27.09.11: It’s Day M.
As I stand outside Wewak aerodrome on the northern fringe of Papua New Guinea, I dip my hat on the morning of Christmas Eve 2010 and… MATCH CUT: I raise my head and it is now 27th September 2011, Day 1000 of The Odyssey Expedition. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot that I’ve put on weight and my facial hair is approximately 83% sillier than ever before.
A lot has happened in those missing nine months, and a lot has stayed the same. I lost my sister and my good friend Si lost his father. Stan got married and my video Best Man speech was a disaster. Babies came into the world, and it was an honour to meet the new additions to our planet. Captain Danny finished his fourth and final tour of the Middle East. Upon his return to the UK last week, the Bluecoat Massive breathed a huge sigh of relief. He proposed to his lovely girlfriend Penny just before heading off to Afghanistan last March leading to plaintive cries of “for God’s sake Danny, do you not watch war films?!!”. Talking of proposals, I just heard on the jungle drums that Dino and his delightful squeeze Ruth are all set to tie the knot – congrats guys, here’s sending my love from Wewak.
After losing millions courtesy of the stubbornly strong Aussie dollar, Lonely Planet TV relocated from Melbourne to San Francisco and so I have no idea a) if there’s going to be a second series of ‘Graham’s World’ or b) if anybody is left to remember that they lent me a Sony A1 video camera last year. I’m hoping the answers to those questions are YES and NO respectively. I got myself a literary agent who is too busy to read my stuff (I wrote that to see if you read this!!) and made friends with my Aussie counterpart Steve Crombie (‘Natural Born Traveller’) who I’m sure we’ll encounter again in the near future.
Liverpool, despite the unhappy reason I returned home, was several shades of totally awesome – like getting into a hot tub with a bunch of supermodels dressed as pirate queens. Melbourne, well… Melbourne was Melbourne. It keeps getting voted most liveable city in the world, by which I assume they mean ‘city that you’re unlikely to die in prematurely’ rather than ‘city that makes you feel good to be alive’. Then again, if you’re a well-heeled teetotaller who doesn’t like chips, footy, music or going out on a weeknight…
Maybe once boat people like myself people have paid the $3,000 toll to live and work in Australia (that’s $3,000 more than I would have to pay to live and work in Paris, Rome, Athens, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Madrid… but I digress…) they – understandably – feel compelled to say the place is great. Ah well, you can’t win ’em all.
So here we are, nine months on. I could be furious at the people who promised me more than they could deliver, but to be honest I’m more angry at myself for not taking the Pacific cargo ship route earlier. This way would have taken a long long time whichever way I did it, but I didn’t need to set myself up to fail by waiting 277 days (yes) between Christmas Eve and now before picking up the trail again.
Hey, if anybody reading this feels like smashing my record, I think the trickiness factor has been reduced by at least 27.7%.
The good news is that the blog entries will be coming fairly thick and fairly fast once again. (“Got up. Made tea. Phone didn’t ring again…” does not a good blog make.) I know that for some of you out there, these posts are one of your favourite tools of procrastination, so I’m sorry if my extended leave of absence has made you irritatingly productive.
Well then, I guess THE ODYSSEY EXPEDITION is now officially BACK ON THE ROAD. I’ve cranked up my battered GPS logger, I’ve got a new screen for my old Dell laptop, I’ve got a stack of MiniDV tapes and a new Sony Cybershot 14 megapixel stills camera with this nifty ‘panoramic’ feature that totally kicks ass… I guess I’m ready to go.
I arrived in Wewak this morning onboard the good ship Rita at the princely time of 10am. Rita is an old beast owned by Lutheran shipping, and it’s not the same ship that I took from Vanimo to Wewak all those months ago – if anything it was older (if that was possible and still afloat), but it was (happily) a lot less (over)crowded. Upstairs was tourist class, a load of spare bunk beds (take your pick) but a higher price. Downstairs in economy you had to make do with any space you can find. I decided to go for tourist class. Oh don’t look at me like that, it’s not like it was air conditioned.
Doing my best to avoid sticking to the plastic-covered mattress I sweated my way through the night using my laptop and camcorder as a pillow lest some rascols had their eye on my gear. The constantly screaming kids and the tinny mobile-on-speakerphone music made it difficult to get off to sleep, but trust me, I’m a professional. Sleeping in ridiculously uncomfortable situations is my specialty.
Wewak was much like I remembered it – a neglected seaside town on the edge of nowhere with no road connections to Indonesia, Port Moresby or even Madang. In fact, there are no road connections from the north of this country to the south of it – you take the boat around the coast, you fly or you get your hiking boots and your mosquito net out. This lack of infrastructure is simultaneously what is holding PNG back AND acting as the saviour of indigenous tribes, customs and languages across the country. It’s a tricky balancing act and I’m glad I’m not the one making the call.
What Wewak has got going for it is that it is the entry-point for the Sepik River – the mighty Amazon of Papua New Guinea. The Sepik is the river that you have to negotiate in order to penetrate the dense Papuan jungle and believe me, The Sepik drives a hard bargain. She’s the reason why there is no road from Wewak to Madang: the river would eat it.
