We Shall Remember Them . . .

There comes a time when one considers where they came from, and the history of their own family. In doing my own family ‘tree’, I remembered stories from my childhood of one particular person who had been killed in the First World War. His name was on the war memorial in our town centre, yet I knew very little about him, other than the family stories.
In 2012 my wife and I planned a visit to the UK , to allow me to take part in a 50 year reunion of those of us who left the naval college that we attended in 1962. On leaving the college most of us went to sea, and for many of us our paths never crossed again, so this reunion would be an interesting event.
While I researched the international travel arrangements my wife suggested that we visit the grave of my uncle, who was killed at the age of nineteen in World War One, and is buried at Ypres in Belgium. My uncle was my father’s brother, and growing up in the UK in the 40’s & 50’s I knew that my parents were not wealthy enough to take a trip to Belgium. I thought that this was a great idea. All of my father’s generation are now dead, which made me, as an only child, the obvious link to visit my uncle’s grave.

We flew in to Paris (via Colombo in Sri Lanka), and stayed in a small hotel called Hotel France Albion for three nights.

Albion paris

I’d booked us first class tickets on the TGV for Lille, which was a very fast train. The train left from Gare du Nord. The station is imposing, but we soon found our way around and realised we had an hour to wait for departure time. We’d left the hotel early to allow for traffic problems, but as luck would have it we arrived with plenty of time.

Station   Gare du Nord outside & insideInside

 

 

The difference between 1st and 2nd class was not a lot of money, so we decided to treat ourselves and travel 1st Class, because we’d never travelled 1st Class on a train, so we were quite looking forward to the experience. The ticket stated that we were booked in coach 2 and gave our seat numbers. As we approached the train we could see the second coach from the engine and it had a large #2 on the side, in addition the small neon sign by the coach door flashed # 1, so we assumed that this was the first class area of coach # 2. We found our seats, but they were not positioned as I expected after seeing the coach plans. The area had a limited number of seats and was split from the rest of the coach by an electronic door, so I assumed that this was the correct area.

image001

Later when the ticket inspector checked our tickets he never said anything other than ‘Good morning’. On reaching Lille (an hours fast ride from Paris, which is just over 200 km), we had to walk the length of the train to exit the station, and this is when I realised that we had been in the wrong coach, and we had travelled 2nd class for a first class price, so I still haven’t experienced first class rail.

I’d allowed us 20-minute transit time at Lille station. Wrong, the station was so crowded, and the queues so long to gain information about the best way of getting to Ypres in Belgium, that we missed the connection. We hadn’t bought our onward tickets as this next journey is classed as a ‘local’, and local tickets could not be bought via the web. Eventually we bought our tickets and we knew that we would have to change at Kortrijk, which is just inside Belgium. We had about fifteen minutes to change platforms / trains and from investigation the station only had eight platforms, so it didn’t look too daunting. My investigation on the internet about Kortrijk station gave me the impression that to get from one platform to another was via a subway system, which would not be too hard as there were ramps from the platform to the subway, and with our wheeled suitcases this would be easy. Wrong again – we could not find ramps only steep steps down to the subway and more steps up to the required platform. With two suitcases and only one male to manhandle them down and up the stairways, while my wife handled the hand baggage, we only just made the connection.

image001Ypres railways station is quaint, with a touch of old world charm,. We found a large open spaced car park, empty taxi rank, and that it was very quiet on Sunday afternoon. After checking around and realising that we would not be able to find a taxi without some help, we visited the railway ticket office. The ticket office employee was very helpful and ‘phoned for a taxi. The taxi arrived within a few minutes and we were soon at our accommodation close to Menin Gate.

