• Brian Simmons

The long way round to Sydney

Updated: May 19, 2021

After Vancouver the next stop was Hawaii. How exotic that sounds. Well so it may, but as I was beginning to discover, for crew members, ports of call tend to blur one into another. This is largely because, with little time available, it is quite hard to avoid being swept along with the crowd to one bar after another and then back to the ship to start over.

Me in Honolulu 1962

Of course, I did the obligatory visit to Waikiki the famous surfing beach and was so disappointed to discover that much of the golden sand had actually been shipped from California and dumped there to replenish the beach. However, this practice ceased in the 70’s after technology was developed to enable off-shore Hawaiian sand to be dredged from deep water and pumped onto the beaches.

Waikiki Beach in the '60s

It was probably around this time that I started popping a few pills. Known as ‘Dexies’ (Speed nowadays); as far as we were concerned, they were just pep pills that enabled us to stay awake enough to enjoy a good night out after a day’s work and then do another day’s work before crashing out.

I was so naïve I didn’t even think of them as drugs and possibly illegal; although, come to think of it they may not have been at that time as the recreational use of drugs as an issue had hardly emerged at that time. Anyway, it seemed there was very little illegal once on board and outside UK waters. In retrospect it was pretty daft because although I didn’t know it, Amphetamine is addictive. I just used them socially as and when required and it would seem never got to the point where I was at risk of getting hooked although of course I’ll never know how close I may have come.

Unfortunately, my parents found out about the pills quite by accident when I got home as some were floating about loose in the bottom of my case which Mum unpacked for me. Being a nurse, she recognised them as Dexedrine and flew into a real panic in case I’d turned into a junkie.

After Hawaii the trip started to get really interesting as we headed for the Orient where our first port was Yokohama which is the port for Tokyo. Unfortunately back then I was nowhere as interested in photography as I am now so failed rather dismally to adequately record the trip in images. As a result I have had to resort to grabbing a few images offline to give a better impression of some of our ports of call. That is the reason for the poor quality of this 1960s image of Yokohama port and gardens.

Also, as the crew had limited time ashore in each port and with a relatively flying visit to Yokohama I was unable to travel the twenty miles or so to see Tokyo. Passengers were bussed there for a whole day but sadly not us.

Consequently it is a sad fact that although I travelled right the way around the world, in reality I saw very little more than the inside of a lot of sleazy bars within a mile or two of the port and to be honest they are pretty much of a muchness.

Dimly lit, pounding music, scantily clad or topless waitresses and hostesses desperate to part you from your hard-earned cash.

This in exchange for meaningless conversation and ridiculously expensive drinks that were not much more than thimble sized shots of crème de menthe or something similar. No wonder I soon tired of them and found the best way to avoid that experience was to head for a decent restaurant if you knew where to find one and that is where the experience of some of the older hands came in very useful. The only slight problem was however, that a very high proportion of the older and more experienced hands were gay and being seen in gay company usually resulted in the charge, even if in jest that you’d “gone queer”.

Group outings were fine though, and this was often the way it worked out with whole groups of mixed gay and straight guys going ashore to paint the town and because they knew where to go we had some really great times.

I remember one evening, I think it was in Yokohama, when a group of us arrived at a really superb Japanese restaurant where all the waitresses were dressed in full geisha costume with the kimonos and obi sashes, and ornately styled hair with decorative hair pins.

Not only did they look beautiful but they greeted us wonderfully because, as we discovered, our gay friends were regulars there. Locals were rapidly shoved off the best table to make way for our party of honoured guests and in no time at all a lavish spread of food and drink appeared. It was only about half way through the meal that someone tipped me off that the beautiful geishas were all in fact males in drag and that once again unwittingly we’d found our way or been taken on this occasion to the best gay restaurant in town.

(This is an image I found online but couldn't see who the author is. If I have infringed a copyright I apologise but it's not for gain so don't imagine its a big issue)

A few days later in Kobe I unusually had free time in the afternoon and another steward had asked if I wanted to go ashore with him. Jimmy was an older man who’d been on the boats for years and what he didn’t know wasn’t really worth knowing, but he was, as Dad would have said “Queer as a nine bob note.”

