Saturday, 29 March 2008

Down Under (Chapter 9 - Adelaide to Melbourne, Australia)

Leaving Adelaide with eight pounds in the purse and a full tank of petrol, we found rolling, sheep-and-cattle country on either side of us as we whittled down the mileage to Melbourne. Our first stop was Murray Bridge.

Murray Bridge was a nice little town, set in the heart of the 'butter country', and a mixture of old and new wooden buildings, some over a century old with ornate lattice-work round the doors and along the eaves, while other bungalows with butterfly roofs and built-in carports were painted in bright attractive colours.

All the shops along the main street were canopied, offering shade from the sun and shelter from the rain, and giving the advantage of being able to shop in comfort for the whole length of the street. Nita and I felt that this protective addition could well be adopted in our own country (particularly for the latter reason). This little town, with its canopies and its fly-screens on nearly every door, is typically Australian, and so are its wide streets where cars are usually angle-parked on the gravel edges each side of the bitumen strip.

Most southern Australian towns are like Murray Bridge. The bungalow builders have had the foresight to erect pleasingly individual dwellings, most of them single-storey, taking advantage of all space available.

Water is precious, even in the fertile coastal belt, during the long hot summers, and every house in the smaller communities has a conspicuous corrugated rain-butt beside it. But Murray Bridge, when we arrived on a hot November morning, had had its fill of moisture, for it was just recovering from a severe flood which had caused havoc in the vicinity and vast financial loss. Indeed, although the worst of the disaster was over, we could see from the balcony of the small hotel where we spent the night, the forlorn sight of a mill chimney poking up from a veritable lake just a few hundred yards away. But they are a tough breed in the Murray Valley, and the hotel keeper said they had learned to live with floods and the fear of them. And when floods came-as they did every few years-the people just rolled up their sleeves and their trouser legs and pitched into the wreckage. As one old' cocky' (farmer) remarked, 'You gotta pay something for living in the finest valley in Australia.'

Certainly the Murray Valley, apart from its tendency to flood periodically, was a dairy farmer's dream: rich, rolling downs, lushly carpeted with fertile grass and blessed with a very high average of sunshine. It was little wonder that the farmers felt it worth while to battle against the floods.

On the day we passed through the valley, it was hard to visualize the countryside being lashed with torrential rain. From a clear sky the warm sun penetrated our clothing and made riding on the well-surfaced road extremely pleasant. For a while we almost forgot our poverty.

Traffic on the road was not unduly heavy, and what we did see passed at a fair pace, unobstructed by side turnings or other hazards. With Murray Bridge and Tailem Bend behind us, the little townships began to take on aboriginal-sounding names: Coonalpyn, Tintinara, Wirrega.

We passed through the 'Sixty-mile Desert', which is now not really a desert at all, for there are several land reclamation schemes in operation, sponsored by the Government, where selected candidates (usually ex-servicemen) are given a liberal plot of land to develop.

One such experimental community, Keith, was a new, thriving agricultural centre, where the dust and sand had been replaced with rich, life-giving soil. We talked to the local doctor in Keith, who told us that it was far more satisfying to practise among these modern pioneers than in the centre of Melbourne. Pioneers in a sense they are, but they battle in comfort, for this little town boasts every modern facility, with strong emphasis on sporting amenities, including a floodlit tennis court which would out-rival anything in a city.

The probing and diligent fingers of the settlers, with the aid of science, are reaching farther out in every direction from the hub of the experiment at Keith. Within a few years, the doctor said, they would have to start thinking about other townships as the farming spearheads grew away from the base. Looking at the new hotel finished in gay stucco, and the line of new cars parked along the main street, it seemed incredible that, where we now stood, barely ten years before there had been nothing but sand and scrub.

After the desert came Bordertown, and, as its name implied, the last of South Australia. A board at the roadside told us 'You are now entering the State of Victoria', and a little farther along came a series of fire-warning boards: 'This is your state; don't burn it!' and 'A match has a head but no heart; watch it!' These were the first pointers to the real danger of bush fires which menace every part of the continent at frequent intervals.

