So I wound up stuck in Dubai for four weeks. Tons of stuff happened, but not much of it relevant to the ongoing quest that is The Odyssey. I’ll divulge the whole sordid affair once I have more battery power on my laptop.
Here’s what you need to know:
It took two weeks to get a visa for India and then shipping myself off to the Sub-Continent proved amazingly difficult.
I was helped (immensely) by the following people: Mr. Kashi Samadder, Damien (Damo!!), Fajer, Ben, Dan, Alena, Pamela, Sarah, Martin, Youhan and Barry from CMA-CGM.
Mandy, my beloved, came up with the goods in the end, securing me passage onboard a ship bound for Bombay via Karachi. Hurrah for the Mandster!!
Whilst in Dubai, I sailed around The World, won at Laser Quest, watched the World Cup final in the Barasti Soccer Dome, learned to play backgammon again, attended a 4th of July party dressed as a communist, watched myself on telly, got recognised off the telly by a guy standing next to me in the urinals who was dressed as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (eek!) and generally staggered about the place much in the manner of Barney from The Simpsons doing an impression of Keith Richards.
One sad piece of news for you, though – my kick-ass old laptop, Dell Boy, has finally gone to silicon heaven. His screen is cracked and he’s been shipped back to England for a formal burial. He’s been replaced by Sony Jim who seems a lot more delicate and has a nasty habit of ignoring the keys I press when writing stuff. Don’t know how long this guy is going to last out in the big bad world, but at least he’s got the processing power to play Psychonauts. Hurrah!
In the end it was Rickmers Group Shipping who came to my aid, they stuffed me on board the magnificent MV CMA-CGM Jade bound for Bombay via Karachi in Pakistan (two birds with one stone, so to speak). I’m eternally grateful to them and will be adding their name to my lists of helpers very soon.
Up early as Jan wanted to get to the border the moment it opened. Mike and Harald had left in the wee small hours, so I checked out on their behalf (thank god there was no minibar!!) and hit the road in a shared taxi.
The drive to the border was surprisingly slick, I was expecting worse and we arrived in good time. The was the usual formalities, but nothing went wrong and nobody asked us to pay an imaginary ‘fee’, so that was good.
I’m now in the 184th country of The Odyssey Expedition: Papua New Guinea. One of FOUR Guineas spread out all over the world (the others being Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea: and all of them utter basketcases, sadly enough). Even though West Papua is culturally very similar to PNG, you are left in no doubt whatsoever that you’ve crossed a border into another country.
BYE BYE Nasi Goreng and cries of mieeeeeeester and fried fish heads in the window, HELLO and massive queues for everything, no cafes, restaurants or fast food and a general feeling of malevolence that means you’d be highly unlikely to leave your bags unattended for any length of time. If Indonesia is South East Asia with a tinge of Arabia, PNG is Africa with a tinge of Outback Australia.
The first town over the border, Vanimo, was a bit of a culture shock. The massive queues for the supermarket, bank, cash machines were crazy and, to my mind completely unsustainable: of course they were, I soon found out that the cargo ship had come in today: by 1pm nearly everything had been sold, and the supermarket shelves, previously full of all kinds of stuff – food, toys, clothes – lay empty. That was the ‘shopping’ for the week. Boy, you’d be several different shades of pissed off if you overslept. It would be like forgetting to put the bins out, only you’d starve.
So, first things first – I needed to find a way of getting to Wewak – the first major town along the north coast. From there I could plant my flag, somehow get to the capital city of Port Moresby then onto Australia to be with my (exceedingly patient) girlfriend for Christmas. I’ll be flying back to Wewak in the New Year to continue my journey and Australia will not be ticked off the list. Of course, Mandy could fly to PNG to meet me, but, er, if anyone has actually been to PNG they might appreciate how much not fun that might be!
The cool thing is that Mandy is blissfully unaware of my intentions, it’s only known to a handful of people. She hates surprises, but she might just like this one.
There were just several small problems with this plan:
My flight to Oz leaves Port Moresby tomorrow at 2pm – and Port Moresby is on the other side of the island. There would be no other way of making this connection other than flying. Okay…
The next flight from Vanimo (here) to Port Moresby leaves here tomorrow at 11am and would be getting into the capital at 1.10pm – leaving agonisingly (just) too little time for to check-in for my flight to Australia.
My only hope of catching a flight that would get me to Port Moresby in time was to get to the next big town along the coast – Wewak. There was a flight at 6am tomorrow morning which would get me to Port Moresby in good time for my connection to Australia.
But to get to Wewak before 6am wouldn’t be easy: the weekly cargo/passenger ship that trundled along the coast did leave today (which was lucky), but was scheduled to get into the port of Wewak at – get this – 6.30am.
Why do the gods mock me so??!!!!!!
Happily, since my Lonely Planet was written, a half-decent road had been constructed between Vanimo and Wewak. So all I needed to do was to find a bus or shared taxi that could take me to Wewak today. So I sat in the baking heat of the equatorial sun waiting for some kind of transport to come along.
