SUVA, FIJI

Ocober 21, 1969

Copra!!!! I can still recall the sickly-sweet odour 50 years later. It was overpowering. It wrapped itself around us as we neared port and remained embedded in our nostrils for hours after we left Fiji.

Lynne Thirley remembers that smell. “I have never forgotten it,” she wrote.

Then there was the soggy heat! Even at 6am, the air felt thick. It was hard to breathe, and simply walking along the deck made us sweaty.

Sabel Saville describes it beautifully: “I was there March 1969! Phew, the humidity was overwhelming. Felt like trying to walk through treacle.

Graham Hellewell agrees: “in the humid summer season you could grab a handful of air and squeeze the sweat out of it…!”

We’d booked a tour to a model village and were scheduled to leave at 9, so had some breakfast and returned to deck to find it was no longer hot and dry. Now it was cold and  raining — heavy, deafening, torrential rain.

Denise, me, Judy … drenched one side!

 

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!”

He can put his grass skirt under my bed any day!

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.” 

You can see the ship looming above you wherever you are

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!

From Now Is The Hour to William Tell Overture

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.

They were still yelling, standing on the dock as the ship sailed away

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. 

Swinging Sixties travel

I was there.

It is estimated that in the late 60’s and early 70’s, around two million Australian baby boomers boarded a ship or jumped on an aeroplane and headed off to Europe.

At least one person out of every seven who lived in this country at that time found innovative ways to bare their upper arm and proudly reveal their status symbol vaccination scar.

If you were born after 1980, you might think that’s not such a big deal. Today, more than half our population of 25 million owns a passport, and jetting off to distant shores is what most people do when they need a break.

Believe me, in the 1960’s, it WAS a big deal.

If Peter Allen had written “I Still Call Australia Home” three decades earlier, it would have been “I Still Call England Home.”

 Our parents and grandparents and those before them were proud British subjects who called England home, even though few had ever been there and most never would.

Heck, most Australians had never even been outside their own state!

Those who could afford to visit ‘home’ needed to be intrepid travellers indeed. The first Qantas flight from Australia to the UK in 1935 took 12 days and included 43 stopovers.

Shortly after the end of World War 2, modern aircraft cut the journey to a mere four days with just six stopovers, only two of those requiring overnight stays.

This hippity-hop to England became known appropriately as the Kangaroo Route.

Propeller-driven and noisy, these state-of-the-art (for their time) aeroplanes had non-pressurized cabins which prevented them flying high enough to avoid inclement weather. Delays were frequent, turbulence common, and air sickness bags absolutely essential.

Of course, if you really wanted to ‘visit home’, there was always sea travel, but ships in the late 40’s and the 50’s had little in common with modern day passenger liners. Most were troop ships hastily converted to carry the first wave of migrants to Australia from war-torn Europe.

The trip between continents was long and arduous. Passenger comforts were not a priority. Food was plain and often inadequate. Triple-tiered bunks were built into every available space — including the hold — and bathrooms were communal. There was certainly no entertainment to keep passengers amused.

Faced with the choice of clinging to a paper bag for 4 days or turning green for 6 weeks, most opted for the less painful Kangaroo Route.

Then, everything changed. To understand why, we need to go back to the end of world war 2.

At that time, Australia’s population was a mere 7 million, which was a pitifully small number for such a large and isolated country. Not only did this create a critical labour shortage for emerging industries, but the threat of Japanese invasion during the war had revealed our vulnerability. We desperately needed more manpower to defend ourselves in the event of another war.

The Aussie government formulated a plan. Invite migrants from war-torn Europe and the UK to settle here, give them a choice between air or ship travel and provide them with temporary (albeit basic) accommodation on arrival. As long as they stayed for a minimum of 2 years. it would only cost them ten pounds, or the European equivalent of that amount.

Between 1945 and 1982, over 4 million people took advantage of this opportunity to start a new life.

Flushed with this scheme’s initial success, our first immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, reminded Australians that we must “populate or perish.” Families were encouraged to produce more children and Aussies performed their patriotic duty more enthusiastically than any other country, resulting in a baby boom of massive proportions. The arrival of these ‘baby boomers’ over the next two decades (1945 to 1965) increased the population by around five million.

By the early to mid 1960’s, Australia’s economy was booming. For the first time, people had money to spend.

