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.

Day M26: The Wake-Up Call

23.10.11: Thomas woke me up some time after ten to tell me that he was going out with Patti for a bit. I dragged myself out of bed and marvelled at how wonderful the world is when one goes CouchSurfing, stumbled into the shower and held on for dear life – as far as my sense of equilibrium was concerned, I was still at sea. Downing half a keg of beer last night probably didn’t help.

I was still shaking the cobwebs out of my pickled brain when Tom and Patti returned looking irritatingly fresh-faced and wholesome. I was feeling lower than a rat that ratted on his pals and that steady tide of nausea that accompanies an epic hangover was starting to kick in. Fresh air was what I needed, but first, the internet!

I hadn’t managed to get online since I accidentally broke Stan’s internets a week last Thursday. There were emails to send to shipping companies, questions to answer on my website and, most importantly, blogs to upload with marvellous pictures of bare-breasted PNGers and my ridiculous moustache.

I opened up Yahoo mail and the first message was from Captain Santos on board The Papuan Chief.

“URGENT – SHIP TO DEPART EARLY AT 1130. RETURN TO SHIP AT ONCE”

I looked at my watch. It was 11.45.

Bollocks.

Thomas and Patti, to their infinite credit, stayed as calm as cucumbers as I pegged it back into my room and flung my stuff into my bag.

“Any chance of a lift?”

Tom said hell yeah and we bundled into his car and shot off towards the port. By 11.50 we were there. I told you Honiara is a small place. The good news is that The Papuan Chief was still in port.

I felt dreadful. Not just physically (damn you demon drink!), but not only was my website going to reach a month with no updates, I had promised Tom that I’d do a radio show with him this afternoon – he’s a radio DJ here. Not only that, but I had done bugger-all filming of Honiara. I didn’t want to get my camcorder out on the main street last night as I was on my own and feeling a little exposed, and by the time the house party kicked off it was too dark and I was too drunk to get any decent shots anyway.

There is a chance I may return to Honiara in the next couple of months: one of the Reef cargo ships that goes to Nauru stops in the Solomons on the way back to Fiji. I hope I will and so do this place justice. We will have to see, but for now I said my fond farewells to Thomas and Patti and set off towards the ship, breathing a sigh of relief that a) it was still there and b) the gangplank was down.

I clambered on board. Captain – what gives? It seems that there hasn’t been a ship in Honiara for a week, so the stevedores had all the containers for loading hosed down ready to go (Oz port rules, don’t ask). All three of the ships cranes had been used and some of the containers had been taken up in twos. The operation, which usually takes two days, had taken just over 12 hours.

Best laid plans eh?

So within the hour we were blowing the air horn and saying Lukim iu to The Solomon Islands. I watched as we sailed out of port. We headed west along the north coast of Guadalcanal, then once we were clear we set course South-West towards Australia… nation 186. All being well, we would reach Melbourne in a week.

Dinner was a bad idea. I ate, I felt wretched, I stood out on the wing of the bridge in the warm night air in a vain attempt to shake off my nausea, but sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet and take that porcelain bus for a drive around the (toilet) block.