Seventy-four year old Afrikaan, John, had survived four violent muggings on the streets of Durban. A sharpened screw driver had been thrust at his stomach and guns rammed in his face. “I nearly died. Look around, they always approach from behind,” he warns.
Fit as a flea, he carries pepper spray on his daily 8km walks; does 160 daily press ups and 160 sit ups. And he’d been President Robert Mugabe’s jailer for four years!
We met a receptionist whose son had been shot in a mugging. She had a hole in her head from a hammer blow. We heard so many stories.
Troubled, beautiful, violent, peaceful, desperately poor, incredibly rich, stunning, dirty, biodiverse, culturally vibrant, upsetting, inspiring, friendly and frightening. This is a country of stark contrasts.
This has been a tough blog to write. Yet the most fascinating country to visit.
Over the last three months we’ve sailed just under 1000 miles along the South African coast, visiting Richards Bay, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, Knysna, Hout Bay and Cape Town.
We’ve had highs and lows and seen the country through many different lenses. It’s certainly been eye-opening; because, as the saying here goes, TIA – This Is Africa.
Richard’s Bay: First Impressions
We sailed into Zululand Yacht Club, Richards Bay, South Africa from Reunion Island on Thursday 9 December.
It’s home to a large, vibrant club in a picturesque location with a Park Run and troupes of vervet monkeys, clawless otters and banded mongoose.
But, despite the location and warm welcome from representatives of OSASA (Ocean Sailing Association of South Africa) our first impressions of this country were not great. The warnings came thick and fast.
Don’t go out at night. Don’t walk – drive or take a taxi. Keep your car locked and the windows up. Don’t wear watches or jewellery. Wear old clothes. Don’t show your phone or camera. Keep moving. Hike in groups. Know where you’re going. Don’t look at a map.
Properties are heavily secured with gates, bars, razor wire, alarms and dogs. Entire neighbourhoods are protected by barriers and guards. One taxi driver told us, “Dogs are fed poisoned meat, so people have more than one.”
We saw women and young children sleeping rough. Beggars – black and white – knelt in the middle of the road with tins. Prostitutes were busy.
We saw 100’s of people deliberately drop their rubbish – beer cans and take-away wrappers – in pristine beauty spots. We saw restaurants sweep their rubbish into the sea. Some said it was job creation for the armies of litter pickers.
We felt tension. There’s a developing young, wealthy class, wanting big cars, shopping malls and fast food. There’s extreme poverty everywhere. There are safe bubbles. It’s dizzyingly diverse and takes time to process.
We wanted to blend in, but stood out for being the tourists we clearly were. We had rules to learn, and fast. But as Paul said, “It’s not a lot different from Hackney, London. Keep your radar on, your head down and don’t be stupid.”
I’m relieved to say we had no hassle the entire three months. But we followed the rules, secured ourselves on the boat at night, kept together and watched our backs.
And at the first opportunity we packed up the boat and went on a four-day safari expedition to nearby Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Reserve and Ismangaliso Wetlands Park near St.Lucia.
Adventure 1: Guided Safari
Just an hours drive from the boat we found ourselves in the middle of a David Attenborough-esque film set. Sat in an open sided jeep we had close interactions with peaceful, wild animals just living their lives around us.
Safari time ended far too quickly and we were soon celebrating Christmas and New Year with braais, DJs and fireworks at the Zululand Yacht Club parties … and waiting for a weather window to leave Richard’s Bay and start inching our way along the coast.
Weather here is changeable and strong winds and currents meant every passage required a nailed on safe weather window. Getting it wrong, leaving too late or too early wasn’t an option. So, it was a whole month before we could leave for our next destination – Durban. Even then we left a safety margin, which meant motoring and sailing in light winds.
Durban: Baggy Does Durbs
On Friday 7 January we eventually left Richard’s Bay and after an uneventful 36 hour passage of light winds and motoring we pulled into South Africa’s third largest city.
With a police station based at our marina entrance and plenty of armed police, sitting around drinking coffee, we felt pretty safe.
High levels of E-coli meant Durban’s beaches were closed. Caused by “the unceasing vandalism of the sewage pump station and waste from settlements along the river.”
But jogs along the refurbished and heavily policed promenade gave us a break from the boat … albeit past the long, long queues of homeless people waiting for free food.
We were strongly advised not to walk into town. But we went food shopping. Once.
