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Passage to India, 1862

Rosamond Harcourt-Smith follows an eastern route to India during the early years of viceregal rule.

‘If you are ever shipwrecked, my dearest Laura,’ I wrote a traveller in 1861, ‘contrive to get the Acatastrophy conducted by the Peninsular and Oriental Company. I believe other companies drown you sometimes... drowning is a very prosaic arrangement.

I have just been shipwrecked under the auspices of the P&O Company and I assure you it is the pleasantest thing imaginable. It has its hardships to be sure, but so has a picnic and the wreck was one of the most agreeable picnics you can imagine.’

At that time, the P&O had a rather heavy record of vessels running aground, mainly on sand-shoals at the entrance to Sydney Harbour.

Nevertheless, the impeccable behaviour of the ship’s servants and crew - a detail upon which the Company prided itself - seems to have made the passengers as comfortable as might be; at all events, they seldom drowned.

Travelling by the so-called Overland Route to the East, before the railways from Alexandria to Suez had been opened, was difficult, fatiguing and expensive.

Travellers who wished to avoid the horrible Bay of Biscay went overland to Marseilles or Trieste, then took ship to Alexandria, whence a native boat carried them up the Mahunedie Canal to the Nile, where they embarked on a paddle-steamer for Cairo.

At this point the most trying part of the Overland Route began. There were three means of crossing the desert to Suez; by camel, which only the intrepid attempted; by relays of donkeys; or by caravan. Believing the latter method might prove the least uncomfortable, most nineteenth-century travellers preferred it.

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