This is the valley about five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m there most mornings ahead of the golfers, so, very early. The sun is not fully up and it is tingeing the mountains various shades of pink and orange that if you painted it people would say ‘that doesn’t look real’. But in person it does.
In this valley each morning I listen to the Pied Butcher Birds carolling to each other, practicing their glorious songs for all to hear. The Kites sweep the sky looking for early morning prey. Dingoes are ghosting along, dissolving into the scrub as if they are apparitions. On days when there are no dingoes I see kangaroos gliding across the fairways, racing to secret themselves away for a daytime sleep.
Occasionally I see other humans, some walking their dogs around the trails and we smile and greet each other—fellow nature lovers out in the wee hours. And just now the wee hours are hovering around freezing, zero if you are in the metric school of thought, 32 if you are of the Fahrenheit persuasion. I leave a trail, my breath blowing a pale white cloud after me as I puff up the hill to warm stiff muscles more quickly. At the crest of the hill, this valley stretches out its arms, never failing to impress still drowsy eyes.
It was down near the back of the buggy trail in this valley six months ago that I found the tiny, five month old joey, hissing and crying bitterly in its life threatening circumstance. I scooped him up, carrying him in my tee shirt, hurriedly back to the top of the hill and home to call for help. The Kangaroo Sanctuary came in an hour or so to collect him and we named him Amos. We surmised that his mother, in a bid for one or the other of them to survive, had jettisoned him from her pouch and into the cool air on the dusty track. Miraculously, he had escaped notice until I arrived.
A couple of days later I walked that trail again and could smell death all around. At least two bodies lay decaying in the hills of the valley. It was not a smell you would mistake. It saddened me to know that the little joey’s mum was probably one of them. For a while I couldn’t walk that way again.The reality was just too visceral.
For a couple of weeks the Kangaroo Sanctuary sent me regular photos and news of dear little Amos. He was healthy and had even started to grow some hair! And then, a week before we departed on our trip to the Southern Ocean, a message from the Sanctuary…Amos had suddenly declined and within less than two days had died. They told me this is the way it happens. Mostly they survive, but when they die, it is sudden, and for no apparent reason they can identify.
I could scarcely believe how much I had bonded with little Amos and how very sad I was that his life had ceased. I cried off and on all day when I found out. It was probably just as well that I couldn’t allow myself too much time to grieve because we had to prepare for the trip.
There has been so much sadness and hardship in the world since then, that I have not wanted to write this to you. Putting another sad thing out into the world seemed unnecessary, and probably still is, so I apologise. I kept waiting and hoping there would come some kind of clarity to me for the reason I would be chosen to save the tiny life and then have it taken away again. None came.
And then I remembered what Tahnee at the Sanctuary had said to me ‘You can take comfort in knowing he was safe and loved when he passed.’ His end was not violent, it was quiet and warm and in loving care.
Sometimes there are just no other reasons, there is just love.
I have been thinking. Hard. Listening better. Reading deeper. The world needs to change, and I do too. I’ve thought about change from various perspectives through the years. Every time I moved states or country I changed. I can’t recall an occasion when this wasn’t for the better.
I heard recently, being uncomfortable is necessary. Even some pain is necessary until we emerge renewed. The scars may remain, but they are reminders of how it/we used to be. We don’t like discomfort, let alone pain. Life is very hard a lot of the time, if we are doing it right. All the more reason we need to bathe in joy when we occasionally find it.
I’ve noticed when I’m going through troubling times there are a few things that stabilise me, even give me cause for hope. They are mostly small, simple things…walks…homemade food…learning something new…watching nature…being creative.
Looking at things more closely reminds me of the day I had just cleaned the bathroom and then needed to do something in there with my reading glasses on and suddenly I realised all the dust I had missed! Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know and it’s good to take a closer look. I’m learning all kinds of things about converting basil cuttings with water roots, so that they will then grow in soil. I paid attention and five out of the five cuttings have survived. More importantly, I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the plight of People of Colour everywhere, especially in Australia and the USA. It’s the least I can do given my white privilege. The two things that are most important in our lives are the two things we have no control over…where we are born (what country) and who our parents are. I heard this many years ago and completely believe it, but am gaining a fuller understanding now.
Turning the questions around is a very important exercise too. I remember sitting at a table in a friend’s house 8 or 9 years ago, having a discussion with a third person about when she had colon cancer, the same year I’d had breast cancer. It was a stark wake up call to me, that not everyone reacts the same to things. She said her first thought was ‘Oh, why me?’ And literally, my first thought was ‘Why not me?’ I’m no better or worse than anyone else and people get cancer all the time, so why would I be exempt? We are not exempt from life’s trials and challenges, so we pull on our big girl panties and learn from it. All. There is always something to be learned.
Our local groceries have been out of coffee filters for weeks. There’s a tiny little sticker on the shelf where they should be that says ‘sorry customers, we are currently unable to get this product’. So this morning I tried making my coffee the old way, the way I used to make it before pour-over coffee became a thing. You know what? It tastes better! I may not go back to filters. I could spend the money on something more fun than a piece of paper that gets thrown in the garbage, or I could even donate it to support something I believe in.
