Day M46: A Night At The Opera

12.11.11:

Did I mention Mandy and I had a music festival to go to? Perhaps I should have, cos we did. With Portishead, Flaming Lips and The National on the billing, it was not something I wanted to miss, even if it meant a frantic dash to Sydney afterwards.

With all my things packed up in the morning, we headed over to Matheus’ house and met up with our fellow festival-goers. For reasons I still don’t 100% understand we took a stretched limo to the festival – apparently, between us it was cheaper than getting the bus(!). Yes, I’ve finally become all my worst nightmares of middle-class festival goers skilfully lampooned here by Adam Buxton:

But the limo was pretty damn cool, so I’m not complaining. It’s been an AGE since I’ve been to a music festival: which feels weird for me since I normally go to several every year. Here’s a bunch of drunken festive nonsense I filmed over the last decade.

Today’s festival, “The Gathering”, was a one-dayer, which was good news as I had to get to Sydney as soon as it finished. Like the Leeds festival, it was held on the grounds of a country mansion: a great setting for a gig. This being the first year of The Gathering, there were plenty of teething problems. One major hitch was the shortage of pretty much everything: queues for the toilets, booze, food etc. stretched for miles. If you hate queuing as much as I do that means that you ended up going the whole day without eating anything (I did).

But the music… ah, the music. With the likes of Mercury Rev, The Family Stone and TV On The Radio to watch whilst whiling away the afternoon, not a cloud in the sky and a good bunch of fellow festival-goers I couldn’t be happier. And then, all too soon, it was all over.

It was time to race to Sydney.

Day M47: Hello Sydney!

13.11.11:

Sydney, the capital-in-all-but-name of Australia is a marvellous little sprawl that sits to the north of Botany Bay. It also appreciates the importance of people liking to stand in front of things and take a photo. Okay, so the Sydney Opera House is a Danish contraption with the interior design features of a nuclear fallout shelter, but at least you can take a picture of you and yours standing outside the damn thing (and the magnificent Harbour Bridge) and people will instantly know where you are. Melbourne, for all its liveability, has no such boast. One word for you, Benjamin: Landmarks!

Mand and I got to Australia’s Mega-City One in good time on the overnight backpacker bus, neither of us sleeping very well. My girlfriend puts up with a lot from me and my stupid idiotic adventures, but on this Sunday morning she was less than happy to see me disappear out of her life again for another few months while I tick off another 8 or 9 countries off the list. She was even less happy about me dragging her ass all the way to Sydney (to Melbournians that’s like the far side of the moon), but like I said in ‘The Melbourne Identity’, I do not intend on quitting this close to the finish line.

We met up with the irrepressible Alex Zelenjak of getting-me-the-hell-out-of-PNG fame and headed down to the port. The wrong port, mind you, but we weren’t the only ones to make that mistake. I checked in without any problems (note to the good people of Sydney: if you want a free parking space in the city centre, when there’s a cruise ship in you may park in the respective carpark gratis) and we went to grab some lunch.

Lunch was a tricky affair: Mandy grumpy and tired, me just tired and Alex possibly wondering what the hell he was doing there. But after some chicken wings and tasty wedges I hugged my girlfriend goodbye for the fifth time since this adventure began, shook Alex’s hand and embarked upon the good ship P&O Pacific Pearl. I barely had time to throw my bag on my bed before we were all summoned off to the Marquee Theatre for a safety drill: we want no repeats of the Titanic on this ship. After that I grabbed a quick shower before racing up to the top deck to film us sail under the Sydney Harbour Bridge (with just inches to spare!), past the Opera House and out into the deep blue sea.

New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji HERE I COME!!!!!!!!

See ya later, Oz!

Days M48-M49: Orientation

14.11.11-15.11.11

The first two days on board the Pacific Pearl we were at sea so I spent them milling about, winning the pub quizzes (ha! Try cheating on your smartphone when the internet is 75c a minute!) and getting to grips with all things cruise-y. The first (and most obvious) thing I noticed was the stunning demographic divide. On a ship of 1,500 souls there must have been less than 30 of us who were young, hilarious and up for dancing the night away. Everybody else adhered to that painful cliché of newly-weds and nearly-deads. There were some families on board, but put it this way: the vast majority of the ship’s compliment of passengers were in bed by midnight.

