An Australian Interlude

Copyright G J Wright 2018

 

1965/66 SYDNEY NSW to BUNBURY WA and Back to the UK

On arrival in Sydney, I had no firm plans other than an intention to eventually land in Bunbury in Western Australia where Dick and Diana Terry had invited me to stay with them.  The was a lot of space between here and there and I concluded that the best way to see some of it would be to cross the continent by road.

I knew that there was some fifteen hundred miles of formed but unsealed road on the Eyre Highway in both South and West Australia and so I would need something durable and dust proof.  I recalled that in Kenya, where unsealed roads were the norm, Australian Holden cars were much in favour — along with Peugeot and the VW Beetle.

So, a few days after arrival I walked up the Parramatta Road which seemed to be home to the main used car yards.  I must have walked several miles and at one point I was surprised to find a bar open at 10.00am, it was hot and so I went in and ordered a pint of beer.  The barman looked at me quizzically and said; “When did you get off the boat?”  He went on to suggest that I buy a smaller sized glass or two, otherwise the beer would be warm before I drank it. When in Rome etcetera…

I had in mind a Holden of the kind that I had been accustomed to seeing in Kenya, rather high, with rounded body work, but there were none of this model to be seen on the car lots.  So, I finally settled on an automatic 1963 Holden Station Wagon that seemed to fit the bill. I telegraphed Lloyds in St Ives for the necessary funds — I think that the car cost £800[1].  To do this I looked up Harry Chamber’s brother Bob who worked at the Bank of New South Wales in the city, where I opened an account.  A few months later, when I was next at Lloyds Bank in St Ives they wanted to know where they were next likely to hear from me, reminding me that early the previous year I had had them send money to me in Durban.

Bob invited me out to his place in Balmain and one day took me for a flight in a Piper Archer up the coast north of Sydney as far as the Hawkesbury River and Barrenjoey Head. I recall that on landing I was making a cine of the approach and touchdown, when Bob managed a spectacular and embarrassing ground loop. But there was no damage and we taxied in.

The money from the UK arrived a few days later and I took delivery of the Holden.  The car was an automatic and I was warned that a flat battery would render it immobile, but it let me down only once, after I had arrived in West Australia.  At that time, petrol was half a crown a gallon and the most I ever paid was at Eucla in the middle of the Nullarbor where the price, not unsurprisingly, rose to four shillings a gallon.

Holden

Figure 6 The 1963 Holden Wagon

Possession of the car enabled me to start collecting some basic camping gear and set a departure date. I planned to head West by way of Melbourne and Adelaide. By this time, the Chakdina had sailed and so there remained only a handful of goodbyes and as I was about to leave I was ambushed by Elaine Sue Meyers on the street who produced an emotional farewell! More of her later.

In the meantime, I explored a little around Sydney, visiting the North Shore over the ‘Coat hanger’ and going West into the Blue mountains. The beaches around Sydney were all that one had heard, clean, white and wide and, of course I had to see the famous Bondi Beach.  The rugged country and jagged escarpments in the Blue Mountains was impressive, but like much of Australia left in its natural state, without much variety, dry colourless gum trees of one sort or another — and very fire prone.

I find that I remember little of the journey across Australia. I took the coast road as far as the Victoria border and then across country to Melbourne. Not strictly true, but I boast that Melbourne is the only city in the world in which I managed to get lost. The city was light on street name signs and I found it a perplexing place to navigate; curiously I had a similar experience when I passed through travelling in the other direction nine years later.

I decided to follow the Great Ocean Road west from Melbourne, free camping wherever possible.  I reached Anglesea, about 100 kilometres south west of Melbourne, just before sunset and with only enough time to find a campsite in a cutting amid some dense tea tree above the beach. I set up a canvas camp basin to the rear of the car and was preparing to take a wash when, looking up, I saw a figure against the darkening sky in the entrance gap. He didn’t move and I carefully picked up my powerful torch and turned it on him and he took to his heels.  I ran up to the gap and saw him running toward the main road. I yelled that if he didn’t stop, I’d fire — which served only to spur him on. I did in fact have my .22 Rifle, but no ammunition!

I had no idea what this visit portended, whether it was an isolated incident or what one might expect in this locality and so decided to retreat to the local Anglesea Holiday Park for the night.  The owner said that he was not surprised by my story and opined that the visitor was probably a voyeur (he used another word) expecting to find a couple — or maybe a thief.  I had arrived at the campground late, but the owner found me a site and I was able to take a hot shower before turning in. It was then that I realised that I didn’t have my watch, an Omega Constellation Chronometer which I had bought in Nairobi in 1961 and which had accrued a certain sentimental value.  I remembered removing it when I was preparing to wash down at the beach, but couldn’t remember where I’d put it. I did a quick search of the car and found it hanging from the window winder handle on the right rear door. And so to bed!

