Sri Lanka to North Africa

There was too much haze to spot Sri Lanka at dawn. I would have loved to have seen it as it is another haunt of pirates. The next point of interest is the very hazardous looking "Eight Degree Passage" just north of the tantalising atolls of the Maldives through which we pass at midnight, not that you would expect to see such low specks of land even on a fine day. A pod of eight or so dolphins showed themselves briefly but too far out for a good look. I have strained my eyeballs in vain for a whale. The water was again clear of debris and fewer and fewer ships were sighted - at odd times there were none at all. Still the flying fish fly but the seabirds have deserted, not that there have ever been many.

I had expected the crew list to include a technical genius position. There are engineers, an electrician and fitters but absolutely no expert to deal with computerised gear. The ship appears to be completely reliant upon modern technology but it seems that if a system malfunctions the officers must compromise as best they can until they reach Hamburg. Of course they are more than capable of managing - I spotted a box the right size for a sextant - but imagine the inconvenience, not to mention the extra work it would require.

I know I've already talked about the food but at the risk of repetition, here I go again. To answer an obvious question, no! we do not have sauerkraut with every meal. It has been served only about three times and is very nice too. It is hard to categorise the food. Old fashioned staple is close enough with a slight Pilipino styling, generally bland, with European influences provided by a selection of soft cheeses, cold cuts and sometimes a little smoked salmon, soused fish or herring with finely sliced onion and a couple of heavy breads to go with it. The black bread or pumpernickel is quite crumbly and the rye bread is a lighter looking though dense bread, both very good. Bread rolls are baked from ready-made dough each day and there is a white sliced square loaf for toasting but very nondescript. Meat does not include roast. There are spuds and or rice and boiled veges or warm potato salad. Often there is a large bowl of freshly prepared salad with the ingredients not mixed so that you can pick out the combination you want from say lettuce, carrot, radish, green and red capsicum, onions or spring onions.

You have a good selection of condiments: olive oil, vinegar, balsamic, Tabasco, soy, two kinds of chilli sauce, tomato sauce, mayonnaise and so on with which to make up your own dressing. There is always a choice of eggs for breakfast except for boiled or poached and very good tasty and well-cooked bacon. Cereal of course. In the photo the Danish Delights are true to label while the other biscuit tin contains muesli. Icecream twice a week. Yoghurt twice a week. Fresh fruit twice a week: banana, orange or apple. Deserts are rare and terrible, which I don't think is a concern for any of us. Soups are always very good. Steak is served with rounds of frozen garlic butter to melt on the top. The only criticism is the lack of fresh fruit. No cockroaches you will be pleased to hear.

I have finally succeeded in cementing enough goodwill with the cook and mess man for them to promise to advise me of occasions when the crew are having Philippine dishes. I had one that was the front half of a fish, crisply fried and tasting a little like piper which was pretty good though a bit dry of texture but that is understandable. Meat travels much better than fish. One lot of fish we had was so dry that I suspect it had been around the world a couple of times already, and not by swimming. Mostly the crew are dished up the same as the officers but usually from one big pot. There is also always a jug of cold water, cartons of fruit juice and as I have mentioned previously, quite good dripolated coffee (the crew have instant). The butter is quite reasonable and there are heaps of jam varieties. No honey or marmite. How you do like the "Happy Cow" brand reduced milk? There are no passenger complaints about the food but it is a wonder I can still see my shoelaces.

One of the pieces of machinery I photographed in the engine room was the desalination plant that constantly produces fresh water from sea water. I had expected the water to be dead but it is surprisingly good to drink and soft for washing hair and cloths. I imagine that if you were forced to use nothing else for years and years its lack of minerals and electrolytic properties may prove to be a problem, I don't know.

Standing on the pulpit for a mid-afternoon study of flying fish I was disappointed to see yet another plastic bread packet marking the shipping route. I was thinking to myself that in millions of years from now this geological era of planet earth will be marked world-wide by a thin but discernable layer in the sedimentary rock strata characterised by its plastic content. Moments later I spotted what appeared to be a brown chaff sack just below the port quarter and quickly leaned over to focus on it in time to see that it was actually a turtle, tilting on edge in a frantic attempt at escape. No speedster on the surface, its brief effort was futile. It was probably washed safely aside though no doubt it would have taken a good old tumbling.

The Indian Ocean west of the Maldives could well be renamed the Indian Lake. There was not the slightest vestige of a swell and not enough breeze to raise a whitecap. We had a discussion at dinner as to whether or not we were actually in the Arabian Sea which was confirmed on looking at the chart next morning. On the photographed chart you will note the two-hour increments marking our inexorable progress towards the Gulf of Aden. Yes, I am a bit obsessed with charts. Nearing Aden made me think of the pencil sketches my father made from the porthole of the troopship that took him there on his way to Italy during the war.

