On board of MV "Figaro" of the Swedish Car Carrier Wallenius to the Far East
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The hot sun of Arabia is burning relentlessly from the blue sky and our clothes are drenched in sweat in the scorching heat of 40° C. It is 3.55 p.m. on May 20th - five minutes before departure of the vessel. The customs formalities in the harbour Port Rashid in Dubai are finally finished and we anxiously follow our convoy of helpers to the ramp of the car carrier "Figaro" of the Swedish Wallenius shipping line, which will carry us and our Toyota Landcruiser, within the next three weeks, into a new world. "I had my doubts weather you would make it," said the representative responsible for the Middle East with a sense of relief, when he spotted us. Even the co-operative deputy of the customs chief officer and the helpful employees of the Gulf Agency Company shook hands. Everyone was happy that we had succeeded and overcome the more difficult 'red tape' of the harbours, compared to the paperwork on common road borders and all that in a minimum amount of time. We really had to rush once we first heard the good news that we were able to join the vessel "Figaro" in only one and half a days before departure.
The attractive skyline of Dubai lies in the haze, as we glide slowly out of the harbour. The farewell of this fascinating part of the world is an emotional moment for us. In each of our visits, we appreciated and loved it more, and this time especially since we were able to make precious contacts with new friends.
The reception on board of the vessel is overwhelming and the standard of the accommodation very high. The bearded Swedish captain and the mixed crew from Sweden, Finland, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma and the Philippines made us feel comfortable from the first moment. We feel immediately happy in their surroundings.
We appreciate very much all the special attention; from the personally marked owner's-cabin, to the assorted fruit basket and the Swiss Chocolate in the well-stocked fridge in our room. Swimming pool, sauna, gym- and squash-hall, computer room, library and videos are at our disposal. What more could we wish for?
Without a doubt the most exciting part for us is the excellent and ever-changing food. Every day, we are surprised by the large variety of delicacies, when - apart from the already diverse first-class food - pink salmon, strawberries with cream or a freshly baked cake appear. We feel like kings and are enjoying everything. The Arabian Sea is as calm as a mirror - nothing can destroy the joys of being on this special trip.
The weather is mild as we slowly enter the 15 km long sandy channel towards Abu Dhabi. A salty breeze eases away the heat of the day. With fascination we look at the sparkling lights of Abu Dhabi's skyline, which illuminate the darkness of the night. Traditional Arabic dhows are on their way to the fishing grounds and dance on the edges of the soft waves on the coast.
Each harbour we approach in the Arabian Gulf brings alive nostalgic memories of our adventurous visits with our car in 1996. In Kuwait the landmark of the admirable water towers is greeting us. At the sight of the pyramid shaped Sheraton Hotel in Qatar, we remember the lonely camping-moments nearby, and in Dammam/Saudi Arabia the encounter with the austere police in the night checking our papers. This strictness is repeated now, as it is prohibited for all of us to step onto the berth.
It is in the middle of the night, as we enter the narrow Strait of Hormuz on the way to the Gulf of Oman. Thus we are not able to see for the last time the rugged mountains of Musandam/Oman, which we love so much. For the ship's crew, who had no time to relax in the Arabian Gulf due to all the difficult shallow approaches of the different harbours, now a less hectic time begins. This is an occasion to celebrate with a barbecue on the open deck. While the yellow ball of the fading sun disappears in the ocean, many interesting stories about the different countries do the rounds in this cosmopolitan group. And once more many delicious grill specialties from the ship's kitchen make this unique evening under the sparkling stars an unforgettable event.
The sea is getting a strong swell, as we sail towards India. It will take nine days to reach Singapore, our next destination. For us this means nine more marvelous days of holiday from vacation. We feel really great!
Second Part: To the pictures of the 2nd Part: (--> Second Part Pictures)
As we are approaching Sumatra, the air is filled with humidity and dark, huge clouds appear over the Indian Ocean. This is followed by short, heavy tropical rain - the first sign that the yearly Southeast monsoon has already started.
It is May 31st, when a message on the notice board arouses a sense of excitement to our seafaring adventure. In huge, red letters it says: 'Piracy Warning between June 1st to June 9th'. We are advancing towards the Straits of Malacca between Sumatra and Malaysia. From a recently published statistic, we learn that only within the first three months of this year, ten piracy attacks took place in these waters. Some failed only due to the courageous intervention of attentive crewmembers; others had to complain losses of considerable money. However it is also not unknown that whole tankers and freighters disappear for ever, after the entire crew has been killed and the name of the ship changed while still at sea. Although our 'Figaro', with a height of 55m would not be an easy piracy target, security precautions are taken and all gangway doors are continuously closed.
