|The last leg of the World Cruise.|
Leaving Singpore and the armada of ships outside, we sailed to Phuket, epicentre of that disastrous tsunami of December 2004.
|Sailing into the bay, it was hard to imagine the devastation that the tsunami wrought on the island. Now, three years on, it looked peaceful and calm.|
|This was a day when I didn't go off the ship. Without a tour to escort, it was a pleasant change to stay on board. (And it was about 35° in the shade!)|
|India is perhaps the clearest study in contrasts. We docked in Chennai in the state of Tamilnadu (the former Madras, curry will never taste the same!) and visited some of the ancient carved rocks. |
There are many fine buildings along the main road, and almost incessant traffic.
|We passed several schools and colleges, and saw groups of students walking about.|
|But then we turned a corner and everything changed.|
|"People come in from the country," we were told, "and find work fishing." Well, maybe they survive by fishing, and that's a bit different.|
|The carved rocks of Tamilnadu are around 3,000 years old, and quite magnificent. They are part of the Hindu Parthasarathy Temple. It's amazing how much detail has survived the hands and feet of countless tourists.|
|Little yellow "tok toks", three-wheeled taxis, are everywhere, often driving in the wrong lane against the traffic. But then, everyone does that! It would be fairly true to say that the rules of the road apply when it's convenient, and pedestrians ignore them anyway.|
|After Chennai we sailed around the southern tip of India and anchored outside Vilinjam, the nearest anchorage to Trivandrum (or Thiruvananthapuram for short!). I spent some time walking about this small fishing village, and discovered racial tension!|
|In Vilinjam, in opposite corners of the village, there is a mosque and a catholic church. And between them is a small catholic church almost on the beach.|
|Outside the small church is this grave-stone. The date surprised me, and the language shocked me! I only hope the community has been healed of its tension. Apparently the priest was killed by police gunfire. (The capitals are on the stone.)|
|Cochin (also Kochi) is the second largest city in the Kerala state of India, and very different from Chennai. It is part island in the very large bay, which helps to make it an attractive city.|
|The influential Jewish community has gradually diminished until now there are only two or three of the old-established Jewish families in the area. According to tradition, St Thomas visited Kerala Province to proselytize amongst Kerala's Jewish settlements. Kerala: God's Own Country!|
|[ Health & Safety Officers look away now! ]|
Since Kochi is partly island, this means that a great deal of travel is by boat, and in typical Indian fashion it would have been difficult to squeeze anyone more on to this ferry!
|We wanted to see a snake charmer, and there he was. A genuine snake in the basket! |
Kochi is also known for its Chinese fishing nets, large contraptions that look as if they'd collapse if they caught anything large - but they've been there for a long time.
|And so we left India and set off for Egypt, a journey of seven days at sea.|
|Waking up on the morning we arrived in Egypt, this was the porthole view. Brown, bone-dry hills wherever you look for as far as you could see.|
|Aha, there is a town. As brown as the hills. A far cry from the white and terracotta hillsides of the Canaries!|
|Then we're off in convoy to the Valley of the Kings near Luxor. All tourists travel in these police-escorted convoys (for our own safety, we were told), and all other traffic gives way. The police in front drive so fast that the coaches are exempted from normal speed limits, so we're bowling along at about 85-90mph. Good thing other traffic does give way...|
|The journey takes about an hour and a half, and the first hour is through the desert - hardly a blade of grass to be seen. But then we move into the Nile delta, and the contrast between the arid desert and the fertile delta becomes clear.|
|The Valley of the Kings was dramatic, hot and crowded. The tombs have only been opened up within the last 150 years or so, and the wall paintings are remarkably clear and bright. But I wonder how long they will survive with the sheer numbers of tourists breathing over them and even touching them. Cameras are forbidden, of course, but most of what we saw was not otherwise protected from hot, sweaty and curious humanity.|
|Everywhere we went there are signs of excavation. In the Valley of the Kings there are 63 discovered tombs, the most recent discovery being in 2006. Of these, fewer than twenty might be open at any one time. In the nearby Valley of the Queens, there are around 80 known tombs.|
|We called to see the Colossi of Memnon, 3,400 year old stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III.|
|There's something ethereal about the River Nile. Perhaps it's just the immediacy of ancient history that comes to life in this region, or maybe it's simply its tranquil beauty.|
|The Temple at Luxor is astonishing. The sheer scale of it is breathtaking. Having recently visited Glastonbury to see the abbey ruins there, I was still taken aback at Luxor. Unfortunately, -|
|- me and 2,000 other visitors. But that's tourism for you!|
|Sharm el Sheik, "the new Benidorm", at the top of the Red Sea, or the southern tip of the Sinai peninsular. An idyllic and safe bay which has been massively developed over recent years. But what I saw was charming and welcoming, and an ideal spot to spend a few days in the sun.|
|Yes, it's got the beach and the hotels, and for a sea-side resort it's one of the cleanest and most atttractive I've seen. It is almost brand new, of course (and I did see a MacDonalds, although it was small and tucked away).|
|Four years ago, a fellow-passenger told me, he had coffee in a roof-top restaurant, on the right of this picture, and there was nothing between him and the beach (beyond the left). Sharm is growing by the day!|
|We were berthed a mile or so out of the town, but not far from those brown and arid hills. This is a small bay, and if the town were nearer might be called a marina. There are a good many small boats tied up here, a small boat-yard, and what I imagine is the base for a cruise terminal - a concrete pad the size of three football pitches.|
