The Papuan Chief ploughed a course through Iron Bottom Sound: the watery graveyard of hundreds – if not thousands – of ships, aircrafts and soldiers killed in the Pacific War between Japan and America. Our target was Guadalcanal – the main island of the Solomons. On the bridge the shipping chart marked off all of the wreck sites… and there were many.
There’s a bit in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line in which the American troops, armed to the teeth, are marching through long grass and a native Solomon Islander glides past them as if they were never there. That image has stuck in my head for years.
We arrived in Honiara on Saturday afternoon. By the time the ship had been pulled alongside and the usual formalities had been worked out, it was 4pm. Captain Santos had given me a Papuan Chief ID to get me in and out of the port and – with no mobile phone reception on my UK, PNG or Oz SIMs – asked me to check in with the ship tomorrow at noon, but doubted whether we’d be underway before 6pm tomorrow. So under a heavy sky I tip-toed down the gangplank and finally – FINALLY – set foot in my 185th nation, The Solomon Islands.
The Solomons, along with PNG, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, make up the island group of Melanesia – if you’re suspecting that’s got something to do with melanin, then you’d be right: ‘Melanesia’ loosely means ‘Islands of the Black-Skinned’ – essentially to differentiate the people here from Polynesia (Many Islands) and Micronesia (Small Islands) – islands we now know are populated primarily by sea-farers originally hailing from what we now call Taiwan, while Melanesians are more closely related to the Australian Aboriginals.
I made my own way out of the port, with a couple of the guys from the side of the Papuan Chief shouting out which way to go in the maze of cargo containers, a bit like the TV show Knightmare. After a quick chat with Luciano, the security guy on the main gate, he gave me a port pass and I strode out, a little unsure of what to expect, onto the streets of Honiara.
Poor old Honiara. A dirty, dejected port town – although ‘village’ might be more apt a word – which, I’m told does not reflect the rest of the Solomons one iota. The street (there’s only really one) was filled with people milling about, sitting, staring, waiting for godknows what. Like PNG and plenty of other countries I’ve visited, the mood was one that you could call hostile until you crack a smile and then it’s all smiles back.
The town has quite a dramatic setting, with green hills surrounding the wharf in a pleasant arc around Kua Bay, but the concrete catastrophes that constitute buildings these days do little to alleviate the air of squalor and wretchedness about the place. Another country trampled in the stampede for the poison chalice we call independence. The security here is provided by Australia and New Zealand – a group called Ramsi: the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. The last couple of decades have not been kind to the Solomons – ethic tensions between islands never before brought together as a nation resulted in brutal acts of violence and threatened to destabilise the region – even plunge it into civil war. Just a few years ago, an unfavourable election result brought about the burning down of Chinatown and days of rioting. Honiara is a tense place. I held my camcorder and laptop close to my body as I walked.
The first thing I wanted to do was to buy a Solomon’s SIM card so I could call Thomas – my CouchSurf host (one of two in the country) for the night. I walked all the way up Mendana Avenue, stopping into every store on the way asking to buy a SIM and getting a frosty reception from the Chinese owners who invariably fobbed me off somewhere else. As the minutes ticked by towards 5pm I realised my task would be in vain – the two phone shops were closed and wouldn’t be open again until Monday.
As a result of the mobile phone revolution, public phoneboxes are increasingly difficult to find, and in places like Honiara at 5pm on a Saturday it’s harder than trying to find a person who hasn’t seen Star Wars and doesn’t brag about it at parties. So I figured I’d pull my tourist card and headed over to the nearest hotel.
The Merdana Hotel is a lovely place, done out in traditional wooden style; a breath of fresh air after plodding up and down that hideous main street for the past hour. I went to the reception desk and asked if I may use the phone to make a local call. The guy behind the desk said okay and dialled the number for me. Thomas was at another bar and said he’d pick me up in ten minutes.
One of the things that made Lae a tricky place to like (aside from the ‘never walk alone, even during the day’ rule) was the lack of young ex-pats living there. As the ‘never walk alone’ rule made it difficult to ingratiate myself with the locals, ex-pats were my only source of entertainment. While Lae’s yacht club and the golf club more than satisfied my needs in the two weeks I was there, if I was staying longterm I would probably prefer to see more of my age group knocking around. Honiara has no such problems – thanks to Ramsi, the EU, the UN, NATO, SPECTRE and The Man From UNCLE, there’s plenty of young guns willing to grab a beer and spend a night on the tiles.
Thomas’ first act was to take me to another bar where a girl called Katie was celebrating her 39th birthday. So far so good. There were a good thirty-odd young ex-pats there from Australia, New Zealand, the UK and other assorted countries that feel a pang of responsibility when it comes to how wretchedly the last fifty years have treated the undeveloping world. Thomas introduced me to Patti, his delectable ladyfriend from Barcelona, as well as a team of his mates who would take me under their wing for the night.
There was a slap-up feast in the offing, but as I would have to pay Captain Santos back the 100 Solomon Dollars (10GBP) he lent me, I elected to stay at the bar and meet Thomas later on… at a house party, no less.
