The PLAN!!!

So here we are, 180 countries down and just 20 to go – it’s mad to think that I only left Shanghai just over two weeks ago, and in that time I’ve managed to visit Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia – and with any luck I’ll be in Brunei (181) before close of play tomorrow and the Philippines (182) by the end of this week (typhoons permitting).  But if you think I’m “nearly there”, think again.  Every single remaining state is an island nation and none of them have anything approaching an international ferry service.  This could take a looooooooong time.

A loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong time.

Here’s a draft of a sketch of a inkling of The Plan from here to the end of The Odyssey ExpeditionBut as always, everything is open to change.

183: East Timor

There is a Pelni (Indonesia’s national ferry service) ship that goes from Denpaser in Bali to Kupang in (West) Timur.  I’ll be crossing the border, then sitting in Dili for a few days while I apply for (yet) another Indonesian visa.

184: Palau

After returning to Kupang, I will take a Pelni ship to West Papua.  From there I hope to persuade a swashbuckling yachtie to take me to the South-West Islands of Palau: only a few hundred kilometres north (as opposed to the capital Koror which is a thousand kilometres away).  I’ll then be coming straight back to West Papua.

185. Papua New Guinea

Just a case of crossing the border from West Papua.

186. Solomon Islands

If I island-hop through PNG and make it to Bougainville, I should be able to take a canoe over the short hop to the Shortland Islands and tick the Solomons off the list.  From there I should be able to island-hop via Gizo to Guadalcanal, the main island.

And here’s when it becomes REALLY tricky…

Have a gander at this map of the Pacific Island states I knocked out on the back of a napkin…

All This And MORE!!

Take a note of the scale!!! From the Marshall Islands down to Fiji I’m going to have a cover a distance approximately the same as from Darwin to Melbourne via Sydney.  This is no Caribbean Island hop, these are gargantuan chucks of bitchin’ ocean I have to cover.

The only options open to me are hitching a ride on cargo ships and cruise ships.  Cyclone season starts at the end of this month (and continues to May) so yachts are right out.  Even if someone was mad enough to take me, it would just be too dangerous – I mean, have you SEEN A Perfect Storm?  Ygads!

So here’s the sketch of how I’m going to do this…

187. Nauru

The isolated (and isolationalist) island of Nauru is really hitting hard times these days.  The rich phosphate deposits that secured the island’s finances are now completely depleted (as of this year), leaving an impoverished island in the middle of nowhere that is going to be a real bitch to get to – it’s the only Pacific Island where you need a visa and an invitation to ruck up.  Seriously guys?  Seriously?

My hope is that I can hop a supply/cargo ship from The Solomons north to The Marshall Islands, one that stops at Nauru along the way.  But these things may only come once every few months.

188. Micronesia

Micronesia (like jungle) is massive, stretching across a vast swathe of the Pacific Ocean.  The bit I’m interested in is an island called Kosrae in the far east of the nation, which I could use as a stepping stone to…

189. The Marshall Islands

I lie awake at night fretting about ever reaching The Marshall Islands.  So far from just about anywhere they cajole and torment me in my dreams.  But if this semi-mythical cargo ship can take me there, I’d be one happy Odyssey bunny.

190. Kiribati

If a cargo ship has got me this far, maybe it can take me a little further: to the western half of Kiribati.  From there at least I know I can take a Kiribati Shipping Services ship (which comes once every couple of months) down to…

191. Tuvalu

Here I’ll have to make the decision whether to stay on the Kiribati Shipping Services ship to Fiji or swing a left to:

192. Samoa

Again, this place is a little off the beaten track, but it’s position between the US Samoan islands and Fiji means that if I’m lucky, I might be able to find something that can float me to:

193. Tonga

If I get here, the hump should be over: I’ll be on the cruise ship circuit.  Hopefully in return for entertaining the troops with tales of my adventures (and possibly the odd song and dance routine), I’ll be allowed to hitch a ride on a cruise to:

194. Fiji

Fiji seems to have the best international transport links with the region, and I may regret not coming here first, but if all works out, I should be able to stay on the same cruise ship through the Fijian islands and on to:

195. Vanuatu

And then onto:

196. New Zealand

My original final destination, things have changed a little since I failed to reach Sri Lanka, Maldives and The Seychelles.  It shouldn’t be too hard to find something to ship me to:

197. Australia

Arriving in Sydney (because I owe Alex Zelenjak a pint in The Three Monkeys), I’ll be headed down to Melbourne and kidnapping my long-suffering girlfriend Mandy for the trip across the Nullabor all the way to Perth.  If I can find a cruise that is going to Europe or South Africa, there’s a good chance it will stop at: 198. Sri Lanka, 199. Maldives and 200. The Seychelles.

