Landfall South Africa

Reunion to Durban – part two

Wednesday 7th November 2018

It was with a mixture of relief and disappointment that we managed with difficulty to tie up to the wall in the large port of Richards Bay about 85nm north of Durban. The arrival fantasies, in my tired state, of a safe, easy, marina pontoon, where we could close our eyes and sleep for a week, were not to be.

Richards Bay is full, the marina gearing up for the arrival of the World ARC and the Small Craft Harbour has foreign boats rafted two by two to the wall. The only spot we could fit into was nestled in amongst the large tug boats that operate in the port. Getting on and off the boat is difficult and in the gale force SW winds that have blown for the past two days and with spring tides, sometimes impossible. We are within the tug boat security area and so have to be let in and out by a security guard, we have no power and water only after Rick managed to temporarily connect us to the over sized pipes designed for commercial vessels. The rough wall is playing havoc with our lines as we rise and fall in the 2m tide and we haven’t dared look at what the barnacle encrusted sides are doing to our fenders.

Tied up with Vella in Richards Bay small craft harbour.

We have arrived in South Africa however and the ‘got here’ beers that we drank in a nearby bar, have rarely tasted so sweet. To cap things off, on the bar TV, a bit of home welcomed us, the England rugby team were playing the Springboks at Twickenham, we cheered quietly, amongst a sea of green shirts, as England kicked the winning penalty.

It was a five day passage from Madagascar to Richards Bay, from a sailing point of view it was straight forward, we had one night of higher winds brought by squalls of torrential rain but mainly there was light winds and the engine was on. We decided early on to make the slightly shorter run into Richards Bay, in doing so, avoiding a night entry, in high winds into Durban Harbour. However, psychologically the passage was quite stressful, timing was every thing, not just to avoid the worst of a squally front but importantly to arrive at the Agulhas current in the right conditions and our weather window was quite tight. Estimating our speed was complicated by continually changing eddies of current that swung from 2kts with us to 1kt against, the days of motoring gave, me at least, range anxiety and news from some of the over boats was not good.

The fleet had split at the south east corner of Madagascar, while we sat things out in Fort Dauphin others pushed on. Some, risking the run straight in, sailed through bad weather but after a day or so waiting at sea for the wind to change, successfully made it ahead of the pack. Other boats decided to wait things out on the west coast of Madagascar, but a terrifying incident, where Atem the Blue Swan was approached by an armed gang, who were only deterred by a strong squall from boarding the yacht, sent everyone scurrying to hide out off the coast of Mozambique. Atem reported the incident to the American, British, French and any other authority that have navy boats in the region, apparently the potential pirates were apprehended. Atem arrived in Richards Bay a few days after us understandably very shaken. Thankfully we had no such problems and with help from our weather man, Chris Tibbs, when we reached the infamous Agulhas current all was calm, a sleeping monster beneath our keel.

Crossing the Agulhas Current

In the few days we have been here, Richards Bay has thrown everything at us, scorching decks, violent thunder storms, torrential rain and gale force winds. We have been invaded by a swarm of May Flies, that promptly died and covered the decks and visited by a troop of monkeys that we had to shoo from the boom.

Lightening was a bit close for comfort

Many hours have been spent dealing with immigration and customs, in South Africa you have to fully check in and out as you arrive at and leave each port, this involves getting the correct stamps, from the correct offices, in the correct order. Luckily we have had a knowledgable and helpful taxi driver to chauffeur us around and the company of the folks on Vela another Oyster that has been rafted up to us. Not only did we jointly do battle with the authorities, we have all dodged extremely close lightening, eaten out, drank on each other’s boats and done a half day river safari together.

The St Lucia river an hour of so north from here is home to 800 hippos and 1000 crocodiles. Our tourist boat slowly meandered up the brown muddy shallows bordered by reeds and mangroves. We passed sleeping and swimming crocs, bright yellow weaver birds creating their perfect round nests on the reed stems and families of wallowing hippos. Further up the river through the trees we spotted an antelope and a group of at least thirty sleeping hippos. Appetites wetted we have booked a three day safari for the end of the month.

