The mission this week was to clamber on board the MV San Cristobal bound for The Seychelles. As emails and phone calls went back and forth behind the scenes, I found time to head out into the mountains with Robert, a British businessman who I had met through my dealings down in the port. He was taking me to see the Frankincense trees and the land he was planning to turn into a Frankincense farm – not just for sweet smelling sap to chuck into your thurible and wobble about before your congregation, but for the essential oil you can collect while the sap dries out. A handful of experiments have shown that this oil may have an effect on cancer cells. It just might be the thing we’re looking for – something 100% natural that targets and destroys cancer cells while ignoring healthy cells.
I said MAY. Don’t get your knickers in a twist.
Unfortunately, the great work that is being done in the field of cancer research is being constantly undermined by the hysterical ravings of the Daily Mail, who as Dr. Ben Goldacre has pointed out, seem to be on a crusade to catalogue each and every inanimate object in the universe into two boxes – one marked ‘causes cancer’ and the other marked ‘cures cancer’. This disinformation is then dissimilated amongst the hoi polloi in 72pt block capitals every time they have a bit of space left over from wittering on about immigrants and Princess Diana.
As a consequence, the idea that frankincense oil might target and destroy cancer cells simply sounds too good to be true. Now I’m the ultimate sceptic – I don’t believe anything I read, anything I’m told or anything I see unless I’ve got good, sensible, independently verified evidence (preferably published in a peer-reviewed journal) to back it up. And I’m sorry, but your word is not good enough: as Radiohead once sang, just cos you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there. As a consequence I don’t believe in fate, luck, guardian angels, horoscopes, ghosts, tarot cards, tea leaves, the apocalypse, demons in the closet, karma, conspiracy theories or the galactic warlord Xenu.
But if it is true, the Robert is going to be on to a winner. Frankincense trees only grow in Oman, Yemen and parts of Ethiopia and Somalia. They take seven years to mature to the size when you can start farming the sap, which is about the time they’ll need to get the cancer-killing properties verified without a shadow of a doubt. And hell, if it turns out to be a false positive, so what? The world needs more trees. And I’m sure Robert can tap into the Bible Belt market for Epiphany presents consisting of a packet of Gold, Frankenstein and Grr. I’m in for a punt on the old Frankie Goes To Hollywood, so I sponsored a tree. Hell, I’m sure I can fob the essential oil I’ll get from it in seven years time onto some daft old hippy lady with too many cats. I’ll tell her it’s good for her chakras. Whatever they are.
Robert also took me to the nursery where they grew the trees from seedlings and I even got to have a chat with the doctor who is pioneering the cancer research. I’ve got to say, I now know at least 1529% more about Frank-N-Furter than I did last week.
As the week dragged on as two things stood tall on the horizon – the imminent departure of the San Cristobal and a little thing called the World Cup.
My efforts to board the San Cristobal were a little tinged with reticence, though: not because of the ever-present threat of piracy, but because getting on this ship would mean spending pretty much the entirety of the World Cup at sea. I’ve already missed my girlfriend for 18 months, my 30th birthday party and Glastonbury for two years running, missing the World Cup as well would be a wrench. But then again, I guess it goes to show how dedicated I am. I WILL do this, one way or another GRRR!!
By Friday night, I still hadn’t heard an answer from the owners of the ship. Once again, I had the nod from the shipping company and the shipping agents, but that does not suffice. Luke, Dave and their mates crowded around at Dave’s gaff to watch the opening match of the 2010 World Cup – South Africa vs. Mexico. The pundits pundited, the adverts advertised and the fans blew their stupid plastic vuvuzelas as the tension mounted towards kick off. The ref blew the whistle and the game began…
And the signal was lost.
Was it just us? No – we checked next door, and they were having the same problem, as was the café downstairs. We called Club Oasis and their feed had been cut as well. Al-Jezeera sport, hang your head in shame… it would later transpire that the signal was cut for the whole of Arabia, devastating football fans throughout the peninsular and beyond – especially given that, unlike in the UK, they had to pay through the nose for a viewing card to watch the damn thing.
While the others watched the black screen willing the game to come back on, I hopped by Luke’s place to check on my emails. By this point it was way past working hours, the ship would be leaving for The Seychelles this weekend and I still hadn’t got word from the ship owners.
But there was a new message in my inbox.
It’s a no.
I returned to Dave’s and we sat around watching a black screen with snippets of top international football randomly popping up every few minutes to tease us with what we were missing.
As if to add insult to injury, the exact same thing happened the next day during the England match. You could hear the ex-pats from here to Kuwait collectively groan and curse Al-Jezeera Sports like a gypsy hag whose lucky heather is rebuffed by a man in a top hat.
Stick to the news, Al-Jez, stick to the news.
