Fremantle to Singapore

The Southern Ocean becomes the Indian Ocean as you round Cape Leeuwin, not that you can see the difference. Klaus showed me a book produced by someone who had travelled around the world by ship. It consisted of photographs taken looking down at the water, dozens of squares of blue representing oceans, seas and harbours along the way. Not a raging best seller I imagine but I have to admit that so far, the Indian Ocean does look different from the Pacific. Its blue seems to have a milky opaqueness to it, suggesting limited visibility, while the Pacific is the one with the fathomless deep blue bottle-of-ink look. I need Kim for colour consultation.

Heading northish towards Fremantle I went out on deck in the middle of the night and found a light breeze off the hidden land enveloping the night with smell that I couldn't quite analyse. The air was humid; the aroma dry. A suspected hint of grass smoke wouldn't reassert itself after the first whiff, as happens sometimes with very delicate scent, and yet was the dominant smell back within the confines of the ship. Quite strange. A couple of days later our new passenger, Moss who hails from Perth, confirmed that there was burning-off occurring at the moment in "The South" and that there had been one fire that got out of control. As you no doubt know, regular back-burning is considered essential to maintain the natural order of native scrub and grassland. Without it, the undergrowth builds up over several years and is then capable of supporting disastrous bush fires, dangerous for inhabitants and devastating for the ecology. Apparently the good people of Perth protest vigorously against controlled burn off when the smoke reaches their city.

The sun rose through the smoky haze above Rottnest Island which I photographed, not because I thought the result would amount to much, but for Maree and Mike who had been there, and same was the reason for the picture of the Rottnest Cat. Fremantle was a delight for its complete lack of skyscrapers. Despite having a street guide I found the layout of the place confusing and was often going in completely the opposite direction from that intended. My first sortie into an Internet cafe was a success (I think, hope and pray). A pleasant lady volunteer guide at the Round House Precinct was keen that I should appreciate the fact that this "Swan River Colony" was established in 1829 as a British Colony for free settlers. The building was just a gaol. The convicts didn't arrive until 21 years later. This no doubt sets them apart from the convict colonies in other parts of the country. I found a shady concrete verandah spot looking across at the back of the Round House for nice chilli pasta and spinach salad lunch with excellent coffee, black with milk on the side. Reporting back time had been set for 6 pm which precluded tours or a trip into Perth, not that I wanted either. However the ship didn't sail till well after midnight. As we moved away up the coast an orange loom in the sky denoted Perth while shoreline lights ran well to the north indicating ever extending beach-front development.

Frustrated by never being able to get pepper out of either of the pepper grinders on offer, I bought a new one for our table. Twenty dollars well spent I reckon. Our new passenger, Moss, was at dinner. He is a retired teacher from the southern part of Western Australian with, among other things has travelled, can pronounce foreign place names, has knowledge of the arts way beyond my comprehension and has a propensity to tell very funny stories.

Just after lunch I took two shots of the Indian Ocean, one looking west towards Africa and one east towards Australia. Now how calm is that?

Taking advantage of the calm conditions I stood for ages on the bow with the camera capturing flying fish skimming across the water. Well, I didn't expect great results. Out of about 150 shots of blue water, specks and blurs, I dumped the lot. Ho hum.

There was no sight of land, no flashing lighthouses, and no passing ships as we head up the Australian coast in the Indian Ocean. Draw a straight line on a map from Fremantle, all the way to the straits of Selat Sunda towards Singapore and you will see that we steadily angle away from Australia and could consider to be cleared from opposite Camarvon on Shark Bay. You will notice, by the way, that the names on the navigation charts I photo are sometimes different from what you might expect owing, I presume, to their origin.

And every hour north seems to raise the air temperature to the point where it is now no longer comfortable in the direct sun for the middle six hours of the day - for me anyway. Not complaining mind you. I obtained a change of bedding from Alex the Steward so now have a manageable combination of duvet sheet with no inner and a blanket. I had been waking up in the night drenched with sweat. Now I am much more comfortable.

Hermann and Brigitte last night invited Moss and I up after dinner to their outside deck for a sun-downer thus establishing a tradition for the rest of our time together. What a pleasant time we had watching the changing light of sunset and the gradual appearance of the evening stars. My Northern Hemisphere friends hadn't seen the Southern Cross before and there it was almost directly behind us indicating a course of something like "nor-nor-west me hearties". The really great thing about our group is that we share good humour and profound appreciation of this maritime experience.

Saturday, 23 April 2005

Fire and lifeboat drill was scheduled for mid morning so I have my ear plugs handy to combat the piercing alarm klaxons.

