|A Diary of my overland journey from England to Australia||
By Steven Abrams
Note. This page is text only for the time being. Photographs and graphics will be added at a later date. If you email me, I will contact you as soon as the page is updated.
Friday 7th February 1969
We started hitching within sight of the immigration booths at the start of the causeway and within a few minutes a Malaysian registered mini-bus stopped for us and we got into the back. The Malaysian immigration gave us no problems at all, (after all they were getting rid of us) and once we had been stamped out of the country we all headed over the causeway across the Straits of Johore and into Singapore.
On 7th February 1942 the invading Imperial Japanese Army crossed into Singapore. On the same date twenty-seven years later, so did we. From the way the Singapore immigration officer treated us it soon became obvious to us that the Japanese troops had received a much friendlier welcome. As we presented our passports, the first thing he said was "you are hitch-hikers?" We were not too sure if this was a statement or a question, but his tone of voice left us in no doubt that he didn't like the looks of us. Statement or question, whichever, it was nonetheless difficult to deny and we had to answer yes. We were then asked to get out of the vehicle and bring our bags into the office where were given a thorough grilling by the immigration officer while at the same time a customs officer went through our luggage. Where had we come from and where were we going, occupation, age, parents names, etc. It was painfully obvious that they were trying very hard to find a reason not to let us in. We were asked how much money we had, then we were asked to get out our traveller's cheques to substantiate our claims.
Eventually the luggage search was completed and much to their disappointment, it revealed nothing that wasn't supposed to be there. But the one thing they got us on and we were not able to produce for them, was a ticket to travel out of Singapore again. We explained that we intended to look for onward transport once we had arrived in Singapore, that we were heading to Australia and had not the slightest interest in staying in their country much longer than was necessary for a bit of shopping, sightseeing and trawling around travel agencies. They eventually accepted our explanation, happy that we had enough funds to buy our ticket out again, and so they allowed us to continue. But just to make sure we didn't take up residence or get a job in Singapore, they were confiscating our passports until such time as we could produce a ticket for onward transportation. The logic of that somewhat escapes me, but they issued us with a formal receipt and told us that when we reported to the immigration office in town with a ticket, our passports would be returned. In the meantime the receipts were valid for just five days and would be acceptable anywhere in Singapore where we needed to produce a passport, such as hotels or banks to cash travellers cheques, but not to leave the country.
When we left the office the mini bus was still there. I felt sorry for them having been held up for well over 30 minutes while we were being grilled and searched, but we were grateful to them for waiting for us. They drove us for about 10 miles into Singapore before dropping us off on Bukit Timah Road. We thanked them very much and apologised for delaying them at the Causeway.
We were well inside the built up area of Singapore by now and I reckoned on getting a bus the rest of the way, but Louis always had an eye out to save money and he tried to hitch a lift. It soon became obvious that hitch-hiking was not approved of in Singapore because passing cars would sound their horns at us and drivers as well as passengers would shake their arms in disapproval. So when a bus eventually came along we decided to get on. We weren't sure where we were, but luckily the bus we had caught was going fairly near to our destination, Sam Leong Road in Singapore 8. The fare was 40 cents, which we paid for with Malaysian money, not yet having any Singapore dollars. We had expected a bit of a squawk from the conductor about that, but he accepted the Malaysian coins without any fuss at all. We told the conductor where we wanted to go and he put off in Serangoon Road and gave us excellent directions for the short walk to Sam Leong Road.
In Sam Leong Road we met two Australians who directed us to numbers 42 and 44, which were not too far down the road. The two buildings were semi-detached (duplex) with the two front doors right next to each other. Between the two doors was a bell push, which we rang and soon after the landlady came out and told us that they were full up. She was just starting to direct us to another hotel when Ken, an Australian we had met in Bangkok came out. He was staying in number 42 and had a room to himself. He offered to let us share with him until a room became free. Rooms were normally S$3 per night, but because there was an extra person in the room the landlady demanded an extra dollar.
As we were about to go inside, two really beautiful girls came down the stairs and out of the front door. As they walked past both Louis and I just stood and gawked at them. The 'girls' seeing us staring at them stopped and smiled at us. We thought our luck was in until one of them spoke in a masculine voice and wished us "good evening". The bubble had burst. It was our first experience of Singapore's transsexual community. They introduced themselves to us as Ellen and Ellena, before walking off, presumably to the Bugis Street area, which was notorious for such things.
