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From sailing to city life in Cape Town

Posted: 2015-12-21 03:06:00, Categories: Travel, Cycling, Art, Hiking, Sailing, South Africa, 1412 words (permalink)

Canals at the Waterfront, Table Mountain in the background.
Canals at the Waterfront, Table Mountain in the background.
On the morning of 16th of April, after ten days of sailing from Tristan da Cunha, we arrived in Cape Town, South Africa. For seven weeks we had been living on the Bark Europa together with less than 60 people, hearing mostly waves and other sounds of the nature. As the ship was moored next to the Cape Grace hotel at the Waterfront, we found ourselves in the centre of a major city with a population of almost 4 million.

A small motor vessel slowly overtaking us.
A small motor vessel slowly overtaking us.
Already on the day before the change had been obvious. As we approached the South African coast, the ocean was suddenly full of traffic: cargo ships transporting thousands of containers, fishing vessels at work, private boats cruising in the sunshine. The coastline featured picturesque looking villages and small towns in front of the hills and mountains raising up from the turquoise water. We could already hear the traffic on the coastal road, and as the darkness fell the coast was dotted with lights all along the way. We anchored for the night in front of Cape Town, and listened to the hum of the city from the distance.

An excellent view from the mast when arriving in Cape Town.
An excellent view from the mast when arriving in Cape Town.
In the morning Sandra and I climbed up to the main mast to take some photos. Just as we were doing that, the pilot ship arrived and started leading us into the city. We decided to stay up at our viewpoint and enjoy the ride as the ship slowly made its way to the inner harbour in the centre. A couple of dozen people were waving to us on the piers as we passed by. Some of them were relatives of the three South Africans on board, others most likely just happened to be there at the right moment, admiring the arrival of our handsome old tall ship. It took still a couple of hours and a detour to the bigger main harbour and back, before immigration and customs procedures were cleared and we were free to step on the land.

One of the paths leading up the Signal Hill.
One of the paths leading up the Signal Hill.
We walked a bit around at the Waterfront area, listened to a street music band and bought some fresh fruit at a supermarket. Especially Sandra was overwhelmed with the transition from life on the ship to the busy city streets. A fair share of the crew headed out to a bar for the first evening, we joined them shortly but returned soon back to the ship. We had enjoyed good winds on the last leg from Tristan da Cunha and arrived in Cape Town two days ahead schedule. That meant that we could still use Bark Europa as our base for the first couple of days, a nice soft landing which we took advantage of.

Evening lights of Cape Town, as seen from Lion's Head.
Evening lights of Cape Town, as seen from Lion's Head.
On the morning of the third day our WarmShowers hosts Ian and Helen came to pick us up. We had emailed them from Argentina before boarding Bark Europa, and they had agreed to host us in Cape Town — although we didn't arrive by bicycle. After a short tour around the ship and last good-byes we packed our backpacks and drove with Ian and Helen to their cosy apartment just south of the city centre. Still the same evening we hiked together on top of Lion's Head and enjoyed a spectacular sunset with amazing views over the Atlantic and the city. There we felt of really having arrived in South Africa, the last part of our trip had begun.

Penguins on Boulders Beach.
Penguins on Boulders Beach.
On Sunday Ian and Helen took us for a trip out of the city towards the south. Our first stop was at Boulders Beach near Simon's Town to see ... penguins! As big penguin fans we definitely didn't want to miss that. It was a quite different experience than in Antarctica, this time we were mostly observing the animals from a viewing platform together with dozens of other tourists. But it was funny to see penguins in a warm environment, and a few hundred meters further we could even wade through the shallow water between rocks and get close to the animals without a fence in between.

Steep cliffs at Cape Point.
Steep cliffs at Cape Point.
From Simon's Town we continued to the Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Unlike many think, neither of them is the southernmost point of the African continent, nevertheless they are popular spots to visit because of the magnificent cliffs and excellent views. Nearby we saw ostriches and later baboons right next to the road. Our classic day trip was completed by a drive back to Cape Town on the curvy road along the west coast and a stop in one of our hosts' favourite ice cream parlours.