On the Sunday, Khalid the senior boarding officer for the San Cristobal took me into the port so I could have a natter with the captain. I knew there was no chance of me getting my passage, but what I wanted to know was why. As I boarded the ship the coils of razor-wire surrounding the deck kinda gave the game away – PIRATES. The captain was a great guy and said he would be happy to have me, the problem is this:
To sail in these waters, these cargo ships have special anti-piracy insurance. Part of the deal is that they have to sail with the minimum number of crew possible. So even if I paid for my own super-duper kick-ass insurance I’d still be putting the insurance of the entire ship (and cargo) in jeopardy. If the worst happened and we were boarded by pirates the insurance company would have an excuse to say sorry see you later mashed potato and dump the costs of dealing with the release of the vessel in the hands of the ship owners.
The chances of me getting on one of these boats slipped down from slight to snowball-in-hell. Where do we go from here?
Yesterday I discovered that the chances of anybody taking me onboard a ship bound for The Seychelles was about one in a million. I also found out that another shipping company, Maersk, had a freighter leaving on Tuesday to those infernal islands. So after spending the day trying to get a message to the right people, I headed over to the Oasis Club for the last time, knowing that if it wasn’t to be I would cut my losses and get the hell out of dodge.
The club was packed. HMS Chatham had just come into port, escorting the container ship Asian Glory back to safety. The Asian Glory had been captured last January and had been held in the Puntland region of Somalia for almost six months. Eventually after lengthy negotiations the owners shelled out $7,000,000 for the release of the vessel and the luxury cars it was shipping.
I got chatting to the good chaps of the Chatham (including the captain) and tried to get my head around this whole pirate problem. Here’s what I’ve learnt this week, amalgamated from my meetings with the Royal Navy, the US Navy, the Swedish Navy, the Dutch Navy, the crew of the Maersk Alabama, the captain of the San Cristobal and various mariners who have frequented Club Oasis over the last ten days…
How did all this get started?
Because Somalia has lacked an effective government since 1991, it has no navy (well, it has a navy, they just don’t have any ships). This means that for almost twenty years the waters around Somalia have been a free-for-all in terms of fishing rights. Anyone with a ship, a huge net and on-board freezing capabilities could sail around to the waters off Somalia and fill their boots. And they did. By 2005, fish stocks in the area had got dangerously low and the local fishermen turned to piracy to make ends meet. By 2007, the pirates had grown more and more audacious and started targeting large international cargo freighters and even oil tankers.
Joint task forces from NATO and other inter-governmental navies have been patrolling the waters since then, but rather than result in less pirate attacks, there has been a steady escalation as the pirate zone now covers a vast swathe of the Indian Ocean and ‘employs’ over 1,000 people.
Why can’t you just blow the feckers out of the water?
We’d like to! But that would risk escalating the situation. At the moment, very few of the hostages they take are killed, but if we start shooting first and asking questions later, then it could result unnecessary and unacceptable civilian deaths. Although that doesn’t stop the Russians….!
What about putting armed guards on the container ships?
Again, it risks escalation and these pirates have got rocket-propelled grenades. It’s too risky.
What about doing convoys?
Yachties are increasingly meeting up and doing the Gulf of Aden run in flotillas, but for big cargo ships, it’s just not economically viable to have them sitting around a port for a week waiting for other ships to turn up, plus once the pirates are on board there’s little use another ship in the area can do – even fully armed naval ships are powerless to stop the situation.
Are the kidnapped British yachting couple Paul and Rachel Chandler still alive?
We believe so. But Rachel is not well.
What do you do when you catch the pirates?
We take their weapons off them, put them all on one boat (pirates usually hunt in packs), give them enough fuel, food and water to get back to Somalia and then set them free.
Yeah, we set them free, there’s nothing else we can do. We can’t take them back to Somalia to stand trial – there’s no government, judges, juries or prisons! Tanzania, Yemen and The Seychelles don’t want them and maybe can’t afford a ton of court cases and to pay for their incarceration. We don’t have the space to keep them in the brig for six months until we go back to the UK. So we disarm them and send them on their way.
So how on Earth do you think we’re ever going to get rid of these pirates?
The only way we can get rid of the pirates is to support the Somalia government in taking back their country, that way they’d have a navy to stop foreign fishing boats coming in and stealing all the fish. Also, they’d have a judicial system so we’d have somewhere to take the pirates when we catch them.
Unfortunately after the disastrous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, no government has the stomach to take on the madness that is modern Somalia. In short, there is no end in sight.
Back in November 2009 when I was trying to sail the 166nm from Diego Suarez in Madagascar to the lower Seychelles islands, the threat of piracy stopped me in my tracks. Now here I am seven months later facing the same problem from the other end.
