THE fastest commercially available journey to Auckland from London takes 23 hours and 50 minutes.
That’s a few films, a couple of airline meals, a change in Singapore and bingo, you are 8,817 miles away from home and, but for a few days of jet-lag, ready to tackle the Southern Hemisphere.
Rewind 130 years and you’re about to embark on a journey that will take 46 days, have stops in Tenerife, Cape Town and Hobart, on a ship that had 300 stoats and weasels to control the rabbit population in New Zealand.
That’s what the Lions of 1888 faced ahead of the first Tour – a trip that would ultimately see those pioneers spend 249 nights away from home.
The SS Kaikoura left Plymouth at 1.30pm on March 10, complete with our pioneers as well as its cargo of rabbit controllers, 400,000 salmon ova hatchlings for Tasmania and 4,295 mail bags for the colonies.
It was to prove an interesting trip where the passengers were cut off from the outside world with no form of communication – ship to shore radio was not yet available.
The players tried a variety of activities – from boxing to sack and wheelbarrow races – to keep themselves fit and entertained, as rugby had to be restricted after too many balls were lost overboard! The evenings were taken up with dinner, concerts and card games.
During the voyage Robert Seddon was elected as Captain although he was destined never to finish the Tour, tragically killed in a rowing accident in Australia, and replaced by Andrew Stoddart.
One of the tourists Harry Eagles recalled: “There was also a tug-of-war, ‘Footballers v Sailors’ in which the latter were easily beaten. The various races were joined in by the passengers, crew and footballers, though the prizes in almost all the events were to the members of the team.”
It wasn’t all partying however, with the trip from Cape Town through the Indian Ocean particularly rough as Seddon reflected greenly: “Did not see sun or stars for seven days.”
Eventually they docked in Port Chalmers in Otago Bay – their first port of call after a seven-week journey of 16,000 miles by ocean.
The Lions would play Otago at the Caledonian Ground, Dunedin on April 28 and go on to play 53 games in 21 weeks in Australia and New Zealand, including 19 Victorian Rules (the forerunner of Australian Rules) matches.
It was a remarkable Tour from a pioneering group of players!
Over the next few weeks on these pages we’ll celebrate that epic adventure by bringing you their story to the other side of the world. Follow the journey of the #1888Lions through our Official Lions Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!
With thanks to the Official History of the British & Irish Lions and The First Lions of Rugby by Sean Fagan.