The mascara boys arrive for the trivia competition in Chinese silk dressing gowns, wasting no time taking front row seats, practicing leg extensions for tonight’s deck party. They squeeze in next to a group of XXXL women sporting matching T-shirts, brandishing the legend ‘what happens on boozze, stays on cruizze’ hashtag #comingforyou. It’s 10 in the morning, the shot glasses are lining up and there’s an urgency in the Savannah Lounge, like five days is nothing, let’s get this show on the road. On the floor the MC is teasing them about a $25 000 bingo prize and the punters are buying every word. The lounge itself looks like Nataniël joined forces with the head of Kruger Park’s marketing department, they both dropped acid and went to work; leopards as lamps, animal print everything, the aim seemingly to clash happily with the wildly patterned carpets.
Welcome to cruising South Africa. Titanic it isn’t. A scattering of bewildered nostalgics seem to expect DiCaprio and Winslet in tuxedo and ball gown as they embark, fresh from the immigration wait, the first of many queues to come. But for most there’s an understanding that this is let-the-hair-down time, drink up, party on, for next week it’s back to the drudge of call centres, debt collection and unpaid invoices. Hen parties, extended families, old age home annual outings, the mood is bright, conventional rules of behaviour are suspended for a few days.
Over the intercom Eric the cruise director welcomes the expectants. Just the pesky safety drill to endure and then it’s table soccer, ping pong tournaments, name that RSA tune, Master of the Beer, giant darts, basketball tournaments, sokkie hour, the perfumery grand opening on Deck 6, Mission Impossiblegames, crazy waiter, teen challenges and, later, 70s disco beats and the saucy Ooh Lala show in the theatre. But first priority is to lose the uncooked dumpling complexion. Quick stop at the Barracuda Bar for original recipe Trader Vic Mai Tais, a bucket of beer and a ciggie before piling into the pool and the Jacuzzis on Deck 13. The initiated steal all the best lounger spots near the gently lapping pool, all the better for Insta moments. The slow-to-catch-on make do with the less trendy, windier Deck 14 spots, good for a bird’s-eye view of the lobster pot below.
The next four days play out in similar fashion. Up for a late breakfast, onto the decks, queue for lunch in the vast cafeteria, mooch around the shops, forty winks, try the spa or one of the afternoon activities, change for the first dinner sitting, drinks in one of the 15 bars, head to the theatre for the twice nightly show, dine, more drinks, a walk on the deck to catch the tropical breezes, a little live music and, for the brave, the R32 disco. The routine is interrupted only to go ashore at Pomene on day three to continue the eating, drinking and sunning. By day two the gathered are well versed in the ways on the ship, guided by the Daily Programme under their door every night, confident enough, tanned enough, libated enough to try that Whitney Houston high-C karaoke number, strapless plunger and explosive rum cocktail.
All hands on deck
Breakfast, it turns out, is an essential listening post, the village gossip station. The merry group of four couples at the big table in the corner is merry no longer, down to four moody men. Apparently one of them left his Tinder profile open on his phone and all hell has broken loose. The women are commiserating in Villa Borghese, breakfasting separately, planning cabin changes.
At the next table a preteen boy is wearing his mother down, determined to see the Follies show that suggests adult supervision. Across the way a bewildered freshman is having a Shirley Valentine moment, explaining to the assembled he didn’t realise he was eating ‘an octopus’ last night because he was drunk. There are complaints about the expensive satellite Wi-Fi, high praise for Keegan and Charmz in the Amber Bar and commiserations for the guy who stripped naked at the Sombrero Bar before the intervention of the Israeli-trained security staff. The waiter, Diana is an ex-Ukrainian journalist who got fed up fighting Russian interference in news and decamped to the ships.
Down on Deck 7 the pictures taken during embarkation are up. The photographer’s assistant prowls the rows, hundreds of hopeful cruisers scanning for their likeness on the wall. She collars a retiree, ‘I must ask you to delete that photo off your phone, no pictures of the pictures sir, look, see, there are signs everywhere.’ He is back at school, abashed, does as he’s told, mugs, shrugs, slinks away without paying the fee for his overexposed self. It, thousands like it, as well as the needles and surgical swabs of a voyage interrupted, will end up as chemical waste, maritime law classifying the smiles and expectation as deadly hazardous, because of the processing chemicals.
The library is the quietest place on the ship. A group comes in, each choosing a book each at random and pose as if reading, while their companions take phone pictures, giggling all the while. One has a Russian novel upside down, but it doesn’t matter; the room is a prop for these digital junkies collecting experiences. It is real though, a home for current novels and reference material waiting for the curious and the worn out. Most on board are blissfully ignorant of its existence, just a smoked window on the way to the back casino.
Unaware too of the machine, literal and figurative, making the holiday possible. As the MSC Orchestra powers into Durban harbour bound for the cruise terminal, they won’t know that 10 000 meals and nearly 1 000 litres of beer have been consumed every day, or that 956 crew, including 180 cooks and 200 waiters have been beavering away above and below decks. Many of them are Mediterranean, par for the course given the company’s Neapolitan heritage. The Italian thread is strong – white-coated managers, extra jewelry, waistcoats and moustaches allowed, stride through the luridly carpeted halls, all the better for disguising late night mistakes. The flip-flopped beer bucket carriers unsettle them, but they’ve learnt to smile and wave, just the hint of a raised eyebrow and a barely perceptible ‘mamma mia’.
Durban is wearing its tropical overcoat as the revellers file off, gales and a drenching guaranteed. Ahead in the queue the boozze cruizzers have changed their T-shirts and they now read ‘Corona se moer’ hashtag #wesurvived. The ship has been at Code Yellow the entire cruise, on heightened alert for the virus, hand gels everywhere, but there’s been zero concern among the happy revellers and not a mask in sight. South Africans apparently skrik vir niks. Party on, Mzansi.