Days 988-989: WOO HOO!!!

15.09.11-16.09.11:

I’ve just heard back from Martin at China Navigation (the subsidiary of Swire Shipping involved with PNG) and the good news is that there is a ship willing and able to take me from Lae in Papua New Guinea to Honiara in The Solomon Islands and back to Australia so I can FINALLY officially tick this great big silly continent off my list.

The ship is called the Papuan Chief (cool name eh?) and it’ll be departing Lae around the 10th of October.

Major thanks to Swire Shipping, China Navigation, Ray and Sebastian in PNG, Paul in Melbourne, Ross in Sydney and Martin in Singapore as well as kudos and kisses for Lorna and Mandy who helped out with the deal. Lorna especially so: she’s in the UK and the time difference meant she either had to stay up very late or get up very early in order to make the calls – somebody get Interflora on the phone!!

So… what I’ve got to do now is head back to Wewak on the North Coast of Papua New Guinea and pick up the trail from where I left off. Then I’ve got to get to Lae. Luckily for me, I’ve got an age to do this, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easily. Flights from Port Moresby to Wewak were extraordinarily expensive, so instead I’ve opted for a much cheaper flight to Madang – halfway between Lae and Wewak. But while it takes 6 hours on the road to get from Madang to Lae, it the road from Madang to Wewak is slightly err… problematic, as you can see:

Madang to Wewak
Missing: one ten mile stretch of road...
Madang to Wewak
Anybody got a canoe?
Madang to Wewak
Ox-Bow lakes: good for geography teachers, bad for overlanders.

Consequently, I’ll have to get on the same sort of Steamboat Willie affair that I took along the coast from Vanimo to Wewak last December – there and back again. But I’m not complaining – it’ll be fun! And, more importantly, THE ODYSSEY EXPEDITION IS BACK ON!!

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!

Day M6: As I Went Down In The River To Lae

03.10.11: In the morning Mums Singin was good enough to pick me up from Katherine’s flat for a quick tour of the museum that she curated before I left for Lae. I said my goodbyes to Katherine, awesome CouchSurf host that she was, and promised that I’d be back here one day – a promise I fully intend to honour. The Madang Museum was a quaint little affair with some awesome cultural artefacts housed within. Damn these PNG guys can carve some awesome stuff.

Papua New Guinea Carvings
Huey, Dewey and Louie

Mums gave me a guided tour and (unlike your average tourist) I was allowed to take photos and film as we went around.  Hence:

Papua New Guinea Carving
Yes, in this case it really IS a beast.
Papua New Guinea Chair Carving
The Chief's Throne. It says "bite me" on the reverse.

After the museum, Mums gave me a lift to the bus ‘station’ (a piece of wasteland opposite the main market) and I boarded a PMV to Lae – the city from whence I intend on hitching a ride to The Solomon Islands. Now, like in Africa (New Guinea is so like Africa it’s freaky) the minibuses only leave when they are full. But unlike in Africa, there is no sensible way this is done. Yes, even Africa can be remarkably sensible sometimes: they run a first-in-first-out system of buses/taxis/whatever. Taxi number 1 fills up and leaves then taxi number 2 fills up and leaves etc. This goes on all day. In Madang they do it in the maddest, most inefficient, most frustrating, most time-consuming, most expensive way I can imagine. In fact, I’m trying to think of a more idiotic process and I’m having serious difficulty.

Instead of having an ordered system of buses filling up, they all fill up, all at the same time. Only they don’t fill up. Nobody wants to be the last on board any given minibus, as it’ll mean they’ll invariably get the worst seat. So most of the buses are short of the seat or two required to commence the journey. Also, it seems that they’re not allowed to (or they don’t want to) wait in the bus station. As a consequence, they drive around the town’s potholed streets FOR HOURS ON END looking for that one last passenger. I promise I’m not making this up. In a country like Venezuela where you can fill your swimming pool with petrol for less than a dollar, this behaviour would be merely time-consuming and bad for the environment… but in a country like PNG where the majority of the population survive on less than a dollar a day and petrol is incredibly expensive – it’s almost a quid per litre – Jesus Christ, it’s like watching lemmings throwing themselves of the proverbial cliff. I felt like slapping my head and screaming WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING??!

