Days M3-M5: A Weekend In Madang

Days M3-M5: A Weekend In Madang

October 5, 2011 by  
Filed under Papua New Guinea, The Odyssey Expedition

30.09.11-02.10.11:

The Lutheran Shipping ferry slid into Madang port bang on 7am, which was the exact time the captain told me it would arrive. I have to say, I was mighty impressed by all this startling efficiency. Now if only we could do something about the rest of PNG…

I headed back over to Divine WORD (not wind, sorry!) University to meet back up with the delectable Katherine, who had kindly said I could stay for the weekend. After dropping off my kit and taking a well deserved shower (it had been five days in the topics without one… nice!) I went for a pleasant walk around town (Madang is nothing if not pleasant) and grabbed some lunch in the Madang Club which is one of these hilarious ex-pat affairs in which every square inch of wall is taken up by rules of entry/dress/conduct etc. One punch = three months suspension. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

After lunch I uploaded my Wewak blogs… something that took me a solid hour on the SLOWEST INTERNET CONNECTION IN THE WORLD. And it cost me a fiver. Did I mention Papua New Guinea is ridiculously expensive? It’s like paying a tenner for a Gregg’s pasty… you can’t help but wonder where all the money goes (cos it’s definitely not on the ‘meat’).

Incidentally, if you’re as happy as I am that I’m back on the road, you can always show your appreciation by chucking a fiver into The Odyssey Expedition’s WaterAid fund: it’s only an hour’s worth of super-slow internet in some improbably expensive third-world country. The address to go to is http://www.justgiving.com/theodysseyexpedition. You’ll be richly rewarded with all the good karma you can eat.

That evening, Katherine made me dinner and we settled down for a night in in front of the telly. Well, my laptop. Katherine had mentioned that she really liked Sherlock Holmes so I introduced her to the utter brilliance of Mark Gatiss’ and Stephen Moffat’s TV show Sherlock. It is, quite frankly, the best thing that’s been on British television for years – probably since The League of Gentleman. Hats off to ya, Hilary Briss. I don’t know what you’re putting in them pies, but keep ’em coming. And although Coupling was a bit meh, his work on Press Gang and Doctor Who alone made me think Steven Moffat deserves a gold star, a jellybaby and possibly a knighthood. Sherlock just confirms that belief. If you haven’t seen it yet, you totally should.

The next day I kinda had a nagging desire to watch the Rugby World Cup. I’m not particularly sporty (that’s somewhat of an understatement) but I thought it might involve beer and England beating Scotland and making them all cry like a great big bunch of jessies. So I jumped a PMV down to the Madang Club and slipped inside. But – ack – I didn’t count on the Aussies not wishing to watch their national team beat Russia, but instead demanding to watch some obscure Gaelic-rules competition that I believe is quite popular in the South-Eastern townships of Australia.

I have to admit, the AFL grand final was exciting stuff, if (I suppose) you like that kind of thing. Or give a monkeys about the two teams that were playing. However, as much as I tried to ratchet up my care factor, I don’t think we’re ever going to be mentioning “Geelong” and “Collingwood” in the same breath of “AC Milan” or “Liverpool”.

It’s interesting to note that even my spell-checker hasn’t heard of “Geelong”. Let’s try “Ouagadougou”. Yep. It’s heard of Ouagadougou, no red wiggly underline for Ouagadougou. Let’s try “Tegucigalpa”. Yes, it’s there. “Yamoussoukro”? Indeed. Sorry, Geelong… don’t blame me, blame Microsoft Word. But look on the bright side: At least Nokia predictive text has heard of Australia, because it sure as shit ain’t heard of Azerbaijan, Iceland, Barbados, Fiji, Mauritania, Bahrain, Paraguay, Mongolia, Albania, Uganda, Trinidad, Qatar, Mauritius, Turkmenistan, Antigua, Liechtenstein, Tajikistan, Sierra Leone, Andorra, Nauru, Senegal, São Tomé, Ghana, Uzbekistan, Seychelles, Lesotho, Tonga, Tunisia, Gabon, Tuvalu, Slovakia, Mozambique, Latvia, Zimbabwe, Vanuatu, Lithuania, Comoros, Papua New Guinea, Burundi, Estonia, Slovenia, Kyrgyzstan, St. Lucia, Liberia, Kiribati, Benin, Belarus, Bhutan, Yemen, Swaziland, Moldova, Eritrea, Bahamas, Djibouti, Botswana, Maldives, San Marino, Guinea-Bissau, Kazakhstan, Zambia, Gambia, Namibia, Oman, Samoa, Bulgaria, Palau, Malawi, Suriname, Togo, Montenegro, Micronesia, Cameroon, Brunei, St. Kitts OR Madagascar. That’s over a third of the ENTIRE UNITED NATIONS. SORT IT OUT, NOKIA!! I didn’t even attempt Côte D’Ivoire.

But then even my iPod Touch is missing one Papua New Guinea (when you select your time zone) so I’ve had to use Guam… which is a) a thousand miles away and b) isn’t even a country. Tsk!

I’m amazed more people don’t complain.

