Island-hopping under the African sun

On a cruise from Zanzibar to Madagascar, Peter Moss becomes skilled in the art of doing absolutely nothing

Jews and water have never had a great affinity - we wouldn't even cross the Red Sea without the waves being parted. But the description in the brochure was too compelling to resist - "From Zanzibar to Madagascar" - conjuring up images of swashbuckling derring-do on the high seas. Never mind that the only corsair we encountered was a 1967 model manufactured by Ford and now serving as a taxi in Mombassa. This was our cruise, I was Leonardo DiCaprio (except I'm 48 with a shaved head), and it was my turn to stand on a boat, throw out my arms, and yell: "I'm king of the world!"

We set sail from Mombassa on board the MS Royal Star, 85 of us on a boat made for 200. Following lifeboat drill - hardly worth the bother, given the age of some of the passengers - the ship's purser gave us a brief orientation tour of the vessel, from the upper and lower sundecks on the outside, to the velvet-cushioned salons on the inside. One of his colleagues then showed us some sort of closet - a broom cupboard perhaps, maybe a pantry. It was our cabin. I could see Susan's heart sinking to her deckshoes. My own expectations weren't high; but hell, even Danny DeVito would have struggled for space. It was 6ft by 6ft if it was an inch. I didn't need to pace it out. I just held out my arms, Jesus-like, and if you can touch all four walls without taking a step, you're in a room six by six.

I sat on the bed and laughed like an idiot. "What's so funny?" Susan asked. "Sorry," I said. "But you know that scene in A Night at the Opera, when Groucho is on the ship, in his cabin, surrounded by the ship's electrician, the laundry boy, the manicurist, his three brothers, and Margaret Dumont opens the door and everyone tumbles out?"

We didn't bother unpacking. What for? We had nowhere to put our clothes even if we wanted to. Instead we headed down the corridor to our kids' room, apologies at the ready for the paucity of the accommodation. No need. Daughter Lucy was in raptures. She had, it seems, used a combination of her charm and my credit card to get an upgrade to the Presidential Suite. She and Gideon had the only cabin on any of the four decks where it was possible to change your underwear and not rearrange the entire room in the process. I was very proud of my daughter and her chutzpah, and no matter that we, the parents who were paying for the whole thing, were consigned to a sardine tin with a porthole.

Our mornings at sea kicked off with a browse through the daily programme, which in short meant we could either stay on the boat and bask on the sun-deck, or disembark at whichever island we were sailing by that particular day and take a tour. We made our plans over breakfast. Decisions, I find, are best made on a full stomach, and on the MS Royal Star, our stomachs became very full indeed. Just as well they had another broom cupboard cunningly disguised as a fitness room. One treadmill, one rowing machine, and two hand-weights of wildly varying poundage. I guess that out in the wilds of the Mozambique Channel, that pretty much constitutes a full-blown gymnasium.

Our first stop was Zanzibar, the fabled Spice Isle with a chequered Arabian history. But the real joy of Zanzibar, even more than actually setting foot on its shores, are the rhomboid sails of the dhows still dotting the horizon in a sea of rectangular irregularity. It will be a sad day when this picture-book imagery is lost in a tidal wave of speedboats and jet-skis. In Zanzibar itself we saw the house where Freddie Mercury was born, and the street corner (behind the Anglican cathedral, in case you're interested) where Bob Hope snogged Dorothy Lamour on the location shoot for The Road to Zanzibar.

Back on the boat, the basking hordes were indulging in "deck sports". I should explain that my wife is a headteacher, I used to be a sports coach, and my children are both in full-time education. Please believe me, then, when I say that nothing could have prepared us for the inanity of the games played on board this ocean-going vessel of fun. One of these entailed running around the plunge pool with a bottle of wine between your legs while holding a melting ice-cream cone in one hand, a floppy penis-like object in the other, and performing an elaborate mime to Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. The Germans on board were particularly good at this, and their desire to win was exceeded only by their overwhelming need to arrive everywhere ahead of everyone else.

Stopovers began to come thick and fast. Our next port of call was Mayotte, a little outpost in the Mozambique Channel, rich in ylang- ylang plantations which give the entire island a pervadingly gorgeous smell. After this was the tiny isle of Nosy Be (pronounced Nosey Bee), a densely forested dot in the ocean and home to a colony of rare leaping lemurs. Commandeering the island's one and only powerboat, we then sped up through the Channel towards the northern tip of Madagascar and the even tinier isle of Nose Comba. Snorkelling in what I swear blind are the clearest waters anywhere south of the Red Sea, we found ourselves exchanging quizzical glances with turtles, angel-fish, sea anemones, and black shark-like creatures that were, in fact, sharks. I never knew sharks could be that small (I'd seen bigger fish on the griddle at Harry Ramsden's).

Deck sports beckoned once again - you can only take so much beauty before feeling the urge to make a prat of yourself - and with it the chance to further humiliate myself in front of complete strangers. It was time for the ice cube-spitting and tea bag- throwing competitions.

I confess I only entered these contests so as to say to the folks back home, on being asked what I did on holiday: "Er, um, I gobbed out some ice cubes, tossed a few tea bags, and, er, that was it". Great stuff. The Germans, as ever, took it all so seriously and won both competitions hands down. How ever did they lose two wars?

The evening entertainment was marginally better. How could it not be? For my part this meant taking the croupiers for all they were worth in the ship's little casino. I don't pretend to be a great gambler - my last accumulator was Arsenal for the Champions' League and New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup - but after tossing out $600 in the first two nights, you'd think I'd have learned my lesson. Still, however heavy my losses, it definitely had the edge on watching the Royal Star Cabaret Girls dancing in the Starlight Lounge to "the hottest disco hits of the 80s". That's quite something to have to sit through on a full stomach.

Our final port-of-call, before heading back to Mombassa, was the micro- isle of Shungu Mbili, a tiny slice of paradise surrounded by turquoise waters and populated only by the dozen or so humans that fetch up on its shores each day for a masterclass in hedonism. I let the others disembark without me. It was my last day at sea and I wanted maximum boat-time. The only passenger left on board for the morning, I accepted the captain's offer of a one-on-one tour of the bridge, before tinkling away at the piano in the cosy little oak-panelled bar up on the top deck.

Three hours of prime time to kill before the others returned, I grabbed a recliner, made for the pointy bit at the head of the top deck, forever known as DiCaprio corner, and offered myself to the sun. This was nirvana. I lay there in blissful solitude, a man at peace with the world, skilled in the art of doing bugger all on a handsome budget. I closed my eyes, drifted into my favourite fantasy, and made my selection for my appearance on Desert Island Discs. This time, I thought, forget the discs, I'm picking eight islands.

THE MOZAMBIQUE CHANNEL

GETTING THERE

The two-week cruise `From Zanzibar to Madagascar' with Voyage Jules Verne (tel: 0171-616 1000) costs from pounds 1,480 per person for a four-berth cabin, to pounds 3,600 per person for the Presidential Suite in 1999. These prices included return flights, transfers, seven nights full-board cabin accommodation and six nights full-board hotel accommodation. Insurance and excursions cost extra. The new brochure will be out in early January when prices for 2000 will be confirmed.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Tanzania Tourist Office (tel: 0171-407 0566). Consulate of the Republic of Madagascar (tel: 0181-746 0133). Mozambique High Commission (tel: 0171- 383 3800)

RECOMMENDED READING

Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships (Berlitz, pounds 14.95).

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