A clas­sic voy­age has many joys, as Jim Gill dis­cov­ers on a trip from Lon­don to Perth

Kalgoorlie Miner - - TRAVEL -

There is noth­ing re­motely salu­bri­ous about Lon­don’s cruise ter­mi­nal. Til­bury Docks is a de­cay­ing grey ed­i­fice and all the more grim on a bleak Novem­ber morn­ing.

But it is here that 504 of us gather to board the good ship As­tor; ahead of us a mo­men­tous two-month, 27,000km jour­ney across the globe to Fre­man­tle.

Even a ren­di­tion of I Am Sail­ing from the lo­cal brass band fails to lift the gloom as we wait pa­tiently in a vast hall to be “pro­cessed”.

Mer­ci­fully, it’s a quick pro­ce­dure and soon we are steam­ing down the Thames and out into the English Chan­nel.

The As­tor is on its bi­en­nial re­lo­ca­tion voy­age. Ev­ery year in Oc­to­ber it makes the long trip south to op­er­ate out of Fre­man­tle dur­ing the Aus­tralian sum­mer.

The fol­low­ing March it jour­neys back to the UK to ex­ploit the north­ern hemi­sphere’s warmer cli­mate.

The at­mos­phere on­board is dif­fer­ent to that of a short cruise. It’s more re­laxed and, with so much time at our dis­posal, we quickly slip into an easy rou­tine.

There are hotly con­tested trivia quizzes and lec­tures rang­ing from mil­i­tary his­tory to so­lar eclipses and the lives of the rich and fa­mous. There are also the tra­di­tional deck games such as rope quoits and shuf­fle-board.

Our fel­low voy­agers are an ex­pe­ri­enced cruise bunch and many have trav­elled on the As­tor be­fore. I am sur­prised to recog­nise at least 20 from a pre­vi­ous voy­age I made on Athena, now a sis­ter ship to the As­tor and re­named the Azores.

One of the real joys of a long voy­age is the strong sense of com­mu­nity and the op­por­tu­nity to forge new friend­ships.

There are some amaz­ing char­ac­ters on­board. Gra­ham, from Como, is 92 and re­cently wid­owed. Over a beer he tells me of his con­tin­ued lust for life. He gained his pi­lot’s li­cence at the age of 85 and re­cently took up tan­dem sky­div­ing.

A num­ber of orig­i­nal “Ten Pound Poms” are also mak­ing the voy­age, among them Fred and Doris, from Ade­laide. They em­i­grated from Scot­land in 1971, just af­ter get­ting mar­ried, but their hon­ey­moon was slightly un­con­ven­tional. They were seg­re­gated into men’s and women’s quar­ters for the en­tire six-week voy­age.

The evening en­ter­tain­ment is pro­vided by a hard-work­ing song and dance team, sup­ported by a show band plus an out­stand­ing vi­olin and pi­ano duo from the Ukraine, who prove a huge hit.

But it’s the ports of call that make a voy­age like this and the As­tor is test­ing a new and am­bi­tious route ... cross­ing both the At­lantic and Pa­cific oceans and, in be­tween, tran­sit­ing the Panama Canal as it heads for the An­tipodes.

Our first stop is Madeira, the beau­ti­ful Por­tuguese is­land beloved by Win­ston Churchill and Mar­garet Thatcher, among oth­ers.

Then the West Indies and three ports of call in as many days: An­tigua, St Lu­cia and Bar­ba­dos.

For many, though, it’s the Panama Canal that proves the high­light. It takes al­most nine hours to tran­sit and it is the only stretch of wa­ter in the world where the cap­tain must hand over to­tal con­trol of his ves­sel to a lo­cal pi­lot.

Our tran­sit is from the At­lantic side to the Pa­cific, so we en­ter the huge Gatun Locks first and move into the Gatun Lake, a mas­sive man-made ex­panse.

Then we move into the Gail­lard Cut, the great chan­nel hacked out with pick axes and prim­i­tive dig­gers more than a cen­tury ago.

Two more sets of locks, the Pedro Miguel and Mi­raflo­res, take us back down to sea level and we head out into the Pa­cific. As we do so, fire­works ex­plode over Panama City for the coun­try’s in­de­pen­dence day.

Three days later we reach the Mex­i­can port of Aca­pulco. Here we seize the op­por­tu­nity to watch the fa­mous cliff divers, a group of dare­dev­ils who launch them­selves from a pre­car­i­ous ledge 41m above the sea into a nar­row in­let, just 3.9m in depth. It’s a thrilling spec­ta­cle.

Armistice Day is com­mem­o­rated on­board with a mov­ing Re­mem­brance Ser­vice, which ends with the cap­tain toss­ing a posy of flow­ers into the sea.

A cou­ple of days later the skip­per is in a slightly more ir­rev­er­ent mood, dress­ing up as Nep­tune to cel­e­brate the cross­ing of the Equa­tor. He “pun­ishes” his way­ward crew and any “first time” pas­sen­gers by forc­ing them to kiss a bloated old fish, be­fore toss­ing them all into the swim­ming pool.

Days merge into each other as we cross the Pa­cific. At noon ev­ery day the cap­tain an­nounces our ex­act po­si­tion, spout­ing mean­ing­less co-or­di­nates be­fore adding, more alarm­ingly, that the depth of the sea be­neath our lit­tle bob­bing ship is a mere 5000m.

Af­ter a week at sea we reach the beau­ti­ful is­lands of French Poly­ne­sia. Our cho­sen three are the tiny Nuku Hiva, Tahiti and, ev­ery­one’s favourite, Bora Bora. At each of them we are given a warm wel­come by lo­cal bands and singers be­fore soak­ing up the mag­nif­i­cent South Pa­cific beaches.

Then an­other week at sea as we head to New Zealand. We lose a day as we cross the In­ter­na­tional Date Line. Thurs­day, Novem­ber 26, might have been spe­cial for you. For those of us aboard As­tor, it didn’t ex­ist.

A day out of Auck­land there is high drama as a med­i­cal emer­gency evac­u­a­tion takes place. In a spec­tac­u­lar op­er­a­tion, a sick fe­male pas­sen­ger is winched into a he­li­copter hov­er­ing above the ship and flown to hos­pi­tal on the main­land.

Sail­ing into Syd­ney Har­bour is emo­tional and up­lift­ing. There’s hardly an inch of spare room on deck as pas­sen­gers and crew vie for a good view as we en­ter the Heads. Ev­ery­one cheers as the opera house and bridge come into view and, as we sail un­der the “coathanger”, the climbers atop stop to wave at us.

It’s a three-day “hop” from Syd­ney to Ade­laide be­fore our fi­nal stop at Kan­ga­roo Is­land, where to ev­ery­one’s de­light the lo­cal koalas prove easy to spot.

From here we head along the Great Aus­tralian Bight where, cu­ri­ously, we en­counter the rough­est seas of the en­tire voy­age. The Leeuwin Light­house comes into view as we round the cape and head north for home.

Fi­nally, on a warm, sunny De­cem­ber morn­ing, we cruise into Fre­man­tle Har­bour at the end of an amaz­ing voy­age.

To be hon­est, we al­most sneak in.

There is no band to greet us in our home port and very few spectators, but it mat­ters lit­tle.

We are home — and home in fine style.

And it sure beats fly­ing.

Pic­tures: Jim Gill

The As­tor takes pas­sen­gers to a mix of des­ti­na­tions, with trop­i­cal is­lands a spe­cial treat.

Cruis­ing into Syd­ney Har­bour proved emo­tional and up­lift­ing for pas­sen­gers.

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