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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!

Map of the world as seen from Up Over

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!


We 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.


    The ship we went on was named Australis. It had a rich history. Built in Newport and named SS America by Eleonor Rooswelt in 1939, it measured 220.40 x 28.40 metres, and had cost 17.5 million US dollars, which was a lot at the time. It was meant to be a cruiser, taking about a thousand cashed-up Americans through the Caribbean, most of them first class. When America joined the war in 1942, it was renamed USS Westpoint, and was transporting the troops over the Atlantic. After the war it returned to its old name and duties, until 1964, when it had begun to age a bit. The American owners therefore sold it to the Greek company Chandris Lines, who refurbished it, doubling the number of cabins and passengers it could carry in more cabins than before. One-class liner Australis then sailed around the world, making four journeys a year, taking the less wealthy customers around the world, and the 10 pound migrants from UK to Australia.

SS AUstralis

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 wreck of Australis near thew Canary Islands

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.

    At around noon on 2nd February 1973 we had arrived by train to Southampton, where Australis was moored. We were told that we were going to have a cabin for ourselves, which was a relief to us. We knew that in some cases even the married couples were separated, and the ten pound passengers slept in larger cabins of up to six beds. We couldn’t do much about that, but hope… A steward took us several flights of stairs down, probably somewhere near or even below the line of submersion; we never found out. But the cabin had no window, just a somewhat noisy air-conditioner; it was tiny, only about 3.2 x 2.2 metres with bunked beds, one small wash basin, a little wardrobe, and nothing else. The toilets and showers common for several cabins were in the corridor.

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 over Cape Town  

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 Barman in Cape Town

We had a day to find out how wise or unwise was our decision not to move to South Africa. We wandered through a few streets of Cape Town, eventually coming to the railway station. One could find a lot about a country from its railway stations, I said to myself. This one looked extremely, perhaps even exceedingly clean. And empty. But you could eat from that floor. We were about to leave, when the loudspeakers announced arrival of a train. We could hear it to come, then a few people, obviously passengers went by, all of them white. After such non-even we went outside. By the side of the station there was a wide, dust road, and on it a huge crowd of black people had rolled. Obviously, the few white people had travelled in the first one or two cars; the rest of the long train standing on the embankment above was filled with the black population. The apartheid rendered comprehensively in front of our eyes.

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!”
I felt Dáša’s hand on my elbow. She whispered, in Czech.
“Let’s get away from here!”
I turned towards the barman, who had already begun to fill two glasses with the amber liquid. “Perhaps we should go.”
“Well, while you’re here you might as well drink it, you look thirsty. It can’t be undone, anyway.”

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:
“You know, once there was this moron who walked in with a good looking girl in tow…”

Pat, the Actress

    Pat was an English actress who sat at the table with us. It was one of the long ones, and altogether there were ten of us, if I remember correctly. The sitters’ names and faces have hopelessly faded out of my mind over the years, except for Pat’s, whom I can recall even after more than four decades. However, I can see her now only from the profile. She was about sixty, had just decided to call an end to her acting career, and was on her way to Canberra, where her husband held some unspecified job, obviously something to do with diplomacy. I don’t remember her full name, though it would probably not be too difficult finding out, in light of what we had learnt about her later. I don’t have a single picture of her to show here other than the fantasy one I had created, so you will have to take my word for it when I tell you that she was as ugly as the nightingale. I don’t know how this phrase came about, but Pat had the kind of face that did indeed make you think of a bird, but hardly of nightingale, which may be rather ordinary looking feathered creature, but with a beautiful voice. However, Pat’s face looked more like that of a hawk, with its prominently hooked beak. Only after we had settled in our new home, bought a TV and watched at late evenings what a standard was in those early days of this media – the old movies – having seen her in a few she had parts in, we realised that she must have had a rather successful career. The secret obviously was that Pat’s ugliness gave her a special advantage over actresses not blessed with such extraordinarily graceless features; perfect for the roles such as the comic old nurse, governess, servant, chambermaid or charwoman. Add to this a pair of small prickly eyes and a voice, which was nice and pleasant, but which she could change to that of a croaking or cackling old woman, and you have a perfect material for the casting director of a 1950’s English comedy! Most had one of the above characters in them that Pat had specialised in.

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 we had spent most of the time in the botanical gardens and the zoo. A tame emu tried to eat the ring on Dáša’s finger. In the course of the day the weather had changed several times; something that Melbourne is famous for. Morning was cold, later the sun came out and it was quite hot, more clouds arrived and by the evening it almost looked like it was going to snow.

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!