Then I’m done, right?  Er, right… as long as no new nations are created between now and the end of this.  Like, say, South Sudan

Eek!

CAN YOU HELP?

If you have any contacts in the South Pacific who are involved in shipping or cruises, please pass them on via the CONTACTS page.  In return for helping me finish The Odyssey in one piece I’m willing to give plenty of publicity to any company or individual that would like to get involved.

Thanks!!

Day 694: El Presidente

25.11.10:

So what do you know about East Timor?  Not much?  Good.  You must be British.  Or American.  Aussies will have heard of the place for reasons I’ll come to later.  The first I heard of the place was about ten years ago on the Mark Thomas Comedy Product TV Show (Mark Thomas is the Michael Moore of the UK only much less fat) when he was going on about British arms companies supplying the weapons that the Indonesian army were using to kill civilians in East Timor.

So what follows is a potted history of this little nation.  Like most of the islands that make up Indonesia, Timor was fought over by the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish and god knows who else for a few centuries until the island was split down the middle (with a little odd enclave) between the Portuguese and the Dutch.

Poor old East Timor, it was doomed from the start.  In the league of Nations It Really Sucked To Be Colonised By, Portugal has to come joint top with Belgium.  Look at the ex-Portuguese colonies around the world: Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and –urk – Cape Verde.  Basketcases one and all.  Portugal really quite spectacularly neglected pretty much all of it colonies, failed to build any decent infrastructure, educate the native population, or even prepare them for the transition into statehood.

Instead the Portuguese (under the universally loathed Salazar regime) just raped the land of its resources, orchestrated a devastatingly successful divide-and-rule policy, and then once day in 1975 pulled out without a thank you, goodbye, kiss-my-elbow NOTHING.  In Mozambique they trashed the place on the way out – setting fire to buildings, sabotaging vehicles and – sickeningly – pouring concrete down wells.  In Angola just ONE university graduate was left in a country the size of Western Europe.  A country with a population of fourteen million.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened next.  The civil war in Angola rumbled on for almost THIRTY years.

East Timor was spared the inevitable civil war only because Indonesia (at the behest of the US and Australia, by the way) invaded and annexed the country.  Predictably, people fought back, some with arms, others (more sensibly and more successfully) through diplomacy.  Step forward, Jose Ramos-Horta, current President and Nobel Laureate (he won the Peace Prize in 1996).  We shall learn more about him later.

Anyway, after 23 years of violent repression of the East Timorese independence movement, something weird happened.  President Habibie of Indonesia announced a referendum.  I guess it kinda made sense at the time – there was a lot of international pressure to lay off East Timor – once the results showed that the overwhelming majority of East Timorese wanted to stay with Jakarta, they would have the UN off their back.  Votes can be rigged right?

Wrong.

The canny East Timorese, in the face of intimidation and death threats, announced their intention to stay a part of Indonesian in public.  When it came to the private ballot though, HA!  Fooled ya!  They voted for independence.  By a landslide.

Indonesia’s army didn’t know what to do, so it did what tin-pot third-world armies do best: they trashed the place.  Massacres, arson and looting were rife.  Half a million people were displaced.  This brought East Timor’s plight to the attention of Australia.  Unfortunately, the East Timorese possibly didn’t realise they were on the doorstep of the Most Racist Country In The World™ and the only way they were going to get any help – humanitarian or otherwise – was if they handed over their future oil rights to the Howard administration for a song.  But the plucky ETs held their ground (despite the fact their countrymen were being slaughtered in the streets) and (eventually) got themselves a halfway decent deal.  That fat bastard Alexander Downer would have been happy for the massacres to go on (in his own words) “10, 20, 30 years… we can wait”.

