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Mary sails south

19 November 1956

On Monday 19 November 1956, Mary boarded the SS Rangitoto at London’s Royal Albert Docks. Having secured a year’s appointment as an exchange lecturer in botany at Massey College (now Massey University) in Palmerston North, New Zealand, and contract research work with the CSIRO, studying the muttonbird industry in Australia, she left her teaching post at the University of Exeter for a life of adventure in the southern hemisphere.

Monday 19 November

Family took me to Royal Albert Docks (shed 25) by car but were not allowed on the boat. No customs difficulties; aboard by 3pm though not due to sail till 10.30pm. Beautiful bunch of coloured freesias and large chrysanthemums sent with best wishes from the Exeter University students I had so lately left.

First shipboard acquaintance was a New Zealand countryman whose sister had obtained a degree in botany and zoology at Exeter and knew my senior colleagues well, now teaching at Salisbury Tech College. About 80% of passengers New Zealanders returning. Cabin mates: 3 young married girls, 2 from NZ, 1 from London, and 2 older married women, both from NZ … Upper bunk, 3 drawers, 4 pegs, ½ a wardrobe and ⅓ wash basin each.

Cast off at 10.15pm, reached River Thames 2 hours later. Expert manoeuvring by 3 tugs which answered whistle blasts from the Rangitoto with toots on their sirens. Two bridges opened to let us through … Surprising number of large vessels in Royal Albert dock … Rangitoto drawing 30ft, 22,000 tons and only just over 400 passengers; primarily a cargo vessel bringing butter, cheese and frozen meat to UK and returning with manufactured goods, cars, etc. Apparently ranks very high in shipping circles as keeping an excellent table.

You can see more photos of the Rangitoto here. Our images are courtesy of Björn Larsson at the Maritime Timetable Images website.

Tuesday 20 November

Reported to have passed the Isle of Wight early in the morning but no land visible either side … Lunch was the first organised meal in which we were allocated to our permanent places. I found myself honoured with one of the 6 seats at ‘high’ table … Assistant purser was the ‘host’ here at first sitting (mine), tall, cheery, young and masculine with a humorous twinkle in his dark eyes … disgraced myself by being sick in the middle of the chicken course at dinner. Fortunately the assistant purser took such things in his stride, all traces were rapidly whisked away and I finished my chicken in comparatively good order. The twinkle with which I was invited up to coffee afterwards was a challenge which I could not but accept …

Saturday 24 November

The chef continued to find new species of bird for the menu, the two latest being pheasant and capon. Pheasant and partridge I found less tasty than the more usual chicken, duckling and gosling (note added: later ptarmigan, turkey, pigeon) but I was getting a bit blasé about poultry by now and dined tonight  from soup, poached turbot, braised lambs’ tongues, fruit salad and ice cream …

Mary photographed these paintings of New Zealand birds, the Kea, Bellbirds and Tui, that were on the covers of the menus on board the Rangitoto.

Sunday 25 November

Predominantly cloudy today with the sea on the beam, broadside on and giving the sort of roll which landed a couple of empty coffee cups in my lap … The proneness of the ship to roll so heavily in so comparatively calm a sea was, I learnt, due partly to the cargo. That in the bottom of the hold and giving a swinging dead weight on the keep was steel girders, cement and slag for a new bridge which was to be built at Auckland, a major project and expected to be one of the largest bridges in the southern hemisphere, beaten only by that at Sydney ...   [see more on the Auckland Harbour Bridge here]

In the evening we enjoyed a sing song in the lounge. My new friend, Mr Eady OBE, one of New Zealand’s foremost pianists at the piano …

Monday 26 November

35th birthday in the middle of the North Atlantic. No birds in sight but a sea full of seaweed – yellow-brown Sargassum bacciferum from the Sargasso Sea where the eels go to breed …

I sported one of my travellers’ cheques on a camera today and was assured I had got a bargain. I paid £16, tax and customs free; in Britain I should have paid £35, in NZ about £48. A Zeiss Ikon German model from Stuttgart; Contina II, a 35mm with built-in exposure meter and Pronto SVS shutter. Most of the afternoon was spent poring over the instruction book …

Tuesday 27 November

Was thrilled to see my first flying fish, looking for all the world like toy aeroplanes as they planed over the sea – about 10 inches long and as broad from tip to tip of the pectoral fins …

The gulf-weed Sargassum bacciferum continued to drift by all day in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and it was likely that we were actually passing through the margins of the Sargasso Sea … My friend the Stornaway bosun turned up trumps and produced for me a fine collection of the weed which he had fished over the side in a net.