What’s my point? When you know better, you can do better. Thank you Maya Angelou, for putting it so clearly we can all understand. Have a great day each and every one of you, go out there and listen and learn and be kind. Let’s all do better.
What I’ve been listening to…
On Being – interview with Eula Biss (also this repeat interview with Isabel Wilkerson here – see mention below)
For weeks I have been ruminating over the whole isolation and distancing scenario, trying to figure out how it is effecting me, and observing how it seems to be effecting others, what we are being told, too. I imagine you are doing the same.
It occurs to me that social distancing in general is actually somewhat agreeable to me. First of all, I don’t like crowds or crowded situations, that’s obviously an advantage. Also I don’t appreciate the smell of certain individuals who either wear too much perfume/after shave, or who choose not to bathe regularly or who consume great volumes of garlic, or who have boisterous children. Keeping some distance is fine with me. I miss hugs.
However, these words advertising a new tv show really hit a nerve:
…a lifestyle show for a world where nobody has a life.
What on earth are they talking about? I have a life. We all have lives right now. They may not be exactly the same as the ones we had a few months ago, but they are our lives and for most of us there is still some room for a variety of experiences within them. I resent someone telling me I don’t have a life. I’m well aware that for the elderly who are being kept isolated from visitors and loved ones, and for the young families, isolated together while trying to home school and work from home, for carers and first responders and for those who have lost jobs or own small struggling businesses, it is very tough. But for a number of us the change has not been devastating. It has been inconvenient at times, for sure, but isn’t life this way from time to time anyway? And aren’t there always people who have it better or worse than us? Didn’t Australia just experience the worst bush fires ever recorded? Those were hellish and mostly completely out of anyone’s control. To be sure, I know people who have been hurting. But we all still have a life, which means we have possibilities and choices.
Looking after a home and the inhabitants’ needs, requires conscious living. It always has, and it still does.
There have been the well publicised shortages, some of which are ongoing in the form of empty shelves, thankfully, no longer people fighting over things. This has highlighted in our home one of the ways in which I manage it—I always keep a backup of things we use regularly, in the pantry. This meant that when we came home from being away and the world had changed, we did not have to worry about desperate procurement of toilet paper, soap, sugar etc. This is called planning and organisation and I have always done it. Previously, it has been met with humorous derision in the form of me ‘always being prepared for a small famine’. No one is laughing now. I’m not a hoarder, just someone who plans a little bit ahead. Partly that comes from living in a place where unexpected weather events sometimes cause shortages of products, both food and otherwise. When the railway line is flooded, goods can’t get to us. If there is a drought or cyclone in an area where certain fruits or vegetables are grown, we may have a lean season. I remember Dad telling me, running out of things causes urgency and inefficiency and it can be avoided by just anticipating one’s needs.
‘Now’ is part of life. And we still have a Now, though sometimes challenging.
Recently I broke a tiny corner off a back tooth. It was very sharp. Thankfully, our dentists are doing emergency work. I had to be at the dentist at 8.30 in the morning and I was not looking forward to it. Our old dentist had sold the practice and retired since last time I’d been. So I tried one of the ‘children’ dentists, as my friend calls the younger ones. He was very gentle and conservative and thought it best to just grind off the sharp corner and watch the tooth for a while. All good. The odd part was the protocol. First of all, they had told me to wait in the car in the parking lot when I arrived, because they aren’t allowed to use their waiting room. Apparently I was also supposed to call them when I arrived, which someone forgot to tell me, or I didn’t hear–it’s a lot to absorb sometimes with all the new regulations. But given they can look out the windows and see cars and the occupants, I thought perhaps they would just see that I was there. When I’d been sitting there for a few minutes, they called me and asked if I was coming. I said “yes, I’m here!” She replied “Oh, just come to the front door and we’ll meet you there.” The dentist met me at the front door with sanitiser, then when I got into his room, the dental assistant met me with more sanitiser, and after that I still had to wash my hands!! Then I had to rinse my mouth with disinfectant, spit into a paper cup that was then disposed of, and finally put on the extra large bib and plastic glasses. I did feel for a minute like I was living in a sci-fi film, or had leprosy and no one told me.
But I still have a life and it is still filled with simple moments of joy.
Despite daily physical therapy exercises for years, occasionally the muscle in my upper left thigh still plays up. I know when it does that, if I jog uphill at the start of my morning walks, it somehow sorts out the problem, and in a few days or a week it stops hurting. After five days of pre-walk jogs, I started out of the house and realised it was fine, no more pain.
There was a full moon and I thought I’d jog up the steep hill to the third tee, just for extra measure. It had been months since I’d scrambled around the rocky outcrops, chasing early morning light for photo opportunities. That morning was the Flower Supermoon and it was especially bright and beautiful, so I had special incentive.
As I crunched around the rocks and dry plants, looking for good vantage points from which to photograph, I thought about how comforting it is to do something enjoyable, however simple it may be. In fact, I’m quite partial to simple things. I was also listening to a gentle discussion via a favourite podcast, about a favourite book by Pema Chödrön, ‘When Things Fall Apart’. It is so full of wise passages…
Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart
We still have a life, and the moments of joy amidst the inconvenience, anxiety and sadness, are there to be seen. We just have to look for them and allow them to exist with everything else.
