There’s something funny about me and cruises.
Large, smelly floating shopping malls are not my normal vacation choice. Nor are the type of people aboard them the type of people I’d usually want to travel with: the average age at least 20 years my senior; people who’ll spend 4 days at sea and then not get off the ship in a port they’ve never been to because “it’s a bit hot and too hectic”; who’ll regale you in the all-you-can-eat buffet about how this is their 25th cruise and they’d never travel any other way; who’ll tell you how they decided to go for the “Premium Drinks Package” because you only need to drink 10 cocktails each and every day for 14 days for it to be good value.
At this point, you’re either thinking “god you’re so right,” or you’re thinking “god this guy’s a bit of a wanker”. Well, here’s a curveball either way:
Cruises should suck, but somehow, I always manage to have a good time.
I dunno what it is- that I adore the ocean, or that I love shipping and shipyards, or that the sunsets are more beautiful at sea, or that as a theatre buff I can see shows each and every night. Or that I once met a girl on a cruise ship in Norway that resulted in an amazing chapter in my life. Or maybe just that I’m fairly easy to please- I never to this day met an adventure I didn’t like. Whatever the reason, I now sit here thinking about my trip and browsing my photos of the shipyards of Asia with maximum nostalgia.
Being kind of a summertime activity, Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas plies South Pacific waters off Australia during the southern hemisphere summer. When things start getting cold, the ship steams northward for the Northern Hemisphere summer. In between, it does what is known as a “repositioning cruise”, cruising from Sydney to Singapore. The aim of this is to get the ship from south to north as quickly as possible, while still making a bit of money from carrying passengers.
Repositioning cruises are a bit odd because they’re one-way and generally involve a lot of time at sea, and therefore they are usually much cheaper than regular cruises. If you’re broke or a cheapskate but want to spend some time on a very large boat, then it might be the cruise for you.
On the other hand, repositioning cruises sometimes visit unusual or out-of-the-way locations, and I think there’s much more of a sense of being on an actual voyage aboard one. In my case, I was on a workshop for (um) work, and the large number of sea days played into our plans to be ultra-productive. I won’t talk about that though- this story is more about the journey itself.
Voyager of the Seas is a bloody big ship. In fact, it used to be the world’s biggest. It has a basketball court, rockclimbing wall, surf Flowrider, mini-golf, and even an ice-rink onboard. It’s so big it doesn’t fit under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and so they moored it for our cruise at the passenger terminal at Circular Quay, a bloody big white monolith that appears to dwarf the Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, the Cahill Expressway and even seemingly Sydney Harbour itself.
By the end of the following day, it’s offshore Byron Bay, the most easterly point of Australia. The lighthouse blinks in the twilight as an epic sunset descends.
The day after, we cruise into Brisbane. The river is pretty and Brisbane is less-boring than you might expect. As Brisbane’s port goes it’s not a big one, but as the red sun sets we are treated to the first of many port scenes, huge cranes lifting massive cargo containers onto ships. It’s a great sight.
Thus begins the first of two 4-day sea periods. Did I mention that repositioning cruises tend to spend large amounts of time at sea? Yes, well, once accepted, the ebb and flow of the ocean is rather nice. It is grand being out at sea. I even consider (briefly) embarking on a new life as a salty sailor.
During the days at sea, we cruise up through the Great Barrier Reef with the aid of a reef pilot. The Reef stretches from Rockhampton all the way up to the Cape York peninsula, which is about two-thirds the length of the Queensland east coast- an amazing distance! I found the role of the pilot interesting. He’s basically a captain himself, but he’s “hired out” by ships needing extra expertise to navigate the reef. Similar arrangements operate in other unique marine environments throughout the world- in some cases, it’s mandatory to take a pilot onboard, other times a ship might choose to.
We wind our way through the islands of the Coral Sea and round the tip of the Cape York peninsula, Australia’s “pointy bit”, sailing amongst the Torres Strait islands. As we cross the Gulf of Carpentaria, the vast, vast gulf on the other side of Australia’s pointy bit, the coastline disappears and the water stretches to the horizon and it feels like we’re in open ocean.
