November 11, 1969: We docked in Port Everglades at 1.30am. What a crazy time to arrive anywhere!
Didn’t get to bed until 4am, got a few hours sleep but was awake again at 9am. However am I going to adjust in the real world?
We were originally supposed to dock in the afternoon, then it was going to be early evening but by dinner time we still weren’t there and were told it would be 1am. (Either someone kept moving Miami, or we were lost!) As 1am was only about 4 hours away, we decided to stay up and go ashore immediately so we could make the most of the time we had. I think we may have been slightly delirious due to lack of sleep, because after all, where were we going to go and what would we do at 1am in an unfamiliar city?
Fortunately it was announced shortly before docking that passengers couldn’t disembark until 6am, so we had to hang around for yet another 5 hours. No point sleeping! After all, we had to stay up and watch our arrival.
By the time we descended the gangplank we’d been awake for almost 22 hours, and after only 5 hours of sleep and an entire day of sight-seeing still ahead!
Once ashore we learnt that the car Nick hired wouldn’t be available until 8am, so he suggested we go and have a wander around Port Everglades (Miami is 30 miles away!) and come back at 8. Which we did.
The 3 of us piled into a blue Chevrolet Impala with Nick and George. Nick drove us into Miami – about half an hour away – and I confess that I wasn’t all that impressed with the city. There were palm trees lining big wide streets, and vast stretches of nothing. It felt more like a holiday resort than a city. A bit like Surfer’s Paradise! Even Miami Beach wasn’t particularly impressive. Or are we just becoming blase travellers?
We had to be back by midday because that’s when the boys start work. I have no idea why they work in the engine room when the ship’s in port! We dropped them off just before midday and as Nick had paid for the car all day, Chris decided she’d drive us back into Miami.
Waiters Andy and John stopped to say hello and asked if they could come with us, and before we had even left the car park Fred and Bill from our dinner table flagged us down and asked to come too. So now we were 7. Luckily it was another one of those big yank tanks! We didn’t get as far as Miami this time because we got lost about halfway there and just kept driving around in circles. We decided that it wasn’t worth the effort anyway so stopped at Burger King.
I suspect we stumbled onto a 1950’s movie set! It had booths with high backed seats and juke boxes. Teenagers were gazing at each other over milk shakes with 2 straws. Bowls of ice cream and sodas were being slid along a shiny-topped counter, and the juke box was playing Beach Boys’ music or rock’n’roll.
We had a delicious (but huge) hamburger. They’re just known as ‘burgers’ here, but this one was a real whopper! Then it was time to head back as we were due to leave at 5pm and had to be on board by 4.
On our way back, a young guy in a car tooted his horn and pulled up beside us. He called out that he was in the navy and stationed on a submarine, and he invited us to come and have a tour. Americans are such an amazingly friendly bunch and seem to love meeting people from other countries. It would have been fascinating to visit the sub, but sadly we didn’t have time. Imagine being in a submarine and having our ship sail off above us!
We made it back in time but nearly fell asleep in our soup at dinner. When we were able to think clearly again, we calculated that we’d been awake for 35 hours after only 5 hours sleep! (And we let Chris drive? No wonder we got lost!)
I have absolutely no idea how I’m going to adjust to normal time in the real world!
Next, 7 days of the Atlantic crossing, then England. I’m going to be so sad when the time comes to leave my lovely old tub!
Well, the Suez worked, didn’t it? And that was over 100
miles long! The distance across the Panama was a mere 40 miles. It would be
relatively easy. Wouldn’t it?
The French work began in the early 1880’s, but it soon
became obvious this was not going to be as simple as digging a ditch. Mountains and jungle. Torrential rain.
Flooding and mud slides. Snakes and crocodiles. And even more dangerous.
Mosquitos! In the first year, more than a thousand died of malaria and yellow
fever. No-one knew why.
years of sweat and toil, the “official” death count was over 5,000.
Most historians think it was more like 20,000.
downed tools in 1888 and returned home with their tails between their
legs. They had come to construct the largest civil engineering work the world had ever known. Instead, they left behind
thousands of graves, an unyielding
jungle and one very deep – and
very damp – ditch.
In 1902, the US decided they could do a better job, but Colombia refused to grant them rights to build it. So, with a little ‘help’, Panama secured its independence from Columbia and granted the US territorial administration of the canal zone.
However, the Americans quickly realized that a level canal (a deep ditch) just wasn’t feasible. Depending on tides, the Pacific is up to 8 or 9 inches (20cm) higher than the Atlantic. One of the reasons for this is that the Atlantic is saltier than the Pacific, which makes the Atlantic denser! (See? We all knew the two oceans looked and felt different, didn’t we?)