One or two of the other guys had raised a cautionary eyebrow at this. However by this time I felt quite confident that everyone who needed to know was well aware that I had no homosexual inclination and to be honest I found the experience and wit of the older gay stewards really interesting and often extremely entertaining.

Jimmy was brilliant and really did know some interesting bars that were pretty far out in the gay stakes but which never for a moment left me feeling ill at ease. We also visited some museums and temples that I probably wouldn’t have found without his help and later on we ended at a really great restaurant.

It was totally traditional and we decided on the Sukiyaki meal at Jimmy’s suggestion. With much bowing and kneeling we were shown into a small private room with translucent paper screen walls and one low table beside which were three cushions. Our attendant was a diminutive and strikingly pretty young Japanese girl for whom etiquette required that she had to do virtually everything on her knees.

For example, when she brought items to the room, we would see her form appear on the other side of the wall. She would kneel, put down the items, slide the door open, stand up and step through then kneel again to close the door before shuffling on her knees the 3 or 4 feet to our table where she knelt on the third cushion.

The first thing she introduced us to was the etiquette associated with drinking sake. This is Japanese rice wine, and the process couldn’t have been more different from slinging back the shots in the way we’d become accustomed to do in the bars.

Although referred to as ‘rice wine’, sake is more akin to a spirit where a mash of the raw material (in this case rice) is fermented. It is not however distilled but even without that stage it reaches an alcohol level of 18 – 20% so it is to be treated with some caution.

Sake should be served slightly warm so a small prettily decorated porcelain carafe was allowed to stand for a few minutes in a little matching bowl of hot water until just warm. Etiquette requires that one never helps oneself so it is important when sharing a meal or drink with someone that you are mindful of the needs of your guest.

Over the years I’ve eaten a few unusual things but the starter on this occasion took some beating. A small dish of circular slightly rubbery meat (or was it fish?) turned out to be raw slices of baby octopus tentacle.

The centre was white with a dark brown skin on which it was just possible to discern the tiny suckers. Yes, I must say I swallowed a bit hard but more at the thought of it than the flavour which was actually quite pleasant and delicate. I guess these days when we’re all eating sushi the notion of raw fish is not so strange but believe me for a council house kid in the 60’s it was.

Sukiyaki consists of thinly sliced meat- usually beef – cooked at the table in an iron dish with a little oil over a gas burner

However, each course, and there may be many comprising perhaps only a mouthful, has a completely different flavour. This wondrous trick is achieved by the use of a different type of vegetable, grass or seaweed that is added to the cooking of just a couple of pieces of meat.

These are then served by dropping them piping hot into a dish into which a raw egg has been broken. The hot food instantly cooks a thin coating of egg onto itself, which sets by the time it arrives at your mouth. Served with light and fluffy rice it was superb and an experience I’ll never forget.

Hong Kong was our next port and I have to admit that here I reverted to type and set off with a bunch of others to hit the town. There was quite a long walk from the ship’s berth to the security gates beyond which the town proper began. Here were all the vendors, the rickshaw boys, the pimps and the bar touts in their dozens (if not hundreds it sometimes seemed) dishing out their cards depicting naked females engaged in a variety of interesting contortions.

“Hello. You want rickshaw.– Special price?”- “No thanks.”

“Hello Johnny. You want jig-a-jig?” - “No thanks.”

“Hello. You want fuck my sister?” “No I don’t.”

“Ok. You want fuck me?” “No! Fuck off.”

At last, something seemed to work, but only until the next time.

Actually, you learn after a while that the best trick is to completely ignore them which is hard for us English who are taught that it’s rude to ignore someone who speaks to you. Avoiding eye contact is important and makes it easier as you can kid yourself you don’t know who’s talking so it’s easy to ignore.

That first night in Hong Kong was crazy and within an hour or two we were all pretty well plastered so as we fell out of one heaving club onto the street about one o’clock and someone said “Hello. You want see dirty film?” we almost in unison said “Yea. Why not.”