On the final sea day before arriving in Darwin, we are treated to an epic day of entertainment, taking in not one but three class acts. Normally I think cruise ship entertainment is a bit of a cheese factory and to be fair, there has been a bit of cheddar on this trip but some of the acts are terrific. In the ice-rink arean, the skating show is phenomenal. There’s figure skaters doing stuff I’d not been aware was even possible with the human body. Backflips and pirouettes and beautiful figure skating- a bit like Cirque du Soleil on ice. Some of these skaters are actually off-season Olympians, and such is the skill of the performers. Another unique aspect to being on a cruise is that once you’ve seen the performers, you can try out the activity yourself with their help. I don’t know any other environment where that would be a possibility.
We pulled into Darwin at sunrise the next morning and after four days at sea I was amped to get off early. I was last in Darwin in 1999 for the World Solar Challenge solar car race across Australia. Back then I was only 19 and I haven’t been back since, so I’m an eager beaver.
We chose to do a crocodile boat tour on the Adelaide River out near Humpty Doo (Australia has the best place names). As it turns out we ended up seeing a fair bit of the Northern Territory outback, because our minibus driver got lost and took about an hour longer to get to the river than expected. We piss ourselves laughing when he claims “this time I definitely know where to go,” before stalling the vehicle as he attempts to drive off. Finally, we approach what looks like a cluster of tour boat companies, but we turn off the highway and down a dirt track, and just as we think we’re about to be mugged our skipper emerges from the scrub.
As far as crocodile whisperers go, he looks the part. Barefoot on the scorched red earth, he’s got a long wispy beard, a sweaty set of blue King Gee workwear and a battered old rabbit-skin hat that looks like it’s seen better centuries. He proceeds to show us animal skulls that have been lunched upon by crocs and once aboard, tells us how to find the lifejackets “in case something happens and I’m no longer here”.
Ok. Cripes. I didn’t expect the boat trip to be that scary, but the river is teeming with crocs, and they’re metres away. Our skipper hits me in the head a few times (“your fault, move out of the way a bit”) with a long bamboo stick that he uses to dangle chicken carcasses in the water, reliably chowed upon by snapping crocodiles.
Crocs are impressively prehistoric, horrifying creatures. Apparently, they can make no connection between the boat’s presence and food- they’re not quite that smart, preferring instead to just react to water surface disturbances. That’s one of the reasons you should never go for a dip in a crocodile infested waterway- a nearby croc will sense some disturbance in the water and have a bite to see if it’s anything tasty. Once bitten, you’re pretty screwed- a crocodile’s bite has a stronger pressure than almost any other predators including big cats and bears. It’s actually a lot easier to hold a croc’s jaws shut than try to open them- hence why the safest bet when transporting a croc is to have its jaws roped shut.
Over the course of their fightin’, bitin’ lives, crocs go through a fair few broken bones and teeth. Where humans get only two sets of teeth, crocs have a whole bunch of conical teeth stacked inside each other and I think they can grow new ones repeatedly. The teeth look pretty ratty are covered in bacteria. If the bite doesn’t kill you, you’ll need antibiotics to deal with the bacteria. Oddly enough, crocs seem immune to many diseases and this is something of curiosity to biologists.
Our guide chastises me for letting my yuppie Ray Bans fall on the floor of the boat and toward the end I compound my error by dropping a can of beer off my seat which begins spraying everywhere. (We’d bought beers at Humpty Doo Hotel during our extended minibus trip.) “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he says as I hold the spraying beer can over the water. I’m faced with an unusual dilemma- have my arm taken off by a croc or spray beer all over Crocodile Dundee’s boat.
In the end I keep my arm and dirty his boat, but he’s a good sport and regales us all the way back with tales of the 50 or so occupations he’s held over the course of his lively life, and even poses for a portrait next to his boat.
Back in Darwin, there’s time for a walk through town and a stroll through wartime concrete tunnels that held the navy supply of fuel oil during the Japanese bombing raids so that they couldn’t blow it up. Turns out the first bombing of Darwin resulted in huge oil losses for Australia’s navy, and by the time the very impressive tunnels were completed, the war was almost over.
Thus begins the second set of 4 sea days in a row. We cruise up the coast of Indonesia and pass into the Java Sea between the islands of Bali and Lombok. We avail ourselves of the time by getting heaps of work done, partying in the pools and nightclub, watching the ocean go by on the bow’s helipad, and eating ourselves silly in the luxuriously-appointed dining rooms. In case you’ve never cruised before, the food is amazing, and you can eat as much as your fat belly can hold. And then some.
