SS Ellinis and Australis

1969 - 1971

by Fred Feddes

As a child, I travelled on two Chandris Lines ships on their regular trips around the world. In 1969, when I was eleven, our family moved from the Netherlands to Australia on board rhms Ellinis. Just over two years later, we returned on ss Australis. Here are some boyish recollections.
One day in 1968, my parents told me we were going to emigrate to Australia. That night, as I lay in bed, the word 'emigration' thundered through my brain over and over again, as if by repeating the word I would grasp its enormous meaning.
In the next half-year, we prepared for the great trip. I read about Adelaide, my parents sold our house, and we had our beginner's course of English. My sister, at seven, was too young to fully understand what was happening, but I was quite aware of it. My teacher - I was in sixth grade of a protestant primary school called Immanuel - was jokingly teasing me by pointing at the globe in the classroom, and warning me that I would have to walk upside down once I had arrived in Australia. I thought and looked at the globe for a while, and answered that, if this were true, the Cross of Jesus must have stuck almost horizontally into the Earth, instead of standing upright. Which I still think is a smart reply for an eleven year old, though it wasn'twhat the teacher had expected, and it shocked him enough to stop joking.
We left the Netherlands in March, 1969. Ellinis was scheduled to stop at Rotterdam, but apparently was delayed on the other side of the Atlantic - there were rumours of the ship being damaged by a seaquake, thus needing an emergency repair at New York - and so the Rotterdam stop was skipped. We took a night ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich, and we all got seasick, or at least were queasy enough to not appreciate the sturdy English breakfast. Then we spend what seemed to be an entire day on a train to Southampton. My memories of this day are vague and blurred, but I do remember the journey was crowded, messy and tiring.
We were glad to be finally on board Ellinis. It was like an oasis. It was grander than anything I had ever seen. Up to then, all my holidays had been spend at one of my uncles' farms, helping out with the cows, the calves, and the hay. I had certainly never been in a luxury hotel, with pursers and stewards and meals with menu cards served at dinner tables in dining halls that had names. Now, I was surrounded by this unbelievable luxury for weeks on end. I loved to wander around the ship, and it was great to get to understand its labyrinthic plan. There were grand halls and rooms and bars, with soft seats and rich curtains, and decks and stairs, and lifts, and many things that I perhaps knew existed but had never seen in real live, like a cinema. Our nice and comfortable cabin, number 340 on the A-deck, had a port-hole from which I looked at the rough sea in the Bay of Biscayne, and I discovered that watching the sea helped to prevent me from getting seasick. I felt rich and wonderful every time tea was served on the sun deck. I drank pineapple juice for the first time in my life. Yet another highlight was the onboard daily news bulletin, called Seascape, being delivered early in the morning. It recorded the distance we had travelled the day before, forecasted the new day's distance, as well as the weather, and listed the events of the day. It told us whether or not to move the clock an hour, and it gave an overview of world news. What impressed me most was that this paper was actually made on the spot every day, especially for us. The best was when I was already awake, but still in bed, and the room was dark except for a narrow line of light underneath the door - and there, through this line of light, Seascape entered.
Only years later, I realized how politically incorrect these trips were. Chandris Lines itself was based in Greece, which was under a military regime at the time. The first stop after Southampton was Las Palmas, on the Canary Islands, which were part of dictator Franco's Spain. And after that, we stopped at Cape Town in the country of Apartheid. How wrong could one be!
We experienced mere glimpses of these political realities. On our stop in Las Palmas, my family did not wander far from the harbour. My parents generally weren't the adventurous type, and they had little experience with foreign countries, languages, or food, so they preferred to limit the risks of the unknown. We took a short walk from the pier into just the first couple of streets of the town, never losing sight of the white crosses on the blue funnels for more that a few minutes. It was sunny and warm, and we saw grim looking soldiers with machine guns standing on street corners. That was all, just a few soldiers with machine guns, but it impressed and shocked us so much that for many years, this grimness was our dominant memory of the Canaries, and of Spain.
In Cape Town, we went on an organized tour. So, whatever visual evidence of Apartheid we encountered, we were on the safe side of the bus windows. Of the Fremantle stop - on 7 April, 1969, my first footsteps on Australian soil - I remember that the town looked battered, with broken trees lining the harbour, due to a fierce storm the night before.
One of the exiting stories that my parents and other adults talked about during the trip, was the story of the German stowaway. He was finally exposed just before Fremantle, but thinking back right to the start of the journey, my parents remembered him from the Harwich-Southampton train. He understood and spoke English quite well, and he went around the train translating messages and helping to find answers to passenger's questions. On board, he was friendly and helpful too. When a German woman fell ill, he volunteered to accompany her to a hospital in either Las Palmas or Cape Town. His strategy of public exposure would have remained successful, if he hadn't stretched his luck just a bit too far. A lady got robbed of her purse in Cape Town, and some other passengers raised money to help her out. The German stowaway then told that he too had been robbed, and he started raising money on his own behalf. This aroused the ship officials' suspicion. He was arrested on the Indian Ocean and he spend the last days of the trip in the onboard cell. When we approached Fremantle, a small coast guard vessel came alongside Ellinis to pick him up.
