33. My Merchant Mariner Travels Around The World (Part 6)

Another ship, which was the SS South African Trader because I had transferred from the other one, another crew to tag along with to teach me a thing or two, especially the older sea-dogs. Dar es Salaam, Beira, Lourenço Marques, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Walvis Bay were their stomping grounds, and the older woman no matter what the nationality or colour just adored them.  Dar es Salaam in Tanzania further north up the east African coast was a magnificent harbour straight off the Indian Ocean, and to me Tanzania was the ‘Garden of Eden’ when experiencing what it had to offer. Where else would one find the highest singular mountain in the world and highest in Africa like Mount Kilimanjaro with its top always covered with snow. The Great Riff Valley that ran along the eastern part of Africa from Ethiopia to Mozambique, and that formed in its centre the Maasai Steppe that was home to the great herds of wild animals that roamed freely over the vast area of open grassland. The open plains were home to about 2 million wild animals that migrated from the south to the north and then back again to feed on the new grass and vegetation after the rains. The gnu (wildebeest), Cape buffalo, gazelles, impalas, elands, topis and other antelope, zebras, elephants, giraffes, lions, leopards, hyenas, ostriches and hundreds of bird species were part of that wildlife scene. It also had Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika, with the former the largest lake in Africa and the latter the longest freshwater lake in the world. And then there was the Serengeti National Park where there were areas only for wildlife, and others where they and people were allowed, which were the Maasai with their livestock. To not only see the Maasai warriors who were distinctive in appearance dressed in their traditional garb of long orange caftan type coverings, capes, beaded jewellery and ochre colored hair, but also their straight up and down jumping dancing while holding spears at their sides was the most thrilling and exciting to behold. That took nothing away from their womenfolk and children who were serene in their bearing too, and in dress. Their beaded jewellery, which they also made for their menfolk, that was worn around ankles, arms, fingers, head, in the earlobes and in ever widening circles around the neck that when dancing would spread out in a colourful glittering bouncing circle. The city of Dar es Salaam on the other hand was the other side of the coin, and although predominantly Muslim, was no barrier for those booze swilling seaman. For there our fantasies of the Arabian Nights were realized with dancing veiled women, black thick Arabian coffee laced with our liquor, hookah’s smoked with the good stuff mixed in it, and where the women eventually lost more than their veils.

Beira (now Maputo) was still its intoxicating mix of African and Portuguese, along with French, Arab and Oriental influences. It reminded me of a Little Havana with its raffish charm of faded but glorious buildings and really old done up cars that trundled along. Got to go to the Railway Station Club again, and from there to the red-light district for a bit of ‘sightseeing’ that hadn’t changed much, and imbibed some more. With  the Prawn Gods still ruling in Lourenco Marques with their specialty, prawn piripiri; a dish of juicy succulent prawns chilli spiced, I required the recipe and five kilos of the largest prawns I had ever seen. It was for the soul purpose to instruct the mother of Joan ‘vrot arm’ in Durban on its preparation when having a family dinner at their home when returning there. The prawns were received with a kiss on the cheek by her and she did us proud with the prawn dish, except for adding a bit too much piripiri that saw us blowing steam out of our ears when having to cool it off with cold water. With a new ships crew who had a different lease on life and which made for adjustment all around, wasn’t too difficult with another added shipmate, George, and Bazil, who had also been on a sabbatical and also changed ships, and me. George was the Captains Tiger, Bazil still the Chippy and I was again the Saloon Steward. George brought a musical theme into our group because although Bazil and I could trill the tonsils at times when on board or ashore when nice and tipsy, George took it to a higher level. There used to be talent shows held at a Durban Hotel that we frequented, and George in his wisdom entered the three of us as a singing trio, don’t laugh we did quite well. He was the lead singer and we were his backup to numbers that we would practice while at sea with the backing of our motley sea crew musicians, and don’t laugh again because they would at times, while in ports, entertain impromptu at hotels and clubs and receive free drinks for their efforts.