But who am I to introduce common sense into anybody’s public transport policies, never mind Papua New Guinea’s? And so we drove around town for FOUR HOURS, non stop, looking for THREE more customers. Imagine taking that business plan into the bank manager. And the toll taken on the minibuses slowly grinding their way around the most pot-holed streets this side of Mogadishu, you’re taking hundreds of dollars on new tyres, broken diffs, knackered suspension…

Indeed, once we had wasted four hours finding those last three customers, our first stop was back into town to get over 200 kina (60 quid) worth of petrol. Then we went to the Bridgestone garage. One tyre was replaced and another was pumped up. Cha-CHING! And then, just I was under the delusion we were actually getting somewhere, we stop at the local market for another half hour so the driver could buy betel nut, the local narcotic of choice, the same thing they chew (and spit out) in India. You get a bag of what looks like a small plastic bag of cocaine and a cigarette-sized stick (which is apparently the nut). You lick the stick, dip it in the bag (like Sherbet Dib-Dabs) and then bite off the end of the stick that covered in the white stuff and chew it. It turns a beautiful colour of red in your mouth, so most of the locals around here look like they’ve got some kind of serious gum disease going on. And when they smile it’s about as sexy as menstruation. Quite why people from different cultures around the world chose to do this to their only face is another thing I’m not going to waste too much of your time talking about because the quick answer is that I haven’t got a frikkin’ clue.

Some time after 2pm we started our journey in earnest. Do you remember what I said about the flight from Lae to Madang last weekend? That we went up and over the mountains? Well the road goes through those very same mountains, and as we crossed the highlands, the weather went proper mental. It was like somebody had set a giant automatic carwash to SUPER DELUXE CLEAN PLUS. The rain didn’t so much come down in buckets as it did in Niagara Falls.

As a consequence of the lack of highway maintenance (and, more specifically, the lack of DRRRRRAINAGE!!) the road quite literally turned into a river. And not a pleasant meandering Huck Finn type of river. More like the thundering torrent you’d experience going down a log flume. The PMV driver, not a) wanting to slow down and b) wanting to acknowledge that his PMV was not, in fact, a kayak, decided his best course of action would be to ride the river down the hill. “WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG??!” I hear you scream. I drove my fingernails into the dashboard, fretted at my lack of safety belt (the bloody driver had one – not me!) and held on for dear life.

Of course I’m still here to tell the tale, so I have to say that my impromptu Papuan Log Flume Ride worked out alright, although the poor buggers in the back did get their luggage soaked and the bottom of the minibus suffered the kind of grating one would normally associate with cheese. Once back in the lowlands, the weather and road changed simultaneously from absolutely diabolically bad to not bad for Papua New Guinea (which is still bad). The rain eased off and the road allowed for short but frighteningly fast 100mph+ sprints in between slamming on the brakes in order to cross the skinny single lane metal-plated bridges which no doubt pre-dated the Charge of the Light Brigade. Think Super Mario Kart meets Mad Max and you’re halfway there.

The View From The PMV
The View From The Madang-Lae PMV

Somehow I arrived in Lae (still in one piece) at around 6pm. It was getting dark, and as the town of Lae has a lousier reputation than Mel Gibson’s drinking habit, I was (understandably) getting a little bit edgy. The only CouchSurf host in Lae is a guy called Stan. Unfortunately, Stan is out of town this week, but being a good egg he put me onto his mate Ben, who gallantly stepped up to the mantle and agreed to take me under his wing instead. I called Ben on Friday to ensure that everything was groovy and he apologised profusely and said he was going to be away this week as well. Ah. But he did offer to find me another home like the adorable lost kitten I no doubt am.

Ben was true to his word (yes he’s British) and he put me onto Alex, who greeted my phone call with the words “There’s nay way I’m letting a bleedin’ scoouser into ma hoose”. Typical bloody Glaswegian. So I told him that I’d go halves on the wedge I made from flogging them car radios and wheel-trims I acquired in Madang so he could buy some deep-fried Mars Bars and skag. He soon changed his tune.