So the one night I spent in The Solomon Islands revolved around a house party. Some might say that was just good timing on my behalf, and they would be right. Thomas’ mates drove me to the party after the pub and I got to stamp my foot on the ground when I exclaimed that this was the 185th country of The Odyssey Expedition: the gears in my brain-counter a little rusty from months of being stuck on 184. I got chatting, the way you do, putting the world to rights and generally walking the thin line between being knowledgeable, interesting and funny all at the same time – the walk that we all expect alcohol to facilitate, when we all know it probably doesn’t. The trick is to ensure that everybody else is equally as squiffy.
The end of the night morphs into a melty mess of mushy memories – I seem to recall a club called Club Extreme, a dancefloor and some tunes. I don’t remember what they played or what havoc I may or may not have caused… I just remember feeling happy and drunk and wondering if I’d still have my hat on in the morning.
23.10.11: Thomas woke me up some time after ten to tell me that he was going out with Patti for a bit. I dragged myself out of bed and marvelled at how wonderful the world is when one goes CouchSurfing, stumbled into the shower and held on for dear life – as far as my sense of equilibrium was concerned, I was still at sea. Downing half a keg of beer last night probably didn’t help.
I was still shaking the cobwebs out of my pickled brain when Tom and Patti returned looking irritatingly fresh-faced and wholesome. I was feeling lower than a rat that ratted on his pals and that steady tide of nausea that accompanies an epic hangover was starting to kick in. Fresh air was what I needed, but first, the internet!
I hadn’t managed to get online since I accidentally broke Stan’s internets a week last Thursday. There were emails to send to shipping companies, questions to answer on my website and, most importantly, blogs to upload with marvellous pictures of bare-breasted PNGers and my ridiculous moustache.
I opened up Yahoo mail and the first message was from Captain Santos on board The Papuan Chief.
“URGENT – SHIP TO DEPART EARLY AT 1130. RETURN TO SHIP AT ONCE”
I looked at my watch. It was 11.45.
Thomas and Patti, to their infinite credit, stayed as calm as cucumbers as I pegged it back into my room and flung my stuff into my bag.
“Any chance of a lift?”
Tom said hell yeah and we bundled into his car and shot off towards the port. By 11.50 we were there. I told you Honiara is a small place. The good news is that The Papuan Chief was still in port.
I felt dreadful. Not just physically (damn you demon drink!), but not only was my website going to reach a month with no updates, I had promised Tom that I’d do a radio show with him this afternoon – he’s a radio DJ here. Not only that, but I had done bugger-all filming of Honiara. I didn’t want to get my camcorder out on the main street last night as I was on my own and feeling a little exposed, and by the time the house party kicked off it was too dark and I was too drunk to get any decent shots anyway.
There is a chance I may return to Honiara in the next couple of months: one of the Reef cargo ships that goes to Nauru stops in the Solomons on the way back to Fiji. I hope I will and so do this place justice. We will have to see, but for now I said my fond farewells to Thomas and Patti and set off towards the ship, breathing a sigh of relief that a) it was still there and b) the gangplank was down.
I clambered on board. Captain – what gives? It seems that there hasn’t been a ship in Honiara for a week, so the stevedores had all the containers for loading hosed down ready to go (Oz port rules, don’t ask). All three of the ships cranes had been used and some of the containers had been taken up in twos. The operation, which usually takes two days, had taken just over 12 hours.
Best laid plans eh?
So within the hour we were blowing the air horn and saying Lukim iu to The Solomon Islands. I watched as we sailed out of port. We headed west along the north coast of Guadalcanal, then once we were clear we set course South-West towards Australia… nation 186. All being well, we would reach Melbourne in a week.
Dinner was a bad idea. I ate, I felt wretched, I stood out on the wing of the bridge in the warm night air in a vain attempt to shake off my nausea, but sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet and take that porcelain bus for a drive around the (toilet) block.
24.10.11-29.10.11: And so I found myself becoming something of a fixture on board the good ship Papuan Chief. Breakfast (which I invariably missed) was served at 8am-9am, Lunch at noon and dinner at 6.30pm. If I wasn’t beavering away at the bar working on a video or a script or a rant, I’d be up on the bridge studying the shipping charts, learning how to use a sextant or just generally getting in the way of things.
This week has been all about the drill. We’ve had drills for fire, terrorism, oil spills… the ship’s six month inspection is due in Melbourne and Captain Santos wants all things to be ship-shape and Bristol-fashion. Literally. Seven short blasts followed by a long one means get your arse up to the bridge, Graham. A short, long, short, long, short and long means get to the Emergency Life Rafts and next time, do remember to pick up your immersion suit on the way, double-oh-Hughes.
The Coral Sea was rather mercurial. One day it was as flat as a supermodel, the next it was more choppy than Bruce Lee karate chopping a portion of pork chop chop suey. When the clouds came in on a quiet moonless night you could go out on the wing and look out towards nothing but inky blackness, squinting to make out where the sea ended and the sky began – not so impressive now with all our fancy GPS maguffins, but back in the day when there was nothing but a compass point and a flicking oil lamp to guide you, a buccaneers life was nothing if not perilous. For a speeded up version, close your eyes and go run through a forest.
