It was a cold, rainy night in Surrey, England. I was 19 years old and bored with the humdrum of English society. All I wanted was to get away from ‘normal’ life and that night that I made up my mind that it was time for adventure. A friend and I booked one-way tickets to Australia. One week before sailing my friend met a girl and decided to stay but I had resolved to go.
In order to pay for the trip, I sold my car and the Boss shotguns I had inherited from my father. These paid for a first-class cabin – I was going out in the style to which I was accustomed, but which only left me with about £520 in reserve. I found out later that most of the passengers were immigrating and that the voyage had cost them only £5 for a one-way ticket and a new life! The next thing I knew I was standing on the deck of the SS Orsova listening to a marching band on the dock playing Waltzing Matilda. The passengers on the deck and the people on the dock waved to each other, many crying, and it occurred to me, for the first time, that most of us would not be returning to England. This was not a cruise! I had a lump in my throat and wondered what on earth I was doing ……
That night I met my cabin-mate. He was an Australian sheep shearer returning home. Sheep shearers make very good money and his had been spent on a trip to the old country. Dog tired from all the excitement, I settled down to sleep on the top bunk. It hadn’t been 20 minutes before my cabin mate got up to use the bathroom. During that first night, I lost count of how many times this bathroom visit was repeated, separated by periods of loud snoring. I did not get a wink of sleep.
The next morning, exhausted from lack of sleep, I made my way to the dining room. The ship was pitching wildly as we had encountered a storm in the Bay of Biscay. The Captain had withdrawn the stabilizers to save them from storm damage and we were hanging on to the tables while the waiters chased the crockery which was sliding all over. I was beginning to feel a little seasick but I found out that the feeling went away if I lay down on my bunk. During the next several hours the storm increased and the crew tied ropes along the passageways for the unhappy passengers to hang on to.
I decided to pick this moment to approach the Purser regarding my cabin mate. I complained and requested another, quieter cabin. He was not too pleased; he had a lot on his hands dealing with the effects of the storm and informed me that the ship was fully booked and there was not a single cabin available. That afternoon I was summoned back to his office. “We do have one cabin available,” he said. “We have had a cancellation from Bombay to Australia and Cabin A1 is now available. It will cost you £500 extra.” I was pretty sure he was thinking “That should shut this little squirt up!” Never one to back down, I told him I would take it, knowing I only had £520 to my name. I was much relieved, a day later, when he took pity on me and reduced the price to £250! The remaining £250 pretty much paid for my bar bill during the 3-week voyage.
English schoolboys are told that as long as the Barbary Macaques exist on Gibraltar, the territory will remain under British rule. In fact, in 1942 (during World War II), after the population dwindled to just seven apes, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill ordered their numbers be replenished immediately from forests in Morocco and Algeria because of this belief! I visited some historically interesting fortifications on “The Rock” and was happy to see that the Barbary apes were still there.
Stopping in Port Said before going through the Suez Canal, I was surprised that several local Egyptian vendors were allowed to sell their wares on the ship. The strangest of the articles for sale were small bottles of “Spanish Fly,” a locally made aphrodisiac. The funny thing was that these bottles were labeled “Spanish Flea!” I decided not to try this somewhat intriguing elixir. Other Egyptians offered to launder our clothes and we were entertained by The Gully Gully Man who performed magic tricks on board during our trip through the Suez Canal. There was war in Aden so the ship stopped at Djibouti to refuel and replenish supplies.
Before long, we were docking in Bombay, now called Mumbai. I had promised a friend in England I would deliver a bottle of Scotch to his father who lived in Bombay. With the bottle of Scotch in my briefcase, I hailed a taxi to take me to the address I had been given. When the taxi driver found out the purpose of my visit he nearly had a fit. Apparently, it was strictly illegal to obtain, transport or drink alcohol in India at that time. When I reached the apartment, I was told by neighbors that my friend’s father had gone to Calcutta and would not be back for weeks. That left me wondering what to do with this illegal bottle of scotch! I did not have to wonder long. The taxi driver offered, in exchange for the scotch, to drive me to all the points of interest in the city and return me to the ship at the end of the day for free.
First, he took me to his home and introduced me to his family while carefully secreting the scotch under his bed. My first impression of Bombay was the incredible number of people crowded into the city. Many people slept on the streets and those who overslept sometimes got run over by the morning traffic. I was told this happened at least 6 times each day. Our next stop was at a Hindu funeral pyre. There was a shortage of wood for pyres and the minimum necessary was used. Imprinted in my brain is the sight of the deceased’s foot sticking out of a pile of wood which looked insufficient for the job. I was happy to leave that gruesome sight. Apart from the crush of people, another traffic hazard was the large number of sacred cows wandering freely in the streets. It turned out that my day was much more interesting than that of others on board who had taken guided tours of the city.
Penang was our next port of call. There was a temple on Southwest Penang Island which was teeming with sacred snakes. I believe that today, the snakes’ venom sacs have been removed but this was not the case when I was there and we were warned not to touch any of the furniture as there could be snakes underneath – not a comfortable tour! More impressive was the array of golden Buddhas on almost every street, inside and outside. Some looked to be around 30ft high and were embellished with precious stones. The Buddhas were truly awe-inspiring.
My next memorable experience was tea on the Rose verandah of the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore where we stopped to refuel. I felt as though I was back at the height of the British Empire surrounded by luxury waited on hand and foot. Ah, the good old days!
Six scientists came aboard at Singapore en route to Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, south of Java, Indonesia. There was no harbor deep enough to accommodate the SS Orsova so the scientists were transported to the island in one of the lifeboats. This was an interesting deviation from our intended route.
Finally, we arrived in the Antipodes! I watched the last movie on board sitting behind a newly married couple who were immigrating to Australia. They were very nervous about their decision and already homesick for England, now at the other end of the earth. It was suddenly brought home to me that I was thousands of miles away from home, all alone and with about only £20 left in my pocket! As soon as we docked in Sydney I knew that I needed to get a job quickly.
Next chapter: Any Employee Caught Kangarooing On The Seat Will Be Fired! To be continued ……