Well then, it should all be over, shouldn’t it? First thing Sunday morning I hurried down to the copy place to pick up my shiny happy visa, only for the guy to pull it out of the drawer with a despondent look on his face.
You need to get the visa in London.
I took a deep breath, nodded, smiled, exited and screamed an obscenity to the sky that would have woken Rip Van Winkle.
No visa. No dice. What now?
I rang Eric who has become my unofficial Kuwaiti Yoda, he said he could get my passport DHLed back in the UK for just a fiver through his company. Thus began my week of visa madness.
On the Monday morning I was invited back to the British Embassy to see if they could musta some ‘wusta’, the word for influence around these parts (and my collective noun for Kuwaitis). They tried their best, but as the guy in the Embassy said, he could help me get me a visa for anywhere in the world – except Saudi. They are more awkward than a spoilt child designed by Apple.
So Andrea picked me up (THANK YOU!!) and took me over to Eric’s workplace. The passport was dispatched to London. I sent it to my friend Lindsey for her to give to my dad. So the frickin’ Saudis essentially forced my 73 year old father to go all the way down to London because my letter of invitation had ‘London’ written on it – in Arabic I might add.
The answer is no, now what’s the question?
But even all that did not suffice, in London they wanted the passport to be submitted by an agency, not a individual. So my gallant father had to come all the way back to Liverpool, gather even more forms and crap and nonsense and then return to London the next day. And would it take three days (as advertised on the Saudi website) for the visa to come through? Would it buggery. It would take a week, now sod off we tire of you.
I sat in Kassie’s flat, incapacitated with a firmament of fury towards the bureaucrats of the world. I hate you all, why don’t you climb aboard the B-Ark and go torment somebody somebody else’s planet? At this rate, I’ll be in Kuwait longer than anywhere else so far on The Odyssey – even Cape Verde.
We had to be at Baaboud Shipping for 7.30am, and, once again, Turki took time away from the office to take me there. The level of hospitality and sheer generosity I’ve received from Turki has really knocked me for six. I owe this guy BIG. Like many other Odyssey Heroes I really have no idea how I can possibly repay him short of declaring a Wookiee Life-Debt. The only thing I can do is spread the love and do everything in my power to help my fellow wayfarers along the way after I finish this adventure. And you can hold me to that.
We presented Ahmed with his dates and he responded with a pot of authentic Sudanese green bean coffee. The ship would be leaving this afternoon and we had to be at the port for 10am. Ahmed gave Turki the phone number of the port agent and gave me his best wishes. One last traditional Saudi breaky (flat bread and yummy beans followed by a yoghurt and honey desert… yum!) and Turki dropped me at the port.
I was shepherded through the massive passenger terminal nice and quick (I was the only one there!) and after being picked up by the port bus, I alighted at the quayside where the Ibn Al Waleed, the cargo ship that would be taking me to Eritrea, lay in wait. The last time I was here at this port was on the 29th December 2009 upon the MV Turquoise racing on my way to meet Mandy at the pyramids before New Year – Almost a full six months ago.
I clambered aboard and introduced myself to Captain Mohamed Mousa Mohamed, Chief Nay Myo and Babikir Yahya the cook before settling down in the mess with my laptop to write this blog and to count down the minutes to the England vs. Slovenia game.
Yup, luckily for me, the Ibn Al Waleed has satellite TV!
The ship is an old one – it must be from the 1970s. It reminds me of my dad’s old carburetter shop in Liverpool – a mucky, working vessel that does its job but you wouldn’t want to eat your dinner off the floor. It’s nowhere near as big as some of the mega container ships I’ve been on board, but it manages to pack a lot of containers and a ton of new cars on the deck.
The crew from Sudan, Sri Lanka, Burma and the Philippines are a lively bunch and they all look forward to kicking back and having a day off work in Eritrea where they can get hold of chicks and booze – things that in Saudi are in short supply!
This evening England scraped through to the final 16 of the World Cup, but are facing Germany on their next outing so that should be fun. But with the universally glum expressions of the English players (most notably Wayne Rooney) I’m not holding my breath for victory. Everyone is wondering what the secret of the South American teams is. I’ll tell you what it is – they look like they’re enjoying themselves!
So… the schedule is that we arrive in Eritrea Friday afternoon, spend a day or two in Massawa before returning to Saudi for Monday or Tuesday next week.
It would be 3am before we were finally loaded and set sail for the 161st nation of The Odyssey Expedition. To be able to tick Eritrea off my list would a huge huge weight off my shoulders… to think only last week I was considering heading to Eritrea last after visiting every other country in the world, in the hope that the border with Djibouti would be reopened some time this year.
