Amazingly, the ferry boat arrived at Wewak early: by 4am, we were less than a mile from the port. I stood out on deck: it had been a hot and sweaty night and I hadn’t got much sleep. The warm breeze beckoned me towards land and salvation, but the captain had other ideas. For some mad mad mad reason, we started to go around and around in circles. Full power, engines whining and groaning, the water churning. I stayed up for an hour, perplexed and bewildered. Why? WHY?
At 5am I went back to the VIP room and fell back asleep. I woke up an hour later. We were still running around in circles. I looked at my watch.
I had missed the 6am flight to Port Moresby. There was no way I was going to be back with Mandy for Christmas. As if to add insult to injury, it was at this point that the captain swung the boat around and headed to the port.
I was the first off the ship, bounding down the gangplank as dawn broke in the eastern firmament. At the end of the day, it was Papua New Guinea: I still had hope that the flight was delayed. I ran to the port building only to be confronted with a wire gate and large padlock. It took me ten minutes to locate the guy with the key. Apparently you’re supposed to wait to go through some kind of customs clearance. This annoyed the hell out of me: we hadn’t crossed any international border. I argued my way out.
There were buses waiting outside the port, but even if they were going to the airport they would take an age to fill. I asked where I could find a taxi and was pointed down a long, lonely road. I walked as fast as my weary legs could carry me. After about ten minutes I had made it to the main road. A guy there told me there were no taxis in Wewak – I’d have to take the bus.
Luckily, a bus was coming. I stuck out my hand and jumped on board. I was the only passenger, but they only made me pay a quid. The airport is on the way to town from the sea port, so that worked out well. By 6.45am I was at the airport… but it was closed. I found a security guy who told me that the plane had left fifteen minutes ago.
There are no other carriers that come to Wewak, it’s Air Niugini or nuthin’.
I took a deep breath… I still had one more roll of the die. It was a long shot, but the guy told me that there was a flight which left here at 11.30am today which would get me into Port Moresby at 1:10pm. (It was, in fact, the same flight that departed Vamino this morning – it stopped at Wewak on the way, I could have saved myself a night on that wretched boat!!).
So I jumped a bus into town and waited outside the Air Niugini office for it to open at 8am.
Wewak is not the most attractive of towns, and I really didn’t like the vibe it was giving off – it was sharp and disquieting. One guy was just standing in the street giving me daggers as I sat on the step of the airline office. I tried my best to ignore him and watched the town of Wewak come to life. It seems as though there isn’t much of a community in this town: the building are all sheds full of stuff: groceries, banks, offices; but there are no pubs, no restaurants, no cafes – nothing communal. I asked if there was anywhere I could get breakfast and the poor security guard looked at me like I was insane.
Eventually, the office opened. Behind me a massive queue had formed; I was incredibly thankful to be at the front. I have never been to a place where standing in massive queues is such an integral part of everyday life. Think of people camping out for the new year sales or the opening of Star Wars Episode I at Mann’s Chinese Theatre being the norm rather than the exception.
Inside, I had to wait at the front of the ‘seated queue’ for a couple of minutes before I was called into the side office. The lady I spoke to, Debbie, was incredibly helpful. It wasn’t until she said the name of PNG’s national airline outloud that I realised that ‘Air Nuigini’ was pronounced ‘Air New Guinea’. Stupid of me, I know, but I had only seen it written down!
Debbie told me that the 11.30am flight to Port Moresby was still on, but it was sold out. But, if I wanted, I could go on standby. Remember the good old days of cheapo stand-by flights? Well I don’t. And neither does Papua New Guinea. It cost pretty all the money I had left. By that I mean all the money I have left to finish this adventure. That’s it, I’m skint, I’m broke, I gambled and lost, my horse was shot I bet it all on black and lost my shirt at craps. In other words, I’m well and truly on the bones of my ass now.
But what do you expect when you haven’t worked for two years? Mustn’t grumble.
I needed to get the money out of a cash machine, so I asked the security guy to escort me to the branch of ANZ bank across the road, which (thankfully) he did. The daggers guy was still outside and still giving me daggers. Never had an armed escort to the ATM before. So with my overdraught well and truly maxed out I bought the stand-by ticket. If the 11.30am flight wasn’t full I would be getting into Port Moresby at 1.10pm. My flight to Australia left at 2pm. IF the flight to Oz was delayed, even by just half an hour, I could (just about) make it.