Alex agreed to meet me at the Lae Golf Club (which he lives opposite and is the captain of) and so I asked Wesley the PMV driver really nicely if he would drop me off there on the way into town. No probs, says Wesley. We pull into the Golf Club car park just as the sun disappears over the western horizon. After all that bloody nonsense this morning, the timing couldn’t have been better.

Alex and his colleagues were enjoying post-work beverages and after introductions, the Scottish man in Papua New Guinea took me for a Chinese. Over dinner, I got to learn a little bit more about Alex’s job here in Lae.

The company that has agreed to help me get to Australia is called Swire Shipping, a division of Swire, one of the biggest companies currently floated on the Hong Kong stock exchange (as well as shipping, they’re a majority shareholder in Cathy Pacific and own the exclusive Coca-Cola bottling rights for the WHOLE OF CHINA… jeepers!). Alex works for Swire Shipping. This is incredibly fortuitous. I may need Swire’s help again if I’m to get around the Pacific region on cargo ships.

What’s more, Alex is friends with one of the directors of Reef Shipping – the New Zealand based shipping agency that runs cargo from Fiji to Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru and New Zealand. That’s over half the countries I’ll have left. Seriously, this could be HUGE for the Odyssey Expedition.

All this year I’ve desperately needed a lucky break. I should have known I’d have to get back on the road to get one. Who dares wins, Rodney, who dares wins…

Days M7-M13: The Lae Delay

04.10.11-10.10.11: Well I haven’t gone anywhere but by jingo it’s been a fun week here in sunny old Lae. Ah, it’s not as bad as everyone makes out: the town may be ugly as sin but the guys here at Steamship (Swire) Shipping have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome.

Alex here has taken me under his wing and over the last few days I’ve been treated much better than a hapless ginger wayfarer could possibly deserve. There’s only two drinking pits worth mentioning here in Lae — The Yacht Club and the Golf Club — and as Swire owns a speedboat at the marina and Alex is the el capitaine of the Nice Walk Ruined, the SP lager was flowing free. Although both places do have a completely irrational anti-hat policy. Grr…

During the day, I’ve been at the Steamships offices scrubbing away at the googles looking for a delightfully clever way to get around the Pacific, and the plan is good. If I can just get a couple of shipping companies onside, I could have 90% of the Pacific Nations done by January 12th 2012, leaving just Palau and Micronesia for me to fret about in the new year. Fingers crossed…!

The Papuan Chief has arrived in Lae, but it won’t be leaving until Saturday 14th October at the earliest. That being the case, Rob from Steamships challenged me to a round of golf at the weekend. Although “challenge” is probably not the best word to use in this case: I’m so bad at golf my only salvation came from the fact that everybody in the clubhouse was too busy watching the rugby to bother pointing and laughing at my utter crapitude. But it was a nice walk.

Otherwise, things have been fairly quiet over the last few days: there was a massacre up near Goroka on the Friday before I arrived — tribal warfare of the type you really wish they wouldn’t publish the gory pictures of in the newspapers — and so Lae is feeling pretty subdued. Having said that, the annual Morobe festival takes place next weekend and the Highlanders are massing on the fringes: the population of Lae is set to triple overnight.

I’m still not quite up for walking around the streets here without a chaperone, especially waving around my camcorder because, well, quite frankly, you never know. I’ve got this far without being mugged…

Day M17: The Earth Moved

14.10.11: Friday passed slowly but comfortably, given the odd earthquake. Stan had left in the morning to go to an island off the coast with his family, I stayed behind in his swanky apartment cursing myself for resetting Stan’s modem the night before: Stan didn’t have his welcome letter from the internet provider in the flat, his username and password had been wiped.

Oops.

Which meant no internets and no blog updates for another week. I hope you can forgive all of these blogs coming at you thick and fast from here in The Solomon Islands Australia (spoiler!), but these things happen, especially if you allow a barely competent ginger monkey prat around with your gear.