Shipping lines began to realize that filling their ships with paying passengers for the return journey to Europe would make the migrant trade even more profitable, so they began improving on-board facilities, turning dormitories into comfortable cabins with private facilities, adding air conditioning, cinemas, swimming pools and more attractive menus.

They also offered competitive return fares, and the airlines quickly followed their example.

The shipping lines were also astute enough to recognize that their most lucrative market would be found within the 18 to 25 age group.

How right they were! The first wave of Aussie boomers were now wage-earning adults with money burning holes in their pockets.

These were the generation born to parents who had struggled through the great depression and at least one world war, if not two. They had not dared to step out of line, but it was a line their children chose to reject.

It is estimated that between 1965 and 1977, around forty percent of baby boomers born or raised in Australia set off to see the world. They absorbed whatever Europe had to offer, then returned to share that knowledge with all who cared to listen.

As a result, Australia was dragged — kicking and screaming — from an isolated colony of Mother England into a vibrant and thriving cosmopolitan nation.

The baby boomer exodus flared for one brief and shining decade, then flickered out. It had served its purpose. Flights to Europe had become faster, more comfortable and less expensive. Future generations would think nothing of travelling to Rome, London or Paris for a three week vacation.

By 1977, it was mostly all over.

There will never be another time like it.

I was there.

My intention for this blog is to include brief extracts from my book, YESTERDAY : A Baby Boomer’s Rite of Passage, in the hope that it might stimulate others’ memories of those halycon days. If you’d like to contribute some of your own recollections, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Your memories will be as exciting to me and other readers as I’m hoping mine will be to you.

Note: If you travelled on a Chandris line ship (Australis, Britanis, Ellenis, Patris) you may also consider joining the Chandris facebook page, with over 3,000 happy and nostalgic ex passengers and crew.

Across the Universe

October 14, 1969

The waiting room at Melbourne’s Station Pier was buzzing with excited passengers and tearful families when we arrived at about 5pm. Mum, Keith, Suzanne, Ray and Judy used their visitor passes immediately and climbed the gangplank, while I stood in a queue for half an hour before I was allowed to join them.

Mum and I went to find my cabin and were greeted by a note on the door: “all of us are in the fwd passenger lounge.” It was signed “the boys & girls”.

I had no idea who “the boys & girls” were. I’d only been allocated 5 passes from Chandris and I’d given them all out. I dumped my hand luggage and we negotiated the seemingly endless corridors and stairs to the lounge to find that most of the staff from my office were there.

David had ‘borrowed’ one of my passes and made multiple (and very credible) copies at work, so I had 15 people to party with!

L-R: Mum, me, and a few work colleagues

At 7pm the announcement came over the loud speaker. “Everyone going ashore must leave now.” Help! We all had hugs, said our goodbyes, and then had more hugs. Mum was crying. I had a few tears welling up too, but I had to stay strong for her.

I stood on deck and watched them walk down the gangplank.

I had never felt so alone in my life.

People down below threw streamers. Passengers leaning on the rails tried to catch them and threw streamers back. Auld Lang Syne played over the loud speaker. Everyone waved and called to each other. It was all just as I had imagined.

Except … we weren’t moving!

By 8pm, a few well-wishers began departing. Then a few more. Suzanne gave me a wave and left. Mum, Keith, Ray and Judy stayed.

By 9pm, most of the crowd had disappeared. My loyal four remained.

Not quite the way I’d dreamed it would be –
my 4 (centre group) waving at 10pm

I knew Mum wouldn’t be able to stand for much longer. Not long after 10pm, she blew me a kiss and I pretended to catch it. Ray put his arm around her shoulders as they walked to the car, turning occasionally to give me another wave.

I knew she was crying.

I was crying too. But I couldn’t let her see that.

Dear Diary, Tuesday, 14 October 1969

I’m on my way! Today is the first day on board the Australis, and I can hardly believe it’s happening!

A quick peek to starboard (or is it portside?) reveals there’s nothing but water for a long, long way. A frightening but exciting thought.

It’s now 3am and I’m sitting up in my narrow little bunk-bed.

An hour ago, I was standing alone on deck as this big beautiful ship sliced through the ocean,
taking me further and further away from everything safe and familiar, closer and closer to who knows where and what, or for how long?

Oh God!

How did it come to this?