Anyways… after the Aussie Rules football match I asked (politely, I assure you) if it would be alright if I changed the channel to watch England vs Scotland in the rugby. My wish was granted but they turned the sound right down. It was then I realised that I don’t really care for sport so much… I’m only here for the beer and the women. There were no women there, so I had to make do with the beer.

Sunday was very Sunday, everything is closed in Madang (as it was last week) and PMVs are few and far between. I headed out to the Madang club only to find it full (well, full for the Madang Club) of Aussies and Kiwis getting all excited about some rugby thingymajiga. I was a little confused at first, as I was fairly sure that Australia played yesterday in the World Cup and it would be a bit unusual for them to be playing again so soon, but this was Rugby League, which I’m told is different from Rugby Union… but I still haven’t fathomed out the difference. Oh well, whatever. Apparently it was the “Grand Final”: the kiwis were playing the “marones” (by which I assume they meant “maroons”, but what I am? A Pantone colour chart?). I liked the cheerleaders, they should totally have more of them at sporting events. Anyway, the weather was good, the beer was (fairly) cheap and the view out over the water was quite nice. Cheers!

I got chatting to a Kiwi helicopter pilot called Cameron who was incredibly well travelled… so we had a lot to talk about. He has, in the past, flown around West Africa, Congo, Uganda… he even spent a couple of years flying around in Iraq avoiding rocket propelled grenades. But, even cooler than that, he’s also been known to fly one Sir Peter Jackson around New Zealand location scouting. I was suitably impressed.

After the match, Cameron was good enough to drop me off at the Madang Lodge which was handy as the PMVs stop at night… about the same time as the muggings start. At the Lodge I met up with Katherine and Mums Singin, a jolly older lady who lives next door to Katherine and curates the University museum. Pizza and beer were the order of the evening and we also met a nice Aussie couple, Peter and Elaine, who also worked at the Uni. Peter had been in and out of PNG for years and had seen some of the more barking mad traits of the Papuans up close and personal. Having said that, he still loves the place, so it can’t be that bad.

I just can’t help wishing that the government would stop stealing ALL of the money and just give a little back.. just a little, that’s all I’m asking. When we talk about government corruption in the West, we’re talking about kids stealing Mars bars in comparison with the sheer bare-faced kleptocracies that make up most of the world’s developing countries. WE CAN STEAL IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE could be the motto of most of the governments currently running Africa and the Pacific region into the ground. We all have a notion that Americans (for instance) are pretty greedy, but you ain’t seen nothing until you travel across a country where there are only a few miles of well-maintained roads and yet the leadership is more than happy to swan off around the world in private Lear jets.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: poor countries are not poor because the West is rich. They are poor because their governments are devastatingly corrupt. This is true of each and every impoverished nation in the world. And there’s something else I’ve seen as I travel around the world: countries which are overwhelmingly tribal consistently fail to function as Western-style democracies. Maybe it’s time we re-thought the concept of democracy to create a model that would fit the undeveloping world. One tribe one vote? It would certainly level the playing field… because at the moment the playing field is about as level as an Albanian pyramid scheme.



Day M6: As I Went Down In The River To Lae

Day M6: As I Went Down In The River To Lae

October 5, 2011 by  
Filed under Papua New Guinea, The Odyssey Expedition

03.10.11: In the morning Mums Singin was good enough to pick me up from Katherine’s flat for a quick tour of the museum that she curated before I left for Lae. I said my goodbyes to Katherine, awesome CouchSurf host that she was, and promised that I’d be back here one day – a promise I fully intend to honour. The Madang Museum was a quaint little affair with some awesome cultural artefacts housed within. Damn these PNG guys can carve some awesome stuff.

Papua New Guinea Carvings

Huey, Dewey and Louie

Mums gave me a guided tour and (unlike your average tourist) I was allowed to take photos and film as we went around.  Hence:

Papua New Guinea Carving

Yes, in this case it really IS a beast.

Papua New Guinea Chair Carving

The Chief's Throne. It says "bite me" on the reverse.

After the museum, Mums gave me a lift to the bus ‘station’ (a piece of wasteland opposite the main market) and I boarded a PMV to Lae – the city from whence I intend on hitching a ride to The Solomon Islands. Now, like in Africa (New Guinea is so like Africa it’s freaky) the minibuses only leave when they are full. But unlike in Africa, there is no sensible way this is done. Yes, even Africa can be remarkably sensible sometimes: they run a first-in-first-out system of buses/taxis/whatever. Taxi number 1 fills up and leaves then taxi number 2 fills up and leaves etc. This goes on all day. In Madang they do it in the maddest, most inefficient, most frustrating, most time-consuming, most expensive way I can imagine. In fact, I’m trying to think of a more idiotic process and I’m having serious difficulty.

