Day 13, West Africa Cruise – Principe

Our day in Principe was perhaps the most atypical stop we’ve had, or will have, on our entire trip.

Rather than going out to visit sites or meet local people, today was devoted to rest and relaxation. G Adventures rented several cabins for the day at the Bom Bom Resort on the northern point of the island and everyone was able to swim, rest and enjoy a nice BBQ lunch.

Like in Sao Tome, we had to use zodiacs to get to shore as they didn’t have facilities for the ship to dock. However, unlike Sao Tome, we were probably 1/3 closer land this time which made the entire process much quicker.
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Day 12, West Africa Cruise – Sao Tome

Latitude: 0° 20.9204’ N
Longitude: 6° 45.7471’ E

On day 12, the G Expedition pulled into the tiny island of Sao Tome.

I’ve spoken previously about the poor conditions and lack of a tourist infrastructure we found in Angola and Congo. On paper, Sao Tome is poorer than either of those two countries (primarily because of a lack of oil) and because of its location in the middle of the Atlantic, it probably get significantly fewer visitors as well.

Nonetheless, Sao Tome turned out to one of the highlights of the trip so far.
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Day 11, West Africa Cruise – At Sea, Off the Coast of Gabon

View of the G Expedition in Port in Lobito, Angola
Latitude: 0° 54.7307’ S
Longitude: 7° 46.5771’ E

I should probably spend a bit of time talking about the internet and communications because I know many people have questions about it.

The internet connection aboard the Expedition isn’t great and it isn’t cheap. I can’t complain about it too much however, as I am still amazed at the fact that we are able to have an internet connection at all in the middle of the ocean. When you consider that the ship is usually in the polar regions, it is even more impressive. (the satellite which the ship communicates with is located over the equator, so the farther away from the equator you get, the harder it is to reach. It is a function of angle and signal strength, not distance.)

Nonetheless, the internet is slow. When you log into the system, it says you have a 96k connection, but in reality, this is only true if no one else is using the bandwidth. In reality, other passengers, the crew and official ship business can slow the connection even further.
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Day 10, West Africa Cruise – Point Noire, Republic of Congo

Latitude: 4° 37.0843’ S
Longitude: 11° 51.5024’ E

The benefit of traveling by ship is that you can explore 70% of the Earth’s surface. The downside is that you are limited to only exploring places on land which are near the sea. I don’t this is effect more pronounced than in the Republic of Congo. There are some amazing places to visit in the Congo. The shoreline and the city of Point Noire isn’t one of them.

Deep inside the Congo are forests, national parks, and sanctuaries for elephants and gorillas. None of those places, however, are near Point Noire. The vast majority of the population in the Republic of Congo lives between Point Noire and the capital of Brazzaville. The really amazing parts of the Congo, however, are in the sparsely inhabited northern regions.
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Day 9, West Africa Cruise – At Sea, Off the Coast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Latitude: 6° 32.6948’ S
Longitude: 11° 50.4849’ E

At a certain level, a ship has to be self sustaining. When you are at sea, you can’t run to the home depot to fix a problem. You need the tools and talent on board to solve whatever problems might arise.

I have been incredibly impressed with the problem solving abilities of the crew on the Expedition.

Case 1: If you are a MacBook owner, you are probably aware of the problem with the power cords. The incredible thin cables have a tendency to fray and eventually break at the point where they are connected to the power brick. For the 4th time since I’ve owned a MacBook mine died, and I had the great timing of doing it while I was on a ship in West Africa. Getting a new power cord wasn’t an option.

I contacted a member of the crew who put me in touch with the ship’s electrician who managed, not only to fix it, but made it better than it was. He shored up each end of the wire so it wouldn’t bend. The best part, is that he managed to do this is 30 minutes!

Case 2: The Expedition was originally built as a Norwegian ferry. It was later reconfigured as an expedition class vessel for exploring polar waters. So for the entire life of the ship it was intended to be in cold waters. As we sailed north and left the cold Benguela current, the water temperature went from 14C to 29C. The problem on the ship was excess heat, the exact opposite of what ship normally has to deal with.

