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’.

THE ODYSSEY: Review of 2010

January 2010

I started the year in fine fettle.  Having met Mandy at the pyramids in Egypt for midnight on New Year’s Eve we spent a wonderful week together before she flew home and I hit the road once again.  Before the month was out I had made it to Sudan, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.  Iraq was amazingly easy to get into and so I decided to spend a few days there.  I’m glad I did.

Countries Visited: 8
Running Total: 141

February 2010

I started February in Cyprus and then headed to Istanbul from where I was expecting to hit Greece, Italy, Tunisia and then (finally!) Libya and Algeria.  But after finding out it would be a couple of weeks before my visas came through, I decided to head back home for a bit, drum up some publicity and set off again before the end of the month.  I managed to make it to Libya on the last day of the month.

Countries Visited: 2
Running Total: 143

March 2010

March was a much better month for travel: ticking off visa nightmares Algeria, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in just over four weeks – not bad considering how long it could have taken.

Countries Visited: 7
Running Total: 150

April 2010

April started really well, with me tearing across Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Iran in just a matter of days.  And then I arrived in Kuwait believing there was a ferry that I could take to Bahrain.  There wasn’t and the Saudi embassy was not in the mood for handing out transit visas.  Arse.

Countries Visited: 5
Running Total: 155

May 2010

Most of May was spent trapped in Kuwait, but I did manage to escape towards the end of the month and get to Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE in fine fettle.

Countries Visited: 3
Running Total: 158

June 2010

June began with a quick borderhop into Yemen, but then I wasted two weeks in Salalah, Oman waiting for boat to take me to The Seychelles.  But then, thanks for my CouchSurf host in Saudi Arabia I managed to grab a boat from Jeddah to my last country in Africa (and one that is inaccessible by land) – Eritrea.  Nice one!

Countries Visited: 3
Running Total: 161

July 2010

July was the month of Dubai.  I expected to be there for two weeks, ended up being a month.  It was hot, but by God I had a hoot.

Countries Visited: 0
Running Total: 161

August 2010

A toe into Pakistan and then a couple of weeks spent in Kerala, India looking for a clever way of getting to Sri Lanka and the Maldives without flying.  Wasn’t going to happen.  I knew I could get there, but there would be no way of getting back.  I made do with visiting Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal before the month was over.

Countries Visited: 5
Running Total: 166

September 2010

September was all about the Far East, starting with seven days in Tibet before taking the skytrain down, down, down to Beijing in China and pressing on to Mongolia, both Koreas and Japan.

Countries Visited: 5
Running Total: 171

October 2010

October was my favourite and most fruitful month of 2010.  Starting in Shanghai, I managed to hurtle through Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, The Philippines AND make it back to Bali before the month was out.  Nice!

Countries Visited: 11
Running Total: 182

November 2010

November was the polar opposite of October.  Finding it hard to escape from the seductive charms of Bali, it would be the end of the month before I skipped across Lombok, Sumbawa and Flores into East Timor.  At least I got to meet a Komodo Dragon or two.

Countries Visited: 1
Running Total: 183

December 2010

Not a great month for The Odyssey Expedition, but a great month for me as I arrived on the island of New Guinea.  After spending a week in Sorong trying to get to Palau and an infuriating week in Jayapura, I made it to Papua New Guinea on December 23.  With the cyclone season in full swing in the South Pacific, I decided it would be nice to take a sabbatical.  So on Christmas Eve I stuck my flag into the ground of Wewak airport and flew down to Melbourne for a very merry Christmas with my beloved girlfriend Mandy.

The journey to THE FINAL FRONTIERS will begin very soon.

Countries Visited: 1
Running Total: 184

http://theodysseyexpedition.com/category/

Days 985-987: Saddle Up, People!

12.09.11-14.09.11:

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.

PNG to Oz
The Pacific Part 1: PNG to Oz - via The Solomons (Clicky for Biggie)

Days M3-M5: A Weekend In Madang

30.09.11-02.10.11:

The Lutheran Shipping ferry slid into Madang port bang on 7am, which was the exact time the captain told me it would arrive. I have to say, I was mighty impressed by all this startling efficiency. Now if only we could do something about the rest of PNG…

I headed back over to Divine WORD (not wind, sorry!) University to meet back up with the delectable Katherine, who had kindly said I could stay for the weekend. After dropping off my kit and taking a well deserved shower (it had been five days in the topics without one… nice!) I went for a pleasant walk around town (Madang is nothing if not pleasant) and grabbed some lunch in the Madang Club which is one of these hilarious ex-pat affairs in which every square inch of wall is taken up by rules of entry/dress/conduct etc. One punch = three months suspension. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

After lunch I uploaded my Wewak blogs… something that took me a solid hour on the SLOWEST INTERNET CONNECTION IN THE WORLD. And it cost me a fiver. Did I mention Papua New Guinea is ridiculously expensive? It’s like paying a tenner for a Gregg’s pasty… you can’t help but wonder where all the money goes (cos it’s definitely not on the ‘meat’).

Incidentally, if you’re as happy as I am that I’m back on the road, you can always show your appreciation by chucking a fiver into The Odyssey Expedition’s WaterAid fund: it’s only an hour’s worth of super-slow internet in some improbably expensive third-world country. The address to go to is http://www.justgiving.com/theodysseyexpedition. You’ll be richly rewarded with all the good karma you can eat.