An ostrich on the road near Cape of Good Hope.
An ostrich on the road near Cape of Good Hope.
The next few days we explored the city mainly on foot. For a major metropolis, the centre of Cape Town is fairly compact, making the city feel smaller than it actually is. We found the city quite pleasant and interesting with quite distinctive styles of buildings in different districts, and a mix of cultures visible on the streets. In the wealthier areas, fences and alarm systems were common, but most of the houses were not surrounded by high walls or excessive security measures. Some friends in Germany had advised us to always take a taxi when going somewhere — we didn't feel any need to do that and felt quite safe walking around and using buses. That being said, we did not set out to explore any townships of dubious reputation, nor wander around drunk in the middle of the night, which is probably the easiest way to attract pickpockets and robbers in any big city.

Playing with squirrels and pigeons in Company's Garden.
Playing with squirrels and pigeons in Company's Garden.
One of the great things about Cape Town is that it's relatively fast and easy to get out of the city. There are nice beaches nearby in both directions along the coast, as wells as several hills and the famous Table Mountain to get up and above the roofs. We spent one day hiking up the Table Mountain and walking around on the top of it, observing plants and colourful sunbirds on the way. On another day, right in the city centre we made acquaintance with other animals: in the Company's Garden we bought a small bag of nuts and soon attracted numerous tame pigeons and squirrels around us. They ate from our hands, climbed on us and we had many good laughs while playing with them.

Posing with the tandem on the beach at Table's View.
Posing with the tandem on the beach at Table's View.
The last few days we stayed with other very nice WarmShowers hosts in Table View, about 15 km north-east of the centre. They were a family with three children, who had a few years earlier done a long cycling tour in Europe. We compared our experiences and got some insight into cycling in South Africa, should we ever decide to do a tour there. On Sandra's birthday they borrowed us their tandem and we celebrated by riding it to the beach and watching the sunset. Neither of us had been on a tandem before, but it was relatively easy to get started. I was sitting in the front, which made the experience quite similar to a normal bicycle. Sandra behind me had to get used to not being able to turn the handlebar, in other words to trust that I'd steer the bike to the right direction.

The silhouette of Lion's Head at sunset time.
The silhouette of Lion's Head at sunset time.
After ten days we had a flight back home, which we had already booked half a year in advance. The stay at Cape Town had been a nice ending to our five month long honeymoon, but it also felt the right time to return home. Should we ever travel to Cape Town again, we'll certainly venture further out from the city and probably also to neighbouring countries. On this first visit, however, we had plenty to do and explore in the city itself and the surroundings — the day trip to Simon's Town and Cape of Good Hope was a perfect extension to that. Bark Europa, after a short stay in the dry dock for maintenance, left the city almost at the same time than us, continuing to sail the world with new crew on board.

Welcome to the buffet

Posted: 2015-11-09 23:29:00, Categories: Travel, Ecology, Sailing, 587 words (permalink)

The kitchen. Note the bars keeping the pots in place.
The kitchen. Note the bars keeping the pots in place.
One of the important ingredients of any great voyage is food. No matter how much the ship rolled from side to side, the kitchen team led by the cook Eric, together with his assistants Sarah, Andy and other helpers from the crew, prepared and served us three delicious meals every day. They were even able to store some fresh fruit and vegetables until the last days when we were approaching Cape Town. The dishes were varied and healthy, including a well balanced menu for vegetarians and many home made food items, topped with friendly service. A sailing ship like Bark Europa naturally cannot match the vast buffets of a luxury cruise liner, but the food either met or exceeded our expectations in every respect.

Breakfast buffet with home made yoghurt.
Breakfast buffet with home made yoghurt.
Every day started with a breakfast buffet between 7 and 9 am, consisting of porridge, home made yoghurt, muesli, fruit pieces and fresh bread. The bread was baked every night and served with various toppings including cheese, ham, marmalades and peanut butter. Sometimes we also got eggs or other extras, and there were always juice, tea and coffee to drink.

Everybody waited eagerly for the fruit bowl to appear.
Everybody waited eagerly for the fruit bowl to appear.
At 1 pm we had lunch which included the soup of the day, another dish and a bread buffet similar to that on the breakfast. Dinner was served at 7 pm, starting with the main course and followed by a short break, during which everybody was eagerly looking forward to tasting the dessert of the day. During the dinner there were water, tea and coffee to drink. Soft drinks, beer and wine were available at the bar at extra cost.