A system of locks were designed to lift vessels 85 feet in the air, then let them down again on the other side.
For the next ten years, amidst more cave-ins, more mud slides, more sickness and accidents claiming even more lives, over 6,000 men worked daily for 10 hours in temperatures of up to 120 degrees farenheit (49 celsius).
The Canal finally opened amid pomp and ceremony on August 3, 1914, just a few weeks after the commencement of World War 1, and the American ship – the SS Ancon – became the first to transit Panama, making it through in just over nine hours.
If vessels arrived late afternoon or evening, their first port of call was Balboa, on the Pacific side.
While most passengers took advantage of time ashore there, some opted for a short taxi ride to the larger Panama City. Wolfram Dallwitz was one of those, and he found it a real eye-opener to see how some people lived.
“It was certainly was colourful.” says Wolfram. “People were sleeping under their market stalls, and in doorways, and riff-raff skylarking in the back streets. Heavily armed soldiers and police were patrolling the streets. Two soldiers were but steps away from us tourists, so we were safe.”
Sharyn Arthur also joined a group of people and visited Panama City in the early evening: “It seemed fairly scary. We didn’t stay more than a few hours and wandered down a residential street. A local woman came out and told us firmly to leave the area immediately as it was not safe. She escorted us back to the main street. Some hours later, back on the ship we heard that someone had been knifed.”
Tim Roche agrees. “We found Panama city even more scary (than Balboa) and returned to the safety of the ship very hastily.”
The following morning there was usually a queue of ships waiting their turn to make the slow journey through the canal. Steve Mullis recalls that a buffet luncheon was set up in the enclosed promenade for passengers’ enjoyment as they watched the ship being lifted through the locks, then lowered on the other side of Lake Gatun on the Atlantic side.
Tim Roche remembers entering the canal in 1975 in tandem with the Galileo: “It was great fun…much waving and banter went on between the two ships. Bev Almond found it “wondrous at the time… for a while … but a bit on the tedious side.” Lois Umbach found the process very boring, in 1970 and remembers spending a pleasant day lazing around the pool that day.
Wolfram Dallwitz certainly didn’t find it tedious. “I watched in amazement how the ship was lifted through the locks,” he recalls. “My friends and I stayed awake for the whole crossing.” Leslie Allan has a memory of passing a prison on the way: “All the inmates came over to the fence and waved to us.”
Chandris crew member Costas Veloudakis had the unusual experience of making the journey by car… “I was working on the Australis and the captain asked me if I could disembark with the pilot to collect some important medications from the agent’s office. I would then be driven through the jungle to re-join the ship in Cristobal.
When Costas arrived at the office, a young man handed him the package and also dropped a gun on the driver’s lap. Coastas was shocked. “What do we need a gun for?” he asked. The agent looked at him and said: “you understand we go through jungle? If anybody stops us we take gun shoot in the air and if OK we pass. If not…”
was not what I had bargained for!” Costas recalls, but later described it
as “a fantastic experience” when they made it through without
incident and re-joined the ship in Cristobal.
Steve Mullis also experienced a unique arrival in Cristobal in 1976, but not via the jungle: “The Australis docked on her own, without any assistance from tugs!” says Steve. “She did a slow collision, taking out a few dozen tractor tyres and buffers and was in need of a new coat of paint at wharf level.”
Cristobal reminded 1974 passenger
Graham Ritchie of one of those old black&white Humphrey Bogart movies. Crew
member Linda Harrison remembers it in a similar way:
“… seedy, dilapidated Spanish architecture, a little buzz of
nervousness, and very cheap gold.”
“A little buzz of nervousness?” Passenger Robert Goldberg found Cristobal even scarier than Balboa, but also agreed that it was “very colourful.” He saw little apes in cages at the market for the locals as a fresh meat supply and also recalls being offered items in “a very mean persuasive way at every corner” (No doubt those ‘items’ weren’t the cheap gold Linda referred to!)
“It an awful place!” Steve Mullis insists. He traversed Panama a second time in 1976, but wisely chose not to go ashore in Cristobal again.
Denise Gillyett-Marshall’s cabin steward was knifed there, but she adds that “he was back at work in a few days cleaning cabins.” Thank goodness! None of us could have done without our precious cabin stewards!
While most muggings occurred at night or in back alleyways, muggers weren’t deterred by busy streets or broad daylight if you were carrying something of value. No surprise that passengers were again given warnings.
“We crew always gave warnings not to go down the alleys in Cristobal and to stay in a group,” Crew member Linda Harrison insists. “But we always had muggings.”
