This being the last edition of the month, we continue with the highs and lows of Marco Polo’s journey to the Far East via South Africa. Readers might remember that our captain, lured by the shiny prospect of finding Mr Kruger’s wagon-loads of gold, had deviated course to Delagoa Bay, where a vicious storm sunk his ship, the Santa Flatulata.

Marco had no idea what the future may hold after being rescued by Somali pirates off the East Coast of Africa. Though thankful to be alive, he couldn’t stop fretting about the sinking of his ship. Just outside the port of Lawrence O’Marks, she succumbed to Neptune’s temptations, and sank into his embrace with her precious cargo – the Kruger Millions.

Realising he was the only person who knew the exact location of the wreck, voices from the bowels of his soul urged Marco to somehow get back there and claim his bounty. Being captured by Somali pirates didn’t help at all.

He couldn’t ask them to turn back and retrieve the gold, because once they had it, he’d be sleeping with the fishes. So he could only hope to escape and make his way either south to the gold, or east to where Pa was – in the land of chopsticks, silkworms and a Pleasure Dome called Xanadu.

Fortunately for him, the only other European prisoner on board understood a smattering of French and Italian, so they could at least communicate while being tethered below deck. His name was Captain Phillips and his ship had been captured a week ago while completing a documentary on piracy in the Indian Ocean. He told Marco they were apparently bound for Dar es Salaam (Place of Peace) where they’d be auctioned off to Arab slave traders, and end up in some desert, digging for oil or building more pyramids.

After eight days of being shackled together in the stinking darkness, they eventually docked at Dar to much fanfare. It was market day, and apart from the food, clothes and trinkets on display, so too were the slaves. At noon, to a cacophony of yells, smells and tinkling bells, a frenzy of bidding by the slave traders reached a crescendo.

These slaves were burly blokes, from the lands further south called Mo Zam Beek (Land Further South) and they were all snapped up pretty quickly. Because Marco and Captain Phillips looked obviously different, their pigmentation was deemed unsuitable for manual labour in the desert and, much to the amusement of the local rabble, they were the only two left. Nobody wanted them.

After heated negotiations in Arabic, it was decided to send them to Zanzibar to work in the spice plantations, where being pale wouldn’t curtail the amount of cloves they could harvest. So that afternoon they were bundled onto a dhow, and with Marco still clutching his vuvuzela, they headed north-east to the islands.

Now, Zanzibar was a breath of fresh air compared with the foetid squalor of Dar. For a start they were unshackled, because being an island, there was no escape. Sharks and treacherous currents saw to that, and Marco and Captain Phillips were made fully aware of the peril. Anyway, there weren’t too many pale-skinned blokes on the island, and they stuck out like floaters in the punch bowl.

Their personal guard and interpreter was a chap called Napoleon. He had recently retired from the French Foreign Legion after losing an eye in battle, and was fluent in French and Arabic. As it turned out, both he and Captain Phillips were fitness fanatics, and before the labours of the day would begin, they’d go for a run to the nearby Jozani forest and back.

Before long, some locals joined in for fun and pretty soon it became known as the ‘forest run’, and Captain Phillips always led the pack.

After a few weeks they were summoned to the Sultan’s Palace (Beit-el Ajaib), The House of Wonders. The Sultan hadn’t come across many Europeans recently and was curious about what they were up to. Marco was delighted to discover that he’d heard of that Pleasure Dome in Xanadu and that he, too, planned to travel there soon.

Could this be Marco’s ticket to the East? When the Arabic notes are decoded, we’ll keep you updated – in the meantime, let’s hold thumbs…

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