Days M7-M13: The Lae Delay

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…

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...


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.