What a nice chap.  I sure hope you didn’t vote for him.

Anyway, the UN came in too late, left too early, came back looking sheepish and are still here now.  The Indonesian army has gone and since 2001 East Timor (or Timor-Leste to be precise) has had a seat on the UN.

President Ramos-Horta survived an assassination attempt in 2008 (he was shot twice in the stomach) and is still going strong and still wanders about with a minimum of security.  Which was my good fortune today as he was speaking at a school down the road.  I turned up in my scruffs, clutching a couple of bags (perhaps full of AK-47s and rocket launchers) and was waved through the crowd peering through the school gates to take up a position just a few feet away from the man himself.  Good job I’m not The Jackal eh?

Jose Ramos Horta
Lovin' the shades...

After the speech he cut some cake, popped some champagne and declared the new tech wing of the San Miguel school (donated by the Rotary Club of Australia, by the way) open.  Just as the tape in my camcorder ran out I managed to shake his hand and say hello.  He was then whisked away much in the manner of Dungeon Master from Dungeons and Dragons.

Friends In High Places...

Heads of states eh?  I’m finally going places!

Afterwards I met up with my auld muckas Chesa and Simon, them wot’s tryin’ to get from Italy to Oz in a Fiat 500.  They had to wait a couple of days longer than me in Kupang for Simon’s East Timor visa, but they got it in the end and now here they were in Dili.  We met at the Castaway bar for a bit of grub and a natter.  I stuck to the soft drinks – no, I’m not on the wagon (as if!), it’s just that the price of the booze here makes me pull a sad face.

Day 723: Fairytale of New Guinea

24.12.10:

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.

Wewak Port
So, er, How Do You Fit A Thousand Papuans On A Boat...?

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.

Fifteen minutes.

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.

Flying
Me! On a plane!! In your FACE, gavinmac!

Cool!

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.

Air Nuigini
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Yes. It's a plane.

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?

No.

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?

No…

I closed my eyes and sighed.

…well, not from Virgin Blue, but I think there’s one from Air Pacific….

What?

Air Pacific…

Where?

Over there…

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.

YESYESYESYESYESYESYESYESYESYESYESYESYESYESYESYESYESYESYES

I kissed the glass.

How much?

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.

Port Moresby Departure Lounge
The Departure Lounge. How Radiohead.

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

* Okay, he resigned. I just like the word ‘coup’.

Day 724: Mandy’s Pressie from PNG

Xmas Day 2010:

After a couple of hours kip I was up an’ at ’em, ready to TAKE ON THE WORLD!!! My only problem was that I had spend the few remaining dollars I had on beer last night (you WOULD NOT BELIEVE how expensive Australia has suddenly just become: we’re talking a UK fiver for HALF a pint… seriously!!).

I scraped together what I had and hoped it would be enough for a taxi to the airport. I would be taking the 11.30am flight from Cairns to Melbourne. I didn’t quite have enough to pay the full fare, but my lovely taxi driver (from my fav Indian state of Kerala) let me off a couple of dollars – hell, it was Christmas day and I did spend the entire journey telling him how cool I thought his hometown was!

So in the airport I changed my left over PNG dollars (which I was planning to keep for when I went back, but when readies are short…) into Aussie dollars.  They’re both made of that weird plasticy material.  So are the new Bangladesh Taka, incidentally.  I’m a luddite when it comes to money – I like the paper stuff, it feels more real.  Although to have a paper note worth less than a fiver is just bloomin’ stupid.  As such, some of the money I’ve collected on my travels is breathtakingly filthy.

With my ill-gotten gains I bought a copy of Australian Empire Magazine (half the size and twice the price) and while I waited for the boarding queue to die down I indulged my baser instincts with a real Christmas treat – a Burger King Whopper Meal.

Yum yum!

Happy to have a window seat, and even happier that nobody sat next to me (three seats just for my fat ass! Yey!) the plane journey passed in a sleepy haze – a haze in which the contrast levels of my life had just been turned up a notch.  Or maybe that was the bright midsummer sunshine streaming through the window.

