Sailing Into New Waters : After a few nights of rough seas, they're just happy to be on land--and, oh, what beautiful land it is

Chris Card Fuller is freelance writer based Deerfield Beach, Fla

When the first 40-foot wave hit, I lay frozen to our stateroom bed, my eyes squeezed shut. Seconds later the second 40-footer slammed down and the 28,000-ton M.S. Star Odyssey nosed its way through with a thud and a groan.

I cradled my neon orange life jacket. My husband, Christopher, snored.

Jack and Mae McPeak, two cruise veterans, had easily persuaded us that the stupendous approach by sea to Cape Town, South Africa, was an experience not to be missed. Starting in Mombasa, Kenya, we could look forward to 12 days at sea and such exotic ports of call as Zanzibar; Nosy Be, a tiny island off the coast of Madagascar; and St. Denis on the French island of Reunion. After that, we would head south through the Indian Ocean to put in at South Africa's storied coastal cities of Durban, Mossel Bay and Cape Town, whose approach by sea was heralded by Sir Francis Drake as "the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the Earth." Optional South Africa land excursions and an add-on ride on the famed Blue Train made this trip sound too good to pass up.

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We had just visited Kenya and the Seychelles islands on a similar cruise/land package six months earlier, but this time we'd be getting to see South Africa at a crucial point in its history with newly elected Nelson Mandela at the helm of the country. Having recently read James Michener's "The Covenant," I thought traveling by ship might be a way to understand the allure South African coasts held for foreign explorers.

But a night of rough seas dispelled any esoteric musings about following in seafarers' footsteps. My strongest desire was to see land--any land.

By morning on the ninth day, the high winds subsided and a dull light revealed the fuzzy outline of South Africa, so we ventured out of our cabin and headed to the Penthouse Lounge for a view of the churning sea that had knocked television sets across cabin floors during the night. Durban seemed but a hand's reach away--until one unknotted the patchwork of swells. Four hours behind schedule, we had no chance of reaching port before noon. A whale flipped its tail with insolent ease as it cut across traffic lanes to our starboard.

Passengers scrutinized the dented prow railing. We wouldn't get a good look at the rust-bleeding prow, bashed in from the previous night's swells, until we docked at Durban.

"Did you notice they bolted down the piano this time?" said a slight woman who wore her gray hair in a pixie cut. She was a 10-time cruise veteran. "You should have seen the piano slide the time we crossed the Bay of Biscay!" She had been in typhoons. Last night wasn't bad.

Her words reinforced the truism that, just because our last Indian Ocean cruise had been fair sailing, there aren't any guarantees at sea. If I had begun to think of luxury cruises as merely floating hotels, this was my wake-up call.

(The Star Odyssey withstood the damage, and since our sailing in November 1995, it also has weathered the financial woes of parent company Royal Cruise Line. Earlier this year, the Norwegian firm Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines bought the Odyssey and renamed it the M.S. Black Watch. A $6-million upgrade will prepare it for its next Africa tour in January.)

But, we had arrived safely. From the deck, we surveyed a crisply starched span of high-rises towering over an orderly grid of concrete. Located on the south coast of Natal Province, Durban, with more than a million people, is South Africa's third-largest city and one of its three capitals. It's best known for its Golden Mile beachfront of hotels and parklands.

Since we already had received a briefing from guest lecturer and former CNN correspondent Charles D. Jaco about rising crime in Cape Town and Johannesburg, we were glad the cruise offered shore excursions and the safety of bus tours through South Africa's major cities.

Once we had climbed into our tour buses, I temporarily forgot about the perils of seafaring. We were headed for the Valley of 1,000 Hills, 15 miles outside of Durban. In the late afternoon, the sunbathed hills looked like honeyed gumdrops tumbled out of a tin.

Seated in a makeshift amphitheater in a Zulu village perched on one of the 1,000 hills, we watched Zulu dancers stomp up dust. "This is not some choreographed dance troupe from the university," our white South African guide said as she bounced a dancer's toddler on her knee. She knew the village women all by name; "Tulani means 'quiet one.'

After the performance and picture taking (for dollars), the village chief, still wearing his leather crown, climbed into a Land Rover with his extended family and drove off, leaving behind the setting sun and the valley at no extra charge.

"Maybe we could fly from Durban to Cape Town," I suggested to my husband, remembering that we would soon be back at sea. Just the names on the map were enough to start my stomach doing flip-flops: Danger Point, False Bay, the Cape of Good Hope--which had originally been called the Cape of Storms.

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In the morning, the December sun shone (it was summer in South Africa). The captain announced that in spite of some swells, we would be landing by tender boats in the fishing and retirement resort of Mossel Bay. Not an easy task, transferring midnight buffet regulars from ship to tender boat while dancing to the beat of a rippling sea.

With a population of 40,000, Mossel Bay has become a favorite fishing, golfing and retirement enclave for successful, retired Cape Towners wanting to escape city life. It's along the 143-mile Garden Route, a stretch of scenic coastline that has been compared to England's Lake District. For me, "garden" connotes tea, scones and wrought-iron chairs, but by day's end, we would be treated to a landscape of vast beaches, tufts of wild purple Hottentot lilies, tidal marshes and ravines.

Before busing toward our destination--the Featherbed Nature Reserve, home of endangered blue duikers (a kind of antelope) and the blue crane (the national bird)--we paused in Mossel Bay's center at a leafy milkwood tree known as the Post Office Tree, which was used by early European sailors and explorers as a postal collection point.

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As we left behind sedate Mossel Bay, the road infiltrated dense forests of yellowwood (sister species to our redwood) and wound past ravines and coffee-colored streams (naturally colored by sandstone, not pollution). We were closing in on the coastal town of Knysna, situated halfway along the Garden Route, where silvery tidal estuaries reach between stands of craggy red sandstone headlands. Knysna, translated from its African root language, could mean "sheet of water" or "place of great forests."

