Newbies, this Mozambican cruise is a great way to test the waters
MSC's new cruise from Durban to Pomene, Mozambique, is the perfect length to give you a taste of a sea voyage without having to worry you'll be bored on board
On a blustery day in the summer of '62 the good ship Berea was ploughing southwards through the chop and froth of the Mozambique Channel.
She was a sound vessel, the Berea, and even though she was only a little coaster - just 490 tons (not much bigger than a fishing trawler) - she was well known in the little harbours and bays of Mozambique.
But on that stormy day fate had other plans for her. Maybe her helmsman was asleep at the wheel when the ship came gently up the beach at Ponta da Barra Falsa - "False Bar" - a sun-drenched sliver of golden sand on the southern Mozambique coast.
It was a gentle grounding and when the crew abandoned ship a while later, it was straight onto the hot sands of the bar.
They would have seen an approximation of Paradise. A golden beach stretching north and south as far as the eye could see. Steep dunes thick with greenery. Mangrove swamps. Tropical air heavy with the smell of the sea.
Try as they might, the Berea's owners could not refloat her. So. having built a road to the beach to retrieve her cargo of sugar, they left her to her unforeseen retirement. What a place to retire.
I know this story because I saw the Berea, still high and dry on the golden beach nearly 20 years later when I was little. Somehow we had ended up in the beachfront hotel at Pomene, the local name of the peninsula and the tiny village of itinerant fishermen it sheltered.
By the mid-1970s, there was the hotel and a small pier, where I watched a burly Portuguese kite fisherman hoist a Zambezi shark up on a block and tackle and invite everyone to come and see.
I was more interested in the coaster on the sand. She was rusty now but still defiant, and she forever marked the name "Pomene" in my mind.
DOWN TO THE SEA AGAIN
I did not need much persuading to join MSC on a voyage from Durban to Pomene in December.
The bay is the company's newest destination in southern waters and it makes perfect sense. Ilha de Mocambique - to which I have sailed twice on the MSC Sinfonia - is beautiful and intriguing. But it is an island too far in these busy, busy times. The voyage takes a week, with five full days spent at sea. I love nothing more than spending time out on the big blue, listening to the sea hiss past, but many don't.
Portuguese Island, a dot just off Inhaca, is the line's other destination in Mozambican waters. The ship can get there and back in three days, including a full day of sea, sand and snorkelling on the island. Too short for me, though. I get on a ship, I want it to go somewhere.
Pomene, then - 516 nautical miles or a day and a night's worth of voyaging from Durban - is the perfect compromise.
If you are new to cruising this is how it works. You arrive in Durban bright and early. If you're flying in, a shuttle bus will whisk you from the airport to the cruise terminal in Durban harbour. You will go through security and then through immigration. The thump of rubber stamps in passports echo in the rafters of a repurposed warehouse with the not-unpleasant smell of a working harbour in the air and a gleaming cruise ship snugged up against the quay outside.
May I suggest, at this point, that you pay the little extra for the fast-track option to get on board. Fast track is the equivalent of having a chauffeur-driven limo take you from your house to the airport. Do it.
Soon after boarding, an alarm bell signals the start of the mandatory safety drill. You grab your lifejacket and join the milling throng of bemused passengers in the stairwells as you head to your assigned muster station. It's more fun than it sounds. Be advised, though, that making bleating noises is as frowned upon as being late to your muster station.
At 3pm, the ship gives four, deep, throaty blasts of its horn. The dock workers cast off the mooring hawsers and, thrusters churning the harbour waters into a froth, the 58,000-ton behemoth eases away from the quay.
Soon we are steaming down the channel to the open sea. A lone fisherman on South Pier, on the Bluff side of the channel, waves goodbye. As the ship exits the channel, a slight roll underfoot lets you know the ship is alive.
The thud of dance music from deck 11 - the pool deck - means the Sail Away party has kicked off.
I open my balcony door as wide as it will go and take a long afternoon nap with the sound of the sea working its way into my dreams.
We are now at sea.
Dinner is a pleasant affair. I am in the 6pm sitting. It sounds early - like eating with toddlers - but for me it's the way to go. It means I can catch the late show in the Teatro San Carlo and watch the dancers and acrobats do what their landlubber contemporaries would likely suck at - pulling off their routines with a certain flair on a moving dancefloor.
The last thing to do is fill out my breakfast order - coffee, croissant, Danishes, toast and more coffee to be brought to the cabin at dawn. Then to bed while the ship steams north into the velvet tropical night.
Dawn finds us a few miles off the coast. A line of dunes marks the western horizon. The sea is a royal blue. Flying fish skitter over the wavetops.
On the pool deck, passengers haul their deckchairs into the sun or bob in the pool. A barman brings ice and cider, and the water in the pool sloshes gently back and forth with the easy motion of the ship.
Nothing matters out here. Any troubles have been left ashore.
Lunch. Nap. Dinner. Then an evening at Pasha's, the disco, where I squeak a takkie into the small hours. A fellow passenger says: "You dance well... for an old man." I laugh about that for the rest of the voyage.
On the second morning, we are just a few kilometres off Pomene. The land shimmers greenly in the morning heat and the beach is a dazzling line of sand.
By 7.45am the early risers are already heading ashore.
MSC have the landing procedure tuned to a fine art. Instead of using the ship's boats, the company has dedicated landing craft based at Pomene and Portuguese Island.
If you saw Saving Private Ryan you will be familiar with that kind of boat, only the ride ashore is drier and nobody is shooting at you. Slacker that I am, I go ashore in the last wave.
MSC have struck the jackpot with the Pomene investment. It has a long lease on a spit of land in the bay. A low-impact restaurant and bar have been built amid a forest of casaurina trees, along with a row of beach cabanas for passengers to rent for the day.
There are tours to the ruins of the old hotel - from whose terrace my six-year-old eyes once gazed at excitement at the Berea on the beach below - and guided trips by speedboat into the mangroves. There is snorkelling and kayaking and lolling about under thatched umbrellas.
I take a boat ride into the mangroves. The guide's eyes widen when I tell him the story of the Berea. She is gone now - rusted to powder - but part of her keelstill rests under the sand.
I let the rest of the afternoon slide away while I sit in the shade of a casaurina tree and gaze across the bay to where the Sinfonia sits on the blue like a great, gleaming seabird.
I'm pleased that the voyage is only half done - and that I'll be sailing away on the same ship that I arrived on.
• Ash was a guest of MSC Cruises.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
MSC offers regular four-night voyages to Pomene. Some itineraries include a day's stopover at Portuguese Island.
Fares start at R3,790pp for an inside cabin, rising to R5,150pp (balcony cabin), and R5,750pp (suite). The fare includes all meals and most entertainment and kids under 18 eat and cruise for free. Fare excludes mandatory taxes of R1,235.
To book, call 087-075-0850, contact your travel agent or visit msccruises.co.za.