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Have boat, will float off the coast of Bangladesh

An adventure-packed overland journey through nine countries had brought me to the shipping port of Chittagong; a city that lies tucked away in the southeast corner of Bangladesh close to the Burmese border. I was low on funds and in need of somewhere to sleep.

I traipsed the dust filled streets and alleyways of Chittagong until I found cheap accommodation at the Hotel Flushing, so called because it had what was laughingly considered a flush toilet. In fact, it was nothing more than a pair of concrete footprints astride a long open gully into which water from a bucket could be sluiced. However, it was a great improvement upon many of the places I had stayed at in the months since leaving England.

Chittagong rush hourI peeled the rucksack from my aching back and dumped it at the foot of the rope-strung Charpoy bed, then without undressing, I stood under the cold shower and felt the dust, perspiration and worries of the day wash away. I was in need of a miracle; the Burmese border was closed to foreigners and I had but £9 to get me to Singapore.

Refreshed, and in clean but wrinkled clothes, I sat on the window ledge, desperately hoping to catch the merest suggestion of a breeze in order to keep the heat and humidity at bay. Below, in the busy Betel Nut splattered street, all of humanity seemed to be passing. In amongst the cacophony of rickshaw bells, horns, animal bleats, and general human hubbub, I heard some familiar North Country voices, cursing and complaining.

I scanned the crowds and spotted three scruffy and harassed-looking Europeans, whom I recognised immediately as Sam, Jim, and Alan; the ever-quarrelling, oddball overlanders from Manchester.

I had run into them outside the desert township of Kerman in southeastern Persia a month before; they had been travelling in a dilapidated second-hand army jeep, accompanied by Australian George, who was attempting to return home on a motorcycle.

On that occasion, I had managed to persuade them to reluctantly give me a lift on the bonnet of their shared jeep. We were all attempting to cross the desert of Baluchistan into Pakistan.

Overland across Baluchistan

Overland across Baluchistan

Their vehicle had been weighed down with provisions, sleeping bags, bodies, and about twenty flimsy cans of petrol tied haphazardly in, on, and over the vehicle. Everyone smoked like troopers, without a thought to the danger around them.

‘Hey, Sam,’ I shouted out. ‘What’s new?’

‘Eeh! Booody heck, luke oos ’ere? We’ve sold t’ jeep for £100 and bought a boat, but we’ve nowt cash left fer food and ropes like. Diya want t’ join us?’

Without a second thought, I yelled, ‘Count me in.’

I instantly stuffed my mosquito net and metal water canteen into my rucksack and rushed down to the street to join them.

The ‘boat’ turned out to be a bare, open-topped, 23-foot locally-made Sampan, used for river trade and fishing, and built of what appeared to be old railway sleepers. Before setting sail, it would need just about everything one could think of. I promised to obtain all the food and ropes they needed as my share of the venture.

The fact that none of us knew anything about sailing had not really occurred to us. Surely, it was just a case of following the coastlines of Burma, Thailand, and Malay as far as Singapore, turn left and then, ‘Look out Australia, here we come!’

My first call was to the Bangladeshi office of the famous Lipton tea company. There, I persuaded the local management to donate a large wooden chest full of tea-dust. ‘This is the best I can offer you,’ said the man from Lipton. ‘You might be able to exchange some of it for other goods in the market. In any event, I wish you every success with your sea voyage, though rather you than me.’

And that was how I came to be squatting in a dusty, backstreet bazaar of Chittagong selling paper bags which I had filled with Lipton tea-dust, little realising that my as yet unknown future wife was at that very moment across the border in Calcutta swotting for her exams. I wonder what she might have thought, had she known that I was squatting like a Chai Wallah selling tea dust in Chittagong.

It was the week before Christmas and all was well, it may not be everyone’s idea of how to spend the festive period, but for me it was pure magic. I had the best gifts of all: vim, vigour, the ambition of youth, and the prospect of embarking on yet another adventure in my journey of hiking around the world. I had set out with the intention of travelling for two years, little realising that it would be seven years before I returned home.

Within a week of meeting up with the others, I had managed to beg, borrow, and practically steal everything from food and ropes to shackles and bamboo poles. Our greatest acquisition was the friendship of a Mr Macdonald, a locally based Australian shipping agent. With his network of friends we procured a lorry load of gravel to act as ballast, timber and empty oil drums to make a life raft, ocean charts, tools, bags of rice, flour, tins of biscuits, and sundry other items, all of which were deemed necessary for this epic but reckless journey we were about to undertake.

Australian George had meanwhile turned up in Chittagong; he took one look at the boat and said: ‘Jeez! You fellas have got to be two sandwiches short of a picnic,’ and with that, he took off to book himself a deck passage on a freight ship to Penang.

Within three weeks, we had just about everything we thought necessary – with the exception of experience of course, which we would obtain as soon as we set sail. However, to do so, we required four different export documents, none of which were forthcoming.

The longer we delayed, the more we ate into our food stocks; we could delay no longer. In desperation, we decided to slip surreptitiously away under the cover of darkness, disguised as Pakistani fishermen with blackened faces and wearing loincloths. Let the voyage commence …

Read more by Roy Romsey – including, perhaps, whether he sinks or swims – in his very excellent blog.

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