John Leary
19th June 2007, 14:03
During my two voyages as a second R/O on Mahseer in 1963 and 1964 I got to know the Chaplain of the Colombo Mission to Seamen very well. The Reverent John Phillips and his wife Maria were extremely friendly and welcoming and the Mission was always a great place to visit when ashore. If I remember correctly the Mission held occasional dances and the ladies from the local Burgher community who formed the bulk of our dancing partners were great characters. One in particular whose name was Kitty owned and ran a ship’s agency business so was very well known to the visiting seafaring community.

One Monday afternoon in August 1964 when Mahseer had completed her unloading and she was in dry-dock to have her hull cleaned and to have repairs made to her propeller shaft, Reverent Phillips came on board to ask whether the Chief R/O Harry Jefferson and myself would be able to go on a Safari to the National Park at Wilpattu. This to be at no cost to ourselves.

This offer came completely out of the blue. The National Park was normally out of reach of any short-term visitor to the island due to its distance from Colombo and because overnight accommodation in the park was limited to three bungalows and these were usually booked up at least twelve months in advance.

Reverent Phillips and his wife had planned to go with a second family who sadly, due to illness had to cancel at the last minute. To make matters worse the Bishop of Colombo had requested that Reverent Phillips undertake some work for the Church that clashed with the planned departure date so they were faced with having to cancel, which would be a severe disappointment to their nine-year-old son.

The Reverent Phillips did not like the idea of Mrs Phillips and their young son going on their own because this involved driving the one hundred and twenty miles or so from Colombo to Wilpattu totally unescorted. We said yes immediately subject to obtaining the Captain’s permission, which he gave without hesitation.

In the evening of the following day (Tuesday), Harry and I both slept at the Reverent Phillip’s home so that we could get any early start. I remember sleeping fitfully because it was a strange bed, narrow and hard and the noise of the ceiling mounted fan was quite loud. Suddenly Harry who was in the same room gave out a loud yell, leapt out of bed and switched on the lights. This commotion also had the effect of waking all the other people in the house. Apparently a small lizard had run across his face and woken him up. There were no flies on Harry so it was a fruitless journey from the lizard’s point of view but Harry seemed to have a phobia about them and refused to go to sleep again. It was a good job therefore that we were to make an early start and in fact left about four thirty in the morning.

As Harry had never passed the driving test, Mrs Phillips and I shared the driving. It was pitch black and raining heavily when we left and it did not clear for a couple of hours. Mrs Phillips drove until we were well away from Colombo because she knew the way out of the city and because we did not wish to meet any of the local constabulary. The reasons for this were that I did not have any local driving permit and I suspect the question of insurance was also a bit iffy.

The road to Wilpattu was well surfaced but narrow and meandering. This gave little opportunity for fast driving and overtaking. However the slow pace gave us the chance to observe life in the little villages and hamlets that straddled each side of the road. In places the food stalls and many of the homes were built right up to the edge of the road with little in the way of a pavement. Harry and Master Phillips who were sitting on the back seat, had great fun waving to the village children on their way to school. The wave from the car invariably produced beaming smiles, laughter and a return wave. Regularly we had to slow down to pass close to a long crocodile of Buddhist monks in their saffron coloured robes who in one hand carried an umbrella to shield them from the sun and in the other hand an alms bowl. Their pace was slow but measured as they progressed through the villages without haste, living their lives at a different pace to the rest of us.

The sights, smells and colours of the journey seemed more intense and pleasurable than any I had experienced before on that wonderful island.

We stopped for breakfast at the rest house at Puttalam and after a good meal completed the remainder of the journey in record time, arriving at Wilpattu about half past eleven in the morning. The Reverent Phillips had imported his Morris Minor estate when he took up his duties at the Mission and as it was almost new we never had any concerns or worries about breakdowns.