On Saturday night a rim of black clouds hid the sunset so we retired to the saloon on my deck where I inaugurated a Film Society by showing the first episode of The Singing Detective. It was great on the large TV screen with good sound, comfortable chairs and wine at the elbow. Moss had seen it when originally shown in Australia and absolutely loved it. The clever English dialogue made much of it difficult for Hermann and Brigitte but they appreciated the hospital spoofery. A couple of the officers stuck their heads around the door in passing to see what we were watching and withdrew looking very puzzled indeed. It is the first time they have ever seen passengers socialising there; we are a unique group. At the end of the screening I announced that I couldn't wait for next weeks episode and Moss nearly died of anxiety till he realised that I was only joking and it would continue the following night. He's was easy to tease. Margaret would have loved Brigitte too because she has the same no-nonsense, no-pretence attitude that Mum had and knows how to have a really good laugh. She would have loved Hermann's one-liners that Moss has dubbed Hermannesque. They are nice people. Hermann has reiterated his earlier invitation to later visit them in Germany. They live by an extensive forest area and have promised walks in the woods, quaffing of local beer and the visiting of various historic places - an offer I feel I can't refuse.

I've just come across one of those funny little childhood misconceptions you live with for years and years, in this case about sixty. My father had a woollen jersey with a pattern down the front, I mistakenly remember resembling platted twine (maritime associations of twine, rope, ships, the sea - sailor's jerseys) that he only wore for best and referred to as his "ferrile" jersey. I always thought that ferrile referred to this particular kind of ropy pattern until just now reading a novel which talks about a Fair Isle pullover. Looking up the word I find it to be an intricate multicoloured pattern knitted with Shetland wool so I guess Fair Isle is in the Shetlands. The misconception has never caused me embarrassment as I don't think I have ever used the expression so goodness knows why the (slightly faulty) memory should pop up with the written word. Moss was telling us that when the process of pearl production was explained to him as a kid, he placed a small stone in his sock under the instep, put his shoes on and hobbled about for days but couldn't produce a pearl. His and Hermann's stories and jokes would fill a book by now.

Another Sunday came and went. One of the new crew members produced a whole load of CDs that the skipper on his previous boat bought in Nairobi for next to nothing. Each disk held five movies. They watched Shrek 2 and Garfield at maximum decibels. I sought relief at intervals with dinner, the sunset and attending to some washing then retired early before suffering permanent hearing loss. The ship by the way has an excellent two-bed hospital with a well stocked dispensary which I was able to see when the Second Mate took me there to find some drops for a slight eye infection I had developed that I want to nip in the bud. Propped up in a corner was a heavily harnessed canvas stretcher-come-straight jacket that would have caused Houdini pause I'm sure. It is obviously for securing a patient requiring evacuation by helicopter, or perhaps for restraining the proverbial drunken sailor?

A couple of larger pods of dolphins were spotted out to port which I snapped just so that I could count the dots, fifteen I made it, so given that they don't all surface at once, maybe there were twenty or so. There was another more numerous lot further out - very exciting. I woke up in the wee hours of Tuesday morning drenched in sweat. The air conditioning had broken down and the humidity was tremendous. The ship is eight years old and this system, like everything else, has been running virtually non-stop all that time. I think they said that the main engine has been shut down completely on only one occasion and that for just one week. Alex was serving at breakfast with a towel tucked down his back under his tee-shirt, a very innovative sweat mop.

I checked and photographed the charts and saw that we would pass close to the island of Suqutr� or Socotra that lies off the northern tip of Somalia, the Horn of Africa. After that enter the Gulf of Aden with Yemen to the north but it will be dark by the time we reach Djibouti and the strait into the Red Sea so we won't see any of it. How exciting to sight my first North African island, even though a hazy spectre. It was very dry and desolate, uninhabited looking, with large dunes in places along the north eastern side formed by sand blowing down from the interior over six-hundred metre high escarpments that run parallel to the shore. The chart shows a ship wreck at each end and a few place names connected by dotted lines indicating tracks rather than roads. An airfield is placed in a big bay part-way along, military no doubt, though I don't know what country owns it, Somalia perhaps. If the place names are fishing villages, then there was not a single fishing boat or any other craft to be seen anywhere between us and the island so perhaps it is deserted. It looks a forbidding place for a shipwreck.

About two hours cruising along this shore put us opposite land with a profile similar to the Tryphena area of Great Barrier with quite high mountains jagged with the exposed cores of ancient volcanoes. The island sheltered us from a fresh breeze that had been providing some heat relief earlier and it seemed very appropriate to be having the experience in such sweltering non-air-conditioned circumstances. You can't get this on the adventure channel. Unfortunately my nasal appendage is not sensitive enough to discern any particular smell off the land as I expected after the Western Australian experience. (A little aside: we were out on deck somewhere a couple of weeks ago and Brigitte reckoned she was picking up the occasional trace of the perfume of exotic flowers wafting across the sea from unseen land up-wind of us. I discreetly moved my Gucci-scented body away and remained down-wind.) Early afternoon brought us out of the shelter of Suqutr� into a brisk quartering breeze from Somalia kicking up dazzling white horses on the dark blue sea, then by dinner time all was calm again. Air conditions mercifully became a little cooler, especially out on a shaded deck on the southern side.

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