All posts by Atea

Tiptoe through the Graveyard

After so many significant ocean passages and timeless days on an empty ocean, you’d think we were home free when deciding to leave the Indian Ocean for a trip around the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic – after all, there would be land visible over our side-rail all the way. Tanzania – five miles to starboard. Mozambique – five miles to starboard. South Africa – five miles to starboard. We would be watching the baobab trees of Tanzania, the pistachio plantations of Mozambique and the thorn bushes of South Africa slip past as we made our way from one ocean to the next. With no wide open stretches of water to cross, we were in for a leisurely coastal jaunt with plenty of stops along the way. Easy, right?  

Wrong. We would be travelling along The Wild Coast to round The Cape of Storms to reach The Skeleton Coast, names given by ancient mariners that reflected the hazards ahead of us. The South African coastline is notorious for its long list of maritime disasters, a reputation held with good reason. We would pass through The Graveyard of Ships where more than 2,500 vessels before us have been claimed by the sea and countless more simply disappeared without a trace. If we were going to navigate our way successfully through this aquatic catacomb, we were going to need to know what was hammering the nails into those old timber coffins – and deflect those same perilous nails from turning Atea into our own tomb. 

The geography of Africa’s south coast is the clandestine factory for most of these quietus dagger-nails due to a higher occurrence of weather anomalies and coastal hazards. The Southern Ocean brings in temperamental weather systems, which shift quickly with little forewarning. Conditions such as changeable weather, strong winds, adverse currents, thick fog, hidden shoals and submerged reefs contribute to unpredictable circumstances that can jeopardize the safety of ship and crew. South Africa holds all these combined, making it one of the most treacherous regions in the world. With storms that build quickly and fog that rolls in blinding the coast from view, hidden shoals and reefs become death-traps for unsuspecting crewmembers and their vessels – you don’t want to be anywhere close to shore when the weather turns.

Then again, you don’t want to be anywhere close to the Agulhas Current when wind turns against tide either. The Agulhas Current – the largest western boundary current in the world – races along the southern coast of Africa as a narrow, swift stream of water. Pop into that stream and you race along the coast at whooping 10 knots. Timed poorly, however, that same slipstream turns into violent rapids that have ripped apart the steel frame of 500-ton ships. How do you avoid the same disastrous fate? The key is knowing the answer to, “How long do I have to reach my next safe harbour?” There is an established weather pattern that repeats: A nor-easterly wind slowly builds from a calm high pressure system as the next low approaches. A window of stable weather opens up, providing anywhere from a twelve-hour to four-day gap to shoot through before the pressure bottoms out, the next low arrives and the window slams shut with a vicious south-westerly buster that sweeps up the coast making conditions miserable for anyone who has stayed out too long. Understand that safe window and you should enjoy a safe trip around the southern tip of Africa. 

In addition to hazardous weather conditions, the 2800km stretch of coastline also has very few natural harbours making a coastal transit even more difficult due to the distance between “safe zones.” Once the skipper makes the call to head out to sea, ship and crew are committed to make the run within the weather window. Make a wrong decision, and you are in for a very rough ride. If we were to transit successfully – and by that I mean with our ship and our souls intact – we would need a good plan and reliable weather information. In our opinion, this was done by taking short hops within a very wide window of calm weather. Usually, you wait for wind. Along the South African coast, you wait for the pockets of calm between the wind. 

Follow the Finger

When in country, I like to breathe in its underbelly and explore the less explored. To this end we have often ignored tourist advisory boards, governmental notices and parental warning. We find our own way by personal curiosity and local advice. I believe in the value of the symbiotic relationship between nose and finger: We follow our nose and the local finger. It is an easy three step process: We ask – they point – we go. This was South Africa, however, and different rules apply. In this country we would follow the finger of one man, Des Cason – the local weather guru. Des has taken it upon himself to offer his depth of regional weather and routing knowledge free of charge to anyone seeking navigational support; along this wild coast we would follow his nose where, and we would follow his finger when.

When the man pointed, however, didn’t always suit where our interest directed us. This clash started on our first leg and followed us all the way around to Cape Town. Given this was to be the only transit we’d make around the tip of Africa in the foreseeable future, we wanted to make as many stops as possible while keeping in mind we only had a three-month visa stamped into our passport – and our list of desired ports often clashed with Des’ where and when. Given there are relatively few marinas dispersed along the coast and yachts transiting South Africa are pretty much exclusively tied to marinas, this made our continual battle of common sense versus spontaneous desire relatively straightforward. Our route for the first time would be bound by practical constraints and we would be traveling the path most taken – and in South Africa, the only path taken. 

Tiptoe through the Ports

South Africa is an incredibly diverse country, and each port we visited provided a blatant example of this variety and richness. Richards Bay is the perfect base to explore the national parks and game reserves, with a half dozen within a half hour drive from the marina. Durban is the closest port to the Drakensberg Mountains, a 1000km escarpment that stretches along KwaZulu-Natal with impressive 3000m peaks, stunning river valleys and rugged cliffs – scenery so stunning that it provided the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Misty Mountains. East London is a no-man’s stop where outsiders are warned against the high level of violence in the region and are recommended not to go ashore under any condition. Knysna, a juxtaposition to East London, was a stunning seaside village where money oozed from the open wallets of its white inhabitants. And Simons Town, our final destination, basecamp for Atea for the next year.

While we held a good list of destinations in front of us and our excitement for exploring this part of the world was high, we also had considerable trepidation about the state of wear on some integral components of our ship since our last haul-out. Our last full service had been in Thailand three years prior and our stop-gap measures could only last so long. Our area of greatest concern was our engine, and we were travelling in an area where engine failure would put us at the highest amount of risk. The items on our fix-it list continued to grow, but we were no longer concerned about anything beyond the first item on our list. At number one, Lucy – our 1965 Lister HRW4 diesel engine – had become our preoccupation. Her loyalty to us was starting to wain. She was turning into a grumbling old harridan demanding all our time and attention. But then, she’d earned the right to be cantankerous. During our relationship we had soused her in seawater, filled her sump with diesel, dressed her in poor quality belts, neglected to replace her parts when the tachometer and oil pressure gauge broke, and ignored her old age incontinence. Through love, luck and lube oil we’d kept her kicking, but Lucy could fail us at any moment. 

Number two and number three on the We Be Damned list were also a great concern. With a broken genoa roller furler and a leaky hydraulic rudder ram, we were well aware that we were in some of the toughest cruising grounds with failing systems. As our engine belts stretched and broke and air seeped into the water pump, we placed bandage upon bandage hoping none of the calamities that had claimed so many others would fall upon us. 

But issues aside, we had to cover 1500 nautical miles on a boat that moved at an average of six knots within three months – it was time to quit moaning and get moving. Following the finger, we would hop marina to marina, visiting Richards Bay, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, Knysna and Simons Town along the way. Each stop offered a different slice of the African pie. I got sample-sized bites at each port, leaving me at the end of our transit with an un-satiated appetite and a craving for more. 

Richards Bay

For the first time in a long time, our existence wasn’t defined by boats. When we pulled into Richards Bay, we took every opportunity we could to get as far away from the ocean as possible – into the interior, and into the game parks. Richards Bay is the perfect location to explore the many national parks and game reserves, and if you are in South Africa not scouting for The Big Five, you might as well go home and watch Netflix. Preferring the real thing, we spent almost all the time we were based in Richards Bay outside Richards Bay. It was such an amazing experience for all of us. For the kids it was the novelty of watching zoo animals wander in mixed company free from their restrictive enclosures. For John it was being able to get so close to some of the world’s most hostile creatures and survive to tell the stories. For me it was a return to my own childhood when Kenyan game parks were my playground. I didn’t have stuffed animals in by bedroom because I got them live in my back yard. When in Rome… and when in Africa. Richards Bay gave us the best of Africa in concentrate. 

Durban

Durban was never our plan. It was too short a hop from Richards Bay to make a transit worthwhile, and South African immigration were so difficult that the effort to clear in and out wasn’t worth the hassle. However, sensibility has never been my strong suit. I had a good friend there, and I was determined to make a pit stop to say hello… who knew when I’d get another chance to make a house call with a friend who lived on the opposite side of the world. So, Durban it was. In addition to a debaucherous week of social reconnections, we got a chance to see a foreign town through local eyes – an opportunity worth taking in any instance. We got to play with locals in public pubs and private clubs. We got to play with pet horses and wild monkey and even wilder dogs. And, the highlight, we got to play in the Drakensburg Mountains. “The Drake” rises above the eastern edge of the Southern African plateau and is the highest mountain range in South Africa. It was once home to the indigenous San’s people who lived in the valleys and foothills during the Stone Ages, and they left their mark through 2,500-year old rock paintings that remain to this day. We wandered through these caves and gazed at red and yellow stick-figures of age-old elephant and antelope. We gaped up at Giant’s Castle and Cathedral Peak, and we drove through the most intense lightening storm I’ve ever experienced. As the rain swamped the dirt roads and pelted the windscreen of the car blinding our surroundings from view, we were fearful for our safety as thunderbolts cracked through the sky and struck the earth around us. Fortunately, our tiny tin can of a car didn’t have a 70-foot high mast sticking into the air as a target. We survived the wrath of angry gods and Atea’s electrics were spared a full overhaul.

East London

While foreigners and tourists are recommended to avoid East London “under any condition,” this was unfortunately not an option for us. We had a condition – and not just just any condition – we had an engine-critical condition that, if not sorted, could jeopardize the safety of ship and crew in an entirely different down to the graveyard kind of way. So, we stopped. The location was beautiful and quaint. With our stretched engine belts flopping about like over-sized jandals, we motored slowly up the river and tied stern-to-stern with a small huddle of resident boats. What I can confirm is that East London is indeed not a place for outsiders. Unfortunately, “outsiders” was exactly what we were – and we weren’t just outsiders sitting on the outside. We were outsiders that needed to be on the inside. We needed to wander through the back streets of an unfamiliar, run-down, hostile town in search of a good quality belts – something not stocked as a regular consumer item on the shelves of most supply stores. We were looking for an obsolete needle in a high-risk haystack. But it was a hunt we had to take on, as we weren’t going to be able to move Atea without it. 

Fortunately, the part was secured and after a full day wandering around the dubious back alleys of East London, we were in possession of two new high-quality engine belts. As the saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” After our time as outside-insiders in one of the most impoverished and violent parts of South Africa, we decided to heed Joe Kennedy’s advice and get going.

Port Elizabeth 

Port Elizabeth was said to offer a marina with a reputation for warmth and hospitality, so we made the PE Yacht Club our next port of call. In fact, it offered neither but served up cold beer and a good roast and that was enough to appease our cravings while we sheltered for the week. When the weather finally turned and settled, we were looking at a much shorter weather window, with only 48-hours to progress the 160 miles to Mossel Bay before the next SW winds came through. By then we’d discovered where to find our new best friend, Mr. Agulhas, and we would be relying on him to cover the distance in time. Atea was a struggling tortoise at sea; she was in poor form, slow off the mark and in need of some TLC. The last haul out and antifouling had been over two years ago and the bearings in the genoa furler were too unreliable to risk putting out. The headsail pole was broken so we couldn’t hold the jib out on the opposite side to balance the mainsail and assist. The rust coming through the bolts on headstay made putting any load on the wire a risk, as a break there would mean the mast would collapse. A small leak on the steering hydraulics meant that one of our very few critical systems could go at any time, and we had no backup. Atea was a wounded warhorse, but she was continuing to doggedly carry her charges without falling lame on the final stretch. 

At 34°south and moving along the southernmost edge of Africa with nothing but the Southern Ocean on our port side and the boat a state of disrepair, we felt exposed. The temperatures had dropped, leaving our maladjusted bodies cold and shivering. Having spent all of our seven years cruising in the tropics, we were unprepared and under-provisioned. We had little of the required gear to make sailing a boat in 10° degree temperatures a cosy affair. We had whiskey and hot chocolate. For the alcoholic and the optimist in me, that was something.

Knysna

In the most supreme irony, we motored over 30 miles in a rush to cover the distance from PE to Mossel Bay to get in before the weather turned, then abandon our plans 25 miles short of our intended destination. At dawn, just as the wind arrived, we heaved-to at the entrance to Knysna in order to wait five hours for slack tide. We knew that Knsyna needed to be approached with care, but we were blissfully unaware that the entrance is classified by many as “the most dangerous harbour entrance in the world.” It’s easy to see the merit of this claim with a channel only two hundred yards wide with an extended bar, strong tidal flow, cross swells, and a large rock smack dab in the middle of the channel.  

After a restful morning bobbing around in flat seas waiting for the tide, we had the misfortune of experiencing first-hand how quickly the weather conditions change. Within the span of an hour, a flat, windless day morphed into harsh 20 knot winds with building seas. By the time we turned our bows towards the Knysna Heads, waves were breaking across the entrance. Given worse weather was on its way, we decided we would time the sets and make a made dash through the gap. 