Fingers crossed for a Christmas miracle, I asked the security guard to escort me to the bus stop. That crazy guy was still outside the office and still staring at me. The guard took me down the road, but luckily his boss drove past and offered me a lift. I jumped into the back of what looked like a police van – grates on the windows, the lot. Turns out the guy driving, Matthew, is the owner of the private security firm that oversees the business and banks in downtown Wewak.
On the way to the airport we stopped outside a rather grand mansion. Matthew jumped out of the van and went and had a chat with a maid at the front wrought iron gate. His colleague, sitting in the passenger seat, told me that it was ‘the Prime Ministers’ house. I assumed that the actual Prime Ministers house must be in Port Moresby, I guessed he was talking about the mayor or the regional governor of some sort.
But no, as I was to learn later, it was the Prime Minister’s residence – the long serving Michael Somare is from Wewak. And – get this – he was deposed in a bloodless coup* just LAST WEEK.
READ ALL ABOUT IT!! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11990157
Seriously? Seriously! And Matthew is in charge of the security of his house. Small world eh?
After conducting his business with the maid, Matthew jumped back in the car and drove me to the airport. Lovely guy – he gave me his card and told me to give him a call when I get back to Wewak. Given the tense atmosphere of this place, that wouldn’t be a bad idea!
So into the airport eh? An airport…
I’ve got some criticism for flying to see Mandy, and I would just like to address this point. This is my adventure, I invented it and I make the rules. The rules are simple: I have to forge a continuous path of travel to every country in the world without flying. I never said at any point that I wouldn’t fly under any circumstances, I said I wouldn’t fly as part of the journey.
I’ve made it clear from the start that, if necessary, I would fly home (if, say, I had to deal with an emergency) and then fly back to where I left off. If you want to do your own surface Odyssey, the same rules would apply to you. If I was single, there’d be no way I’d go to Australia for Christmas, but I’m not single. I’ve seen Mandy for just 7 days in the last 724. She can’t come here, but I can (and will) go there.
I was mulling all this over in my head while I was sitting in the airport terminal, a small concrete hall next to the narrow ribbon of tarmac that constituted the landing strip. My iPod, sensing my mood, played Fairytale of New York. Just as Shane MacGowan was singing that he built his dreams around you, my phone rang. It was Mand. We couldn’t chat for long – the price of the call was $1.75 a minute. She told me how sad she was that I wasn’t finished, how sad she was that she would be having another Christmas without me and how sad she was that she’d be the only person in a group of twenty-five of her mates going camping for New Year who wouldn’t have a partner.
She explained that her mum’s house has no internet connection, she won’t be able to speak to me tomorrow, on Christmas day. I didn’t tell her I was coming back to her for two reasons: one was for it to be a surprise, the other was because there’s a good chance I won’t make it. As I said goodbye she burst into tears.
All of you who think I’ve sold out can stick it: I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing this for the girl who has stood by me through thick and thin for the last eight years. She doesn’t deserve another lonely Christmas.
As I struggled to get my iPod working again, I realised that I was crying too.
The plane was delayed (typically) and everyone got on board. I was told to wait. After I felt I had waited long enough, I asked the guy on the door what was going on, he asked me what I was doing and I explained that I was the stand-by passenger. Oh, right he said and went to get the supervisor, a large woman with an unhomely face. But when she told me there was space on board for me I wanted to give that unhomely face a big kiss.
Within a couple of minutes I was fastening the buckle of my seat of the little 36 seater Bombardier DHC-8-202. It was a prop plane, which is always a little disconcerting, but it was brand spanking new, which made me happy. I sat through the safety blah and soon we were taxiing along the runway, faster and faster until…
Wow. This is it, I’m actually flying for the first time since 29th December 2008.
As we ascended I saw the seaport where I had arrived just a few hours earlier, I saw the town and the jungle and then it was jungle all the way to Port Moresby. The captain (an Aussie) said that he would try and make up some lost time, but as the minutes started ticking past 1pm I started sinking lower and lower into my seat. This wasn’t going to work.
I had printed out some (legally acquired!) pdfs of the PNG Lonely Planet and the accommodation options in Port Moresby didn’t make for great reading. Everywhere was outrageously expensive and the best deal was a hostel run by missionaries that would probably be full and even if it wasn’t, they had a strict no-alcohol rule.
Merry Christmas, I don’t think!!
As the plane descended into Port Moresby (it wasn’t a very long trip) I was staring intently at my watch as if by looking at it I could somehow slow down time.
It never works.
At 1.27pm we the hit tarmac. I was the first off the plane and ran as quickly as I could to the baggage carousel, a bit miffed that they hadn’t let me take it on board (it’s all Osama Bin Laden’s fault). The bags came out in good time, but mine didn’t. I soon realised that these bags were from another flight: I recognised the people waiting from my flight. At 1.46pm the bags from our flight started to emerge, and mine was the first one out. I grabbed it and dashed out of Domestic Arrivals.
