Across the Atlantic

I have always found the concept of latitude easier to approach than longitude.  Perhaps this is because Cape Town – where I grew up – has a latitude of 34 degrees south.  Sydney’s latitude – where I live now – is the same.  There has been a certain reinforcing familiarity in that coincidence.

A map of the world shows a far smaller land mass in the Southern Hemisphere compared to its northern equivalent.  The land mass south of the Equator includes Australia, most of South America, most of Indonesia, the southern third of Africa, Antarctica, and a host of island nations and colonial outposts in the South Pacific, Indian, Atlantic and Southern Oceans.  Some of this land mass is almost uninhabitable, such as Antarctica and the centre of Australia.

The Northern Hemisphere’s greater land mass – estimates put it at double that of the Southern Hemisphere – comes with a disproportionately greater population.  Around 90% of the world’s population lives north of the Equator, helped along by countries such as China and India, whose populations of 1.36 billion and 1.24 billion respectively account for 36% of the world’s total numbers.

It should come as no surprise, then, that only two summer Olympic Games have been held in the Southern Hemisphere, both of them in Australia.  The first was in Melbourne in 1956 and the second in Sydney in 2000.  The Southern Hemisphere will pull off a hat trick of Summer Games when Rio de Janeiro holds the event in 2016.  There is no such luck for the Winter Games; none has ever been held in the Southern Hemisphere and none is on the horizon.

Given my parents’ interest in travel and my father’s fondness for London, it was not a matter of “if”, but “when” I would point north.

My first crossing of the Equator was in June 1964.  The route of our South African Airways Boeing 707 flight took us from Johannesburg to Lisbon[1], with stops at Luanda – where I tasted my first Fanta drink – and Las Palmas.  The flight lasted about 14 hours including stops.  I don’t recall our cruising altitude, but it was sufficiently high above the clouds for them – to my 11-year-old eyes anyway – to look like lumps of snow dumped on the Atlantic.

Two factors dictated the number and location of landing stops.  The first was the shorter range of the Boeing 707 compared to modern-day jets.  The second was South Africa’s apartheid policies.  Most African countries north of the Limpopo River – the border between South Africa and Rhodesia – had refused landing rights to South African Airways which meant that its planes had to fly around the bulge of Africa.

Due to the timing of my birth and the introduction of international jet transport, I had been spared the ignominy of a ”line crossing ceremony”.


My mother[2] and siblings – or at least my sister – had not been so fortunate.


State Library of Queensland

On their trip to England and Europe in 1954, my parents, sister and brother had travelled on the Winchester Castle – tonnage 20,109 – between Cape Town and Southampton.  The journey took 14 days and their first class tickets had cost 419 pounds and 10 shillings for all four of them.

17 years earlier, my father had returned to South Africa from England on the Athlone Castle – tonnage 25,564 –  travelling in ‘cabin class’, an intermediate form of accommodation.  The journey had taken the same length of time.

Both ships were part of the Union Castle fleet.  This company arose from the merger of the Union Line and the Castle Mail Packet Company 1899, both of which had benefitted from mail contracts issued by the Colonial Government over many years.

If the Union Castle fleet was famous for carrying large of volumes of passengers between South Africa and England during the twentieth century, then these ships were as well-known also as the ‘mail boats’.

Between 3 April and 11 September, 1881, Harris Saltman, his mother, Sarah, and half-brother, Joseph, would have boarded a steamship in England bound for Cape Town, South Africa.   Their port of embarkation may have been Plymouth or Southampton and the journey would have taken anything up to 42 days.

If they had travelled on either of the Union or Castle Lines, they could have boarded one of several vessels.  Unfortunately, few records survive of ships that made the crossing during this period and where they do, only three ships – the Duart Castle, Kinfauns Castle and the RMS Durban – would have been capable of having transported my ancestors to Cape Town.  Their names are not on the manifests of these ships.

I shall have to imagine what their voyage must have been like.

[1]               London was the final stop on this route although we got off in Lisbon.

[2]             My father made the crossing in the 1930’s.