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Freebee to Australia - 2

     I trudged back to my bunk feeling very dejected. I wandered over to the airmen’s” mess for breakfast and sat thinking of the next step, I was determined to get to Australia but how? I’d already changed my money into Australian dollars and had only a few Singapore dollars left in my wallet, enough to buy a bottle of coke and a chocky-bicky en-route I thought.

     I decided that I would try the RAAF, from Butterworth, but my first concern was how the hell was I going to get 500 miles north to the place. I worked out my options, motor cycle – no too unreliable and driving along Malaysian roads, through the jungle in those days was not the most sensible thing to do; there were still bandits around who would do incredibly painful things before dispatching you with a parang, just for the contents of your wallet or even the cruddy old Honda motorcycle that I rode.

     I decided that I would have to revert to plan ‘B’. The trouble was, I didn’t actually have a plan ‘B’. Then it occurred to me

     “What about the train?” In 1967 there was only one train operating in Singapore. It arrived and departed Singapore City Central Station once a week and travelled north through Malaysia, stopping in Kuala Lumpur, Bukit Mertajam (the nearest railway station to Butterworth) and then on up into Thailand. I leapt aboard my trusty? Honda, bump-started it because the starter motor and kick-start were shot, and headed for the railway booking office in the centre of the city some 15 miles away. I arrived just before 11am, and joined the queue for a ticket to the island of Penang.

     When I eventually got to the window, having negotiated baskets of chickens, huge piles of suitcases and loads of school kids, I was told

     “Sorry sir. All seats are booked for this week due to the school holiday. But you can have a ticket for the train in two weeks time.” The gap-toothed Chinese ticket clerk smiled helpfully as he delivered the death blow to my plan ‘B’.

     “Thanks but that’s no use to me.”

     “OK sir. Next please.” An old crone with a basket of live ducks, shuffled forward.

     Once more I turned away dejected, mounted my motorbike and unthinkingly pushed down the kick-start lever. The engine fired. I was amazed, perhaps my luck was turning. As I rode out of the city I thought about a plan ‘C’. Not that I had one of those either. I rode past a large colourful billboard advertising the pleasures of flying Air Malaysia to Penang.

     “That’s it!” My heart leapt. That was my plan ‘C’. Certainly not the most cost-effective plan but I was up against the wire now and had to give it serious thought. I went round a roundabout twice while I was assimilating the details and potential pit-falls in my mind, then headed back into the city centre. I heaved my Honda up onto its stand outside a travel agent and wandered in.

     “May I help you?”

     “I would like to check the cost of a one-way flight to Penang, I want fly as soon as possible” I decided that I would sort out the return trip later.

     “That will be S$57” she replied with a businesslike inscrutable smile. That was a pleasant surprise. I could actually afford the fare and they would let me pay in Australian dollars, which I did. I booked a seat on the 4pm flight that afternoon, got my ticket, and headed back to Changi to repack my bags. The Honda started on the kick-start once more – another good omen.


*   *   *


“Travel light.”

     That’s what Dave Wilkes had told me. I whittled my packing down to washing kit, change of underwear, a couple of clean shirts, a pair of shorts and socks. I packed it all in an old RAF aircrew nav-bag (a sort of canvas and leather briefcase) that I had managed to get hold of a few years before. As this type of bag was so adaptable, I borrowed another from a friend and packed my two single-lens reflex cameras into it together with any excesses of clothing that I couldn’t squeeze into the first bag. I was ready for the off.

     I decided that the best way to carry my decent clothes, I was going to take a three piece suit - can you believe it - was to wear it. I put on the suit complete with waist-coat, long-sleeve white shirt, tie and polished shoes. Very smart. I picked up my two bags and headed for the main gate, where I caught a taxi to Paya Leba in time to check in for my flight. I took both bags as cabin luggage – I’m not sure there was a hold on the aircraft as it was a 44 seat Fokker F27 Friendship, about half the size of today’s Boeing 737. I settled into my seat next to the window and just as the two Rolls Royce Dart turbo-prop engines began to wind up. A man eased himself into the aisle seat next to me.

     He was well dressed in a light-weight two piece suit, older than me, well most people were at that stage of my life! I remember that he had a round face, thinning hair and was slightly on the portly side. He introduced himself as Henry Northwell and during our conversation I found out that he was manager of one of the large tea plantations ‘up-country’ in Malaysia. He was going to a conference in Georgetown, the capital of Penang Island. I told him about me and we discussed the problems of getting transport out of Singapore during the school holiday season. As we were descending towards Penang airport, Mr Northwell asked me whether I had transport from the airport to Butterworth, which was on the mainland, across the eight miles of water in the Penang Straits.

     “No” I replied, “I thought I might find a bus or a taxi.”

     “No problem, I have a car waiting for me so if you would like a lift, I can take you as far as the ferry port in Georgetown.” There was no bridge in those days, that didn’t open until 1985, so all traffic between the island and the mainland went across on the car ferry. I was most grateful and the kind gentleman had his driver pull in right next to the ferry terminal building, where I thanked him profusely and bade him farewell.

     The fare for foot passengers on the ferry was just 10 cents. I could afford that and was pleasantly surprised to find that I still had a little Singapore change in my pocket, so all was well. I walked on board, found a seat on the open deck and within less than half and hour was on the mainland. I grabbed a taxi and asked to be taken to the RAAF base at Butterworth. Fortunately he accepted Australian dollars - I think it cost me two. I paid him off and headed for the main guard room. The time was just after 6pm. The fun was just about to start.


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Noel K Fletcher

Australia - 3