That evening, Katherine made me dinner and we settled down for a night in in front of the telly. Well, my laptop. Katherine had mentioned that she really liked Sherlock Holmes so I introduced her to the utter brilliance of Mark Gatiss’ and Stephen Moffat’s TV show Sherlock. It is, quite frankly, the best thing that’s been on British television for years – probably since The League of Gentleman. Hats off to ya, Hilary Briss. I don’t know what you’re putting in them pies, but keep ’em coming. And although Coupling was a bit meh, his work on Press Gang and Doctor Who alone made me think Steven Moffat deserves a gold star, a jellybaby and possibly a knighthood. Sherlock just confirms that belief. If you haven’t seen it yet, you totally should.

The next day I kinda had a nagging desire to watch the Rugby World Cup. I’m not particularly sporty (that’s somewhat of an understatement) but I thought it might involve beer and England beating Scotland and making them all cry like a great big bunch of jessies. So I jumped a PMV down to the Madang Club and slipped inside. But – ack – I didn’t count on the Aussies not wishing to watch their national team beat Russia, but instead demanding to watch some obscure Gaelic-rules competition that I believe is quite popular in the South-Eastern townships of Australia.

I have to admit, the AFL grand final was exciting stuff, if (I suppose) you like that kind of thing. Or give a monkeys about the two teams that were playing. However, as much as I tried to ratchet up my care factor, I don’t think we’re ever going to be mentioning “Geelong” and “Collingwood” in the same breath of “AC Milan” or “Liverpool”.

It’s interesting to note that even my spell-checker hasn’t heard of “Geelong”. Let’s try “Ouagadougou”. Yep. It’s heard of Ouagadougou, no red wiggly underline for Ouagadougou. Let’s try “Tegucigalpa”. Yes, it’s there. “Yamoussoukro”? Indeed. Sorry, Geelong… don’t blame me, blame Microsoft Word. But look on the bright side: At least Nokia predictive text has heard of Australia, because it sure as shit ain’t heard of Azerbaijan, Iceland, Barbados, Fiji, Mauritania, Bahrain, Paraguay, Mongolia, Albania, Uganda, Trinidad, Qatar, Mauritius, Turkmenistan, Antigua, Liechtenstein, Tajikistan, Sierra Leone, Andorra, Nauru, Senegal, São Tomé, Ghana, Uzbekistan, Seychelles, Lesotho, Tonga, Tunisia, Gabon, Tuvalu, Slovakia, Mozambique, Latvia, Zimbabwe, Vanuatu, Lithuania, Comoros, Papua New Guinea, Burundi, Estonia, Slovenia, Kyrgyzstan, St. Lucia, Liberia, Kiribati, Benin, Belarus, Bhutan, Yemen, Swaziland, Moldova, Eritrea, Bahamas, Djibouti, Botswana, Maldives, San Marino, Guinea-Bissau, Kazakhstan, Zambia, Gambia, Namibia, Oman, Samoa, Bulgaria, Palau, Malawi, Suriname, Togo, Montenegro, Micronesia, Cameroon, Brunei, St. Kitts OR Madagascar. That’s over a third of the ENTIRE UNITED NATIONS. SORT IT OUT, NOKIA!! I didn’t even attempt Côte D’Ivoire.

But then even my iPod Touch is missing one Papua New Guinea (when you select your time zone) so I’ve had to use Guam… which is a) a thousand miles away and b) isn’t even a country. Tsk!

I’m amazed more people don’t complain.

Anyways… after the Aussie Rules football match I asked (politely, I assure you) if it would be alright if I changed the channel to watch England vs Scotland in the rugby. My wish was granted but they turned the sound right down. It was then I realised that I don’t really care for sport so much… I’m only here for the beer and the women. There were no women there, so I had to make do with the beer.

Sunday was very Sunday, everything is closed in Madang (as it was last week) and PMVs are few and far between. I headed out to the Madang club only to find it full (well, full for the Madang Club) of Aussies and Kiwis getting all excited about some rugby thingymajiga. I was a little confused at first, as I was fairly sure that Australia played yesterday in the World Cup and it would be a bit unusual for them to be playing again so soon, but this was Rugby League, which I’m told is different from Rugby Union… but I still haven’t fathomed out the difference. Oh well, whatever. Apparently it was the “Grand Final”: the kiwis were playing the “marones” (by which I assume they meant “maroons”, but what I am? A Pantone colour chart?). I liked the cheerleaders, they should totally have more of them at sporting events. Anyway, the weather was good, the beer was (fairly) cheap and the view out over the water was quite nice. Cheers!

I got chatting to a Kiwi helicopter pilot called Cameron who was incredibly well travelled… so we had a lot to talk about. He has, in the past, flown around West Africa, Congo, Uganda… he even spent a couple of years flying around in Iraq avoiding rocket propelled grenades. But, even cooler than that, he’s also been known to fly one Sir Peter Jackson around New Zealand location scouting. I was suitably impressed.

After the match, Cameron was good enough to drop me off at the Madang Lodge which was handy as the PMVs stop at night… about the same time as the muggings start. At the Lodge I met up with Katherine and Mums Singin, a jolly older lady who lives next door to Katherine and curates the University museum. Pizza and beer were the order of the evening and we also met a nice Aussie couple, Peter and Elaine, who also worked at the Uni. Peter had been in and out of PNG for years and had seen some of the more barking mad traits of the Papuans up close and personal. Having said that, he still loves the place, so it can’t be that bad.