We kicked the engine into gear and drove forward, knowing once committed there would be no turning around. Two more giant waves built behind us and pushed the stern up and the boat heaved forward as they rolled under us. Please don’t surf! We fought to keep the boat on the transit line and her stern to the waves – if we turned side-on we’d be done for. Waves passed beneath us and broke only yards ahead. This is it! John pushed the throttle forward to maximum speed as we raced to get through before the next set. The burning smell of a hot engine and hot exhaust filled the air and we cursed Atea’s spongy steering and dodgy engine belts. If our systems failed at that point – if the boat broached – if we misjudged the set – if anything went wrong at that point we would have ended up on the rocks. White water foamed on the boulders just yards off our port side. With Lucy roaring a deafening battle cry, we charged past the turbulent seas into the foamy calm beyond. The next set broke behind us as John eased back on the throttle and we looked at each other wide-eyed, hearts racing. Holy shit! We made it!It was the scariest crap-my-pants five minutes I’d ever experienced. It made Los Vegas’ thrill ride Insanity seem like a kids swing at a play park. 

Having travelled from the distinctly poor and rural province of KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape, we arrived at one of the richest province in the Western Cape where 6.5 million inhabitants maintain a stronghold for the privileged white upper-class. The town of Knysna is situated on the country’s largest estuary, National Lake, and protected by the surrounding Outeniqua Mountian range. It is one of a collection of beautiful little villages along a modern and prosperous coastal highway, the well-known Garden Route, and a trip to the region isn’t complete without a drive down this beautiful corridor. It winds through dramatic scenery to wine lands, nature parks, forest trails, game reserves, and into the Karoo, a semi-desert where you can watch ostriches roam the plains by the thousands. It is a microcosm of decadence and indulgence, where it is easy to forget the problems that beset the rest of the country. After running about in our rental car “doing” all the things that you do in Knysna, we settled into the quaint yacht club with our hands on pints of beer waiting – as you do on a transit around the coast of South Africa – for the next weather window. Having passed through the Heads once, we were not going to budge until we had The Perfect Calm– when slack tide coincided with a blue cloudless sky, no wind and no swell. Just when the club was about to offer permanent membership (we were unsure if it was because we’d paid for it through the quantity of beer consumed or because customers started regarding us as staff), we got our three out of three. There was no weather window – conditions coming toward us weren’t ideal – but if we didn’t get out the gap when we could we’d be locked in again for the unforeseeable future, and we were ready to move on. 

Simons Town

Our local weatherman advised us to expect winds building up to 35 knots on the approach to Cape Agulhas, but suggested it was better to battle those conditions in the open ocean rather than on the approach to Simons Town. There are fearsome wind acceleration zones that roll down the Hottentots Holland Mountains which funnel the winds off the Cape Peninsula into storm force gusts at the exact moment a skipper is least able to manage it. Earlier in the season a fleet of highly-experienced international cruisers stretched their weather window too far and were caught in hurricane force winds on their final approach into the harbour. Crew from three separate boats had to be rescued by the local lifeboat. This was not a coast to push boundaries, regardless of how many oceans you have crossed.

As we made our way through increasingly grey and windy conditions, we maintained a conservative sailing plan and kept Atea reefed down to staysail only. The sinister and low lying Cape Agulhas extended into our path, pointing a spectral finger at us from under a dark cape – a beckoning command that has lured many ships to their doom. Cape Agulhas is the very southernmost point of South Africa, lying thirty miles further south than the more commonly-known Cape of Good Hope, but receiving less world-wide acclaim. While it is to the Cape of Good Hope where all international travellers head to in order to click their pics at the spot where “the two great oceans meet,” locally it is Cape Agulhas that is more feared. As the true southernmost corner of the continent, it is here that the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic meet – often enraged and hostile. We were nostalgic as we transited from one ocean to the other in steep seas and 35 knots of wind behind us, marking the end of our three-year Indian Ocean voyage and the the beginning of our Atlantic experience. Early the following morning, our weather plan having paid off, we watched the wind drop away as we motored the last 50 miles through a thick fog into False Bay. As we entered our final stretch, the fog lifted and the sun came out, and a pod of pilot whales guided us towards our final destination. With high spirits, we pulled alongside the dock at the False Bay Yacht Club at 11am on 15 February, 2018, concluding our hopscotch through the graveyard of ships with a successful transit of The Wild Coast.

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My Feet On Your Soil

I’m sitting here on a grassy spot in the middle of New Zealand, lounging in front of a stage surrounded by fellow melophiles all belting out the lyrics to Toto’s signature song, “Africa.” The moment is surreal. I was calling out the name to a continent that I had been living in only six months before. As I look right and left, ahead and back of me, I watched around as a thousand open mouths cried out for the wild dogs and the rain: “The wild dogs cry out in the night, as they grow restless….” Did anyone around me know what it felt like to listen the howl of those wild dogs while laying listless on a hot, muggy night? Could anyone around me possibly know the distinct smell of the rain as it hit the red-baked soil? “As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti….” Did they imagine or did they know the awesome sight of Kilimanjaro looming over the Serengeti?

I felt as though my particular cry was grounded in a long-forgotten yearning for a place I’d been pulled from, even though the only African roots I can claim are as far removed as Lucy. But I’d been there. I’d lived there in my youth and in my adulthood. I’d spent time there on my own and with my family. I’d been on and off the continent six times throughout my life, and I know what it feels like to have the love for a country seep into your bones. “Africa, it’s gonna take a lot to take me away from you. There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do…”

Rewind sixteen months to where this particular African adventure starts. We had made the choice to sail to South Africa based on the fact that there was relatively no choice. There are only two options to choose from when departing the Indian Ocean to enter the Atlantic Ocean by sea: Sail north through pirate-infested waters into the Mediterranean or sail twice the distance and face some of the toughest sailing conditions by rounding the tip of South Africa.

We chose south. We took this option not because of the threat of piracy (the threat in current years is considered contained), but because I couldn’t come this close to Africa and bypass it. There was too much on offer to refuse. Africa is a world like no other. It is rich, diverse, difficult, challenging… and there are things to experience there that no other content can offer: Zoo animals living outside the confines of the zoo. Travelling with a four and six-year old, this was a huge draw card. We were going to Africa to watch the elephants roam, the antelope bound, the warthogs furrow and the flamingos take flight. And there is no better base to explore the game reserves from than Richards Bay, our first port of call.

I stopped an old man along the way,
hoping to find some long forgotten
words or ancient melodies.
He turned to me as if to say,
“Hurry, it’s waiting there for you.”

Hell yeah, you don’t have to ask me twice!

Skipper’s Notes: November 3, 2018
Atea spent all 24-hours today slowly progressing towards shore, ship and crew battered by rough seas, strong headwinds and an adverse current. We roll into port in Richard Bay at midnight, exhausted but relived to tether ourselves and our ship to land. Day one and South Africa had already upheld all John’s expectations of the country: Beating and battery, hardship and heartache. Our final leg from Mozambique to South Africa had been one of our most trying days in six years of cruising: The conditions were rough, Braca suffered a major face injury, Atea was laid down with a force that bent the stanchions and we’d received news that John’s mom had passed away that morning. Not a warm welcome into the country.

In the morning we cleared in, the process efficient to German precision and the officer no-nonsense direct with a fuck-with-me-and-I-shoot attitude. I was starting to think that battling pirates would have been the better call. But once the paperwork was processed and we were sitting shore-side with gargantuan servings of beef and beer in Boer-sized proportions we started to see the light. First-world luxuries served at a fraction of the price – for a family on a perpetual budget, we were about to live like royalty.

First few steps ticked off the list: Clearance and immigration process completed; copious amounts of beer drunk; a fresh meal and an extended hot shower done. Next step in our tour of South Africa: See alive in the veld what was being served up dead on our plates.

What we discovered that most aren’t aware of until you get there is that South African game parks are affordable. Correction: Dirt cheap (on a Western budget). Most tourists flock to East Africa due to its international acclaim as THE destination for game viewing, a fact of which East Africa is well aware. Year by year the prices inflate and the cost of entry into Kenyan and Tanzanian game parks continue to balloon. Entry into the parks ranges, but you’d be hard pressed to find something less than US$300 per person for any of the tier-one parks. On average, a non-citizen will pay between $2500 (budget) to $7500 (luxury) for a week in the game reserves. Conversely, entry into the regional game parks in South Africa are $10-15 for adults, pocket change for children, and you didn’t need to attach yourself to a game warden and a truck full of other tourists at an additional cost. In South Africa it was just you, your pack lunch and your rental car. And don’t fall for the old sell of following a trained eye – there is so much magic in discovering what’s out there on your own and remaining as long as you choose to watch it in the quiet of your own space.

Now, without a guide operating on rote/automatic recall, self-catering rarely goes to plan. You have to be prepared for the unexpected and accept all setbacks. We prepared. We spent a few days identifying the parks we wanted to explore, booked accommodation and set off with our overnight bags and a mobile phone in our pint-sized rental car. We drove north, following directions from Google on our phone. Enthusiastic about the adventure ahead, we drove out of town on the main road, diverged onto a minor road, through a forest track, onto a muddy path across sugarcane plantations. It wasn’t until Google insisted that we drive across a sizable river with no bridge in sight that we realized we’d placed too much faith in the magic of technology. With no map and no internal radar, I got out of the car to assess our options. With sugarcane as far as the eye could see and no human in sight, this was starting to feel like a significant setback… one I wasn’t prepared to accept. Finally, a man wandered into sight and I plodded down the dirt track to ask him how best to proceed. He was in total agreement with Google. “Yes mama. You go straight,” his finger pointing across the riverbank. I looked left and down along the muddy river, and right along the opposite stretch. The only thing that bridged the water was a broken footpath with frayed ropes and missing planks, something that wouldn’t bare the weight of our fourteen kilo child, let alone a two-ton vehicle. I looked at him again, then pointed at the car. “Yes mama,” he nodded, “you go straight.” I looked back at the car again… had he mistaken it for a donkey? I always believe in following local advice, but this was one of those rare times you decide it best to proceed on your own.

Rather than trying to press on the few miles forward, we decided our best strategy was to retrace our steps and get back to familiar territory, aka a tarmac road. The heat outside was building and the morning shadows were starting to be devoured by the midday sun; our plans to view game in the cool temperatures of early dawn were being burnt to oblivion and we were driving away from the game parks. Frustration was mounting with the heat. Then, while we were retracing one of the dusty rutted roads a swarm of screaming children ran up, excited by our foreignness. Their enthusiasm shook us back into our sensibilities: We were already in the middle of our adventure. Had we followed the signs on the motorway direct to the reserve gate, we would have missed the local interaction that had surrounded us all along the way: The inquisitive looks as people watched us roll past, the warm smiles, the children squawking at us as they ran behind our vehicle, the interaction as all sort of random item was pushed at us for sale: charcoal, metal pots, clay bowls, chopped wood, and on. We were traveling down roads only used by locals. We were a novelty among their midst and therein lies the best part of travel – exploring places where you can experience life as the locals live it, outside the influence of tourism.

Eventually, we retraced our steps and rejoined the main road. By ditching Google and relying on a map we finally pulled up to the reserve gates and entered. “I bless the rains down in Africa. Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.” They say you have to sit and stare for hours at a lot of dried grass before getting sight of an animal in the wild, but we got to feel that sweeping ground shake during our first hour in the park. While cruising down the road looking out the side windows of our rental car to spot game in the distance, we turned a corner and came directly upon two male elephants in full battle. Wide-eyed and gape-mouthed, we watched as they charged each other and clashed head on, rammed tusk into flank and shouldered each other to push the weaker aside. We watched in amazement at the intensity of the fight, aware that the force they were exerting on each other would crush our car into a squashed tin can – us inside like flattened sardines. It was only later when we watched these two males drink from a watering hole and spray mud on each others backs that we realized the fight was only a mock battle, a frolic in comparison to the real thing. Having observed the aggressiveness of elephant play, I never want to bear witness to the brutality of a fully engaged battle.

I should have double-downed at the casino that day. Not only did we get to watch two feisty boys duke it out right in front of our vehicle, we caught our first leopard sighting on our first day in the park. Catching sight of a leopard is one of the rarest and most sought-after experiences in game viewing. When you do, it is usually through binoculars at a cat laying in the far-distance asleep under a bush. That day, it was chow-time. We were barreling down the road at dusk trying get to the gate before lock-down and I spotted a leopard in the middle of the road in front of us, slowing ambling our way. We screeched to a halt and I flung my window down and my arm out, camera ready. The cat continued her slow march forward, heading directly for us. It was only when her head came abreast of our bonnet that I recognized chow-time could mean me-chow and I pulled myself in and rolled up the window. It was a heart-stopping moment when I realized how sluggishly a window winds up on automatic control. She pulled abreast, took a few more steps forward then stopped and turned around to look directly at me. It was a moment where the tables turn, and you are aware that you are being witnessed rather than witnessing. It was a spellbinding nano-second, then she broke the connection and strolled off down the road behind us, leaving a buzz in the air at the realization that for a moment in time we were inches apart from a wild leopard – not only close in proximity, but but mutually aware and connected.

