We had spent the morning trying to track down an elusive herd of elephants in the scalding African heat, and I was now savouring an al fresco lunch under the shade of a leafy tree. All was calm, soporific even, as each of our gathered group recounted their most recent wildlife encounters – when suddenly I felt a furry mass brush unexpectedly along my arm.
Leaping out of my seat, I watched as a vervet monkey bounded past and on to our table, where he deftly grabbed a solitary sausage roll from a side plate before leaping back over my head and into the tree behind, just as a waiter rushed out brandishing a catapult.
But it was much too late for that: the furry thief was now smugly situated in the upper branches clutching his prize, watching us intently as he tucked in with what I could have sworn was a triumphant glint in his eyes.
Such are the unexpected delights of life in the African bush – delights I was fast warming to on my sailing with Norwegian Cruise Line.
That’s right: sailing. “Cruise” and “safari” might not seem like natural bedfellows, but it turns out they’re a match made in heaven – coupling all the excitement of big cats (or mischievous monkeys) and jeep dashes with the inescapably calming effect of floating from port to port. See the big five, unpack your case once. Perfect.
Nevertheless, few companies offer cruise-cum-safari options – despite the fact that round-trip cruises from Cape Town during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months are the perfect way to escape a gloomy British winter (plus, with a time difference of two hours there’s virtually no jet lag).
Days before, I’d stepped out of the airport and into the warm embrace of a sapphire-skied Cape Town, speeding along the freeway by cab towards the waterfront as a blanket of cloud curled across the summit of flat-topped Table Mountain.
Much like safari, the city pairs magnificently with a cruise – not least because the port is less than five minutes’ drive from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. At this buzzing tourist hub of hotels, shops and waterside restaurants, I paused for a stroll, spotting sea lions sunning themselves close to yachts and harbour boats offering coastal cruises. But I had bigger fish to fry, so to speak. Aboard Norwegian Jade, I watched as we sailed away from Cape Town, the buildings stark against their dramatic backdrop, rising to that deep, deep blue sky.
Smaller than many modern ships – with 2,402 passengers, mainly North Americans and Brits on my sailing – Norwegian Jade made for a cosy base with a more intimate feel than many ships can muster, while remaining large enough to offer a decent variety of restaurants and entertainment venues.
Our first stop was Mossel Bay – the start of South Africa’s famous Garden Route, which stretches more than 120 miles to the Eastern Cape – where we visited a family-run farm for a speciality cheese tasting paired with wines, gins and chocolate.
But the best was yet to come. This cruise was about the thrill of viewing wild game in its natural habitat, and we had safari-ing to do.
With animal excursions offered at every port – from penguin and ostrich-spotting at the Cape peninsula to spying Namibia’s wild horses at Luderitz – for me, the wildlife reserves were the main 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 was gazing enthusiastically at roaming herds of zebra, grazing buffalo, skittish antelope and a pair of warthogs with a gaggle of tiny two-week-old piglets.
But it’s the 650 or so elephants that roam the park’s 630 sq miles that are the big draw here, and we held our collective breath as a lone male passed within metres of our bus. He was the first of many that day, culminating in around 100 gathered at a waterhole, where we watched, spellbound, as some immersed themselves in the muddy waters.
While moored in Richards Bay, south of Durban, a more authentic safari experience awaited at the Thula Thula reserve, where we charged along rutted, dusty tracks in safari jeeps. Though we encountered a tower of giraffes delicately nibbling at tree leaves, and several charming baby nyala antelope sheltering beside a bush, our attempts to track down the resident elephants drew a blank.
But no matter: we were soon rewarded with a fractious rhino instead, who turned 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 his mind, turned and plodded back into the shade. A wave of relief washed over us, adrenaline pumping, eyes bright – a fitting climax to a day of heart-stopping excitement, discussed at length over cocktails onboard 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 some beating. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter a touch of monkey business, too.
Sara Macefield was a guest of Norwegian Cruise Line (0333 241 2319; ncl.com), which offers a 12-night South Africa & Namibia round-trip from £1,286 per person (flights extra). The cruise sails from Cape Town, and includes calls at Port Elizabeth, Durban and Luderitz in Namibia. Departures on February 1 and March 8 2024