And I waited…
And nothing came. Nothing whatsoever. Since the boat to Wewak would be leaving this afternoon, there was little or no reason for anyone to drive – all of the transport was waiting until tomorrow. I must have spoken to over a hundred people, staggering about in the dust and intense heat weighed down with all my bags. One guy said he’d take me in his car – for $2000 (really). An Aussie guy in uniform said he could take me in his helicopter – ‘if I was rich’.
By 3.30pm I was tired, exasperated, sunburnt and more than a little upset that because of my Papua Visa Hell I would be missing Christmas with Mandy. I called up the only person in the world who could help me out of this predicament. Alex Zelenjak, Our Man In Havana (well, Sydney). He got on the phone to the airlines and snapped into action.
Could Virgin Blue change my ticket to a later time? No. The 2pm one is the last flight tomorrow. Could they quickly escort me from my internal flight from Vanimo to my flight to Australia? No. There would be no time. When is the next flight available? The 26th December.
Arse arse arse and arse.
Hmm… if I take the boat to Wewak (on the grounds that by some miracle I MIGHT make the 6am flight to Port Moresby) but miss the 6am flight, can I cancel the ticket then?
No. In fact, you can’t change the ticket within 24 hours of the flight.
I looked at my watch. It was 4pm. My flight left in 22 hours.
You’ve got to be kidding. Out of options and unable to change my flight, I ran towards the Wewak ship. Alex, help me out here, man.
I was the last person to get a ticket for the ship and clambered onboard pretty much as they were raising the gangplank. If I thought the boats in Indonesia were a little overcrowded, they have nothing on the boats in PNG. Heaven help us if we sunk – the passageways weren’t full of people who didn’t have a space in the sleeping quarters – the passageways were the sleeping quarters. It wasn’t cheap either, but then (as I quickly discovered) nothing in PNG is cheap.
Jan the German guy was onboard and he was one of just two people who had bought a VIP ticket, which meant he had a room with 15 aeroplane-style recliners (which were dirty, broken and looked like they had been recovered from a crashed airliner some time back in the 1960s). I didn’t have a VIP ticket, but sleeping on the metal floor in the squish didn’t seem like the way of the future, so I hung back while the VIPs got their tickets checked and then entered the room after the ticket guy had left. The boat was all filth and bedlam so I figured the ticket guy wouldn’t notice. Happily, he didn’t.
The boat departed and Alex, bless his cotton socks, having spent an hour on the phone to Virgin Blue asking to speak to mangers etc. finally got back to me. Virgin Blue had agreed to make an exception – I could change the ticket to Boxing Day, and, even better, if (by some miracle) I did make it to Port Moresby airport in time tomorrow, I could change my ticket back (so long as it didn’t sell out). But there was a catch – Alex couldn’t change my ticket for me – I had to do it myself. They wouldn’t ring a PNG mobile number and I didn’t have enough credit to call them – and I was on a banana boat, so it wasn’t like I could go and purchase some more credit from the shop.
But Alex (again) came to the rescue: in the ten minutes before I lost phone reception he managed to set up a three-way call between me, him and Virgin Blue. I changed my ticket and breathed a sigh of relief. Thanks Virgin Blue!!
AND THANK YOU ALEX!!!!!!!!!!!!
The guy in the VIP room that wasn’t Jan was a Papua New Guinean from Madang called Richard. Lovely guy – told me that judging from the time we left, the ship should be getting to Wewak early – around 4am.
Maybe this would be the miracle I needed to make this crazy scheme work.
I often get asked what’s in my bag. I’ve already done a blog on what (not) to take backpacking, but I didn’t really get into the technical stuff, so here goes:
CAMERA: I use an old 2006 Sony HVR-A1(E) HDV camera. It takes mini-DV tapes, which are surprisingly easy to get anywhere on the road. The hand-held successors in this product line were mostly hard-drive cameras, which are fantastic, but in environments where things can go missing, humidity can affect drive heads and stuff is likely to suffer from knocks, tapes are a better idea than hard drives.
When I first started I used the top-mounted XLR mic plugged into the hot-shoe on the A1, but after a couple of weeks I ditched it – at arm’s length the A1’s inbuilt mic was just as good and in stereo.
I use a cheap Chinese-made 37mm wide-angle lens so my mug doesn’t take up too much of the screen when I’m holding the camera at arm’s length. The official Sony wide-angle one costs three times the amount and weighs three times as much, so I opted for the lighter, cheaper version. Works just as well.
Keeping things cheap, light and low-fi, I don’t carry an XLR mic, tripod, boom, clapperboard, track or even a dolly.
LAPTOP: I carry a (now very battered) Dell Latitude X1, which I bought off ebay for 200 quid. It’s one of the last 11.1” notebooks to include a 4-pin firewire input – essential for backing up my tapes off the A1. I then courier the tapes – the raw footage – to the production company. And, so far, I haven’t lost a tape (or deleted anything I wouldn’t want to be on television)!