Our bungalow on the Park was a large wooden building set off the ground on brick piles. Inside were four large rooms that could be used as bedrooms set around a large central living room. There was a kitchen, a bathroom and toilet and a cold water shower. Outside, on all four sides of the bungalow was a wide covered veranda. All visitors to the Park were provided with a cook and a guide but had to provide their own food. Mrs Phillips generously provided all of our food during the two nights stay.

There was no electrical power in any of the bungalows. All lighting and cooking was done with the aid of paraffin appliances. Seldom in my life since have I experienced such peace and tranquillity. After dinner we sat on the veranda cloaked in the velvet of the night talking into the early hours of the morning. The only noises to disturb the tranquillity were the breeze and the nocturnal jungle creatures. We slept soundly under large mosquito nets. As far as I know Harry did not experience any return visit from a killer Gecko.

On the morning of the second day we joined up with the residents of one of the other bungalows and they invited us to share their open topped land rover. With their guide and driver we made up a party of eleven people.

The Wilpattu Nation Park was and presumably still is vast, covering an area of hundreds of square miles. In its centre are the Villus or large freshwater lakes where the animals congregate to drink. Surrounding the Villus on all sides but some distance away are hills covered with thick jungle. These hills are dissected only by the rough tracks that served as roads. The rest of the park was made up of open grassland broken by thick scrub. The soil where it was exposed by the tracker’s vehicles was a bright coppery red.

It was a rare privilege to see so many different animals in their natural habitat. We only heard the elephants in the distance but saw water buffalo, deer, crocodiles, snakes, eagles, monkeys, birds of all sizes and colours and a solitary leopard. This last sighting was for me the highlight of the safari.

On the Friday morning we went out at five thirty for one last time. By eleven o’clock we were in the car travelling back to Colombo. We arrived on board about six o’clock in the evening having stopped off for lunch on the way. Mahseer seemed quite tame for a few days after our return but it wasn’t long afterwards that the dry-dock was refilled and we were making our preparations for the voyage home.

I never knew why Harry and I were given that rare opportunity to visit Wilpattu, but I thank the Reverent Phillips and his wife to this day for their kindness and generosity.

Word searching on Google shows that Wilpattu was closed for seventeen years from 1988 due to the conflict in the North of Sri Lanka and that some time after it reopened in 2003 a number of visitors and their guide were killed when their Land Rover went over a land mine.

During our visit in 1964 we had no fear of any danger from any source and perhaps it is a sad reflection of our times that so many beautiful places in the World are now out of bounds or highly dangerous because of war, religious differences or ethnic tensions.

The sixties seems to me to have been a golden age in so many ways but perhaps that is only me being nostalgic for times and events that are long gone.

Tony Sprigings
19th June 2007, 14:26
Thank you for that beautifully written piece of nostalgia. Ceylon, or should I say Sri Lanka was always my favourite Island and on an otherwise fairly unpleasant route it was quite literally the Jewel in the Crown so to speak.
I also have vivid memories of trips 'up country' to Kandy and Nuwara Eliya.
Staying in the Hotel at 7000 ft. playing snooker and drinking guiness (made in Nuwara Eliya and very good as well).
Kipling was quite right when he called it 'This sceptred Isle, where only man is vile'

19th June 2007, 16:26
John Thank you for telling us a very interesting adventure.

Tony Selman
19th June 2007, 17:34
Another one of your very well told stories John and it was most enjoyable. You and I were contemporaries visiting Ceylon at this time and I too remember Reverend Philips as being a very kind and welcoming man., although I must say I would never have remembered his name. He was tireless at organising football games for ships in the port and would never take no for answer even when it was rather difficult to raise the eleven men required from an Indian crewed ship. I spent a lot of time in Colombo on Matra on my first two trips and some of the teams we put out would contravene Health and Safety rules in this day and age. The Mission in Colombo not far from the dock gate was always a pleasant place to visit and have a chat and a drink

Rather like Tony Sprigings and yourself I enjoyed Ceylon and have very fond memories of my time spent there despite visiting many more so called "exotic" ports later in my career. Most people on Brocklebank ships spent a fair bit of time in Colombo at some time or other and it was an infinitely better port than some of the others we had to put up with on the Indian coast and Red Sea.

