Day 722: He Got Made, He Got Wewak’d

23.12.10:

Up early as Jan wanted to get to the border the moment it opened. Mike and Harald had left in the wee small hours, so I checked out on their behalf (thank god there was no minibar!!) and hit the road in a shared taxi.

The drive to the border was surprisingly slick, I was expecting worse and we arrived in good time.  The was the usual formalities, but nothing went wrong and nobody asked us to pay an imaginary ‘fee’, so that was good.

I’m now in the 184th country of The Odyssey Expedition: Papua New Guinea.  One of FOUR Guineas spread out all over the world (the others being Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea: and all of them utter basketcases, sadly enough).  Even though West Papua is culturally very similar to PNG, you are left in no doubt whatsoever that you’ve crossed a border into another country.

BYE BYE Nasi Goreng and cries of mieeeeeeester and fried fish heads in the window, HELLO and massive queues for everything, no cafes, restaurants or fast food and a general feeling of malevolence that means you’d be highly unlikely to leave your bags unattended for any length of time.  If Indonesia is South East Asia with a tinge of Arabia, PNG is Africa with a tinge of Outback Australia.

The first town over the border, Vanimo, was a bit of a culture shock.  The massive queues for the supermarket, bank, cash machines were crazy and, to my mind completely unsustainable: of course they were, I soon found out that the cargo ship had come in today: by 1pm nearly everything had been sold, and the supermarket shelves, previously full of all kinds of stuff – food, toys, clothes – lay empty. That was the ‘shopping’ for the week.  Boy, you’d be several different shades of pissed off if you overslept.  It would be like forgetting to put the bins out, only you’d starve.

So, first things first – I needed to find a way of getting to Wewak – the first major town along the north coast.  From there I could plant my flag, somehow get to the capital city of Port Moresby then onto Australia to be with my (exceedingly patient) girlfriend for Christmas.  I’ll be flying back to Wewak in the New Year to continue my journey and Australia will not be ticked off the list.  Of course, Mandy could fly to PNG to meet me, but, er, if anyone has actually been to PNG they might appreciate how much not fun that might be!

The cool thing is that Mandy is blissfully unaware of my intentions, it’s only known to a handful of people.  She hates surprises, but she might just like this one.

Papua New Guinea Route Map
The Plan

There were just several small problems with this plan:

My flight to Oz leaves Port Moresby tomorrow at 2pm – and Port Moresby is on the other side of the island.  There would be no other way of making this connection other than flying.  Okay…

The next flight from Vanimo (here) to Port Moresby leaves here tomorrow at 11am and would be getting into the capital at 1.10pm – leaving agonisingly (just) too little time for to check-in for my flight to Australia.

My only hope of catching a flight that would get me to Port Moresby in time was to get to the next big town along the coast – Wewak.  There was a flight at 6am tomorrow morning which would get me to Port Moresby in good time for my connection to Australia.

But to get to Wewak before 6am wouldn’t be easy: the weekly cargo/passenger ship that trundled along the coast did leave today (which was lucky), but was scheduled to get into the port of Wewak at – get this – 6.30am.

Why do the gods mock me so??!!!!!!

Happily, since my Lonely Planet was written, a half-decent road had been constructed between Vanimo and Wewak.  So all I needed to do was to find a bus or shared taxi that could take me to Wewak today.  So I sat in the baking heat of the equatorial sun waiting for some kind of transport to come along.

And I waited…

And waited…

And nothing came.  Nothing whatsoever.  Since the boat to Wewak would be leaving this afternoon, there was little or no reason for anyone to drive – all of the transport was waiting until tomorrow.  I must have spoken to over a hundred people, staggering about in the dust and intense heat weighed down with all my bags.  One guy said he’d take me in his car – for $2000 (really).  An Aussie guy in uniform said he could take me in his helicopter – ‘if I was rich’.

By 3.30pm I was tired, exasperated, sunburnt and more than a little upset that because of my Papua Visa Hell I would be missing Christmas with Mandy.  I called up the only person in the world who could help me out of this predicament.  Alex Zelenjak, Our Man In Havana (well, Sydney).  He got on the phone to the airlines and snapped into action.

Alex Zelenjak
Alex and a spekky beardy ginger geek from cable TV

Could Virgin Blue change my ticket to a later time?  No.  The 2pm one is the last flight tomorrow.  Could they quickly escort me from my internal flight from Vanimo to my flight to Australia?  No.  There would be no time.  When is the next flight available?  The 26th December.

Arse arse arse and arse.

Hmm… if I take the boat to Wewak (on the grounds that by some miracle I MIGHT make the 6am flight to Port Moresby) but miss the 6am flight, can I cancel the ticket then?

No.  In fact, you can’t change the ticket within 24 hours of the flight.

I looked at my watch.  It was 4pm.  My flight left in 22 hours.

You’ve got to be kidding.  Out of options and unable to change my flight, I ran towards the Wewak ship.  Alex, help me out here, man.

I was the last person to get a ticket for the ship and clambered onboard pretty much as they were raising the gangplank.  If I thought the boats in Indonesia were a little overcrowded, they have nothing on the boats in PNG.  Heaven help us if we sunk – the passageways weren’t full of people who didn’t have a space in the sleeping quarters – the passageways were the sleeping quarters.  It wasn’t cheap either, but then (as I quickly discovered) nothing in PNG is cheap.

Jan the German guy was onboard and he was one of just two people who had bought a VIP ticket, which meant he had a room with 15 aeroplane-style recliners (which were dirty, broken and looked like they had been recovered from a crashed airliner some time back in the 1960s).  I didn’t have a VIP ticket, but sleeping on the metal floor in the squish didn’t seem like the way of the future, so I hung back while the VIPs got their tickets checked and then entered the room after the ticket guy had left.  The boat was all filth and bedlam so I figured the ticket guy wouldn’t notice.  Happily, he didn’t.

The boat departed and Alex, bless his cotton socks, having spent an hour on the phone to Virgin Blue asking to speak to mangers etc. finally got back to me.  Virgin Blue had agreed to make an exception – I could change the ticket to Boxing Day, and, even better, if (by some miracle) I did make it to Port Moresby airport in time tomorrow, I could change my ticket back (so long as it didn’t sell out).  But there was a catch – Alex couldn’t change my ticket for me – I had to do it myself.  They wouldn’t ring a PNG mobile number and I didn’t have enough credit to call them – and I was on a banana boat, so it wasn’t like I could go and purchase some more credit from the shop.

But Alex (again) came to the rescue: in the ten minutes before I lost phone reception he managed to set up a three-way call between me, him and Virgin Blue.  I changed my ticket and breathed a sigh of relief.  Thanks Virgin Blue!!

AND THANK YOU ALEX!!!!!!!!!!!!

The guy in the VIP room that wasn’t Jan was a Papua New Guinean from Madang called Richard.  Lovely guy – told me that judging from the time we left, the ship should be getting to Wewak early – around 4am.

Maybe this would be the miracle I needed to make this crazy scheme work.

Days 988-989: WOO HOO!!!

15.09.11-16.09.11:

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:

Madang to Wewak
Missing: one ten mile stretch of road...
Madang to Wewak
Anybody got a canoe?
Madang to Wewak
Ox-Bow lakes: good for geography teachers, bad for overlanders.

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!!

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!