Ireland (part 2)

The day before I left Ireland, Barry drove us to Newry, about 15 miles south of Banbridge and almost on the border of Ulster and Eire. I was slightly nervous about the prospect of getting so close to the border area, but Barry assured me we’d be perfectly safe.

The drama that unfolded that night, however, had nothing to do with rifle-toting soldiers!

Kay’s long-time friend Linda was in the Newry hospital awaiting the birth of twins. She wasn’t due for another month, but the doctor had ordered complete bed rest, so her husband Noel came too.

Poor Linda was under strict instructions to remain flat on her back, and of course, she was bored silly. Originally an Irish lass, she had migrated to Australia with her parents, but in early 1968 the girls boarded the Australis and headed off to visit Linda’s relatives in Banbridge. They did more than visit! They both married local boys and had been living there for almost 2 years, so Linda welcomed news from home and the chance to hear a good old Aussie accent again.

After noisy visit (with so much to catch up on, we 3 girls barely took a breath!) we left Noel at the hospital to spend some quality time with his wife (and give him the chance to actually talk to her at last), promised to return to collect him at 9pm, then headed back to Banbridge and an Irish pub called Campbell’s.

It was early evening as we entered the small crowded room, and I couldn’t believe my ears! Everyone was singing Irish songs!

Some were gathered around the bar, a few were off to one side playing darts, others were seated at tables, but all were swaying back and forth, waving their glasses in the air as they sang ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’, ‘Molly Molone’, ‘Too-ra Loo-ra Loo’.

Had I stumbled onto a movie set, or had Barry and Kay somehow contacted the entire population of Newry and arranged for them to stage a special performance just for me?  Surely this wasn’t typical!

Barry assured me that indeed it was typical of Irish pubs, so I very enthusiastically joined in. I suspect I even impressed a few locals by knowing all the words. After all, they’d been my lullabies as a babe when we’d lived with my Irish grandmother.

What a wonderful evening!

At 8.30 we reluctantly said our farewells. Little did we know that while we were there … someone stole Newry!

During the 20 minute drive back to collect Noel, Kay and I were still pumped and continued our sing-a-long, no doubt to Barry’s annoyance. We’re not the most tuneful singers, especially after a few drinks! But as we approached the outskirts of Newry, our voices fell silent. Almost without warning, we found ourselves in the midst of a wall of impenetrable fog that appeared to have swallowed up the entire town!

Barry slowed to a crawl, leaning his head out the window in a vain attempt to see the road. I wound the passenger side window down and tried to locate the gutter or alert him to any parked cars.

It was hopeless. We couldn’t even see the white line. Soon, even the front of the car disappeared! We had no idea if we were on the right or wrong side of the road, the middle of the road, or even ON the road!

Barry finally accepted defeat and let the car roll to the left until we hit the gutter. At least, we assumed it was the gutter! We might just as well have driven into a parked car or a drunk pedestrian having a brief but necessary nap on the way home! Perhaps we’d rolled into someone’s front yard or were precariously teetering on the edge of the canal!

Kay’s fearless and intrepid husband decided to make his way to the hospital on foot, leaving two very nervous females alone in the car.

Would he ever find us again?

Kay and I sat, shivered and whispered. I’m not sure why we whispered, but it seemed appropriate at the time. Who knew who or what was ‘out there’! This was the stuff of Jack the Ripper!

Occasionally we’d hear muffled voices. Once or twice, the owners of voices bumped into the car and made it shake. When that happened, we watched with alarm as disembodied hands crawled tentatively along side windows. It was like something out of a horror movie. 

Almost an hour after Barry left to walk to the hospital (would he ever find it?) we strained our ears trying to identify a distant but muffled echo.

“Ssshhh. Listen. Was that Barry’s voice?  Was that Noel calling our names?”

We opened the car doors and a blast of freezing air rushed in.

Yes! It was them. “Kay? Sandy? Can you hear us?”

“Yes” we shouted back in unison. “Here. We’re here! We’re here!”

“We hear you! Keep calling.”

“We can hear YOU. Keep walking.”

Their voices seemed to come from every direction at once, as did ours to them. Somehow, and with great difficulty, we were able to guide them to the car. Barry climbed into the driver’s seat, Noel volunteered to walk in front with his hand on the car’s bonnet and communicate with Barry through sign language.

We could see nothing more than a vague shadow of his form. Hand signals were useless.

I climbed out, holding firmly to the door, and groped for Noel’s hand. Then I reached back through the window and took Kay’s hand.

“Whatever you do,” Barry warned, “don’t let go! These fogs distort sound. If you get disoriented, you might not find each other again!”

That was hardly encouraging. I tightened my grips.

Noel edged his foot along the gutter. Barry began driving. Very, very slowly.