I shoot everything in HDV, aka ‘half HD’ – 1440×1080 pixels per frame with rectangular pixels (full HD is 1920×1080 with square pixels). The TV show is edited in SD, don’t really know why. I edit my YouTube clips in SD, on my Dell laptop. I use a legal copy of Adobe Premiere, although to be honest I’m not really stretching the program much: you could probably get away with doing the same kind of thing on Windows Movie Maker.
BACKPACK: I use a Lowe-Alpine “Pax25” bag which I bought back in 2001. This bag has travelled to over 250 countries in that time and still hasn’t let me down. You can’t buy them any more. Ahh… they don’t make ’em like they used to!!
GPS: I use a little Sony GPS-CS1. It’s hardy as hell (it survived a dip in the Persian Gulf!) and does the job magnificently. Although it doesn’t like trains. It takes a single AA battery. I use rechargables and have a little gizmo for charging them via the USB on my laptop.
PHONE: I use the simplest cheapest Nokia I can find and I carry two of them, just in case. They’re fairly indestructible, the batteries last all year and Everyone’s got a Nokia charger and there’s a torch in the top!! Stick it, iPhone!!
IPOD: Talking of Rotten Apples, Lonely Planet kindly bought me an iPod Touch for Christmas. Yippee, I thought: I could put all my Lonely Planet books on it and easily read them as I go. A nightmare experience of trying to navigate the map of Baku, Azerbaijan at 5am when it was minus 5 put paid to that idea: the time it takes to refresh a pdf screen is painfully slow… we’re talking up to a minute just for one step (zoom or move) on a map. I stick with the real books and just use the iPod for music.
STILL CAMERA: I kind of regret not taking a better still camera, but my little Sony Cybershot does an adequate job of holiday snaps. A digital SLR would weigh too much and just be one more thing to worry about.
CABLES ETC:A 4-pin to 4-pin firewire, a couple of USB cables, a third-party all-in-one charge block for my still and video camera batteries, laptop power cable and a DC/DC converter for charging my laptop from the ciggie lighter of a car. Great for long bush-taxi rides!
SLEEPING BAG: I have a tiny Karrimor Global 700 Traveller Lite which packs down to the size of a small loaf of bread. Hardly ever use it, except when I’m on a bus and the air-conditioning is freezing my face off.
Right, that’s it. Apart from my Swiss Army Knife, a rather sparse first aid kit and mosquito net, I don’t use any other specialised kit, except for my fishing vest which I bought in Herat, Afghanistan. It’s got about 20 pockets and can hold two full bottles of whiskey in the lining. Lovely!!
The time for procrastination is over. Much of this year has been spent – some might say wasted – holding out hope for a yachtie to invite me onboard his vessel and whisk me away into the wild blue yonder for nothing more than the price of a few beers and a barrel of diesel. After being held on tenterhooks for 8 months (repeatedly being told that the yacht in question would be ready to go ‘in a few days’) I gave up that pipedream. I guess the old adage is a good today as it’s always been: if something sounds too good to be true…
So I cast my net out wider, appearing on TV here in Australia and on countless radio shows, always throwing in the ‘anyone up for an adventure?’ line (while trying not to sound too desperate, of course). I got a few backpackers wanting to join me, and a couple of delightful offers of dinner(!), but no red-blooded mariners quietly waiting on their sailboat willing to take a ginger landlubber like me for a high adventure on the high seas.
But now it’s too late: even if I found a willing skipper and a boat called “Unsinkable II” today, cyclone season kicks off in November and good luck getting insurance to be bobbing up and down on the silver seas when that happens. No… I’ve got to come up with another way of getting around the Pacific, in other words: I have to revert to Plan A. Cargo ships.
“Why didn’t you just do that in the first place YOU IDIOT?” I hear you cry. Well, given the choice between visiting all the Pacific Islands in a few months at no great cost or visiting them over the course of six months at great cost, it was always going to be the former. Plus, look… I’ve been living with my girlfriend here in Melbourne and there aren’t too many relationships that could survive not seeing each other for two years – I’m not making excuses, I just wanted to take the path of least resistance, especially if that meant I could hang out here a while longer.
But now the time has come to GET REAL: the only way I’m going to get this journey finished is on board freighter ships, and one way or another I’ve GOT to get back on the horse.
The ticking clock never stopped. It’s not just my own personal drive to get this thing finished, it’s practicalities like my Aussie visa runs out on Sept 22, so I’ve got to make like a tree and get out of here. So, not being one to stand on ceremony, I’m heading back to Papua New Guinea next week. I’ll have to head over to Wewak and then make my way to Lae and then try my best to get on one of the ships that goes to The Solomon Island and beyond: either to Fiji, New Zealand or Australia.
Lorna, Mandy and I are busy talking to shipping companies and valiantly attempting to side-step the whole “we don’t take passengers” malarkey to get me passage. But the good news for you lot is that my bag is packed, I’ve got a stack of miniDV tapes in my jocks and I’m raring to go.