Tim Roche and his group heeded the
warning, but on the way back to the ship they met a
fellow passenger in distress. He’d been mugged and robbed of his wallet and
camera! “Well,” says Tim philosophically, “everyone knew the
Passenger Robert Taylor also met “one very distressed female who had her handbag cut from her grasp and lost everything of value.” Robert’s motto: Never put all your eggs in one basket.” He also noticed the police all had hand grenades pinned to shirt pockets and carried machine guns!
Graham Ritchie went ashore in the afternoon during his trip in November 1974 and recalls: “Evening come on us real quick! We thought we had better get back to the ship, but in the dark streets we did get a bit lost.” He lived to tell the tale and later recalled: “At the time the locals wanted the canal back from the Americans, so we were very glad to get back to the safety of the ship! It was not a place to be left behind in, that’s for sure.”
On December 31, 1999, the Panamanians got their wish. Almost 100 years after construction began, and 86 years after SS Ancon made the first journey through the canal, the US finally relinquished control and handed over the administration for (and the profits from) the canal.
There was dancing in streets in Panama on that day. By 2014, the average toll for a ship to travel through the canal was $150,000.
The cheapest toll ever paid was in 1928, when travel writer and adventurer Richard Halliburton paid 36 cents to swim its length. It took him ten days to complete the journey and amazingly, he didn’t get gobbled up by a crocodile! (New Worlds To Conquer by Richard Halliburton, 1928)
In 2016, new locks were added to accommodate bigger ships … and not a moment too soon! Ships were getting wider, longer, higher. In 2018, the 168,028-ton vessel, Norwegian Bliss became the largest vessel to travel through the canal. At 335 metres long (half as long again as the Australis!) and 41 metres at the widest point (again, half as wide as our lady), and with a towering 20 decks, she just managed to squeeze under the Bridge of the Americas which spans the Pacific Ocean entrance … but she had to do it in the early hours of the morning – at 3.30am – when the tide was at its lowest!
The Norwegian Bliss isn’t the largest vessel afloat! There are at least 9 cruise ships currently plying the oceans that are even bigger than her!
At time of writing, the heaviest, longest, widest and highest floating apartment building (oops, sorry, I mean passenger liner) is Royal Caribbean’s 228,081 tonne Symphony of the Seas, but unless they raise the bridge (or let Symphony’s tyres down) it’s unlikely she’ll ever become a Panamax ship. Her height of 236 feet means that regardless how low the tide is, it would be impossible for her to clear the 201 ft. high bridge.
Ahhhh, Panama, what a trip you made possible for us. Thank you.
Many thanks to Wolfram Dallwitz, Sharyn Arthur, Tim Roche, Steve Mullis, Bev Almond, Leslie Allan, Costas Veloudakis, Robert Taylor, Graham Ritchie, Linda Harrison, Robert Goldberg and Denise Gillyett-Marshall for their fascinating contributions.
We arrived in Balboa (the town on the Pacific or south side of canal) late in the afternoon on November 6.
We had to anchor here because the locks don’t operate at night. We’ve been warned not to go ashore, but Andy (our waiter) took Denise into town, and as he’s crew he should know if it’s safe. Chris and I figured we’d be ok too, as long as we stayed together.
Tim Roche recalls that we were all advised not to go ashore alone and to stay in large groups. “We were given plenty of other advice before disembarking,” Tim points out, and Isabel Saville agrees: “It was drummed into our heads!”
But like Chris and I, many others including Daphne Freke and her friends didn’t heed the advice, or didn’t hear it. Perhaps we took comfort in the fact that we were young and therefore immortal. What could happen to us?
Fortunately we all lived to tell the tale. “To be honest,” Daphne said , “we didn’t know it was dangerous!”
Chris and I bravely descended the gangplank with an after-dark tour of Balboa in mind. We only reached the bottom step when deck-hand Kiriarkos came running down behind us calling “no no no you must not go, you must stay, very dangerous, very dangerous!”
Kiriarkos walked us to the end of the pier and bought us bubble gum, drinks and stale cake in plastic wrappers from a vending machine, explaining in his broken English that if we’d gone into Balboa – two females alone at night – we might never have been seen again.
Linda Pape also remembers being told she would probably not be seen again if she went ashore. Alan Morrison risked it, but was turned back by a car load of US soldiers. “I may be wrong,” he mused later, “but I feel they controlled the centre of town. It all seemed quite exciting at the time,” he laughs, adding “we were naive and bullet proof, I guess.”
18 year-old Kay McEwen and a group of friends risked a night-time shore visit. They entered a club in Balboa, but didn’t realize at first that it was a strip club . Kay remembers watching “one tame partial strip and the rest of the acts were hilarious, including a man miming at being on a typewriter to accompanying music.”
21 year-old Carol Stackhouse Morris and a crowd of friends also found themselves at a strip club. “There were lots of strippers,” she recalls, “and they did a routine where they started off naked then put their clothes back on. It sounds odd,” she added, “but it was very artistic!”
