We had spent the morning trying to track down an elusive herd of elephants in the searing African heat, and now I was savoring an outdoor lunch in the shade of a leafy tree. All was calm, even soporific, as each of our assembled group recounted their most recent wildlife encounters — when I suddenly felt a hairy mass unexpectedly brush down my arm.
Leaping off my seat, I watched a vervet monkey leap over and onto our table, where he deftly grabbed a lone sausage roll from a side dish before leaping back over my head and into the tree behind, just as a waiter he rushed out brandishing a catapult.
But it was too late for that: the hairy thief was now sitting smugly in the upper branches clutching his prize, watching closely as he slipped in with what I’d swear was a triumphant twinkle in his eye.
These are the unexpected delights of life in the African bush, delights I quickly became passionate about during my cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line.
That’s right: surf. “Cruising” and “safari” may not seem like natural bedfellows, but it turns out they’re a match made in heaven – combining all the excitement of big cats (or mischievous monkeys) and jeep racing with the inevitable calming effect to float from port to port. See the big five, unpack the case once. Perfect.
However, few companies offer safari cruise options, despite the fact that round-trip cruises from Cape Town during the Southern Hemisphere summer months are the perfect way to escape a grim British winter (plus, with a two hour time difference (there is virtually no jet lag).
Days earlier, I had exited the airport and found myself in the warm embrace of a sapphire-skyed Cape Town, hurtling down the freeway toward the waterfront as a blanket of clouds curled over the summit of flat-topped Table Mountain.
Just like safaris, the city pairs beautifully with a cruise, not least because the port is less than a five-minute drive from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. In this bustling tourist center of seaside hotels, shops and restaurants, I stopped for a stroll, spotting sea lions sunbathing near yachts and dock boats offering coastal cruises. But I had bigger fish to fry, so to speak. Aboard Norwegian Jade, I watched as we sailed out of Cape Town, the stark buildings against the dramatic backdrop, rising into that deep, deep blue sky.
Smaller than many modern liners – with 2,402 mainly North American and British passengers on my sailing – Norwegian Jade has created a welcoming base with a more intimate feel than many ships can muster, while remaining large enough to offer a decent variety of local restaurants and entertainment.
Our first stop was Mossel Bay, the start of South Africa’s famous Garden Route, which stretches over 120 miles to the Eastern Cape, where we visited a family-run farm for a tasting of specialty cheeses paired with wines , gin and chocolate.
But the best was yet to come. This cruise was about the thrill of seeing game in its natural habitat and we had a game drive to go.
With animal excursions offered at every port – from spotting penguins and ostriches in the Cape Peninsula to spying on Namibian wild horses in Luderitz – for me, nature reserves were the star attraction.
At Addo Elephant National Park just outside Port Elizabeth (renamed Gqeberha in 2021, though its former name is still used), it wasn’t long before I enthusiastically observed herds of zebra, grazing buffalo, skittish antelope and a couple of warthogs. with a herd of tiny two-week-old piglets.
But it’s the 650 or so elephants that roam the park’s 630 square miles that are the big draw here, and we held our collective breath as a lone male passed mere feet of our bus. It was the first of many that day, culminating in about 100 people gathered at a pool of water, where we watched, mesmerized, as some waded into the muddy waters.
While moored in Richards Bay, south of Durban, a more authentic safari experience awaited us at the Thula Thula Game Reserve, where we charged along rutted, dusty tracks in safari jeeps. Although we encountered a tower of giraffes gently nipping at the leaves on the trees and several fascinating nyala antelopes sheltering next to a bush, our attempts to track the resident elephants fell short.
But no matter: we were soon rewarded with an irritable rhino, which veered sharply and headed determinedly towards our vehicle, preparing to charge. Our driver tensed, ready for a quick getaway, when — just like that — the two-ton hulk changed its mind, turned and trudged back into the shadows. A wave of relief washed over us, adrenaline pumping, eyes bright – a fitting climax to a day of breathtaking excitement, discussed at length over onboard cocktails that evening as the sun set over the sea.
Truly, when it comes to serving up relaxation and adventure in equal measure, the cruise-safari hybrid takes a bit of a beating. If you are lucky, you will also meet a monkey touch.
Sara Macefield was a guest on Norwegian Cruise Line (0333 241 2319; ncl.com), who offer a 12-night round trip to South Africa and Namibia from £1,286 per person (flights extra). The cruise departs from Cape Town and includes calls in Port Elizabeth, Durban and Luderitz in Namibia. Departures on 1 February and 8 March 2024