The plane touched down in Melbourne at 4pm.  While the other passengers were fannying about waiting for their luggage, I went outside and bought a bus ticket to the city centre.  I then went to the carousel, picked up my backpack, laughed at the massive queue which had just formed for bus tickets and jumped on the waiting bus which promptly departed leaving my fellow travellers behind.  Experience baby, that’s what I’m talking about YEAH!!

The bus slid into Spencer Street Station in just twenty minutes (take THAT, Heathrow!) and there was a little bit of a worry caused by the fact that Mandy was not in Melbourne today, but in her home town of Ballarat, a 112 kilometres to the north-west.  Would I have the money to get the train, or would I have to hitch-hike.

As if to prove that, if not Poseidon, then at least Santa was fighting my corner, I was told by a wonderfully cheery Aussie lady that all the trains across the state of Victoria were free today (it being Christmas an’ all).

Wow!

Australia, you ROCK!!

So I boarded the 5pm train to Ballarat: with any luck I’d be back in Mandy’s loving arms before 7.

The Train To Ballarat
The Train To Ballarat

I arrived at the lovely old station of Ballarat at 6.30pm.  Brilliantly enough, Mandy and her sister Tam had spent the afternoon at their auntie’s place, and I arrived JUST AS they were jumping in their separate cars and heading back to their mum’s.  So Tam, her husband Ian and their three month old son William came to pick me up from the station: shh… not a word to Mandy…

It was great to see them again and to meet little William, the newest edition to our clan.  Mandy drove back to her mum’s in her own car and didn’t suspect a thing.  Around the corner from the house, I got Tam to stop the car and she and Ian to bundle me into the boot (the trunk) and covered me in towels and blankets: all wrapped up for the surprise.

When Tam arrived at her mum’s place, she went to get Mandy.  “Your Christmas present has arrived from PNG” she told her.  Mandy wasn’t interested – she was too busy trying to get me on Skype(!)  Tam practically had to drag her out to the car.  And then…

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE AND ALL THE BEST FOR 2011 FROM MYSELF AND EVERYBODY AT TEAM ODYSSEY!!

Days 725-762: What’s Happening, G…?

26.12.10-01.02.11:

Well, I was hoping to be back on the road by now, but as anyone who’s been watching the news in the last couple of weeks will tell you, this is not the best time to be mooching around the South Pacific IN A BOAT. Monster storms like Cyclone Yasi here would make short work of an aircraft carrier, never mind a Sloop John B.

So I’ve been spending my time wisely, I’ve been working on the book of my adventures, I’ve got myself an agent (finally!!) and a manager (finally finally!!). I’ve been in contact with fellow adventurers Tim Cope and Steve Crombie (who, interestingly enough, is one day older than me… must have been some solar activity around that time) and they’re really helped me out with getting my s— together.

I’ve had a couple of meeting with Lonely Planet and yes series two of Graham’s World will be made (one way or another). If it all goes completely pear-shaped I’ll edit the damn thing myself and stick it on YouTube for you all to watch for free.

The final 16 has become the final 17 as we welcome a cheeky bit of South Sudan into the League of Sovereign States. Good job, Juba!! I hear the vote was 99.57% for the split with the mad, corrupt, authoritarian north. If you think about it, it’ll make a much more satisfying ending to all this Odyssey madness, don’t you think? Also means I get to ‘do’ northern Kenya AGAIN! Back on top o’ that truck! Huzzah!

It’s been great to catch up with my friends and family here in Australia, which is (I guess) my second home. I been able to have as many baths as I like, stuff my face with Crunchy Nut Cornflakes with the ice-cold semi-skimmed milk dribbling down my chin, consume my bodyweight in Anzac Biscuits and Arnott’s Shapes and sleep in a proper bed for more than a few days at a time.

It had a great opportunity to do some tedious (but necessary) improvements to the website, such as getting the blogs in chronological order, correcting the dates and adding pictures and music into the mix.  Woo!!

But, best of all, I’ve been able to reforge the tight bond between me and my girlfriend Mandy. Not many relationships could weather the storm of being separated for so long, but what we’ve got here is special. Damn special. And not special like a special bus going to a special school neither.

Me and the Mandster
Me and the Mandster, Boxing Day 2010

A huge THANK YOU to everyone who took me in or bought me a pint over the course of 2010, keep in touch and I’m sure I’ll see you again before long.

