SS Australis


by Chris Bird

Voyage 31 (Northbound)

It was October 1970 when I became particularly aware of the SS Australis I was in a colleague's small boat in Suva harbour and the Australis was berthed, with a large barge alongside her. The barge was being used to off load tons of debris, the result of a fire. Someone informed me that the fire had started in the galley and remarked that, "they had probably left the chip pan on!" We didn't realise, at the time, just how serious the fire had been, it was touch and go as to whether or not the order to abandon ship would be given! With the galley out of commission many of the passengers were eating in the dining rooms of several Suva hotels. On its return to Suva a dinner party was held on board, to say thank you to the people who had helped the ship's crew and passengers.

Little did I realise that I, and my wife Joan would be returning in her to the UK, the following year.

The Australis was one of the largest liners to visit the port of Suva. Other liners included the P&O ships, Oriana. Orsova, Oronsay and Iberia and Matson Lines' Mariposa and Monterey plus Sitmar's Fairsky and Fairsea. Suva was a popular port of call for many of the cruise ships as it was a duty free port. Many Australians and New Zealanders covered the cost of their holiday with what they saved on their purchases of hi-fi, outboard motors, watches etc.!

We embarked in October 1971 (Voyage 31- Northbound), apparently, northbound voyages were known in Australia as the 'dissatisfied Poms voyages'. It was an emotional farewell, for we had made many friends and it looked as if most of them had taken time off work to see us off! The ship eased itself away from the dockside to the sound of the Fiji Police Band playing the Fijian song of farewell, 'Isa Lei'. I flung my lei (a necklace of flowers) into the widening gap between the hull of the ship and the dockside. Tradition had it that if the lei floated towards the dockside I would return - it didn't and I didn't.

We were returning home after three years during which time we longed to see snow and experience four discernible seasons again. The first port of call was going to be Acapulco, 11 days away.

Joan and I had never travelled on a passenger liner before (we had flown out to Fiji from the UK) and as we both love the sea we were very excited at the prospect of spending the next four weeks afloat.

Our cabin was 1071 'B' deck. It didn't have an en suite shower so we had to make a short journey to communal facilities. It was this arrangement that led us to change cabins on the second day of our voyage. Joan left the cabin carrying her toiletries and towel and stepped into one of the line of cubicles duly showered and went to emerge from the cubicle only to encounter a male member of the crew cleaning the floor area. A tearful wife urged me to enquire whether there was a cabin with en suite facilities available. To Joan's relief there was, so we moved into a cabin on the Main deck for an additional payment of $40 (I seem to remember that it would have cost a lot more if we had booked this cabin originally).

A total of seven people had joined the ship at Suva and we were all summoned to the boat deck for a run through of the ship's safety procedures. After learning how to don a life jacket and muster at our allotted station we adjourned for lunch in the restaurant. We were to be sat together for our meals, at the same table in the restaurant, for the whole of the voyage.

I have never been good at remembering names but our party comprised a young American clergyman and his wife, two elderly ladies and a young man returning to discover his roots in Bolton. The clergyman' s favourite tipple was Ouzo of which there was a plentiful supply! Whilst his wife was always smartly dressed, the clergyman insisted on turning up for meals barefooted and dressed in a rugby football shirt and shorts. He was later to change this attire for dinner at the behest of the purser!

We quickly settled into a routine that revolved around mealtimes. I must have played a thousand games of Scrabble in the lounge with the two elderly ladies and the young man returning to Bolton. My wife Joan, being an avid reader, did not choose to join us, a wise decision. I do regret not getting involved in the life of the ship. All passengers were given the opportunity to get involved, I remember being sorely tempted to respond to the call for teachers for the ship's school - I fancied teaching Geography.

After a time, the chimes announcing the various sittings for meals became the sole calls to action for the majority of passengers. At their sound, people arose from their chairs in a trance, funnelling into the restaurant to be plied with incredible amounts of food. Later in the voyage, I was to wonder if this was a ploy to counter any prospect of a mutiny - not easy when you are bloated! The food was very good and the service exceptional, we had the services of two male stewards for the entire voyage and they were very attentive and pleasant. One of them, who's name I actually remember, was Edo. Edo was a Greek and his ambition was to marry a wealthy English lady - he was leaving the ship at Southampton.

Whilst we are on the subject of food, I must say a word or two about the amazing cocktail parties hosted by the captain. The captain on our voyage was the dapper Captain Tourvas We attended three, as during our voyage the Chandris line celebrated the help that Britain gave to Greece in their resistance to the Nazis during WWII. After shaking hands with Captain Tourvas we were greeted by the sight of a buffet that was truly a banquet. Boar's heads, mountains of roast chickens, incredible creations encased in aspic and to top it all gigantic sugar models of Tower Bridge, the Parthenon, Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

I see at Captain Tourvas refers to Voyage 31 as one of the most famous voyages because the passenger list totalled 2,200 and comprised 1,600 girls and 600 boys all aged between 18 and 25 years of age. I am afraid he is mistaken as the passengers on Voyage 31 were of all ages from babies to very senior citizens.

