Expedition Sailing on a small ship with Noble Caledonia

by | Inspiration, Turning 60

I love adventures going beyond a holiday to see more or learn more.

I want to travel and find stories to share and memories for when I’m older. Mainly this has been group holidays with companies such as Exodus and Intrepid or having a company help us to create a private holiday.
I’ve never been interested in cruises – being on a floating hotel where the evening entertainment seems high priority and with expensive shore excursions by large coach. I hadn’t realised there was a different option; to travel on a small ship with less than a hundred passengers but I found this with Noble Caledonia.

I had my first experience of this type of ship a couple of years ago, travelling to St Helena from Cape Town aboard the RMS St Helena, we were one of the last trips before the airport opening. For the Saints this was their only way of getting to hospital or travelling to the UK or elsewhere – this 5-day sea voyage. We stayed on St Helena for 23 days, as we also wanted to visit Ascension Island, we had to wait for the ship to come back. The ship had low key entertainment, we watched documentaries during the day, played some deck games and quizzes, BBQ and Captains dinner at night. 3 weeks later as we travelled to Ascension we got chatting to another passenger who spoke about her small ship holidays with Noble Caledonia which seemed interesting, so on our return we signed up for their mailing list.

The prices in the brochures were expensive, few sea adventures would come in below 15,000 for the two of us. As the brochures came by post, lovely glossy brochures full of detail of faraway places we realised this was a company that took people to out of the way destinations and we began to wonder should we, but where?? I was very taken with the holiday to the North Pole but at well over 20k pp that would take some saving, but there were others, and I began to pay more attention.
As I read the brochure more carefully, alongside the flights and full board 3 meals, plus afternoon tea, you also got wine, beer or soft drinks with lunch and dinner (several glasses!). But what was very interesting was that ALL excursions were included, and no need to worry about gratuities, (on and off ship) they were taken care of too. I know of people who holiday on the large cruise ships and by the time they have paid for the drinks package, tips, and excursions they are adding 2,000 per person to the holiday. Over this holiday we spent very little over the list price.
Our first trip has been Christmas and New Year in the Indian Ocean. There were many stops that we reached by zodiacs (inflatable boats), so we were at places that few people visit. This was what appealed, we didn’t want to be docking at ports with the large cruise ships and to suffer the tourist thing of being hassled to buy stuff. We wanted to be off the beaten track and to abide by the leave no trace philosophy.

We joined the ship at Dar es Saleem. As expected, the service from all staff and the food were wonderful, you get cold towels and juice each time you come on board and on occasions when it was raining you were met with umbrellas. But this was an expedition ship, so we had a full team of expedition staff with expertise in Geology, Botany, Oceanography, Biology, and all were expert zodiac drivers. We even had a couple of ex Marines to provide security (and assist) as the ship had been repositioned from the Med and had to sail through the Gulf of Aden with the risk of piracy.
The expedition team would scout the island each day to decide on the best place to land.
The Expedition Leader lead a briefing each early evening on what to expect the next day and we also had guest lectures from the expedition staff.

Tanzania: Zanzibar, Mafia Island, Kilwa Kisiwani – 3 days

We set sail that evening, and were in Zanzibar ready for a morning tour, typical of a traditional holiday stop with visits to places of interest (Livingstone House, Sultans Palace, the Slave Market, and the old Fort). We were divided into groups of 12 and we set off in different directions, so we didn’t all arrive at the same place at the same time.
We had a choice of options in the afternoon we opted for a nature walk in the Forest and we got to see some of the rare Red Colobus monkeys.

Lots of civilisation in Stone Town yesterday, much less today. On this second day we chose the option to visit Mafia Island. This was an active morning travel to shore by zodiacs, wade to shore, a good 10-minute walk along the shore and a steepish climb, a drive in people carriers, then traipse through the sea to scramble onto the dhows and sail to Chloe Island.