Just over the road on the corner with Verdun Road was a café, appropriately called the Verdun. This seemed to be the meeting place for backpackers in the area and so we went over for a drink and a bite to eat. We met a number of people there from our earlier travels and we sat and chatted to them for a while. At about 10 o'clock Don, Doug and Yvonne arrived and joined us at our table. They were staying nearby at the Palace Hotel, but knowing that everybody seemed to hang out at the Verdun Café, they had passed by in the hope of seeing us. The earth shattering news from them was that they had sold their van. Apparently after making enquiries from various shipping agents they had hit a number of obstructions related to their onward journey with the van. Firstly they found the cost of shipping it across to Australia would be quite prohibitive. Secondly, being a left-hand drive vehicle they wouldn't be allowed to register it in Australia and so would only get a short period import permit. As they were hoping to live there for a while, that would have been a major problem. They also wanted to see some of Indonesia, but drew a complete blank regarding shipping it both from Singapore, and out again to Australia. For them it was like a turtle shedding its shell, but they had no trouble selling it in Singapore and now they were backpackers like us, and also on the lookout for a boat to take them to Indonesia.
We chatted until after midnight then went back to the hotel and chatted some more with Ken. Although it was getting late, neither Louis nor I felt much like sleeping. It had taken us a little over four months to get here and having arrived in Singapore we both felt excited. Going by our original plan, this was the end of the journey and we both had a strong feeling of achievement. When we had left England the previous October, as far as we knew it wasn't possible to travel through Indonesia. From Singapore our plan was to get the regular passenger ship to Freemantle, or to fly to somewhere in Australia. With Indonesia now opening up to tourists our plans had changed. Providing we are able to find transport to Indonesia, we will still have another two months of travelling to go. These thoughts kept going through my head all night and by morning I had hardly slept at all. One good thing about sleeping in Singapore was that there were no mosquitoes. The whole time we were in Singapore we didn't have to use our nets, nor were we bitten at any time. Whatever they were using to keep them down was working well.
We had our breakfast in the Verdun café where we met a fellow Scouser called John and the French Jewish boy I had met in Calcutta (I think his name was Alan Abrami). Although we always enjoyed chatting, on this occasion we were anxious to get into town so we had a bit of breakfast then started walking down to Jalan Besar, where we could catch a bus into the city centre. As we walked past the house, the landlady was outside and she told us that there was a room available in number 44. We paid her for the first night's rent there and then and she gave us a key. We didn't even go up to the room to check it, but just went straight down the road to the bus stop.
It was an interesting bus ride through Singapore. It had been dark the night before, so we didn't see very much, but our first impression was of a very green city. There were lots of open spaces and the bus went past Raffles Hotel and the Cricket club, before going over what seemed to be an old 'Bailey bridge" called Anderson Bridge into Fullerton Road. Near to the bridge was a beautiful colonial style building which was the main Post Office. A bit further along was Collyer Quay, the sea front where we got off, crossed the road and walked through Change Alley into Raffles Place. This was the tourist centre of Singapore. Around here were all the duty free shops and nearby in Robinson Road was the American Express office, which as usual was our first call to collect our mail.
There were only three letters waiting for me, which was quite a disappointment because it had been a while since I last received any mail. When I asked the clerk to double check he looked in the returned mail book and found that a number of letters had been returned already because they had been waiting for over a month. I was very angry and pointed out that if mail was still arriving for a person, it should be obvious that they were still on their way and it shouldn't be returned until the last letter was over a month old. As angry as I felt, I wasn't going to get anywhere and the letters had already been returned so nothing was going to bring them back.
We tried to find a bank that was open, but being Saturday they were all closed. Because the banks were closed the money changers were giving a poor rate, so we decided not to change any money for the time being as we still had enough Malaysian money to last over the weekend. While we sat in Raffles Square and read our letters, I noticed that one of the buildings had a Prudential Insurance sign outside. We tried to get in to get claim forms for my flashgun, and also to claim for the damage that had been done to Louis' rucksack when a truck ran over it in India. The office was closed but at least we now knew where to go when it opened on Monday morning.
