Crossing the Line: Adventures on the Equator
Once upon a time it was a big deal; today, those that do cross it often don’t even think about it. The line in question is the Equator – 0° latitude, the imaginary line that divides the world into two halves. Nowadays, with mass air travel and the frequency of long haul flights to Southern Hemisphere destinations and vice versa to the North, I would hazard a guess that most people have little or no interest in their Crossing of the Equator – when you fly, it is all about getting to the destination, not the long, tiresome hours it takes to get there.
A Personal Odyssey
I crossed the line for the first in 1971, on a journey from Sydney to Vancouver. There were no signposts to mark the spot - we were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But when the ship's Navigator determined that we were about to cross the line into the Northern Hemisphere it was celebrated in age old fashion on the sun-drenched, windswept decks with a full-on King Neptune ceremony.
That first crossing was as a passenger on board the SS Canberra, a sparkling white P&O ship of 45,000 tons; flagship of the line, with dual, swept back funnels near the stern, sparkling blue swimming pools, teak decks, and grand staircases within. The seamen who laboured below and above decks were mostly invisible to us passengers; We were served by “front of house crew” - salty Scottish cabin stewards, Goanese waiters and the heel-snapping lords of the ship - the officers, in their dashing, stiffly starched white uniforms.
Nautical Silliness with Mythic Undertones
The Stuff of Myth and Legend
On passenger liners such as the Canberra, the line crossing ceremony was not just novelty shipboard entertainment for the passengers, it was the continuation of a centuries old tradition, based upon sailors’ superstitions and riddled with myth and legend.
Although I had heard of the ceremony and seen some Kodachrome snaps from my uncle who had made the long ocean journey to the UK in the early sixties, I had no idea, up until the moment of my initiation, that I and most of my fellow passengers were considered to be “Slimy Pollywogs”, whereas the ship’s crew and those lucky few passengers who had already crossed the line, were “Honourable Shellbacks”, who traditionally have the power to use and abuse the uninitiated Pollywogs. As I was only 15 at the time, and a paying passenger (my parents paid), the level of abuse I suffered, as far as I recall, was nothing worse than being drenched in green slime before being tossed into the pool by some ridiculously dressed seamen. It was before that baptism, as I stood in line with my fellow Pollywogs waiting to appear before the Court of King Neptune, that I experienced a shudder at the thought of what was going to happen next. That frisson of fear made the silly ceremony all the more exciting and memorable for me.
Footnote to my nautical adventures
Two years and a half years later I made the return journey, from Honolulu to Sydney, aboard the SS Oronsay, a smaller, older P&O liner. On this voyage I was a Honourable Shellback, and 18 years old to boot – it was a crossing to remember, if I only could remember it through the sort of spectacular hangover haze that only an 18 year old lad on an ocean liner could incur.
The Court of King Neptune
The Court of King Neptune is presided over by the mythological Roman God of the Sea himself, with his crown, trident and seaweed hair. He is flanked, on one side by Davey Jones, the legendary owner of the locker, which is a euphemism for the bottom of the sea where drowned sailors are interred. On Neptune’s other side sits his wife, Her Highness Amphitrite. Students of ancient mythology will note that Amphitrite is actually the wife of Poseidon, the Greek God of the Sea who several centuries later he changed his name and nationality to became the Roman God, Neptune.
The rest of the royal court is made up of senior sailors dressed as mermaids and pirates. It’s a crazy, noisy, historical hodgepodge of a ceremony, but it takes little imagination see how rough it may have been for a press-ganged Pollywog on a Man’o’War 200 years ago. In fact there are incidents recorded as recently as 1995 where Naval sailors were physically and sexually abused by over-zealous Shellbacks. Happily for me, crossing the line was an experience to treasure.
Now that's a King Neptune Court that I'd like to see
By the mid-seventies, long haul air travel had become cheaper than ocean crossings, especially for a family of five like ours. My next Equatorial crossing occurred in 1975 and was a non-event. I don’t even remember the Pilot making an announcement over the tannoy – “Ladies and gentlemen, we have just flown across the equator.” He may have, but I was probably asleep.
Perhaps we could invent a similar fun ceremony for airline passengers. Instead of King Neptune we could have the pilot dressed as Uranus, Greek and Roman God of the Sky, and for his wife, (played by a comely stewardess or a cross-dressing male flight attendant) we could use a modern female Goddess of the air – Amelia Earhart springs to mind. Davey Jones would definitely be Icarus who crashed to earth after flying too close the sun and melting his wax wings. The rest of the flight crew could dress up as Pegasus, Cupid or even the Red Baron. The ceremony would initiate all the passengers who are on their first long haul flight to the Southern, or Northern hemisphere. I can see it now, Pollywogs tied to the drinks trolley and rolled down the aisles while the co-pilot (somebody has to fly the plane) flies into turbulence or does steep dives, everyone cheering, party-time at 30,000 feet.
Don't worry, It will never happen, and the thought that I will probably never cross the line by sea again, and participate in the ritual (as a Shellback!), leaves me feeling kind of sad.
