In October 1913, the journalist Robert Blair Hay was a passenger aboard the Wimmera on a trip from Sydney to Hobart. Under the pseudonym of ‘Blair,’ he wrote and had published a piece in the Hobart newspaper, the Daily Post, describing his journey and experience:
A HOBART PILGRIM
(“Dally Post” Special.)
There are some lines in a beautiful sonnet by the late Andrew Lang prefixed to his edition of Homer which kept running in the writer’s head as he paced the deck of the Wimmera (bound for Hobart) in Sydney Harbor last Friday night. Lang sings:—
“As one who for a weary space has lain,
Lulled by the songs of Circe and her wine,
In gardens near the vale of Prosperine”
longs to breathe the wider air again and hear, like music, the surge and thunder of the ocean: so do men turn gladly from the “songs of modern speech” and listen refreshed to the sublime “surge and thunder of the Odyssey.
The parallel, to the imaginative mind, lay in the fact that the pilgrim on the Wimmera’s stout decks had for a weary space dwelt in the all too seductive and enervating atmosphere of Sydney, which like a modem Circe, with her beauty and pleasure often lulls men into anything but the strenuous existence. And this, even though the wine be very much left out: for the stuff that Sydney wine shops supply for coin of the realm would be more calculated to impel the consumer to the South Head, and cause him to run down a steep place into the sea.
The modern Circe had not been unkind, and there were dear hearts there, but the spell had been broken: there was a sweeter music sounding over the sea from Southern Hills, and the salt spray was already nipping the Scot’s blood, which could not forget the island home of the North.
The Pilgrim was bound for another Scotland. A land of beauty and hills and fertile plains, of vigorous people and splendid promise. He forgave Kipling, and hummed:—
“On the road to Hobart Bay,
I can hear the South wind say,
‘List! the lovely hills are calling,
Happy stranger, come and stay.’ ”
Well, he meant to. Soon the Wimmera had rounded the Heads, But not before, with interminable trouble, and no end of fuss and shouting she had taken lots of sheep and cattle on board—and of all things in the world—scores of oases of fruit. It was now between one and two on Saturday morning; a dark night, sea calm, but a slight rain falling. A ‘’night cap’’ and so to “bunk.” but not to undress or to sleep. Patriotism forbade. One wanted just a glimpse, if even only the tiniest, of our brand new and OWN fleet, and a kindly steward easily earned his fee by having the Pilgrim on deck by five.
There they were in the dim distance, but with “lights burning brightly, sir,” in the darkness. One’s heart thumped a little. It was a far off sight, but we saw it, and were satisfied with what will always be an interesting memory.
There they were.
The battleship Australia, followed by the Melbourne, the Sydney, the Encounter, with the three destroyers abeam on the starboard. In five and a half hours they would proudly enter Sydney Heads amidst universal rejoicing in the city and Commonwealth. Rejoicing that, with thousands, no doubt, had something in it of a prayer and a hope, “God bless our land and save us from perils by land and sea, and grant us peace in our, and all, time.” One recalls the Recessional: —
The captains and the kings depart,
Accept, O Lord, Thy sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
By Sunday the ship was sailing down the eastern coast of Tasmania, and thoughtful ship’s officers kindly pointed out some of the landmarks.
Several Sydney young ladies on board got quite excited on having some snow on a distant mountain (perhaps Ben Lomond) pointed out to them. They had never seen snow before.
As darkness fell the wild and gloomy looking Freycinet Point was passed, and Schouten Island. Then Maria Island, and, after a while, Cape Pillar lighthouse, and so in to Storm Bay in good style about the time wise folk in Hobart were going to bed, and thinking of the toil of the morrow.
Presently one of the Hobart passengers exclaimed, “There’s ‘Blinking Billy.’ ” and on the port quarter the familiar—to Hobart folk—harbor light came in view. In a little the chain rattled out of the locker and the eight bells of midnight sounded, with the shore solemnly answering. The doctor would come on board tomorrow, as, of course, we were from Sydney, and had to show our vaccination or exemption certificates.
The Pilgrim gave one last look over the rails at the peaceful twinkling streets, and the great protecting and looming shadow of Mount Wellington, and then turned In. When he awoke in the morning he found the sun shining merrily over one of the most picturesque cities it has ever been his lot to see. And the sun and the fresh wind entered the Pilgrim’s heart too: and Circe and her songs seemed a far away dream.
© Ralph L. Sanderson 2004-2021