A few days later we were to have another eye-to-eye encounter – a less “we are as one” and more “oh my god I am about die!” moment. The elephants were back. Rather than two hot-headed males, this time we ran up upon a heard of agitated females… mad mums with babes. Not a good place to be. Twice. On the same day.

We were driving around in our tinny Barbie-sized rental car when we pulled up in front of a grazing herd of elephants; we slowed, then stopped, transfixed by the peaceful scene around us. My head should have been ringing “Sensible-human with a functioning mind, get the hell out of this,” but the tourist side of my brain said “Stay! Take as many irritating click-click-snap shots that your memory card will hold.” The un-sensible side won, as it always will. Click. Her head turns. Click. Her ears flare. Snap. Her trunk goes up and she trumpets an ear-splitting warning. Then the stand off… she took a few fast steps towards us and halted. We held our ground. Not because we were calling her bluff, but because we had nowhere to go. Her male bodyguard pulled a tactical move and lumbered out from the bush behind us, his massive frame blocking us in. Oh, and we’d turned the car off – probably one of the stupidest mzungu moves I’ve done in all my years of travelling. We had an enraged elephant in a standoff we would never win – her month-old baby in front of us and her fully-grown son behind, with a herd on the periphery watching and waiting for a signal to demolish us. And so, with no option, I lowered my camera and urgently told the kids not to move a muscle… not to breathe… something very unnatural for a four- and six- year old to accomplish. The male elephant brushed up against the back of the car, sizing up his opposition. His ears flapped and his trunk explored the framework. Mad Mama was still stomping the ground in front of us, head wagging low and ears flapping like two raised battle flags. All of us sat frozen in position, four petrified statues. Mercifully, an escape route finally opened; the male elephant moved off to our side and slowly rambled into the bush to our right. Seizing our moment, John turned the ignition and the meek engine purred to life. At the same moment John kicked the gear into reverse and stomped on the pedal, the mammoth in front of us charged, clearly agitated by the noise. As John floored it and the car zipped backward, I stared gape-mouthed at the sight of a pissed-off elephant charging toward us – there is no doubt that size does nothing to diminish speed. As a whirlwind of muscle and dust closed in on us, we gained distance between us and the herd – and most significantly – between us and calf. The intensity of the moment eased as we raced backward in reverse through windy, wild terrain – we had gained enough distance to satisfy the offended and she eased off the charge, stopping and swaggering as if to say “I dare you.” We decided not to take her on twice.

It was not the last time we were charged by elephants that day; it was, however, the last time we turned off the engine. We also took care to never allow our escape route to get blocked again.

Over the next few weeks we explored the numerous eastern South African game parks from our basecamp in Richards Bay – each so very unique in topography from the other. We explored wetland parks, highland parks, lowland parks, expansive plateaus, steep escarpments, arid grassland, dense bush… all within a small geographical footprint; some worked on the protection of targeted species, some held a large representation of all the African wildlife – we saw rhino, buffalo, wildebeest, lion, elephant, zebra, giraffe, a myriad of different antelope – kudu, springbok, gerenuk, gazelle, waterbuck, eland, impala, nyala. Could Tanzania and several thousand dollars debited from our bank account offer any better? Naaa… I don’t think so.

I could have set up camp in Richard Bay and made it home for the foreseeable future… it offered an ideal base to explore the national parks and game reserves of South Africa from and the marina offered great facilities to make our stay a comfortable one. However, we were on a sailboat with the intention of sailing around from Ocean A to Ocean B – or rather, Ocean I to Ocean A – and it was time to get a move on. Three factors drove this: We were out of money, our South African visa only allowed us three months in country, and we had a thousand nautical miles to travel before reaching the other side. It was time to get a move on.

Africa, do you remember me?
Or have you forgotten the feel
of my feet on your soil?
For me, you are forever etched into my soul.

Toto – you pegged it.

Images: Animals of South Africa

 

Say Goodbye

How long will it take time
to fade the memory of a kiss?
To drain the potency of the passion
and the tenderness of our bliss?
A name not forgotten
but details of face will fade
into fleeting moments of reflection
on the connection that we made.

A poem once written for a man, now applied to a country. I have come to appreciate how much of a love affair with life is lived by the transient sailor. We get to know no country in depth or detail, but we flirt with the fringes of society and leave invigorated and passionate about the place and people we encounter along the way. Whereas most individuals live entrenched in a village their whole lives, we flit in and out of countries like migrating pelagic seabirds, never returning to the same place twice. It is this continuous exploration that brings with it an intensity born from the rawness of new surroundings and unexpected outcomes. We cast the mould aside and accept a life of constant flux and continual evolution. We shun normalcy to live a life of extremes. We seek out exploration and adventure. We try to make the most of each day, mindful of the clock ticking in the periphery. Tick tock. The countdown of the clock. We are always conscious that our time in country is on a running stopwatch, and as time closes in we try to fill every moment with the sweetness of a place we will most likely never return to. Tick tock, ping!

In the recency of our interlude
I can clearly see your face,
in that moment of silence
the minute before you wake.
Then follows the shattering of solitude
when your eyelids flicker blue
— alive we come in passion
as I crash into you.

Yet, while that clock is still ticking we get an intimacy of place that often eludes even the most resident of citizens. Days that flash past into weeks in a routine wind-down to the slow tick of minutes when that routine is gone. Tick tock. Tick tock. Once that pendulum is broken, the desire for its rhythmic beat is gone. As newcomers, we become completely involved in a place, consumed by the daily barrage of experience. Like a love affair, we dive in head first and bury ourselves in every nuance of culture and custom. With that intensity comes an addiction: An addiction to change, to unpredictable existences and to unforeseen futures.

With time against us, we fill in our days with a frenzy of activity, trying to eek out the most of our short interval in country. Time shifts and expands, and we define how we spend the hours in our day. We are allowed to fall into a slow routine of the undemanding life, with hours that aren’t gobbled up in commuting, meetings, schedules and commitments. A portion of time is spent ogling a country’s top landmarks and famous attractions, indulging in a “tourist brochure” exploration of a country. But as a cruising sailor you are more than a holiday-maker. We shop elbow-to-elbow in the street markets, bartering like locals over the cost of fruit and vegetables. We visit the community clinics looking for local remedies with fingers crossed on one hand and a translation book in the other. We wander through shady back alleys looking for an odd assortment of boat parts, smiling at the old men giving odd looks as if witness to a pare of doves in a badger den. Our kids chase their kids, not a common word between them but expressions of glee on their faces. In this knee-to-dirt experience of a country, we are exposed to her underbelly and we fall in love. We fall for all the things that aren’t advertised on the tourist brochures. We fall for her crooked streets and crooked houses, with the bad smells and the odd food, with the sly glances and the open laughter and the friendships that stem from curiosity and goodwill. We absorb the essence of a country into our pores and feel an intricate part of the fabric of life. In so short a period we feel an assimilation that generally happens in years. This is perhaps an overly romantic notion of a place, but every cruiser knows what it is like to feel the essence of a country under their skin, begot through the highs and lows of their experience. When the trip is behind us and we reflect on our time, it is the collection of these seemingly small, insignificant moments that defines our experience.

Passing time will soften
this yearning from within
and leaden the longing of desire
— memory of scent and skin.
So for now I cradle these lonely moments
without you by my side,
in the remembrance of your lips
I twist and wake inside.
For in the forgotten passion
that lay dormant
in the shadowed crevice of my soul,
you spoke and woke that part of me
with soft a gentle nudge.

What strikes me in this transient life we live is how potent but fleeting our experiences can be: intense, powerful, concentrated, all-consuming. You slip into the life that is in front of you at the moment and then – in the blink of an eye – it is gone. There are very few countries that we’ve visited that haven’t captivated me for some inherent quality. We know nothing of it other than the spelling of its name and in a small hop we land on site, amazed and awed and transfixed. In Tanzania it was the friendliness of the people. In the Seychelles it was the beauty of the land. In Madagascar it was the rawness of the on-the-brink existence. In South Africa it was the diversity. In Sumatra it was the intrepidness. In Mozambique it was the sea.

It was only yesterday that had you by my side,
wrestling beneath cotton sheets
and tying me up inside.
My singularity lost in that connection with you
— so sweet a tender place —
to banish morning solitude
in your butterfly embrace.

All places captivate you for some inherent quality; a few places consume you. For me, that place was Mozambique. It was as if the country, unknown to me all my life, opened its arms for a quick embrace and I fell headlong in love in that short moment of intimacy. I don’t know what led Mozambique to impress me with such a rare intensity of emotion. It was no single part of the country or specific moment in the trip, but a collective experience that left me raw and exposed. It was the infinite empty bays and the never-ending stretch of glistening white sand dunes. It was the myriad of single moments with strangers that we intersected with. It was the starlight shining down on unlit earth. It was the jellyfish that flashed and glowed beneath our hull with an intensity of a meteor shower. It was the slow rise and fall of a sleek back as a whale surfaced for air, exposing no more than a blowhole and an oval disk of flesh. It was the slow beat of a gull’s wing as it glided overhead, surveying us with a simple curiosity. It was the peace and quiet of the islands that dangled down the coast like a string of beaded pearls. My notes as we traveled down the coast captured the feeling at the time:

It is amazing out here, blue skies flanked by billowy white clouds on the fringes of a deep blue sky. We move through a patch of soft wind that ripples the surface on an otherwise flat, reflective sea. IMG_4744.pngWe’ve been passed by flocks of seabirds, and we’ve been assaulted by flying fish that shoot like arrows out of the water and bounce around the deck as if tossed by a novice archer. We’ve been joined by racing dolphins that play in our wake and sailed passed the solitary humpback resting on the surface of the sea. The serenity of our surrounding environment is exactly what the over-stressed office worker craves when dreaming of flinging off societal constraints. It isn’t always like this but when it is, you breathe it into your soul.

This was not my first time in Mozambique. I was lucky enough to land a position running a dive operation in a remote corner of the country a decade ago. I knew that it may be the last time I had the opportunity to spend an extended period on her shores and my farewell was an emotionally difficult one. At that stage in my life I was trying to carve every new experience out of the time I had; I’d severed the umbilical chord to my native country and the life I had established and was charging towards any unknown opportunity that presented itself. After two years in the African bush it was time for a change. I bought a ticket for America and a month later I was afloat in a small boat adrift in the Pacific Ocean. And that was the end of my time in Mozambique.

Or so I thought. Life has a way of throwing its curveballs and a decade later I was unexpectedly back on Mozambican turf, enchanted with the country all over again. Mozambique was not on the radar when we’d set out for the Indian Ocean, however the draw to return was a strong one. When we decided to sail to East Africa it was only natural that Mozambique would pop up on the radar… we were so close, too close, not to find a way to include it in our route. Of course, including it meant shaving off time in Madagascar and our time there had already been cut short by our detour to Tanzania. Tanzania or Madagascar? Well, let’s do both and while we are at it, how about Mozambique too?!

Having agreed “Why not?” we sailed down the coast from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to the Quirimbas, a small archipelago of 32 islands in the Cabo Delgado province of northern Mozambique. We were about to hit the stretch of ocean that cruisers avoid altogether – the currents rip along the coast making southward progress impossible as the 2-knot current sweeps you north. Our strategy was to hug the coast, keeping no more than 10 meters below us. Grazing the seabed with our keel, we tiptoed Atea through a slice of coastline peppered with free-diving fisherman; while hair-raising from a clearance perspective, it was a sociable stretch with men popping up from their hunt to wave to us in passing. So, although the threat of a northern push to Somalia is the common fear, we found a way to avoid the strong current and had arelatively simple passage south. Having built up a brazen confidence over the previous 300 miles, our cockiness was dashed in the last 30 miles as the current wrapped around the Ponto Delgado headland and completely stopped our progress. With an unreliable engine that left us unable to power through the current, we tacked back and forth in the same mile-wide band of water for five hours, pacing over the same ground like a caged bear. We watched the slow crawl of the midday sun from the same spot. We witnessed a glorious but underappreciated sunset in the same spot. Night descended while we were in the same spot. Determined not to spend another night at sea with our destination only five miles ahead of us, we pushed on into the darkness with the brilliance of phosphorescent jellyfish laying a glittering path to our anchorage and will forever hold a lasting impression of their underwater brilliance – Atea walking on stars.

We pulled into uncharted territory as illegal trespassers at 10:00pm, drawn by the call of a good night’s sleep and the calm of a boat brought back in from sea. We dropped anchor at Isla Tecomagi, the northernmost island in the Quirimbas. With the anchor down at long last, there was only one problem: We’d tucked in but not cleared into the country. Mozambique has a reputation for corrupt officials, something I’d had a lot of experience with ten years earlier. Avoiding bribes is easiest wh Continue reading Say Goodbye

Captain Morgan’s Cousins

While I am not prone to laughing at the expense of others, there are times too precious to resist my evil twin. I have a handful of favourite quotes from fellow cruisers that make me smile whenever I reflect on comical moments throughout our years afloat. An Australian made one of the best (and one of the most outlandish) statements when we were hanging out in Thailand contemplating whether or not to sail into the Indian Ocean. “There’s nothing for me in the Indian Ocean,” he loudly stated. Whaaa?!… buzzed my brain. In an entire ocean, NOTHING AT ALL?!