Democratic Republic of Congo
A Dramatic Alternative
But wait. The Equator circles the globe, therefore it's also possible to Cross the Line overland. An exciting prospect, especially if, like me, you have fond memories of your first ocean crossing. The curious thing is, the Equator only passes through 11 countries, most of which are off the beaten path, so to speak.
So, unless you live in one of those countries, close to the line and an accessible crossing point, an overland crossing of the Equator is almost as difficult to accomplish as the old nautical crossing. You may think, “Who really cares about this?” Well I do, given my history of hemisphere hopping.
At 24,901.55 miles (40,075.16 kms), the Equator isn’t just an imaginary line around the centre of the globe, it marks some interesting differences between the two halves of our world.
- Did you know that the Northern hemisphere contains most of the Earth’s land area and most of the human population (about 90%) whereas the Southern hemisphere is about 90% ocean?
- We all know that when it’s cold and Christmassy in New York or London, people are basking in the sun on Bondi or Copacabana.
- I know that the Sun rises from the east and sets in west in both hemispheres, but I only just discovered that shadows move clockwise in the north and anti-clockwise in the south (I’ll verify this next I’m down under).
- The Moon appears upside down in the south compared to the north and whereas the Earth rotates at about 1000 Kilometres an hour at the Equator, it is nearly static at both poles.
- On the Equator, day and night are exactly the same length (12 hours each I reckon). But as we all know they get shorter during winter and longer during summer the closer you get to the Poles.
- Finally, the most contested ‘factoid’ about the Equator and the hemispheres: Does water really drain clockwise in the Northern and anti-clockwise in the Southern, with no circular motion at all on the Equator? Check out the link below and decide for yourself.
May 11th 2012
It was still dark when I stirred from my fitful sleep; the wee hours of the morning. My wife stirred beside me and we both tried to stretch our cramped muscles in seats not built to carry tall Caucasians. We were on a bus, 12 hours into a 16 hour journey from Parapat, on the shore of Lake Toba, to Bukittinggi, two Sumatran towns separated by a mostly rough-hewn winding road, a distance of some 500 kilometres. We travelled bumpily through the dark night, passing a few sleeping villages and only stopping once for a break at a scruffy bus station in a town somewhere in between.
The previous evening I had been pondering the starry night sky from my guesthouse balcony at Lake Toba, and lo and behold there rose in the south, from behind the distant, dark ridge of the caldera, a very familiar constellation of stars – the Southern Cross. It’s only occasionally visible in the Northern Hemisphere within 10° of latitude. But I could see it, crystal clear, and to me it represented our eventual destination, Australia.
Crux - The Southern Cross
Stars in our skies
For those who may not know, the distinctive star pattern of the Southern Cross appears in the flags of several countries: Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Brazil. It is an Iconic symbol for Antipodeans and to see it in the night sky excited me no end, because the following afternoon we’d be making that long arduous bus journey across the line and into the Southern Hemisphere.
On the bus to Bukittinggi
Some time between 4 and 5am we crossed the line. I may have been sleeping at the time but more than likely we just drove across the Equator in the pitch black Sumatran night, without evening noticing it. Once wide awake, I peered continually out the window just in case we hadn’t crossed, I was desperate to experience the sense of occasion, it was a landmark in our 12 month overland journey to Australia. And I admit that I may have a slight Equator fetish too.
Dawn quickly illuminated the countryside to reveal steep hills, jungle, rice terraces, tin-domed mosques and small villages with houses constructed variously of weathered teak, bamboo, palm fronds, corrugated iron or bricks.
At 6am we rolled into Bukkittinggi, a hundred or so kilometres into the Southern Hemisphere.
I wasn’t content with that anonymous crossing, I was determined to experience and capture the moment.
A couple of days later we hired a driver and guide to take us back to the Line, so we could straddle the hemispheres. In Sumatra there are a couple of "highways" that cross the Equator and ours was at the small, sleepy town of Bujon. I didn’t know what expect, probably just a marker. But like many of the world’s “hemisphere gateways” there was a big fat white line across the highway, a banner stretched above it and a coloured concrete globe with the word EQUATOR emblazoned around its circumference.
There were no ceremonies here on this steamy, baking hot Indonesian afternoon in the middle of nowhere. But there is a museum with just a handful of historic exhibits; and two elderly vendors selling souvenir T-Shirts to the very few foreigners that cross the line here. Of course we bought a T-shirt each, churlish not to really. In the shade in front of the museum I met a small group of teachers and their young pupils playing chess on the steps. I was invited to challenge one lad, the village chess champ – he thoroughly whipped my ass - checkmated on the Equator!
We left Bujon, having crossed the Line on foot, backwards and forwards several times, for a laugh. As we drove back to Bukittinggi I had a funny feeling that after 41 years, I can safely say that I am no longer challenged by that magical line around our world and this frivolous essay is the final purge. But you can be sure, I still plan on crossing it many more times to come, be it by land, sea or air.