After having a bit to eat for lunch we started looking around the duty free shops. Singapore was a "free port" and we had heard that prices were cheap. Cassette recorders had only just come out and I had wanted to buy one in England, but being a new thing, prices were still very expensive. I went to one of the duty free shops to see how much they were, but the assistant got very angry with us when he found out that we were only looking and pricing, but even so we were pleasantly surprised by the prices that we were being offered. We then looked at a few more shops and eventually decided on a Sanyo model priced at S$115 which I managed to bargain down to just S$90, a price that was 40% less than the cheapest model available in England.
We then walked up the Singapore River to get some lunch in the Chinatown area. There were a lot of shop houses along the bank at both Boat Quay and Clark Quay and the river was full of barges. We sat at a café in one of the shop houses and watched the bustling life of the river as traders loaded and unloaded the barges bringing all sorts of goods ashore. A lot of the barges that were being loaded were taking their goods out to the ships that were anchored just down the river in the harbour just off Collyer Quay.
Lou decided to buy a new camera and while we were looking around we discovered that one of the shops that also sold records, would copy LPs onto cassette tape for just S$2 each. I decided to get some music recorded so we would have something to listen to during the rest of our travels. While looking at the records we got chatting to the salesman behind the counter and discovered that his name was Abe and that he was Jewish. It was almost closing time and he told us he was going to the Synagogue for the end of Sabbath service and we were welcome to join him. The end of Sabbath service is called Havdala. When I asked him if it was Havdala, he replied, "no, no money, free". Apparently he though we had asked if it cost half a dollar.
We walked to the Synagogue in Waterloo Street, where we joined in the service. Afterwards the service we got chatting to a couple of local Jewish girls. The wife of one of the members of the congregation had just given birth to a boy and he invited us to a ritual circumcision ceremony (Brith Milor) early the next morning, but we politely declined. We stayed and chatted to the girls until about 10 o'clock, then we started to walk back to Sam Leong Road.
Back in the room we started to listen to some of the music on the new cassette recorder when Don knocked on the door. He took us next door where there was a bit of a party going on. The room was full of hippies and what they had all been smoking was certainly not tobacco. The three of us decided to go over to the Verdun Café instead where we sat and chatted while waiting for Ken to come back so we could get our luggage out of his room. It was nearly midnight before he returned and Don helped us to move the luggage over from number 42, which meant carrying it down the stairs of one house and up the stairs of the other. By the time we had finished we were soaked in sweat and so decided to have a shower. By now the party in the hippies' room next door was in full swing and had become very noisy. Had we not been so tired we probably would have joined them, even so, the noise kept us awake until well after 2 am.
The next day being Sunday, most of the shops in Singapore were closed, so we had arranged to go to the Tiger Balm Gardens with Don, Doug and Yvonne. We had arranged to meet them at 9.30, but it was 10 o'clock before we woke up. We quickly dressed and dashed down to their hotel to meet them, fully expecting them to have gone without us. Fortunately they had also overslept. And Doug and Yvonne were only just ready, but we still had to wait for Don. We all had breakfast together, then we all managed to pile into one taxi to get to Tiger Balm. It was quite a long way and the taxi cost S$4, which we split it 5 ways. When we later looked on a map it seems that the taxi driver had taken the great circle route and had covered about twice the distance we needed to.
The Tiger Balm Gardens were built and paid for by the company that makes Tiger Balm and admission was free. Inside were all sorts of statues and displays depicting all aspects of Chinese folklore. One particular exhibit caught our eye. It was called the pool of blood and puss. Goodness knows what it was all about, but it looked dire. We spent most of the morning there, a lot of the time sheltering from the frequent downpours of rain. We all had lunch in the café opposite, where the owner was delighted to have us, so he could practice his English.
We then decided to catch a taxi back to the hotel. We worked out that if we all got into one taxi, the fare back would work out at just 20 cents each more than the bus fare. It would also be a lot quicker, because we would need to catch two busses to get back. Lou was the only one that voted for the bus. When we all decided to use the taxi he refused to join in with us, so we all left him there and we caught the taxi back to the Palace Hotel in Jalan Besar.
Also staying in the Palace Hotel were the Land Rover boys we had met in Bangkok. They had all decided to split up and would all be travelling on from Singapore to different destinations. Some of them were going back to England, while others were travelling on to various places. At this moment they had almost run out of money and were planning to sell their Land Rover to pay for their onward travels. We all went out for a cheap meal with them then afterwards we walked up to the Verdun Café where we met up with Louis again. For his meal he had bought a loaf of bread and some jam and peanut butter and was tucking in to it when we all arrived. The café owner was not very happy about him eating his own food, but when we all turned up and ordered drinks he decided to turn a blind eye to it. We all decided that Louis needed help and we all tucked into the bread, jam and peanut butter too. Soon after, DD & Y turned up and devoured what little still remained of the loaf. We were soon joined by a group of Aussies and we all sat and chatted until the owner chucked us all out at 1 am. Before going to our hotels, we arranged to meet up with Don to go duty free shopping the next day.
