So here we are, 180 countries down and just 20 to go – it’s mad to think that I only left Shanghai just over two weeks ago, and in that time I’ve managed to visit Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia – and with any luck I’ll be in Brunei (181) before close of play tomorrow and the Philippines (182) by the end of this week (typhoons permitting). But if you think I’m “nearly there”, think again. Every single remaining state is an island nation and none of them have anything approaching an international ferry service. This could take a looooooooong time.
A loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong time.
Here’s a draft of a sketch of a inkling of The Plan from here to the end of The Odyssey Expedition. But as always, everything is open to change.
183: East Timor
There is a Pelni (Indonesia’s national ferry service) ship that goes from Denpaser in Bali to Kupang in (West) Timur. I’ll be crossing the border, then sitting in Dili for a few days while I apply for (yet) another Indonesian visa.
After returning to Kupang, I will take a Pelni ship to West Papua. From there I hope to persuade a swashbuckling yachtie to take me to the South-West Islands of Palau: only a few hundred kilometres north (as opposed to the capital Koror which is a thousand kilometres away). I’ll then be coming straight back to West Papua.
185. Papua New Guinea
Just a case of crossing the border from West Papua.
186. Solomon Islands
If I island-hop through PNG and make it to Bougainville, I should be able to take a canoe over the short hop to the Shortland Islands and tick the Solomons off the list. From there I should be able to island-hop via Gizo to Guadalcanal, the main island.
And here’s when it becomes REALLY tricky…
Have a gander at this map of the Pacific Island states I knocked out on the back of a napkin…
Take a note of the scale!!! From the Marshall Islands down to Fiji I’m going to have a cover a distance approximately the same as from Darwin to Melbourne via Sydney. This is no Caribbean Island hop, these are gargantuan chucks of bitchin’ ocean I have to cover.
The only options open to me are hitching a ride on cargo ships and cruise ships. Cyclone season starts at the end of this month (and continues to May) so yachts are right out. Even if someone was mad enough to take me, it would just be too dangerous – I mean, have you SEEN A Perfect Storm? Ygads!
So here’s the sketch of how I’m going to do this…
The isolated (and isolationalist) island of Nauru is really hitting hard times these days. The rich phosphate deposits that secured the island’s finances are now completely depleted (as of this year), leaving an impoverished island in the middle of nowhere that is going to be a real bitch to get to – it’s the only Pacific Island where you need a visa and an invitation to ruck up. Seriously guys? Seriously?
My hope is that I can hop a supply/cargo ship from The Solomons north to The Marshall Islands, one that stops at Nauru along the way. But these things may only come once every few months.
Micronesia (like jungle) is massive, stretching across a vast swathe of the Pacific Ocean. The bit I’m interested in is an island called Kosrae in the far east of the nation, which I could use as a stepping stone to…
189. The Marshall Islands
I lie awake at night fretting about ever reaching The Marshall Islands. So far from just about anywhere they cajole and torment me in my dreams. But if this semi-mythical cargo ship can take me there, I’d be one happy Odyssey bunny.
If a cargo ship has got me this far, maybe it can take me a little further: to the western half of Kiribati. From there at least I know I can take a Kiribati Shipping Services ship (which comes once every couple of months) down to…
Here I’ll have to make the decision whether to stay on the Kiribati Shipping Services ship to Fiji or swing a left to:
Again, this place is a little off the beaten track, but it’s position between the US Samoan islands and Fiji means that if I’m lucky, I might be able to find something that can float me to:
If I get here, the hump should be over: I’ll be on the cruise ship circuit. Hopefully in return for entertaining the troops with tales of my adventures (and possibly the odd song and dance routine), I’ll be allowed to hitch a ride on a cruise to:
Fiji seems to have the best international transport links with the region, and I may regret not coming here first, but if all works out, I should be able to stay on the same cruise ship through the Fijian islands and on to:
And then onto:
196. New Zealand
My original final destination, things have changed a little since I failed to reach Sri Lanka, Maldives and The Seychelles. It shouldn’t be too hard to find something to ship me to:
Arriving in Sydney (because I owe Alex Zelenjak a pint in The Three Monkeys), I’ll be headed down to Melbourne and kidnapping my long-suffering girlfriend Mandy for the trip across the Nullabor all the way to Perth. If I can find a cruise that is going to Europe or South Africa, there’s a good chance it will stop at: 198. Sri Lanka, 199. Maldives and 200. The Seychelles.
Then I’m done, right? Er, right… as long as no new nations are created between now and the end of this. Like, say, South Sudan…
CAN YOU HELP?
If you have any contacts in the South Pacific who are involved in shipping or cruises, please pass them on via the CONTACTS page. In return for helping me finish The Odyssey in one piece I’m willing to give plenty of publicity to any company or individual that would like to get involved.