We could have had one last safari, making six, before we left Gondwana. But the last two had taken a toll on my tummy that I just couldn’t shake. The effect was worse than the roughest seas on the cruise and Don was happy to be done as well. We decided to get an early start for Franschhoek (pronounced: Fran-chook). We knew we were running low on energy and we had to save some for whatever might happen on our trip home.
When we said farewell to Felix we could tell he was very worried about his family and how he would support them. Gondwana had announced they would be winding down at the end of that week, keeping only a basic crew to maintain the reserve.
‘last one out, turn off the lights’
Just as when we had arrived to a welcoming committee, we left with a cheeky farewell from the Gondwana inhabitants. As we drove past small towns and townships* we felt quite heavy and sad, for we could see what was coming. In the townships people live very close together and many have poor hygiene and no transport, so they were hitchhiking rides. A perfect ‘vehicle’ for an eager virus. Even though the government was being very proactive with regard to the virus, and there were only a few hundred cases at that stage, we just knew what would likely befall them.
The drive was, again, very pretty landscape, and we had a nice, albeit brief, refuel and loo stop in Swellendam. We watched a local woman making ‘rooster bread’ as it is called. There was a little cafe two doors away who would make the dough and this lady came every day to cook the bread for them. She would roll the dough into mounds, then one at a time she would place a mound on the grill and pat it down. When it cooked on one side she turned it over to the other side and then stacked them up ready for the cafe to use. Apparently they put anything in them you would use in a sandwich. I would loved to have tried one, but we weren’t the least bit hungry so I asked to take the photos and thanked the woman, and we were on our way again.
We drove through the Franschhoek Pass to get to the town and so we had a stunning view of the area even before we’d arrived. This region, as with Stellenbosch, was famous for wine, but we were not going to experience that side of things on this trip, due to the alcohol restrictions. Our accommodation was a rather unusual place, set beautifully with the mountain as backdrop and a stunning scene from the outside tables as well. The L’ermitage Franschhoek Chateau was what I would call a group of holiday apartments, large bedroom and sitting area, with kitchenette and luxurious bathroom. There were all kinds of balconies and outside areas to sit which we used to advantage, while planning our activity for the following day. The place was even set out for weddings, with its own chapel and small reception hall. That evening there was a small wedding and reception, without alcohol but nonetheless enjoyed.
When it came right down to it, the town was mostly empty and with the wineries and museums closed we had to get a bit creative. We had seen something about a large organic farm a short drive from town and decided we would drive there and see if they were open. Again, we were lucky. They were open and due to small crowds, we had a private tour around the main gardens. It was their last day to be open due to lockdown measures and it was the most incredible place of that type we have ever visited. Babylonstoren** used their own organic produce to make nearly everything that was sold on the farm. There was a winery (closed, of course), a farm shop with dairy products, breads, meats, olives and many other things. The Scent Factory used their own herbs to make soaps, creams, perfume and other products. Also there were two restaurants, one that served large meals and one with smaller offerings, called The Greenhouse, our choice later in the afternoon. The lamb and olive pie, halloumi and salad sandwich and a shared dessert, were all homemade using their own organic ingredients.
It was the most relaxing, nourishing and calm place you can imagine and a perfect choice for our last full day in South Africa.
The last morning we were away smartly, though CapeTown was only an hour’s drive. By the time we filled the car with petrol, dropped off the rental and got to the airport several hours had elapsed. We had an hour or so to wait but we had eaten breakfast before departing L’ermitage, even though breakfast was being served in the airport lounge. I noted the food was all open and subject to any airborne germs that might be around, so I was glad I wasn’t hungry. I was pretty sure that uncovered food would not be the case for much longer. We could feel the tension everywhere.
So you see, the things we worry will happen to us, seldom do. And the things that we never see coming are the ones to bring us undone. Our bags were never lost. We were never sick, or seasick. I seldom had any problem finding food I could eat or the appropriate clothes from my suitcase. Even my pants fit perfectly to the very end.
Big challenges yield big memories…and they don’t get much bigger.
*townships are loosely equivalent to Indigenous communities in Australia, or Indian reservations in the USA
**Babylonstoren, so called because of the various languages in South Africa, having been settled by the French Huganots and the Dutch centuries before. And ‘storen’ is the word for ‘hill’ taken from one of those languages. The garden was designed by French architect Patrice Taravella.
We had set our alarms for 5.20am the next morning. Somehow 5.30 didn’t seem quite enough for two people to be ready and present for a 6am safari departure. It was tough. The activity, anxiety and travel was beginning to wear on us. The early start, before sunrise, was the reverse of the evening before. It was cold at the outset, and so we were rugged up, and Felix’s polar fleece ponchos were gratefully received. Bouncing through the cold, damp morning air woke us up in a hurry. Having recently completed the Southern Ocean-course -in- zodiac-hair-and-makeup, I did not consider any preparation beyond clean face and teeth, but the Canadian woman looked like she’d just stepped out of a fashion spread. I tried to keep some distance between us. I did wonder how early she had to get up to look like that, but only for a moment. She was nice, and smart too, I hasten to add.
