Voyage Of A Lifetime

The Voyage Of A Lifetime, 1954

Sunday night in November 1954 saw me at my parents’ home in Birmingham. This was to be my last night with my family. Little did I know that this would be the very last time I would ever see any of my family again.

My departure time of 9.20 p.m. soon arrived, and it was time to go. My mother threw her arms around me and hugged me and begged me to come back home again one day, tears flowing down her cheeks. This was most unlike my mother, all my life I remembered that she was always a steadfast and solid parent, very confident when pushing her way through life. My eldest brother, Ron, and my father were going to walk me to the bus stop. I gathered up my backpack, said my final farewell to my mother and strode through the front door. Outside, it was teaming down with cold torrential rain. Five minutes later, we all stood at the bus stop and remained silent and lost in our respective thoughts. I wondered what they were thinking.

The yellow double-decker bus arrived. A quick shake of the hands, then I turned and climbed the stairs to the upper deck.

During the 30-minute journey to the city, I reflected on the past few months. I had travelled the world the previous four years and, afterwards, had been spending some months working as a handyman to gather a nest egg, and also had been living with my parents. Now I was off overseas once again, as restless as ever.

Arriving at New Street Station jolted me back to reality, dashing down the bus stairs, across the road and onto the platform for the night train to London. Tucked in my moneybelt was my new British passport, a few travellers’ cheques, a 2nd class night train ticket for Marseilles, plus my sailing ticket Marseilles to Sydney.

Some weeks before, I had heard about the French Messageries Maritimes shipping company, and that it was possible to travel to Australia aboard their cargo-passenger vessels in steerage class for a very cheap fare of £100. I immediately wrote to the Paris headquarters of the company seeking further details. They wrote back a three page letter which was full of detail – in French. My eldest brother, Ron, who had excelled in French at grammar school could not make head nor tail of what they had written. Accordingly, I took the letter along with me and visited the French Consulate-General in Birmingham at my earliest opportunity, and requested a translation. Sitting before the Consul in his office, I noticed he was grinning and having a chuckle as he scanned the contents, afterwards he made the remark, “This is a very good journey indeed!”

I sat in the office whilst a typed translation was created within 30 minutes. The contents of the letter were all about the conditions of the voyage and a request that payment would be required immediately if I wanted a passage. The following week, I called upon Thomas Cook in Birmingham and showed the manager the original letter together with the translation. I could see at once that this manager had never come across a request for a sea passage of this type.

Remaining firm, I insisted that he contact his headquarters in London and arrange payment for the ticket. In due course, my ticket was issued and arrived. No doubt Thomas Cook gained some new travel experience! Travel from the UK to the continent was then in its infancy, being just after the first world war.

I boarded the train, which was quite empty and the train journey to London was swift, taking just over an hour. I walked around checking information boards and found my way to the correct platform for the night boat-train to Paris. By now, I was beginning to bubble over with excitement and thrilled no end that I would soon be arriving in France once again.

Whenever I visit another country, my mind is buzzing with fantasies of what I will encounter. Although I was a sit-up train passenger I slept mostly undisturbed until I arrived in Paris. Fortunately, I am able to get to sleep at once on any train, bus, ship or plane.

Once in Paris, there was all the fun of finding the correct station for the next stage to Marseilles. In Paris, there are a number of stations for long distance trains, each one being the departure centre for whichever direction you wish to travel in. In my atrocious French, and more by good luck, I arrived at the correct station via the Metro underground service. I love using the subways and quickly discovered they are all the same in design and outlay for passengers – simply a matter of finding which station you are located at now, then looking for the station you are proceeding to, check where the lines cross each other for changing trains and direction, usually you arrive at your destination within minutes. At this station I searched around and found the right platform and waited a brief period for the train to chug into the platform. Surrounding me were French holiday makers with piles of suitcases. I always love listening to foreign tongues being spoken, this makes me feel overjoyed, and most of all the realization that I am in a different country. For me, to hear French being spoken is like listening to good classical music.

In those days there were no seat reservations, it was all on a first-come, first-seated basis. Entering the carriage I flung my backpack into the overhead luggage rack and I sat down and waited for the carriage to fill up with passengers. This happened quickly, and all about me was the sound of customary French arguments, mainly this consisted about who was being seated by the window and so forth.