After checking in to our hotel – The Albion – no connection at all with our Paris hotel of a similar name  – we explored the town.

albion-hotel-1-250-190

The hotel was around the corner from the town centre (Grote market) which is not a large area, but it is a very interesting area. It is a square dominated by the Cloth Hall, which we thought had been built some hundreds of years ago until we realised that Ypres had been destroyed in WW1, and rebuilt as it was before the start of the war. The Cloth Hall we so admired as being a piece of history was rebuilt in 1928! The people of Ypres used the original plans and as much of the old stones as they could, to rebuild their buildings. All the ‘old’ houses of Ypres, along with many farms and villages in the surrounding areas, which were also destroyed, were rebuilt as close as possible to how they looked prior to 1914. The town has a very nice ‘feel’, and we found the people to be very friendly and pleasant.

image001

Ypres in 1918

image002
The Cloth Hall 1918

 

cloth hall
The Cloth hall 2012
image001
Local church in 1918
image001
Same church in 2012

In the evening (Sunday) we joined many others at the Menin Gate for the 8.00 pm short remembrance ceremony, to honour the 56,000 allied troops who do not have a known grave after the battles around Ypres. Each name is carved on the walls of the Gate.

DSC00174r
Names and more names of those who do not have a known grave.

DSC00188r

Behind the crowd are columns & columns of names. It is a very moving ceremony, which is held every evening at 8.00 pm, having been started in 1928. The buglers who play the ‘Last Post’ are all volunteers.

The following morning we were picked up by our ‘Battlefield’ guide Jacques, for a four-hour guided tour of the Messines battlefield area outside Ypres. My uncle was killed in this battle in 1917, and is buried in Croonaert Chapel Cemetery. When arranging the tour I mentioned that if it was possible I would like to see his grave. We were shown various military advantage points as Jacques explained how the battle was fought.

DSC00204r

After some time (about an hour) we were shown the German trenches at Bayernwald, and how the British attacked up hill.

It was then that Jacques took us to the small cemetery where my uncle is buried.

DSC00220.JPG

DSC00211rs

I was surprised to see how small it is with ‘only’ 66 graves. It is in the middle of a field, which is farmed for crops (wheat I think). It is not a church cemetery just a well-maintained area behind a small wall that remembers those who died.

I found the grave of my uncle, and as I stood looking down on the memorial Jacques offered me a small white cross and a single poppy to place on the grave.

As I placed the small cross on my uncle’s grave,

DSC00214r

Jacques quoted the words of the poem ‘For the Fallen’ , which is also known as the ‘Ode of Remembrance’ by Laurence Binyon –

They went with songs to the battle; they were young,

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

   Albert Edward01

My uncle joined the army for King and county, he was so keen to fight that he lied about his age – and was dead at 19.

It was a very moving moment for my wife and I, which will be remembered for the rest of our lives. The thoughtfulness of Flanders Battlefield Tours, and Jacques in particular, offering the cross and poppy, was something that I never expected. At the end of the tour I was presented with a folder, which contained all the known details of my uncle, a copy his service record and details of the part that his regiment (Cheshire Regiment) played in the Messines Battle.

On leaving Croonaert Chapel Cemetery we moved to ‘Hill 60’, you may have seen the film, which came out in 2010.

Hill 60
Poster from the film

DSC00225.JPG

This is the memorial to the Australians involved in the tunneling under Hill 60. The dark spots on the plaque are bullet holes from WW2. Hill 60 is 60 metres above sea level – hence the name. The hill is a man-made hill from the spoil after creating a railway line cutting in 1850.

DSC00227c

A German pillbox on Hill 60.

After the tunnelers had finished their work and placed mines (about 53,000 pounds of explosives) in the tunnels under the German lines they waited for the offensive to begin in the early hours of 7th June 1917. The Hill 60 mine was part of 23 mines placed below the enemy lines. The explosion of the mines was heard in London.

Today the remains of the blast at Hill 60 is now a large lake overgrown with vegetation. To illustrate how large the explosion was I took a photograph of our guide, who stood at one side of the crater, (the person inside the orange circle) and I stood at the other side. The experience of touring the battlefield and having detail aspects of the battle explained was well worth the long trip from Australia.

DSC00231s

DSC00239r

Later we visited the Tyne Cot cemetery, and with Jacques explanation we better understood the whole battle area.

The following day we caught the Eurostar from Lillie to London so as to meet up with the others attending the reunion in North Wales.

