Published: August 6th 2007March 29th 2007
We've done it - we've finally arrived in Queensland, Australia after travelling all the way from the UK without taking a single flight! It's taken a sometimes hard but always fantastic nine months and one week to get here and was topped off by a great trip aboard the MV Baltrum Trader, sailing from Singapore to Brisbane in 9 days. I've jumped the gun a bit in writing this as I haven't blogged Malaysia and Singapore, where we had a great time travelling southwards from Thailand, taking in amongst others, the tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands, the capital Kuala Lumpur and finally seeing a friend from home, now living in Singapore. However, I'll cover that in the next blog after this in the next few days.
In the meantime, back to the Baltrum Trader! It was about 18 years ago whilst chatting to Malcs, a good friend from school that I started thinking what a great challenge it would be to get to Australia from the UK without flying. After all, the bit of sea between Asia and Australia looks tiny on the map, doesn't it? Surely there must be boats that sail that bit of water and if
Loading 24 Hours A Day
Singapore Port, MV Baltrum Trader
you can do that, then the rest overland must be relatively straightforward and I'd be able to visit all those places that you normally fly right over, only imagining what is below you. Well, as time passed, this trip got put to the back of my mind - other things took precedent like uni and finding a job and it was only in the last couple of years when I realised what a rut I was in. Spreadsheets had become a daily activity in a job that quite frankly, bored me to tears and I knew that if I didn't make a drastic change when I did, then I may as well have given up thinking about anything more exciting than saying something on a rather dull conference call or balancing figures at the bottom of the screen. This might suit some people but for me, the time was right - my house was let out and farewells were said. I was finally setting out on a trip that I'd dreamed of, sometimes sub-consciously, for 18 or so years. As I travelled through Norway and into Asia, I chatted with other travellers in hostels and on buses and trains, wanting
The Aurora, Next To A Freighter Ship
View From The Baltrum Trader As We Set Sail, Singapore Port
to hear their stories and plans but always listening out for anyone that had sailed to Australia. The closest I came was meeting someone on the Trans-Siberian, who knew someone who had done it - but I never met that someone. Maybe the best bet would be to try to score a job sailing from Indonesia to Australia - but I didn't know the first thing about crewing a yacht and although I can cook an omelete like the best of them, 2 weeks in a galley trying to please a crew with my mediocre culinary concotions did not appeal! I'd read Peter Moore's book, "Wrong Way Home" and despite his best efforts, even he had not managed to do the last bit from Indonesia back in the 1990s - maybe this trip would fall at the last hurdle and that so-called little bit of sea would turn out to be bigger than I imagined... .
After a few days spent googling on the internet, I found some websites related to freighters that sail around the world and I got in touch with Hamish at Freighter Travel, based in New Zealand. He quickly replied with a couple of suggestions
of boats that sail from Singapore to Australia - one to Freemantle and another to Brisbane. All of a sudden, I'd gone from no boats to having a choice! It wasn't going to be the cheapest way to travel, but the trip would mean I had realised a long-held dream and experienced a voyage that promised to be a bit different from the usual.
It was in Singapore where we said goodbye to Cherry - a good friend from home who had kindly put us up at her luxurious condo for a few days, and we got picked up by the shipping agent's driver to take us to the port. We'd originally been told that the ship was due to sail on Saturday afternoon and we then realised why we'd been told to remain flexible - the time changed to Saturday morning at 1am (a night out dancing in Singapore will have to remain one of those must-do things for another trip!). When we were picked up, we were told that the sailing time had changed again - to 5pm Saturday. Ah well - the vaguaries of travel - various containers had been delayed and a busy time in
Lifejackets At The Ready!
Danielle In Pink Shorts(!) And Her Lifejacket, In Our Cabin, Baltrum Trader
the port meant that it was anyone's guess when we left - but it would give us more time to explore the ship before we sailed.
The driver took us through the security gates where our passports were examined and we were taken to an office to get our dock passes - pictures taken of 2 apprehensive but excited travellers and we were ready to go! The port was full of massive ships - 1000 cars were parked in front of us, having come off of a boat from Japan which towered above us, it's gleaming blue and white sides the trademark of the bulk carrier. Huge gantries marked the dockside and we drove over to the various boats lined up. We peered out of the window anxious to see the name of the ship that we'd recognise - the MV Baltrum Trader.