Eventually, the train jerked forward, the whistle tooting, and we were off!

On French trains, the passengers always introduce themselves to each other. It was soon discovered that I was English. Attempts were made at speaking to me in broken English. Even though it was after midnight, in a typical French fashion, food miraculously appeared from paper parcels carried by every passenger. I was the only one without food of any sort. Nevertheless, the other patrons insisted on passing over to me pieces of crusty French bread, salami and tomatoes. Wine bottles were produced from all around the carriage, corks started popping, and soon I was tasting delicious red wine. Signs clearly proclaimed on the carriage walls, forbidding passengers from eating and consuming alcohol. The French love disregarding all governmental laws and completely ignore them. They blow out their cheeks, and when filled with air make a ‘poofing’ sound.

I thought to myself, no wonder that I love the French! In my backpack, I carried a small scrapbook. I decided to show the other passengers a newspaper cutting which included a photo, taken of me in Beirut, Lebanon, accompanying a journalist report describing my adventures, all printed in French. The scrapbook was passed around to all the French travellers. The ice was broken and I was an immediate celebrity! Using sign language, and smatterings of French and English, the carriage came alive, with the conversation continuing all through the night until dawn.

During the night, I managed to convey to all concerned that I was going to catch a ship in Marseilles. Looks of consternation emerged from a few of the seated holiday makers, and a chorus of voices indicated that I was travelling on the wrong train, further, this train was going to Nice non-stop. Great discussions were held with various suggestions being offered by the passengers. Eventually, it was proposed to me that I get off the train at a small station along the way and catch another train going towards Marseilles. One of the passengers approached the train ticket attendant and explained my position and that I was a foreigner. I gathered the attendant thought this was no real problem. So it was quickly arranged for the train to be halted at La Ciotat to let me get off the train.

Just before getting off the train, the cheerful holiday makers shook my hand and kissed on the cheeks, using the words, “Bon chance.”

Alighting at this small station, I looked at the local train timetable and ascertained there was a frequent service to Marseilles via single carriage locomotives. Since it was early morning and breakfast time, I sat down in the station café and ordered a bowl of milky French coffee, into which I dunked some bread. Shortly, the train arrived, full of locals going to work, all getting on and off every few stops. This was a lovely journey, since the train was travelling alongside the sea and in the prettiest part of the Côte d’ Azur.

All the same, I was worried in case I should miss my boat. I needed not to have worried though, as I finally arrived in Marseilles well ahead of time. Quickly, I headed for the port area.

The name of the ship was the Nouvelle Caledonian. Walking up the gangplank I displayed my ticket to the ship’s officer and was directed into the very bowels of the ship. Right at the very bottom there were separate sleeping areas for females, and for males. These was arranged dormitory style with about 50 canvas bunks all together, just like in youth hostels. Blankets, sheets, showers and wash-basins were provided.

That evening, as the ship headed for Algiers, I made my way to the dining room set aside for steerage class passengers. Long wooden tables, resting on trestles and covered in colorful lace tablecloths were arranged in all directions. Sitting down, I was surrounded by French men and women of all ages. One very friendly older lady who was sitting on my right side, explained the procedure to me in fairly good English. I had noticed dark French wine bottles sitting on all the tables. This lady, who told me her name was Yvette, was dressed in a colorful skirt and white blouse, and had her hair tied back in a bun commented that we were entitled to drink as much as we wished whilst being seated at the dining table for meals. Indeed! No sooner had one bottle been emptied, than another bottle appeared on the dining table. The wine was red and of a reasonable quality. Soon, the dining room hummed with all the happy passengers chatting away. I gained the impression that these French travellers were mostly public servants returning to the French colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Tahiti, Nouvelle Hebrides and Nouvelle Caledonia. There was one other Englishman, and one Australian.

The dinner was typical of what we had available the whole voyage. First, soup was served with many vegetables, including asparagus floating in the bowl. Next, we had a plate with one item sitting on the dish. This was an artichoke and I had never before eaten such an exotic delight. Looking across the table, I observed how the French tackled this delicacy. These artichokes had been steamed, and the general idea was to peal a petal from the vegetable with your fingers, place the petal between your teeth and tear off the outer skin. The remainder of the flesh beneath the skin was discarded. Petal after petal was eaten in this fashion. At once, I fell in love with artichokes. The third course was a plate of small steamed potatoes, sitting in a small amount of olive oil. The fourth course was a decent-sized piece of steak, and you helped yourself to freshly made baguettes, which appeared in a never ending supply. Dessert was delicious French pastries like Millfeuille, or similar. Large dishes of fresh pineapple, paw-paw, and melon were placed on each table. Finally, numerous cheeses and more crusty bread, together with black coffee. Who says steerage class is no good? I have travelled over the years on many different liners, and this French boat served the best food of any I came across.