We felt self-conscious being the only white people in the large, busy supermarket. And in the 10 minutes it took to walk there we noticed the wires had been taken out of the traffic lights (aka robots) and all the street bins were being emptied by people looking for recyclable items to sell.
Adventure 2: Shark Diving
One week in dodgy Durbs was enough for us. We packed up the boat, hired a cab and set off in search of sanctuary.
Two days diving Aliwal Shoal in Umkomaas, just a half hour drive away. Rated by Jacques Cousteau as one of the top ten dive sites in the world.
Famous for its grey nurse sharks (aka Ragged Tooth Sharks), we’d arrived at the best time to see them. Over twenty-five had congregated at Cathedral Cave to mate!
The scariest part was reaching the dive sites, by large rib, through powerful crashing breakers. Bracing as if our lives depended on it this was not a boat ride for the faint hearted. But the diving was out of this world.
East London: Meeting the East End Family
A week in Durban was enough so we took advantage of a sneaky weather window to sail 280 nautical miles to East London; a passage of 39 hours. Thanks to the Aghulus current we had a 24 hour run of 194 miles, our best run EVER despite big seas and violent boat motion.
It was a treat to be moored in the middle of a river on fore and aft mooring buoys. We launched Baloo II (the dinghy) for the first time in five months and enjoyed sea eagle spotting.
This small, tucked away yacht club attracted an eclectic mix of warm and friendly drinking enthusiasts – locals and intentional yachties. And during our ten day stay we enjoyed more parties, braais, DJs, dancing and an international food event. We felt adopted into the heart of this family-feel club and when we left the local pie man delivered four hot pies to the boat to see us on our way.
Port Elizabeth: Dirty Lizzy
Everyone said don’t go. But it wasn’t the port we were interested in; it was the elephants nearby. The passage was 142 nautical miles along from East London and we made it in 28 hours.
Being a busy industrial port, Baggy was soon coated in iron ore dust. We had itchy eyes and coughs and our running rigging turned brown and will never be the same again.
So, we didn’t linger. We packed up the boat again, hired an SUV and set off in search of these infamous elephants.
Adventure 3: Addo Elephant Park
We’d heard rave reviews about this 180,000 hectare conservation park and it’s famous African elephants – over 800 of them. And we weren’t disappointed.
But during the hour’s drive up we passed mile after mile of shanty townships. No houses, just rickety structures, cheek by jowel; chickens and small children running around and men sat on the kerbside, available for labour opportunities. It sure would have been a bad time to break down, but we made it.
Addo is home to the Big Five (lion, buffalo, black rhino, leopard, elephant) and a heaven on earth. So, no more words here’s our elephant video, a peaceful four minutes of sanctuary in this crazy world.
Unfortunately we did find a dead, exploded elephant … not something you see everyday. But fascinating all the same. Scroll on if squeamish.
Knysna: welcome to the bubble
From Port Elizabeth we sailed an atmospheric 154 nautical miles to tranquil Knysna; with fog, starry skies and vivid phytoplankton bioluminescence,
On arrival we had to enter through the infamous Knysna Heads. A narrow rocky entrance and sand bar.
It has such a fearsome reputation it deters many yachties from visiting. But, as we sailed through, with low swell and light winds, we wondered what all the fuss was about.
But once in we were warmly welcomed and introduced to club members. Knysna town was cosmopolitan, clean, safe and friendly. We moored right outside the yacht club bar, plugged into their electric, used their wi-fi and even had our own little entry gate. Completely free.
We’d been transported into a yachtie bubble, within a close-knit community bubble and for the first time in seven weeks we felt all underlying tension lifting from us.
We took the opportunity to have our third Covid booster jab, went snorkelling in search of the elusive Kynsna seahourse and explored the area by rope ferry.
Eleven days later the perfect weather window saw us exiting ‘the infamous Knysna Heads’.
This time we faced two metre swell and breaking waves with rocks on either side. We seriously considered bottling it … but circled, watched the wave patterns, donned life jackets, clipped on, put in the wash boards and endured what the locals call ‘the longest 12 seconds of your life’.
Baggy loved it. She took off, crested two large waves across the sand bar, skimmed past the rocks and landed us safely in the flat water beyond. Phew!
Next stop Hout Bay, rounding the southern most tip of Africa.
As we rounded Cape Aghulus, the southern tip of the African continent, the wind built to 30 knots.
