Is modern air travel depriving us of the adventure?


NigelATTANigel Vere Nicoll is Chief Executive of Atta, The African Travel & Tourism Association, which serves travel companies in the African travel sector in 37 countries around the world. For more information visit

Recently, I have been studying the great sea routes to East and southern Africa from Britain. I find the one from Britain to South Africa particularly interesting as my great-grandfather founded a shipping line, trading between Britain and Cape Town. He started with just two small sailing schooners in 1876, and then in 1881 formed Clan Line, proudly launching ‘steam auxiliary ships’, with a steam engine but also rigged as a sailing vessel. These boats were capable of 10 knots, and a journey of more than 6000 miles would take 40-plus days to reach the Cape Colony. Until then the route had been jealously guarded by the Union Steam Ship Company & Castle Mail Packets Company.

By 1900 he had amassed a considerable 60 or more ships. Then the two great wars decimated the fleet, with losses of 50 per cent in the First World War and a staggering 38 ships and over 600 men in the Second World War. But against all odds his sons launched a takeover for their rivals, the Union Steam Ship Company, and by the early 1950s had created the Union Castle Line, becoming the largest passenger carrier to East and southern Africa and the proud owners of Cape Town’s iconic Mount Nelson Hotel.

The financial stability of these services relied not on passengers, but on the franchise to carry the Royal Mail to the Empire. The Mail contract was vital as it was not subject to the ebbs and flows of tourism. This shipping company linked England and South Africa via the ‘Cape Mail Express’ service, sailing every Thursday at 4pm from Southampton and taking, in all, about 19 days.

In 1965 a faster schedule was introduced, with sailings from Southampton every Friday, saving two days in each direction. First Class accommodation was spacious, transporting thousands of British travellers. Tourist Class attracted immigrants, students and budget tourists. The typical deck plan included a lounge, smoking room, cafe, dining room and swimming pool for each class. Sadly the last passenger sailing on this historic route was completed in 1977, as the rapid progress of aviation offered a much faster and cheaper option.

But there was one far more glamorous way to visit Africa. Starting just before the Second World War, romantic flying boats flew from Alexandria to the Cape. In 1938 the British parliament had approved the Empire Mail Scheme, which decreed that letters could be sent anywhere in the Empire for a penny-ha’penny. Imperial Airways won the contract with the Empire Flying Boat Service. For several decades the flying boats were the mail clippers of their day. They transported 17 passengers in comfort down the Nile to Lake Victoria, stopping in Kenya, Tanganyika, Mozambique and Cape Town. But as no leg could be more than 500 miles, it took time. By 1950, BOAC’s Solent Flying Boat carried 34 passengers and seven crew on a three-times-per-week service from Southampton to Johannesburg, travelling down the Nile and across East Africa. This cut the journey time to four days, including luxurious overnight stops.

The journey to Cape Town is now competed in 11 hours 30 minutes, just time for dinner, a film and a snooze. Are we any better off? I wonder. Certainly by flying non-stop at 550 miles per hour across the continent, we must surely miss that sense of adventure that the journey to Africa once held.