To Up Over
There was another decision to make, and it was a much harder one. I was reluctantly letting go of the dream of having a singing career, and easing slowly into the position of a married man. Living in a bedsitter in an outer London suburb wasn’t an ideal place for a married couple to be. We were looking around for something better, and found out that our possibilities were severely limited. How would the obvious alternative of moving somewhere out of London escape us, I don’t know. As it was, instead we had begun to think about moving out of UK altogether. For a while we had toyed with the idea of going to South Africa (later, after having spent a whole day in Cape Town, we were glad we didn’t go through with it), even made some enquiries about the possibility of migrating to Iceland! We had missed the chance of going to the United States early on, but that never bothered me much.
Only two countries were really in the running, though, after a year or so. Canada was still a real possibility, and so was Australia. In the end, the place known as “down under”, but which really is the “up over”, had won!
By about the mid 1972 we had made our decision, and the only question that occupied our minds was which part of Australia we should aim for? We had eliminated Sydney and Melbourne pretty soon. It seemed to us that exchanging London, the city that could lay legitimate claims for being the most worldly-wise of the lot, for something that could at best only pretend to be world-class, could not be a good thing. We might as well go to some provincial place that has nothing to pretend. Brisbane won it on account of its semi-tropical climate, and because it is not too far from the other capitols. We had sent in the application, and it was accepted quite fast ─ the fact of my having been born in UK probably helped a bit. For a time we went quite often to the Australia House, and later to the Queensland House on Strand, so that we would be prepared well for what lied ahead. At the time of writing this, the Queensland House still stands there, even though the other states had sold their London properties. The Queensland government somehow cannot make up their minds about selling it. I don’t know what possible purpose it could serve now, when the “white Australia” policy had been buried for many years. At the time when our applications were processed it was obvious to us though that our backgrounds were well researched; we found that out from the questions the state representatives were giving us.
One decision remained yet; how would we travel to our destination? Should we go on a plane, or on a boat? Either was going to cost us 10 pounds each ─ we had qualified for the famous category known as the ten-pound-migrants. Sailing would mean that we would be on a month-long trip around half the world which, as my wife who had once worked for a travel company in London had calculated, would otherwise have cost us thousands. So by ship it was going to be!
had one more problem, though. It was a tabby tom named Taczik. I gave
him to Dáša about two years earlier and now we had no idea of what to
do with him. Taking him with us to Australia was almost impossible,
with the restrictions the customs have. He would have had to go to
quarantine at least for a year, and we couldn’t do that to him!
Mother somehow managed to get a permission to go to England several months before we were due to sail; the authorities there had let her go, as she was the old age pensioner, maybe hoping that she would not come back and relieve them of paying the pension. We had made a tentative agreement with her that she would take the cat, if we could arrange it somehow. It was not simple, the British and Czech customs were also a bit difficult, but in the end he had left in a cage from the Heathrow airport bound for Prague. Aunt Jaroslava picked him up at the airport, but had made the mistake of letting him out in her flat. The tabby tom made a beeline under the sofa, and when Mother arrived it took them a couple of hours to lure him out. Another, perhaps less stressful journey awaited him to Karlovy Vary…
An advantage of going via the sea was that we had more or less
unrestricted amount of cargo we could take; on the plane it would have
been 20 kg and the rest would have taken months to reach us in
Brisbane. We took advantage of this and seven trunks went with us, half
of them filled with books we had managed to accumulate. That trend
would continue in Australia. The day of departure had finally arrived.
A day before a van would arrive to pick up most of our language; we
were left with two trunks for the duration of the trip up over.
This was Australis in 1973, when we were on it, and it went on sailing
over the same route until 1978. That’s when the ship was sold again,
sailing for a while as SS America, but more changes of ownership and
the name were to follow ─ to SS Italis in around 1980, SS Noga in 1984.
For about ten years until 1994 she was anchored abandoned in Pireus, as
SS Alfredos. Then it was sold once more, and renamed SS American Star
it was taken in tow by a Ukrainian ship, to be delivered to Phuket in
Thailand, where it was to be rebuilt again, this time made into a
floating hotel. However, during a storm in the Atlantic Ocean it had
broken its tow, became totally uncontrollable and eventually became
wrecked at the island of Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands.
Quite naturally, there are numerous conspiracy theories circulating
even now, suggesting that the whole thing was an insurance fraud, etc.
The phases of expiry of one hell of a ship! The last picture, which
only shows a tiny part of the hull, was taken in 2013.
Canary Island was to be our first stop, but of course at the time we
had no idea that it was also going to be the last resting place for the
proud ship that was to become our mobile home for over a month. And
even if we knew, what of it? I suppose that most ships human kind had
built since the dawn of history had sooner or later ended up at the
bottom of the sea, anyway.
Altogether there were eight decks accessible to the passengers (and two
more below them only for the crew). In parts of the ship some of its
former glory was still visible, with murals on walls, particularly in
the two dining rooms, named Atlantic and Pacific. Our table was in the
latter. This is what it looked like:
St Valentine Meets Poseidon
Those two, even though they belong to entirely different cultures, came to meet each other, and also myself, on the twelfth day of our voyage. Meanwhile we had sailed out of Southampton, taken on a few more passengers at Cherbourg, and had enjoyed a one day stopping with excursion at Las Palmas on the Canary Islands. Now we have gone almost half-way towards our next stop, which was going to be Cape Town. And it was the Fourteenth of February 1973. My thirtieth birthday!