Occupants of the St Lucia River

With the weather easing and hopefully all paperwork completed, we plan to start the short sail south in the early hours tomorrow, with an arrival, finally, at Durban marina in time for supper.

An Unexpected stop in Madagascar

A ring tailed lemur

Reunion to Durban – Part 1

Tuesday 30th October 2018

The Indian Ocean continues to challenge us. The exit from Reunion, last Wednesday, was even more lively than expected, with high winds and horribly rough sea. In our rather rushed departure I had forgotten to take a seasick pill and I rapidly became unwell. Even my trusty tablets that I put under my top lip couldn’t stop the waves of dreadful nausea.

Having been told we couldn’t stay in the marina we had decided to leave quickly so that we could sail with the Oyster Rally boats who had very kindly invited us, and Atem the Blue Swan, to join their SSB radio net. With such a tricky crossing in front of us there is comfort in numbers and the pooling of knowledge means we would be very well informed.

Thankfully during the first night things calmed down and my queasiness gradually wore off. The wind dropped right back and on came our engine. Unfortunately, looking forward a week, with the help of our weather router, conditions for our arrival in Durban, still looked difficult. As the forecasts firmed up, it became clear to us that a stop in Madagascar to wait for things to improve might be the solution. So it was therefore that just 3 days into our journey we found ourselves anchored, with four other Oysters that made the same call, in Fort Dauphin on the SE corner of Madagascar.

Madagascar had never even been on our radar, we knew very little about it. Whales breaching and fin slapping greeted us at the entrance to the bay, which we were surprised to find, with its backdrop of mountains and several European influenced villas above the beach, looked from a distance, a bit like an Alpine lake resort.

Fort Dauphin

The view from the deck proved to be deceptive, ashore, the smells, the slightly beaten up buildings, the rutted roads, the lovely wooden canoes and the smiling faces of the people, were all very African. We were met at the beach by an excited gang of youngsters and a few adults, all keen to help bring the dingy up the beach and look after it for us. The women and children persistently offered cheap jewellery for sale, the men waved taxi keys or offered to be our guide. The throng was a bit intense but all very friendly.

Local wooden canoes

We were shown the way to the immigration office where much filling of forms and enthusiastic stamping took place before a fee of over £100 was demanded. There was slight suspicion amongst the crews that this amount was fairly arbitrary and set to fit how much they thought we would pay. Barring Galapagos, with its National Park fees, I think it must be the highest amount we have paid to enter any country, but we were stuck here, we had to pay up.

A few trips to the ATM were in order and after a data sim was purchased we returned to Raya to rest, and, what else, to study the weather forecasts. We assured ourselves we had made the best decision, we would be here a couple of days. Heck, we were in Madagascar, time to find the lemurs.

Our taxi drivers car, a bright blue, tiny ancient Renault, was only just big enough for us and our guide, who, reassuringly, wore a sign saying ‘Official Guide’ in big letters around his neck. They told us they would take us to a private reserve where we could get close to the lemurs, but to be honest they could have been taking us anywhere, our normal careful research not done, we were in their hands. We wound our way through the crowded, narrow streets and through the bustling market area, stopping at yet another ATM to get more tens of thousands of Madagascan Rand, even after our time in Indonesia, we were struggling to get our head around all those zeros.

Leaving the town behind we turned onto a smooth wide dual carriage way, rice paddies and other crops filling the narrow strip of land between the mountains and the coast. Our comfort and speed was, however, short lived, as within minutes we took an unmade road towards the mountains. It had rained heavily all night and our driver was quickly confronted by deep puddles that filled the bumpy track.

Overnight rain made the roads almost impassable.

He’d obviously tackled this before as he torturously wound his way between them, his little car manfully battling on. Villages lay every few miles, consisting of collections of huts constructed totally from the bamboo that grows everywhere here, the walls from the stiff stems, the roofs from the fronds. We passed a gash in the mountain, shockingly rock was being hewn from its sides by hand, carried to the nearest village and made into square bricks.