Is The Odyssey possible? It’s been a question that has been bugging me for some time. Okay, I’ve made it this far, on the surface it looks like I’m doing quite well: with 183 countries in the bag and just 17 left to go, you would think I’d be relaxing in to the final stretch of this mad quest. But I can’t emphasise this enough: I still have NO idea how on Earth I’m going to get to the twelve Pacific Island states that lay ahead. They are all thousands of miles from each other and the Pacific, despite the name, is anything but Magellan’s ‘calm sea’: storm surges created off the coast of Russia roll on for days uninterrupted until they create waves in the South Seas that would make short work of that wooden Pirogue that took me to Cape Verde. A lift on a yacht would cost more than I’ve spent getting to every country so far (seriously). Cargo ships service the northern South Pacific islands once every couple of months and Cruise ships only ply the ‘lower’ islands: Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
Nauru, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu look as inaccessible as Facebook in China.
Now into this quantum uncertainty has stumbled forth two unlikely heroes: the first of which is good ol’ Alex Zelenjak, an Aussie Odyssey fan since the beginning and the guy who (amongst other things) discovered the ‘back door’ into Taiwan from China as well as the WORKING PELNI FERRY WEBSITE (yes folks, IGNORE YOUR LONELY PLANET – if you want to find out Indonesian Ferry times, go to http://www.pelni.co.id – NOT http://www.pelni.com which hasn’t been working since 2006).
The other hero is a chap originally from Blighty but relocated to Oz, no it’s not Yahtzee Crowshaw, it’s Damian Pallett, a mate of Lorna Brookes (she of Odyssey logistics fame). He’s taken on the challenge of getting me around the Pacific in one piece and before the world ends on December 20th 2012 (if John Cusack is to be believed). And, by Jove I think he’s come up with a solution that in the finest bolt-n-build-your-own-adventure style might just be the golden ticket.
I can’t give to much away at this point, but suffice to say that between myself, Alex and Damian things are beginning to crystallise into what I can only describe as a kick-ass plan that is more cunning than a silver-tongued fox that’s just been appointed professor of cunning linguistics at the University of East Anglia.
BUT FIRST I need to get to Palau and Papua New Guinea (PNG), on my own, unsupported and on a shoestring. This is not going to be easy. Here’s how I’m going to spend my December of 2010:
TODAY: Commence operation HATI-HATI. I need to get the next boat to Sorong in West Papua. This ship will leave the Island of Sulawesi a week tomorrow. I have two options:
1. Wait here in Kupang until Friday, get to Sulawesi on Sunday, get the West Papua ferry on Money
2. Bugger this for a game of soldiers, race back to Bali, GET MY REPLACMENT HAT, take the Pelni ferry leaving Surabaya (Java) a week today. I will arrive at the same time as I would by staying in Kupang.
I opt for…
Right… I have to get down to Kupang port and board the ferry back to the island of Flores. It leaves in a couple of hours. I better get my skates on.
TOMORROW: I have to race as fast as I can across Flores, from West to East. It may take a few days.
WEDNESDAY: Hopefully arrive in Labuanbajo in the East of Flores.
THURSDAY: Morning boat to Sumbawa, overnight bus across the island.
FRIDAY: Ferry to Lombok, Ferry to Bali, bus to Seminyak, meet with Neil, pick up NEW HAT.
SATURDAY: Ferry and bus to Surabaya in Java.
SUNDAY: Pelni Ferry to Makassar in Sulawesi island. Like this:
A WEEK ON WEDNESDAY: Arrive in Sorong, West Papua. Beg the local ex-pats to join me on a (fun!) sailing trip to Helen Reef in Palau. Don’t know how long this will take, could conceivably take the rest of December. Or my life.
GOD KNOWS WHEN: Leave Sorong on the fortnightly Pelni ferry to Jayapura on the border with PNG. This will take two days. Then I have to get from Jayapura to Port Moresby, the capital of PNG – right on the other side of the second-largest island in the world, and one with all the infrastructure of the moon. As always, I will have to do this without flying. Oh, and just to make things doubly impossible, it’ll be the height of the rainy season when I get there, what ‘roads’ exist in the dry will be nothing but a swamp. Here’s what I’ll have to do:
Take a banana boat from VANIMO to AITAPE on the north coast. From there it’s a bus (a PMV) to WEWAK. From there it’s the weekly ferry to MADANG. Then I’ll have to take the Highlands Highway to MENDI (if that’s even possible in the wet season) and from there I’ve just got to hope that the new road from MENDI to KIKORI actually frickin’ well EXISTS (my Lonely Planet informs me it ‘should’ be opening in 2008). From KIKORI I’ll be taking a motor dingy along the south coast to KEREMA and there I’ll be somehow bodge my way to PORT MORESBY, because the road is usually impassable in the dry, god knows what it’s going to be like in the wet.