To starboard lurked the Great Barrier Reef, for which we gave a wide berth, not just because of the obvious perils of scraping your way through the world’s largest living thing but also because the regulations on shipping anywhere near that area tighten up until you start singing soprano. But with the GBR out of the way, we were free to come in close to the coast: the hallowed mobile phone signal returning… one bar, two bars, three bars… it felt as if the world had returned. So dependent now, so linked in… a week without precious signal feels like punishment. By now it was Thursday.
The bad news is that I’d not heard anything back from the other shipping companies, so my proposed week-long stopover in Melbourne might again be indefinitely extended. For some reason, Customs and Excise are on my case, worried sick they are about the fact that back in February 2010 the camcorder I bought in the UK was fixed by Lonely Planet in Australia and sent back to me in the UK (during my 2010 visa run). It’s making somebody’s head melt, but to honest with you I’m not intending on returning to the UK for a good while yet, but if there’s a warrant out for my arrest, I’ll just keep travelling thank you very much. There’s some other odds and ends that need attending to, but lacking a full-time lackey to do my bidding, when Graham HQ is on radio-silence, not a lot can or will be done.
By Friday, the signal had gone as quickly as it came – all ties with the outside world severed once more. We passed the great city of Sydney, hovering like a magical kingdom a millimetre above the horizon… all grey and far away. Reminded me of my first glimpse of Kuwait City from the mighty Shat-al-Arab and made me stiffen my resolve to one day see Manhattan rise from the briny sea.
But we’re not stopping in Sydney, it holds no allure for us. In fact, unless you’re a yacht or a passenger ship, your chances of getting into Sydney harbour these days are remarkably slim: all the unsightly container vessels now come into Botany Bay or Newcastle. Someone should inform the architects of the Pompidou Centre: seal up your iPods, only mad enthusiasts want to see the inner workings.
And so on down the east coast of Australia, end to end. From 10 degrees south of the equator to 40 degrees. Each degree equals 60 nautical miles: that’s 1,800nm from tip to toe. Usually the Pap Chief trots along at a good 14.5 knots (nautical miles per hour), but heading south towards the Tasman Sea the current helps you along. At one point we were powering through the water at 17 knots. It seems slow to us with our Vauxhall Novas and our Castrol GTX, but without having to stop for rest stops, refuelling, traffic lights, roadworks, prostitutes and the like, we can cover some impressive distance and carry 981 lorries worth of stuff with just twenty crewmen and a skipful of diesel.
You know that all the diesel ships in the world could run off the disused chip fat from all the restaurants in the world?
I was talking to Jerry, the chief mate, about piracy (it’s a subject that comes up quite often on board cargo ships). Before the Somali pirates started making headlines in 2006, the bane of cargo crews everywhere were some other peace-loving ne’er-do-wells from Northern Sumatra in Indonesia who would routinely terrorise the Malacca Straits.
In 2004 Jerry was third mate on a tug boat, pulling a floating platform to Singapore from the Gulf of Aden. As it was a tug, it was going at about 5 knots making it an easy target for the pirates. With fishing ships all around them in what is also one of the busiest shipping channels in the world, there was nowhere to run to if things got messy. A fishing boat with an outboard motor sped past, then ran around the bow of the ship and headed back towards the bridge, this time brandishing AK-47s, M-16s and Rocket Propelled Grenades which they used to make Swiss cheese out of the wheelhouse.
The crew, completely outgunned, legged it to their cabins. After a tense half hour of gunshots, explosions and mayhem, the captain came over the intercom and told the entire crew to report to the bridge. Jerry and the other crewmembers did so. The pirates had taken the ship and proceeded to smash or shoot everything they could: the GPS, the radar, the radios, the windscreen. The captain was being held at gunpoint. The crew were instructed to go to their cabins and give the pirates all of their money, which of course they did. Eventually, once they had smashed everything worth smashing, the peaceful citizens of Aceh took the captain and the chief engineer hostage and departed the vessel, shooting up some more stuff on the way out just for good measure.
Suitably terrorised, the remaining officers managed to contact officials at Singapore and tell them what happened (note to would-be pirates: shooting the monitor does not generally kill the computer). They were asked if they could get any of their equipment up and running. Some of it, perhaps. Was the engine still going? Yes. Okay then: get to Singapore as quickly as you can. But Singapore was still two or three days away.
That night Jerry and the other crewmen couldn’t sleep. They all wanted to be on the bridge so they could keep a look out for any more pirates. But two different groups of pirates wouldn’t attack the same ship twice, would they?
Yes, yes they would.
The next day around noon another band of pirates took a swipe at the vessel. This time everybody ran to their hiding holes: supply cupboards, engine compartments, emergency storage units. There they waited for an hour until the sound of gunfire died down before they ventured out. The pirates must have taken the hint that the ship had already been attacked (the bullet holes in the windscreen possibly gave it away) and buggered off. But not before they smashed everything that the first lot missed.
Limping back to the nearest Malaysian port, the crew were relieved of duty and another tug was sourced to get the platform to Singapore. The captain and the chief engineer were released 22 days later, after a ransom of $100,000 had been paid.
The pirate operation in the Malacca Straits was all but wiped out by the Boxing Day Tsunami. Since then the good folk of Somalia have taken on the task of terrorising some of the most hard-working people in the world. Don’t forget, once you’re on a ship, you don’t get the weekend off. You don’t get Easter or Christmas or Melbourne Cup Day to go and see your family or get drunk with your mates. If you’re contracted for 6 months you work EVERY DAY for six months. Go interrupt the TGWU annual Foie Gras and Caviar Convention to tell them about that one.