I’d like to have seen such a quirky striptease, but Chris and I were held captive for the entire evening, sitting on the docks with our guardian angel, Kiriarkos and talking about his home in Crete and his plans to become an officer. When he had to head back to work, Rafael (the Italian drinks waiter) took his place. I was beginning to suspect the crew were taking turns to keep watch over two silly females who might be inclined to wander away and find themselves alone and friendless in dangerous Balboa … and perhaps live out the rest of their lives as white slaves!
Denise Gillyett-Marshall was warned that single women in Balboa were being taken as white slaves. We laughed it off at the time, but crew member Costas Veloudakis confirmed it years later in facebook: “All women slaves were housed in a compound at the outskirts of the town and men had to pay an entrance fee. Then they would choose who they wanted.”
When Denise and our waiter Andy hadn’t arrived back by 3am, we could only hope they were safe and headed off to catch some shut-eye. Our cabin steward, Dalos, woke us four hours later so we could join everyone on deck and view the exciting process of traversing the canal. Thankfully we found Denise curled up in her bunk, so left her to sleep off her late night.
Chris and I scrambled (bleary-eyed) up on deck to watch what – forgive me – we found to be a tedious journey through the first two locks. We didn’t have a passion for impressive engineering feats, nor did we find the jungle scenery particularly exciting. (Seen one jungle, seen ’em all, haha.) Besides, it was overwhelmingly hot and steamy, so after breakfast we headed back to bed and slept until early afternoon.
At the time, I was blissfully ignorant of how steeped in history the Canal was. Perhaps if I’d known, I might have shown more interest. For a start, I had no idea that the first European to discover this short-cut to the new world was Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa in 1513.
Approaching from the Atlantic and unaware that they had stepped ashore on a narrow isthmus and not part of a great land mass, Balboa and his men began fighting their way through dense and dangerous jungle.
Author Josie Dew gives us some idea of what they must have faced in her wonderful book, Saddled At Sea:
“thickly knotted mangrove swamps and hills and mountains carpeted in dense tropical jungle and astonishingly noisy with baboons and thousands of insects and colourful birds, ….giant white and electric yellow flowers blooming as big as dinner plates on the tops of some of the weirdly primeval-looking trees.” (Sphere Books, 2006)
Josie wondered how long she might survive if she was dumped in this jungle. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Balboa and a few of his men paused to climb a mountain (a Peak in a region called Darien) so they could gauge how much more sweat and struggle lay ahead for them.
Imagine their astonishment when — fully expecting to see miles upon miles of more jungle ahead — what they saw was a mighty ocean stretched out before them!
So surprising was this sight that today, when verifiable visions of other-wordly realms are glimpsed by people on their deathbeds, they have become known as Peak in Darien Experiences – a phrase made famous from a poem by 19th century poet, John Keats.
However, Keats mistakenly credited
Cortez with this first sighting …
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Perhaps we can forgive the illustrious poet for getting his wires crossed three centuries later – there was no google in those days! Cortez didn’t arrived to conquer Mexico for a further six years (1519), and it’s doubtful he even stepped foot on Panama.
Whoever saw it first, and whatever they chose to call it, it’s difficult to believe that anyone in the 16th century could imagine what that narrow isthmus could eventually become. One did, however. An engineer in Balboa’s company recognized the immense value of linking the two oceans, and Balboa passed his suggestion on to King Ferdinand of Spain.
Not surprisingly, nothing was attempted for over 300 years. And when it was eventually commenced, it was a total disaster!
We’ll explore what happened next when I post Panama part 2, and also learn what other Chandris passengers did ashore … and what they thought when encountering guns, drugs, knives, muggings, and even a few grenades and machine guns! What fun!
In my previous blog, our group had hired a mini moke, marveled at two spectacular dives at La Quebreda, then voted to leave the hustle, bustle and soaring heat of Acapulco township and head for the cool shade of the surrounding hills and forests.
Steve Mullis and a group of friends also hired a mini-moke in 1976 and headed for the hills, but first …
“…we employed a guy at a service station to be our guide. We also visited a local market to buy some essential goodies, then we did a quick tour of the rich lister’s places in Acapulco including John Wayne’s house.”
John Wayne wasn’t the only Hollywood celebrity to kick up his heels in Acapulco. Aussie bad-boy actor Errol Flynn first sailed into the sleepy fishing village on one of his infamous party boats in the 1930’s. He must have spread the word, because by the 60’s it had become “the place to be seen”, especially after Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack made it one of their glitzy haunts.
Sinatra’s clan were regulars at hotels like Los Flamingos (photo above), owned by a posse that included the previously-mentioned John Wayne and Johnny (Tarzan) Weissmuller. Lana Turner also had a place overlooking the ocean.