Smartarse and friends winning their seventh quiz of the day.

Something else I know I shouldn’t say, but I will: boy there are some big fat fatty fat fats on board. Hey, I’m no Slim Jim and I’ve put on a bit of a belly over the last 12 months, but still, Jeepers! I hear Australia has just overtaken the US for the dubious title of ‘fattest people in the world’… walking around this ship I’m given to wonder whether the occasional rocking motion is caused by the sea or one of these beached whales turning over in their sleep. I can’t imagine what damage they’re doing to the all-you-can-eat buffet three times a day. Think of the people on the spaceship in Wall-E. Yeah.

But still, cogs are going around in my head. I think cruises are fun. If I could drink until 6am they’d be even more fun. If they were a little less glitzy, a little more Monkey Island, a little less sedate, a little more anarchic, a little less 80s, a little more 10s, a little less hotel and a little more hostel then I reckon we could be onto a winner. I don’t want a swimming pool: I want an all-night house party, but one that magically takes me to new and exciting places… and I’m sure I’m not the only one. P&O, (I’m probably the only one on board who knows what P&O stands for) I have a modest proposal I’d like to run by you…

Day M50: The Isle of Pines

16.11.11:

Our first stop was in the French territory of New Caledonia. After getting my fingers burnt with South Sudan I’ve decided that it’s in my interests to ensure that I pop into any territory that might inconveniently (for me!) become independent in the next few years. With an referendum pencilled in for 2014, I figured I might as well tick New Caledonia off my list now and have my completed record stand for a few extra years should the population take a turn down the rocky road of independence. The Isle of Pines is located in the very south of the country, below the big island (Grand Terre) that makes up most of this sizeable speck of Melanesia.

Melanesia encompasses PNG, The Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and (ethnically) Fiji, so by the end of this week I’ll have Melanesia done and dusted. Only took me the best part of a year, eh? The Isle of Pines is lovely and reflective of New Caledonia as a whole: quiet, relaxed, it’s like PNG but without the uncomfortable edge. The dancing skeleton guys who greeted me off the ship were real gents.

Go Dancing Skeleton Guys! Go!!

I trekked up to the highest point and surveyed the entire island. Fair enough, there’s lots of pine trees: hmm… I see where the island got its name.

Here Be Pine Trees.

After clambering back down I stuck my sticky beak into the old jail, now falling to pieces as it is reclaimed by nature. Built in 1881, the French used it to house criminals that they had brought over from France, much in the manner of the British transporting ne’er-do-wells and tealeaves off to Australia. The prison reminded me a little of my accommodation in Congo and of Papillon, although Papillon was set off the coast of French Guiana.

It's not quite the same when they let you wear clothes.
Andy Dufresne strikes again.

I popped into a shop and got to speak a little French (getting rusty now, it’s been a long time since Africa) and then meandered back to the ship.

Since there’s no deep water port on the Isle of Pines, the Pacific Pearl sat out at anchor and we used small launches to get to and fro. I quite liked this set up, it meant they don’t have to vandalise these lovely islands with concrete wharves and quaysides. Plus I got to watch them lift the launches back into place on the mothership which wasn’t quite like Battlestar Galactica, but near enough for my approval.

I've got the feeling the Chief might be a Cylon...

Day M51: Mystery Island

17.11.11:

How could one not love a place called Mystery Island? An uninhabited island located in the very south of Vanuatu, this tiny dot of land is believed to be haunted and so living here is taboo. Why is it haunted? Well I guess that’s the mystery of Mystery Island. Although the Ghost of Christmas Past doesn’t stop us tourists stomping all over the place (and it didn’t stop the Yanks building an airstrip that takes up half the island). Again we took to the launches and to step foot in the 187th country of The Odyssey Expedition was a sheer joy. I hung out on the island with my new cruise chums Stef and Crystal and did the usual stuff one does on mysterious islands…

Drink kava out of a coconut shell…

Fend off the local warriors…

Bring out the dancing girls…

Hang out at the Dharma Initiative airport…

And almost get eaten by cannibals…

True story.