At the moment I’m beavering away on a kick-ass Chapter One of my book in order to secure an advance, which I can then spend finishing this crazy journey (I did mention I was skint didn’t I?). I’m not looking for megabucks!!

From October 2009 to today, I’ve been to over 60 countries – from Madagascar to Australia via Kyrgyzstan – and spent just £7,241. That’s it – about 450 quid a month, and most of that went on visas. If you knocked Libya, Saudi and Central Asia out of the equation, the costs would have been a lot less.

Just to put that into context, a train season ticket for 16 months worth of travel from Peterborough to London (that’s just 77 miles BTW) would set you back a whopping £8,309.

I know what I’d rather spend my money on…! 😉

Keep on Truckin’

G.

http://theodysseyexpedition.com/category/cape-verde/

Day 886: An Open Letter to Tourism Minister Martin Ferguson

05.06.11:

After the death threats I received for slagging off the Cape Verde police force on this very blog, I learnt a pertinent lesson: don’t say what you really think until you’ve left the damn place.  I was therefore saving my torrent of abuse concerning the Australian government’s wretched treatment of tourists until after I was well shut of the otherwise good land of Oz.

However, after finding out it’s going to cost me $255 to extend my AUSTRALIAN TOURIST VISA (which I shouldn’t need in the first place), the dam has burst.

The fury leaping out of my fingertips must be converted to 1s and 0s and plastered all over the net before I explode.

The Aussie Tourist Visa (that’ll be $29 please, thanks KA-CHING!) lasts just a paltry three months.  Then you’re supposed to fly to another country and back to renew it for another three months.  If you can’t be arsed doing that (unsurprising when the nearest OTHER COUNTRY from Melbourne is at least four hours away on a jumbo jet) you’re hit by a admin fee that is actually MORE THAN the minimum penalty for being caught drink driving.

If I’m to read between the lines here, I would have to suggest that tourists in Australia are less welcome than drink drivers.  Ygads.

First up, I want you to realise something: last year, more tourists visited Bulgaria than visited Australia.  You think that’s bad?  More people visited Syria than visited Australia.  But then you can get a visa for Syria upon arrival.  See where I’m going with this?

There are, of course, salient geographical reasons for Australia’s dismal tourist figures: Australia is, after all, miles from anywhere.  Getting to Melbourne from Europe means sitting on a minimum of two planes for a minimum of 24 hours.  Needless to say, it’s not somewhere you go for a weekend break.

Coupled with the wince-inducing strength of the Aussie dollar (take any price and double it. Then double it again.), the logic of being the ONLY WESTERNISED NATION IN THE WORLD to require TOURIST VISAS from Europeans just utterly beggars belief.  Yes, you don’t need a visa to visit Argentina, a country the UK was at war with in the 80s.  But you do need a visa for Australia… a country that puts our Queen on their banknotes and our flag in the corner of theirs.

I hate hate HATE having to apply for a visa to visit a country.  99% of the time it instantly marks a state out as being nasty, oppressive and totalitarian.  There are 142 countries out of the UN 192 that do NOT require a European tourist to purchase a pre-paid visa.  Those that do are in the minority: they include such luminary and enlightened countries as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Belarus, Angola, Libya, Turkmenistan, Guinea, Somalia… and Australia.

I can’t stress this fact enough: I have been to every westernised country that exists in the world and not one of them required me to ask permission of the government to pop in for a visit.  Except Australia.

Are Europeans likely to come here by mistake?  Might they take that ill-fated left turn at Albuquerque and end up in Alice Springs?  Maybe Australia is terrified of being swamped with the flotsam and jetsam of the richest and most powerful countries in the world [insert lame convict joke here].  Is it because Australia is so insecure, so tentative in its footsteps on the world stage that it would prefer to linger in the collective subconscious as Crocodile Dundee’s delightful Aboriginal-loving kangaroo-saving larrikin without having to suffer the indignity of people coming here finding out it’s not like that at all?

Indeed, the only logical conclusion one can sensibly reach is that Australia doesn’t want, much less need tourists.  Like the boat people (and the Aboriginals if only they weren’t – you know – here first) Aussies would much rather you buggered off back were you came from.  Which is not just sad, it’s self-sabotage on a scale that would make your average West African dictator blush.