Bright and early, Don came to wake us up. He had met Ellen and Ellana in the corridor outside and found that they lived in the room next to us. We had the hippies on one side and transvestites on the other. Over the next few days we would often hear people knocking on their door calling out their names - knock knock, "Ellen? Ellena?" knock knock, "Ellen? Ellena?" Always male voices, though rarely did they get an answer.
After breakfast at the Verdun we caught the bus into town. Before we started shopping we wanted to know what sort of customs duty we would have to pay when we eventually took the things we were going to buy back to England. A brief stop at the British High Commission and we were given the good news that anything we kept out of England and used for a year before going home, would be allowed in without any customs duty at all. With that bit of good news in mind we set out on a spending spree.
After continually skimping and saving over the last few months, Singapore was going to be a place for some retail therapy. On the list for both of us was a cassette recorder, which I had already bought, a short wave radio so we could listen to the BBC World Service, a new camera for Lou and a new flash for me, to replace the one I had lost. But first of all, we had to put in the insurance claim for my lost flash and Louis' damaged luggage. We went into the Prudential Office with the insurance policy and filed the claim. We fully expected it to take a few days at best before they paid out and we were pleasantly surprised to find that our claim would be paid out that same day. I claimed for the equivalent of £25 for the flash, but there was a £5 excess, so they agreed to give me a cheque for S$147 and told me to call back that afternoon to collect it.
We spent the morning shopping around deciding which models to buy and comparing prices. Louis decided on which camera he wanted and we bought it from Abe after he agreed to match the best price we could find. We each wanted to buy the same Sony short wave radio set, but Abe couldn't get Sony stuff, but a friend of his who had a shop on Collyer Quay gave us the best price of just S$72 each. Lou also decided to buy the same model of tape recorder as I did. By mid afternoon we had just about spent up when we went to collect our insurance cheques. We got the cheques and dashed over to the bank to cash them. We made it to the bank just before they shut at 3 pm, which gave us a fresh boost of spending money.
Back in Sam Leong Road we put all our shopping in the room then went over to the Verdun for a drink. The Aussies from the previous night were there and one of them had just bought a Pentax Spotmatic camera. In England they were well over £100, but he had paid only half of that amount in Singapore. I decided that I too would like to buy one. Back in the room I wrote a letter home asking them to send me some money so I could buy one, then I decided that as I still had over £150 left, I didn't need to ask for money and tore the letter up. With the new tape recorder I decided that instead of writing a letter, I would record one instead. I made some notes on what I wanted to say, then started the recording. As soon as I started to record, the party started up again in the room next door. They had decided to continue where they had left off the night before. I gave up for the night and decided to record it during the day when it was a bit quieter.
The next morning we went to the office of PN Pelni, an Indonesian shipping line. We were told that there were no passenger carrying ships going to Djakarta, or anywhere in Indonesia for that matter. While we were in the office, in walked Doug and Yvonne to ask the same question. They had the name of another shipping office and so we all trooped off to ask them, but we got the same answer. Until recently there had been a bit of trouble between Singapore/Malaysia and Indonesia. They called it the confrontation. During confrontation there was no trade or passenger traffic with Indonesia from either Singapore or Malaysia. Confrontation had only recently finished, and although trade had re-commenced, there didn't seem to be any passenger traffic except by air, which was too expensive for us to consider.
We all went to the docks to the immigration office to see if we could get our passports. While we were getting directions from the policeman at the dock gates, the Land Rover guys came in, going to sort out the customs over selling their van. They offered us a lift to the immigration office, but there was only room inside for Yvonne. So Doug and myself rode on the roof, while Lou sat on the bonnet, and off we went.
The immigration officer got our files out and it was encouraging to see that they our passports were in them, but he still would not officially admit us into Singapore until we could produce a ticket out again. Our five days were up the next day, so he extend our temporary passes until the 20th February to allow us more time to find a ship out.