The earthquake – which measured 6.8 on the Richter scale – struck around midday, and I was as useless as only a none-veteran of earthquakes could be. Cursing the fact that I wasn’t wearing shoes, I stood up and looked around. What should I do? Here I was on the fifth floor of an apartment overlooking the coast, on my own and the whole building was shaking. Images of South Park’s “Duck and Cover” episode flashed into my head.

Somewhere in the back of my brain came the learned notion that I should find a doorway to sit in. I don’t know if this is because doorways are somehow magical or if it’s because if a wall tips on top of you at least you won’t get squished against something, you can always move out of the room a bit. Or maybe it’s bollocks: I don’t think sitting in a doorway helped people trapped the World Trade Centre. But then that was a fire: it was different. But the building still collapsed… what if this building collapses? What if it falls down like the television building in Christchurch? Damn I wish I had shoes on. I always feel more in control of the situation when I have shoes on.

It was at this point that the earthquake stopped. I came back to reality and realised that my awesome plan for surviving a major disaster situation amounted to standing up and deciding not to hide under a doorway. I don’t know if I even deserve my awesome moustache anymore: I’m one of those who believes you have to be pretty damn awesome to deserve an awesome moustache, and as this scenario quite adroitly pointed out to me: I’m no Magnum PI.

I walked over to the balcony and looked down at the waterfront, just beyond the small footy stadium below. I started fretting about whether I would now have to survive a tsunami as well. Well, I thought, if I’m going to be swept away by a force of water the likes of which can scupper a nuclear power station, I might as well get a good shot of it coming across the pitch. I set my camera up on the balcony, just in case.

Happily, the tsunami never came and I was left alive for another day, free to pursue a life of religious fulfilment. Hurrah!

That night I met up with a guy called Ben who was the connection between Stan, my original CouchSurf host (the only CouchSurf host for Lae) and Alex, the guy I had been staying with all week. Ben also worked for Swire Shipping, but for the subsidiary called Consort which runs domestic cargo around the coasts of PNG. Ben picked me up and took me to the Yacht Club where I met a couple of his friends, had something to eat and muttered under my breath about the injustice of the ‘no hat’ rule. Heathens!

After a few too many, I was back at Stan’s flat – Stan was still away on the island, but had given me a key. It seems that despite the fact that I’m a Scouser and I broke his internets, Stan was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. I was very careful not to break anything else.

Day M18: The Morobe Show

15.10.11: This weekend is the Morobe Show, an annual event (now in its 50th year) which started as an agricultural expo, but has now morphed into the premier cultural event of the season. If you want to get your photo taken with a Papuan tribe in all their awesome regalia, this is the place to do it.

The Papuan Chief had finally come into port at 1800 last night and there was an outside chance that it might sail today: I kept my mobile phone on extra loud ring just in case and had all of my stuff packed and ready to go. But the good news was that I would at least get to see a bit of the Morobe Show.

Ben kindly picked me up from Stan’s flat in the morning and we drove over to the showgrounds with his mates: Duncan, Tom and Chris. The crowds beyond the fence were incredible: it seemed that everyone and their dog had descended on Lae for the weekend. Once inside it was a little less hectic.

The showgrounds were mapped out around a central oval which was used throughout the day for various events: the horseracing being the most hilarious and the stunt bikes being the most fun. Tomorrow they’d have a huge ‘singsing’ in which delegates from dozens of different tribes would congregate in the oval in their outrageous costumes for the kind of dance-off that precedes a rugby match between New Zealand and Samoa.

Today was all about the Morobe Show Queen competition. Twenty contestants adorned in their village’s finest traditional costumes (which skilfully covered only the unimportant bits) competed against each other by explaining to the judges in the most monotone voices imaginable where every last feather, bead and shell of their costumes came from. The chick with the snake got my vote, just for having a snake, although some of the head-dresses were several shades of awesome… I wanna organise a tribal-themed house party as soon as I got back to the UK.

In other parts of the festival site, you’d find fruit, flowers, grain, coffee beans, tea, horses, pigs, chickens: this was, after all, an agricultural show. But for me it was all about the tribal dress. I mean, where else can you go to take a photo like this:

Serious, DUDE.
DUDE.

