Since you can’t wear clothes for more than a day in Fiji without them turning into sweat rags, I had thrown my togs in for some rather overpriced cleaning at the local laundry. They wouldn’t be ready until 12 noon, but as soon as I had them back in my backpack where they belonged, I raced over to the bus station, found the first bus with ‘Nadi’ written on the front and jumped on board.
Fijians have this thing in which they’ll be an ‘n’ in the word, but you wouldn’t know that just by looking at it . For example ‘Nadi’ is pronounced ‘Nandi’ (and the cannibal king name was written ‘Udre Udre’ but pronounced ‘Undre Undre’). This quirk is by no means unique to Fiji: the capital of American Samoa, Pago Pago, is pronounced ‘Pango Pango’, I don’t know if this knowledge is ever going to help you get laid, but at least you could now pretend to have been on holiday in the South Seas.
Nadi is a pleasant little place. Most travellers and holiday-makers race through here on the way somewhere else, as Nadi is the home of Fiji’s international airport. But I found it a marvellous diversion for a couple of days. I checked into the Nadi Bay Resort and found a heavily tattooed and pierced Englishman in my dorm. Alex comes from Brighton and is involved in charity work over here in Fiji. A top bloke: the kind of guy who will engage you in intelligent conversation while at the same time scaring the kids. I like that.
I was in Nadi for two nights, and both of them I spent playing pool with the local sharks and hussies down at Ed’s Bar, something of a Nadi institution. I met a string of colourful characters: ex-pats, tourists, sailors, backpackers and natives, and did my best to antagonise as many of them as possible. This ship had better get to Suva soon… at this rate I’m going to run out of money before I leave the island.
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.
Hurrah! 2012 at last! And might I say GOOD RIDDANCE to all that horrible 2011 malarkey. Yuck. Never going back there again. I saw in the new year in Albert Park in Suva amongst a good few thousand revellers dancing in the mud. I then sneaked back into O’Reilly’s and burnt the midnight oil throwing shapes to terrible music which (when I rule the world) will be outlawed.
I woke up the next day in the South Seas Hotel with a bitching hangover and a load of random photos on my camera that I don’t recall taking.
Okay people, this is it… THE LAST YEAR OF THE ODYSSEY EXPEDITION!
I have just TEN countries left to go. Here’s how I intend to knock them pins down…
In a couple of days I will be leaving Suva on The Southern Lily 2, ready to go to Samoa (192), Tonga (193) and New Zealand (194). Mandy is going to be flying in to meet me and we’re going to enjoy a week or so holidaying around the North Island and generally stalking Sir Peter Jackson. I’m having a little holiday from my epic holiday, okay?!
Once I get to New Zealand I will have just SEVEN countries left to visit.
Princess Cruises have already agreed to give me free passage from New Zealand to Australia. Once there, my friends at Neptune Shipping will hopefully be happy to give me a ride on The Scarlet Lucy (great name!) to the isolated dot of a nation that is Nauru (195). That trip will bring me back to Australia for the beginning of March. Then I’m hoping my old chums in either Swire or PIL will be good enough to allow me to hitch a ride on one of their cargo ships leaving Australia for Taiwan.
The Mariana Shipping Company runs ships out of Taiwan which call into Micronesia (196) and Palau (197). Without their assistance, I may be sunk, so fingers crossed on that one. Then it’s back to PIL to ask if I can ride one of their ships from Hong Kong to Sri Lanka (198). Sri Lanka has a number of small carriers that go to The Maldives (199) and back, so that journey shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange. I reckon I could have all that done by May 2012.
Then we get to the hardest nut to crack. The Fort Knox of surface travel: The Seychelles (200). I can’t emphasise enough how difficult it’s going to be to get there without flying. It will require nothing short of a miracle, or at the very least a huge stroke of luck.
You can forget about cargo ships: there aren’t any that could take me even if they wanted to, not in the pirate infested waters of the Indian Ocean. Cruise ships are few and far between (like, a year between) so that leaves me with just one option: to hitch a ride on a yacht. The closest (and safest) place for me to do this from would be Nosy Be in Madagascar.
But even getting back to Madagascar may present difficulties: the pirate zone has grown year on year since 2006, and now even the waters around Madagascar are seen as areas of elevated risk. I may need to travel to Mauritius and make my own way from there. I may even have to go to Mozambique and then do the Comoros island-hop fiasco AGAIN that cost me so much time and money back in 2009.
One way or another, I will get back to Madagascar. But finding somebody willing to risk kidnap or death by sailing north out of Nosy Be… it ain’t going to be easy.
But let’s assume that I’m successful. I take a yacht up to one of the most southerly islands of The Seychelles and back to Nosy Be and don’t run into any trouble. Then it’s the dreaded Comoros island-hop back to the African mainland before I travel from Dar-Es-Salaam to Uganda and from there I march north into country number 201 of 201: South Sudan.
Cue fireworks, Juba beer and crazy dancing all night long.
I then intend to thunder overland back to the UK, through Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Italy and France for one hell of a party once I return to Liverpool, hopefully around the end August, so clear your diaries people!
Then, and only then, will The Odyssey Expedition be over. Maybe.
Last night I went to the cinema to watch Mission Impossible 4, which I have to say is by far the best in the series, and I would expect nothing less from the guy who directed my favourite Pixar flick, The Incredibles. Today I ran over to the suburb of Lami to pick up my gear that I left with Sandy while I toured the island.
With that done, I was left twiddling my thumbs somewhat. I spent my last few nights in Suva at the South Seas Hotel, sharing a dorm for about 8 quid a night. My partner in crime, Renato, has hooked up with a local chick so he’s not up for going out and getting into trouble. The ship that’s due to whisk me away to New Zealand (via Samoa and Tonga) leaves on Wednesday. I went out on Monday night seeking adventure and excitement and really wild things, but the only thing that was banging was my headache the following day.
So Tuesday I had a lazy day. I did some writing and watched a bit of telly while the rain poured down outside. Next time I come to Fiji, I’ll try to not make it the wet season! I really like this place, I wish I had more time (and money) to explore the other islands, but as I keep saying, these places aren’t going nowhere, I’ll come back when somebody else is picking up the tab.
So then, Fiji, my Pacific jewel. Farewell… for now.
High noon in Suva saw me bundle myself out of the South Seas hostel and off to the Trans Am Shipping Agents opposite the north gate of Suva Port. There to meet Loslini, the lady who would be helping me onboard the Southern Lily 2. After explaining my mad plan to her, she handed me over into the capable hands of her number two and I was driven over to the port.
A-ha! The Southern Lily 2. Thanking my lucky stars, I clambered up the gangway and onto the ship that would be taking me to 3 out of my final 10 countries. Once aboard I met with Captain Andriy, the Ukrainian skipper who would subsequently go out of his way to ensure my time in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga was a fun (and more importantly, hilarious) one.
Already he had organised stuff for us to do once we arrived in Samoa, including visiting the final resting place of the great Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. Even better, since the ship’s air conditioning wasn’t coming through to my cabin (I’m not being fussy, I’ve done without air con for the entire time I’ve been in Fiji, but in a little room on a metal ship in the tropics… eek!) the captain moved me to a spare cabin on Deck 5… one of the biggest on the ship! Hell yeah. 2012 is already looking good!
Unfortunately I had come down with a cold, one that I determined to rid myself of before we reached Samoa. After waving goodbye to Suva one last time I retired to my cabin with some cold medicine and a box of tissues and didn’t come out until we reached Apia on the afternoon of the 6th.