Blog #6. SS Oriana, Indian Ocean. October 1965.

Updated: May 6, 2020

Charlie had not long celebrated his 7th birthday when the Johnsons boarded the famed P&O Ocean Liner, the SS Oriana, at Singapore in the latter half of October 1965. Bound for Southampton, the ship had started her return journey to her home port in Britain earlier in the month when she had set sail from Sydney, Australia, and Singapore was her last port of call before the long stretch across the Indian Ocean.

The Johnsons had spent a few days prior to boarding the ship at a hotel in Singapore, which had just recently left the Federation of Malaysia and had gained independence as the world's second City State Republic (San Marino having set the precedent in 301 AD). In addition to relaxing by the pool, they had ticked off some of the tourist sights and done justice to the many department stores on Orchard Road.

During this time they had also met up with another homeward bound British family that they'd been friends with in Kuching, the Crawleys, with whom the plan had been hatched, back in Kuching, to sail back together on the Oriana on the 3 week journey back to Blighty. Their son Gareth was about the same age as Charlie, and they had known each other at The Lodge school, so it meant the two boys would have companionship on the journey, as would the two adult couples.

The Oriana looked as big and as splendid to Charlie, when he first clapped eyes on her at the dock at Singapore, as the Titanic had looked to Jack and Rose in the movie of the same name. Thankfully there were no icebergs in the Indian Ocean, nor yet any mines in the Suez Canal, and there were sufficient lifeboats onboard for the 2,100 passengers and 900 crew. Life boat mustering took place the first day at sea and was a regular occurrence thereafter.

P&O ensured that there were plenty of onboard activities for their younger passengers, enabling the adults to have adult fun while the children had kid's fun. Much of it revolved around the sea water pool, and there were plenty of shows, both above and below deck. A photo somewhere shows Gareth dressed as a pirate and Charlie as Ali Baba in a fancy dress parade, and another has them in a crowd of excited children being entertained by a magician. But beyond that, memories of life aboard the ship were a tad hazy to adult Charlie, while writing the blog in Sydney on May Day 2020, some 55 years later. Memories of the ports of call were less hazy, however.

Due to the ongoing hostilities in South Yemen at the time (some things never change) the Oriana was unable to call in at Aden, her regular refuelling port, and thus the first port of call after the lengthy Indian Ocean crossing was the dusty and sleepy then-French colony of Djibouti, on the African continent, strategically located at the mouth of the Red Sea. Nowadays both the US and Chinese Navies have a presence there, but back in late October 1965 the arrival of the Oriana was the biggest event to happen to the place in quite a while.

The main memory Charlie had of Djibouti was in receiving his first, somewhat harsh, lesson in dodgy commercial transactions. Using a considerable amount of his meagre pocket money he had acquired two pretty pieces of coral, one white, and one a deep crimson, from one of the many vendors who set up stall to flog their wares to the ship's passengers.

Once aboard the ship, and sailing up the Red Sea overnight towards the Suez canal, his parents had suggested keeping the coral, which had a definite aroma of the sea, in water in the basin in the cabin, to keep it 'fresh'. Imagine Charlie's surprise and disappointment the next morning when he found that all the red dye had washed off his crimson piece of coral, which was now as white as its partner! It was a lesson well-learnt, however, and from there on in in life he would always endeavour inspect the goods much more carefully before completing a transaction!

Since Joe had served his two year's National Service in Egypt some 15 years earlier, he had no need or desire to take the all day 'Cairo Museum and Pyramids' tour, which Pam and the Crawleys did, and therefore volunteered to stay onboard, keeping an eye on Charlie and Gareth, as the ship queued to enter the canal at the port of Suez. Charlie remembered the 'Gully Gully Man' coming aboard, and performing magic tricks, wearing a genuine fez, and he also recalled watching local boys, seemingly as young as him, diving off small boats to retrieve coins that were tossed into the water by passengers aboard the Oriana.

The journey up the two sections of the canal, and through the Great Bitter Lake, took a lot longer than expected, due to a higher volume of traffic than anticipated heading in the opposite (southbound) direction. Alas this information had not been conveyed to those on the Cairo excursion, who apparently had to wait for 6 hours, until the wee hours of the morning, on the dock at Port Said, until the Oriana eventually arrived. Charlie's father recalled Port Said from his Army days as being a combination of the very worst of the three continental cultures that all converged at the fly-blown port's location, being the worst that Africa, Europe and the Middle East could offer. His mother's description remains unprintable!

Once in the Mediterranean, in November, the weather turned cooler, and the decision was made at the next port of call, Naples, by both mothers, to buy some winter clothes for the boys, whose suitcases contained only clothes suitable for the tropics. Purchases successfully made, at Joe's suggestion a very impromptu tour was taken by local train out to the ruins at Pompeii, where the two families found they had the place almost to themselves.

Recognising an opportunity when he saw one, the enterprising owner of the otherwise empty local restaurant at the entrance to the ruins, having provided a slap up pasta meal, plenty of chianti, and apparently even a string quartet to play for them, then proceeded to flag down the local bus, onto which the Johnsons, the Crawleys, and all their shopping, were crammed, arriving dockside just as the first shore leave passengers were boarding. All in all an excellent, unexpected outing, thereafter known as 'Dad's play', a feature which would enliven many a future family holiday in the years to come.

Photos exist of the family onshore at the remaining two ports of call, Gibraltar and Lisbon, but Charlie had no memories of either destination that he could recall from the Oriana trip. It would be less than 3 years until Charlie was next back in Gibraltar, on his first solo overseas trip, but it would be 39 years until he next visited Lisbon, towards the end of an epic trip around the Atlantic coastline of Europe, but that blog is a long way off yet!

Finally the journey came to an end, at Southampton, where farewells were said to the Crawleys, and where a new member of the family was met: Hillary, a brand spanking new 'Irish Racing Green' Hillman Minx Estate, with a flip-down boot and zero mileage on the clock, was waiting on the dock, in kind of a reverse scene to that of the car waiting to be loaded for Jack and Rose's fateful Titanic voyage, and which was to play such a pivotal role in their romance. To Charlie's knowledge Hillary never performed that role during her 12 years with the Johnson family, but she certainly was a major part of his life throughout his upcoming school years, which were due to start at the beginning of the New Year, in January 1966.

Prior to then, however, there were grandparents to be re-met, in England and Scotland, and the small matter of quarantine for Charlie to go through. It turned out that at some stage during the crossing of the Mediterranean both he and Gareth had come into contact with measles. Gareth, having previously had them was immune, but for Charlie's first 10 or so days back in England, spent with his parents at his grandparent's rambling vicarage, he was confined to bed. Considering how cold the temperature outside was in comparison to Kuching this was probably as good a place as any to be, as he promptly caught a cold too!

Quarantine over, it was time to put Hillary through her paces, and the Johnsons set off on what would be the first of many overnight driving trips from Sussex up to Gourock, long before the days of the M25, M40, M6 and M74, which is how that trip would be taken in 2020, social distancing restrictions notwithstanding. After Christmas and Hogmanay at his Scottish grandparents', the long drive back south was made, to Hastings, the town where Joe had grown up. It was here that a rented house was found, and where Charlie was about to dive into the next major step of his young life. It was 1966 and time for School in England!


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