Retrospective: Durban Holiday February 1986

At the end of January 1986 I handed in my 30 days notice at work and because I had a lot of leave available was allowed to take a portion of my final month off. It was a good thing because I was exhausted. I decided that one last fling by rail was just what the doctor ordered and perusing brochures discovered that the QE2 would be in Durban on Tuesday February 18.  I did some planning and booked a hotel for that week, travelling down to Durban on the TransNatal.

I had booked my stay in the Malibu Hotel, which was somewhat of an improvement on the good old Coogee Beach where we had stayed when I was young. The Malibu had magnificent sea views and was about 100 metres from South Beach. On this occasion I would be venturing forth on my own with no parents to plan what we were going to do.  On the Monday I boarded the train at Park Station and off we went. 

Upon arrival I checked into the Malibu, and was allocated a room on the 12th floor and it was seriously bright out there too. The QE2 had theoretically arrived at 8 in the morning so would be alongside the Ocean Terminal by now. I grabbed my camera and hat and headed in the general direction of the Ocean Terminal. I picked up a taxi as the terminal was quite far away, and as luck would have it they had introduced the London Cab style taxis in Durban and I was able to experience one of them. The roads to the harbour entrance were jam packed and we slowly crawled forward until I was able to bail out and finish the rest of the distance on foot. The only time I had seen the terminal before was when I was much younger so this was all a newish to me. 

And there she was. The ship that I had read so much about was finally in front of me. This is still one of the highlights of my life.

The first thing I noticed was how big she was and that they had finally painted her funnel casing in Cunard colours instead of the original white that she had when built. This was also her last world cruise as a steamship. She would be re-engined in Germany and would emerge diesel powered and with a much larger funnel.  Later that day I did a harbour cruise on the Sarie Marais and I was able to photograph her from the harbour side, unfortunately these images did not really do her justice, but it did show off her sheer size.

And from the Ocean Terminal…

Many years later I was given a slide of this occasion by Trevor Jones. It is one of my favourite QE2 shots ever.

I watched her sailing the next morning from South Beach, and I regret not making an effort to get to the North Pier for closer images.

I have more images of the QE2 taken during her other visits to make up for not going to the North Pier. 

With the QE2 gone it was time to do the touristy thing and I admit that I went to the beach, enjoyed the hotel pool, got sloshed in the restaurant and generally tried my hand at relaxation. 

I had an uncle and aunt who lived in Durban and I was  invited over. When my uncle  heard that I had seen the QE2 he told me that had I been quicker he would have been able to wangle me a trip on the pilot boat to see her off. But, to make up for it he would wangle me a pilot boat ride anyway. He worked for Transnet so had many contacts in the harbour and that was how I had my first pilot boat ride on board the John Cox.

At the time Durban had two identical pilot boats, and it is quite strange that this was the only time that I was ever to ride on the John Cox. All my other trips were on board the RP Jackson. 

The ship that we were visiting belonged to Unicorn Lines and it was either the Ridge or Range that was doing engine tests in the bay. What a thrill that first trip turned out to be,  at this point I almost regretted resigning and not transferring to the harbour services or the Durban Telecomms Dept.  Alas, hindsight is always 20/20.

My uncle also arranged with me to spend the Saturday morning on the tug Coenie De Villiers.  In the time till then I did more touristy things. My hotel booking had included vouchers for a sauna, the aquarium, miniland and a few other places. I dutifully used up the vouchers and by Saturday I was hyped up and ready to see the harbour from the inside. 

Coenie de Villiers with SA Sederberg behind. (1987)

Much to my joy there was another cruise ship in port. This time it was the Royal Viking Sea and I was able to photograph her from the waterside instead of the Ocean Terminal. 

Built as one of the Royal Viking Sisters (Royal Viking Sea, Star and Sky),  they often used to do around Africa voyages and in later years she would sail as Albatros until she too became a victim of covid and was sent to the breakers. Her sisters sailed with Fred Olsen Cruises for many years and Black Watch (RV Star) and Boudicca (RV Sky) and I was lucky enough to see them both in Southampton in 2013.  

Of course a tug is a working vessel and she was very busy on that day and we worked a number of ships during the morning. Unfortunately I do not have too many images of those movements, and all of the images that I took were in print format and never got scanned when I converted my images to a digital format. 

I vividly recall two ship movements though and have pics to prove it. We were part of a group of three tugs that unberthed the container ship Nedlloyd Hoorn. Our role was to swing the stern out and I watched in fascination as they attached to the ship with a wire hawser and a nylon spring. The creaking of that hawser and the sparks that flew as the tug swung was amazing to see, but if that hawser broke we would be in serious trouble.

The second movement was at the graving dock and we had to move one of the Canadian Christensen ships out of the dock where she was being worked on.  There is even a pic of me with the ships behind me, but I have shredded that one!

The ship in this case was the Thorscape, and many years later I was able to visit her sister Thor 1, and they were really stunning on board. 

I was also very fortunate to take a photo of the tug Danie Du Plessis that was laid up at the graving dock. She and her sister were due to go work in Mozambique where they would ultimately meet their demise. 

Eventually I had to disembark and go back to the hotel. My all too brief holiday was at an end and I would shortly be starting a new job so had to get back by Monday morning. I said my goodbyes and returned to Johannesburg,  I had much to digest, many pics to process and many memories for the future. I would return to the harbour in December 1986 for my Achille Lauro voyage and of course make many more trips down to Durban to see ships. I never did the touristy thing on that scale again, and of course long distance train trips were no longer possible once they rationalised Transnet. The TransNatal would be withdrawn, the QE2 would end up in Dubai and most of the ships that I had seen would head off to the breakers. However, the Coenie De Villiers, RP Jackson and John Cox would soldier on and two of them are still in service today, albeit under different names. 

This trip was a defining moment in my life and I am very grateful to uncle Les and aunty Hazel for their hospitality. They passed on many years ago, but will always  be in our memories.  And of course special thanks to the pilot boat and tug crews for allowing me to see their world. I envy them. 

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