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THE GOLDEN RUN (article first published : 2006-05-28)

You have to be a certain age to remember the Union-Castle ships - the line closed 29 years ago - but the memories are probably indelible for those who voyaged in these stately vessels, plying weekly between Southampton, Cape Town and Durban.

My own memories go back to 1953 when I sailed from Britain to South Africa first-class (my employers were paying) in the Arundel Castle. I had flown to London a year earlier, travelling by air from Johannesburg because my services were needed with some urgency in our newspaper office there. The single air fare was marginally more than the fare for the glorious two-week return passage by ship. It is a very different story today.

Those with memories, and any ship-lover for that matter, will relish The Golden Run by Henry Damant who joined Union-Castle in 1935, at the age of 17, as a junior clerk and rose to be head of its public relations department before, in 1960, joining the South African export wine industry in a senior post in London.

Obviously he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of this famous shipping line, which was formed in 1900 by the amalgamation of the Union company (established in 1853) and the Castle Steamship Company (established in 1872 by Sir Donald Currie of Currie Cup fame). He provides a wealth of detail about its ships - 28 of them when the company was at its peak - and the people who sailed in them.

The ships were quite big for their time, ranging from about 20,000 tons to 35,000 tons. It took them 14 days to sail from Southampton to Cape Town, and until the 1950ís this was the normal form of transport for South Africans going overseas on holiday or business. Air travel changed that and eventually put an end to many ocean liners - until a later generation discovered en masse the joys of holiday cruising.

Among other things, Union-Castle owned the Mount Nelson hotel in Cape Town, built in 1899 by Sir Donald Currie. A 1950 guide book listed the hotelís inclusive rate per person at 27/6d a day, about R17 in todayís money.

Henry Damant writes this nostalgic maritime history with first-hand inside knowledge and his account is spiced with a generous selection of old photographs and with many amusing anecdotes. One of my favourite stories concerns an English music hall comedian who included in his act a monologue about the disgraceful happenings on board the Immoral Castle. Someone from the good ship Balmoral Castle was dispatched to report on the show with a view to possible legal action but in the end no action was taken because it was felt that Union-Castle passengers, particularly those in first class, were unlikely to frequent music halls.

Published by printmatters, The Golden Run by Henry Damant retails at R195. - Michael Green




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