We pressed on past the Cape of Good Hope, but now the wind was gusting 40 knots and the self-steering was struggling to cope with such a steep sea.
As we slid down the face of a wave Baggy was violently knocked down. Everything unsecured on the port side crashed onto the starboard side; Paul rushed on deck to take the wheel and the following wave broke into the cockpit and cascaded down the steps into the saloon.
We were shocked and wet, but unscathed. However, the carnage below deck was nothing compared to Paul’s horror when realising he was still wearing his best saloon sheepskin slippers!
This thrilling 291 nautical mile passage took us 2.5 days, with basking fur seals, penguins and dolphins along the way.
Hout Bay: fur seals and jackass penguins
Encased by mountains, you walked along the beach to get to the shops. Paul had good friends nearby; fur seals sat on the pontoons, we went kelp forest diving and visited penguins down the road. This was an idyllic and memorable 15 day stop-over.
We celebrated my birthday by visiting the endangered Jackass (African) Penguin colony along the coast in Simon’s Town.
They only nest here and in Namibia, so these very special little guys deserved their own short video here – Just Jackass Penguins.
Once dragged away from the fur seals and penguins we explored Cape Town and the surrounding area by open top bus, visited the Groot Constantia vineyard, went hiking, found two craft ale breweries and finished off our whirlwind visit with a stunning kelp forest shore dive; special thanks to Carel van der Colff, the nudibranch hunter from Dive Inn.
The Netflix documentary ‘My Octopus Teacher’ was filmed here and, spoiler alert, it wasn’t the same octopus. Yup, we were shocked and disappointed too.
It was a memorable dive for kit failure too.
The rubber mouthpiece came away from my regulator and there was panic and confusion as I still held it in my mouth (unattached to the air hose) inhaling pure salt water. But, hey ho, I live to tell the tale.
Oh, and Baggy enjoyed special treats in Hout Bay too.
Cape Town: the mother city
It was a wrench to leave Hout Bay, but a swelly hop of 18 nautical miles along the coast, brought us into the inner sanctum of the V & A Marina in the center of Cape Town, known by sailors of old as the ‘Tavern of the Seas’.
After passing through both a swing and lifting bridge Baggy moored up in the inner sanctum of the marina alongside expensive catamarans and super yachts.
It was only for a few days, but we loved this marina and vibrant city.
It’s artwork, cool markets, live music, sunshine, fur seals and ever present Table Mountain back drop made it an unforgettable marina stop over.
Relaxed and safe in V & A Marina we didn’t expect to be woken up in the middle of the night by a dramatic loud noise and movement INSIDE THE BOAT.
Our hearts went cold at the immediate assumption of violent intruders and Paul bravely crept out of the aft cabin to investigate.
My life jacket, with its ageing auto inflate mechanism, had eerily self-inflated 😳
By now our three month visas were running out, so we hit our jobs hard.
This was our last opportunity for decent provisioning for another three months and we filled the boat with tins and dried foods to see us all the way to the Azores.
Lockers are filled to bursting with flour, lentils, oats, rice, tins of beans and fruit, jars of pickles and vegetables, tea bags and a whole lot more. Sacks of potatoes and onions are stashed in the forepeak and we’ll be finding random hard cabbages and squashes in strange places for many weeks to come.
One particular shopping trip was made amusing watching a large brown rat run around the store causing shoppers to scream 😂
So, what now?
We’re leaving our animal and human friends, and all the craziness of South Africa for the UK flagged island of Saint Helena, 1700 nautical miles up the Atlantic, on Wednesday 9 March.
Pressure is on to arrive before Thursday 24 March as they only do PCR tests once a week – on Thursdays! Miss that opportunity and we have to spend a week swinging around on a mooring buoy with no access to shore. But, we hope to average five knots and fingers crossed will do it in just under two weeks.
Yellow Brick will be on and tracking our progress every six hours. We’ll stay there around two weeks, then head to UK flagged Ascension Island before the month long passage to the Portuguese islands of the Azores.
So …. we arrived with a bit of a downer on South Africa, but leave on a high.
It took us time to relax and appreciate all the treasures South Africa has to offer. The poverty and violence is omnipresent, but from our experience, not as bad as the headlines portray. It’s a unique country. Delicate, but tough. Beautiful, with ugliness. Full of joy, with layers of sadness. Just like life!