Our first stop in Victoria was at Horsham-the name-board a mile outside the town made us feel momentarily homesick. Horsham, probably so named by an early and nostalgic pioneer, was a fairly old township with a dash of modernity. High-eaved wooden buildings, wide, dusty streets and innumerable pubs make up the town centre. We filled up with petrol and oil, bought some frugal provisions and camped just outside the town. Nita calculated that we would just about reach Melbourne on our remaining cash.

It rained heavily during the night and, too tired to put up our tent, we awoke to find our sleeping-bags saturated along with the rest of our gear. That day was a miserable one. Nothing went right and the scooter played up by constantly whiskering its plug and generally misbehaving. The temperature had dropped alarmingly and in contrast to the previous day it was decidedly cold. Grey clouds scudded fitfully across a heavy sky and we chugged on in the teeth of a rising wind and icy squalls. The gum trees and the hills darkened, and I thought 'so much for sunny Australia'. A bad day, in which we had spoken to no one and which finished in Ballarat-the one-time gold-rush town-at six o'clock on a dreary Sunday evening.

'You look like a couple of well-travelled characters. You want a room for the night, do you?' We wiped the rain from our eyes and told this hotel-keeper to whom we had been recommended that we would try it if it wasn't too dear. The publican's leathery face cracked into a smile. 'Well, it won't be much but it's clean and wholesome. Park that contraption round the back and come on in for a beer. Nothing like good Ballarat bitter to keep out the cold.'

It being Sunday, officially all the pubs were closed, but here the back parlour was packed with jovial Sabbath drinkers. As we entered the cosy, fume-laden room there followed a carefully phrased series of door-bell rings, which the innkeeper's wife hastily answered, and another thirsty customer joined the throng. 'Bloody law's ridiculous,' said the host. 'A man's gotta have his beer anyway. Why the hell don't they let him sup it in comfort! It's a
good thing they decided to keep the pubs open after six o'clock,' he went on. 'It used to be murder trying to get a drink before. The" six 0' clock swill", we called it. Five-thirty and everyone finished work for the day, six o'clock and all the pubs closed. You can imagine the stampede during that vital half-hour, can't you? Well, so many blokes got killed in the rush, the Government decided it was time to put an end to the slaughter. Now we're almost, 'cepting for Sundays, civilized. Anyway, what'll you have?'

The publican introduced us to the rest of the gang. 'This here's -what's your names?-Mike and Nita. They've driven all the way on a scooter from the Old Country just to sample Ballarat bitter.'

We acknowledged the sporadic clapping and ribald remarks, retaliating by decrying the quality of the beer (which, incidentally, was ice cold and excellent), and in half an hour might almost have been resident. In the friendly and spontaneous atmosphere our fit of blues began to evaporate. The Australian beer was so good, it was difficult to refuse after the second glass, but I remembered the state of the exchequer and reluctantly declined.

We slept in a modest but homely room, listening to the cold wind howling round the inn and began to realize that Australia was certainly not all sunshine. We heard later that Ballarat was just about the coldest place in the whole country. Tucked into a warm bed, however, we didn't mind. We could ill afford the luxury of hotels, but there are times when the heart rules the head.

On our way the next morning, we took the full blast of an icy wind which cut at us for the best part of the sixty-odd miles into Melbourne.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Down Under (Chapter 9 - Adelaide, Australia)

There she was! Our goal for the past six months. As our boat steamed up the long, narrow channel from the harbour to the wharfside, a thin cheer rose on the early morning air as a sprinkling of Australians burst from the cramped cabins to see their homeland almost within touching distance. We, too, felt as though we were arriving home.

The sight of waiting families, crowds of relatives and friends in colourful, informal summer clothing, exchanging affectionate Anglo-Saxon repartee across the quayside created a welcoming atmosphere in which we were included. It was quite stimulating to hear good round oaths again in the English tongue.