I may have been well gone but I remember it as one of the strangest experiences and I’m talking about just getting to this film show.

“OK. You come. You follow.” So off we went through the back streets to the foyer of a very smart modern looking office block. We followed up the marble steps to some glass doors that were open and rather looked as though they’d been forced, but some time ago because despite its modernity the place looked dusty and unoccupied as though abandoned by builders who’d gone bust.

“Ok You come. You come.” bleated our guide as he led us to the lifts and pressed a button to open the doors. Inside the lift it was clear things were not right because the interior trim was missing and we were standing in what was effectively a mesh cage not unlike those that take miners down their pits. Even now we didn’t realise how wrong things were because we were still in the lift shaft but a moment after our Chinaman pressed the button and the lift began to rise, we saw it all. Literally!

Above the ground floor foyer there was no building to speak of apart from a steel framework through which our lift was rising. Not unlike a visit to the Eiffel Tower, except that instead of the lights of Paris laid out before us we had Hong Kong in all directions. As far as we were concerned the next stop could have been the moon.

Why hadn’t we noticed the state of the building? Well; one, because we were all smashed; secondly it was dark and I guess we were just too busy keeping our balance and looking down as we climbed the entrance steps that we simply didn’t look up.

Interestingly in retrospect, and I guess this is the dulling effect of excess alcohol; no-one flew into a panic, rage or anything. We just waited and I don’t believe anyone even spoke.

Within a few seconds we had passed through the skeletal structure and were once again surrounded by the fabric of a building and in a few seconds more the lift stopped. We tipped out into a lobby albeit looking more like a building site where once again our friend took the lead and guided us through some double doors to where unbelievably, at the top of this two-part building a film show was actually in progress.

Obviously, it was dark and only illuminated by light from the screen where three or four if not more people seemed to be copulating with great enthusiasm. In the flickering gloom, we realised there were at least another eight or ten people already seated.

The hugely funny thing was that as our eyes adjusted further, we saw that they were almost all the senior officers from Himalaya. Realising that it was a bunch of their own catering crew that had arrived they attempted to cover their embarrassment at being discovered by much pulling up of collars and sinking deep into their seats. They must have wished the floor would swallow them.

I had never seen a pornographic film before, the limit of my experience in that regard having been the odd magazine such as ‘Health and Efficiency’ which was titillation masquerading as Naturism and possibly one or two others that today wouldn’t even be competition for an underwear advert.

What I did discover though was that watching porn is a great leveller. It doesn’t matter if you are the Chief Steward, First Officer or a dish-washing Utility Steward, you can’t stand on your status or have any pretention about rank if you’re sitting together watching a blue film. It is also very sobering or at least it worked that way for most of us.

The drunken bravado quickly evaporated and apart from the last-ditch efforts of one or two who’s attempted wisecracks fell pretty flat we all subsided into silence privately hoping I’m sure that the experience would soon be over.

When it eventually finished the group of officers literally scrambled for the doors looking pretty sheepish and with the odd remark about ‘Mum’ being the word and suggesting that we all forget we’d bumped into each other.

Clearly only one of the lifts was working so we had to stand about for a few minutes which in our now much sobered state gave us the chance to take in the surroundings a bit more.

The place was indeed pretty much still a building site littered with empty plaster bags, off-cuts of timber and odd sheets of the trim panels that were to be fixed to the wall as a final finish.

There were however no tools and the general feeling was that work had certainly, at least for the time being, come to a halt. Beside the lift shaft was a pair of doors opening to a staircase with steps both up and down so clearly our floor was not the only one. However, I remember thinking that you’d need to keep your wits about you if tempted to descend via the stairs because certainly in a few feet they must come to an end in open space!

After a few minutes the lift came back and Mr “You follow” herded us inside and in a moment or two we were back on the street and for my part wondering whether it had all really happened at all.

Somewhat deflated and with post- inebriation torpor setting in we shambled our way back to the ship and that as they say was that. However, we were not finished with Hong Kong as Himalaya was due there again in a few weeks as part of our pacific cruise itinerary.

