It was Monday the 16 February 1970 as I boarded the SS Australis but my adventure started long before that. I had sailed to Germany from Melbourne Australia on the sister ship the R.H.M.S Ellinis in November 1968. I was a 17-year-old teenager on that voyage and I had a fantastic adventure. So, when my parents decided to return to Australia I† was ecstatic. This meant another adventure aboard a ship, nearly five weeks of it! It was sad leaving my German friends behind that I had made, but once we got to the Port of Bremerhaven, I saw that lovely ship, my white lady with her 2 blue funnels, the sadness quickly dissipated. I couldnít even see the Australis in one glance, as she was a huge ship! She was beautiful. We walked up the gangway and were directed to our cabins. My cabin 514 was aft on the port side on Main deck, just past the duty free shop. I was pleased to find out that I was to share a cabin with someone other than my parents. I had hoped to share with someone my own age, as it turned out he was an English gentleman who boarded in Southampton England.
I quickly found my way back on deck and immediately started exploring. I eventually leant on the railing to watch the passengers boarding via the gangway. Almost immediately, a chap my own age befriended me; his name was Steffan nicknamed Stef. We both watched the passengers boarding and then went off together exploring the ship.
When I noticed that the crew were casting the SS Australis adrift from the Bremerhaven wharf I returned to the railing on the aft part of the open Promenade deck. People threw streamers to and from the ship symbolizing that last link with loved ones. Slowly the tug-boats† pulled us away from the terminus. Everybody cheered and screamed as the streamers broke. The wharf became ever smaller as the ship was towed away by the tugs; eventually land was out of sight.
When we were well on the way to Southampton, the second sitting dinner bell was chiming in rhythm with the growling of my tummy. It was 8:45 pm and I went downstairs to the Atlantic Restaurant and found my parents already sitting at the dinner table along with another family, this left one spare chair and I had all sorts of visions as to whom may actually sit there. It was to be my lucky day! A young woman about nineteen years old walked towards me, stopped and asked me if this was table E4 and I said yes. She sat down and introduced herself as Marion. We ate, we chatted and I invited her to join me at the Captains cocktail party, which was to be held in the ballroom that evening after dinner. Marion agreed to meet me there.
Later on after dinner Marion and myself met in the foyer by the ballroom where we were introduced to the Captain, we then proceeded to indulge in a few cocktails and dance to the live band. Well, the first few hours on board had already been very eventful.
The next morning I got out of bed early for breakfast; then I went up on deck. It was freezing cold having left Germany in winter and the ship was punching her way through some enormous waves. The sensation was awesome and one could feel the power of this ship displacing the ocean in front of her. I found a door that was meant only for the crew and being the curious teenager, I went in and down the stairs. It was another world down here, a maze of corridors and catwalks. I found my way to the engine room and what a noisy environment that was! I could barely hear myself think. All of a sudden I had the living daylights scared out of me, a crew-member tapped me on the shoulder and with broken English told me that I shouldnít be down here. He took me to a quieter area and asked a few questions upon which led to us having a good chat, I discovered he used to work on the sister ship named, R.H.M.S Ellinis. This revelation created instant rapport between us. We somehow ended up in the galley where I saw the cooks preparing lunch. The galley staff gave me some fresh bread rolls and the crew-member took me aloft. I will call this crew-member Nick from now on, as I canít remember his name.
I was back on deck now and met my friend Steffan; we spent some time talking and exploring the ship. I was desperately waiting for our lunch bell at 1:45 pm, as I knew Marion would be there. We did meet and spent the rest of the day together. Well, that was to be my routine of sorts, breakfast at 9:30 am, then exploring the ship, lunch and spending the rest of the day with Marion, every evening we would go dancing in the ballroom and burn the midnight oil.
On the 18th of February we docked at Southampton in England, Steffan and myself went wandering around the city. I purchased a camera for 20 English Pounds then we found ourselves in a pub somewhere. We met a local chap and had a few too many to drink, somehow we managed to get to the ship before it sailed that evening; a third party put us in a cab and took us to the wharf. After establishing to the authorities that we were passengers they had to push the gangway back up to the ship so we could get aboard. Yes! It was that close. We nearly missed the boat!!
Marion was waiting for us as we got on board, Steffan was given a scolding by Marion, she then suggested we both go up to the mezzanine in the main lounge where I could relax, have a coffee or two and sober up. The sofas were really comfortable up there. We both fell asleep in each other arms on the sofa. When we woke, we found that a night fairy (one of the crew I guess) had put a blanket over us. Well we had breakfast together then I took Marion into the bowels of the ship on one of my adventures.†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† lang=EN-US style='font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt'>
The Australis sailed onwards to Las Palmas, an island in the Canary Islands group. I finally met my cabin mate when I went down to change for dinner. He was an older gentleman, a retired army Major around 45 to 50 years old. He had put his things on the top bunk so I offered to swap which he eagerly agreed to. He was a nice guy and we got on quite well throughout the voyage. The Major always went off very early to breakfast whereas I left it to the last moment. At night† the Major would already be in bed by 24:00 so when I eventually got in I climbed up the bunk ladder and quickly fell asleep.
