for ship's stores and there's a smaller crane to load these stores.

Despite having had a good breakfast, I took the three course lunch in the restaurant. The food on board was very much to my taste. At 6.00 p.m we were all invited to the Captain's Cocktail Party in the Main Lounge - a fairly crowded affair and with insufficient seats for all the passengers. Later, of course, there was dinner in the dining room after which I was happy to go to bed. Because we were heading roughly North North West, we were moving into a different time zone so, at midnight, all clocks were retarded by one hour.

Friday 22nd April

Again, I slept fairly well and found quite a few people around when I went up to the sun deck just after 7.00 a.m. The sea state was calm and we were still plodding along at about 15 knots. Once again, I took the excellent breakfast and chatted with passengers. At 10.00 a.m. , I attended a briefing in the Main Lounge for passengers continuing to Ascension from St. Helena. I discovered that two other passengers (from Texas) are, like me, hoping to land on Ascension and catch the R.A.F. flight out on the same day. So, if my arrangements go awry, I should have company! At 10.30 a.m. I watched the 'Shuffleboard Tournament' on the Sun Deck. I know the game as 'Deck Quoits' and that certainly seems a link with the great days of passenger sea travel.

The 'St. Helena' is carrying on part of the tradition of the 'Union Castle' line which formerly provided a regular link between the U.K. and Cape Town, including St. Helena in its ports of call. The competition from air travel caused Union Castle to cease operations in 1977, necessitating alternative arrangements for St. Helena which still has no airstrip. The Canadian-built 'Northland Prince' was re-fitted and, renamed 'St. Helena', started to ply the Cape Town - St. Helena route. That vessel took part in the Falklands Conflict in 1982 and the Blue Funnel vessel 'Centaur' was chartered to maintain the lifeline to St. Helena. In 1989 the present, much larger 'St. Helena' was launched in Aberdeen.

Friday continued the established lazy pattern. I took the full lunch in the Dining Room, although a lighter meal was available in the Sun Lounge. Various other diversions were provided - films, a fitness class. At 6.00 p.m. I was foolish enough to go to the main lounge to watch on on-board Pub Quiz and got dragooned into the 'Kiwi-Mapleleaf' Team. I eventually worked out that the name was derived from two of the team members - a lady from New Zealand and a gentleman from Canada. We came a fairly respectable second in this round of the contest.

It was a balmy evening and the sea was very calm. Despite the ship's lighting rather polluting the sky, a wonderful array of stars was visible - unfamiliar to me because we were in the southern hemisphere. Returning to the deck after the accustomed excellent dinner, I was disappointed to find the stars had become obscured by cloud but shortly, a yellow, flickering light was visible on the southern horizon. After a few seconds, I realised it was the moon, peeking from behind broken cloud. A few of the passengers and I watched, mesmerised, as the moon slowing appeared clearly for a few minutes, before being obscured by cloud again. We stood with a sense of disappointment that the effect had ceased but, after about ten minutes, the southern sky near the horizon took on a silvery hue. The silver colour slowly intensified until a sliver of bright yellow appeared and became larger until the moon was clearly visible as it climbed into the sky - a spectacular 'moonrise'.

Saturday 23rd April

The by now familiar pattern of the day repeated. After an early turn on the Sun Deck, I enjoyed a full breakfast. I expected to be climbing the rigging with boredom by this time but, to my surprise, I was quite relaxed and comfortable.

At 10.30 a.m. the 'Sun Deck County Ground' was host to the South Atlantic Ashes - a cricket match between passengers and ship's officers. Nets had been erected both to protect spectators in the seating laid out across the rear of the Sun Deck and prevent too many 'balls' from going over the side. The 'balls' are made out of rope so as to be less lethal but one of the members of the passengers' team told me he found the officers' team very aggressive players. At least a couple of balls went over the side which appears to render the batsman 'out'. Quite a few balls ended up in the adjacent swimming pool, from where they were retrieved by long-handled net and returned to the bucket of balls. It was a good-natured match and players and spectators alike enjoyed it.

From 10.30 a.m., tea, beef tea and coffee was available in the Sun Lounge followed at noon by full lunch in the Dining Room or a Salad Bar in the Sun Lounge. Once again, I took the full meal, sharing a table with a South African couple. The husband was a retired electronics engineer who'd worked on cable laying ships. In the afternoon, there was a (rather over-subscribed) Bridge Visit and later a briefing on St. Helena. At 6.00 p.m. it was the second round of the on-board quiz. Team 'Kiwi Mapleleaf' didn't acquit themselves very well, coming third.

By the time the quiz had finished, it was dark. I summoned up my courage to try the outdoor swimming pool. So far, I'd only seen two children from St. Helena use the pool. Lowering oneself into the water was a little bit of a shock to the system but, once immersed, I found it very pleasant. Apparently, sea water is pumped aboard, used to cool the engines and then circulated through the pool, perhaps a couple of degrees above sea temperature. After the swim, there was time to have a quick shower before going for dinner which was, as always, excellent. After dinner, I was quite ready to do a little bit of re-packing and then retire to bed.

Sunday 24th April

It didn't feel like Easter Sunday, although the Captain was to conduct a service in the main lounge at 10.30 a.m. After breakfast, I discovered that the morning bridge visit only had four takers so, since the previous day's visit had been rather crowded, I decided to repeat the visit. The question of whether to attend the Easter Service was thus answered since the bridge visit was also at 10.30 a.m. Whereas previous days have been rather overcast, Sunday was warm with bright sun and this encouraged people to sit out on the Sun Deck. Preparations had already commenced for our arrival at St. Helena the following morning. Immigration and Customs forms had been issued, tentative bookings taken for various tours on the island and large luggage for landing was to be collected at 4.30 p.m. I'd decided that I'd manage onshore with a small case which the ship require by 7.0 a.m. Monday.

At lunch time, I couldn't resist the full meal service in the dining room. Afterwards, I decided to try the pool again. The water wasn't very warm but, once again, it was alright once you were in and I spent around half an hour in the water. Nobody joined me in the pool but a lady who lives at Cape Point south of Cape Town sat on the side and bathed her feet.

At four o'clock, they showed an interesting film about the building of the present vessel. The lowest tender for the build was received from an Aberdeen shipyard already in some financial difficulty. None-the-less, they were awarded the contract. During the build, the receivers were called in and eventually Appledore bought out the yard. With a new contract price and new programme Appledore completed the build.

All my pictures from the trip are here.