My only vaguely similar story of going up country involved playing rugby. On my first trip arrival in Colombo in April or May 1964 (after the obligatory several weeks at anchor outside) I was invited to play rugby for the last sporting bastion of the Ceylon Raj called The Colombo Hockey Club, more commonly known as "CH". Several other sports were played but in my case specifically rugby. The days of the Raj were very much on the wane in those days and the requisite number of fit "chaps" to play the game were hard to find. Accordingly if someone who had played a bit of rugby, as I had, turned up on a ship he was invited to join, something that would no doubt have been unthinkable many years before. The standard actually wasn't that bad but needless to say it was tough going for someone used to playing in England even though I was relatively fit in those days. Colombo leading up to the monsoon season is very hot and humid. CH were drawn away to Kandy in the All Ceylon Cup and it was decided to make a weekend of it. Permission was requested and granted by Captain John Watson Ross for me to disappear for the weekend and we set off early on the Saturday morning of the game. I had never been up to Kandy before and it was a most interesting journey on what was probably one of the better roads in Ceylon. I did not see too much of Kandy at that time but subsequently returned to this most attractive place and visited amongst other places The Botanical Gardens where large parts of Bridge on the River Kwai were filmed.

CH duly hammered Kandy where the shortage of rugby players was even more acute but we were royally entertained by the club which appeared to be very well funded by local tea planters and it was in one of the tea planters homes that I stayed overnight. Truly wonderful location in considerable comfort hosted by an absolutely charming gentleman of the old school. We came back on Sunday afternoon after a quite wonderful weekend.

CH won one more Cup game and then played The Ceylon Army in the final in front of 4000 people. I managed to score two tries in a 13-8 defeat and badly dislocated my shoulder which had me in a sling for several weeks which was singularly unpleasant in a very hot climate and the injury has come back to haunt me in later years. Wonderful days though and I would not change a moment of it.

20th June 2007, 00:32
Ceylon was certainly a beautiful island and John's tale has triggered memories of another adventure. I was lucky enough to enjoy a trip up-country whilst on the Malakand in 1964. After all these years, I do not recall how the trip came about but the transport was a "Kota-wallah" bus which was basically a converted 1940-something Morris Commercial van with windows and seats in the back. Our trip included Newareliya, Kandy, and the Ruhunu game reserve. We stayed overnight in a guest house and slept in beds whose legs were set in tins containing creosote (at least that's what it smelt like) to keep out the crawling insects and a mosquito net to keep out the flying insects.

It was a great experiience to see native life at first hand with elephants working in the forests, buffalo in the rice paddies and roadside refreshment stops for milk from freshly topped coconuts or sliced pineapple. In Newareliya we visited a tea plantation and saw the products that we would be transporting back to Europe by the 1,000s of boxes. Kandy was like a time warp with the Temple of The Tooth and elephants in the main street. We also visited various temples along the way and a botanical garden specialising in orchids.

The adventure part of the trip happened when we were passing through a village and the bus driver managed to drive over a native's bicycle, damaging it quite badly. Fortunately nobody was injured but the locals got a bit upset. The local police then impounded the bus and threw the driver in jail so we ended up completing the trip back to Colombo on one of the country buses.

I have some slides from that trip and will post them when I find them again.

In retrospect we were so lucky to see and do these things before jet-travel for the masses and Tamil unrest put paid to them.

= Salaams es BV = John/gwzm

20th June 2007, 04:47
John - an intriguing account and excellently told. I wish I had the ability to recall my own experiences in such detail - you are truely rich in your ability to do so...

As I read through your account, I had many happy memories of Ceylon resurface. I too "nearly" had a similar experience of an up-country trip in Ceylon.