Wednesday 28 November

Official ‘first day of summer’ today as we ran towards the Tropic of Cancer; officers appearing in immaculate white shorts and shirts with epaulettes clipped on and knee-length white socks …

Thursday 30 November

All up with the lark this morning to see the Island of Sombrero, which we passed, exactly on schedule, at 7.15am. This was one of the Virgin Group under the federal administration of the British Leeward Islands and marked the junction of the North Atlantic and the Caribbean.

At midday we passed the island of Santa Croix, the largest of the Virgin Islands, bought recently by the USA. Products: coconuts, sugar and pineapples. Sights: a genuine old fort and the ruins of a phosphate industry. Evidently an ancient stronghold of pirates and buccaneers …

During the afternoon a young swallow, apparently the familiar British one, came and perched on the rail within a few feet of my nose, eventually fluttering up to the sports deck. I followed it up and was rewarded by the sight of 3 or 4 more swooping among the ship’s fitments, quite unperturbed by the long lean black cat which stalked back and forth on the A deck awning.

Saturday 1 December

Well in to the Caribbean now with plenty of islands about … As we came to rest in Curacao bay a big launch brought the pilot out to take us in … Curacao, the ‘Netherlands of the Caribbean’ depended on oil entirely, crude oil being brought from Venezuela in tankers, refined here in an enormous Shell concern employing 35,000 people …

After the mail had been given out we went ashore and boarded waiting cars beneath the coconut palms and fan palms with their grape-like clusters of ‘berries’, dark purple. 10 cars, each with 4 or 5 people, for a 30/- tour of the island and town lasting 3½ hours ...

Gardens were hedged with scarlet-flowered Hibiscus. Bushes of purple Bougainvillea graced the gardens with flowering trees, many leguminous, Acacias, etc …




The famous pontoon bridge which floats round through 90° on cables, electrically operated, started to open as we approached and we parked along side the water and watched 2 big ships through …The fawn-clad police organising the traffic queues carried pistols at their belts, USA fashion …

A rather pleasant custom, which had previously been a law, was that against painting houses white as is so common in tropical countries. An ex-governor who suffered with eye trouble was told by his doctor that the dazzle from the white houses was too much for him. “So he go home and he make law – no more white houses.” As a result, all the pleasant, one-storeyed villas were now in pastel shades and easy on the eyes ...

Everyone was back on board by 10pm (except the saloon steward who ‘deserted’ complete with baggage) and we sailed at 11pm.

Sunday 2 December

… to port the long line of the South American coast which we had been following all night. It remained in sight all day, a rugged mountainous outline bordered by a low plain and sandy beaches … In the afternoon we had a wonderful view of the high Sierra Nevada – highest point 19,000 feet and becoming visible when still over 70 miles off …

Monday 3 December

About mid afternoon, the mountainous coast of Colombia having been left behind some hours before, we came in sight of the rugged, forest-clad hills of Panama – wild, virgin-looking country … the big black ocean birds I had been seeing for over a week came to hover over the boat. I had suspected all along that they were frigate birds but knew the frigate should have a forked tail. Now, they hovered over the boat, 10 or 11 at a time, they obligingly opened the long forked tail and frigates they proved to be ...

It was 5 o’clock when we sailed through the narrow gap between buoys and entered the canal waters, rolling hills clad with tropical evergreen trees jutted out into the bay all, coconut palms, very tall and straight, at their seaward margins … After a hurried dinner we went ashore to see the night life. I was with Clare Falla who had been there before [daughter of Robert Falla, the head of New Zealand’s national museum, who Mary was to meet in a few weeks’ time] – it was not considered safe to walk the streets alone and we were told to keep a careful eye on our handbags ... In all but the oriental quarter, the streets were full of blaring jazz band ‘music’ issuing from the myriad bars with their swinging slatted half doors from waist to head height. Everything about the rather crude and tawdry town put one in mind of what one sees in cowboy films – coca-cola stores, juke boxes, drug stores, bars and more bars …

As we could find no reputable-looking night clubs and the blaring juke box bars, where we saw heavily made-up women swinging ample hips to music for the benefit of the men, did not attract us, we did not linger to see the real night life but returned to the ship at 10.15pm.

