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As Anita and I walk to the Elbphilharmonie, I look across the Elbe to the quays of Hamburg Harbour. My gaze falls on a white ship with four cranes and a blue chimney. I read the name at the stern: Bright Sky.
There it is! My ship! On this freighter, I will sail to Namibia.
I look forward to the adventure and smile.
But this morning we dedicate to an extraordinary building: the Elbphilharmonie at the head of Hamburg’s Speicherstadt.
Last night we asked at the visitor centre if we needed tickets for a visit. The young woman who advised us said that a reservation was not necessary. After all, it is winter and a weekday. There is not much going on in the Elbphilharmonie. Therefore we do not expect large crowds.
But: As for weekdays in winter there is much going on! Thousands of children and teenagers are there. Someone tells us that today there are 4000 students in the building for a special event. On other days we would have postponed the visit, but it is my last day in Germany and our last trip together before we meet again in Namibia. We have no choice but to throw ourselves into the turmoil. First, we climb the longest escalator in Europe. The escalator is also unique because it not only goes straight up but also into a curve. Upstairs it is crowded. The concert halls are closed, but we can go out onto the outside terrace.
The view from the Elphi is worth seeing. At the top, we can walk around the building. Again and again, new vistas of Hamburg open up. The weather is not so great, but the low clouds, through which a sunbeam breaks now and then, conjure up a dramatic light.
Again I look across the Elbe to the quay on the other side, to the white freighter with a blue chimney. On this ship, I will realize a long-cherished dream: once in my life, I want to go to Africa with a boat.
Recently I was often asked, why of all things a voyage by cargo ship? Anita can’t understand this dream, but she doesn’t like travelling by ship. Two hours with a ferry from Calais to Dover is the maximum she can endure. But I want to spend three weeks on a ship on the high seas, where there is no land in sight, where there is only the ocean and sky. Why?
All my ancestors or their ancestors have travelled by ship to Africa. The last family members to emigrate to Africa were my grandmother and her two daughters: my mother and my aunt. My mother had been a seven-year-old girl then. It was 1948, shortly after the war.
Until the beginning of the 1970s, it had been customary to travel by ship. But then came the big Boeings and a direct flight to South Africa and Namibia was possible. The arduous journey of several weeks by ship was no longer necessary. In 12 hours, one could cross the African continent.
Now I want to go full retro and go on a ship to Walvis Bay. The dream of a boat trip has been there for many years. Maybe the journey of my mother as a child inspired me. Perhaps I am also motivated by the stories in history lessons about the Portuguese seafarers who searched the sea route to India around Africa. It is a way of travelling that I do not know yet and that I would like to experience.
There is also a convenient reason for travelling by ship: I can take much more luggage with me. Because we are moving permanently to Namibia, I have some things that I don’t want to ship in a container – too much for a suitcase of 23 kg and a backpack of 8 kg. If I had flown business class, I would have been able to take twice as much luggage with me, but I would have paid almost as much as three weeks of travel by cargo ship. I can take a lot on a cargo ship. I brought two suitcases, a bulging travel bag, a further box with photo equipment and a large backpack.
When, if not now? One phase of life – 20 years of Germany – is coming to an end. A new stage of my life in Namibia begins. Maybe a voyage by ship is precisely the right thing for such a turning point in life? I will have enough time to leave the old life behind me and move on to the new one.
But if it’s a ship, it has to be a cargo ship. A passenger ship with thousands of holidaymakers, all-you-can-eat buffet, animation and entertainment is not for me. That is not me. For this reason, I booked a trip on a cargo ship last year, and now the day has come when the journey with the Bright Sky starts.
After visiting the Elbphilharmonie, it is almost time to go to the harbour. But first of all, I want to visit a pharmacy. The only thing I’m afraid of on a journey by ship is seasickness. Since I’ve never been on a boat before – except by ferry from Calais to Dover – I don’t know how I’ll react to violent swaying. I already have pills with me, but a friend told me about a bracelet against nausea that is supposed to work wonders against seasickness. That’s what I want. I find it at the pharmacy in the harbour.
Then we head for the ship: through the harbour and over bridges, over the Windhuk Street to the Kamerunkai. First, we have difficulties in finding the entrance to the quay, but then we face the right barrier. As I am on the list at the gate, the gatekeeper is very friendly. We are allowed to drive to the ship by car. We are very relieved about this because of the heavy suitcases. He opens the boom, and we advance to the gangway of the Bright Sky.