When we set our sights early in 2013 on a transit through the Indian Ocean, Madagascar was the buzzword. After reading numerous accounts of cruisers experiences of their IO crossing, we’d locked on Madagascar as the highlight of the Indian Ocean experience. IMG_0524.jpgThrough the narratives of our friends we painted a picture of wild territory where only the intrepid dare wander; where life was so poor and remote that to visit was to step back in time a century. It was a country that had been so cut off from the larger world that you’d encounter species of animal only previously seen in David Attenborough’s documentaries of lost species. If for no other reason, we were going to transit an ocean to experience this forgotten world. There was something for us in the Indian Ocean, and that something was called Madagascar.

Our attempt to cross the Indian Ocean and get to this enigmatic land had been thwarted twice: Once in February 2015 by a pregnancy that didn’t happen and a second time in January 2016 by a medical crisis. By our third attempt in June 2016, it was either Go IO or Bust. IMG_8307.jpgAs we pushed out into the Indian Ocean we couldn’t know then just how rich and rewarding the Indian Ocean was going to be for us. Looking back now, after two years spent trawling through her waters, I can assert that there is oh-so-much on offer in the Indian Ocean – and we made the most out of our commitment to explore it. We’d hit highlight after highlight: The diversity of Sumatra, the comedy of Cocos Keeling, the beauty of the Seychelles, the natural wonder of Chagos, the colorful dynamism of India, the underwater magnificence of the Maldives and the cultural richness of Tanzania. And now, finally, the jewel of the Indian Ocean lay ahead of us.

Yet with the country at our doorstep, I was dragging my heals… Should we go? At the time we were in the Quirimbas, a network of atolls in northern Mozambique, and we were loving it. IMG_9030The islands were breathtakingly beautiful and there wasn’t another boat in sight, the reefs were ablaze with life and the corals healthier than we’d seen anywhere in the Indian Ocean. Humpback whales filled the bays, as mother and calf sought protected waters until their newborns were big enough and strong enough to make a safe migration back down to the southern ocean. I was in heaven. For all our anticipation and expectation of Madagascar, I didn’t think anyplace could compete with the beauty and richness around us. I didn’t want to go. The pearl of the Indian Ocean could wait, if only we could have just one more year in this ocean that “holds nothing.”

 As it was, we were short of time and needed to make a decision. We had already cut a month off our Madagascar timetable by including Tanzania in our route – a decision that proved well worth it not only from a traveler’s perspective but from a mariner’s one as well. The passage southwest towards Madagascar is a notoriously challenging one with winds on the nose and huge southerly swells. There is no shortage of reports that indicate the passage southwest across from the Chagos or the Seychelles to Madagascar is one of the most damaging to boat and soul. IMG_9656.jpgBy choosing a westerly run to Tanzania, we turned the wind and waves to our beam and had a fantastic run from the Seychelles to Tanzania; we negotiated the north flowing current by staying close to shore and picked up the southerly Mozambique current just 300 miles south. From Mozambique we would be in the wind shadow of Madagascar, which would protect us from the strong weather that sweeps across the Indian Ocean. Ultimately it was extra miles and more motoring, but a very pleasant and non-demanding run.

Having fallen in love with Mozambique it would have been easy to cast aside all prior plans; had it not been for a longstanding interest in Madagascar and a depletion of our rum we would have done just that. IMG_1207But holding tight to a philosophy based on making the most out of any situation, or as John puts it, choosing a and b AND c when given the option of a or b, we decided we would regret coming all this distance and bypassing Madagascar all together. Plus, we’d spent weeks hyping the kids up for a trip to the land of lemurs and we were only 500 miles away. For the adults we also knew that Malagasy rum was only a few days distant and no matter how prolific the humpback numbers or how extravagant their display, life onboard a boat is just not as much fun without a bilge full of rum.

There was also the consideration of John’s 50th birthday – a year that deserves special attention. It had been John’s hope to be sitting on Malagasy shores to toast a half-century and our general timeframe made this target a viable one. IMG_9384However, as we delayed week by week in East Africa that window had quickly diminished. We progressed down the coast into northern Mozambique and we were taken aback by the absolute wonder of the Quirimbas and the proliferation of humpback in every anchorage. IMG_9961How could we leave with daily displays made by such majestic creatures? We waivered and debated and struggled to make a decision, and finally committed to a Madagascar run. However, soon after we pulled anchor and sailed west we received an email that our cruising mates on S.V. Dallandra were only hours away and prepared for an early 50th celebration. It was ironic having spent so long deliberating on departure and committing to that hard-made decision, to then turn the bows around and head back to where we’d just come from – but hey, a party awaited in John’s honour.

At dusk we turned the boat around, 20 miles towards our destination, and retreated. Navigating coral waters after dark is not something to take lightly, but we pulled in under starlight by carefully following our GPS tracks and settled in for the night. In the early morning we woke to the mast of our mates approaching, and then watched as it suddenly stilled… a grounding on perfect, pristine reef. IMG_9864.jpgKnowing we only had the day to connect and that we’d be waiting four hours for the tide to turn, we moved Atea over and a proper 50th bash commenced. What made this day memorable was the pristine beauty that surrounded us. IMG_8636We enjoyed total isolation from the outside world with no stress, worry or preoccupation. We swam in clear, temperate waters with whales within sight. We enjoyed a complete silence other than our chatter and laughter and the occasional sound of air rushing through a blowhole. We rounded off 49 with cruisers who’d become our close friends, and we had no obligation in this remote corner of the world other than to laugh, play and enjoy, and to fully live in the present moment.

What a finale to Mozambique… we had daily sightings of humpback whales throughout our time in the country but none were as demonstrative as on that day. IMG_9970.jpgAs we swam we had whales pass by us; as John blew out his candles we had mother and calf swim between the two boats; as we cracked a bottle of champagne we had a single whale raise out of the water to slam its body back into the sea with a huge displacement of water around it, a clap of sound and a spray of water as a salute to John’s next fifty years of life. I don’t think any fancy affair or extravagant party could compete with the magic of that day. Thank you Kate, Tom and Marley for calling us back for an epic birthday celebration.

In the evening we raised our anchor and sailed past Dallandra as we headed back out to sea. We sat on deck as we drifted out of the channel and watched the sun set on the horizon with dolphin and whales silhouetted in the evening light. IMG_0028The boat was pointed due east with 500 miles of flat sea ahead of us. We knew while we wouldn’t get a beating by sailing to Madagascar in the shadow of its landmass, we knew we would struggle to get any wind to propel us forward; while it is physically demanding to push a boat through extreme conditions, it is mentally demanding to slog through flat seas with the repetitive drone of an engine. In addition to the noise and the expense of fuel, there was the knowledge that our faithful diesel was only running as a result of our constant care and attention. IMG_0439We were chewing through alternator belts, we had oil pressure issues and we had to prime the water pump on every start – so another three days motoring imposed its own anxiety. But with the experience of whales behind us and the excitement of lemurs ahead, we were full of the richness of our experiences and looking forward to what lie ahead.

However, after three days of brain-rattling engine noise, we were ready for a break. Given Mayotte lay ahead of us and was reputed to have the Indian Ocean’s best collection of French wine, cured meat and cheese, our detour was not surprising. We pulled in just before dark and dropped anchor in the first viable spot; not twenty minutes later we were blasted with spotlights from a large darkened RIB, and the police were on us asking for our paperwork. DCIM102GOPROGOPR3055.JPGAfter a polite but professional welcome, we agreed that we could stay the night but would need to make our way around to the other side of the island the next day. DCIM102GOPROGOPR3067.JPGAfter a quick morning snorkel on one of the healthiest coral reefs we’ve seen, we were escorted through the inner lagoon by a pair of adult humpback whale towards the main clearance port. We’ve mutated the mariner’s superstition from “never leave port on a Friday” to “never arrive in port on a Friday,” though no matter how many times we say it we invariably arrive on Friday. Mayotte was no exception. IMG_0296We traversed the 25-mile lagoon to arrive at port control at 16:30 to be greeted by an empty office. Immigration held the same quiet reception. In theory you are not to leave your vessel until you’ve cleared in however we could smell the aromas of French cuisine floating through the air and we were too weak to resist its aromatic beckoning call. We defied protocol and enjoyed a fantastic meal ashore. In the morning we tried to clear in again but were told by Border Control to return to our ship for the remainder of the weekend and try again on Monday when offices were open. Clearly the French influence was thick here, and with it the French work ethic. And so we defied protocol again and spent the day enjoying the quaint seaside town and indulging in the exquisite local cuisine. Come Sunday we decided it best to bail when the going was good, so we pulled up anchor and said farewell to Mayotte as the authorities continued their weekend siesta.

Turning to the ocean again, we were now only 150 miles from Madagascar and could almost smell the rum. Of course, sailing so far to store up on rum isn’t just to satisfy a personal fancy… it is to uphold a longstanding tradition and fulfill our duty as sailors. Rum-slogging seafarers date back to 1600s when rum was brought onboard ships as an incentive and payment, often being of more significant value than silver or gold. While rum isn’t used as payment on Ātea, it is used as an incentive to get us through a hard afternoon’s slog. Come midday when the sun is high and the deckhands have run the captain and quartermaster weary, there is nothing that beats grabbing a quiet moment with a cold, refreshing rum. And so, it was with great sadness that we said farewell to our last bottle of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum at the end of our time in Mozambique. With the bottle still sitting empty at the bottom of our rubbish bin, we pulled into Madagascar to a warm reception put on by Captain Morgan’s sumptuous and seductive foreign cousins. Goodbye spiced Morgan, hello sweet Malagasy rum!

Nowhere have I met such a varied collection of extended kin and it took us no time to become acquainted with them all: Vanilla, banana, pineapple, orange, honey, chocolate, coffee, coconut, kaht-flavoured goodness. With such an assortment of liquid extravagance, what’s not to like? DCIM102GOPROG0013431.JPGJust like the 300,000 other tourists drawn to Madagascar each year to play witness to its unique biodiversity, we traveled 500 miles out of our way to indulge in diversity of a different kind. Like a scientist committed to discovering every nuance of similarity and difference in a single species, we dedicated ourselves to uncovering every expression of intensity and richness of flavour in every bottle of rum, each as unique and varied as so many other plant and animal species endemic to the country.

Through our rum-fogged euphoria we discovered the beauty of northwestern Madagascar. Located 400 kilometers off the southeastern African content, Madagascar is the fourth largest island nation in the world. Splintered from Africa some 135 million years ago, it has maintained an African cultural heritage tinged with a hint of French colonial rule. Having gained its independence from France in 1960, the influence of its foreign master is still evident in the language, food and social dynamics. Locals are fluent in both French and Malagasy, and it is often hard to get by without an understanding of the fundamentals of either language. IMG_1906.jpgYou can buy the typical local produce off the street then walk into a market and buy an assortment of French wine, cheese and cured meat. If you are an old knackered Frenchman, you can also buy a poor, young Malagasy woman and the evidence of this inequitable relationship is everywhere, particularly in popular regions where tourism and foreign expatriates have found their niche. Regardless of its now apparent popularity, it is still a poor nation by any country’s standard with 70% of the Malagasy people living below the poverty level and an average annual income of US$400. With a monthly income of $33, you can see the disparity that exists between the local population and its expatriate imports.

The western side of the country has a rugged beauty about it, with lateen-rigged dhows peppering the seascape and a landscape of parched, dry earth. IMG_0532One of the most diverse places on Earth, Madagascar offers much more than merely a haven for alcoholics looking for cheap fruit-flavoured rum. Once a destination solely for the intrepid, now tourists flock to her shores to experience a slice of remote isolation with the perks of a collective network. With 11,000 endemic species of plant and 175,000 endemic species of animal and a mind-blowing 90 percent of the total plant and animal species endemic to the country, the world has now recognized Madagascar’s uniqueness and the diversity it has to offer. IMG_1463.jpgUnfortunately, for many species this global recognition has come too late. While the country has the highest biodiversity per capita in the world, it has suffered massive habitat loss – with about 90 percent of its biologically bountiful forests wiped out by logging and slash and burn agriculture, and many of its regional forests reduced to 4% of their original size.

I would have loved to travel to more remote regions of Madagascar where the word ‘intrepid’ still holds true, but we didn’t have the time. We had two months in country and so we focused our travels in Nosy Be, a small-sized island located eight kilometers off the northwest corner of Madagascar. Named “Big Island” in the Malagasy language, Nosy Be has 75,000 inhabitants living in an area three-quarters the size of Singapore. IMG_0812.jpgNosy Be is generally regarded as the largest and most popular tourist destination in Madagascar, and the island has monopolized on its popularity by offering an outcrop of guesthouses and restaurants, nature tours and guided trips to surrounding islets. There is a small but established yachting and fishing charter industry and Hellville – a very unfortunate but appropriately descriptive name for the island’s main town – provides an active night scene with boisterous bars and throbbing nightclubs. While “off the beaten path” is attainable in most reaches of the country, it is a bygone reference in these parts. It s the most expensive destination by two-fold, where the cost of food and the price of accommodation is double what you’d find throughout the rest of the country; that said, our propensity for local rum at $5 a liter rum puts cost into context. Regardless of its international draw, there is still a laid-back feeling to this hub of Madagascar activity and we slotted in quite nicely to the slow pace of life.