24.10.11-29.10.11: And so I found myself becoming something of a fixture on board the good ship Papuan Chief. Breakfast (which I invariably missed) was served at 8am-9am, Lunch at noon and dinner at 6.30pm. If I wasn’t beavering away at the bar working on a video or a script or a rant, I’d be up on the bridge studying the shipping charts, learning how to use a sextant or just generally getting in the way of things.
This week has been all about the drill. We’ve had drills for fire, terrorism, oil spills… the ship’s six month inspection is due in Melbourne and Captain Santos wants all things to be ship-shape and Bristol-fashion. Literally. Seven short blasts followed by a long one means get your arse up to the bridge, Graham. A short, long, short, long, short and long means get to the Emergency Life Rafts and next time, do remember to pick up your immersion suit on the way, double-oh-Hughes.
The Coral Sea was rather mercurial. One day it was as flat as a supermodel, the next it was more choppy than Bruce Lee karate chopping a portion of pork chop chop suey. When the clouds came in on a quiet moonless night you could go out on the wing and look out towards nothing but inky blackness, squinting to make out where the sea ended and the sky began – not so impressive now with all our fancy GPS maguffins, but back in the day when there was nothing but a compass point and a flicking oil lamp to guide you, a buccaneers life was nothing if not perilous. For a speeded up version, close your eyes and go run through a forest.
To starboard lurked the Great Barrier Reef, for which we gave a wide berth, not just because of the obvious perils of scraping your way through the world’s largest living thing but also because the regulations on shipping anywhere near that area tighten up until you start singing soprano. But with the GBR out of the way, we were free to come in close to the coast: the hallowed mobile phone signal returning… one bar, two bars, three bars… it felt as if the world had returned. So dependent now, so linked in… a week without precious signal feels like punishment. By now it was Thursday.
The bad news is that I’d not heard anything back from the other shipping companies, so my proposed week-long stopover in Melbourne might again be indefinitely extended. For some reason, Customs and Excise are on my case, worried sick they are about the fact that back in February 2010 the camcorder I bought in the UK was fixed by Lonely Planet in Australia and sent back to me in the UK (during my 2010 visa run). It’s making somebody’s head melt, but to honest with you I’m not intending on returning to the UK for a good while yet, but if there’s a warrant out for my arrest, I’ll just keep travelling thank you very much. There’s some other odds and ends that need attending to, but lacking a full-time lackey to do my bidding, when Graham HQ is on radio-silence, not a lot can or will be done.
By Friday, the signal had gone as quickly as it came – all ties with the outside world severed once more. We passed the great city of Sydney, hovering like a magical kingdom a millimetre above the horizon… all grey and far away. Reminded me of my first glimpse of Kuwait City from the mighty Shat-al-Arab and made me stiffen my resolve to one day see Manhattan rise from the briny sea.
But we’re not stopping in Sydney, it holds no allure for us. In fact, unless you’re a yacht or a passenger ship, your chances of getting into Sydney harbour these days are remarkably slim: all the unsightly container vessels now come into Botany Bay or Newcastle. Someone should inform the architects of the Pompidou Centre: seal up your iPods, only mad enthusiasts want to see the inner workings.
And so on down the east coast of Australia, end to end. From 10 degrees south of the equator to 40 degrees. Each degree equals 60 nautical miles: that’s 1,800nm from tip to toe. Usually the Pap Chief trots along at a good 14.5 knots (nautical miles per hour), but heading south towards the Tasman Sea the current helps you along. At one point we were powering through the water at 17 knots. It seems slow to us with our Vauxhall Novas and our Castrol GTX, but without having to stop for rest stops, refuelling, traffic lights, roadworks, prostitutes and the like, we can cover some impressive distance and carry 981 lorries worth of stuff with just twenty crewmen and a skipful of diesel.
You know that all the diesel ships in the world could run off the disused chip fat from all the restaurants in the world?
I was talking to Jerry, the chief mate, about piracy (it’s a subject that comes up quite often on board cargo ships). Before the Somali pirates started making headlines in 2006, the bane of cargo crews everywhere were some other peace-loving ne’er-do-wells from Northern Sumatra in Indonesia who would routinely terrorise the Malacca Straits.
In 2004 Jerry was third mate on a tug boat, pulling a floating platform to Singapore from the Gulf of Aden. As it was a tug, it was going at about 5 knots making it an easy target for the pirates. With fishing ships all around them in what is also one of the busiest shipping channels in the world, there was nowhere to run to if things got messy. A fishing boat with an outboard motor sped past, then ran around the bow of the ship and headed back towards the bridge, this time brandishing AK-47s, M-16s and Rocket Propelled Grenades which they used to make Swiss cheese out of the wheelhouse.
