The media coverage showing the plight of refugees trying to get to Australia by boat has been harrowing. The desperation of families and the dangers they endure in order to give their children a better chance in life is gut wrenching. For those that arrive the battle is not over and many endure prolonged hardships before entering the community and living as a family.
This caused me to reflect on my own trip to Australia. I travelled on The Castel Felice (The Happy Castle) and it was a wonderful experience which I can recall as though it was yesterday. The voyage took 6 weeks and I arrived in Australia in December 1966. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time I was truly spoilt. A cabin was provided for my husband, baby daughter and myself and even with no frills it was quite adequate. However, at the time I had a moan about the lack of portholes and the ability to watch the ocean. My ticket cost ten pounds, my husband was going home and was using his return ticket and our daughter was free. We had fantastic meals, day trips to exotic locations, loads of entertainment and made many lasting friends. This must have been the best value cruise of all times.
Of course over 6 weeks there were many memorable times, some harrowing, some very funny and some quite adventurous. I was 23 years old and this was my first long distance journey by boat.
I had been advised by the baby clinic in Ireland to stop breast feeding as they believed on an ocean voyage I would lose my milk! I reluctantly turned to dried baby milk and a bottle and I was told there would be milk available to buy from the ships stores. This was incorrect so my first adventure away from the boat was to an American Naval Base who were happy to supply me with tins of milk at no cost.
I was fascinated by a fun loving group of cricketers wives who were returning to Australia by boat whilst their husbands flew back for an important match. These ladies really knew how to dress up and party and occasionally there was a bit of juicy scandal. One girl was found in the pursuers cabin rather late at night and the tongues wagged. I guess on a boat anything unusual will create some hot gossip and enliven the trip.
When the ship reached the Suez Canal we had the opportunity to visit the pyramids, the sphinx, ride a camel and do some shopping. There was an overnight stay in Cairo. My husband insisted I take the opportunity as he had visited Egypt on his way to Europe and he was happy to look after our baby daughter. This was a brand new experience for me and I set off with a shipboard friend called Joan. We were both very excited but just a tad worried about sightseeing alone in such exotic locations. It was just amazing and riding camels we took photographs and wondered about the ancient sphinx. Then we climbed inside the Great Pyramid and went to the top. I felt somewhat claustrophobic but Joan kept up encouraging remarks such as ‘not much further now’. I was glad when we started to descend and started to smile again when we entered the warm golden sunlit sands and climbed back on our camels.
Overnight was an adventure and I couldn’t understand why we had separate rooms and each of us had two huge magnificently dressed eunuchs stationed outside our door. I found them a little scary and wondered what dangers where lurking down the long marble corridors that required bodyguards. Next morning at breakfast I had a shock when a plate was put in front of me with tiny pink featherless birds, complete with heads, closed eyes and beaks. Someone was joking I surely wasn’t expected to eat these. Other diners did but I averted my gaze and waited for a vegetarian course.
Joan and I were babes to the slaughter when it came to shopping. I tried out a state of the art portable typewriter and watched excitedly as it was wrapped. On arrival in Sydney I discovered it was a shell only, the real one had been swapped. I cried! My second purchase was a beautiful box of French perfumes. The fabulous heady scents in the exotic perfumery filled with colour and music was amazing. I chose a long box lined with satin and a dozen vials of French perfumes each one beautifully crafted and labelled. I didn’t have to wait long to discover I had been duped. Immediately I arrived back on the ship I opened my favourite, Schiaparelli fragrance and to my horror absolutely no smell whatsoever. Each bottle was the same, gorgeous in presentation but filled with water.
My third purchase was disastrous. Two weeks after arriving in Australia I was driven by my parents in law to Wollongong where we had a picnic and a surf. The white broderie anglaise bikini bought in Cairo was no match for the Aussie surf and the top was ripped off and the bottom sank around my ankles. It was no mean feat to get a towel sent out and wrapped around me to reach the shore without embarrassment. It was later that I was told that waving from the Australian surf is asking to be rescued! Talk about live and learn.
Back to the voyage, the seas became very rough and the number of people becoming sea sick became greater by the day. Even the crew had high levels of sickness. Eventually there were only a handful of people on deck and the dining room was serving cold food. I went to the kitchen and found it understaffed and they gratefully accepted my offer to help with cooking. I really enjoyed those couple of days. The kitchen crew were a happy bunch and I had a diversion which taught me new skills. Unfortunately several people died before the waters calmed and life on board returned to normal.
The Castel Felicia had a weekly trivia night and I was lucky to be partnered by a very clever Scottish lad called Alan. We got through to the final round and with one question to go I had the answer (I have no idea what it was) and we won the trivia trophy. Even though the trivia brains belonged to Alan I have enjoyed trivia ever since.
Another great pastime was a Ouija board. One of the passengers had brought it along in their luggage and we spent many nights asking questions about our new lives in Australia. Occasionally we would ask a question relevant to the time and we had many a laugh as we argued whether it was magic or the glass was pushed, or somebody already knew the answer.
When we crossed the equator a passenger was chosen as King Neptune, we all had to dress up, take part in a pantomime and some folks got ducked in a small pool of water. We were given certificates and believed we had done something very special.
Perth was the first Australian stop and of course everyone was excited to step on Australian soil. I can’t remember a great deal about our tour of Perth and to date I have not returned. It is on the bucket list as they say. Next stop was Melbourne and I met up with a young woman who I had flatted with in London. We had a tour of the city centre and a lunch that was quickly gobbled up in order to get back to The Castel Felice which was about to leave for Sydney. I have a memory of a Hoadley’s Violet Crumble Bar which I had heard Aussies rave about for years in London. It was awful and I wondered if they only loved it for sentimental reasons.
Finally we docked in Sydney. I was so excited. We were all up early, David washed his shoulder length black curly hair, we dressed the baby in her very best Swiss voile dress and I donned a beautiful white silk Carnaby Street mini skirt and blouse. Unfortunately in 1966 Sydney, mini skirts were not expected and long hair in a male was just as bad. Not the arrival I had hoped for but our gorgeous girl saved the day as she became the centre of attraction and we were forgotten.
I have embraced Australia as my home and for almost half a century I have had a wonderful life here. I can only hope that all those travelling to Australia as migrants will be as happy and contented as I am.