The alternative is to take a boat from MADANG to POPENDETTA on the north coast and then travel to the KOKODA TRACK and HIKE the 90km to where the road starts again at MEDITOGO VILLAGE. This track is a real slog over mountainous jungle terrain (rising to over 3000 metres) and takes between six and eleven days IN THE DRY SEASON. In the wet season I would probably not even be able to find a guide who’d be up for it, even if the track was passable, which I’m guessing it wouldn’t be. It’s not really an alternative, but I just want you to understand how difficult it’s going to be to just get to Port Moresby: it may take me to the end of January JUST TO GET TO TWO COUNTRIES.
Well, that’s what I’m doing for Christmas – and as PNG is a very dangerous place where life is cheap, I may well find myself watching the Queen’s speech from the discomfort of a large cooking pot. Today I sat in Edwin’s gaff organising the next twelve countries after Palau and PNG with Damian and Alex, hopefully they won’t be as arduous. I would have liked to speak to Dino, the Odyssey’s very own Mr. Bojangles, however he would have been fast asleep: I’m seven hours ahead of GMT here. Soz Dino.
Interestingly, I have now (in my life) been to every country in the world beginning with the letters A, B, C, D and E. I haven’t been to Fiji yet so F doesn’t get a tick, but I have been everywhere beginning with the letters G, H, I, J, L, O (which is just Oman), Q (which is just Qatar), R, U, W, Y (just Yemen!) and Z.
The only letters I still need for the set are F, K, P, N, M, S and T.
Sadly, no country begins with the letter ‘X’. I will rectify this some day when I buy an island in the Pacific and Christen it ‘XXX’. It would look great on my country slide at the UN – people would think I was a spy. Or the owner of a porn site. Either is good.
By 3.30pm it was time for me to launch OPERATION HATI-HATI.
After cheerios to Edwin I set off to the port for the 4 o’clock ferry to Larantuka in Flores. Only it was more like the 3.25pm ferry to Larantuka, so I was damn lucky to get on board in time. Something I was less fortunate about was the seating arrangement. The ‘Executive’ Class did mean I wouldn’t have to sleep with the cattle (no, really) but it didn’t exactly guarantee me a bed. Or a seat for that matter. This is going to be one uncomfortable night.
One thing that was quite cool though: they have Indosat on this ship and they showed my TV program. Quite a surreal experience being on TV in the midst of the madness that is an Indonesian ferry crossing. There’s mothers and children strung out all over every available bit of floor, much in the manner of the end of Radiohead’s video for ‘Just’. I’m currently sitting on the wing of the ship, just outside the bridge. It’s cooler out here and I feel less sea sick.
I shudder to think that when THE PACIFIC LEG begins in earnest next year, I may be at sea for two months solid. Groan. But as Roy Castle once said, if you wanna be a record breaker, dedication’s what you need.
You know, when I stepped out of the Vietnamese Consulate back in September I honestly thought that my days of being trapped like a cog in the bureaucratic nightmare that is VISAHELL was over.
But then came East Timor, deciding just a few months ago to stop issuing visas for the trickle of western tourists that bother to visit their country overland from Indonesia. But even after that was all sorted out, like the mythological hydra, more bloody visas were called for, most hilariously for Indonesia as described in my blog entry entitled A Red Background.
And now with just 17 countries left to visit and all of them being as far-flung as you can fling a flang, I’m trapped on the border of Papua New Guinea almost having a nervous breakdown brought upon by yet another impenetrable layer of bureaucracy that makes the world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil look streamlined and sensible.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THESE DAMN PLACES? I’m not a criminal, I’m not a terrorist, I’m not a international superspy. Are they really doing that well that they can afford to turn back tourists?? PAPUA NEW GUINEA, in the short time I was in Jayapura I met SIX people who gave up trying to get into your country. I’m not bigging myself up, I’m just a wannabe TV presenter on just one of Rupert Murdock’s myriad cable channels. But one of the guys you shooed away was a millionaire.
I’ll say that again, just in case ANYONE from Papua New Guinea is reading this.
YOUR COUNTRY, WHOSE PER CAPITA GDP IS LESS THAN THE GAZA STRIP’S, TOLD A MILLIONAIRE THAT THEY DID NOT WANT HIS CUSTOM.
Are you guys INSANE? Like, really really insane??
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start at the beginning. Stepping off the Pelni ferry at 4am on Thursday 16th December was a little like trying to get out of the front row of an Oasis gig just as the band is about to start but loaded down with backpacks and teetering on a watery precipice. There were people EVERYWHERE. It was all I could do to prevent myself falling into the breathtakingly polluted water of Jayapura’s port.
Groggy, sleepy and unhappy I began to trudge towards the few hotels listed in the Lonely Planet. The few CouchSurfers here had buggered off for the Christmas hols and so the choice was either hotel or a notel. The first place I tried was full.
So was the second.
And the third.
And the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh.
