Don’t get me wrong, I really love Réunion – it’s fun, the weather is like perpetual spring, the food is great and my French has improved in the last week beyond measure. And I’m doing quite well, all things considered, you know, 200 countries visited, just one to go, I get to live out my Manny Calavera fantasies and say I’ve been on a four-year journey of the soul (the joke being that I’m ginger and therefore have no soul) and one way or another I should be home in a couple of months.
But every silver lining has a cloud, and what with Neptune blocking my passage to the island of Madagascar and depositing me on the French Island of Réunion like some latter-day Papillon, I’ve got to figure a cunning way out of this fix. To the instant rescue comes splendid shipping company PIL, who have a ship leaving from Madagascar for Mozambique at the end of the month. Perfect. Only one problem. To enter Mozambique at the port, I need a visa. There is no Mozambique embassy in Madagascar, so my mum and my top mate Lindsey got on the case, procured me a Mozzy visa in London, had it slapped into my second passport and then sent the whole kit and caboodle via DHL for me to pick up this week in Antananarivo, the unpronounceable capital city of Madagascar.
Now obviously I’m not in Madagascar, but that’s no biggie, as I’ve got plenty of time to hop the Trochetia ferryboat over there sometime in the next few weeks. What would be a biggie is if, I dunno… DHL misplaced my passport…?
You’ve got to be kidding me, right?
Nope. That is exactly what happened. Frantic emails went back and forth to no avail. I was surprisingly zen-like about the whole affair, considering this not only meant there would be no way (short of a miracle) that I’d make it back to the UK for Christmas, but also I might have lost a critical piece of evidence that I’ve done what I claim to have done. My mum – bless her – had to deal with the mess over in the UK. Not the best of timing as my dad was due to go in for his rescheduled heart operation on the Thursday.
When Thursday came around, we were obviously on tenterhooks about my dad’s op. I had relocated from Michael’s place near Saint-Denis to CouchSurf with Lucie, Jean-Baptist and Luc in a lovely old place up the hill from St Paul. For lunch, Michael took me to see his friends and we ate lasagne and salad and drank champagne. Réunion being part of France and Thursday being a national holiday (for All Saints Day), our lunch lasted a good few hours, after which Michael and I headed to the port. The plan was this: with my passport stuck in limbo and the PIL ship not getting to Madagascar until Nov 24, I figured I’d head over to the nearby island of Mauritius to look for a ship – perhaps run by CMA-CGM or Maersk – that would be running to Durban in South Africa, thereby circumventing the need to possess a Mozambique visa in order to make landfall in Africa. This would also mean I could tear up to South Sudan through Zimbabwe and Zambia: two places I didn’t really get the chance to explore when I checked them off The Odyssey Expedition list.
Only one problem: the ferry – although in port – wasn’t selling tickets because it was a holiday. It’s not like it was full or anything, but despite Michael’s incredulity at the situation, they said I couldn’t buy a ticket online, pay with a credit card (or a cheque) and I couldn’t even purchase the ticket once we reached Mauritius. Un-be-lievable. So it was back to good ol’ Lucie’s gaff with my tail between my legs asking if I could stay a few more nights. Lucie, being awesome, said it would be okay and I set about on my next challenge: devising a detailed budget plan for my next project as my producer friend in the UK was having a pitch meeting for it with a rather famous TV channel the next day. Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, my dad’s triple heart-bypass was going well and he was out of surgery that afternoon.
Friday was spent frantically finishing off my pitches (why just the one? Oh, yeah… monkey tennis… thanks a bunch, Partridge) and then waiting for the response. Don’t get your hopes up, because let’s face it, these TV stations are practically drowning in talented, committed, articulate, amusing, intelligent, energetic, confident people who can write, direct, film, edit and present and have visited every country in the world without flying. Oh, and that are willing to work for free, obviously. The inevitable ‘thanks, but no thanks’ was, well, inevitable, although when told of my current expedition they said ‘Really? Now THAT would make a great TV show!’. Yes, yes it would
Crushed. On the wrong island in the wrong hemisphere, my passport lost to the vagaries of an international courier network, my best chance of having a job next year cast to the wandering rocks, my chances of getting home for Christmas slowly ebbing away and then I find out that Ethiopia is no longer issuing visas to tourists in Nairobi, or anywhere else for that matter: you have to now get it in your home country.
But, you know, I just don’t care anymore. I’ve grown so accustomed to things going tits-up on this journey that I’ve ceased to be either amused or upset by them. I just hope my sudden run of bad luck doesn’t rub off onto Barack Obama next week… he’s up for re-election and the alternative, holy crap, it doesn’t bear thinking about…
Rubbing eyes, blinking, stumbling into the light the week began. What the hell am I going to do now? With no second passport, my passage to the African Mainland looked bleak. I could, if I really wanted to, try and get back to the mainland on those crappy African trampers via Madagascar and Comoros. But last time I tried that it was DECEMBER 17 when I finally made it back to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. Bear in mind it is *EXACTLY* three years ago since I was last here. I want, no, I *need* to be back home for Christmas. There’s just too much at stake.
But there is a Plan C. Don’t worry, wily old Odysseus here never goes anywhere without an entire alphabet worth of plans. Maersk, the Danish shipping company – and the largest in the world – have a shipping line that runs from Mauritius to South Africa once a week. What’s more, if I can get on next Sunday’s (the 11st) ship, I could be back in Aff on the following Wednesday. Unlike the basketcases, South Africa requires no visa bullshit to enter the country, so I don’t have to worry about all that crap: although it means that my visas for both Madagascar and Mozambique were a HUGE waste of time and money (sorry mum, sorry Lindsey!).
I had sent emails out to all and sundry, stuff along the lines of “C’mon pleeeeeease, it’s the last bit of the journey!”, but as yet had no response.
I went to sleep on Monday night feeling like the world was pressing down on my shoulders, making my head spin and my fingers numb. Hundreds of ships go to Africa from here. Hundreds! And it’s not in the pirate zone… why is this proving so difficult? AND WHY DID DHL HAVE TO LOSE MY BLEEDIN’ PASSPORT??!
I was woken at half-midnight by my Mum calling on Skype. DHL had found the passport. It was in Madagascar. It just hadn’t been scanned upon arrival.
A million times over, PHEW.