In yachting terms, Madagascar is now a stock standard stop in the cruising circuit across the Indian Ocean and Nosy Be is where all yachts eventually congregate. IMG_2081In the height of the season it is buzzing with activity, and it is not just foreigners who crowd the anchorages. Yachts mix with dhows as they vie for room in the bay. Nearly all the local trade is transported in sailing craft and local mariners are masters of handling engineless solid wooden boats as they gracefully slip past the modern lightweight plastic yachts with inches to spare. Well, that is, masters of craft most of the time. IMG_2075.jpgWe were witness to an incident where a local dhow misjudged their approach and scraped past one yacht to go full broadside into another – the latter a spotless 60-food luxury yacht. The owners were good-natured about the incident and, after assessing damages, even better natured after inviting Captain Morgan’s cousins onboard to commiserate with them. Out of craving and consideration, we joined them.

Another of my favourite quotes came from my son who, at age three, took to telling all the restaurant staff, “I like beer. I like it all day long.” So it was for us with rum in Madagascar. For non-rum drinkers, what is there to do in Madagascar other than to drink rum all day? While the temptation to slip into a drunken stupor is very enticing on such cheap booze, there is so much on offer in Madagascar that warrants the occasional cap on the top of the rum bottle. IMG_2704For one, there are the lemurs – non-aggressive, gentle, and curious. Once spread across the country, extreme deforestation and population growth have reduced their territory and their numbers. Out of the seventy-one different type of lemur still in existence, currently all are listed as endangered species. IMG_1593Nosy Be has capitalized on their pull on tourists and there isn’t a stop where you don’t see them bounding through the trees – wild but habituated to human contact, incented to stay with handfuls of daily bananas. In almost every stop we made these gentle, docile creatures would leap from the trees with cat-like agility and land on a shoulder with a soft velvet touch. Unlike their raucous monkey cousins, lemurs are a model of good manners and patience.

If you’ve had your fill of lemurs and need to clear your head after a visit from one of the captain’s cousins, there is nothing better than going to sea. The sailing conditions in Madagascar are remarkably good. As the world’s fourth largest island, Madagascar is big enough to generate its own sea and land breeze – with a regularity with which you can set your watch to. IMG_0814With a reliable 15-knot afternoon sea breeze on the beam, sunshine in the sky and green shores gliding past one can easily forget the early morning promise of “never again!” and enjoy a perfect afternoon sail with rum in hand. You may take a dip in 28°C waters unspoiled by plastic litter, perhaps the result of extreme poverty levels that mean locals cannot afford to buy western packaged goods. IMG_1854You may sit back and watch the procession of sailing dhow glide past as they transport cargo up and down the coast. You may gaze out on the thatched houses that dot the hillsides, all made with organic materials that make Malagasy homes eco-friendly by design rather than fashion. You just may top the moment by looking over your rail to see a humpback or whale shark gliding past, the gentle giants who grace these shores every year from June to November.

Many yachts take advantage of these conditions to enjoy a cheap cruising ground. The anchorages are numerous and well protected, the locals are pleasant and the costs are minimal, and in season the winds are predictable. IMG_1417Since Ātea has followed an unusual route this season and arrived in Madagascar late and from the ‘wrong’ direction, we were out of touch with most of the Indian Ocean international fleet. The majority of our compatriots had already departed for South Africa and only by a stroke of luck and bad weather did we reunite with our good friends on S.V. Ngalawa for a bash out and birthday do. IMG_1911Instead of reconnecting with the international fleet, we fell in step with a mix of resident charter boats and South African cruisers. Just as New Zealand and Australian sailors frequent Tonga and Fiji, so do the South Africans frequent Madagascar – just one passage from home and all the delights of a foreign world lay afoot. Team Ātea jumped in and did all that we could to join in the fun with our new friends, with the captain’s cousins trailing close behind.

 As Ātea and her crew loiter in the midst of a shiny fleet of newly baptized boats and cruisers from South Africa, our own sea miles continue to add up. Ātea has sailed over 30,000 miles since we started this adventure and it has been nearly two years since our last haul-out and maintenance period. The rust streaks are getting longer, the oil leaks are getting worse, the genoa furler is unreliable and we rely more and more on our backup systems, the skippers toolkit, our experience and plain old good luck. We have run out of fingers and toes to cross and safe anchorage at the end of each day is greeted with a sigh of relief, closely followed by a call to the Captain.

 And so, we drank our way in and drank our way out in true Malagasy style: To the rum-flavoured fruits from the Garden of Eden. GOPR3620.jpgAfter a daily assembly over a two-month period, it was time to move on. We made our acquaintance with Captain Morgan’s Malagasy cousins and, with a dedication of time and attention, our tight bond was quickly forged and it is only at departure that I can look back and see how interwoven the relationship had become and to know, with absolute certainty, that a forced separation was necessary. But then, how were we to know, and how could we be blamed?

 Having made our dash out to Madagascar, and having thoroughly enjoyed it, we are ready to return to Mozambique. The next leg takes us west again, to a small bay just south of the Quirimbas and to a friend of mine from a lifetime ago. IMG_3091We leave one amazing country to return to another amazing country, in an ocean that “holds nothing” for another but holds a world of wonder for me. We head back to unfinished business in a country we only touched, to eek out what we can of our time in the Indian Ocean before the turn of season demands our departure. With our bilges fully stocked with Malagasy rum, we are ready to tip our glass to the shores of Mozambique, to the migrating humpback whales that transit down the coast, and to friends from life past.

 Tomorrow we raise anchor for the last time in Malagasy waters and depart this unique land. It has provided happy days and happy nights and deserves its place as a “must do” on the Indian Ocean cruising circuit. IMG_2207The dependable and undemanding weather, the attractive and secure anchorages, the colourful and culturally distinct people, the unique encounters with rare species both below and above the water and, of course, the ever-present taste and smell of flavoured rum permeates our minds and our memories. Tonight we raise our glass for the last time with Captain Morgan’s raucous cousins and seal a special friendship, and toast to the memories made that will span a lifetime.

Moments of our time in Mada: Photos

Footnote – we actually departed Madagascar in late October 2017 but have been characteristically late in getting this article to press!

Tanzania – An Endhowed Gem

My bloodshot pin-propped eyes have just logged 4,867 images into my brain of snapshots of our time in Tanzania. While the visual onslaught has left me cross-eyed and numb, the catalogue of moments spun in succession makes me realize how different an experience our time has been from the average khaki-clad tourist. I knew our cruising experience would be different for us when we set sight on East Africa, stripped of our palm-fringed beaches and string of pearly isles. I expected that our panorama would be replaced with a long stretch of bone-dry red dirt and parched baobab trees, and that we would slip into safari-mode as we tootled off with a bunch of other gawking cheetah-spotters to trek through world-class game parks. What we didn’t realize was that top-rate was synonymous with top-price. At several hundred dollars per head per day, the wonderful wilds of Africa was going to be a very expensive affair. Given the extremely high cost of the top-tier game parks and the distance we would need to travel from coastal Tanzania to get there, we knew we were out of budget and far too removed for any serious safari trekking. After researching our options we decided to skip the East African parks in wait for the cheaper, more accessible reserves of South Africa. With Mount Kili and The Geti in the scrap bin, I thought we’d miss what East Africa was all about – 4,867 blurry photos of spots, stripes, ivory and horn hidden behind a bone-dry veil of wheat-coloured grass.

Rather than the safari-mania we’d invisioned, it was a quick adjustment to realize we were going to experience a much less “Trip Advised” Africa. By the time we’d hit this realization it didn’t matter – there was much more to East Africa than the Big Five and we’d already fallen in love with our less-hyped experience. We were off on a back alley tour of Tanzania. While we wouldn’t be out tramping around the bush with a rifle-toting scout or trinket-shopping in a Maasai village, we were hanging out with locals in places far off the tourist path. For me, therein lies the best that travel has to offer: Off-beat, authentic, and unexploited. As I sort through our 4,867 images, what dawns on me most is the richness that “off the beaten path” offers: To seek your own route brings with it an authenticity of experience and a uniqueness of encounter that the tour-schemes are generally void of. Not that I advise anyone with the chance to game-drive East Africa not to jump at the opportunity – the Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater are truly one of the world’s most incredible natural wonders – but they are only a part of the richness that is East Africa and there is much that extends beyond the countries top-ranked attractions.

Tourism is one of East Africa’s leading economies, with thousands of international visitors signing up for safaris and land tours every year. On the cruising front, however, there is very little activity. Quotes from officials, locals and resort personnel suggest an average of three to five cruising yachts per year; even if you double that number it is still a very small percentage in respect to global cruising numbers. With so many people throughout the world jumping on planes bound for Kenya and Tanzania by the thousands, why are so few cruising yachts headed to her shores?

One factor may be piracy. While Somalian piracy has been a dissuading factor in recent history, current reports indicate an abatement in attacks and a decrease in risk for yachts headed through the Red Sea. There has been an increasing stream of cruising yachts crossing from the Indian Ocean into the Mediterranean via the Red Sea over the past few years, and all report safe passage. With this threat minimized, the proximity of East Africa to Somalia should weigh less heavily on the mind. In fact, current reports rank the Caribbean and Indonesia as having the highest incidents of piracy yet boats continue to flock to their shores every year. Where has that flock gone in East Africa, and why hasn’t it returned?

Perhaps the reason few cruisers don’t include East Africa in their circuit is concern for a less headline type of crime – general safety. When we talked to a few cruisers of our interest in East Africa, crime became a common discussion point. Would we be safe there? Weren’t we putting our children at risk? Wasn’t a yacht a target for thieves? Yet, all yachts heading through the Indian Ocean were pulling into Madagascar where reports of property theft were rife and then sailing onward to South Africa which holds some of the world’s highest crime rates. Yachts continue to sail to Madagascar and South African each year – so, why avoid East Africa for similar concerns?

While we encountered no instances of assault to either body or property during our time in East Africa, that isn’t to say every country doesn’t hold a crime sheet. The last time I was in Tanzania, working in the tourist trade, my purse was stolen from me. Impulsive by nature, I chased after the thief. In doing so, I unwittingly incited a mob and the mania that ensued was mind-blowing. The mob caught and battered the poor man, and the police who intervened only carried on the abuse. The result of his capture was imprisonment and death. What blared out to me at the time was how quickly order can disintegrate into chaos. “This is how we deal with crime in our country,” the Chief of Police told me: The life of a twenty-year old man for a passport and few hundred bucks. It was a hard lesson learned. I had no idea my cry of theft would issue the young man a death sentence. The instance illustrates the hard-line attitude towards crime, yet even with severe repercussions, theft remains an issue.

Acknowledging this undercurrent of potential unrest, our time in East Africa wasn’t tainted by any fear of threat. Life on a yacht means we are often in remote regions exposed to our surroundings, yet throughout out time we felt very safe and welcomed by the locals. That said, as travellers, it is our responsibilities not to invite an incident and not taunt those without with our comparative affluence. In these parts of the world, a little goes a long way and in comparative terms, we have a lot. Equally, it is our charge to ensure we do not expose ourselves. There is a saying that goes, “if it isn’t locked on, you must not care for it.” Outboard engines, for example, are more precious than a block of gold. Hang it on the rail without securing it on or leave the tender with it attached in the water overnight and you send out a beacon as a target. I know of several cruisers who woke to the sound of uninvited guests knocking about on deck in the middle of the night – everything secured was in place, but anything not locked down was lifted. Invitation accepted.

Returning to the discussion of cruising in East Africa – or lack thereof – another factor may be a fear of corruption and the hassle of dealing with crooked officials. For my part, I believe there is a fair amount of miscommunication and misrepresentation on cruising blogs and websites that paints an unfair picture of East Africa. Personally, we received a number of warnings that cautioned us against clearing in at almost every port of entry: We would be ripped off, bribes would be demanded, the officials would be difficult. None of these reports matched the experience. Of the four yachts we know of that cleared into Tanzania this year, each at a different port – Pemba, Mafia, Tanga, Dar es Salaam – every one had a positive experience. The gossip and the reports were different from the collective experience, yet if all you have to go on is negative feedback then it is hard to be persuaded to add it as a destination on your list.

Adverse wind and current for yachts transiting south down the coast may also play at the minds of would-be East African cruisers. This was one of the reasons we initially scrapped Tanzania from our route plan, but my love for East Africa kept niggling in the back of my brain… how could we travel this far and come this close to bypass the East African coast all together? I knew in setting our sights on East Africa that we would diverge from the majority of cruising yachts crossing the Indian Ocean. But with so much on offer it seemed a worthwhile decision. What we needed to understand, however, was whether we could sail Ātea south down the coast against the strong currents and winds. All talk had been that the coast was impossible to transit during the southeast monsoon season. The prevailing winds are from the south and the current also sweeps you north, making progress south very difficult before the seasons change in January. However, on closer analysis we’d decided that by sticking very close to the coast we would avoid the biggest punch of current and that both wind and current turns favorable after Capo Delgado on the Tanzanian-Mozambiquen border; we would only need to tackle this issue during the first 300 miles of our passage. If we picked our weather right we should be able to pinch our way forward in calm conditions and use the land breeze to make good progress; this might result in less sailing but it would mean that we could move south without bashing boat and body to pieces – a fair tradeoff. At least, this was our theory. Having seen the possibility – a crack in the bolted door to East Africa – we decided we’d wander on through and find out for ourselves.