And, to add insult to injury, thanks to those peace-loving terrorists (who may or may not hail from the same region of the planet as these piratey-types) all shore leave has been cancelled in many countries (including the USA) since 9/11.
Thanks a bunch, guys! Another home run for the forces of horribleness. Enjoy your time here on the good ship Planet Earth, feel free to ruin it for the rest of us.
But now it’s getting dark and the last light of the sun is dipping below the horizon. Beyond the Coral Sea lies the Tasman Sea which leads (if you’re following the Australian coastline) to the Bass Strait – the water which separates Tasmania from the rest of Australia. The Bass Strait has a reputation for tossing stuff around like they’ve made dwarf flinging an Olympic event. It’s not been too bad for us today, I only wish we had seen more whales. I saw one – a ruddy great big black one with a white stripe – jump out of the water and crash down on its back. SPLOSH! Apparently they do that to clean barnacles and parasites off their bodies. But it was far away and I didn’t have my camcorder going. Captain Santos says that last month was better – mating season. Whale porn.
It’s my last night on board the good ship Papuan Chief. I’ve enjoyed the company, the food, sitting with Chief Engineer Dave and putting the world to rights. Ronnie, the ship’s steward, has looked after me better than I could ever have imagined and everybody onboard has gone out of their way to make me feel welcome. I got to steer the ship, blow the airhorn and study the shipping charts. I wrote a lot, I edited a lot and I read a lot (the ship has its own library).
Earlier, I complained about not being connected with the outside world. It was more to do with the fact that I need to organise the next leg of my journey and that my envisioned time to do that in the Solomons was ripped from me. But I’ve got to say that if you’re thinking of writing the next Great American Novel but you get easily distracted by the internet, the news, crown green bowls and Countdown, then travel by cargo ship is definitely worth considering. It’s just you and 1,800 nautical miles of peace, quiet and pure imagination.
30.10.11: The Papuan Chief pulled into foggy Melbourne town in the wee small hours of Sunday morning. Port Philip Bay, the vast jigsaw-tip shaped body of water that sits to the south of the city is constantly in need of dredging to keep the shipping channel open – the build-up of silt streaming out of the Yarra river (and others) is pretty immense… tons of Australia eroded into the sea every year, gone forever.
The channel is incredibly narrow and is tricky enough to navigate when the weather is behaving itself. This morning it was a pea-soup, the kind of fog in which you’d expect to run into Sherlock Holmes… or if you’re a rather unfortunate lady of the night, Jack the Ripper.
By 9am we were alongside and waiting for customs to come onboard. Captain Santos had a email which implied we could be waiting all day, but it seems that an ‘am’ had been accidentally entered as a ‘pm’, so I didn’t have long to wait.
Whilst in PNG, I bought a small clay Mudman figure for Mandy. As Australian customs officials are notorious around the world for being anal, difficult and rude I thought it best to declare my contraband. I’ve been told that as long as it isn’t made of wood I should be okay (finding a cultural artefact not made of wood in PNG is something of a task!).
The customs guys came on board and one came down to my cabin to give my bags the once over. He let the clay figure be. I was especially heartened by how not even slightly rude the customs guys were. In fact, the last couple of times I’ve entered Australia they’ve been positively helpful.
What’s going on here? I have three theories on this matter. One is that they’ve all been told that everyone thinks Aussie customs officers are nasty little Vogons, and in the interests of Australia receiving repeat visitors (especially in this time of economic austerity) they have been ordered to be reel in their inner-Fawlty and be nice to tourists: customs are the first Australians that tourists meet after stepping off the plane and first impressions matter.
Another theory is that they treat older people better than young whippersnappers (like myself in 2002). Maybe once you’re 32 you’re less likely to do crazy things. To old people (they that stand at the back of the gig with their arms folded) Crazy Things = Paperwork. Maybe they think that as a hip young gunslinger, if your introduction to Australia is reminiscent of the Boot Camp scenes from Full Metal Jacket you’ll be less inclined to add to the Paperwork.
Finally, there may be a guilty-until-proven-innocent thing going on. This is my eighth visit to the Land Down Under and (so far) I haven’t outstayed my visa, got in trouble with the law or smeared jam all over my body and run down Collins Street singing The Impossible Dream at the top of my lungs. Maybe they’re giving me the benefit of the doubt.
Whatever the reason, I was out of the clutches of customs before 10am and ready to FINALLY, OFFICIALLY and UNEQUIVOCALLY hit my 186th country… AUSTRALIA!
Australia, Australia, Australia… my second home, the place after the UK I’ve spent the most time in, have the most friends in and have the most opinions about. I’ll have a good rant about the state of the commonwealth before I leave, but not today. Today I get back with my partner in crime, Mandy Newland. It’s been twelve years since that swelteringly hot day in Egypt when we first met. Her sister told me she slept with an axe under her bed. What’s not to love? Time has not exactly mellowed her: hell hath no fury like a Mandy scorned… or woken up on a Sunday morning.
Why can’t you get the train?