Yes that’s a duck wandering past stone bricks, hand made straight from the mountain

A continuous stream of people walked between the villages, mostly carrying goods either strung from bamboo sticks, or in the case of the women in baskets miraculously balanced on their heads. A man driving four head of cattle squeezed to the side of the road to let us pass, we stared out of the window wide eyed, this truly was, another place, a world away from our comfortable European lives.

Everyone uses the one road through the villages

Eventually we reached the reserve and found our lemurs. They are really lovely creatures with expressive human like faces, their bodies covered in lush soft hair and their long bushy tails used skilfully, almost like an extra limb. We saw tiny Bamboo lemurs sat high amongst the shade of the dense foliage at the top of 30ft bamboo clumps, brown lemurs athletically leaping from impossibly spindly branches in the very tops of the trees and ring tailed lemurs that peered at us from crooks in the tree trunks.

Ring tailed lemurs

But the friendliest were the white lemurs, nick named dancing lemurs they nimbly swang from branch to branch, ran up and down the tree trunks and came right up to us looking for food.

White lemur

What an amazing morning. Praying for no more rain we followed the rough road back to the bay, ran the gauntlet of locals on the beach and returned to the boat. The days weather report had arrived, it was time to move on, our unscheduled stop had turned out to be so much more than a safe place to wait for the weather systems to get in line. Despite our fears this little corner of Madagascar, at least, is delightful.

Reunion Island

Wednesday 24th October 2018

Magnificent landscape around Reunion Island

As I swap the current charts on the table for those of the Madagascan and South African coast, the wind howls into the cockpit and the boat rocks on the fetch building in the dock here at Le Port on Reunion Island. We are rafted to a lovely 62ft Swan with a blue hull, luckily the winds are from the SW and pushing us both, off each other and off the wall.

Raya rafted in Le Port, the Oyster fleet behind us, all waiting for a weather window

The weather here is very variable, the normally reliable SE trades being affected by a continuous procession of high and low pressures. The 8-9 day crossing from here to Durban is unlikely to be straight forward, the forecast changing from day to day. On top of which the last day into Durban we will cross the infamous Agulhas Current. Running south down the South African coast it is not a place to be if the winds turn to the SW, which in unsettled weather they, suddenly, often do..

Finding a good weather window to make the crossing is difficult, the Oyster World Rally Fleet that should have left last week are still firmly tired to the wall. A few months ago we decided to ask weather guru Chris Tibbs to help route us for the passage. He confirms that once this front has past over, tomorrow there is a window opening up, so we are preparing to leave.

If we had known how nice Reunion Island was we might have planned a longer stay. High volcanos, one of which is still active, form the base of the island. Lush with tropical rain forest, near vertical cliffs, formed from numerous rivers, cut through the landscape. It was as if we were driving through a geography lesson on V shaped valleys.We followed the steep road around tight hair pinned bends admiring the views. The sides of the hills were streaked with waterfalls.

Waterfalls streaked the hillside

While we had the car we also went down to the beach for a late afternoon paddle and sundowners overlooking the surf crashing onto the reef a few hundred meters off the coast at La Saline la Bain. The lagoon inside the reef is one of the few safe places to swim in Reunion, as well as being famous for its magnificent interior it has a less favourable reputation for having the highest number of shark attacks per head of population in the World. Most marinas have no swimming signs posted around the dock, but we’ve never before seen them say no swimming : beware of sharks.

Nice spot to watch the sun go down

With brilliant French supermarkets the freezer is full of not just passage meals but pastries and bread, the fridge has soft cheese, ham and salami. Raya is shipshape, Richard who accompanied us from Cocos Keeling, has been safely waved off at the airport, and customs officers are due in the morning to stamp our departure papers. Africa here we come…..