After TWO AND A HALF HOURS of trudging around with my backpack and my bags, I finally found somewhere for the night, but at $22 for a single room, I could feel my already stretched budget kicking me in the balls. But I justified it to myself because I could have a couple of hours kip this morning, so I was effectively getting two nights for the price of one.
It wasn’t much of a justification, but at least there was air conditioning, a hot shower, a western-style toilet and a TV (that I didn’t use). I fell asleep and woke up a couple of hours later, gathered my ‘visa kit’ and raced off to the Papuan New Guinea Consulate for when it opened at 10am.
Now it says in the Lonely Planet that you can get a PNG visa at the Consulate in Jayapura the next day, or if you ask really nicely, the same day.
Good one, LP. Did you actually get a visa at this consulate, or did you just go in and ask them how long they take? Because I can tell you it’s much MUCH more of a headache than that.
I filled out the form enquiring after my collar size and father’s maiden name only to be told that I couldn’t make a visa application without a valid airline ticket out of the country.
TOP TIP for developing nation: If a western tourist ludicrously outstays his or her visa and you can’t afford to deport them, just sentence them to five years in jail. THEIR OWN COUNTRY will soon pay for their repatriation!!
Anyway, twattily enough, I also had to write another daft letter explaining why I wanted to go to Papua New Guinea.
The temptation to write TO RAPE AND STEAL AND DESTROY was almost overwhelming, but I managed to stifle that baser instinct. So I went to the internet place over the road, bought a ticket from Port Moresby to Brisbane, wrote a silly letter and returned… to be told to come back after 1pm.
So I waited outside in the baking heat of northern New Guinea, within a skerrick’s pube of the equator, sweating and fuming. If only I’d know this would just be the beginning of my VISAHELL, I probably would have gone off to shoot liquid crack into my eyeballs. But instead I waited patiently (and sweatily) and at 1pm I walked in and handed over my papers, tickets, photocopies, photos and application forms only to be told I needed to get a photocopy of my Indonesian visa.
Wha? Uh? Bu…?
I stormed off down the road, got page 23 of my passport photocopied in a roadside shack and returned within the half-hour.
Thanks. Will it be ready tomorrow.
The lady said she would try.
I jumped onboard the next ‘bemo’ (minibus) back to town. Happy days.
I found a place just up the road from my hotel that had free internet but where the coffee was TWO POUNDS a cup (blimey! – so much for travelling on the cheap!) and managed to pad two coffees out to last me the whole day. The coffee place closed at 10pm and I retired to my hotel. Things were going well – at this rate I should be in Papua New Guinea by the weekend.
The next day I checked out of my hotel and hop, skipped and jumped down to the Consulate, five miles away.
Here’s a video recreation of my conversation with the woman on the front desk.
I stepped outside and emitted a silent scream. Looks like I’ll be in hideously expensive (well, let’s just say ‘hideous’) town of Jayapura for the weekend. If this visa isn’t ready by Monday morning, I am quite frankly going to have a bit of a meltdown. After scoping out the competition (and finding them all full for the weekend) I checked back into my hotel only to be told that the only rooms they now had left were ‘luxury’ rooms.
I stepped outside and emitted a very LOUD scream.
So the weekend slobbered by with me attempting to minimise my expenses as much as possible. I generally hung out in the café with internet and actually managed to stretch the purchase of one coffee cover a mammoth twelve hour internet binge in which I managed to download this video off my good chum Leo and convert it for YouTube:
No mean feat at 56 kbits a sec I tell you!
So what do you want to know about Jayapura? Well it’s a wild west town on the far eastern edge of Indonesia. It’s unattractive, unremarkable and, well, about as much fun as sticking broken glass up your nostrils.
But here’s something to make you laugh. Or cry, I dunno. In the middle of the town there is a excruciatingly tasteless concrete statue of an Indonesian soldier standing with a flag and gun – and this soldier is being held up on a pedestal by obviously Papuan natives. Anyone who has seen the latest Harry Potter film might spot the similarities with the ‘Magic Is Might’ statue ordered by a certain He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Anyway, before I knew what was what it was Monday. The weekend was over (not that Jayapura has much in the way of ‘weekends’ but hey-ho. So I hailed a bemo and headed off to the PNG consulate for the fourth time.
Here’s a video recreation of my conversation with the woman on the front desk.
I returned THREE TIMES that day. The first time she told me to come back at 1. The second time she told me to come back at 4. The last time she told me that it wasn’t ready, but would DEFINITELY be ready for tomorrow.
It’s not just the inconvenience here, it’s the fact that Jayapura is ugly, smelly and EXPENSIVE. I returned to my hotel sweaty, hot, exhausted (the consulate is five miles away) and ready to kill, kill and kill again. Luckily for me I ran into a couple of Bules in the same position. One was a South African surf/wave detective (yes!) called Harald, and the other was a top chap from Hawaii called Mike. Harald and Mike are travelling the world in pursuit of the perfect wave. It’s all very cool indeed.