It was also where Elizabeth Taylor married Mike Todd – the third of her eight weddings – in 1957. John and Jacqueline Kennedy had headed to Acapulco for their honeymoon in 1953, and their visit was not forgotten. As our launch motored its way toward shore in 1969, we passed a sleek yacht called ‘Presidente Kennedy’.
In1976, billionaire Howard Hughes would spend his last days at the Acapulco Princess hotel.
We knew nothing – and probably cared less – about these celebrity visits as we took off with a squeal and a lurch and headed up the hill. I crossed my fingers that Paul (a regular visitor to Acapulco as he was employed by Chandris to play piano in the Smoking Room) knew what he was doing as we whizzed around corners and along back streets that were barely wide enough for 2-way traffic.
We overtook vehicles on the
wrong side of the road, hardly making it back before an oncoming car did the
same. Most of the time we all had our hands over our eyes.
Fortunately, Paul didn’t!
Apparently, no-one in Mexico takes driving too seriously, and Tim Roche can vouch for that … “We were driven up into the mountains by a crazy taxi driver who … neglected to tell us that brakes on cars there are optional.”
Maxwell Hines also took a taxi, but luckily found a sane driver … “we hired a splendid taxi driver for the entire day who was a mine of information and helpfulness. He got a good tip. The taxi between 5 of us in 1966 was as cheap as chips and we had him till 3am, poor bugger.
As we came to a stop and started trying to untangle ourselves, we were surrounded by the entire population of the village — about 20 smiling adults, 6 laughing children, plus a parrot and a pig.
Small huts — if you could call
them huts — lined the beach. They were really just 4 poles with a thatched roof
and a few rough amenities like a concrete stove. A few fishing boats rested at
the water’s edge and rocked lazily in the lapping waves.
It would seem that the beach Steve Mullis and his friends found was very different. He recalls … “there were lots of outlets doing cold beer and food. They called it Sunset Beach. did some horse-riding in the surf and drank ice cold Corona’s. The service was great, the beer was brilliant and we had a great day.”
At Porte Marquez, no-one spoke
English, but everyone was friendly and kept inviting us into their huts. We
were led into one and the pig followed us in, while the parrot perched on the
stove! It was just one room where the family ate, slept, cooked and lived. No
We spent a few hours playing on
the beach with the laughing dark-skinned children, lazing on the silver sand
and taking occasional dips in the welcoming ocean to cool off.
Soon we had to say
“Adios” and we clattered and bumped our way into the forest and back
Tim Roche had a similar (but obviously more hair-raising) trip back to town in his ‘taxi without brakes’. He shudders when he remembers that “it was a mystery tour coming back down as to whether we would live to tell the tale.”
Everything in our little village
had been so peaceful and calm that it was almost a surprise to find the
bustling town of Acapulco still existed.
Paul dropped the car off so we
could all do some shopping before returning to the ship. Chris, Denise and I
wandered around and bought a few souvenirs (being as we’re now such experts in
the art of bargaining!) and then found an open air cafe.
We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so we sat down and looked over the menu … but of course it was all in Spanish. The waiter came to take our orders and we asked for hamburgers. Now, one might be forgiven for thinking that the word ‘hamburger’ would be part of Acapulco’s vocabulary after being visited by so many cruise ships and hungry travellers. Alas, the waiter had no idea what we wanted.
Luckily for us, three young Mexicans (one of them blonde!) noticed our dilemma, came over to see if they could help, and ordered for us.
That hamburger was delicious.
We get very healthy meals on the ship with lots of vegetables, but a big fat greasy hamburger occasionally is something we really miss, although most exciting to have in port is a cup of tea or coffee with real milk. I didn’t think I could ever get used to evaporated milk, but I have. Still, when we get to port it’s the first thing we want.
Our knights in shining armour joined us for coffee at our table and wanted to know all about our trip and also what it was like living in Australia. Then they paid for our meals, walked us back to the launch, asked us to write down our addresses so they could write, and stayed to wave us off.
We never did hear from them again!
Later, I started wondering about
them. They were young, handsome, interesting and all three spoke perfect
English. They said they were unemployed, but they seemed to have plenty of
money. Many lonely American women spend winters in Acapulco, so perhaps we were
privileged to be bought a meal by three young men whose mere company would cost
most ladies a tidy sum!
Now, 50 years later, I realize how naive I was to think they might merely be selling their bodies to wealthy dowagers – which was shocking enough at the time!
But there was a lot more going on in Acapulco than many of us suspected!
Tim Roche and his friends had to run for their lives when four local men tried to sell them drugs … “When we refused, they chased us up the beach, vowing to kill us.”
