Ch9 Pt2 On the Ranchi to Suez

In the past the authorities at Australia House, despite a pile of correspondence and repeated interviews, had always regretted that they could do little to help us. Now they made up for all their previous dilatoriness. Medical examinations and an interview with a selection committee followed each other rapidly. Finally, four months after Oll’s nomination, on my twenty-seventh birthday, we received a telegram from Australia House saying that we were due to sail within the week. 

Hurried goodbyes were said. It was impossible to visit all our friends and relatives. I resigned from the London County Council and got my severance pay. In twenty four hours, Irene sold all the furniture and other articles in our flat which we had saved every penny to buy. We made arrangements for a carrier to take charge of a large trunk containing all the personal belongings we wanted to take to Australia. Getting that trunk down four flights of narrow, twisting, old-fashioned stairs was a back-breaking job.

One late morning in May, we said goodbye to my father who had come to see us off at St. Pancras Station. We had taken leave of my own mother and Irene’s mother previously. Neither had wanted to come to the station for fear of becoming upset.

Even in 1949, if one went to Australia, one did not come back for a long time. The airfare was beyond the capacity of the ordinary working man, and the duration of the trip was such that most people could only afford to make it once or twice in a lifetime. In a way it was, to most English people, still a sort of transportation sentence.

We were never to see my mother again. We saw Irene’s mother once more. I was privileged, however, to enjoy four protracted visits with my father, some in Australia, some in England, before he eventually passed away.

Our train had been specially laid on for migrants bound for Australia, and we thus had a sense of common destiny, and of leaving the land of our birth quite possibly forever. We piled out of the train at Tilbury, on the Thames Estuary. The railway terminus was very close to the dockside. We had barely time to touch the English earth of the quay in valediction before we found ourselves walking up the gangplank and aboard the P and O liner Ranchi.

We were ten people to a large cabin, males in one cabin, females in another, of course. It was certainly not a luxury cruise, but compared with what we had known in the army, and considering the fact that the journey was free of cost, neither Irene nor I had any complaints at all. We thought that it was a very fair thing. When our bags were stacked, we went up on deck. My thoughts were mixed as I looked at the broadening estuary as it merged with the sea. We were taking our last look for many years – perhaps for always at the “Old Dart” – England – the country which had moulded me, the country which had confined me, my parents and my grandparents to the “lower orders” of society. Yet it was also the country that had offered Irene and her mother, and many other thousands of refugees, protection from a tyrannical Nazi regime. It was ironic that tolerant, kindly England, which had given life to so many of the downtrodden, had at the same time forced so many of her sons and daughters to seek a better life elsewhere. As I leant on the paint encrusted rail of the SS Ranchi, looking at the cranes on the murky wharf side, the waving groups of well-wishers, and the squat sheds became silhouetted against a lowering sky. I reflected how strange it was that a worldwide English speaking brotherhood had evolved, very largely as a result of an enormous emigration from this tiny island.

The voyage of the Ranchi was uneventful. From Tilbury docks we made a straight run for Port Said. One afternoon ten days later, we drew slowly towards the indistinct outlines of the ships and buildings of this gateway to the east. An hour later we were steaming slowly into the actual harbour.

As we drifted past the big ocean-going ships, the palm trees, the buildings with their signs in Arabic and English, a mosque-like edifice which appeared to be a hotel, and the yellow cement police station, we were surrounded by rowing boats filled with merchandise. Below us swam a brilliant array of multi-coloured handbags, pouffes and tapestry work. As the oarsmen of the little cockleshell bumboats pulled frantically to keep abreast of us, vendors stood upright and shouted hoarsely while waving brightly coloured wallets with extravagant designs of the Pyramids, camels and palm trees on them. Strings of beads, green unripe bananas, peanuts and wide brimmed straw hats were offered. As we slid to a standstill and ropes secured us to the wharf, strings with bags attached to them were thrown up to us with remarkable accuracy, money passed downwards, and Egyptian curios upwards.

A fussy little launch chugged around, flying a flag with a white crescent moon and a star on a green background. White uniformed policemen stood at its sides, with fezzes and rifles. Some of them finally climbed aboard our ship. “Watchmen” were there too, in European clothes, to see that fair trade was carried out between the passengers and the Arab salesmen below.