There was coffee and tea, again, which we did not have–breakfast would be after we returned in 2-3 hours. A short while out, we spotted a herd of Elands atop a ridge. Felix announced we were going to try and find the lions, because they could be quite elusive and it might take several safaris to locate them. But of course during the search we saw many other animals. There were blue wildebeests, zebras and various kinds of antelope, cape buffalo, hippos, and baboons. We stopped for morning tea. I took photos of plants.
The search for lions was fruitless. Felix explained, during hunting was the most active they would be. After a kill and feeding, they laze around in the shade and sleep for days, making them very difficult to spot. He further explained there was only one pride of five lions in the whole of the 26,000 acres of the reserve. This was because the reserve followed a balanced approach in the numbers of animals of each type. They could cohabitate and live as nature intended, killing to eat as required. It was all self-sustaining. He said the staff never, ever intervened in the animal behaviours as they interacted with each other. Even when the animals occasionally roamed through the villa and lodge area, they were allowed to do their own thing, as long as ‘their own thing’ didn’t include human consumption. One night, some time back, guests were trapped in the lodge restaurant a couple of extra hours after they had finished their meals, due to the lions deciding to have a look around. No one had seen lions for days before we had arrived, or while we were there, so it was just not to be. Curiously, they were the animals we were least interested in seeing.
Every safari showed us a different aspect of the animals and the environment. We had five in all. Our last morning safari was an astonishing encounter, again with elephants. Felix found a small herd, moving across the hillside, eating grass as they moved. If I told you that he spotted the herd from over a kilometre away, you wouldn’t think it possible. He had the most incredible eyesight. When we got to the location, Felix pulled the vehicle right in the path of where he thought they would walk. Everyone, except the four year old, was quiet. You could hear the elephants breathe and tear the grass from the ground as they quietly moved through. It was an unforgettable few minutes. The video, which this template won’t allow me to load onto this blog, is on my instagram page if you want to have a look @amosthemagicdog. Also, my other favourite video of a herd of young impalas is there as well.
We were surprised when Felix asked us not to post photos of the rhinos. Poaching is still very dangerous for rhinos, and the metadata that poachers can get from photos helps locate them. Even though Gondwana is strictly protected, you can imagine how difficult it must be to protect all 26,000 acres of hills and valleys. In some cases the reserve has cut off most of the rhinos’ horns, to protect them if poachers should find them. Nothing to see here, fellas. But a couple of rhinos had their original, natural horns, proving that nature knows what she is doing. The graceful, tapered curve of the natural horns created the perfect foil to their otherwise bulky shape.
We were repeatedly reminded that the animals are wild. They are kind of used to the vehicles filled with humans, as long as there are no surprises, but the animals are still wild. I suppose in that regard they were like the penguins and seals we saw on the cruise. I’m sure they don’t miss us pesky humans one bit while we are staying away just now!
On our second day, in the afternoon break between breakfast and evening safari, we decided to take a short hike through a protected area on the Reserve called the Fynbos. This is a very specific biome particular to southwestern, South Africa, but some of the plants are also seen in South America and Australia, due to the once large land mass called Gondwana. One of the most dominant plants outside of the protected area is the protea. I have never seen such expanse of protea, largely because the other Fynbos plants are not present in enough numbers to control it. The proteas become so dense they keep the wildlife from being able to move through, so controlled burning is used for the large areas. Also, as in Australia, some of the plants actually require the heat from fires to regenerate. The protected area where we walked was full of plants included in the Fynbos, as well as zebras and giraffes! They are timid creatures and so we were allowed to walk in this area, but they kept their distance. Below are the photos from that walk. Because we had to mostly stay in the vehicles, there were few chances to look closely at the vegetation.
On the evening of our last full day at Gondwana, we noticed the bar was closed. More COVID-19 restrictions were in place. No sale of alcohol, even with meals, was allowed. Even though this reserve was privately owned, the new rules applied. With every new restriction we became more anxious. We still had three nights left in South Africa, at least we hoped we did. We were in constant touch with Qantas and were reassured our flights were still in place.
We had it on good advice that Gondwana* Game Reserve would not disappoint us in our desire to see African animals. But honestly, how many wonderful animal experiences could a person rightly expect from one trip? It was hard to believe that anything could live up to the experiences we had just witnessed on our cruise. But it turns out you can be incredibly lucky.
The game reserve was about a four and half hour drive from Stellenbosch. After a little bit of a lie-in, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast at our B&B and had a reasonably prompt start. Google map played one of its well known tricks and took us on a gravel road because it was the shortest route after we turned off the highway. We later discovered the paved road was faster, though technically not shorter.