And – dear lord – have you seen the ads?  The ‘come to Australia’ ads.  OH. MY. GOD.  They give me visions of entering the Australian Tourist Board Marketing Department to find a room filled with baboons wistfully daubing the walls with their own faeces.  See for yourself:

Let me make this quite clear: we are not talking about working visas here, we are talking tourist visas.  Australia makes around $17 BILLION a year from tourism.  I don’t know if the government is too arrogant or too incompetent to understand what a whopping great chunk of cash that is, but I can’t help but feel pretty damn unappreciated for all my hard work over the last ten years periodically dragging money from my British bank account and peppering it like candy around the dance halls, dives and brothels of ol’ Melbourne town.

Lest not forget that the Australian tax payer did not pay for my education (thanks, Blighty old chum), I cannot claim benefits, the dole, working tax credits or train to be a master of falconry while I’m here.  I cannot work, I cannot claim free medical care and if I’m hit by a car, it will cost me (or my insurance company) $779 just to be taken to the damn hospital.  No, really – the ambulances here aren’t free.

In contrast — and by ‘contrast’ I mean ‘ARE YOU FRIKKIN’ SERIOUS??’ — an Aussie tourist can pop over to the good ship UK any time they want, they don’t have to ask for prior permission(!), they can stay up to six months (visa free), can visit pretty much every other country in Europe while they are there (visa free) and get hit by cars all they like because the ambulance dragging their mangled remains back to the hospital is paid for by the Great British taxpayer.

This is because in the UK we don’t just like tourists, we LOVE tourists.  They’re like little mobile piggy banks dispensing fivers around the realm, fivers that we didn’t have to invest a packet of our tax money to generate in the first place – tourists are a net gain for my country, your country, any country.

I’m not saying this situation is unfair, the fact that UK is enjoying the fruits of a massive boom in tourism over the last fifty years is not something I’m ever going to disparage – long may it continue.  But the way the Australian government treat its tourists is stupid.  Plain and simple, totally and utterly, mindbogglingly and heartbreakingly stupid.

So, in short, Mr. Ferguson – you are a treasonous dog who is diddling the good people of Australia out of their much-needed tourist dollars.  Visa requirements for tourists from prosperous western nations should be scrapped immediately and a six month entry stamp should be the norm.

Oh, and if you want your long-suffering tourist board to produce an advert that wouldn’t make Basil Fawlty scoff at your embarrassingly barnyard attempts at advertising, put a European in charge.  Actually, put ME in charge.  With a decent budget, a small film crew and a handful of good looking actors, I could make each and every feisty travel-lovin’ European sit up and beg for buttermilk.  Australian buttermilk.

Graham
Melbourne, Australia
June 5 2011

Days 941-942: It’s Not Your Fault

30.07.11-31.07.11:

Just enjoyed an awesome weekend volunteering for the Melbourne Open House festival. Seventy-five buildings around the city had their doors flung open to the general public… and you know I’ve got a thing for large erections.  It was great stuff (there was over 100,000 visits in just two days) and has also given me the opportunity to write yet another blog entry about architecture! YIPPEE!!

I am firmly of the opinion that some kind of secret meeting took place in 1958.  Present at this meeting were representatives of every single architecture firm in the world.  Under hoods and bearing blood-dipped swords, they swore a dark oath in the flickering candlelight: to never design anything beautiful, anywhere in the world, ever again.

Some of those present at that first meeting have since died, but the legacy of their macabre pact lives on in the hearts and minds of architecture students all over the world.  I see it as a kind of Hippocratic Oath but for architects.  And evil.

If, after reading this blog you care to point me towards a building that is OBJECTIVELY beautiful (like Audrey Hepburn, yeah?) that has been designed in the last fifty years, then I will happily eat my hat.  You’ve got 200 countries, thousands of cities and hundreds of thousands of buildings to chose from… but, lets face it: you can’t, nobody can, because such buildings do not exist.  Travelling through literally hundreds of cities in my lifetime has done NOTHING to amend that opinion.