One day we were sat playing Scrabble, as per usual, when suddenly everybody dashed out of the lounge to the starboard rail. Naturally we followed and emerged to find our fellow passengers shouting and waving furiously at a smudge of smoke on the horizon! It was the first sign of civilisation for days. It was on this day that I saw something that was really depressing - a floating 'island' of non-biodegradable rubbish, another sign of so called civilisation.

After what seemed an eternity, we anchored off shore at Acapulco. We had decided to go on the most expensive tour ($7.00 each!). We were ferried to the shore by one of the ship's lifeboats, as the draught of the ship was too great to berth. The tour that we had chosen was by taxi and we were really looking forward to seeing Mexico. To our huge disappointment our 'top of the range' tour turned out to be a tour of the resort's skyscraper hotels, each of which was proudly described by our enthusiastic driver.

After the tour it was a toss up between a sombrero and an onyx chess set - tails! It was the chess set and it weighed a ton! You can't visit Acapulco and not see the famous divers. Therefore we found ourselves marvelling at the courage (or stupidity) of the young men who clambered up the vertical cliff face, sought a blessing at a shrine and hurled themselves off into the maelstrom below. Cheers of relief greeted the bobbing head when it appeared and its owner swam to the cliff face to start all over again. I felt a tug at my sleeve and turned to see one of the biggest smiles I shall ever see. It belonged to a small boy who was thrusting an ashtray, made out of pesos, at me. The smile was coupled with a plea to buy… I bought.

The next port of call was Balboa, surprisingly a thousand miles away (it looked much closer on the map). It seemed that one-minute we were staring at an empty horizon and the next we were surrounded by ships! We had arrived at the holding station for vessels wanting passage through the Panama Canal. We were informed that as passenger vessels receive priority we would enter the canal early the following morning. This meant that there was an opportunity to see something of Balboa but not before we were warned not to go into the town alone and to keep to the main thoroughfares! Needless to say we got lost and discovered the dubious merits of Balboa's side streets.

The passage through the Panama Canal was fascinating and we were fed a raft of statistics by a Panamanian gentleman who accompanied us to Christobal - "the world's first, the world's only and the world's biggest" peppered the commentary. Our travelling companion in the adjacent lock was the Volnay, a Scandinavian vessel, which was loaded with timber. It took eight hours to negotiate the canal and we stood watching for the whole of the time even foregoing our lunch!

Christobal came and went and we were in the Caribbean where the ship was buzzed by two jet fighters. A voice on the ship's speakers laconically assured everyone that this was quite normal and there was no call for alarm - it was just Cuba giving us the once over. I remember the sunsets - they were breathtaking. Joan and I would stand on the sun deck, just below the bridge, and gaze at the vista framed by the ships massive, twin derricks ….It's true what they say about ships, the sea and romance.

The tops of skyscrapers on the early morning horizon announced our approach to Fort Lauderdale. The ship was to sail at 5p.m. this meant there was time to do some sightseeing. We set off and walked and walked, stopping along the way at a diner for breakfast. I had always wanted to try grits - it tastes as it sounds! Yuck! We popped into a store to see television for the first time in three years (Fiji didn't have TV) and it was in colour too! (As an aside, we were two of the few who didn't witness the "one small step for man, a giant leap for mankind"). It was so flat and the roads seemed endless and still we trudged on. A car pulled up alongside and the driver asked if we were off the ship (I think the camera around the neck gave us away). When we told him that we were he asked how we were going to get back to the ship. "We'll hop on a bus" I said. "No you won't" he responded. It transpired that he was a member of the security staff at the port and he informed us that a bus was not available to get us back in time to catch Australis' sailing. My look of desperation prompted him to say, "Get in and I will take you back". If he had not spotted us we would have missed the boat!

So, thanks to our security rescue it was, 'All aboard for the UK'!

Another great ocean beckoned, the Atlantic. As the number of degrees latitude increased the degrees centigrade decreased and we were cold for the first time in three years. The novelty soon wore off. To make matters worse the ship's heating system broke down and there were just two public rooms that had some sort of heat. Consequently they were a little crowded for a couple of days! The fault was located and repaired - bliss!

After three years away from home we watched the lights of England's south coast slide by and we began the interminable entry to the Port of Rotterdam, one of the largest ports in the world. We berthed just when all of the shops were closing so we were restricted to noses- pressed-to-the-windows shopping, frustrating but light on the purse! However, I did manage to purchase a magnificent duffle coat, I was experiencing the longed for snow and ice!

Our next and final port was Southampton. After four weeks of sailing on the proverbial millpond the elements piled all of the foul weather that we could have experienced on a four-week voyage, into a few hours in the English Channel. How my heart went out to those who were unfortunate to suffer from mal de mer - I had never seen green people before. To the sound of wretching on long since empty stomachs the SS Australis sailed into Southampton. We were home.

There was an announcement:: "Please avoid touching metal parts of the ship on the outside decks", the temperature was so low that touching metal, exposed to the elements, could mean that you would become attached to the ship, literally! Peering down at the assembled throng on the dockside, we could see that several members of our families had come to greet us. However, before that we had to file through customs where my camera was impounded and I was fined for smuggling! But that's another story.

It's sad, strange and at the same time eerie, seeing her beached and rusting away. To think that we lived for four weeks in that - I was going to say wreck but, as far as I'm concerned, she can never be called a wreck, for even in death she stands proud, resisting the sea she plied so well for so long

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