After refreshments our walking tour around the island lead to us seeing fruit bats, lots of birds, some ancient ruins and the village housing, we also saw the medical centre, school, and the shared building where they can all watch TV. Whilst we could have gone to the beach this afternoon, we opted to rest on ship instead, it had been a full-on morning and very hot!

The next day we visited Kilwa Kisiwani, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it contains the world’s most extensive and best-preserved Swahili ruins. This morning we were divided into small groups for the morning walking tour. It was a dry landing, so we got off the zodiacs onto a concrete jetty. It is a bit of a struggle, but they help, and you use a sailor’s grip. We were in a group of 11 with one member of the expedition team and 2 local guides.

The Swahili ruins included the prominent fort and the Great Mosque which stood at the heart of the ancient city and was once the largest in East Africa and we also visited the modern village. Some of the villagers were dancing as we came to the end of the tour and there was an opportunity to buy some gifts. This afternoon we went by zodiac into the mangroves to sail around the coast and spot some of the birds.

At Sea

The sea was still rough, and some people remained in their cabin. We had two talks this morning, the first about the geology of this area with Franz, and then Chris spoke about security and pirates. It was very interesting, coming through the Suez Canal there’s a possibility of hijacking and that’s why many vessels have security guards. They must provide full details of how many guns, ammo, and serial numbers and all need to be kept sealed till out of territorial waters. We were told what to do in case of hijack and told stories of two ships; one time the passengers were having a BBQ on deck, saw the pirates coming and threw chairs at them, they sailed away. After lunch I sunbathed for a bit then joined a quiz team of 4 ladies and we won! We had another briefing at 5pm today; we have an early start as we are dependent on the tide and water level for when to land.

Seychelles: Aldabra Islands and Faraquar Islands – 4 days

Tell most people that you are going to the Seychelles and they think of the luxury resorts on the inner islands, not us, we were going to the outer islands where few visit – no hotels and no permanent inhabitants. As we dropped anchor, we had to wait for the government officials to OK the paperwork, this wasn’t a simple task, the officials had a 4-hour flight from Mahe!

Our first stop was at the Island of Assumption, we saw many rare birds and green turtles. With a small ship there is a lot of flexibility. We were unable to do the wet landing for a morning walk as there was too much swell, but there was an option to snorkel from the landing platform. At 4pm we had a briefing from the staff from the Aldabra Islands. They told us about the need for biosecurity as they can’t have e.g., apple pips or seeds from anywhere else brought onto the island. Before we could leave via zodiacs for a beach landing our shoes and bags were inspected. We saw a couple of the famous tortoises and a coconut crab.

On the zodiacs we sailed around the atoll, spotting many large turtles swimming, some of the bats, lots of birds and fish. Some people will get to see a lot tomorrow with the drift snorkelling, but I’m not experienced at all to do this.

On Christmas morning we wore our Christmas T shirts and hats to breakfast, which went down well. We waited till the sea conditions were right and then went by zodiac to the shore. We had to go to a different landing zone which was a longer walk, but we didn’t mind. We were divided up into different length walks and we chose the longest one.

We walked through the interior, seeing plenty of birds and lots of tortoises, visited the abandoned settlement, I love taking photos of derelict buildings. We then walked to the research station, bought a couple of T shirts and I had a swim. There was strong surf, so it was hard to get out of the sea without getting knocked down. We then walked back to the zodiacs and got bounced about due to the swell as we left the reef. This afternoon there was a talk about the research being undertaken here and they said there were so many more tortoises here compared to the Galapagos. With around 120,000 compared to just 20,000 in the Galapagos.

On Boxing Day we arrived early morning and after breakfast went on quite a long zodiac ride to see birds out on Cosmoledo island – a huge ring of twelve islands that circle a lagoon. This is an important bird area with all three species of booby found in the Seychelles including the last breeding site for the brown booby. We also saw sooty terns and great frigate birds. The birds weren’t frightened of people and we could get very close. I’m very happy with the photos I took. We were also able to have a bit of a swim which was lovely.