Singapore 1963 and all that . . .

landaura

I was a deck cadet on the above vessel in 1963.

Arriving in Singapore on Saturday the 14th September 1963, the cadets were allowed to go ashore and have a swim at the Seaman’s Club. The ship was anchored off the wharf area, and we would take a small junk and be rowed, usual by a female using the single paddle at the stern of the junk, from the ship to Clifford Pier near Change Alley. Sunday the 15th was a day of rest for us, as well as all of Singapore, because that was the day the festivities would start. On the 16th September 1963 Singapore would join Malay to create a new country called Malaysia. The British were no longer in charge of Singapore.
Singapore in the 1960’s was as ‘foreign’ as one could get – it was a mixture of British, Malay, China, Indonesia, and everywhere else in between – it was Asian, and I loved it from the minute I set foot ashore on Clifford Pier.

clifford_pier

Clifford Pier – still there today, but it is now a museum, I think.

First thing we always did on crossing the road, known as Collyer Quay, was to visit Change Alley – at that time famous for money changers. Now it is an upmarket, air-conditioned shopping area. The picture below was taken in 1970.

06 singapore 1970s change alley

With ‘Sing’ dollars in our pocket one could not go past the Cellar Bar, which was below street level (obviously), and a cool, quiet place (being late morning) for a cold Tiger beer. It would liven up at lunchtime and in the evening.

Tiger beer

 

To illustrate how important the Cellar Bar was to the seafaring fraternity, I will jump a head from 1963 to 1966.

After I’d finished my time as a cadet, and passed the exams for a Second Mates ticket I was sent, in April 1966, to Singapore to join an LST (Landing Ship Tank) as third mate. The Company had the contract to supply officers and crews for the various LSTs controlled by the British Ministry of Defence around the world. From 1962 to 1966 Malaya and Indonesia had been fighting an undeclared war, which dragged Britain, Australia & New Zealand in to this ‘confrontation’.
I joined LST Frederick Clover, which was built in 1945 as LST 3001, and named ‘Frederick Clover’ after the war, gross tonnage 4225, so not a particularly large vessel.
Our duties were to carry supplies and troops (the troops to and from) Borneo in support of the fight against Indonesia.
There were other LSTs on similar runs to Borneo, and the officers used to socialise at the Cellar Bar whenever their ship was in port. One day I asked, at the naval office, when a particular LST would be in port, because the third mate in this LST was a friend of mine. I was told that they couldn’t tell me because I wasn’t security cleared, and the movement of the LSTs were on a ‘need to know’ basis. I even explained that I was part of the LST fleet, but as I was still a merchant seaman, rather than Royal Navy, they couldn’t help me, although I’d signed the Official Secrets Act in case I gave away the top speed (10 kts) of the Frederick Clover.

Tiger

Not a problem, my next stop was the Cellar Bar and I asked the girls behind the bar if they knew when my friend was due in Singapore. They were quite happy to tell me the name of his LST, and that he was due into Singapore the following day!, so much for ‘need to know’, and naval security.

 

Let’s move back to the celebrations of Singapore joining Malaya, to create the new country of Malaysia.

Early evening we visited Bugis Street for something to eat – the place was already ‘jumping’. Bugis St was famous for the food stalls, beer halls and ‘girls’, although many were not female, but males dressed as females. The ‘trans’ girls would parade up and down the street in their finery and offer to sit near or on someone’s lap while photographs were taken. For this service ‘she’ would charge a small fee. If they worked the street for a number of hours they would earn a very good living. It was known that certain first tripper boy seamen, around fifteen or sixteen years old would be caught up with the whole ambiance of Bugis St and slide off with one of the very attractive ‘attractions’. It didn’t take long for his mates to see the young first tripper running like mad towards them, as if the hounds of hell were after him. His introduction to Bugis Street nightlife was not what he expected.

bugis st98_sm_dining

Early evening for food and beer.

470px-BugisStreetTrans003

Around mid-night the ‘girls’ would show up.

470px-BugisStreetTrans006

Anybody wish to take my picture?

