Days M150–153: Piercing The Gloom

Fri 24.02.12 – Mon 27.02.12:

So I went from the Papuan Chief to the Pacific Pearl to the Southern Pearl to the Southern Lily 2 to the Sea Princess to the Scarlett Lucy: there are indeed a lot of ‘S’ n ‘P’s in the South Pacific.

I’ll be on the Scarlett Lucy now for the next month. At the start of The Odyssey Expedition it would be an inconceivable amount of time to spend just visiting one country (I managed to visit 50 countries in one month back in April/May 2009!). I guess it’s a bit like the way that time goes slower as you near the event horizon of a black hole. But look at it is this way: Nauru will be the last of the South Pacific nations I need to visit. Palau and Micronesia are in the Northern Hemisphere.

We left Brisbane just before midday on Friday 24 February. Thick blobs of rain where lashing down and the whole of Queensland seemed enshrouded in a layer of thick fog – the land of the dead, perhaps. Sailing through foggy waters is nothing something I’ve experienced too much of in my travels, but there is something rather glorious about the piercing the gloom – the sense of mystery, perhaps, mixed with a sense of foreboding engrained by watching too many horror films.

For the first few nights the sea was rough. The bed in my cabin swings slightly from side to side to compensate, but it doesn’t swing quite enough and so every sway of the ship is accompanied by a CLANG! as metal hits metal. It’s a little like sleeping on top of a bell. Good job I can sleep anywhere, eh?

Happily enough, the further we travelled from Australia, the better the weather and the calmer the sea. At the moment it’s blue skies in every direction and our little patch of the Pacific Ocean is as calm as a duckpond. We’re heading up to Noro on the island of New Georgia in the Western Province of The Solomon Islands. We’ll only be there for a few short hours while the Lucy drops off some empty containers for the local cannery to stuff full of tuna in time for our return to Noro sometime after Honiara, Tawara (Kiribati) and Nauru. Quite a canny system, if you think about it. Canny? Geddit? Heh.

The crew are a most excellent bunch (they always are!). The majority (including the captain) are from Fiji, there’s a couple from The Solomons and one or two are from Indonesia. Most of them have worked on the Southern Pearl before (The Pearl is also a Neptune ship), so they all know the guys I was with on my last trip to Kiribati.

Tomorrow is my birthday and will be spent completely at sea. We’re planning to have a couple of beers and (if I’m lucky) cooky will make me a cake. One way or another this will be the last of my birthday’s spent on The Odyssey Expedition. When I started this insane mission, I was 29. When I finish it I’ll be 33. Ygads!

Day M154: Such A Pretty House

Tue 28.02.12:

Today I turned 33 years old. Too old, Yoda would say, to begin the training. By the age of 33, Jesus had convinced enough illiterate sailors that he was the son of God to kick-start the most lucrative religious racket the world has ever seen, Mozart was working on what would turn out to be his last requiem and Alexander The Great had conquered the known world. All did not live to see their 34th [edit: whoops! except for Mozart, who was 35 when he died].

By the time most of us hit the big three-three, we’ve got a full time job, a house we’re struggling to keep up the repayments on, a sizeable pension fund, a savings account, a TV in every room, a fridge, a couch, wood-decking out the back, matching towels, a Playstation 3 and, by and large, rugrats.

I don’t have any of those things. In fact, everything I own in the world is stuffed inside my ludicrously small backpack. I suppose I’m one of Renton’s bunch – I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. Am I rich? Not by any stretch of the imagination. But am I happy? HELL YEAH!!!

In the last few months I’ve danced with the Highlanders of Papua New Guinea, got put in a big cannibal pot in Vanuatu, spent Christmas with a Fijian family, met the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, got told off for taking pictures outside Peter Jackson’s house in New Zealand, saw The Flaming Lips, The National, Portishead and Tim Minchin live, appeared on national TV in both New Zealand and Australia and blagged a free ride on a cruise ship on which I was treated as a VIP (ha! I’m so not!). With little more than a bit of charm, cheek and nous, I find myself staggering from one awesome experience to the next: and I’m fairly confident that I’ve spent much less money doing this than you have over the same period on your mortgage repayments.

I can’t help that I feel this way. I had two things that steered me toward this course in life. One of which was my genes: I have my father to thank for that, the other was the music I listened to in my most formative years.

I was born in 1979. A great year, as it turns out. The year of my birth had a Smashing Pumpkins song named after it, as well as being the year the movie Super 8 was set. On the day of my arrival, Heart of Glass by Blondie was number one, Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ just about to be released to the world and popular music was still riding on a high of Punk-Disco-Glam that personified the decade. The less said about the following decade the better.

And so, as it happened, I was just the right age (13/14) to get into Grunge. My mates Ben, Dino and Yoz introduced me (with a bit of a fight, I’ll admit) to the world of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and the aforementioned Pumpkins.

That music influenced a generation to pick up a guitar and scream down the microphone, but the existential angst of these bands (although awesome to mosh to) said little to me about my life – my hopes and dreams… and my fears for the future.

After the death of Kurt Cobain, Nirvana fans around the world (or at least around the playground) seemed to spilt into two factions: ones that moved further towards the Kerrang way of thinking (NIN, Tool, Marilyn Manson) and others who gravitated towards the NME side of things (Blur, Oasis, Supergrass). Thus began the great 90s rock schism.

I was happy to straddle the border between the two, one week smashing the place up as Korn played The Krazy House and a few days later gently swaying from side to side as The Bluetones played The Lomax. But again, while I found all these bands great to listen to, the lyrics were more often than not about a) being pissed off with the man or b) being pissed off with society or c) some girl.

And this is why I feel that Radiohead, Pulp and Suede were, for me, more personal, more meaningful and more influential than even the hyper-political ravings of the Manic Street Preachers. Radiohead in particular spoke in clear and unambiguous terms about the dreariness of the well worn path, the monotony of the daily grind and the tragedy of wasted life.

Just to help you understand my teenage mindset a little, I’ve collected some (half-remembered) lyrics that heavily influenced my decision to spend three years of my life travelling around the world. First up is from the final part of Pulp’s ‘Inside Susan’ trilogy, which starts with the hopes and dreams of a young teenage girl and ends with Jarvis Cocker painting a picture of ‘59 Lyndhurst Grove’: a scenario that sounds as depressing as it is mundane:

There’s a picture by his first wife on the wall
Stripped floorboards in the kitchen and the hall
A stain from last week’s party on the stairs
But no-one knows who made it
Or how it ever got there
They were dancing with children round their necks
Talking business, books and records, books, art and sex
All things being considered, you’d call it a success…

He’s an architect and such a lovely guy
And he’ll stay with you until the day he dies
And he’ll give you everything you could desire
Oh well, almost everything, everything that he can buy…

Yeah, most Pulp lyrics were about drilling a hole in the wall so you can watch the neighbours having sex, but if you read between the lines, there was almost certainly a quiet rage against “the life you’ve got worked out” (which, apparently, is nothing much to shout about). It certainly struck a chord with me.

One of my favourite albums of all time is Suede’s broken, fragmented masterpiece Dog Man Star. In this snippet of ‘The Power’, career guidance counsellor Brett Anderson brilliantly lays out the future options for a young ginger kid growing up in the suburbs of Liverpool:

Through endless Asia
Through the fields of Cathay
Or enslaved in a pebble-dash grave
With a kid on the way
If you’re far over Africa
On the wings of youth
Or if you’re down in some satellite town
There’s nothing you can do

‘Or enslaved in a pebble-dash grave’ is the killer line there – the way we live our lives is an option, for better or for worse, it’s a choice we make for ourselves. I could glide through endless Asia, or I could stay at home and play World of Warcraft: it’s up to me. Thanks, Brett!

