Day 517: Salalalalalalalalalalalah!

01.06.10:

OMAN: Last night I travelled through The Empty Quarter – the rather large swathe of the Arabian Peninsular that is, as the name suggests, emptier than Paris Hilton’s noggin.  I could try to remark about how unremarkable it was, but that would do it a disservice.  Let’s just say I’m glad I wasn’t driving the bus.

This morning I arrived bright and early (7am on the DOT!) in the wonderful city of Salalalalalalalalalalah (to be henceforth sung like Trolololololololololo) in Oman.  I had myself a usual Hughesy mooch which involves marvelling that my compass watch actually works, then heading off in the cardinal direction that will validate my Lonely Planet map.  Soon enough I was touching the Indian Ocean for the first time since I arrived in Tanzania ALMOST SIX MONTHS AGO.  Damn – this Odyssey is taking a quite frankly rude amount of time.

I got chatting with a local guy called Salaam and discussed my upcoming mission: Eritrea.

I have a few options and it might be fun to run through them with you here, see what you think is best.

Option 1: Hitch-hike onto a container boat from Salalah which is bound for Europe and stopping at Eritrea along the way.  Get off the ship when it gets to Saudi or Egypt.

Option 2: Wait here until the next flotilla of yachts do the run from here to the Red Sea.  Yachties tend to meet up here and then go in a group to minimise the chance of piracy.   Persuade one of them to a) take me b) stop for fuel in Eritrea.  Again, get off in Saudi or Egypt.

Option 3: Head through Yemen, the tourist kidnap capital of the world, and take a local boat from one of the Red Sea ports over to Eritrea (and back) through pirate infested waters.  The local boats will no doubt be filled to the brim with guns or drugs or both.

Option 4: Take the semi-mythical ferry from Jeddah in Saudi over to Masawa in Eritrea.  Would be the best option if the ferry wasn’t semi-mythical.

Salaam advised me against going to Yemen and suggested I head to the port, which I duly did.  My taxi driver, Ahmed, was a total legend and stayed with me all morning while I dug around trying to find/sort stuff out.  I spoke to a couple of guys from the Al-Majal shipping company who suggested I talk to their managing director, who is wonderfully enough from Wales.  He was out of town today, but would be back tomorrow.

It was suggested I head up to the Oasis Club and get fact-finding from the locals.  The Oasis Club is situated here in Salalah port and is the only bar in town that serves alcohol.  In fact, I think it’s the only bar in town full stop.

The place was packed – the are two warships in port – one from Sweden and the other from Britain (HMS Chatham) as well as a group of pirate hunting mercenaries who I certainly wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of.  Nobody could help me on my way, but I got the feeling that the owner, a South African fella, would be able to point me in the right direction.  Unfortunately for me, he seemed rushed off his feet with all the Navy guys and I never got the chance.

Later in the day I met up with Valentyna from Ukraine who is my CouchSurf host here in Salalah.  She joined me in the Oasis Club and we drank away the night swapping stories with the lads from the Chatham.  One of them was from Knotty Ash – literally five minutes walk from my house.  Small world eh?  Let’s hope it’s small enough to get me safely to Eritrea.

Day 518: Midnight At The Oasis

02.06.10:

I was planning to do my hop over to Yemen today, but looking at the bus schedules I thought better of it.  I could get the 9:30am bus there, but getting back would be a nightmare… there very well might not be a bus back until Friday.  So I figure I’ll stay in Salalah and keep scouting around for ships going to Eritrea… or The Seychelles.

I headed off to the Port to speak to the contact I had made yesterday, Robert Phillips.  Unfortunately he was stuck in meetings, but he suggested I speak to the wonderful Cyril Van Der Merwe, the owner of the Oasis Club and Salalah Port’s own resident Yoda.

The Club was just closing after lunch, so I went up on the rocky bluff that overlooks the port and enjoyed the cooling sea breeze that is heralding the start of the Indian Monsoon season.  I spoke to the lovely Lorna Brookes, as always eager to help when and wherever shipping is concerned.  Afterwards I chatted to Mandy, an ocean away in Australia, just 12 hours flight away, but 6 months (at least) via the now extraordinarily round-about route of The Odyssey.

It wasn’t meant to go down like this.  I should have got to The Seychelles from Madagascar and I should have entered Eritrea from Djibouti, but world events that were outside my control stepped in and barred my way.  And so I sat there looking out to sea wondering where the next stage of the journey will take me and if the pieces of the puzzle will ever fall into place.

Later I returned to The Oasis and managed to speak to Cyril.  He was awesomely helpful and arranged for one of his guys to pick me up tomorrow morning from the town and take me to see the port agents.  Later on in the evening I was just about to leave when I got chatting to a group of Brits – one of them, Luke, looked at me funny and asked me if I had sent him a CouchSurf request – which I had.  Well – the couch is there if you want it.  Marvellous!  Saves Luke an email and me a trip back into town… another round chaps?

