Silversea’s Inaugural South Africa Expedition Voyage Offers Behind the Scenes Experiences

The minivan trundled across South Africa’s vast Karoo through mile after mile of brushy desert. Suddenly, a canvas village appeared in the sand.

“It was so magical. The whole time you see nothing. Then suddenly there’s this big tent,” says Johannes Bärenfänger, who was sailing with his husband Orkan on Silversea’s inaugural South Africa expedition.

“We went out of the bus and there were staff people waiting with a red carpet and high tea,” he recalled, with cucumber finger sandwiches, fig tartlets, scones and apricot jam. Beyond the arrival area sat 75 roomy tents outfitted with bathrobes and slippers, comfortable beds set on plush carpets, tableside lamps and ensuite bathroom facilities.

The sun shimmered against the distant cliffs, ochre turning to rust turning to ink, as they sipped cocktails made from a local gin. A huge tent housed long tables for dinner family style – stuffed Turkish eggplant, herb-crusted lamb, dry-aged prime rib. After dark, scientists from South Africa’s national space agency brought out high-powered telescopes to peer into the southern skies. Come morning, coffee and hot shower water were delivered to each canvas flap.

The experience, said Orkan, was “simply amazing.“ 

Our guests trust us to transform dreams into memories

Tankwa Karoo, South Africa

Such an undertaking might seem extreme. But for Silversea, extraordinary efforts are core to its expedition mission: to deeply explore destinations in ways rarely seen by typical travelers.

“Our guests trust us with their dreams, and we take that responsibility, of turning their dreams into memories, extremely seriously,” says Conrad Combrink, Silversea’s Senior Vice President of Expeditions. “We want to ensure that nothing stands between our guests and the authentic beauty of the world.”

The Karoo tent celebration was a one-time event marking Silversea’s inaugural South African expedition cruise aboard the 254-passenger Silver Cloud. But the other port calls and shore excursions on this two-week voyage from Namibia’s Walvis Bay on Africa’s West Coast wrapping around the Cape of Africa and to the southern city of Gqeberha, will be repeated on future voyages. Those include stops at the little-visited towns of Saldanha Bay, Langebaan, Hermanus and Mossel Bay.

Planning ahead for deep exploration

The sweeping expanse of Cape Columbine

Like most new Silversea forays into remote destinations, the South Africa itinerary was three years in the making.

“When we identify regions we think we want to visit, we go into overdrive in terms of research and development,” says Combrink. The company’s six-member R&D team scours existing tourism offerings, interviews local operators and looks for opportunities to reveal previously unvisited destinations. On-the-ground scouting missions take them to small towns where they spend hours drinking tea or the local brew with village chiefs and councils.

Those scouting missions set the framework for the future. “You build trust with face-to-face communication,” says Combrink. 

Most importantly, he says, “we listen to the community and their concerns, and then we work together to mitigate those. If that’s not possible, we respect that and walk away. If the community doesn’t feel comfortable, what’s the point of forcing something?”

Relationships with government also come into play, especially in areas new to expedition cruising. For example, when Silversea first proposed the South Africa expedition, “the government simply wouldn’t allow expedition cruising and Zodiacs because of safety concerns,” explained Combrink. To address apprehensions, Silversea underwent two years of risk assessments before the South African marine safety agency gave the O.K.

Safety, says Combrink, is a critical consideration. “We want to be absolutely sure we can take our guests to these incredible, and often remote destinations and not only deliver the experiences but do so safely.”

For guests, that assurance of due diligence is key, says Gaynor Neill, a Johannesburg-based travel advisor who has represented Silversea in Africa for almost 30 years. “We [in South Africa] do have a reputation with safety issues. Seeing the country from an international cruise base with a highly experienced team gives people confidence.”

Locals benefit, too

Incorporating communities is an integral component of Silversea’s efforts in South Africa.

To deliver such experiences, Combrink’s team prioritizes local guides who know their communities well. Silversea also favors local vendors who can financially benefit from their visits and the other cruise lines that may follow. In South Africa, Silversea hired Africentric, a small woman-led company, to handle many of its ground operations.

Africentric had previously put on special events, but on a limited scale. “Silversea took a chance on us and they knew that we were not that experienced. They kept on saying, ‘We want you to succeed. We will work with you. We will support you.”

The collaboration set a precedent for Africentric and for others in the region, says Pooe. “Because Silversea is boutique, it is able to take a chance on a destination. Its success challenges other companies to follow suit.”  

When memorable experiences showcase positive results

Fabulous dining at Leeuwenhoff

Silversea’s pioneering efforts produce truly unique experiences, says Neill.  “It was a groundbreaker voyage, with inaugural calls along a notoriously rough coastline and some very beautiful parts of our country…this is a great trip for anybody who has a desire to immerse in African culture.”

For 29 years, the Johannesburg-based cruise agent has been the exclusive African representative for Silversea, which brings high satisfaction ratings from her clients. “You can go to remote places but in comfort, with butler service, fine linens, great culinary and every amenity. There’s integration between the ship and shore experience that creates a really well-rounded experience.”

On this and future voyages, that experience includes talks by Nelson Mandela’s private secretary, Zelda Le Grange; music by a local band; a children’s choral performance; accordion music and riel dancing, a lively courtship jig by young people in red shoes.

On South Africa’s Western cape, guests have exclusive use of Cape Columbine Nature Reserve’s 650,000 acres for bike and horse rides across the hills and kayak tours amid seals and South African penguins. Afterward, passengers gather at the 90-year-old lighthouse for a braai – an open-fire barbecue – featuring griddle cakes, sausages, crayfish and oysters shucked on site. During the inaugural voyage, humpbacks and other whales breached in the distance.

Dinner at Leeuwenhof, the estate of the Premier of the Western Cape, was a standout event on Silversea’s expedition around South Africa

In Cape Town, passengers dine with the Premier of the Western Cape – or at least in his garden at the official residence, Leeuwenhoff. Completed a few years before the U.S. White House, the estate house near the slope of Table Mountain is the setting for Silversea’s harvest table, featuring grilled prawns, slow-cooked lamb shoulder with garlic confit, flame-grilled chutney chicken, beetroot salad with local feta and white chocolate truffles. Wines come from a trio of local female winemakers; the Oryx Desert Salt comes from a small company started by a single mother that now distributes globally. Behind the house, the original slave quarters are open for visits.

Further along the coast, passengers get a chance to search for the Big Five on safaris that go beyond the typical game views. Some opt to travel on horseback; others ride in open-air vehicles as they search for lions and zebras, explore a rhinoceros preserve and meet with veterinarians.

Johannes Bärenfänger, with his husband Orkan and their family, celebrated his milestone 30th birthday on Silver Cloud’s inaugural Africa expedition cruise.

For Johannes Bärenfänger, a trip highlight was the safari day, with a closer-than-expected encounter with a lioness and helping a veterinarian draw blood from an elephant for a scientific study. It came on his 30th birthday.

Later that evening, he, Orkan and two family members celebrated with chateaubriand, chocolate souffle and a bottle of Dom Perignon –  a menu designed specially for them by the ship’s head chef, complete with shaved white truffles. “I was impressed that they could get them,” Johannes said.

“It was an amazing way to turn 30. I saw so many things I will never see again in my life and I would never see on my own. They created a magical experience.”