May 2008

A Seabourne Safari

We finally got rid of the Italians at Aldabra. Not that I have anything against Italians, some of whom are my best friends.

But none of my best friends was with this human wave of seriously gobby, southern Mediterranean tourists who seemed to be stalking us from Zanzibar to the Seychelles; intrusively loud, forever yacking at fever pitch, a permanent halo of cheap fag smoke hanging over their heads.

Some men aged over 60 were naked apart from tiny bikini-slip swimming pants, stomachs overlapping their lunch boxes, while women d'une certaine age sported Brigitte Bardot-design bikinis made for the under-20s, but now highlighting cellulite-scarred thighs and pendulous boobs.

The Italians, also cruise tourists, were all over Zanzibar, which took some of the shine off the quiet moments we needed to absorb the atmosphere. Mama Mia.
We were on the spice-island side of Zanzibar, today a tourist-heavy location but no less distinctive for that. The markets are unchanged through the aeons, a 95 per cent Muslim population adds colour of dress and temperament and there are crumbling old forts that have witnessed battles between white and black, Islam and Christianity.

Livingstone's House remains, as have many of the grand Arab residences with their intricately carved wooden doors. Africa? Arabia? It's all the same here. The island is as romantic as its name.

In the aptly named Stone Town district we came across the former slave market area which reduced us to silence. We had no idea of the commercial sadism and obscene conditions that hallmarked Britain's shameful involvement.
Slaves were brought to this holding factory before transportation west. Chained at the neck, manacled at hands and ankles, the conga-lines of men, women and children were shuffled through the port into a huge underground system.
In these vile, lightless caves, human beings crouched in darkness, their body waste flushed out twice a day by the ebb and flow of the sea tides that flooded through gullies.

We returned to the MS Island Sky in sombre mood, welcoming the discreet luxury and peace and quiet to sit and think. It's a perfect cruise ship, 4,000 tonnes, tailor-made for the over-40s. All the cabins are woodpanelled small suites with some sitting room area, generous double beds and cupboard and drawer space. There's a TV and a telephone to call home when in port.

The vessel takes a maximum of 116 guests with 75 crew. The food was well above average, the on-board lectures interesting and relevant, the staff helpful and efficient. I did, however, badly miss an on-deck pool.

Ours was an expedition cruise largely in the Indian Ocean: some pioneering; much dependence on empiricism, tides, weather and the determination of expedition leaders. Landings were usually made by rubber Zodiac boats, which gave tours a sort of D-Day esprit de corps.

Aldabra was the showcase stop. This small island, a World Heritage site run by the Seychelles Island Foundation, lies 400 miles east of Africa and more than 700 miles from the better known Seychelle Islands, of which it is part.

It has been saved from tourist-rape and general human spoilage through its lack of surface water, poor timber and remoteness from shipping lanes. It is largely inaccessible, and cruise liners must take a large detour to visit.

Barring a small research station, the island has remained uninhabited. It is home to fear-free giant tortoises (one has been there 180 years), and the endemic flightless rail (like a small chicken).

Aldabra is like a solid necklace of islands thrown around a stunning turquoise lagoon, accessible for a few moments each day when the tide is sufficiently high.
Only 1,500 people a year are cleared to visit this elliptically shaped natural marvel, 21 miles long by seven miles wide. We had time for a fast snorkel in the swift-moving currents.

The next morning we did a sunrise cruise inside the lagoon and even hardened twitchers could scarcely believe their eyes - dimorphic herons, bright red Madagascar fodies, great blue herons, white fairy terns, tiny sunbirds - flashes of colour that lit the sky like fireworks.

It's worth remembering that there was a plan in the Fifties to create an airstrip and major hotel for tourists in this man-free paradise. How? Developers sought permission to explode a small atomic bomb to create the necessary conditions.

Our brief freedom from the Roman hordes ended at Nosy Komba, Madagascar, where we landed to see the lemurs and (for me) the greatest excitement: the very rare star-shell tortoise, a threatened species hugely valuable to a European black market.

We walked through the village of Ampangorinana where the Malagasy community still considers whites a novelty. Any shy attempts to talk to the locals ended as the cloud of fagsmoke hanging above the wall of sound from the Italians - the last time we would see them - suddenly rolled through the village and up the hill to the park where the black lemurs are trained to descend from the trees and sit on the white man's shoulders for photo calls.

I stayed with a group of star-shell tortoises in a large pen. The day before, a Nigerian smuggler had been caught at the airport with a suitcase carrying 35 of them.

Skirting the western edge of Madagascar took us to Morondava, an inlet that hasn't seen a cruise boat like ours for years. We rode in pirogues - small dug-out canoes - silently skimming the flat waters. Bliss.
Back on land, we walked half a mile to Bethania village, stopping every few paces to be stared at by children. You know your tour is exclusive when the locals take pictures of you.
The village was traditional, small wood and palm-front huts, sandy paths and shady mango trees. This is a dirt-poor, happy place, and the only nomadic fishing community left.
This is the way to see Africa - no chain hotels, paths beaten to the nearest bar, visits to man-made pearl factories.

Just as I began to miss urban Africa, we landed at Maputo (formerly Lourenco Marques) in Mozambique. Suddenly the language was Portuguese in a city where colonial history had left its architectural fingerprints. Eiffel designed the magnificent domed railway station and, incredibly, in the middle of Africa we found an Art Deco-style cathedral.

The cruise element ended in Richards Bay, South Africa, and a river tour to see crocodiles, hippos and the magical weaver birds stitching the reeds of the riverbank into golden tapestry nests.

We'd had our reservations about cruising but we needn't have worried. On this kind of seaborne safari, nothing quite exceeds the joy of returning every evening to an airconditioned vessel with a great bar list, soft bed and escape from the bugs and heat.

It was pointless to be so near Cape Town without a short stay, so we flew from the port of Durban and made our way to Cape Grace hotel down by the waterfront. It is an exceptional hotel with phenomenal service.

Our room faced the harbour with Table Mountain rearing to our left.
If you want to see Africa with dignity, and comfort, and go to places that are not accessible to budget airlines and chain hotels, this is the way to do it. We don't recall meeting a single holidaying whinger in the whole three weeks.

Or maybe that's what the Italians were doing? We'll never know.

Travel Facts

Noble Caledonia (020 7752 0000, has a range of cruises board MS Island Sky around the Indian Ocean. A 14-night holiday visiting the Mascarenes, Madagascar, Comoros, Mozambique and Zanzibar costs from £4,595.

This includes return flights from London, full-board accommodation, shore excursions, expedition team, transfers and taxes.

For more on the Cape Grace Hotel, Cape Town, see

Other cruise operators include African Safari Club (


More articles