My mum sounded frazzled. My dad was recuperating well after his triple heart bypass and would hopefully be sent home the next day. The ability of the human body to repair itself is nothing short of stunning and I’m very glad to have inherited my father’s hardly-ever-get-ill genes. His don’t-really-get-hangovers genes I probably could have done without (as my beer belly can no doubt attest).
SPEAKING of beer-bellies, can I just point out that the whole concept of beer swelling your gizzards is utter hogwash. And I can prove it. Since I returned to Sri Lanka I’ve been making a concerted effort to just drink beer (no cola) and avoid eating anything whenever possible (and not too uncomfortable). I call it the Graham Hughes Beer Diet. And it works. Lost half a stone in a month, that’s 7 pounds or just over 3 kilos. Easy. Don’t know what everyone’s moaning about. Well, it was either this, the heroin diet or the anaemic dysentery diet. If there’s a cheat code for life, then I’m all over it like white on rice.
Muttering something about having to climb a mountain the next day, I said goodbye to my mum and fell back asleep.
My insanely accurate internal alarm clock woke me up at 4am. The day before I had agreed to accompany the French girls up La Grand Bernare, a volcanic ridge that rises to the second highest point in Réunion, a good 2900 metres above sea level. They wanted to be at the top before the afternoon clouds rolled in, which would mean setting off at 5am as it takes an hour to drive to base camp and it’s a good four hours to reach the summit. Réunion is a very large little island.
The four French girls, sensibly, wore hiking boots. I, on the other hand, don’t own any hiking boots. As a matter of fact, I don’t own any shoes whatsoever aside from my trainers that wouldn’t look out of place being sprayed with disinfectant at the local bowling alley. Not great for climbing mountains. We arrived at Maido, the beginning of the trail, just before 6am. The girls hardly spoke a word of English, so I had no idea what I was in for. To be honest, with the proper equipment, it would have been nothing more than a slightly strenuous stroll, but when the path is made up entire of random jaggedly rocks which helpfully cut holes in the soles of your shoes, and every time you stub your toe it feels like you might as well not be wearing shoes at all, it soon becomes a living hell. But, you know, in for a penny in for a pound and in the end I reached the summit… about half an hour after the infernal clouds had rolled in, thus making my triumph summitting summit of a damp squib. Oh well, at least I got a photo at the top.
The path back down was nothing short of cruel and unusual punishment as my shoes (patched up in Sri Lanka) fell apart at the seams on the stony ground, but I refused to give up (a fitting allegory for this entire expedition eh?). By 1.30pm, Anlou and I were back down at the car and I was downing my first can of coke in two months like a (fat) man possessed. The five of us then went to a café for some lunch before returning to Lucie’s gaff. One of the nice things about being time shifted forwards by 4 hours is that your afternoon is everybody else’s morning. I texted my cousin Christian in Denmark to ask if he could give Maersk a call and find out if they got last week’s email. Turns out the guy I wrote to is no longer there. So the email got forwarded to Michael Storsgaard, who has always been very helpful towards The Odyssey Expedition in the past.
That night was the night of the US Election. Under normal operating conditions, I would be watching it with my friend Jonny Reynolds, with whom I watched the 2000, 2004 and 2008 vote. Jonny and I ran for Student Union positions together back in the day, and he’s now the MP for Stalybridge. I once told an American that I have stayed up to watch every Presidential Election since 1992. He asked me, in all earnestness, why I was so interested in who wins the Presidency of the United States. This is one of those things that a good proportion of Americans, bless their cotton socks, just do NOT understand. They can whinge and whine about their massive farming subsidies, having to, you know, pay tax, being given free health care AGAINST THEIR WILL, not being able to keep slaves anymore… but that’s all domestic. When we talk international politics, who leads the United States is of critical and almost mind-blowing importance. Thanks to the economic policies of that gobshite Bush, THE WORLD IS IN RECESSION. Tens of millions of people all over the developed world are now unemployed. Thanks to his foreign policy of ‘invade first, ask questions later’, The Middle East has become even more destabilised than it already was and HUNDREDS of British troops are now six feet under after giving their lives fighting two unpopular and unwinnable wars.
So, yeah, I watch the US Presidential election, because it affects me, you and everyone we know. If Romney wins, he wants to make abortion ILLEGAL and he wants to repeal the regulations put in place to stop the banks, financial institutions and Wall Street behaving like unrestricted coke-hoovering clowns that have proved adept at trashing the economies of entire continents. Romney wants to stop the poor and needy getting the free health care provided by Obama’s health reforms (how VERY Christian of him) and wants to invade Iran at the first opportunity. Unless you’ve had your head in a bucket of cowshit for the last fifty years, NONE OF THESE ARE GOOD THINGS. In fact, they are all the opposite of good, they are all quite blatantly evil. Bleedin’ Christers. I guess you actually have to believe in the devil in order to work for him eh?
So there’s me, on my Billy Lonesome in Lucie’s lounge watching the rolling coverage of the election on the BBC website (Frenchies don’t really go in for what’s going on in the outside world). I knew I wouldn’t hear the final result until 8am, but that’s okay, it’s not like I had climbed a mountain earlier in the day. I was accompanied for a while by Casey via the wonder that is Skype, but even she flaked out by about 2am her time. So that just left me and my twitter account. But hey, you do whatcha gotta do, right?
Anyway, to cut a long story short, OBAMA WON!!!
Which is super, great, magnificent, awesome and, well, THANK —- FOR THAT!!
I’m sure I heard a collective sigh of relief from around the world at 4am GMT when the Ohio result came in and World War III was narrowly averted.
Well, at least the invasion of Iran. For now.
So, four more years of the best president America has pretty much ever had. He was handed a poison chalice from his bunkum numbskull of a predecessor, but damn did he drink it down never losing eye contact, wipe his chin, burp and scream “IS THAT ALL YOU GOT?!!!!!!” while imitating the facial expression of Samuel L Jackson doing the Haka.
GOOD ON YA, BARACK!!!
In many ways, Thursday was (yet another) D-Day for this phase of The Odyssey Expedition. I had a choice to make: I could stick here on Réunion and wait for the PIL ship, but that would mean once I got to Madagascar racing to Antananarivo and back (at least a 15 hour round trip) to pick up my passport with the visa in it for Mozambique. There would be a chance I wouldn’t make it there and back before the ship left port and in any case, it would also mean there would be no chance of getting back to the UK for Christmas. Or I could twist: take the Trochetia ferry tomorrow over to Mauritius and hope that Maersk come through for me.