The crew, completely outgunned, legged it to their cabins. After a tense half hour of gunshots, explosions and mayhem, the captain came over the intercom and told the entire crew to report to the bridge. Jerry and the other crewmembers did so. The pirates had taken the ship and proceeded to smash or shoot everything they could: the GPS, the radar, the radios, the windscreen. The captain was being held at gunpoint. The crew were instructed to go to their cabins and give the pirates all of their money, which of course they did. Eventually, once they had smashed everything worth smashing, the peaceful citizens of Aceh took the captain and the chief engineer hostage and departed the vessel, shooting up some more stuff on the way out just for good measure.
Suitably terrorised, the remaining officers managed to contact officials at Singapore and tell them what happened (note to would-be pirates: shooting the monitor does not generally kill the computer). They were asked if they could get any of their equipment up and running. Some of it, perhaps. Was the engine still going? Yes. Okay then: get to Singapore as quickly as you can. But Singapore was still two or three days away.
That night Jerry and the other crewmen couldn’t sleep. They all wanted to be on the bridge so they could keep a look out for any more pirates. But two different groups of pirates wouldn’t attack the same ship twice, would they?
Yes, yes they would.
The next day around noon another band of pirates took a swipe at the vessel. This time everybody ran to their hiding holes: supply cupboards, engine compartments, emergency storage units. There they waited for an hour until the sound of gunfire died down before they ventured out. The pirates must have taken the hint that the ship had already been attacked (the bullet holes in the windscreen possibly gave it away) and buggered off. But not before they smashed everything that the first lot missed.
Limping back to the nearest Malaysian port, the crew were relieved of duty and another tug was sourced to get the platform to Singapore. The captain and the chief engineer were released 22 days later, after a ransom of $100,000 had been paid.
The pirate operation in the Malacca Straits was all but wiped out by the Boxing Day Tsunami. Since then the good folk of Somalia have taken on the task of terrorising some of the most hard-working people in the world. Don’t forget, once you’re on a ship, you don’t get the weekend off. You don’t get Easter or Christmas or Melbourne Cup Day to go and see your family or get drunk with your mates. If you’re contracted for 6 months you work EVERY DAY for six months. Go interrupt the TGWU annual Foie Gras and Caviar Convention to tell them about that one.
And, to add insult to injury, thanks to those peace-loving terrorists (who may or may not hail from the same region of the planet as these piratey-types) all shore leave has been cancelled in many countries (including the USA) since 9/11.
Thanks a bunch, guys! Another home run for the forces of horribleness. Enjoy your time here on the good ship Planet Earth, feel free to ruin it for the rest of us.
But now it’s getting dark and the last light of the sun is dipping below the horizon. Beyond the Coral Sea lies the Tasman Sea which leads (if you’re following the Australian coastline) to the Bass Strait – the water which separates Tasmania from the rest of Australia. The Bass Strait has a reputation for tossing stuff around like they’ve made dwarf flinging an Olympic event. It’s not been too bad for us today, I only wish we had seen more whales. I saw one – a ruddy great big black one with a white stripe – jump out of the water and crash down on its back. SPLOSH! Apparently they do that to clean barnacles and parasites off their bodies. But it was far away and I didn’t have my camcorder going. Captain Santos says that last month was better – mating season. Whale porn.
It’s my last night on board the good ship Papuan Chief. I’ve enjoyed the company, the food, sitting with Chief Engineer Dave and putting the world to rights. Ronnie, the ship’s steward, has looked after me better than I could ever have imagined and everybody onboard has gone out of their way to make me feel welcome. I got to steer the ship, blow the airhorn and study the shipping charts. I wrote a lot, I edited a lot and I read a lot (the ship has its own library).
Earlier, I complained about not being connected with the outside world. It was more to do with the fact that I need to organise the next leg of my journey and that my envisioned time to do that in the Solomons was ripped from me. But I’ve got to say that if you’re thinking of writing the next Great American Novel but you get easily distracted by the internet, the news, crown green bowls and Countdown, then travel by cargo ship is definitely worth considering. It’s just you and 1,800 nautical miles of peace, quiet and pure imagination.
Boxing Day was a long, lazy day, but one in which I learnt an important life lesson: if you’re in a small swimming pool and you get everybody in it to run in a circle, you can create a whirlpool. True story.
My ticket out of here, the Southern Lily 2, doesn’t leave until after New Year, so I’ve got a week or so to spend mooching about, causing trouble and generally being a crimson-headed nuisance.
The day after Boxing Day, a new chief would be installed as head of Sandy’s mum’s clan. I was invited along to the ceremony which would be held in the small village of Buca Levu, a couple of hours drive out of Suva on the eastern side of the main Fijian island of Viti Levu. I’d be a fool to turn an opportunity like this down, and as I keep telling the taxi drivers of the world, my mama ain’t never raised no fool.
So on Boxing Day night I stayed over at Sandy’s mum’s house in Delainavsei on the outskirts of Suva, ready to head out to the village at early o’clock in the morning. As there was so much stuff to take to the village (gift giving is incredibly important in Fijian culture) we wound up missing the bus, but Sandy’s brother, Kee, gave us a lift in his car.