After closing time me and my newfound buddies, Luke, Dave and Pat (a world-weary American with a kickass yankie drawl) headed out to their apartment by the beach.  There we sat until the wee small hours on the balcony enjoying drinks and banter as the tide which waits for no man ebbed and flowed on the Arabian sands below.

Day 519: Left of Port

03.06.10:

One thing that’s great about Salalah is that all of the Port Agents are in the one place, which makes it a little easier to get hold of shipping schedules and contacts.  After a little bit of digging I discovered two things: that no ships stop here en route to Eritrea, but there are plenty of ships going to the Seychelles.

Annoyingly, all do a massive four week voyage around the Indian Ocean which encompasses Reunion, Mauritius and Madagascar, places where I have been not just once, but twice before on the Odyssey.  But beggars can’t be Hughes’s and so I have to take whatever I can get – there simply are no other options – the yachting/cruise ship season doesn’t start until October.

The most intriguing thing I learnt today was that the DAL Madagascar (the cargo ship I took last year from Reunion to Madagascar) had now gone and had been replaced by the DAL Mauritius.  But, best of all, it was currently in port… and due to leave on Saturday.  My timing couldn’t be better – DAL only come to Salalah once a month.  Lorna ‘Logistics’ Brookes and I took to the phones and emailios and did everything in our powers to get me aboard.

By the end of the day I had the support of the first mate, the shipping agents, the DAL representatives… but we were waiting on approval from the ship owners – DAL were just the charterers, they didn’t own the ship.  Fingers crossed the approval will come tomorrow.

Day 520: Yemen Jelly

04.06.10:

Bright and early Luke’s mate Dave dropped me at the bus station for the bus to Yemen, but there was trouble in paradise.  Al-Qaeda has a large presence in the rather unstable Gulf State of Yemen and the local banditos have a penchant for kidnapping foreigners.

But by all accounts if you take care and avoid certain areas you’ll be okay, I guess it’s similar to Iraq and Afghanistan in that regard.  However, when I reached the border I learnt that the border had just been closed to all Europeans in response to the increase of kidnappings in resent weeks.  I couldn’t pass through Yemen even if I wanted to, and this blew my back-up plan for getting to Eritrea out of the water.

After a conversation with the incredibly friendly Omani border guards (who, for just about the first time out of over 150 border crosses I explained my mad plan to) they agreed to let me through to ‘ask’ when the border will be reopening.  I know you’re probably imagining a dusty desert outpost here, after all I am in Arabia, but just to offer you a little bit of a surprise the border is up in cool green mountains, shrouded in fog and mystery.  As the large ‘Welcome To Yemen’ sign loomed up before me through the mist, I had to give this the most atmospheric border crossing award.

On the Yemeni side, the guy didn’t speak much English, but he understood what I was after – a cool look of ‘stamp collector eh?’ flashed across his face.  He asked for fifty quid off me, which was a bit steep but I wasn’t really in any position to turn him down, on my own in the fog on the border with the most wobbly country in the region.  I handed over the greenbacks and he took my passport and stamped me in and out in quick succession.  I could now tick Yemen off the list.

Walking back over the border I conjured up the image in my head of the world map of all the places I’ve been coloured in.  I had travelled extensively before I embarked on the Odyssey, and while Yemen was my 160th country of this expedition, it was my 175th nation whose soil I had set foot on, meaning that there are only 25 countries in the world that I still haven’t visited, and 12 of them are tiny islands in the South Pacific…

But in my mind there were two gaping gaps on my map – Eritrea and The Seychelles.  Both of which I missed out on when I passed them earlier in the journey, intending to come back to them later.  The ride back from the border was pretty spectacular (if a little foggy), a heady mixture of mountains, beaches, cliffs and desert.

That night I eagerly awaited the reply from the owners of the DAL Mauritius.  It finally arrived at around 11pm.  It was a no.

Day 521: At World’s End

05.06.10:

So everyone was keen on taking me on board the DAL Mauritius except for the owners, and they didn’t give a reason for their decision.  Well, let’s scratch that one down to experience and get to work on the next ship to be visiting The Seychelles – the CMA-CGM ship the MV San Cristobal which is scheduled to leave a week tomorrow.

CMA-CGM have been really good to us in the past, helping get me on the DAL Madagascar as well as allowing me on board the MV Turquoise, an absolutely critical passage that allowed me to be reunited with my girlfriend at six minutes past midnight at the Pyramids on the 1st January.

Again, they were more than helpful.  I met the shipping agent, Mr. James Joseph and we had a natter about shipping times and things.  The San Cristobal would be departing the following Sunday, so I had a week to kick my heels and get to know Salalah like the back of my hand.

So what’s to say?  Salalah is much greener and more authentically ‘Arabic’ than anywhere else in the peninsular.  Lacking the outrageous oil wealth of other GCC countries, it’s common to see ordinary Omanis (distinguished by their nifty pork-pie hats) driving taxis, cutting hair, selling stuff at the market – stuff you’d never see a Kuwaiti or Emirati do.