Judith Martin remembers … “a lot passenger were conspicuous by their absence after purchasing certain items from Acapulco street traders.”
“I wonder what it was,” Judith muses, no doubt with tongue in cheek.
When Neville Fenn and his friends wandered around the streets and alley-ways late at night, they were … “warned by a security guy to head back to the market area as it would be safer.”
Allan Marshall confirms that Acapulco was indeed a very dangerous place, pointing out that … “even in the 80’s police with machine-guns kept the locals away from passengers on the beaches.”
Crew member Linda Harrison recalls …“the medical staff on board dreaded Acapulco,…too much sun, too much tequila, too many high jinx after a sedentary lifestyle. We usually had a few heart attacks amongst our older passengers.”
Perhaps it was dangerous. Spiders, rats, crazy drivers of brakeless taxis, drug sellers, even machine gun toting police. But when I think of Acapulco, I prefer to remember the breath-taking sunrise through the windows of the ship’s bridge, the launch trips between ship and shore. I see the vivid blue Pacific ocean shimmering in the Mexican sunshine, cool green hills surrounding the bustling township, laughing children at Porte Marquez
Peter Austin retains the memory of Mexican boys diving for coins thrown overboard by passengers.
Linda Harrison fondly recalls horse draw carriages along the promenade.
For crew member Tasos Koroneos , who visited the port often, it was the joy of water-skiing in Acapulco Bay and doing circles around the Australis.
And of course, none of us will ever forget those daring Elvis look-alikes doing their 135 feet dive at La Quebreda.
Today, the peaceful little village of Porte Marquez is no longer the one I visited 50 years ago. Perhaps I should have been prepared for the photos I found on a recent internet search, yet they still made me gasp in horror …
Alas, nothing remains the same, but our precious memories, photos and souvenirs are Acapulco’s special gift to each of us. WE were there WHEN …
With many thanks to Chandris facebook members Steve Mullis, Tim Roche, Maxwell Hines, Judith Martin, Neville Fenn, Allan Marshall, Peter Austin, Linda Harrison, Tasos Koroneos for their wonderful contributions.
How exciting! Captain Ikiadis invited us to the bridge at daybreak to watch our arrival in Acapulco!
We stayed up all night (in case we slept in) and arrived on the bridge at about 4.30am. Everyone was busy so we had to keep out of their way, but the Captain had arranged coffee (so strong and bitter that it was almost standing to attention in its little cup!) and a tray of salami and crackers.
Of course, the bridge is in total darkness at night and unless you know where everything is (which we didn’t) you can fumble around and trip over things, so trying to balance a coffee cup and a plate of crackers and stay out of people’s way was more than a little challenging!
We could see twinkling lights in
the distance, but the sky and sea were still pitch black and we couldn’t make
out any features or landmarks. Captain Ikiadis explained that soon we’d be
coming into a horseshoe-shaped bay.
Well, over the next hour, it all
became just too beautiful to describe. But I’ll try. Now we know why he invited
us to see it.
Imagine the hazy outline of a
row of cliffs partly encircling you, vaguely silhouetted against a dark sky,
rising from a deep-blue velvet sea and speckled all over with fairy lights.
Within minutes, the sky began to lighten. It changed from black to dark blue,
then gradually to pale orange then burnt orange.
Wherever you looked, you saw a
different colour or a different shade. Golden rays spread across sky as the sun
began to peep over the horizon. Everything glowed with muted colour.
The scene unfolding before us
was so glorious that it literally took my breath away! It was difficult to
define the horizon, because sea and sky became the same rich blue and merged
into each other.
The sun slowly rose above the
hills, drenching everything in golden light. Then it was dawn and the sky began
to grow lighter.
The fairy lights covering the
hills started blinking out, like they knew there was no point trying to compete
with nature’s technicolour display. Gulls swooped overhead to announce the
beginning of a new day.
When it was over, we almost had
to shake ourselves back to the present. It was as though Mother Nature had put
on a grand performance for our eyes only, and we were in total awe.
How fortunate we were to arrive just before daybreak! Neville Fenn recalls “sailing into Acapulco Bay about half an hour after midnight” and Tim Roche arrived at around 10pm. Both went ashore immediately and stayed there all night. Tim agreed that even from the shore, “Acapulco in the early hours of the morning was indeed a wonderful sight!”
Acapulco Bay (Baihia de
Acapulco) is not very deep so we had to anchor about a mile from shore and
passengers are taken in by launch. The launches were
positioned alongside the ship and
officers assisted us as we stepped from the ship into the craft as it bobbed
about in the waves.
Judith Martin thought it was “great fun getting on and off in the bay” and crew member Linda Harrison agreed that “the trip ashore by life boat added to the experience.”
