Living in Mombasa, holiday allowance for my father, was divided between ‘local leave’ and ‘home leave’. Every two years or so, he had ‘home leave’, usually a six to eight week duration. During this time we returned to the UK to see my parent’s relations in Brighton.
The journey almost always was by sea, which was due to a number of reasons.
Firstly, my father’s company ‘Smith McKenzie’ (known as ‘Smith-Max’) were agents for British India, a well know shipping firm. The British India Steam Navigation Company (‘BI’) was formed in 1856 as the result of a partnership between two Scots, William Mackinnon and Robert Mackenzie in order to carry mail and cargo between Britain, Calcutta and Rangoon. As one of the largest ship-owners of all time, at its height the company owned more than 500 ships and managed 150 more for other owners. In the 1960s the main shipping routes of the line were: Britain to India, Australia, East Africa and South Africa. Shipping agents were an essential requirement for companies like BI. Since the ships operated on regular shipping routes, it was necessary for there to be a representative in each port to deal with the loading, unloading of cargo and passengers, liaise with local bureaucracy, the port authorities, the railway company, and so on. In addition to this, the ships would require repairs and maintenance, which was organised by the agents. Mackinnon, Mackenzie and company became involved in insurance, trade and merchandise of all kinds and their name was eventually to be found all over the Far East.
As a consequence of being agents for BI, Smith-Max staff were given huge discounts in the cost of travel (first class!). I don’t have the exact facts for this, but my recollection is that they only paid 10% of the cost and I think drinks were pretty much free.
The second reason for returning home by sea, was that six or eight weeks was quite a lot of time, and to use nineteen days sailing was a useful way of reducing the cost of renting a flat in Brighton. Besides, the cruise was so elegant and enjoyable, (and cheap!) It was possible to fly by now (from around 1962), and we probably went by sea one way and flew the other. Flying would be from Nairobi, so having gone from Mombasa to Nairobi (300 miles) it then usually require two stops between Nairobi and Heathrow – one in Uganda, a scheduled stop, and one in Rome to refuel.
Another perk obtained from being associated with BI was that it was possible for staff to board the ships when they were in port and enjoy meals and duty free drinks or tobacco, a practice known as ‘Nips-on-Ships’. As the duty free perks were only available to Europeans, it was hardly surprising that eventually the government put an end to the practice.
SS Uganda was magnificent from the passenger’s point of view. The passages, stairways and entrances were wide and spacious, and the public rooms were panelled in an astonishing variety of woodwork, birch, sycamore, Nigerian cherry and walnut in particular.
The First Class Drawing Room was located at the forward end of the Promenade Deck. The room was surrounded on three sides by a sheltered promenade area which had views of the sea and the forward Well Deck.
In addition to the Drawing Room, Uganda had a Smoking Room, Writing Room and a Card Room where bridge, chess and draughts were played and a well stocked library. It was possible to follow world affairs. The wireless news was received daily and circulated on printed sheets in the public rooms, and was also broadcast at suitable times. One of my enduring memory is still feeling the cool air conditioning wafting up the stairs as you entered the Children’s Dining Room. To this day, I can’t eat cornflakes with UHT milk without remembering that room. It was possible to have private parties in the Children’s Dining Room for up to forty.
However, it was the pool and surrounding deck where we as children spent most of our time. Since the Uganda wasn’t equipped with stabilisers, she did used to roll and pitch quite a bit in turbulent sea. This often caused havoc both at the bar and in the dining room, but in the pool it was quite fun, it was like having a wave machine as the water lurched from side to side. We often traveled with friends, and so the children were quite safe, there were always plenty of adults on hand to keep an eye on what we were up to. This did mean that the adults could enjoy an aperitif with friends in the cocktail bar until it was time for a sumptuous meal. The children’s equivalent of a cocktail, was called a ‘pussy foot’ which was a non alcoholic punch with a little plastic umbrella in it. We lapped them up, along with the free ice cream that was served every day on deck. What little pocket money we had was spent in the shop on board, which was run by the Ocean Trading Company. Our treasured purchases were wind up little plastic cars which we could race round on the circular deck tables.
Apart from deck quotes, tennis and shuffle board, one of the voyage highlights was Sports Day which featured the potato sack race, obstacle races, spoon races and so on.
There was also a Fancy Dress Competition and if were travelled during December, there would be a pantomime. Our group entered as a circus troop and I was the ring leader. However, I didn’t feature so highly in the Cinderella pantomime – I was a pumpkin!
At times passengers would see a long line of dipping porpoises in the lazy ripples of the Red Sea, the erratic flight of flying fish in tropical wasters, or at night the bright green phosphoresces in the ocean south of Aden. As one gazed out to sea, you could marvel at the beauty of the sun setting over the shimmering waters.
As evening fell, and the children were asleep, the Uganda became another world with cocktail parties, lavish dinners and dancing until midnight in the Veranda Ballroom with a live band. Evening gowns and ties were of course required. My memory is that the band played the same songs – ‘Wheels’ ‘Yellow Poka Dot Bikini’ and ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’. I was attracted to the drummer, even at that young age and when they practiced in the afternoon, I would stand and look at his shiny kit and the sparkling chrome and brass.
Occasionally there would also be film shows, the Pathé News and documentaries such as ‘Kariba Dam’ and ‘Animals at Large’ all supplied by the Central African Film Unit in Mombasa.
Calling in at Aden and Port Said, as we went through the Suez Canal it was possible to go ashore for some duty free shopping. During this time, local ‘boat boys’ would row along side the ship and sell curios to the passengers. They were not allowed to board, so the crew arranged a series of ropes and pulleys from the deck to the small boats and the ‘boat boys’ would winch up their goods for us to look at. Money was placed in dishes and winched down again, but if any coins went overboard the boys quickly dived into the water to retrieve them.
The one person who was allowed on board was the ‘gully-gully’ man. He was a local magician who entertained the children (and adults). One of his tricks was to take someone’s watch, throw it overboard and then it would mysteriously appear in someone else’s pocket. David was asked to ‘assist’ once, and the gully-gully man kept making day old chicks appear from inside his shirt. (They were obviously small enough to be hidden in a palm of his hand, but it was impressive. David didn’t think so, he was covered in scratches!)
There were final calls made at Barcelona and Gibraltar before arriving at Tilbury docks in London. It was truly magnificent sailing, and in this age of mass travel, is never going to be repeated.
However, at the end of 1966 BI announced that Uganda was to be withdrawn as part of the rationalising of the UK – East Africa passenger service, but her sister ship SS Kenya did continue until 1969. The Uganda had a successful career after this point, first as an Educational Cruise for children and later as a hospital ship during the Falklands war.
The writing was definitely on the wall for the shipping companies in 1966. Not only was it possible to fly, but the political situations were changing. In the mid 1960s Ian Smith in Rhodesia had declared unilateral independence resulting in economic sanctions that greatly effected the BI market, but also the eight year closure of the Suez canal following the Six Day War in the Middle East meant a longer and less economically viable route around the South African cape to reach Britain.