It is not a container ship, but a General Purpose Freight Ship – a freighter that can load everything. With a length of 200 meters, the Bright Sky is no small ship either. It is not yet heavily loaded. The waterline is still a few meters above the sea, and the hull is very high. Above it, at the stern of the ship, the ship’s building towers up with its seven storeys.
I walk up a swaying gangway. A friendly sailor shows me the office where the captain greets me and takes my passport and vaccination certificate. Once I disembark in Walvis Bay, I will get my papers back.
An officer shows me my cabin, and the captain permits me to bring Anita on board. We watch as my luggage is packed into a net and hoisted up with a crane. Then Anita comes on board as well.
My cabin is on the C deck, on the 5th floor. It is quite large and comfortably furnished. There is a bench with table, a desk, two chairs, a queen-sized bunk, a cabinet with entertainment centre, a wardrobe, a rack, several shelves and a small bathroom with shower, toilet and sink. The room has two windows with a view to the front. Anita is convinced that I will be fine.
My luggage’s on the ship, but I don’t know where. Anita disembarks again, and I start looking for the suitcases. Then I see the steward dragging my luggage into my cabin.
The steward’s name is Robert, and he is amiable and helpful. He is, like all other crew members, Polish. But communication with the non-Polish passengers is in English. He shows me the essential things in the cabin but then has to leave because he still has to supervise the loading of the supplies for the galley.
Now I have to say goodbye to Anita and Penny. We won’t see each other again for another fourteen weeks. I cry, but this is my last farewell in Germany, and it is not forever. On the contrary, soon we will reunite in Namibia, and then a new phase of life begins for the three of us.
I unpack. I have enough room in my cabin. I could have taken a few more suitcases with me.
Then I’ll go outside, on deck. I know that when the vessel is in port, I can only stay in the ship’s building itself and on the aft decks, and then only when I am not in the way of the working sailors. But there is nobody in the back, and I photograph the impressive city panorama with Elbphilharmonie.
It’s time for dinner. The passengers eat in the officers’ mess. It’s a larger room with two tables, each with seating for six people. The Chief Officer and Chief Engineer, as well as the guests, eat at the captain’s table. The second and third officers and engineers are seated at the other table. Robert serves the food.
There’s another passenger, Pierre from Switzerland. His first language is French, but he also speaks German very well. We are joined by a German engineer who will supervise repair work and will be on board until Antwerp. The three of us have a lively conversation.
This trip is not Pierre’s first voyage by ship. He has travelled three times with container ships and in this way once around the world. Now he wants to go a north-south route with a General Purpose Freight Ship, all the way to Durban. He has already circumnavigated Cape Horn; now it is his dream to sail around Cape of Good Hope.
Pierre has been to South Africa and Namibia before. In fact, he has seen more than one hundred countries. The engineer and Pierre compare different ports, and it is immediately apparent that Walvis Bay is not one of the ports you have to visit. Singapore and Shanghai are real ports.
The captain tells us that in the evening the ship has to be moved to another quay so that fertilizer can be loaded. In the evening, as I sit in the cabin, I suddenly notice that I hear a different sound. The engine has started! I put on my jacket and go to the back deck. I missed the departure; we are already on the Elbe. At Övelgönne the tugs pull us around to go up the Elbe again and then into the Köhlbrand. Soon we drive under the impressive Köhlbrand bridge and shortly after the tugs push and pull us to another dock. The crew at the stern throws lines onto the quay and dock workers lay the heavy ropes over the bollards. Later I learn that these dock workers are called “Lines Men”.
It’s freezing outside. Snow is falling. I have to go back to my cabin and put on another fleece jacket and a hood. Although it is night and it is snowing the work continues. The cranes are already in action. Right through the night, they will load the ship. Tomorrow morning it will start our voyage.
It’s been an eventful day. I am happy – despite saying goodbye to Anita and Penny. My cabin is big, warm and dry. It’s great to follow in the footsteps of my ancestors and travel to Africa by ship. The packing for our move, the parting from Lommersum and from Germany in general lies behind me. I am still in Hamburg harbour, but on the water, no longer on land. A new phase in my life begins.