Running over to the International terminal, I realised how hot it was without air conditioning. By the time I entered the concourse I was sweating like a fat chick in a cake shop. The building was pretty empty. I ran over to Virgin Blue…
Has the flight to Brisbane been delayed? Has it?
I clenched my fists and bit my tongue. My mind was whizzing around like a wheel on a fruit machine.
And there are no other flights to Australia today?
I closed my eyes and sighed.
…well, not from Virgin Blue, but I think there’s one from Air Pacific….
She pointed over to the other side of the check-in area. I sped over, but all the little offices were closed. All shut up for Christmas. Damnit. I walked over to the seemingly empty Air Pacific Check-In desk – there was a girl sitting down reading a magazine.
Are there any more flights to Australia today?
Yes, there’s one to Cairns at 5pm.
OH MY GOD.
Is it sold out?
Dunno – ask at the office.
She pointed to the office that I didn’t see because the venetian blinds pulled down over the windows made it look closed. It wasn’t closed, there was someone in there. I ran over. There was a guy inside dressed up like a pilot.
Are there any seats left on the flight to Cairns?
I dunno. I’m the pilot.
Which explained why he was dressed up like a pilot. Then a little lady came in and attended to me. I explained my predicament. She tapped on the computer. I raised my eyebrows. She tapped some more.
Yes, there are seats available.
I kissed the glass.
You really don’t want to know. I reached into my pants and pulled out my emergency money pouch. I took out the faded and battered emergency Visa card that I haven’t used since the Odyssey began. I handed it over and prayed that they didn’t ask for my PIN – I don’t know it.
No worries – I just had to sign.
She handed over my ticket and I danced a little jig. I then got on the phone to Alex Zelenjak in Sydney.
I’m getting into Cairns tonight. What can you do for me mate?
When Alex gets on the case, boy does he get on the case. Within 15 minutes he was calling me back to tell me that he had bagged me a place on a fight from Cairns (which is in the far north of Oz) to Melbourne (down in the south, where Mandy lives) for 11.45am tomorrow morning. Better still, he was able to use the credit from my original Port Moresby ticket (for the flight I just missed) to pay for it.
Chucking in ten bucks of his own money to pay for the extra baggage fee, I was set. Alex you total LEGEND. You made my Christmas, damnit – you made my YEAR!!!
GOOD ON YA MATEY! I owe you a night out at the Three Monkeys in Sydney!!!
And that’s how I got my Christmas miracle.
I went upstairs a shared a beer or two with an Aussie guy called Angus who had been gold prospecting in the jungles of PNG. Better him than me. He’s the one who told me about the Prime Minister being kicked out and the resultant unrest in Wewak: he had just come from there yesterday.
By 4.30pm I had got through security and been stamped out of the country and was crossing the tarmac towards the 737-700 that would whisk me away to Australia for Christmas.
Don’t worry, PNG, I’ll be back.
NOTHING CAN STOP ME NOW!!!!!!!!!
I arrived in Cairns around 7pm. I had almost forgotten how fast you can travel if you fly. After the usual grilling by the Aussie border guards (they get my vote for nastiest in the world, and I should know!!), I jumped a taxi (sharing the cost with a random Chinese guy) to the backpackers that Alex had booked me into. The good news was that if I was quick, I could grab a free meal in the pub next door, the bad news was that the pub next door (and, seemingly, all of Cairns) closed at 12pm. Oh, and by the way, ‘Cairns’ is pronounced ‘Cans’, which just sounds like somebody saying ‘Cannes’ incorrectly.
DON’T LOOK AT ME, I DON”T MAKE THE RULES.
After the day I had had, I wasn’t prepared to go to bed sober so I teamed up with the gang from my dorm and hit the sauce. The night soon descended into the usual chaos: booze, dorm parties, booze, the pub, booze, random walkabout trying to find somewhere that was still open, booze, more dorm parties, booze, told off by security, booze, booze, booze and booze.
I retired to bed as the Christmas dawn was breaking. Everything was right with the world. I fell asleep humming the greatest Christmas number two of all time.
Twas Christmas Eve babe
In Ol’ Wewak
And old man said to me
The sea’s too choppy son
You’ve got your timing wrong
Give it a month or two
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you
So took the flight to POM
Came in at half past one
I got the ticket
This trip’s for you and me
So Happy Christmas
Sod The Odyssey
Deserve a bit of time
To wrap my arms around you