The weather was getting noticeably warmer on approaching Las Palmas, on went the bathing costumes and we milled about aft by the swimming pool. Marion, Steffan, a few others and myself had formed a little group and we were often together. The ship slowly approached the port of Las Palmas around noon one day. It was only to be a short layover and we had to return to the ship by 22:00. Marion and myself decided to go ashore and check out the markets around the terminus. Steffan decided to invite himself along as well, humph!! He seemed to be hanging around a bit too close lately.
We explored the shops where I purchased a large black sombrero with colourful embroidery that I still have to this day. The atmosphere ashore in Las Palmas was great, live music was being played; the stalls and shops were really colourful. Dusk soon came along and after a moonlit stroll along the beach, we headed back to the Australis, all her lights were on, she was lit up like a Christmas tree, a sight to behold.
The next morning after breakfast I met the crewman Nick whom I had befriended. Nick told me that while the ship was docked at Las Palmas, one of the crew who went on shore leave was slain!! That gave me a bit of a shock and later on it was confirmed to me by the Master at Arms whom I had got to know quite well.
We were heading to Capetown in South Africa, which was to be a ten-day journey. The weather was warm and many passengers were really taking advantage of the sunshine. Some people rushed forward to view an oncoming ship that was allegedly on a collision course with us. Sure enough, we appeared to be heading straight for it. The approaching ships beam was facing us and the vessel appeared to be stationary. The Australis slowed right down, corrected course and we eventually came to a stop. From what I could find out the apparently stranded Greek cargo vessel transferred an injured crewman via small boat to the Australis.
A few days on when I was down below in the bowels of the ship I got nabbed by a senior crew member who insisted that I accompany him. We ended up in some sort of control room and† he told me in broken English to sit down and wait. I thought, oh oh, Iím in trouble now. Another crewmember came along and the two men went out of the room to speak, I used this opportunity to abscond through another door. What a relief that was to get away.
We celebrated the passing of the equator with all sorts of on deck parties and functions. Many passengers went absolutely looney (in a friendly way) which was perfectly acceptable on this day. During the evening there was a costume party with the crowning of King and Queen Neptune.
The days and long nights went by, Marion and myself wined, dined and danced the time away. There was much to do on the ship and we often spent time in the disco and by the jukebox, watched films in the picture theatre, played all sorts of deck games and frequented the fabulous indoor swimming pool on C deck. Quite often we would just cuddle up for hours on end. Marion and myself were young adults, I had found a partner for life and we were inseparable, this love at first sight was destined to last forever, well so I thought!
It just had to happen didnít it! One evening about 2 days away from Cape Town we had a little quarrel. My best friend Stef saw what happened and used this opportunity to prise Marion and myself apart for good. His lies and deceit and my stubbornness finished off the relationship that Marion and myself had nurtured. I did experience more romance on board the ship with another young woman, she was nice but much more reserved. I did pursue this new relationship and we did have good times together; but thatís another very long story.
For the next couple of days the weather was extremely rough and I was feeling rather sorry for myself regarding the incident with Marion. The Australis was rocking and rolling in the heavy seas, the waves were like mountains and often the ship would be in a trough with a swell on each side that was higher than the mighty ship. This was to be a photo opportunity and I went forward as far as possible and took a few photos of the bow slicing through the waves. I then went to Main Deck aft, down below where the crew always went to have a cigarette break and to chat.† I gained access via the waterproof iron door at the end of the Main Deck corridor, just beyond my cabin. This area was strictly off limits to the passengers especially in rough weather as one could be swept away by a freak wave. This area was very wet; I figured some waves had obviously penetrated that part of the open deck. So I quickly took some photos and got out of there.
The next day we arrived at Cape Town and I went into the city with some friends. I thought it was a beautiful city, but my friends soon pointed out to me that this was an Apartheid state. This fact disappointed me and in my view cast a shadow over Cape Town far greater than that of Table Mountain. We didnít go to Table Mountain as it was shrouded in cloud so we wandered up through the city and into the hills. We were high up and the Australis stood out like a beacon even from that distance. This enormous vessel dwarfed everything around it. We returned at dusk and once more the ship was lit up like a Christmas tree, a truly fantastic sight.
We sailed away from Cape Town and I got changed for dinner, I dreaded dinner now, as I couldnít get used to that vacant chair next to me where Marion had always sat. I still went to the ballroom, as I loved music and dancing. I sat alone until another group of people asked me to join them at their table. I guess they were used to seeing me with Marion and wondered why I was alone all of a sudden.
We were a few days away from the port of Fremantle near Perth in Western Australia. The weather got really rough, the wind was coming from the west and heavy seas pounded the Australis on her starboard beam, (right side of the ship) the huge waves smashed against the ship and on occasion would cause the whole ship to shudder. This was the only time on the voyage that I became a little concerned about my safety. I enjoyed the rocking and rolling near Cape Town but these waves near Australia frightened me somewhat. The overwhelming desire to take some photos took over, so off I went to get my camera.