Tuesday 4 December

We started the transit at 8pm after taking aboard the pilot and a commentator who talked almost non-stop over the microphone for the 8 hours of the passage and got £50 for his trouble … passengers were allowed on the lower bridge deck so good panoramic views were available … Scenery throughout was beautiful … rolling, jungle-clad hills everywhere … The great Gatun Lake was very beautiful, the hot jungle-scented air being wafted across dark green waters on the breeze …

A long Pacific beach with a row of palms stretched out to Flamenco Island on the port side – the delightfully rugged Tabago Islands on the starboard. We shed the pilot and looked our last on the canal at 4.30pm, then settled comfortably in the cool Pacific breeze to watch a silver sunset behind the jutting hills of Panama and Tabago.

A delightful experience, tho’ exhausting dashing from side to side to see as much of the canal as possible but even the heat was endurable and I wouldn’t have missed the exotic smell of the jungle for worlds.

Thursday 6 December

We crossed the equator, shivering, between 2am and 3am on Friday morning – no Neptune ceremony, which was perhaps just as well as the swimming pool was filled with the bitterly cold waters of the Humboldt current … The weather was deemed suitable for the postponed Mad Hatters’ dance on deck … the fine parade of hats was judged by a small committee headed by the captain….

Friday 7 December

Qualified for our ‘Neptune certificates’ in the small hours and passed the last of the Galapagos Islands at 7am.

In her diary entries, Mary methodically noted the daily air and sea temperatures en route. This is her chart of that information.

Thursday 13 December

Things were warming up today, air temp 85°F, sea temp 78°F, and we passed under the sun during the fore-noon … We passed Henderson Island, 107 miles ENE of Pitcairn at about eleven. This island is uninhabited but is tree-clad and a source of hardwoods for the Pitcairn Islanders … It is associated with a boatload of shipwrecked mariners who perpetrated ‘the worst crimes of cannabalism known to history’.

Pitcairn Island was sighted mid afternoon and we hove to under her north-eastern cliffs at 5, staying till 7.30pm. A much more mountainous island than Henderson with beautiful outline and rocky stacks each end …

As we approached, 3 little sailing boats came out to meet us, standing a little way off to unfurl their sails and lower the masts. … Each was crowded with 30 people, including some women … Few of the survivors of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, for which the island is so famous, lived to rear families and none of the 90 islanders was white. These 90 probably represented almost the entire adult population. They were Seventh Day Adventists ... One curly headed old man was distributing printed pamphlets to the white heathen on the ship free of charge – missionary work the other way round!

As soon as the boats had made fast they swarmed up the ladders and hauled their baskets of wares after them on ropes … Local crafts included necklaces of sea shells and seeds, dyed or natural, beautiful pieces of branched coral dyed or natural, very handsome baskets of all types in colour and all possible forms of raffia work … Also aboard came great baskets of fruit, pineapples, grapefruits and green oranges, and yellow and green bananas …

As the sun set in a glorious blaze of colour behind the black silhouette of the island, the sirens boomed for the visitors to depart and they bade us farewell and scuttled over the ship’s side down the ladders from the fore deck. Once in the boats they varied their initial ‘hip-hooraying’ with the most delightful singing. Hymns with much harmonising and a delightful Polynesian twang …

Saturday 15 December

Maretiri (or Morotiri) Island lay off the port side in the early afternoon … Rapa Island we passed very much closer later in the afternoon … Part of French Polynesia, administered from Tahiti …

Monday 17 December

Weighing of passengers today by the 2 ship's butchers – victim suspended in a wood and rope seat on the hook used for fixing carcases – weight recorded in lbs on a horizontal bar. (Self down to 11stone 9lbs and more of my skirts fit.)

More dolphins were seen and we ran through a school of whales.

Thursday 20 December

‘Antipodes day’ – the one we didn’t have. Too bad for those whose birthday it was. (International date line crossed.)

Friday 21 December

Everyone at sixes and sevens packing, medical exam, etc. Air temp 73°F, sea temp 69°F. Distance 390mls (total 11,211mls). Shearwaters, albatrosses, gulls, sharks by boat and whales blowing 8ft high columns of H2O. Glorious sunset behind the ‘long white cloud’ of NZ.

In her diary entries, Mary made regular mention of the various birds sighted en route. This is her chart of that information.

Saturday 22 December

At last the Antipodes, our goal, after 33½ days of sailing … while watching for the first lights of NZ a fellow passenger pointed out the Southern Cross with its pointers … First lighthouse sighted at 10pm and people bouncing out of bed all night to see the lights. Arrived 2am and up by 5.30am. Found ourselves lying off the island of Rangitoto, our namesake, with morning mist girdling the volcanic cone.

You can read more of Mary's New Zealand adventures here, and see more diary entries and photographs on the map here, or go back to check out more Timeline entries here.