And what a wonderful experience-as a Britisher-to go through the Australian Customs and Immigration. 'She's right, sport,' drawled a lean, smiling young man, eyeing our scooter and modest baggage. 'Here for the Games, or are you going to stay with us for keeps?'

I told him we would certainly like to see something of the Olympics when we reached Melbourne, but that our ultimate destination would be the Northern Territory, after a leap-frog tour from city to city until we finally reached the bush.

'Lord, you'll know more about Australia than we do ourselves by the time you've finished!' Then followed the spontaneous invitation which was so typical of Australian generosity. As with everything, they were big-minded with their hospitality, as we were to realize on many future occasions.

'When you reach Melbourne, sport, my sister lives out at Moonee Ponds. Call along and she'll fix you up for tucker and that, for all the while you want to stay there. She's a character for throwing the house open.'

'It's nice of you to offer,' said Nita, 'but first we have got to reach Melbourne.' (She was obviously thinking of our diminishing bank balance.)

'Well, that shouldn't be too difficult, should it?' said this delightfully unofficial officer, glancing at the list of countries painted across the scooter headlamp.

Happier than we had been for at least three weeks, we sailed out of the dock gates to the accompanying cheers of bronzed dockers ('wharfies' in Australia) and set off down a long straight road into the city of Adelaide.

At last we were there, in Adelaide, our first Australian city, almost twelve thousand miles from London and home. The princely sum of ten pounds lay in Nita's purse and we were faced with the ambitious itinerary of an almost-round-Australia trip. Part two of our scoot to adventure began on that warm, sunny South Australian morning, with the somewhat gigantic query in our minds as to how we would get the money to complete our trip to the Northern Territory and its aborigines.

After a couple of hours in the sunshine of sleepy Adelaide we felt that the South Australian capital did not hold the answer. We should stand a much better chance of attaining financial security within the city limits of Melbourne. We decided we would push on directly after we had visited the NSU agents in Adelaide and had the scooter checked over and the battery (which had expired on the voyage) changed for a new one.

Adelaide, city of churches, wide streets, and veranda-shaded shops, was filled with alpaca-suited men wearing wide-brimmed hats, and women in colourful summer frocks. A nice, easy-going tempo gave the impression of an overgrown country town rather than a city. It was extremely pleasant. Contemporary buildings-some almost skyscrapers-thrust up from the wooden, shallow-roofed ranch-type houses which were the buildings of yesteryear in this the sheep-farming railhead of the old pioneering Australia. Hitching posts were still prominent and behind them milk and espresso bars, with garish American cars (outnumbering the popular British makes) parked in front.

In Adelaide we saw our first Holden, 'Australia's own car', which boasts a high-output engine with a surprisingly light body, half American and half European in style; judging by the number we saw, it must be ideally suited to Australian conditions.

Searching for the agent, we spoke to an Australian policeman who stood, peak-capped and smiling benignly, in the centre of a cluster of churches.

'Can you direct us to Elizabeth Street, please?'

'I can, but first you tell me how long it took you to make the overland trip from the Old Country,' replied the curious cop.

'Six months,' we told him.

'My word! And did you get tangled up with any wild animals or larrikins during the trip?'

'Larrikins?' I asked.

'Yeah, larrikins, bludgers, no-hopers, thieves.'

'Not once in twelve thousand miles,' I replied, not wishing to become too involved.

'My word!' said our inquisitor. 'And you mean to tell me that you and your little lady here travelled all the way on that little motor-bike?'

'On that little scooter, yes.'

'My word!' This time it was said with an expressive finality which signalled the end of the interview.

We received our directions and sailed up the wide traffic-lined avenue in search of our agent.

'I hope all the Aussie policemen are like that,' shouted Nita.

‘My word!' I replied.