My awesome reception from my family and friends when I arrived back in Liverpool in 2009 was a long long time ago. Nowadays everyone I know is getting pretty sick and tired of this journey and the pressure for me to quit and come home is immense. But, like the Man from La Mancha, I have a Quest, and even if I’m the only one left reading these blogs, even if I’m the only one left giving a toss, I intend to complete it. I will never – could never – regret doing The Odyssey Expedition, even though if I had to do it all over again I’d do it very differently. I would regret giving up when I only have FIFTEEN countries left to visit for the rest of my life.
Mand, I’m in the middle of Buttf— Nowhere. Please come and pick me up.
Alright. Fine. I’ll be an hour.
And so that’s how I entered Australia – in a swirling cloud of fog and fury. I said my farewells to Ronnie the steward, Jerry the chief officer, Burt the second officer, Jonell the third officer and Dave the chief engineer. Captain Bernie Santos was asleep (he’d been up all night manoeuvring the ship into the Webb Dock), but I promised I’d get him a bottle of scotch to say Thank You.
Soon enough I was waiting for the ‘courtesy bus’ to take me to the port entrance. The bus was actually one of the security guards in his car. Mand was waiting for me at the gate. She liked the Mudman figure. Phew.
We headed out to St. Kilda for lunch – with the intention of meeting up with my old accomplice Rocco Fasano, the chap what took that nice photo of me on the border of Equatorial Guinea that you can see up top on this website’s banner. Mand usually gets a nosebleed if she ventures this far south, but for Rocco’s sake she gritted her teeth and bore it. Rocco is heading off to East Timor tomorrow to help shoot the first East Timorese film made in the local lingo. Good friends are either interesting or interested, the best are both.
After lunch we returned to Mand’s house in Thornbury, north Melbourne – the place I’ve squatted for most of the year. The grand indifference towards my arrival might be explained by that fact – to the people here, I’ve just had a holiday in Papua New Guinea. Although I did avoid a plane crash, survive an earthquake and am probably the only tourist to enter Melbourne on a cargo ship from The Solomon Islands, ever. I guess that’s all in a day’s work for the good people of Australia.
Okay. So. I’m here. What now?
Well, I’ve still got to cross eleven more Pacific Islands off my list. They are (in some sort of order) Vanuatu, Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Nauru, Micronesia and Palau.
The first two should be relatively easy – there’s loads of cargo ships and cruise ships heading that way from Oz. If I can get onboard the ‘Southern Pearl’ freighter in Fiji, that should be Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshalls ticked off. Back to Fiji, there are a good number of ships doing a Fiji – Samoa – Tonga – NZ route.
Getting to the last three will NOT be so easy. Nauru is about as popular as a ginger kid who wears Dunlop Green Flash to PE and Palau cannot be accessed from the South Pacific. Yes, I should have attempted to get there from Taiwan when I was there in September 2010.
But I shall endeavour. I shall fight, and I shall win. Australia, you’re done. The final massive splodge of white on my TravBuddy map has now turned green.
Now for the final fifteen. But first…
31.10.11: Why don’t Aussies go tropo insane for Halloween? I’ve seen more life in a terminal ward. I’m sure there are plenty of middle-aged bores who would rather not be hassled by kids for sweets once a year, but I’m of the opinion that it’s fun and you should save all your days of doing nothing interesting for when you’re dead.
I dearly wanted to get dressed up as some crazed serial killer, or a vampire, or a suicide bomber or a catholic priest and go out and terrorise the neighbourhood. But nobody wanted to play. So instead I boarded a train to the city centre and met up with a couple of mates from the UK and (rather unsuccessfully) stalked the streets of Melbourne city centre.
Look, I know I really shouldn’t be complaining about the city that experts around the world regard as the ‘most liveable’ (although, seriously, how do you become an expert on liveability?!). But what they mean to say is ‘most liveable if you plan to spend the short time you have on this miracle of a planet doing nothing but shopping, talking about house prices and watching telly’.
Bugger that for a game of soldiers. Look, I’m all for being polite (I’m not), but the fact is that I’m writing this blog and you’re reading it: you can make all the excuses you want, but if you’re not living your life the way you want to live it you have nobody to blame but yourself. “Oh but my mortgage” is no excuse and neither is “oh but my kids”. Give the bank your house, take your kids with you. You can easily travel the world as a vagabond, a vagrant or an alcoholic. Get out there people, you need the world more than the world needs you.
There are some of us that don’t like comfortable. There are some of us who are happy to travel for two days through the jungles of Guinea in a broken down Peugeot 407 with one buttock on the handbrake. There are some of us who love the unpredictable, the spontaneous, the great unknown… people who know the secret of living is to throw yourself at the tide.
Quite why people think Melbourne is ‘liveable’ is beyond me. Here I am on Halloween in the city centre with a BANK HOLIDAY TOMORROW and the streets are dead.
But this may not be Melbourne’s fault. Melbourne has an Achilles Heel, a chink in Smaug’s armour, a sub-space frequency that deactivates the Borg: it has no city centre. It has a CBD, a “Central Business District”, but as world-renowned party cities Liverpool and Newcastle can attest, what you really need is a CPD, or a “Central Party District”. There’s a bit of fun to be had in the southern suburb of St. Kilda, but if you’re male and don’t turn up in a limo, don’t be surprised if they knock you back for being ‘too drunk’. The suburb of Northcote has two bars open past midnight. TWO. And in general if you’re not fond of Robbie Williams, Akon and Autotune then you’re probably not going to have a good time. The city centre is quiet most nights, and dead on the others. Too spread out, too expensive, too pretentious, too no-you-can’t-wear-that too everything that isn’t conducive to a decent night out.