So what are we left with?  Well, as I always say, KNOW YOUR ENEMY (that’s why I’m more than happy to watch bad films), so Rocco and I went to a talk this week from some of Australia’s Top Modern Architects, designers whose nightmarish creations would feature on the Melbourne Open House Weekend, just so the organisers can’t be accused of refusing to take submissions from the special school.

I was taking notes.  The nonsense word ‘vista’ was said 42 times.  The word ‘green’ was bandied about like building a massive construction involving tons of concrete and steel, man-hours, cranes, machinery, energy, diggers, drainage, pneumatics, electrical cables, pipes, glass and heating THAT IS DESIGNED TO ONLY LAST 30 YEARS is somehow ‘green’.  It’s not.  See St. Paul’s Cathedral?  THAT’S MORE ‘GREEN’, okay?  Been there for 350 years, see?  The bloody PYRAMIDS are more ‘green’!!!

There were murmurs about ‘rationalisation of space’, ‘textured lighting’, ‘juxtapositioning’, ‘initiating a conversation’ and other words that are at best meaningless, and at worst pointless.  The event was like a Monty Python sketch, only not one of the funny ones.

And how many times did the word ‘beauty’ pop up?  Go on, guess.  Maybe five times?  Nah.  Not once.

You can go on thinking that the point of a building is to do something functional and therefore any intrinsic beauty is somehow decadent and bourgeois, but then you’d be a dick and I will have you in a fight.  If you want to fill up a planet with massive formless monstrosities of interchangeable cultureless cack, why does it have to be this one?

But horrific garbage like Federation Squareisn’t even the worst bit.  If you really want to piss me off, why not take a beautiful heritage building and literally attach a malformed shed to the side of it? 

You know, an edifice that would make McDonalds seem upmarket.  A lock-up that Del-Boy might use to keep his Sinclair C5s.  Maybe you could throw some bright primary colours on it (subtlety and intricacy being concepts of yesteryear) and, hey, why not fling some lopsided shapes willy-nilly on the wall, just for giggles?  Three examples: Bluecoat Chambers, Liverpool, John Rylands Gothic Library, Manchester and (we had the bloody architect giving a presentation about it!) The Melbourne Grammar School.

Who allows this multi-million dollar vandalism to happen?  Who sanctions this carnage?  Who allows our most treasured cultural possessions to be terrorised in this way?  And WHO THE HELL THINKS IT LOOKS GOOD?!?!!

Do I go too far in these rants?  Have I crossed the line of polite conversation?  Would you be giving me looks and kicking me under the table if I argued this sort of thing at a dinner party?  Would you throw a pint of beer over my head if I said it in the pub?  Or do you have the teeniest bit of sympathy for my point of view?  I’m not asking you to stand in front of your most detested building and scream ‘F**K OFF!’ at it all day (as I sometimes fantasise about), all I want is to live in a world where the unbelievable shiteness of modern architecture is as commonly and vocally acknowledged as the general awfulness of your average Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.

Why are we so cowed, brow-beaten, thwarted into submission over this stuff?  Why are we so terrified to acknowledge that the emperor has no frickin’ clothes on?  If you think modern buildings are universally ugly, just say so, studies have shown it will make you up to 41% happier and up to 93% more sexy.

The places I visited on Melbourne’s Open House Weekend blew me away, lifted my spirits, made me squeeze Mandy’s hand a little harder, put a song in my heart and a spring in my step.  But not one of the buildings I embraced on my tour of the city was built after 1958. 

You might think I take all this a little too seriously, I’m sure you could imagine me in a suit of armour, clutching a lance and riding a horse at full tilt towards Manchester’s Beetham Tower, but I refuse to believe that I’m the only one who has noticed how culturally impoverished our modern constructions are when we ALL KNOW we could do so much better.  SO. MUCH. BETTER.

There’s a common film trope in which the main character has a bit of a breakdown and finally addresses the problem that’s been bothering him (and you) for the last 90 minutes.  The expensive-wine-in-the-plastic-cup scene in Sideways, Cameron kicking his dad’s Ferrari, the bit were Rob Lowe locks himself in the bathroom in St. Elmo’s Fire (what a dreadful film)…  It’s called an ‘Anagoretic Moment’.