I followed the Great Ocean Road west and was rewarded by some incredible panoramas of cliffs, sea and a lot of isolation.  I left the GOR at Nelson and cut inland on the road to Wye and Mount Gambier. A few miles west of Nelson I came to the Victoria and South Australian border where there was a manned quarantine barrier with a sign indicating that all fruit must be deposited in a bin before entering SA. As it happened, I had bought a few apples not an hour before and so turned round and a short distance down the road ate them for lunch!

I approached Adelaide from the south and was intrigued to find that the suburbs all had familiar names imported from Britain, as indeed did most Australian cities.  The was even a St Ives in northwest Sydney.  I spent some hours trying to track down Roger Fry, the brother of a friend back home. I understood that he was working for a road marking firm, but the ones I found had never heard of him.  This was before the days of emails and text messaging and it soon became clear that I didn’t have the right information.  So I pushed on to Port August.

At a service station near the bridge I stopped to refuel, check oil and water, and to have two tyres changed. To my surprise, I found that not only were the owners of the garage from the UK, but from Haddenham near Ely which is only about 10 miles from St Ives.  Conversation revealed that they were distant relatives of my mother, whose mother’s family hailed from Haddenham. The husband of one of the daughters was a former squadron leader who had served as an engineer in the RAF Marine Craft Branch (ASR).

Supplied, watered and fuelled, I drove out of Port Augusta heading for the Nullarbor.  Until then I had thought that the name was Aborigine in origin until I read that it was Latin for ‘no trees’, a description that couldn’t have been more apt.  Just out of town was a notice warning that the next source of petrol was 400 kilometres away at Ceduna over a formed but unsealed road. In many parts of the next 1500 miles, to call the road ‘formed’ was generous, as it degraded into rutted sand.  However it did have the virtue of being mainly flat and straight. As I drove, I thought of the old reply to folk in England who asked which side of the road we used in Kenya; “the best side”!

Fortunately the Holden (built for Australian conditions!) proved to be fairly dustproof, but nothing could compensate for the scenery, or lack of it, as the road rolled on, limited only by the next low summit in the distance.  This was a feature of the Eyre Highway between Port August and Kalgoorlie[2], a sort of rolling aspect, drive toward a low summit 15 or 20 miles away only on arrival to be greeted by the next summit equally far away.  Occasionally a solitary black figure stood motionless beside the road, sometimes standing on one leg leaning on a bundle of straight sticks that could have served as spears. This was reminiscent of the pose adopted by members of many pastoral tribes in Kenya.

At Ceduna I fuelled up and, late in the afternoon, visited the local hotel where I found a half dozen decrepit looking characters all wearing large hats, propping up the bar and contemplating jugs of beer from which they occasionally poured a small glass.  Still, the beer was cold.  I felt that if I was to see the archetypical Aussie with corks dangling from the hat rim, it would be here, but I saw none.  I decided not to eat in Ceduna and just before dusk pulled onto a barely visible side road a few miles West of the town where I found a place to camp.

Whilst in Sydney I had read a magazine article about the sinkholes found on the Nullarbor plateau. Some are quite deep, anything from 50 to 100 metres and most have a water source at the bottom and quite often lead to extensive cave systems. The sinkholes are formed by dilute carbonic acid in the water eroding the limestone over time and eventually causing the surface to collapse. Even had I been interested, I was not equipped to explore caves, but in the heat and dust of the Nullarbor the thought of cool, clean water had its attractions.  I had made a note of some of the names, which now escape me, but I spotted a dilapidated sign pointing to a track leading north to a ’station’ (a farm — although what could be farmed out there, I’m not sure. Sheep I suppose). I turned onto the track and after a few miles came to a group of buildings, among them what appeared to be a bungalow. As I approached I saw a woman standing in the doorway. I parked and went over to the bungalow to be greeted by a surly “G’day”. I explained that I was hoping to take a look at a sinkhole — “whadya wanna go there for?” she asked. Just to take a look and maybe take a wash, I said. She pointed to a track leading away from the buildings, “a couple of miles” she said and went back inside.