But going to Mauritius would be a big risk. Not only would it mean spending a fortune on the Trochetia (it’s €124 one way), it could also mean being stranded there UNTIL DECEMBER. Yes – the Trochetia is scheduled to go in for repairs next week and won’t be running to back to Réunion or Madagascar again until next month. So, what to do? Well, it’s like a card trick: you just have to stack everything correctly for all eventualities.
There would be no point in moping around La Maison all day, so I joined Luc and Anlor for a daytrip to Réunion’s famous lava flows.
Piton de la Fournais (literally ‘Peak of the Furance’) is an unruly and angry volcano that blows its stack more often than Mel Gibson on gin and meth amphetamine. It’s one of the most active volcanoes in the world, along with Etna in Sicily, Erebus in Antarctica and Kīlauea in Hawaii. It erupted in August 2006 (and continued to erupt until January 2007) and again in February 2007, and again on 21 September 2008 and AGAIN on 9 December 2010. Luckily for the Réunionnaise, the volcano usually spews its molten hot mag-ma (to be said like Dr. Evil, always) directly into the sea. Okay, so once a year the N2 road up the east coast gets thousands of tons of hot melty rock deposited on top of it, but look on the bright side, when the lava trails cool down, they become a huge tourist attraction.
Oh, and it can take MONTHS for the lava to cool down.
In the afternoon, Luc and Anlor went for a swim in a natural rock pool on the south coast while I devoured a tasty tuna baguette whilst frantically texted my cousin Christian in Denmark, Mickael here in Réunion and my CS host for the night, Geraldine. It wasn’t until later I realised that while Christian, my mum and Casey were getting my texts loud and clear, they were not coming through to anyone in Réunion. Borrowing Luc’s phone, I managed to get in touch with Mickael to find out the SP on the Trochetia. My heart sank as he told me that last week when they wouldn’t let me buy a ticket wasn’t just because it was a public holiday on November 1. It was also because THEY DON’T SELL TICKETS ON THE DAY FOR THE FERRY TO MAURITIUS, EVER. You always have to buy at least a day before.
If Maersk say no, I’ve just wasted €124 that I simply don’t have. If they say yes, but not until after 5pm our time today, I’ve missed my chance.
Mickael to the rescue!! He managed to *reserve* me a ticket, at no cost, so long as I paid for it before 10am the next day. Then Christian got back to me saying that Maersk were ‘confident’ that there should be no problems with me getting on the ship from Mauritius to South Africa on Sunday. Okay, don’t lose it Graham – you’ve been here before – just… relax.
Luc, Anlor and I returned to Saint Paul at about 6pm and we waited at the café opposite the city’s Multiplex Cinema for Geraldine to arrive. Why? Oh because Geraldine, being the awesome CS host that she no doubt is, had a spare ticket to the Réunion Film Festival that was taking place that night and had invited me along. Must have known I was a cinefile! Geraldine also speaks incredibly good English, which I have to say is a rarity on the island. Probably because she’s not French, she’s Belgian. After saying farewell to Luc and Anlor, I attempted to straighten my shirt (the equivalent of putting the cushions back on the what’s left of the couch after the tornado has hit) and Geraldine and I set off down the red carpet.
There were two movies, the first – Marriage in Mendoza – was a great little roadtrip movie about two French guys driving across Argentina for a wedding. As it was in French, Spanish and a little English I found it easy to follow with my spattering of knowledge of those three languages. As the credits started rolling, my phone, set to silent, vibrated in my pocket.
It was Christian.
“Yehaa! It’s a big 10-4 as in GO! from the good guys at Maersk.”
I leapt up, punched the air and whooped like I’d won the pools. THIS GINGER TRAVELLING MONKEY IS COMING HOME!! As icing on the cake, in the intermission between the films there was free champagne, beer and vol-au-vents. Oh what measure of bliss is this!
The second film wasn’t as good, best described as a French Before Sunrise, it was just a guy and a girl talking all night. In French. With no subtitles. Argh! Afterwards, Geraldine drove me back to Lucie’s house to pick up my gear. Sadly, Lucie and Anlor were asleep, so I didn’t get to say goodbye, but Luc was still up and he wished me well.
That night I didn’t get any sleep at all as I quietly plotted my path through Africa while Casey kept me company on Skype. I’ve broken too many promises on this journey. I won’t break this one:
THROUGH HELL AND HIGH WATER…
THROUGH AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST…
THROUGH FRONTIERS AND BADLANDS…
I ***WILL*** BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS
I will see you then.
Fri 09.11.12 – Sun 11.11.12:
After an hour’s sleep, I was back up an’ at ‘em, ready to take on my final day in Réunion. Geraldine left for a work meeting at 9am and I made good use of the morning, updating my blog and uploading a ton of photos onto Facebook. I spoke to Mickael and he assured me that the ticket for today’s ferry to Mauritius was in the bag – all I needed to do is turn up and show my ‘onward ticket’ (something I knocked up on Illustrator) and we were done. I was hoping to see Mickael for lunch before I left, but he was busy with work.
At lunchtime, Geraldine returned and we ate together before I gathered my things together and headed for the bus station. Bye Geraldine! You’re the BEST! I had been told in no uncertain terms to be at the port of 3.30pm SHARP! The fact that I was only getting on the bus (17km away from the port) at 3.20pm told me I might not make that deadline. But it’s motorway pretty much all the way, so I’d only be 10 minutes late. Well, that’s if there was no traffic jam getting out of Saint-Denis (there was) and if the bus driver dropped me at the port (he didn’t).
The problem is this: the town NEAR the port is called (rather unhelpfully) “Le Port”. So when you ask if the bus is going to THE port or LE port it creates all kinds of hilarious linguistic confusion that wouldn’t seem out of place in a racist 1970s sitcom. Anyway, after I explained that I needed the harbour, the quayside, the dock, the place where the floaty boat things live, the driver told me I needed to get off *ici*. Okay. So I start walking. Now I was kind of expecting I might be walking in the searing heat for maybe five, ten minutes.