Food stores under the deck.
Food stores under the deck.
A couple of times a day small snacks were brought up to the deckhouse. To get a piece of cake or a cookie, it was essential to line up at the queue rather soon: in about ten minutes they were usually all gone. The most attractive serving of all was the fruit bowl, which appeared every two or three days. Using a combination of knowledge and gentle care, the kitchen team were able to offer even soft fruit such as peaches, plums and grapes for more than a month. During the last couple of weeks, soft fruit largely gave way to apples and oranges which keep longer, and they were in limited supply. Nevertheless, we had more fresh stuff than we thought when boarding the ship.

Lunch buffet on the deck on a sunny day.
Lunch buffet on the deck on a sunny day.
The cook told us that experience from previous trips is used to estimate how much food is bought in, and will be needed at any given meal. For example during the days with landings the consumption is generally higher than during the days at sea. Whatever is left is cleverly recycled to throw away as little as possible. Leftovers of the dinner often reappeared next day at lunch, sometimes in a different form as pizza toppings or as ingredients of a dish baked in the oven. During long trips recycling is a necessity already due to limited storage capacity, but we also appreciated the ecological aspect of generating less waste.

Usually we ate inside, but occasionally when the sun came out and the sea was calm enough, the lunch was served out on the deck. The last photo shows our lunch buffet a couple of days before leaving South Georgia. That was one of our favourites, featuring three refreshing salads and crunchy pizza breads.

The small quiet island called Tristan

Posted: 2015-10-25 22:53:00, Categories: Travel, Sailing, Tristan da Cunha, 1045 words (permalink)

Nearest neighbours on Saint Helena 2000 km away.
Nearest neighbours on Saint Helena 2000 km away.
On Easter Monday the 6th of April we visited Tristan da Cunha, a small volcanic island in the middle of Atlantic Ocean. It was our only stop on the way from South Georgia towards Cape Town, a welcome opportunity to have a short break from sailing and to walk on land again. After a friendly welcome at the port and the tourist info, the Tristanians offered a selection of guided tours to see the island in an organized way, but many also took the chance to wander around on their own for at least part of the day.

One of the quiet streets on Tristan.
One of the quiet streets on Tristan.
The first thing we noticed when walking across the settlement was quietness. We didn't hear the ocean any more, nobody was driving a vehicle or working in the garden, even most the dogs just looked at us and didn't bark. A few locals walked down the street and greeted us with a soft "Good morning", shortly breaking the silence when passing by. We looked at the houses on both sides of the street, painted in different colours and surrounded by small gardens, and thought about how it would be to live in one of them. The door to the village church was open, we entered and were greeted by the reverend who soon held a short morning prayer. Only some of us visitors were present, the Easter service to the local population had most likely taken place already earlier.

The settlement Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.
The settlement Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.
Tristan advertises itself as the remotest (inhabited) island in the world, which makes it an exotic tourist attraction. With no airport and only a handful of ships per year, it is still far from being overrun by visitors. For most of the time, the 300 inhabitants live there largely on their own, with only a small number of "outsiders" such as a veterinarian and a couple of scientists added to the mix. It is a community where land belongs to everybody and where rules are designed to prevent large differences in wealth between the inhabitants. Every family is entitled to have a potato patch, two cows, two sheep and a few chicken, and they generally work as farmers or fishermen. Except for the possibility to buy daily commodities in the supermarket or to have a drink at the pub, money plays little role in their daily life. Besides the income from tourism, Tristan exports lobsters and sells fishing licenses which bring in enough money to fit the houses with a reasonable level of modern comforts. The income is also used to import tractors, tools and other items which are needed, or desired, and cannot be produced locally.

Inside the traditional house.
Inside the traditional house.
The whole island consists of one big volcano with some flatter areas around it. In 1961 a side crater erupted right next to the main settlement and the whole population of Tristan da Cunha were evacuated. Unimpressed by the life in England, almost all returned two years later and resumed their simple life on the island. Nowadays, there is a trail leading to the crater, where we headed after crossing the settlement. It was an easy half an hour hike across the lava field, with already small patches of grass and other plants pushing out between the volcanic rocks. At the top, we had a nice view over the settlement, called Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, and the grass fields surrounding it. The main volcano reaches a height of 2063 meters, but of that we only saw the first few hundred meters, the rest being hidden in clouds.