A few times, Noel walked into the back of a parked car. Each time, the message had to be quickly relayed from Noel to me to Kay then to Barry. He would stop and slowly reverse while Noel and I performed a little dance called The Shuffling Backsteps.

Once we reached the edge of town, the fog began to lift. Driving was still hazardous, but at least we could almost see the road again.

It was only then that Noel broke the news.  Linda had gone into labour. What a surprise, as the twins weren’t due for another month. (No doubt it was the excitement of our visit that brought it on!)

Gerard and Paul arrived safely on December 27, 1969.

Linda (left) returned to Australia with her new family and the boys grew up as ‘dinkum Aussies’. They have since made her a grandmother.

Kay (right) migrated back to Australia over a year later with Barry and their new baby daughter. Yes, my little sister became a 10-pound pom, or at least the Irish equivalent. Kay is now a GREAT grandmother.

Love the minis, girls!

Beautiful Newry …. when it emerges from its Brigadoon fog!

IRELAND (part 1)

“We can book you on the train and the ferry,” said the man behind the counter at Euston Station,”but  before we can issue a ferry ticket you’ll need a sailing ticket. You get that by writing to Heysham and applying for one.”

“What?” I barked in my grumpiest voice. “I’m leaving in 2 days, I don’t have time to write letters and wait around for replies! I want to sail on the ferry, not hover above it or swim behind it, so why the heck do I need a sailing ticket as well as a ticket to sail?”

He gave a disinterested shrug and began to walk away.

“Look sir,” I said, softening my voice in an attempt to appeal to his better nature, “I only arrived in London 3 weeks ago and it’s my first Christmas away from home. My little sister was married in Ireland a few months ago and we really want to spend Christmas together. The flights are all fully booked so this is the only way I can get there. Please, isn’t there something you can do?”

“Well…” he rubbed his chin thoughtfully, “I guess you don’t really need one for Christmas eve anyway. We only issue them to make sure the ferry doesn’t get  overbooked, but there’s no chance of that on Christmas eve! It’ll be practically empty!”

I wanted to hug him right there and then, but I’d already learnt that you don’t hug strangers, or even talk to them, in London. This wasn’t Australia and it just wasn’t done.  I flashed a big smile at him and thanked him profusely.

“Oh, and by the way,” he said as he handed me the ticket, “make sure you ask the purser for a cabin when you board. You’ll probably get it for free, being as it’s Christmas eve and they’ll all be empty.”

With Kay in 1956

Yes! I was finally going to visit my ancestral home and spend my first overseas Christmas with my darling cousin who — while she wasn’t, strictly speaking, my little sister — had lived with us as a child. We considered ourselves sisters.

The train arrived at Heysham at 11pm and I hurried on board to find the purser’s office and, as instructed, ask for a cabin.

The purser just laughed! “You’ll be lucky to find a seat, lady, let alone a cabin!”

He was right! The ferry was packed to the brim and then some.

Humbled, I made my way to the lounge to find it full of drunk Irishman, all singing, arguing, drinking and vomiting! Some were engaging in all four at the same time. People were draped over every chair in a variety of grotesque arrangements. I carefully picked my way between, over and around numerous bodies sprawled on the floor, asleep or passed out, I knew not.

As we pulled away from Heysham, the sea became choppy and the ferry began to rock violently. Bottles rolled aimlessly across the floor in every direction, as did a few of the inebriated passengers.

With all the smoke in the room and the stench of smelly feet, vomit and whiskey, I was close to passing out. I staggered into the ladies’ loo, sat on a toilet seat in a cubicle and dozed for half an hour. I awoke with such a backache that I decided the floor would be preferable, but most of that surface was already taken.

I changed out of my mini-skirt, jacket and knee-high boots and donned jeans, woolly jumper and sneakers, then went out on deck for a stretch and some fresh air. It was there I discovered my bed —  a hard wooden, slatted bench-seat. I wrapped my boots in my skirt to use as a pillow, draped my rabbit-fur coat over my upper body, tucked my jacket firmly around my feet and slept soundly … for two glorious hours.

A few passengers staggered around the deck, no doubt looking for leprechauns and perhaps even finding a few.

The wind coming off the Irish Sea felt like solid ice! We passed The Isle of Man at some ungodly hour, but I missed it. I was too busy going through the painfully slow process of freezing to death!

I awoke at around 4.30am. My back ached. My shoulders ached. Tiny icicles had formed on my eyelashes! My lips were numb and my ears frozen. I didn’t dare stand up because I could no longer feel my legs or feet, and it took half an hour to convince my fingers to bend!

Arriving in Belfast on Christmas morning

The ferry docked in Belfast at 6.30 on a cold and gloomy Christmas morning. I could vaguely make out a shadowy silhouette of two lone figures on the pier, cuddling up to each other under one overcoat. It was Kay and her husband Barry, bless them. They’d  left home at 5.30 on Christmas morning and driven 25 miles from the small town of Banbridge.