Incidentally, if you would like to hire Mystery Island for the day it only costs about $50. Bargain!

Day M52: Port Vila

18.11.11:

As you all know (since you’re reading this and are therefore as intelligent as you are good looking) Port Vila is the capital of Vanuatu. Unlike the other places we’ve been to so far on this cruise, Port Vila has a port so no launches today, we simply pulled up alongside and hit the streets. Being an enterprising (read: tight arsed) chap, I took a walking tour of the capital, a rather pleasant, sleepy kinda place. Before independence, Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides – a complementary name to New Caledonia (the Roman name for Scotland).

It’s also worth noting that Vanuatu has an awesome flag. Unlike the Seychelles, which hasn’t. Also, people from Vanuatu are not called Vanuatans or Vanuatuvians… they’re called Ni-Vanuatu. Which is a brilliant name which makes them sound like a kick-ass warrior race from Star Trek. Ka-POW! After doffing my hat at the war memorial, I headed over to the museum to imbibe the Ni-Vanuatu culture. Now today we’re not visiting Pentecost Island, but if you’ve got guts of steel you might want to witness (yeah, you need guts of steel just to watch) the annual ground-diving ceremony. It’s like bungee jumping (in fact, it’s were the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club got the idea) but instead of a bungee rope they use a tellingly non-elastic vine and instead of decidedly missing the ground, they tend to hit the damn thing. Oh, and the participants are mostly 10-15 year old boys. Is this the maddest initiation ceremony in the world? Well, there are the bullet-ant-filled leafy mittens of doom in The Amazon…

But given the choice, I’d go for the mittens of doom.

The museum had some classic cuts of Vanuatu culture, but sadly there was no diorama of a missionary getting cooked in a big pot while the natives danced around singing Barbie Girl by Aqua. I’m fairly sure that happened at least once.

Outside it was pretty overcast, it being cyclone season in the South Pacific there is a tendency to rain like it’s Manchester on a sunny day. I opted for a tasty burger at the Waterfront Bar and enjoyed the beats of island life washing over me courtesy of the house band. I checked out the market before saying Ta-Ta to Vanuatu and clambering back on board the ship.

That night on the Pacific Pearl was the most raucous yet. With no island to visit tomorrow, myself and my merry team of miscreants: Stef, Crystal, Kyle, Quagmire (giddidy), Bryson et al caused security no end of headaches, safe in the knowledge that waking up with a cranking hangover tomorrow will not interfere with one’s itinerary. Right, that’s Vanuatu out of the way: Next up, FIJI!!!!!

Day M53: This Is The Odyssey

19.11.11:

I rose belated and bedraggled from my cabin at some godly hour and headed upstairs to grab some breakiefast. No Full English for me, sir, I’m happy with the Alpen, thanks. Then it struck me: I had agreed to do a talk today about my adventures around the world. Why did I do that? Heaven knows; I guess I’m a rampant self-publicist. Unfortunately, my name was put down as ‘Gareth’ Hughes on the Ship Newsletter. Quite why a guy called Gareth would present a show called ‘Graham’s World’ is a matter for greater minds than mine. I blame Willy, the ship’s Deputy Director of Entertainment; who sounds like a scouser, but do not be misled, he doesn’t come from Liverpool, he comes from Birkenhead. Consequently, like all Birkenheadians, Malaysians and Nigerians he’s a Kopite and maybe the whole ‘Gareth’ thing was sweet revenge for all the ribbing I’ve been giving him all week (what’s the only ship that’s never come to Liverpool etc…).

Winging it (as always) and with no script or powerpoint presentation ready, I headed down to the Connexions Bar at 4pm to natter with the good people on board about my journey to 187 of the world’s countries without flying. I’m led to believe that inspirational speakers get paid a stack of cash for their canny witticisms, but I was happy to do it for shit and giggles. It took me an hour to get through my journey and although I missed a few opportunities for cheap gags along the way, it went down quite well (since when has a lack of preparation slowed me down?) and I capped off the evening’s entertainment by winning the subsequent pub quiz in fine form. Tomorrow we’d hit nation 188, Fiji.