We spent half a day, later, going over the Prima with a factory-trained German mechanic, who was obviously settling down nicely as a New Australian. He knew his job and in record time we were out of the shop and looking for the Salvation Army hostel (as recommended) in order to get a good night's sleep before tackling the four-hundred mile run to Melbourne. In a clean, simply furnished room we slept like the dead, and steak and eggs made an excellent change for breakfast after the insipid pasta on which we had been living during the sea voyage.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

From the Khyber to Ceylon (Chapter 8 - Sri Lanka)

On the ferry boat which carried us across the straits to Ceylon we met a very interesting French couple, husband and wife, who were travelling through India with only a small rucksack between them. They were really doing things the hard way, even using third-class tickets on the railway, and third-class on an Indian railway is considerably different from travelling this way anywhere else. We had passed one or two trains on our way from the north, and the appalling conditions under which the masses travel, packed into the carriages, filled us with horror. In this manner these two undaunted travellers had covered the country from the Himalayas to Madras. Three days and nights at a time under such conditions was their usual rule, they told us. I admired their spirit tremendously, but much as Nita and I like moving we could not have travelled thus. This French couple, too, had found themselves in trouble but had not escaped as lightly as we.

It had happened in Poona, where the young man was teaching languages at Poona University. He and his wife rented a small bungalow and during the first week of their arrival from France they were in the habit of taking an evening stroll. One night, three uniformed thugs ganged up on the couple (there was an Indian military camp near Poona) and attacked without provocation in an attempt to rape the French girl. In the melee that followed the Frenchman was stabbed dangerously close to the heart and for some days his life lay in the balance. The ironical part of the incident was the proximity of other bungalows where lights were twinkling and wirelesses playing; the French girl could speak hardly any English and no one heard their shouts of distress. Apparently the husband had to disperse the three assailants single-handed, which he had managed to do quite effectively by all accounts before he was knifed. Te1ling us about it, he raised his foot from beneath the cabin table and revealed an extremely well-made climbing-boot. He had also gained a lot of useful experience in Indo-China with the French Army and I believe that, had his wife not been in jeopardy, he would really have quite enjoyed the episode.

The ferry journey passed quickly and we had made two more firm friends who would welcome us the next time we were in Paris. The Sinhalese customs formalities were carried out slowly and at seven o'clock on a balmy, pitch-black night we stood on the pier at Talaimannar with twenty miles to cover to reach the first village and the haven of a rest-house.

All the officials we met insisted on telling us of the herds of wild elephant that roamed the area between the harbour and our destination, Medawachchiya. They seemed delighted to advise us that we would stand no chance at all if we were to stumble into a herd on our scooter. However, hunger pressed us on, and we decided to reach the village, and food, elephants or no.

So off we went, peering down the white headlamp beam, and seeing in every tree-trunk and shadowy twisted vine the grey lumbering shape of elephant. There was an almost irresistible temptation to turn round to see if we were being charged from behind. Those twenty miles went very slowly. . . .

Eggs and bacon-the first in months-were offered for our delight the morning after our arrival. Pots of marmalade and jam with British household names were on the table and we felt more at home than we had done for a long time. Ceylon was of course independent, but the ties with Britain seemed infinitely stronger than the Anglo-Indian link.

Although the island was suffering severely from drought, it was easy to see why it was called 'The Gem of Asia'. The views from the road; the flamboyant clothing of both men and women; the thick jungle which encroached from inland, and the silvery, glittering lagoons, palm-studded and washed by an azure sea, made a tropical paradise hard to surpass. The run to Colombo was pleasant and relaxing, and uneventful.

Our arrival in the capital was the signal for the publishers' Colombo agent to lay on a reception. He was a delightful Sinhalese, who arranged for a number of radio broadcasts, newspaper interviews, and an exhibition of the battered scooter in the main window of a large department store in the city centre.

After being so long on the road, with little or no city contacts, this reception was quite overwhelming. For a few days we could not pick up an English-language newspaper without seeing our somewhat startled faces staring at us from the pages, captioned as 'The Overlanders', 'Author and wife of "racy" travel books', and 'To Ceylon on one-and-a-half horses'. The text of the accompanying articles gave fantastic distortions of the various interviews, but we didn't mind.