Kay & Barry on their wedding day

It was my first meeting with my new brother-in-law and I looked forward to getting to know him during the next few days. The pale sun was just beginning to peep shyly over the horizon as he drove us through Belfast and he pointed out places of interest on the way, but in the dim light all I could see were barricades, barbed wire and rifle-toting soldiers. It wasn’t the sweet Ireland I’d always imagined — thatched cottages, green fields and rosy-cheeked maidens.

Peggy & Dick

It took almost an hour to reach Banbridge, and Barry’s Aunt Peggy came out to greet us at the front gate.

“Welcome, welcome m’dear,” she said with a delightful Irish lilt, wrapping her arms around me as though I was a long lost friend. “And a Merry Christmas te ya. Now, lass,” she said as she led me inside, “I’ve a nice pot of tea ready and waiting and I’m thinking that with a name like Coghlan, yer’d haffta like ya tea, yes?

YES! I loved her immediately.

When I related the story of my trip over the most welcome cuppa I’d ever enjoyed, Peggy insisted I get myself to bed immediately and have a good sleep before lunch was served or “you’ll likely fall face-first into my peas and carrots!”

I was so relieved. I could barely keep my eyes open but hadn’t wanted to seem inhospitable. I didn’t emerge until midday after a blissful four hours.

We had Christmas lunch at the dining table in front of the TV, watching the horse-racing. On Christmas Day! I knew without doubt then that I was really in Ireland! Barry’s uncle Dick had bets on a horse in each race, so between mouthfuls of roast turkey or plum pudding he rode each one home, waving his fork in the air like a whip and yelling at them to “giddyup ya old good-fer-nuttin pony or I’ll have ya fer glue!”

With Kay (me wearing last night’s blanket)
at the Silent Valley Reservoir, County Down

Later that day, Barry drove us to the Silent Valley Reservoir in County Down. The winter sun shone valiantly in a pale blue sky and I found the Ireland I’d longed to see.

County Down

We all had dinner by the open fire on Christmas night and chatted the hours away. Dick remarked that there was no doubt I had Irish blood coursing through my veins, insisting I must have kissed the blarney stone in a past life. None of us got to bed until well after midnight.

As I drifted off to sleep, I thought about my first Christmas day far from home and how wonderful it had been. Until a few days ago, I’d expected to spend it all alone in my dreary little London flat. Instead, I’d been temporarily adopted by a delightful family and couldn’t have wished for a happier Christmas away from home.

I still had two more days to soak up the joys of Northern Ireland, but I couldn’t have begun to imagine the adventure tomorrow would bring …

Back to London

Dear Diary … It’s 12.15pm Monday and I left Holland precisely 45 minutes ago. The Dutch are nothing if not punctual. So here I am, once again, feeling very much at home on the open sea. I do feel a little sad, too, but I guess that’s life.

I changed what money I had left into English pounds before I left Holland and I now have the grand total of one pound two shillings and four-pence. I ‘ll need to spend some of that on lunch, and with 4 heavy suitcases plus hand luggage, I’ll have to take a taxi to Sue’s place from the station. I sure hope Chelsea is reasonably close to Liverpool Street station!

Thank heavens for Sue. If she hadn’t been inspired to do the Grand Trip and fly to London 2 weeks before my ship sailed, I’d be in big trouble.

The ferry is like a mini passenger liner. It has a bar, lounge, TV room, purser’s deck, 3 other decks, a shop and a dining room. The channel is very rough, but it really feels great to be back at sea, almost like being back on the old girl.

There are people from Holland, England, France, Germany, America and even one or two Aussies on board. In my purse I have money from Australia, England, Holland, the US, and a ten cent piece from Panama. Boy, do I feel international! Now I’m going to be very touristy and go up on deck and have a look at the water and think some more

I walked out onto the deck and was immediately slapped in the face by a gust of wind that threatened to haul me over the rails and blow me all the way back to Rotterdam. Oh but it felt so good. I closed my eyes and licked the salt from my lips. Heavenly. The biting wind whipped my long hair into a tangled mess. It would get no complaints from me. I loved it. l steadied myself at the railing and watched as waves slapped the side of the vessel, and as I had done so many time in the past few months, I reminded myself that it wasn’t Australian water I was looking at. These were European waves! Here I was, standing alone on a ferry on the North Sea, heading off for my next big adventure. My dream was now reality.

I leant against the rail and allowed the rhythmic rise and fall of those waves to lull me into a semi-hypnotic state. Suddenly, and without warning, my courage blew away on the next gust of North Sea wind. Tears of disappointment and fear welled up and burst through like a leaky Dutch dike. Until that moment, I hadn’t allowed myself to think too much about this next hurdle. I had just been relieved to be leaving Rotterdam.

