Cruising on the African Queen

Published: 26 Aug 2011 09:30

It must be the most unusual bed and breakfast in Berkshire and she's sailed a long way to get here.

ENCHANTED by adventure, one couple has blended two cultures to create a captivating adventure craft which cruises along one of Britain's most historic waterways.

Stepping onto the African Queen cruising hotel and restaurant there is a patriotic air - of red, white and blue flags fluttering from the sun deck of the 103ft Dutch barge which is moored on the River Thames at Mapledurham.

Bearded captain Andy Cowley, sporting a blue and white 'skipper' cap, warmly welcomes me with a firm handshake - but his rasping accent reveals another element to the traditional English first impressions.

Andy, 67, was born in England, but spent 40 years living in South Africa. He and wife Bonny, 63, a South African, bought the boat - formerly called the Shannon Princess - in 2004, after selling their hotel The Troubadour in the Isle of Wight, to be closer to their family in Henley.

The vessel, which sleeps 12, runs tours from Mapledurham to Henley, winding its way through the scenic Berkshire Downs and the Chilterns, a landscape which influenced Kenneth Grahame's children's classic 'The Wind in the Willows' and Jerome K Jerome's 'Three Men in a Boat'.

But the couple are determined to show off their African roots. Inside the cabin a blue wire elephant figurine nestles above Union Jack emblazoned cushions on plush black leather sofas and a 5ft model of a smartly dressed native they nickname Jabulani - which, translated, means: 'come to bring happiness to everybody', stands next to the bar and kitchen where Bunny prepares Cape-Malay influenced food.

Andy, who playfully pulls out a vuvuzela horn, which he tells me he blasts before setting sail said: "We've lived in South Africa for many years - and I've always loved African hospitality and that way of life. We wanted to reflect it on the boat - it's part of who we are."

The vessel has enjoyed a multicultural past - built in 1923 in Utrecht, Holland, she carried bricks and building materials along Dutch canals. In 1960 she retired to Ireland to serve as a hotel barge in Athlone before the Cowely's began a 1,000 mile voyage sailing along the River Shannon out into the Irish Sea and round the south coast of England to reach the Thames.

Now as a leisure boat, the owners offer five night and weekend cruises and host corporate events as well as bed and breakfast deals and packages with the over-50s cruise company Saga.

Wildlife to look out for along the route includes crested grebes, red kites, kingfishers and roe deers.

Andy said: "People are always amazed by the beauty of the of the Thames, there's great potential in the river - it's the Wind in the Willows route. When people first come on board they may have been in a traffic jam or on a long journey so it's a chance to get away from it all and they feel very at home." The sailing season is typically April to October but is subject to weather conditions. Contact 07774 917 389 See www.african-queen.co.uk

Maxwell Kusi-Obodum

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