How to tell the difference between the ‘she’ men and real women? The real women couldn’t afford to dress as well as the ‘she’ men. I was always told to check the Adams apple on the ‘women’ – but I never got that close!

In the 1980’s Bugis Street was closed due to the building of the MRT station. Later the Government realised that they had killed off a major Singapore ‘attraction’, so they opened ‘new’ Bugis Street, which is across the main road (Victoria Street),  and is now an open air market stall area. Regardless of the promotional effort Bugis Street is ‘dead’.

BugisStreet005

 

The picture shows Bugis Street today (the original area not the ‘new’ street)

 

 

The celebrations went on for a few days, but the ‘marriage’ of Singapore and Malaya didn’t last. It was all over by the 9th August 1965, when Singapore became an independent state. This was still in the future.

The Good the Bad & the Dangerous

Air asia XDuring my travels I have flown with quite a few airlines, from bone shakers and certain national carriers that shouldn’t have been allowed to fly, to airlines that have won awards year after year.

Some people have made negative comments about the low cost carriers, but one low cost carrier, for me, stands out as an airline that I am happy to fly with, as long as the cost and schedules fits my requirements.

My favourite low coast airline is Air Asia,

http://www.airasia.com/au/en/home.page

having flown with them from Cambodia to Malaysia, Singapore to Borneo, Malaysia to Sri Lanka three times and on each occasion I couldn’t fault the service. On certain sectors they do offer business class, but, as yet, I have not tried this service. I have read that Air Asia business class is not the normal business class of regular airlines – more like Premium Economy, than business class, but the price reflects the service level.

What I have tried is their relatively new option, if you are traveling as a couple, of ‘buy the centre seat’ in economy to have more room. They call it ‘Extra seat option’ – http://www.airasia.com/au/en/promotion/extra-seat-option.page?icid=iaf683hpsba

I bought two economy seats from Kuala Lumpur to Colombo in Sri Lanka in 2014, at a good price, for the three and a half hour flight. The price was cheaper than the two major carries on the same route.

I did consider business class, but for such a short flight I considered the price was a little too expensive. While booking the economy seats I was offered the middle seat of three for AUD $11, each way, as long as they did not sell the seat to someone for a standard fare. If they did sell the seat, my $11 would be refunded. A ‘no brainer! as far as I was concerned.

I bought the ‘extra seat option’ (Air Asia’s name for the service) for the round trip, and also prepaid our meals in both directions. All the planning worked like a dream – on boarding I realised that we had our centre seat, it hadn’t been sold.

We flew out of KLIA2 (Kuala Lumpur International Airport Terminal 2), which had not been open long and still smelled ‘new’, and we found the terminal easy to navigate. I checked us in on line, and all we had to do was drop our bags – along with hundreds of others who had checked in on line, and were trying to drop their bags. To be fair the line moved reasonably quickly – it took us thirty minutes from joining the queue to lodging our bags. They had a number of lodgement stations, which covered all Air Asia flights, but the staff was always friendly and helpful. One agent called the next in line and had 18 family members descend on his counter, with one person waving a wad of passports. Air Asia sent help to break the backlog at this counter and split the family over four counters. Everything was calm, quiet and efficient.

The flight was uneventful, and very pleasant. The cabin staff couldn’t do enough for the passengers. They were very friendly, smiled a lot, and seemed to enjoy their job, plus they found to time to hold a conversation with anyone who spoke to them. I couldn’t help but compare this cabin crew to the airline that we used the previous day.

Air Asia didn’t offer in-flight entertainment, but I noticed how the passengers created their own ‘buzz’, which reminded me of how it used to be when I flew in B 707 & VC 10s in the 1960s. Without entertainment people had to talk to each other or read. Perhaps this passenger interaction helped the cabin crew enjoy their job, because they didn’t have to constantly compete with headphones to gain the passenger’s attention.

Tea and water were included in the ticket price – wine, beer, spirits and soft drinks were extra at reasonable prices.

For the record – Air Asia is unaware of this blog, and I paid for all services with my own money.

