Reversing Vasco da Gama’s dash across the Arabian sea — This one’s for Africa


image credit : The Indian Express

 Standing on the sea-shore at Cochin, South India, and gazing westward over the Arabian sea, I often wondered what lay on the other side of the sea . I knew it was the horn of Africa, but …     what was the land like ? How long would it take to reach it ? Were the monsoon winds that were sweeping the Indian coast at the time, also sweeping the African coast ? What strange goods, animals and birds would one find there ? The exotic islands of Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros, Zanzibar, Mombasa, and ….. the fabled sea port of Malindi . Where exactly were they , and how far away ?

San Gabriel
image credit: courtesy Revell Inc., IL ., U.S.A    Processed By eBay with ImageMagick, z1.1.0. ||B2

And so it came to pass that one rain battered monsoon night , I was on a flight from Mumbai, India, down the African coast to Johannesburg, South Africa, and thereafter overland to the Botswana border .

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image credit : National Geographic Society — cartographic division

For the first couple of hours , the plane headed south-west straight for the coast of Africa and the equator . Seated in a window seat, I carefully observed the flow of the monsoon clouds coming in from that direction .To my surprise they vanished as we approached the African coast . Apparently the Indian monsoon is a phenomenon restricted only to the countries of South-east Asia and India . On reaching the Arabian sea, the moisture-laden winds take a sharp about-turn and bless the land mass of India, without touching either Africa or the equator .

When Da Gama sailed these waters, they had been an arab lake for centuries . The populations of the surrounding lands were largely muslim and pretty hostile to Da Gama and his crews. The frosty receptions he got at Mozambique and Mombasa forced him 120 kilometres up the Kenyan coast to the port of Malindi. There his luck changed . He found an experienced pilot who guided him to the port of Calicut in South India . That was in January 1498 — in the middle of the blistering african summer  and the start of the torrid indian summer  . The voyage went on and on for 4700 kilometres, and took took 4 ½ long months . It could not have been a very pleasant one !  Arab mariners used to make a voyage of roughly the same distance, from Aden, in 40 days , taking advantage of the waning south-west monsoon winds in July & August.

My flight ran roughly parallel to the course taken by Vasco Da Gama’s ships , but in the opposite direction . Down the coasts of Kenya & Tanzania, over the islands of Seychelles, down the coast of Mozambique and past the tropic of Capricorn — for 7 long hours . As the South African coast came into sight, some 6500 Kilometers from Mumbai, India, the plane turned westward over the southern tip of Mozambique and into South Africa. Two hours and 1900 kilometers later I landed in Johannesburg – just 40 kilometres south-east of Malapa , the 2 million year old ‘ cradle of human-kind ‘.

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image credit : National Geographic magazine

pilanesberg 001

image credit : Pilanesberg National Park — official guide


I and my companions were met by their Africaaner friends and driven 300 kilometres north –west over superb roads, past Sun city, to their game ranch near the small town of Thabazimbi 75 kilometrs from the Botswana border. This is near the eastern edge of the Kalahari desert . The vegetation is Damaraland bushveld . It is home to 50 species of mammals , 354 bird species, 65 reptile species and 18 amphibian species . Several game ranches abound – for the benefit of game hunters worldwide . Payment of trophy fees and other fees is mandatory . This provides a good source of income to Government and community . For the benefit of tourists , in this region there is the Borakalalo nature reserve , the Madikwe game reserve , the Voalkop dam nature reserve and the Pilanesberg National Park .

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image credit : Safari magazine , Tucson , Arizona

With so much game abounding, the visitor is spoilt for choice of meats for his daily meals. While back in India, quail, partridge and francolin are considered delicacies, on the game ranches they are merely a side dish. Steaks of widebeeste, Kudu, and Eland are standard fare, while impala and other antelope, crocodile and wart-hog meat make for gourmet dishes. All this washed down with South African wines and brandies, some of which are rated the best in the world .It is not generally known that excellent vineyards have existed in South Africa for over 300 years .

South Africa is bounded on the north-east by Mozambique – where the mighty Zambesi river empties into the Indian Ocean . Virtually the entire length of Mozambique’s coast line is shadowed by the island of Madagascar to the east . The two are separated by the Mozambique channel , roughly 600 kilometres wide and one of the richest fishing grounds in the world . I was told in S. Africa that any sport fisherman worth his name would make at least one expedition to the Mozambique channel , to test his fishing skills . My brothers – both seamen – tell me that warm ocean currents from the equator meet cold ocean currents from the Antarctic, in the Mozambique channel. This makes for rich fish feeding grounds anywhere in the world . The nutrients carried down by the Zambesi river just add to the richness of the Mozambique channel.

eagle ray

image credit : Hugh Mascarenhas at S.E.A Aquarium , Singapore

On my return flight , seated in a window seat on the port side of the plane , I carefully observed the Mozambique coastline as the plane flew parallel to it for its entire length . The vast Zambesi delta makes it a masss of mangrove forests interspersed by small rivulets and then more mangrove forests, for its entire length . Approaching the northern-most tip of the Mozambique channel , one flies over the 5 tiny volcanic islands of the Comoros. These too had been visited by Vasco Da Gama’s party on their return journey but, compared to the lands they had just discovered, these were definitely pass

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image credit : National Geographic magazine

Vasco Da Gama’s astounding discovery was soon followed up by the Dutch — seeking the exotic East Indies . They also went west where they encountered Indians of a very different sort – red Indians . That will be the subject of my next blog . Stay posted .


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My name is Hugh Mascarenhas. I am a graduate mechanical engineer and a post-graduate in business management. Having worked in Industry for nearly 40 years, I retired in 2010 as chief operating officer of a group of companies and now live in Nasik, India. During the course of my work,​ and thereafter, I visited many countries, worldwide. While engaged in work related activities, I collected information on various aspects of each country I visited. My interests include history , archeology , travel , wildlife , philosophy , & geneology. You will find strands of these woven into the various blogs of my website I would appreciate your comments on the blog posts or write to me directly at

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