I just can’t help wishing that the government would stop stealing ALL of the money and just give a little back.. just a little, that’s all I’m asking. When we talk about government corruption in the West, we’re talking about kids stealing Mars bars in comparison with the sheer bare-faced kleptocracies that make up most of the world’s developing countries. WE CAN STEAL IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE could be the motto of most of the governments currently running Africa and the Pacific region into the ground. We all have a notion that Americans (for instance) are pretty greedy, but you ain’t seen nothing until you travel across a country where there are only a few miles of well-maintained roads and yet the leadership is more than happy to swan off around the world in private Lear jets.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: poor countries are not poor because the West is rich. They are poor because their governments are devastatingly corrupt. This is true of each and every impoverished nation in the world. And there’s something else I’ve seen as I travel around the world: countries which are overwhelmingly tribal consistently fail to function as Western-style democracies. Maybe it’s time we re-thought the concept of democracy to create a model that would fit the undeveloping world. One tribe one vote? It would certainly level the playing field… because at the moment the playing field is about as level as an Albanian pyramid scheme.

Day M371: Icarus, Not Daedalus

Tue 02.10.12

My incredible plan for Sunday night was stay up all night drinking and partying at Chili’s Bar in Unawatuna. Then I was to take first express bus back to Colombo at 6am AS I HAD WORK TO DO!!

I had to take my passport, photos, application form, cruise tickets, air-tickets, bank statements, itinerary, inside trouser measurement and father’s maiden name to the Madagascan Consulate in order to get my Madagascan visa (third time lucky!). Then I had to go to the Indian High Commission and ask them (very nicely) if they would be so kind as to give me my visa a little bit quicker.

All went surprisingly swimmingly. I got the Madagascan visa there and then. The lady at the Indian High Commission told me to come back in the afternoon. I headed over to the shopping mall’s foodcourt and hooked myself up to the free internets. Thanks to the magnificent Dino Deasha, the confirmation of the ship to India came through from Dioryx in the early afternoon, as did the green light from CMA-CGM headquarters in France. I couldn’t believe it. This is it. The final piece of the puzzle. The pathway home is there, confirmed, I’ve finally done it. Sri Lanka to India, India to Maldives, Seychelles, Madagascar, Madagascar to Africa.

It’s over. I won.

After promising Dino I would commission a golden statue of him riding Battlecat from He-Man (he would be sporting a golden mullet and clutching the Sword of Omens in one fist and the World Cup in the other) I called the local shipping agent here in Colombo to sort out the nitty-gritty. He asked me to bring my passport over to the CMA-CGM offices once I had the Indian visa in hand, which would hopefully be at around 4.30pm that afternoon.

In the event, I was made to wait around for a bit in the High Commission and thanks to traffic being a bit of a nightmare, it was 5.45pm by the time I got to the office. Thankfully the shipping agent was still there. My visa was scanned and I was made to write out a declaration of what equipment I would be taking on board. Done this kind of thing a zillion times before, no big deal thinks I.

CMA-CGM have been nothing short of amazing on this adventure, stepping in to help me out of some of the most trickiest fixes that I’ve encountered along the way, and for that I am eternally grateful. What happened next was by no means their fault, or Dioryx’s for that matter. I’m going to give as balanced as an account as I can, bearing in mind I’m still in Sri Lanka now writing this and, as I learnt in Cape Verde, you don’t cut off the branch while you’re still sitting on the damn thing.

So, just as I was leaving the office, the shipping agent told me that he wanted to send my Indian visa – the one that stated ‘ENTRY: COCHIN – BY SHIP’ quite clearly on the visa itself – to the Immigration people in Cochin to ensure that I’d be allowed to get off the ship. This seemed a bit of overkill to me as a) my unusual form of entry was clearly stated on my entry visa and b) I’ve entered India by ship before, on a CMA-CGM ship from Pakistan.

Even *if* the authorities in India decided, weirdly, to not allow me into the country, no harm done: the cruise ship is living from the very same port. I could – and would – quite literally sleep in the port until it was time to go. The idea that I’d be forced to stay on the ship to its next port of call, Egypt, which would require me to pass through the High Risk Area for piracy, is quite frankly ludicrous and something the good people at Dioryx in Greece and CMA-CGM in France did not even consider… well that is until the local agent here pointed out this one in a million possibility.

But, that’s okay, we’ve got a day to play with, right? The ship isn’t even coming in until 1400 tomorrow. We’d be able to get the green light from India in the morning and be on the ship by tea-time. Splendid.

Or so I thought…

It was now getting dark and I didn’t feel like there was anything more to be done today, so I thanked the local agent and jumped in a taxi to go meet up with Carl the Friendly Yank from last week at the pub for a celebratory beer. My friend Daniel Zainulbhai who I played backgammon with in Dubai is in Colombo for the Twenty-20 Cricket World Cup and so he came along as well. It was good to catch up over a brew, have to say though, my earlier confidence that THE REST OF MY LIFE (because that’s what this is) was back on track had taken a bit of a knock. I mean, come on, surely the port authority guys in Cochin would say yes. Of course they would.

But that nagging doubt was creeping up my spine… I’ve been here before, I’ve been here before, I’ve been here before…

So, so many times it’s not funny.

I’ve been here before.

At 9pm, I figured it was time for me to head back up to Negombo. I said what I hoped to be my last goodbye to Daniel and Carl and by 10.30pm I was back at my old friend Sachal’s place. Unfortunately, Sachal is still away. I was good to stay there and everything, but I was gutted I was going to miss the geezer who without a shadow of a doubt is the greatest dinner party host of all time. Ho-hum. I headed over to Rodeo for one final bottle of Lion Lager and that night I slept rather fitfully. Which is damn unusual for me.

I’ve been here before.

At 7am I was up an’ at ’em, gathering my things together and getting on the bus to Colombo.

Here it was, the day of days. The day that would define the rest of my life. I can’t stress this enough: if I don’t get on this ship, chances are I’m going to miss the ONE cruise that goes ONCE A YEAR from India to Maldives to Seychelles to Madagascar.

