Drifting on Starlight

Justin Fox takes a voyage from Durban on the cruise ship Melody.

Embarkation was organised chaos. It was as though the Starlight team was deliberately creating a distinction between the mayhem of landlubber life and the calm of the shipboard world passengers would be embraced by.

We waited an hour for the bus from the airport to the harbour, then another two hours in a noisy terminal to board the ship. Batches of passengers were called according to the colour stickers they had on their tickets. I’d arrived too late for stickers, so had to wait at the back of a thousand-person queue. There was lots of tropical tat for sale and plenty of beer drinking: my prospective shipmates weren’t wasting time getting into the swing of things.

When we emerged from the hangar, the Melody towered like a white apartment block above us. I found a hole in its side and was engorged into the blissfully air-conditioned interior; smiling  crew led me to my cabin. It was spacious and spotless. The luggage was soon delivered and I began to unwind.

An intercom announced we were leaving Durban harbour and I made for the bridge. Almost imperceptibly the deck began to quiver: massive diesel pistons waking the leviathan. Passengers crammed the rails, video cameras pointed in every direction, an M-Net team scuttled around trying to look important, cellphone cameras clicked happily, and we slowly separated ourselves from the pier. Then the pilot aimed our bows at the Bluff and soon we pierced the mouth into a stiff northeaster. A port authority chopper plucked the pilot from our deck … and we were free of land. The Melody dragged a lazy sweep to port and Durban’s skyline slipped beneath the swell.

Some of my fellow passengers, particularly the ones who’d segued seamlessly from terminal beer to shipboard brandy and Coke, were on top form. A large farmer from the Free State danced solo to synthesised music courtesy of Lorenz. He langarm-ed  gracefully across the deck, singing lustily along to Elton John and Beatles covers. By now the Melody was rolling into an open-ocean swell and the farmer’s dance moves were thus at times not as fluid as he may have wished … and at other times far too fluid.

Other imbibers started to look a bit green around the gills and I feared for them. Perhaps they should have found their sea legs before they’d lost their land legs to the tipple. I foresaw a nasty few hours ahead. Indeed, there was soon the whiff of projectile vomit on the stairs, but the staff were instantly there with wet and dry vacuums and deodorisers. All hint was swiftly erased.

Snooping round the ship it soon  became apparent that we were a microcosm of society, a small cross-section of South Africa at sea. Actually, not just South Africa: although the passengers were mostly local, the officers were mainly Italian (the Melody being a Mediterranean Shipping Company vessel) and the rest of the staff and crew comprised more than 20 other nations.

Our giant wedding cake was in some respects an ‘ideal’ society – well, a class-conscious belle époque society to be precise. The upper class and nobility (officers in their starched white uniforms and suite-cabin passengers) lorded from the top decks. Our happy group of middlebrow travellers occupied the middle decks and were waited on hand and foot by the denizens of the lower decks. It seemed that from the bowels of the ship, like some Wellsian sub-class, emerged the Malaysian, Philippine and other workers and cleaners who were constantly mopping and scrubbing and polishing and painting.

To keep us content, we of the middle classes and decks required bread and circuses … every minute of the day. Hence the packed food and entertainment programme, which will reveal itself below.

Life on the ocean wave

Not long after leaving Durban it was time for our Compulsory Emergency Drill. At the signal – seven short and one long blast on the ship’s siren – everyone had to grab lifejackets from their cabins and muster at designated stations where they would be assigned a lifeboat.

The more lubricated passengers blew on their lifejacket whistles and cracked crude Titanic jokes. I tried to point out this was not the done thing, but was shouted down.

“Women and children first!” called out one gent.

“Hooray!” cried the middle-aged dame in the floral hat. “Then I can leave Henry behind!”

After the drill, day moulded itself into dusk and KwaZulu-Natal shrunk to a charcoal line. In only a few hours the passengers seemed completely in tune with life at sea. Was the transformation promised in the brochure really happening?

