I returned from the UK to New Zealand in December 1973. It was during the early seventies oil crisis, which meant that only British aircraft and ships could refuel in Britain. I had cashed in my return fare on board SS Australis because I needed to get back sooner than the next scheduled departure of the ship. I decided to try a jet cruise which some other kiwis were going on, and it involved a flight on a stretched DC8 from Gatwick airport in London via Keflavik airport in Iceland to refuel, and then on to Boeingfield Airport in Seattle. A night's stay in the Olympic Hotel in downtown Seattle, which reminded me of something out of an old Superman comic and not surprisingly the rooms had similar décor to the Sun Deck Suites on SS Australis and the lounges were just like the ships public rooms.
Next day was on board a Greyhound bus and up north to Vancouver, Canada, to join the ship and this time it was the Ocean Monarch operated by the Shaw Savill Line. Formerly the Empress of England she was a very tidy ship of around 26,000 tons and had been changed somewhat from her previous life with extra superstructure added at the rear.
Accommodation on board was very pleasant; I was in a four berth with three English lads who were off on their big adventure down under. I made friends with one, James Houlder, who remained so for many years. I would stay with him on my return to London in 1976.
The voyage took us from Vancouver where we left at dusk to the sounds of Rod Stewarts "Sailing" and headed for Hawaii. We spent two days in Honolulu lying on Waikiki beach and doing a bit of relaxing.
I met with a passenger on the beach and because I was wearing faded denim shorts, she decided I needed something new so I was whizzed off to the main shops and was shown which shorts I was to wear and was then taken back to the beach in them. Phew!. Well the next week on board was a bit of a time I can tell you!!
From there it was on to the South West Pacific and to Atafu where we couldn't go ashore but locals came out to the ship to sell things, Apia in Western Samoa, Suva in Fiji and finally Auckland New Zealand. I had to say goodbye to Rhonda here as she was heading for Melbourne Australia.
(Picture:- official Shaw Savill postcard supplied on board during that voyage)
It was back to the grindstone for me, I was as broke as one could get and desperately needed to establish myself again so that I could travel some more.
I rejoined my former employer the NZBC (the state broadcaster) as a technician and settled back into life in New Zealand. By mid 1974 I was getting itchy feet again and decided I needed to travel so I made plans with a colleague, Alan Warner to head off on the SS Australis. Yes it just had to be her!! She was scheduled to leave Auckland on Friday 18 October and it would be Voyage 46 North going via Suva, Acapulco, Panama Canal, Port Everglades, Rotterdam and Southampton.
However this all came to a sudden end when I suffered a spontaneous collapsed lung while on duty at work and was rushed to hospital to get it fixed. I cancelled all my travel arrangements and Alan went on his own, much to his disgust. The one thing I wished Alan had done, was to take a camera with him but he didn't. However he collected some other things from the ship and still keeps them in his little black 'secrets' box, you can Click here to see his passage ticket just to prove he went. Together with a copy of the front page of the Embarkation Notice given out to passengers with their tickets and a Chandris Lines Receipt for the Voyage. After recovering from the shock of the collapsed lung and the disappointment of not travelling on my favourite ship again, I decided to consolidate my situation and save everything I could earn and perhaps travel again in a year or two. During the following year, I met with a colleague by the name of Ian Bull and we became friends and still are to this day. It was during one of many, training sessions at work where I was training Ian to operate the Master Control Room, that the topic of travel reared its head again. I still had one of the Chandris Lines Brochures of Australis and with this in hand convinced Ian that travel to Europe on anything other than this ship would be a waste of my time. Well I suppose that clinched it, because we went down to Grey Street (named after Governor Grey) hit the Chandris Lines office and made two bookings on SS Australis for Voyage 52 North in early 1976. Far Out I was going to see her again!! I was over the moon.
One of Ian's friends Vic Goodfellow, a member of the "Keep On Cabbaging" society also decided to come along too. He didn't have any reason not to and wanted to travel too. Another person we knew in Wellington, unbeknown to me at the time, had also planned to travel on SS Australis, her name was Jane Miller and she would be travelling with her friend Honor who was returning to the UK. This trip was going to be a real beauty.