So there the three of us were at our first full house audience performance with no butterflies because of the Dutch courage drinks consumed beforehand.  I Googled the song done by Tex Ritter who was  the singing cowboy star of movies then, and here it is in all its glory as narrated by George and  harmonized by Bazil and I, and the band as back-up to the song of ‘Deck of Cards’: “During the North African Campagne, a bunch of soldier boys had been on a long hike, and they arrived in a little town called Casino.
The next morning, being Sunday, several of the boys went to church.
A Sargent commanded the boys in church, and after the chaplain had read the prayer, the text was taken up next. Those of the boys who had prayer books took them out, but, this one boy had only a deck of cards, and so he spread them out.
The Sargent saw the cards and said, “Soldier, put away those cards”.
After the services were over, the soldier was taken prisoner, and brought before the Provost Marshall. The Marshall said “Sergeant, why have you brought this man here?”
“For playing cards in church Sir.”
“And what have you to say for yourself Son?”
“Much, Sir,” replied the soldier.
The Marshall said, “I hope so, for if not, I shall punish you more than any man was ever punished.”
The soldier said, “Sir, I have been on the march for about six days, I have neither Bible nor prayer book, but I hope to satisfy you, Sir, with the purity of my intentions.”
And with that, the boy started his story. “You see sir, when I look at the Ace, it reminds me that there is but one God, and the deuce, reminds me that the bible is divided into two parts, the old and the New Testament. When I see the trey, I think of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. And when I see the four, I think of the four Evangelists who preached the Gospel, there was Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And when I see the five, it reminds me of the five wise virgins who trimmed their lamps, there were ten of them, five were wise and were saved, five were foolish, and were shut out. When I see the six, it reminds me that in six days, God made this great Heaven and Earth. When I see the seven, it reminds me that on the seventh day, God rested from His great work. And when I see the eight, I think of the eight righteous persons God saved when he destroyed this Earth. There was Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their wives. And when I see the nine, I think of the lepers our Saviour cleansed, and, nine out of the ten didn’t even thank him. When I see the ten, I think of the ten commandments God handed down to Moses on a table of stone. When I see the king, it reminds me that there is but one King of Heaven, God Almighty. And when I see the Queen, I think of the Blessed Virgin Mary who is Queen of Heaven, and the Jack of Knaves is the Devil. When I count the number of spots in a deck of cards, I find 365, the number of days in a year. There are 52 cards, the number of weeks in a year. There are four suits, the number of weeks in a month. There are twelve picture cards, the number of months in a year. There are thirteen tricks, the number of weeks in a quarter. So, you see Sir, my pack of cards serves me as a Bible, an Almanac, and a prayer book.” Yip, we took the first prize of thirty pounds with that one, and there were others, and also received rounds of free drinks; so who’s laughing now.

Thanks heaven I was then in Cape Town safely away from those lustful females who seemed at times like depraved women. Now those are the women that I never told Joan about because she didn’t seem to have a bad bone in her body, except about Joan ‘vrot arm’, which she ever so occasionally still makes mention of when I annoy her. Bloody women never let go do they. Walvis Bay in South West Africa, now Namibia, was home to the Ovumbo and Germans. Steins of German beer could be had there in the restricted White Only bars through the curtsy of the South African National Party’s apartheid laws, even though they were only administrating the country under the League of Nations. With a special pass though you could consume African beer in the African compounds that we preferred because the beer was cheaper, more potent, and the natives were the friendliest in the land. If black is beautiful then those voluptuous provocative women proved the point, and their buoyant nature extended to the buoyancy of their breast and buttocks as it seemed to float along as they jiggled. Many a seaman’s hands were warmed on those on cold nights, and a raging fire could be lit if the equipment was properly handled and appropriately stoked. Even the white men became black men at night to liaison with those black beauties.

From there to England where we were looking forward to the serenity of that country for a bit of peace and quiet without any incidents occurring. One unexpected incident though did occur on our ship before reaching our destination. It was common knowledge, by those who had sailed previously on her, that whenever voyages on that ship neared the United Kingdom, the captain, officers on watch and able seaman that steered the ship at night would observe a figure in work overalls walk the ship. It would make its way from the anchor chain locker to amidships along the deck, disappear aft, reappear and make its way back again, and searching and questioning on various trips had never brought any results to that mystery. Crew members on that trip when coming off the ghost watch, which was the midnight to four watches, asked me the next day about seeing me wandering to and fro in my dark cabin that early in the morning. They were under the impression that I was searching for something, but when they called out I ignored them and then blended with the darkness. Puzzled, intrigued and further inquiries led me to wait for the bewitching hour to see if anything would eventuate again as I had never walked in my sleep. Lying in the darkness with just the dim bunk light on, I first smelt the sweet smell of a presence and then perceived a distinct figure of a man in overalls enter the cabin. Beckoning to me he turned and I followed. The apparition led me all the way to the anchor chain locker and pointed down at its interior. An immediate thought came to mind that he had died and somehow his remains were entombed down there. Unbeknown to me an officer on the ghost watch who had seen one figure go aft and two return to the fore of the ship came to investigate, but all he found was me with a bizarre explanation. Needless to say,  inquires and further investigation by shipbuilding authorities did discover that a shipbuilder had gone missing while the ship was been built, and on removing the steel panels between the hull and interior, they found his skeletal remains wedged right at the bottom. The ghost watch never saw any ghost after that, and again I was used to deliver a message.