All of a sudden, we were alongside the dark green hulk of the ship that would be our home for the next 10 days. We were dropped off at the bottom of the stairway and we made our way on board, complete with bags of little chocolate treats and a few beers - not really
View From The Bow, MV Baltrum Trader
knowing what supplies there would be on board a freighter! Several smiling faces greeted us - dressed variously in bright orange boiler suits, hard hats and ear defenders, some of our companions on this ship led us into the ship's office. This seemed to be the hub of operations - several computers hummed and radios lined the desks, amongst the posters detailing emergency duties for every crew member and as we were relieved of our passports, the steward arrived to show us to our cabin.
We climbed what felt like miles of stairs but what was in fact only about 4 flights to get to our cabin. We'd gone for the cheapest option - as long as got there, we didn't really mind what the room looked like. Therefore, we'd been warned that although we'd have a window, the view may be obscured by containers so it was a great surprise to find a well kitted-out room, complete with 2 bunk beds, a sofa, desk and table, as well as 2 wardrobes and an en-suite toilet and shower! Compared to what we'd been living in for the last few months, this was luxury. The view was across the tops
My Handheld GPS Showing Our Position, Sailing Between Borneo And Java
of hundreds of containers and whilst we were in Singapore, the huge gantries maneouvered them from lorries that pulled up alongside, and onto the ship all night. Weighing up to 50 tonnes each, they can contain anything from washing machines to meat and vegetables, the latter of which are stored in the refrigerated containers.
Once we'd unpacked and dumped our bags, ready to live in what was to be the longest time we'd stayed in 1 "place" since leaving home, we went to explore. A dull thudding noise came from the bowels of the ship as the engine ticked over and as we climbed more stairs, we bumped into several crew members, hurrying about their business as the loading and unloading continued. As we explored, we found our way to the mess rooms and galley. The rooms were divided into one for the officers and one for the crew and although we were told we could sit in either one, our meals would be served with the officers and captain.
That evening we enjoyed our first meal on board - the food was a hearty mixture of Ukranian/Polish/Filipino/western food to reflect the diversity of the crew and officers
and it wasn't long before we could see some serious pounds were going to be put on during this voyage! Whilst everyone else burned their calories off on duty, we were bound to be sitting around, reading, writing and watching the world go by outside! Hey ho, it was going to be hard, but we were sure we could cope!
After dinner, we all moved to the mess rooms for a bit of r&r. Although the loading would be going on outside all night, most of the crew were able to relax so we were able to meet some of them over a drink or two. The officers were mainly from Poland, Ukraine, and Germany whilst the crew were from the Phillipines and it wasn't long before they were entertaining us with old sailing tales - some of which originated in the mess room that we were drinking in. Pictures were up on the walls showing various other fare-paying passengers drinking from a coconut in the bar and the Chief Engineer, Mario told us we too could have our picture on the wall, as long as we drank the ominous sounding "Baltrum Drink". A mixture of all the spirits
in the bar, combined with whatever was left half drunk in the fridge and a secret 'special ingredient", it would be our initiation for crossing the Equator. To get us into the swing of things, Mario mixed us a taster - just a couple of spirits to welcome us aboard and the rest of the night deteriorated into a hazy memory. St Patrick's Day was around the corner - the mess even had a green top hat from a previous party and we were already well into the swing of things!
Not long after we arrived, we were given a safety briefing - shown where our muster point was and what to do in the event of an "abandon ship". Roland, the very friendly Chief Officer from Germany had told us bluntly - "always tell someone if you walk to the bow. If you fall overboard, you are finished". Although there was a rescue boat on board, the ship was travelling at 20 kts and by the time it had been noticed that you'd fallen overboard, it would have been too late to pick you up... .