Outside the immigration office was an Indonesian ship. We asked permission and were allowed to go on board to speak to the captain to see if he was prepared to take any passengers. He couldn't, but he gave us the name of another ship that might and we went off to look for it. Unfortunately it was moored in mid river and we couldn't find a water taxi to take us out to it, but we did find another Indonesian ship. The captain of that one told us that he was not allowed to take passengers unless we got permission from the Indonesian Embassy. Things were not looking too good, so we gave up looking that day and instead went to look at cameras.
I had decided to buy a Pentax Spotmatic, but the best price we could get was S$360. I was offered a Yashika F2 for a lot less. It was also a single lens reflex and it seemed to be much the same as the Pentax, but the price was much lower. I decided to think it over that night, rather than buy there and then.
I caught a bus back to the hotel, but for some reason I missed my stop in Jalan Besar and travelled on for almost half a mile further. While walking back, I passed the Palace Hotel and decided to pop in. Doug and Yvonne were chatting to the Land Rover boys, and although they still had not sold their van, they had managed to sell a load of the gear and accessories to a couple who had been working in Vietnam. They now had some money and one of them had bought a top quality sound system with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. While they were demonstrating how good it was, the hotel owner cut off the electricity. The owner didn't speak English, but when we went to try to ask why, he held up a battery and pointed at the sound system in a gesture that obviously meant that they should use batteries and not waste the hotel's electricity. The response from the Rover guys is not printable.
We all decided to go around to the Verdun, where we met up with Louis again. We then wandered down Verdun Street, where there were lots of food stalls. Each food stall sold a different dish in which they specialised. Food from the stalls was really good and cheap and as we went down the road we would buy something from each stall in turn. Beef noodle soup from one stall, barbecue chicken from another, vegetables, freshly squeezed fruit juices, fish, and many other dishes, followed by some of my favourite Sarawak pineapple for desert. By the time we got back to the café for a drink, we were all full to bursting, and the whole lot had cost very little. The food stalls were not just in Verdun Street, they were all over Singapore and the variety of food available seemed infinite There were stalls selling all kinds of Chinese, Indian and Malay whenever and wherever you went. They were one of the best things about Singapore.
By now the problem of how to get out of Singapore was really getting to us. It was beginning to look as though the only way we could get to Indonesia was to fly to Djakarta. It was an expensive option, which was the main reason we didn't want to do it. Earlier that day while standing at the railing in Collyer Quay looking across the harbour, I noticed that there were plenty of ships flying the Indonesian flag. If only we could find one that was prepared to take us. We decided that the best way was to hire a boat to sail us around the harbour and approach the ship's captains directly.
Bright and early next morning we called for Doug and Yvonne and the four of us went down to Clifford Pier to hire a sampan. We negotiated a price of S$5 between us for a morning. The boatman rowed us around the harbour and we called at every Indonesian registered ship that was anchored there. There was the odd one that wouldn't let us come on board, but most of them invited us aboard, sat us down and gave us a drink (usually coffee). The captains were always polite, but they always referred us to their agents in Singapore, and gave us either the address or the phone number, which we noted down for later. By the time we came ashore again, we had a long list of agents to visit or phone.
We split the list between us. Louis and I took one half, while Doug and Yvonne took the rest, then we set off to visit them all. A lot of them were in the shop houses in Boat Quay and Clark Quay, and we went from agent to agent only to be told the same thing by each one of them, that they were not able to take any passengers. By mid afternoon when we met up with Doug & Yvonne we were feeling quite low. The expensive plane journey was looking more and more likely. The tourist office allowed us to use their phone to call those we didn't have addresses for, but by this time we had got to expect the negative answer, which was just the same from each one.
Even though things were not looking too good, I went off to cheer myself up by buying the Yashica camera for S$235, or just under £33. I went back to Sam Leong Road with the sealed box to unpack it and read the instructions. That afternoon in the room it was quiet. The hippies were out, which was rare, because they seemed to spend most of their time in the room partying and smoking pot. Ellen and Ellena were either out or asleep, and nobody was knocking on the door for them. So I decided to take the opportunity to record a tape to send home, and spent what was left of the afternoon doing so.