From the highway, and for most of the drive on the gravel road, it was hard to believe this was the game reserve that had wild animals and had come so highly recommended. The lie of the land was unimpressive, though the drive there had been lovely. We arrived at the manned entrance, identified ourselves and were given a map to get to the lodge and accommodation. The minute we turned into the drive, it was as if we had come into an altered Universe. There were giraffes. I swear I nearly hyperventilated. No one is allowed to leave their vehicle so photos from the car window were required. It’s not as if we hadn’t seen giraffes close up before. We hand fed them at Monarto Zoo in South Australia a couple of years ago. But this was uncontrived and so casual…oh, yeah, those ole things, just giraffes, you know.
We arrived at the lodge and were shown to the villa that would be our accommodation for the next three nights. It was truly perfect. It was ‘glamping’**, and more…rustic but with a king size bed, and all the niceties. The view from the bed toward the stunning landscape and the other villas was very special. We were told our first ‘safari’ would be in an hour, but we were required to meet in half an hour so the guide could gather his group and so we could have afternoon tea before departing at 5pm. Thrust into it, we barely had time to change clothes and get to the meeting point which, fortunately, was the bar area, a stone’s throw from our villa.
There was no way I was going to have a cup of tea when about to leave on a three hour safari, but I could manage a couple of tiny tea cakes. After four weeks, I was learning to cope with semi-permanent dehydration. Our guide for the entire stay was Felix. What he didn’t know about the animals and the country probably wasn’t worth knowing. He was a really lovely man. Felix gathered everyone and showed us to our vehicle, which held 9 adults, plus the seat beside Felix. The three rows of seats were graduated in height from front to back so that everyone would have a clear view. Very clever. Don and I decided we would climb to the seats at the back…not realising they were also the least comfortable over bumpy terrain…and it was ALL bumpy terrain. But the main reason we decided the back seat was worth trying was the very precocious, and vocal, four year old with his parents. Fresh from a wilderness experience with only adults, a loud four year old was not something we had anticipated.
Our first safari that evening was our baptism by bump. Felix had decided to chase down one of the elephant herds. When I say we went over hill and dale, that is putting it mildly. My poor back and stomach were tortured to the limit and my bladder…well, once again, we were being stoic. We had been told there were no toilet facilities anywhere, which was plainly evident, so, when a man about thirty years younger than us asked if he could do a ‘necessary stop’, I wanted to say ‘Really?’
But we were rewarded with elephants. And not just elephants, but baby elephants. They were astonishingly majestic, as was the scenery. We would never ever have guessed that this incredible terrain lay only a few miles from the highway that carried us there.
As the sun set the temperature plummeted unbelievably. Felix handed out ponchos, which at first some accepted politely, but later snuggled into gratefully. It had been hot when we left so no one wore jackets, but now we were freezing. It was dark by the time we returned for dinner and we were tired and hungry and in desperate need of a ‘necessary stop’. I think all that bouncing around actually burns energy!
It was rather late by the time we’d eaten dinner and Felix had told us he would be calling us at 5.30 the next morning, for a 6am departure. All I could think of was the good ole days when I thought zodiac excursions were challenging…
**glamping is a combined word from ‘glamorous-camping’
*Gondwana: we hear a lot about Gondwana here in Australia as it is thought that about 550 million years ago, Australia, Africa and South America formed a single land mass and it has been given that name. It was readily visible in the shared plants we saw, both in South Africa and here in Australia.
Thirty-six hours prior to landing in CapeTown saw us hit the roughest seas of the trip. The sick bags appeared on the hand rails again, and this time, both Don and I were feeling passing waves (excuse the pun) of seasickness. We visited the bridge to watch the huge swell and waves lash the ship, even up to the windows of deck 5, which, incidentally, was the deck we were staying on! Even this did not make me want to leave the ship for the next leg of our journey.
Our arrival into CapeTown was filled with mixed emotions…for me at least. If I’m honest, I have to say that I never had a desire to visit CapeTown, so for me we were leaving the best holiday we’d ever had, and if we were allowed to disembark, transitioning into a place I didn’t really want to be. Even Don, who had wanted to go there for years remarked how dry and brown Table Mountain looked. You seldom hear about it but South Africa’s rainfall levels have steadily decreased for decades. There had been a serious water shortage only the year before. Finally, they’d had enough rain to replenish some areas, but still nowhere near historic normal rainfall. We were glad we had made the decision to not stay the night in CapeTown, and especially glad since this is where coronavirus started in South Africa.
We knew that this part of the trip could be fraught with difficulty. Our travel agents had conferred on our part and decided we should stick with the bookings we had, and try to complete the last 6 days of our trip. We had been granted permission to dock the ship, but passengers would not be allowed to disembark until everyone’s temperature had been taken the evening of our arrival. This was more than had been allowed for a German ship that had arrived just days before us, at the same dock. The German ship had been flat out refused permission to allow passengers off, and further, had been told to go away! I had made friends with a German couple on our voyage and they later updated me with the fate of the German ship. It was eventually allowed to stay at the dock but the passengers were not allowed to leave until Germany sent charter flights to take the 2000 passengers home. It was a couple of weeks before that happened, apparently.