Next morning, we berthed in Algiers. This was the time of Arab liberation! Banners with Arabic writing were strung across the streets, telling the French to leave Algeria and go back home to France. Walking around the city, many buildings were in ruins from shell and rifle fire. The impression was of a city under siege. This was our shortest shore leave and we sailed away after only six hours.

Sailing past the tip of North Africa and through the Straits of Gibraltar, we headed out into the Atlantic Ocean. The seas were calm and the sun beamed down. This soon made me forget cold, foggy Birmingham. Our next port of call was the Portuguese Island of Madeira, which is the last land before reaching North America. The ship berthed and all the passengers went sight-seeing, mainly wandering down the main street. Because there was little cargo to unload, we were only allowed two hours of shore leave, so we didn’t see very much.

Since the vessel carried cargo which had to be unloaded throughout the voyage, very often we stayed in port for a number of days. The whole voyage was to take about 50 days.

After leaving Madeira, we were soon steaming into the tropical zones of the Atlantic Ocean and the sea became like glass. After approximately seven days, we started to see lots of small Caribbean islands, sometimes passing close by. All the passengers dreamed of life ashore on these islands when we saw the palm trees waving in the sea breezes. Viewed from out at sea, these places looked idyllic and romantic! The ship’s purser called out over the intercom various names, one of which I recognized – St Kitts. We anchored in deep azure blue water at the lush tropical isle of Guadeloupe and everyone was eager to get ashore and explore. The harbour itself was not very deep and we were shunted to land by launches from our ship. The local inhabitants were all very black and dressed in Mother Hubbard style clothing, with bandannas around their heads.

Hundreds of smiling and eager local girls surrounded all the male passengers strolling along. All at once, they cajoled in sing-song English, “You want pretty girl? Me pretty girl. You like good time. I show you everything, very cheap.”

Guadeloupe was an extremely poor place with tumble-down tin shanties perched on every hill, unmade streets consisted of dried mud. Ancient vehicles of pre-war vintage tut-tutted along. One of the true delights of this island was the rum punches which were so cheaply available. This drink was kept in a big drum-sized container, made from lots and lots of potent rum and, covering the surface, floated great quantities of sliced lemons and pineapples. A big mug of punch cost only a modest 50 francs.

At this port, I observed an elderly lady and young girl, together with a mangy dog climb aboard. They were dressed in peculiar old fashioned clothes. Later, we became great friends since they could speak English.

We set off again through sun-drenched pale blue waters. The setting was a never-ending passage through so many tropical islands.

In my youth, I had read many adventure stories about these palm-swamped islands.

Another two days of sailing and we arrived at the next port – the Isle of Martinique. The harbour was deeper and we sailed alongside the wharf jetty.

Immediately, we could all see that this island was more prosperous, with many fine brick homes. Walking down the main street, I recognized the names of so many of the fine quality shops from Paris. There appeared to be more order and tidiness, even the inhabitants looked happier and better dressed. Once again, most of the passengers sat under sun umbrellas and downed rum punches, accompanied by trays of water melon. As this was a small island, and without transport, one could not venture far into the interior.

Two further days of sailing, and we reached the island of Curacao, a Dutch colony. This was a duty-free port, and all manner of goods were for sale at ridiculously low prices. The local brew was curacao, a truly delicious liqueur. The astonishing thing about this port of call was the Dutch houses. Just like any seen in Holland, these had very steep roofs.

We never stayed long in these small ports as the cargo to be unloaded was limited.

We were now on the equator and steamed through seas that sparkled like polished glassware. In only a few short hours, we arrived at the entrance to the Panama Canal. This was completely different from the Suez Canal. The ship’s navigator was permitted to sail the vessel through a series of locks that allowed the sea water to evacuate and thus lower the vessel, then the salt water rushed in and raised the liner higher. All the way through the canal, we could see settlements, with people and cars moving. At other times, we passed very thick jungle and watched endless large flocks of colorful birds flying around. On the odd occasion, we saw alligators eyeing us with suspicion.