We were meant to travel by zodiac to the beach this afternoon, but the sea was too rough so instead there was an option to swim from a platform. I had hoped to have a snorkel lesson from the beach, but this was in water that was 20 metres deep. Quite testing for my very first time. I had to clamber from one zodiac to another and then put on my fins and mask and get into the water. Conrad gave us some instruction and we hung onto a ring and just practiced breathing with our head under water. This was probably enough for me. Mention of a snorkel platform and I had visions of a metal or wood landing area, but it was a zodiac. What’s good though is that they have people keeping an eye out to make sure that we were all safe.

Tonight, there was a quiz after dinner, we were in a group of 4 and came joint first but lost on a tie-break. At 1030pm everyone was off to bed. I would have loved to dance! But read my book in bed.
The next day we visited the Farquhar islands, the islands are recovering from 3 cyclones in the same week and are being rebuilt. We arrived earlier than planned so we were able to go for a walk before lunch. After lunch we went back to the beach. I could have gone snorkelling but decided to just frolic in the water, I enjoyed chatting to others.

Madagascar – 4 days

Whilst there are regular plague outbreaks in Madagascar, there was more press this year and the larger cruise ships decided to avoid the island. As a small ship we were able to adjust our itinerary to make sure we were safe. Our first visit was to Nosy Hara, an archipelago of 12 uninhabited islands off the northern coast. We arrived this morning and anchored off the coast, the scenery was much more dramatic than The Seychelles with lots of high cliffs.

We had to decide on what length of walk to do and we opted for the longer walk, this was to climb across a rocky path up 100 metres to a viewpoint. We set off by Zodiac, changed our shoes and had an introductory talk. It was 101 degrees Fahrenheit hot! Most of the walk was fine, for us, but we saw others turn back. At one point I needed Simons’ help as the ground was wobbly and steep. We got to the top, made our way back and decided that we didn’t want to spend any time on the beach today and went back to the ship. We were both exhausted. Later this afternoon there were 2 zodiac trips around the coastline, we opted for the 5pm one as we thought this would be cooler and it was. We saw many white frigate birds, but alas we didn’t see any sea eagles.

This evening was BBQ night, and we watched the lightning in the distance, we were early to bed as we had a 0600 wake up tomorrow.

This morning we sailed into Diego Suarez, a natural harbour with a cosmopolitan mix of inhabitants including Creoles, Indians, Chinese, Comorans and Arabs. We had to go through customs, but this was done on our behalf, we didn’t have to queue up it was all done for us. Today we could step straight off the ship, a rarity on this trip. I assume larger ships would normally come here but due to the Plague scare we were the first ship to arrive in the past 6 months.

We were again divided into walks of different lengths, and got into 4x4s. The ratio of local guides is good and we had a guide between 5 of us. The road was very poor, we had to keep swerving around potholes but the journey was very interesting, passing small villages and seeing something of local life.

We walked to a waterfall, with some stops to look at chameleons. Francois, our local guide, was very good at spotting wildlife including an insect that turned into a ball. The walk was reasonably gentle and not muddy, but at one point we had to cross a stream, the guides were very good at helping people who needed it. We then saw a second waterfall. We got back into our 4x4s and set off back to the ship with a stop for refreshments. This was a choice of teas and some coconut cakes, banana fritters, fruit etc. We really enjoyed this morning’s trip and spent the afternoon relaxing and also listening to a couple of lectures, on Aldabra by Guy and Fish by Conrad.

When we got back to our cabin we found we had an invite to the Captains table for dinner tonight, to be hosted by the Cruise Director. Before that we had an update from the Expedition Leader on our itinery for the next couple of days. We have some hikes, and they will go quite high in mozzie rainforest. For tomorrow we have opted for the middle length walk.

Our next stop in Madagascar was at Masoala National Park which comprises coastal rainforest, flooded forests and marsh and mangroves. As we wouldn’t arrive till late morning, we took a visit to the engine room and watched a fruit carving session. We also went to a lecture on tsunamis and earthquakes.