The interior of the ship was getting hot and the conditions we were sailing under didn’t allow for easy cooling. The chief engineer spent several days on the problem and eventually got the air conditioning running great. The rooms were comfortable and the ship had basically adapted (at least for a few weeks) to life in a tropical climate. It was sort of like Scotty on Star Trek reconfiguring one system for another totally different purpose.

Life on a ship is interesting and very different from what most landlubbers are used to. I’ll have more about the workings and operations of the ship over the next few weeks.

Next Stop: Point Noire, Republic of Congo

Day 8, West Africa Cruise – Lobito/Benguela, Angola

Latitude: 12° 19.6046’ S
Longitude: 13° 34.6452’ E

I wasn’t sure what to expect in Angola.

Angola has a horrible reputation amongst travelers. It is one of the most difficult and expensive countries in the world for which to get a visa. Simple, non-luxury hotel rooms can run $500/night. Meals and other services for travelers are similarly outrageously priced. Basically, Angola doesn’t seem want tourists and is quite happy if visitors stay away.

Prior to our arrival in Lobito, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a tourism infrastructure. In addition to everything I said above about Angola, Lobito and the nearby city of Benguela aren’t even close to being the top attractions in the country.

I was right. Lobito isn’t a major tourist attraction, but that turned out not to be a bad thing. It was refreshing to visit a place where the people you saw on the street were genuinely as interested in you as you were in them.
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Day 7, West Africa Cruise – At Sea, Off the Southern Coast of Angola

Latitude: 13° 21.6551’ S
Longitude: 12° 20.2529’ E

Thoughts On the Map of Africa

The map of Africa is one of the most nonsensical and artificial things on Earth. With the exception of the recent border between Sudan and South Sudan, every one of the lines on the map was drawn by European powers without any regard to the reality on the ground. This becomes especially obvious when you notice the patchwork of European languages which make up Africa.

On this trip we left Cape Town where English is the common language, but many of the European descended population speaks Afrikaans, which is derived from Dutch. North in Nambibia, you can still find a small population of German speakers. Above that in Angola, all the signs and the common language is Portuguese. North of Angola is the Congo where French is widely spoken. Go a bit further and you’ll find Spanish speakers in the tiny nation of Equatorial Guinea. Keeping going north of the Sahara and you’ll find people speaking Arabic.

None of these of course are native languages to Africa.

If you look at a tribal or language map of Africa, and it looks even more fragmented than the current map and has no relation whatsoever to the current borders. Many of the problems which Africa has had since decolonization has been an indirect result of the way the borders were drawn by the European powers.

The ironic thing, is that the borders are now pretty much locked into place because each country now has an elite which has benefited from the status quo borders. So, tribal groups are split up with majorities and minorities depending on what side of the border they are on, resulting in cronyism, tribalism and ethnic conflicts.

The events of the 18th and 19th century are still effecting things today. We never really escape history.

Next stop: Lobito, Angola.

Day 6, West Africa Cruise – At Sea, Off the Coast of Northern Namibia

Latitude: 17° 46.8330’ S
Longitude: 11° 31.5789’ E

The next stop for the G Expedition is Angola, which is the first real country we visit which will require visas for everyone.

Traveling to West Africa with a boat full of people from multiple countries is a giant immigration nightmare. Most of the countries we will be visiting require a visa for all visitors and some of the countries have a reputation for being some of the most expensive and difficult to get in the world. Our next stop in Angola has a reputation for being one of the hardest countries to enter if you don’t live in Africa.

One of the benefits of traveling by ship is that the visa process is easier and cheaper than it would be if you were to travel to all these countries individually. I spoke with the ship’s bursar Lawrence, who is responsible for dealing with all the paperwork for the visas for all the ship’s passengers. Here is some information which he shared with me about the visa process and what passengers need to know.

