Suddenly we heard shouting and turned to see a small, bespectacled man in plain clothes, running towards us gesticulating excitedly. Heads swivelled at the commotion and the crowded customs hall fell silent. The four of us just stood there sweating and shaking. In what seemed like slow motion, a hand-held metal-detector was produced, flourished around the trembling Frenchman and ... went off like a car alarm. My head, heart and stomach, spasmed with the adrenalin overdose. The unthinkable had happened - we'd been caught smuggling gold.
It was April 1992. A year beforehand, I had been sitting at my desk in the City, trading futures and options with eight screens, two phones and a growing resentment. The four walls of the office had created an environment in which the call of the wild was to become deafeningly loud. I handed in my resignation, bought myself a rucksack, went in search of adventure - and found far too much.
After a six-month pub crawl from Australia to Thailand, my finances were exhausted. I had reluctantly flown on to Hong Kong and found a job teaching English to Chinese children. One afternoon, sitting in my cramped and dingy hostel, an American room-mate waved a large wad of dollars in my face, money he certainly hadn't had before his "secret" weekend trip. Wide-eyed, I listened to the story of his new found riches. "Why don't you come along next time," he whispered with a conspiratorial smile, "go on - it's easy."
"I may be skint but I'm not mad," I replied.
Over the space of the next four weeks, those restraining sticks of common sense, reason and naked fear were whittled away by a classic double act that I had previously been sheltered from: Poverty and Easy Money. I had always wanted to visit Japan and knew that teaching English there was a great deal more lucrative than in Hong Kong. But visitors needed to show they had $1,000 in order to be allowed into the country. When the American and two friends from the hostel returned from another "secret" trip and mercilessly waved yet more greenbacks under my penniless nose, exhilaration replaced exasperation as I heard myself saying: "OK then, I'll do it ... just once."
In the toilets of Hong Kong airport, four young men in their mid-twenties (an ex-stockbroker, a French Maitre D', an Australian karate champion and an American tour guide) struggled to pull on four tightly packed multi- pocketed denim waistcoats - each worth over $400,000. With 4 stone 4lb of gold bullion concealed around our torsos, we stamped off towards the departure lounge...
Gold is 30 per cent cheaper in Hong Kong than in India, where it is in limited supply and, due primarily to its use in religious ceremonies, hugely in demand. Syndicates of wealthy Nepalese have been smugly smuggling tons of it across their border for years. With plenty of impoverished travellers like myself, easily enticed by the paltry fee of around $2,000, it's a low risk, high profit super-scam that goes on all the time.
The American had been recruited by two Nepalese gangsters who worked for the one of these "syndicates" and had been flying couriers to Nepal twice a month for four years. "These guys are professionals," he reasoned, "they're not gonna risk losing $1.6m dollars of gold, are they?" With customs paid off it seemed like nothing could go wrong.
How wrong can you be? After we had been arrested, strip-searched and subjected to a gruelling Gestapo-like interrogation, the handcuffs appeared and we were led through the staring airport crowds and driven at speed to the police cells.
Before the run, I had asked our employers what would happen in the event of our capture. "Deportation" one of them had said from behind his shades and, with child-like naivety, I had believed him. So when we were bundled into a police van the next day and taken to the airport, my spirits soared. But then we were then marched into a building signed "Customs Court", and they plummeted. The "courtroom" was no more than a shabby little office with one small, bespectacled man sitting behind a desk. Shock turned to horror as I realised this was the same man who had arrested and interrogated us - the chief customs officer! No judge, no jury, no dream team, no ill-fitting glove: no chance. Found guilty of attempting to smuggle Nepal's biggest ever seizure of gold ($1.6m), we were sent to prison to begin a sentence of four years. Four years!
Heads bowed, four kangaroos were frog-marched from the "court", and driven through the night to a prison called Bhadragol. As two huge, rusty gates slammed behind us it hit home that I had thrown away my freedom. Separated from the others, I was shown by torchlight to a crowded dormitory. Carefully squeezing myself between two snoring murderers on a straw mat, I realised that, having made my bed, I now had to lie in it.
By the exercise yard, I bumped into the only other white man in the prison. Unkempt, with wild staring eyes, he rattled off an unintelligible monologue that left me in no doubt about his mental health. "Rupert", I was informed, was also an English gold courier who had languished these last four years. Had he been a clean-cut picture of stable sanity when he first arrived? Was he my future? The worry nearly drove me mad.
Things did not improve when I was visited by a 24- year-old Sloane, the British vice-consul. She dashed any hopes of embassy intervention on my behalf, told me it was highly unlikely that I'd get out within four years - and left. Bleak desolation gnawed at my morale.
The next morning brought a Nepalese visitor in shiny suit and shades bearing gifts of food, bedding and wads of money. "Stay calm, we speak to government," he whispered behind a hand, "we get you out - no problem." Various inmates assured us that, in venal Nepal, this was perfectly possible and a light began to flicker at the end of the tunnel.