Neville Fenn points out that he has since seen … “recent photos with the over-size cruise ships of today tied up” (close to shore) so assumes a lot of work must have been done since then.
Anxious to go ashore — even late at night — Neville Fenn and Tim Roche (on separate trips) grabbed the first available launch and headed into town.
Once ashore, Tim Roche’s remembers … “we had a huge hamburger (for $1) up in the mountains somewhere” He remembers the cafe being “a bit dodgy with chickens, etc wandering through,” but adds that … “the burger was good and we had no after effects.”
Later, Tim boarded a launch and returned to the ship in time for breakfast. “Oh how enjoyable that was,” he recalls. “Like coming home ….great feeling!“
We loved visiting our ports … but oh my, we loved being on our ship even more!
Having arrived about 6am, Chris, Denise and I boarded the launch at around 8am and by then the temperature was already hitting 80 degrees farenheit (about 27 celcius).
It took about 10 minutes to reach shore, and we were delivered right into the township. Mexicans with big droopy moustaches and wearing colourful ponchos all gathered around trying to sell us stringed puppets or sombreros.
Tim Roche recalls “several locals hanging off the dock trying to sell us things even before we could disembark.”
Of course, I had to buy a sombrero! Who didn‘t?
Acapulco was the first truly foreign port for many of us, and it totally captured our imagination.
Sharyn Arthur agrees … “It was everything. the narrow streets, the language, the buildings.”
But there was another side to Acapulco, and it was one that not all of us even noticed.
Sharyn had also arrived late at night and thought Acapulco looked … “so glamorous from the ship“, but she didn’t go ashore until after daybreak. She recalls …”others who had taken the 2am launch into town returned saying there were rats running in the streets,” adding … “I lost a bit of enthusiasm at that news.” Tim Roche also noticed the “rats running around.”
Judith Martin didn’t appreciate the “bugs falling from the trees along the waterfront after nightfall,” and although Robert Goldberg “felt perfectly safe” during daylight hours, he wasn’t impressed by the huge spiders in and about the market stalls!” According to him, they were “worse than the species back home.“
I was blissfully unaware of all that. No rats or spiders sent me scurrying off in terror, no bugs fell on my head. It was impossible, however, not to notice the poverty, which was made all the more obvious by the stretch of luxury hotels (known by the locals as Millionaire’s Paradise) straddling the bay beside the bustling Mexican township.
Judith Martin had “never seen such poverty and wealth.” She commented that …”there did not seem to be anything in the middle, (separating) beautiful hotels and shacks/hovels.“
Tim Roche recalls the mind-boggling contrast: “Standing on the main drag and in front of me were the big hotels oozing wealth …if I turned around there were people sleeping on cars and in the gutter and rats running around ! A very surreal experience!”
Neville Fenn “wandered around the streets and alleyways during his night ashore … dodging stray dogs and cats and several homeless people sleeping in the doorways.”
Perhaps I was in too much of a
hurry to see the famed cliff divers to notice rats and spiders, though. Paul
(the Australis’ piano player) took us into town where we rented a little
striped mini-moke. It only cost $16 for 24 hours and as there were 7 of us, it
worked out at just over $2 each! Wow! We had a quick look around town, then Paul
drove us out to La Quebreda.
I was really excited about
seeing the divers, and who wouldn’t after watching Elvis (well, someone who
looked a lot like him from a distance!) do his death-defying leap in living
technicolour in Fun In Acapulco? Of course, I wasn’t alone. Most boomers had
seen the movie, and The La Quebreda divers were number 1 on the “to
see” list for every visitor to Acapulco.
Neville Fenn confesses he even closed his eyes for a few seconds so he could … “picture the diver as Elvis Presley in Fun in Acapulco.”
The main viewing platform is from the cliff opposite, while the El Mirador hotel straddles both cliffs and provides a perfect view from its balcony — the very balcony Elvis wiggled his way across to the beat of a Mexican combo only a few years earlier.
Steve Mullis spent the day at the hotel, “watching the cliff divers and drinking ice cold beer.”
The dive is 135 feet from
cliff-top to water. They dive at over 50 mph into about 16 ft of water in a
narrow channel and have to time it precisely so they enter the water at just
the right moment to can catch an incoming wave, otherwise the water won’t be
Divers start training at the age
of 5. Incredibly, there has never been a professional fatality, and they’ve
been doing it since the 1930’s.
We watched two amazingly graceful dives, half an hour apart. In between the displays, young boys (mostly children) swim around to remove anything that might injure the diver. It’s a long way down, and even little scraps of paper or a leaf could cause an injury.
By this time the temperature had climbed to over 100 degrees farenheit (about 38 celcius) and we all voted to head for the cool shade of the surrounding hills and forests. So did many other Chandris fb members, and a few of them saw an even seedier side of glorious Acapulco.