I cannot take a cargo ship to The Maldives or Seychelles because of piracy and I there are so few yachts (and cruises) in the area I could be waiting until Kingdom Come before I see dear old Blighty again.

If I don’t get on this ship, I can’t begin to explain how f—ed I am. I can’t start my next project until this is over. I cannot earn any money until this is over. I cannot continue my life until this is over. Mandy waited as long as she could, she waited 3 and a half years, but she could wait no longer. I’m breaking up here, I’m honestly struggling to keep it together. This journey has cost me too much. Too much money, too much heartache, too many missed opportunities, too little achieved: check out how little I’ve raised for WaterAid, how few people read this blog, how I got right royally screwed over by the TV people, how I SOMEHOW still don’t have a publisher for my book. It gets to me, it really does. I’m sure that I’m fairly good at what I’m doing, but now and again I get a crisis of confidence when all I want to do is howl at the moon, admit defeat and return to Britain a heroic failure who came so close, so so close, but gave up seeking that one yes after too many noes.

Don’t forget – it was the start of JUNE that I arrived in Sri Lanka. It’s now the start of OCTOBER. This is getting beyond a joke.

By 9am I was in the old foodcourt with the free internet hitting REFRESH REFRESH REFRESH like a crazy badger. They couldn’t say no, they wouldn’t say no.

Would they?

Well, as it transpired we would never get a chance to find out. Today is a public holiday in India and so (as odd as this sounds), the immigration people in Cochin were off work. Dino (in the UK) and I started sending some frantic emails back and forth to Dioryx and CMA-CGM: I’d sign a special Letter of Indemnity which would see me sued to death and quite possibly jailed should I not be allowed off the ship. I have the visa – signed by the attaché – that specifies that I may enter India through just one port, Cochin, and that entry must be made on a ship. I have press contacts in India who would be very interested in hearing how I was not allowed into India with an official Indian visa. Everything, anything, just PLEASE let me on this ship.

And then, just after 1pm, it happened.

I got a call from the Port Agent. Where are you? I’m coming to pick you up to take you to the ship..

OH MY GOD.

I’ve done it!

I’ve f—ing well done it! I’m going to the ship. The Odyssey Expedition is FINALLY FINALLY GOING TO END!! After 1,371 days on the road for the first time EVER I know, I KNOW I’m going to make it. I’m going to do it. I’m going to be the FIRST PERSON IN THE WORLD TO GO TO EVERY COUNTRY WITHOUT FLYING!!!

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

I’ll admit I danced a f—ing jig.

Then, just as I was putting my video camera back in my bag, I got a call off the local shipping agent, the one who was a bit funny with me the day before.

We have no word from India.

Yes, I know, but Dioryx have said it doesn’t matter, the Port Agent is coming…

That is what I am trying to tell you sir, you will not be getting on the ship.

But the Port Agent is coming…

I have told him to come back. We have informed France that you will not be boarding the vessel.

I tried to reason with him, but he wasn’t having any of it.

I checked my emails, texts off Dino went back and forth, one last round of begging, but no, the die had been cast.

*I failed.*

Dino’s golden statue of him riding Battlecat from He-Man would have to wait. And so will you, my loyal Odysseans, we’ve come this far together, through hell and high water, you’ve been taken around the world by one of the most ridiculous people on one of the most ridiculously idiotic and underfunded adventures of all time. Don’t worry, I’ll get there. IF I HAVE TO SWIM I WILL GET THERE.

198 of 201. I did not come this far to be beaten by Sri Lanka, of all places.

I will fight. And I will win.

Day 1,385: The Big Ship Sails On The Ally-Ally-O

Thu 17.10.12:

After firing off my blog on Wednesday evening I met with Niall Doherty, a fellow overlander who has been suck in Cochin for the past few weeks trying to get to… you guessed it! Colombo on a cargo ship. Two adventurers cut from the same mould, it was all very predictable that we would get on like a house on fire.

We went to the pub, which is pretty much the only pub in Fort Cochin. There we were met by the indomitable Vipin Es, the coolest Indian on the planet, who I met at this very waterhole two years ago when I was trying to do the exact same thing that Niall is trying to do now… get to Colombo on a ship!

Vipin brought with him a few mates: Alex, Nate and Isla, and after one two many Kingfishers I was magnificently three sheets to the wind talking utter gibberish as usual.

The REAL United Nations.

Fantastic to meet Niall: somebody who can truly appreciate the trials and tribulations of travelling without wings. He, like I, had trouble getting across Pakistan, and got to India on a ship from Dubai, same as me (although he took the cruise ship option). Niall is also a web-designer, which means that a) his website looks a zillion times better than mine and that b) he makes money as he travels. No penniless wayfarer he.

But unlike me, Niall isn’t trying to get to every country: his four year journey of the soul will just take him around the planet, spending as much time as he wants to in each country. This is his first time in India and he (currently) pretty much hates the place. I can certainly understand the frustration and despair that India can bring out in a first-timer: looking back on my blog entries (before blogs were invented) from 2002, I see a lot of what he was saying in what I wrote back then. But, you know, I’ve mellowed. Despite everything, I really like India, I can see me coming back here again and again, if for nothing else then for the chai.

The bar closed at 11pm, and for some reason they wouldn’t continue to secretly serve us from the front gate as they did when I was here back in 2010. So we ambled around the deserted streets for a while (Cochin isn’t a big night out) until at last we found a hotel with a café that served all-night coffee.

A terrific night, great to see everyone again. Bit gutted that I missed Natalie from Sri Lanka and the Debstar from Liverpool who were in the vicinity (kinda), but you can’t have everything.