The ‘weekend’ in Kuwait and the other gulf states is Friday and Saturday, but in Oman it’s Thursday and Friday, so the weekend was effectively over: but since a storm had hit the capital Muscat (1000km north east of us, don’t worry mum) Dave and Luke had a day off work today (as did all the teachers in Oman the lazy gud fer nuthin’s).  We tried to make the most of it, but man it’s hot.  And unbelievably humid.  Everything sweats here – you sweat, the walls sweat, the tables sweat.  Electronic equipment lasts six months (if you’re lucky) before the damp salty air turns any circuitry into flaky brown gibberish.  Needless to say, I didn’t see many slugs.

At Luke’s place, right on the sea front, the humidity was much worse than elsewhere in town, but the constant fog of briny air gave the place a really cool post-apocalyptic feel. Looking out over the Indian Ocean, it really does feel like the end of the world.  But if it wasn’t for the mountains and the humidity the area wouldn’t be so marvellously green, so out of all the GCC countries, Oman is still winning.

Day 530: Somali Piracy: Q&A

14.06.10:

Yesterday I discovered that the chances of anybody taking me onboard a ship bound for The Seychelles was about one in a million.  I also found out that another shipping company, Maersk, had a freighter leaving on Tuesday to those infernal islands.  So after spending the day trying to get a message to the right people, I headed over to the Oasis Club for the last time, knowing that if it wasn’t to be I would cut my losses and get the hell out of dodge.

The club was packed.  HMS Chatham had just come into port, escorting the container ship Asian Glory back to safety.  The Asian Glory had been captured last January and had been held in the Puntland region of Somalia for almost six months. Eventually after lengthy negotiations the owners shelled out $7,000,000 for the release of the vessel and the luxury cars it was shipping.

I got chatting to the good chaps of the Chatham (including the captain) and tried to get my head around this whole pirate problem.  Here’s what I’ve learnt this week, amalgamated from my meetings with the Royal Navy, the US Navy, the Swedish Navy, the Dutch Navy, the crew of the Maersk Alabama, the captain of the San Cristobal and various mariners who have frequented Club Oasis over the last ten days…

How did all this get started?

Because Somalia has lacked an effective government since 1991, it has no navy (well, it has a navy, they just don’t have any ships).  This means that for almost twenty years the waters around Somalia have been a free-for-all in terms of fishing rights.  Anyone with a ship, a huge net and on-board freezing capabilities could sail around to the waters off Somalia and fill their boots.  And they did.  By 2005, fish stocks in the area had got dangerously low and the local fishermen turned to piracy to make ends meet.  By 2007, the pirates had grown more and more audacious and started targeting large international cargo freighters and even oil tankers.

Joint task forces from NATO and other inter-governmental navies have been patrolling the waters since then, but rather than result in less pirate attacks, there has been a steady escalation as the pirate zone now covers a vast swathe of the Indian Ocean and ‘employs’ over 1,000 people.

Why can’t you just blow the feckers out of the water?

We’d like to!  But that would risk escalating the situation.  At the moment, very few of the hostages they take are killed, but if we start shooting first and asking questions later, then it could result unnecessary and unacceptable civilian deaths.  Although that doesn’t stop the Russians….!

What about putting armed guards on the container ships?

Again, it risks escalation and these pirates have got rocket-propelled grenades.  It’s too risky.

What about doing convoys?

Yachties are increasingly meeting up and doing the Gulf of Aden run in flotillas, but for big cargo ships, it’s just not economically viable to have them sitting around a port for a week waiting for other ships to turn up, plus once the pirates are on board there’s little use another ship in the area can do – even fully armed naval ships are powerless to stop the situation.

Are the kidnapped British yachting couple Paul and Rachel Chandler still alive?

We believe so.  But Rachel is not well.

What do you do when you catch the pirates?

We take their weapons off them, put them all on one boat (pirates usually hunt in packs), give them enough fuel, food and water to get back to Somalia and then set them free.

WHAT?!

Yeah, we set them free, there’s nothing else we can do.  We can’t take them back to Somalia to stand trial – there’s no government, judges, juries or prisons!  Tanzania, Yemen and The Seychelles don’t want them and maybe can’t afford a ton of court cases and to pay for their incarceration.  We don’t have the space to keep them in the brig for six months until we go back to the UK.  So we disarm them and send them on their way.

So how on Earth do you think we’re ever going to get rid of these pirates?

The only way we can get rid of the pirates is to support the Somalia government in taking back their country, that way they’d have a navy to stop foreign fishing boats coming in and stealing all the fish.  Also, they’d have a judicial system so we’d have somewhere to take the pirates when we catch them.

Unfortunately after the disastrous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, no government has the stomach to take on the madness that is modern Somalia.  In short, there is no end in sight.