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Visiting the Trinity Site at White Sands – The Site of the First Nuclear Bomb Blast

The year was 1945.  The United States and the rest of the world had been at war for years, and the casualties were mounting.  After defeating Germany, all eyes turned to the Pacific theater.  America was making headway in the hopscotch war for tiny islands, and the top brass was beginning plans for an invasion of mainland Japan.  They codenamed it “Operation Downfall” and they knew the losses on both sides would be heavy.  It was planned to begin in October, and 500,000 purple heart medals were ordered in advance of the invasion.

The scientists of the Manhattan Project were on the clock.  Led by Dr. J Robert Oppenheimer, they were tasked with building an atomic bomb.  It looked like they had a workable design, but they needed to test it.  After looking at eight different sites, the government selected a spot in southern New Mexico near Alamogordo.  The government already controlled that area of desert, and the surrounding space was sparsely populated.  They called it the Trinity Site.

White Sands Missile Range – home of the Trinity Site

On July 16, 1945, they tested the first nuclear bomb and it brought the war to a swift end.  The enormous number of purple heart medals weren’t needed (and are still being used today).  The landscape of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan were forever changed.  It was truly a monumental event.

Today, The Trinity Site is a national landmark.  However, it is somewhat inconveniently located in White Sands Missile Range.  For obvious reasons, the government can’t open the area to the public year round.  But they do open it for 6 hours every year in what they call the Trinity Site Open House.

The Trinity Site field and obelisk

What to Expect at the Trinity Site Open House

We entered through the northern gate – Stallion.  We arrived near the opening time of 8:00 am.  We waited in line for about 15 minutes, handed our driver’s licenses to the military man at the gate (all of our licenses – not just the driver) and then entered.  We were not allowed to take photos once we entered White Sands until we reached the Trinity Site.

White Sands Missile Range Keep Out Sign
Fence lining the path to the Trinity Site

We drove along a paved road for about 20 minutes until we reached the site.  More military men directed us into parking spaces, and we exited the car.  We walked with the crowds of people on a fenced path to a fenced field.  In the middle of the field was a lava rock obelisk.

Also present was a mock-up of the Fat Man nuclear bomb, and the large canister nicknamed “Jumbo” which was originally supposed to contain the nuclear blast before scientists determined it would be useless to try.  Along the fence were historical photos about the test, the site, and the aftermath of the bombing.

Warning sign at Trinity Site

There is also the McDonald/Schmidt house on the property where the bomb was assembled.  It wasn’t open in 2014 when we were there and signs said it was “Temporarily Closed.”  (The house is accessible for six hours a year, so I’m not sure why they couldn’t be bothered to open it this year.  “Temporarily” is relative, I guess.)

Tip: Wear sunscreen and bring a hat. It is the desert! I definitely got a little burnt. Also, the wind was pretty crazy and I was glad I brought a hair tie.

Radioactive Trinitite

Radioactive trinitite – the green glassy substance created after the atomic bomb blast.

When the bomb exploded, the desert sand was heated to 14,710 degrees Fahrenheit and was scooped up into the large blast fireball. As the sand fused together it fell back to the earth as a rain of molten glass.  This was a brand new substance and scientists called it Trinitite.  At one time this green glassy substance covered much of the depression created by the blast.  But the newly formed Atomic Energy Site filled the depression and hauled away much of the Trinitite.

Radioactive trinitite held in the hand at the Trinity Site

There were pieces on hand to look at, touch, and play with.  Geiger counters click-click-clicked when they were swiped over them, and it was neat seeing something so rare.

Reflections Upon Leaving the Site

There isn’t much to do or see at the Trinity Site. There are is no entertainment. There aren’t interactive exhibits. But it is a place to reflect on history and a neat place to think about science.  As we left the site, we saw the line had gotten larger and there was a protest at the gate.

Was the nuclear bomb a technology the world could have done without or did it save enough lives we were justified using it?  Those answers wouldn’t be found in the New Mexican desert, but it was interesting to stand where this complex time in human history began.

Trinity Site Obelisk

Where is the Trinity Site

Website : Official Website of White Sands Missile Range