On the final of these sea days we cross the equator, a special thing to do at sea. We cruise into the Singapore Straits enroute to Malaysia.
A tropical storm brews in the distance as we pass the towers of Singapore. The straits are positively filled with cargo ships, waiting to enter Singapore.
That night, I’m awoken by smoke filling the cabin. I race up to the top deck and exit into the steamy night to find that visibility is about ten metres. The smoke is positively acrid. I go back to sleep and wake at sunrise hoping it’s all a bad dream, but it’s not- the day has dawned and we are sailing with Indonesia on one side and Malaysia on the other but with the smoke it’s hard to see anything (not to mention breathe). It’s caused by excessive land-clearing and really is an environmental disaster in this part of the world.
A ship materialises out of the eerie pre-dawn haze, and then another, and another. We’re cruising alongside Port Klang, Malaysia and it is just colossal. For two hours we cruise past vessels being unloaded, loaded, repaired, built. It really is amazing and a testament to the extent of world trade.
Finally we dock and pile off the ship into a busy passenger terminal. There’s a vast degree of opinions on where to go and what to see. Kuala Lumpur is 90 minutes drive away, and since I went there a year earlier on a previous trip, I’m keen to do something more local.
Four of us decide to head to Crab Island, or Palua Ketam in the local language. It’s a fishing island off the coast of Malaysia in the mangroves, and since it floods with the tides, all the buildings are built on stilts. You can get there from a ferry terminal at Port Klang (just ask a taxi driver). The ferry journey is about 45 minutes amongst a labyrinth of mangroves and fishing vessels. Before long, the wooden, stilted houses of Crab Island come into view. It’s an eye opener and one of those places that’s best described in pictures. You can rent bikes and ride around on elevated pathways built in wood and concrete through the mangroves. The buildings are beautifully haphazard, wooden and colourful and slowly rotting, sinking in the mud, and you can get an awesome seafood feed there.
Back in Klang, we’re pretty keen to see some of the local city, visit a mosque, chill out and drink some ice tea. The Royal Klang Mosque is beautifully situated on the Klang River, and the best view of its golden domes is from a nearby bridge. If you ask to visit, the guards will be happy to show you around.
We cruise in a taxi back to the ship, past slums and a concrete bridge that inexplicably appears to be on fire. Our taxi-driver is genuinely amazed at the sight of the huge ship, and he poses with us in photos before it to send to his wife. Compared to the Australian ports and the ship itself, Klang has been a bit of another planet. We’re chuffed and none of us regret not going to Kuala Lumpur.
Back onboard, I watched a huge crane trying to hoist a repaired lifeboat back on board the ship. They managed to lose control of the lifeboat as it was lowered- it swung into a railing and damaged its rudder, nearly takes out some muster-point signs. Once secure, we perform a giant 180 and we’re back cruising again past the vast Port Klang toward Singapore. The smoke has lifted and the view of the loading of the ships is clear and the container yards stretch impossibly into the distance. Amazing.
Darkness descends and it’s the second-last night aboard the ship. We arrive at the Port of Singapore bright and early the next morning, but the ship is spending one night in Singapore with all passengers aboard before departing on its first Asian cruises of the season. Spending a final night somewhere is not unusual on a cruise ship. It’s quite fun and gives you the opportunity to take in a local show or a bar before returning one last time to your digs on the water.
This is perhaps my 10th time in Singapore (I have seriously lost count- check out my guide of things to do here). My colleagues are in much the same boat (pun intended) and so we decide to do things in style this time. A bunch of us have chipped in ridiculous amounts of money to stay in the US$700 a night Marina Bay Sands with its spectacular infinity pool. Sounds expensive, but if you fit three into a room it’s doable. So we swim in the world’s most-selfied vanity pool overlooking the city and watch from the hotel as the ship departs in the tropical sunset-haze over Singapore’s port.
If you’re looking for a longer, more “voyage” feel to a cruise, you might enjoy a repositioning cruise like this one. Look on cruising websites for the best deals- around $100 a day is a score, especially for the more upmarket cruise lines. Good luck!