So we had a few drinkies together. They were going to try and get visas for PNG but decided (based on what they had been told by fellow Bules) that they were going to skip their trip to Papua New Guinea BECAUSE IT WAS TOO DIFFICULT TO GET A VISA. You hear that, PNG?? So they were going to stay in Indonesia instead AND SPEND ALL THEIR MONEY IN INDONESIA INSTEAD. Yeah – go for it, guys, PNG obviously has bigger fish to fry.
The next day I (again) packed all my things together and checked out of my hotel. I travelled over to the PNG consulate and… hey! Guess What…?
So that’s a no then is it? A NO. EVEN THOUGH YOU TEXTED ME THIS MORNING SAYING THAT MY VISA WAS READY AND I COULD COME PICK IT UP.
If somebody had handed me a tank of petrol and a match at this point I would have not been responsible for my actions.
So I returned to my hotel as quickly as I could an – would you Adam n’ Eve it – the damn place was FULL. Utterly utterly full.
That was it, I thought. Death must reign down from above. While I know it’s not Indonesia’s fault per se, I must regretfully report that I’m really starting to despise Indonesia. While India will always be home to the most irritating people in the world, Indonesia (appropriate name) comes a very close second. As I walk down the street there is an excruciating meeeeee-ster every few seconds. If I ignore it, it will continue meeeeeee-ster! MEEEEEEEEE-STER!!! MEEEEEEEEEE-STER!!!!!!! MEEEEEEEEEEEE-STER!!!!!!!!!!!, but if I turn I know I’ll get the old howareyou? followed by the usual, predictable peel of howling laughter that leaves you wondering whether you remembered to put on your trousers this morning.
No, I don’t want to shake your hand wizened old man – mainly because I was having a slash the other day and I saw the man next to me SCOOP PISSY WATER OUT OF THE URINAL WITH HIS HAND and ‘wash’ his dick with it. As with many developing nations, germ theory and basic hygiene are undiscovered countries here – people do all kinds of disgusting crap with their hands and then expect me to shake on it. Ha! No! Bugger off.
And for heaven’s sake: maybe, like one day, I might, you know, want to go 24 hours without eating luke-warm white rice with a GODDAMN COLD FISHHEAD ON TOP. I saw a sign for Pizza Hut yesterday. I got very excited about it and all day I was fantasising about getting a nice HOT pepperoni pizza… Actual Bread! Melty Cheese! Spicy Sausage!!
I walked back to my hotel and asked the girl on reception to order me a pizza. Then I found out that Jayapura does not have a Pizza Hut. It’s in another town, 15km away.
Okay: is there anywhere in this large sprawling town where I can get… chips? No. Steak? No. Pasta? No. Potatoes? No. A Sarnie? No. A Sausage? No. Mexican? No. Indian? No. Thai? No. Malaysian? No. Chinese… come on, there MUST be a Chinese place…? No. A kebab?
What’s a kebab?
DEAR GOD PLEASE HELP ME.
There are a hundred food stalls and shops here in Jayapura, and EVERY SINGLE ONE just sells white steamed rice and fish-heads. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. In the Middle East I get it, IT’S A DESERT: a lump of gritty meat wrapped in sandy bread is the best you can hope for. But in Indonesia you could throw a stick into the ground and it would grow into a tree. These were THE SPICE ISLANDS for heaven’s sake. What’s with the monoculture? What’s with the little plastic packets of ‘spicy sauce’ I get with my rice and fish heads?? Maybe Indonesia isn’t such an appropriate name – if there’s one thing I’ll always forgive India all her sins for, it’s the corkin’ nosh. Here you’re best bringing a packed lunch – those fish heads have been sitting in that hot, sweaty, fly-infested window for hours… or maybe days…
And is anything open after 9pm? I know going to bed early is the Asian disease (and quite possibly why there are so many Asians in the first place) but please, I just want a bottle of water. Or maybe a pack of Handie Andies.
And are sidewalks without massive deadly holes in them too much to ask? Do Indonesian town planners sit around with diagrams and schematics working out the optimum way to turn a simple task like walking down the street into a live-action version of Super Mario Brothers? And does all this litter bother anybody but me? On the boat to see the Komodo Dragons last month there was so much crap in the water I was convinced that a ship hauling rubbish to the dump had recently sunk – it brought to mind the trash-compactor scene from Star Wars: oh no, all in a day’s work for this dianoga-friendly UNESCO World Heritage site. Illegal logging? That’s no problem – just give me a bung and I’ll look the other way… after all, there’s plenty more virgin rain forest where that came from.
AND WHAT is with this whole thing of making it impossible to see out of the windows of minibuses? How the hell am I supposed to know when to get out? Now I understand some people (drug-dealers mostly) don’t want people seeing into their vehicle, but purposefully making only 10% of your windscreen see-through is just f—ing NUTS. Is it to stop tall people stealing your minibus?