Next stop was Manila in the Philippines, a heaving cauldron of humanity and superb example I thought of religious tolerance. More than 90% Roman Catholic since the times of the Spanish rule the population also includes other variations of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism not to mention a variety of other minor creeds and all apparently without any of the inter-faith conflict we see today around the world.

Manila Street Scene

Manila City was a great stop for passengers and crew alike as there was loads to see and in the two days we were in port there was also time enough to fit in both cultural sight-seeing and shopping. Oh, and in the case of the crew a fair amount of bartering too.

Manila is one huge market where anything and everything can be bought and sold so it was the ideal place to give in to the temptation to purloin the odd item of P&O gear and test the market so to speak.

As I said previously, the company was well aware that a certain amount of pilfering went. However, as I now discovered once we tied up in Manila it would be no exaggeration to say that an avalanche of P&O property found its way ashore to be exchanged for local produce mostly in the shape of the Manila rum and cigars for which the place is famous.

As a smoker in those days I can say that I was well pleased with my cigars and suspect that at least one Filipino was delighted with his posh new bath towel. Enough said I think!

After Manila there was quite a long hop to Suva in the south Pacific Fijian islands with their long palm-fringed beaches. Slightly more off-putting though were the sharks cruising around close to the ship in the port where they had apparently learnt to scavenge among the human detritus.

Fiji – Classic South Sea Island beach scene

Our next port of call was a brief stop at Aukland where the ‘must-see’ attraction was the new Harbour Bridge.

The 'pre clip-on' harbour bridge at Aukland.

This image shows the opening when thousands of people were allowed to walk over before the traffic took over.

Opened just a couple of years previously in 1959, the bridge carried a four-lane highway across the harbour mouth although it had already attracted much criticism for lack of imagination by not including provision for either rail or pedestrian traffic. Worse however was to come as I discovered when I visited New Zealand again years later.

Dramatically increasing vehicular traffic made it obvious that more capacity was needed and so in 1969, only ten years after opening; two-lane box girder sections supported on cantilevers clipped were clipped on to each side, doubling the number of lanes to eight. The sections were manufactured by Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries of Japan, which led to the nickname 'Nippon clip-ons'.

The selection of the company was considered a bold move at the time, barely 20 years after the war and with some considerable anti-Japanese sentiment still existing. The costs of the additions were much higher than if the extra lanes had been provided initially.

A few days later Himalaya arrived at her terminal port of Sydney where we were due to remain for about a week whilst the ship was re-provisioned. Hooray! Now for some worthwhile shore leave.

The ship berthed in Circular Quay almost underneath the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge and not much more than a stone’s throw from the site where the now equally iconic new Opera House was being built.

Started a few years previously in 1958 the project was to suffer innumerable setbacks and near cancellations before its final opening in 1973. How tragic it would have been not to finish the job.

The good thing about a longer visit was that whilst we did of course hit the sleazy clubs and bars of the Kings Cross area there was also an opportunity to explore attractions a bit further afield.

One such trip was to Luna Park, the vast fun-fair or what I guess we would call a theme park these days that was situated (and still is) just across the bay from Sydney Cove and Circular Quay were we were moored.

There was also a great day spent with a couple of lads out at Manly beach, famous for its surf and the many beautiful people there enjoying Australia’s enviable open air life-style.

Sun lovers and surfers at Manly Beach

We did have a swim there; however, I must say that it concentrated the mind somewhat to see the shark nets across the beach.

This was especially so when a bit of on-line research during the course of writing this showed the number of sharks caught that might otherwise have been responsible for beach attacks.

Lovely beaches and lifestyle though and with emigration passages at just £10 back then, small wonder there was such a rush to apply.

So, here we are at our terminal port and if you think that was good, I'm about to do it all again. From Sydney Himalaya was due to sail for a 'Round the Pacific' cruise returning to Sydney just after Christmas '62

That trip was also due to provide a few laughs as you will discover if you stick with me. Watch this space!

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