We left at 2pm by zodiac for a wet landing. We were divided into groups of 10 with a guide and an expedition team member. We walked along the beach, across some boulders and into the rainforest. 30 minutes in and some people were struggling and when they knew how much further it would be, they wanted to turn back. We were happy to carry on, so this was now a group of 4. We were pleased to see the red-ruffed lemur, the red-fronted brown lemur, and the ring-tailed mongoose. We also saw many chameleons.

Finally, we got back to the beach and we felt exhilarated, a good hike! The village was nice and tidy, but we were too late for the dancing. As we entered all the women dashed to the field with their spices and carvings to sell but we didn’t buy anything, too many people and who do you choose to buy from?
We arrived overnight at Nosy Mangabe, a 520-hectare island reserve in Antongil Bay. We decided to go on the hard/long walk to the virgin rain forest to look for Lemurs. We travelled to a beach by zodiac and were divided into smaller groups. The walk was 3km with lots of scrambling over boulders and wet leaf covered paths, always glad that I have Simon with me to steady me. Whilst we could have walked back, we got a zodiac to the main beach where I had a swim. We were meant to have a snorkelling trip this afternoon but because of the rain the river has brought silt into the sea, so visibility will be low, and the locals have gill netted all the fish! Instead, I went on another zodiac trip around the island to spot birds. It started raining but of course we carried on. Alas it has impacted on tonight’s’ event we were due to have a cocktail party on the aft deck for NYE, but this will now be in the lounge. Not sure what’s going to happen about the dancing due on the front deck this evening, it’s far too wet outside. It was the rockiest dance floor I’ve danced on, but I danced for more than 2 hours, almost nonstop. At midnight, the champagne was out, along with a large cake with sparklers. It was a lovely evening and a great start to the new year.
At Sea
Today we continued to sail to Reunion. It continued to be quite a rocky journey, and I have felt a bit off all day, certainly not down to drinking too much. We listened to a couple of talks this morning, on plants and about the Indian Ocean. Lunch included a suckling pig, I had some but wasn’t up to a large lunch, skipped the alcohol and had some rest after lunch. Then went to the lounge to listen to Chris talk about life in and after the marine commandos. The sea continued to be a bit rough and I lay down, not feeling great. Tonight, was the captains cocktail party, and after the meal, there was a pudding procession, and then the staff sang a song, with lots of thanks and claps. The staff are so very lovely, we couldn’t fault them.


We arrived this morning in Reunion and there were 2 options, some chose the half day option, to go to the vanilla farm and town, but we opted for the full day tour to the central highlands. This was a long trip, but we had a few stops to look at the stunning views of the landscape and Piton de la Fournaise crater. The view, here, and elsewhere was spectacular, and it would have been lovely to walk down but alas there was no time for this. It was a long drive to a typical creole restaurant where we had a 3-course meal and then went to the volcano museum. As soon as we got back to the ship it set sail as the weather was turning with large waves forecast. We managed to pack one suitcase, and then went for dinner, I again didn’t feel great. The ship was moving extensively, big waves, and a small ship. People were having to be escorted to the tables and we had tumblers instead of wine glasses. We then moved into the lounge to watch the holiday video (which we are given by USB stick). This is the one downside of a smaller ship; you certainly feel the waves. We didn’t have a great night’s sleep, not only being tossed from side to side but also up and down.


We arrived in Mauritius and cleared customs. This morning we went to the Pamplemousse Botanical Gardens, we had a great guide, and learnt a lot about the trees. The waterlilies and lotus were truly wonderful. We then moved onto Sugar World. We could have spent longer there, but lunch was booked. And then there were farewells, most of our fellow passengers went off to the airport, we waited for a car to take us to our Mauritius accommodation for the next week.
Thank you Noble Caledonia for a wonderful first holiday. We truly loved it and can’t wait for our next trip – already booked!

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Denise Taylor

Chief Inspiration Officer, The 50 Plus Coach.