We disembarked at Melbourne. After the comfort of Ellinis, we were once again - as on the way to Southampton - surrendered to the chaotic logistics of mass migration. It took ages to get us from the harbour to Flinders Street Station, where we stayed for hours without anyone knowing what was to happen next. There must have been hundreds of us. We crowded the restaurant until late that night, when we were finally put on a creaky old train to Adelaide. There were no beds on the train, of course. Adults and children alike had to try to sleep sitting up. I remember my father slept on the floor. When I went to the toilet during the night, I found one of the outside doors open. We were totally fatigued and miserable that night, yet cheerfully greeted the morning when we made a stop at an unknown empty platform that turned out to be Murray Bridge. In Adelaide, a bus took us to Glenelg Hostel, where we stayed for a week before moving into a house that our fellow church members, all of Dutch descend, had found for us. After the onboard pineapple juice, the hostel restaurant taught me another new taste: tapioca pudding. At the far corner of the hostel site, there was a playground with a swing that I sat on for what seemed to be hours and hours and hours while the sun was setting, with no one else in sight.
In the late 1960's, emigration from Europe to Australia was no longer a one way affair. Migrants like my parents differed vastly from their poor predecessors in the early fifties, who arrived in Australia penniless and who for many years had no chance whatsoever to consider going back. I have experienced that these older generations of Dutch migrants almost cherished their image of Holland as the shabby and impoverished country it had been just after the Second World War, as a contrast to their own modest material improvement. They did not quite know what to think of people like my parents, who apparently came from a prosperous country with enough money to buy a decent house in the suburbs, and who had the luxury of being able to return to their homeland if they wished to do so.
Also, migration was extraordinarily cheap, as the Australian Government paid for most of the fare. My parents had to pay a token 100 Dutch Guilders each, and we, the children, were free. Only if you left Australia within two years, you had to pay the entire fare retrospectively. My parents intended to stay, but they also intended to use these first two years as a test period. After about six months, and for a variety of reasons, they decided they did not want to spend the rest of their lives in Australia. They also decided, for the sake of our education, that if they wanted to return, it would be best to do so as soon as possible. So, they started saving money for the return tickets, and in May 1971, just two years and a couple of weeks after arriving by Ellinis, we went back to Port Melbourne to embark on Australis.
Having to pay for the return trip themselves, my parents considered the options of sailing and flying. At this time, tickets by air and by sea were in the same price range. They chose to sail, because it would give us four weeks off, and they hadn't had a proper holiday for a long time. We were in a cheaper cabin than we had had two years before; smaller, on a lower deck, with no windows. As a contrast, the night train from Adelaide to Melbourne was far superior to the trains in 1969. All four of us had a cabin of our own, with a giant sofa that transformed into a bed, as well as a personal wash basin and toilet. During the night, even my shoes got polished!
We arrived in Central Melbourne very early on Sunday morning. This raised a moral problem, as we were not supposed to spend money on anything on Sunday. Troubled by our Calvinist conscience, we had a coffee or a soft drink, and a sandwich, in one of the few bars that were open in the still quiet city, I think somewhere on Elisabeth Street or Queen Street. Afterwards, we visited a nearby church, probably St. Paul's Cathedral.
There are funny gaps in my memory, like the trip from the city to the port, or my first sight of Australis. You would think these images were etched in my memory, but they aren't. The next I remember is simply being on board.
Many of the attractions I remembered from Ellinis were there again, in a slightly different form. Like the luxury, the idleness, the labyrinth to roam about, the generally nice weather, the friendly stewards in their dark red and black uniforms, Seascape, etcetera. I was quite fond of the library. It was a very small library, just a couple of shelves, and after a while I discovered how disappointingly narrow its collection was, but still, each book offered the promise of a world of its own. I vaguely recall taking beginner's chess lessons. I think I saw a James Bond movie on my own. There were days on end without seeing land as we crossed the Pacific and the Atlantic, alternated by visits to exciting, exotic port towns. I remember these visits were always too short, as if the ship was constantly behind schedule.
In Sydney, our family went to the top of Australia Square Tower, the city's tallest skyscraper of that moment, and looked down at Australis lying at the best position in Circular Quay below. I remember I compared the height of the building to the length of the ship, and was surprised to find that the ship won. Later that day, politics re-entered the trip when the pilot personnel refused to guide Australis out of the harbour. They did so out of solidarity with Greek trade union officials who had recently been arrested by their military regime. We stayed in Sydney harbour for a whole day, if I remember rightly. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to go off the ship, as no one knew how long or short the negotiations were going to last. I distinctly remember how we finally left the harbour and were at full sea. I stood on the hind deck and watched until Australia had disappeared from sight. I sensed the drama of the moment and I wondered whether I would ever see the continent again.
On one of the following days, I was sitting on a deck chair, with a drawing pad and pencils, making a picture of our ship equipped with its own tow boat, so it would not need to depend on pilot services anymore. At that moment the Captain walked by. He saw my drawing and asked what it was, and I explained. He smiled approvingly, or simply amused by this young boy's identification with the ship's fate, and walked on.
Of Auckland, I remember the magazine on architecture that I was allowed to buy; I still have it. In Suva, I remember us sitting next to a corner shop with ice-cream, while my father was taking a picture. Halfway on the Pacific, my parents heard the story of a passenger who had died of a heart attack, and the ship lay still for an hour at midnight to give him a seaman's burial.
In Acapulco, we made a surprisingly extensive taxi excursion. We saw slums and there's a picture of me taking a picture of Acapulco Bay, with Australis floating in the middle as the port was not deep enough for her to moor.