Wow, fresh fruit and veggies! :-)
Wow, fresh fruit and veggies! :-)
After coming down from the volcano we took a peek in the supermarket, which was larger and better stocked than we had expected. Obviously it wasn't comparable to supermarkets in big cities, but there were certainly more things available than in supermarkets in small Chilean and Argentinian towns earlier during our trip, or at the village shop next to our house back home in Germany. Most of the supply was shipped from Cape Town, but there were also home made cake and fresh tomatoes grown on the island, both of which found place in our shopping basket.

Sandra trying to catch a bus at the potato patches.
Sandra trying to catch a bus at the potato patches.
We joined a short tour presenting the village museum, a traditional house showing how life had been on the island about 100 years ago. After the tour we wrote a few postcards and had sandwiches for lunch, complemented with fresh tomatoes and apples from the shop. Then we started walking on the only road leading out from the settlement, which ends at the potato patches a few kilometres away. We didn't get far before being offered a ride at the back of a pick-up truck driven by Marc, a French scientist working at the nuclear test monitoring station located on the island. The station is part of the worldwide network of stations, which control that the international treaty banning nuclear tests is respected.

Seaside cliffs, quite a similarity with South-East England.
Seaside cliffs, quite a similarity with South-East England.
The potato patches were, unsurprisingly, small patches of land with fences around, protecting the plants from cows and donkeys which were freely roaming on the grasslands around. We started walking back enjoying the green peaceful landscape and the sun which started to appear from behind the clouds. Closer to the settlement we diverged a bit from the road and walked to the edge of the cliffs by the sea. Judging from the view, we could well have been at the sea coast in Cornwall in South Eastern England. Perhaps that inspired also the first English settlers who started inhabiting the island 200 years ago.

Upon returning at the settlement, we had still a quick tour by Marc at the monitoring station, then it was time to step in the zodiacs and return to the ship. We wished we had been able to stay at least a few days, to meet more locals and to appreciate the island in an appropriate way without hurry. Unfortunately our ship had a schedule to meet and in the evening the wind was blowing from a favourable direction for our passage towards Cape Town. After a short swim in the ocean and a dinner we lifted the anchor and sailed away.

Sailing across the Atlantic

Posted: 2015-10-13 22:01:00, Categories: Travel, Sailing, 1273 words (permalink)

Sailing across the Atlantic in a good wind.
Sailing across the Atlantic in a good wind.
Ropes and ladders leading up to the mast.
Ropes and ladders leading up to the mast.
Upon leaving South Georgia, our captain set the course towards Cape Town in South Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean. That meant about three weeks of sailing day and night, with only one planned short stop on the way: the small volcanic island Tristan da Cunha. For Sandra and me, it was the first time to cross an ocean on a ship, and to do it using wind power was even more amazing.

Well remembering our struggles with seasickness during the last two legs of sailing, we tried a different medicine (cinnarizine) of which Bark Europa luckily had small reserves on board. And it helped! During heavy seas we still felt somewhat uneasy, particularly in areas under the deck without windows, but it was a big improvement to our earlier situation. Now we could take part in our work shifts normally, attend all lectures and actually enjoy the sailing. :-) A special thanks to mate Elskarin, who supported us earlier during the difficult times and arranged us the medicine which helped.

A lively evening at the Deckhouse.
A lively evening at the Deckhouse.
During clear nights we enjoyed a superb view of the Milky Way and hundreds of other stars above us. In the middle of the ocean there weren't any settlements nearby causing light pollution, and Bark Europa mainly had lights on only inside. We had guided stargazing sessions organized by Eduardo, who as an astronomy teacher had extensive knowledge of the stars and was enthusiastic about his topic. We learned to recognize some of the brightest stars and well known constellations on the southern hemisphere, the difference of a planet and a star, and to read from the sky in which direction the South Pole is — the most basic form of navigation.