It would soon be time to head north to Auckland to rendezvous with the Old Girl. I travelled with a friend and visited places on the way; Ian travelled with Vic, and Jane travelled with Honor.
The day dawned with a hangover for me and I was delivered to the ship by my mate Paul. I was soon heading off into the departure lounge and the processing and to my delight I found I had been allocated Cabin 257 on Upper Deck. After the usual formalities it was over the gangway and into The Ship. Yeah I was back on the best ship in the world and the Greek steward who greeted me was none other than the cabin steward I had in 1973. It was Dimitrios and we greeted each other like old friends. He issued instructions to another, who would take me to my cabin. It was a small inside cabin but very nice, with separate shower and toilet facilities a phone, and only a two berth. Since I was the first one there, I chose the bottom bunk and the top two drawers in the dresser. Heh heh !!! Got totally organized and unpacked, figured out that I was in the Pacific Dining room for food and locked up. I was now ready to go and explore my ship again.
First things first though, I had planned to go up on deck to say goodbye to Paul, Mary and Fiona who had come to wave good bye. They couldn't stay for the ship to sail so we yelled abuse at each other for a while and then they left me to it.
One of the first things I noticed about the ship was how much she had deteriorated externally since I last saw her. The lamps surrounding the Lido bar and pool had changed from a disc shaped lamp fitting to a long upward pointing fluorescent tube fitting. I did a quick tour of the Boat deck just to satisfy my memory and bumped into my mate Ian. The last time I was in this situation on Australis I was all alone, but this time I had friends and so I had to behave somewhat differently. Ho hum. Ians first reaction to the ship was not at all positive. "Like wow man this is a real old mother ain't it!"
He hadn't been exploring yet and so I took him on a brief tour of some of the more impressive rooms like the lounge and the smoke room. He changed his tune when he realised this was a piece of American history. We smiled cheesily at each other and headed back to the Boat deck to watch as the old girl departed.
Auckland at night as you sail into the dark, with a crew man from the gym on the sports deck listening to Radio Hauraki and even recording it for later, was nirvana!! Ian and I got lost somewhere between that night and the next morning but managed to get to our cabins. The first day was the usual confusion for most people not knowing where to go etc etc I felt at home and just got on with being on my favourite ship. Voyage 52 North would take us from Auckland to Tahiti, Acapulco, Balboa (Panama City), Crystobel, Curacao (Nederland Antilles), San Juan (Puerto Rico), Cherbourg (France) and finally Southampton.
Ian had been allocated a cabin on B deck somewhere near the stairs and elevator that went down to the C deck pool. He was in a four berth with Des, Bruce and Brian. We gradually found ourselves and "They" soon managed to find the bars and the food etc. I was allocated a late sitting place in the Pacific Dining Room at a table at the forward and starboard side of the restaurant. Most of the tables were ten seaters and each steward was looking after two tables. The coincidences that kept cropping up were uncanny. Our steward was none other than Dimitrios who I had met in 1973 and again as I boarded the ship in 76. It was great to see him again and he certainly treated us well at the table. Plenty of extra servings and the odd half of wine etc. I always remember the hors d'eurves especially the baby octopus and pickled peppers. The spinach and feta pie was another favourite of mine. I don't recall not enjoying the food but I do remember it being repetitive. Then there were the special dinners and buffets on the closed Promenade, which made a change. It was always good to get ashore and partake of something completely different like a hamburger!!
Ship life really started to take shape with the usual welcome aboard cocktail party in the Lounge and the welcome cabaret show in the ballroom. For the boys down under it was paradise, the beer was mostly fine Aussie beer and at only 22 cents a can it was hard not to have a few (it was only 20cents in '73). All the bars with the exception of the Ballroom were open from 10am. So we were never too far from a cold ale. In fact the lads discovered where the staff kept the kegs for the English crew. It was Watneys (grotneys) Red Barrel. One night while visiting a certain cabin on B deck which will remain nameless I came across a couple of likely looking lads rolling a barrel down the corridor towards said cabin. They had obviously been on the turps for a while and were laughing and shrieking about this daring deed underway. However on reaching the cabin and with no tools other than a Swiss army knife, they scratched their heads, gave it their best and in the end gave up and rolled the barrel back, still full and still laughing, to wherever it came from. No one seemed to notice its temporary absence. Where was that Master at Arms, Chris Preston?