A few hundred yards up the track I came to a large water tank and nearby an unmistakeable rocky hole.  Having come so far I decided to take a look down the hole where I saw a steep, well-worn track and a large black alkathene water pipe.  I lit a small hurricane lamp, took my electric hand torch, a towel, and started down the track.  Progress was not helped by the fact that the track had been worn smooth which made it difficult to get a secure footing in places. Using the pipe as a hand rail, I came eventually to water and a small petrol driven pump. I had read that the temperature could be as much as 10 degrees lower than at the surface, but here it felt much more than and the water was icy.  I found the atmosphere cold and eerie and lost no time returning to the surface — without a wash! The article which alerted me to the sinkholes also mentioned that the aborigine believed that spirits inhabited the holes and could be heard roaring. I couldn’t hear any roaring, but it was certainly spooky!

Between Ceduna and Eucla I pulled a few hundred yards off the road to camp for the night and as I stepped out of the car was immediately struck by the unremitting silence.  In the bush in Africa, when the sun goes down, the noise starts, among other things, lions grunt, leopards cough, hyenas howl, but in Australia there’s only silence in the bush.  I prepared some food, made some coffee and then sat listening to my Zenith radio when I became aware of light shining skyward to the East, it disappeared, but reappeared a few minutes later. This process continued for some time until finally a large truck roared past on the road and disappeared to the West.  Silence again descended.

Road Sign

I crossed the State boundary into Western Australia a few miles before Eucla where I was not surprised to find that petrol, typically 2/6d a gallon (almost four litres) had jumped to 4/- a gallon., but this was the most expensive I found in the whole trip.  I stayed the night at a motor camp (hot showers) in Eucla and before leaving took a look at the famous rolling dunes on the foreshore and the old half buried telegraph station. The Great Australian Bight was blue and flat calm, unlike the swells experienced a few week before in the Chakdina.

After another day and night on the road, I arrived at the town of Kalgoordie which is famous for its open cast gold mines and the number of pubs and brothels, the latter given a bit of class by calling them bordellos.

I paused here and found that I had a choice, drive directly to Perth, or to take the southern route by way of Esperance, August and Busselton to Bunbury. I chose the second, just over two hundred miles to Esperance via Norseman. The scenery changed little until south of Norseman where I entered the ‘wheat belt’ — just thousands of acres of growing crops interspersed by groups of enormous grain silos. Turning west from Esperance, the drive became more interesting with impressive seascapes along the coast, the deep blue Southern Ocean, cliffs hiding beautiful white sandy beaches. Occasional areas of cultivation where set in vast areas of native forest, mile upon mile of dry, scrubby and mainly colourless variations on eucalyptus. I learned that there are five or six hundred species of Eucalypt in Australia, but here I was seeing one of the more impressive, Eucalyptus marginata, or Jarrah to give it its Aboriginal name.

Jarrah produces a dark wood which, when worked, has the appearance of mahogany and was once called Swan River Mahogany after the river that runs through Perth (WA).  It is heavy, bug proof, and was much used for wharves, railway sleepers and even for surfacing roads among other things.  An elderly gentleman with who I later did some sailing in Bunbury told me that he was once in Glasgow where he saw workmen laying a road surface of blocks of wood.  Enquiry revealed that the wood was West Australian jarrah. It is so hard that it is impossible to drive in a nail, it needs to be pre-drilled.

From Albany I cut across country to Bunbury through some of the least inspiring country that I had ever seen.  Long straight roads with an aspect of unbroken scrubby forest interspersed with areas of cultivation.   From what I had seen so far, the only redeeming feature of Western Australia was its coastline, with clean white beaches and crystal clear water.

At Bunbury, a sleepy little port town of about thirty thousand inhabitants, I soon found 8 Higgins Street where I was welcomed by Dick[3] and Diana Terry and their two children Judith and James.  I had flown out to Kenya from London with Dick in 1955 and we were at the Police Training School together.  Dick had been born at Thika in Kenya where his father had owned a coffee plantation before the war.  He had served in the Military Police during his National Service and had at one time been escort to General Erskine, C-in-C East Africa. In April 1960, I was best man at Dick and Diana’s wedding at Kiambu near Nairobi.

At Kiganjo I was still using the Ikonta 6 X 6cms camera that I had bought in Aden in 1952 and during our three months at the Training School I had managed to improvise a photographic darkroom in which I had been able to teach Dick to develop film and print the results. At Bunbury, I found that he was still using these skills to do a little moonlighting and supplement his income. Officially he was employed by the Bunbury Town Council as a Traffic Officer but finding the job less than congenial, especially when he found that that the court was more inclined to believe an accused than to accept his evidence. He was looking for other work, but in the meantime he had started in his spare time to do portraiture and weddings.