Enjoy the journey – with a credit card

Asia has a number of major hubs to Europe – Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and recently with the growth of the Chinese airlines, various Chinese cities such as Shanghai & Guangzhou (old name being Canton).

When checking which transit hub to use to buy your business class ticket consider the economy of the country where the hub is located.

Singapore – an advanced economy, which means airline tickets are expensive.
Bangkok – a very good hub, because of the competition due to the large number airlines using Bangkok airport.
Hong Kong – again an advance economy and expensive to Europe, and the economy tickets from Australia to Hong Kong are more expensive than economy tickets to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok.

Over the years I have bought airline tickets over the internet to fly with Thai Airways in Baht, Malaysian Airlines in Ringgits, Qatar Airlines in Sri Lankan rupees, Air Asia in Singapore dollars, Laos Air in USD, KLM & Iberia in Euros and they were all cheaper than travel agents or the Australian office of the airline that I wanted to use. To purchase the tickets I used a Visa card and they charge a 3% currency conversion fee, but the overall cost has always been cheaper.

A number of times we used Kuala Lumpur as a ‘hub’ to another Asian port i.e Colombo, in Sri Lanka. After doing dummy bookings from various origins such as Seam Reap, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Rangoon, Manila etc I found Colombo to be the cheapest place to purchase business class tickets to Europe, using a quality airline.

Flying from Sydney via Kuala Lumpur to Colombo can be completed in one go, but it would be tiring and take about twelve to thirteen hours. We normally stop over for one night in a hotel near KL airport. The following day, after breakfast, we fly late morning, arriving in Colombo in time for lunch (you fly back in time from KL to Colombo). All very civilised.
Place that my wife and I have stayed during transit stops.

http://www.rumahputih.com/ -a bed and breakfast, run and owned by a Brit married to a Malaysian lady.

http://www.samasamahotels.com/ – right on the airport.
This hotel has two entrances, one is from the transit lounge, you do not enter Malaysia, and the other entrance after you have cleared customs & immigration.

http://www.theyouniqhotel.com/ – free transport to / from airport about ten minutes drive. Not to the same level as the other hotels, but clean and convenient.

http://pullmankualalumpur.com/ – we arrived in KL around 2.00 pm so had time to go in to town via the Express train system ($12 one way). Airline schedule from Sydney has changed and the arrival time is now 8.30 pm, too late to make it worth while to sleep in the city for an overnight transit stop.

We stayed a single night in Colombo after clearing customs and immigration – no visa fee to worry about because we were still in transit, and staying less than 36 hours.
http://www.paradisebeachsrilanka.com/ – about twenty minutes from the airport – hotel will arrange transport. Stayed here twice.
http://www.camelot.lk/ – not far from the Paradise Beach, same arrangements for airport transport.

Our favourite hotel in Sri Lanka is the Mount Lavinia Hotel
http://www.mountlaviniahotel.com/ but this hotel is too far for a single overnight, but a great place to stay for a few nights. The main picture at the top of this blog shows the hotel’s beach at Mount Lavinia.

The following day we leave the hotel at 6.30 am for a light breakfast in the business class lounge. Our flight departs at 9.15 am to the sound of corks popping for our Champagne breakfast.

The cost from Sydney to Europe can be anything from $5000 (via Manila) to $8000 with Qantas (via Dubai or Singapore) – for a combi ticket from Sydney, it would cost around $4000 to $4500 via an Asian port, and you do not get a break at the transit stop, but just keep on flying and this sector is usually a night flight, which means you sleep most of the way and miss out on the business class experience.

DIY – including all airfares and hotel costs, just under $3000 for a combi ticket. We do not like flying at night so we build our trips around daylight flights, and sleep in hotels, all prices are Australian dollars.

For my wife and I, the journey is part of the holiday, so flying business class part of the way is a holiday.

The journey, not the destination,

Flying to Europe from Australia is not as simple as getting on a plane for 24 cramped hours in economy. As one grows older economy class becomes less and less attractive, even though one might not be able to fly business class all the way, perhaps a combination can be arranged. In the past ten years of planning holidays for my wife and I, it has been a happy learning experience.

