It’s already been over two months since we landed in South Africa and I haven’t written a line for this blog. These have been months in which we have lived very intensely: gaining experiences, meeting new friends, working on Milanto, travelling along the coast, and all within this beautiful country that seems to be on the edge of the world. And in some ways it is, not only because the African continent ends here, but also because it is a place that symbolises the demise for some ships in the history of navigation. The Cape of Good Hope – together with the Cape of Agulhas, the southernmost one of the whole continent, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet – are the reference points of a passage that over the centuries has always been seen as a challenge for human beings. From the first Portuguese who managed to reach it, Bartholomeu Dias, to Vasco Da Gama who rounded it, and all the navigators who followed the opening of this route to the Indies, this has always been a difficult passage full of pitfalls. It is no coincidence that Diaz named it the ‘Cape of Storms’ and later John II, King of Portugal, renamed it ‘Good Hope’ as a positive wish for the ships that were sailing to Goa. In front of the coast, whose horizon is lost in the direction of the ice of Antarctica, there are several wrecks and even today objects brought from the sea from past shipwrecks are occasionally found. The water is cold at these latitudes and the strong wind blowing from the southeast creates waves that travel thousands of miles until they break on the rocky coast of the African continent.
The mountain range of the Twelve Apostles and Table Mountain, which protects Cape Town from southern storms, look like rocky bulwarks set up to defend the city. And it is impressive to see the fog that on certain days advances from the ocean like an army of ghosts and in the space of an hour envelops the coast and rises to the mountains. Just as it is extraordinary to see the clouds descending from Table Mountain, covering the plateau like a tablecloth of white steam. So the Capetowners call it, the tablecloth.
We landed in South Africa at Richards Bay, on the north eastern border of the country, on November 14, 2020 and it seems to me a century has passed. The coast appeared to us on a sunny morning: an expanse of sand dunes covered by low vegetation that reached the sea. Sailing fast, pushed by the Agulhas current, we shot into the bay heading towards the Tuzi Gazi Waterfront where we moored while waiting to carry out the entry procedures. This is the territory of the Zulu, the most important African ethnic group in the country. Upon our arrival some girls were celebrating a birthday and enjoyed being photographed on the quay in front of Milanto.
In the following days we went to explore the hinterland. In the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi national park we made two game drives every day, one at sunrise, the other in the afternoon until sunset, accompanied by park rangers in an off-road vehicle set up for safaris. Here rhinos, herds of zebras and antelopes, impalas, lions, jaguars, elephants, giraffes, kudus, warthogs and many other animals live in freedom. In particular, the park is known for having the largest population of white rhinos which are protected from the risk of extinction. I will never forget when at dawn we found ourselves a few metres from a herd of elephants having breakfast in the bush or from a close encounter with a family of huge rhinos.
Here too – as in all the other countries we have visited since the beginning of the pandemic – we have experienced unreal travel conditions due to the total absence of tourists. We were the only visitors to the park and in the evening we returned to a beautiful resort overlooking the hills where we were the only guests. From a large terrace I could see the moon rise, I looked at the stars in the silence of the night and I listened waiting to hear the call of the distant animals. In the Zululand region, the purpose of the parks are aimed not only at the conservation and protection of animals, but also for education and tourism. Seeing these animals up close created a strange effect of wonder, harmony, majesty and beauty, together with the awareness of living in a world that is increasingly in danger.
In national parks, rangers still risk their lives due to poaching (in the months of lockdown the phenomenon has increased precisely because of the low tourist traffic), and global warming is irremediably changing the habitat of many animals. The rainy season has lengthened creating never before seen floods and alternating with sudden drought – the climate seems to have gone mad. Typhoons from Mozambique are increasingly causing flooding in Kruger Park. In addition, national parks, as well as private game reserves, despite having very large portions of territory, are still places of confinement that limit or prevent the migration of many animals. Especially the elephants, with their a historical memory, find themselves disoriented as it has happened that some herds come out of the Kruger, following the scent of the ripening of oranges or sugar cane, and have entered the city of Maputo following an ancient path of migration. Another problem is that of inbreeding, that is the consanguinity of animals that reproduce among themselves within an enclosed territory – albeit vast. This generates a lowering of the immune defenses and develops diseases such as tuberculosis; diseases which are then passed on to other animals through the food chain.
What changes will African animal species undergo? Will we still be able to contain the extinction of those at risk? These are questions that I asked myself while visiting – myself as a tourist, so like all of us part of the problem – in this beautiful land. Yet tourism is now South Africa’s primary economic resource, more than the diamond and gold industry. How can respect for the environment be reconciled with the developmental needs of a country of almost 60 million inhabitants?