Instead of having an ordered system of buses filling up, they all fill up, all at the same time. Only they don’t fill up. Nobody wants to be the last on board any given minibus, as it’ll mean they’ll invariably get the worst seat. So most of the buses are short of the seat or two required to commence the journey. Also, it seems that they’re not allowed to (or they don’t want to) wait in the bus station. As a consequence, they drive around the town’s potholed streets FOR HOURS ON END looking for that one last passenger. I promise I’m not making this up. In a country like Venezuela where you can fill your swimming pool with petrol for less than a dollar, this behaviour would be merely time-consuming and bad for the environment… but in a country like PNG where the majority of the population survive on less than a dollar a day and petrol is incredibly expensive – it’s almost a quid per litre – Jesus Christ, it’s like watching lemmings throwing themselves of the proverbial cliff. I felt like slapping my head and screaming WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING??!

But who am I to introduce common sense into anybody’s public transport policies, never mind Papua New Guinea’s? And so we drove around town for FOUR HOURS, non stop, looking for THREE more customers. Imagine taking that business plan into the bank manager. And the toll taken on the minibuses slowly grinding their way around the most pot-holed streets this side of Mogadishu, you’re taking hundreds of dollars on new tyres, broken diffs, knackered suspension…

Indeed, once we had wasted four hours finding those last three customers, our first stop was back into town to get over 200 kina (60 quid) worth of petrol. Then we went to the Bridgestone garage. One tyre was replaced and another was pumped up. Cha-CHING! And then, just I was under the delusion we were actually getting somewhere, we stop at the local market for another half hour so the driver could buy betel nut, the local narcotic of choice, the same thing they chew (and spit out) in India. You get a bag of what looks like a small plastic bag of cocaine and a cigarette-sized stick (which is apparently the nut). You lick the stick, dip it in the bag (like Sherbet Dib-Dabs) and then bite off the end of the stick that covered in the white stuff and chew it. It turns a beautiful colour of red in your mouth, so most of the locals around here look like they’ve got some kind of serious gum disease going on. And when they smile it’s about as sexy as menstruation. Quite why people from different cultures around the world chose to do this to their only face is another thing I’m not going to waste too much of your time talking about because the quick answer is that I haven’t got a frikkin’ clue.

Some time after 2pm we started our journey in earnest. Do you remember what I said about the flight from Lae to Madang last weekend? That we went up and over the mountains? Well the road goes through those very same mountains, and as we crossed the highlands, the weather went proper mental. It was like somebody had set a giant automatic carwash to SUPER DELUXE CLEAN PLUS. The rain didn’t so much come down in buckets as it did in Niagara Falls.

As a consequence of the lack of highway maintenance (and, more specifically, the lack of DRRRRRAINAGE!!) the road quite literally turned into a river. And not a pleasant meandering Huck Finn type of river. More like the thundering torrent you’d experience going down a log flume. The PMV driver, not a) wanting to slow down and b) wanting to acknowledge that his PMV was not, in fact, a kayak, decided his best course of action would be to ride the river down the hill. “WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG??!” I hear you scream. I drove my fingernails into the dashboard, fretted at my lack of safety belt (the bloody driver had one – not me!) and held on for dear life.

Of course I’m still here to tell the tale, so I have to say that my impromptu Papuan Log Flume Ride worked out alright, although the poor buggers in the back did get their luggage soaked and the bottom of the minibus suffered the kind of grating one would normally associate with cheese. Once back in the lowlands, the weather and road changed simultaneously from absolutely diabolically bad to not bad for Papua New Guinea (which is still bad). The rain eased off and the road allowed for short but frighteningly fast 100mph+ sprints in between slamming on the brakes in order to cross the skinny single lane metal-plated bridges which no doubt pre-dated the Charge of the Light Brigade. Think Super Mario Kart meets Mad Max and you’re halfway there.

The View From The PMV

The View From The Madang-Lae PMV

Somehow I arrived in Lae (still in one piece) at around 6pm. It was getting dark, and as the town of Lae has a lousier reputation than Mel Gibson’s drinking habit, I was (understandably) getting a little bit edgy. The only CouchSurf host in Lae is a guy called Stan. Unfortunately, Stan is out of town this week, but being a good egg he put me onto his mate Ben, who gallantly stepped up to the mantle and agreed to take me under his wing instead. I called Ben on Friday to ensure that everything was groovy and he apologised profusely and said he was going to be away this week as well. Ah. But he did offer to find me another home like the adorable lost kitten I no doubt am.

Ben was true to his word (yes he’s British) and he put me onto Alex, who greeted my phone call with the words “There’s nay way I’m letting a bleedin’ scoouser into ma hoose”. Typical bloody Glaswegian. So I told him that I’d go halves on the wedge I made from flogging them car radios and wheel-trims I acquired in Madang so he could buy some deep-fried Mars Bars and skag. He soon changed his tune.

Alex agreed to meet me at the Lae Golf Club (which he lives opposite and is the captain of) and so I asked Wesley the PMV driver really nicely if he would drop me off there on the way into town. No probs, says Wesley. We pull into the Golf Club car park just as the sun disappears over the western horizon. After all that bloody nonsense this morning, the timing couldn’t have been better.

Alex and his colleagues were enjoying post-work beverages and after introductions, the Scottish man in Papua New Guinea took me for a Chinese. Over dinner, I got to learn a little bit more about Alex’s job here in Lae.