A final factor that may explain the low numbers of yachts visiting East Africa is that it is not on the main cruising route. Yachts transiting the Indian Ocean have two options if they are heading west, as most are: head north through the Red Sea or south to South Africa. As there is still a very palpable fear factor to the Red Sea option, most choose a southerly route. While Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique can reasonably fit into this option, Madagascar is now very much on the radar and it is hard to include both destinations in one season. While Madagascar used to be considered remote and off the beaten path, it is hard to find a yacht who has crossed the Indian Ocean these days who hasn’t included Madagascar as a destination – and for many, a highlight. East Africa, bypassed for its neighbour, remains an isolated gem.

Most yachts that head south towards Madagascar from all departure points in the eastern Indian Ocean will hit some very rough seas and weather. Often circumnavigators report this area as being one of the toughest they’ve ever had to transit and many boats suffer damage on approach. So, when it comes to weather routing there are some considerations a skipper must seriously query. We decided we could negotiate the strong currents off the East African coast by staying close to land, and in choosing this route we would also avoid the battering that the direct passage to Madagascar brings. We found in doing so we compromised a hard passage for a longer, more roundabout route, and the decision to go via Tanzania probably added two hundred extra engine hours to the season. Easier on the boat and crew, but harder on the engine and bank account. I am glad we choose the option that we did: our passage was smooth if not costly, and we got the addition of exploring Tanzania – an experience as rewarding and worthwhile as I imagined.

Now that we’ve scooted past the border and can reflect on our time in Tanzania, I see several distinct phases of our trip which, combined, weaves a rich cultural and natural tapestry that makes East Africa one of my favourite destinations yet. Our route included remote Pemba, an island off the north-east coast of Tanzania, where the dramatic coastline of eroded limestone and sheer underwater walls drop from a dramatic two meters to three hundred meters in a vertical line. While there are a few tourist hamlets with isolated, high-end resorts, the majority of Pemba is rural and isolated from tourism. There we were invited into rustic villages where a smattering of Swahili phrases got us further than English, where the children were shy of our foreign-ness and the women hid their faces from the camera’s eye. The diving in season at Pemba is reported to be some of the best in East Africa, and the underwater topography lends itself to truth. Dhows bespeckle the African coast, but no place will conjure up their beauty like seeing a long line of them sail past us at sunset. I could have spent months there, tucked in, watching their daily pilgrimage to and from the sea.

From Pemba we made a short, unscheduled stop in Kenya due to strong northerly currents and engine failure. We were escorted to the mainland by spinning dolphin, breaching humpback whale and S.V. Barbara Ann, an American cruising couple we’d become friends with earlier in the year. There we were entreated to the sight of a beautiful old stone village, the taste of seaweed and mud crab, and introduced to the Kenyan border security. So much for our sneaky duck in and out that we’d hoped for; however, for a bottle of Johnny Walker and $20 we negotiated an amicable short-term arrangement. In general, I’m not a fan of paying bribes but when you are truly in the wrong and someone is winking you with upturned palm, a slip of green may very well suit the occasion.

From the southern tip of the Kenyan coast, we returned to legal turf in Tanzania; friends old (S.V. Momo) and friends new (S.V. Dallandra) were waiting for us in the coastal town of Tanga and we were excited to reconnect. Over the next two weeks we became familiar with rural mainland Tanzania, a grumpy club commodore and cheap yacht club cocktails.

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We also did some inland travel to the Usambara Mountains in northeast Tanzania, where we rented a mountain chalet and explored the high altitude ranges and the cloud-enshrouded mountain villages, and hunted down the wild yet charismatic chameleon. It was a treat to get some inland travel and see rural Tanzania, as well as be introduced to Mambo View Lodge and witness how an eco-tourism business that is embedded in the community can make a genuine and sustainable difference.

From there we explored the historically significant Zanzibar island, rich in history, spice, and tourism. We drank sunset cocktails on the beach with the other foreign imports in the north and walked the tightly woven streets of old Stonetown in the south. We shopped for trash and trinkets in the labyrinth of shops and stalls and in general, had a fabulous time being tourists amongst tourists. We ate octopus at the fish market, drank spiced coffee at the cafes and indulged in the myriad of culinary options the old town has to offer. Zanzibar is a truly multiethnic community that carries the unique atmosphere of a city that has genuine mystique and whispers of exotic mystery at every corner. Zanzibar was once the centre of the slave trade for the whole of East Africa and the prosperity of the Sultanate was derived in part from the business of human trade, a dark history beneath the present day tourist-friendly UNESCO-approved World Heritage site. In such a place, the history of long ago still lingers in the dark crevices of its tight winding alleys and seeps from the cracks of every chipped-stucco wall. A hundred and fifty years later and every thick, spike-studded door continues to hold behind it the secrets of its past.

Our last notable stop was in the main port and commercial hub of Dar es Salaam, where we found ourselves quickly settling into the upmarket expatriate scene. It offers a great base as provisions are easily got and readily available, the promenade provides a great social hub, there is a great selection of excellent restaurants and the ice cream is divine. There is a upitty yacht club and a hospitable slipway, the former providing airs of colonial self-import and the latter providing resources for practical support. I guess it is this last stop that clarified what I found so enchanting about Tanzania – it is like the rubiks cube of travel destinations.

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It offers a kaleidoscope of different settings unique and different from each other – from coast to sea, from valley to mountain, from bustling town to isolated village. Weaved through each of these environments is the open arms and the wide grin of the Tanzanian local – warm, engaging and delightful. In itself perhaps you could say this of every people in every country, but there is an intangible and almost indescribable uniqueness that is East Africa, discovered only by time on her soil and interaction with her people.

Looking back, our route included remote Pemba, rural Tanga, misty Usambara mountains, vibrant Zanzibar, quaint Dar es Salaam, interspersed with small bays and islets along the way. We zigzagged back and forth from island to coast moving south through coastal Tanzania from the northern border of Kenya to the southern border of Mozambique and got a good introduction to the land and life of Tanzania and its people along the way. While we didn’t spot the Big Five, walk the crater rim or hike Mount Kilimanjaro — something that would define most people’s trip through Tanzania — we got so much that is outside the box that is equally rewarding. This reward came to us by trusting our capabilities and following our own desires against the recommendation and advice of popular opinion and outsider fears. By stepping outside the standard cruising circuit, we found the blog posts outdated and general opinions misinformed. None of the factors that suggest blockades to sailing coastal Tanzania proved to be actual barriers and the few cruisers that do test these boundaries find themselves well rewarded. As I look back on my photos, it dawns on me that we’d actually struck gold without knowing it: We got to see and experience things at ground-level, outside of the stampede of flocking tourists and beyond the security of a cruising community. We got off-beat, authentic, and unexploited – the three main ingredients for a top-rate trip. We got to finger the fringes of a rare and well endhowed gem.

To view the Tanzania album, click here: Endhowed

The Flight of the Millennium Falcon

Our Passage from the Seychelles to East Africa:

Day 1: Friday, 14th July. Anchored at Baie Beau Vallon, Mahe, Seychelles. DTG: 983 miles.
IMG_4058There is an ancient sailors saying that that states, “Never leave port on a Friday.” It is Friday today, but we leave anyway… I am placing my trust in the powers of loose interpretation. We may be leaving port on Friday, but it will take us 200 miles – or 1.5 days at 5 knots – to actually sail across the country’s western boarder. As we see it, technically we are safe from this historic and well-established mariners superstition.

The dinghy is stowed on deck, we have precooked meals packed in the freezer and all loose items are secured below. IMG_3987This past week has kept us occupied with the activities that consume a pre-passage routine: Provisioning, key boat maintenance projects, port clearance and pre-departure logistics. This past week has also kept us busy creating new liquid concoctions from the liquor cabinet: IMG_3855.jpgWe were introduced through a mutual friend (thanks Astrid!) to a delightful Australian cruising family and our welcome party with the crew on S.V. Dallandra extended nonstop through the entire week. After a frantic week of yacht preparations during the day and social debauchery by night, we’d come to the end of our cruising permit and it was time to officially depart. IMG_3858We cleared customs, drove Ātea around the corner, and spent the next few days in holiday relaxation mode.For the past few days we’ve sat illegally in country, tucked around the corner in front of a swanky beachside resort with the express purpose of indolence and indulgence. John and I hit up the poolside bar, slurping rainbow-coloured liquid from umbrella-clad glasses with our feet up on deckchairs. The kids undertook a 48-hour marathon, swimming and running in an all-out endurance test fit for Olympic champions. It was a needed respite as the passage in front of us was going to be a rough one; we needed to top up our reservoirs before the next 1,000 ocean miles that lay in front of us.

We departed at 8am after a good rub of the eye and a strong mug of coffee. IMG_4036 (1)We motored most of the afternoon with light winds, but by nightfall the wind filled in as predicted; if it maintains we will be able to sail through the night. Thanks to Marley, the eight-year old crewmember onboard S.V. Dallandra, Braca has dropped his fascination with sea creatures and talks of nothing but wookies and ewoks. We decided that we’d give him more to go on than the 1cm light saber and mini-Vader that was donated to him from Marley’s Star Wars-themed Lego set and introduce him to the real deal: IMG_4014.jpgEpisode I-VII of George Lukas’ masterpiece… Da da da Da di dum Da di dum….. Here we go – slipping our son and ourselves into an entirely new dimension. This passage our “theme day” will expand the week. For the next seven days we intend to knock off one episode a day. By the end of this passage I am sure we will have all crossed over to The Dark Side – our sweet little Nemo has no chance against The Force.

Day 2: Saturday 15/7, Position: 04 53S, 53 22E. Anchored at Banc Africans. DTG: 859.
Calm weather is coming… Predict Wind forecasted it and the weather is proving it. IMG_4126.jpgWe have decided to drop anchor at a deserted islet 120 due west of the Seychelles rather than spend $200 on the mind-numbing drone of the engine for the next 48 hours. With the anchor down we revel in the splendid isolation of our little oasis – no one knows we are here, there are no humans for more than 100 miles and there is no contact with the outside world. We have only the birds for company but in that we are inundated. The clamorous noise emanating from the island reverberates around us and we find peace in the cacophony of shrieks and cries.

We give the kids their passage present even though Ātea sits on anchor mid-trip. IMG_4082I know Braca would delight in a Star Wars themed Lego set but I didn’t have the foresight to predict his new fascination; they get a boxed set of car-themed Lego each – enough to provide a preoccupation for the following few hours before dismantling them and making Lego-sabers. What these kids are learning to do through their imagination is a direct result of their deficit in theme-spec’d toys.

Day 3: Sunday 16/7, Position: 04 53S, 53 22E. Anchored at Banc Africans. DTG: 859.
Even land-based rituals extend to our passages when sea conditions permit. IMG_4138Today is Sunday and custom demands Sunday pancakes. After consuming a few syrup-doused flour fritters, we decide that the tiny islet needs a few Storm Troopers to patrol its boundaries and ensure safe harbour. With the dinghy secured on deck and a wide berth given to the island when anchoring, we need suitable transport ashore and our little inflatable kayak becomes the landing craft for our band of mini-troopers. The beauty of the little island amazes us – the sand is salt-white and flour-fine; IMG_4163.jpgthe bush is filled with a million tiny noddy-eggs and the air is filled with the protective squawk of the mother-birds warning us away. Bridled terns lay their eggs directly in the sand, a few short feet away from the waters-edge at high tide. G0511357.jpgThe kids saunter up enormous turtle-tracks that guide them to a half-dozen buried nests. This is the world before human encroachment. We spent the afternoon adding invasive human footprints in the sand and watching the birds soar, swoop and hoot their disapproval of our presence on their turf.

Day 4: Monday 17/7, Position: 04 53S, 53 22E. Anchored at Banc Africans. DTG: 859.
Whoa! We woke up to a big surprise – our first sight out the window was at the ass-end of a fishing boat anchored a few meters off our bow. So much for our splendid isolation! IMG_4229.jpgI brought my coffee up on deck for a sociable chat and found out that for all the flat seabed that surrounded us, they decided it best to anchor on top of us so that they could meet us; I found charm in what would normally be an annoyance. One generalized trait I can give the Seychellois is their outward sociability. I enjoyed sitting on deck chatting with them as they carried about with their morning rituals – washing armpits, brushing teeth, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes – me a closer part of their world than we could have shared had they followed proper mariner protocol.