The cruise director, Stephen Cloete, was responsible for our entertainment pleasure in the coming days and introduced us to his team of dancers, singers, magicians and comedians in the Club Universe theatre. We were given a pocket history of Mozambique (Da Gama to Independence in three-and-a-half minutes – just enough for toddlers and those of contracted attention spans).

Stephen also told us some of the silly questions he gets asked by passengers, and his deadpan replies. Like, “Does the ship have its own electricity supply?” (No, madam, we drag a power cable behind us from Durban.) Or, “Do the staff live on board?” (No, sir, they sleep in a submarine that trails the ship and are transferred by dolphin.)

Stephen, it must be said, was a damn good ambassador for cruising. He was not averse to knocking other forms of travel, especially flying. “What on earth does the flight attendant mean by telling you there’s a lifejacket under your seat? I mean we don’t issue you with parachutes when you step aboard!”

First night was the Captain’s Gala Cocktail Party, followed by a formal dinner. We queued for an hour to have our picture taken with Capitano Antonio Siviero (his ferret-size moustache and gold braid buffed for the occasion), then waited for a short welcoming speech and the first dance. Siviero plucked a blonde from the audience and his officers followed suit enthusiastically.

Then came dinner. You’re assigned a table for the length of your cruise and must sink or swim in conversation through seven-course meals. Our table comprised an ensemble of singletons: a blend of Pretoria horticulturalists and BEE businessmen. We swam, just.

A word about food. Cruise ships float on their stomachs. There are seven official meals a day (from the early-bird buffet to a midnight feast), and plenty of in-between opportunities to overindulge. Being an Italian ship, the bias was towards pastas and pizzas and, despite having to prepare in such vast quantities, the quality was very high. In fact, judging by the corpulence of some of the passengers, the ship was only an incidental means to the buffet end.

Each night after dinner we were treated to a cabaret show. You had to marvel at how the showgirls in their dental-floss outfits and matching feathers managed to keep time on a stage that moved unpredictably under their feet. When the rest of us hit the disco later, we had no such dexterity … or was it the strawberry daiquiris?

The entertainment package was full. There were game shows, Italian lessons, karaoke, paper-jet folding contests, singles get-togethers, crepe-paper flower-making sessions … so much to do and so little time.

One night saw a tropical party on the pool deck billed as ‘the biggest floating disco in the Indian Ocean.’ Incredibly, I found myself in a 300-person conga line and then, alas, I ‘did the ‘Macarena’’ (quite well, actually). I also somehow ended up repeatedly pointing at the sky and at the deck, singing “Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive” at the top of my lungs. I even succumbed to YMCA … with all the hand movements. Oh well, I’m assured such things happen almost inadvertently on cruises.

Shore leave

Our itinerary offered three opportunities to go ashore: Portuguese Island, Maputo and Barra Lodge at Inhambane. We woke on the first morning anchored in the lee of a tropical isle. The sea and air were impossibly blue; waving palms, transparent shallows. Passengers were ferried to the beach in Zodiacs, a slow and laborious process.

It felt a little strange landing on a deserted island with 500 companions to frolic in the sun for a few hours, have (a large, barbecue) lunch, and then be whisked back to the ship. Mozambican trinket sellers hot footed it (paddled? swam?) from nearby Inhaca Island to sell their wares and were kept at bay by vigilant police and crew. Some lads sold Dois M beer from cooler bags. In a display of uncharacteristic salesperson honesty, during the course of the day their cries changed from “Ice-cold beer” to “Cool beer” and finally, just before we were leaving, to “Nice hot beer!”

The next day’s Maputo stop provided a full day of shore activities. But I wanted some down time and chose to wander around town taking photos. Everywhere I bumped into fellow cruisers (they stuck out a mile in their shorts, floppy hats, sandals and cameras) and we greeted like old friends. They trailed an entourage of would-be guides, trinket merchants and beggars.