The bearded god Poseidon, or Neptune if you wish ─ though I always
prefer the Greek names of gods to the Roman ones, the former being the
older ─ performed the ceremony, which some say is about 500 years old.
Saint Valentine looked on. Technically, anybody who crosses the Equator
for the first time is eligible for participation in the hazing
ceremony, which varies from one navy to another, but apparently not too
much. The British Merchant Navy, British Royal Navy, the US Navy, Coast
Guard, and Us Marine Corps, Royal Australian Navy, Russian Navy, Dutch
Navy and a lot of other navies all hold the rituals that commemorate a
sailor's first crossing of the Equator. Poseidon of course is the
figure most prominent in these, there usually also being present a
barber with a menacing big rusty razor, who uses it to shave the
neophyte, here known as “pollywog”; others present might include a
surgeon, a judge and various other characters.
The ceremony that we had witnessed had been performed midday on the
upper deck, apparently only on the eligible members of the crew.
Otherwise, I guess, there would have been far too many participants.
Most likely well over a half of all the passengers; this would make it
impossible to organise. Throughout the day, on and off, I kept
wondering: what might be the significance of these landmark events,
Valentine’s Day, thirtieth birthdays, and crossing of the equator,
coming all on one day. Because everything in our lives must have a
meaning; sometimes it might be obvious, at other times it could be
hidden. To this day I have not yet solved this puzzle, and I’m running
out of time!
The Table mountain. It is exactly as I had imagined it, having read
about it in many travel and adventure books since I was a kid.
The Barman in Cape Town
The day was clear but windy ─ the cable car which we would have loved
to take to the top of the Table Mountain, was not operating. We
couldn’t do much but wander through the city. We walked through some
quarters where only black people lived, and from the looks we were
getting only the fact that we had so visibly been lost tourists had the
passage made safe for us. When we found ourselves in the white part of
town, we breathed with some relief. We were a bit weary and, above all,
thirsty. Right on the corner of the street there was a pub, just like
the ones we were used to in London. Even through the window we could
see that it was filled with white patrons. In we went.
As soon as I began to walk towards the counter, I felt that something was not right. A second or two before, the noise in the pub was exactly as one would expect it to be in a pub full of people, but suddenly all went quiet. I looked around, and all those people looked in our direction, but their eyes were not on me. They all, to the last man, and they were only men present, I suddenly realised, had been eying my wife, who walked behind me. Apparently, we must have broken some rule, but we were both white! I had always thought that the apartheid was about the colour of the skin, nor about blond girls…
I had decided that I would ignore it, went straight to the counter and ordered two beers. I only got a fleeting look from the barman, whose attention was fully turned to my wife. I repeated the order; this time I managed to get at least some of his attention. With a shake of his head and incredulous smile on his face, he said loudly, so that the whole pub could hear him:
“Well, this has never happened to us here!”
He looked around the pub, and must have got enough nods of heads to
finish pouring. Having grown up in the country where they practically
invented the stuff, I was not overwhelmed by the quality of the beer we
got, but the thirst made us both finish our glasses quickly. We got a
small applause, as we were leaving, but I knew that it had not belonged
to me at all. I guess that the pub, if it’s still standing, is now full
of blacks of both sexes. Nevertheless, for a few years to come, before
the apartheid gave way, the white patrons had something to talk about:
Pat, the Actress
Storm in the Indian Ocean
To me, Pat would have remained more of an enigma, had it not been for
one event that had impacted on the lives of all passengers of the proud
ship Australis, soon after we had left the Cape Town Harbour. The
Indian Ocean welcomed us with a storm! Up till now the voyage was a
peaceful one, sea was quiet all the way along the west African coast.
But it had begun to swell as soon as we had rounded the Cape of Good
Hope. On the next day the wind was so strong that it was almost
impossible to walk on the deck. At night the ship was rolling so
violently that we thought we might fall of our beds. In the morning I
got up and had begun to dress up, as it was time to go to breakfast. I
asked my wife if she was going too, though I had strong doubts about
that. She didn´t look good at all.
She just made a dismissive gesture and added that she might have
something brought in. I had to go alone. As it turned out, there
weren’t many around who would look good. The storm though had no impact
on Pat, who would have been ugly at any kind of weather, but now she
was downright thriving. She greeted me merrily at our table, where she
sat alone and where she must have felt lonely. No one else had turned
up. The table next to ours was empty, so was the one farther on. A few
people scattered here and there; in the spacious dining room they were
almost invisible. The waiters in small numbers but with enormous
difficulties had been staggering between the tables, but they had
little to carry, there was hardly anyone to wait on. Our table with two
passengers was about the one most heavily occupied.