While the scooter was on display, we spent the week waiting for our boat and exploring almost every corner of the island in the kindly agent's Morris Oxford. He just filled it with petrol, handed over the keys, and with the smiling injunction to 'go and have a look at Ceylon', left us to our own devices.

We threw a few things into the boot and set out hastily for the interior. A week of pure delight followed. We left the steaming coastline and climbed up and up the narrow, twisting road to the cool of the tea plantations, a land of mists and cold nights with rain clouds sweeping across the mountain peaks. We could have been in the Scottish Highlands. The cold rain was a luxurious blessing and we rejoiced in sleeping with blankets over us to keep out the chill air.

We saw Kandy and the Temple of the Tooth; Nuwara Eliya, where a very good brew of beer is fermented; then down again to sea-level and the huge game reserve of Yala, right through the remote and wild eastern provinces to the stronghold of the Vedda, the aborigines of Ceylon; and, finally, back again to the hills and the cold nights.

The only unpleasant part of the tea plantation country were the leeches. We were savagely bitten on the legs during a short walk from the car, and it was only when Nita saw the dark stain rapidly spreading through my trouser leg that we became aware we were being attacked. At first I didn't realize the cause, and thought I might have banged my leg unconsciously, but as the blood continued to flow at an alarming rate and refused to congeal, it was obvious that here was no mere accident-particularly when Nita discovered her own wounds. The leeches had apparently taken their fill of us and disappeared long since, leaving a blood-flow which saturated one of my socks and half-filled a shoe.

There is a legend that in some parts of the island there are giant leeches that fall in armies upon sleeping men during the night and fatally drain them of blood. This may be only a legend, but the tiny punctures in our legs did not completely heal until a year and a half after the attack, when we were home in England. We marvelled how the native women could pick tea leaves from the small stunted bushes without bleeding to death.

Someone threw a stone at our borrowed car on the way back to Colombo from the hills. I thought it strange at the time, but dismissed it as some childish prank, and it was not until we reached the capital again that I realized the full significance. The Suez crisis had exploded. A bomb had been thrown at the British Legation and demonstrators were marching up and down, waving banners and performing time-worn rituals.

At first the Suez invasion was given prominence in the papers, while the Hungarian uprising rated a couple of lines at the bottom of the back pages. A few days later, when that news began to develop from a trickle to a flood and the pleas went out all over the world, the reports about Hungary were given more space. The demonstrators, however, somewhat bewildered and pausing in their altercations, unanimously decided that these were diverting tactics put out by the' brutish British', and things went on as before.

Our ship was at first 'delayed', and finally cancelled. No ships were calling at Ceylon from the British Isles, and a week of utter confusion ensued, resulting in a haggard expression on the face of the booking clerk at the shipping office.

We were extremely fortunate, however, in being able to wangle a couple of berths and one for the scooter on a South American tramp steamer, bound for Adelaide. So, hastily assembling our travel-stained possessions, with the word 'aggressors' reaching us from one side, and the apologies of the publishers' agent from the other, we embarked on the second phase of our odyssey.

THERE followed a boring interlude. Three weeks aboard a converted tramp steamer, packed to the gunwales with South American tourists on a world cruise, was more than enough to convince me that our usual method of transport held all the advantages. Three tedious weeks were barely relieved by a couple of stops at Singapore and Djakarta, and all the time the ship was a bedlam of ceaseless, excited chatter, screaming children, and brittle personalities straining twenty-four hours a day to convince themselves that they were having a wonderful time.

Mealtimes were a stampede, and I failed to understand why these Latins (including a couple of Spanish millionaires and a gaggle of 'famous' film stars) risked life and limb hurtling along the narrow gangways to fill themselves with the 'slosh' that passed as food. I would sooner tackle the Sahara in an old taxi-cab once more than face that ordeal again.

