In late 1973, mum and dad asked my sister and me a rather unusual question: “Would you like to go to Australia?”
I mean, it’s not really in the same league as “Would you like an Ice Cream?” or “Do you fancy another week in Skegness this summer?” is it?
On Sunday 19 May 1974, I waved my pal Andrew France goodbye in Chapel Street in the early hours of the morning, feeling a mixture of excitement, fear and total apathy.
To this day I remain impressed that Andrew made it to my house at such an early hour just to say goodbye. If you’re out there Andrew, I certainly did appreciate it.
The magnitude of what we were about to do just hadn’t struck me yet (It actually didn’t until we had been in Australia for about three months!).
I will remember until the day I die that the very last song I heard on British soil was Sugar Baby Love by The Rubettes.
It was the #1 song in England at the time and I had a tinny little transistor radio with me and listened to it in the train down to Southampton.
You can listen to it here if you like
The train trip south from Yorkshire was an adventure in itself and one of the longest trips I had ever undertaken – I could not possibly imagine the scale of the trip we were about to embark on on our way to Australia.
Travelling to Southampton seemed like the end of the world to me and I had no concept at all of the distance to Australia. I knew it was on the other side of the world, but how far was that? Further than Bridlington or Cleethorpes at any rate.
Right, we’re off then: Moving to Australia Step 1 – Tha’ gets on t’ train
I knew it must be a very long way as they had kangaroos and aborigines in Australia and red desert and poisonous snakes (and you had to do your schoolwork over a two-way radio and get the Flying Doctor to land in your garden if you got sick).
I had learned all these wonderful things at a series of film nights held at Australia House in Sheffield – They were sort of preparation evenings for prospective migrants where they showed movies and gave talks about Australia. Whenever we went to one of these, we would inevitably return home to Wath, clutching huge wads of pamphlets and doing our best to come to terms with places called “Woolloomooloo, Wyong and Wagga Wagga”.
Our home away from home for 30 days was to be the Royal Hellenic Mail Ship (RHMS) Britanis, operated by Chandris Lines out of Piraeus, Greece.
I had never before set foot on a ship and it was all but impossible to contain my excitement as we climbed the gangplank on that sunny day in May 1974.
We were more fortunate than many of the migrating families on board as our cabin was actually above sea level on the Promenade Deck and had portholes.
The first day out of Southampton the sea was smooth as silk yet ironically the entire family were violently seasick! This condition passed after a day and we passed the rest of the voyage (no matter how rough things got) without further sickness (except for my mum who was sick and bed-ridden for 95% of the voyage).
On to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria
So this is the Canary Isles . . . By ‘eck – it’s nowt like Sheffield round here, I can tell thee.
Arriving in Las Palmas only three days out of Southampton I discovered an entirely new meaning for the adjective “warm”. Considering I had spent every summer holiday of my life on the east coast of either Yorkshire or Lincolnshire, nothing could have prepared me for the climate in the Canary Islands!
Las Palmas is near the Equator and as I stood on the dockside melting, my dad gave me a crash course in the stuff I hadn’t picked up in geography at Wath Grammar: ie: The closer you get to the equator the bloody hotter it gets!
Once dad had convinced me I wasn’t going to die from the heat (have I given you the impression that the heat actually frightened me? Good, ‘coz it did!) I tried to enjoy myself as we limped up the mountains in our non-air conditioned coach.
I say “tried” because I was feeling extremely disoriented as everybody seemed to be talking foreign!
The island of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands: Our first stopover en route to Australia – not quite like Yorkshire
What do you mean, “it’s Spanish”? Why are people on this little island talking Spanish? Oh, it’s part of Spain . . . Well fair do’s then! “Can I have a drink dad?”
“No you bloody can’t.”
“Why not, dad?”
“Coz it’s a foreign country and you can’t drink owt wi’ water in it when you’re in a foreign country!”