Thursday on board ship passed like a dream. Out on the high sea I felt the exhilaration of things finally going to plan. I spent the day in the mess as the crew drifted in and out throughout the day, waiting for the football to start. Today we got to watch Italy get unceremoniously dumped out of the group round (bottom of their table) and sadly bid farewell to the Danish contingent as they got their bottoms well and truly spanked by the Japanese.
With any luck tomorrow I’ll be downing a cool pint and watching the footy in a bar in Massawa knowing that I am the first person to visit every single nation of South America, The Caribbean, Central and North America, Europe, The Middle East and Africa in one rather epic surface journey. I look forward to it.
Okay, Odyssey fans… this is it, the television show documenting my travels is being shown every TUESDAY at on the Nat Geo Adventure Channel, which is available in 40 countries across Asia and South America. If you can get it, great. If you can’t, you’re stuck with my YouTube videos until it gets broadcast on the BBC (fingers crossed) early next year!!
The eight episodes of season one cover the first 133 countries of The Odyssey Expedition – my journey from Uruguay to Egypt, starting on 1st January 2009 and finishing on 31st December 2009.
1. From Argentina to Guyana
2. Caribbean Castaway
3. From Cuba to Tunisia
4. Arrested In Africa
5. African Rough Road
6. Congo Chaos
7. Africa Island Hop
8. Pyramids Or Bust
As for the final 67 countries… (including Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea) Lonely Planet TV have just bagged first refusal on the second series… WATCH THIS SPACE!!!
Up early as Jan wanted to get to the border the moment it opened. Mike and Harald had left in the wee small hours, so I checked out on their behalf (thank god there was no minibar!!) and hit the road in a shared taxi.
The drive to the border was surprisingly slick, I was expecting worse and we arrived in good time. The was the usual formalities, but nothing went wrong and nobody asked us to pay an imaginary ‘fee’, so that was good.
I’m now in the 184th country of The Odyssey Expedition: Papua New Guinea. One of FOUR Guineas spread out all over the world (the others being Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea: and all of them utter basketcases, sadly enough). Even though West Papua is culturally very similar to PNG, you are left in no doubt whatsoever that you’ve crossed a border into another country.
BYE BYE Nasi Goreng and cries of mieeeeeeester and fried fish heads in the window, HELLO and massive queues for everything, no cafes, restaurants or fast food and a general feeling of malevolence that means you’d be highly unlikely to leave your bags unattended for any length of time. If Indonesia is South East Asia with a tinge of Arabia, PNG is Africa with a tinge of Outback Australia.
The first town over the border, Vanimo, was a bit of a culture shock. The massive queues for the supermarket, bank, cash machines were crazy and, to my mind completely unsustainable: of course they were, I soon found out that the cargo ship had come in today: by 1pm nearly everything had been sold, and the supermarket shelves, previously full of all kinds of stuff – food, toys, clothes – lay empty. That was the ‘shopping’ for the week. Boy, you’d be several different shades of pissed off if you overslept. It would be like forgetting to put the bins out, only you’d starve.
So, first things first – I needed to find a way of getting to Wewak – the first major town along the north coast. From there I could plant my flag, somehow get to the capital city of Port Moresby then onto Australia to be with my (exceedingly patient) girlfriend for Christmas. I’ll be flying back to Wewak in the New Year to continue my journey and Australia will not be ticked off the list. Of course, Mandy could fly to PNG to meet me, but, er, if anyone has actually been to PNG they might appreciate how much not fun that might be!
The cool thing is that Mandy is blissfully unaware of my intentions, it’s only known to a handful of people. She hates surprises, but she might just like this one.
There were just several small problems with this plan:
My flight to Oz leaves Port Moresby tomorrow at 2pm – and Port Moresby is on the other side of the island. There would be no other way of making this connection other than flying. Okay…
The next flight from Vanimo (here) to Port Moresby leaves here tomorrow at 11am and would be getting into the capital at 1.10pm – leaving agonisingly (just) too little time for to check-in for my flight to Australia.
My only hope of catching a flight that would get me to Port Moresby in time was to get to the next big town along the coast – Wewak. There was a flight at 6am tomorrow morning which would get me to Port Moresby in good time for my connection to Australia.
But to get to Wewak before 6am wouldn’t be easy: the weekly cargo/passenger ship that trundled along the coast did leave today (which was lucky), but was scheduled to get into the port of Wewak at – get this – 6.30am.
Why do the gods mock me so??!!!!!!