Then up the River Thames to London that was an experience in itself because on the way everything that spelt England could be seen. Docking where we did in Docklands in the East End spelt disaster if you didn’t know your way around, especially in the slums where crime was rife and if stupid enough to wander around was an invitation to be set upon. The population consisted of a mixture of English, Irish, Jews and extensively larger Bengali communities that made for interesting racial confrontations to be viewed from a safe distance. It wasn’t also a place for sightseeing, but the memory of Hitler’s bombing was still visible by buildings that bore the destruction by it. A bit of brightness that livened up that area though was the Sunday Markets, and the one that I heard about and seen portrayed in the movies was Petticoat Lane. London itself was a combination of a blast from the past and nothing absent from the present, and entertainment, drink or food could be partaken of at either of those. When there I also loved to just sit and soak up not only the atmosphere of the older style inns with its oak beams, polished brass fittings and open fires but also tankards of draught beer. Those brass fittings of pubs visited by some crewman was an invitation for them to bring along Brasso and clothes to really police them up until shining like gold, as we all did when doing all of the brass fittings on board ship. There was method in their madness because of them receiving free drinks at those pubs, and it didn’t stop there, because when there wasn’t any brass to do they would go ashore with their musical instruments to give impromptu music gigs. Their musical instruments consisted of guitar, banjo, tambourine,  maracas and a tom-tom drum that when playing South African music, especially Klopse numbers, the pub crowds would not only dance to it but would encourage more to be played by the encouragement of them been plied with free drinks. The night time life also offered a bewildering range of diverse enjoyment that extended to opera and theatre, which not only made my day but also my night, with clubbing also that never seemed to stop. The traditional sights of Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London, the Changing of the Guard and the rest of it always blew me away no matter how many times I saw it, for it seemed that there was always something that was missed the last time, and in comparison to what was seen as pictures and in the movies, didn’t do it justice.

What though almost saw Bazil, George and I facing the British justice system was just because of a bottle of whiskey. Before leaving London there had been an affiliated company party on board ship that they had done all the catering for. Bazil who had been making his rounds as Chippy to check the ships secure lines, happened to pass a porthole on the passenger deck where he saw the Second Steward and two junior Engineers having drinks together. That wouldn’t have been a problem for them, but it was been done in a passenger cabin that was restricted to passengers and on that trip we didn’t have any. Without been observed and peering further into the cabin, he saw boxes of liquor there that they were helping themselves from and drinking it, which he calculated must have been leftover from the party. So he thought if they could so would he, and came to George and my cabin, which we shared, to hatch his plan to get us a drink from there. While we waited in the shadows on the main deck, he went to see if they had left and that the coast was clear. With it been so, George was the lookout on the passenger-deck, I acted as the lookout on the main-deck, and Bazil slipped into the passenger cabin, grabbed a bottle of whiskey and hightailed it out of there. However, as he exited the alleyway door that lead from the cabin onto the passenger-deck, the Second Steward and his two companions maybe wanting to have a few more drinks saw him leaving from the passenger-deck without him been aware of it. The three of us got stuck into the whiskey and didn’t think any more about it until the next day when Bazil was put on the red-carpet by the Chief Steward. It seemed that when the Second Steward saw Bazil in that vicinity, he had cooked up a story that when checking the passenger-cabin to see that it was secured, he had found three bottles of liquor missing.  Bazil putting two and two together knew at once that they had taken a bottle each and was passing the buck onto him.  Always been one to think quickly on his feet, he just denied it with a convincing story that he was doing his rounds that also took in the passenger-deck and that he had been seen by the gangway watchman doing that, which he had but it was the first time around.  The Captain, after it had been reported to him by the Chief Steward, asked George, his Captain’s Tiger, if he had observed any excessive strong  drink been consumed aft in the crew’s quarters the previous night. George, and I, knowing the whole story lied through his teeth, but when the wily Captain, which suited him because his name was Tricky, told George that it had been reported to the Company and they were sending around someone from Scotland Yard to investigate, George crumbled like a deck of cards and blurted out the story of our involvement. Then it was my turn on the red carpet followed by having Bazil and George joining me in the Captain Cabin for further interrogation because he smelled a rat with all of the conflicting stories, especially from the Second Steward. When the true story emerged, all six of us were given our marching orders to be signed off in Cape Town, and the story told to George about Scotland Yard was a made-up one by Captain Tricky.

