Saturday, 24 November 2012

Queensland Intermission - 1968

It was late November 1967 and Viajero and the Amazon River were already a lifetime away. I had flown from an icy New York a week earlier to a cold and wet Britain where I had enjoyed a few days in the company of my dear aunt and uncle in Nottingham.  Now I was aboard a Qantas 707 for the long flight home to Sydney and then 2,500 km north to Cairns where I was going to meeting my brand new niece and enjoy a North Queensland Christmas with my family.  
It was two years since I had last seen them.  Two years since I had waved goodbye to them from the deck of Baron Jedburgh and set off to conquer the world. There was of course, much more to conquer, and we'll come to that in due course, but it was good to be going home; to settle back in my seat and listen to some classic Strine as the PA system crackled to life and a voice from somewhere up the front said, "G'darfa noon folks, sit back and relax an we'll be outer ear and on air way in a garbler mince" (and my humblest apologies to the late Professor Afferbeck Lauder).
One of the benefits of long sea voyages, and there are of course many, is that a 36 hour plane trip, including refuelling stops at Teheran, New Delhi and Singapore, a lengthy transfer at Sydney and a three hour trip to Cairns, is really quite a stroll in the park. It was just nice to be going home.
My parents had separated a couple of years earlier and my mother was now living in another town with the new man in her life. Dad was in his early fifties and still working at the local council where he was the workshop superintendent. Dad was a real artisan. When he wasn't tinkering with car engines (you could do that then), he was restoring an old clinker-built boat he had bought for a song, or building a caravan from a few drawings he copied from a 1950s edition of Popular Mechanics. Whenever I think about my father, I'm reminded of a quotation which has been incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain, "when I was a boy of seventeen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be twenty-one I was astonished how much the old man had learned in four years".  

I enjoyed his company, and we all had a splendid Christmas in the sun. I'm quite sure I was already developing a rolling gait, and with it a penchant for telling long-winded stories - but I had an attentive audience

All things must come to an end and it wasn't long before the need to earn a living again became important.  My old friend, Ian Fraser, partner in crime from school and our apprenticeship days (see Class Reunion) had decided to move south to Brisbane and since there was plenty of work around in that part of the world, I agreed it was a good idea. So it was, that early in the New Year of 1968, at around the same time searchers were giving  up on finding the body of our missing leader Harold Holt, and the Liberal Party were electing John Gorton as their new leader and Australia's 19th Prime Minister, we said our farewells, loaded everything we owned (which in my case was very little) into the boot of Ian's FB Holden and headed south. 
For anyone not familiar with the geography of Queensland, a quick look at a map will show that it is much more than a few hours' drive.  It's about 2,000 km along the Bruce Highway and in those days, there were long stretches which had to be negotiated on poor quality roads where broken windscreens and roaming wildlife were the norm.
We shared the driving and when too tired to continue, we pulled to the side of the road with one of us sleeping on the front bench seat, the other on the back. We broke a windscreen a couple of days into the trip, somewhere between Sarina and Marlborough at about the same time that horizontal rain started falling. Fortunately, and who knows why, I had a pair of motor cycle goggles with me. The sight of Ian behind the wheel, wearing leather goggles that would have looked good on Rommel, belting down the highway avoiding potholes at 70 miles per hour will have scared a few people - it terrified me.  Late one night, too exhausted to drive further, we pulled off the road and as usual, I climbed over on to the back seat, and Ian stretched out in front. It was a desolate part of the country, maybe 100 km from the nearest settlement, and the rain had stopped. It was as quiet as a mausoleum and we both fell into a deep sleep.
An hour or so later, we were shaken out of our slumbers by bright lights and a loud whooshing noise.  The car was shaking, the rumbling turned into a roar, and blazing light began flashing from one side of the car to the other. Indiana repairman, Richard Dreyfuss's experience on a lonely stretch of road in Close Encounters of the Third Kind was probably no more than a twinkle of an idea in young Steven Spielberg's mind, but that's the image that comes to mind now as the two of us bolted upright and awake.  Ian looked around wide-eyed, "What the f..k's happening?" 
Our eyes stopped rolling and our heartbeat slowed to a dull pounding as the flashing beams resolved into the passing lights of the Brisbane to Cairns express train - The Sunlander, as it rocketed past, our vehicle shaking in its wash. Unwittingly, we had parked right next to the railway line - a few feet more and it might well have been a different story.
There were no further memorable incidents and we arrived in Brisbane a day or two later where we were soon sharing lodgings at the home of a nice landlady who took in boarders at her Camp Hill home for students and young working men. Ian had already organised employment as a design draughtsman and trainee engineer with Evans Deakin and Company in Charlotte Street. 
A day or two later I found work at the same establishment as an engineering estimator, helping to put together proposals for projects which included process refineries and power stations in Gladstone and ferry berths on the Brisbane River.  Each day Ian and I would catch the trolley bus or the tram from Camp Hill to the city and each evening we'd find our way home the same way.  We had a short diversion a few months after we arrived in Brisbane when Ian took some time out to marry his long-time girlfriend, the lovely Ellen. A pleasant affair, and one in which I had the privilege of participating as best-man. This was in itself no difficult task, but one which I was able to carry out with appropriate dignity thanks to a hasty sewing job by Ian's sister, Beryl who was more than a little concerned that in hiring me a dress suit, the local formal wear shop had neglected to provide me with cufflinks to go with the borrowed shirt. The day was memorable and has provided me with numerous opportunities to remind Ian that he still owes me $20 that I was able to find to help pay for the event.
Most days during the week, I would walk down to the river during my lunch break and usually find myself wandering past the offices of H.C Sleigh Ltd, owners of the iconic Golden Fleece petroleum brand, but also owners of Dominion Far East Line. In the window, inside a glass case, was a model of the pride of the fleet, the SS George Anson inviting passers-by to consider the merits of an ocean voyage.  As much as I was enjoying the challenges of being an estimator, the hospitality of my landlady and the company of her boarders at Camp Hill, there was something missing - and not just because Ian had gone off with Ellen to find their own accommodation elsewhere in the city.  I wasn't yet ready to give up the life of a ship's engineer and one day I didn't walk past the office during my lunch break - I went inside, and asked for a job. The timing could not have been better.  Francis Drake, sister ship to George Anson was due to depart Sydney for Brisbane and the Far East in a weeks' time - they were a man short - was I availableWas I? Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back?
Thus ended my brief career at Evans Deakin and so began my career as an engineer officer aboard my first steam ship.  SS Francis Drake was 7,500 ton, 440 feet long and carried about 150 passengers and I'm looking forward to telling you about my year with H C Sleigh and passenger ships and tankers in a later blog.  


  1. good as ought


  2. Love it Mike, love reading about the family history...I still have the black and white panda!

  3. Mike, you have a way with words that matched with an adventurous spirit must win you many hearts. I look foward to your Fanny Duck experiences and see how they relate to my George Anson ones.

  4. Another lovely story from a an entertaining writer - I am looking forward to the next episode