The fact remains I spent one night in Luanda, the capital of Angola, and went to a kick-ass house party. I spent one night in Honiara, the capital of The Solomon Islands, and went to a kick-ass house party. I spent one night in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, and went to a kick-ass beach party. I’m in Melbourne for what can only be described as the most awesome opportunity for booze, make-up and mayhem in the calendar year and what happens…?
Australia, I feel like writing what my teachers wrote about me in school.
“Could do better if he tried.”
They were lazy hack goodfernuthin’ can’t-think-what-to-do-with-my-life teachers, but they were right. I could.
01.11.11: The Melbourne Cup advertises itself as The Race That Stops A Nation and for once the bods in advertising might well be telling us the truth. It’s a little like Liverpool’s own Grand National, only the entire state of Victoria gets a Tuesday off work and schoolchildren across the land stop their lessons to watch it on the telly. Gambling, like boozing, can range from a couple of tramps in grotty little cellar to a national festival were people dress up to the nines – and that’s no bad thing. Say what you like about the dangers of gambling and drinking, at least they’re democratic.
The day started in fine fettle with this hapless adventurer waking up on somebody’s couch. I had been out drinking the night before with Simon and Adam, my friends from the UK, who, like Michael Caine in the 80s, are only here for the money. As I know only too well after paying for a round at the pub (won’t be making that mistake again!), the Australian Dollar is the strongest currency in the world at the moment. Although I wish people would get it into their heads that the worth of a currency (like time) is relative. If I have to educate another person that just because a single British pound is worth more than a single Aussie dollar, it doesn’t follow that our currency is ‘worth more’ I may be responsible for the world’s first economic-educationally motivated murder.
After dragging myself off the couch, I showered last night’s grime off myself and put a shirt, tie and suit jacket on. I say that casually like I always travel with a suit, but I had bought them second hand the day before for less than a pint of (Australian) lager. Didn’t have the pants or shoes though, so I had to do with my scruffs for my legs and feet. From the waist up I looked quite dapper. Or like a an overgrown schoolboy. You decide.
Before we left at 10am, we had downed a couple of ciders, a large shot of sherry and a bottle of champagne. You’re not playing with no amateurs here.
With Ads and Si in tow, we sauntered over to Spencer Street station (I call it by its old name, because I like to show how old-school I am). On the way we stopped off at a Liquor shop and stocked up on booze. I bought one of those little bottles of Jack Daniels that are in the shape of a glass hipflask, poured it into my real hipflask and then stuffed the hipflask down my pants in case I got frisked on the way in.
Ads and Si bought some booze for themselves and after a quick flame-grilled Whopper from Hungry Jack’s (that’s what they inexplicably call Burger King in Australia) we were on the train to the Flemington racecourse, just to the northwest of the city centre. We had tickets to the big race and time was of the essence.
The security was marvellously lax, I could have smuggled my JD in my jacket pocket. If I was wearing my wonderful travel vest that I bought in Afghanistan, I could have smuggled in two 1.5 litre bottles. I know for next time.
Once inside, there was an awesome carnival feel to the day. Even a scouse slob like me appreciates the world of fine wine and bowties even if I’m unlikely to ever be part of that set. But that’s the brilliant thing about events like this: everyone is playing dress-up. And I love a good fancy dress party.
I’m fairly sure that Mohammed had things to say about gambling, but that hasn’t put Emirates Airlines off being the main sponsor of this, the 151st Melbourne Cup. Going against my usual policy of not laying down my cash unless I’ve rigged the contest, I placed some ill-informed bets and lost my shirt, so let that be a warning to ya. The main race of the day was a real nail-biter – never has the term ‘won it by a whisker’ been so apt. I got recognised off the telly by at least five different groups of people: there’s nothing better than being a minor celebrity amongst drunk people. Especially when you’re pretty drunk yourself (that JD didn’t last long).
After the races were over, we retired to Bev and Mick’s Backpackers for a swift half before pressing on to Cookie – a bar on the roof of the Curtin building. I have vague memories of an Indian in a kilt and singularly failing to impress an American girl from Washington by knowing that her state capital was Olympia.
INDIAN IN A KILT
All in all, a bloody good day.
02.11.11: The hangover wasn’t quite as epic as I was expecting as I rolled off Adam and Simon’s couch for the second morning in a row. Adam and Si live slap-bang in the city, just by the rather gaudy Crown Casino. They had work to be getting to, and being a unemployed bum who hasn’t had a proper job since 2001, I set off into the city in search of adventure and card tricks.
Unfortunately, the guy in the magic shop on Elizabeth Street was quite derogatory when it came to card tricks. The conversation went a bit like this:
ME: I’m looking for a red-backed Bicycle Deck that I can do a few tricks with.
MAGIC SHOP GUY: Oh.
ME: Can I look at a couple of trick decks?
MAGIC SHOP GUY: No. Then you’ll know how the trick works.