But that’s a journey for another time, and as a) Madang is much nicer than Wewak and b) I had left most of my stuff at Katherine’s flat, I feel it wise to return there as soon as possible, thus picking up from where I left off and FINALLY extending my official airline-free journey to every country in the world.
The Rita makes her return journey this afternoon at 2 (I’m thinking 4) and I plan to be onboard. It’s not cheap though, 180 Kina ($50) one-way for a bunk in a shared space with no amenities, air-con, cups of tea, nothing. And the return fare? 360 Kina – the same as two singles. Welcome to PNG folks – it’s so expensive it makes my nose bleed.
After firing up my GPS tracker outside Wewak airport – the very airport that I logged out of The Odyssey Expedition back in December – I headed along the coast to the newly-reconstructed beach patio of the Windjammer’s Hotel. There was a fire here two months ago and the entire place is being rebuilt. Aside from the staff and construction workers, I’m the only one here.
To my left and right the deserted beach stretches as far as the eye can see. Five large fishing vessels and an empty freighter sit out on the horizon doing whatever it is they do. The silhouettes of local fishermen in their wooden canoes with the balance bar set leeward rise and fall beneath the mirage sea. The waves crash upon the shore as the mighty Pacific Ocean breathes in and out: the promise of escape, the promise of adventure: the promise of great things, yet to come.
I just want to say a massive THANK YOU to everyone out there in the blogisphere for following me this far, and if you would follow me a just little farther, there are still 17 more countries and a hundred more adventures to go.
THE ODYSSEY EXPEDITION: 1,000 NOT OUT.
When you’ve the world travelled as much as I have you learn one salient fact about developing nations: NOTHING EVER LEAVES ON TIME. But I’d like to amend that little nugget of information to: NOTHING EVER LEAVES ON TIME, UNLESS YOU’RE LATE.
When I was told that the ship to Wewak was supposed to leave at 2pm yesterday, I was dubious. I rucked up at around 1.55pm to find that the ship was still unloading and wouldn’t be leaving until 4.30pm at the earliest. This is normal. So when my return journey back to Madang was supposed to leave at 2pm I turned up at 2pm. I would have turned up earlier but I was in a nearby hotel watching Doctor Who on my laptop and it was a really good episode and I can’t quite get over how hot Karen Gillan is, for a ging.
In fact, I’m fairly confident that discounting Jessica Rabbit, Arial from the Little Mermaid and MJ from the Spider-Man comics (who are all, sadly, cartoons) that Amy Pond could quite literally be the hottest ging on the planet, present company excepted, and such a step up from face-like-a-smacked-mackerel Catherine Tate it’s almost obscene.
Tangent, Graham… stick to the story…
So there I was, with only my laptop bag, my camera and my toothbrush, ambling down the dock road, sweating like a priest getting his computer fixed by PC World… and I arrive just in time to see the boat depart from the old dock.
I look at my watch: There can be no mistake. It is 2pm.
WHAT. THE. HELL???
You can’t be admirably tardy 99% of the time and then for ONE DAY decide that your ruthless efficiency is going to put the Germans to shame. It’s just not cricket. The sudden and weird realisation that I haven’t missed a single connection since… Brazil, December 29th, 2008 had me twirling with frustration, hubris and a whole heap of D’oh.
With no clothes to change into, no clean underwear, no shampoo and nowhere to stay, I cut my losses, found out when the next boat was leaving for Madang (the day after tomorrow) and headed out to the nearest (and cheapest) guesthouse in town. So much for the Odyssey-a-go-go.
On arriving at the Wewak Guesthouse I was pleasantly surprised to see a couple of backpackers sitting in the ‘bar’ next to the reception desk… why? Because there was a pretty good chance I knew who they were.
Are you Catherine? She nodded.
And you’re Dave, right? He nodded.
And you’re both from Liverpool?!!
Catherine and Dave looked overwhelmed by the knowledge displayed by this fellow scouser… a scouser that neither of them had ever met. Who the hell is this guy? Some kind of travelling Sherlock Holmes? A Liverpudlian Derren Brown?
Nah… they were the couple that stayed with Katherine — my CouchSurf host in Madang — a couple of days before I got there. Katherine had mentioned I might run into them in Wewak and here they were! Yeah, I probably could have gone in all wild-eyed and jazz hands saying that I had been tracking them for months and that Liverpool need them now more than ever (possibly with an invitation onto my stealth helicopter), but nah the freakiness of there being three tourists in the whole of Wewak and them all coming from Liverpool and them all being the same age group was already maxing out the cool factor.
So we settled in for the night. Mrs. Barry, the octogenarian lady (originally from Serbia) who runs the place welcomed me in and the scouse massive shared a room to cut down costs. Catherine and Dave have been travelling slightly longer than me –- three and a bit years –- and are currently attempting to overland it back to Liverpool. Having just come from the Solomon Islands, they were great to pick up much needed intel from (I’m going there next), and when it comes to visa information for pretty much every country in the world, I’m your man.
We drank SP beers and talked long into the night about travel, politics, religion and The Krazy House. A magic moment there in Wewak, and once again we find that missed connection has a silver lining. One that usually tastes of beer.