Cruise to West Africa  (1970)


By D. P. SNOW L6Sc.

The party, which comprised twenty-two sixth formers and two masters left the school in a coach on the morning of Tuesday 1st December and arrived at Southampton around lunchtime to join the S.S. Nevasa for a three-week cruise to West Africa.

Having completed all the customs formalities necessary for a trip of this kind, the party boarded the 21,000 ton Nevasa during the late afternoon. Promptly at four o'clock amidst much hooting and to the accompaniment of "Rule Britannia" and "Hearts of Oak" played over the ship's tannoy system. the impressive, white school-ship sailed majestically away into the night and a biting winter wind.

It took six days before the ship actually reached Africa and during this period every student on board became used to the life at sea. Some of us were unprepared for the pitching and rolling across the Bay of Biscay, effectively illustrated on the first morning at sea when a number of the party were seasick and could not face breakfast.

Our all-male party were pleasantly surprised to find that there were approximately three hundred girl students on board as against sixty of us and an "educational" cruise seemed a particularly apt way of describing the situation. There was plenty of room too, as the ship had a capacity of over a thousand students.

The students were woken up each morning at seven-thirty by a slightly sadistic "Good morning students" over the tannoy system. Breakfast was organised in a number of sittings and the food noticeably improved with time as the galley crew slipped into the routine. This was then followed by a short break after which the day was organised, with a few hours break at lunchtime. into a number of periods during which the students attended lectures in the Assembly Hall, and small seminar groups which covered a wide range of topics relevant to the countries that we were to visit. These were interspersed with frequent games and free periods. The former was a source of continual amusement and included many outdoor activities; swimming in the small pool, throwing deck quoits over the side and doing battle with inverted walking sticks, a pastime inappropriately named "deck hockey". The Middle Sixth members of the party were in fact so adept at this barbarous sport that they won the deck hockey competition.

The evenings on board were usually occupied by a dance outside on the deck or a film in the Hall below. At ten-thirty each night the tannoy proclaimed that it was bedtime. This at first seemed excessively early for a group of sixth formers and university students, but later on the activity of the daytime necessitated a good night's sleep.

During the first few days at sea the temperature rose quickly and as the island of Tenerife was passed in the Canary Islands occasional glimpses of flying fish were had. Later in the cruise several schools of leaping porpoises swarn recklessly across the bows of the ship.

At one o'clock on Monday 7th December the Nevase docked in Dakar, Senegal. For many it was the first sight of Africa and during the afternoon all students were allowed ashore on independent sightseeing trips on several provisos; that they remained in groups of at least five, did not eat or drink anything sold in Dakar due to the health risk, and did not give their names and addresses to friendly locals.

Immediately that the students had disembarked they were surrounded by large numbers of traders whose wares covered the quayside. This was a general feature of all the countries that we visited. Everywhere there were drums, necklaces and wooden statues to be sold at vastly inflated prices that could usually be reduced by three-quarters of the original offer by careful bartering. During the end of the afternoon and well into the evening the Nevase resounded to the sounds of countless drums being beaten mercilessly by the students that had bought them.

The following morning many of our party went on an organised excursion to the island of Gorée just off Dakar which was the centre of the local slave trade in the area in the seventeenth century. The rest of the day was spent sightseeing in the town of Dakar by coach where local guides pointed out the modern buildings and achievements of the city as the capital of Senegal.

The French colonial influence was everywhere very evident, yet the impressive monolithic government buildings and intricate mosque were sharply contrasted with pitiful corrugated iron shacks that housed the poor; a substantial majority. Widespread poverty was present here as in other countries that were visited.

Leaving Dakar in the evening after a display of tribal dancing on board, the ship sailed for Monrovia in Liberia, Just as the French influence in Senegal was strong, the American dominance in Monrovia was uncanny although not unexpected; the country being set up for repatriated American slaves after the Civil War. In many ways Monrovia resembled the Deep South complete with details such as ferocious speed cops. The normal sightseeing by coach was arranged and a few members of the party visited the enormous Firestone Rubber Plantation on the outskirts of the town.

In Monrovia the local population were as interested to see us as we were to see them and their country since the Nevase was the largest and one of the first foreign passenger ships to enter the freeport. In fact we were given a police escort during excursions and the news of our arrival was splashed on the front page of the national newspaper. The Monrovians' enthusiasm was also demonstrated when the captain of the Nevase was presented with two hundred wives - he declined graciously.

The ship had been in the tropics for over a week at this point and as the ship steamed south from Monrovia the temperature soared and the air became distinctly more moist. Our party's visit to the engine room of the ship was admirably timed to coincide with a temperature of 135°F and a humidity of 90% in the boiler room itself.

Tema, in Ghana was our next port of call and the southernmost point that was reached; latitude 3 north. It was different to anything that we had seen before, consisting mainly of a vast industrial complex, purpose built with a new suburban area to house the employees. The factories used electricity from the Volta Dam hydro-electric scheme to the north in order to smelt a wide range of metal ores, notably bauxite.

During our stay in Toma there were local swimming trips and excursions to Accra, the capital and to the Volta Dam. The latter, being forty miles inland afforded many of us the chance to see more of the interior of an African state: previously we had only seen the coastal regions of the continent in any detail. The dam itself was a remarkable piece of engineering ability, although it seemed relatively inactive since it was the dry season.

Our final visit to an African port came with Freehaven in Sierra Leone. The Nevase lay off the coast because there was no deep-water harbour, and students were ferried from ship to shore in the lifeboats. Here the street traders made a brisk trade as all on board rushed to buy those last few souvenirs; knives and spears were the speciality here; next to drums, of course. Most of the students went on an organised swimming trip to a beach reported to be the best in all of West Africa. This was followed by the production of a tribal "ballet" by the National Dance Troupe of Sierra Leone which took place in an outdoor theatre adjacent to the country's modern university. The performance was extremely colourful and acrobatic, and was certainly the most magnificent of the tribal dances that we saw.

We finally left Africa on Thursday 17 December and in the last few days aboard as the ship steamed northwards towards the Canary Islands life afloat continued as before. In seminar groups and open discussions students tried to assess what they had seen and evaluated in particular the difference between the traditional image of Africa and what it was actually like.

Life on board the ship became more and more hectic as we neared our destination as many competitions were finalised, the ship's newspaper put in a fleeting appearance and the result of much effort on the part of particular students culminated in a review put on by them during one of the last few evenings aflost. The cruise formally ended during a riotous party that was thrown during the final night afloat.

Arriving in Las Palmas in the rain on the 21st December the efficient organisation of British India Company rolled into action. Convoys of coaches took us to the airport where a Comet was ready to fly to Gatwick.

Late in the evening of that day a coach pulled up outside the school and deposited its souvenir-laden tourists many of whom were exhausted by the activities of the day.

In retrospect it is debatable as to whether we had actually seen what Africa was really like; in most instances we saw only the coast of this magnificent continent. The implications of what we saw there were not immediately apparent and the social and environmental aspect of the trip are much too wide to be summed up in a sentence. However, within the confines of a cruise of this nature the experience was certainly worthwhile and very enjoyable and all who were present must have been pleased and satisfied with the results. 

D. P. SNOW L6Sc.

1970 School Magazine


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Dr. Watson's Retirement

Photos of Staff