This was it. The most critical day of The Odyssey so far – make or break, do or die, cake or death. Dino Deasha, that magnificent chap, had cadged me a lift on the MV Turquoise, a huge container ship affiliated with those good folk at CMA-CGM and bound for Suez in Egypt, due to arrive on the 31st December. But first, I had not just to get to Djibouti City, I also needed to get to Somalia and back.
Don’t panic! Somalia is perfectly safe. Well, no, it’s not – it’s the most dangerous country on Earth. What I mean to say is that the part which I intend to visit is perfectly safe – I’m going to Somaliland.
History lesson! (Cos I know you love them soooo…)
In the same way that we had British, Dutch and French Guyana and Portuguese, French and Spanish Guinea, on the east coast of Africa we had Italian, British and French Somalia. French Somalia became the independent state of Djibouti in 1977 while the poor old British Somalia (now known as Somaliland) got dumped with the Italian Somalia which is what we know as Somalia today.
Now as far as basketcases go (and Africa, let’s face it, has a mighty fine collection), Somalia is the basketcase to beat all basketcases. Next time some ill-informed idiot comes up to you at a party and tells you that he’s an anarchist, nut him in the face and Fed-Ex him off to Somalia. With no effective government since 1991, the only law and order in Mogadishu revolves around gangs of armed thugs randomly killing and raping with impunity. Mmm… anarchy… don’t-cha just looove it?
Of course, the international community should really do something about this, if not for the sake of Somalia itself, then surely for the sake of the poor bastards who have to navigate the pirate-infested waters anywhere within a thousand miles of Somalia’s shoreline. I’m sure Djibouti, Yemen, Oman, Kenya, Tanzania and The Seychelles are less than thrilled with the situation. But there it remains, and there it has remained, a horror show for nineteen years now.
But there is one bit of good news – Somaliland. Yep, that old bit of British Somalia that really shouldn’t have been lumped with the madness that was Italian Somalia in the first place, has broken away and now has it’s own parliament, capital, flag, currency, university and (heaven forbid!) multi-party elections. It’s got a damn good historical reason for being an independent nation and it’s got possibly the best current reason in the world for lopping off its malformed and pustulating growth of teeth and hair that is Somalia proper.
So, who thinks, given the circumstances, that Somaliland should be recognised as an independent nation by the world? All of you?! Good, that’s what I thought. If you can give me one good reason why Somaliland should not be recognised as an independent state then I will give a gold star and a jellybaby, because let’s face it, there is no good reason… well, that is if your brains haven’t been recently sucked out through your nose or, of course, you work for the UN. Because the UN says no..
Why does the UN say no?
To be quite frank, I have no f–king idea. The same institution that wants the French to give the island of Mayotte back to Cloud Coup Coup Land and (let’s not forget) facilitates the process in which the most blood-thirsty criminals in the world make trillions of dollars every year by enforcing this idiotic prohibition on drugs, refuses to allow Somaliland the status of being a nation. Blimey, what a bunch of f–ks.
I kinda hated the UN at the start of this trip, but now I really hate the UN, it’s about as much use as a KFC on the moon.
Well, as things are, if you visit Somaliland, it counts as a visit to Somalia, which is useful for me as I have less than no intention of visiting anywhere that might result in my head being chopped off. So that was the plan.
Matt and I jumped the bus from Dira Dawa (Ethiopia) to Djibouti City at midnight, only to find that irritating habit of buses leaving a couple of hours after they say it’s going to leave was still in full force. The latest from Dino was that the boat was leaving today, and I fretted over having time to visit Somalia/Somaliland. After 2am, the bus finally began the long haul to the Djibouti border, arriving at about 9am.
Because the Ethiopian border guards took an age stamping us out, we missed our connecting bus to Djibouti City. At this point, I was beginning to spak out somewhat. The latest intell from Dino (who had been working overtime over Christmas to get me on this ship to Egypt) was that I had to get to the CMA-CGM shipping office as soon as possible, and now it was beginning to look like I would not make it over there until the afternoon (we were supposed to be arriving at 10am).
Matt and I filmed some stuff on the border while we waited for the next bus to fill, and eventually we made it through to the Djibouti side of things. This took another half-hour as the ‘visas’ we had procured from Nairobi was actually a piece of paper telling the border guards to give us visas upon arrival – this confused the hell out of the border guards and I was steeling myself to being told to return to Addis when they stamped us in. Happy days.
