A lost boy’s journey through time on board Queen Mary 2
An invitation to tour Queen Mary 2 in Cape Town harbour, followed by dinner on board, recalls a lost age when mailships berthed in Duncan Dock and a troubled boy prowled the docks when he should have been at school. He didn’t know, then, that his truancy was to be the making of him.
There were hordes of people all over Queen Mary 2 at E berth in the docks in Cape Town last Thursday night. In every corridor, in every lift, in the dining rooms and salons, on the decks and in the British-style pub, just one of a smörgåsbord of entertainments on board the greatest ocean liner afloat.
But there was one person on board the great ship who was in a world of his own, transported not over the ocean to the places where everyone else had come from, but to a world inhabited by his younger self – five decades earlier. Right there, down on the quayside where little people were crossing the gangplank to reboard after a day in the city.
Down there he was, in 1970, only 15 and as confused as an old man who’s lost his wits, trying to make sense of his life with no guidance. Destined to find his own way, scared as a puppy in a sheepcote; but boarding ships every day because it allowed him to escape his fear, momentarily. (It was easy: you went to the shipping line’s office on the Foreshore and the lady at the counter gave you a permit to board.)
There he goes, up that gangplank, showing the card to the man in the uniform who smiles and frowns, perplexed. He has to let the kid on board, he has a permit. You sure couldn’t wrangle a pass today.
Across the harbour, alongside A berth, right near the entrance to Duncan Dock, the compact building is still there. He pictures his small self at a table drinking a Coke Float with the pocket money that was intended for the school tuck shop. The school he hadn’t been to for months. Crew from the Union Castle ship at A berth fill the tables of the café, telling stories in their Cockney, Geordie and Scouse accents. He imagines living their lives.
There he lurks, in a corner of a lounge on board Windsor Castle, wondering if he could get away with it. Find a secret place to hide in. Wait for the hour when it’s time to sail. Then wait even longer to ensure the ship is too far out to sea to warrant turning back. Overnight, maybe.
Then show up for breakfast and pretend to be someone else’s kid.
He came so close to that, many times. Imagine the fuss that would have followed. He’d be on the front pages of Fleet Street newspapers. Boy, 15, stows away on mailship. The older man knows in his very marrow what makes a good story, and that would have been one fine story. And him at the centre of it, rather than writing it about some other foolish, lost boy.
And here we are. That inveterate truant is on board the greatest ocean liner of them all this evening, moored at E berth in Duncan Dock; nay, the only ocean liner in service in the world in 2024 (the rest are cruise ships, not quite the same thing). Beneath his feet is the most brilliantly colourful geometric carpet he has ever seen in his now six decades, and in front of him are the exquisitely sandblasted art deco glass doors of the lifts that will take him from one deck to another – from one wonder of the great seas to the next.
A life has ensued since that lost boy was caught and dragged back to Sea Point Boys High School after seven months of bunking, in August 1970.
Finding his way to the deck, in February 2024, the older man looks down and sees another version of his younger self. He’s 22 now and trailing the Cape Times Shipping Editor, George Young, as they board a cargo vessel right here, at E berth.
They’re to find their way to the Captain’s cabin, where they will be offered tea or coffee and proffered biscuits, as happens each time they conduct this daily ritual.
They’ll ask the captain where he’s come from, what the ship is carrying, where she’s headed, and back at the office the youth will update the Cape Times’ shipping log and write two or three simple stories about what was happening in port that day.
The now life-seasoned man allows himself a wry smile as he remembers the day he landed a job at a newspaper, with no matric, but he did have A Story.
George Young could not believe it when the kid sitting across his desk told him about his dockside truancy. Because the younger shipping editor had had an astonishingly similar story. Two truants destined to become newspapermen. And George’s sidekick, Captain CJ Harris, who compiled the daily shipping log, had retired. That very day. And George needed someone to start on Monday. You.
And the older man on the deck of Queen Mary shakes his head and asks himself, what were the chances? He whispers to himself now, as he often does: serendipity follows me around.
So, when an invitation came out of the blue to tour Queen Mary 2, followed by dinner on board, there was no way in heaven or earth it was going to be turned down. Even though I was far away in the Eastern Cape. (An angel, my hero, came to my rescue and bought me a plane ticket.)
In the late 1970s, the kid had boarded ship after great ship. Many were freighters, and he occasionally clambered up to board VLCCs and the even larger ULCCs (Very Large and Ultra Large Crude Carriers). Ro-Ros too (roll-on, roll-off), even the occasional Icelandic fishing boat.