And no, I DON’T SMOKE. But thanks for walking all the way over here so you can sit right next to me in this big empty room and blow smoke in my face. And, since you’re here, why not crane your neck over so you can read what I’m typing? Go ahead, I find it easier to write with a goddamn audience. Yes, I prefer friendly people to the cold indifference of Eastern Europeans, but c’mon, this is just… irritating. Really, really irritating. Like that noise they make in Dumb and Dumber.
AND YES your music is shite it keeps me up all night. Well, it would do if I wasn’t such a heavy sleeper. And no, I don’t want it amplified so loud that it shakes the poo out of my bottom. There’s a passive-aggressive notion from middle-class dinner tables that western (well, UK, US and Jamaican) music is somehow inferior to what we like to condescendingly describe as ‘World Music’. To that I say PFFFFFFFFT. Local music is AWFUL pretty much everywhere: in Latin America the best you can hope for is Me Gustas Tu, in Africa everyone is too busy listening to African-American homosexual jingle-pop (or R&B as it’s also known), continental Europe is all um-pah-pah, accordions, the Spinal-Tap of Death Metal or 80s pop that would have seemed dated in the 80s, the Middle East just sounds like Tarzan falling down a very deep well, India is some shrieking harridan singing through her nose whilst wobbling about behind a pillar, SE Asia is even more obsessed with Celine Dion and Bryan Adams than even the Middle East (the more I travel, the more I become convinced that heterosexuality is the one that’s ‘not natural’) and Indonesia? Jesus wept. Possibly because people kept playing Indonesian music at him.
Oh Graham, you big meanie… you’re such a music nazi. Yes, yes I am and this music ist not gut! From a population of 250 million with its thousands of islands, hundreds of languages and mosaic of cultures, I expect at least one song that makes me tap my foot instead of sticking my fingers in my ears and going LALALALALALALALALALALALALALALA.
In short, Indonesia: you irritate the crap out of me, you don’t wash your hands, your cuisine is as dull and your music is poo. And too loud. It’s not me, darling, it’s you. You’re too plain Jane, the spice has gone out of our relationship and I would rather spend my time with other countries – ones that like to stay up late and dance until the break of dawn. Let’s get divorced so I never have to see you again, but I can look back on my time spent with you with fondness as my memories of your bloody awful cooking fade with time. Welcome to Dumpsville, Population: You.
BUT WAIT…! What’s this?
Indonesia… come back!!
I didn’t mean it! I was just – you know – venting!
Yes, I will forgive a country of pretty much anything if it manages to send my tastebuds on a spine-tingling roller-coaster ride of texture, flavour and outright yumminess. And tonight, Indonesia you have surpassed yourself.
Maybe the fact that I had to eat crap for two months was a conspiracy to make me lower my standards, lower my defences before… WHAM!!!
The tastiest dish I have EVER EVER eaten.
A little bit of backstory: after getting kicked out of my hotel, I headed over to the hotel that Mike and Harald were staying at and tried to check in there, but (lords-a-lordy) it was also full. Harald and Mike, being the top blokes that they are, agreed to let me sleep on their floor and the hotel kindly supplied me with a mattress.
So once I was settled in, Mike and Harald had some good news… unlike me they wouldn’t be spending a lonely Christmas in this shithole, they had just scored the last couple of seats on the last plane out of here on Thursday morning. Lucky buggers.
Mike was (understandably) ecstatic at this news and wanted nothing more than some decent tucker to celebrate, so we headed towards the seafood shacks laid out along the road beside the harbour. But not just to any seafood shack, we went to THE seafood shack. Possibly the finest seafood shack in South East Asia.
THIS is what I’m talkin’ about! For just six quid each, we got a deliciousfreshly-caught blue grenadier cooked to perfection of the barbie:
We also got a plateful of delicious deep-fried king prawns:
But that was a mere trifle compared to the gastronomic perfection that was to come. I ordered fresh calamari out of the cooler box and Harald, being fluent in Indonesian (and an able fisherman himself) was able to explain exactly what we wanted. And what we wanted was heaven on a plate. And that’s exactly what we got.
She may not look like much kid, but she’s got it where it counts.
Lightly tempura’d calamari, served up with long-cut stir-fried veggies in a sweet and sour sauce. Man, my mouth is watering just thinking of it. Usually calamari can be a bit chewy – this stuff was so fresh it literally melted in your mouth.
So yes, Indonesia, you have won me over. Unlike the BLOODY PAPUA NEW GUINEA which well and truly HASN’T. That night I stayed up drinking with the other Bules staying at our hotel, all of whom were waiting for visas. This guy, Quentin, was from France and had been waiting TWO WEEKS for a visa.
Please be aware that at this point it was the wee small hours of Wednesday morning: Christmas day is NEXT SATURDAY.
If we didn’t get our visas for PNG today, we’d be stuck in Jayapura until 2011.