So if I chose to spend the best years of my life commuting to and from a job I didn’t like, abiding colleagues I can’t stand and dealing with a boss who couldn’t outwit a toothpick, what would that be like? Most of the fourth Blur album, The Great Escape, was utter bobbins and I can’t say that I dwelt on it for too long, but there was a short two-minute ditty called “Ernold Same” that refused to get out of my head. It’s still in there, 17 years later (God I’m old)…

Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed
At the same time
Looked in the same mirror
Made the same frown
Felt the same way as he did every day

And Ernold Same, the same train
Same station
Sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to same old what’s-his-name
On his way to the same place
With the same name
Doing the same thing again and again and again
Poor old Ernold Same

Oh Ernold Same
His world stays the same
Today will always be tomorrow

Poor old Ernold Same
He’s getting that feeling once again
Nothing, nothing will change tomorrow

This would be a horribly tragic song even if it didn’t have Ken Livingstone’s nasal drone sprawling all over it, but as it is, it is a perfect soundtrack to the daily grind, the banality of it all. We snipe at the manners of the Victorians, the repressed sexuality, the wish to fit in, the wish to please their parents, not make a fuss, to conform to the whims of society, the constant worry of what their peers would think. Oh how far we’ve come…

Then came the magnum opus of everyday despair and rage for the button-down business age: Radiohead’s OK Computer. Here are the words to ‘No Surprises’, Radiohead’s tragic lullaby to the slow asphyxiation of suburban life:

A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heel
You look so tired unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t speak for us
I’ll take the quiet life
A handshake of Carbon Monoxide
With no alarms and no surprises…
No alarms and no surprises, please

Radiohead in particular had an obsession with conveying the increasing atomisation, sterilisation and standardisation of everyday life. It’s no surprise that Edward Norton spoke about listening to OK Computer a lot during the filming of the seminal white-collar-angst film, Fight Club.

These songs all came out between 1994 and 1997: that’s 15 to 18 years old for me (both ways, funnily enough). I don’t know if it was the impact they were aiming for, but being told by a millionaire rock star that your life is dull, your job sucks and your wife is probably cheating on you is rather cruel. I mean, where do these guys get off being all angsty about a suburban lifestyle they’ll never know? An office job they’ll never have?

But then, that was the point, wasn’t it? This wasn’t the sound of the latest garish RnB wankfest gloating about their bling, this was the sound of earnest counsel: if you don’t seize the day, make the most of opportunities that come along and, most of all, believe in your own abilities, you’re going to live a dull and predictable life – a life that, let’s face it, you’re probably going to regret.

Hell, some people might hunger for the institutionalised certainties providing by a proper job. Some might go for the shallow reassurances offered by ISAs, fixed rate mortgages and pension funds. Some might be happy battling stupefying odds in the hope that one day they might win the National Lottery in lieu of directly pursuing their dreams. But I don’t. And it’s all Radiohead’s fault. Probably.

Her fake plastic watering can
For her fake plastic rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber, plans
To get rid of herself
It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out

She lives with a broken man
A cracked polystyrene man
Who just crumbles and burns
He used to do surgery
For girls in the 80s
But gravity always wins
It wears him out
It wears him out
It wears him out
It wears him out

She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love
But I can’t help the feeling
I could blow through the ceiling
If I just turn and run
It wears me out
It wears me out
It wears me out
It wears me out

Phew! I’m worn out just typing that.

The most important verse (and the crescendo of the song) is this: But I can’t help the feeling / I could blow through the ceiling / If I just turn and run.

The meaning is clear: if you want, you can escape this so-called life, this pebble-dash grave, the crushing monotony of the everyday. All you need to do is turn and run. Simple. Radiohead liked harping on this theme so much it’s written into every song on OK Computer:

#In an interstellar burst I’m back to save the universe (Airbag)
#When I am king, you will be first against the wall (Paranoid Android)
#I’d show them the stars and the meaning of life (Subterranean Homesick Alien)
#Today we escape, we escape (Exit Music)
#One day I am gonna grow wings (Let Down)
#For a minute there I lost myself (Karma Police)
#I’ll go forwards, you go backwards and somewhere we will meet (Electioneering)
#It’s always better on the outside (Climbing Up The Walls)
#Bring down the government (No Surprises)
#I feel my luck could change (Lucky)
#No-one else would know… (The Tourist)

Those with your smartypants on will notice I’ve missed out a song there, the song being ‘Fitter Happier’. The reason for this is that the message in Fitter Happier is implicit rather than explicit, but for the sake of being comprehensive, here’s the lyrics to what has to be the most horribly discomforting song to ever get on a #1 selling album:

Fitter Happier
More Productive
Not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym three days a week
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
At ease
Eating well
No more microwave dinners and saturated fats
A patient, better driver
A safer car
Baby smiling in back seat
Sleeping well
No bad dreams
No paranoia
Careful to all animals
Never washing spiders down the plughole
Keep in contact with old friends
Enjoy a drink now and then
Will frequently check credit at moral bank
Hole in wall
Favours for favours
Fond but not in love
Charity standing orders
On Sundays
Ring Road
No killing moths
Or pouring boiling water onto ants
Also on Sundays
No longer afraid of the dark
Or midday shadows
Nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate
Nothing so childish
At a better pace
Slower and more calculated
No chance of escape
Now self employed
Concerned, but powerless
An empowered and informed member of society
Pragmatism, not idealism
Will not cry in public
Less chance of illness
Tyres that grip in the wet
Shot of baby strapped in the back seat
A good memory
Still cries at a good film
Still kisses with saliva
No longer empty and frantic
Like a cat tied a stick
That’s driven into frozen winter shit
The ability to laugh at weakness
Calm, Fitter, Healthier and More Productive
A Pig.
In a cage.
On antibiotics.

(FYI: The overlaid sound says This is The Panic Office, section 9-17 may have been hit. Activate the following procedure. It’s from Flight of the Condor.)

When you listen to ‘Fitter Happier’, it’s like hearing a list of demands read to a subjugated society by a malevolent computer in a dystopian 1970s sci-fi movie. But when you read it, it’s actually a list of things that most people would regard as being part and parcel of being a mature, sensible, responsible grown-up.

But I can’t help being fixated on the last line: A Pig. In A Cage. On Antibiotics. It scares me. In fact the whole song scares me. Are we that predictable? Are we that pedestrian in our dreams and aspirations? Is this all we want from life? No alarms and no surprises? Doesn’t anybody else want to escape from The Matrix?

When I heard ‘No Surprises’ for the first time at a one-off show at the Manchester Apollo in July 1996, the lyrics were:

Such a pretty house
With everything you ever wanted

This was changed on the album to:

Such a pretty house
With such a pretty garden

But I prefer the first version, the sound of somebody who has exactly what they thought they wanted in life, but are still not happy. I would wager that accounts for an incredible number of people on Planet Earth today. Maybe they didn’t have the sage counsel of 90s indie rock to guide them.

But how do we decide what we want? Being social animals, we tend to follow the herd in these matters. This is why the useless chips of carbon we call diamonds are so expensive: we’re programmed to believe that they’re something we want. This is why we love being institutionalised, we hunger for conformity and suppress the itch to do more with our lives. We finish school, what now? We finish uni, what now? We get a job, what now? We buy a house, what now? We find a wife, what now? We have some kids, what now? We watch them grow, what now? We watch them repeat what we did as we waste away, our best years behind us, left wondering where all that time went, mildly irritated that our partner is not as hot as they used to be.

A nurse in Australia surveyed hundreds of terminally ill patients, asking them about any regrets they had in life. She recently published her findings.

The number one regret?

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

All I can say is this: if you are not enjoying your situation in life, change it. Stop making excuses for not living your life the way you wish to live it. If that means quitting your boring job, putting your boring house on the market, leaving your boring partner or selling your boring children into slavery then so be it. I can’t emphasise this enough: life is not a rehearsal. When you’re dead, that’s it, game over. There are no second chances, no extra lives, no do-overs. You get taken to a room and burnt.

And what do you want your life’s work to amount to? A limp football scarf tied to a coffin, the priest getting your name wrong, a house that you worked for all your life being taken by the bank, a dining table nobody wants, the knowledge towards the end that, despite all your creative urges, you spent your few short years on this planet shuffling paper back and forth, waiting for your incompetent boss to give you a pay rise so you could afford a marginally more expensive car in which to waste two unpaid hours per day every day sitting in traffic?