What was less than happy was my face a couple of hours later when we were stopped on the outskirts of Djibouti City by a bastard Vogon who found a inconsistency in my visa (the border guards hadn’t filled out the ‘duration’) and wanted me to return to the border to sort it out. By now it was 1pm and time was running short. Unfortunately I only had nothing smaller than a $20 bill to bribe the horrible little toad and, once back on the bus I felt as if my brain was going to E.X.P.L.O.D.E. like the poster for Akira.
I don’t normally get angry enough to contemplate homicide, I’m a lover not a fighter, but since my trials and tribulations at the hands of corrupt African officials, I can’t help but imagine the satisfaction of seeing one of these scumbags heads on a spike and coyly waving at it like Vir in Babylon 5. To add to my chagrin, this was the first bribe I had to pay since I left DR Congo – Southern and East Africa seemed to have sorted out the shop-front (especially were tourists are concerned) and I couldn’t help but feel that the ever-present culture of bribery and corruption that so afflicts West Africa might be on the wane over on this side of the continent. But now I think I just got lucky.
Anyway, fuming and ratty I arrived in Djibouti City only to find that the shipping agency had closed. I was too late.
There was nothing to do but head to the hotel that Matt had booked for the night – the Djibouti Sheraton, no less. Yet more ordeals awaited us. I expected to be able to get on the free wi-fi and contact Dino in the UK and find out what was happening. I mean, I’ve stayed in places that cost less than $5 a night that have free wi-fi, but the UTTERLY RUBBISH Sheraton hotel, which was so rubbish it might as well have been constructed out of used baked bean cans and slop, charged for its wi-fi. And they charged A LOT.
Then Matt got into all kinds of difficulty with regards to his credit card booking. The manager, some latter day Basil Fawlty type, was having trouble getting his head around the fact that Matt had booked through Expedia. Actually, he was having trouble getting his head around a lot of things, how to dial an international number for one. This lead to a hilarious situation in which he demanded to see proof of payment, which would be available online, but refused to give us the wi-fi code so we could actually go online and prove the payment had been made.
I think it was three hours before it was all resolved. Don’t you just love true customer service? SHERATON HOTELS, YOU SUCK. I will never stay in one of your flea-ridden hell-holes again as long as I live and I will encourage everyone I know to avoid your embarrassing chain of joke hotels like the PLAGUE.
While Matt was busy battling Basil in order to get into the room he had paid a lot of money for, I returned to the Shipping Agency under the behest of Dino, who was now acting as my Ed Harris in Apollo 13. If I didn’t make this boat, I would be spending New Year on my own, but more worryingly so would Mandy.
Back at the shipping office, I was greeted by Deyan, Abdourahman and Adbi-Chakour, three of the best guys in the world. For all the trials and tribulations that Djibouti had put me through, I was ready to sling it down amongst Congo, Guinea and Cape Verde as a circle of hell to which I would vow never to return – that was until I met these guys. Now Djibouti is a shining beacon of loveliness and wonder (albeit one that nobody’s heard of). Plus they filmed the original Planet of the Apes here, YOU MANIACS!
Deyan, Abdourahman and Abdi-Chakour not only sorted me out with the ship, the MV Turquoise, they also drove me to the border with Somalia/Somaliland and because they knew the guys on the border, managed to get me across, no questions asked. Huzzah!
Stepping foot in Somalia was a strange experience. On one hand, it was like edging closer to Mordor than anyone but a foolhardy hobbit would ever go (the borderlands were a rubbish tip like you’ve never imagined), on the other hand it was very normal, like stepping over any other rubbish-choked hell-hole frontier. The knowledge that I was actually entering a peaceful, stable area of an otherwise horrifically failed state was reassuring, but there was something about the place… the look on people’s faces that spoke of unspeakable evil happening on their doorstep.
Or maybe I’m just being melodramatic AND IT’S ALL IN MY HEAD.
Ah well, who cares? I made it out alive and everybody got their cut. The guys dropped me off at the Sheraton where I found Matt who was just about ready to kill, kill and kill again. The fact that everything was sorted for the boat and, barring a major disaster, I would be seeing my girlie again in just five days had put a spring in my step. Matt, on the other hand, had been put through HELL by these utter fools in the Sheraton – the funniest thing was that they were so completely unrepentant, like it was Matt’s fault they had all the mental faculties of a recently shredded gerbil who was suffering from Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease.
Matt bought me a beer and we called it a night just before midnight.
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.