And all the wonderful calamari in the world wouldn’t make it worth staying. I wanted out. I wanted to reach my 51st country before the year’s end – and, more than that, I wanted to USE the damn plane ticket to Australia they made me buy.
I wanted to see Mandy again. It’s been too long.
So after a few hours kip, Quentin and I descended on the FRIKKIN’ PNG Consulate for the twentieth time. And this time we were not leaving until we got our visas. I had been told yesterday that my visa was ready and IN MY PASSPORT. Arriving at 10am, we were told to wait.
The visa is in my passport! Give me the damn thing!!
It needs to be signed.
By the man who signs the visas.
And is this man in work today?
And is this man coming into work today?
I don’t know.
ARE YOU ON CRACK?
Okay, give me my passport now, I’ll sign it myself and take my chances.
I have never wanted to beat another human being to death with their own shoes before, but this bloody woman was seriously moments away from joining the choir invisible. I told her I wasn’t leaving without my visa and she put up the ‘closed’ sign and tottered off.
If they had just told me in the first place that it would take a week to put a bloody stamp in my bloody passport it wouldn’t be so bad. If they hadn’t made me come back TIME AND TIME AGAIN IN THE SWELTERING HEAT with false promises that my visa was ready it wouldn’t be so bad. If they where rushed off their feet and had thousands of applications to get through, it still wouldn’t be acceptable, but it wouldn’t be so bad.
But we are talking here about a stamp in a passport and a couple of lines of writing. Even if you were an illiterate slug it would only take a minute to do. And it wasn’t as though there was a queue of Bules waiting outside every morning – and Indonesians don’t need visas for Papua New Guinea. They probably had about ten visa applications to process A WEEK. If that. Well, me and Quentin waited. And waited.
The first few hours were painful. It was hot, it was sweaty and I’m sure my hair was beginning to fall out. At 1pm they wanted to close for lunch so we go chucked out, but we were back again at 2pm sharp. My bloody mindedness was now thinking along the lines of ‘if I create a bloody nuisance of myself, they’ll give me the visa just to get shut of me’.
Well, it wasn’t the most elegant of plans, but (eventually) it worked. But not early enough for me to be able to get to PNG today. The last taxis apparently left at 1pm. It was 3.30pm before I got my visa. Another exasperated Bule, a German guy called Jan, came into the consulate and got his visa at the same time – he, like me, had been waiting a week.
Quentin, on the other hand, who had been waiting for TWO WEEKS for his visa, came away empty handed. Unbelievable. Utterly unbelievable.
Oh, and our ordeal didn’t end there. Jan and I headed over to the immigration office in Jayapura to get stamped out of the country when we were hit with the most baffling piece of red-tape in the history of dick-headed bureaucracy. If you got a visa on entry to Indonesia, you aren’t allowed to leave via Jayapura. As Jayapura is the ONLY border post between PNG and Indonesia, this somewhat leaves your options limited.
Luckily for me, I had gone through the frigmarole of getting a ‘proper’ visa for Indonesia in East Timor (as they weren’t being issued on the border). Jan wasn’t as lucky. Of course, the c—s at immigration would be willing to accommodate his predicament (for a $60 ‘fee’), the alternative being for him to FLY BACK TO JAKARTA.
This is just quite mind-boggling and a new one on me – an international border that you cannot LEAVE a country from without the correct ENTRY visa. How f—-ing stupid do you want to be?
Oh, Indonesia, you had me for a moment with that sublime calamari, but you’ve just blown all that good will. Sickeningly corrupt and loaded with ill-gotten blood money, you can go to hell, Indonesia. You SUCK! And, while you’re at it, get the hell out of West Papua. It’s not yours and you’re only there for the gold. The profits from which go on WHAT EXACTLY? Health care? Schools? Roads?!
Ha. HA! HAHAHAHAHA!! Don’t make me laugh!
They go straight into the back packets of the slimy politicians that live on an island a thousand miles away, literally and metaphorically. Bluuuuuurgh to the lot of ya!!
Happily, Mike and Harald weren’t leaving Jayapura until the morning, so they (being top chaps) again allowed me to kip on their floor. Thanks, guys!!
Tomorrow there will be nothing to stop me getting into Papua New Guinea. I booked a taxi to the border. It will be the Eve of Christmas Eve. Looks like I’ll be spending another Christmas without the girl I love. PNG is not a happy place and while I’m quite happy to risk my safety doing this crazy stuff, I’m not willing to put Mandy in that situation, so I’ve told her not to fly to me this time around.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
I closed my eyes and sighed.
…well, not from Virgin Blue, but I think there’s one from Air Pacific….
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.
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.
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
I’m currently in the midst of a rather epic challenge – one that I hope you might be interested in joining me in: I’m trying to step foot in every country in the world, and attempting to do so without flying. I’m doing this to raise funds and awareness for the international charity WaterAid.
