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From bogged to buoyed in one sandy footstep

Life has a randomness to it not unlike numbers, and on your day, everything might just very well flip around

Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News
Gulf News

‘Bogged down’ is a phrase that has a certain heaviness to it. Writers know it too well. On some days everything one writes will flow like it’s in the hands of a supercurrent; on others, it’s akin to flailing around in a quagmire, or quicksand. The more one struggles the deeper one sinks.

Of course, one doesn’t get bogged down in words alone. Travellers — adventurers and the like — will attest to challenging times crossing deserts, ploughing their way through and across dunes. It cannot be comfortable walking across sand where the legs sink halfway in and have to be extracted then placed forward once more only to sink again... and the slow process of plodding on continues (at a pace that would certainly cause a passing tortoise to break into a grin).

Anyhow, cut to Western Australia, which has beaches aplenty, and to a particular beach in Wedge Island, one of those that lies within the Turquoise Coast islands nature reserve group, a chain of some 40 islands, according to Wikipedia. It is here, walking across the sand dunes on the beach, that a woman named Tonya got bogged down.

It is interesting how time and place occasionally intersect on a coordinate that has the potential to turn one’s life around, or at least give it a good heady spin. In her bogged down state Tonya noticed something sticking out of the sand. It turned out to be a ‘lovely old bottle’ which the lady thought would look nice on her bookcase.

The bottle, however, was soon to give up one of its secrets: ‘a damp, rolled up piece of paper, tied up with string’! (When I read this story in the newspaper my mind jumped immediately to the Police — not the cops, but the music band of the late 70s and their hit song Message in a Bottle. Could it be a message, I wondered?)

When the sodden piece of paper was dried out and opened it turned out to be a form printed in German, ‘with very faint German handwriting on it’. The message was dated the 12th of June, 1886 (a quarter of a century before the Titanic went down) and it had, apparently, been tossed overboard from a German sailing vessel (the Paula) about 1,000km off the West Australian coast.

Initially, the family took this to be a hoax. Research however indicated that between 1864 and 1933 bottles were thrown overboard, willy-nilly, from German ships on which the captain would write ‘the date, the ship’s coordinates and details about its route’. It seems that this was an experiment by the German navy to better understand ocean currents.

Oldest known message in a bottle

The Western Australia Museum got involved in the bottle and its message. The bottle was determined to be Dutch and late 19th century and the paper of the same period, and cheap. Assistance was sought from Germany and the Netherlands. There, officials (no doubt resurrecting old log books from the dim and dusty archives) compared the handwriting of the captain of the Paula, with the writing on the form. The entries (the dates and coordinates) in the log book exactly matched those written on the form found in the bottle. The journal also bore an entry by the captain indicating that a bottle had been tossed overboard on that very date in that very year. And just like that, Tonya and her family came to be in possession of the oldest known message in a bottle, thrown into the sea 132 years earlier!

It broke the record of the previous known message in a bottle, found after 108 years. My mate Barney says that’s exactly why one should go out and buy a lotto ticket each week, because life has a randomness to it not unlike numbers. “And on your day,” he says, “everything will just flip around.”

Funny hearing Barney espouse that philosophy. Of us two, I thought I was the dreamer!

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.

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