Niall was good enough to let me crash at his hotel – a good thing too, the hotel I stayed at last time’s prices had gone up from 300 rupees (£3.75) for a non-AC room to 1000 rupees (£12.50). Did I mention I was a penniless wayfarer?

The next morning, Niall wanted to interview me for his website, and I wanted to interview him for mine. You can see the interview I did here:

Unfortunately you won’t be able to see what *I* filmed of Niall on *my* camera on *my* tape because…

[The ensuing rant about THE BASTARDS at mmmmm has been deleted upon later sobriety.]

More worrying though was the lack of cruise ship. The Costa neoRomantica was scheduled to arrive at 8am. By 9am I still couldn’t see it. I went to the ferry jetty to head over to Willingdon Island where the ship was due to come alongside. Maybe it was around the other side, obscured by the port buildings. But on a journey in which pretty much everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, I was secretly terrified: sometimes cruise ships omit ports…

Sometimes because of the weather…

(no, the weather was fine last night)

Sometimes because of immigration problems…

(oh dear God NO)

A million WHAT IFs shot through my head. This wasn’t a regular cruise run, it’s the journey down from Europe to Australia for the winter. The ship isn’t coming back to India. What if, like me, they had a terrible time with immigration in Bombay and decided that Cochin just wasn’t worth it? What if they had just headed straight to the Maldives? What if…

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

I heard the beast before I saw it. I craned my neck out from the jetty to get a better look. It slid out from behind the nearby trees with an effortlessness that belied its gargantuan dimensions. The Costa neoRomantica. THANK THE MAKER!!

That’s the one, officer!!

My ferry followed the cruise ship across the water to Willingdon Island. We came in on the west side, the ship on the east. I knew that immigration would be a pain in the arse, and I was right. I went to the immigration office to find nobody there. Then I was made to wait for an insufferable amount of time (sweating hot with all my bags, don’t forget). It wasn’t until noon that the guy who was allowed to stamp things (like me out the country) turned up. It would be 1pm before he actually stamped my passport. Good job I was the only foreign person IN THE WHOLE COUNTRY OF 1.1 BILLION people getting on a cruise that day.

The nice port agent took me to the ship. Some exasperated Colonel Blimp of an Indian policeman didn’t like the idea of me walking on the ship and having my bags scanned with the cutting edge X-ray technology to be found at the entrance. Better his chap at the nearby trestle table rifled through my dirty underwear instead (travel tip: always put your dirty underwear on top). With no drugs, bombs or dutiable items to be found, Colonel Blimp looked a bit miffed, so he made me stand there for ten minutes in the sweltering sun for no reason other than he could.

But I’m a big guy, I can take it… and I know it *really* annoys these types when you take it on the chin with a mischievous little smile. Never let them see you bleed. In time, I was on the ship. My cabin is great: a nice big king-sized bed (a bit of a waste, when you think about it) and a HUGE porthole for me to wave my willy at King Neptune through. I asked the steward, Jose from Guatemala, to lock the minibar. This is going to be a dry ride, if you know what I mean. Oh, for heavens sake, pull your mind out of the gutter for five seconds.

Simple fact: I only drink when I can afford to get drunk. This will not happen on this cruise.

But it could happen back in Cochin. And, happily, the ship wasn’t leaving until midnight. So, as I was all checked in and on board, I just had time to single-handedly win the afternoon quiz and then head back to Princess Street for Round 2 of the great Fort Cochin drink-off. Niall, Vipin and Alex were joined by Nate and Isla as well as some extras they had found, presumably roaming the streets looking for a good time.

One drink turned into two and then three (and these are big-assed bottles of Kingfisher here), and before I knew it, it was time to get back on board the ship. With the ferry stopped for the night, Alex gave me (and everyone else) a lift in his car. Unfortunately, getting to Willingdon Island over the bridge takes an age (the ferry is MUCH quicker). I suppose it didn’t help that us passengers were doing our level best to down a bottle of peach schnapps on the way and I had Green Day blasting out on the stereo at full volume.

Alex mate, do you want to watch the road since, you know, YOU’RE DRIVING?!!

By the time I was coming up to the port gates, I was getting calls off the ship, my mum and dad, the Queen of Sheba and Lord frikkin’ Lucan asking where the hell I was. I was trying to get through the gates, say goodbye to everyone (*hugs!*) and leg it through the rain towards the ship, just in the nick of time: the last person on board. Phileas and Sherlock would be proud.

I arrived bedraggled and raggedy (as always) looking very much the stowaway that everybody looks at me and assumes I am. I headed up to the open-air bar on Deck 11 and, after gesticulating wildly at the Indian subcontinent, camcorder in hand, realised something: I’ve been in and around the monster continent of Asia since January 2010 and now, finally, I take my leave. Goodnight Asia, you proved a formidable foe, but I proved that if you want something bad enough – and you’re patient – not the even the might of the Himalayas or the breadth of the Pacific can get in your way.

I rounded off the night with some new-found friends who possibly took pity on me and bought me a beer and later on there was a shared bottle of wine with the lovely cruise staff. A great night, and a great leap forward for The Odyssey Expedition.

Well then, Costa neoRomantica YOU LEGEND!! Thank you thank you thank you for letting me on board. Thanks to Amy and Laura at Rooster PR in the UK, Costa Cruises and Lorna Brookes, you queen of the persuasive email, I owe you BIG. This is it, dear readers, for the first time since the beginning of June I’m really heading west. At long last, the end is within sight. I’ll see you there.