There was a small British community in Bunbury and among them I found my old dentist, Jimmy Gilmore, from Kisumu on Lake Victoria, who had also been stalwart of the Kisumu Yacht Club.  Tom Wilson, another dentist, who had practised in Mombasa.

The town seemed small and parochial, but was saved by the incredible beaches along the town front and to the south where it was possible to walk for miles among the dunes without seeing another soul. The beaches were of black sand, iron sand[4], and in the summer almost impossibly hot and hard to walk on without sand shoes.  Nonetheless, families would arrive early in the morning fully equipped, with umbrellas, chairs, a barbecue, ice box, and leave only as the sun was setting.  There was an active surfing culture and the main beaches were much used.  To the east of the town, there was a small port dominated by a set of large grain silos.  At that time, the main exports were grain and illmenite.

I began to learn some of the local customs.  Diana Terry related that on being invited to a function, she was asked to bring a plate.  She did so, but an empty plate was not quite what her host had in mind!  I was invited out to tea at the home of a girl I had met, fully expecting a cup of tea and a cake I arrived promptly at 5.00pm to be greeted by the whole family and a roast and three veg.  But it was through her that I managed to go sailing with her uncle.  When invited to any kind of function, expect to see all the blokes around the keg and all the sheilas at the other end of the room.

Cheese, other than mousetrap, allegedly cheddar, simply did not exist in provincial Australia at that time. Beer was plentiful, cheap and drunk from a small glass constantly filled from a jug — apparently this kept it cold.  Wine was cheap and almost universally known as plonk[5], but reserved for special occasions. If males drunk wine, it was mostly of the fortified variety known as sherry.  I recall once buying a flagon from a Greek store owner in Bunbury and remarked that it would hardly be recognised in Portugal — “Oh, do they make it over there too?” says he.

At this point I was obliged to think about what I might do next. I had a few ideas, but Western Australia was in those days pretty remote from the world and one was obliged to rely on airmail for outside contact.  I looked at several jobs in the State and did in fact half-heartedly send in a couple of applications.  Before leaving the Gulf I had heard that one of the Intelligence jobs at HMS Jufair was to fall vacant and so, tongue in cheek, I applied to the Ministry of Defence (N) in London.  I also sent off a feeler to the Sultan’s Armed Forces in Muscat where a number of ex-Kenya Police types had fetched up.  As an alternative to doing the Higher Swahili examination in Kenya, I had used the Arabic that I had learned in Aden, sat and passed the preliminary oral Arabic Exam whilst at the coast in 1959 — it made some sense to put this to use.

To my surprise, in mid-January I had a reply from MOD(N) inviting me to an interview in London in mid-April for the Intelligence job.  I went to the local P&O agency to book a flight by BOAC to London when Lyall Deadman, the agent, asked how quickly I needed to be in London, as he had an idea that could save me money.  He explained that a Strick Line ship which was scheduled to leave for the UK via Cape Town, had owners’ accommodation that could be had for a nominal fare for the voyage.  Together we went on board the ship where the Captain told us that unfortunately the accommodation was taken from Cape Town to the UK.

As we were walking back to the car, Lyall had another brainwave and we went on board a Norwegian bulk carrier, the Brunes, where we saw the Captain Lief Anders who was about to sail for Immingham near Hull.  The ship had just completed loading 13,000 tonnes of Illmenite.  Over a beer, he pondered my request and at length said if he took me as a passenger he would be obliged to pay passenger dues at the Suez Canal, but that if I was so inclined, I could work my passage — but I would need to be quick.  I accepted.  My pay for the voyage would be one shilling all found, and to sign on at the Norwegian Consul would cost me five shillings!  I had my British seaman’s papers, identity card and discharge book, but they were not interested.  The voyage would last about six weeks through Suez.

I quickly sold my car, completed all the departure formalities, said goodbye to the Terrys and various friends and joined the ship just before she sailed.  I also managed to thank Lyall Deadman for his help and consideration.  I found that the Marconi wireless operator was English and through him learned a bit about the ship.  The Brunes had carried a cargo of sulphur from Galveston in Texas and discharged at Augusta WA over New Year.  There had been a drunken fracas and one deck hand had broken his leg, another, and old man, had become seriously ill with diabetes and was unable to work.  As a consequence, the captain had stopped all access to alcohol in the ship.

It seemed that the owners, the Japsen Line of Bergen, had negotiated a deal with the seamen’s union which provided for a rationalisation of the crew, in which there would be ten men on deck and ten in the engine room, in theory these men could be interchangeable.  In practise the seamen resented this arrangement and it proved difficult to work in practise.