Under a heavy, late-afternoon sky, two tugs bustled us out of the estuary, our propellers boiling clouds of river mud. Maputo’s Marginal (esplanade) slid by, then the Clube Naval and Polana Hotel; our horn gave three long, mournful blasts. My moment of nostalgia for the age of cruise liners was cut short by the announcement that bingo was starting, and we rushed below.

Our next stop was supposed to be Barra Lodge, where a day of shore-based activities had been planned. But such things are dependent on the weather and a heavy swell put paid to any Zodiac landings. So the captain turned the Melody south in search of better weather.

A hasty alternative programme had to be instituted, lest the passengers grew bored or mutinous. On the menu were coffee games, bar bets, vegetable and fruit carving (my favourite), line dancing, golf chipping (into the swimming pool), a lecture on memory and something ominously called ‘Noot-4-Noot’.

Fascinating as it all sounded, I bunked the lot and found a place to sunbathe on the Calypso Deck. Most other passengers seemed to be onto my fine idea. Air 29°C, sea 29°C: croosin’. From my lounger I could discreetly watch the social tableau as it played out during the closing acts of the cruise. Take the two lovers, for instance, who had fought so bitterly on day one (referring to each other in the third person at dinner), and who were now making up, flagrantly. Or the teenage troop of boys who’d finally teamed up with the corresponding girl gang. There was much conspicuous smearing of suntan cream, much undoing of bikini straps for ‘better tanning’. Or the boatman on the next lounger who confided he’d taken a young woman to the bows – ala Titanic – to “do a DiCaprio”. The parade remained compelling to the last: the Indian kids on their 735th game of table soccer, the Italian security mafia patrolling with dark suits, designer sunglasses and ear pieces, and trophy blondes with different G-strings for each change in the weather (bless ’em).

Land ahoy

On the last evening, long after the galley slaves had drained and netted the pool, I stood at the rail watching the slabs of white water churned by our propellers and Mozambique slip astern. Flash bulbs went pop, insignificantly, against the eternity of sea and sky. And I mused on this cruising thing.

It’s a mollycoddling business: you’re protected, warm, pampered, fed and all activities are organised for you. Time stands still as each day revolves to unchanging nautical and gastronomic rhythms. It’s like having a protective mother seeing to your every need … an Italian mother at that. There are games and sports, but they are soft: no-one gets hurt, everyone is a winner.

The Melody was indeed a little piece of South Africa that was safe and utopian, like a national park. You’re isolated from crime and even, seemingly, from spending money (everything is simply charged to your cruise card); you can drink all you want and never have to drive home … and you’re waited on hand and foot.

There is, too, the seductive notion that all the hassle has been taken out of travelling. You wake up one morning and you are at your destination. Not the kind of waking up you do on an aeroplane after an overnight flight, with an unwanted neighbour’s drool on your shoulder and feeling like a family of meerkats has taken up residence in your head. No, the journey itself is like a pleasant dream dreamed to the ship’s gentle rock.

But standing there at the rail something was nagging at me. I knew it had been there all along, but I’d kept it at bay thus far. The juxtaposition of a ship of merrymakers and the ocean: implacable, dangerous, indifferent, just a thin sheet of metal away. All that silent beauty, almost like a threat. Out there lay 73-million square kilometres, sinking to a depth of more than 7#000 metres. It was just too … big. And it seemed to me then that treating it as merely a backdrop to our hedonistic pleasures was folly.

I thought of the many ships that have been lost off this coast, such as the Nova Scotia, sunk by a U-boat and its 1#000-odd crew and passengers bobbing for days as they were slowly picked off by sharks. Life narrowed down to fixation on a circling fin. A shiver ran through me, despite the tepid air. Time to go below for some good, mindless cheer and dancing into the wee hours to Britney, Shakira et al … ’cause when we wake tomorrow, a dreamy Durban will have pulled up alongside.

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