Day 1,387: The Maldeviants

Sat 20.10.12:

Friday was spent at sea, familiarising myself with the ship. Good news: the bars are open until 2am. Bad news: I don’t have enough money to drink. I’ve got about £400 left to get me from here to Liverpool, through at least 15 countries. Can it be done? Probably not, but that why God invented credit-cards eh?

The ship is lovely, the food is tasty and plentiful (although I’m not eating much these days) and the staff are brilliant. Of course there’s a certain amount of loneliness that comes of being the only person on the ship on my own, but I’m quite an outgoing going chap, so not to worry. In any case, gives me some more time to work on my scripts (and that taster, Mike ;-)).

So Saturday I woke with the lark to find a city floating past my porthole. This was a trifle bizarre, but only because I’ve never been to Male’ before. Male’, the capital of The Maldives (apostrophe intentional), is one of a ring of islands encircling North Male’ atoll. The Maldives is made up of 26 of these gigantic atolls, which between them encompass 1,192 islands (more or less depending on the tide). But, more importantly……..

It be THE MALDIVES!!!

I MADE IT!!!

Oh my Gods, there’s an outside chance I might just finish this yet……….

Male’ isn’t the tropical beach resort destination that you think of when you think Maldives. It’s a rectangle-shaped city, sitting on the water, every last inch taken up with buildings. There is a beach, but it’s an artificial one… they had to import the sand. If you want to see those resorts you see in the holiday brochures, you need to pay a man in a boat to take you there. But as I’m strenuously attempting to send less than zero on this cruise, I was content to do walk a lap of the city: a walk of less than 3km.

The highest point of Male’ is just two metres above sea-level, which makes Male’, and The Maldives in general, the second most endangered country in the world from climate change after Tuvalu http://theodysseyexpedition.com/category/tuvalu. But while Tuvalu only has around 10,000 inhabitants, The Maldives has over 400,000. There’s going to be no country willing to grant 400,000 people asylum when the waters rise. And, believe me, they will rise. They’ll rise because every peer-reviewed scientific paper in the world on the matter of climate change says it will. It will for the same reason that we can predict the next appearance of Halley’s Comet, the next transit of Venus, the same reason that the Curiously Rover landed safely on Mars and Felix Baumgartner landed safely from his skydive from the edge of space. The same reason that Peter Higgs predicted the existence of a Boson fifty years ago, which was only recently proven by the largest and most complicated scientific apparatus in the solar system, the same reason that GPS satellites suffer from the minute differences in time predicted by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity over 100 years ago and for the same reason that new research into the genome of all living things has proven Charlie Darwin right, right and right again.

BECAUSE SCIENCE, BITCHES!!

If you choose to believe tabloid newspapers, politicians, Fox News and oil companies in regard to the matter of climate change, you’re a bloody fool. A reckless fool. That is all.

There wasn’t a lot to see on Male’. The Sultan’s palace was all but destroyed in 1968, with only one small outbuilding left standing. Something else you need to know about the city of Male’: there is no alcohol. Like, none. Not even in your hotel minibar or anything. But not to worry, I had a SECRET PLAN.

Last July when I was tramping my way around Sri Lanka, I went for a night out with the Colombo massive, a night that ended in me taking a rather inexplicable trip to Galle with a rather fetching Croatian girl called Anita. This kind of thing happens a lot in my life, it’s nothing to worry about.

As luck would have it, Anita’s latest assignment dropped her, just one week ago, in the Maldives. Hell yeah! So at 6pm I trotted over to the Beehiva Nalahiya Hotel to meet with Anita. She had a hotel apartment (seriously – I never knew these things even EXISTED before Colombo – isn’t that hilarious?) with her colleague Augustine who hailed from France. And so us Euro-types set off in search of a boozy night out. Luckily for us, the airport of The Maldives is not situated on Male’ island, it’s on the nearby Hulhule island of. Ferries make the 15 minute journey all night and there’s a hotel there. With a bar. And in the bar you will find (oh yes) sweet, life affirming beer. The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems (© H. Simpson 1997).

Dunno why, but beer tastes better when it’s (kinda) illicit. In other news, my Maldives guidebook needs updating: it says that the president is still Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the guy who’s been in charge since 1978 and doesn’t take kindly to criticism. Like Russelll Crowe, if he was in charge of a country and a possessed a specially sharpened mobile phone. But in the last couple of years there have been developments. In 2008, the rather tyrannical Gayoom lost his position to a guy called Mohamed Nasheed http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohamed_Nasheed, ‘the Mandela of The Maldives’, a nice guy (educated at John Moores Uni in Liverpool, no less) who was pretty much forced to resign at gunpoint last February and was succeeded by Mohammed Waheed Hassan, his vice-president… DON’T YOU JUST *LOVE* AFRICAN-INDIAN-MIDEAST politics?? A shining example to us all.

Well, at least Hassan is promising a *real* election come July next year. If it happens, it’ll be The Maldives’ first free and fair election since independence from Britain in 1968.

But I have an interesting fact about the Maldives: it’s one of the few Islamic nations in the world that allows Israeli citizens to visit. And speaking of The Maldives as a Muslim nation… you do realise that today I broke a brand new world record…?

I’m now the first person since Ibn Battuta in the 1300s to visit every Islamic nation on Earth without flying. And he never went to Brunei! So I win!!

If you’ve never heard of the great Moorish traveller Ibn Battuta, you should really look him up – his memoirs are hilarious. When he came to the Maldives in 1343, he married three different women and then had to flee the country – never to return – when it transpired he couldn’t afford the dowries. He’s the Marco Polo of the Arab World and – I have to say, a little more honest about his experiences than Mr. Mint-With-The-Hole was.

Ibn Battuta’s travels around the known world. Look familiar?