Everything had been so wonderful on the ship. We had all existed in a bubble, a timeless fantasy world. Our every need had been met with a smile, our every whim generously catered for. Now I was facing a grim and frightening reality. I was alone and almost penniless. My one day in London on the way to Rotterdam had totally overwhelmed me. Soon I would have to face living and working in the very city that had terrified me.

At least everything would be relatively familiar. I understood the language, the money, the food and the way of life. I tried to convince myself that once I got settled and had time to look around, I’d feel more confident. After all, I’d done nothing for three  months but travel. It was time to settle.

How wonderful it would be to have my own apartment, somewhere to hang my clothes up and cook my own meals. I’d find a job and have a regular pay check to sustain me. I’d  learn how to find my way around sprawling London. I’d save my money and travel the continent in the spring.

I’d be fine.

 Yes, I was sure. I’d be just fine.

I would!

Harwich station

The Juliana docked at Harwich at 6pm. I loaded my luggage on a trolley, had my passport endorsed for a year, walked straight through customs without a problem and boarded the train for London, arriving at Liverpool Street station at 8pm. I had a one pound note and a few coins left in my pocket. I also had 4 heavy suitcases and sundry hand luggage. What fun it was lugging them up escalators one at a time, wondering if each one would still be there when I arrived at the top again. If someone wanted to steal them, they’d need muscles, and I doubted my mini-skirts and bell-bottom slacks would suit a burly, muscle-bound thief.

I hailed a taxi outside the station, gave the driver Sue’s Chelsea address, then slumped back in the seat and fixed my eyes on the meter. I was feeling sick to my stomach. What would I do if the meter clicked over to a pound?

Fifteen minutes after leaving Liverpool Street station, we stopped at a red light. By then, the meter was showing eighteen shillings and I was starting to break out in a cold sweat. Soon I’d have to shout “pull over!” But then what? I had no idea where I was. How would I get to Sue’s place from “somewhere in London”?

Would I be able to find a public phone? Where would I leave my pile of luggage while I looked for one? Did I even have enough change to use one? What could Sue do anyway? Would she have to come out in the cold and dark to find me? Perhaps she’d tell me to get a cab the rest of the way and she would pay for it when I arrived, but we were in a suburban area, so where would I find another cab if I had to let this one go?

Oh why hadn’t I saved more money? Why hadn’t I delayed my trip for a few more months. I had my return ticket, but what little extra money I’d saved had disappeared in ports along the way and during my time in Rotterdam.

Yes, I’d discovered the hard way that Dutch treats weren’t just a saying! They were for real.

Besides, why would I have needed to save more money? A friendly Dutch family had been waiting to welcome me with open arms into their cosy home. A work permit for the Netherlands was stamped in my shiny new passport, and  a job had been waiting for me in Rotterdam.

I bit down on my lower lip to stop the involuntary quiver that started when I thought about my stay there. How disappointing it had all been.

Once again, I briefly considered that perhaps it might be best if I jumped on a plane tomorrow and returned home. I had somewhere to stay tonight – if I ever got there – but how would I get through the weeks ahead? How would I find a job when I couldn’t even afford the train fares to go for interviews? How could I find a place to live when I had no money for rent until I received my first pay packet? And what was even more terrifying, I had to accomplish all this in London! Huge, frantic, immense, chaotic, overwhelmingly terrifying London! I could see the headlines now:

“VISITING AUSTRALIAN GIRL STARVES TO DEATH WHILE SLEEPING IN A SUITCASE ON A SUBURBAN LONDON STREET …. AND NO ONE NOTICED”

The traffic light turned green. The cab moved away from the intersection and  immediately turned into a side street.  And in that street, mercifully, it came to a stop.

“Here we are, luv. Tite Street Chelsea!” the driver announced.

The meter showed 18 shillings and sixpence. I could have kissed him.

I’m sure he expected me to say “keep the change” after lifting my four heavy suitcases in and out of the cab, but I bravely held out my hand for my one shilling and sixpence change. He grudgingly handed it over.

It was all the money I had in the world.

ROTTERDAM

Dear Diary, it’s 4am and I’m sitting in the Smoking Room. I’ve just come inside from walking around the deck for an hour or more. Every night for the rest of my life, before I close my eyes to sleep, I want to remember how it felt to stand alone on the deck in the darkest hours before dawn as my ship slowly nosed its way down a river towards Rotterdam.

I never want to forget leaning on the railing at the back of the ship, watching our wake, wanting to believe that it reaches all the way back to Australia like a watery umbilical cord, keeping me safe and connected.

I can feel the ship’s familiar tremble. It saddens me to think I might never again feel that gentle vibration. My hair is being whipped about by the icy wind. Tears sting my eyes. Is that because of the chilly air, or because I’m so nervous? Probably both.

