The Canberra has always held a fascination for me, almost an obsession, and this magnificent white ship would always be in the back of my mind. I missed seeing her in 1986 when she called in Durban and decided then and there that I would remedy this at the first opportunity. Unfortunately the political situation in the country robbed us of the chance to see her or any other major passenger ships until the outbreak of the Gulf War. This was a bonus to us shipping starved South Africans as first the QE2 and then Canberra were diverted from the Suez route and were scheduled to call in our waters instead. We all went down to see QE2 and were somewhat disappointed in not being able to swing a visit to her. We were even more miffed when certain members of our party got on board, but that is another story.
Canberra and Hapag Lloyd’s Europa were due to call the next week and so a week later we made the 570 kilo trip down to see them. We arrived very early in the morning to find the Europa already alongside, she lay quietly at the Ocean Terminal, lights blazing and all peaceful, it was a breathtaking sight.
We then left for the North Pier to await the arrival of the “Great White Whale”. By now the weather had come up and it was drizzling, we were cold, wet, tired and hungry and she was nowhere in sight. About two hours later she emerged like a ghost from the mist, a big phantom which looked so different from anything I had ever seen before.
We followed her in and made our way to the gangway, trying desperately to get a visit but to no avail and we had to be satisfied with a boat ride around the harbour, enviously watching the Canberra and Europa berthed bow to bow.
I was also fortunate to get a proper view of that distinctive tiered stern from the harbour cruise vessel, but I really wanted to be on board instead.
Later that evening we watched her sail, and we had vowed to sail on her as soon as we were able and the next year we were successful.
Cruising the Canberra. A voyage on the Great White Whale.
Wednesday 18 March 1992.
Following our sojourn to see the Canberra; Rudi, and I had decided that come rain or shine we were going to try get on her next time she came around. We decided to put in the advance hints at our travel agents for brochures and started to count the days. While Rudi was overseas the brochures were released, the Canberra was calling in Durban on the 19th of March and again in Cape Town on the 21st of March on her way to Southampton. Our chance had come at last, unfortunately the most affordable price was still R7000 too much for poor people like us. We would have to resort to “plan B”!
“Plan B” took the form of one of those endless sob story letters that cruise companies get from the public so very often. Last time a few berths were open between Durban and Cape Town at a very reasonable rate. However due to bad publicity we only heard about it too late. This time we wanted in very early in the game. Rudi, being the optimistic type of chap that he is, decided that a carefully worded letter to P & O was in order and promptly drafted and posted one. The big wait began. By the middle of January, it had arrived, a nice letter saying that we could have a voyage from Durban to Cape Town! Planning time again: we quickly grabbed all the interested parties, stressing that we had to climb in quickly, time was not on our side, we soon discovered that the prices were affordable, provided we never ate again! only R800 per person sharing in a four berth outside cabin. Rudi begged his bank manager, I blackmailed an autobank, Neville cashed in his insurance and the three of us booked. Unfortunately Howard could not sell his car so he had to give it a miss. They had split our party up, I was in B223, a four berth on B Deck, Neville was on C deck, while Rudi and his wife were in a two berth on C deck.
Neville arrived a few minutes after I wrote the last paragraph and we set off for Vanderbijl Park, where we gathered our goodies and split for Durban just after midnight. The trip down was punctuated by cold pizza and Radio Orion. That is where I had my first inkling of a possible hitch in our plans. The radio mentioned a cruise ship in Durban Harbour. We thought it was a joke until we reached Durban, as we navigated down West Street I looked towards the harbour and saw the distinctive twin funnels. My scream awoke about 68% of Durban and we put the helm about and headed for the ocean terminal. Lo and behold, the Canberra was alongside, having arrived the previous evening at 17H00. We bailed out for some quick photography before heading for a closer look. She was so beautiful!
Having made some arrangements, we headed for the local junk food tavern to have a quick scoff and do some quick shopping before heading back to the harbour. We spent the next 5 hours irritating Neville and occupying the only chair under the fan in the quayside restaurant. At 15H00 we started to board the ship. I was the first of us on board and was met by a line of stewards and officers on the Promenade deck. I was propelled to my cabin which was on B deck, the deck above the promenade. The cabin was small and had four bunks, two wardrobes, a dressing table and a wash basin. The toilet and shower was just down the corridor. I took a quick turn around deck before going to find the rest of the gang.
We met for lifeboat drill in the Meridian lounge (Prom deck forward) at 16H00 and from there collected our cameras to watch our sailing from the observation deck. We bumped into Cecil Clemo from Port Natal Branch on deck and the five of us could only smile when the Canberra started the slow tow astern towards the harbour entrance at 17H00 sharp.
I was propelled to my cabin which was on B deck, the deck above the promenade. The cabin was small and had four bunks, two wardrobes, a dressing table and a wash basin. The toilet and shower was just down the corridor. I took a quick turn around deck before going to find the rest of the gang. We met for lifeboat drill in the Meridian lounge (Prom deck forward) at 16H00 and from there collected our cameras to watch our sailing from the observation deck. For some odd reason we were towed astern out of our berth right up to the harbour entrance. We sailed into calm seas with the outlook for weather looking very overcast. We had been allocated table 17 in the Atlantic Restaurant on E deck and as we were second sitting we decided to go look around. The promenade deck is the best place to be, it runs all the way around the ship and is the deck under the lifeboats.
from aft we have Neptune’s bar, the Cricketers Tavern, Library, Shop, and the Ocean Room; a large lounge that used to be the William Fawcett Room. All the corridors on this deck are lined with plaques given to the ship by various ports and organisations. Forward on this deck is the old first class territory and subsequently it is all wood panelled. The Meridian Lounge and the Century Bar are the last public rooms on this deck with a spiral staircase leading up to the Crows Nest Bar on Games deck. Canberra has lots of smaller, more intimate rooms scattered all over the decks and I doubt whether we even saw some of them. She has three shops: a kiosk; where postcards, chocolates, sweets etc are available, a gift shop, where we spent all our money on goodies, and a boutique where they sell things like cameras, radios, perfume etc. The Lido buffet is situated on Games deck and provides round the clock tea and coffee as well as serving an informal breakfast.