The next few days were spent enjoying a mixture of reading
and writing - catching up on long overdue journal writing and reading the library-like amount of books we'd lugged on board. We spent time playing table tennis in the gym room, or sweating it out in the sauna after a dip in the sea water pool. Every so often we ventured further from our cabin - exploring the outside deck and amongst the huge containers that towered above us. They creaked and groaned as though they were alive and the occasional knocking sounds that came from the depths of the ship only fired up the imagination as to wonder what we were carrying to Australia. We had 1700 containers on board - well short of the maximum load of 2500, but the boat still weighed in at a massive 25000 tonnes but as we stood on the bow of the ship, we seemed to plough on as though we were a light sailing ship. The walk up to the bow took us alongside the containers - some we had to walk under and as we got further forward, the sound of the waves crashing against the bow became louder. The sea became churned and frothy but the further we walked
from the superstructure housing the engine, the more isolated we felt until we climbed some steps to get amongst the thick ropes, chains and winches and climb up to the point housing the flag pole to stand in true Kate Winslet-style looking out to sea. Here it was silent - even the sound of the waves seemed to be distant now as we were in front of the bow wave and 15 metres above the water. At times, the water was so calm it looked like frosted glass, only broken by the flying fish that took flight to avoid being run down by our bow - their wings making the only sound we could hear as they touched the water as they flew only centimetres above it, sometimes for 50 metres or more, matching our speed. More often than not, we were joined by dolphins who surfaced nearby and followed us, cutting in front of us in large groups - at one time we counted more than 50, and the Filipino crew started clapping and whistling to encourage a dolphin display which we continued to do everytime we saw a fin break the surface! At one point, more ominous fins
appeared as we watched 15 or so sharks circle something not far from our ship. Sailing through Indonesia meant we saw some beautiful islands - in the distance a volcano fired ash and smoke into the atmosphere - we could see ash roll down the mountainside and into the sea as we passed, imagining the crashes and bangs it must be making, as we watched in complete silence.
As the days progressed, we got to know the crew better and they told us about their lives at sea. The voyage would take them 28 days, calling at Port Kelang, Singapore, Brisbane, Melbourne and back to Malaysia which they would do 4 times before having 4 months of unpaid leave, flying home to spend time with their families. Most of the crew and officers had been with the ship for a few years, but some had joined it recently, working their way up from smaller vessels. They were all very friendly and keen to chat to us in their freetime in the evenings. They had a collection of latest DVDs which they were keen to show us and we joined in many a darts game - Mario, the Chief Engineer
being the undisputed Baltrum Trader darts champion who was always a challenge to beat. It was after one of these sessions that we were reminded of the Baltrum Drink and a quiet evening quickly turned into a big night. We were passed the coconut, now containing shot of every spirit on board, (including strawberry ice cream) and told it wasn't a race - we just had to finish it. Back in Thailand, I'd finally resigned from IBM after almost 9 years (including near enough a year on this trip!) and one month later we were celebrating my last official day as an employee. Well, we'd been having the first bottle of wine in ages that night, so we were truely mixing our drinks now and the Baltrum Drink didn't come top of the list in the most drinkable of drinks. To put it bluntly, I vaguely remember following Danielle as she was helped upstairs to our cabin by the Third Mate as I managed to open the door and plonk ourselves down. The Third Mate carried on upstairs to start his shift in the Bridge and I remembered that I hadn't quite finished my drink, I then tottered back downstairs,
The Freefall Lifeboat
One Of The 5 Or So Lifeboats On Board, Baltrum Trader
to make sure I earned my place in the mess room's gallery! The rest of the evening is a blur, but we did in the end get our picture placed in the mess, taking pride of place next to the bar!
As St Patrick's Day beckoned, we were told that in honour of both this festival and a crew mate's birthday, a barbecue would be held, with the obligatory karaoke. It turned out that a party isn't a party for the Filipinos unless there's karaoke and they queued up to have their turn, with Danielle hard to beat singing Unchained Melody, to much applause by everyone on board! The Captain had said it would make the crew's day if she sang - and there was no stopping her! The chef was a whiz with just about every type of food he turned his hand to and we seemed to spend most of the voyage eating or sleeping a large meal off in a quiet corner, the bbarbecue being no exception.
We were always made very welcome to tour the ship whenever we wanted - and that included visiting the bridge. This was obviously the nerve centre of the
ship, full of paper charts, and their electronic equivalent - the satellite navigation with radar and radios. The various officers had to do 4 hour stints here, on pirate watch as we sailed from Singapore, through Indonesia and also watching for small fishing boats. At one point as we entered Australian waters, we were radioed by the Australian coastguard asking us to identify ourselves. We all stood outside to look for their aircraft, but decided it was too high to see and the Chief Engineer confirmed our presence. Shortly after, a pilot boarded us as we passed Thursday Island on the northern tip of Cape Tribulation in the Torres Strait, to guide us through the northern half of the Great Barrier Reef. A small, fast boat came alongside and the pilot and his trainee climbed aboard using a rope ladder, swinging precariously 10 metres up the side of our green hulk. It is compulsory to have a pilot aboard on this section as they know these waters like the back of their hands and I spent some time in the bridge, watching the pilot call out to the second mate, where to turn and by how many degrees. We had
a draught of 10 metres and just after we picked up the pilot, we only had a clearance of 4 metres below us - the sand churned as we accelerated away. The depth of the water along the reef was usually around 30 metres which was plenty, but further out where the continental shelf dropped off, the bottom plummetted to 4000 metres! This pilotage is the longest in the world and another boat came alongside for him as we passed Cairns as we were free to sail just outside the reef.