Our scooter had the most comfortable quarters, in the peace and comparative quiet of the hold, and though I had cursed the machine on many occasions I yearned for our arrival Down Under, so that we could embark on the second part of our adventure, delightfully and entirely independent. Another disgruntled Englishman who, like us, had been stranded at Colombo, felt that this pleasure cruiser could have been aptly named the Altmark.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

From the Khyber to Ceylon (Chapter 8 - To Sri Lanka)

We arrived, two very stiff, battered-looking creatures, in Trichinopoly late that night. The rest-house keeper thought we had been attacked by dacoits. I refrained from answering, 'Not yet'. Despite our aches and pains the historic military graves in a fast-mouldering churchyard in Trichinopoly were very interesting to us. Since the departure of the British, these had been left to deteriorate and were a sad and poignant sight, with pathetic epitaphs of long ago on their mossy headstones, the last earthly reminders of those tenacious British pioneers. Ironically, it was not soldiers' graves which predominated, but those of their families, who appear to have died like flies. Women and children, mostly children, with the dread word cholera still visible on almost every stone. Nearly all the dates were in the first half of the nineteenth century. Even in the bright sunshine, a heavy atmosphere pervaded the churchyard. We gazed silently at those crumbling memorials, calling up half-remembered lessons about Roberts, Kipling, and the Bengal Lancers. I found myself humming' Goodbye, Dolly Gray' and feeling melancholy.

An old man, very deaf and suitably faded, appeared to be in charge of the churchyard, and he told us that before the British had left the graves had been carefully tended, with fresh flowers for nearly every grave. Now no one, save the occasional European visitor, came near the place. We took some pictures of a few of the more descriptive tablets, wondering, as the camera turned, if there were any descendants in England of 'Harriet, beloved daughter of Lieutenant Morley and his wife Mary, died of the cholera, September the 2nd, 18 I 3'. Or of all the other names, grown dim with the passing of time, of those who had suffered and died uncomplainingly in the Anglo-Saxon way, their last impression of the world being a glaring, brassy sky and the stench of India in their nostrils. It all seemed so futile, looking at those weathered graves in 1956. . . .

One of the great advantages for Europeans travelling in India is the cheapness of everything. Having smashed my sunglasses in the recent accident, it was imperative to replace them quickly as the dust and glare play havoc with unprotected eyes. In Trichinopoly we found a self-styled oculist who offered a first-class service. First, from a tray containing about a hundred varieties I chose the type of lenses I wanted. Then from another tray the frame was selected, hand-carved heavy-weight tortoise-shell; and while we sat in the open doorway watching the parched street scene, where the children played in the dust and the old men were drying cow-dung for fuel, the Indian craftsman at the back of the shop married the frame to the lenses. In half an hour I had a splendid pair of glasses which were exactly what I wanted, at a cost just under ten shillings.

Wearing my restful eye protectors, we left Trichinopoly on the afternoon of the second day. We were now feeling a growing impatience on this, the last stage of overland travel before boarding the ship to Australia. Australia, for the first time, really began to take on an air of reality, and we were anxious to get to Colombo. We had not left ourselves too much spare time and our enforced six weeks' stay in Lahore had reduced the safety margin considerably.

So we travelled on south, the miles flying by on the smooth, burning tarmac, and the most spectacular and exotic scenery we had yet seen in India on either side of us.

We stayed one night with an Indian Forestry Officer, whose training had obviously been completed under British tuition. He was a good host and an interesting companion, dedicated to his work and thankfully not a political fanatic. His modest bungalow, near the town of Salem, was infested with mosquitoes. We were pestered from dusk till dawn, unable to escape the hungry insects. Our dusky host seemed to be immune to the squadrons which buzzed through the stifling bungalow. We left very early, thankful for the relief of moving through the air again, creating our own breeze and foiling the wretched mosquitoes at the same time.