I take a deep breath, trying to settle the fluttering in my chest. My stomach is turning somersaults. All is silent except for the familiar swish and splash below as we glide effortlessly through the dark water. Stars wink their encouragement and the moon’s reflection shimmers on the dark sea. From the back of the ship, I can’t separate sky from sea. I turn to look behind me and see the fuzzy lights of Rotterdam on the horizon. I think I prefer the view from the stern!

Am I ready for this? I shiver, pull my coat tighter around me, then slowly make my way to the bow to watch our progress. One of those lights belongs to the house where Peter lives. All the other lights in all the other houses are where all the other Dutch families are preparing to greet a new day. They’re unaware and unconcerned that for two people, this day will be different from any other.

I’m questioning my sanity again.

I have a sudden urge to run and hide.

Is my life about to be forever changed?

I remind myself that whatever happens next, it will be as it is meant to be.

The night before we arrived in Rotterdam, I spent an hour or more just wandering around the ship aimlessly. I missed my friends, I missed our routines, our conversations and private jokes. We’d spent a lifetime together in just a few weeks and now they were getting settled in England, without me.

The passengers I encountered now were strangers. They offered no smiles of recognition, merely glancing at me with blank expressions as they passed by. For most of them, this was their first night on board and the labyrinth of cabins, the sooty smoke pouring from the ship’s funnel, dinner gongs and other idiosyncrasies that made our ship special were still unknown to them. Would the Australis cast her spell on them, as she had for us? Perhaps not. Many were embarking on a journey to a new land and a new life. It was likely the destination was more their focus than the voyage.

When I finished saying goodbye (yet again) to every nook and cranny, I returned to my cabin, hopeful I’d sleep well and awaken refreshed. I should have been exhausted. I’d spent the day running excitedly around Piccadilly Circus and Carnaby Street, embracing the chaotic delights of London for the first time, then another 90 minutes on the boat train, listening as an elderly gentleman seated opposite pointed out historic sites on the way. Yesterday, I’d spent the day finding my sea legs in Southampton, then sleeping on two lounge chairs pushed together at a Chelsea apartment. The night before that, I’d sat up most of the night in the Smoking Room with my friends, reminiscing, promising, planning, all of us reluctant to waste our last few hours together in sleep.

Even so, sleep eluded me. I tossed and turned, then tossed some more. My eyes refused to close, staring through darkness at the underside of the empty upper bunk. At around 3am, I gave up, got up, wrapped my rabbit-fur coat over my pjamas, stepped into my fluffy slippers and headed up to the deck. A few early risers or nervous new passengers passed me in the corridor and I’m sure I made a comical sight.  I didn’t care. I knew it would be freezing outside. I shuffled through the doors and walked to the rail.

I could just make out a distant glow of blurred lights on the horizon. They looked to be at least an hour away. I stood shivering at the stern for a long time, questioning my sanity.

We docked at about 6.30am. As we slid closer and closer towards the wharf, I was disappointed to see that the eye-level balcony was totally devoid of humanity. I cheered a little when I noticed a few people gathered on the dock below. I leant over the rail and studied them carefully. Then one caught a rope and a second ran to help. They were merely dock workers.

Where was Peter? He had assured me he’d be there as we docked. “Believe me,” he had written 2 months earlier, “I am so looking forward to November 19th, I think I better take a carton of cigarettes with me that morning because I’ll probably eat them.”

How many times had I imagined this day? I’d be standing on the deck, bathed in glorious sunshine as we sailed into Rotterdam and were greeted by a cheering crowd. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me that November was not Holland’s sunniest month, nor was I aware that daylight didn’t seem to happen in Holland at all. I had imagined how Peter would find me in the crowd as we glided in to tie up, and he’d smile and wave enthusiastically. Of course, I’d recognize him immediately too. I’d wave back excitedly, then rush down the gangplank (in a most ladylike way, of course) and throw myself into his waiting arms. We’d walk off, hand-in-hand, towards a glorious sunset. So much for dreams!

I returned to the deck after breakfast to find that daylight really did happen in Holland, after all. Not only that, the balcony was now packed with that cheering crowd I’d so often imagined. I scanned their faces. Still no Peter.  Had he changed his mind? What would I do if he didn’t arrive?

The queuing process began. By the time the passport inspection, document checking, permit stamping and other official paperwork was completed, it was almost 10am. I was finally allowed to disembark.

I gathered up my hand luggage, then turned to say a last, sad and silent farewell. Oh how I wished I could have stayed on my beloved ship. That first step was almost agonizing, but I pulled myself together and waddled off. And yes. I do mean waddled! One hand clutched my bulging handbag, the other a heavy overnight bag. My camera bag was slung over my shoulder and a bulky travelling wardrobe draped over an arm. I made at least ten stops on the way to blow into my palms and readjust my hold on everything.