We followed them ashore a little later to continue our banter and took immediate liking to the lot of them; IMG_4207I watched as one tread through (and presumably on) bird eggs to film the million screeching and swooping terns for his absent son while the others dug up buckets of the rich guano for their gardens back home. I chatted with one who had been a park ranger and learned that the eggs would begin to hatch in a week and in two weeks the island would be covered with little fluffy hatchlings. IMG_4220We invited them over for tea, an offer that turned to an afternoon drinking vodka. In the process, we somehow ended up with their dinghy tied to our stern – a last minute arrangement that kept us from sailing as intended that evening to spare them the time dragging it up on deck. After they departed we were struck by the trust they’d bestowed in us, and we were flooded with appreciation for the life that we are currently leading.

By 5pm the wind began to roll in at 15 knots but we will wait until the morning for departure. It has been a fantastic day with four very warm, friendly Seychellois, reminding us how wonderful these random moments are and how important it is to cast plans when an opportunity presents to make the most of the present. Our passage to Africa will take seven days regardless of our delay and there should be no shortage of wind from this point forward. Plus, we’d had a belly-full of vodka, so why rush?

Day 5: Tuesday 18/7, Position: 04 53S, 53 22E. Anchored at Banc Africans. DTG: 859.
Shrill whistles woke us at 6am as our fishing buddies returned to reclaim their dinghy before continuing onward to Praslin with their catch. IMG_4187.jpgWe raised sails shortly after and head off in the opposite direction. It is a perfect 15-knot breeze – congratulations to John for reading the forecast and picking the right weather window. The two days we spent at Banc Africains resulted in two days that we didn’t burn diesel. Given the high cost of diesel in the Seychelles we decided not to fill our tanks; we would take the 1,000-mile run to Africa with what we have remaining from diesel we bought in the Maldives three months ago. With half a tank remaining, we will need consistent and reliable winds to make it.

In the late afternoon, however, the wind eased and we bobbed in 5 knots amidst a mild ocean. IMG_4354We took it for the first few hours and enjoyed the silence, then kicked on the engine… diesel or not, we have an ocean to cross and we have to charge the batteries anyway. Our intended “Star Wars” theme day is delayed until we can muster the energy to match the children’s demand for creativity. Instead, we put on the first episode of Star Wars and watched the creativity of others: ‘Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace’… IMG_4408.jpglet’s hope there is nothing like that onboard for us. By early evening the wind returned and I enjoyed a solid 15-knot watch. By midnight the winds were continuing to build so we put a second reef in the main, pulled out the staysail and rolled away the genoa, leaving Ātea under a more comfortable sail configuration. Let’s hope the wind holds through the night at 20-30 knots.

Day 6: Wednesday 19/7, Position: 05 00S, 50 00E. DTG: 859.
The 20-30 knot winds remain all day, but it isn’t the wind that is making things rough… the sea state is knocking us about like loose marbles. The ocean is rough and rollers rock the boat over each bulge of water, splashing seawater over our deck. Our high center cockpit provides a secure helming position and our bimini clears leave us protected and dry. The day passes with a rocking boat and rolling bellies as John and I are feeling lethargic and unsettled with all the movement; we lay low today. IMG_4099We have not been able to muster much mental energy to take Braca through his schoolwork or engage in play, but the kids are doing well and are happily entertaining themselves with Lego and books. They seem indifferent to the conditions outside, but for the first time I have an inkling of what seasickness is about: The leathery, the apathy, the disorientation, the drowsiness. Each day is starting to roll into a sameness of the day prior and I feel like we are becoming a replica of Starwars II: The Clone Wars. Let’s hope tomorrow shakes us free.

Of note, we have turned off our AIS for the first time ever – for those unfamiliar, AIS stands for Automated Identification System and it broadcasts our position to any other vessel with AIS within a 10-30 mile radius. Turning this off means that no other boats can see our position, which is a risk when considering the fast-moving tankers and cargo ships that may pass our way. However, given the possibility of pirates in these waters, going stealth makes us feel that this is a safer course.

Day 7: Thursday 20/7, Position: 05 08S, 49 00E. DTG: 726.
John and I are finally feeling better. The kids have been fantastic, wrapped up in sibling play. IMG_4275.jpgToday the swell has eased and the wind dropped to 15 knots and we are feeling less pressure under the eased sea state. We promised the kids a “Star Wars” theme day but continue to postpone it; we will have to follow through with our commitment soon otherwise we will have our own Star Wars III enactment onboard: ‘The Revenge of the Sith’ – hopefully we will be able to pull it off tomorrow.

Two ships have passed at a distance in all these miles and all this ocean. The decision to head west on a beam reach towards Tanzania versus direct into the wind to Madagascar seems a good one right now – any more bashing into the seas and both body and boat would have been in much worse condition. The baffle in the water tank broke last night, making a terrible grinding sound from under the deck that took us awhile to pinpoint; there is nothing more disconcerting than an unusual noise that you can’t identify. IMG_4115.jpgWhen the clatter got worse, John pulled off the top of the water tank and removed the remaining bolts and the baffle while a tonne of unleashed drinking water slopped around him and the inside of the boat and successfully silenced the metallic knell. Another job is added to the list. More unpleasant sounds are coming from the rudderstock with a loud creak on each roll. We think this might be the sealing packing binding in the shaft, but with the coast of Somalia just 500 miles downwind of us steering gear failure is not something we wish to contemplate.

Not much to report other than continued progress towards the African coast. This has been a dull passage to date, though respectively easy. IMG_4325.jpgThe food was well prepared before departure so meals are easy – a good thing as neither John nor I have much appetite in the constant roll. We’ve held a conservative sail plan so we could have more control in stronger winds; today we rolled out the genoa and increased our speed by 2 knots and in doing so shortened the overall trip by a day. We are experiencing a moody ocean for the first time in a long while and it is a good reminder of all the different states that the ocean brings with it.

Day 8: Friday 21/7, Position: 05 31S, 46 35E. DTG: 610.
It is Friday and today marks one week since our official “unofficial” departure from the Seychelles. We expect a Swahili karibu (translate: welcome) on Monday if this weather continues. All feeling episode IV-ish, “A New Hope.” IMG_4145.jpgThe wind continues off our port side at 15-20 knots and the seas have settled. We continue to have the good sailing conditions that yesterday brought us and we are finally reaping the rewards of our route choice – a beam reach versus the hard bash to windward that Madagascar would have brought us. Let’s hope these conditions continue as we will have had continuous wind at an average of 15-20 knots for the duration of the trip and plenty of diesel remaining in our tank.

It is great to have consistent passage-making wind after a few windless seasons in Asia and six windless months in the Maldives; it is a good reminder of the value of maintaining a conservative sail plan. Ātea has two reefs in the main and both the staysail and the genoa are rolled up eight turns. At most, this represents 60% of our normal sail area but is proving to be the right balance for these conditions, driving us west at 6 knots while allowing us comfort through the squalls. We could push Ātea faster, but 6 knots get us a good average at 150 miles per day. Any faster and we would add stress to the steering, rig and sails, increase violence to the ship’s motion, and add extra work for the crew in sail changes due to the frequent squalls.

The kids continue to play onboard as if it were another day in the norm; their imagination is their salvation out here at sea! IMG_4278.jpgToday we celebrated “Half Way Day” and the kids opened another of their wrapped presents with much glee and excitement. All is good onboard. While we continue to get a consistent wind and there is no urgency to get in, it is much a passage of dullness and I am looking forward to getting in, anchoring shoreside and having a level floor again.

Ātea and the flying fish are hopping along at 8 knots tonight, the latter landing on deck for a free ride or safe haven. I keep running around on deck trying to free each one before it realizes it has just landed dooms day. Our netting provides a great means of keeping everything onboard… even the unsuspecting flying fish fail to escape our baby-proofed “playpen.”

Day 9: Saturday 22/7, Position: 05 32S, 43 51E. DTG: 460.
Our progress continues along at a fast pace. We’ve hit the sweet spot with consistent wind – the wind has not gone below 15 knots or above 30 for the past few days. We sit in a perfect 15-20 knot pocket with the wind on our port beam, ticking off 150-180 miles a day. Right now, the decision to head west seems a brilliant choice from the beating that the yachts report from a southern passage to Madagascar. Of course, we may get a reenactment of Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back when we attempt to go south along the Tanzanian coast. The current splits just south of the border between Mozambique and Tanzania – until we get across this parallel, we can expect strong southerly winds and northerly currents to make our transit south a struggle. It is our hope that both ease as predicted in September and we can grab our weather windows as they present to scratch our way down the coast until the equatorial current splits and sends us zipping on our way towards South Africa.

At long last, John and I uphold our promise. Today we spent the early part of the day sifting through scraps to pull together one Darth Vader ensemble and three Storm Trooper outfits. IMG_4470Braca has claimed identity with the Evil Lord… where has my eco-sensitive humanitarian environmentalist gone?! Sweet gulping Nemo has been tossed down the toilet to be replaced with the incessant death-rattle of Anakin reincarnate; Lego fish creations have been replaced by Lego swords, guns and light sabers. IMG_4571.jpgAnd here we are, conscientious parents, encouraging this. We unravel six toilet paper rolls to get the cardboard for our weaponry. We tear strips of usable cloth to create full-length capes. We pull bilge lining to construct masks and we use permanent marker that turns out to be permanent only on our newly upholstered settees. All good fun ensues.

Day 10: Sunday 23/7, Position: 05 37S, 41 25E. DTG: 298 (162 miles in 24-hours; this is one of Atea’s best-ever runs). The wind has remained and the excitement is high. We will be in tomorrow and now, at the end, the passage seems to have clicked through in the blink of an eye. Star Wars VI – The Return of the Jedi… not that I feel like I have triumphed over evil to get here; our first few days were rough but since then the weather has behaved as predicted and Ātea held up as we hoped. But I do Return – to a continent I spent my formative years in with my birth family and to a continent I took on as a young adult in my early thirties. I return a fourth time, this time as a wife and mother to share my past history and create new experiences with the family I have helped create. After a decade of being away from the Dark Continent, this Jedi Knight is ready to experience this rich, rewarding and expressive world afresh and all over again!

Day 11: Monday 24/7, Position: 05 22S, 39 38E. DTG: 148.
We drop anchor at Mkoani, Pemba Island, Tanzania at midday, 850 miles out from Banc Africains. There are a few milestones that coincide with the conclusion of this trip: This is now our sixth season cruising onboard Ātea and we’ve only just completed our first ocean crossing. For context, John completed a four-year circumnavigation onboard his yacht Violetta in 1995 with 29,000 ocean miles and I sailed 12,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean within one year, but after six years Ātea has only just passed the 30,000 mile mark. Clearly we are making leisurely progress.

I feel more than the obvious excitement that comes at the end of a passage; I am on African soil again and I am thrilled to be back. I knew when I left that it would be a long time before I returned to the continent and I was right – it has taken me a decade. I was captivated then, as I am sure to be again. I am not sure why more cruisers transiting the Indian Ocean don’t spent time off the east African coast as there is so much on offer here; we are just hours on arrival and I already hear myself begging for more time. I can feel my fingers digging into the soil trying to hold purchase, knowing regardless of the time I will get that it will be too short. But I am here now and greedy to consume as much of the experience as I can, for however long I can get. So here we are – Kuleta juu ya Afrika! – let the fun begin!

Follow link to photos of our passage: Album Images

Hopscotch in the Garden of Eden

The Seychelles has been a dream destination of mine for as long as I can remember… or, at least, as long as I’ve known how to sail. This mid-Indian Ocean archipelago represented the epitome of top cruising destinations and I remember sitting of the shores of Mozambique, looking east, dreaming of a future when I’d get to weave my own track through her waters. IMG_2677.jpgI wasn’t quite certain if this dream would ever come to fruition because at the time I’d only been a coastal sailor, never venturing far from the sight of land. Regardless, I often imagined what the country would hold for me: Crystal blue waters shimmering over glittering diamond white sands, endless islets and atolls teaming with sea birds and land turtles, a steel band beating a tune as I turned fresh-caught lobsters on a fire, my toes buried in the sand. I am not sure if it was from a book that I pulled these images or the rumours of a fellow traveler; however they got there, the images were imbedded deep in my sub-consciousness. Now, firmly entrenched in the cruising lifestyle with six years of open-ocean sailing behind us, I was finally going to get my chance to see these images firsthand.

Cruisers often seem to travel in a flock. Perhaps it is some collective force of nature or the under-appreciated inclination for human sociability, but there is an undeniable gravitational force that pulls people together. Watching the fleet of boats transverse the Indian Ocean these past few years, it seems a random pattern of a southerly route followed by a northerly route from the Asia to South Africa; this year the majority of boats that we knew were heading south for Mauritius and Rodriquez but we weren’t to follow them. The Seychelles had been on my radar far too long to pass her by. We would cross the Indian Ocean this year, and I was determined that the Seychelles would feature in our route planning.