Or do we? Tuesday night suddenly the weather doesn’t look so good, the last few days into Durban are now looking difficult. This means we either need to make a stop after three days in Madagascar or slow our speed down perhaps even heaving to (stopping mid ocean) to wait for an improvement in conditions before we cross the current. The Oyster fleet already a week behind schedule decide they will leave, we on the other hand have no time pressures and conclude that perhaps we should enjoy Reunion a bit longer.

Unfortunately, this morning the Marina has different ideas, with the arrival of the World ARC boats due in the next few days they refuse to let us stay. This is very unusual, normally a port would make every effort to accommodate you, realising the weather is our ruler. However it seems in the Indian Ocean the rallies are King, individual boats having to fit in were and when they can.

Back to plan A, a departure in a couple of hours, we’ll have to work things out as we go.

Angel trumpet shrubs brighten the mountain villages

Monkeying around in Mauritius

Wednesday 17th October 2018

After so many weeks either at sea or on quiet islands, emerging into the bustling town of Port Louis was completely disorientating. A cacophony of noise from the huge building works on the Waterfront assaulted my ears. People and more people, cars and bikes blocked my every move and the mishmash of roads that looked nothing like the grid layout on my map , hid my destination. Finally locating the supermarket, dazed I fought my way through the crowds. Doing my best to translate the French labels, I scrabbled together enough items to get us through the next few days.

Sailing into Port Louis

Luckily it didn’t take long to adjust and on Mauritius’s plus side, we have found nice cheese and baguettes, an ATM that gives us money on our first attempt and in the restaurants the food has been good and the wine served in thin stemmed glasses, a real luxury.

At the weekend we hired a car to explore a bit further and visit some of the tourist attractions. Escaping the traffic and chaos of the town’s took a while, Mauritius turns out to be much more built up than we expected. The busy roads, crowded pavements and ramshackle buildings of much of Port Louis and the towns of the interior are a world away from the serenity of the expensive resorts that line the rest of the coast, our previous experience of the Island. The real Mauritius is a truly multicultural society. Christian churches sit next to ornate Hindu temples, while pray call from the mosques fills the air. Over half of the population is of Indian decent, but there are also a large contingent of Africans and Chinese all muddling along together.

We first travelled north to the Botanic gardens, famous for its pond of Giant Amazonian Lilies and 80 varieties of palm trees. Created over 260yrs ago, avenues of mature trees link the formal lilly pond to the more naturalistic ponds of lotus flowers.

Victoria Amazonia Lilies and Lotus flowers and seed pods.

Sunday we headed South to explore the mountains of the Black River National Park. First stop was the sacred lake at Grand Bassin, mythically linked with the Ganges it is one of the most important Hindu pilgrimage sites outside of India. The proof of its popularity are the huge car parks and walkways that lead to it. The air was thick with the scent of incense and although nobody seemed to mind us wandering amongst them taking photos, we felt rather like intruders. Dressed in their colourful Sunday best, families had come to be blessed in the holy waters, making offerings of fruit, vegetables and flowers and then visiting the temple and praying to the brightly decorated deities that sit at the waters edge.

Ganesh the elephant deity

We drove further into the park stopping at view points and waterfalls. Unfortunately the dry season had turned the waterfalls into trickles and with cloudy skies the no doubt often spectacular views to the south coast were misty and flat. Troops of monkeys that had collected to scavenge from the tourists leftovers became the main attraction.

Monkeys high up in the Black River National Park

Descending through sharp hairpins the mountain road led us down to Chamarel and it’s peculiar dunes, La Terre de Sept Couleurs. The seven colours have been created from basalt rock rich in Iron and Aluminium. Ferrous oxides giving the reds and browns, aluminium oxides producing blues and purples.

The Seven Coloured Earth

Back onboard Raya we spent a couple of days in limbo, waiting for the ok on a spot in the marina in Reunion Island, our next stop and where Richard leaves us to fly back to the UK. The Oyster Rally a week ahead of us is occupying most of the space, but with the arrival of the World Rally boats to Port Louis, things are getting pretty tight here too. Berths for individual yachts such as ourselves are becoming few and far between. And with the weather not looking good for a departure to South Africa any time soon there is becoming a bit of a yacht bottle neck.