A combination flight consists of a nine hour economy flight from Sydney to Asia and and business class from Asia to Europe. Where in Europe you might ask – London, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam or?

Considering your European gateway port is a mixture of airline pricing, schedules and your over all plans.

Let’s consider pricing from an Australian origin city. The price offered to London is often more expensive than the price to Paris or Frankfurt, but you might ask, you have to get from Paris to London at a cost, if London is your final destination.

A few years ago the UK Government increased the landing charges for intercontinental flights, so when I decided on a ‘combi’ ticket in 2012, the difference in landing in Paris and staying the night, plus the cost of the Eurostar (economy) was cheaper than flying direct to London. I have since realised that Frankfurt is cheaper again.

We returned to Europe in 2014 using Frankfurt s our gateway. Our final destination being Norwich in Norfolk.

I decided that we would fly KLM from Frankfurt, to Norwich, the overall cost being cheaper than a direct flight to London, plus the train fare to Norwich.
I checked KLM and found that a one way ticket was more expensive than the round trip cost, even though I didn’t wish to fly back to Frankfurt.

I booked return tickets and when I completed our ‘return’ booking, even though we would not be using the return ticket, the ticket cost would be cheaper still if we agreed to fly via the 6.00 am flight from Norwich, because it was FREE!

We booked our flight from Frankfurt to Norwich, and we were ‘no shows’ for the return flight, because we had tickets on the Eurostar to Paris, because at the end of our holiday we would be flying home from Madrid.

KLM F70

I couldn’t fault the service or the aircraft, which was a Fokker 70.

So it does pay to investigate more than the direct service to save money.

 

Judy Judy Judy

From Shanghai we sailed for Hong Kong.

Chanda

On entering Hong Kong harbour we encountered thick fog or very heavy sea mist. It was so thick that we put our engines on ‘dead slow’, so as to enter harbour very carefully. We had lookouts at the masthead, as well as down aft in case another ship came at us from astern. Being one of the two cadets, I was posted forward to the forecastle, with a crew member, to listen for sounds. The crew member listened on the port side (left hand side), and I listened on the starboard side (right hand side). Regular blasts, from our foghorn rent the air to inform any other vessel of our position.

A ship’s bell was permanently located on the forecastle, for the lookout when at sea. If at night he saw a light on the starboard side he would strike the bell once, for a light on the port side it was two strikes, and dead ahead was three strikes. The number of rings told the officer on the bridge the direction of the light. The bell was used in the same way during fog. Instead of distant lights, striking the bell indicated sound or even a sighting.

Suddenly I heard a sound and rang the ship’s bell with a single stroke. The sound that I could hear was very close. There was also a phone link between the bow and the bridge, and now it rang.

The Captain asked me what I’d heard.

‘Judy, Judy, Judy, Sir!’

‘What the blazes are you talking about?’

‘It’s the name of a pop song, Sir. I think we are close to a junk, and they have their radio on very high.’

Junk

As I finished my report a small junk came out of the mist, and when the junk’s crew realised how close they were to a 7,000-ton ship, they altered course to pass down our starboard side, shouting and cursing in Cantonese, and waving their arms in anger as Johnny Tillotson kept them company with ‘Judy, Judy, Judy’. The junk rocked back and forth due to our wake, even though we were hardly moving through the water.

Slowly the fog began to lift and we were able to enter harbour safely and anchor at the appropriate place.

Funafuti

After leaving Tarawa it was a short 805 mile flight to Funafuti, Tuvalu,

flag

but it still took about three hours in the HS 148. The aircraft carried more freight than it did passengers, because not many people visited Funafuti, other than returning residents, and the occasional businessman, i.e your truly.

As we made our approach to land I could see a long green field, which I realised was the landing strip for this ‘airport.’ Wheels down for landing and all of a sudden we banked and aborted the landing because the local children were using the landing field for a game of football! Round we went and this time the strip was clear of children and dogs.