What an elegant entrance to Rotterdam! It held absolutely no resemblance to the arrival I’d experienced in my dreams!

I entered a big hall with shiny polished floors and benches stretching ahead of me. A large sign emblazoned with letters of the alphabet hung above each bench. Of course, XYZ was where I entered, C way down the furthest end where a crowd of people were waiting and waving.

My luggage became heavier with each step. The handles bit into my sweaty palms. The strap on my camera bag cut into my sun-burnt shoulder. The smooth soles of my boots kept sliding on the slippery floor. I had no doubt that at any moment I would go skidding in spectacular fashion across the hall or drop everything and collapse in an exhausted, gibbering heap in front of what seemed by now to be at least half the population of Rotterdam.

Amazingly, I made it in one piece! I was almost to the C bench when I saw someone in a dark coat waving frantically at me from behind a wire gate. A photograph came to life. Yes, I’d have known him anywhere. I walked slowly towards him and he stepped through the gate to meet me.

We stood face to face, just smiling. Then I said “hello Peter” and he said “hello, Sandy” and we smiled some more. They were not really earth-shattering words, but it was all we could manage for now. We had waited six years for this moment.

Peter collected my 4 suitcases and placed them and my hand luggage on a trolley and we pushed it to his car. On our way, we passed a cafe with floor-to-ceiling windows. Andy and a group of other waiters from our dining room rushed to the window and began knocking on it, waving and beckoning me to come in.

I hadn’t been able to find Andy, Marci, Ianis or Victor the previous night and was sad that I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye. How I would have loved to run over and hug them all, but I noticed Peter’s frown. While I saw a group of sweet people who had shared my journey and became my friends, Peter saw a rabble of amorous Greek waiters and – I later learnt – had formed a few ungracious assumptions.

I waved, beamed an apologetic smile at them and shook my head. I was no longer a fun-loving passenger on my glorious Australis. The voyage was over. My new life was about to begin.   

But oh, please, couldn’t I just go around one more time before I have to face life in cold grey Rotterdam?

SOUTHAMPTON / LONDON

“Land, land! I can see England!” Denise said excitedly as she ran into the Soho cabin. We’d joined the boys for a drink before dinner, but Denise couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes, running back and forth between cabin and deck to peer excitedly into the darkening twilight .

George’s English wasn’t good enough to understand what was going on, so we explained through Tony that she was born in England but that her parents had taken her to Australia 5 years ago and she’d been homesick for England ever since. Tony translated for George, who smiled, nodded and said “aaahhhh, nay, endaxi.”

I felt very international because I then translated that for her: “Denise, George says “Aaaahh, yes, ok.” which made everyone laugh except Denise, who was already on her way outside again.

Chris and I followed her out. All we could see was a black blob in the distance vaguely silhouetted against the night sky, but there was no doubting it. Land’s End. George came out too. He took Denise’s hands in his and they laughed and danced around, jumping up and down like a couple of hyperactive children. I wished I’d had my camera. It was so sweet, because George must have seen the coast of England many times. I think he just wanted to make it more exciting for Denise.

George, Denise, Nick, Chris, Tony

The three of us then made our way to the Smoking Room and stayed up most of the night talking ourselves silly, re-living all the good times we’d had over the past 6 weeks, wondering how we’d cope living back in the real world again. They’ve both promised to come to Rotterdam to visit me soon. I’ll miss them the most, of course. We did everything and went everywhere together, we “girls who never sleep” as Captain Ikiadis had dubbed us.

They left the ship early next morning a to face queues for customs and passport stamps and work permits. Goodness knows when we’ll see each other again, but I hope it’s soon. I didn’t have too much time to feel sad though, because Sue, my friend from back home, arrived soon afterwards. She’d been in London for 3 months and took two days off work to collect me and provide my first sight of London, which would include an overnight stay at her flat in Chelsea. 

We wandered (and I stumbled with sea-legs) around Southampton for a while and checked on times for the boat train. There was one due at 8.30pm, so after lunch in town (burger and coffee with real milk, of course!) we returned to the ship and I gave her a guided tour, then took her to the dining room for dinner on the ship. There were very few passengers on board so waiters didn’t care where we sat or who they served. Then we boarded the train and arrived at Victoria station, London at 10pm.

 I thought I was finally in London. And I was! But from the platform at Victoria station we had to go down an escalator and take another train to Charing Cross, station, then we changed to another train for Chelsea station, and after an hour of travelling, we were STILL in the centre of London and I hadn’t even poked my head above ground yet!

I quickly learnt the first lesson in using the London underground: you must, must, MUST stay on the right side of the escalator, because the moment you put your heavy bag down beside you, even at 11pm, people will be alerted in their homes and restaurants and shops and they will come from all over London for the sole purpose of running up the left side and kicking your bag or falling over it and yelling at you for putting it there!