The confectionery shop on A deck forward was a favourite of mine because it stocked all these amazing sweet things that you couldn't get at home. That's one thing about the English, they make great sweets. There was a nougat which was in a blue wrapper and the nougat itself had edible rice paper around it, can't remember the brand name but I was addicted to the stuff, along with Toblerone bars. The other shop on Main deck aft was where you could buy things like film and cameras and cassette decks along with all the other souvenir type things. I bought a Sanyo radio/cassette deck so that I could play my favourite tapes. It also had a short-wave band, which was great for tuning in to New Zealand news broadcasts. I recall sitting on the open Upper Deck aft listening to the news from Wellington while anchored in Acapulco Bay. Quite a strange feeling really being half a world away from the studio where I worked and listening to the voices of my colleagues.
The Ballroom soon became the place to hang out in the evening, get the glad rags on and see what sort of action was going down. The band was great and they knew all of the top pop songs and the oldies. They were also very adequate when it came to the shows. The lead singer was from the Philippines and he soon became known among our group as the Yellow Canary not just because he was a great singer but he also had this amazing canary yellow suit which I must say was very loud. The other notable character was an entertainer by the name of Michael and his bent was very much into the "camping it up" side of things. He and John L Sullivan created and performed in many routines and shows together.
After our visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico, Michael again entertained the passengers but not in the Ballroom. It was that time of the day when the ship was about to leave port and the decks were lined with passengers, mostly rowdy Australians who had been quaffing large quantities of local firewater at Sloppy Joes. As the ship started to move astern away from the dock Michael came prancing along the dock waving and shouting for the ship to stop. Well the response from an especially loud and homophobic Aussie group was hilarious. But not as hilarious as the impromptu performance from Michael. The place was awash with laughter and Michael missed the boat. However he was rescued by the pilots' boat and was escorted safely back on board. I was never quite sure if it was a setup, a great performance nevertheless. Sadly Michael is no longer with us, bless his cotton socks.
(photo supplied by Chris Preston, Master at Arms)
Speaking of rowdy Aussies there was a certain group who really got stuck into loud behaviour and congregated in the Cocktail bar after it had closed for the night. They seemed to have good contacts for getting bottles of Rum or they brought a case with them. This is where the "bucket brigade" was played out. A plastic bucket, a bottle of rum, ice and coke. Stir well and start passing it around. When it was empty do it again. I did participate a couple of times but I was more interested in forming completely meaningless half-hour relationships with some of the female passengers. This of course eluded the drunken hoons much to the delight of many!!
There were other things to do, to elevate the emotions and one of my favourite places was the Dolphin Bar on A Deck opposite the Cinema. Not only did they do great hotdogs and coffee but there were also Classical music sessions for the serious listener. The music was mostly popular classics and was played from a Revox reel to reel tape deck through an adequate sound system. It was a good "ear candy" break from the usual routine and the sessions were 'closed door' for the duration.. Of course the cinema was available most days with childrens films in the afternoon and adult films later. I first saw Towering Inferno on Australis. Other films that trip were Dr Zhivago, The Outfit, Eiger Sanction and The Great Waldo Pepper.
On the sports front it was either swimming or Table tennis on the closed Promenade for a good workout. Ian and I played many a game when we could get a table. It was very popular. The other exercise routine was seven times around the Boat deck for a quick mile. It's very easy to get lazy on a ship and just lie around soaking up the sun, sea air and sounds. Yeah I must admit to being very partial to lying in a deck chair on the closed Promenade drifting off to sleep. Maybe getting up for afternoon tea or coffee, and biscuits or bouillon. Gotta keep up your salt intake in the tropics. Those were the days, very fond memories still as vivid as the day I was there.
It was one endless party from NZ to UK and one of the best times I've ever had in my life. We finally arrived in Southampton after 5 and a half weeks and were probably quite relieved to be getting on with the real world again. I recall thinking at the time how much I would like to work on that ship, just so I could stay on board. It was as if she was my home and I was sad to say goodbye to her. I didn't know then I would never see her again, and to this day I feel a part of her. She will always be a special place and a Grand Old Lady who served us well. May she rest in peace.