After breakfast I went back into the cabin to check on how my wife was
doing. She was not doing well. The breakfast that the steward brought
her was there, intact. There was to be no conversation between us
either ─ all she wanted was to be left alone, to sleep. I couldn’t help
her, so I went out for a walk. Call it a walk? It hardly resembled
walking, the zigzagging movement with which I was making my slow
laborious progress through the empty corridors. I had ventured outside,
but the wind and the driving rain had made it impossible to stay there
for longer than a couple of minutes, so all I could do was wander
through the ship’s corridors. The ship acted as a large pendulum; at
one moment it carried you to the top, then the floor began to recede,
and in a few seconds you reached the bottom. It wasn’t rhythmical
though; depending on the height and strength of a wave it could be
longer or shorter, in short, it was unpredictable and extremely hard to
judge. At one point I misjudged the spot where I was going to meet with
the wall, and had hit the door with my shoulder and with such force
that would fling it open, with me having been thrown half-way into the
room. There were two people inside, a man and a woman, on two
beds. I don’t think they have even noticed my intrusion; that’s how
deeply they were buried in their own misery. I had muttered some kind
of apology, while I tried to gently close the door. However, the next
surge came with such a force that it had torn the handle out of my hand
and the door had closed with a bang like that of a canon. That must
have woken them up, but I wasn’t going to risk any further apologizing.
I kept asking myself, how did the crew cope with this? Some would be in bed too, of that I had no doubt, but what about the old sea dogs, seasoned mariners? Do they have a system that would prevent them from hitting the wall with one shoulder, then the opposite one with the other? The answer to this did not take long to come. I had just entered the central corridor, which went through the middle of ship and was well over a hundred metres long. At the other end a small figure in uniform was just visible ─ obviously one of the officers. And to my amusement, he “walked” exactly like I did, being thrown from one wall to the other. When he got nearer, and while we only just managed to avoid hitting each other, I had been able to recognize him. It was Mr Ilkadis, the ship’s captain!
At lunch the story was the same, Pat and I had kept each other company. It was a bit like the chapter about the Atlantic crossing in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, where Charles Ryder and Julia Flyte become “orphans of the storm”, with almost everyone on ship confined to their cabins. The two in the story had fallen in love. There was little danger that Pat and I would follow the suit, but for the three days or so we had enjoyed each other’s company ─ after all, we had little choice, didn’t we? Then the sea became gradually calmer, and with each new meals session we had welcomed back the poorly looking but hungry “prisoners of the Indian Ocean storm”, and the intimacy that may have had developed had been lost forever.
Towards the end of the voyage, there was the performance of a melodrama that the volunteers had been rehearsing throughout the voyage. And Pat was perfectly cast, in the role of an old woman that suited her perfectly. I kept watching her even when the focus was supposed to be on the other members of the cast. She was the only one worth watching, a real pearl, and the one true pro in the bunch of hopeless amateurs.
The Customs Officer at Sydney
We had set foot in Australia for the first time
in Perth, where we had the full day to explore. I don’t remember much
of that day, except that as soon as we left the train that took us from
the docks at Freemantle to the capitol of Western Australia, all we
heard from everywhere was squealing of tyres. The English drivers in
London were very level-headed and considerate; they would stop and give
you priority if you found yourself anywhere near the zebra crossing,
for instance. We knew instantly that we would have to make some
adjustments. But it had not turned out to be so bad, in the end. Maybe
that we just happened to be in Perth on the same day as some driving
maniacs held a meeting there.
In Melbourne, a Czech married couple boarded the ship; they overheard us talking and came to us. It turned out they were on the way out of Australia, and on their way around the world. Via America, England, to their final destination, which was South Africa! They lived in Australia for about three years, and didn’t like it much. We didn’t think that they would particularly enjoy South Africa either, but that was for them to find out. Somehow I doubt that they are in that country now, but who knows?
In Sydney we had left the ship Australis, and boarded an overnight
train to Brisbane. SS Australis continued to New Zealand and on to
America without us, but presumably with one of our trunks, which was
missing when the rest of our luggage was delivered. We had never seen
it again. For years afterward, when we couldn’t find something, we
would decide that it was in that missing trunk. That had swelled over
the years to the size of a container and, maybe, it was still there
when the ship became wrecked at Canary Islands. Perhaps it was our
trunk that had caused the disaster, who knows?
When we were leaving the ship, a cheerful custom officer asked us where we are going to live. We told him that our destination was Brisbane. He laughed at our naivety, and advised us to stay in Sydney. According to him, there was no work in Brisbane, whereas in Sydney there was plenty of it and more! Brisbane, according to him, was just a provincial town, and we would be far better off staying here. He sounded so convincing that he almost caused us to question the wisdom of our decision. Now, more than forty years later, I’m still glad that we didn’t listen to this man, who certainly meant it sincerely, and didn’t stay in Sydney, even though the overnight journey was an ordeal, mainly due to the presence of a small child in the next coupé, who never stopped crying. But he’d be approaching fifty years of age now, and would have grown out of it by now.
According to some legends we have heard about Australia, people here
would eat steaks for breakfast. We dismissed that, of course, as
rumours. What a surprise, when we came into the dining car in the
morning, and found out that steak was on the menu!