Thankfully yesterday Regine the Oyster Rally coordinator kindly negotiated us a spot tied up with the Oyster fleet, we leave for Reunion this afternoon.

Turbulent Indian Ocean

Finally Internet, see two blogs below

Friday 5th October 2018

We have just reached the halfway mark of our sail from Cocos Keeling to Mauritius. The Indian Ocean continues to be lumpy and uncomfortable, tossing Raya back and forth as she speeds onward. Bigger waves roll in every ten minutes or so, looming over us then picking us up, when we reach the crest for a moment we sit perched high above the ocean, before with much spray and noise, we surf downwards to await the next ride.

Waves up to five meters high persisted for most of the passage.

Our friend Richard who joined us in Cocos Keeling has fitted in well with our routines and so we are now all getting a bit more sleep, even with the rolly conditions. The half moon however that lit our way for the first few nights, has waned and with quite a bit of cloud obscuring the stars our night watches are very dark. Sunrise is as always welcome.

A pink sunrise

We have seen very few other ships, a few tankers have passed us but most only spotted on the chart plotter as AIS targets, just a couple pass close enough to spot on the horizon. Even the dolphins have been keeping their distance it is unusual to be at sea for this long without spotting at least a few.

In contrast there have been plenty of flying fish, one morning Richard cleared 26 that had accumulated on the deck over night. During the day we watched them skimming the waves all around us. On one wave, right next to us, about 50 small fish all took to the air at once. Catching the sun as they leapt, fins beating rapidly, for one magical moment they looked just like a band of fairies appearing from the deep.

So each day goes on, we eat, catch up on sleep, read and gather for the 4pm crossword. We’ve had good winds and we are sailing fast, there is much debate as to whether we can maintain these high speeds and make it to Port Louis the afternoon before our estimated arrival on Friday 12th. The next few days, with a forecast drop in the wind and possible drop in speed, will be the deciding factor. Unfortunately if we lose pace then we will have to slow up for the rest of the voyage to avoid a night time arrival.


Thursday 11th October 2018

On day eight calmer weather did arrive, the sea settled, the sun shone and the fishing rod came out. Luckily we still had a reasonable breeze and could keep our speed up. The fish however were disappointedly not biting. A fish supper would not only have been delicious but would have helped our dwindling fresh food supplies. Almost everything I bought in Cocos Keeling has not lasted well, the fridge is looking extremely bare. We have all been fantasising about our first meal ashore, with chips of course and a large glass of wine.

Boys putting out the fishing rod, no bites this trip sadly.

The Indian Ocean hadn’t finished with us yet however, two days out from Mauritius and the winds built again along with the swell. It was back to bracing against the tipping from the waves, each task taking twice as long as it should. We have found this Ocean particularly fickle, winds often gusting from 18 to over 30kts every few minutes and the sea state varying, seemingly randomly, from slight to rough.

For the second half of the passage we saw many more tankers and cargo boats, all thankfully happy, on request on VHF, to let us maintain our course. About 200nm out we began to cross the shipping lane for boats coming up from the Cape of Good Hope heading towards East Asia. A sharp lookout was required.

And then the squalls came. Ominous black clouds would appear on the horizon, the wind would drop and back. The arrival of a downpour would be accompanied by a blast of high winds that only gradually returned to their presquall direction and strength. Each squall required us to reef the sails and frequently change direction, the cockpit and crew were frequently soaked, sleeping off watch almost impossible, if we hadn’t laughed we would have cried.

Squalls rolling in over the Indian Ocean

To add to our woes, a seam on our Genoa started to split, the sails have, like us, done a lot of miles. Luckily they are very strong and held together with a network of spectra, miraculously the sail maintained its integrity and didn’t appear to effect our performance.