About six hours later we stopped for provisions in one of the Tamil villages dotted along the road. These were happy little self-contained communities of handsome people, wide-eyed, with teeth gleaming in ready smiles, who lived their sun-soaked lives in a veritable paradise of waving coconut palms and fertile watered land, so very different from the harsh, arid plains of the north. Everywhere colour abounded and the thatched mud huts, so neat and clean, where children romped in and out, looked so wholesome and inviting that I determined to try and capture some of the atmosphere on film.

The sight of the two of us-almost as black as themselves-mounted on an extremely travel-stained scooter, caused excitement enough. When the movie-camera appeared the entire population promptly surrounded us, gazing in frank, Asian curiosity. They were highly photogenic, particularly the women with their jewel-studded noses and erect, loose-limbed carriage, gained from carrying large brass water jugs on their heads, which they did with consummate ease
A shuffling in the crowd and a dignified, white-bearded elder stepped forward. He was the headman and spoke a little English. In quaint terms he told us that we were most welcome and free to wander where we liked. An empty hut was at our disposal if we wished it, and he was desirous that we should visit their beautiful temple before leaving. We stopped three days and nights at the village, in spite of our determination to shake India from our heels at an early date. We stayed as honoured guests and every hour was full.

Sitting cross-legged, we ate the ferocious curry from large, sweet-smelling platters of interwoven leaves, and watched the expert skill of youngsters preparing coconuts for eating: from shinning to the topmost branches of the swaying palms, to severing the nut from its protective fibre-husk with deft strokes of sharpened steel rods. The palm is life, every by-product being used and nothing wasted. In a benevolent frame of mind I even managed to enjoy looking over the temple, although normally I have a horror of this kind of sight-seeing. For three days life was very good.

Unfortunately our stay was marred by a nasty incident. We returned from a stroll, to find our hut as we had left it, save for one suspiciously empty corner: someone had taken my rifle. We searched high and low, but it had disappeared. I stormed off to the headman, furious at the theft of one of my treasured possessions.

The old man was as indignant as I. There was a hasty consultation between the elders, who then dispersed to various corners of the village. About half an hour later a crowd of them returned, dragging with them a sullen and reluctant youth who was clinging firmly to my rifle.

'Is that it?' asked the headman (or words to that effect).

'Of course it is,' I replied, and stepped forward to retrieve my property. But the youth backed away, taking a firmer grip of the stock.

'He says it was given to him by a friend,' translated our host, doubt and puzzlement written all over his wizened face. I began to lose my temper.

'Look here, that's my rifle. . . .' I advanced again, indignation overriding caution or diplomacy. The youth released my gun with one hand and reached towards the hilt of a dagger in his belt; he didn't unsheath it but just stood there with his hand hovering. I felt, at this point, that perhaps discretion was the better part of valour. I had seen, in Africa, what could be done with one sweeping knife-slash. Nita asked me anxiously not to 'do anything silly'.

I didn't know what to do, really. We couldn't just stand glaring at each other, the thief and I. The watching crowd stood staring silently. After what seemed an interminable time, the old headman, bless him, relieved the tension. I think he must have interpreted the reaching for the knife as an admission of guilt. He walked calmly up to the pilferer and took the rifle from his hands. It was relinquished without opposition and the youth turned after a moment and walked swiftly away through the crowd; I got my rifle back in one piece.

On that note we felt it was time to leave the village. Another night in the hut, with a brooding, knife-carrying young man hovering in the vicinity, held no appeal for us. We loaded up, said our goodbyes, dismissed the apologies of our host and rode off down the avenue of palms.

Our Indian road finished at Madurai, where we caught a train which carried us across barren sand fiats to the ferry at Dhanushkodi. Here we found the most officious and obnoxious bunch of bureaucrats we had ever met. Grinning, insolent groups of so-called customs officials went through our equipment with prying, curious fingers. Not even behind the Iron Curtain were we so deliberately victimized for being British as we were on the southern coast of India. With unconcealed delight our sleeping-bags and spare clothing were scrawled with chalk. Without the slightest pretence of official scrutiny the men bandied our passport about and gaped at our photographs and visas like a gang of backward children playing at administration.