The village was lovely – just off the main road and all built with local materials. Before I entered the house where I would be staying, I had been fully briefed by Sandy with regards protocol when in a Fijian village. First up, if everybody else is sitting, you must not stand. You must not walk in front of anybody, only behind them. When you walk behind somebody you must say “chillo” which is the Fijian for “excuse me”. The patriarch of the household is called “Tata Levu”, meaning “Big Father”. The matriarch is called “Nana Levu”.
When you enter a Fijian home it is traditional to give a small gift to Tata Levu, usually powered Kava. I had bought a couple of packs the day before at Sandy’s behest. As a guest, you must enter the house through the back door, never the front door. You must take your shoes off before entering and it’s respectful (but not essential) to wear a ‘sulu’ – the cotton sarong that you often see Fijian men wearing. Sandy had lent me a sulu of her brother’s.
When sitting on the floor to eat, your place at the table is important, so don’t just sit anywhere – wait until somebody shows you where to sit. And finally, most importantly, don’t touch anybody on the head: it is the height of bad manners. Missionaries were eaten for touching the chief’s head. Oh, and I wasn’t allowed to wear my hat.
After presenting my gift of kava to Tata Levu, we sat down to eat breakfast together. After that, Kee set off back to Suva and Sandy’s mum and I squelched our way across the muddy village (it’s the rainy season alright!) to an open sided structure with wooden pillars and a tin roof in the middle of the village green. The ceremony of chiefly matters was soon to begin.
As the final preparations were made I sat and chatted with Aisea Naigulevu, the softly spoken white-haired man who was about to become this clan’s first chief. Each village is made up of several clans – extended families – and to have a voice in the village council (and to stand a chance of becoming village chief yourself one day) your clan needs a chief. To be made chief is a great honour and a position that Aisea (pronounced Isaiah) will keep until the day he dies: there might not be an investiture of a new chief for another 20 years.
While Aisea went off to get ready for the ceremony, Sandy’s mum gave me a tour of the food preparations for the feast that would follow. Like at Christmas, cooking was done in a lovo – in this case, many lovos. Many really BIG lovos. At least two cows, five pigs and god knows how many chickens were being cooked. The taro was being delivered in wheelbarrows. Fish, lamb, vegetables of all shapes and sizes: everything was being put together by a team of villagers that put the caterers that did the royal wedding to shame.
Then it was back to the shelter on the green for the ceremony. Aisea sat at the front facing us all and some 200 villagers filed in: some of whom had come from Nadi on the other side of the island, some had even flown back from New Zealand and Australia. We all sat on the floor and when everyone was settled, the proceedings began.
First of all we had a church service, Fijians incorporate their new religion with the old pre-Christian rites. The minister spoke in Fijian so I kinda got a flavour of what it must have been like being a Catholic in the days before they started doing the mass in English.
After some very nicely sung hymns, the minister stood next to Aisea and spoke (I assume) about the new chiefs rights and responsibilities. He then anointed Aisea’s head with a drop of oil from a glass vial and Aisea stood up, now chief of the clan. Everybody queued up to shake his hand and get a photo standing next to Aisea.
And then the feasting began! There was so, so much food it was insane. The beautiful blue skies we had enjoyed in the morning had (predictably for Fiji at this time of year) given way to dark storm clouds in the afternoon. I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful to have a tin roof over my head. I sat with my very full plate of food chatting with members of Sandy’s mum’s clan and revelling in the honour I had been shown to be invited to a private event such as this.
Once the food had all been demolished, people started heading back to their homes for an afternoon siesta. When in Rome…
That evening I sat playing cards with the kids by the light of a kerosene lamp. I introduced them to the wonderful world of the card game ‘speed’ (which is the fastest way to wreck your nice clean Bicycle deck) as well as showing them a card trick or two. They in turn went through every animal in the zoo and tried to teach me what the Fijian word for it was. Around 9pm I was invited to come and drink kava in another house, which of course I accepted.
The kava session was great. It’s funny that in almost all human cultures, conversation is always best over a drink: whether it’s a coffee, a bottle of San Miguel or a bowl of brown root water. We were drinking out of a traditional wooden kava bowl, which I have to recommend over the usual plastic washing-up bowl. It’s like the difference between drinking Coca-Cola out of a glass bottle and drinking it out of a plastic bottle. After spinning some tales from the road and putting the world to rights it was almost morning. I returned to Tata Levu’s house, took my space on the floor and fell fast asleep. What a great day.
WOW. No, seriously, WOW. Talk about saving the best for last. PALAU YOU ROCK MY WORLD!! Straight into my top five countries, methinks. My number one pick in the ‘Tropical Island Paradise’ category. And I should know, I’ve been to a truck load of ’em.
I don’t know, you wait ages to visit a Pacific Island nation, and then two come along in as many days. We arrived in the port on the island of Malakal (a short distance from the main island of Koror) at around 10am. The first bit of good news was that the ship would be staying overnight, not leaving at 4pm as originally intended. This meant there was an outside chance of me seeing Jellyfish Lake while I’m here.