Above: The author overlooking Acapulco Bay with ss Australis, circa June 1971

Mexican boys my age swam around the ship and dived for coins that we threw at them, which was an amusing scene at the time, but embarrassing in retrospect. The next days, I used my drawing pad to solve yet another world problem: I designed proper apartment buildings to provide housing for Mexican slum dwellers. Then came Panama Canal. We saw dolphins and flying fish off the Cuban coast. In Florida, we took a taxi to a radio electronics shop my father wanted to visit, but alas, we were at the right address but in the wrong town, since the shop was at Miami and we were at Fort Lauderdale. Back to the ship we went.
From the North Sea, we were towed into the Nieuwe Waterweg canal to Rotterdam, looking down on a landscape that was absurdly flat, green and artificial. Then there were uncles and cousins waving at us at the passenger terminal. I sat in the back of one of their cars for two or three hours as we drove back to the north provinces. I looked out the window to spot new car models, not hearing the adults talking. It was over, the Australian part of my life. It was over, my journey around the world. I was back. We were to live in the same small town where my mother grew up almost half a century before, aptly called Buitenpost or Outer Post. I was never the kind of child that loudly told others, or asked myself, what I thought of things. I was poorly opinioned. I just took things as they came. But to be honest, I don't think I particularly liked the way things had come.
In all, my memories of the 1971 trip on Australis are not as cheerful as the ones from 1969 on board Ellinis. I don't believe the ship is to blame. It was me. The second time around, the magic of the self-contained onboard paradise wasn't as strong as it had been the first time. Also, I was two years older, and being on the verge of adolescence, I often felt awkward and lonely. Maybe I sensed that our family history had quietly made a turn from illusion to disillusion. And perhaps the fact that for the second time I was abruptly torn away from my social surroundings, started to take its toll. Migration can be a psychologically violent matter. In later years, it has taken me quite some time and trouble to reinvent the notion of continuity in my life.
All this is almost thirty years ago. During these years, I sometimes wondered if the ships still existed. For no good reason whatsoever, I presumed they did; they had appeared so massive and permanent. I only recently searched for their fate, and found that Ellinis was scrapped in Taiwan in 1987, while Australis ran aground off the Fuerteventura coast in 1994 and slowly disintegrated ever since, and is now about to totally disappear. I could have easily taken a look at the wreck, because both in 1996 and in 2001 I spend my holidays on one of the other Canary Islands. But I didn't know.
Poor ship. She had deserved better. I almost blame myself for not visiting her in time to bid her farewell.

Amsterdam, July-October, 2007

fred.feddes@planet.nl




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