Buoyed by the messenger's regular visits, we settled into prison life and tried to make it as comfortable as possible. With no cells, work, violence or buggery, my fears of Midnight Express meets the London Dungeon proved to be totally unfounded. Buba (a drug dealer) became our cook, DK (a thief) washed the dishes and Siri (a money launderer) laundered our clothes instead. We read books, listened to our Walkmans, sunbathed, played football, table tennis and chess, and were visited by a few brave tourists bearing bags of goodies. In an attempt to increase the flow of visitors I designed an advert and gave it to a tourist to photocopy and pin up in the hotels and hostels of Kathmandu. Sure enough, within days we were inundated - some came out of kindness but in others you could sense the thrill of a cheap day out at the zoo. Many visitors were female and, by strange coincidence, seemed extremely attractive as well. Very frustrating - I felt like a toddler in a pushchair staring at a bouncy castle.
Two months into our stretch, "Sonny", a Nigerian heroin smuggler, arrived to begin his 20-year sentence. Having become friends, it was painful to watch his decline into hopeless, suicidal despair. One evening he revealed that, he had fashioned himself a rope-ladder, and was going to try to escape. the The tower of machine-gun-toting guards at each corner of the compound told me that this idea was simply delegated suicide. Having spent many hours considering methods of escape myself, I decided to explain to him my "Escape from Bhadragot" master plan. A few days later, a crowd of excited criminals gathered at the gate chanting: "Black man eescape, black man eescape."
"How?" I enquired innocently.
All foreign prisoners were allowed to receive incoming calls from the head jailer's office outside the front gates. As instructed, at a pre- arranged time, Sonny had received a phone call from his contacts on the outside. On the way to the office he had simply shrugged off his armed guard, sprinted to a waiting car and disappeared in a cloud of dust - never to be seen again. It's good to talk.
After five months of money and assurances that negotiations were well under way, visits from the messenger suddenly stopped. I had been in touch with my parents regularly, but we had one last hope: plan B - "Uncle Dennis."
A confirmed bachelor in his fifties, and a classic English gentleman, I had spent many happy summer holidays helping him out on his ramshackle farm as a child. Though he hadn't left the country in 17 years, he had spent many years with the RAF in the Middle East and I knew that, in the absence of Douglas Hurd, there was no better man for the job.
Two weeks later he arrived, spent the afternoon listening to our story and discovered that it differed greatly from the version put about by customs officials - apparently we had staggered off the plane drunk and started a fight in the customs hall. Dennis's theory was right: it was a cover-up, and we'd been framed.
We had one lead - the phone number of an American archaeologist gold- smuggler who had paid us the occasional visit and seemed to know more than he was letting on. Contact was made and a meeting arranged with the American: "There's someone else you should meet," he added mysteriously, "someone who wants to speak to you." Thus began an almost unbelievable sequence of events and encounters, without which I would still be sitting in prison waiting for release on the 25th of this month.
Two days later, three men met in a hotel lobby in the centre of Kathmandu and talked quietly. The third man, it transpired, was Matthew, a Western "businessman" who, through his contacts among the gold smuggling fraternity, had uncovered the cover-up. Our two employers had apparently double crossed their employers - the Kathmandu-based syndicate who actually owned the gold - by cutting a deal with the chief customs officer and informing upon us. They had pocketed their flat fee from the syndicate and shared a sizeable cut of the seizure with the chief of customs and his cronies. We were blamed, the syndicate lost their gold and the conspirators became very wealthy indeed - simple really.
Through his more respectable contacts, Matthew was able to circulate the true version of events. Over the next six weeks, news filtered back that very senior Nepalese politicians were discussing our case. Excitement and incredulity mingled in the minds of Dennis and ourselves as events unfolded. Letters to the King were sent and, as the days dragged by with our future in the balance, the tension grew relentlessly.
Without warning, on the morning of 17 December, the British vice-consul's car drew up at the gates. "We don't know how, we don't know why," she said, "but the chief of customs is in prison and the four of you are to be released on the 29th - the King's birthday." Delight and disbelief warred for my attention as I sat the other three down to tell them the news: against all odds, Dennis had succeeded and our ordeal was nearly over.
After feasting on a scrawny chicken we'd procured for Christmas lunch, all four of us were summoned to the front gate. A reverential silence fell over the crowd of onlookers as out of the back of a chauffeured Rolls- Royce stepped a portly gentleman carrying a Yuletide log on a silver tray - the French Ambassador. There followed a surreal and jovial hour of cake and conversation and the sight of the Ambassador, in three-piece suit, sipping prison coffee out of an old plastic beaker ... well, you just had to be there.
On the morning of the 29th, after eight months and four days, the gates opened up once more and we all squeezed into the French vice-consul's jeep. Back at his house, we feasted on the sumptuous French cuisine that his wife had prepared us. Later, sitting in his garden, bathed in sunshine and gulping champagne, I borrowed his mobile phone: "Hello mum, I'm free ... it's a long story."Reuse content