That evening in the Verdun café we sat and discussed our alternatives for leaving Singapore. One suggestion was to go back to Penang, where somebody seemed to think there was a ferry to Medan in Sumatra. Even if there wasn't a ferry, it was only a very short distance and the flight would probably be a lot cheaper than the one from Singapore to Djakarta. That seemed the best bet, but nobody could be certain if there definitely was a route to Medan, or what the possibilities were for travelling through Sumatra and on to Java. We had already found was that there were ships going from Singapore to Kutching in Sarawak. We discussed the possibility of catching a ship to Sarawak, then crossing the border into the Indonesian part of Borneo. There were bound to be passenger carrying ships from Indonesian Borneo to Java, and from there we could continue our journey down the island chain called the Lesser Sundas, and eventually on to Australia.
It was a lousy route, but it was starting to look like our only option. What was particularly surprising was that nobody else around who was going to Indonesia. This was the one and only time that the grapevine had let us down. When we eventually got to Indonesia and talked to other travelllers we discovered that there was a daily hydrofoil service from Singapore to a nearby Indonesian island called Tandjung Pinang, which took just a few hours. From there it was possible to catch a ship twice a week to Djakarta. That was the way the route went, but for some reason we just didn't find out about it. We went the hard way.
In the morning we all went to US embassy to look at maps of Sarawak to work out the if the route through to the Indonesian side was open. The maps we looked at showed roads crossing the border and running down to the coast, which was encouraging. After some discussion with the librarian we decided it was a possibility, and so we went along to the Straits Steamship Company to buy our ticket to Kuching. We opted for the cheapest ticket which was S$30.60 each, with all four of us sharing a cabin. Louis and I were able to buy our tickets straight away because the ticket had to have our passport number written on it. We had the immigration receipt for our passports, which the agent happily accepted. Although both Doug and Yvonne knew their passport numbers, the agent had to see it for himself. They had left their passports in their hotel room and had to go back to get them. So while they went back to get their passports, Louis and I went to the immigration office to get our passports back.
The immigration office inspected the tickets, then stamped our passports to finally admit us to Singapore. They also stamped the tickets so that we couldn't cash them again without their permission. We had been in the country for 8 days, yet the entry stamp showed us as arriving that day, 14th February 1969. I jokingly said that if we had committed a crime, we now had an alibi to say we were not here during the previous week. With that the immigration officer took our passports back and wrote under the stamp "Subject entered Singapore on 7/2/69. We were now officially in Singapore and finally had the passport stamps to prove it.
Even after buying all our duty frees we still had well over £100 worth of traveller's cheques each that were only valid in the Sterling Area. Although we could use them in Sarawak, we wouldn't be able to use them in Indonesia or Portuguese Timor, so we changed all the remainder of the cheques to Singapore dollars, which we would be able to change in Indonesia. We also bought some Indonesian currency as we didn't expect it to be too easy to change money in the middle of Borneo when we first crossed the border.
Our Cholera vaccinations would need renewing sometime while we were travelling through Indonesia. As Singapore was a relatively healthy place, we decided it would be safer having our re-vaccination done here. We managed to find the Port Health office, and had our vaccinations done for just S$1 each.
Now that I had a new camera, I had decided to send the old one back to England. I managed to scrounge a suitable box from Abe, and bought some adhesive tape and wrapping paper. Doug had a ball of string and was happy to let me use what I needed to wrap the parcel. We were carrying a lot of clothes that we didn't really need, but we would certainly need them once we got to Australia. We knew that we would have to walk across the border in Timor, and probably also from Sarawak into Indonesia, so it was vital that we cut down on as much weight as possible. We decided to make up a parcel of unimportant things and send it on to ourselves at Post Restante in Darwin. There were quite a few shops in the local area and we started to look for some suitable boxes. None of the local shopkeepers would let us have a box for free and in the end we had to buy one off them for 20 cents.
We went out for supper with Don, Doug & Yvonne that evening. Don had bought his plane ticket back to New York, but he wasn't going straight home. The ticket had quite a few stopovers and he wasn't expecting to arrive home for at least 3 months. He was going to fly out of Singapore for Hong Kong on the same day as we were leaving. When we got back to our hotel we packed our parcels and sorted out what we were going to take with us.
Next morning we took the parcels down to the GPO in Fullerton Road. We wanted to insure both parcels just in case they went astray, especially the camera that was being sent back to England. Before we could send anything insured, it had to be sealed with sealing wax and I then had to apply a personal seal to the hot wax. Although I could buy some sealing wax in one of the shops near the post office, neither of us had a personal seal. The man in the stationery shop suggested that we use the head of a wood nail, which had a pattern on it and gave us one just for the purpose. So we melted the sealing wax over the knots and applied the nail to both parcels, before taking them back to the post office.