The Canberra quickly picked up speed for Cape Town and it was hard to believe that you were at sea! The time passed quickly exploring the ship until dinner which was served at 20H15. Our table was ably served by Laurence, a Goanese steward who proved to be the best table steward I had ever had on any ship! What a pleasure to have someone who understood English.
The food was excellent and there was a good variety of it. After supper we all trooped around the ship again, taking photo’s and oohing and aaahing all over the place. Our last stop for the day was in the Island room for a quick cup of coffee and toasted cheese sandwiches before heading our different ways to bed.
The next morning was grey and overcast, we were between East London and PE by now and Cecil had told us that the PE branch of the WSS had contacted the Master to get the ship to slow down and come closer inshore, as they had hired a launch and were coming out to see her. The Canberra duly complied and we saw the tiny little ski boat bashing her way past the ship, attempting to retrieve a life belt thrown off the ship. There was no sign of the sun. Milk Wilkinson sent me the image below of the ship powering through the waves while they watched.
Later that day we all popped in at the information desk, brandishing books and membership cards with the aim of a bridge visit. Unfortunately they were unable to give us an answer until the watch changed at 12H00. Needless to say we were back at 12H01 to inquire yet again. Still no joy until next change of watch at 16H00. Rudi had bumped into an electrical officer who had promised to try get us on the bridge at 16H30, unfortunately I got talking to some people from England and got to the officers accommodation at 16H31, late again!
However a cox’n asked me whether I was due to go to the bridge, I explained that there were actually 3 of us, he confirmed that he just had to come fetch whoever there was and knew nothing further. I could not resist letting this chance go to waste and up to the bridge I went. I was welcomed by the third officer who was quite happy to answer any questions I had. The bridge was very small and functional, in fact, even the helm was small! It was a good climax to end our cruise off. I left half an hour later, hoping that Rudi and Neville would also get on the bridge, which happily they did.
Our fellow passengers, seemed very curious as to why we were doing this short trip, but how do you explain to someone who has been on the ship since Southampton how you feel about the Canberra? Personally, I love her, she is a real lady and a total classic ship. She is comfortable and well run and it is obvious from everybody that has sailed on her before, very well loved. Besides who knows if I would ever have this chance again. (Sadly I never did).
By lunch time the weather had started to clear and people were making their appearance at the pools (Canberra has 3) and along the decks. I had a beer for Howard in the Cricketers Tavern, which is one of the most popular public rooms on the ship, judging by the amount of people who frequented it.
By now I was tired from all the walking and stairs and starting to slow down a bit. It was a relief to just park off for a while on the promenade deck and relax, like you are supposed to do on a cruise. We also had to start packing our gear for disembarkation the next day. My cabin mates, two South Africans and a Welshman sat talking till first sitting dinner, before we all split up yet again, our suitcases in the corridor, our cupboards empty.
It was a formal dinner that evening, we had been allowed optional informal dress because we were leaving and sadly our meal was over all to quick. We spent the time before bed walking around and sitting in the Island Room, where Neville had a few problems with a chicken drumstick.
We were awake early in my cabin, up on deck at 06H00 to see Cape Town in the darkness. We slowly sailed up to the Tavern of the Seas. The approach to Cape Town was windy, punctuated by comments on the PA from someone on the bridge, This was my third arrival in Cape Town by sea, and the best to date. Sadly we approached our berth, a slow breakfast, and soon it was time to leave. Cape Town had laid a band on for our arrival but there were only a few people to see us in. We delayed our disembarkation until 10H00 before we walked down the gangway for the last time. Our journey was over. All that was left was goodbye.
We clambered over the dolos’s at the breakwater to see her sail, the sun was going down as the Canberra steamed past us, glowing in the fading light.
We watched her till she was a speck on the horizon before we turned away to go back to the apartment.
Our journey was at an end and all that was left was the long trip home to Johannesburg. Her journey would continue for a number of years to come. The trip is now a distant memory which is viewed on slides and amongst menu’s, programs and postcards. Our arrival in Cape Town came too quickly and at the quayside lay the RMS St Helena, a ship which I would sail on the next year.
Inevitably it was announced that a replacement for Canberra was to be built, her name would be Oriana and she is a fine ship too, yet Canberra had something real special about her, there was a spirit which comes from those who have sailed in her and those who built, manned and loved her.
There was even a rumour that she would end her days as a hotel ship in Durban…. Yet these were only rumours and now Canberra has ended her days at the cutting torches. She may be gone, yet her memory will always remain. In the book of fine ships, there is an entry especially reserved for her.
It has been a long time since Canberra and I am still in love with that glorious old lady. Her successor, Oriana is a stunning ship too, but sadly in 2018 it was announced that she too would be withdrawn from service in August 2019 and has reportedly been sold for trade in China. It was strange to stand in Southampton and see the berth where Canberra was moored when in the city. There is an anchor there that may come from her but I could never confirm it.