Now let’s talk about the next seven countries. I have a plan, a plan that I’d like to share with you all. Okay, the final six (Micronesia, Palau, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, South Sudan) are beyond the pale for the moment, but that leaves Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and Nauru for me to get my teeth into.

I have repeated time and time again how difficult it would be to take cargo ships to these destinations, and I’m not joking. There are literally 3 cargo ships that *might* take me to these places, but if any one of them says no I’m more stuffed than a stuffed toy that’s been overstuffed with Christmas stuffing. The first of the three ships is The Southern Pearl, which runs from Fiji to Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshalls and then back to Fiji. The second is the Southern Lily 2 which runs from Fiji to Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand. The third is the Scarlett Lucy which runs to Nauru from Brisbane, meaning I have to also hitch a ride back to Australia at some point. Make no mistake: NOTHING ELSE goes to Nauru: no cruise ships, no yachts, no desperately misguided whales.

It is therefore with great relief and extra special appreciation that I introduce you to Rowan Moss of Pacific Direct Line: not only has Rowan fixed my passage on board the Southern Pearl, it looks like the Southern Lily 2 is a go AND the Scarlett Lucy will take me when I’m ready. It’s going to be a long hard slog, but the buttock-clenching bit is over, THANK YOU ROWAN! The next 7 countries are laid out before me. If all goes well, I’ll have Nauru knocked off the list before the end of February next year. Dino Deasha, Alex Zelenjak and Lorna Brookes have been instrumental in setting all this up, but it was really Mandy who came through at the end to win the relay on behalf of the Team Odyssey. Like Charlie Sheen when he was mad, we’re WINNING.

This time next year, Rodney… this time next year…

Day M54: …And So To Fiji

20.11.11:

Today was a red-letter day for the Odyssey Expedition. I would step foot on the hallowed turf of the 188th country of The Odyssey Expedition: FIJI. Our port of call was Port Denarau: a rather artificial creation on the west coast of Viti Levu, the biggest island of the 300+ specks of land that make up modern Fiji. The tourist brochure bills it as something of a ‘resort’, the kind of thing that makes me breathe in sharply through my teeth: a golf course, a shopping centre and a Hard Rock Café. Eek.

But I have to say I had an absolutely awesome time. Most due to the fact that on the journey to land I got chatting to a fresh-faced young couple, Molly and Angus, from Adelaide who managed to restore my faith in all things Australia. We went to the local shop, I almost danced a jig when I saw long-necks (pint bottles) on sale for less than £1.50. We found a place on the grass by the marina and whiled away the lunchtime hours drinking grog and having a laugh. I probably talked too much, but then I often do. For the second longneck we headed over to the Hard Rock Café and laughed at the huge and improbable queue to get back on board the ship. Last launch at 4pm? Do me a favour. By 5pm we were still very much on land and the queue was still very much waiting. So we consoled ourselves with alcohol, good company and the fact that the live band playing outside the Hard Rock was nothing short of awesome. Well, they started in that tragic Australian Pubrock vein, but then blossomed into some of the funkiest mofo beats I’ve heard in an age (don’t forget I’ve been stuck in Pubrock Central (Oz) most of this year).

One or none of these people might have spent a night in the cells.

It may have been the booze. I’m contractually obliged to miss out a bit of the story at this point, so let’s skip to the bit where I’m back on board the mothership and drunkenly stuffing my clothes into a washing machine. After some tomfoolery at the restaurant (I’m so sorry if I’m the guy who joined you for dinner) I dried my clothes, thought I lost my secret money wallet (which was stacked full of cash) and headed up to the nightclub and oh god the night is a total blur from that point on. I just hope that nobody but myself had a camera. The last thing I recall is playing a game in which you have to suck on a beer mat and pass it onto the next person who has to suck it off your face. Entertainment value of 100%, but seriously, I may well have accidentally kissed a bloke. Please don’t tell my dad.