Or do you aspire to something greater? Leave a true legacy, travel the world, do something nobody else has ever done, start your own company, write a book, plant a forest, invent the next big thing, build a house, make a scientific breakthrough, achieve peace in the Middle East, win a Nobel prize, change the world, save the world?

Well, come on then. Stop bloody well procrastinating AND DO IT. Now. Stop waiting for permission. This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.

Day M155: I’ve Got Something To Say About Tuna…

Wed 29.02.12:

It was around 1600 on the 29th that we arrived in the town of Noro on the island of New Georgia in the Western Province of The Solomon Islands. It was about an hour before were able to disembark, and I set off with Fijian Engineer Peni and Solomon Islander Deck Cadet Kent for a stroll around the town.

Noro is famous (if that’s the right word) for being the home of The Solomon Islands’ tuna cannery. Not be confused with a tuna canary, which is (probably) a kind of flying fish. Unfortunately (again, if that’s the right word) the cannery was a bit out of town, a good 35 minute walk, and as the sun was setting we thought better of going for a spot inspection.

You don’t need me to tell you that tuna is one of the most overfished fish is the sea. Some estimates that worldwide stocks are down to less than 3% of its natural abundance and the reason for this is fairly obvious: if you use the kind of nets that trap 100% of the fish in any given shallow (deep water is to most fish what a desert is to most men), there’s going to be no fish left to spawn for next year. Plus whatever happens to be swimming along in that area (and some of these nets can stretch over a square mile) gets dragged up by the fishing net as well. That may well include your friendly neighbourhood dolphins, an endangered species of shark or a lost scuba diver.

There are a couple of ways of getting around this problem. Long line fishing involves one long line with a hook and bait positioned every couple of feet. These lines can run for miles and catch a hell of a lot of fish – and as the bait is carefully selected to entice just one type of fish, not dolphins and the like. However, they also ensnare sea birds eager to eat the fish. Also, they fail to differentiate between adult and juvenile fish.

The best option, and one that is currently being practiced in The Solomon Islands, is head back to square 1: fish with a rod. With a team of 30 or 40 skilled anglers sitting off the prow of a ship, these guys can catch over a 1000 fish an hour. They only catch the correct species, they throw back juveniles, no dolphins or seabirds where harmed in the making of this tuna butty. Nice.

But this practice is very much in the minority. Most of the world’s fishing fleets use nets and very soon we could start seeing a premium slapped on tuna like what Australia experienced last year with their bananas (which trebled in price almost overnight). The sooner we start treating the sea as a farm rather than as a all-you-can-eat buffet the better.

It’s usually not fair to single out one country for criticism, especially considering most decisions are made at the top and pretty much everyone on this planet is guilty of eating food without enquiring where it came from, but I have to say that while the Chinese government desperately needs to change its attitude concerning human rights, the Chinese people in general need to change their medieval attitudes towards the utter gobbledegook they – and only they – consume.

The powdered rhino tusk trade, the shark fin trade and the bear bile trade are all powered by the Chinese: nobody else is particularly interested – and it’s not that these things even taste good, it’s that they are supposed to (but don’t) contain magical healing properties or increase sexual prowess. I would say it’s our job in the West to laugh off such foolish notions, but, because we’re all idiots, we go along with it, hey – it’s part of their culture after all. And, well, we don’t know everything, modern medicine can’t cure cancer…

Have to stop you there. Modern medicine can cure cancer, not all forms of cancer yet, but with cervical cancer vaccination and earlier and earlier detection and treatment of breast, bowel and prostrate cancer, we’re getting there. Powdered rhino task didn’t help anyone get a stiffy in the time of Confucius, and is sure as shit doesn’t help anyone now. Try Viagra my oriental chums. Or a better looking wife. Chinese medicine is utter bullshit, based on the thinking of the dark ages when a solar eclipse was a dragon eating the sun who could be scared away by banging pots and pans. You know what we call alternative medicine that works? That’s right ladies and gents: “MEDICINE”!

I find myself feeling increasingly isolated, at once fending off the idiotic religious, libertarian, big-business loving, conspiracy-theorist, global-warming denialist nutjobs on one side and the new-age, anti-science, mumbo-jumbo believing, snake-oil consuming, Reiki-healing, crystal twirling, anti-vax crackpots on the other. I hate it all and I hate it because I can see it’s a con, I know it’s con and yet everybody else in the crowd seems to be blathering on about what incredible lace-work has gone into the Emperor’s New Clothes. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right… to put to mildly. But that’s a rant for another day.

Back on topic, the Chinese are not only the world leaders at consuming endangered species, they are also the world leaders at the smash-and-grab school of fishing. The small island nation of Tuvalu has over one million cubic kilometres of open ocean to patrol to check for illegal fishing. It has one ship (kindly donated by the Aussies) with which to do this. When I was in Tuvalu last December, the Tuvaluan Police, in collaboration with the US Coast Guard, had found two ships in one day of patrolling jut a small percentage of these waters. One was Chinese, the other Taiwanese. This came as little surprise to anyone. Ships that are caught fishing illegally are more likely to originate in China than any other nation on Earth.

But this isn’t a problem that merely concerns the Pacific Island nations, it is a problem that can have a domino effect on the rest of the world. Last year, piracy in the Indian Ocean cost the shipping industry over 10 billion dollars. Pretty much all of these pirates come from Somalia. We don’t see this as surprising because Somali is a failed state and of course people are going to turn to piracy, right? Well, no. For fifteen years without an effective government, the fishermen off the coast of Puntland in northern Somalia were happy to ply their trade doing what they were best at: fishing. This is because the waters off the coast were abundant in aquatic life.

Around the year 2000, Chinese trawlers began fishing illegally off the coast of Somalia. As Somalia has no navy (it’s barely got a government), there was nothing the Somali’s could do to stop them. The Chinese trawlers would haul in fish by the ton, scraping the ocean floor until it was bereft of life, then freeze their bounty and sail it back to China.

As fish stocks dwindled, the fisherman turned to whatever they could to make ends meet. They had boats, they were accomplished sailors, they had easy access to AK-47s… and so the Somali Pirate Industry, which now gainfully employs over 12,000 people, was born. It’s grown year on year since 2005 and now encompasses pretty much the entire Indian Ocean northwest of Mauritius.

So, yes, I will single out China as a country that really needs to get its obligations to the rest of the world in order – especially when it comes to the fruits of the sea. But that’s not to diminish our own responsibilities. The reason many of the 55 states of Africa are in the dire straits they’re in is not the fault of the Chinese – it’s the fault of Western Europe. The 18,000 drug-related murders in Mexico in 2010 are pretty much entirely the fault of the USA. Australia’s coal industry, the UK’s arms industry, Canada’s tar sands, Russia’s oligarchs, Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, the Japanese fondness for eating whale… like the man said, nobody’s perfect. If only there was some kind of governing body that could bring the governments of the world together, punish them for acting like yahoos and reward them for doing the right thing. If only…

Noro is situated on the eastern side of an almost perfectly icicle-shaped inlet, an ideal place to watch the sun set over the water, the jungle on the opposite bank reaching out to green low-laying hills beyond. The Western Provinces were in line to receive a Unesco World Heritage listing, but insensitive logging in the area put that idea to bed. The Scarlett Lucy would be setting sail for Honiara at 2200.

Days M156-161: SolBrew For The Soul

Thu 01.03.12 – Tue 06.03.12:

We arrived in Honiara a at 8pm, a little later than expected, and thanks to our proximity to the equator, it was already dark. I headed over to the King Solomon hotel to try and contact my CouchSurf chum Thomas from last time I was here, but my email had no reply and his phone was off or disconnected. There’s a good chance that he’s left The Solomons for green pastures. I had a quick chat with Mandy – she’s trying her best to organise my passage on the Cap Serrat – a Hamburg Sud cargo ship which leaves Brisbane on March 25 bound for Taiwan… arriving just in time for me to (possibly) jump on the Mariana Express Ship that leaves April 8 bound for nations 196 and 197: Micronesia and Palau.