You must must MUST stay on the right side!

We arrived at Sue’s place at about 11.30pm. She shares a bed-sit in Chelsea, just off King’s Road, and after sitting up most of the previous night, I slept very soundly on two lounge-chairs pushed together, even though they did initially feel like they were swaying back and forth on the waves

We headed off at about 8 next morning and made our way into town, wherever that is. In London, it’s everywhere! You can walk along a quiet tree-lined street on a cold foggy morning (which we did) and enjoy total silence, but then you turn a corner (which we did) and instantly you’re in a bustling, noisy city.

Sue asked me what I wanted to see before I had to return to the ship because we didn’t have much time.

I didn’t hestiate. “Carnaby Street.”

She wasn’t even sure how to get there, so she looked it up in her A-Z and we took a train to Piccadilly Circus. Wow! It was huge! Streets going off in every direction, big neon signs, cars, red double-decker buses, black cabs, theatres, people and more people and even more people!

We eventually found Carnaby Street and what a surprise it was! I was expecting a big, wide, long street full of fashionable dress shops, but it wasn’t much bigger than a laneway with lots of little shops on both sides. Windows displayed all the latest mod fashions, and even at 10am there were crowds of people there.

I heard a man advertising a concert over a microphone and looked up to see people stepping out of the way because an open-backed truck was slowly making its way down the narrow street, and there were our old BeeGees seated on the back, waving to the crowd! People were cheering and waving back and I was almost bursting with pride to know they’d become so popular since leaving Australia!

Suddenly, Sue looked at her watch and gasped. It was 12.20. I had to catch the 12.45 train from Victoria station to be back on board by 3pm or I’d miss the boat, literally.

It was a mad dash but we made it with minutes to spare. I hardly had a chance to give Sue a quick hug and thank her for a wonderful two days before jumping on the train and waving goodbye as we chugged out of the station.

I decided that London was way too big and busy, and was as much as I’d loved my quick tour, I was secretly relieved to be leaving.

I knew I’d never be able to find my way around the place even if I was there for a hundred years!

Home again. But only for one more night!

ATLANTIC

November 13, 1969: We left Miami 24 hours ago and already it’s cold and windy outside. We have a week ahead of nothing but ocean. Then it’s all over. There’ll be no more sun-baking, no more exotic ports, no more yummy bread rolls, no more getting excited when the mail is sorted and soon – worst of all – no more Australis!

We all knew it had to end eventually. We just don’t want it to.

November 14: There’s such a strange atmosphere on board. It’s like the voyage ended the day after we left Miami. Everyone seems gloomy and introspective. Hardly anyone goes to the dance or the cabaret any more. Over the past week we’ve had a Dutch Beer Garden night, a Carnaby Street concert and an English Pub show, but no-one really got too enthusiastic. They were just minor distractions.

Passengers are busy packing up and getting their warm clothes out of the hold. I’ve been doing the same, and what a job! Trying to find my suitcase to get my arrival clothes out wasn’t fun. I had to climb over mountains of luggage and when I found the right one, drag it to where I could get it open.

I packed all the souvenirs I’ve been collecting along the way – menus, Seascapes, news-sheets, matchboxes, postcards and 2 decks of playing cards. When I get settled I’ll put them into a scrap book so I never forget a single moment … as if I ever would!

I had to find space for all my dolls, too. I’ve bought one in most of the ports. There’s also a grass skirt. Why am I keeping a grass skirt? I can’t even imagine why and when I’d ever wear it again.

I also packed 8 rolls of film. I can’t wait to get them developed, but they’ll cost a fortune so I’ll probably just get one roll done a week. I didn’t label them so each will be a surprise. But how in heaven’s name do I pack my Acapulco sombrero? I may have to wear it! That should attract some attention, arriving in Rotterdam in winter wearing a rabbit-fur coat and a Mexican sombrero!! I’ll probably make the front page of the Rotterdam Daily News!

November 15: It’s getting colder every day and the sea is very rough. Not many sit out on the deck any more, or if they do it’s only the hearty ones and most stay on the promenade where they’re protected.

Not me. I love walking around the deck in a stiff salty gale. Sometimes it takes half an hour to fight my way up one side from bow to stern, then I turn a corner and literally get blown all the way back, my feet barely touching the deck!

What a joy it is to stand near the bow, clinging for dear life to the railing as we dive headlong into the churning troughs, each time emerging triumphantly and pointing skyward on the crest of the next wave, then plunging again and again as ship and ocean seem to merge into one continuous wave.

You can keep your roller-coaster rides! Even Disneyland. Give me life on the ocean any day!

I love sitting in my smoking room. It has big windows on both sides and on one side the window is full of ocean, on the other, only sky. Then the ocean levels out on both sides, then it reverses. But if I don’t see it, I don’t even feel it.