Jellyfish Lake in the Rock Islands of Palau is a true natural wonder of the world – a lake teeming with a unique species of jellyfish – a species that only exists in one place on the planet: Jellyfish Lake. Since these jellies have no natural predators, over thousands of years they have lost their sting – so it’s perfectly safe to go swimming with them.
I did not want to come all the way to Palau and miss out. After clearing customs I met with Perry, the ship’s agent. He told me that to go to the island of jellyfish lake would cost a small fortune – perhaps as much as $500. This is because all the tours leave at 8am in the morning – to leave now would mean chartering my own speedboat for the day. Expensive stuff.
There was an outside chance that a half-day tour might be leaving around 1pm, so Perry put his two best men – RJ and Bong – on the job. But first I had to walk down the gangway into my ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY-SEVENTH COUNTRY of The Odyssey Expedition – and the LAST of the Pacific Nations.
As you can imagine, I danced a goddamn jig.
RJ and Bong (great name!) ran me around to Fish n’ Fins, but they wouldn’t bite. Then we went to IMPAC, but again we left with nothing. Finally, we tried SAM’S TOURS, not far from the port. Maybe they’d be willing to take me to the Island of the Jolly Jellies.
Happily, my TV programme ‘Graham’s World’ is showing here in Palau and so I played the card. I may have been paid, well, nothing for my hard work on the show (after all, I did only work on the project every day for 14 months devising, shooting, presenting and organising all the travel so I guess it’s fair enough that I made a massive loss on the deal), but the fact it gets repeated ad nauseum on the Nat Geo Adventure Channel does come in rather handy in situations like this when I need a special favour (although royalties… why don’t I even get royalties??!).
The nice lady in the shop went to get one of the managers, Mark from America, and after a bit of bob’s-your-uncle he offered me a deal – I could go out on a speedboat of my own with a local driver called Ray and spend as long as I liked swimming around with the jellyfish. YEY!!
As a consequence, this blog entry is brought to you by the good folk at SAM’S TOURS. If you’re in Palau, look no further than SAM’S TOURS – the best tour guys in the nation. They even supplied me with a free hat – it’s no magic kanga hide, but when you’re 10 degrees north of the equator and that noonday sun is beaming down on your balding crown, you do not look such a splendiferous gift-horse in the mouth. It has SAM’S TOURS written across it in big friendly letters.
As we were pulling out of the dock of SAM’S TOURS, a couple were walking along the jetty. I was filming our getaway so I shouted over to them to wave for the camera. ‘Graham?!’ was the reply… it was Martin and Corinna – the yacht couple I met in Tuvalu back in December. WHAT ARE THE CHANCES?!
‘MEET ME HERE AT SIX!’ I shouted across the water. ‘CAN WE MAKE IT SEVEN?!’ Martin shouted back. ‘NO PROBLEM! SEE YOU THEN!’. And we were on our way.
It takes about 40 minutes to get to the island of Jellyfish Lake – 40 minutes through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen – Palau’s Rock Islands.
Now I want you to imagine Monument Valley in the US. Got it? Okay, now imagine all of those rocks are covered in dense green foliage, the deepest, most vibrant green you’ve ever seen. Now set the rocks out in the clear blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and erode the lower few feet of the rocks so they not only look like giant stone mushrooms, they also make it next to impossible for humans to climb up them.
And there you have Palau’s Rock Islands: mother nature at her finest, untouched and unspoilt by man. Believe me, there are few places left in the world with such a boast.
One of the rocks looks like Homer Simpson lying down, another looks like an elephant. A spectacular natural rock bridge marks the ‘entrance’ to the Rock Islands, and once you’re in the national park, there are hundreds of these islands to feast your eyes on.
We arrived at Jellyfish Lake island around 1pm. To get to the lake, you have to climb up and over a rocky ridge – something that you have to undertake in these crazy little diving booties they give me at SAM’S TOURS. A word of warning – avoid the sharp rocks… ouch! Before you set off over the ridge, you have to show your pass and dip your feet in disinfectant to prevent any parasites or foreign invaders such as algae getting into the lake and killing all the jellyfish.
At the moment, the pass to visit the lake is $35. I’m one of the lucky ones. After June, the price is going to go up to $100. That’s just for the pass, not transport and stuff. The reason being is that too many people are visiting the lake, and it’s not good for the jellies. In fact, when I arrived, there must have been about 50 people in the lake – mostly Japanese tourists.
But they were on a schedule. I wasn’t. So I bided my time. Eventually everybody left and for a moment I was the only human being in the world in this magical lake teeming with jellyfish.
I had been kitted out with a snorkel and flippers, courtesy of the good folk at SAM’S TOURS. And a-snorkling I did go.
Beneath the surface, it was jellyfish as far as the eye could see. Thousands of translucent pulsating boobs gently drifting through the clear waters. Most had an X in the middle of their bells and eight broccoli-like tentacles coming out of their rear. I found one with a Y who only had six tentacles and wondered if that was like finding the Jellyfish Lake equivalent of a four-leafed clover.