This year, if I manage to get to one nation a month I’m doing well.

Afterwards I settled down at the bar with a glass of SolBrew and my laptop, catching up with one of a zillion things I had planned to finish while on the Scarlett Lucy.

Rusi, the ship’s welder, came to meet me for a swift half. The bar was quiet, it being Thursday, and the big night out I was hoping for seemed unlikely. A shame as the ship wasn’t leaving until 1500 tomorrow – plenty of time to shake off a hangover. We headed back to the ship before midnight (the start of Russi’s shift) and I ended up in the mess watching videos until the wee small hours.

The next day I hurriedly threw a couple of blog entries up online and then headed over to the yacht club to see what (if anything) was going down. There I met a lady from Formby (Scousers! Everywhere!), a guy from Sydney and a couple who had motorbiked all the way from Australia to the UK, only to get their motorbike stolen in Wales. Oops!

On the other side of the wharf, the Scarlett Lucy blew her horn to say ALL ABOARD! I had to down my last glass of beer and race off, once again, from Honiara, a place that wish I could have spent a great deal more time in – really exploring the island of Guadalcanal would be a real treat.

And so within the hour the gangway was pulled up and once again we were at the mercy of the constant swaying and vibration that constantly reminds you that you’re sea. For the next four days we plotted a course North East to Tawara and I lost myself in a world of books and writing, confident that the outside world would not interfere.

As I write this we’re scheduled to arrive in the capital of Kiribati at 1500 tomorrow. If I had known now what I didn’t know then (I didn’t know that the Scarlett Lucy even called in on The Solomons or Kiribati), I could have jumped ship from the Papuan Chief last time I was in Honiara, clambered on board the Scarlett Lucy, knocked Nauru off the list back in October and be well on my way from Taiwan to Palau and Micronesia by now.

Then again, if I knew back at the beginning what I know now I would have:

1. Not tried to get into Libya and Algeria without a visa
2. Not taken a leaky wooden boat to Cape Verde (I should have waited for a yacht)
3. Not got ratty with the police at the checkpoint in Brazzaville
4. At least tried to get to The Seychelles from Nosy Be in Madagascar
5. Visited South Sudan while I was in the area
6. Got my Saudi Visa sorted before I got to Kuwait
7. Got my Indian Visa sorted before I got to Dubai
8. Tried harder to get to Sri Lanka from India
9. Visited Palau and Micronesia the first time I was in Taiwan
10. Definitely not wasted nine months in Melbourne waiting for a magical yacht that probably didn’t ever exist to take me around the Pacific.

But hey, thems the breaks, kid. If I thought this was going to be easy, I would have had a mental breakdown years ago.

Here we go: the final seven, the magnificent seven, the seven samurai, lucky number seven, the seven nation army… the end of this rather epic quest starts with nation 195, Nauru – the smallest UN member state in the world. With any luck, I’ll be there before the week is out… and then there’ll be SIX!

Days M162-166 The Kings of Kiribati

Wed 07.03.12 – Sun 11.03.12:

We arrived in Tarawa Atoll, Kiribati on Wednesday morning. Some infernal fishing vessel had stolen the one and only parking speck (don’t you hate it when that happens?) so we were forced to drop anchor in the lagoon and use the two barges to ferry the containers back and forth. This also provided the means for getting ashore (presuming you didn’t want to get wet). But I wanted to get ashore as soon as possible, so I hitched a ride with the customs team who had their own speedboat.

Re-familiarising myself with Betio, the port area of Tarawa, didn’t take long: on a coral atoll such as this, there’s really only one road. I mooched around in the old haunts before wandering down to the Captain’s Bar to met (funnily enough) the Captain of the Scarlett Lucy. After a couple of cans of more-reasonably-priced-than-in-Australia Victoria Bitter, I was given a lift back to the port by the Pilot in order to find the rest of the crew. In the Seaman’s Club I found the cook, the chief mate (whose family are actually from Tarawa) and crewmen Rusi. They were already working through a slab of beer when I got there.

I was only then I realised that I hadn’t picked up my change from the bloody Captain’s Bar. I jumped on a passing minibus, rushed back, but the girl in the bar shrugged and said that she left the change on the bar and didn’t know who took it. I was a little suss about this explanation, mostly because there was only about ten people in the entire bar. Well there’s $40 up in smoke I thought: I may as well head back to the ship.

But calling back in at Seaman’s Club on the way proved a great move. Every couple of minutes another beer was shoved into my hand by one of the crew. Before too long I was feeling rather inebriated and almost willing to dance to the utter garbage they were spewing out over the PA. Bad music is one thing, but these guys had a playlist that quite literally consisted of five songs. The seventh time I heard ‘Summer of 69’ by Bryan “F—ing” Adams I was more than ready to leave.

So we stumbled over to Gateway, a club across the road. There I embarrassed myself at pool before finding a not-very-attractive local girl had me in her sights. I tried to shake her, much in the way you shake off a TIE fighter when you’re destroying a Death Star, but it was no use. At the end of the night, she followed me back to the barge, so I was explained in no uncertain terms that she couldn’t come back to the ship as it was against company policy (or some such excuse). Unfortunately for me, some of the crew who were coming back on the barge said it was fine if I wanted to bring a girl back. I loudly protested out the corner of my mouth, but it was no use. She was now on the barge.

There was only one thing for it: when we got back to the Scarlett Lucy I made sure I was first up the rope ladder and bolted for my cabin, locking the door behind me.

Phew! Haven’t had to fend off a demented filly like that for a long time. A cup of tea down in the mess before bed would have been nice, but to be honest with you, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

The next day we were gearing up to be out of here by nightfall, but Kiribati had other plans. One of the two barges had stopped working for a few hours in the morning, which had the knock-on effect of meaning we wouldn’t finish the cargo operation until 7pm, just a tiny bit too late to leave the lagoon before nightfall. As the lights on most of the shipping buoys in the lagoon are broken, to boogie on out of here in the dark would be something so idiotic, only a manic (or the captain of the Costa Concordia) would attempt it. We would have to stay in Kiribati an extra night. The plan was to leave the next day at 1pm.

Drinkies chaps?

Once again I found myself out on the lash with Rusi, Labe, Cookie and Chief Tarawa: only this time getting back to the ship was going to be a lot more difficult. With her at anchor and the cargo operation complete, the only way back would be to find a little speedboat at some ungodly hour of the night. Best see what happens eh? We started the night as always in the Captain’s Bar, Rusi and Labe coming with me to get some shots of the big Japanese guns nearby – relics from The Battle of Tarawa. After a round of pool in the driving rain, us Three Musketeers headed back to Batio, cadging a cheeky lift with a jolly nice Japanese guy and his wife.

After one too many cans of SolBrew with the locals (that stuff is 5.7%! Rocket fuel! Woooooo!) it came time to somehow find our way back onto the ship. Miraculously, after Labe swearing blind that there was no chance we’d get a lift back across the lagoon to the ship at 4am, we got a lift back across the lagoon to the ship at 4am.

However, jumping off a barge and climbing up the good ship Scarlett’s rope ladder when you’re relatively sober is one thing. Clambering up from a tiny tin speedboat when you’re totally blotto is another entirely. Especially when the damn boat is bobbing up and down like a hyperactive merecat causing the first rung of the ladder to oscillate wildly between 2 inches and 6 feet up in the air. Oh, and you’re carrying your bag containing your laptop, your video camera and your rather bulky copy of Lonely Planet.

Foolishly, I took hold of the two ropes that hang either side of the ladder, rather than the rungs of the ladder itself. I lost my balance, swung hard to the left and lost my grip on the right-hand rope. If the speedboat hadn’t miraculously sprung up under me at that precise moment, I would have surely gone into the drink. The second attempt was a lot more successful. It took a good twenty minutes to get my heartbeat back to normal.

The next day I woke up (feeling rather worse for wear) around noon. I had a shower and wandered down to the mess to grab a bite to eat – only to be greeted by the second mate, Douglas. He told me that the ship wouldn’t be leaving today either. Why not? Because the captain just got word that the Nauruan dock workers are no longer prepared to work on Sundays, or scheduled day of arrival. Considering Nauru has an unemployment rate of 90% and the fact that the Lucy is the only container ship that calls in to Nauru, and it only does that once a month… ah, sod it, welcome to Island Time.

Not that I’m complaining: one more night on the sauce in Tarawa! Yay!

A speedboat had been arranged to collect us at 6pm. It didn’t show up, so after much whistling, shouting and waving (we’re high-tech on the Scarlett Lucy) we finally – after an hour and a half – managed to get back onto the island. Tonight was Friday, so half of Tawara was out on the tiles. After a pit-stop at the internet café, I met up with Rusi and we headed over to the Captain’s Bar, and thus the night went down. All I knew was that there was a speedboat had been arranged for four o’clock and there was nothing to worry about.

I was woken up at 4.30am. I found myself laying on my back on the quayside having fallen asleep waiting for the others to turn up. Groggy and bewildered, I tried to get my waker-upperer to leave me the hell alone, when I realised it was the captain – accompanied by the local police in a car. Eek! I jumped to my feet, coughed and straightened my non-existent tie. Sorry about that, capt. The police nodded and drove off, job well done and damn did I feel sheepish.

After collecting the cook (he had found a fishing boat to snooze on) we jumped into a tin boat, waited for the outboard motor to be lowered into place and set off across the black lagoon. Someone from the crew had helpfully lowered the Lucy’s rope ladder so yesterday’s little, er, mishap did not re-occur. Opium addicts don’t sleep this soundly.

At 12.30pm on Saturday I felt the distinct low rumble of the engines turning on. Soon after, I watched the shadows move across my cabin. By the time I managed to pull myself kicking and screaming (mentally) out of bed we had already left the lagoon and Kiribati was but a distant dream. A rather intoxicated one. Tomorrow we’d shut off the engines and drift for 7 hours – there’s no point arriving in Nauru at night.

Nauru. Monday morning. 6am. Set.

Day M167: …And Then There Was SIX!

Mon 12.03.12:

It may have taken me the best part of two months to get here from New Zealand, but I’m proud to announce that I AM NOW IN NAURU!!!

The Scarlett Lucy arrived on schedule at 6am. I dragged my carcass out of bed around 7 and waited for cargo operations to commence so I could hope a lift to the mainland. Well, I say ‘main’land, but Nauru is unique in the Pacific – the entire country comprises of just one tiny island. All other independent Pacific nations consist of a chain or archipelago.

With less than 10,000 inhabitants, Nauru is the smallest member of the UN and has the dubious distinction of being the least-visited nation on Earth – more people visit Somalia – which makes it all the more remarkable that I got here at all.

There is no marina in Nauru, no yacht club, no cruise ships pass by, and as far as I can tell, The Scarlett Lucy is the only container ship that calls here, and she does that just once a month. If Neptune Shipping had said they weren’t going to allow me on board, it would have taken me much more than two months to get here: needless to say my debt of gratitude to Neptune, Swire, Reef, PDL and PIL is immense.

Nauru has two hotels, no capital and in the 1980s was the richest per capita country in the world. Today it’s one of the poorest. Strangely enough, its dramatic rise and fall is all connected to bird poo. Over hundreds of thousands of years, birds used Nauru, situated just 42 kilometres south of the equator, as a rest stop / breeding ground on their long migratory journey from the northern to the southern hemisphere and visa versa. For some reason birds don’t seem to like to poo in the sea, they hold it in like they’re at a music festival or on a long African coach journey. But when they got to Nauru it was bombs away.

Over the course of untold millennia, the accumulated crap from a million generations of seabirds became compacted. Periodic submergence of the island by the ocean washed away most impurities and what was left was incredibly pure, high-grade phosphate. Millions of tons of it. Ka-CHING!

Nobody knows exactly when humans made it to Nauru, but like Hebrews and Lemmings, apparently there were twelve original tribes. Much in the manner of tribes all over the world, they liked nothing more than to kill one another. In the 1880s a civil war on the island (fuelled by European weapons) decimated the population. Kind of like Battle Royale I suppose. Less than 900 Nauruans were left alive when in 1886 when the Germans surprised everyone by actually stopping a war rather than starting one. Although this did involve annexing the entire island, a process that the Germans are possibly a little more familiar with.

In 1900, a British chap called Albert was examining his doorstep. He wasn’t waiting for DHL or looking for miniature Jehovah’s Witnesses, he was a geologist and the stone had come from Nauru. And – By Jove! – he found to his surprise that the thing was entirely composed of high-grade phosphate. Ka-CHING!

After the Germans lost World War I, the allied powers decided that the best way to prevent another war would be to take all of Germany’s overseas possessions and dole them out between the British and the French – the UK got Nauru and all that yummy phosphate. France got Burkina Faso. Nice! Phosphate is used in fertiliser and explosives – the stuff is worth a fortune. In 1947, Nauru was declared a UN Trust Territory, administered by the Aussies, Kiwis and Poms, and in 1968 Nauru was given independence. Since the Nauruan parliament (all 18 members of it, including the speaker) knew they could make Brewsters out of this quality bird-turd, they chose not to throw their lot in with either Micronesia or Kiribati and instead go it alone.

For thirty years, this seemed like a damn good plan. In the 70s and 80s, Naurans were the richest people in the world. With up to two million tonnes of phosphate leaving the island each year, most Nauruans didn’t bother working, opting instead to make money by leasing their land to the phosphate company. The vast majority of mine workers were imported from Kiribati or Tuvalu.

Traditional subsistence farming and fishing techniques were forgotten as the population ran around their island in fancy sports cars and jetted around the world on their fleet of five jumbo jets. All was peachy.

That was until the late nineties when the easy-to-get-to phosphate started to run out. Gearing up for a post-phosphate world, the government promptly blew all of the country’s not-very-hard-earned cash on a series of ill-judged or ill-timed ‘investments’ – including buying dodgy property in Fiji, Hawaii and Melbourne, taking over the failing Footscray AFL team and a investing in a musical called ‘Leonardo The Musical’. The property was a dud, Footscray continued to fail and the musical was the biggest West End flop since Oscar Wilde’s wedding night.

In a riches-to-rags story to rival Enron, within ten years Nauru was broke. The mine shut down, the foreign workers left and unemployment hit an incredible 99% – in other words, there were only about 100 people left on the island with a job. And all because the poor old government listened to some moronic (or just plain evil) financial advisors, possibly from Australia.

That’s the economic disaster, now for the environmental disaster.

100 years of intensive mining has left the interior of Nauru irreparably scarred. The topsoil has been removed, as has the phosphate, leaving only bleach white coral pinnacles upon which not much can grow. Where there was once lush forest (Nauru was known in the West as ‘Pleasant Island’) there is now baking heat, rocks and inedible shrubs.

There are a few knock-on disasters as a result: firstly, Nauru now suffers terribly from drought. The reason for this is that the exposed white coral reflects sunlight back up into the air, creating a thermal updraft that pushes otherwise promising clouds away. As there’s not enough rain, there’s a major water shortage on the island. Secondly, the birds that provided the poo in the first place have all but stopped coming here – and no wonder – their habitat has been destroyed. Thirdly there is now not enough arable land for Nauru to return to the days of subsistence farming, even if they wanted to.

A painful irony: the country that for a century provided fertiliser to the world is now, well, pretty much infertile.

A similar phosphate-y situation occurred on nearby Banaba Island, the most westerly island of Kiribati. Only there, instead of investing in West End Musicals, fancy cars, jumbo jets and crappy football teams, the people of Banaba bought themselves a whole new island. They packed everything up, left a handful of people behind to feed the cat, and moved wholesale to a new South Seas Paradise in Fiji.

Things have improved slightly for Nauru in the last few years. The mine has reopened, although they’re moving a fraction of what they were in their heyday. Unemployment is down to just(!) 90% and there’s a chap here from Korea making a roaring trade collecting scrap metal from all over the island. There’s enough here to keep the world in Coke cans for at least another 20 years.

That said, Nauru is a little heart-breaker. A loveable tramp who drunkenly laments his lost millions to the other bums around the brazier. If only I had bet on black, he pines. If only…

It wasn’t until after noon that I managed to get onto the island. Once ashore I danced a goddamn jig – 195 countries down, 6 to go. I went for a little bit of an exploration, heading north along the coastal road. I walked past broken down warehouses, factories lying idle, the rusting remnants of yesteryear strewn about the place with reckless abandon. The barracks once used to house the hundreds of foreign workers now lie in a mournful state, graffitied and trashed, a few families remain, maybe squatting, maybe unable to return home.

Beyond the barracks is the RON Hospital – seriously underfunding and struggling to make ends meet. RON stands for ‘Republic of Nauru’. Again, I’d talk to the people in marketing. Call your own country what the hell you like, doesn’t mean you can’t razzle-dazzle the world with what you demand they call you. What sounds more enticing, ‘The Gold Coast’ or ‘Ghana’? ‘The Friendly Islands’ or ‘Tonga’? ‘Pleasant Island’ or ‘RON’? I know which one I’d plum for and I’m not even a copywriter (although I’d be damn good at it, I’m sure).

Up towards the interior now and it’s a bit of a trek up a hill. Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, apparently, and I’m seeing that more and more as I travel around. Here I am, 42km south of the Equator and I’m trekking up a damn hill: it’s so hot the sweat is stinging my eyes. There is nobody else around except for some kids swinging in the vines that hang in the shade of a giant buttress tree. I’m an idiot, obviously.

At the top I reached the former President’s residence. It was burnt down in 2001 by a rampaging mob, presumably pissed off that the government had blown all the country’s money on snake oil and homeopathic remedies. Now it stands abandoned, just a shell, but a shell with a cracking view over the harbour.

I then turned around and headed south parallel with the coast road, but inland and further up. I passed the shells of houses, the shells of cars, the shells left from World War 2… every type of shell except the ones that grow in the sea. After a good twenty minutes I arrived at the (amazingly) still functioning phosphate processing plant. Man, this place looks like somewhere Batman would go for a dénouement: broken windows, rusted metal, dilapidated conveyor belt housings, long-abandoned machinery… this entire island has this eerie ghost-town feeling about it – not that the locals notice. Every time a school bus goes past, the kids are singing like it’s Mardi Gras.

I made my way down the hill towards the coast, near the now-defunct first cantilever; a huge metal half-bridge that swings out into the sea. Conveyor belts transport the phosphate to the end of the cantilever where it drops down a large tube into a waiting break-bulk cargo ship, filling the hold like a disgruntled McDonald employee fills the coffee machine.

This cantilever is dead, hasn’t worked for years. A shame, really, there’s enough metal here to build a bridge over the River Mersey. One day it’ll probably fall into the sea. There’s another cantilever, one that is still in use. It sits opposite the Scarlett Lucy’s mooring.

There’s a part of me that can’t escape the fact that this place reminds me of growing up in Liverpool in the 1980s. The feeling of abandonment, the wastelands and disused lots. An entire industry reduced to rubble. The plans for a brighter tomorrow that went nowhere. Twisted metal left strewn about, covered in weeds. Warehouses filled with nothing but debris, factories that once ran 24 hours a day now running silent. The disused railway lines, the general feeling of malaise: the feeling that we had drawn the short straw. Somebody made a lot of money out of all this tragedy, but it sure as hell wasn’t us.

And so I find myself feeling an affinity for Nauru. Not in that wanky art-student ‘isn’t urban decay interesting, non?’ way. I don’t find people living on the poverty line in the least bit arousing, there’s no beauty in smashed windows, collapsed roofs and concrete shells, and as far as I’m concerned graffiti has all the artistic merit of a child drawing cartoon penises in his biology textbook. Like Liverpool, Nauru had one major industry: ours was shipping, there’s was phosphate. And like Liverpool, the glory days are over.

Back on the Scarlett Lucy there was much excitement in the water. It’s spawning season so once the sun sets and the moon comes up, millions of fish go ape-shit – the upshot being a) that the sea water started looking (and sounding) more like a Jacuzzi and that b) dozens of dolphins turned up looking for a feast. It was an incredible sight.

Day M168: The Bird Man of Nauru

Tue 13.03.12:

One of our cranes is broken. This means that yesterday, instead of unloading the 80 containers like we were meant to, we didn’t unload a single one. While the electrician and engineers worked tireless trying to fix the damn thing, I headed back to the island accompanied by the port agent, Chet Tatum (sounds like he should be playing American Football).

Chet was good enough to take me on a proper tour of the entire island in his old jalopy. From the port we headed north along the coast road, past abandoned houses and burnt out stores. On the north end of the island, there’s more of a feeling of what Nauru used to be like, the houses here are better maintained and there’s even some gardens. It’s still a far cry from the neat flower-speckled villages of Samoa, but it’s an improvement on the area around the port. Up there you’ll also find the only real supermarket on Nauru, Chappell’s. The family that own the place have rooms for rent if you’re looking for an alternative to the two hotels that make up the accommodation quotient of this tiny nation.

We followed the coast down to the Menem Hotel – an awful 80s construction, desperately in need of a lick of paint, which is about the best that it you can hope for if you find yourself staying here overnight. In fact, this is the case with every building, every house I can find. They’re all constructed out of cheap n’ nasty concrete and breeze-blocks. There’s no traditional materials, no traditional craftsmanship: this is something I’d expect to see in a third-world city like Accra or Birmingham, but for a country that used to be one of the richest in the world, wouldn’t you expect something a little more, erm, permanent? Or, better yet, beautiful?

Sadly, Nauru’s phosphate boom coincided with precisely the worst decades of architecture in recorded history, so it was either bargain basement tat or bargain basement tat – if only the boom had come in the 1880s instead – people would come from around the world to explore the beautiful and unique sprawling coral-stone mansions of Nauru.

Chet then took me to visit a guy he knows who collects frigate birds. Unlike the Nauruan national dish, noddy bird, they don’t catch frigate birds for food, they catch them to keep as pets. This is a tradition only kept by the people of two countries in the world: Nauru and Peru (which rhyme, wonderfully enough – like Zambia and Gambia, Suriname and Vietnam, France and pants).

This old guy catches these rather large birds, not with a net, but with a lasso. That alone is pretty damn impressive. Each of the island’s clans have their own distinct markings that they put on their birds to show who owns them. Once the frigate bird has been tamed they’re set free and tend not to leave the island ever again.

They tame them by keeping them in a giant cage for a few weeks and feeding them. Eventually, the bird decides that this is a much better way of life than all that flying around being eaten by sharks malarkey and becomes domesticated – you let them out of the cage and they stick around. The problem is you’ve got to feed the buggers and they eat a LOT of fish. Our man here had ten birds – he is recognised as the best frigate bird catcher in the land.

As we chatted under the shade of an old twisted tree, the old man was painstakingly cleaning thousands of fish eggs out of his fishing net – last night’s spawning may have been good for the dolphins, but it had been a nightmare for the fisherman. Although this guy isn’t catching fish for sale, or even for his family, they’re just for his birds. That’s some dedication right there.

After saying our goodbyes to the Bird Man of Nauru, Chet took me alongside the airstrip (like in Tuvalu you can just walk across the damn thing) and then we headed into the interior. We encircled the small lagoon, all that’s left of what millions of years ago would have encompassed the entire interior of the island.

Geologically speaking, Nauru is an interesting little beast. She’s not quite a coral atoll, and she’s not quite a volcanic island: she’s a raised coral island. These things are quite rare, but in a nutshell here’s what (I think) happens..

A volcano pokes its head above the ocean. A fringing coral reef is formed. The volcano sinks, leaving the circular reef shaped like a ring with a lagoon in the middle. So far, so normal. But then, over millions of years, the coral starts to fill in the lagoon as well. Soon you have a circular shallow completely filled in with coral, as though photoshopped.

The volcano continues to sink, and the coral builds up more and more, thicker and thicker, crushing the old dead coral below. Water levels rise and the coral keeps on growing and growing. With the polar ice caps completely melted, the sea level has risen several meters and now our coral reef is struggling to stay in the goldilocks zone in which it can grow – tropical water, no more than twenty metres below the surface. But somehow it pulls it off! So when the ice-caps re-freeze and the sea level drops a perfectly potato-shaped coral island emerges from the brine, looking from beneath the ocean a bit like rock formations of monument valley, only made of coral.

And coral is now pretty much all that’s left. After the lagoon, we went top-side. While a thin strip running around the coast still bears decent vegetation, the central area has been completely de-foliated like there’s been an Agent Orange foam party. With the trees, top soil and phosphate removed, all that remains are these white coral pinnacles upon which little can grow but hardy inedible shrubs. No wonder the birds of the world don’t flock here anymore.

Up past the nation’s rubbish tip are a couple of big guns left by the Japanese. From here you can see the whole island below and you can really get a grip on the devastating environmental effects that one hundred years of phosphate mining has had on this poor bedraggled mess of a nation. My heart goes out to the Nauruans – their tropical island paradise has been trashed, and they haven’t got a dime to show for their sacrifice.

Back on the ship, the crane was still out of order and the crew were getting impatient. Happily, at quarter to one in the morning, Peni, the second engineer burst into the mess, sweating profusely and wearing a big goofy smile. WE DID IT! It’s fixed! Cargo operations would start in the morning.

Day M169: The Smallest Parliament in the World

Wed 14.03.12:

Nauru has no natural harbour: its smooth potato-like shape does not offer the world any nooks or crannies to slip your vessel into. So like in Tarawa when some git has bagsied the only parking space, we have to park our craft out to sea. But unlike Tarawa, once you’re clear of the coastal shelf here in Nauru, it’s 300 metres straight down to the sea floor: so we can’t drop anchor.

Instead there are set up a few mooring buoys. That’s pronounced ‘boys’, not ‘boo-ees’, America! These float on the surface like people who crossed the Don and have big long metal chains which fix them to the bottom of the ocean. There are two possible mooring positions in Nauru: one is for the phosphate ship that comes in very close to the coastal shelf and then has the phosphate poured into it by a rather impressive cantilever that swings out over the shallows.

The other is for container ships like the good ol’ Scarlett here. It’s a bit further out and we’re only moored to two buoys, not four like the Phosphate one. This is not a problem so long as the wind doesn’t change. At night powerful lights from the ship project onto the mooring lines, and the engines are constantly on standby just in case we need to propel ourselves back away from the island.

You could theoretically have 2 ships moored alongside each other, but the huge variables involved mean that this never happens – it would only take a single line to snap for one ship to go barrelling into the other and then we’d all have pumpkin pie all over our gormless grinning faces.

You see, we’re moored out in open ocean here. Our position relative to the island gives us a little bit of a buffer from the worst swells coming in from the north-east, but that’s not saying much. If there’s a storm, we start to roll. Even when there isn’t a storm we’re still constantly bobbing up and down. And in the midst of all this madness, we have to unload cargo.

The are but two cargo barges here in Nauru, and they each take just one 20’ container at a time. Getting a box into a barge is rather like playing Operation with a swinging crane instead of a pair of tweezers, a metal box that weighs over 30 tonnes instead of a tiny plastic bone and a patient that’s lying on an inflatable lino in the wave pool of Rhyl Sun Centre. Like Sarah Jessica Parker’s face, it is at once hilarious and yet utterly terrifying. Especially when you’re on this damn tiny barge waiting to go ashore and a container-shaped wrecking ball is slamming down onto the piss-weak metal cage above your head, much in the manner of a T-Rex trying to get into a upturned jeep populated by incredibly annoying children. Eek!

Once ashore, I wanted to do my own thing so I tried to hire a motorbike to trundle around the island. Usually this is no problem, but at the moment the population are on petrol rationing, so you can’t really be letting a ginger rapscallion like myself loose on your 50cc.

So I ambled along to the garage down the road, a graveyard of twisted and mangled wrecks like you’d see on a don’t drink and drive ad. They apparently ran a car-hire business as well, but they were not immune from the petrol rationing, so no dice. I was advised that if I see a kid on a push-bike I should ask if I can borrow it. Sod that for a lark, it’s way too hot (and I’m way too unfit).

So instead I met up with Bese and Peni from the ship. Bese wanted to go internetting, so I thought I’d treat Peni to a beer (even though he doesn’t drink) at the Menem hotel. We hitched a ride with some nice Nauruans to the other side of the island. When I came here yesterday with Chet, we didn’t stop, which was probably for the best. The place is a mess: litter everywhere, the pool is empty and forlorn, the brown-windowed restaurant (when the hell was brown glass EVER a good idea, architects of the f—ing world) looks abandoned and – worst of all – the bar closed at 2pm. It was 2.30.


So we started walking back towards the ship. After a bit of a hike a car stopped ahead of us. The lady driving asked where we were going, I said that we were on our way to see the parliament building. Get in, I’ll take you. I like places like this. Here name was Mary and she told me something I wish I had known months ago: there is a cargo ship that goes Marshall Islands > Nauru > Marshall Islands. It also takes passengers.

If only I had known…! Oh well. I know now and I’ll be putting that fact into my upcoming book ‘How To Visit Every Country In The World Without Flying In One Year Without Making All The Silly Mistakes That I Did’.

After dropping us off, Peni and I needed to walk across the airstrip in order to get to the parliament building on the far side. The building itself is a bit so-so, but at least they have used native timber in the building of the main debating chamber – a chamber that only has room for 18 members, and that includes the speaker. EIGHTEEN PEOPLE running an entire country. At first it sounds nuts, but then when you think about it, there’s probably only about eighteen people running any given country. How many people are in the current cabinet in Westminster? How many members of Obama’s staff can you name? Eighteen? You’re doing well.

And that kids, is how the Iron Law of Oligarchy works 😉

Peni and I then hitched a third ride back to the port. We were met by Bese and Patrick. As we waited for the barge to come and pick us up, I suggested that I go to the shop to get some soft drinks. Patrick came with me, but what I didn’t know is that he had a secret assignment: to get some kava for the boys. What should have been a five minute trip to the shops turned into an hour-long hike looking for kava, stopping only to play a game of ping-pong with the local kids along the way (Patrick lost, by the way, I chose not to embarrass myself).

Eventually, with the sacred kava in hand, Patrick and I returned to a happy ship. The unloading process was all but complete and tomorrow we’re just going to take as many empties on board as we can until it gets dark, then we’re packing up the circus and high-tailing it back to Noro in the Solomon Islands.

Day M170: What Next?

Thu 15.03.12:

With any luck and despite the lengthy delays here in Nauru and last week in Kiribati, the Scarlett Lucy should be back in Brisbane by Saturday March 24.

Behind the scenes, my girlfriend/PA Mandy has been squirreling away trying to get me on board the Cap Serrat, a Hamburg Sud operated cargo ship that leaves Brissy on March 25. If successful, that ship will get me to Taiwan for April 4, giving me a few days before (hopefully) one of the Mariana Express ships heads off to Micronesia and Palau on April 8. At this stage of the journey, to knock two countries of the list – 33% of what remains – in one boat trip will be immense.

There is then a PIL ship that leaves from Hong Kong on a regular basis that could possibly take me to Sri Lanka, via Singapore and India. This would leave just three countries remaining. I am hoping against hope that there exists a shipping line that goes from Sri Lanka to the Maldives and then down to Mauritius or Reunion. If it does, and if I can get on it, I could feasibly be in Madagascar by June.

From Madagascar it would be a case of heading to the island of Nosy Be in the north of the country. There’s a rather large marina in the main city, Hell Be, and I should hopefully find at least one captain who is mad enough to take me to country number 200: Seychelles. Don’t forget, Odyssey rules state that I do not have to visit the capital, but must step foot on land somewhere within the contiguous boundary of the nation. The most southerly islands of the Seychelles are located just a couple of hundred miles north of Nosy Be: it ain’t going to be easy, but it is a viable option – and given the Somali pirate situation, it is possibly my only option.

Then I’ll have to head back over to mainland Africa via Comoros. Last time, this process took the best part of a month. This time, who knows? Realistically speaking, with Nauru out of the way and Mariana Shipping already being very helpful with getting me to Micronesia and Palau, the only big unknown is The Seychelles: once I have that ticked off the list, getting to the final country, South Sudan should be (relatively) easy: I’ve pretty much done that route once before.

Then I’m going to try and overland it back to Liverpool. Is this possible? Well yes, but it ain’t going to be easy. Getting a visa for Sudan from anywhere else but Egypt is said to be a bureaucratic nightmare of Gilliamesque proportions, but even when I get back to Egypt. the current civil conflict in Syria bars that way back to Europe. So then, two options remain – head back to Israel, take a ship to Cyprus, then Cyprus to either Greece or Turkey, OR waddle my way back through the now Gaddafi-free zone of Libya, get to Tunisia and take that infernal Grimaldi ferry (which I swore never to take again!) up to Italy.

Either way, once I’m back in Europe I could be home within the week. Of course I’ll be penniless and jobless with just my clothes on my back, but you won’t find me complaining. I’ll have finally finished my quest.

Days M171-174: An Express Elevator to Hell!

Fri 16.03.12 – Mon 19.03.12

We left Nauru at around 7pm, and I was disappointed that customs didn’t come back on board before we set sail. I would have liked a Nauru stamp in my passport, but hey-ho. There’s a number of countries that I haven’t got entry or exit stamps for, including every country in the EU, so it’s not something that keeps me awake at night.

As we drew our course west towards the setting sun I looked back over Nauru. There can be no doubt that this country, like so many others in the world, would have been better off if there were no natural resources for The West to plunder. 100 years of high-grade phosphate mining and nothing, NOTHING to show for it… except a ruined interior, periods of man-made drought and tons of scrap metal littering the countryside. This is the sad fate that awaits most other resource-rich cash-poor countries in the world – a paradise lost and what did the local people get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville.

Then again, somebody probably would have had the great idea to use the island to test nuclear weapons as happened in The Marshalls and French Polynesia. Oh look – paradise! Let’s destroy it! You know the old joke/truism that if Jesus came back we’d kill him again? To compliment that, if heaven did exist, there’d be a never-ending queue of people attempting to f— it up. I guess, like the fable of the frog and the scorpion, it’s our nature.

The three day voyage back to Noro was uneventful. I drank a lot of kava with the boys, sitting cross-legged on the floor while they played the guitar and sang Fijian songs. You sleep well after a few bowls of grog, although it is definitely an acquired taste.

We arrived back in Noro in the Solomon Islands on Sunday evening. We had got news a couple of days before that Captain Sireli would be getting off in Noro and the Scarlett Lucy would be getting a new Master, Captain Bob – who I’m reliably informed is a fellow scouser. To fix the faulty crane in Nauru, Peni and Lecky had purloined the control circuit board from the second crane. As we required both cranes to get the job done in Noro, Captain Bob would be bringing a brand new board for number two crane.

The only snag was that he wouldn’t be arriving until Monday afternoon. This meant we would probably leave Noro on Wednesday. It takes four days to get to Brisbane from here and a quick bit of mental arithmetic told me that if we left on Wednesday, I’d miss the Cap Serrat sailing to Taiwan on Sunday. I might miss it by a few hours or even a day – but one thing was for sure, I’d miss my connection.

Given the numerous delays we’ve had on board already, I decided not to risk it. I called up Mandy on Sunday evening and asked her to tell Hamburg Sud that I wouldn’t be able to make it. She told me that they were planning to bring it up at a board meeting tomorrow morning and that they were very confident that I’ll be allowed onboard. That nagging doubt crept into my mind – but what if I do get there in time?

No, I don’t want to give these guys the run around. Mandy sent an email explaining that I had been delayed and that was that.

That night we had a bit of a leaving do for Captain Sireli. As the sun went down we sat on the deck drinking grog and peeling casaba. Rusi, Douglas, Labe and Cookie left with me to visit the Flying Angel, one of the only two bars in town, just to the left of the port. We sat on the step outside, putting the world to rights as Venus and Jupiter continued their dance that begun over a week ago when we were in Kiribati.

The next morning I was woken at 7.30am by Rusi barging into my room. “Graham – get up! Drill drill! We’re testing the drop boat!!”

I knew this was happening this morning, but I thought it was at 10.30. If I had known it was going to be at 7.30, I would have drank a lot less last night.

I threw my trousers and shoes on and headed to the muster station, rubbing my eyes in the piercing morning light. The Scarlett Lucy is the eleventh major cargo ship that I’ve been on to have a drop boat, but this would be my first time to actually ride in one. If you haven’t seen one of these things before, they’re a solid fibreglass lifeboat that is completely sealed top and bottom. They have about 20 seats in them and they’re positioned at a 45 degree angle high up off the back of most modern container ships. This one was on the third floor up from the poop deck, and there’s a good few metres down from the poop deck to the waterline.

Hee hee! Poop deck! Every time I see the sign I giggle.

It was all very exciting. You sit backwards to the front of the craft so you don’t jolt forward when you hit the water. I took my seat and waited. After a few minutes I realised my second biggest mistake after drinking too much last night was not bringing any water on board with me this morning. Designed for all weather conditions, in the blazing morning sunshine of The Solomon Islands, the drop boat was excruciatingly hot.

I sweated magnificently (I recently found out that humans actually sweat substantially more than pigs, so let’s put that misapprehension to bed. And while we’re at it, being hung like a gorilla is not something that you’d really want to advertise – their willies are tiny.) and thought this must be like what’s it’s like waiting for the space shuttle to take off. After what seemed like an age, the drop boat slid off the back of the ship and into the sea.

It was all very gentle. A bit perplexed, I got out of my seat and climbed out of the aft access hatch to find out why. Then I saw: we were still hooked to the ship. The davit extends all the way down into the water, as you can see in this video:

This wasn’t the theme-park rollercoaster ride I was expecting! I wanted an express elevator to hell! What happened to the free-fall?

Ah, oh well, at least I got to ride in a drop boat. Unfortunately for me, we then had to test the engine and steering were working correctly. This meant scooting around the bay a few times, not the best idea when you’re hungover and swelteringly hot. All I could do was grit my teeth and bear it.

We then hooked the drop boat back onto the davit and jumped on a local’s canoe to the shore. When I got back to the Lucy, I headed straight for the mess and drank my own body-weight in orange cordial. I then took myself back off to bed. I was in the land of nod before I knew it.


Seven short blasts and a long one. It was another drill! I put my shoes back on and headed to the muster station to see what was happening this time. It was now 10.30. Rusi was beaming. “Graham! Get in the drop boat! We’re doing the free-fall this time!”

I wouldn’t have missed this one for the world. Once again, I clambered on board, the last to get in (somewhat heroically, I’m sure). Not everyone needed to be in the boat for the drop test, so everyone but myself, Chief Mate Tarawa, Third Mate Bessey and Engineering Cadet Peter scarpered after the seating drill had been completed.

We were unhooked from the davit and Chief Mate Tarawa had to physically pump the hydraulic release from inside the vessel. It felt a lot like waiting for a rollercoaster to start. Only with a much greater risk of something going horribly wrong. There’s no countdown timer for this – no way of knowing when the hydraulic release is going to give way. One second you’re halfway up a big container ship, the next CHUGACHUGACHUGA you’re speeding backwards down a ramp, then SPLOSH! you hit the water. In less than three seconds, it’s all over.


With a couple of triumphant whoops and woo-hoos, we opened the back of the craft and I climbed out. This time, the trip around the bay felt like a lap of honour.

That night Rusi, Meli, Bessey, Douglas and I headed over to the Noro lodge to down some SolBrews. I think we deserved it.