It was in March 1976 when we set sail from Sydney, bound for Panamá, on a liner of the Chandris Line, the Australis, on one of its last voyages back to Europe. For some years, the Australis had carried immigrants from Europe to Australia, stopping in Freemantle, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, and returning to Europe via the Panamá Canal. It was to be one of its last voyages from Sydney, for in 1977 the Australian government did not renew their contract, and from henceforth, immigrants were flown from Europe.
Leaving the magnificent Sydney harbour was for me a poignant experience; I used to have an apartment on the north shore, at Kirribilli, from which I often watched ocean liners parting from Circular Quay. It was there that I nurtured the growing ambition of one day sailing to South America and that day finally came. The trip was to be encompass some of both South and Central America, eventually returning. 42 years have now passed, and I am still on my way back.
Once free of the coast, the weather hit with full force; the Tasman Sea from Sydney to Auckland can be a difficult crossing. I spent most of the next three days in my bunk, feeling distinctly queasy. In Australian slang, ‘to chunder’ = ‘to vomit’ and ‘chundrous’ = ‘a tendency to vomit’. I was sailing on a ‘Chundrous’ Line ship.
But Auckland was a welcome relief. We were met at the quay by an old business associate of A-M’s father and we spent a most interesting day with him. He was most hospitable, a complete gentleman of the school.
There were not many passengers on the boat. We had bargain-basement berths, travelling cattle-class in the bowels of the ship; A-M with three old ladies, complete with their ample supply of old-lady powder, and I, with three middle-aged drunks, who were either asleep or at the bar during the entire voyage. I never did learn their names.
Passenger lines of that era bore little resemblance to the cruise liners of today. Passenger liners carried their human cargo from A to B at minimal cost, as do low-cost airlines today. Unless, of course, if one travelled first class.
From Auckland the sailing was on smooth seas with no more storms. It took about six days from Auckland to Tahiti, some 4000 km. We were due to arrive just after dawn and the first sight of the verdant mountain of Tahiti rising from the ocean was unforgettable. We would not set sail until the early evening, so we went ashore. It was my second visit to Pape’ete (see A Tale of Two Graves).
As we walked across the quay, a couple approached us. They were considering sailing back to Europe on the Australis on a later voyage and were interested to hear of our opinion of the ship. They were Alberto (Argentino) and Polly (English). They were based in Pape’ete and Alberto worked for a French publisher. He was writing a book on Polynesian cooking, one of those large coffee-table publications with beautiful pictures, that are so popular in France. They drove us around the circumference of the island, showed us the sights, and were suburb hosts. By the time we had to return to the ship, we had already become good friends. A-M kept in touch with them and we met with them several times a couple of years later in England.
From Tahiti to Panamá is a bit over 8000 km and took about 12 days. Every day or two, the ship’s clocks were changed and before long we were waking up in the late afternoon and going to bed in the morning. Having no portholes to see daylight, we lost all sense of time.
When we were awake, whatever the time, we spent hours playing cards in the bar. I cannot remember the name of the card game, but playing it was hypnotic, amply aided by a constant supply of inexpensive beer and gin and tonics. And much time was spent in speculating on which of the passengers would be the next client of the attractive Australian hooker. She came to the bar, afternoon and evening, working her passage, in constant search of her next customer.
Outside, there were no storms to get excited about. The ocean was continued relatively calm and during the passage through the doldrums, it was more like a swimming pool. On a few occasions a pod of dolphins would play around the boat and once a glide of flying fish swam alongside for a while. Time passed very slowly.
Until one day we passed under the Bridge of the Americas and slowly berthed, under the brooding vigilance of a horde of vultures, perched on the warehouse buildings.
The air was humid and heavy and saturated. Onshore we could see a seething horde, anxiously waiting to offer transportation, accommodation, or general assistance. We felt as if we were very much heading into the unknown and the adventure was about to begin.