That same night it was still rough going, the captain was in the ballroom for a function and I had my camera with me. I asked the Captain if I could take a photo of him and his guests and he agreed. The photo never did turn out very good as the ship suddenly lurched and shuddered. Passengers who were walking past were thrown against the Captains table knocking a couple of his guests out of their chairs. The master at arms and myself helped the lady sitting next to the captain; a falling passenger hurt her leg, so we helped her down to the ships hospital. Later on I found out that a freak wave had hit the ship.
My cabin mate the Major became ill, some sort of virus I believe, and so I didnít sleep in my cabin for a couple of nights. I slept alone on a sofa in the mezzanine of the main lounge (my favourite place). Somehow I had hoped that Marion would pass by, but that didnít happen because† she was avoiding me.
My interest in the workings of the ship had waned somewhat, but I needed to know where that infernal vibration was coming from. It was aft on the ship; I noticed it when eventually going to bed each night. On that last stormy night I heard a clanking sound, typical of a pump, pumping water. I ventured down below to see what was going on; eventually I ran head on into some crewmen and an officer. I was well and truly caught this time as the officer led me by the arm up to the bridge. While waiting for the Captain the officer asked me questions about what I saw. I said I didnít see anything (what ever he meant by that) and that I was just interested in seeing the engine room because all that sort of thing fascinated me. The Captain arrived, he and the officer spoke and then the Captain started to raise his voice at the officer. The officer left the bridge and the Captain just smiled at me and with a hand gesture ushered me out of the bridge. He didnít say a word to me, I guess Iíll never know why the Captain never snarled at me. Maybe it was his way of saying thank you for helping with the lady who had the accident at his table in the ballroom the other night, who knows?
According to records, on the 18th of March 1970, the ship docked at the port of Fremantle, in Western Australia where 235 passengers would disembark, I bid the Major farewell, as this was his destination. This meant that I would have the cabin all to myself for the four-day voyage across to Melbourne Australia. I went ashore at Fremantle with some friends and in the evening we set sail for Melbourne where 1044 passengers were to disembark, some of them would travel by train to Adelaide.
We arrived in Melbourne on the 22nd of March and docked at Station Pier, this was my stop and at the time I was filled with mixed emotions, I was sad about leaving the ship and the friends that I had made, sad about what happened with Marion, happy that I was home in Australia. While still on the ship I informed my parents that I would find my own way to my Uncles house. This gave me the opportunity to linger about with some friends and take some last photos of my white lady (the Australis) I stood back in awe and gazed at this magnificent ship. It was the end of a love affair with this vessel, the end of a lifestyle, which I had become accustomed to, but I would never ever forget her and I never have.
I found my way to Flinders Street railway station in the city of Melbourne where I caught a train to Glenroy, a northern suburb of Melbourne where I joined my parents at my uncleís house.
The Australis sailed to Sydney that night where 573 passengers disembarked, to start a new life in Australia.
In summary, an ocean voyage on a large cruise liner is a top way to travel, I really enjoyed myself on the Australis. It is such a damn shame to see her wasting away now, grounded on a beach in the Canary Islands in 1994. All those lovely lounges with those fantastic decorations and the artwork on the walls and ceilings throughout the ship, are now mostly just memories. My dream would be to visit the SS Australis and once more stand on her decks at the Island of Fuerteventura where she stands. It would be a treat to see her before the ship breaks up completely.
I would like to sincerely thank Ken Ironside in the UK, a former employee on the Australis, for without him this story would not be possible. I had no contact with Marion for 33 years until Kenís information helped me to find her, along with a few friends from that voyage in 1970.
A special thank you to Ken for keeping the memory of the SS Australis alive. I am sure Kenís fantastic Website has jogged many a fond memory.
Thank you to all passengers and employees of the Australis who have contributed to the memory of this great ship. When I browse through the stories and photos, they often trigger memories that I wouldnít have normally remembered.
Looking for an SS Australis passenger? www.naa.gov.au
Australian National White Pages www.whitepages.com.au
Some names and details have been altered due to a privacy issue.
There is one ironical detail that I will add to the story here.† As you will realize, I lost contact with Marion while still on the ship. I forgot where she was to settle in Australia.† Since having found her in March 2003, it was revealed to me, that Melbourne was her destination. When she disembarked from the ship, Marion and her family stayed at an Immigration Hostel in a Northern suburb of Melbourne called Broadmeadows. I was residing in the neighbouring suburb of Glenroy at my uncleís house. Marion and myself were neighbours for around nine months, living only 800 meters apart. (1/2 a mile) I was employed as a trainee Telephone Technician at LM Ericssons in that same suburb of Broadmeadows. Like ships in the night we always passed each other by without knowing it. She went on to become a fashion model and I eventually qualified as a Telephone Technician.