Nah, make that FORTY. He had dropped me three kilometres from where I needed to be. The Seven Years War was over 250 years ago France, for heaven’s sake, get over it!!
And so it was 4.30pm by the time I got to the ferry, half jogging, hoping they wouldn’t tell me I was too late, meet me with that blank-faced ‘non’ that irritated the hell out of Mickael at the port last week. I shouldn’t have worried. There was still a massive queue. I didn’t check in for another half an hour.
Getting back onto the old Trochetia was a funny old feeling. I can’t quite believe it’s been THREE YEARS since I was last on the beast. And yet I instinctively knew where the canteen was, how to get out on deck and (most importantly) where the bar was.
Happy the Phoenix beer was just €1 a can. As we pulled out of port and circled around the north of the island, I went out onto the deck to watch the sun set in the warm evening air. I was happily updating my Twitter feed while texting sweet nothings to Casey when OH JESUS CHRIST DID I JUST SERIOUSLY JUST ACTUALLY SERIOUSLY DO THAT??
I checked my sent items. Oh bollocks. I had. I had just sent a private message intended for my girlfriend TO TWITTER. And my Twitter account is linked to this site, Facebook, Bebo, YouTube, MySpace, Digg, Google+, LinkedIn, Friends Reunited, b3ta, 4chan, Wikipedia, Reuters, BBC News, Cracked.com, MI5, the CIA, the FBI, The Matrix, Babylon 5, the Harlem Globetrotters and Wikileaks. My howls of anguish reverberated throughout the Southern Hemisphere.
This is when it pays to a) have a tech-savvy girlfriend b) trust her with your passwords.
Thanks Case! Won’t happen again!! *eek*
Once I’d been assured that all mention of the incident had been stricken from the record (thank goodness that the message was fairly innocuous) my body finally remembered that it hadn’t slept for a week and a half. I staggered to my shared cabin and heaved my carcass up into my bunk. Within 10 minutes I was fast asleep.
I awoke at 6am with a feeling we may have arrived in Mauritius. We had arrived in Mauritius. This met with a modicum of relief, since my ticket for some reason said Réunion > Tamatave. As Tamatave is in Madagascar that would have been a bad thing.
So then, Mauritius WE MEET AGAIN! One more Saturday night out eh? Well BRING IT ON!!
Mauritius is a great little island. I’ve been here twice before on The Odyssey Expedition. Funny place: it was completely uninhabited by humans until fairly recently, and then it was fought over by the noble British and the dastardly French (joking, just joking!) so it has a rather eclectic mix of ethnicities: Creole Africans, Indians, French and Britishers. Unlike Réunion, pretty much everybody here is at least bilingual, most being multilingual. Whereas the French selfishly hoard Réunion for themselves (when did you last see a tourist brochure for Réunion eh?), Mauritius is open to everyone. As I mentioned last time I was here, it’s the home of the dodo, the second most famous extinct bird in the world (after Amy Winehouse) and the most expensive postage stamp in the world.
Unlike Maldives (with which it is sometimes confused, along with Montserrat, Martinique and Mauritania), Mauritius is a volcanic island, so it has little to fear as a result of man-made global climate change, and unlike most of the 54 other countries that make up the African Union, it isn’t a complete basket-case.
(I must stress at this point that I am not admonishing Africans by saying that, I’m criticising the post-colonial system, the obscene presidential kleptocracies given carte blanche (and immunity from prosecution) by the bloated faceless harpies of the United Nations along with the systematic removal of all individual rights to not be imprisoned without trail, tortured, raped or slaughtered by your own government. I make no bones about it: the world would be a better place without the United Nations. I wrote at length about this matter last time I was in Africa. I will probably do so again.)
I had arranged to met with Arno, my CouchSurf host, at 11am. After a pleasant Danish and coffee at the Port Louis Waterfront (where I remembered from last time had free wi-fi), I was heading over to the old post office to meet him when I was stopped by a middle-aged Australian couple called John and Dawn who recognised me from the TV. We had a good chat about travelling the world and John showed me a map of all the places they had been. They gave even me a run for my money. Once you get them itchy feet though, it’s a hard habit to kick.
It was pouring down with rain by the time I reached Arno. I jumped in his car and off we went to his home in Grand Baie, a few miles north of Port Louis. Arno is originally from La Rochelle on the west coast of France and he works in shipbuilding, mostly design schematics for vessels under 100ft. We were welcomed into his home by his lovely Mauritian girlfriend, Emeline, and after getting stuff organised for the big departure tomorrow and a pow-wow with my old mucka Dino, the three of us headed out to Port Louis. I had an important photo to take.
After a bottle of Franziskaner beer from the lovely little Lambic bar and restaurant (situated in one of the few original colonial-era houses still standing in the city), we headed back to the scene of the crime. The Keg and Marlin.
One of the funniest parts of my TV show (aside from the silly title and the bits where I get thrown in jail) is during my stay in Mauritius the first time, three years ago. I won a stack of cash on the horses and then decided (in my infinite wisdom) to blow it all on booze. This seemed like a good idea at the time as I was fairly convinced that since it had taken me 10 months to reach 124 countries, it would only take another 8 or so to reach the last 76 (this was pre-South Sudan). HOW WRONG I WAS.
Anyway, there was a drinking competition at the Keg and Marlin pub on the Waterfront. Pretty straight forward: you had six weeks in which to drink 20 beers, each from a different country of the world. This ‘Drink Your Way Around The World’ challenge sounded pretty sweet to me, but unlike the locals, I only had one night in which to do it in. My ship back to Réunion left at 3pm the following afternoon.
I’ll start with a Guinness, Mr Barman…
(Video may not be available in the UK due to copywrong issues)
So it was time to go back and see if my name was proudly displayed on the wall. I looked, but I couldn’t find it. But then Arno spotted it, second column, right at the top (as requested!): GRAHAM HUGHES.
I’ve not been this proud of my own achievements since I completed the Curry Hell challenge in the old Rupali restaurant in Newcastle. The hottest curry in the world and I hoovered it up like it was Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.
Hey, did I ever mention I’ve met Quentin Tarantino?
And beat Joe Calzaghe in a fight???
ENOUGH, GRAHAM! Stick to the damn story!