|A detour into the Bay of Aqaba (Jordan), and we berthed in Al-Aqaba. Those hills are still the backcloth to our journey.|
|I took off for a walk around the town, but there was nothing special about it. Many passengers went to see the wilderness of Wadi Rum, a very popular tourist destination for experiencing the Bedouin culture.|
|Seeing Israel just across the bay brings home how essentially interconnected are all these different nations of the Middle East. Aqaba is right at the southernmost tip of Israel, almost the junction of Egypt (Sinai), Israel and Jordan.|
|Back down the Gulf of Aqaba and sharp right into the Gulf of Suez. The Suez Canal is just that - a canal about 350 yards wide and 101 miles long. Just as the Panama Canal avoids the long voyage round South America, so the Suez Canal avoids a long voyage around Africa.|
|Because there is a much-used canal, there is a town - Port Suez, with two harbours, a large dockyard and a petrochemical plant. Suez is also a point on the journey to Mecca.|
|For much of the first half of the transit we were observed by soldiers along the western bank, every 300 yards or so. Some waved, but most just stood or sat watching. Somehow it didn't make me feel any more protected.|
|As elsewhere. there is a fascinating and dramatic contrast between the west bank (Eastern Desert) - fertile, and the east bank (Sinai) - desert. This contrast lasted most of the journey through the canal.|
|The Suez Canal Bridge, also known as the Mubarak Peace Bridge. It was built with assistance from the Japanese government after the visit of President Mubarak to Japan in March 1995, and was opened in October, 2001. (And there was a soldier on the top, watching...)|
|So, in the dusk, we arrived at Port Said. This is a city of half a million, a favourite resort for Egyptian holiday-makers, and a re-fuelling station for shipping.|
|The Pyramids of Giza were, surprisingly, not as dramatic as I had expected. This may be due to the number of tourists milling around - apparently we'd picked a school holiday! But I think I had expected them to be, well, bigger! And perhaps not showing quite so many signs of wear and tear! The Sphinx, even without his nose, beard and bits of an ear, is remarkably human, almost recognisable. (He reminds me of Yul Brynner!) But to be sure, they are remarkable treasures.|
|Alexandria, the second largest city and the largest sea-port in Egypt, founded in 332 BC. It's a noisy, bustling place and an important tourist resort, so there's always someone trying to sell you a city tour, memorabilia or clothing.|
|It's busy, noisy and full of people and traffic. Not a place to relax and enjoy the view, you need to get to the beach!|
|From Alexandria we were able to visit El Alamein, the scene of savage fighting in world war two. Apart from pylons in the distance and a broken streetlight in the foreground, it was as barren as this when the fighting took place. |
On the way there, in two coaches not in convoy but still being driven at high speed, both drivers were booked for speeding. From the tone of conversation, I think the drivers were not happy! But they drove much slower for the rest of the day.
|The El Alamein Museum had interesting exhibits from all parties to the fighting, and vehicles from the battle in their original battered condition. |
Interestingly, the part played in the battles by Egyptian forces was much paraded, but several passengers queried whether the Egyptians had even been there!
|There are several military cemeteries in this area. This is the British Military Cemetery, with 7,000 graves. We spent two hours in the museum and the cemetery. Several folk were moved to tears while reading the grave-stones; in northern France, most of the graves commemmorate someone in late teens or early twenties. These stones represented a later generation, with many having been killed in their twenties and thirties - parents and grandparents, as well as sons and daughters.|
|The company had provided a wreath; I had been asked to "say a few words" (about five minutes beforehand), so I spoke of peace-making which always starts with "me", bearing in mind that almost everyone there would have had a relative in the war. And then the wreath was laid, with a moment's silence to follow.|
|On the way back we saw a large chemical plant straddling the highway. It is probably a significant employer, and certainly a significant company.|
|But the downside was a large lake of heavily polluted water, which, we were told, was caused by the chemical plant and had been like this for a long time, with nothing apparently being done about it. The colours are accurate!|
|Getting nearer home now! Valletta, in Malta, is the most picturesque harbour imaginable. Much of its beauty lies in the golden stone from which almost every building is fashioned. Valletta was founded in 1566 by the Order of St John in order to consolidate the Order's position in Malta.|
|Even the cruise berth is next to the Waterfront Project, a wonderful curved terrace of fine shops and restaurants.|
|The incongruity of a large commercial ship against such a background reminded me that Valletta was a naval base in its former life.|
|Sunset over Valletta.|
(I love sunsets!)
|Malaga is not the liveliest of places. A city of over three-quarters of a million, it is popular with tourists because of its proximity to the Costa del Sol.|
|So I went to the cathedral although it was a Thursday, and wondered at all the silver and gold that adorned it. Like many European churches, it was fairly dark and gloomy and didn't give me any impression of being the life and soul of the city.|
|It was probably the quietest port we'd been during for the whole cruise, -|
|- even with a brand new cruise terminal!|
|So away we sailed, back to dear old Dover. |
And the Bay of Biscay was calm and almost peaceful!
|And as captains are heard to say on Fred. Olsen ships, - |
It was a fascinating and very long cruise, taking me to places I'd never even dreamed of visiting. Even though cruises only give snapshots, even snapshots are memories to treasure and impressions to reflect on.
What a gift this has been!