From the Zululand Yacht Club in Richards Bay we set sail to go down the coast to Durban, one of the largest ports on the African continent, arriving at the entrance in a very rough sea. The entrance was formidable with waves that pushed Milanto dangerously close to the breakwaters. Durban is a large city where the architecture of the colonial past, today used as representative buildings, is incorporated with a mixture of modern concrete buildings which makes its beauty difficult to appreciate, it is the result of urban development of recent decades. On the street people stop you to offer all kinds of services and the Indian shops sell everything. The Natural History Museum has an educational aim and on the upper floor it houses a small collection of local contemporary art. There is no one in the rooms and the custodians are unable to answer our questions about the exhibits on display. It seems they are not really interested, they say it is not their responsibility. We instead absorbed the social atmosphere of the city. And even if everyone advised us not to go out in the evening due to the dangers linked to widespread crime, we often went to see concerts in the clubs in the city centre. I must say that I always found a friendly welcome, even in places where I was the only white person and I really looked like a fish out of water. I remember a fantastic performance by an Xhosa singer as we all danced under the stage to the rhythm of traditional instruments in a mix of world music, blues and reggae.
The transition from Durban to Port Elizabeth was the most difficult. This is considered the second most dangerous coast in the world, after that of Canada. Here the Agulhas current is particularly strong and reaches up to a few miles off the coast. It can reach even 5-6 knots and build waves of 20 metres. The weather changes continuously, suddenly alternating low and high pressures that bring winds from the north and south respectively. The rule is to start on the tail of a high pressure, when the barometer is about 1020, in order to enter the current with favourable winds, calculating that during the journey there will be no new variation. Being in the current with a headwind would be suicide because of the waves that would form in a short time. We experienced it ourselves when before East London we had a light south-southwest wind that created cross waves that were really difficult to manage. A condition that would cause seasickness even in the most experienced sailor. And in fact, I had to deal with it too – for the first time in a year of sailing! – with a nausea that accompanied me all the way. Fortunately, quite shortly: in three days we arrived in Port Elizabeth. Which is a commercial port used mainly for loading manganese on merchant ships. In the week we spent moored on the quay Milanto was covered with a patina of dark dust that got into every location and we often wondered how the inhabitants managed to live with such pollution and what measures the local government took. Not many it would seem, as no one seemed to care.
We set sail in early December from Port Elizabeth, descending again in latitude and out of the current. Here the climate was drier, from frequent rains in the north to the summer sun on the southern coast. The entrance to Knysna Bay was a spectacular opening between two rock bastions overlooking the sea. The welcome we had at the yacht club was wonderful. We moored on the quay on the waterfront, just below the club. Every day I would go for a run along the bay and in the evening we would meet with the other sailors to have a beer, play songs and party. Knysna is a tourist resort much attended by the local population, its hills are home to vineyards that produce excellent wines and in the bay you can do many sporting activities. From those days I remember a beautiful day that we spent together with other friends in Plettenberg Bay where the sea had a blue colour so strong that it seemed like lapis lazuli. In Knysna we had a taste of what our arrival in Cape Town would be like, there summer life was easier, the sun always shone, the climate milder and it seemed that everyone was on a perennial vacation.
The last stretch of navigation to reach Cape Town was in fact very pleasant: a two day journey with strong wind, sun and little rough sea. We rounded Cape Agulhas at night, as well as the Cape of Good Hope, keeping well away due to the danger of the numerous shoals that over the centuries have seen many shipwrecks. And on a beautiful sunny morning we finally entered Cape Town Bay. It is not easy to explain the emotion I felt at that moment. After sailing for a year across two oceans, I finally saw Table Mountain and Lion’s Head in front of me; the Green Point lighthouse swept across our side and the city’s skyscrapers reflected the sun’s rays. How many times had I dreamed of this arrival! We entered the marina of the V&A Waterfront passing under the swing bridge waiting for the opening of the second bridge that allowed access to the internal basin. Two Vendée Globe racing boats were exiting, a street band was playing in front of the food market, seals were diving into the sea from the quay in front of the Aquarium, the Zeitz museum with diamond windows appeared to our left: we were landing in Cape Town and we were as happy as children.
The month we have spent in this city has been one of the most pleasant of our trip around the world. Thanks to Laura and Alessandro who have lived in South Africa for years and who have literally adopted us. Laura, who directs the Cape Town contemporary art fair, introduced me to the world of art by introducing me to museum and gallery directors, collectors and artists. Alessandro, who is an expert tour guide, as well as a snake handler – or an expert on poisonous snakes who carries out a very useful activity for the community in capturing snakes in inhabited places to then release them in safe environments – led us to discover the coast by taking us on visits to parks, and wine farms in the country and the city. Without them we would not have come into contact with all the other friends who made our stay truly unique. In few places in the world have I felt as comfortable as in Cape Town. This is why we find it so difficult to let go and we have been postponing our departure for two weeks now. But we cannot put it off any longer and the desire to return to the sea begins to make its way back inside of us – sailing towards new lands, meeting new cultures and embracing new energies.
We will set sail in a few days for Namibia and from there we will tackle the long crossing of the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil. Milanto’s dream continues.