Sorry ego demon. So then, a quick celebratory pint in the ol’ Keg and once again we were off, this time to a fancy beer restaurant what makes it’s own beer and everything. A couple of halves of the blonde stuff and I was in my element, chatting away nineteen to the dozen to Emeline About Mauritian history and politics. Ah, the best lessons are always learnt down the pub.
After that we headed back to Grand Baie for some Chinese food before retiring to bed at a reasonable hour. A grand day out, eh Gromit?
Sun 11.11.12 – Sun 18.11.12
I was up an’ at ’em! by 8am, and by 8.30am I was on the bus back to Port Louis. I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to Arno, but not to worry, I’ve a feeling I’ll see him again some day. I was met at the old Post Office by my driver who would be taking me through immigration and then to the port gates. The immigration officer was incredibly friendly (Mauritius is a very friendly place) and he happily stamped me out the country. And then it was through the port gates (the officials nodded me through) and onto the minibus that took me across the port to THE SHIP: The Maersk Sebarok.
Wow. When I say this ship is BIG. Understand: this ship is BIIIIIIIIG.
Check out these stats:
Length: 336 metres Width: 40 metres Height: 25 metres Capacity: 6,478 standard (20’) containers (put on a single train, it would be 25 MILES long) Engine: 85,500 Horse Power Fuel Consumption: 280,000 litres (280 tonnes) per day (that’s an Olympic swimming pool’s worth of diesel) Fuel Cost: $182,000 per day
Not only that, its fuel tanks are so vast that the ship can go 200 days without refuelling. Maersk, a Danish company, are the biggest shipping company in the world so I guess it’s natural that they operate on a slightly BIGGER scale.
I bounded up the gangway, met with the captain and officers, was shown to my cabin and… relax. We wouldn’t be getting to South Africa until Saturday at the earliest, but that’s okay, the main thing is that I’m on the ship and ready to go. Once I get to the mainland it’s going to be a long but relatively straight-forward series of coach journeys up to South Sudan.
Durban > Johannesburg Johannesburg > Lusaka Lusaka > Dar es Salaam Dar es Salaam > Kampala Kampala > Juba
Some awesome things about this ship: there’s internet (capped at 30MB a day, but I’m not complaining – in Australia, you’d be paying Telstra $100 a day for that kind of usage(!)) there’s a lift, so getting up the 9 floors to the bridge is a little easier (if somewhat less healthy), there’s a swimming pool (not that you often see me in a swimming pool, but still… a swimming pool!) and there’s even a woman on board working as assistant chef. The captain and chief officer are both from Burma, the second is from China and the third is from India. The chief engineer is from Poland and the two second engineers are from Russia and the Philippines respectively.
One thing that you should definitely know before you sign up for a job with Maersk: alcohol is not just frowned upon, its consumption is completely banned for the length of your contract. Sign a 6 month contract and you can forget about beer, wine, whiskey, vodka, whatever floats your boat, for 6 months solid, even when on shore leave. This commendable company policy, which I think is pretty unique, ensures that – at the very least – all the officers and crew get to enjoy an ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ moment when their contract is finished.
Not that you’d find me complaining: the food onboard is MAGNIFICENT. It’s all I can do to restrain myself from devouring everything before the other crewmembers get to the mess. Plus there’s a seemingly unlimited supply of tea and biscuits (yay) and, even better, plenty of Fifa 13 to play against the engineers.
My week onboard the Maersk Sebarok passed effortlessly. We were graced with fine weather (Uncle Neppy knows when he’s met his match) and the internet connection was nothing short of a godsend, allowing me to tee up some media interest in the impending finale of The Odyssey Expedition.
On the Friday we came into the Durban anchorage. I was hoping we’d be alongside the next morning, but Captain Khaung simply smiled and shook his head. Sunday at 1200. Maybe. I did get to do a little whale-watching though, and clocked at least three of the great beasts gliding effortlessly around the 50+ boats surrounding us, also at anchor. Durban Port has a lousy reputation for making ships wait.
By Saturday evening it was obvious that we wouldn’t be getting in until at least 1800 the next day, which blew my cunning plans for a weekend in Jo’burg out of the water. I was planning to meet with Janine, the sassy South African CSer I met in Kuwait, and also with Anthea Pokroy of icollectgingers.com fame. I was quite looking forward to being collected.
Eventually we came alongside at midnight on Sunday night. It was too late to disembark, immigration wouldn’t be open and in any case, all the buses to Jo’burg would have already gone hours ago. One last night aboard the Sebarok then!
It was 0600 when my wake-up call came through from the third officer, but he need not have bothered: I was already wide awake. Giddy with that I-can-believe-this-is-actually-happening vibe, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. From now to South Sudan there is an open road: no ships to organise, no visas to be purchased in advance, from the moment I step foot on African soil it will be go go go to the end of the Odyssey Expedition.
I’ve been doing this for nigh on four years. In less than a week I’ll have achieved the impossible. Or at least something that nobody has ever done before. By 0700 I was posing for photos with the crew, ready to depart with Alfred, the ship’s agent. I was getting off at the same time as second engineer Jay from The Philippines. By 8am we had both been stamped into South Africa.
HELLO AGAIN AFRICA!!! Miss me?!!
At this point I should mention that I’m rapidly running out of passport pages. Assuming that Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan all take up a page each (something I have no reason to doubt), when I get to South Sudan I will have exactly *zero* pages left in my passport to get back to the UK.
Lucky then I have a second passport! This morning it arrived back in London from its totally pointless trip to Madagascar and is currently in London with my good friend Lindsey. She should be dropping it into the Ethiopian embassy tomorrow, and on Friday when the visa (hopefully) comes through, it’ll be picked up by Casey and sent to Nairobi for me to collect. So long as I can buy multiple entry visas for both Kenya and Uganda, I should have *just* enough room to get back to Nairobi from South Sudan.
Happily, South Africa has a teeny-tiny entry stamp and hurrah for that!!
By 8.30am we arrived at the bus station just in time to see the Intercape bus to Johannesburg pull out of the depot. Cursing myself for faffing around this morning (although I’ve come to realise that immigration opened at 0800, so all the rushing in the world wouldn’t have changed matters much), I took some Rand out of the ATM (and got a new note with Nelson Mandela on it, only came out last week!) and bought a ticket for the bus that would depart at 0945, arriving Jo’burg at 1720 that afternoon.