Happily, since my Lonely Planet was written, a half-decent road had been constructed between Vanimo and Wewak. So all I needed to do was to find a bus or shared taxi that could take me to Wewak today. So I sat in the baking heat of the equatorial sun waiting for some kind of transport to come along.
And I waited…
And nothing came. Nothing whatsoever. Since the boat to Wewak would be leaving this afternoon, there was little or no reason for anyone to drive – all of the transport was waiting until tomorrow. I must have spoken to over a hundred people, staggering about in the dust and intense heat weighed down with all my bags. One guy said he’d take me in his car – for $2000 (really). An Aussie guy in uniform said he could take me in his helicopter – ‘if I was rich’.
By 3.30pm I was tired, exasperated, sunburnt and more than a little upset that because of my Papua Visa Hell I would be missing Christmas with Mandy. I called up the only person in the world who could help me out of this predicament. Alex Zelenjak, Our Man In Havana (well, Sydney). He got on the phone to the airlines and snapped into action.
Could Virgin Blue change my ticket to a later time? No. The 2pm one is the last flight tomorrow. Could they quickly escort me from my internal flight from Vanimo to my flight to Australia? No. There would be no time. When is the next flight available? The 26th December.
Arse arse arse and arse.
Hmm… if I take the boat to Wewak (on the grounds that by some miracle I MIGHT make the 6am flight to Port Moresby) but miss the 6am flight, can I cancel the ticket then?
No. In fact, you can’t change the ticket within 24 hours of the flight.
I looked at my watch. It was 4pm. My flight left in 22 hours.
You’ve got to be kidding. Out of options and unable to change my flight, I ran towards the Wewak ship. Alex, help me out here, man.
I was the last person to get a ticket for the ship and clambered onboard pretty much as they were raising the gangplank. If I thought the boats in Indonesia were a little overcrowded, they have nothing on the boats in PNG. Heaven help us if we sunk – the passageways weren’t full of people who didn’t have a space in the sleeping quarters – the passageways were the sleeping quarters. It wasn’t cheap either, but then (as I quickly discovered) nothing in PNG is cheap.
Jan the German guy was onboard and he was one of just two people who had bought a VIP ticket, which meant he had a room with 15 aeroplane-style recliners (which were dirty, broken and looked like they had been recovered from a crashed airliner some time back in the 1960s). I didn’t have a VIP ticket, but sleeping on the metal floor in the squish didn’t seem like the way of the future, so I hung back while the VIPs got their tickets checked and then entered the room after the ticket guy had left. The boat was all filth and bedlam so I figured the ticket guy wouldn’t notice. Happily, he didn’t.
The boat departed and Alex, bless his cotton socks, having spent an hour on the phone to Virgin Blue asking to speak to mangers etc. finally got back to me. Virgin Blue had agreed to make an exception – I could change the ticket to Boxing Day, and, even better, if (by some miracle) I did make it to Port Moresby airport in time tomorrow, I could change my ticket back (so long as it didn’t sell out). But there was a catch – Alex couldn’t change my ticket for me – I had to do it myself. They wouldn’t ring a PNG mobile number and I didn’t have enough credit to call them – and I was on a banana boat, so it wasn’t like I could go and purchase some more credit from the shop.
But Alex (again) came to the rescue: in the ten minutes before I lost phone reception he managed to set up a three-way call between me, him and Virgin Blue. I changed my ticket and breathed a sigh of relief. Thanks Virgin Blue!!
AND THANK YOU ALEX!!!!!!!!!!!!
The guy in the VIP room that wasn’t Jan was a Papua New Guinean from Madang called Richard. Lovely guy – told me that judging from the time we left, the ship should be getting to Wewak early – around 4am.
Maybe this would be the miracle I needed to make this crazy scheme work.
The Pacific, south of the equator line, is now complete. Yes, there were a handful of territories – Niue, Tokelau, French Polynesia, Pitcairn & Easter Island – that I skipped, but if the purpose of this adventure is to have great stories to tell the grandkids, I need to finish this quest so I can work on spawning future generations of argumentative scouse dingbats to tell the aforementioned great stories to in the first place. Happily, I did get to visit the French territories of New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna (both of them!) and the US territory of American Samoa, bringing my ‘territory tally’ up to 9.
Here’s a rough map I knocked together of the route I took, including ships and dates. Clicky for biggie.
MASSIVE THANKS must go to the cargo kings of the Pacific Ocean – Swire, Neptune, PDL, PIL, Reef and the cruise queens – Carnival, Princess and P&O. Alex Pattison (Swire), Rowan Moss (PDL), Captain Hebden (Neptune) and David Jones (Carnival) in particular went that extra mile to help this raggedy stranger take a giant leap forwards in achieving his dream.