There was no reply from Maersk, not that I was expecting one. It was all a bit too short notice for it to work out. I said my fond farewells to Luke and Dave and planned to take the overnight bus back to Dubai. I had decided to cut my loses and head on to India. Since there was no chance of a ship to The Seychelles, the chances of getting on a ship from the UAE that goes to Eritrea (through the Gulf of Aden) and then turns around and goes to Pakistan and India (even though it does exist!) are going to be less than zero.
I would try to attack The Seychelles and Eritrea after I’ve been everywhere else. Maybe. Truth be told, I haven’t got a clue what I’m going to do. Up till now I had a plan. Now I’m just making it up as I go along.
The bus to Dubai was full. I’d have to get the next one, tomorrow. I like overnight buses. That’s when the ideas come.
After again saying my farewells to Luke and Dave, our mate Alasdair gave me a lift to the bus depot. After AGAIN being told the bus to Dubai was full by the grumpy man behind the counter, Alasdair got a little suss. Is there another bus?
Oh yeah – the bus company down the road, behind the fish market. D’oh! Why didn’t I ask that yesterday?!
And so after heartily shaking Alasdair’s hand and jumping on the (pretty empty) 3pm bus to Dubai I found myself gazing out of the window over the flat barren flatness of Arabia’s empty quarter, full of djinns and demons and things that go bump in the night.
As I mulled over the situation in my head and the wonderful suggestions made by contributors to this website (gavinmac and Socleman, take a bow) a cunning plan began to take form from the desert sands…
All is not lost. Okay, so I can’t get into the Red Sea area from this side of the Arabian Peninsular as it would mean sailing through the pirate zone. My back-up plan of going through Yemen is now impossible as I can’t even get in to Yemen itself.
But, what’s this? The thing that kept me in Kuwait for six weeks… my multiple entry Saudi visa, still valid for another couple of months…!
Maybe my sojourn in Kuwait wasn’t a big waste of time after all – I mean, not that Kuwait wasn’t fun, it just that to wait six weeks to skip through a country a couple of times on your way somewhere else is a bit mad.
But what if…..
There used to be a passenger service running from Jeddah in Saudi to Massawa in Eritrea. It doesn’t exist any more, but there must – there must – be cargo ships doing that route. Jeddah is a huge feeder port for ships coming to and from Europe and the Far East. If I can somehow get a Eritrean visa (although it’s unlikely I’d be able to get one in Saudi) I could attempt to get to Eritrea as a passenger on one of these ships.
Failing that, I could head down to the southern port of Jizan and maybe talk a fisherman or dive company into taking me out to one of the uninhabited islands off the coast of Eritrea. As long as it’s within the contiguous boundary and I step on dry land, it counts.
This would be dodgy as hell though, as they could well take advantage of me and use the trip as an excuse to smuggle drugs or weapons across the Red Sea. If caught this could result in my beheading. Seriously. I’d rather not take the risk.
Okay, okay, Plan C: There are ferries that go three times a week from Jeddah to Port Sudan in Sudan. If I could get a new Sudanese visa (tremendously unlikely in Saudi) I could take the ferry and travel from Port Sudan down to the border with Eritrea and bribe my way across. This would be both dodgy and dangerous.
Of course, the first plan is the best, but that doesn’t mean the others are completely out of the question. A new plan: head to Jeddah and see what happens. If there is one thing that doing The Odyssey has taught me is that where there is a will, there’s a way. I only have FORTY more countries to visit. Forty. To give up now would be a nonsense. There’s always a way. You just have to suss out all the options. And sometimes it helps to think outside the box. And that way of thinking brings me to our second dilemma…
Blimey. This is going to be TOUGH. With no yachts this time of year, no cruise ships until October and no cargo ships able to take passengers because of the pirates, the only way I’m going to get there is to continue on my journey and then massively backtrack at the very end from Australia into the Indian Ocean. This could honestly add months to my journey time.
But thanks to Socleman’s suggestion, I’ve got an idea. It’s fair to say that I’m a pretty competent filmmaker and my knowledge of marine affairs is probably substantially greater than most land-lubbers, what with all the boat trips I’ve been on in the course of this adventure. Given that I’ve met loads of guys who ply their trade in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, I’ve also got a decent grasp of the pirate situation in these parts. Put all that together and I could realistically put together a half-hour documentary for one of the big shipping companies about piracy.
The budget? One free passage to The Seychelles. Given that it would be a good idea for me to actually be on board a ship in order to make the doco, it may as well be one that goes from Salalah around the Indian Ocean Islands, and this time of year is when most pirates take a summer vacation – the weather is too rough and unpredictable to risk going out too far in a little motor boat.
It’s a long shot, and it may not work, but at the moment, it’s the only shot we’ve got. For The Seychelles there is no plan B.