I said my goodbyes to Alfred and Jay and waited to go. All was going swimmingly until the bus broke down. Overheating caused by an oil leak, from what I could fathom. Now anywhere else, a replacement bus would hurry out to us. But This Is Africa, so we drove to the garage instead and waited THREE HOURS while they fixed the problem. Sitting on the bus in the searing heat, no AC because the engine was off, and you couldn’t even open a window, because the cretins that design these buses obviously never ride in these buses.
Would you buy a new car, no matter how AC’d up to the hilt, in which the windows didn’t open? No. Exactly. Why engineers and architects are so confident that the air conditioning will *never* go on the blink is quite beyond me. But we still let these morons design buses, trains and office buildings whose unique selling feature is the opportunity to be slowly cooked alive rather than allowed to open a frikkin’ window: an otherwise nice, environmentally-friendly low-tech solution to the problem of, you know, being too hot.
As a consequence, it wasn’t until 2025 that I arrived in Jo’burg, the good ol’ murder capital of the world (sort of). As the last underground train left for Janine’s nearest station left at 2030, a frantic sprint to the Gautrain was in order. This is a brand new system – wasn’t here last time I was in town – but your ginger travelling monkey here had the system sussed out within seconds (I guess it helps I’ve ridden on an insane number of Mass Transit Systems) and by 2029 I was on the train, doors beeping as I boarded, almost catching my backpack as they closed.
Sat down, happy but sweaty, took out my phone to text Janine telling her I had made it: then realised the awful truth that Londoners have to live with everyday: there is no mobile signal when you’re underground. Oh well, that’s fine, methinks, I’ll text her when I arrive. Ten minutes later, I arrived, bounded up the up escalators and after waving my phone the air like I was directing a plane to the gate, I picked up some signal. I texted Janine only to receive the reply ‘ARGH! Was just driving all the way into town to pick you up!’.
So there I was with all my bags in the rape capital of the world, waiting outside a train station in the dark. I just hoped the station wouldn’t close – the security guys milling about at the entrance gave me a modicum of reassurance. And my fearsome ginger hair, obviously.
Janine took about 20 minutes to get back to me. It was great to see her again. We went for some Nandos (geniune South African / Jamacian tucker) because they make adverts like THIS:
Once back at J9’s, I barely had time to scratch my arse. Casey and I had a zillion and one things to sort out – there’s a good chance I’d have no internet contact from now until South Sudan. I’m taking care of the transport and the whole ‘not getting myself killed’ bit and Casey’s doing the rest. One way or another, this time NEXT WEEK, the Odyssey Expedition will have drawn to its inevitable and Jubalant conclusion…
After grabbing a whole three hours of sleep, it was time to SLAM DUNK DA FUNK and hit the road once more.
NORTH MISS TESCHMACHER!!
Janine, being the great sport that she is, agreed to drop me off at the local train station through some rather horrific traffic jammage. The bus for Lusaka, Zambia, departed at 0900. By 0830 we were still miles away, stuck in traffic and my chances of making the coach was looking slimmer than Victoria Beckham after I drive over her with a steam roller.
We arrived at the train station at 0840. It takes 10 minutes to get to Park station from where the buses left. After hugs and see-you-agains, I ran inside. The next train was at 0848. I rushed down to the platform, pacing like that’s going to help. On the train it was all I could do to stare at my mobile phone watching the minute tick up to the hour. We arrived at 0858. You’ve never seen a ginger move so fast. I was Greased Lightening, a streak of red blazing up the up escalators. I got to the coach station at 0900 on the knocker. I saw the Intercape buses (mercifully close to the entrance – this is a BIG station) and made a beeline. The bus to Lusaka was pulling out. I knocked on the door… and they opened.
Now it was just time to kick back, relax and enjoy the journey. We’d be arriving in Lusaka at 1200 tomorrow. Or so I thought.
You know my bus broke down yesterday? That wouldn’t, couldn’t happen again… could it?
Oh, come on Graham, T.I.A.!! Of course it could… and it did. We hadn’t been on the road for an hour before we were pulled up on the outlane of the motorway services and some wrench-welding grease monkey Afrikaners were tinkering away, fixing our coaches innards. I should point out that this is no chicken bus: this is a brand-new, clean, modern, ‘luxury’ coach (although I always believe the words ‘luxury’ and ‘coach’ make queer bedfellows). Still, I’m pretty sure that the two hours we were getting fixed would come back to haunt me further down the line.
DID YOU KNOW? The reason why South Africa’s international code is ZA is because in Afrikaans the ‘Republic of South Africa’ is ‘Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek’. True!
It was around sunset that we crossed the border into Zimbabwe, sitting as it does between South Africa and Zambia.
Until Zimbabwe won independence it was known as Southern Rhodesia. Northern Rhodesia became Zambia.
Here are the old and new names for the countries of Southern Africa:
Northern Rhodesia = Zambia Southern Rhodesia = Zimbabwe South West Africa = Namibia Bechuanaland = Botswana Basutoland = Lesotho Nyasaland = Malawi Tanganyika (& Zanzibar) = Tanzania
Now commit that to memory. There shall be a test in the morning.
It was a shame, really, getting there so late: I was looking forward to seeing Zimbabwe in the light. Oh poor old Zim: run by a psychopathic tyrant gazillionaire for the past 32 years, it serves as a microcosm of the entire continent of post-colonial Africa: it started with high hopes and then rapidly turned into a horror show to which the world can only shrug and say ‘oh dear’.
Mugabe’s crimes against humanity are myriad, but I’ll just give a few examples, you know, in case you were ever wondering why ONE THIRD of the population has left Zimbabwe since he took power in 1980.
Mugabe’s party was called ZANU and was made up mostly of the Shona people (can you see where this is going…?). In 1983, he accused ZAPU, the opposition party (consisting of mostly Ndebele people), of ‘plotting against the government’. He promptly deployed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to ‘quell the disturbances’. The brigade launched an orgy of killing; innocent villagers were gunned down. Tens of thousands of civilians, sometimes entire villages, were slaughtered.
Meanwhile, the world was too busy waving its finger at apartheid-era South Africa to care.
In 1990, another opposition party, ZUM, was formed. Mugabe, being the insane murderous bastard that he is, ordered (allegedly) ZUM candidate Patrick Kombayi’s assassination. Kombayi managed to survive the attempt on his life, but the ZUM leadership immediately went underground, fearing for their lives.