A split in the Genoa

But we made it, in more or less one piece and are now tied up to the wall near the customs office in the capital of Mauritius, Port Louis. Although not our favourite crossing it has been our fastest, arriving 12hrs earlier that expected and averaging 7.8kts. The usual ‘ got here beer’ was delayed slightly by the extremely efficient check in procedure. An hour of form filling later, it was three very weary and slightly wobbly sailors that clambered over the railings to the restaurants conveniently located right next to us.

Second ‘got here beer’

Cocos Keeling

Thursday 27th September 2018

Coral garden Cocos Keeling

Sitting atop a sea mount rising from the sea bed 5000m below, Cocos Keeling is 600nm SE of Java and over thousand miles NW of Australia, it is the very definition of the middle of nowhere. Two stunning coral atolls comprising of 27 white sand islands, topped with palm trees and of course surrounded by turquoise seas.

The anchorage off Direction Island

For such a remote spot we have discovered it has a lively history. The inside of the Southern Atoll has provided, in the aptly named Refuge Bay, protection for passing ships for centuries and we in that long tradition are anchored in its lagoon off Direction Island. It was first put on the map by a whaler from the Scottish Clunies-Ross family, who in the early 19th century settled here, bringing in hundreds of Malay workers with whom he set up a successful coconut plantation.

At the beginning of the 20th century things began to change. As telegraph communications become more important, in 1901 a cable was laid from Perth in Australia to a repeater station on Direction Island and then on to Singapore and Mauritius providing a link from Australia to London. With the coming of the World Wars the islands strategic position became even more clear to the Australian government and in the 1950s, it would appear rather underhandedly, the Governor of the the time John Clunies-Ross was accused of practicing slavery, shamed and bankrupted. Cocos Keeling became part of Australia.

Oceana House the grand family home still stands on Home Island. After years of neglect it was bought by an Australian couple Avril and Lloyd and just in time its expansive teak panelling, wooden floors and ornate terraces are beginning to be restored.

Home island, a very wet 2nm dingy ride away from the anchorage, has that sleepy island feel that we have found in many isolated ocean islands. It is home to the majority of the Muslim Malay population and with only short distances to travel in their small town they get around slightly incongruously in golf buggies. There is a small museum, a supermarket, island administrative buildings and a brand new cyclone shelter. But our destination is almost always, the pavilion, here overlooking the beach and lagoon is an internet hotspot, every couple of days we sit, dripping from the journey, catching up with our emails and downloading the weather.

Connecting with the rest of the world

West Island, that forms a large part of the western lagoon edge, houses most of the Australian residents, a further supermarket, a cafe and the airport. Saturday our friend Richard was flying in from the UK to join us on the leg to Mauritius and Reunion. With the demise of our Bimini and sprayhood earlier in the year, we also had a large box of replacement canvas work, very efficiently supplied by Dolphin sails in the U.K. to pick up. Add on the fact that fresh groceries had arrived on the island that day, which I with seemingly the rest of the population, rushed to snap up before stocks dwindled, meant it was three very ladened sailors that made the convoluted trek back to Raya. First step was to take a shuttle bus from the town to the ferry dock, then it required two ferry crossings from West Island to Home Island, one for people and one for cargo and then being too loaded down for the dingy, we had to arrange a water taxi back to the boat. It took a while but we made it and Richard is unpacked, the new sprayhood up and the fridge full.

As we wait for the rather windy weather to calm down before we head off on the two week passage to Mauritius, we have been enjoying this rather special place. As well as learning about the islands history we have been following trails through land thick with palm trees, socialising with the World ARC boats that have gradually being filling the anchorage and snorkelling ‘The Rip’.

The Rip is a channel cutting through the coral at the end of Direction Island, the current runs at about 3kts and it is full of large grouper, trevally and white tip sharks, all enjoying the fast flow of nutrients. The coral walls either side provide overhangs, crevasses and bommies crowded with smaller fish. The dingy firmly in tow it made for a great, if rather quick, drift snorkel.

Inhabitants of the Rip

Today the wind is stronger than ever, the fetch across the lagoon forming white horses, we have put on our swimmers to make the crossing to the pavilion and are temporary connected to the world.