The PLAN!!!

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 ExpeditionBut 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.

184: Palau

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…

All This And MORE!!

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…

187. Nauru

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.

188. Micronesia

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.

190. Kiribati

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…

191. Tuvalu

Here I’ll have to make the decision whether to stay on the Kiribati Shipping Services ship to Fiji or swing a left to:

192. Samoa

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:

193. Tonga

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:

194. Fiji

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:

195. Vanuatu

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:

197. Australia

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

Eek!

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.

Thanks!!

Day 697: The Game Is Afoot!

28.11.10:

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…

Option 2!!

Ready?

Set?

GO!!!

Map of Nusa Tenggara
For the love of HAT!!

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:

Pelni shipping route from Java to West Papua
Go East, Young Man!

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.

PNG
Oh Lordy!!

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.

Ygads!

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.

Days 985-987: Saddle Up, People!

12.09.11-14.09.11:

The time for procrastination is over. Much of this year has been spent – some might say wasted – holding out hope for a yachtie to invite me onboard his vessel and whisk me away into the wild blue yonder for nothing more than the price of a few beers and a barrel of diesel. After being held on tenterhooks for 8 months (repeatedly being told that the yacht in question would be ready to go ‘in a few days’) I gave up that pipedream. I guess the old adage is a good today as it’s always been: if something sounds too good to be true…

So I cast my net out wider, appearing on TV here in Australia and on countless radio shows, always throwing in the ‘anyone up for an adventure?’ line (while trying not to sound too desperate, of course). I got a few backpackers wanting to join me, and a couple of delightful offers of dinner(!), but no red-blooded mariners quietly waiting on their sailboat willing to take a ginger landlubber like me for a high adventure on the high seas.

But now it’s too late: even if I found a willing skipper and a boat called “Unsinkable II” today, cyclone season kicks off in November and good luck getting insurance to be bobbing up and down on the silver seas when that happens. No… I’ve got to come up with another way of getting around the Pacific, in other words: I have to revert to Plan A. Cargo ships.

“Why didn’t you just do that in the first place YOU IDIOT?” I hear you cry. Well, given the choice between visiting all the Pacific Islands in a few months at no great cost or visiting them over the course of six months at great cost, it was always going to be the former.  Plus, look… I’ve been living with my girlfriend here in Melbourne and there aren’t too many relationships that could survive not seeing each other for two years – I’m not making excuses, I just wanted to take the path of least resistance, especially if that meant I could hang out here a while longer.

But now the time has come to GET REAL: the only way I’m going to get this journey finished is on board freighter ships, and one way or another I’ve GOT to get back on the horse.

The ticking clock never stopped. It’s not just my own personal drive to get this thing finished, it’s practicalities like my Aussie visa runs out on Sept 22, so I’ve got to make like a tree and get out of here. So, not being one to stand on ceremony, I’m heading back to Papua New Guinea next week. I’ll have to head over to Wewak and then make my way to Lae and then try my best to get on one of the ships that goes to The Solomon Island and beyond: either to Fiji, New Zealand or Australia.

Lorna, Mandy and I are busy talking to shipping companies and valiantly attempting to side-step the whole “we don’t take passengers” malarkey to get me passage. But the good news for you lot is that my bag is packed, I’ve got a stack of miniDV tapes in my jocks and I’m raring to go.

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

Day M15: A Day Off School

12.10.11: Jimmy met me in the morning to take me across the bay to the local school. We knew it was going to be closed today as one of the regional governors died last weekend and the kids were given the day off as a mark of respect. But I still wanted to have a go at paddling around in a dugout canoe, so we went anyway.

The canoes in PNG are, quick frankly, cruel and unusual punishment. They’re so narrow you can’t sit in them, you have to sit on top with your legs stuffed inside, one in front of the other. The rim of the carved-out interior digs into your arse and your feet soon get pins and needles. To make matters worse, as there is only one stabiliser, if you lean to the left you run a good chance of tipping the boat over. It’s the nautical equivalent of a pair of stilettos.

I’m actually writing this entry two days after the event and my legs are still aching like I’ve been climbing pyramids. Jimmy showed me up the local mangrove-lined river which leads to the swamp, but after being told it would take an hour to get there in the canoe of uncomfortable doom, I suggested we turned around and pressed on to the school instead.

Jimmy and I drew up to the far shore of the bay. A group of little kids were playing rugby on the school field. As we walked over to one of the school buildings, Jimmy shouted out to his friend Mr. Phillips, who is a teacher at the school. Mr. Phillips shook my hand and offered to show me around the little school which teaches 800 children from the local region, some of whom have to walk for a couple of hours to get there.