The parcel to Australia was no problem and we sent it by surface mail. It was expected to take from 4 to 6 weeks to arrive, which was ideal. The one to England was still a problem. It was less than one ounce over a weight limit, which meant that the cost of sending it would jump from S$8 to S$14.50. It seemed ridiculous, but that extra half-ounce or so was going to almost double the price of the postage. There was no way I was going to pay for that, so I unpacked the parcel again and removed some of the packaging material. There was a guy in public area of the post office who made a business from packing parcels, and he charged me 20 cents to re-pack the parcel again. I reapplied the sealing wax and nail imprint and this time it weighed in just under the limit and everybody was happy. It had taken the whole morning to post the two parcels. In fact by the time we had finished we made it just in time for the post office to close for half day. (It was Saturday).
One last thing was to visit a travel agent to buy an airline ticket for the last short hop from Portuguese Timor to Darwin. We had heard that there was no chance of finding a boat and that the twice-weekly flight from Baucau to Darwin was the only way to get to Australia. We decided that just in case we did run out of money we would at least have our ticket. The fare was US$48 wherever we bought the ticket so we chose Qantas to buy the ticket from. That way if we should find a cheaper way of getting to Australia, there would be plenty of airline offices around to cash the ticket. The ticket was open dated, fully refundable if needed and was valid for a year. We also changed most of our Singapore dollars to American dollars, thinking that in Indonesia, as with most countries in the world, American dollars would be accepted anywhere. We kept enough Singapore dollars for the next few days and to use in Sarawak.
In the afternoon I went around to the Palace Hotel. There was a new couple staying there, Dana and Steve, who were reporters based in Vietnam. They had finished their stint there and were now spending some time travelling around. They had bought a record player and had some good records, which they were happy to let me record.
We had arranged to go to Bugis Street that night with DD&Y and the Rover boys. The place didn't really get going until late, so we all went out for a meal together before crowding into the land rover to head off to Bugis Street. We all sat together in a bar off to one side and watching the sights. This must have been the place where Ellen and Ellena hung around. Everywhere we looked there were female impersonators, and as girls go, they looked good. One of them came over to our table and I said to Louis "here is a nice girl for you". He (she or it?) must have overheard and turned around to me and said. "Well, if you think I am so good, why don't you have me for yourself?" Even though we were off to one side, we still had a good view of the tables set out in the middle of the road, and most of the occupants of those tables seemed to be sailors.
Bugis Street had an international reputation and was the obvious place where all the sailors would come to. The ones that were in Singapore for the first time were not warned what to expect and some of the "girls" did look and sound real. In fact I would imagine that most of the fun would be NOT telling them what to expect. We watched while a sailor put his arms around one such "girl" and started to kiss "her". The "girl" was obviously enjoying it, but the sailor had other ideas and we all watched as his hand slowly wandered up "her" skirt. The expression on the sailor's face when his hand got to the top of the "girl's" legs was a picture to behold. All his mates were roaring with laughter, as were most of the onlookers too. The sailor was probably very embarrassed at having been made to look a fool in front of all his mates and he was obviously not amused. He indicated his displeasure by thumping the "girl" in the face. With that another sailor (must have also been a first timer) got up and grabbed the first sailor saying. "In my book, you don't ever hit a lady". With that he thumped the first sailor. The next bit was like a scene from a movie. Within seconds there were sailors fighting each other all over the place, though it didn't last too long and the local guys managed to calm things down quite quickly. It almost seemed like a regular occurrence.
The next day was the Chinese New Year, and a lot of people had fireworks, mainly Chinese crackers, and they were throwing them at each other. The atmosphere was great and we had a few drinks and stayed there for a few hours more until the early hours. Not surprisingly, drinks there were a lot more expensive than elsewhere. It was well past 2 o'clock when the Rover boys gave us a lift back to Sam Leong Road.
Sunday 16th February.
Neither of us surfaced until early evening when we walked around to the Palace Hotel to meet Don, Doug and Yvonne. We were all leaving Singapore the next day, and with tonight being Chinese New Year we intended to have a good time.
The first stop was to buy a load of fireworks. By fireworks I mean crackers, because that seemed to be all that was around and everybody was setting them off. Boxes of 30 crackers cost just 5 cents or 10 cents for the larger louder ones and we bought quite a few packs of each size.