The company that has agreed to help me get to Australia is called Swire Shipping, a division of Swire, one of the biggest companies currently floated on the Hong Kong stock exchange (as well as shipping, they’re a majority shareholder in Cathy Pacific and own the exclusive Coca-Cola bottling rights for the WHOLE OF CHINA… jeepers!). Alex works for Swire Shipping. This is incredibly fortuitous. I may need Swire’s help again if I’m to get around the Pacific region on cargo ships.

What’s more, Alex is friends with one of the directors of Reef Shipping – the New Zealand based shipping agency that runs cargo from Fiji to Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru and New Zealand. That’s over half the countries I’ll have left. Seriously, this could be HUGE for the Odyssey Expedition.

All this year I’ve desperately needed a lucky break. I should have known I’d have to get back on the road to get one. Who dares wins, Rodney, who dares wins…



Days M7-M13: The Lae Delay

Days M7-M13: The Lae Delay

October 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Papua New Guinea, The Odyssey Expedition

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04.10.11-10.10.11: Well I haven’t gone anywhere but by jingo it’s been a fun week here in sunny old Lae. Ah, it’s not as bad as everyone makes out: the town may be ugly as sin but the guys here at Steamship (Swire) Shipping have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome.

Alex here has taken me under his wing and over the last few days I’ve been treated much better than a hapless ginger wayfarer could possibly deserve. There’s only two drinking pits worth mentioning here in Lae — The Yacht Club and the Golf Club — and as Swire owns a speedboat at the marina and Alex is the el capitaine of the Nice Walk Ruined, the SP lager was flowing free. Although both places do have a completely irrational anti-hat policy. Grr…

During the day, I’ve been at the Steamships offices scrubbing away at the googles looking for a delightfully clever way to get around the Pacific, and the plan is good. If I can just get a couple of shipping companies onside, I could have 90% of the Pacific Nations done by January 12th 2012, leaving just Palau and Micronesia for me to fret about in the new year. Fingers crossed…!

The Papuan Chief has arrived in Lae, but it won’t be leaving until Saturday 14th October at the earliest. That being the case, Rob from Steamships challenged me to a round of golf at the weekend. Although “challenge” is probably not the best word to use in this case: I’m so bad at golf my only salvation came from the fact that everybody in the clubhouse was too busy watching the rugby to bother pointing and laughing at my utter crapitude. But it was a nice walk.

Otherwise, things have been fairly quiet over the last few days: there was a massacre up near Goroka on the Friday before I arrived — tribal warfare of the type you really wish they wouldn’t publish the gory pictures of in the newspapers — and so Lae is feeling pretty subdued. Having said that, the annual Morobe festival takes place next weekend and the Highlanders are massing on the fringes: the population of Lae is set to triple overnight.

I’m still not quite up for walking around the streets here without a chaperone, especially waving around my camcorder because, well, quite frankly, you never know. I’ve got this far without being mugged…



Day M14: The Village

Day M14: The Village

October 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Papua New Guinea, The Odyssey Expedition

11.10.11: As I won’t be leaving Lae until next weekend, Alex offered to take me over to Salamaua, the old capital of German New Guinea. Since its heyday in the 1930s (and its destruction in the 1940s) Salamaua has returned to the isolated village outpost it once was. There are no roads to Salamaua and it’s a good hour journey down the coast from Lae in a banana boat to get there.

Alex took me over in Swire’s Taikoo Chief speedboat, whizzing past the mighty Papuan Chief out in the water along the way. Dropping me off at the holiday home, one of a dozen owned by Lae-based companies as a weekend getaway for their employees, I was put into the care of Jimmy, a local guy who had been looking after the Swire house for the last twenty years. As Alex scooted off back to Lae I found myself the only white guy in the village.

Salamaua is located on a narrow isthmus just 100 metres wide which connects an almost-island to the mainland. At just a metre above sea-level, it is particularly at risk from rising sea levels, along with the entire nation of Tuvalu, most of Bangladesh and, oh yeah, EVERY BEACH IN THE WORLD.

A path runs down the middle of the village and most of the homes (all built from local materials) are located on the leeward side, while the village’s Lutheran church sits to windward alongside the village’s dugout canoes and a rather conspicuous Japanese anti-aircraft gun: residue from someone else’s war.

There are 700 people in the village, grouped into families. There is a garden for the villagers to grow their own food, the fish are plentiful, coconuts drop from the trees and the local swamp teems with tasty mud crabs. A sustainable way of life in a world that seems hell-bent on a misson to be as unsustainable as humanly possible.

I got to meet the village bigman as well as Jimmy’s family. Granny was sitting on the ground quietly weaving a bilum: a traditional string bag worn around the neck and over the chest. His kids were running about causing trouble, climbing trees and playing marbles. There are over 700 living languages in PNG, and in this village they speak one of them: only in this village and nowhere else.