At breakfast the Captain informed us that there will be no chance of pirates because we pass through the dangerous areas during daylight hours. Mind you I noticed that precautions were taken. The grills were locked down to seal the external companionways and fire hoses laid out for use in repelling boarders. The watch was doubled. We were told that there is now an emergency alarm system that the Captain can activate just by pressing a red button. The one time they trialled it by arrangement with Indonesian authorities, they said that within minutes of setting the alarm, there was a helicopter overhead so perhaps the old pirate days are numbered. Also the Chief Engineer told us that he worked on a ship constantly plying these waters and there was never a problem. There is a journal aboard that chronicles incidents of piracy so I must have a read.

A new schedule was posted:

Singapore         arrive    25/2300           depart  26/2100

Jeddah                         05/2100                       06/1500

Suez                             08/0100                       08/1700

Damietta                       08/2100                       08/0900

Malta                           11/0700                       11/1600

La Spezia                     13/0001                       13/2000

Tilbury pilot                  18/1500

Tilbury docking             18/2000

A gentle swell gave the ship a slow five degree roll to port and then the same to starboard, a gentle metronome ticking off the sea miles, and then, comparative silence. It was like entering a lake. Without the waves rushing past there was an illusion that we had almost stopped. We were in sheltered water and before long, there was Java to the right and Sumatra to the left. And islands galore, the first being Pulau Panaitan which was close enough to our starboard side to see the surf breaking on the point where on the chart is the label WRECK. Further on the chart indicated islands on the other side and I thought, at last there will be land on my side of the boat, but then we suddenly encountered a strange misty haze, a very warm fog, that put paid to such a notion and rendered photography nigh impossible. Well I took dozens anyway and then had to wade through and discard almost all. I did get a good one though looking aft at our smooth wake receding into the fog.

The water lost its oceanic hue and became greyish with an almost oily surface that was littered with all sorts of floating rubbish - quite a shock after the pristine oceans we had encountered so far. We appeared to be moving along a channel marked either side by the strangest oblong structures that didn't appear to have red or green markings or lights. The puzzle was solved when one suddenly belched out some black diesel smoke and motored around in a circle drawing in a net which showed a couple of lots of vigorous splashing from what must have been sizable fish. Poor though my photograph is you can discern more detail in it than was possible with the naked eye. There seems to be a person pointing from the rigging. On peering out into the fog I could then see that there were similar boats dotted about all around.

The tour of the engine room was a descent into another world. Hot. Noisy. Awe inspiring! It is a contemporary museum of functional art. I could have gone on photographing for hours, but on reflection was glad enough to return to the surface, abandon the ear muffs and drink a replacement litre of cold water. All the ducting, cabling, valves, gauges, monitors, warning lights, spares, specialised tools, auxiliary plant, generators, electric motors, etcetera, etcetera - and then the gigantic engine and propeller shaft - I could only think that there were an awful lot of things to go wrong. The normally taciturn Chief Engineer revealed himself to be verbosely outgoing conducting us about his beloved machinery.

Up on the bridge in late afternoon I noted that the ship had slowed to ten knots so asked why. Some trouble with the engine, I was told - Moss then wanted to know what I had been up to down there sneaking off from the group on the pretence of photography ...

And then we stopped! Two black circles and two vertical red lights were quickly displayed from the mast to warn others that, "My vessel is without power and I can not manoeuvre," or some such message. Now where were the pirates? However it was not long before we were underway again, though I must admit to imagining slight changes in engine sound and vibration during the night.

Sunday, the day of rest turned out to be the most frantic so far. I had undertaken to do individual crew portraits set in lifebuoys, which was not a small job so while doing that was rushing out at frequent intervals to check both sides for islands and passing boats, occasionally shooting up to the top for a three-sixty, and eating and drinking with the crew in their lounge to the accompaniment of the ubiquitous karaoke. A new experience was eating tripe with chilli and garlic (mild), an acquired taste but not too bad. I survived. There were so many islands, mostly small and all very low lying.

The South China Sea was as calm as a mill pond and the sea colour improved. Standing on the roof of the bridge a (does that have a special name?) and scanning around the horizon there was nothing to be seen anywhere. I entered the bridge, checked the chart and then saw blips on the radar and yes, there were ships about. It seems monumentally boring up there at times but they do keep a good lookout. And then at 5 pm it's "Land Ho!" with islands seen through the porthole on my side of the ship as we converge on Singapore where we should berth well before midnight.

Shore visit in the morning after customs clearance.


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