Sam Ballard sets sail on Viking Sun for a ‘safari cruise’
around South Africa – which combines the luxury of cruise culture with the adventure of discovering animals in the wild
We were no more than 15 minutes into my first ever safari and there they were dozens and dozens of giraffes, towering above our Jeep. Huge adults turning slowly to face us, warily aware of the newcomers, the more inquisitive ones bending down to take a closer look while calves galloped around on their spindly legs. We were all spellbound, until the click of a camera stirred us into action and made us remember to record the moment.
This is a safari cruise – the meeting of two very different types of holiday, combining the luxurious nature of a cruise with all that safaris are renowned for. As we were to find out, the results are quite spectacular.
Our vessel for this sailing is the Viking Sun – the fourth iteration of Viking Cruises’ beautiful ocean series. The 930-passenger ship takes the best bits of Viking’s river product and magnifies them – taking elements like the Living Room and well-designed suites – making the most of the ocean ships’ new, bigger canvas. The ships, while undoubtedly luxurious, are understated, in a typically Scandinavian way. You won’t find jewel-encrusted staircases or big, Broadway-style entertainment here.
Our cruise will see us call at Durban, Port Elizabeth, East London and Cape Town as we sail from east to west around the southern tip of Africa, taking in part of Viking’s longer itinerary running up the entire west coast of the continent.
In Durban, where we are mobbed by a herd of giraffes at the Tala Game Reserve – a smaller, private safari experience where you are more likely to see animals – we also stumble upon a baby rhinoceros with its protective mother, grazing on a hilltop. As our Jeep passes slowly by, we stray slightly too close and get an angry snort in return. Given that she is the size of an army tank, and has maneuvered herself to be staring straight at us, everyone holds their breath. She chooses to let us pass and we continue our journey to the side of a lake where a hippo stares at us from middle of his watery domain. Our guide informs us that they are incredibly territorial animals – and that this is in fact his lake. Certainly nobody wants to contest his ownership.
Back on board our Viking sanctuary we lounge in the huge spa and take part in a Nordic Spa Ritual ($39). The process sees willing participants moved from sauna to snow room – to heat up and cool down – over and over again. What starts off feeling like torture becomes strangely enjoyable as you feel the difference between the two climates less and less. The Scandinavians do this – usually using a sauna and a plunge pool – to help improve blood flow and rejuvenate the skin. Staff from the spa are on hand to beat us with birch leaves and, afterwards, we are rewarded with a head or hand massage. Bliss, and given that the entire process takes at least an hour, good value, too.
Our second port of call is East London where we visit a cultural village to learn more about the Xhosa people. There, we are split between men and women and showed how each live their lives. Xhosa boys must go through a circumcision ritual to become men, involving a long period of seclusion in a hut without water or food. The ritual ends with the hut being burnt down. It’s an interesting morning spent learning about another culture, although it does feel a little artificial – and questionable that children are there for the benefit of tourists in the middle of the day.
In the afternoon we visit the East London Museum and get a behind-the-scenes tour with museum staff showing us the museum’s prize exhibits: the world’s only surviving dodo egg and the 36,000 year old Hofmeyr Skull (one of the earliest examples of anatomically modern human remains ever to be discovered). We are in the Cradle of Humankind, after all.
Back on board we are most certainly living in the 21st century. We enjoy the renowned steak in Manfredi’s, the line’s speciality Italian restaurant, and the waffles in Mamsen’s, which are based on an old family recipe of Viking’s founder’s mother. Both are free, with Manfredi’s needing a booking to secure your table, while Mamsen’s is walk-up.
The lack of nickel and diming on board is indicative of the company’s entire philosophy. Drinks are reasonable – the Silver Drinks Package costs just $19.95 per person per day, with both people in a cabin having to take it – and access to the pool area of the spa is complimentary (although you obviously will have to pay for treatments). There is no casino and no flashy shows. Instead, it’s all about great food in a very well-designed, luxurious setting – a real sanctuary after a day out exploring. All of this doesn’t come cheap – a 12-day Norwegian fjords cruise on Viking costs about £4,890 per person – but the experience is incredible. It’s a genuine once in a lifetime opportunity.
The next day we are in Port Elizabeth for the highlight of our trip, a safari through the Addo Elephant National Park, the third biggest national park in South Africa. The park is vast, 1,640 square kilometres, which is both good and (selfishly) bad. The positive is that the animals are free to roam in an area that is the bigger than Greater London. The negative is that your chances of seeing something are massively reduced compared to the private reserves.
Given the abundance of wildlife at the private game reserve, I expect to have seen the entire ‘big five’ (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo) within an hour. Unfortunately, rains a few days earlier mean the animals are happy to stay away from the watering holes that have been strategically placed by the roadside. We drive through the bush taking turn after turn as our guide valiantly tries to catch sight of something to show us. Then, after around two hours of nothing but warthogs, antelope and dung beetles, we stop suddenly and our guide points into the bush – to a family of elephants ambling along, grazing from a treetop buffet.
If there is a moment that epitomises our African safari, this is it. We all sit completely silent, watching the largest land mammals in the world in their natural habitat. The hours of driving around are easily worth it – and if anything make the moment more special. These animals are not here for our enjoyment – and they have so much room to roam that it should be a challenge to see them.
Our time in South Africa is drawing to an end. With a final stop in Cape Town we attempt to make it up Table Mountain but are beaten by the huge queues to get on to the cable car and instead jump in a taxi down to the V&A Waterfront to enjoy a chilled beer by the water.
South Africa is a land of contrasts. It’s undeniable that there is an edge as you walk around some of the cities – and seeing people living behind barbed wire in Cape Town gives the impression that some think the city is a war zone. However, a safari has been high on my list for a long time. And the chance to visit different parks and cities is taking the very best of what a cruise has to offer.
And, I’ll never forget the moment we saw those elephants. This is
the kind of thing that dream holidays are made off and a tale I will be telling for years to come.