One day we ventured to the bowels of the ship, into the engine room. The sounds as you descend the steps reminded me of a scene from Lord Of the Rings when the orcs are smashing metal to make weapons and as the heat increased as you got closer to the heavy metal doors that enclosed this deafening monster, we were handed ear defenders for our tour. Two heavy doors mark the entrance to the engine room, to prevent the heat and noise escaping, but also any CO2 in the event of a fire on board. Mario, the Chief Engineer showed us around - although we weren't really
able to hear any of his commentary, the sounds and smells of the engine left a lasting impression. Steep stairways ran past the cylinders and they clanked and hissed, the a/c units pumping out cold air as we walked past, various dials and gauges showing the temperatures and pressures of this and that. The control room however was a haven of peace - a heavy steel door closed off the sound and noise, as we looked at banks of more gauges and computers - giving the temperatures of everything on board, including the sea (a balmy 29C). From here, the engineers could control the engine speed, the power provided to the ship via the auxiliary motors - they even had one of the ships' engine speed "thingy" saying "dead slow", "stop", etc.. The ship takes on enough fuel to cover 18000 miles when in Singapore - at a cost of $250 per tonne, it uses about 70 tonnes of fuel per day at full speed, enough to power the single propellor through all weathers. We were fortunate on our trip - calm weather was common on this route through Indonesia - the roughest section for us was sailing past Innisfail,
northern Queensland, finally calming down as we approached Brisbane. As we felt like we lurched from side to side and felt distinctly green, the officers laughed and said the swell didn't even feature here. As they passed Melbourne, they would have to endure swells of 6-7 metres, with 12 metre swells a possibility. The Captain explained that it was fine as long as the side to side roll was once every 30 seconds - if it was every 15 seconds, they risked losing containers overboard. The Chief Officer then piped up and said that in that case, the crew walk around the decks in the morning collecting the flying fish that have been thrown aboard by the big waves overnight, and are cooked for brekkie!
As we neared the end of our 9 day journey, we realised that it was also the end of the bigger journey - the trip from the UK to Australia without taking any flights. It was a strange feeling as we hugged the Aussie coastline, never venturing far away - the TV picked up various stations and we started to pick up mobile phone networks, getting SMS messages from home. Then it was time
to enter the Brisbane river - another pilot came aboard and guided us in and we pointed straight towards the huge red gantries that marked the container port in the distance. The sea had calmed now and as we stood on the bow, a turtle poked his head above the water, looked around and saw us charging down on him and rapidly dived! It was also a strange time for the officers and crew - the charter was about to change and the rumours were that it would do one more Singapore to Singapore trip and then head west to South America, changing it's name to Grand Challenger - the end of an era for the ship and the hard-working crew who would stay with their vessel on her new route.
This trip had been the icing on the cake for me - an amazing end to a dream that I'd held for a long time. I never imagined that 9 days on a ship could be such an eye-opening experience, to see how goods are transported around the world. All the clothes that we wear at home that are made overseas would have been packed up in containers
like these, the white goods in our kitchens, the cars we drive, TVs and computers would never have got there without crews like those working on the MV Baltrum Trader, yet their life seemed a mystery to me before this trip. The Chief Officer said he found that people never seemed to know anything about the life they all led, yet without them, life for a lot of us would be very different.
The voyage also meant that I had finally realised my dream of getting to Australia by land and sea - I'd seen a lot of those bits that you fly over and discovered an amazing world and met some fantastic people, some of whom I know I'll keep in touch with for a very long time to come. It's also allowed me to see people who lead completely different lives to me, people who have comparatively very few material goods but who seem happier than many people who have more.
I'll update the blog with the Malaysian and Singaporean section as soon as possible, but in the meantime we're travelling to Sydney for a few days, and then hitting the outback for a few weeks
on a 4x4 trip! Can't wait for that. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this blog - I didn't realise I would write so much about a boat trip, but I hope it's enjoyable. Keep in touch and keep the emails and comments coming :-)