The lake is salt water, so you can float without much effort. Lying face down on the surface, staring into this alien world… it was like floating in space, only surrounded by hundreds of friendly jellyfish. One of the more remarkable things about these creatures is that they are solar-powered – seriously, they live off photosynthesis!
After an hour or so with my wibbly wobbly chums, I gently made my way back towards the path on the far side of the lake. The water got noticeably warmer as I got nearer the exit and the large jellyfish were now few and far between, but what’s this? At first it was just one tiny polyp, a perfect tiny version of the big ’uns elsewhere. And then there were ten, then fifty, then a hundred… and then POW! MILLIONS of them! Please don’t think I’m exaggerating. To swim in a swarm of countless tiny jellyfish was just magical – an experience I’m going to treasure for the rest of my life.
If you want some idea of how frikkin’ awesome Jellyfish Lake is (and just how many jellies there are!), check out this clip from the BBC’s South Pacific documentary:
Epic eh? How do you top THAT?! On our way back to Malakal, Ray stopped off at Clam City – a coral reef that is home to dozens of the BIGGEST GODDAMN CLAMS you have ever seen. Seriously – you could hide in these things. Some tourists were there and somebody must have asked the question if these crusty old behemoths were actually alive. In order to answer that question, their local guide swam down to the ocean floor and gently stroked one. It responded by snapping shut with some angry bubbles thrown in for good measure. Cool!
After Clam City, we dropped by Cemetery Reef – so called because it’s shaped like a giant tomb. By now it was way after 4pm, so all the other tour groups had returned to Koror. Once again, I got the place to myself. Ray moored up alongside a buoy and off I went for a paddle. Bear in mind that I only saw 1% of what Palau has to offer. There are dive sites extraordinaire, there are ancient cities, stone faces reminiscent of Easter Island, there are WWII wrecks and hundreds of islands to explore. Once you pay for your $35 pass to enter the Rock Islands, your pass is valid for 10 days and you may camp on the accessible islands (those with beaches) FOR FREE. I can’t stress this enough: PALAU IS FRIKKIN’ AWESOME, PEOPLE!
And I haven’t even got to the best bit yet: the local beer, Red Rooster, is feckin’ SUPERB. Even the Germans I met were raving about it.
Palau seems to have the perfect balance of amenities (mostly on Koror Island – outside Koror and you are seeing some real Pacifika), areas of outstanding natural beauty, tropical climate, white sand beaches, ancient ruins, hiking trails, dive sites, turquoise lagooooooons, mango trees, multicoloured fish, giant clams, great local beer and lakes filled with magic jellyfish. It’s taken three years, three months and twenty six days, but I’ve finally found my heaven, and as Belinda Carlisle once tried to inform us, it is indeed a place on Earth.
Give me ten days laying on a hammock in the shade of the coconut trees in the Rock Islands, a cold beer and a good book: it would be the sum of all bliss.
After Cemetery Rock, Ray ran me back to SAM’S TOURS. SAM’S TOURS also doubles as the yacht club and there’s a bar there that’s open until 9pm. I had a good chat with Mark, met a load of yachties on their way to or from their boats and sat down and had a good old chin-wag with Martin and Corinna. I had last seen them in December in Tuvalu. Since then I’ve been to Wallis, Futuna, Tuvalu (again), Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, Solomon Islands, Kiribati (again), Nauru, Australia (again), Taiwan, Okinawa, Saipan, Guam and The Federated States of Micronesia.
So it was probably a good thing I didn’t jump ship from the Southern Pearl and join them on their yacht: in fact, they didn’t visit Kiribati on the way over here (the current was too strong for their yacht coming into Tawara), so if I had been with them, we would now be in Palau and I’d still have five more Pacific Nations to get to.
A single graceful arc around the Pacific would have been nice, my current GPS map looks like it’s been scribbled on by a five-year old, but judging by how long it’s taken Martin and Corinna to get this far, I dodged a bullet by not getting on that magic yacht (which probably never existed anyway) that was promised me back in Australia last year.
Well, we’re done, that’s the Pacific leg over. Only took me 16 months…!
After plenty of Red Rooster lager, Martin and Corinna, as well as our new American chums were ready to call it a night. Of course, I wasn’t, so I said goodbye to SAM’S TOURS, rambled back over to the port, grabbed a quick shower and change of clothes and headed out to meet with Perry, the local port agent from this morning. We headed over to Kramers, a German bar, where they were watching the Champion’s League Semi-Final of Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid.
Of course the bearded Germans at the bar were supporting Munich, but after being told by the owner René that I was on for free drinks for the rest of the night on account of my fantastical adventures (I’m seriously considering knocking England off the top of my League of Nations in favour of Palau), I was supporting Munich all the way.
After far too much to drink, Perry and I teamed up with a few of the young guns from Kramers and headed out into the night. We ended up at some club, at which point the night becomes something of a blur.
By the time I woke up the next afternoon, the Mell Sembawang was well underway; the nation of Palau now a distant, but perfect, memory.