I was looking to do something with some of the people I met last month for New Year, but all of them had either gone home or had shifted themselves off the mainland to an island resort for the holidays. So, out of ideas, I returned to Suva to see if my old partner in crime, Renato from Peru, was still knocking about at the South Seas hostel. He was. So we hit the bars hoping to see the new year in in fine fettle.
After a few drinks in the Bad Dog Café, we moved into O’Reilly’s next door. There I ran into James Shute, one of the cadets from The Southern Pearl (and relative of Neville). He had some bad news: the pilot onboard The Pearl, Captain Mafi, passed away in his sleep last night. I couldn’t believe it. Captain Mafi, the tall, wily, softly spoken Tongan — with whom I had sat up with for many a night this month drinking kava and putting the world to rights — was no longer with us.
A sad end to what has been a lousy year for The Odyssey Expedition. In 2009 I got to 133 countries. In 2010 I reached a further 51. This year I’ve been to 7.
The year started well. I was taking a short (ha!) break from The Odyssey (the tally was 184 countries visited, 16 to go…) and I got to see in the new year in Melbourne with my long-suffering girlfriend, Mandy. I had been assured by various parties that a yacht would be made available to help me get around the Pacific nations in three months rather than the seven or eight months it would take to do it on cargo ships. All I had to do was bide my time until this mythical sailing ship was ready to go.
A few days later I headed over to the mmmmmm HQ to talk shop and find out when I could expect to be paid enough to even cover my own expenses for devising, presenting and filming the eight-part TV show “Graham’s World”, which has now been broadcast in over 70 countries and repeated at least 100 times on National Geographic Adventure alone.
I have to admit, the answer “probably never” wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
Neither was my first royalty cheque from the mmmmmm (owners of mmmmmm) which arrived this September for an insulting 600 quid. I could have made more cash spending five minutes filming my cat falling off the television and selling it to You’ve Been Framed instead of spending 365 days of my life single-handedly shooting over 150 hours of footage in 133 countries, some of them the most dangerous places in the world.
Actually, I would have made more money staying at home and claiming the dole. There’s a incentive to get a proper job, eh kids?
People sometimes ask me if I’ve been robbed or conned on the road. My reply is “yes, but it wasn’t by a taxi driver…”.
Furious at mmmmmm, furious at myself for signing that f—ing contract (“I can’t believe you signed it!” gloated mmmmmm), furious at the world, I then found out that some huge family feud had blown up between my parents, my auntie and my cousin a couple of months before and nobody had told me about it. But there was something much more important going on in my family. It was my brother Alex who broke the news to me.
Our big sister, Nikki, had liver cancer.
I gave it a couple of weeks to see what the prognosis was, but when a biopsy revealed that the cancer in her liver was secondary, I flew home to the UK.
“Have they told you how serious it is?” asked Nikki when I went to see her at Wrexham Hospital. I nodded. “That’s why I’m here.”
When you’re travelling you get this foolish notion that everything and everyone at home exists in some kind of stasis, but of course, life goes on – for better or for worse. I was in the UK for three weeks, spending the majority of that time with Nikki and Alan, her eldest son. I did get to catch up with my old friends – Anna, Stuart and Matt dropped everything to come out to see me on my first (Monday) night back. My love for my mates and my hometown of Liverpool has not diminished one iota.
Towards the end of March I said goodbye to Nik (well, I couldn’t bring myself to use the word ‘goodbye’, so I just left it on a limp ‘see ya’ – it’s hard to use the word ‘goodbye’ when you know for certain you’re never going to see somebody you love ever again) and headed back to Australia, since I had been assured that I would be setting off into the Pacific in this yacht in just a few days time.
I left on the Sunday. Nikki died the following Saturday. I missed my own sister’s funeral, I missed being there for my family, my dad, my brothers, my four nephews now without a mum and whose father has been estranged for years… for what? Did this f—ing magic yacht actually leave at the end of March? No. April? No. May? No. Did it ever actually exist? To this day I can’t be sure.
But after the loss of Nikki and given the comforts of staying in Melbourne with Mands and the constant reassurances that this yacht would be ready to go “very very soon”, I was content to loosen the reigns on The Odyssey Expedition and wait while somebody else got their act together.
Meanwhile, the news coming out of the UK seemed to go from bloody awful to even worse. My uncle Brian suffered a stroke and was in critical condition in hospital, my dad had now fallen out big time with my older brother Mike and my good friend Simon lost his father to cancer. In the maelstrom of this doom and gloom I sat and I waited.
By July it was pretty self-evident that this yacht, if it did exist, would not be heading off into the wild blue yonder any time soon. So I hit the publicity circuit, appearing as a guest on Channel 9’s Today Show and dozens of radio programmes, always ending the interview with the plaintive cry of “if there are any skippers out there with a yacht, looking for a sailing challenge, please get in touch”.
Many did, but they all said the same thing. “Would love to do it, but you’ve left it too late in the season to start now. If only I knew about this in March…”.
I want you now to imagine your humble narrator kicking seven shades of crap out of himself for being so utterly stupid. And trusting. And… ugh, I don’t know, everything was just as messed up as they could possibly be.
By now I was hating Melbourne with a passion: that horrible, boring, expensive, smug, bitchy, racist, sprawling Stepford-Wife of a city. In six months I hadn’t been invited to the pub once. I had not attended a single house party. After the fondness and affection I felt from my friends back home in Liverpool, Melbourne seemed to go out of her way to make me feel uncomfortable, unwelcome and unwanted. And do you know the most frustrating thing? Hardly anybody was even in the slightest bit interested in what I had been doing for the past two years. No “tell us some stories!”, no “what was it like backpacking through Afghanistan?”, not even a polite “so did you get bummed in that African jail or what?”.
Most people’s only (oft-repeated) question was “so when are you leaving?”. Yes, bugger off Graham, you’re spoiling the village green.
I consider myself somewhat of an interesting character, and I feel like I’ve done some interesting things in my life. But Melbourne, conspiring to be at once uninteresting and uninterested, left me feeling colourless and dull. A cog in a machine, a number clocking in and clocking out, just another one of the teeming masses. The fearless adventurer in me was withering away in a pit of apathy and wasted time.
The only ray of sunshine was my irrepressible girlfriend, Mandy, but as my visa didn’t allow me to work, financial issues and the lack of a definite plan for the future started putting something of a strain on our relationship.
The saddest thing was that I couldn’t even afford to get drunk. When it’s US$14 a pint in your local stinky flea-pit boozer, it’s time to dig your way out of Shawshank.
So with my visa expiry date looming, I went back to Plan A: Get around the Pacific on cargo ships. I knew this would take me an age, but it would mean I would take back the reigns of The Odyssey Expedition and I wouldn’t be waiting or relying on any other party to fulfil their end of any given bargain. So the emails, phone calls and all that jiggery-pokery commenced. Assisted by the delectable Lorna Brookes, the dependable Dino Deasha, the debonair Alex Zelenjak and of course the delightful Mandy Newland, Team Odyssey was back on the case and things started coming together.
Thanks to Swire and China Navigation I ticked off The Solomon Islands and Australia (officially!) and thanks to P&O Cruises I got to strut my funky stuff around New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji. Thanks to Pacific Direct Line, Neptune Shipping, PIL and Reef Shipping I conquered Wallis and Futuna, Tuvalu, Kiribati and The Marshall Islands – the same companies are going to assist me in a few days time to leave for Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand. In less than three week’s time I will have been to 194 countries and only have 7 more to visit – the ones I missed out along the way: after all, in the original plan, New Zealand was my last port of call.
Let’s make no bones about it: 2011 was the worst year of my life. But look on the bright side (as I always do!)… 2012 heralds the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the re-election of President Obama and the end of The Odyssey Expedition. I’ll see you there.