William Smith, owner and guide for the Featherbed Reserve and Tavern, a privately owned 370-acre nature reserve, waited in his ferry boat to take us across Knysna Lagoon, past the local yacht club to his reserve tucked in a wooded cove. A tractor-pulled cart took us to Featherbed's summit for a view of the dramatic Knysna estuary. From there, the coast looked like a child's wobbly drawing--cobalt blue sea streaked with a white squiggled surf, dotted with jutting brown rocks and fringes of pine.

Featherbed got its name from sailors who picked it as the first safe haven to drop anchor and relax after battling the stormy Cape. We hiked down the dirt path, accompanied by Smith's 5-year-old daughter and one of his employees, Sam Ngalo. At Smith's tavern, we had a barbecue of fresh fish, salt potatoes, pickled green beans and fresh fruit with ice cream.

"Best meal we've had on this cruise," I said.

"It's only the best meal because you're parked on a picnic bench on solid land!" my husband reminded me.

Back on the ship the following morning, the weather brightened and we seized the opportunity to play paddle tennis on the top deck (this was more my idea of luxury cruising!).

In the afternoon, Charles Jaco, the star attraction of this cruise, provided an insightful overview of South Africa's political and economic situation with major emphasis on President Nelson Mandela's crucial role. Sunshine and smoother sailing dispelled my apprehension about passing Cape Agulhas, where the Indian Ocean tumbles into the Atlantic. By midnight, we had bobbed uneventfully from one ocean to the next with all the fanfare of crossing state lines. The cruise director promised a marching band for our arrival in Cape Town the following morning and it was there, to finish the cruise with gusto.

No marching band was needed to appreciate Cape Town at sunrise. Its serene haze must have been the joyful answer to many a sailor's prayers. And, although I had hardly conquered my fear of rough seas, I would gladly cross four oceans to set foot on Cape Town's spectacular shore.

From the deck, we spotted 3,500-foot Table Mountain, the great natural sphinx of the south, waiting for us to pay homage. Beneath it, Cape Town's skyscrapers fanned out like new undergrowth.

For our Cape Town shore excursion, we chose a tour of Stellenbosch, South Africa's wine-growing heartland. To get there, we headed inland, driving past row upon row of tin-roofed shacks. Constructed by squatters on what used to be a garbage dump, the huge slum is a reminder of the country's apartheid past and its unrealized goals of adequate housing, electricity and plumbing.

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At the other end of the spectrum, 17th century Stellenbosch village could have been a sleepy town in Utah, but for the purple explosion of jacaranda trees and the rows of oaks, planted by founder Simon van der Stel.

We visited early Dutch settlers' homes located in the Village Museum. Many original Dutch colonial homes grace Stellenbosch's main street. Blond Afrikaans-speaking students quaffed beer at an outdoor cafe, soaking up the sun. At the University of Stellenbosch, most classes are conducted in Afrikaans.

The next day, for our final Cape Town tour before catching the famed Blue Train for Johannesburg, we wanted to see the Kristenbosch Botanic Gardens, noted for its 9,000 varieties of plant life. I had hoped to tease some comments from our big-boned, ruddy-complexioned tour guide, who stood in the middle of the gardens as if he were fixed to the dry landscape like a stubborn cactus. Aside from mentioning how the foreign press tended to oversimplify South Africa's struggles, he shifted the focus back to us, the tourists.

"Normally, American tourists are conservative," he said, "but we're expecting to get more now that they know they won't get eaten up by lions in South Africa." But, he added, "You shouldn't go out of your hotel room in Cape Town after 5 p.m."

With a high crime rate and growing gang violence, it's wise to heed such advice. No lions, but urban predators abound in Cape Town and other metropolises that tourists frequent, such as Johannesburg and Durban. We ventured out of the hotel only during daylight hours--minus cameras, fanny packs, jewelry, etc. We gawked at the diamonds, gold and pearls glinting in shop windows throughout the city center. Outdoor vendors sold brightly colored necklaces and carved malachite figurines.

Traveling in an organized tour gave us the safety of numbers, however, and in the botanical gardens we felt at ease to wander off, past bright red proteas, ancient cycad trees and lush birds of paradise.

"What surprises me about your group, compared to other groups, is you haven't tried to tell us how to run our country," said the tour guide. What he didn't know was that, after 12 days at sea, I was just happy to be standing on it.

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GUIDEBOOK: Cabin Comforts

The Black Watch, operated by Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, has a cruise that makes several South African ports of call. U.S. contact is EuroCruises Inc., telephone (800) 688-3876. Departs Jan. 4 from Dover, England, for a64-night "Around Africa" cruise. The itinerary includes Canary Islands; Cape Verde Islands; Senegal; Namibia; Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban in South Africa; Madagascar; the Comoros Islands; Zanzibar; and Mombasa, Kenya. Rates vary depending on guest cabin and advance purchase.

Some other cruise lines with ships in South Africa:

Crystal Cruises Inc., tel. (800) 446-6620. A 22-day itinerary includes Dubai; Muscat; Mombasa, Kenya; Durban and Cape Town, South Africa. Departs March 15 from Bombay, India.

Princes Cruises, tel. (800) 421-0522. A 23-day trip includes Durban, South Africa; Zanzibar; Mombasa, Kenya; Egypt and the Suez Canal; Jerusalem; ending in Athens. Departs March 15 from Cape Town, South Africa.

Safety: There are some safety and security problems in South Africa that tourists should be aware of; for more information, see Travel Advisory on L14.

--C.C.F.

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