I work with Lonely Planet, National Geographic and BBC Worldwide. The first series of my self-filmed TV show, Graham’s World, is currently showing on the Nat Geo Adventure channel (Foxtel) and I was the star guest on Channel Nine’s Today Show last Saturday. You can watch the interview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeaR_RW7Zu4
Over the last two years, I’ve managed to visit an incredible 184 countries around the world, from Uruguay to Iceland, South Africa to Turkmenistan; on my own, on a shoestring and without flying. With only 17 more countries to visit, I’m now setting my sights on the Pacific Ocean nations of Oceania.
BUSINESS IN GREAT WATERS
I’m looking for somebody – it could be you, a friend, a colleague or your mum – who owns their own sailing ship and is looking for an epic adventure on the high seas. While I’m happy to pay for food, drink and fuel, but this would not be a commercial enterprise – I’m seeking somebody who wants to do this for fun, a bit of fame, to raise money for the charity WaterAid… and claim their very own Guinness World Record: THE FASTEST SEA JOURNEY TO EVERY COUNTRY IN OCEANIA.
From Australia, one amazing journey will take us to Papua New Guinea, Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand… and back to Australia.
FORTUNE AND GLORY
Of course, this would be no small undertaking. We are talking here of a journey of over 10,000 nautical miles. It won’t be easy, but then Guinness World Records never are!
I travel solo, I don’t have a film crew or any bulky equipment. I have extensive sailing experience on the open sea, having been first mate on international voyages in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. I’m aware that for many boat owners, their vessel is their home and I’m more than happy to meet any prospective skippers in person before they reach a decision.
I’m not looking for anything fancy, fast, luxurious or even particularly comfortable, the only requirements I’ve got are that the ship be sea-worthy, insured and fitted with an international distress beacon in case of emergency.
I’m also open to the possibility of doing a smaller leg of the journey, sayAustraliato PNG to Palau and back. (Although they’d be no world record for you in that!)
I’m ready to leave as soon as possible from anywhere in Australia. Would YOU be interested in stepping up to the mantle? Prove to your family and friends that your boat is more than an expensive toy: show them that it’s an expression of freedom and adventure, feel the call of the ocean, leave all you troubles behind and join me on the voyage of a lifetime… fortune and glory await!
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.
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:
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!!
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.
Mums gave me a guided tour and (unlike your average tourist) I was allowed to take photos and film as we went around. Hence:
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.
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…
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…
11.10.11: As I won’t be leaving Lae until next weekend, Alex offered to take me over to Salamaua, the old capital of German New Guinea. Since its heyday in the 1930s (and its destruction in the 1940s) Salamaua has returned to the isolated village outpost it once was. There are no roads to Salamaua and it’s a good hour journey down the coast from Lae in a banana boat to get there.
Alex took me over in Swire’s Taikoo Chief speedboat, whizzing past the mighty Papuan Chief out in the water along the way. Dropping me off at the holiday home, one of a dozen owned by Lae-based companies as a weekend getaway for their employees, I was put into the care of Jimmy, a local guy who had been looking after the Swire house for the last twenty years. As Alex scooted off back to Lae I found myself the only white guy in the village.
Salamaua is located on a narrow isthmus just 100 metres wide which connects an almost-island to the mainland. At just a metre above sea-level, it is particularly at risk from rising sea levels, along with the entire nation of Tuvalu, most of Bangladesh and, oh yeah, EVERY BEACH IN THE WORLD.
A path runs down the middle of the village and most of the homes (all built from local materials) are located on the leeward side, while the village’s Lutheran church sits to windward alongside the village’s dugout canoes and a rather conspicuous Japanese anti-aircraft gun: residue from someone else’s war.
There are 700 people in the village, grouped into families. There is a garden for the villagers to grow their own food, the fish are plentiful, coconuts drop from the trees and the local swamp teems with tasty mud crabs. A sustainable way of life in a world that seems hell-bent on a misson to be as unsustainable as humanly possible.
I got to meet the village bigman as well as Jimmy’s family. Granny was sitting on the ground quietly weaving a bilum: a traditional string bag worn around the neck and over the chest. His kids were running about causing trouble, climbing trees and playing marbles. There are over 700 living languages in PNG, and in this village they speak one of them: only in this village and nowhere else.
That night, Jimmy and I sat off on the beach drinking SP and putting the world to rights. It seems that everyone I speak to in PNG is realistic about the current dire situation the country finds itself in, but yet are optimistic about the future. A massive gold mine is opening on the outskirts of Lae next year. If only valuable resources went hand in hand with improved infrastructure and social development. But Salamaua doesn’t need an airport, a high speed rail link or even a road: it just needs the government to offer free education and fat westerners not to make the sea levels rise.
At around 10pm Jimmy said goodnight and left me alone on the beach looking out to the great Pacific Ocean: waves lapping the shore, a cool breeze, a magnificent full moon and a cold beer. What more does a ginger travelling monkey need?