In 1997, Mugabe hiked up income and fuel taxes (he owed his ‘friends’ in the army a lot of money, and he wasn’t going to be the one left footing the bill). The Zimbabwe dollar lost over 50% of its value. To sort this problem out, Mugabe did what all idiots do in situations like this: he printed more money.
In 2000, incensed that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – led by Morgan Tsvangirai – were becoming so popular, he did what any barbaric megalomaniac would do and unleashed waves of violence, voter intimidation and a ‘land reform’ programme that rivals the Rwandan genocide in its speed and ferocity. Over 100,000 black farm workers were butchered to death by Mugabe’s so-called ‘war veterans’. Scores of white famers were also murdered (Mugabe blamed them for publically supporting the MDC) and over a million asylum seekers – black and white – fled the country.
I’ve met a fair share of Zimbabweans on my travels around South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania. They all tell me the same thing: they love their country, they miss their country. They want to go home. But they can’t. Not until Mugabe is dead.
Meanwhile, remember that whole ‘print more money’ concept I mentioned a couple of paragraphs back? It resulted in THIS:
In the twilight days of the Zimbabwean dollar, inflation was running at 20,000%. THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LEAVE A PSYCHOPATHIC DIMWIT IN CHARGE OF A COUNTRY FOR THIRTY YEARS. Zimbabweans have now abandoned their own currency and everybody uses US dollars instead. Good job Mugabe, you ruthless tyrant billionaire. As much as I would not wish death on anybody, I will read Robert Mugabe’s (hopefully not-too-distant) obituary with glee.
The coach thundered on into the night. Northwards, ever northwards…
So then, Zambia, my third country in three days. Zambia has always been Zimbabwe’s poorer neighbour, even back in the day when it was Northern Rhodesia, it was always neglected by its (actually not very) benevolent overlords. The general indifference towards Zambia continued into independence, but in the past few years, things have started to pick up. After being freed from the burden of billions of dollars of debt in 2005 as a result of the successful ‘Drop The Debt’ campaign, Zambia has been finding its feet. Transport infrastructure has improved, as have literacy levels and a lot of work has been done on AIDS awareness. It never suffered the rollercoaster riches and rags story of Zimbabwe, so in the long-run, it seems as though the tortoise might just beat the hare. But there’s still a long way to go.
As we approached the border we passed maybe 100 container trucks all lined up waiting to get into Zambia. If that sounds like a lot, it isn’t. This is the problem with being a landlocked country. You can shift 100 containers on a small cargo ship. The Maersk Seberok could shift 6,500 containers all in one go. Zambia has a rail line linking it with the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, but trains run nowhere near as often as they should. I believe the Zambian president has just nationalised the railway in response to widespread corruption with the service. But this is the problem, isn’t it? Landlocked countries are completely at the mercy of their neighbours. If Zimbabwe is being run by a madman and Mozambique is at war, how the hell are you supposed to grow your economy when you can only get 1% of the goods in and out compared to your wealthier (and less coastally-challenged) neighbours?
Pretty much all of African’s landlocked countries – Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali – suffer from this dilemma. It’s quite telling that in the whole of the Americas there are just two landlocked countries (and Bolivia only lost its access to the sea after a disastrous war against Peru). It’s almost as if, given the choice, countries wouldn’t opt to be landlocked. But then when your borders are being drawn up over a European conference table in 1885, I guess you don’t get much choice in the matter.
We were supposed to reach Lusaka at 1200, but because of the breakdown north of Johannesburg yesterday we didn’t get in until 1400. This was most disappointing since it meant that my high hopes of reaching Dar es Salaam in Tanzania at some reasonable time would not come true. The direct buses all left at 1300. So I waved goodbye to bus buddies Abu, Mustapha and Thomas the German Guy and set off to find something with wheels that could at least take me to the northern border.
It wasn’t long before I was shepherded over to the ZAMBIA-TANZANIA BUS. Sadly, it was full, but it seemed that there were enough people to justify putting on another bus. Well, a minibus. Crammed in LIKE YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE, we set off north towards the border town of Tunduma, a good 17 hours away. And OH YES IT BROKE DOWN! Three out of three! Overheated, steam everywhere (and that bizarre fishy smell you get from hot bicycle pumps – you know the one I mean). Maybe, and I’m just putting this out there, they should – I dunno – turn the engine OFF when they’re waiting two hours for passengers, waiting in a traffic jam, filling the minibus with petrol…
The guy in front of me, a South African called Peter, was hilarious, cursing the bus driver and conductor for all sorts “where do you think you’re putting that tyre? Are you crazy?” He kept the journey fun. Sitting next to me was a sweet Zambian kid called William. We chatted about (what else) African politics and came to the conclusion that *it’s all the UN’s fault*. Because it is.
Thu 22 – Fri 23 Nov 12:
I didn’t want to use this as a title, said while pointing to at the red earth, imitating Leonardo DiCaprio ’s Rhodesian mercenary Danny Archer, but bear with me on this one. We were supposed to arrive over the border into Tanzania at dawn, but as we ran out of petrol last night and the engine overheated (hey Africa! Try turning it your engines off when you’re not going anywhere OR REFUELLING!!), I didn’t get stamped in until just after midday. Incidentally, Tanzania is a portmanteau word which combines ‘Tanganyika’ and ‘Zanzibar’ into one. This is novel but not unique in the world. The letters PAKSTAN of ‘Pakistan’ stand for Punjab, Afghan Province, Kashmir, Sind, and Baluchistan and the first six letters of The United Nations stands for Useless, Nefarious, Idiotic, Tyranny-Endorsing Dickwits. (One can only presume.)
At the frontier I swapped my Zambian Kwacha for Tanzanian Shillings, bought a SIM card and took a minibus over to the transport hub that is Mbeya. From there it was crammed into another minibus for what should have been a 12 hour journey to Dar es Salaam, the largest city (but not the capital, fact fans, that’s called Dodoma, same as the beardy general what tells Luke how to blow up the Death Star). The words ‘we were supposed to reach…’ have come up a lot over the past four years, haven’t they? Today would be no exception.