Sailing down the coast to Southampton we first passed the maritime base of Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight before entering into Southampton Waters. If it wasn’t that I was on the ship’s bridge at that time serving the captain and the ship’s pilot with mugs of hot brewed coffee to warm the cockles of their hearts and their bodies in that chilling cold weather, I wouldn’t have known of the phenomenon of ‘double tides’. It consisted of a prolonged period of high water up the westerly side that backed up two hours later, and made for exceptionally large vessels to berth at Southampton’s two docks, which was no exception to the maiden voyages of the Queen Mary and the Titanic. A bomb-ruined church, which was another souvenir of Hitler, stood as a monument to the merchant navy seaman killed in that war, and it also had a memorial fountain to the crew of the Titanic that had many who had come from Southampton. From the English Channel to the Atlantic Ocean into the Bay of Biscay, which laid between France and Spain, on our way to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa, was the sea route on our way to Cape Town. So thinking that our share of mishaps was over and that it would be smooth sailing to home-port, we got the ship shipshape. Unfortunately, we forgot momentarily about the occasional bad weather in the Bay of Biscay. It was notorious for rough seas and exceptional high tides that made for mountainous seas and for a ship to simultaneously roll and pitch continuously for a long period had been known to cause serious damage. We lost deck cargo; lifeboats were damaged, ripped off storm doors, flooded passenger cabins and a captain who got seasick for the first time. We counted ourselves lucky though, for on the ship’s radio it was reported that the gale storms had claimed 27 lives when two ships sunk. Now this was where Bazil as Chippy really did his thing. He not only in his duties had to operate the anchor windlass for heaving it up, securing the hatch covers, take the bilge soundings for water flooding of holds, inspection of boom derricks; a machine for hoisting and moving heavy objects, life-boat releasing gear maintenance and the taking on of bunkers (ships fuel) and ballast water, but also be a rigger to scale up to the crow’s nest for other maintenance.  He came into his own then by having to supervise all of the crew that weren’t on watch and on standby to move and secure the shifted cargo by lashing it down. What also helped was the thoughtful Chief Steward that kept us going with mugs of coffee laced with rum.

As soon as we were shipshape at Las Palmas, the crew received shore leave to recuperate. Because of always going there just for bunkers, the crew never had the opportunity to see what it had to offer. While it oozed the kind of sunny languor associated with the Mediterranean, it also had distinctive features at the Casa/Museo de Colón that was a superb example of Canarian architecture, built around two balconied patios, complete with fountains, palm trees and parrots. Columbus’ House (it’s possible he stopped here to present his credentials to the governor in 1492), and the museum’s four sections included fascinating accounts of Columbus’ voyages. The city’s brooding, grey Catedral de Santa Ana with its neoclassical facade contrasted with the interior, and I did what was done by me at Saint Mary of the Angels in Athlone by going up in the cathedral’s tower to view the stunning and wide-ranging view of the surrounds from the city to the coast. And then I came across the Covered Markets that had everything there but the kitchen-sink.  Bought my darling wife a twelve box of Tabu Perfume that only cost two pounds sterling South African, which was 400 Spanish pesetas then, and now the same single 45ml bottle cost $21 Australian. With the South African Rand now 10 to 1$Australian, it would now cost 210 Rand.  I also saw the most amazing fully dressed porcelain life-like doll that when holding its hand and moving forward, it would walk with you, and I bought it for my daughter Gina. I bought my boys who were into train-sets a complete one that emitted sparks and whistled when running on the tracks, with station platforms, overhead bridges and a model town. While there, some of the standby crew who couldn’t go ashore for their R and R made use of the hearse type limousines with closed drawn black curtains, which always drove slowly up and down the wharf where a newly arrived ship berthed. Those crew-members were aware that those vehicles weren’t for the use of dead persons for funerals but for very alive prostitutes who used it as brothels on wheels.

Bazil, George and I as soon as we were underway and sailing, got together to discuss what we were going to tell our spouses of our sudden leaving of the ship. George was alright because it was his third trip on the Victory and about due for shore leave. With Bazil and I it had to be credible, so we concocted up the story that we found the officers too difficult to sail with, which was a half-truth. Then because of the deceptive lies and manner in which we were to be signed off and wanting to do something gainfully constructive, we discussed the ways and means in doing it. We three had observantly seen and pointed out to one another, when working in the cargo hold to secure it, about some of the cargo that had split slightly open. Three packing cases had contained a consignment of men’s clothing from London, which was top market range. Knowing also that insurance covered all damaged or lost goods while in transport at sea, we came to the conclusion that nothing ventured nothing gained if we didn’t have a further inspection of it. Bazil been the Chippy had accessibility to anywhere on the ship, especially to the cargo-hold where we headed for. Within torch-lights we helped ourselves to two suits each, plus two sets of sports-wear, an overcoat, duffel-coat windbreaker and a variety of shirts. We must have been seen ashore as real spiffy when wearing those dressed to kill cloths.


The type of London Pub where ship-crew would go and Brasso the brass for free drinks and the ship-crew band played for their liquid supper.


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