The next morning our health report was good. We had been confident it would be. We were just unsure if the authorities would see things the same way. Early that morning, we were allowed to leave Le Lyrial. As we departed we were handed a face mask, our names crossed off the passenger manifest, and the Captain…Our Captain, as always, was there to bid us bon voyage. We elbow bumped and I told him again how very much we had enjoyed the voyage. Even as I write this, there is a lump in my throat when I think of the sadness at leaving our safe bubble and the care of our dedicated Captain and crew. We walked down the ramp and onto the dock where dock workers in high vis vests and masks pointed us toward the immigration area. Already the world seemed impersonal and strange. Surprisingly, no one checked our immunisation documents, as we had been told they would. We were simply passed through to find our bags and exit outside to the transport area. It was all so ordinary and unceremonious, and scary.
After a short wait our transfer driver, Denzel, appeared with a very clean vehicle supplied with every kind of sanitiser known to humankind. We were soon to find out, sanitiser and soap was in plentiful supply in South Africa. Also plentiful were smiles and assistance. Once we had collected our rental car, we drove straight out of CapeTown to the town of Stellenbosch. It was only an hour’s drive and when we arrived at the B&B it wasn’t yet lunch time. Don was reeling from the effects of being at sea for most of the last three weeks, and by the next day I was feeling it too. We would suddenly be taken over by a woozy, disorienting feeling, as we tried to get our land legs back again.
Unsurprisingly, we were both exhausted. We spent the afternoon at the nearby botanic gardens, where we also had a very nice lunch. Later that afternoon we strolled through a very quiet Stellenbosch and learned the government had closed all the pubs and most wineries, and there was no sale of liquor allowed after 1pm…so if you wanted a Bloody Mary for breakfast you were fine, but something with dinner, not likely. The government had already begun its effort to discourage gatherings by limiting the sale of alcohol. There were a few exceptions, one of which we happened to find for dinner. It was a nervous time for everyone.
We had rented a small apartment in a Victorian era house that had been converted. It was so delightful and felt immediately like a safe place to be. We had a lovely little garden and a small kitchenette. However, there was little time to enjoy our oasis, we were already heading on to our next adventure the following day. And in our spare time we nervously watched the news headlines.
When things are difficult, we yearn for comfort. As we neared the end of the cruise and tensions were raising due to the many uncertainties, the Chef and his staff consistently soothed us with pastries and afternoon teas. It felt like my absolute duty to taste-test the offerings. Research, you understand.
Warning: items shown in this blog post have been consumed. Discretion is advised.
Each night for the entire cruise, we returned from dinner to a small pastry or sweet of some kind. Often we were too full and too tired to eat it, but it was such a nice little thing to return to the room, bed turned down, towels refreshed, room tidied, and two little night nibbles. One evening in particular there appeared on our freshly turned down bed, two perfectly lovely little boxes decorated with a likeness of French author, Marcel Proust. Each contained one of his favourite small, shell shaped cakes known as ‘madeleines’.
It seemed only polite to sample the many breads, pastries and croissant freshly baked for breakfast each morning. I remained restrained throughout, but carefully worked my way through, the flakey fruit pastries, the croissant and the many varieties of bread that were beautifully displayed. I regularly returned to favourites like croissant and grainy bread. Mostly I had a bowl of fruit and a piece or two of cheese, followed by a pastry or piece of bread…delicious…with butter. If that sounds sinful, guilty as charged.
For lunch and dinner there was also bread but often I saved myself for a little dessert. One of the best things about desserts were the very small servings. Could this be the secret to how French women stay so slim? One could taste and enjoy without completely throwing caution to the wind. Or when one felt compelled, try two or three things…because they were so very tiny…not me of course…but I heard stories…
My two favourite meals were a confit duck pie, and vegetables on polenta. Most meals were very good, even with me having to dodge onion in things, but these two were outstanding, comfort food dishes, while being a bit gourmet as well.
For the first half of the cruise I am sorry to say I purposely avoided the afternoon teas. There was so much good food at meal times and then there was the whole ‘will my pants fit me in another three weeks?’ issue. I thought discretion was called for. However. I made up for it the last week or so when they started doing themed teas…
Parisian classics – the tiny one dipped in chocolate is a small madeleine…the round one to the left was my favourite ‘cookie’, a crisp buttery morsel, but one was never enough, the little tiny ‘loaf’ shaped cake was almond.
French Regional Classics –tiny donuts in sugar, an almond bread filled with lemon curd, and an orange flavoured glutinous mouthful to the right
Choux and Mille Feuille–choux pastry filled with custard, and crispy layered pastry, likewise filled with custard
Macarons–classic meringue shells with pistachio, chocolate or vanilla cream filling
And Crêpes Suzette, so tender and sweet, it was comfort on a plate.
Oo lala. So fancy.
For those who are partial to savoury tea treats, there was a ‘pata negra’ tasting (Spanish ham, named for the hoof colour of the pigs from which it is made), caviar tasting, and often tiny little toasted French sandwiches.
Creme Caramel is always a favourite of mine and this was no exception. The photo doesn’t look so attractive, but the flavour was delicious. Also, a favourite was the lemon tart. So clean, crisp and just sweet enough. This came in two forms, a single serving tart with meringue topping, and a simple tart with no topping. I preferred the simple tart but somehow missed getting a good photo of it…probably ate it too fast.