One of the delights of tropical steamer cruising is at night, watching the great clusters of bright twinkling stars spread right across the black sky, and trying to work out the positions of various well known constellations. Another fascination is observing microscopic sea creatures creating phosphorescence amongst all the waves as the ship moved along. Sometimes, most unexpectedly, a flying fish landed on the deck. Apart from the hum of the ship’s engines, all was most peaceful. I spent many long nights, lying on deck, gazing at the stars, whilst chatting with various passengers and feeling relaxed in this tranquil and soothing existence.

By now, I had become friends with the interesting French passengers who had embarked in Guadeloupe. Their life story was fascinating. The mother and daughter had lived for a number of years on Madagascar, off the coast of Africa, until attacks by local insurgents made life utterly impossible for women living by themselves. Their vivid tale told of a previous idyllic way of life. Then they departed for Guadeloupe, and lived there for some years. Once again, as in all western colonies, the locals were stirring and marching for freedom. Many times, their house was looted and all their possessions stolen. Now they were on their way to Nouvelle Caledonia to settle down again and, hopefully, be more permanent. The daughter and I got along well and we sat in deckchairs and chatted every night about France, customs and various different lifestyles. However, the mother kept her eagle eye upon me the whole time and never left our side. This was a very good opportunity for me to practice speaking French. In this way, I learned many new words.

We were now entering our longest passage of the sea without seeing any land. After about ten days’ sail, we passed by some of the Marquesas islands. All the males on board remarked that wasn’t it a pity we were not stopping there? These islands have the reputation of thousands of dusky females lavishing their favours upon any male who happened along!

At long last we arrived in Tahiti, a truly Polynesian tropical paradise. The island is composed of a huge series of hills, covered in palms and lush vegetation. We were informed by the purser that we would be stopping in this port for ten days. One thing is very obvious about French colonies, they are so different from British colonies, there being none of the separation of races as in British colonies. The French accept mixed race marriages, and all the locals are treated as equals. The French have a very laidback attitude in their dealings with the inhabitants and, in Tahiti, I watched the local population drinking in bars with the French colonists.

Without any prompting whatsoever, if you are a male and sitting alone in a bar, a sexy Tahitian girl, with frangipani flowers in her long jet black hair will approach your table and ask, “Do you want any company?” These girls are not prostitutes, the whole island is composed of females behaving in this seductive fashion!

In the following days, I made a few trips by local buses around the main island. Usually, the bus was filled with Tahitians, together with a few pigs and chickens. Whilst doing this, I came across an American, a retired marine. He lived in a small palm-thatched hut with a few conveniences. His military pension enabled him to live quite a comfortable way of life. I was told that he had different Tahitian girls staying with him for periods of a few months to just a few weeks ever since he arrived. At the time, I wondered how all this was possible, since the French do not encourage foreign westerners to set up home on these pacific islands. In one of the bars in Papeete there was a small group of Americans playing jazz and making a living by playing to the numerous cruise liners.

None of the men wanted to leave Tahiti – I wonder why.

By now quite a few of the passengers had disembarked, which left the ship with more space to sit around.

A few more days’ sailing and we reached Port Vila of the Nouvelle Hebrides, which at that time was a joint colony of the British and French with two managing administrations, two currencies and nationalities. These islands are populated by a different race, and have nothing in common with Polynesians. They are more akin to Fiji and New Guinea, and are called Melanesians. Going ashore here was a letdown, with none of the excitement of Tahiti. In fact, it had quite a tumbledown and dilapidated appearance.

We steamed into Noumea in Nouvelle Caledonia, where we stayed for seven days. Now, all the remaining French colonists left the ship, leaving the ship quite empty, especially in the steerage class. This place was quite dreary with many wrecked ships from the second world war. None of the inhabitants was as friendly as on Tahiti.

A short voyage, and we were soon passing through the ‘Heads’ of beautiful Sydney Harbour, one of the most scenic ports in the whole world. We docked near the Harbour Bridge and disembarked.

To my way of thinking this was the best sea trip that I ever made.


This shipping company no longer exits. See:

In France there used to be a name for single carriage trains, but they are no longer used, and I cannot remember the name of such transport.


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