Finally, hats off to Captain Bernie Santos of the Papuan Chief, Captain Don McGill of the Southern Pearl, Captain Andrey Verkhovsky of the Southern Lily 2 and Captains Sireli Raloka and Bob Williams of the Scarlett Lucy. It was a real honour to sail with these guys.
All in all, a pretty successful five months! I only wish I had known (at the time) that the Scarlett Lucy came into Honiara on the way to Nauru. Had I know that, and had Neptune been happy to let me on board last October, I could have jumped off the Papuan Chief and jumped on the Lucy, cutting out the massive backtrack to Australia from New Zealand – saving myself at least a month’s worth of travel.
But then I wouldn’t have scored a free ride as a VIP on a cruise ship, so I’m really not complaining!!
As I keep saying, there’s no manual for this type of thing – it just goes to show that good information is priceless. Now, with Nauru out of the way, I must turn my attention north to Palau and Micronesia.
The Cap Serrat left in the wee small hours of the morning, and the only other ship that will get me to Taiwan (in time to make April’s one and only ship to Palau and Micronesia) leaves from Townsville, 1,300km north of here in just three days time, and I still haven’t got permission off the owner to board the vessel. This is cutting it tight and making a huge gamble – if I don’t get on the Mell Seringat on Thursday I’ll have lost another month.
After saying my goodbyes to Captain Bob, Rusi, Peni, Cookie, Douglas, Bese, Labe, Ricky, Meli, Patrick, Peter, Hendra, Daniel, Asi, Manasa, Martin and Chief Tarawa – I reluctantly disembarked the Scarlett Lucy, my home for the past 34 days. I set course for the Mission to Seafarers in order to take advantage of the courtesy bus that takes salty seadogs like meselfs to the nearest town, Wynnum. A train ride to Brisbane city’s south bank, a rather unfortunate looking set of nuclear bunkers that substitute for a cultural quarter. A good place to run to when the North Koreans attack, and also there’s free internet.
After trudging through my back-log of emails and correspondence, it became clear that I was no closer to being allowed on this ship than I was 24 hours ago when I was in the middle of the sea. Tomorrow I’d have to make the decision whether to head up to Townsville anyway, but today I could (kinda) relax. I met up with Crystal, a mate off the Pacific Pearl, and we settled in for an evening of pizza and beer before I crashed on the coach. The Pacific Ocean is magnificent, but dry land does have its bonuses.
The two days at sea passed like some velvet morning (when I’m straight). For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to be less of a fat bastard using a novel invention I like to call ‘the beer diet’. It’s nice and simple: you just drink beer and don’t eat anything. Honestly, it works! Magic!!
However, on a cruise upon which I can’t afford to drink and the food is UNLIMITED and FREE, my great diet plan has been turned on its head. Now all I have to stop me stuffing my face with cheese and prosciutto is my own willpower.
On the Tuesday we crossed 0° latitude, that magic invisible line of red that seamlessly circumnavigates the planet. Why is it 0°? Because that’s the angle of Polaris, the North Star, in the sky relative to the horizon at this exact point of this marvellously oblate spheroid we all call home.
The last time we crossed the equator, I had to make up for the insult I had hurled at King Neptune by switching hemispheres without his permission. Once in Ecuador, once in Gabon, once in Kenya, thrice in Indonesia, twice on the way to Kiribati and twice on the way back again.
That’s ten times I’ve kicked sand in Uncie Nep-Nep’s face. Happily, on this crossing Monsieur Neppy was in a much better mood with me and there were (thankfully) no head-shaving shenanigans to be had. Just a baptism of equatorial water and the chance to dress up as Ol’ Neppo himself.
I was then forced to dance to Italian pop music, which was something of an ordeal. What is it with Italian pop? Why does it always sound like the backing music of a porno? But hey, it beat scrubbing deck paint off my arm for two days straight.
Being somewhat of a storytelling balladeer it made sense that I should do a talk about my travels, not just for personal glory (and the scouse compulsion to be entertaining), but also as a good way to meet new people who may (if I’m a good boy) buy me a beer. An American called John who I had met while chatting to Josie, the English speaking hostess, set up for me to do a presentation in one of the meeting rooms, which of course I did. There’s actually very few native English speakers on board, which should be unsurprising since it’s an Italian ship: I’ve met people from France, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Poland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Austria, Croatia… the only English speakers are from the US, Canada or Australia. I don’t think I’m met a fellow Englisher yet!
The ship is a fine old lady, and as a water taxi service to two of my three final destinations, I seriously cannot complain. Costa have well and truly saved my bacon. AND I LOVE BACON!!