We were actually making good time for the first couple of hours, but then we had an incident at the rest stop. A girl had her handbag stolen from the bus. One of the passengers saw it happen, gave a description to the people who ran the rest stop eatery and they knew exactly who it was. A group of passenger stormed over to the luckless teenager’s home, caught him red-handed rifling through the bag, and proceeded to dole out what can only be described as African justice: they beat the crap out of him. Thankfully I wasn’t there to see this, I was waiting on the bus, not really knowing what on Earth was going on until it was explained to me later. We then took the offending party to the local police station and the passengers filed a statement. This whole episode cost us two hours.
But there was more.
Africans, and Tanzanians in particular, don’t like to do things by halves. If they have 50km of road to repair, they don’t do it in short sections, they dig up ALL 50KM OF ROAD at once. And then operate the biggest contra-flow system this side of Alpha-Centauri. And so we waited. Then drove for a bit along a dirt track at the end of the road. Then we waited some more. And drove a little bit more. This went on for a loooong time. And then, just as we were getting to the end of this madness, we were the first on the scene to an accident. A truck had plowed into the back of another truck. Our passengers, possibly feeling ultra-public spirited after the episode with the bag thief, took the injured driver from his cab and placed him, broken and bleeding, on the floor of our bus. His face had been lacerated by broken glass and his left leg had been snapped in two at the ankle. I hate it in situations like this where you feel completely useless. I wished I still had that kick-ass painkiller that the doctor who I was drinking with in Lesotho in October 2009 gave me. The minibus drove the poor kid to the hospital where he was stretchered off. By now it was 4am. I knew that the buses for Kampala (my last stop on this mad dash before I hit South Sudan) left between 6 and 7am. There wasn’t any time to lose!
But that’s when we got stopped by the police. Because of the terrifying high incidents of accidents on Tanzanian roads, buses aren’t allowed to drive overnight. They have the same rule in Mozambique and Ethiopia and to be honest, it’s fair enough. Travelling through Africa on public buses is a hair-raising experience at the best of times, and I was thankful that every bus I’d been on had safety belts. I was the only passenger to use them, but then I’m probably the only passenger who doesn’t believe in an all-powerful ever-loving God. But still, it threw a spanner in the works. There’s no way I’d hit Juba by Sunday as I had originally intended.
We arrived in Dar es Salaam at 10am, ten hours later than promised. As it turned out, it was possibly a blessing in disguise as Casey and I had work to do: the press release for my final frontier. As many of my long-term subscribers have often noted, I don’t get anywhere near the recognition for doing this that I’d have hoped for. I get, on average, 300 visitors a day to this site and the [mmmmm] STILL haven’t given me the go-ahead to put my post-Jan 2010 tapes on YouTube. This has been a source of constant irritation for me – it’s not because I want or need the money, it’s more to do with the fact I haven’t raised anywhere near the amount I would have liked to for WaterAid.
So I spent the day in Subway abusing their free wi-fi as Case and I threw the press release back and forth, getting it *just right* (you’ll be glad to hear she’s just as anal as me about fonts etc.) and put together a spreadsheet of all the media contacts I’ve made over the last four years, from Antigua to Fiji and everywhere in between. In the evening, I trudged over to the nearest thing to a backpackers in town, the Juba Inn. As I was going to finish my journey in Juba, it seemed frightfully appropriate.
Happily, they had free wi-fi as well. And so I tidied up the website ready for the big day and cut together a series of visual clips to put on YouTube for the meedja to use as necessary. By 5am I realised I should have possibly got some sleep. The taxi was outside ready to take me to the bus station.
Sat 24 Nov 12:
Today I headed north from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, across the plains of the Serengeti, and yes Mount Kilimanjaro did rise like an empress. Crikey it’s big. Maasai tribes people in their traditional garb trotting along the side of the road, spear in one hand, mobile phone in the order. Welcome to 21st century Africa. I had nothing left to read on this trip, so instead I looked out of the window into my distant past.
In a way this is not just a return for me to this particular dusty corner of Planet Earth, this is a return to where it all began.
The beginning not of my odyssey, but of humanity’s odyssey. Eons ago, a relative of the Australopithecines stood tall on their hind legs, picked up a bone and began a journey. A journey that has taken over 3,000,000 years but now concerns and dominates the fate of every living thing on the planet. And it all started right here. We are all Africans. We know this because science. These plains are where Mitochondrial Eve once walked, possibly talked, hunted for food, definitely got laid. She was your great x 3,500 grandmother. The evidence for this is written into every single cell in your body. And your body is made up of approximately 50 trillion cells. Over the 7 billion humans who inhabit this rock, that’s a metric f—ton of evidence.
You see science doesn’t give two hoots about your ego. It couldn’t care less that we live in a vast godless universe in which terrible things occasionally happen and that there are a million more ways of being dead than being alive. Science cares not what you think, it only cares about what can be proven. Consistently. Repeatedly. Systematically. PROVEN. And how telling is it that the first casualty of war, of totalitarianism, of religion, of corruption, of fundamentalism, of dogma, of politics… is the truth. Conversely lies, propaganda and nonsense are the first casualties of science.
On the poster for The Shawshank Redemption they say that hope will set you free. But, come on, did you actually watch that movie?? Andy didn’t sit there for 20 years praying to some imaginary friend in the sky for deliverance. He dug a goddamn tunnel. But what would, what should, have set him free – in a fair world – is the truth. What brought down Nixon? What felled the Berlin Wall? What gave the families of the Hillsborough victims the vindication they had been pursuing for over twenty years? The Truth.
And the truth is this: racism is not just intolerable, not just embarrassing, not just pig-ignorant, not just a pathetic hankering for a panacea for one’s own shortcomings – it is utterly and completely scientifically incongruous. This is science, the guy who doesn’t care about upsetting people, the guy who tells you the cancer is terminal and yes you’re going to die. If there was any scientific merit in the way the horrible little rat-faced morons in the KKK see the world, science would shrug and say, “yes, I’m sorry but it’s true, some people are just born inferior.” But it doesn’t. Not because science needs to be politically correct (clue: it doesn’t), but because it simply isn’t true. While nations, culture, education and beliefs can play a huge role in the making of an individual, whether you’re a total dick or not is pretty much set at birth.
Yep, WE ARE *ALL* AFRICANS. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Oswald Mosley.
Tomorrow I’ll arrive in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.