Whoever the captain was, there’d always be a story; it was a perfect grounding in the truth every good reporter knows: there’s a story everywhere and in everyone – you just have to know which questions to ask and it will present itself. George would always say, if ever we were scraping the barrel in search of a story: “Remember Micawber: something will turn up!” And it did. And it still does.
But visits to the hard-working carriers of many kinds, the labourers of the oceans, were interspersed with the joy of boarding a passenger liner. The Union Castle mailships, Windsor Castle, Pendennis, and SA Vaal which had formerly been Transvaal Castle and later was to become The Love Boat on television.
The kid boarded France more than once, and Achille Lauro.
Europa, a much older version than the one plying the seas now, was a regular in port, as were, on occasion, a pair of ships called Southern Cross and Northern Star. Once in a while, a P&O liner with her white hull and ochre funnel (today’s P&O liners are bedecked in Union Jack hues). And once, in the late Seventies, there she was. Queen Elizabeth 2, and up the gangplank he and George went for a tour.
And here he is in the present, aboard a liner many times the size of the largest he ever boarded back then. Queen Mary 2 is more than twice the size of QE2. The latter was 70,000 tonnes. QM2 is just under 150,000.
The original Queen Mary, now docked at Long Beach, California (and she was already there when the kid was a dockside truant, having retired from service in 1967), was 81,000 tonnes. Titanic was a mere 46,000. Queen Mary 2, then, is more than three times the size of Titanic.
Stand on the quay alongside Queen Mary 2 and you lose your breath at the massive scale of her. How many Pendennis Castles could you get into her? Six maybe? Even my beloved Canberra, the P&O beauty I built a scale model of as a little boy, pre all the truancy – and which I was lucky to cruise on along the coast in the Nineties – was surely barely a quarter of her size.
I turned to Google, as one does. Windsor Castle was just under 19,000 tonnes. That makes Queen Mary 2 nearly eight times her size. Now picture yourself on the quay alongside Her Majesty as you’re given your tag and ushered on board.
There was one distinct difference on first setting foot on this beautiful behemoth. On those smaller vessels (but which then seemed very big), you could feel the weight and almost imperceptible movement of the ship right away. A sort of “give”, if you like.
As though she were a presence, animate.
There was no such feeling here, perhaps because that massive weight lent her a degree of stability that a smaller craft could not possess.
We were guided to many parts of the ship but not nearly all. She is far too vast for an exhaustive tour to be possible.
Eyes and the mind feasted. Gorgeous art deco features abound, in exquisite wood panelling (reminiscent of the earlier Queen Mary, famed for its many kinds of wood), sandblasted glass, fabulous carpeting, the fonts on signs and notices. But this is contrasted with a sort of steampunk antidote to all the art deco, if that fine art form ever needed one.
The Victorian industrial age blends with the later milieu of art deco in unlikely but arresting companionship. (In one spot, in a steampunk mural in a passage, the artist secreted a tiny motif of Homer Simpson watching TV. See if you can find it if ever you sail on her. Find details of a remarkable special below this story.)
She is unlike the perhaps more vulgar class of ocean-going ship, the big white cruise ships that have become ubiquitous.
Though she is of massive scale, she is a classy lady. More pearl than diamanté, more satin than sequin. But she’s understated too, and bears herself with dignity; she’s grand, not grandiose.
I was captivated by The Queen’s Room, a grand dining room watched over by a fine bust of Queen Mary of Teck herself. She was, as anyone who has seen photographs of her will know, a singularly striking-looking woman. Effortlessly and palpably regal.
One of the most remarkable spaces on board is the planetarium, with reclining seats so that you can watch the projected marvels of the night above you in a magnificently appointed auditorium.
In the Clarendon art gallery, you can buy an original oil by Darren Eggleton for £9,200, though, as at any art gallery, the works on display change from time to time.
One of my favourite spots on board was a long narrow lounge where you can sit and watch the ocean go by while reading a good book from the beautiful library, where you’ll find books in many languages and fields of interest to cater for the diversity of humanity on board.
The main dining room, the Britannia (actually there are four, and “yours” is linked to your stateroom grade), is enormous and was bustling with activity, this being dinner time (although there is no time in any given 24-hour period when you will not be able to find something to eat on board).
Talking of which, a man from Cunard set us right on the prevalent belief that masses of food are dumped overboard on passenger ships. Not so, said Cunard sales director Bob Dixon – the leftover food goes to the crew, who consequently eat very well. He had flown out from Southampton and was a fine host at the dinner that was to ensue.
The other three main restaurants are the Queen’s Grill, Princess Grill, and Britannia Club.