ME: Ah, okay, can you do the trick, and if I like it I’ll buy the deck.
MAGIC SHOP GUY: No, I don’t like card tricks. I only do coin magic.
ME: So, you can’t show me the decks and you can’t show me what they do?
MAGIC SHOP GUY: No.
ME: Oh. Right. Well, sorry for attempting to interface with the real world – you’re right, I really should stick to buying things from Hong Kong off the internet. Hope the world-wide economic crisis isn’t causing too many headaches for ya. Bye!
For lunch I met up with Mick, one of the Aussie backpackers I hung out with in Wadi Halfa in Sudan back in January 2010. We grabbed some tasty Indian tucker and, with the help of his Israeli friend Avner, put the world to rights. Incredibly enough, Mick’s surname is Leahy and he’s related to the same Mick Leahy who made first contact with the Highland tribes of PNG and therefore Stan Leahy who I stayed with in Lae. Small world eh?
Mick travelled overland down the length of Africa after meeting me so we have a lot in common – the joys and frustrations that come with Europe’s great southern neighbour are universal. We also both can’t stand Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott (imagine Tony Blair but an out-and-out Tory) and believe that Australia really needs to stop pretending it’s some insignificant backwater and start throwing its weight around on the international scene a la China, India, Brazil and Russia. Enough politics! After lunch I headed back to Thornbury to meet Mandy and head out to the pub quiz at The Peacock.
Before I left Oz last month I recorded 52 true-or-false travel questions for an Australian pub quiz company called Quiz Meisters Trivia. I did it on the promise of a night out on the tiles in Melbourne (that’s possibly worth more than a car these days) and the resulting videos look something like this:
Funnily enough, Quiz Meisters Trivia are the guys that run the pub quiz at The Peacock. Although I (obviously) knew the answer the above question, the rest of the quiz was business as usual, but when I say we aced it, I mean WE ACED IT. We didn’t come second on this one, we came three points clear in the lead. Hats off to my teammates Mandy, Jenna, Octavio and Danielle. Not only did we win the quiz, we had the best looking table at the pub.
By the way, the Uzbek currency is called the Sum. Plov is the national dish.
There are certain housekeeping matters that an extreme backpacker like myself must attend to when the opportunity presents: teeth, spectacles, tax returns etc. One of the most important is keeping on top of your inoculations. I’d like you to now give over five minutes of your life to read a quick rant about mothers who refuse to get their kids vaccinated against some of the most deadly diseases in the world.
Let me make myself quite clear: I’d have porn star Jenny McCathy and all her brain-dead acolytes charged with child abuse.
I mean, a catholic priest raping your child is pretty bad, and it kinda ensures a life of trauma, misery, drug abuse and possibly suicide. But parents generally don’t leave their children in the care of priests in the full knowledge that they’ll be raped. Well, they do now, but in the twentieth century things were different (I suppose). Knowingly sentencing your own child AND THOSE AROUND THEM to a incredibly increased chance of DEATH just because science makes your head hurt is disgracefully bad form. Not only should the idiots who go down that route have their children taken from them to be raised by people born with a brain, they should be charged with a serious crime: the crime of bringing human life into this world and not knowing how to care for it.
Which isn’t a crime, but damn well should be.
I don’t care if there’s now seven billion of us on this planet, there’s probably seven billion diamonds in the world, it doesn’t make a single diamond any less precious. Or any less beautiful.
But I don’t have any kids (a shame really – I’d be a great dad) so I’m only concerned with number one. And I don’t want to die of some horrible face-melting tropical disease and have my brother Mike finish The Odyssey Expedition for me with my ashes in an urn. So every ten years (I know… such a drag) I have to go for a Yellow Fever inoculation. Today I went to the Travel Health Clinic in Melbourne (393 Lt. Collins Street: well recommended) and along with Yellow Fever, I topped up my Meningitis as well as my Rabies protection. Great stuff: it makes you feel like you’ve just drunk some elixir in World of Warcraft that protects you from all evil spells. Although it did make my left arm ache somewhat.
Oh well, at least it didn’t give me autism.
Mand’s mates Damien and Allison were getting married. Allison is a Yank, but Damien’s family hailed from the most ridiculously-named country in the world: “The Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia” or FYROM for short. This lousy acronym comes courtesy of the Greeks, who are loathe to allow there to be a country called Macedonia. But now that everybody in Europe (and therefore the world) is less than happy with Greece, it’s a good time for FYROM to officially change its name to Macedonia.
If there’s one thing that Macedonians will emphasise it is the fact they are most definitely not Greek. The Macedonians have their own alphabet (one apparently nicked by the Ruskies – or so I’m told) and their own language and their own Alexander The Great. Actually, when it comes down to it, the reason Greece doesn’t want a country called ‘Macedonia’ staring at them from across the UN conference hall is that they probably fear losing bragging rights for everyone’s favourite great big gay curly-haired blonde conqueror of the known world. He was, after all, the son of Philip of Macedon.
But, come on Greece: Socrates, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Herodotus. Pliny, Homer, Telly Savalis… you’ve got enough awesome bastards to brag about, do you really need one more?