I started work on deck under the bosun, a young Norwegian, the first day at sea.  We stripped the vangs and runners off the derricks, secured the booms, coiled and stored the wires in the foc’sle, and chocked the canvas hatch covers.

Brunes

I had a single cabin with a scuttle which opened to the sea, with heads and bathroom in the alleyway nearby. In the cabin was a bunk, a wardrobe, desk, hand wash basin and the decor was in plain grey formica.  All very clean and comfortable. But, I soon found a snag. Once the ventilation, or airconditioning, was started it carried sulphur everywhere which soon had an effect on the eyes.  I was told that this would all be blown out in a week or so.

I found that the crew were a polyglot lot, mostly Scandinavian, but as well as the wireless operator, there was an English chef and two girls, English nurses, who had sailed with the ship from the UK.  On the voyage out from England, there had also been a family of dad, mum and two small children, who had worked their passage to Australia, he on deck and she a steward. The food was good, if a little continental, and the mess and galley were spotless — as one would expect in a Scandinavian ship.

On the second day out, in the evening, there was a tap on the door where I found the captain’s steward clutching a slab of twenty-four cans of Carlsberg beer, “with the captain’s compliments” he said. I quickly put the slab in the bottom of the wardrobe and closed the door, but within an hour I had had a series of visitors all intent on seeing if the rumour was true.  They left disappointed.  Sometimes during the voyage, Leif Anders would send the steward to invite me to his cabin for a drink.

One evening I washed and went down to the mess for the evening meal and found a large Finnish seaman, plainly drunk, sitting at a table with his left hand outstretched randomly stabbing a large knife whilst attempting to hit the gaps between his fingers.  His aim was not always good and he had chewed up several fingers.  Fortunately the bosun had already heard about the man and together we removed the knife and took him to his cabin to sleep it off. I never heard whence he had obtained his alcohol.

One weekend, my cabin door burst open to reveal the two English girls in a state of panic. They bolted the door and said that they had been assaulted by the English chef. Once they had calmed down, it seemed that rather than an assault, he had paid them unwanted attention and they had naturally resisted. I went to see him, he was apologetic, and said that he would back off and in future not press his ardours too forcefully.  It seems that he was rather keen on one of the girls and, some months after the end of the voyage, he married her.  There were other little incidents among the crew and I seemed to have been elected the honorary the lower-deck problem solver and counsellor!

Time passed quickly and day work on deck was not onerous. I painted the well deck, chipped and painted the hatch coamings, greased and coiled the vangs and runners.  At one point whilst painting the hatch coaming I found that parts were held together by rust! When I pointed this out to the mate he said simply; “Paint over it”!

Towards the middle of the fourth week, we past Perim Island in the Bab el Mandeb at the foot of the Red Sea.  I recalled a trip in 1952 from Aden to Perim in the 57 foot RAF pinnace taking drums of fuel for the cache on the island.

The Red Sea was predictably calm and hot and we anchored off Port Suez a couple of days later only to find that the agents had not paid the canal dues for the ship.  All was squared away in a couple of days but in the meantime the usual crowd of bum-boat merchants found their way on board and set up shop on the poop. Camel saddles, poufs, Belgian rugs and sundry other items sold like hot cakes. To help with the haggling, I was able to exercise my Arabic.

The convoy of waiting ships went through the canal at night and morning found us well out into the Mediterranean heading West.  The run to Gibraltar was unremarkable and work on deck continued uninterrupted.  As we headed north from the Straits the temperature started to drop, especially at night, but the sea remained relatively calm even in Biscay.  After Ushant I spent some time wire brushing and painting the main winch on the poop but was beginning to really feel the cold.  In the Channel we met rain and since I didn’t have any cold weather gear, I quit and took to my cabin.  We ran up the Channel overnight and morning found the ship off the East Coast and passing Spurn Head by noon.

The Pilot, customs and immigration came on board at the mouth of the Humber and I was cleared before we entered Immingham Dock where I saw Alan Scotney and his car on the dockside. Once the ship was raised to the dock inside level, I was able to step ashore with my gear to be welcomed by Alan.

[1] Australia changed to decimal currency in February 1966

And between Perth and Kalgoorlie as I found on my next trip some years later, West to East

[3] In the 80s, Dick suffered a heart attack in his doctor’s surgery and died

[4] Illmenite: Most ilmenite is mined for titanium dioxide production. Finely ground titanium dioxide is a bright white powder widely used as a base pigment in paint, paper and plastics.

[5] Digger talk, from the French Vin Blanc

 

 

Copyright G J Wright 2018