Joys and Tribulations of Travel by Ship

A few weeks ago I wrote about books on travel by trains. ‘So why don’t you write about travel by ships?’ my son, Jan, asked. ‘You first came out to Kenya by ship, didn’t you? And you often talk about it!’

Well, my first reaction was that the time is hardly right for that – after the serious coronavirus outbreaks on cruise ships such as the Celebrity Eclipse on the Pacific, the Coral Princess on the Atlantic, the Costa Luminosa on the Mediterranean, and the Diamond Princess on the South China Sea. As of the end of April, over 30 cruise ships have had confirmed positive cases of coronavirus on board. Many people must now see such ships as floating Petri dishes.

However, sometime things – including travel – will be back to something like normal. So let me write about Evelyn Waugh’s description of his voyage out to East Africa on the SS Rhodesia Castle. It was in early 1959. And I came out (as a very young man, let me add) on the SS Uganda eight years later. So he came to Kenya four years before Independence; I came four years after. But I should be talking about our impressions of the voyages rather than our impressions of Kenya in transition.

Both the Rhodesia Castle and the Uganda were one-class boats. This made man-watching that much more interesting for both Waugh and myself. On my ship, for example, a retired General and his lady wife made their own first-class by choosing to always have their meals on a small raised platform in the corner of the otherwise non-segregated dining room. Waugh was struck by the way men, particularly the upper-class English, wore shorts as soon as the ship entered the tropics. It made them look, he suggested, like overgrown little boys. He also pondered whether the loss of European prestige in hot countries was connected with this craven preference for comfort over dignity.

However, Waugh was old enough, and a more frequent voyager than I was, to notice a marked difference about the passengers. The majority were no longer adventurers or empire builders but, as he described them, ‘young, returning to work employees of governments and big commercial firms, taking up secure posts as clerks and schoolmasters and conservators of soil – sons of the Welfare State, well qualified, well behaved, enjoying an easy bonhomie with the stewards’.

Waugh clearly enjoyed his voyage out; I didn’t enjoy mine as much. His ship took the usual route through the Suez Canal, and the passengers were able to stop off at various places along the way. In 1967, one of the wars between Israel and Egypt was going on, so my ship had to go all the way south down the west coast of Africa, round the Cape, and up to Mombasa. It took weeks, and the only time we were able to get off the ship was for one afternoon in Cape Town. There was a cloying sameness about the food, a boring repetition of the numbers the band played – and relationships became frayed. I well understand why so many murder stories are set on cruise ships. It put me off, for life, having a cruise holiday.

Waugh compares the privacy and spaciousness of a cruise ship to what he calls the squalor of a flight. There is something else, too. In a plane, you can be whisked in only a few hours from the winter cold of Europe to the enduring warmth of the tropics. The journeying is more natural by ship. You have time to acclimatise to the changes in culture as well as in the weather. You have time to prepare yourself for the destination by talking to those fellow passengers who have experience of it. And there is also time to make friends – as well as enemies.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation