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In October 1916 the SS Wimmera arrived in Melbourne from the Bluff, New Zealand. Aboard was 26 year-old American traveller Sydney Greenbie. In his book “The Pacific Triangle” published in 1921, Greenbie briefly recounts his voyage to Melbourne aboard the ship.

Crisp and clear in the bright morning air shone the towering peaks of the New Zealand Alps as I sailed toward Australia and to Botany Bay,–not, however, without being nearly wrecked in the fog which had gathered in Foveaux Strait, which separates Steward [sic] Island from the South Island in New Zealand. Bluff, the last little town in New Zealand, is said to have the most southerly hotel in the world. I saw it.

Most Southern Hotel in the World, Bluff
Most Southern Hotel in the World, Bluff
Postcard. Author’s Collection

Four days from Bluff to Melbourne on a sea that seemed on the verge of congealing into ice. It was not cold, yet autumn-like. And the passengers seemed the fallen leaves. The stewards maintained the reputation for impudence and unmannerliness of the Union Steamship Company crews, but I had grown used to that, and thanked my stars that this was the last coupon in the ticket I had purchased in Honolulu more than a year before. Of human incidents there was therefore none to relate.

But chill and melancholy as that Southern sea was, there hovered over it a creature whose call upon one’s interest was more than compensating. Swooping with giant wings in careless ease, the albatross followed us day in and day out. Always on the wing, awake or asleep, in sunshine or in storm, the air his home as the water is to fish, and earth to mammal. Even the ship was no lure for him by way of support. He followed it, accepted whatever was thrown from it, but as for dependence upon it,–no such weakness, you may be sure. His sixteen feet of wing-spread moved like a ship upon the waves, like a combination of ship and sails.

Swift, huge, glorious, unconsciously majestic, he is indeed a bird of good omen. How he floats with never a sign of effort! How he glides atop the waves, skims them, yet is never reached by their flame-like leapings; simulates their motion without the exhaustion into which they sink incessantly.

Albatrosses
‘Swooping with giant wings in careless ease, the albatross followed us day in and day out…’ The Pacific Triangle. Sydney Greenbie.

The albatross had left us, and now the swarming is his artistry, so refined his “table manners.” He does not gorge himself as does the sea-gull, nor is he ever heard to screech that selfish, hungry, insatiable screech. Silent, sadly voiceless, rhythmic and symbolic without being restrained by pride of art, he exemplifies right living. He is our link between shores, the one dream of reality on an ocean of opiate loveliness wherein there is little of earth’s confusion and pain. For the traveller he keeps the balance between the deadly stability of land life and the dream-like mystery of the sea. But for him it were impossible to come so easily out of an experience of a long voyage. Away down there he is the only reminder of reality. Which explains the reverence sailors have for him and their superstitious dread of killing him. It is like the dread of the physician that his knife may too sharply stir the numbed senses of his patient under anæsthesia.

Land may be said to begin where the albatross is seen to depart. He knows, and off he swoops, ship or no ship to follow and to guide; back over the thousand miles of watery waste, to measure the infinite with his sixteen-foot wings, glide by glide, with the speed of a twin-screw turbine. Only when the female enters the breeding season does she seek out a lost island to rear her young. Independent of the sea, these birds are utterly confined to it, a mystery floating in a mystery.

The albatross have left us, and now the swarming gulls abound. Why they are dignified with the Christian name “Sea” when they are such homely land-lubbers, is a question that I cannot answer. Pilots, rather, they come to see us into the harbor, or, with their harsh screeching, to frighten us away.

But something within me would not know Australia, nor any lands, just then. Perhaps it was that may unconscious self was still with the albatross; for strange as it may seem I could not sense any forward direction at all that day, but only one that pointed backward,–toward home. Try as I would to realize myself on my way to Australia, still my mind persisted in pointing toward America. Not until we got the first sight of land ahead was my soul set right. Then it was the Sister Islands, Wilson’s Promontory, the Bass Straits, with Tasmania barely in sight, Cape Liptrap, and finally Port Phillip. And Australia was on all fours, veiled in blue,–a thin rind of earth steeped in summer spendor.

Flag signals were exchanged with the lonely pilot-ship that hung about the entrance. All being well, we passed on, crossing that point at the entrance where five strong water-currents meet and vanquish one another, turning into a smooth, glassy coat of treachery. The Wimmera hugged the right shore of the largest harbor I have ever seen. In places the other shore could not be seen with the naked eye. But it is very shallow and innumerable lights float in double file to guard all ships from being stranded.

Just as we entered the sun set. A stream of color unconstrained obliterated all detail as it poured over the point of the harbor, filling the spacious port. Clots of amber and orange gathered and were dissipated, softened, diffused, till slowly all died down and were gone. Darkness and the blinking lights of the buoys remained.

Two big ships, brilliantly lighted, flinging their manes of smoke to the winds, passed, one on its way to Sydney, the other to Tasmania and Adelaide in the south. Far in the distance ahead we could see the string of shore lights at Port Williamson [sic]. It took us three hours to overtake them, and we arrived too late to receive pratique. For half an hour the captain and the customs carried on a conversation with blinking lights. The winches suddenly began their rasping sound, and the anchor dropped to the bottom. We did not debark that night.


© Ralph L. Sanderson 2004-2021