Is The Odyssey possible? It’s been a question that has been bugging me for some time. Okay, I’ve made it this far, on the surface it looks like I’m doing quite well: with 183 countries in the bag and just 17 left to go, you would think I’d be relaxing in to the final stretch of this mad quest. But I can’t emphasise this enough: I still have NO idea how on Earth I’m going to get to the twelve Pacific Island states that lay ahead. They are all thousands of miles from each other and the Pacific, despite the name, is anything but Magellan’s ‘calm sea’: storm surges created off the coast of Russia roll on for days uninterrupted until they create waves in the South Seas that would make short work of that wooden Pirogue that took me to Cape Verde. A lift on a yacht would cost more than I’ve spent getting to every country so far (seriously). Cargo ships service the northern South Pacific islands once every couple of months and Cruise ships only ply the ‘lower’ islands: Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
Nauru, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu look as inaccessible as Facebook in China.
Now into this quantum uncertainty has stumbled forth two unlikely heroes: the first of which is good ol’ Alex Zelenjak, an Aussie Odyssey fan since the beginning and the guy who (amongst other things) discovered the ‘back door’ into Taiwan from China as well as the WORKING PELNI FERRY WEBSITE (yes folks, IGNORE YOUR LONELY PLANET – if you want to find out Indonesian Ferry times, go to http://www.pelni.co.id – NOT http://www.pelni.com which hasn’t been working since 2006).
The other hero is a chap originally from Blighty but relocated to Oz, no it’s not Yahtzee Crowshaw, it’s Damian Pallett, a mate of Lorna Brookes (she of Odyssey logistics fame). He’s taken on the challenge of getting me around the Pacific in one piece and before the world ends on December 20th 2012 (if John Cusack is to be believed). And, by Jove I think he’s come up with a solution that in the finest bolt-n-build-your-own-adventure style might just be the golden ticket.
I can’t give to much away at this point, but suffice to say that between myself, Alex and Damian things are beginning to crystallise into what I can only describe as a kick-ass plan that is more cunning than a silver-tongued fox that’s just been appointed professor of cunning linguistics at the University of East Anglia.
BUT FIRST I need to get to Palau and Papua New Guinea (PNG), on my own, unsupported and on a shoestring. This is not going to be easy. Here’s how I’m going to spend my December of 2010:
TODAY: Commence operation HATI-HATI. I need to get the next boat to Sorong in West Papua. This ship will leave the Island of Sulawesi a week tomorrow. I have two options:
1. Wait here in Kupang until Friday, get to Sulawesi on Sunday, get the West Papua ferry on Money
2. Bugger this for a game of soldiers, race back to Bali, GET MY REPLACMENT HAT, take the Pelni ferry leaving Surabaya (Java) a week today. I will arrive at the same time as I would by staying in Kupang.
I opt for…
Right… I have to get down to Kupang port and board the ferry back to the island of Flores. It leaves in a couple of hours. I better get my skates on.
TOMORROW: I have to race as fast as I can across Flores, from West to East. It may take a few days.
WEDNESDAY: Hopefully arrive in Labuanbajo in the East of Flores.
THURSDAY: Morning boat to Sumbawa, overnight bus across the island.
FRIDAY: Ferry to Lombok, Ferry to Bali, bus to Seminyak, meet with Neil, pick up NEW HAT.
SATURDAY: Ferry and bus to Surabaya in Java.
SUNDAY: Pelni Ferry to Makassar in Sulawesi island. Like this:
A WEEK ON WEDNESDAY: Arrive in Sorong, West Papua. Beg the local ex-pats to join me on a (fun!) sailing trip to Helen Reef in Palau. Don’t know how long this will take, could conceivably take the rest of December. Or my life.
GOD KNOWS WHEN: Leave Sorong on the fortnightly Pelni ferry to Jayapura on the border with PNG. This will take two days. Then I have to get from Jayapura to Port Moresby, the capital of PNG – right on the other side of the second-largest island in the world, and one with all the infrastructure of the moon. As always, I will have to do this without flying. Oh, and just to make things doubly impossible, it’ll be the height of the rainy season when I get there, what ‘roads’ exist in the dry will be nothing but a swamp. Here’s what I’ll have to do:
Take a banana boat from VANIMO to AITAPE on the north coast. From there it’s a bus (a PMV) to WEWAK. From there it’s the weekly ferry to MADANG. Then I’ll have to take the Highlands Highway to MENDI (if that’s even possible in the wet season) and from there I’ve just got to hope that the new road from MENDI to KIKORI actually frickin’ well EXISTS (my Lonely Planet informs me it ‘should’ be opening in 2008). From KIKORI I’ll be taking a motor dingy along the south coast to KEREMA and there I’ll be somehow bodge my way to PORT MORESBY, because the road is usually impassable in the dry, god knows what it’s going to be like in the wet.
The alternative is to take a boat from MADANG to POPENDETTA on the north coast and then travel to the KOKODA TRACK and HIKE the 90km to where the road starts again at MEDITOGO VILLAGE. This track is a real slog over mountainous jungle terrain (rising to over 3000 metres) and takes between six and eleven days IN THE DRY SEASON. In the wet season I would probably not even be able to find a guide who’d be up for it, even if the track was passable, which I’m guessing it wouldn’t be. It’s not really an alternative, but I just want you to understand how difficult it’s going to be to just get to Port Moresby: it may take me to the end of January JUST TO GET TO TWO COUNTRIES.
Well, that’s what I’m doing for Christmas – and as PNG is a very dangerous place where life is cheap, I may well find myself watching the Queen’s speech from the discomfort of a large cooking pot. Today I sat in Edwin’s gaff organising the next twelve countries after Palau and PNG with Damian and Alex, hopefully they won’t be as arduous. I would have liked to speak to Dino, the Odyssey’s very own Mr. Bojangles, however he would have been fast asleep: I’m seven hours ahead of GMT here. Soz Dino.
Interestingly, I have now (in my life) been to every country in the world beginning with the letters A, B, C, D and E. I haven’t been to Fiji yet so F doesn’t get a tick, but I have been everywhere beginning with the letters G, H, I, J, L, O (which is just Oman), Q (which is just Qatar), R, U, W, Y (just Yemen!) and Z.
The only letters I still need for the set are F, K, P, N, M, S and T.
Sadly, no country begins with the letter ‘X’. I will rectify this some day when I buy an island in the Pacific and Christen it ‘XXX’. It would look great on my country slide at the UN – people would think I was a spy. Or the owner of a porn site. Either is good.
By 3.30pm it was time for me to launch OPERATION HATI-HATI.
After cheerios to Edwin I set off to the port for the 4 o’clock ferry to Larantuka in Flores. Only it was more like the 3.25pm ferry to Larantuka, so I was damn lucky to get on board in time. Something I was less fortunate about was the seating arrangement. The ‘Executive’ Class did mean I wouldn’t have to sleep with the cattle (no, really) but it didn’t exactly guarantee me a bed. Or a seat for that matter. This is going to be one uncomfortable night.
One thing that was quite cool though: they have Indosat on this ship and they showed my TV program. Quite a surreal experience being on TV in the midst of the madness that is an Indonesian ferry crossing. There’s mothers and children strung out all over every available bit of floor, much in the manner of the end of Radiohead’s video for ‘Just’. I’m currently sitting on the wing of the ship, just outside the bridge. It’s cooler out here and I feel less sea sick.
I shudder to think that when THE PACIFIC LEG begins in earnest next year, I may be at sea for two months solid. Groan. But as Roy Castle once said, if you wanna be a record breaker, dedication’s what you need.