I also would not refuse this almond and nut tart if someone sat it in front of me.
The pièce de résistance, however, was the chocolate tart. It really was perfection. The filling was rich and velvety, the pastry crisp and light. Merveilleux. (I learned the French word for ‘marvellous’ just so I could complement the chef)
Food and wine wasn’t the most important reason we chose this trip, but it was certainly a major contributor to our enjoyment. And too much of a good thing can be wonderful, n’est-ce pas?
After the Captain’s tale of the Somali pirates, most of us would have followed him anywhere. So, when we approached the first of our supposed excursions around the Tristan da Cunha group (Gough Island) if he had said ‘Jump!’, to get into the zodiacs, we might have done it! However, the seas were rough and it was decided it was unsafe for our planned excursion, so we would have to view the island from the ship. The ship was manoeuvred as close as safety would allow and through the mists we could see it was a wild and not easily accessible place.
The next day was better for excursions and during that day we also got a look at the community of Tristan da Cunha…from afar. After exploring the coast of the island, it was nearing the end of the day and the light was gorgeous. Most of us gathered on deck to enjoy the light and the splendid sunset.
This photo, taken on that glorious sunset evening, shows Marcus Bergstrom, from Sweden, and Laura Jordan from France, both Naturalists. They also had excellent command of English, were licensed zodiac drivers, and were excellent photographers. Marcus was the ‘bird guy’ who loved Albatrosses, and Laura has an Instagram feed (@laurajordan_) specialising in photos and videos from this cruise and others. There were ten naturalists in all, some with many years of education and experience and who spoke several languages.
During our visit to Tristan da Cunha there was a very sweet little background story developing. Our local expert, Conrad, had been supposed to stay at his home on Tristan once our tour of the islands finished. However, the town was not even allowing him to disembark! And worse, the town, whose speciality is fresh lobster, was not going to supply the lobster our chef had ordered! This was dire. Conrad would have to accompany us to CapeTown and figure out how to get home later. There are no airstrips so his only choice would be sea travel. Our very creative thinking crew hatched another idea. The afternoon, after we had completed our zodiac cruises of Tristan, we saw a zodiac with Conrad ripping through the waters back toward the ship. In the boat, piled around him, were bags of fresh lobsters, and his lovely wife huddled against him to accompany him for the remainder of his quarantine in CapeTown, however long that might be. His wife had loaded the lobsters and then herself into the zodiac to join her husband and preserve everyone’s safety. Knowing what we do now, we think Conrad and his wife were probably not able to leave South Africa. I guess we will never know.
Before leaving the archipelago we had excursions to the other two islands in this group, Nightingale and Inaccessible. To be perfectly honest, our schedule was now so different from plan A and plan B, I have no idea which of these photos were from which island. Normally when I am confused I just check the metadata on the photos and it will have the place name. But in the Southern Ocean, the photos mostly just say ‘Southern Ocean’. Helpful. It doesn’t really matter, they were very close together and both quite wild and, as the name of the latter would indicate, mostly inaccessible except by zodiac.
COVID-19 news was becoming more and more worrisome with each day. At about this point in the trip, again, the Captain called everyone to the theatre, this time, at 9.30 in the evening. I was beyond tired and Don agreed to attend and tell me the outcome. Based on recent experience we thought it would be serious. It was. The Ponant company had decided to ask all ships to go to the nearest port, disembark passengers and head for home port in Marseilles. This turned out to be extremely good judgement on their part. We were still four days from CapeTown which was the soonest we could get anywhere. All of the crew except for 21, would also have to disembark there, as would those passengers who had been supposed to take the cruise on to Durbin and the Seychelles. The anxiety became palpable. We compared stories of where we were supposed to travel next and how we might amend our plans, while sharing with each other any information we had. Good access to internet meant that we were aware of the rapid changes in conditions since we had departed Ushuaia, but there was not a single thing we could do except communicate with our travel agents and revise plans, until we got to CapeTown. We weren’t even certain if we would be allowed off the ship once we arrived, but somehow the crew kept smiling, all the while working on our behalf behind the scenes.
when is she ever going to end this saga??…soon my pretties, soon…
Once again we were at sea. A time to settle and to look forward to the next part of the journey, the islands of Tristan da Cunha. We were to stop at three of the islands in the archipelago. Most of us knew nothing about Tristan, but Ponant, ever foreword thinking in its effort to make the trip enjoyable and educational, had a member of the Tristan community aboard the ship! He had been the community police officer for about 30 years and was able to answer any question you could put to him. This town of less than 300 people had begun after a shipwreck in the 1600’s. Some of the crew members decided to stay and make a life on Tristan. Others left to return home, and gradually over the years other ships had left passengers who wanted to remain, some married and on it went. In 1816 the British claimed Tristan as a strategic territory in an effort to ensure Napoleon, incarcerated on St. Helena, would not be rescued by the French. St. Helena was over a thousand miles away and once they were assured this wouldn’t happen, the British left Tristan and went home. There are only 7 surnames among the inhabitants, all reflecting the mixed heritage of Asian, European and African. It is a largely agrarian lifestyle more akin to what our great-grandparents lived. They fish and grow their own vegetables, raise sheep and spin their own wool. These days they are able to get occasional shipments of more modern goods, and they even have the internet. But it remains arguably the most remote inhabited island in the world. It would take us four days to reach Tristan.