The wedding was held in a vineyard down the Mornington Peninsular. Rather than wasting money staying the night it was decided that I would drive and Mandy would get wasted. We got there a bit early, the groom, Damien, was still in his jeans and t-shirt (he’s a reluctant suit wearer as well).
When the time came, the wedding was a traditional Macedonian affair: bearded patriarchs, weird singing and a couple of golden crowns that played a version of musical chairs with the bride and grooms respective heads.
Even though I had no idea what was going on, the ceremony was pretty cool. I was a choir boy when I was a kid (which might explain my extensive knowledge – and general distain – for all things religion) so I’ve attended a shed load of boring old British wedding ceremonies: something a bit different is always welcome.
After the I-dos (although Damien actually said “Yeah, alright” in a brilliant Aussie drawl) we tucked into the wedding scran in the adjacent function suite. As if to torment my sobriety there were bottles of whisky and bourbon waiting for us on each table. Damn you Jack, Jim and Johnnie!
We had a Macedonian band playing and during the meal we were invited to come up and join the circle dance in which everybody holds hands in a chain and circles around the bride and groom. There’s a particular step that goes with the dance, a ridiculously easy one, but I found it hard to follow – I only dance when I’m drunk or preparing for war. The band sounded very Eastern European – almost Turkish (the Turks did rule Macedonia for a good few centuries) and the guy on saxophone was making noises that I’m fairly sure a sax is not supposed to make. It should also be noted that Macedonian wedding tunes are EPIC. Every time I thought the song was winding down there was a second wind… and another 20 minutes of tune.
After the speeches, the cake cutting, the stuffing of our faces and the throwing of the bouquet it was time to take to the dancefloor for the traditional disco and bad dancing. Being sober I was tremendously conscious of how silly I looked, but I did have to throw shapes when The Beatles came on – it’s the law.
This week was mostly taken up with editing old travel videos and putting them online in a kind of filler not just for my YouTube channel but for my life in general. With The Odyssey Expedition back in action, I’ve got to get moving.
But with a flurry of unanswered phone calls and unreplyed-to emails we hit something of a funk and I (tellingly) responded appropriately. But before I tell you how it all turned out, let me tell you about an email I did receive this week.
Not only do I travel, film, blog, edit and dance the Charleston on top of a flagpole, I also write film scripts. Good ones. Really good ones. I’ve already blogged at length about the joke that is the British Film Industry and I only throw rotten tomatoes at something when I know I can do better myself. My film scripts range from period adventures to kid’s action movies, from esoteric sci-fi to rock n’ roll film noir musicals, from Python-esque satires to futuristic murder mysteries.
I’ve even written a script for a really good episode of Doctor Who.
So far I haven’t done much with my scripts. They’ve been developed in fits and starts over the last few years, but I haven’t waved them under the noses of any bigwigs in Hollywood because I didn’t have an agent. But now I do.
So last March I send one of my scripts off to my literary agent in Sydney, with a message saying something along the lines of ‘I can’t finish my book* until I finish my travels, but here’s a 100% completed script that you could sell to the highest bidder. It’s Orpheus In The Underworld meets The Goonies. Enjoy.”
Now if it was me, you’d have me at “Orpheus in The Underworld meets The Goonies”. But sadly not everyone thinks like me. After six months of the script sitting gathering dust, I pressed my agent to have a look at it last week he told me that although he hadn’t read it, it ‘wasn’t for him’.
I’m all for constructive criticism, but seriously, what? Oh whatever. I’ve lived long enough to know you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but for somebody whose job it is to sell the stuff I write to give me the brush-off is a mighty blow to the ego that is my current mealticket.
But it was all power for the cause of the damp fart that has been the year 2011. Funny that: it’s usually even numbered years I can’t get the hang of.
So it was with great satisfaction that this week I received an email from my literary editor who works with my agent. She said she started reading the script the other night but got too freaked out and had to stop (and it’s a kid’s movie! Sleep tight, kiddywinkles! Woohahahahaha.). The good news is that she finished it the following night, she thinks it’s really good and wants to send it to my agent’s producer contacts in LA for feedback.
But before I abandon you all for Hollywood, I’ve got an Odyssey to complete. ‘Odyssey’ now meaning (cos I say it means) ‘a journey to every country in the world’.
And – oh yes – I have exciting new information about that too. The marketing department at Carnival who represent P&O Cruises called Mandy back on Friday morning to say if I wanted to get on the Pacific Pearl which was leaving for Vanuatu and Fiji I’d have to get my big fat ginger arse to Sydney on Sunday COS A SHIP WAS LEAVING WITH MY NAME ON IT!!
On small catch: I would have to pay. Not as much as a full cruise, but still, about the same as what a Commodore Amiga would set you back in 1991. Which is more money than was in my piggy bank then and, well, here we are twenty years later and not much has changed. F— it. I put it on my credit card (which HSBC was stupid to give me) and screamed HELL YES LET’S DO THIS CRAZY S—T!!!
I may not be in position to pay it back, but if I can never return to the UK, you lot have a good excuse to come on holiday and meet me on the beach in Rio. Everyone’s a winner, right?
*The book of The Odyssey Expedition will be entitled “The World Is Slightly Pear-Shaped: A Drunken Stumble To Every Country In The World.” If anyone out there knows any publishers that might be interested in what will be the best-selling book since The Bible, get in touch.