That night, Jimmy and I sat off on the beach drinking SP and putting the world to rights. It seems that everyone I speak to in PNG is realistic about the current dire situation the country finds itself in, but yet are optimistic about the future. A massive gold mine is opening on the outskirts of Lae next year. If only valuable resources went hand in hand with improved infrastructure and social development. But Salamaua doesn’t need an airport, a high speed rail link or even a road: it just needs the government to offer free education and fat westerners not to make the sea levels rise.

At around 10pm Jimmy said goodnight and left me alone on the beach looking out to the great Pacific Ocean: waves lapping the shore, a cool breeze, a magnificent full moon and a cold beer. What more does a ginger travelling monkey need?



Day M15: A Day Off School

Day M15: A Day Off School

October 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Papua New Guinea, The Odyssey Expedition

12.10.11: Jimmy met me in the morning to take me across the bay to the local school. We knew it was going to be closed today as one of the regional governors died last weekend and the kids were given the day off as a mark of respect. But I still wanted to have a go at paddling around in a dugout canoe, so we went anyway.

The canoes in PNG are, quick frankly, cruel and unusual punishment. They’re so narrow you can’t sit in them, you have to sit on top with your legs stuffed inside, one in front of the other. The rim of the carved-out interior digs into your arse and your feet soon get pins and needles. To make matters worse, as there is only one stabiliser, if you lean to the left you run a good chance of tipping the boat over. It’s the nautical equivalent of a pair of stilettos.

I’m actually writing this entry two days after the event and my legs are still aching like I’ve been climbing pyramids. Jimmy showed me up the local mangrove-lined river which leads to the swamp, but after being told it would take an hour to get there in the canoe of uncomfortable doom, I suggested we turned around and pressed on to the school instead.

Jimmy and I drew up to the far shore of the bay. A group of little kids were playing rugby on the school field. As we walked over to one of the school buildings, Jimmy shouted out to his friend Mr. Phillips, who is a teacher at the school. Mr. Phillips shook my hand and offered to show me around the little school which teaches 800 children from the local region, some of whom have to walk for a couple of hours to get there.

Mr. Phillips and I had a good chat about the challenges of teaching in PNG: the literacy rate here is abysmal, as are the numbers of children finishing secondary education. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to suss out exactly why Papua New Guinea (a country that should, by rights, be swimming with money) is dirt poor. This is what you get when tax-dodging cretins like Bono get their own way: no free education. And from that unhappy situation spawns that fact that 90% of PNGers are unemployed and a crime rate that makes Johannesburg seem like Trumpton.

The good news is that the new Prime Minister of PNG has pledged to bring in free education from next year. From that one long-overdue act, good things will flow.

After a quick paddle back across the bay to Salamaua, Jimmy and I headed back to the house just in time to meet up with Alex who had come over in the speedboat to collect me and the seafood delights that the villagers were more than keen to sell him. I said my fond farewells to Jimmy and his family as well as the tranquil little village of Salamaua. I just hope it’s still here when I return to PNG.

That night, Alex and I cooked up a seafood feast (yum!) before he took me over to the Golf Club to meet with Stan, my original CouchSurf host who was away last week, but has now returned to Lae to take me under his wing. Stan and his mates were tucking into a meal at the Chinese restaurant next door to the clubhouse. Alex left me to it (I owe that man a bottle of scotch!) and within a couple of hours I was hanging out in Stan’s swanky new apartment overlooking the local football stadium and the deep blue sea.



Day M16: The Land That Time Forgot

Day M16: The Land That Time Forgot

October 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Papua New Guinea, The Odyssey Expedition

13.10.11: Stan usually works out of his office in Lae, but today he needed to go up to his family’s poultry farm and asked if I’d like to come along. Knowing that it would be a lot more fun than sitting inside and waiting for internet pages to load up, I said yes please.

Bumping along the road on the way to the farm, Stan told me something that was as unexpected (but in hindsight so bloody obvious) as it was interesting: Stan’s surname is Leahy. The first white guy to make first contact with the tribes of Papua New Guinea’s Highlands (previously assumed to be uninhabited) in the 1930s was called Mick Leahy. Are they somehow related? You better believe it – Stan is Mick’s grandson. Anthropologists everywhere will hate me, but in Stan’s family home overlooking the farm are some historic artefacts that would make Indiana Jones gnaw his fist off with envy.

Mick Leahy set off from Salamaua in 1930 in search of gold. He travelled up the Markham river into PNG’s rugged interior, but there was no gold to be found. He did, however, discover a handful of tribes who had not met a traveller from another land in over 60,000 years. The following year Mick and his brother Dan were given a grant by a gold mining company to search deeper into the Highlands. Again, they didn’t find any gold, but what they did find was a bustling stone-aged civilisation of over one million people living in the Central Highlands.

You can watch clips from this very expedition here: http://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/first-contact/clip1/

These people had never seen aeroplanes before, they had never seen guns, they had never seen a book, a watch, a gramophone player, a pen… they had never seen a wheel. Moreover, they had never learned to use metal: this was the closest anybody has ever come to building a time machine, going back 10,000 years and chatting with the natives. Within 15 years of that first meeting, events a million miles away would conspire to produce the A-Bomb… welcome to the 20th century kids.