The first Island of Sumatra lies in the haze. Small, canoe-like fishing boats float more than 30 km offshore and come frighteningly close to our waterways. Their wide spread fishing nets are marked with white buoys as well as red and yellow pennants on wooden sticks. In order to protect them, the fishermen just place their boats in the middle of their nets and do not move - like a clucking hen on her eggs. Then, only the sharp horn of the vessel might scare them to leave; otherwise the huge car carrier has to make a detour around the tiny boats.
Two days later endless skyscrapers, of the clean Island State of Singapore, greet us. In the shallow coastal waters around the busy International airport they are working on intensive land filling and reclamation. What a difference to Arabia, where vast desert allow cities to grow! As we are proceeding towards the Northeastern port of Sembawang, neat houses, nestled between lush green tropical vegetation, pass by. 'That is how Singapore looked 100 years ago', says an officer, who proudly explains to us about his home country. He is very excited to see his family and friends again after many weeks of seaman's life.
Although evening is already advanced, many members of the crew want to take advantage of this famous Southeast-Asian Metropolis to do some good value shopping. We are especially looking forward to empty our Hotmailbox at a Cyber cafe, buy Lonely Planet Guides for the countries to come and send rolls of films back to Switzerland. The clean subway brings us in record time into the heart of the city.
The lights of the many open-air restaurants fringing the Boat Quay on the Singapore River are beautifully illuminated, as we are on the look out for the Cyber cafe, called 'Coffee Bean'. Crowds of people from the nearby banking quarter are enjoying this lovely summer evening at the waterfront. Will we have dinner at an Indian, a Chinese or Thai? Attractive young ladies, equipped with huge menu cards, try to win customers with an enchanting smile. Also the Cyber Cafe is full of happy faces relaxing from their busy day and craving for a cool beer, leaving to us the few chairs reserved for the Internet access. For little money we are able to empty our Hotmailbox which, to our delight, contains many letters from good friends around the world.
The monotone noise of the vessel's engine in the middle of the night announces our departure, and soon after, we are on open sea again sailing towards the Gulf of Thailand. It is the 3rd of June, as suddenly a new message is starting to upset us: A typhoon named 'Maggie' has developed in the South China Sea and is increasing dramatically. It makes its way from the Philippines towards Taiwan - just the direction we are also heading to. Do we have a chance to meet? Every day, we follow very carefully the transmitted satellite picture: One day, 'Maggie' is intensifying and the next days, she does not move at all. In the meantime, the waves increased also in the Gulf of Thailand, the winds reaching now a velocity of 70 km/h.
Suddenly, land is in sight again: The small, uninhabited, forested islands with untouched white sandy beaches belong to Thailand. Soon after, the first skyscrapers of the holiday resort Pattaya, the paradise for old gentlemen, appear. We enter the nearby well-illuminated port of Laem Chabang around 20.00hrs. The loading will continue all night, which allows everyone to go on shore wishing to spend an entertaining, exotic night in Pattaya! Six days after the frightening typhoon-alarm, all clear signal is given: 'By-By Maggie'! According to the new satellite images, it has moved to the mainland of China.
It is a clear and refreshing morning, as we approach the mountainous Island of Taiwan. Peaks rising up to 4000-m heights and deep gorges passing by are an impressive sight. So is the view of the harbour bays of Keelung, nestled on the foot of green, lush hills. Already from far a huge white Buddha appears high up on a mountain ridge. Splendid exotic pagodas, pavilions and wonderfully decorated temples are spread out around the place. 'Welcome to Republic of China! We anchor in the middle of downtown and are surrounded by aromatic smells of incense sticks, drum beating from a bypassing richly decorated funeral procession and an arrow of colourful street signs. It is a new enchanting world!
Two days later, after a heavy thunderstorm, we are entering the dry-dock of Ulsan in Southkorea. It is an immensely green and hilly country, where the forested hills meet with lush rice fields and the richness of the ancient temples and their beauty is overwhelming. Nestled between forested hills, these temples are peaceful oases away from the concrete jungle of the growing mega cities. With the help of the Wallenius Agent, we were able to get a special permit for our Landcruiser to leave the wharf, thus enabling us at least to get a glance of the Southeastern part of this rich cultural country.
As we are leaving for the last leg to Japan, fond memories come back - from friendly, helpful people who despite the language difficulties always tried to help us to find our way, offered us a cup of tea or just waved at us. After two nights, on early morning of June 25, 'Figaro' is sailing into the big port of Kobe in Japan. Here an unforgettable sea journey is ending for us, and a door opens into a New World.
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