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Journeying to Joyful Jordan

WE left picture postcard sun-kissed, emerald forest-cloaked rugged Seychelles, unaware that probably one of the uninhabited northern islets, possibly in a national park, was a base for a gang of Somali pirates intent on hijacking our ship to ransom it and nearly 1 000 passengers and 600 crew.

The 35 000 tonne MV Melody was nine days into a 22-day voyage from Durban to Genoa, northern Italy.

So far we’d explored three lovely palm-fringed Indian Ocean islands: La Reunion, Mauritius and Seychelles and anticipated a languid eight day sail from Victoria to the Holy Land port of Aqaba in Jordan on the Red Sea.

As magical, mystical Madagascar lay on our port bow, we had slid unannounced over the Tropic of Capricorn. The Equator, with its traditional fun-filled ceremony at which more than 200 “greenhorns” asked King Neptune’s permission to cross, was due the next day (Sunday.) The Tropic of Cancer would be left behind soon before our one call at an Asian port: Aqaba, mentioned in the Old Testament.

But heavily-armed pirates struck around 1140pm on Saturday. They were repelled by passengers’ quick-thinking; they happened to spot a fast speedboat nearing the stern, carrying grappling irons, rope ladders, automatic weapons and determined rogues.

Between the handful of travellers not already in bed or enjoying an open-air orchestral concert at one of the ship’s two adult-sized swimming pools, on a balmy moon- and star-lit velvet African night, and the officers, crew and Israeli security agents, finally convinced passengers’ warning wasn’t a sick joke, the raid was thwarted: not before our ship was blasted with hundreds of rounds of 7,62 ball and tracer ammo.

I’ll always believe that had the raid happened an hour later, Melody would have been headed to Somalia for an indefinite stay until huge ransoms were scraped up to free the ship and its company. Had pirates lived up to their threat, several American passengers and many French folk may have been killed as retribution for corsair losses to the naval forces of those nations.

The incident was treated mainly stoically, but some passengers were still nervous days later, despite deployment of a Spanish naval vessel with helicopter gunship for protection.

But fun-filled “Crossing the Line” festivities were postponed from Sunday to Tuesday. Even then a shaven-headed Israeli spook acted as a lone lookout in broad daylight as King Neptune’s hand-maidens slathered first-time travellers with raw eggs, cocoa and flour, as they kissed “Baby Neptune” (a large, very dead fish) apologised to His Majesty, Emperor of the Deep, for their temerity in crossing the Equator and were then flung into a once sparkling swimming pool.

Spectators were warned the cermony would be “wet and messy”. It was!

The Spaniards left after four days, virtually all 1 600 people aboard being on deck to salute them and say “gracias!”  They had been unable to make more than 14 knots and we were in danger of damaging engines sailing for any length of time under 16 knots, so much creative navigation was involved in keeping vessels fairly close.

Then it up the Red Sea, a turn to starboard into the Gulf of Aqaba:  with some of the world’s greatest scuba and snorkelling onto dramatic shipwrecks dating back from various Israeli-Arab conflicts to Crusader days; onto living multi-coloured coral (130 different species) alive with aquatic fauna and flora, protected for decades.

We sailed over one of the world’s greatest reefs, with an unwelcoming, stark, arid Saudi Arabia to starboard and a similarly grim Egyptian Sinai Desert to port.

But the Sinai is now relieved by sparkling jet-set tourist resorts: the  “peace city” of Sharm-el-Sheikh, Dahab, Taba and Taba Heights. Just past Taba, in a bit of the world dubbed “Crazy Corner” before Middle East peace Israel’s resort of Eilat was ahead and to the left. Ferries, including ancient dhows and state-of-the-art fast catamarans, link Taba and Eilat with Aqaba’s ancient port, or a swish new marina.

Jordan’s major tourist attraction is the once lost rose-red city of Petra in a fold of the Jordan Desert twixt Dead Sea and Red Sea. As I’d “done” Petra: been there, seen it, bought the T-shirt 16 months earlier, from Sharm, I gave the US$145 excursion a miss.

To get there you take a luxury bus through the desert and stunning Wadi Rum, with its lunar landscape of vivid browns, yellows and red hues. But I’d seen Wadi Rum before and in any case needed time in an internet café.

A contact asked to see me in — she suggested — Starbucks, next to MacDonald’s in a square close to the world’s biggest flag on the globe’s tallest flagpole, marking the spot where Lawrence of Arabia and the present Jordanian king’s great-grandfather cooked up the Great Arab Revolt, leading to the Ottoman Turkish Empire being kicked out of Arabia and an earlier-than-would-have-been the case end to World War I.

The flag can be seen from Egypt and Israel and (I feel) possibly from an elevated point in Saudi.

I managed to get our RV changed to (believe it or not!) Ali Baba’s Bar & Restaurant, where I knew one could glug proper lager in this mainly Muslim country. It is also probably the finest fish and shellfish restaurant on the Red Sea.

Having spent longer than I would have wanted on e-mails and enthusiastically kept an assignation with a Ukrainian lady professor who longs to visit Zimbabwe, save she’s “Very worried about Meester Mugabe” (so am I, often!) there was (again) no time to visit the Arabian Castle (a Marmeluke fort), Aqaba’s Arab Museum or take a trip across the tropical fish-rich reef in a glass-bottomed boat.

It was a holiday; beach, restaurants, pleasure boats, even the plush Royal Yacht Club of Jordan swarmed with families. I have never seen bigger ones outside Africa; one  couple between them pushed a pramful of tiny triplets, another with twins maybe 18 months older than siblings and there were six other mischievous but well-dressed kids between about five and 15.



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