001

The aircraft came to a halt near a small concrete structure.
002

Steps were pushed out to the aircraft, and we disembarked. One of the crew stood at the bottom of the stairs and waved towards the small concrete construction. At first glance I was reminded of a large garage come work shop, until I realised this was the immigration and customs post.

An officer, in traditional island dress of sandals, and lungi tied at the waist, and a uniform shirt stood waiting at one side of a concrete table with a stamp and an ink pad. I was welcomed to Tuvalu and my passport was stamped. Customs asked if I had anything to declare – I said No, and was waved through the concrete area to a grass patch outside the open walled government building.

003

Local people milled around on both sides of the ‘security area’, some helping to unload the cargo from the plane, others had just come to see what was happening as part of the day’s entertainment. The sun was hot and nobody moved at any great pace – I was on island time, and I should relax.

004

I anticipated that my business would not take more than a day, but due to flight schedules I was going to be ‘island bound’ over the weekend. I’d arrived on Friday, and booked my onward ticket to Fiji for Monday. I looked around for an airline employee to confirm my onward flight and found a young lady in a island skirt and an airline type blouse. I asked her if I could confirm my flight for Monday – she looked at me and asked if I was the business man from Sydney?
I confirmed that I was, and she then told me that as I was the only person who wished to go to Fiji on Monday, they were not going to bring a plane in just for me – I was told to come back the following Wednesday!

Eventually I found my way to the local hotel (Vaiaku Lagi Hotel, government run and the only hotel on the island) and checked-in. I was given a room over looking the lagoon; it was air-conditioned. Later I found out that most of the rooms didn’t have air-conditioning, which would be a problem for Europeans. The only other guest was a Japanese merchant seaman waiting for his ship to return. He’d been put ashore for medical treatment. He couldn’t speak English, and most of my Japanese, picked up during my time on the Japanese coast, had faded in to history. He did teach me how to play Othello and I liked it so much that I bought the game for my children on my return to Sydney.

vl2b
This is a picture of Vaiaku Lagi Hotel taken recently.

View_from_Hotel_room

I doubt that this view would have changed much – the view is across the lagoon from the hotel guest rooms.

After unpacking my few things I made my way to the bar and asked the  barman, who was also the  check-in / doorman / waiter and I am not sure what else, what type of cold beer did the hotel stock. ‘We have Fosters’ was the reply – ‘What other kind of beer?’ I asked not being a great fan of Fosters beer.jpg – ‘We have Fosters’ was his reply at which point he opened the door of a very large walk-in fridge behind the counter, allowing me to see that the fridge was stacked high with cartons of Fosters beer and nothing else. ‘I’ll have a Fosters !’ I said with a smile on my face.
‘Supply ship just unloaded, the other day, plenty of Fosters’ was his comment while pouring the glass of cold beer. At times like this Foster’s was the nectar of the Gods.

In the evening I decided to stay in the hotel for my evening meal. The hotel didn’t have a menu, the Japanese and myself were asked what we would like to eat.

I asked what was the choice and was told fish or meat. I asked if the fish was fresh and was told that it had arrived in the morning, so I chose the fish. The meat was a mixture of chicken (locally grown) and meat from Australia, which was expensive.

I asked for salad with the fish and was told that they didn’t have any, just vegetables – so I ordered the vegetables, which when they arrived turned out to be from a tin – I was hoping in such a lush climate to have really fresh vegetables. Let’s say it was a disappointment.
I asked if they had any cold white wine to go with the fish – ‘We have Fosters’ was the reply.

Later in the evening while listening to the radio in the bar, I heard the news, and included in the news was the fact that a business man from Sydney had arrived that afternoon. Was this my fifteen minutes of fame, or was the radio station really hard up to fill broadcasting time?

I completed my business the following morning and decided after lunch to have a look around Funafuti.

Knowing that there wouldn’t be any aircraft landing between that Saturday afternoon and Wednesday, and noticing that the immigration and customs posted had been abandoned, I walked across the football pitch, come runway, to the other side of the island. I passed huts inside a fenced area and wondered what this area was because the gate was wide open.