We had a meal in an open-air restaurant and throughout the meal all the diners were throwing crackers at each other. It was certainly dangerous, but it was enjoyable with everybody joining in the fun. Being a holiday, the prices were a lot dearer than usual and the meal cost S$4, more than double what we had been paying on other nights. After the meal we walked to Bugis Street, but although it was after 11 o'clock, the action had still not started there, so we walked on into the city centre.
Outside one house we saw a string of firecrackers hanging out of an upstairs balcony. It was about 10 feet long and we hadn't seen anything like it before. It was due to be set of at midnight, which was not too far off, so we decided to wait to watch it go off. The Chinese owner of the house saw us waiting and came over to us with cans of beer, while another one brought us some chairs to sit on while we were waiting. By midnight there was quite a crowd gathered around and things started to quieten down. On the stroke of midnight the crackers were lit and all hell broke loose. The noise was terrific, not only from the string we were watching, but people all over Singapore were setting off crackers to make as much noise as possible. The firecracker string took a good few minutes to burn out. When it did there was loads of red paper on the floor beneath where it had been. We then spent the next few minutes with the Chinese, throwing handfuls of red paper at each other like confetti and generally acting the goat (not too hard for us).
Doug and Don sat down for a few minutes and I threw one of the large firecrackers under Don's chair. When it went off, Don leapt out of the chair with a yell. Doug thought it was hilarious and was still laughing hard when I threw one under his chair. He didn't think that was so funny and threw some of his beer at me in temper, but things calmed down very quickly and after saying thank you to our Chinese hosts, we carried on our way. We all wandered around aimlessly throwing firecrackers at anything that moved. As people passed they would throw firecrackers at us and we would throw some back at them again. They would then yell "happy New Year" to us and then carry on their way. By 2 o'clock we were hopelessly lost and we all shared a taxi to take us back to our hotels. The taxi dropped us at the Palace hotel and Louis and I said our final goodbye to Don before walking around to Sam Leong Road. By the time we had finished our packing it was well after 4 am and firecrackers were still going off all around.
The Rover boys had offered to give us a lift to the docks the next morning. The ship was due to depart at 10 and we had to be on board by 9 o'clock. We managed to wake up at and did the last of our packing, 7 even though we felt lousy from lack of sleep. We had carried a blackboard with us all the way up to now, but since leaving Europe the only time we had used it was to block up a hole in the window in Kabul, so we decided to abandon it in the room. We looked for the landlady so we could pay the rent we owed for the last 2 days and to return the key, but she was nowhere to be found. Although she was usually always around whenever anybody went in or out of the building, whatever the time, she had obviously been out celebrating New Year and was now sleeping it off. We didn't know which room was hers, so we left the S$6 that we owed her on the table beside the bed, and left the key in the door when we left at 7.30 when the Rover boys came to pick us up. Doug and Yvonne were already in the van and we left straight away. I half expected to see the landlady chasing us down the road, but she must have been sleeping heavily that morning.
The drive to the docks was through a completely deserted Singapore. We had to pass through the centre and roads that normally had heavy traffic whatever time of day or night we had passed before, were silent. No other traffic, no people - nothing. It was like the morning after Armageddon. Red paper from the firecrackers was blowing everywhere. We got to the docks but the guard at the gate wouldn't let the Land Rover through, so we had to find another gate with a more obliging guard on duty. Although he let us through he would only allow the Land Rover to stay for half an hour. We found our ship easily enough and found that there was a café open right opposite. We all decided to have some breakfast there and we treated the Rover boys as a way of saying thank you for bringing us. They had found a buyer for the Land Rover and the new owner was due to collect it the following day, so they too would be leaving Singapore soon. We'd all had had a good time together in Singapore and I felt that future travel wouldn't be quite as much fun. We never heard from Don again and I often wonder what became of the Rover boys. For some reason I don't have their names in my diary, that is why I always refer to them collectively as "The Land Rover boys"
After a quick breakfast the Rover boys left. They had to be out of the docks before their half hour was up, so we had said goodbye to them and sat in the café until just before 9 o'clock we boarded the ship and were shown to our cabin. We left our bags in the cabin and went up on deck to watch the departure from Singapore. The ship was late sailing at 10.45 and we stood on deck and watched as Singapore disappeared behind the horizon. The last building visible was the Bank of China building in Battery Road, at that time the tallest building in Singapore.