Ten straight days at sea! Bliss! I wonder what’s happening in the real world. We have no idea. We used to read the news bulletin on the wall near the purser’s office every day , but now none of us care what’s happening in the world. This is our world and the rest doesn’t exist any more. Or if it does, it’s isn’t real.
As we approached Los Angeles on a misty morning at 7am we wondered if we’d made a wrong turn on the way because there were hills around and a big bridge we thought was the Golden Gate in San Francisco.
We had 5 hours to explore Los Angeles (or at least, what we thought was Los Angeles!) before joining our tour to Disneyland, so we climbed into a taxi and confidently said “to the city, please”.
It only took a few minutes to get there, and we couldn’t believe our eyes. Where were all the tall buildings, the bustling traffic? Wasn’t this supposed to be the glamorous Los Angeles, center of the movie world? It looked like a little country town!
We changed our money and had a lot of trouble trying to figure out the coins. A 10 cent piece is twice the size of a 25 cent piece! We did some shopping at a chemist (called a drug store here) and just handed the money over and said “take whatever it costs please!”
Then we decided to buy some postcards, and it was only then we discovered we weren’t even in LA at all, but in San Pedro! No, the ship didn’t get lost, this was just the port town. We knew Disneyland was 30 miles from where we docked, but hadn’t figured out that Disneyland is IN Los Angeles. And we weren’t.
We have our sea legs now, but as we wandered around San Pedro we discovered we’d lost our ground-legs after 10 straight days at sea. The footpath kept coming up to meet us every few steps and we kept tripping over our own feet. We had to keep grabbing each other by the arm or shoulder to stop from falling. Of course, that would make us all start giggling. I’m have no doubt people thought we were drunk!
At midday we boarded the bus for Disneyland, and after an hour traveling through suburban LA, we disembarked in a big car park.
But where was the fairy-tale castle we’d assumed was the entrance?
We walked through a turnstile and suddenly, there we were, in Main Street Disneyland! A street runs off it directly down to Sleeping Beauty’s castle, which is the entrance to Fantasyland.
First stop was the little cafe in the square where all the waitresses were dressed in early century clothing. Apparently it was meant to represent New Orleans.
No problem getting served, it was almost empty.
We had 10 tickets for our choice out of about 50 rides, so we looked them over as we waited for lunch, trying to decide which ones we’d take. We opted for the train ride first because it traveled all over Disneyland and would help us decide what else to see. The station was constructed to look historical, as did the train.
The trip lasted about 20 minutes and took us around the whole complex, showing us places we might have missed. After arriving back, we took a walk along Main Street and walked past a theater where Carole Lombard was appearing.
Everything there is so realistic! It was just as we’d imagined. But it’s so big that you’d need a week to see everything.
We began with Adventureland and did the Jungle Cruise. You wouldn’t know you were in an amusement park with people swarming all over it, because it really felt like you were deep in a jungle. We were in an open boat with about 20 other people, and as we cruised along, elephants trumpeted from the bank, snorting rhinos suddenly appeared, and alligators reared up out of the water beside the boat. (They warn you to keep your hands inside the boat at all times, of course!) There were giraffes, zebras, monkeys, you name it, even a few fierce-looking head hunters threatened us from the river banks!
Then we rode the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party Cups – which may not have been such a good idea after a big lunch – and did the ride down Matterhorn where we jumped into bobsleds and went screaming down and around and around the mountain, getting faster all the time.
In Fantasy Land we visited Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and Story Book Land, then traveled through It’s as Small World (and couldn’t stop singing the damn theme song for hours afterwards! Most annoying!)
Next, Tomorrowland where we rode in a rocket ship. That was an interesting experience! Each one was designed for 2 people, one sitting in front of the other and both straddling a board down the center.
Chris and Denise went together and I was in another spaceship alone. I put my bag and parcels on the floor in front of me, and as we were spinning around, all the other rocket ships were way down below. I was spinning high up above everyone, almost vertical. I couldn’t figure out why I was the only one up there and getting higher all the time.
I finally realized that my parcels were pushing me backwards and I was trying to hold onto the steering wheel from so far back that I was pulling it towards me. When you pull on it, you GO up! The girls were laughing because I was yelling “hey you down there, why am I up here? How do I get down? Come up and join me!”
Soon it was almost time to go. After 4 hours we still hadn’t used all our tickets. We bought Mickey Mouse dolls, and after we’d stuffed ourselves with chocolate fudge pie and lollipops and all sorts of sweet and sticky stuff and been whirled about and thrown upside down and spun around, we regretfully staggered to the bus and arrived back in San Pedro at about 6pm.
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.