While arrival in a country after a long passage is always an emotive experience, seeing the peaks of the tall mountains rise up on the horizon was a particularly emotional moment for me. Here she was, the Seychelles at long last, unfolding herself in front of me on the very ocean that had separated me for so long. IMG_3881Having spent the past six months in a country made entirely of low-lying atolls, it was quite a sight to see the tip of Mome Seychellois, a 905-meter granite rock, rise up on the horizon. The detail of earth and humanity began to fill the blank green tapestry of the mountains as we inched towards Mome Seychellois and Trois Freres: The rich smell of dirt combined with the acrid smell of the tuna processing factory, the sound of chatty shorebirds mixed with the repetitive hum of rotating wind generator blades, a smattering of colourful roofs materializing from the canopy of trees as ornaments decorating the hillsides. I was abuzz with the same ecstatic enthusiasm of a young child licking her first ice cream cone – this was my first taste of the Seychelles and it couldn’t have been any sweeter.

Having waited so long to get to the Seychelles, it was ironic that we would work so hard to sail to her shores and fly immediately out. That said it had been a long time since we’d been home and family was calling. Tickets had been booked well in advance and the departure date was upon us – our time in the Seychelles was going to be short and sweet. We pulled in, played for a week and flew out. Given my anticipation to get here, I could appreciate our agent’s response when we petitioned for the boat to stay during our month departure: “What? You’ve just ARRIVED in the Seychelles and you already want to LEAVE the Seychelles? WHY would you do that?” Us: To visit family. “But, then why wouldn’t you leave from another country?!! Why would you choose to leave from THIS ONE?” Implied: You must be crazy! We were nervous. She was going to reject our application on grounds of national pride. While I understood her line of inquisition — we were leaving a dream holiday destination for a holiday elsewhere — we had already committed time with family and held tickets in hand. With a series of disapproving grunts and shake of the head in disapproval, she stamped our documents and dismissed us.

The next month saw us indulging in almost every shoreside pleasure available to us — something that England has in abundance. My standing joke was that I was going to eat as much cheese and drink as much wine as I could manage to consume, either leaving the country feverishly addicted or my long-standing cravings completely spent. IMG_1729.jpgWe enjoyed time with family and reconnected with longstanding friends and fellow cruisers we’d shared company with in previous seasons. It was fun to ride the trains through the lush countryside and wander through quaint British villages, sail dinghies on the Solent and drive a RIB to the Isle of Wight, picnic in the manicured parks, dine in the pubs, grog up with the family, rock out at a concert and chase a rolling block of cheese down a hill. Above all we were reminded that while the cruising life is rich with reward, life ashore is rich with diversity.

A month after flying out we were back on creole soil, cravings satiated and addictions firmly rooted, this time with a month in front of us to explore the fabled Garden of Eden. What I didn’t appreciate then and do now is that the Seychelles is very different from my picture of a cruising paradise. IMG_3256.JPGIt is worthy as a sailing destination to be sure, but not in the way I’d constructed in my head. The building blocks were there: the white sand, the clear water, the reggae music and the creole seafood. What was missing was the countless isles and the limitless possibilities. For all 115 islands that make it up, the Seychelles has a relatively constricted cruising area. There are three main islands, each with a collection of smaller marine reserves attached to it, that are the sum of cruising grounds for the majority of sailors. The rest of the hundred or so islands are uninhabited or protected marine reserves, most of these lying in the outer islands at a considerable distance from the inner hub and exposed to the weather.

I am and am not one fundamental thing: A planner. I am a Gemini with a drive for change without an interest in detail. The combination means that I do things at the spur of the moment without forethought or planning. I fly on a whim and learn on the way. This has many drawbacks but the advantage is the comedy of learning things in situ. The Seychelles is famous for a few things; well known to anyone that does a quick Google search of the country. I, however, having spent countless miles of hard work to get here never once researched the country to see what it offered. I had a dream, therefore I had drive – that was enough to draw me. As a result, the heart of the Seychelles unfolded itself to us in a series of comic moments, details of the country that I was to learn about over the course of our stay.

The first was the Coco de Mer. For the ungoogled, the image of the Coco de Mer is of the voluptuous derrière of the female figure, and it was everywhere. The female bum greets you on arrival at the airport, it fills the curios stalls in the streets, it is printed on postcards and every brochure of the country, it is even stamped on a page in our passports. There is a collective national fascination with the female reproductive anatomy. You can have a carved wooden statue, hold a key ring, wear a t-shirt, drink from a shot glass — all of a woman’s ass. Having just arrived from six months in a highly conservative Muslim country, the brashness of it was refreshing. The Seychelles was sexual, and they were proud of that sexuality. Or so I thought.

It took me a week, but I was to gradually learn that the Coco de Mer was, indeed, a coconut. It was endemic to the Seychelles and a rich part of its history. IMG_3627.jpgIt was this nut, visually so representative of oversized human genitalia, that created the myth that the Seychelles was the Garden of Eden – scratch that apple, the nut was proof of the origin of mankind. For what it is worth, at half a meter in diameter and 20 kilograms in weight it is the largest seed found anywhere in the world, the male tree does hang a very long penis from its branches and the female does produce the most delicious looking derrière. Had I done my research, I’d have known a decade ago that it was trees on hillsides and not seashells on sandy shores that the Seychelles was known for. The Garden of Eden beckoned me, but to understand why I had to look toward land and not the sea.

The second of our comic relief moments was the granite. What I didn’t realize prior to arrival is that the country was full of rocks. Big, big rocks. In fact, I’d spent over a decade fantasizing about the Seychelles and not once had I appreciated that it was rock rather than sand that made the country famous. IMG_2902.jpgHow did I miss that 41 of the 115 islands were built on a foundation of granite? Was it just oversight that made me ignorant of the exceptional fact that the Seychelles was the only mid-ocean granite islands in the world?! Expecting idle days anchored off low-lying islets with our heads poking around coral gardens, our reality was days spent gaping up at huge mountain peaks, over sheer rock cliffs and at boulder-crowned beaches. Rather than idle, our time was filled with vigorous hikes up steep rocky paths, walks through wooded forest, cycling up hills, meandering around boulder-strewn beaches and rock hopping above the surf.

Another misconstrued notion was that we’d spend all our time in the water. For one, it was cold… or at least, cold in comparison to the sauna-like waters of the Maldives. It took a week to acclimate to the 28-degree water temperature. Once that was corrected, it took time to work a strategy for tackling the big surf. It wasn’t big as in dude, ride that wave big. It was big as in doc, bust out the neck brace big. IMG_2829.jpgThe waves that rolled into the bays were short and powerful, but once you worked out the set you could tackle a suitable approach – body surf four then race out before the next two rollers came and knocked you out in a body-crushing, ego-shattering washing machine. Outside of the in-your-face beach break, there were no obvious reefs to snorkel or charted dive sites to explore – ironic given the sites were fill with as many big rocks underwater as big rocks above water – and both were activities we expected would consume our days. What distinguishes the diving in the Seychelles are the unique granite underwater formations that make a spectacular underwater landscape but the sites weren’t easily accessible and required local knowledge. As a result we didn’t get time underwater as hoped, but we got plenty of time tumbled through it.

It was the third of the comic lessons that filled much of our children’s interest, and fulfilled their sex education. It was the first time the kids had seen a land tortoise and as the heaviest tortoises in the world at a whopping 300kg, they made quite an impression. They were held in open pens in parks, botanical gardens, beaches and bars. IMG_2331They were free roaming and also found in the backyards of local homes as they were often kept as family pets. We watched them eat, sleep, bathe and just as often, mate. There was one particular batch that seemed particularly inclined. The kids fed them their afternoon rations for a week and every day, like clockwork, we’d bear witness to their repetitious and droning copulation – clearly they too felt they were livin’ it large in the Garden of Eden. With the innocence of youth, each time Braca watched the act he told us they were “marrying each other;” it was a honeymoon destination indeed!

Having had my fill of rocks and nuts, we quickly became restless. We’d done the required gape at the country’s natural wonders: We’d pet the giant land tortoise and rubbed palms on the erogenous nut. Now we were keen to explore the country by sea but we had one problem – we didn’t see a labyrinth of reef-encrusted islets sprawled out around us. When looking in detail at the charts, the list of destinations within reach extended to three names, Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, all a short hop between each other. Basically, we had a month to play aquatic hopscotch.

Initially my enthusiasm fell flat as the experience fell far from my expectations — there was nothing intrepid about this experience at all. It was a land full of tour agents catering to tourists. There were lots of charter boats moving daily on their week tour of the country and the beaches were filled with sunburnt foreigners, but there were very few long-term cruisers exploring the area. After a few days of shaking my head in puzzlement, I readjusted my expectations and redefined what our time in the Seychelles was about: G0230594.jpgWe were not going to hunker down with the indigenous population, use sign language and guess translation. We would not traipse across land left virgin to the traveler’s eye. We were going to take a holiday like the rest of them. Regular routine was cast out and we postponed schoolwork and put boat jobs on hold. We pulled out our sunblock and our beach toys and spent the days rolling about in the surf and lazing in the sand. We partied with the bareboat charterers, socialized with the holidaymakers, and entertained locals onboard in a revolving door of new faces. We rented bicycles to explore the villages, walked well-laid paths through native forests, surfed the shore breaks, and ogled at the breathtaking scenery around us.

We started our holiday in Mahe, the largest and most populated of the islands. With 90% of the country’s population living in Victoria, the smallest capital in the world, we had good grounds for observing the engaging confidence of the Seychellois. Their manner is forthright and confident, their personality gregarious and outspoken, their dress daring and bold. In social circles this was charming but in official circles we found it arrogant and blunt. While we tried to distance ourselves from as many administrative agents as possible, we welcomed locals onboard with open arms – this brought many entertaining evenings and some of our fondest experiences. One discussion that stands out was the local concept of self in relation to community. IMG_3812.jpgAs our friend Ronny informed us, “to say a name anywhere in my country is to know the face” – a beautiful description for a country where everyone knew everyone. I compared it to my own community where even neighbours are strangers. “We care little for money here,” he added, “it is time and family we value. In this country, no one is ever alone and no one is forgotten.” Poetic. Regardless of the actual authenticity for the majority, it was a good reminder of the value often lost in Western culture where everything is fast paced, family distanced and friends forgotten, and money matters most. I find myself reminded again and again by local speak how it is the present that we live for in a world where family, friendship and community connection is paramount. When we invited Ronny for an evening onboard, we didn’t host one – we hosted a group. There were three generations amongst us and friends were included. Nor did they come empty handed; wrapped gifts were brought for the kids, beautiful shells were brought for us and the fish they pulled in that night was all donated to us. It was an incredible show of community, hospitality, warmth and camaraderie and I will always value the insights they shared and the friendship they offered.

From Mahe we followed the glossy brochure prompt to the neighbouring island of Praslin in search of the “best beach in the world,” page 8. IMG_3075It was a bold claim and I was keen to verify it for myself. Indeed, there was something to it. The large granite boulders that fringed the white sand beach resulted in a breathtaking panorama, the backdrop filled with tree-filled mountains and turtles that broke the surface of the water around us. It was here that a generous local tested our perchance for defying the law by offering us a sapling Coco de Mer. A generous offer and a tempting one, attracted as I was to the thought of my own palm-fringed deck, but one we had to refuse.

Given my agreement with page 8 of the brochure, I thought I’d follow its next suggestion on page 12: “It is not advisable to visit La Digue as a day trip only. There are so many beautiful spots to visit and so many interesting people to meet that we insist you spend a few days at least on this magnificent island regardless of your length of stay in the Seychelles.” DCIM100GOPROGOPR0464.JPGWith an advertisement like that, who could miss it?! We tucked ourselves into the tight little harbour in the center of town and enjoyed all that the island offered – charter yachts inches from port and starboard side and the socializing that came with it, bicycles to tour the island (it was that or tour by oxcart as vehicles are exempt from the island), creole meals and the festive atmosphere that defined the relaxed little island. In a fast moving world, this was the epitome of chill.

After four weeks of aquatic hopscotch, our little stone thrown at random determining if we moved ahead one space or back two between Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, we hit the end of our cruising permit and were ready to move on. Our key question was: Where to? Having diverged from the flock we were keen to return to it, a regrouping that would set our course south to Madagascar. But my sonar was bending my head to the west and all primal senses were driving me towards the shores of East Africa. It was not a common route; at this time of year the wind and current make moving south difficult and most of the yachts intending to exit the Indian Ocean by the end of the year need to get southward in order to round the Cape of Good Hope. We also need to pass this cape and we couldn’t understand a feasible way to make both East Africa and Madagascar happen this season. However, on close inspection it looks like the current splits at the border of Tanzania and Mozambique and the winds might be favorable if we stuck close to the coast, dodging behind the wind-shadow of Madagascar. In fact, going west to Tanzania might save the battering that wind and sea would give us if we tried to reach Madagascar directly. Besides, we weren’t the only wayward stragglers. We had cruising friends in Tanzania and we had cruising friends heading that way – either the route was feasible or we weren’t the only ones stupid enough to attempt it. Either way, we were going to find out. A week prior to departing the Seychelles we did a typical Atea gybe. We scrapped our plans to head south towards Madagascar and decided to continue our trek west. Onward we sail to East Africa – she has held me in her clutches before, as I am sure she will do yet again.

Images: Seychelles at Long Last