Mr. Phillips and I had a good chat about the challenges of teaching in PNG: the literacy rate here is abysmal, as are the numbers of children finishing secondary education. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to suss out exactly why Papua New Guinea (a country that should, by rights, be swimming with money) is dirt poor. This is what you get when tax-dodging cretins like Bono get their own way: no free education. And from that unhappy situation spawns that fact that 90% of PNGers are unemployed and a crime rate that makes Johannesburg seem like Trumpton.

The good news is that the new Prime Minister of PNG has pledged to bring in free education from next year. From that one long-overdue act, good things will flow.

After a quick paddle back across the bay to Salamaua, Jimmy and I headed back to the house just in time to meet up with Alex who had come over in the speedboat to collect me and the seafood delights that the villagers were more than keen to sell him. I said my fond farewells to Jimmy and his family as well as the tranquil little village of Salamaua. I just hope it’s still here when I return to PNG.

That night, Alex and I cooked up a seafood feast (yum!) before he took me over to the Golf Club to meet with Stan, my original CouchSurf host who was away last week, but has now returned to Lae to take me under his wing. Stan and his mates were tucking into a meal at the Chinese restaurant next door to the clubhouse. Alex left me to it (I owe that man a bottle of scotch!) and within a couple of hours I was hanging out in Stan’s swanky new apartment overlooking the local football stadium and the deep blue sea.

Day M17: The Earth Moved

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

Oops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day M18: The Morobe Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serious, DUDE.
DUDE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grr…

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

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

Day M19: Exodus

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

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

Papua New Guinea
Dude.

And this:

Papua New Guinea Mudmen Tribe
The Mudmen Tribe

And this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Days M20-M24: The Papuan Chief

17.10.11-21.10.11: Monday was spent at sea familiarising myself with the ship. Swire take their safety seriously: I’m not allowed out on deck unless I’m wearing a boiler suit and steel toe-capped boots. After a tour of the vessel (a 1991 Miho-Type freighter, 4 storage bays, 3 cranes, 9000HP, top speed 15.5 knots) I familiarised myself with the onboard bar “Ye Pracktickle Navigatore” and got up to speed with some of the editing and writing I’ve been putting off for months as the south coast of New Britain floated past the window.

On the Tuesday we skirted around the coast of New Ireland and arrived on the island of Lihir – home of the biggest goldmine in PNG. It’s a privately-owned port and I’d need a two-day induction to even step foot on dry land. A volcanic island located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, the mining operation had stripped one side of a mountain and vents of steam gushed out from the boiling interior of the island like some vision of hell in what would otherwise be paradise.

But, you know, gold! Who doesn’t like gold eh? Just look at all the amazing things you can do with gold! You can call your mum, take photos, film your friends falling over, surf the web, read a book, find out the way to the nearest chippy using the latest GPS technology… oh, hang on: I’m thinking of an iPhone, aren’t I?

One good thing about the goldmine is that the native inhabitants of Lihir now have a nice new geothermic powerplant. One of the bad things is that the stevedores (the guys what work the docks) only work until 5.30pm… after that the swell gets too much and craning stuff off a ship turns into a massive game of conkers. Consequently, I and all the other crewmembers denied shore-leave were couped up on the ship for not one but two nights: we didn’t leave until the Thursday.

Although in another crowning moment of awesome, Captain Santos allowed me to steer the ship as we made our departure. Turbines were being cleaned down in the Engine Rooms, so we were only going at about 5 knots, but for a few minutes I was personally helming a vessel that weighs more than the Statue of Liberty. Captain Santos laughed; ‘now you know what to do if pirates kill everybody and you have to drive the ship.’

Graham Hughes Papuan Chief
Mind that massive reef!!! Oooooops...

Indeed.

On Friday we crossed the invisible border from Papua New Guinea into The Solomon Islands and headed towards Iron Bottom Sound: the graveyard of hundreds of WWII ships and planes lost in the battle for Guadalcanal. We’re heading to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Chief Engineer Dave has sprayed some WD40 on the pistons so we’re going to get there in record time – the last I heard we should be arriving at around 2pm local time tomorrow.

For a few moments we were close enough to an island to get a mobile phone signal. A text from Mandy arrived. ‘Gaddafi might be dead. Died from wounds.’ Captain Santos got on the Shipnet wires and confirmed the news. The Colonel is Fried Chicken. Another tyrant bites the dust. It never seems to end well for these guys, maybe they should have had better career guidance counsellors. I bet Syrian despot al-Assad will be sleeping with one eye open from now on.

25,000 Libyans died in the war to topple the Gaddafi regime. I dearly hope that tomorrow’s Libya is worthy of their sacrifice, but for now I say congratulations to the people of world’s newest democracy. Welcome back Libya.