September 29, 2019

Cruising Africa: An emerging wonder

From South Africa to Namibia, each port of call along Africa's wondrous coast has a history that's suffused with smoky intrigue. Some ports are bustling hives of activity while others are rarely visited, perhaps only on repositioning voyages or on a luxurious expedition, in which case your cruise is liberally laced with a sense of exclusivity. Whatever your chosen itinerary, cruise cabin comfort is of the utmost importance.

At the southern tip of the continent, nestled beneath Table Mountain, is South Africa's most famous port. Suffice to say that a visit to Cape Town is an African cruise highlight, but Durban, which faces the Indian Ocean, is the east coast port of choice. The city's seafront underwent a massive facelift for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, resulting in a beachside boulevard peppered at regular intervals with bars, cafés and restaurants. It is the closest thing to Rio that you will find on this continent.

At this grand promenade's southern end, not far from your ship’s mooring, is uShaka Marine World. It includes Sea World and is Africa's largest water wonderland with dolphin, seal and penguin shows. While scouting the Durban seafront, don't miss riding the Skycar to the top of Moses Mabhida Stadium for an outstanding 360-degree panorama. In addition, given Durban's vibrant Indian population, your shrewd choice in local dining would be a deliciously authentic curry.

Durban port and seafront (supplied)

Local excursions include a nano-safari to Tala Private Game Reserve to see rhino, hippo, giraffe, kudu and sable antelope. The Valley of 1000 Hills is the heartland of the Zulu nation with indigenous crafts for sale and energetic dancing to enjoy at cultural villages along the tourist route.

On West Africa's former Slave Coast, spirit worship for protection and luck is still part of daily life. Cotonou is Benin's teeming trading port, shifting goods from up-country neighbours including Niger, Burkino Faso, Mali and Togo. Cotonou's bustling Port de Peche is the local fishing fleet haven and it's an especially lively and colourful sight in the late afternoon when hundreds of fishermen haul in their catch.

You will find intricate masks, carvings and paintings in the Hall d’Art on Boulevard Saint Michel, but far more stimulating is the sprawling Dantokpa market, where a bewildering jumble of wares extends from clothing and shoes to the more intriguing voodoo dolls, amulets and charms.

Dark legend cloaks the old slave port of Ouidah, 40 kilometres west of Cotonou and famous for its full moon voodoo ceremonies. An insight into the ancient kingdom of Dahomey is the basis of an excursion to the Palais Royal du Roi Toffa (Musee Honmé) and ethnographic museum in the nearby capital of Porto Novo.

Young dancers, Walvis Bay, Namibia (RE)

Dakar's pulsating Sandaga market is a more adventurous outing. Alternatively, and closer to the port, the Marché Kermel sells fresh food and flowers. You may see a few bronzes for sale or buy a souvenir CD of the local mbalax music (Senegal's fusion of Western jazz, soul, Latin and rock with traditional sabar drumming) heard everywhere at high volume. There are views across the city from the observation level inside the imposing African Renaissance Monument, unveiled last year to celebrate 50 years of Senegalese independence.

Le Village des Arts, on the airport road, is a crucible of contemporary creativity with artists at work in 52 studios. La Maison des Esclaves, which literally translates to House of Slaves, on Gorée Island can be visited on a tour or by public ferry. It's the top tourist attraction, so expect a press of ardent hawkers en route to the 18th century building that's now a slave trade museum. Immense sand dunes are included in a half-day excursion to Lac Rose (Pink Lake), beside which salt farmers toil under a blazing sun. High salinity gives the water its unique tint.

By sailing into Walvis Bay on Africa's South Atlantic coast, you are following in the wake of 15th century Portuguese explorer Bartholomeu Dias. The only deepwater harbour in Namibia is your gateway to the Namib desert, considered to be the world's oldest.

Tales of the bay's notorious Skeleton Coast - so-called for its many shipwrecks – are told best at the town museum. Walvis Bay's oldest building is an 1880 German mission church, but for most visitors the local wildlife and desert are the star attractions.

Tours within the bay seek out Heaviside and Bottlenose dolphins, visit resident seal colonies and provide bird lovers with marvellous moments. A restaurant perched above the water serves prized local catch, such as kabeljou and snoek. Cultural tours offer a fascinating glimpse into the vigorous lives of the Ovambo, Herero and Damara people.

You can climb a lofty dune on the outskirts of town, but a 4WD Namib tour gives a much closer look at the land. The Namib-Naukluft of these National Park has impressively vivid landscapes and unusual flora. Not far north is the German farming settlement of Swakopmund with its attractive colonial architecture.

From north to south, ancient to modern, desert to coast, a cruise offers the perfect setting and means of transport from which to explore the regions of this fascinating and spectacular continent.

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