Bloody hell – my second revelation in an hour. I never had to worry with all this worldly survival knowledge when I was back in Yorkshire. Dangerous bloody place this world, I thought while racking my brain to find a drink without water in it. “Can I have an Ice Cream then, dad?”
“No. You can’t have owt wi’ foreign milk in it either!”
This was going to be quite a challenge. How not to dehydrate and die but not to die of local water/milk poisoning at the same time. . .
Still, it was a very pretty and picturesque place. I’d seen places like it in films on the telly, and the women doing flamenco dancing while the blokes clacked their castanets was pretty bloody impressive to a 12 year old!
The coach climbed up the mountains, higher and higher and higher and higher . . . which is when my dad scared the buggery out of me with revelation number three: When you get this high up a mountain the air gets thinner and it’s harder to breathe !!
What, as in “you can’t breathe, so you’ll die”? . . .
I remained quiet for the rest of the trip up the mountain – I had a lot on my mind: I had to somehow avoid heat stroke, dehydration, poisoning and suffocation from “thin air” and have a good time as well!
And why have all those caves carved in the side of the mountain got TV aerials sticking out of them?
Because people live in them??? In caves?
I might only be 12 years old but I’m not completely bloody daft, tha’ knows. No one lives in a bloody cave in 1974!
Evidently they do in Las Palmas. It’s something to do with the heat (it’s rather nice and cool inside a cave, apparently).
Thinking back, it was probably also something to do with economics ~ I imagine it’s much cheaper living in a cave than in an el grande casa villa (as you can see, I didn’t pick up any Spanish while I was there)
These are people living in houses, but there honestly are people living in caves in Las Palmas (or at least there were in 1974 anyway!).
How come they have to live in caves? ‘Coz they’ve donated all their gold, jewels and money to the church!.
Anyway, we eventually arrive at a large village way up on top of the mountain (where the air is so thin we have to be very careful and sit down and rest a lot and take salt tablets)
The local folk at the “cantina” knew the schedule of the tourist bus because when we pulled up they were sitting around in the shade speaking Spanish to each other, smoking fags and taking their lives in their hands drinking the local water/milk . . . By the time the coach had parked, these folk were up with funny Mexican hats on, playing their guitars, clacking their castanets and flamenco dancing like there was no tomorrow (and we were supposed to believe this is how they live normally . . .)
At the Cantina, when the castanets finally stopped, I eventually solved the riddle of death by heatstroke/dehydration vs death by water/milk poisoning and dad bought me a . . . wait for it . . . bottle of Coca Cola (Aha! No local milk or water in that stuff matey, and even if there was, nothing germy would last five minutes in a bottle of Coke!)
Just up the road in the village we came to a cathedral. Nothing too fancy from the outside, just your average Spanish-looking cathedral in a village up a mountain. But inside this cathedral was the biggest collection of jewels, gold and coins my beady little 12 year old eyes had ever clocked!
It got me thinking; why had no gang of international jewel thieves ever travelled to Las Palmas to knock this little lot off? And you know what, I’ve just worked out what safeguards this booty and prevents such a grand blag. . .
1) The risk of death by Heat Stroke
2) The risk of death by Dehydration
3) The risk of death by foreign water/milk poisoning
4) The risk of death by “thin air” in the mountains
5) Those scary cave-dwelling, TV watching people
6) Those bloody castanets!
I reckon their treasure is safe as houses!
Anyway, by the end of the day, I’d visited my first ever “foreign” country, I looked and felt like a wrung-out dishcloth, I’d sweated about 50lbs off, nearly died of thirst, Mum had her bum pinched in the market, and dad nearly got arrested by the Spanish police in their tri-cornered hats while buying fags, and oh yeh, I bought a dodgy plastic Las Palmas coat-of-arms (that was chucking around in a cupboard at me mum’s place for many years after) as a souvenir.
And so back to the boat and on to Australia via South Africa. By ‘eck, it seems a long time since Yorkshire!
Hasta la vista!