But just think about the stones on these guys: marching into unfamiliar territory is pretty ballsy as it is, but mountainous jungle terrain? Weeks from any possible rescue? No mobile phones, no helicopter search parties, nothing but some bandages and Savlon in case of illness: and did I mention that most of the natives were incredibly hostile and, more often than not, cannibals?

This incredible journey was captured on film at the time and forms the basis of the movie ‘First Contact’ (no relation to the Star Trek film) which I heartily implore you to watch – a moment in human history that will never and can never be repeated: the moment a stone age civilisation was catapulted into the present. It’s been 80 years since that first meeting and PNG is still finding its feet.

The Leahy family now operates a poultry farm which produces 85% of PNG’s eggs and a large proportion of its chickens. Stan gave me a bit of a guided tour around the facility which employs 900 locals. The scale of the operation is impressive, as is the fact that new born chicks are big enough for the chop when they’re just 32 days old – that’s not through steroids, by the way, but through selective breeding. As stressed birds don’t lay eggs (or simply die) it’s in the farmers interest to keep their livestock happy, and the conditions weren’t bad at all – the broiler chucks had plenty of room to move about and I’d wager the set up was 100 times better than the vast majority of other poultry farms in the third world. Complaining that the chucks aren’t allowed to go outside is a bit like complaining that a premature baby can’t leave the incubator or that a coma patient can’t go for a picnic.

That’s not to say that animals should suffer unnecessarily. Anybody who has seen the documentary Food Inc. or the recent episode of Australia’s current affairs show Four Corners concerning Indonesian live cattle imports will (quite rightly) be disgusted at what goes on when the government allows the industry to regulate itself. But as for imagining that a one month old chuck wants to go sunbathing…

After lunch (roast chicken, of course) I got to have a tour of the family home and visit granddad Mick’s grave out the back. He passed away in 1979 – just seven days after I was born. The housemaid, Mara, took me up the hill to the source of the natural spring that feeds the farm with its water. As we followed the water up the hill, I got to meet the kids of the workers. They had finished school for the day and were busy collecting firewood. One thing I really love about PNG is that everybody is so happy to have their picture taken: something that concerned me in Africa as the belief that cameras could steal your soul is still alive and well.

That evening Stan and I returned to Lae for din-dins. At around 8pm the news started filtering through that there had been a plane crash: an Airlines PNG prop plane en route from Lae to Madang… the EXACT same route and plane I took just a couple of weeks ago. The latest news is that the Aussie Pilot and New Zealander Co-Pilot survived the crash, as did the stewardess and a Chinese national – the only passenger to survive. 28 people burnt to death. Most were on their way to attend their children’s graduation ceremonies at Divine Word University in Madang.

I stayed in the Airlines PNG compound in Port Moresby and there’s a more than fair chance that I met the pilots when I was there. I’ve never been this close, both physically and emotionally, to a real plane crash. It’s a weird feeling. I’ve texted my friends at Airlines PNG, but so far I’ve heard nothing back. It’s the 20th plane crash here in PNG since 2000 – make no mistake, this country is unforgiving place.



Day M17: The Earth Moved

Day M17: The Earth Moved

October 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Papua New Guinea, The Odyssey Expedition

14.10.11: Friday passed slowly but comfortably, given the odd earthquake. Stan had left in the morning to go to an island off the coast with his family, I stayed behind in his swanky apartment cursing myself for resetting Stan’s modem the night before: Stan didn’t have his welcome letter from the internet provider in the flat, his username and password had been wiped.

Oops.

Which meant no internets and no blog updates for another week. I hope you can forgive all of these blogs coming at you thick and fast from here in The Solomon Islands Australia (spoiler!), but these things happen, especially if you allow a barely competent ginger monkey prat around with your gear.

The earthquake – which measured 6.8 on the Richter scale – struck around midday, and I was as useless as only a none-veteran of earthquakes could be. Cursing the fact that I wasn’t wearing shoes, I stood up and looked around. What should I do? Here I was on the fifth floor of an apartment overlooking the coast, on my own and the whole building was shaking. Images of South Park’s “Duck and Cover” episode flashed into my head.

Somewhere in the back of my brain came the learned notion that I should find a doorway to sit in. I don’t know if this is because doorways are somehow magical or if it’s because if a wall tips on top of you at least you won’t get squished against something, you can always move out of the room a bit. Or maybe it’s bollocks: I don’t think sitting in a doorway helped people trapped the World Trade Centre. But then that was a fire: it was different. But the building still collapsed… what if this building collapses? What if it falls down like the television building in Christchurch? Damn I wish I had shoes on. I always feel more in control of the situation when I have shoes on.

It was at this point that the earthquake stopped. I came back to reality and realised that my awesome plan for surviving a major disaster situation amounted to standing up and deciding not to hide under a doorway. I don’t know if I even deserve my awesome moustache anymore: I’m one of those who believes you have to be pretty damn awesome to deserve an awesome moustache, and as this scenario quite adroitly pointed out to me: I’m no Magnum PI.

