How to catch a cargo ship

Posted on 2 February, 2012


In March 2012, Tom and I are catching the cargo ship ‘Natalie Schulte’ across the 2623 kilometer ditch that separates Melbourne and Auckland. It will take eight days. Apart from feeling a need to live out the opening credits of The Wire season two while also being unable to text, email or even pigeon for over a week, we want to see if we can travel to NZ without using planes.

The quick answer is: yes, you can, we will, but it takes some organising …

When catching a cargo ship from, say, Melbourne to Auckland, you need to be prepared for a few things:

1. A cargo ship is not a plane.
2. Finding a cargo ship isn’t easy.
3. A cargo ship is stupidly expensive.
4. A cargo ship takes a long time to get from where it came from to where it’s going to.

1. A cargo ship is not a plane

A cargo ship is bigger and better and more wonderfully obscure than a plane. I contacted about 10 different shipping companies and had email discussions with seven before settling on a big, red ship through Hamburg Sud.
‘But why go to New Zealand,’ asked one cargo ship booking agent, ‘when you could go to Philadelphia via the Panama Canal and Jamaica?’ Why not indeed?

Getting a ticket for a smaller leg (Melb to Auckland) on a cargo ship is more difficult than for longer legs. Shipping companies would generally prefer to sell the whole ticket (from Melbourne to Philly, for example) than a ‘shorter’ trip (only eight days? Heck, in my day we …). Generally for shorter legs they will only allow you to book one month in advance of the departure date in case they can sell the ticket to someone for a longer leg. In the end, Tom and I settled for two single cabins, which was all they had left.

2. Finding a cargo ship isn’t easy.

For ships departing from Melbourne (or other parts of Australia or New Zealand), try contacting the following companies. They’re all responsive, availableish and travel through the Asia Pacific:

Globoship: (for a translation of this Swiss site, type ‘Globoship’ into Google and translate the page) or contact them on

Hamburg Sud: contact

Freighter expeditions: contact

CMA CGM: contact

Freighter travel NZ:

3. A cargo ship is stupidly expensive.

For travel on a cargo ship you’re looking at between AUD 100 – AUD 150 per day, possibly more, which includes a cabin and meals. If you think of it as a trip to Bali, without the massages, knickknacks and cultural cringe (at seeing yourself reflected in mind-numbingly idiotic tourists), then this price becomes more reasonable. It’s like Bali in the middle of the ocean with a whole bunch of shipping containers!

Our ship has offered us two cabins: ‘petty officer’, which means you get carpet and a view un-obscured by containers; and ‘rating 415’, which means you don’t. We get three meals a day that we share with the sailors. This sounds sexy but may not be. We’ve been advised that two of the meals (breakfast and lunch) are hot and that there will be ‘cold cuts’. Unless that’s a euphemism we think it really just means ‘cold cuts’. You also get taken from and to your destination, though not with a guarantee on the dates and not without 20+ pages of documentation signing away any responsibility should the ship not make it.

Taking a cargo ship means that on top of any visas, vaccinations and insurance (compulsory, including repatriation insurance should you die!) means going to the doctor and getting a medical check, scanning passports and agreeing to never, ever take hard liquor onto to the ship (the glory days of sailor’s rum is over, thus our conclusion that ’cold cuts’ means ‘cold cuts’.).

On the up side, we have to this date nor seen a single mention of luggage (except that it shouldn’t contain rum) which we have taken to mean that we can fill and entire shipping container full of really heavy books to read on the ship.

4. A cargo ship takes a long time to get from where it came from to where it’s going to.

Eight days from Melbourne to New Zealand. Fourteen days from Melbs to Singapore. Thirty-five from Melb to Philadelphia. In the era of plane travel this seems idiotic, as would the above, prohibitively expensive prices. However, for writers it’s a floating residency. In a world where plane travel is impossible, as is the world for many people (who can’t get visas/can’t afford it and so, obviously, wouldn’t take the ship either) and for me (enforced one year without flight), you just make room for it. We only became to busy not to take planes when planes entered our lives. The time is still there. It’s like a relationship you’re too busy for, you just move all the stuff aside, wriggle a little and suddenly you have a 1200 tonne cargo ship called Natalie in your life.

Some other notes about cargo travel

• We have been advised to bring ‘deck clothes and shoes’ because of the ‘soot’ (where does the ‘soot’ come from? Is this a steam ship?!).
• There is a swimming pool and gym. The pool is, obviously, filled with salt water. But when the ship is in port we have been warned not to swim in it because of the charcoal (it is a steam ship!!)
• We are buying suction caps so we can stick down our stuff during the swell.
• Ginger is apparently good for seasickness. We’ll ask the sailors.
• They’re probably not called sailors, rather, ‘crew’.
• We are advised that we must perform emergency training practice procedures with the crew. We’re not sure if this will be sexy or not.
• For an amazing article not about cargo travel (but about travelling on ships) see David Foster Wallace’s ‘A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again‘.

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