I was there.
It is estimated that in the late 60’s and early 70’s, around two million Australian baby boomers boarded a ship or jumped on an aeroplane and headed off to Europe.
At least one person out of every seven who lived in this country at that time found innovative ways to bare their upper arm and proudly reveal their status symbol vaccination scar.
If you were born after 1980, you might think that’s not such a big deal. Today, more than half our population of 25 million owns a passport, and jetting off to distant shores is what most people do when they need a break.
Believe me, in the 1960’s, it WAS a big deal.
If Peter Allen had written “I Still Call Australia Home” three decades earlier, it would have been “I Still Call England Home.”
Our parents and grandparents and those before them were proud British subjects who called England home, even though few had ever been there and most never would.
Heck, most Australians had never even been outside their own state!
Those who could afford to visit ‘home’ needed to be intrepid travellers indeed. The first Qantas flight from Australia to the UK in 1935 took 12 days and included 43 stopovers.
Shortly after the end of World War 2, modern aircraft cut the journey to a mere four days with just six stopovers, only two of those requiring overnight stays.
This hippity-hop to England became known appropriately as the Kangaroo Route.
Propeller-driven and noisy, these state-of-the-art (for their time) aeroplanes had non-pressurized cabins which prevented them flying high enough to avoid inclement weather. Delays were frequent, turbulence common, and air sickness bags absolutely essential.
Of course, if you really wanted to ‘visit home’, there was always sea travel, but ships in the late 40’s and the 50’s had little in common with modern day passenger liners. Most were troop ships hastily converted to carry the first wave of migrants to Australia from war-torn Europe.
The trip between continents was long and arduous. Passenger comforts were not a priority. Food was plain and often inadequate. Triple-tiered bunks were built into every available space — including the hold — and bathrooms were communal. There was certainly no entertainment to keep passengers amused.
Faced with the choice of clinging to a paper bag for 4 days or turning green for 6 weeks, most opted for the less painful Kangaroo Route.
Then, everything changed. To understand why, we need to go back to the end of world war 2.
At that time, Australia’s population was a mere 7 million, which was a pitifully small number for such a large and isolated country. Not only did this create a critical labour shortage for emerging industries, but the threat of Japanese invasion during the war had revealed our vulnerability. We desperately needed more manpower to defend ourselves in the event of another war.
The Aussie government formulated a plan. Invite migrants from war-torn Europe and the UK to settle here, give them a choice between air or ship travel and provide them with temporary (albeit basic) accommodation on arrival. As long as they stayed for a minimum of 2 years. it would only cost them ten pounds, or the European equivalent of that amount.
Between 1945 and 1982, over 4 million people took advantage of this opportunity to start a new life.
Flushed with this scheme’s initial success, our first immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, reminded Australians that we must “populate or perish.” Families were encouraged to produce more children and Aussies performed their patriotic duty more enthusiastically than any other country, resulting in a baby boom of massive proportions. The arrival of these ‘baby boomers’ over the next two decades (1945 to 1965) increased the population by around five million.
By the early to mid 1960’s, Australia’s economy was booming. For the first time, people had money to spend.
Shipping lines began to realize that filling their ships with paying passengers for the return journey to Europe would make the migrant trade even more profitable, so they began improving on-board facilities, turning dormitories into comfortable cabins with private facilities, adding air conditioning, cinemas, swimming pools and more attractive menus.
They also offered competitive return fares, and the airlines quickly followed their example.
The shipping lines were also astute enough to recognize that their most lucrative market would be found within the 18 to 25 age group.
How right they were! The first wave of Aussie boomers were now wage-earning adults with money burning holes in their pockets.
These were the generation born to parents who had struggled through the great depression and at least one world war, if not two. They had not dared to step out of line, but it was a line their children chose to reject.
It is estimated that between 1965 and 1977, around forty percent of baby boomers born or raised in Australia set off to see the world. They absorbed whatever Europe had to offer, then returned to share that knowledge with all who cared to listen.
As a result, Australia was dragged — kicking and screaming — from an isolated colony of Mother England into a vibrant and thriving cosmopolitan nation.
The baby boomer exodus flared for one brief and shining decade, then flickered out. It had served its purpose. Flights to Europe had become faster, more comfortable and less expensive. Future generations would think nothing of travelling to Rome, London or Paris for a three week vacation.
By 1977, it was mostly all over.
There will never be another time like it.
I was there.
My intention for this blog is to include brief extracts from my book, YESTERDAY : A Baby Boomer’s Rite of Passage, in the hope that it might stimulate others’ memories of those halycon days. If you’d like to contribute some of your own recollections, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Your memories will be as exciting to me and other readers as I’m hoping mine will be to you.
Note: If you travelled on a Chandris line ship (Australis, Britanis, Ellenis, Patris) you may also consider joining the Chandris facebook page, with over 3,000 happy and nostalgic ex passengers and crew.