THANK YOU COSTA!! You may use the following picture for all your future publicity:
It was 0600 when my wake-up call came through from the third officer, but he need not have bothered: I was already wide awake. Giddy with that I-can-believe-this-is-actually-happening vibe, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. From now to South Sudan there is an open road: no ships to organise, no visas to be purchased in advance, from the moment I step foot on African soil it will be go go go to the end of the Odyssey Expedition.
I’ve been doing this for nigh on four years. In less than a week I’ll have achieved the impossible. Or at least something that nobody has ever done before. By 0700 I was posing for photos with the crew, ready to depart with Alfred, the ship’s agent. I was getting off at the same time as second engineer Jay from The Philippines. By 8am we had both been stamped into South Africa.
HELLO AGAIN AFRICA!!! Miss me?!!
At this point I should mention that I’m rapidly running out of passport pages. Assuming that Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan all take up a page each (something I have no reason to doubt), when I get to South Sudan I will have exactly *zero* pages left in my passport to get back to the UK.
Lucky then I have a second passport! This morning it arrived back in London from its totally pointless trip to Madagascar and is currently in London with my good friend Lindsey. She should be dropping it into the Ethiopian embassy tomorrow, and on Friday when the visa (hopefully) comes through, it’ll be picked up by Casey and sent to Nairobi for me to collect. So long as I can buy multiple entry visas for both Kenya and Uganda, I should have *just* enough room to get back to Nairobi from South Sudan.
Happily, South Africa has a teeny-tiny entry stamp and hurrah for that!!
By 8.30am we arrived at the bus station just in time to see the Intercape bus to Johannesburg pull out of the depot. Cursing myself for faffing around this morning (although I’ve come to realise that immigration opened at 0800, so all the rushing in the world wouldn’t have changed matters much), I took some Rand out of the ATM (and got a new note with Nelson Mandela on it, only came out last week!) and bought a ticket for the bus that would depart at 0945, arriving Jo’burg at 1720 that afternoon.
I said my goodbyes to Alfred and Jay and waited to go. All was going swimmingly until the bus broke down. Overheating caused by an oil leak, from what I could fathom. Now anywhere else, a replacement bus would hurry out to us. But This Is Africa, so we drove to the garage instead and waited THREE HOURS while they fixed the problem. Sitting on the bus in the searing heat, no AC because the engine was off, and you couldn’t even open a window, because the cretins that design these buses obviously never ride in these buses.
Would you buy a new car, no matter how AC’d up to the hilt, in which the windows didn’t open? No. Exactly. Why engineers and architects are so confident that the air conditioning will *never* go on the blink is quite beyond me. But we still let these morons design buses, trains and office buildings whose unique selling feature is the opportunity to be slowly cooked alive rather than allowed to open a frikkin’ window: an otherwise nice, environmentally-friendly low-tech solution to the problem of, you know, being too hot.
As a consequence, it wasn’t until 2025 that I arrived in Jo’burg, the good ol’ murder capital of the world (sort of). As the last underground train left for Janine’s nearest station left at 2030, a frantic sprint to the Gautrain was in order. This is a brand new system – wasn’t here last time I was in town – but your ginger travelling monkey here had the system sussed out within seconds (I guess it helps I’ve ridden on an insane number of Mass Transit Systems) and by 2029 I was on the train, doors beeping as I boarded, almost catching my backpack as they closed.
Sat down, happy but sweaty, took out my phone to text Janine telling her I had made it: then realised the awful truth that Londoners have to live with everyday: there is no mobile signal when you’re underground. Oh well, that’s fine, methinks, I’ll text her when I arrive. Ten minutes later, I arrived, bounded up the up escalators and after waving my phone the air like I was directing a plane to the gate, I picked up some signal. I texted Janine only to receive the reply ‘ARGH! Was just driving all the way into town to pick you up!’.
So there I was with all my bags in the rape capital of the world, waiting outside a train station in the dark. I just hoped the station wouldn’t close – the security guys milling about at the entrance gave me a modicum of reassurance. And my fearsome ginger hair, obviously.
Janine took about 20 minutes to get back to me. It was great to see her again. We went for some Nandos (geniune South African / Jamacian tucker) because they make adverts like THIS:
Once back at J9’s, I barely had time to scratch my arse. Casey and I had a zillion and one things to sort out – there’s a good chance I’d have no internet contact from now until South Sudan. I’m taking care of the transport and the whole ‘not getting myself killed’ bit and Casey’s doing the rest. One way or another, this time NEXT WEEK, the Odyssey Expedition will have drawn to its inevitable and Jubalant conclusion…