During those days we had a choice of a number of talks and films, as well as various entertainment opportunities–classical piano, contemporary singing, games, quizzes, the usual suspects. We were also fortunate to sight a Right Whale swimming along with the ship one day, and many different birds. It was shocking to think how far from land those birds were!
It was then we learned COVID-19 had finally caught up with us.
Once again the Captain summoned us to the theatre to give us the news. Our anticipated stop at Tristan da Cunha was in doubt. Serious doubt. After much deliberation between our guide leader and Captain and the town leaders of Tristan, it was decided the town did not want to take the risk of letting us come ashore. They did not want to risk their elderly to the virus, even though no one on the ship showed any symptoms at all. There was not even a runny nose that I saw the entire three weeks. But the Tristan inhabitants stood firm.
Once again our Captain and crew made decisions to reorganise our excursions while in the archipelago. We would do all of our visits from the safety of the zodiacs. By the time we got to CapeTown, we had not touched land for 12 days. If that didn’t make us virus free, I don’t know what would!
Later that afternoon, the skies cleared and the sea shone like silver, studded with the most spectacular pod of between 200-300 Dusky Dolphins.
It was also during this time at sea before reaching the archipelago that the rumours around the ship began to circulate. Captain Marchesseau was somewhat of a hero in France. Really? I am not a good enough writer to sufficiently describe the character of the Captain. We knew him as very funny, capable of astounding mimicry of a king penguin over the intercom, as well as attentive to every detail of the ship’s operation. It was clear he was a man of great capability, but a hero? Do tell.
As luck would have it, and we seemed to ‘have it’ on a regular basis, the former Admiral of the French Navy was also a passenger on board our cruise. And as we were soon to find out, in 2008, Admiral Gillier became well acquainted with one Captain Marchesseau during a terrible incident aboard a Ponant ship. The two of them generously presented their tale one day in the theatre to an enthralled audience. I won’t tell you in the detail presented, mostly because I can’t remember it all, but you can Google the Captain, Patrick Marchesseau and read it yourself. It was headline making news. The Captain and 30 crew were overtaken by Somali pirates!
Captain Marchesseau and a skeleton crew were heading back to France at the end of a cruise season. As they were moving through a dangerous patch of sea off of Africa, two speed boats approached them and though the captain ordered the ship to do a zig-zag manoeuvre in an effort to shake them, the pirates were experienced enough to know the vulnerable part of the ship was the middle, which moved very little, even in this situation. They threw over their lines and began to board the ship. The crew attempted to fight them off with fire hoses, but the pirates had high powered guns. When a window was shattered from one of the guns, the Captain called the crew to back off and the pirates boarded the ship.
There ensued six days of negotiations and subterfuge on the part of the Captain to keep his crew safe. He had ordered the female crew to the lower bowels of the ship where they stayed for a couple of days, until they no longer could. The captain was worried what the pirates might do to the young women. However, the captain said, the pirates were never abusive toward the crew or himself, discounting the continual week long threat at the point of guns. The Captain began his own subtle power game so that whenever the pirates wanted him to do something, he would negotiate with them to also do something for him. This gave him some respect from the pirates, but also gave him back a little control. He was able to send an SOS signal without them knowing, and he and his crew were able to fake some engine trouble that meant they had to travel more slowly, giving the Admiral and navy time to respond to the situation. For example, when the pirates wanted to bring aboard goats and sheep and slaughter them live for their own food, he made them agree to clean up after themselves, which, surprisingly, they did.
Eventually the ship was moored in waters off the Somalia coast. The Admiral from his end, and the Captain from his end, negotiated a trade of the crew for a few hundred thousand Euros. On the final and seventh day of the siege, the crew, except Captain Marchesseau, were released into French hands, while four of the pirates took the money and headed inland. The remaining pirates on board, perhaps thinking their operation had succeeded and they could relax, had taken their attentions away from the Captain. He had walked far forward to the bow of the ship with a radio, to communicate with the French navy as the crew was released. He found himself standing on the bow of the ship. Alone… wondering what would happen next, when came an order: “JUMP!” Being an obedient servant of his country, he thought for a very brief second after hearing the order, ‘Yes, why not?!’ And so he did. Jump. From the bow of the ship into the water. Waiting for him was a boat, hidden just out of sight in the shadow of the bow.
If you have ever stared up at the deck of a ship from the water’s height, you will know it is a very long drop. But the captain’s courage won the day. The Admiral put a plan into action to capture the pirates and the ransom. They captured seven of the pirates, five of whom were convicted and sent to jail, but only part of the ransom, which had been quickly dispersed.
If you Google the Captain you will find mention of the book he wrote about the entire ordeal, and many photos of his welcome home, receiving an award for bravery and so on. So all the while we had been in the most capable hands, which he continued to prove, even as, six days later we would disembark into the world of COVID-19.