Saturday, 24 August 2013

Rescued from Car Nicobar Island - 21



...Continued from stories No 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20
As told in previous excerpts, our attempted voyage in a 23 foot sampan from Bangladesh to Singapore had ended in failure. For all intents and purposes, we were destitute, castaways on the small island of Car Nicobar in the Indian Ocean and therefore totally in the hands of a local Indian Administrator.
     Word had been sent of our plight to the district government office based at Port Blair on the Andaman Islands, and from there on to the Indian Government in Delhi, then onto the British foreign office in London and eventually to our parents.
     My mother received a short but polite letter from the Foreign Office to say, ‘Your son, and friends, have drifted by boat to the island of Car Nicobar and is without funds. Arrangements are in hand to get him to Calcutta and in the event of repatriation would you be prepared to sign a legal undertaking to pay any costs involved?
Preparing pandanus fruit - a staple diet
     I later learned that my mother replied: ‘No. He is twenty years old and has put a lot of planning into his round-the-world hike, and has done very well so far. It is for him to decide what he wants to do.
     I don’t think that was the reply they expected.
     By the time messages had passed back and forth several times through various channels, some five weeks had passed. It was finally decided to send us to the mainland of India by way of a diverted supply ship.

     It was surmised amongst ourselves that if we were to go to India, we would more than likely be repatriated back to the UK – quite the contrary to what we had wanted.
     We were aware that an old wartime Japanese airstrip was situated on the southern end of the island.  The RAF held an emergency fuel dump there. If push came to shove it could be used to land a plane, which we hoped might take us onto Singapore – providing we could get word to them.
    In the meantime, however, a merchant supply ship was diverted from its Madras--Port Blair route and anchored offshore with instructions to pick us up.        We were told to collect our few belongings and the Indian Administrator ferried us out to the ship.
Village
     Once on board, we explained our plight to the British captain and said that we were not overjoyed at the prospect of being sent back to India and, with no disrespect to him, preferred to be rescued by the RAF rather than by him. With a twinkle in his eye, he winked at us and said, ‘Well, you lucky young devils, although this is my ship, no one, including me, can force you to sail with me. If you wish to wait for the RAF then that is your decision.’
     We said, ‘In that case, we are staying here on Car Nicobar.’
     With that he gave us each a carton of cigarettes, and said, ‘The best of luck to you.’
     The Administrator and our keepers, the Jadwet brothers, were not well please.
     During the next three and half weeks we gave little thought to being rescued, but got on with enjoying an idyllic castaway life. Children taught us to body surf using coconut fronds; we helped to dig a new village well, and spent pleasant hours in the company of Bishop John Richardson.
Wrestling, the favourite sport of the Nicobarese
     There were an endless number of friendly inter-village contests and celebrations, of which we were included.
     One of the most colourful was the racing of outrigger canoes along the shoreline. These canoes were built
on Nancowry and Camorta islands in the south east. They were the only islands with access to suitable trees to build large seagoing dugout canoes called Odis. These isolated island communities were renowned   for their skills as canoe makers. The people of Car Nicobar traded wild pigs, fish, and cooked Jackfruit in exchange for their craft.
     Body wrestling was another popular sport and pastime. Eric, because of his short stocky physique, was well matched with the Nicobarese and was frequently challenged to a friendly match.
Inter-village pig wrestling contests
     Eric and I were invited to spectate a wild-pig wrestling contest between the villages of Chuckchucha and Kinyuka. An area was cordoned off using a form of Danish Fencing. We were given the best seat in the house: a makeshift platform in the branches of a tree within the arena. It was a highly dangerous sport between man and beast, whereby the pig was provoked until it charged its opponent, who would confront it face on and attempt to grab its ears and wrestle it to the ground. Not for the faint-hearted.
     Two mothers in the village of Chuckchucha had insisted on my naming their newborn twins; I named one Jennifer after my sister and the other Jacob after myself. What a rare and special honour.   
       Everything came to an abrupt halt one morning, when without warning, we were again told to gather our things. I had barely enough time to contact my friend Esau Sampok to say farewell, and give him my latest 35 mm film and log book for safekeeping. This was a precaution against confiscation; the Indian authorities had already taken my previous films and log books.
     A Land Rover arrived to collect us and drove along sandy trails to the southern end of the island where we came upon the ‘Japanese airstrip’ which we had previously heard about. We were surprised to find a large aircraft on the strip and a New Zealand aircrew already waiting for us.
     They were from a base in Singapore where news that four Brits were stranded on Car Nicobar had been heard over the airwaves. We were being treated as an air-rescue exercise.
     Our passports were returned to us, a cursory body search made, a few farewells expressed to our Indian hosts, and then introductions to the aircrew. Esau arrived just as we were boarding our rescue craft; it was too late for him to get close enough to pass my film and diary back to me. I would have to rely on the fantastic memories that would travel with me forever.
Bristol Air Freighter
     In no time at all we were taken aboard the old Bristol Freighter aircraft, where we were issued with leather jackets to keep warm during the flight and earmuffs to deafen the roar of the propellers.
     We took off from our paradise of Car Nicobar at 2 p.m. on 12 April 1962. It had been ninety-three days since setting sail from Bangladesh – thirty-three days at sea and sixty days on the island. I watched my lush green idyll recede as we circled and headed south-east across the Indian Ocean.
     So many friendships. So many memories. So many experiences. And so many more still to come.
     What happened next… see the follow-on story next week.
Photographs are from a 1954 collection, taken by and courtesy of Ian R Austin RAF retired.

Footnote: It is believed that at least 50% of the Nicobarese people were killed by the 2004 Tsunami, when a 6m wave swept over the low lying island.
DO YOU KNOW OF ANYONE WHO'S VISITED CAR NICOBAR IN THE PAST TEN YEARS?  
Please put them in contact with me.
Your Comments are always welcome
CLICK HERE to read the first episode in this series 
or HERE to read "Shipwrecked' when everything went wrong.

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