These guys black themselves up with oil and melted tyres. Later on in the day, one of the fellas attempted a bit of tightrope walking in the central arena. Well, I say ‘tight’ rope, but I actually mean ‘not very tight at all’ rope: he fell off a good 17 times. But you know what they say: 18th time’s a charm. He was given a rapturous round of applause.

That evening I was invited to a barbecue at Ben’s place. Ben lives in the same compound as Alex, who was leaving just as we were arriving. He wound down his car window. ‘Graham: I’ve been trying to call you all day… the Pap Chief sailed early.’

Alex looked at his watch. ‘Well, it will have sailed in about five minutes.’

My stomach punched its way into my mouth. ‘You’re kidding?’

‘We’ll have to see if we can get you on the next one.’

‘Bu-bu-bu-’, my mind raced: I had been checking my phone all day. Maybe with all the people at the show, the mobile network was too busy for me to get the message. This was a disaster: my visa would probably expire, the ships I was hoping to join in the Pacific would be all knocked out of whack, whatsmore: Mandy would kill me.

Alex couldn’t hold his serious face any longer. ‘Naaaaah… only joking – it leaves tomorrow!’ and he drove off, no doubt chuckling to himself like a James Bond villain.

Grr…

Before we cranked up the barbeque, we all decided to head over to the Golf Club and watch Wales beat France at the Rugby World Cup Semi Finals. History will show that’s what should have happened, but for some reason (must have been a dodgy satellite transmitter or something) it looked like France won by a single point.

So my last night in Lae was spent eating yummy barbecue with a merry gang of ex-pats, drinking Scotch (Alex came back) and commiserating (in spirit) with the Welsh.

Day M19: Exodus

16.10.11: Alex had told me to keep an eye on my phone for the message to head to the port. At this point, The Papuan Chief shouldn’t be leaving until 10pm, but you can never be too careful. Stan returned in the morning with his mum and her friend who was excited about going to the Morobe Show today. I had kept hold of the VIP pass I had borrowed from Duncan yesterday (no photo, all too easy) and was pretty chuffed that I was going to be able to see today’s big singsing.

We arrived sometime after 10am and headed into the showground. Hundreds of people in traditional dress – all the tribes the organisers could find – filled the track which led to the main arena. It was a National Geographic photographers’ wet dream. Even with my little two-bit Sony camera (held in my left hand, camcorder in my right) I got shots like this:

Papua New Guinea
Dude.

And this:

Papua New Guinea Mudmen Tribe
The Mudmen Tribe

And this:

Papua New Guinea Warrior Lady
Warriors... come out and play-ay...

Just think what I could have done with my right hand. And a Canon 7D.

Around midday we headed over to the main arena. The Governor General of PNG was in attendance, as were the police, army, the tribes and the winner and two runners up from yesterday’s Miss Morobe contest. As Stan and I ate sausage rolls and lamented the lack of beer (the show came with a strict liquor ban for the weekend) my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was a text message from Alex. ‘Call me urgently’.

The Papuan Chief was actually going to be leaving early. I’ve have to miss the big singsing. Well, it just gives me a good excuse to return to Lae in the near future and it’s not like I didn’t get enough great footage. Stan kindly offered to run me to the shipping office. It was time to go.

But not before I ran over to the warrior women of the Central Highlands and got this shot of me, spear in hand, leading them into battle:

Graham Hughes in Papua New Guinea
If you even DREAM of appearing in a cooler photo, you better wake up and apologise.

Stan dropped me off at the Steamships Shipping office and we said our goodbyes. The shipping agent took me onboard the mighty Papuan Chief. I was introduced to Captain Bernie Santos, Chief Mate Jerry Divinagracia, Second Mate Bert Ramos, Third Mate Jonell Salas, and Dave Varley, the Chief Engineer from Burnley. Finally! A Brit on board a cargo ship – and a Northerner an’ all. Awesome.

That evening we departed Lae. It’s taken me the best part of ten months, but I’m finally on my way. Nation 185 awaits…!