The anxiety of departure was quickly replaced by the thrill of stopover ports.
Stopovers were practical necessities to restock the ship with fuel and food, and to load and unload passengers. For the migrants on board, many of whom had never travelled before, these stopovers were adventures that offered opportunities to meet the locals, bargain for souvenirs and sample a heady new mix of sights, sounds and smells.
The excitement was a tangible thing that you could feel mounting to a fever pitch as we approached our first stop off at a foreign port. No-one knew quite what to expect.Leonard Rutland migrated from England in 1947.
Southampton farewell, England, 1957.
Source: Brian Willis
Routes and Stopovers
Which stopover ports were visited depended on the shipping line and the particular route taken to reach Australia. Throughout the postwar period, the most common route taken from Europe was through the Suez Canal, although access was at times dictated by political circumstances. When the Suez was closed, ships took the longer route, heading around the southernmost point of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope.
Migrant departure points included various ports in the United Kingdom, western Europe or along the Mediterranean and African coast. After entering the Suez Canal, stopovers began with Port Said in Egypt, followed by Suez at the southern end of the canal, the former British colonial outpost of Port Aden in Yemen, Sri Lanka’s (formerly Ceylon) capital of Colombo, and the Western Australian port of Fremantle.
Ships initially returned to Europe via the Suez Canal but, by the 1960s, many lines had decided to take advantage of the increase in tourist trade and adopted a round-the-world route, returning to Europe through the Panama Canal in Central America.
Floating souvenir markets, Port Said, Egypt, 1948.
Image: Theodore Leonard Rutland
Source: Anne Rutland
Souveniring the Experience
Buying souvenirs was an exciting part of the stopover experience. Goods were unusual and exotic, providing a keepsake of visits to places that most migrants from Europe and Britain had never seen before, and would probably never see again.
Along the Suez Canal passengers could buy from onshore markets and the ever present street vendors or shop in the small city laneways. Many have vivid memories of the floating markets of tiny rowing boats and traditional Nile feluccas that would suddenly appear and surround the ship.
Some found the vendors overly zealous in their efforts to entice the travellers to buy a trinket.
Looking for souvenirs was great fun. We didn’t have much money in those days, so learnt how to bargain pretty quickly.Steve Duane migrated from Ireland in 1963
We tried to move away from them as quickly as possible, saying 'No. No.' to every artifact they thrust at our faces.Frank Kriesl migrated from Hungary in 1951.
Janet Johnson walking the streets of Aden, 1957.
Source: Janet and Antony Johnson
Sights, Sounds and Smells
The aromas were pungent, the languages, landscapes and architecture were unfamiliar. This simply added to the holiday atmosphere of the voyage.
Most passengers grabbed the opportunity to explore independently or organise sightseeing tours in taxis, camels or bullock-drawn carriages. Some migrants recall visits to snake charmers, local landmarks or cottage industries.
But people did not have to leave the ship to encounter the wonder of new cultures, such as when a Sultan with a harem came on board:
We were overwhelmed at the (Colombo) wharf by an all-pervading, enveloping aroma, which we discovered once on shore to be the smell of curries from the motley array of food stalls beyond the terminal. From one of these we tasted real fresh coconut for the first time.Joe Vella migrated from Malta in 1955.
... we did occasionally get a glimpse of these voluptuous, exotic females, complete with ‘see-through’ harem pants, turned-up slippers, bras and yashmaks. We never saw much of the Sultan... Too exhausted, I guess?Leonard Rutland migrated from England in 1947.
Crossing the equator certificates.
Image: Benjamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
Crossing the Equator
The final leg of the journey was broken by a celebration on crossing the equator – a festive event that had been a maritime tradition since before 1800. It was originally an initiation rite for young sailors.
By the 1900s, the festivities had become much more elaborate. Led by the crew, who painted their faces and dressed in flowing robes or grass skirts, passengers volunteered to be covered in shaving cream and ‘shaved’ with mock razors. They were then thrown in the swimming pool. Everyone received a certificate to mark the occasion.
Presently old Father Neptune made his appearance, dressed in full regalia. The crown upon his head was dazzling in its brightness, and the trident he carried was a very formidable affair.Thomas Park migrated from England in 1852.
Children's fancy dress party on board RMS Orion. Palmer family migrant voyage, England to Australia, 1947.
Source: Museum Victoria
Two adults in a swimming pool on board the RMS Orion competing in aquatic sports. Palmer family migrant voyage, England to Australia, 1947.
Source: Museum Victoria