Egypt is a country of mixed races – African, Arab, Greek, Italian and Turk mingle here. Some of the vendors and policemen have white skins, others dark, and there are all manner of shades in between. All this I have seen before, but I got the same thrill as when I first steamed into Port Said with a boatload of troops one black and silent night in 1946. As for Irene, she was as excited as I had ever seen her, dashing here and there and talking to everybody in Arabic.

I noticed particularly that the vendors took great care to exorcise the more colourful flights of English from their conversation. No doubt one converses with tourists, (which they undoubtedly thought we were), on a slightly higher plane than with the rough and licentious soldiery. However, they exercised their usual technique of asking three times as much for an article as it was really worth, and then allowing themselves to be beaten down. Irene bought a wide brimmed straw hat for four shillings when twelve and sixpence had been originally asked. I got a piece of tapestry work depicting mosques, minarets, camels and Bedouin for Alma P, wife of our sponsor in Australia. The price asked originally was three pounds fifteen shillings, but we got it for one pound five shillings and six cigarettes. We had still probably been swindled. But bargaining is fun.

Night falls at last. The dirty waters of Port Said twinkle and shimmer in the glare of the wharfside lights, just as they must have done every night since my last visit there; just as they would do for interminable nights into the future. Astern of us, dancing on the skyline, are the winking lights of the city’s night spots. A few vendors still row around hopefully below us, with lanterns illuminating the wares in their little boats.  

The big, black water barges pull away, and the floating pipe, which has been pouring oil into the Ranchi from ashore, is withdrawn. We are due to sail at half past ten and for the greater part of the night we shall be creeping through the Suez Canal.

At exactly ten thirty a police launch comes alongside, and a Suez Canal official climbs aboard. His business does not occupy him very long. He leaves. The gangplank is hauled up by a team of Indian seamen, and we begin to crawl through the Suez Canal. The sandy banks are walled up to a few feet above water level so that they will not cave in. The scenery is mostly barren – sand – the odd clump of palm trees – occasional bare military encampments. At night, every ship passing along the Canal switches on a powerful searchlight in its bows, and the murky waters, with their navigable depths marked by buoys, are lit up for many yards ahead. During the day the waters of the Suez Canal are green, and seem faintly stagnant. Often clouds of mud appear in the ship’s wake as it slides cautiously along. According to the charts, the average depth of the Canal is between 35 and 40 feet.

The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, and is 87½ miles in length. Of this 66½ miles is actual canal, and the rest of the distance is made up of channels dredged through Lake Timsah, and the Great and Little Bitter Lakes. Traffic is controlled by thirteen signal stations alongside the Canal. We passed through the greater part of the Canal at night, but in the morning crept slowly through Lake Timsah and were able to see the township of Ismailia, looking strikingly green and prosperous against the barren yellow landscape. This town was to be badly shelled in one of the later Israeli-Egyptian conflicts. We saw also big, dirty dredges, with their equally dirty crews. Approaching Suez we passed a massive war memorial erected on a hillock of sandstone, and bearing the legend: “Défense de Suez 1914-1918.”

It was on the day that we passed through the Suez Canal that our stewards appeared in all-white uniforms. The head steward, with his black and gold epaulettes, looked like some South American admiral.

In the late afternoon we came to the end of the monotonous Suez Canal. During the last stretch, between the Bitter Lakes and the Gulf, we came across bomb craters by the side of the Canal, and the twisted and torn hulls of ships which had been sunk during the Second World War and hoisted out of the water on to the sandy bank. Suddenly, there was Suez on our right: white houses, palm trees, macadamised roads, square harbour, and an Egyptian ship lying at anchor and letting off vociferous steam. A busy tug approached, our pilot climbed down the side of our ship and stepped into it. The tug veered away, and suddenly the Ranchi’s engines thundered and we started to put on speed.

That night we steamed at full tilt down the Gulf of Suez, while behind us the waters tumbled and foamed madly. Earlier in the evening, while the light lasted, barren rocky desert had been visible on either side. Now it was pitch black and we were really pounding along. A following wind, created the effect on deck that the air was still, and it was very warm. The smoke from the Ranchi’s huge black funnel poured straight up into the sky, and the night was glorious with stars.