Ocober 21, 1969
Copra!!!! I can still recall the sickly-sweet odour 50 years later. It was overpowering. It wrapped itself around us as we neared port and remained embedded in our nostrils for hours after we left Fiji.
Lynne Thirley remembers that smell. “I have never forgotten it,” she wrote.
Then there was the soggy heat! Even at 6am, the air felt thick. It was hard to breathe, and simply walking along the deck made us sweaty.
Sabel Saville describes it beautifully: “I was there March 1969! Phew, the humidity was overwhelming. Felt like trying to walk through treacle.
Graham Hellewell agrees: “in the humid summer season you could grab a handful of air and squeeze the sweat out of it…!”
We’d booked a tour to a model village and were scheduled to leave at 9, so had some breakfast and returned to deck to find it was no longer hot and dry. Now it was cold and raining — heavy, deafening, torrential rain.
Denise, Chris, Judy and I climbed aboard our lovely air-conditioned bus (translation: it had no glass in the windows). Denise and I both had window seats, so one side of us got drenched.
The rickety, rattling old broken down bus took off with a lurch and a squeal and went flying along narrow, unmade Fijian roads at 70 miles an hour on any particular side of the road but usually straight down the middle.
Neville Fenn remembers travelling in a Fijian bus, but his wasn’t in quite the same hurry: “On one trip to Fiji,” he writes, “a group of us caught the local “air-conditioned bus” from Lautoka to Nadi.We were told it was only a short trip straight down the highway. Except we caught the wrong bus and went up through the hills picking up and dropping off passengers, animals, chickens and fruit and vegetables along the way. It was an enjoyable trip but took us a lot longer and we had to get a taxi back to the ship in Lautoka.
Once at the model village, all us girls noticed one handsome young fellow in a grass skirt, so when it was time to leave, Denise and I took the opportunity to stand beside him for a photo. “Wait till I send this photo home,” I told the others, “so Mum can see this gorgeous hunk I’m bringing home with me!”
Dear, sweet, naive young Denise said, very seriously: “Well he can put his grass skirt under MY bed any day!” It wasn’t something we ever expected to hear from her and we could barely stop laughing.
It was a fun tour, but crew member Kevin Coppell’s visit in the late 70’s was memorable for another not-so-fun reason. As printer on the Australis, his skills were essential, but his freedom to continue his work was put in jeopardy when he was whisked off to Police headquarters.
In Kevin’s own words: “I was going to the main reef for beautiful dive, but when customs checked my dive bag, unfortunately I had 3 bullets used with my shark protection. Police allege I was trying to bring munitions into Fiji. I was being held until the Captain’s secretary arrived and let the Police know the ship could not leave port until the printer was returned to the ship.”
Kevin has never returned to Fiji, and who can blame him? Nor has he been known to have anything to do with weapons since that day.
Lynne Thirley’s visit was memoriable because she saw Raymond Burr, the actor who played Ironside and Perry Mason. Lynne writes: “I remember all the passengers from the Australis in the Travel Lodge lounge getting autographs from him. I thought poor chap, but when they all left I then got mine.”
On returning to Suva, Denise and I decided to do some bargaining in the market, but not quite in the innovative way passenger Tim Roche chose to do so in 1977. He also got caught in one of Suva’s notorious sudden downpours and was running back to the ship to get out of the pelting rain.
As Tim recalls: “a man was running after me selling a wooden head and two wooden spears for five dollars.
“No!” I said, because I was getting drenched.
“Ok, ok” he yelled, frantically trying to keep up. “Two dollar then!”
He certainly drove a hard bargain! “I still have them today,” says Tim, “and I laugh every time I look at them.”
The ship ties up right next to the marketplace and you can see it looming above you wherever you are. Denise and I were still shopping when we heard the ship’s familiar horn blast. We looked up and saw all the passengers lined up on deck. They were waving!
Panic! We thought we could run straight through the market and clamour back on board, but the pier was blocked off by a high wire fence. We were laden down with our purchases and no matter which direction we ran, we just kept coming to a dead end.
We finally found a way through — right up near the front of the ship. There was only one gang plank still in place. Of course, it was way down near the back of the ship!
You have no idea how long the Australis is until you have to run the full length of it! We were exhausted, but we could see that the remaining gangplank being removed so we just had to keep running, our parcels flying out around us.
The passengers on the decks were applauding and cheering us on. How embarrassing!
A Fijian band played on the dock as ships arrived and departed. Passenger David Thomas remembers them playing Glen Miller’s In The Mood. Not for us! They were playing the farewell song, Now Is the Hour, and for once we weren’t “in the mood” to cry as we normally did when we heard that song.
Fortunately the band master caught sight of us. They stopped playing immediately, then broke into the William Tell Overture, which apparently alerted the dock workers to replace the gangplank.
We jogged up it, puffing and panting, then collapsed in a heap on the deck with our parcels sprawled everywhere.
We started to giggle, and by the time the Australis pulled out of Suva, and too exhausted to stand, we were rolling about the deck in hysterics.
It had the potential to be a very UN- funny experience, but our laughter was due more to relief than humour. However, another couple of passengers who butted heads with crew member Linda Harrison found no reason to giggle about their experience.
Here is Linda’s story ….
There was compulsory lifeboat drill for all passengers. As Information Officer, I was working in collaboration with the Safety officer who contacted me with the names and cabin numbers of passengers who had failed to show up at their lifeboat stations for the drill.
Passengers would not realise that all life jackets were numbered, and each cabin allocated to a particular lifeboat, so we knew within minutes of the passengers assembling who were missing.
l went to the cabins to gee them up and came across a cabin of cheeky Aussie Larrikins who told me to “stay. Cool.”
We’d had the same scenario with them in Auckland at lifeboat drill. l pointed out to them that I hoped they would be just as cool in a real emergency since they would’ve been the only people onboard who didn’t know what to do.
As we were coming alongside in Suva, cabin stewards arrived at their cabin accompanied by the Safety Officer and proceeded to pack the cases of those cheeky larrikins and escort them off the ship.
There weren’t so cocky now. “You can’t do this!” they pleaded.
Well, maybe she couldn’t, but the captain certainly could and our Linda was only following orders.
Linda recalls them still yelling as they stood on the dock watching the ship sail away, left to either fly home or on to their destination at their own expense.
Many thanks to Chandris facebook members Linda Harrison, Lynne Thirley, Kevin Coppell, Sabel Saville, Neville Fenn, Tim Roche, Graham Hellewell and David Thomas for their wonderful contributions to this blog.