The sea on a typical, cloudy day.
The sea on a typical, cloudy day.
Most of the nights were, however, not clear, more typical weather was cloudy with occasional rain. Winds are often the strongest just on the border between high and low pressure weather systems, and that's what a sailing ship needs to get forwards. With the help of modern satellite connections, the captain downloaded a weather forecast every day and tried to find the most favourable winds for us. During the leg from South Georgia until Tristan da Cunha, the sailing was supported with the engine a few times, the last leg from Tristan to Cape Town was done exclusively on sails.

Sandra climbing to the mast.
Sandra climbing to the mast.
Our typical speed was between 5 and 8 knots, or between 9 and 17 kilometres per hour. During good winds we could sometimes maintain an average of over 10 knots for several hours, but that needed a wind which was not only strong but also stable enough. In stable conditions an optimal amount of sails could be set, whereas during a weather including gusts of considerably higher force than the base speed of the wind, more sails had to be taken down to avoid breaking them. Despite that a few sails did break, that belongs to the life on a sailing ship. Of course the ship had spares and all necessary tools on board to carry out repairs on the way.

Standing on a stay and working on a sail.
Standing on a stay and working on a sail.
Each day, we were two times four hours on watch, which consisted of work shifts at the lookout, at the helm (steering the ship) and of helping to set, adjust and take down sails when needed. That gave an opportunity to learn not only in theory but also in practise how the sails and the ship behave in different wind conditions. The general idea of how each sail is controlled with ropes was easy to grasp, but remembering which rope goes where needed considerable time and effort. Many didn't learn all the ropes even by the end of the voyage, which cannot only be blamed on our laziness but also on the quite complex arrangement of the ropes on Bark Europa. Nevertheless, most people did learn the most commonly used ropes, and how to handle a rope when it was assigned to them, which was enough to give a hand when the action was coordinated by a member of the permanent crew.

Furling a sail in the front of the ship.
Furling a sail in the front of the ship.
Another task in sail handling was furling, which means tying the sails against their wooden stays when taking them down (to avoid unused sails catching wind), and respectively unfurling when setting the sails again. To do that it was necessary to climb up the masts, even until the top, in all weather conditions. The permanent crew took care of it in hard weather, otherwise we, the voyage crew, were encouraged to participate too. Nobody was forced to climb, it was done on a voluntary basis, as much as each person felt comfortable with. We had climbing harnesses to secure ourselves to metal wires, but it was still quite an adrenaline rush to climb high up when it was windy. And climbing up was of course not of any use in itself, you had to use your hands for tying and untying ropes instead of just holding tight to the nearest structure. My respect to the brave guys and girls who did that in the middle of the night in heavy rain. In beautiful, sunny weather we of course also climbed up the masts just for fun, to enjoy the view and to take photos.

The captain showing our position.
The captain showing our position.
The lecture programs continued with new topics, including sailing and navigation, weather observations, ocean currents and ecosystems, our solar system and the universe, and Jordi's favourite, large seaweeds called kelp. The voyage crew were also encouraged to share their knowledge, which resulted in talks about quite a variety of themes, including being shipwrecked (Adam), the Falkland War (James), United Nations refugee work (Helen) and working in a missile silo (Glen). Additionally we watched some documentaries and movies, read books, played card games and had a few special events such as painting Easter eggs and a series of friendly competitions called the Ship's Olympics. So the answer to perhaps the most common question presented to us, "Won't you get bored on such a long sailing trip" is "No, there wasn't any risk of it."

Having fun during the ship olympics.
Having fun during the ship olympics.
Every evening after dinner everybody gathered to the deckhouse to the "Eight o'clockie" hosted by the captain. He reviewed the last 24 hours of sailing, pointed our position on the map and showed the weather forecast for the upcoming night and day. Our guides continued with announcements and other general information everybody should know. Those were almost the only times we were all together. After the official part the bar was open and the deckhouse was the place to socialize, but many also returned to their cabins to sleep or read, had work shifts or something else to do.