As I walk along a narrow corridor, I know I’m walking on a slant because my feet are on one side of the corridor and my head is on the other, but that feels perfectly normal, and just as normal when the slants switch!

It’s only when I’m in the bunk at night I’m aware of it. because I don’t see it! Last night while I was trying to sleep, the old girl would start rolling over and keep going, and going, while I clung to the side of my bunk. When I was convinced she couldn’t roll any further without collapsing on her side, and I knew without doubt that there was no hope for us and it was time to grab the life jackets and try to remember where our lifeboat station was, she’d stop, shudder, then start slowly rolling the other way.

When we’re dancing in the ballroom, we all find ourselves clustered on one side of the dance floor with the other half empty, then a minute or two later we all involuntarily dance back again. That feels normal too, but walking around in San Pedro after 10 days at sea didn’t feel normal at all.

Yesterday they put ropes up everywhere so we could hold onto something while moving around and we were advised not to go outside. It was really hard for the poor waiters to serve meals because the ship was lurching and rolling at the same time. Drawers of cutlery kept sliding out and crashing to the floor. They dampened all the tablecloths to keep the dishes on the table, but the food refused to co-operate and kept sliding around. My soup kept slopping out of its dish and I had a few good laughs chasing my peas around the plate.

Only about half the passengers came to dinner last night, and even some of those were looking green around the gills. A few tried to get up to leave in a hurry, but then the ship would lurch or roll suddenly and toss them back into their chairs. They’d struggle up again and weave their way through the tables with hand over mouth. Even some of the waiters looked like they wished they were anywhere but here.

When I was watching the ocean this morning, I realized there’s a difference between the Pacific and the Atlantic. They’re even different colours! The Pacific was blue and mostly calm. It might sound silly, but Pacific waves seemed more gentle and relaxing. The Atlantic is mostly grey and choppy, like it seems angry and impatient! I wonder if that’s the reason for the difference between places like California and New York.

November 16: We arrive in Southampton in two days, then it’s Rotterdam and oh how I’m going to miss my floating home. How does one adjust to normal life back on land? There’s so much I’m going to miss.

I’ll miss the pineapple juice Dalos brings to our cabin every morning. Somehow, I don’t think that will be on a Dutch breakfast table!

I’ll miss coffee and apple slices in the smoking room, stolen bread rolls with cheese at 2am on the mezzanine, being beckoned to meals by the dinner gong, hearing the xylophone and knowing there’s about to be an announcement. (“Prossokee, prossokee, parakalo”)

I think I’ll even miss evaporated milk in my tea and having my t-shirts stained with black soot from the funnel.

I know I’ll miss being rocked to sleep when I’m tired, choosing not to sleep when I’m not tired, and not being ruled by the tick-tock of anyone else’s clock. Time doesn’t seem to have any meaning here and it’s going to be so hard to adjust to routines and clock-watching.

November 17, 1969: Tomorrow, Old Blighty.

I’m so excited about seeing London, but also sad to think that the people we’ve met and have become our family, will soon be heading off in different directions. I’ll especially miss Chris and Denise, but who knows where life will lead us all.

Everyone’s exchanging addresses, passengers and crew alike, and telling each other we’ll stay in touch, but we all know they’re mostly just words and they’ll lose addresses or look at them in a month’s time and say “who the hell was she again?”

I swear the Atlantic has a gloomy influence.

Maybe we WILL meet up again one day. I’d love to think so.

Note: I confess, some of the photos above are not my own. I “borrowed” them to illustrate the text. The photos of the ballroom and smoking room are from the Chandris brochure, and a big thank you to whoever took those wonderful shots of the promenade deck and the rough Atlantic sea. They bring back so many memories for me, and – I have no doubt – also for everyone reading this.

MIAMI

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?

Miami Beach

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.

Bill, John, me, Andy, Denise, Fred

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!

Farewell Port Everglades

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!

Panama (part 2)

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.

After nine years of sweat and toil, the “official” death count was over 5,000. Most historians think it was more like 20,000.

The French 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.

Digging a deep ditch!

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.

Digging re-commenced in 1904

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).

S.S. Ancon 1914

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.

Panama City

“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…”

“That 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.”

Cristobal

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 risks!”

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.

PANAMA (part 1)

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.

The famous “Peak in Darien”

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!

Acapulco (part 2)

Anna, Denise, me, Paul, Linda, on the road, heading for the hills

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 climbed higher into the surrounding hills we could just make out our beautiful white lady anchored in the misty blue bay.
We climbed higher and noticed a small village nestled in an inlet below. The sign pointed to Porte Marquez, so we rattled and bumped along the unmade road towards it.

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 privacy here!

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 to town.

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.

Miguel, Denise, Raffy, Chris, Jose … our Mexican angels

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.