And so on into the night we put the world to rights. Saturday night is the equivalent of Sunday night here, and everyone – including Anita and Augustine – had work in morning. Thinking about it, so did I.

I’ve still got a shed load of work to do in order to get me to South Sudan and then back home before Christmas. Two of the nightmare visas – Mozambique and North Sudan – have been left in the capable hands of my top mate Lindsey in London. There’s still a zillion things to do before you see me back in the UK. I just hope to hell I get there before Christmas, I have fish to fry.

The following morning I was up with the lark (for some reason) and frantically updating this site (TWO NATIONS LEFT TO GO!!!) for the first time since June. I said my tatty-byes to the gorgeous Anita, who I will no doubt see again in some far-off places, and returned to the ship. We set sail at 1pm, set sail for the TWO HUNDREDTH COUNTRY of The Odyssey Expedition… The Seychelles.

Graham Hughes and Anita Matic: The Quantum Leapers

The end is in sight, dear reader. 199 down, 2 to go. BRING IT.

Day 1,391: I Sell Seychelles

Wed 24.10.12:

Country 2-0-0. Friends, can you BELIEVE IT? Nope. Neither can I, which is good, because Seychelles is quite an unbelievable place. In a good way. Unlike The Maldives, it’s not just flat flat flat as far as the eye can see: these are volcanic islands (over 100 of ’em) spread out slap bang in the centre of the western Indian Ocean.

Honestly, it was love at first sight. Its vibe: it was Tonga, it was Samoa, it was Fiji… but in the Indian Ocean. Coming out from strict, religion-lovin’, fun-avoiding countries like Sri Lanka, India and Maldives where you are supposed to be in bed (on your own) for 9pm and there are simply no local girls out having a good time, Seychelles was a blast of ice-cool crystal-clear fresh air.

We arrived at Victoria, the capital of the country, around 1pm. Victoria is situated on the east coast of Mahe island (not to be confused with Male’ island in the Maldives). My departure off the ship was filmed by Steve and Amy, a couple from Californ-I-A, who I met at the talk I gave yesterday. Off the gangway, I threw myself on the hallowed ground of the TWO HUNDREDTH COUNTRY of The Odyssey Expedition and rolled around a bit. Probably caused a bit of a scene, but I don’t care. THIS, my friends, was the moment I’ve been waiting for since October 2009 when I first attempted (unsuccessfully) to get to The Seychelles from Diego Suarez in Madagascar, since June 2010 when I attempted (unsuccessfully) to get to The Seychelles from Salalah in Oman and since June 2012 when I first started trying to get across the Indian Ocean from Colombo in Sri Lanka.

IT TOOK THREE YEARS AND TEN MONTHS, BUT I’M FINALLY HERE.

Well, what else was there to do but go for a celebratory drink? So Steve and Amy and I headed to The Pirates Arms for a swift half, where I was introduced to the joy of SeyBrew, the local lager, possibly made by the same guys who set up SolBrew in The Solomon Islands. Crisp and cold, I give SeyBrew three thumbs up. Later we took a stroll around Victoria’s beautiful botanical gardens – home to a group of Aldabra Giant Tortoises. And when they say ‘giant’, they mean ‘G-I-A-N-T’. Just one of these Koopa Troopers could eat Mario for breakfast and still have room for Luigi, Yoshi and Peach.

Sorry to use a stock image, but you cannot correctly gauge the sheer giganticness of a Aldabra Giant Tortoise from my photos.

It’s funny, my Plan X, had Costa not allowed me on the ship, was to take a yacht from Nosy Be in Madagascar to the Aldabra Islands in order to ‘tick off’ The Seychelles. The Aldabra Group are a protected wildlife sanctuary and you need special permission to get there… and they are home to over 100,000 of these Giant Tortoises: a staggering number. I can only hope I live long enough to do that trip for real.

Later we jumped on the bus to the west coast and a place called Beau Vallon, a beach town on the other side of the mountains. The driver drove like his pants were on fire, swinging around them switchbacks like the endings of both Wages of Fear and The Italian Job (neither of which ended well for those on board), but we (thankfully) got there in one piece. We arrived just in time to watch the sunset and discover just how amazingly helpful and generous with their time the people of The Seychelles (the Seychellois) really are: we were escorted down to the beach, the music guys who were on the quayside this morning said hello and the owner of the Boat House Restaurant and Bar in Beau Vallon gave us free shots Takamaka Coco-Rum (think marshmallows and coconut – I think I’m in love). We were joined by Ramone and Kelly, a Canadian couple, and the night descended into the usual drunken chaos you’ve come to expect from The Odyssey Expedition, with Steve and Amy supplying more than their fair share of alcoholic delights. Thanks Steve & Amy!!! USA! USA! USA!

The next day I intended on going for a hike up the mountain to help walk off my beer gut from the night before, but unfortunately it was pouring down with rain, so instead I headed down to The Pirates Arms and sought refuge in the company of the internet and beer. On the way there I found a bit of a commotion going on outside the Supreme Courthouse of The Seychelles. Asking around, it transpired that on trial were 10 Somali pirates that The Seychelles navy had caught operating in their waters. Well that’s one in the eye for the old Jolly Rogerers eh? Serves them right for making it next to impossible for me to reach The Seychelles without flying. Oh, and being pirates.

One of best things about The Seychelles was that, despite the rain, everybody I spoke to off the ship absolutely loved the place, many saying it was the highlight of their trip so far. To be honest, it’s one of the highlights of mine. It’s definitely in my top ten destinations in the world I want to return to as soon as possible. Seychelles: worth its wait in gold.

