African Queen

The African Queen rested in her mooring strikingly reminiscent of the boat in a famous movie starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. But there the comparison ended. This Queen was beautifully fitted out, offering charming cabins, an attractive bar, dining room and lounge and a deck lounge from which to enjoy the ship’s progress on this part of the great River Thames.

Me on the sun deckFar and wide have I travelled and many great sights have I seen: the magnificence of the Grand Canyon, the thundering mass of Victoria Falls, iconic Sydney Harbour, and many more. But as I stood on the top deck of African Queen, a light wind freshening the day with the sun pouring gold on the countryside, I heaved a deep sigh. For this, this very island, is the most beautiful place in the world, bar none. Our England. 

Horse chestnut trees in their best spring dresses held their conical flowers aloft like candles which is the name for them among those in the know. Copper beeches the colour of rubies, hawthorn breaking into May blossom, fields and hedges assuming their summer green all paraded before me needlessly saying “love us” because I already did.

Soon the ship’s ropes were hauled aboard, the engine fired up and, in extra-slow motion, she began her swim. It was a wonderful feeling sitting on the outer deck in the late afternoon. Red kites, of which there are many now in this area, soared above with crows and the occasional gull. 

On the river, ducks shepherded their yellow feather-ball chicks, Canada geese fought for territory and swans glided in serene majesty. People on the towpath waved to us and we waved back. “Hi, there.” they seemed to say and, most likely, “Lucky you!” to we on board. 

Passage was deliberately slow – the ship wouldn’t have won a tortoise race, all of which helped the mind to slow down, one’s whole being going down a gear into a restful state. 

Occasionally there was rain or a stiff wind making the Union Jacks garlanding the ship wave in a jolly manner. But it didn’t matter because any sight of England, come snow, hail, rain or sunshine, from her mountains to her valleys, from the pocket sized fields neatly bounded by hedges, to country cottages and glittering lakes, make the heart lift. 

All of us at the dinner tableMy cabin was perfect. A double bed, a wardrobe, shower, some storage under the bed and small table with mirror in which to attend to one’s attire.

After a quick freshen up I went topside to meet the other guests. They were, from my point of view, absolutely the right sort of people: intelligent. In fact, intelligent enough to have chosen this sort of holiday, one couple having their second voyage on African Queen.

Over drinks we introduced ourselves, gave basic backgrounds and in no time conversation got well under way.

The ship’s lovely little lounge was an ideal gathering place where passengers could get drinks from the bar and natter. And natter we did: “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” (mostly retired) and “What do you think about …” which would set us all off on serious discussions in which we put right the problems of the world.

This was a river cruise, not a 2,000 passenger liner. There were no cinemas, theatres, or organised entertainment but, hell, such things are happily dispensed with when peace and calm with good food and interesting fellow passengers are all that anyone can ask for. Though, at one port of call we all went ashore for an included dinner and a play at a delightful, recently-built venue. For once the architect hadn’t gone for modern, hideous, austerity but rather had utilised much in the way of interior timber to give an olde-worlde look, providing superb food and a thoroughly entertaining play. A very good evening, in fact.

A little window high above my bed was fascinating. At night I got up now and then, opened it and looked out at the calm waters reflecting moonlight. Occasionally there was a squeak or rustle from some creature still awake, but mostly what I saw was deep night-time calm. I didn’t sleep well because my various aches chose to come to the fore, painkillers seeming useless. But with the ease of this type of holiday, loss of sleep doesn’t matter as you can potter down to your cabin for a nap at any time.

A peaceful river sceneAs we passed a small island in the river, a ‘pen’ – female swan, could be seen finishing off her nest. These things are a work of art – all birds’ nests are, and she had chosen an island so that predatory animals might not be able to reach her, though if one did, the ‘cob’, her partner, would have seen it off. I watched her taking one feather at a time and putting it in just the right place thus providing a comfortable nursery for her cygnets.

Ducks bustled about and geese and other wildlife here, unharmed by man, performed their daily lives before us. Wildlife goes on. Humankind increasingly takes over all available land in the world but where fauna is left untouched, the way things were is still the way things are.

As a bonus for me in particular the owners, Andy and Bonny, were both South African and two of the passengers had also been there, while I had spent some time on that continent with my mother and sister, covering what was then Rhodesia and South Africa. It was wonderful to remember that country in the company of these people and to reminisce. 

We were treated to superb cuisine created from scratch in the ship’s galley and I suspect we all gained a few pounds. Well, that’ll be part of the memory!

Our cruise entailed the ship going first downstream and then upstream visiting charming towns along the way. We departed from Mapledurham where preparations for a country fair with big marquees were in evidence. The town itself turned out to be a hamlet, with a beautiful Elizabethan manor house and a water mill. There were no shops and no pubs, though the latter were reachable a short distance away, and the place had an air of total tranquillity.

On a short tour we were taken to the church. I am a non-believer, but I always feel a certain “presence” in a place of worship. Empty buildings are empty buildings but they don’t have the aura of a church. What is it? I don’t know, but it affects me. I sat on a pew and offered up a prayer to my sister.

A view of narrowboats while waiting one's turnThen, up-river we visited Goring, Sonning, Wallingford and Henley-on-Thames famous for its regatta and where I went to school. I had previously contacted the current owners in the hope of popping in, but we arrived on a Saturday so all I could do was take a photo but that was good enough. It had certainly changed – gone up market as they say and is now quite expensive. I shall drop the name of St. Mary’s in conversation!

The people you meet on holiday are often, just coincidentally, in possession of information that you happen to need or are fascinated by. Michael told me what to do with a spare ten grand. “Buy whiskey” as the value only goes up. “Better than gold?” I enquired. “Oh, infinitely.” So that’s sorted, then. 

How could I get my writings sold to the public? “Do what I do” said one, “Try Amazon or Kindle.”  Right, will do. 

Then there is the miscellany that you find out. On the London Eye a man had told me his company had just completed a tunnel under the very stretch of the Thames we were looking at. Mid-Atlantic, a geologist told me how drilling rigs looking for oil often hit vast empty caverns under the seabed, and so on, and on, the experiences of people being imparted to you just because they have retired, are holidaying abroad and you have bumped into them.

In sum, I realise I am old, losing shape and ease of mobility but hopefully not my marbles and I have time to spare for holidays.

So, retirement puts you on a different plane – you’ve done time in your particular salt mine, you have paid your taxes and led a law-abiding life. You can now relax, stand on the outer deck of this ship and watch cars, nose to tail on a bridge, slowly taking people to work – poor things.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends GN Holidays & Voyages – The African Queen Thames Cruises.

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Michaela Kelly

Artist & writer

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