I walked over to the balcony and looked down at the waterfront, just beyond the small footy stadium below. I started fretting about whether I would now have to survive a tsunami as well. Well, I thought, if I’m going to be swept away by a force of water the likes of which can scupper a nuclear power station, I might as well get a good shot of it coming across the pitch. I set my camera up on the balcony, just in case.

Happily, the tsunami never came and I was left alive for another day, free to pursue a life of religious fulfilment. Hurrah!

That night I met up with a guy called Ben who was the connection between Stan, my original CouchSurf host (the only CouchSurf host for Lae) and Alex, the guy I had been staying with all week. Ben also worked for Swire Shipping, but for the subsidiary called Consort which runs domestic cargo around the coasts of PNG. Ben picked me up and took me to the Yacht Club where I met a couple of his friends, had something to eat and muttered under my breath about the injustice of the ‘no hat’ rule. Heathens!

After a few too many, I was back at Stan’s flat – Stan was still away on the island, but had given me a key. It seems that despite the fact that I’m a Scouser and I broke his internets, Stan was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. I was very careful not to break anything else.



Day M18: The Morobe Show

Day M18: The Morobe Show

October 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Papua New Guinea, The Odyssey Expedition

15.10.11: This weekend is the Morobe Show, an annual event (now in its 50th year) which started as an agricultural expo, but has now morphed into the premier cultural event of the season. If you want to get your photo taken with a Papuan tribe in all their awesome regalia, this is the place to do it.

The Papuan Chief had finally come into port at 1800 last night and there was an outside chance that it might sail today: I kept my mobile phone on extra loud ring just in case and had all of my stuff packed and ready to go. But the good news was that I would at least get to see a bit of the Morobe Show.

Ben kindly picked me up from Stan’s flat in the morning and we drove over to the showgrounds with his mates: Duncan, Tom and Chris. The crowds beyond the fence were incredible: it seemed that everyone and their dog had descended on Lae for the weekend. Once inside it was a little less hectic.

The showgrounds were mapped out around a central oval which was used throughout the day for various events: the horseracing being the most hilarious and the stunt bikes being the most fun. Tomorrow they’d have a huge ‘singsing’ in which delegates from dozens of different tribes would congregate in the oval in their outrageous costumes for the kind of dance-off that precedes a rugby match between New Zealand and Samoa.

Today was all about the Morobe Show Queen competition. Twenty contestants adorned in their village’s finest traditional costumes (which skilfully covered only the unimportant bits) competed against each other by explaining to the judges in the most monotone voices imaginable where every last feather, bead and shell of their costumes came from. The chick with the snake got my vote, just for having a snake, although some of the head-dresses were several shades of awesome… I wanna organise a tribal-themed house party as soon as I got back to the UK.

In other parts of the festival site, you’d find fruit, flowers, grain, coffee beans, tea, horses, pigs, chickens: this was, after all, an agricultural show. But for me it was all about the tribal dress. I mean, where else can you go to take a photo like this:

Serious, DUDE.

DUDE.

These guys black themselves up with oil and melted tyres. Later on in the day, one of the fellas attempted a bit of tightrope walking in the central arena. Well, I say ‘tight’ rope, but I actually mean ‘not very tight at all’ rope: he fell off a good 17 times. But you know what they say: 18th time’s a charm. He was given a rapturous round of applause.

That evening I was invited to a barbecue at Ben’s place. Ben lives in the same compound as Alex, who was leaving just as we were arriving. He wound down his car window. ‘Graham: I’ve been trying to call you all day… the Pap Chief sailed early.’

Alex looked at his watch. ‘Well, it will have sailed in about five minutes.’

My stomach punched its way into my mouth. ‘You’re kidding?’

‘We’ll have to see if we can get you on the next one.’

‘Bu-bu-bu-’, my mind raced: I had been checking my phone all day. Maybe with all the people at the show, the mobile network was too busy for me to get the message. This was a disaster: my visa would probably expire, the ships I was hoping to join in the Pacific would be all knocked out of whack, whatsmore: Mandy would kill me.

Alex couldn’t hold his serious face any longer. ‘Naaaaah… only joking – it leaves tomorrow!’ and he drove off, no doubt chuckling to himself like a James Bond villain.

Grr…

Before we cranked up the barbeque, we all decided to head over to the Golf Club and watch Wales beat France at the Rugby World Cup Semi Finals. History will show that’s what should have happened, but for some reason (must have been a dodgy satellite transmitter or something) it looked like France won by a single point.

So my last night in Lae was spent eating yummy barbecue with a merry gang of ex-pats, drinking Scotch (Alex came back) and commiserating (in spirit) with the Welsh.



Day M19: Exodus

Day M19: Exodus

October 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Papua New Guinea, The Odyssey Expedition

16.10.11: Alex had told me to keep an eye on my phone for the message to head to the port. At this point, The Papuan Chief shouldn’t be leaving until 10pm, but you can never be too careful. Stan returned in the morning with his mum and her friend who was excited about going to the Morobe Show today. I had kept hold of the VIP pass I had borrowed from Duncan yesterday (no photo, all too easy) and was pretty chuffed that I was going to be able to see today’s big singsing.