A rare treat: music on the deck. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
A rare treat: music on the deck. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
In the middle of the ocean there weren't as many animals around as near the coastline. Still, a few times we saw whales or dolphins, and some birds such as albatrosses and petrels flew to their fishing trips hundreds of kilometres off the land. The temperatures went up considerably after we left the cold Antarctic waters, but mostly we still needed a long sleeve or a jacket (or both) when being outside. There were times when a t-shirt was sufficient, but sunbathing on the deck with just bikinis on, the sailing ship smoothly gliding forwards in tropical waters, didn't happen on this voyage. We didn't mind, we had joined for an experience and an adventure, not a luxury cruise in the Caribbean.

Stop, sit down and look around

Posted: 2015-09-30 23:22:00, Categories: Travel, Antarctica, Sailing, South Georgia, 707 words (permalink)

Sandra relaxing at Ocean Harbour.
Sandra relaxing at Ocean Harbour.
With limited number of days in an exciting region, it's easy to end up in a continuous rush of walking, changing lenses, taking more photos and trying not to miss anything worth seeing. Wisely, our guide Eduardo reminded us also to stop, put the camera down, look around and appreciate being in such a unique place.

A fur seal bathing in a sweetwater pool.
A fur seal bathing in a sweetwater pool.
An excellent chance to do that was at Ocean's Harbor, a sheltered bay with an old ship wreck slowly rusting near the shore. There were animals around but no large busy colonies of penguins or seals. We didn't have any walk led by the guides, just the usual transfer to the shore by zodiacs and a time to be picked up at the same spot. As expected, people spread in different directions in small groups or alone.

Cormorants nesting in a ship wreck.
Cormorants nesting in a ship wreck.
It was a warm, sunny day, almost no wind. We walked first along the beach and then climbed a little bit up the hillside. There we sat down on the grass and observed the bay from above. Next to us was a small creek with tiny pools where the water stopped on its way down to the sea. A solitary fur seal was swimming in one of the pools, rolling around and clearly enjoying the bath. Cormorants were nesting in the ship wreck which already had grass growing on the deck. In the background, the sun was setting behind the mountains, whose shadow covered more and more of the bay as the evening approached. On the way back to the pick up point, we saw a couple of South Georgia pintails, the only duck species living on the island.

A macaroni penguin jumping from a rock.
A macaroni penguin jumping from a rock.
Another new species for us were the macaroni penguins, which we could see during two landings. The funniest place to observe them was at a rocky shore near Cobbler's Cove, where they were coming out from the sea and climbing towards their colony. Wingless as penguins are, they couldn't simply fly over the cliffs like other birds. Jumping from rock to rock and zigzagging to find a passable route, they made their way across the tricky terrain.

View at St. Andrew's Bay. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
View at St. Andrew's Bay. Photo by Sandra Teräs.
Our last big penguin colony was at St. Andrew's Bay, a postcard view of high snow-capped mountains, glaciers and a river flowing to the sea between green grass fields and tens of thousands of king penguins. Nearby at Gold Harbour the same afternoon we were still surrounded by lots of action and sounds, including a large and smelly bunch of elephant seals spreading sand over each other and plenty of snowy sheathbills, one of the smaller bird species, bathing in the freshwater pools. Then we headed to the south-east corner of the island, where we anchored in a small bay inside the Drygalski fjord.

Helen and Sandra wading through tussock grass.
Helen and Sandra wading through tussock grass.
Around midnight we woke up to a loud bang. During the night, a strong katabatic wind had developed and just blown us off the anchor against underwater rocks. The ship wasn't damaged, but some tricky maneuvering was needed. The captain turned on the engines and navigated us out of the fjord in the darkness, between icebergs. Still in the morning, a strong wind was blowing and prevented us of doing the planned cruise inside the fjord. Instead, we went to see our last macaroni penguins in Cooper Bay, wading between some of the tallest patches of tussock grass we had seen.

Bark Europa with icebergs in the background.
Bark Europa with icebergs in the background.
Day by day on both Antarctica and South Georgia we got more used to all the animals around us, but never became bored to observe them. It was simply wonderful to be able to see all of them so close in their natural environment, unlike in any other place we had earlier been to. Penguins remained our favourites, they were simply so cute and funny that it was hard to resist not to give one of them a hug. When the days were up and we started sailing east on March 25th, it was a slightly melancholic moment to say good bye to this very special corner of our planet.

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