We were treated to Champagne and canapés at a stern deck bar before being ushered into the Steakhouse at The Verandah, which reminded me of the old-style grill rooms at grand venues such as the Mount Nelson Hotel – all fine meat and prime fish, perfectly grilled.
There’s a grand selection of classy steaks, from a 55-day wet-aged Aberdeen Black sirloin (from New South Wales) or a Westholme Wagyu sirloin from Queensland, to an Aubrey Allen ribeye, sirloin or fillet or a Deluxe Three Beef Sampler for two to share.
I usually go for the lower end of a menu when I’m an invited guest, but this was a special night for me and I went all-out for the sensuously soft, delicious Wagyu sirloin. I loved the accompaniments: perfect creamed spinach, London Pride battered onion rings, French fries with truffle oil and parmesan.
I chose Café de Paris butter (my version of which is here, along with its fascinating history), eschewing the alternatives of Béarnaise, au poivre and chimichurri. The last has made massive inroads into world menus in recent years.
The Caribbean lobster cocktail was somewhat fleeting, with more iceberg lettuce than the morsels of lobster I could find. Nice Marie Rose sauce, though I prefer it to have more of a brandy kick. But that’s just a matter of personal taste.
If fate ever returns me to Her Majesty, I will order the Forman & Son London Cure gin and tonic salmon which I stupidly overlooked in my haste to place the order. Entirely my own fault.
I’d also been sorely tempted by the Grand Platter Fruit de Mer for two, which offered Maine lobster, rope-grown Irish mussels, Scottish langoustines, Alaskan king crab leg, ceviche of Grand Bank scallops from Newfoundland and jumbo Mediterranean prawns, all served with a Bloody Mary dip, garlic aïoli and red wine shallot vinegar.
I feel like going back in time for all that; where is HG Wells when you need him?
For dessert, there was the old-fashioned delight of Rum Baba, Triple Chocolate Skillet Cookie, and “warm deep filled bramley apple pie” which everyone was gagging to try but which everyone also thought would be too heavy.
Nearly the entire table chose the wild strawberry pavlova, which was a rich and generous pink igloo masquerading as a miniature Barbie wedding cake. Divine, and I don’t regret it.
Winding our replete way to disembark this majestic masterpiece of ocean-going grandeur, we found ourselves walking through the Britannia restaurant, now packed with diners and a host of staff gliding about busily, every one of them greeting us as we walked through.
The service at the Verandah had been perfect, and I don’t say this lightly.
Four waiters attended to our large table, never interrupting a conversation, yet placing your food before you with such deftness that you scarcely noticed it, while water glasses were kept filled throughout and wine topped up. I’ve never found better restaurant service. Anywhere.
A minute later we found ourselves walking through the Golden Lion, where you can dress casually (other dining rooms have stricter dress codes), play darts, sing along to the live music act, and order the pie of the day, an Angus beef burger or Atlantic cod.
I felt like an imposter wandering through these public spaces, the punters oblivious of us as if we weren’t there at all – as though I shouldn’t really be there. But that is what this kind of experience is for a journalist and always has been: you get to intrude on other people’s lives and activities, just for a while.
I smiled and felt an inner glow, reminding myself that this is what I love about the profession that chose a teenage boy, all those decades ago. Right there, but in another time.
You never know what will happen in this line of work, and the best attitude is to be open to whatever comes. For years it’s been my dream to sail into New York aboard Queen Mary 2, the world’s grandest crossing on board the world’s greatest and only remaining ocean liner.
Over to you, Universe.
When George Young and I stood on the quay and watched Windsor Castle depart Cape Town for the last time at 4pm on 6 September, 1977, we had thought she was destined for scrap. She was the last of the Union Castle liners to leave, and my thoughts as she disappeared from view remain with me to this day.
I was watching the end of a slice of history. But she wasn’t headed for the breakers. She was bought by the Greek shipping magnate Yiannis Latsis and renamed Margarita L, and somehow survived until 2005, just short of 28 years after I last had sight of her.
She outlasted Canberra by eight years, and P&O’s magnificent Oriana by a few months. She was magnificent, and I still love her. DM
Check out all the dining options here.
Last-minute specials are available on Queen Mary 2 from Cape Town in April, following the ship’s rerouting from the Suez Canal. Departing 13 April, guests can sail for 12 nights to Lisbon, arriving 25 April, or 15 nights to Southampton, arriving 28 April, with stops at Walvis Bay and Gran Canaria. Inside cabins from R14,990 pp sharing; balcony cabins from R19,990 pp sharing. Or, at no extra cost, sail on to Southampton (UK visa required for SA passport holders).
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido. Order his book, foodSTUFF, here
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.