The sun disappeared long before it hit the horizon, obscured by dust and sand. It’s interesting that we all crave what we don’t have – white girls in the UK are desperate to be browner, brown girls in Malaysia are desperate to be whiter. Urbanites hunger for the country idyll and villagers lust for the anonymousness of the big city. The Bedu of Arabia dream of gardens and here I am dreaming of deserts. As the stars begin to light up in the night sky, I’m reminded why. The desert puts us all in our place.
Next stop: Dubai (again!)
Country 2-0-0. Friends, can you BELIEVE IT? Nope. Neither can I, which is good, because Seychelles is quite an unbelievable place. In a good way. Unlike The Maldives, it’s not just flat flat flat as far as the eye can see: these are volcanic islands (over 100 of ’em) spread out slap bang in the centre of the western Indian Ocean.
Honestly, it was love at first sight. Its vibe: it was Tonga, it was Samoa, it was Fiji… but in the Indian Ocean. Coming out from strict, religion-lovin’, fun-avoiding countries like Sri Lanka, India and Maldives where you are supposed to be in bed (on your own) for 9pm and there are simply no local girls out having a good time, Seychelles was a blast of ice-cool crystal-clear fresh air.
We arrived at Victoria, the capital of the country, around 1pm. Victoria is situated on the east coast of Mahe island (not to be confused with Male’ island in the Maldives). My departure off the ship was filmed by Steve and Amy, a couple from Californ-I-A, who I met at the talk I gave yesterday. Off the gangway, I threw myself on the hallowed ground of the TWO HUNDREDTH COUNTRY of The Odyssey Expedition and rolled around a bit. Probably caused a bit of a scene, but I don’t care. THIS, my friends, was the moment I’ve been waiting for since October 2009 when I first attempted (unsuccessfully) to get to The Seychelles from Diego Suarez in Madagascar, since June 2010 when I attempted (unsuccessfully) to get to The Seychelles from Salalah in Oman and since June 2012 when I first started trying to get across the Indian Ocean from Colombo in Sri Lanka.
Well, what else was there to do but go for a celebratory drink? So Steve and Amy and I headed to The Pirates Arms for a swift half, where I was introduced to the joy of SeyBrew, the local lager, possibly made by the same guys who set up SolBrew in The Solomon Islands. Crisp and cold, I give SeyBrew three thumbs up. Later we took a stroll around Victoria’s beautiful botanical gardens – home to a group of Aldabra Giant Tortoises. And when they say ‘giant’, they mean ‘G-I-A-N-T’. Just one of these Koopa Troopers could eat Mario for breakfast and still have room for Luigi, Yoshi and Peach.
It’s funny, my Plan X, had Costa not allowed me on the ship, was to take a yacht from Nosy Be in Madagascar to the Aldabra Islands in order to ‘tick off’ The Seychelles. The Aldabra Group are a protected wildlife sanctuary and you need special permission to get there… and they are home to over 100,000 of these Giant Tortoises: a staggering number. I can only hope I live long enough to do that trip for real.
Later we jumped on the bus to the west coast and a place called Beau Vallon, a beach town on the other side of the mountains. The driver drove like his pants were on fire, swinging around them switchbacks like the endings of both Wages of Fear and The Italian Job (neither of which ended well for those on board), but we (thankfully) got there in one piece. We arrived just in time to watch the sunset and discover just how amazingly helpful and generous with their time the people of The Seychelles (the Seychellois) really are: we were escorted down to the beach, the music guys who were on the quayside this morning said hello and the owner of the Boat House Restaurant and Bar in Beau Vallon gave us free shots Takamaka Coco-Rum (think marshmallows and coconut – I think I’m in love). We were joined by Ramone and Kelly, a Canadian couple, and the night descended into the usual drunken chaos you’ve come to expect from The Odyssey Expedition, with Steve and Amy supplying more than their fair share of alcoholic delights. Thanks Steve & Amy!!! USA! USA! USA!
The next day I intended on going for a hike up the mountain to help walk off my beer gut from the night before, but unfortunately it was pouring down with rain, so instead I headed down to The Pirates Arms and sought refuge in the company of the internet and beer. On the way there I found a bit of a commotion going on outside the Supreme Courthouse of The Seychelles. Asking around, it transpired that on trial were 10 Somali pirates that The Seychelles navy had caught operating in their waters. Well that’s one in the eye for the old Jolly Rogerers eh? Serves them right for making it next to impossible for me to reach The Seychelles without flying. Oh, and being pirates.
One of best things about The Seychelles was that, despite the rain, everybody I spoke to off the ship absolutely loved the place, many saying it was the highlight of their trip so far. To be honest, it’s one of the highlights of mine. It’s definitely in my top ten destinations in the world I want to return to as soon as possible. Seychelles: worth its wait in gold.