Well here’s this post’s Anagoretic Moment…

Days 943-948: Ain’t No Fat Lady Singin’

01.08.11-06.08.11:

So I’ve come to the fine city of Sydney in pursuit of a yacht captain who is looking for ADVENTURE, EXCITEMENT and REALLY WILD THINGS on the high seas. It’s also given me the opportunity to meet the most excellent Team Odyssey members Alex Zelenjak and Damian Pallett in real life instead of in electric dreams.

While I’m here, I’m going to be trying to get as much exposure for my quest as possible. I’m also having meetings with publishers – a nice little advance for my forthcoming best-seller “The World Is Slightly Pear Shaped (A Drunken Stumble Through Every Country On Earth)” would seriously help me finish this crazy backpack extravaganza sometime this decade.

This morning I was on Channel Nine’s Today show, which is Australia’s equivalent of GMTV – I only had five minutes, so I just blurted out everything I could think of to say… and yet missed out so much – the fact that I present a TV show on Nat Geo Adventure might have been a good bit of information to throw in there! D’oh!!

If you, like my girlfriend Mandy, are wondering “where my eyes are” then I should possibly confess to being up until very late last night drinking with my Sydneysider chums. Don’t look at me like that! The minute I start taking this whole thing seriously is the minute my head explodes…

Anyway, here’s the interview, thanks to Steve MacDonald for the upload, ENJOY!

AUSSIE SKIPPER REQ’D: FOR HIGH ADVENTURE

THE ODYSSEY EXPEDITION

Hi, my name is Graham Hughes. I’m a British adventurer, TV presenter and a Guinness World Record holder.  You can read more about me on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_Hughes

I’m currently in the midst of a rather epic challenge – one that I hope you might be interested in joining me in: I’m trying to step foot in every country in the world, and attempting to do so without flying.  I’m doing this to raise funds and awareness for the international charity WaterAid.

I work with Lonely PlanetNational Geographic and BBC Worldwide. The first series of my self-filmed TV show, Graham’s World, is currently showing on the Nat Geo Adventure channel (Foxtel) and I was the star guest on Channel Nine’s Today Show last Saturday.  You can watch the interview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeaR_RW7Zu4

Over the last two years, I’ve managed to visit an incredible 184 countries around the world, from Uruguay to Iceland, South Africa to Turkmenistan; on my own, on a shoestring and without flying.  With only 17 more countries to visit, I’m now setting my sights on the Pacific Ocean nations of Oceania.

BUSINESS IN GREAT WATERS

I’m looking for somebody – it could be you, a friend, a colleague or your mum – who owns their own sailing ship and is looking for an epic adventure on the high seas.  While I’m happy to pay for food, drink and fuel, but this would not be a commercial enterprise – I’m seeking somebody who wants to do this for fun, a bit of fame, to raise money for the charity WaterAid… and claim their very own Guinness World Record: THE FASTEST SEA JOURNEY TO EVERY COUNTRY IN OCEANIA.

From Australia, one amazing journey will take us to Papua New Guinea, Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand… and back to Australia.

FORTUNE AND GLORY

Of course, this would be no small undertaking.  We are talking here of a journey of over 10,000 nautical miles.  It won’t be easy, but then Guinness World Records never are!

I travel solo, I don’t have a film crew or any bulky equipment.  I have extensive sailing experience on the open sea, having been first mate on international voyages in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.  I’m aware that for many boat owners, their vessel is their home and I’m more than happy to meet any prospective skippers in person before they reach a decision.

I’m not looking for anything fancy, fast, luxurious or even particularly comfortable, the only requirements I’ve got are that the ship be sea-worthy, insured and fitted with an international distress beacon in case of emergency.

I’m also open to the possibility of doing a smaller leg of the journey, sayAustraliato PNG to Palau and back. (Although they’d be no world record for you in that!)

I’m ready to leave as soon as possible from anywhere in Australia.  Would YOU be interested in stepping up to the mantle?  Prove to your family and friends that your boat is more than an expensive toy: show them that it’s an expression of freedom and adventure, feel the call of the ocean, leave all you troubles behind and join me on the voyage of a lifetime… fortune and glory await!

I anxiously await your call.

Graham Hughes
Sydney, Australia
10 Aug 2011