We arrived sometime after 10am and headed into the showground. Hundreds of people in traditional dress – all the tribes the organisers could find – filled the track which led to the main arena. It was a National Geographic photographers’ wet dream. Even with my little two-bit Sony camera (held in my left hand, camcorder in my right) I got shots like this:

Papua New Guinea

Dude.

And this:

Papua New Guinea Mudmen Tribe

The Mudmen Tribe

And this:

Papua New Guinea Warrior Lady

Warriors... come out and play-ay...

Just think what I could have done with my right hand. And a Canon 7D.

Around midday we headed over to the main arena. The Governor General of PNG was in attendance, as were the police, army, the tribes and the winner and two runners up from yesterday’s Miss Morobe contest. As Stan and I ate sausage rolls and lamented the lack of beer (the show came with a strict liquor ban for the weekend) my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was a text message from Alex. ‘Call me urgently’.

The Papuan Chief was actually going to be leaving early. I’ve have to miss the big singsing. Well, it just gives me a good excuse to return to Lae in the near future and it’s not like I didn’t get enough great footage. Stan kindly offered to run me to the shipping office. It was time to go.

But not before I ran over to the warrior women of the Central Highlands and got this shot of me, spear in hand, leading them into battle:

Graham Hughes in Papua New Guinea

If you even DREAM of appearing in a cooler photo, you better wake up and apologise.

Stan dropped me off at the Steamships Shipping office and we said our goodbyes. The shipping agent took me onboard the mighty Papuan Chief. I was introduced to Captain Bernie Santos, Chief Mate Jerry Divinagracia, Second Mate Bert Ramos, Third Mate Jonell Salas, and Dave Varley, the Chief Engineer from Burnley. Finally! A Brit on board a cargo ship – and a Northerner an’ all. Awesome.

That evening we departed Lae. It’s taken me the best part of ten months, but I’m finally on my way. Nation 185 awaits…!



Days M20-M24: The Papuan Chief

Days M20-M24: The Papuan Chief

October 30, 2011 by  
Filed under Papua New Guinea, The Odyssey Expedition

17.10.11-21.10.11: Monday was spent at sea familiarising myself with the ship. Swire take their safety seriously: I’m not allowed out on deck unless I’m wearing a boiler suit and steel toe-capped boots. After a tour of the vessel (a 1991 Miho-Type freighter, 4 storage bays, 3 cranes, 9000HP, top speed 15.5 knots) I familiarised myself with the onboard bar “Ye Pracktickle Navigatore” and got up to speed with some of the editing and writing I’ve been putting off for months as the south coast of New Britain floated past the window.

On the Tuesday we skirted around the coast of New Ireland and arrived on the island of Lihir – home of the biggest goldmine in PNG. It’s a privately-owned port and I’d need a two-day induction to even step foot on dry land. A volcanic island located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, the mining operation had stripped one side of a mountain and vents of steam gushed out from the boiling interior of the island like some vision of hell in what would otherwise be paradise.

But, you know, gold! Who doesn’t like gold eh? Just look at all the amazing things you can do with gold! You can call your mum, take photos, film your friends falling over, surf the web, read a book, find out the way to the nearest chippy using the latest GPS technology… oh, hang on: I’m thinking of an iPhone, aren’t I?

One good thing about the goldmine is that the native inhabitants of Lihir now have a nice new geothermic powerplant. One of the bad things is that the stevedores (the guys what work the docks) only work until 5.30pm… after that the swell gets too much and craning stuff off a ship turns into a massive game of conkers. Consequently, I and all the other crewmembers denied shore-leave were couped up on the ship for not one but two nights: we didn’t leave until the Thursday.

Although in another crowning moment of awesome, Captain Santos allowed me to steer the ship as we made our departure. Turbines were being cleaned down in the Engine Rooms, so we were only going at about 5 knots, but for a few minutes I was personally helming a vessel that weighs more than the Statue of Liberty. Captain Santos laughed; ‘now you know what to do if pirates kill everybody and you have to drive the ship.’

Graham Hughes Papuan Chief

Mind that massive reef!!! Oooooops...

Indeed.

On Friday we crossed the invisible border from Papua New Guinea into The Solomon Islands and headed towards Iron Bottom Sound: the graveyard of hundreds of WWII ships and planes lost in the battle for Guadalcanal. We’re heading to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Chief Engineer Dave has sprayed some WD40 on the pistons so we’re going to get there in record time – the last I heard we should be arriving at around 2pm local time tomorrow.

For a few moments we were close enough to an island to get a mobile phone signal. A text from Mandy arrived. ‘Gaddafi might be dead. Died from wounds.’ Captain Santos got on the Shipnet wires and confirmed the news. The Colonel is Fried Chicken. Another tyrant bites the dust. It never seems to end well for these guys, maybe they should have had better career guidance counsellors. I bet Syrian despot al-Assad will be sleeping with one eye open from now on.

25,000 Libyans died in the war to topple the Gaddafi regime. I dearly hope that tomorrow’s Libya is worthy of their sacrifice, but for now I say congratulations to the people of world’s newest democracy. Welcome back Libya.