Day 1,400: The Wandering Rocks

Fri 02.11.12:

Don’t get me wrong, I really love Réunion – it’s fun, the weather is like perpetual spring, the food is great and my French has improved in the last week beyond measure. And I’m doing quite well, all things considered, you know, 200 countries visited, just one to go, I get to live out my Manny Calavera fantasies and say I’ve been on a four-year journey of the soul (the joke being that I’m ginger and therefore have no soul) and one way or another I should be home in a couple of months.

But every silver lining has a cloud, and what with Neptune blocking my passage to the island of Madagascar and depositing me on the French Island of Réunion like some latter-day Papillon, I’ve got to figure a cunning way out of this fix. To the instant rescue comes splendid shipping company PIL, who have a ship leaving from Madagascar for Mozambique at the end of the month. Perfect. Only one problem. To enter Mozambique at the port, I need a visa. There is no Mozambique embassy in Madagascar, so my mum and my top mate Lindsey got on the case, procured me a Mozzy visa in London, had it slapped into my second passport and then sent the whole kit and caboodle via DHL for me to pick up this week in Antananarivo, the unpronounceable capital city of Madagascar.

Now obviously I’m not in Madagascar, but that’s no biggie, as I’ve got plenty of time to hop the Trochetia ferryboat over there sometime in the next few weeks. What would be a biggie is if, I dunno… DHL misplaced my passport…?

You’ve got to be kidding me, right?

Nope. That is exactly what happened. Frantic emails went back and forth to no avail. I was surprisingly zen-like about the whole affair, considering this not only meant there would be no way (short of a miracle) that I’d make it back to the UK for Christmas, but also I might have lost a critical piece of evidence that I’ve done what I claim to have done. My mum – bless her – had to deal with the mess over in the UK. Not the best of timing as my dad was due to go in for his rescheduled heart operation on the Thursday.

When Thursday came around, we were obviously on tenterhooks about my dad’s op. I had relocated from Michael’s place near Saint-Denis to CouchSurf with Lucie, Jean-Baptist and Luc in a lovely old place up the hill from St Paul. For lunch, Michael took me to see his friends and we ate lasagne and salad and drank champagne. Réunion being part of France and Thursday being a national holiday (for All Saints Day), our lunch lasted a good few hours, after which Michael and I headed to the port. The plan was this: with my passport stuck in limbo and the PIL ship not getting to Madagascar until Nov 24, I figured I’d head over to the nearby island of Mauritius to look for a ship – perhaps run by CMA-CGM or Maersk – that would be running to Durban in South Africa, thereby circumventing the need to possess a Mozambique visa in order to make landfall in Africa. This would also mean I could tear up to South Sudan through Zimbabwe and Zambia: two places I didn’t really get the chance to explore when I checked them off The Odyssey Expedition list.

Only one problem: the ferry – although in port – wasn’t selling tickets because it was a holiday. It’s not like it was full or anything, but despite Michael’s incredulity at the situation, they said I couldn’t buy a ticket online, pay with a credit card (or a cheque) and I couldn’t even purchase the ticket once we reached Mauritius. Un-be-lievable. So it was back to good ol’ Lucie’s gaff with my tail between my legs asking if I could stay a few more nights. Lucie, being awesome, said it would be okay and I set about on my next challenge: devising a detailed budget plan for my next project as my producer friend in the UK was having a pitch meeting for it with a rather famous TV channel the next day. Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, my dad’s triple heart-bypass was going well and he was out of surgery that afternoon.

Friday was spent frantically finishing off my pitches (why just the one? Oh, yeah… monkey tennis… thanks a bunch, Partridge) and then waiting for the response. Don’t get your hopes up, because let’s face it, these TV stations are practically drowning in talented, committed, articulate, amusing, intelligent, energetic, confident people who can write, direct, film, edit and present and have visited every country in the world without flying. Oh, and that are willing to work for free, obviously. The inevitable ‘thanks, but no thanks’ was, well, inevitable, although when told of my current expedition they said ‘Really? Now THAT would make a great TV show!’. Yes, yes it would 🙁

Crushed. On the wrong island in the wrong hemisphere, my passport lost to the vagaries of an international courier network, my best chance of having a job next year cast to the wandering rocks, my chances of getting home for Christmas slowly ebbing away and then I find out that Ethiopia is no longer issuing visas to tourists in Nairobi, or anywhere else for that matter: you have to now get it in your home country.

But, you know, I just don’t care anymore. I’ve grown so accustomed to things going tits-up on this journey that I’ve ceased to be either amused or upset by them. I just hope my sudden run of bad luck doesn’t rub off onto Barack Obama next week… he’s up for re-election and the alternative, holy crap, it doesn’t bear thinking about…

Day 1,885: The Last Post

Fri 28.02.14:

It’s taken over a YEAR of deliberation, but it’s official: Guinness World Records have sent me notification that I am, without a shadow of a doubt, the first person to visit every country in the world without flying.

From Day One I billed The Odyssey Expedition as a “Guinness World Record breaking adventure” and now all my hopes and dreams, everything I strived, fought and pushed for for over 5 years has been validated. I have it.

Guinness World Records have FINALLY granted me my very own, unique, never-been-seen-before World Record Certificate. And here it is:

Guinness World Record Certificate
WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

 

So certificate in hand I headed down to the Pier Head in Liverpool, gathered my family and friends and filmed this – the final shot of The Odyssey Expedition. Here it is, 5 years in the making….

 

Well I did it. I F—ING WELL DID IT!!! That’s it. The Odyssey Expedition is (well and truly) complete!

Now it’s time to tune your internets into my new adventure: JINJA ISLAND!!!

I’ll see you there 🙂