Whilst doing my PMG/BOT at Grimsby College I got to know a charming character (absolutely besotted by cricket) whose was studying there but whose home was in Bambalapitiya on the south coast road. he urged me to look up his family if I ever made it there. I was 2R/O on Mawana with Phil Marriott as CR/O when we arrived in Colombo in early '69 and I duly contacted my mate's family and paid them a number of visits. I was then later invited to go with them on a hunting trip up country. Regrettably, just as I was about to depart the Cossor VHF spat the dummy and I was confined to barracks - unable to participate - a fact I have regretted ever since.

I concur with your ending comments regarding the sixties and echoed by the other contributors herein. It was truely a different era and I'm glad that I am not the only one who thinks so. I feel blessed to have had the experiences that we did - I only wish I could recount them in such detail as yourself.

73 to all
Alan Marsden

John Leary
20th June 2007, 11:59
Thanks guys for your kind remarks. It was wonderful to read of your experiences.

My greatest regrets of my time at sea are never keeping a journal and never having bought more high quality 35mm film. I made the grave mistake of buying a quantity of inexpensive German Perutz film and the colours have faded dramatically over the years so my film library from that time is small and quite poor. Also I was a rotten photographer and with a manual camera and no light meter, seldom selected the correct combination of aperture and shutter speed.

I wish that I could claim that my memory of those days is perfect but unfortunately that is not so. My secret is that I am married to a wonderfully sentimental woman who kept all of the letters that I sent to her when I was at sea. In the early days when we were courting they tended to be very long and descriptive because as we know, there were few distractions and demands on our leisure time between watches. Later on when we became engaged to be married, my letters took on a romantic flavour. Mind you they might prove helpful if I ever want to pen a Mills and Boon type novel!

Nice to hear from you all.


Stuart Smith
20th June 2007, 14:27
Thanks for your memories and a wonderful tale. Takes one back somewhat.

21st June 2007, 03:30
Yes John, the biggest regret I have is not doing likewise - keeping the journal and photographic record of the 13 years I had with Cunard-Brocks. What a wealth of material there would be to pour over now - damn - damn - damn !!!

I too recall the letter writing marathons. Unfortunately, I didn't end up marrying the girl I sent all my letters to whilst I was with Brock's so that resource is not available! I do remember one particular instance where I'd set myself the goal of writing 10 pages a day to the then girlfriend whilst on passage between Mukalla and Gan Island. I did it too - 50 pages - what the heck must I have written about?????

Oh happy days!!!
Alan Marsden

Tony Selman
21st June 2007, 11:39
Ye Gods Alan you must have described every watch.

"Well darling I went on watch at 08.00 and took a traffic list from Mauritius Radio via the area scheme and then heard a couple of British ships calling each other, after that came a silence period and then I took a traffic list from Colombo Radio/4PB, there was nothing for us, and then there was another silence period" That's the only way I can think of to fill all those pages but then perhaps I was not romantic enough.

John Leary
21st June 2007, 19:13
Hi Tony and Alan

I was never able to produce large amounts of script in my letters no matter how hard I tried but I would suggest that there was intrinsic excitement in watch keeping and any accurate description of the work would inevitably elevate the temperature of any female reader if it was described to them accurately.

What young woman in her right mind would not get excited by descriptions of Area traffic lists, checking the radio room clock against time signals or how many times the auto alarm sounded because of static.

Who could deny the bodice ripping excitement of GWZM skeds, the efforts of third mates trying to win a sextant by sending obs messages every four hours and any descriptions of the agonising decision about whether the blue carbon paper in the wireless log book should be changed before the Master signed the log on a Sunday Morning.

What potential homemaker would not start to build her bottom drawer when she read of all of the different ways you could remove funnel soot from your whites or how to avoid frostbite when your tins of Tenants were hyper-cold.

Joking aside I suspect that there are many people who have the ability to write in an amusing fashion about the most ordinary of activities. At one stage in my post merchant navy career I used to write procurement specifications for communications equipment and systems. The yardstick by which I measured success was did the reader stay awake long enough to understand what I wanted. If they did I would have a successful procurement if not I would not score. Which brings me back to letters written at sea!

Best regards