Prison

On reaching the water’s edge (the opposite side of the island from the lagoon) I watched Pacific ocean rollers charging towards the little island and smashing their way on to huge man made blocks, which dissipated their energy. I was grateful for the blocks, because the highest point on the island was only fifteen feet (4.5 meters) above sea level.

It was later that I found out about the gated area was the local prison. The above picture is a recent photograph. I did ask why the gate was open and was told – ‘Where are the prisoners going to escape to?’.

The population of all the atolls making up Tuvalu was around 8,500 people, but the limited usable land created a high density of population at 340 people per square kilometer in 1987, which was during my visit.

Everything shut down late Saturday and the only entertainment for me was sitting in the hotel bar with a book and the occasional game of Othello. Trying to get through to Sydney by phone, to keep them informed of my movements, helped pass the time. The fact that they had no idea that I was not lying on a beach in a fancy beach side resort somewhere in the tropics, didn’t help matters.

Sunday was a drag, but Monday was far more exciting after the post office opened at 10.00 am, because I was interested in stamps, and at that time I collected stamps from certain Pacific Islands. It turned out that philatelists are one of the best contributors to the Tuvaluan economy, along with cash sent home by Tuvaluan seaman working on foreign ships.

The enforced rest can be a strain knowing that all your plans have been shot to pieces and communication with the outside world was difficult. E-mailing was still in the future, as was the mobile phone.

Overall I enjoyed my enforced rest in Tuvalu, because it was completely different place than anywhere else that I had visited.

Eventually I was back at the airport waiting for the plane to Suva in Fiji. Large international airlines use Nadi but as we would be a propeller job it would be Suva, which is the capital.

The airline that was supposed to fly us ( fourteen passengers) failed to show and a substitute had to be found – Sunflower Airlines from Fiji. Sunflower Our aircraft, was built in 1956! It was over thirty years old when I boarded.

The aircraft sat seven a side, and operated with a pilot and co-pilot. Forget any cabin crew, and the rear toilet was blocked in with cargo and passenger bags. The picture above shows the aircraft at Nadi airport in Fiji, not the grass strip in Funafuti.

The aircraft turned up and we  fourteen brave souls boarded. Once all on board we taxied out to the end of the grass runway. The door between the two pilots on the ‘flight deck’ and the passengers wouldn’t close and banged and banged as we trundled along the runway in the hope of gaining enough speed to lift off the ground. At last I felt the plane rise in to the clear blue sky.

The distance to Suva was 915 miles and our top speed was around 183 mph according the to the manufacturer in 1956 . . . so we had four hours to hope that nothing would go wrong.

The noise of the engines killed all hope of conversation across the aisle, so I watched the pilots manhandling the joystick to keep the aircraft level in a slow climb. We never did get too high and I found it fascinating to watch the ocean waves break below. This view was something one didn’t normally see, unless you were coming in to land over water. The breaking waves accompanied us all the way to Fiji.

Two hours in to the flight the co-pilot comes out and shouts that it is lunch time, and bends down to grab a cardboard box from under the seat of the first passenger. He then walks slowly down the aisle and hands to each passenger either a coca cola or a lemonade. None of the passengers were offered a choice. I was handed a lemonade and was about to open it when the passenger across the aisle spoke to the co-pilot stating that he didn’t like coca cola. Immediately my lemonade was whisked from my grasp and replaced with a coca cola – the guy across aisle received my lemonade.

The co-pilot returned to the front of the plane and pulled another box from under the first seat on the other side of the aircraft. This was our lunch – plastic wrapped sandwiches – and he was not going to get in to a conversation about likes or dislikes, because the sandwiches came through the air and the passenger was expected to catch his lunch.

It was fortunate that we were only given one small drink because there was no way we could have climbed over the cargo to get to the lavatory.

Although I am not a Catholic, I can sympathies with the Pope when he steps off an aircraft and kisses the ground, because most of us wanted to do that in Suva!

Old1

The picture shows what is left of this aircraft at  Bankstown Airport in Sydney. Picture was taken in 2004.