Marco was perplexed. Although he hadn’t seen a single Indian, he was informed by Vasco Diaz, captain of the east-bound Santa Flatulata, that they were sailing in the Indian Ocean, east of Africa. He knew this coastline well, and told Marco he’d soon reveal why it was called the Indian Ocean.
Now, Vasco had a rather multinational upbringing. Born in Portugal, he worked mainly out of Venice for a firm of Hollanders called The Dutch East India Company. These guys had been trading in the Far East for centuries, and had been rounding the Cape of Storms long before there was a cape, let alone storms.
En route to Algoa Bay, while sailing past the sugar-cane fields carpeting the Zululand coast, Vasco sent Marco up to the crow’s nest, and there, through a telescope, he caught his first glimpse of Indians. They were happily harvesting the cane, but he was disappointed to see they looked physically similar to him. He was searching for the people from Xanadu, where Pa was, those with sallow complexions, narrow eyes and high cheekbones, who drank tea and ate with sticks.
Somewhat crestfallen, he wondered how long it would be till he found Kubla Cohen and Pa, and would the ship, overladen with Stinkwood, even stay afloat long enough? Waves were washing over the gunwales.
Before long, the warm Agulhas current flattened the sea to a breathless calm, and the captain hove to in a sheltered bay, and despatched a four-man dinghy ashore to explore. Being too drunk himself, he put his first mate, Ricardo, in charge of the expedition. Handing him a Portuguese flag, he told him to claim the area as a Portuguese protectorate, and name the bay after whoever he liked.
Marco was one of the lucky four to land at Richard’s Bay. Alphonso van Tonder, the ship’s cook (who’d learnt Afrikaans from his father in Italy), and a bloke called Lenny da Vinci (notes and sketches), were the other two.
After planting the flag, they nervously surveyed the dense foliage lining the beach. They were ill-equipped to tackle this green wall of unimaginable horrors. Luckily, they didn’t need to because out of the forest strode a line of polished-ebony warriors carrying spears and knobkerries and sporting designer animal-print outfits.
With shoddy documentation of this encounter, details are somewhat sketchy, but the warriors soon realised that these terrified sailors were no threat. This enabled their King, Shaka, to emerge regal and imposing from the forest to confront the strangers.
As you can imagine, communication was challenging. Marco only spoke Italian and knew some rude phrases in French which received no reaction. Ricardo could only speak a dialect of Mediterranean dock-yard slang, and Lenny conjugated a few verbs in Latin, which didn’t work either.
Fortunately, a thread of understanding was spun between King Shaka and the cook Alphonso, who, as we mentioned before, understood Afrikaans. Luckily, over the years, King Shaka had picked up a dialect from his many subjects working on the gold mines further inland. It was called Fanagalo, and was a mix of Zulu, English, Sotho and Afrikaans, so all was not lost.
Information was relayed by Shaka to Alf in Fanagalo, then translated into Italian to Lenny, who then transcribed it in Latin shorthand. The Zulus were apparently at war on two fronts. One bunch wore khaki and veldskoene and the other crowd wore bright red jackets, easier to spot from miles away. The King claimed they were all fighting over gold – wagon-loads of it.
Then, claiming the flag in exchange, Shaka handed Marco a sacred Zulu wind instrument as a talisman, and suggested they sail up the coast to the next big bay where these wagon-loads of gold were headed – via Nelspruit.
Were these the Kruger millions? Will all that glitters be gold in Algoa Bay, and will Marco ever learn how to play that sacred vuvuzela?