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!!

Day M6: As I Went Down In The River To Lae

03.10.11: In the morning Mums Singin was good enough to pick me up from Katherine’s flat for a quick tour of the museum that she curated before I left for Lae. I said my goodbyes to Katherine, awesome CouchSurf host that she was, and promised that I’d be back here one day – a promise I fully intend to honour. The Madang Museum was a quaint little affair with some awesome cultural artefacts housed within. Damn these PNG guys can carve some awesome stuff.

Papua New Guinea Carvings
Huey, Dewey and Louie

Mums gave me a guided tour and (unlike your average tourist) I was allowed to take photos and film as we went around.  Hence:

Papua New Guinea Carving
Yes, in this case it really IS a beast.
Papua New Guinea Chair Carving
The Chief's Throne. It says "bite me" on the reverse.

After the museum, Mums gave me a lift to the bus ‘station’ (a piece of wasteland opposite the main market) and I boarded a PMV to Lae – the city from whence I intend on hitching a ride to The Solomon Islands. Now, like in Africa (New Guinea is so like Africa it’s freaky) the minibuses only leave when they are full. But unlike in Africa, there is no sensible way this is done. Yes, even Africa can be remarkably sensible sometimes: they run a first-in-first-out system of buses/taxis/whatever. Taxi number 1 fills up and leaves then taxi number 2 fills up and leaves etc. This goes on all day. In Madang they do it in the maddest, most inefficient, most frustrating, most time-consuming, most expensive way I can imagine. In fact, I’m trying to think of a more idiotic process and I’m having serious difficulty.

Instead of having an ordered system of buses filling up, they all fill up, all at the same time. Only they don’t fill up. Nobody wants to be the last on board any given minibus, as it’ll mean they’ll invariably get the worst seat. So most of the buses are short of the seat or two required to commence the journey. Also, it seems that they’re not allowed to (or they don’t want to) wait in the bus station. As a consequence, they drive around the town’s potholed streets FOR HOURS ON END looking for that one last passenger. I promise I’m not making this up. In a country like Venezuela where you can fill your swimming pool with petrol for less than a dollar, this behaviour would be merely time-consuming and bad for the environment… but in a country like PNG where the majority of the population survive on less than a dollar a day and petrol is incredibly expensive – it’s almost a quid per litre – Jesus Christ, it’s like watching lemmings throwing themselves of the proverbial cliff. I felt like slapping my head and screaming WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING??!

But who am I to introduce common sense into anybody’s public transport policies, never mind Papua New Guinea’s? And so we drove around town for FOUR HOURS, non stop, looking for THREE more customers. Imagine taking that business plan into the bank manager. And the toll taken on the minibuses slowly grinding their way around the most pot-holed streets this side of Mogadishu, you’re taking hundreds of dollars on new tyres, broken diffs, knackered suspension…

Indeed, once we had wasted four hours finding those last three customers, our first stop was back into town to get over 200 kina (60 quid) worth of petrol. Then we went to the Bridgestone garage. One tyre was replaced and another was pumped up. Cha-CHING! And then, just I was under the delusion we were actually getting somewhere, we stop at the local market for another half hour so the driver could buy betel nut, the local narcotic of choice, the same thing they chew (and spit out) in India. You get a bag of what looks like a small plastic bag of cocaine and a cigarette-sized stick (which is apparently the nut). You lick the stick, dip it in the bag (like Sherbet Dib-Dabs) and then bite off the end of the stick that covered in the white stuff and chew it. It turns a beautiful colour of red in your mouth, so most of the locals around here look like they’ve got some kind of serious gum disease going on. And when they smile it’s about as sexy as menstruation. Quite why people from different cultures around the world chose to do this to their only face is another thing I’m not going to waste too much of your time talking about because the quick answer is that I haven’t got a frikkin’ clue.

Some time after 2pm we started our journey in earnest. Do you remember what I said about the flight from Lae to Madang last weekend? That we went up and over the mountains? Well the road goes through those very same mountains, and as we crossed the highlands, the weather went proper mental. It was like somebody had set a giant automatic carwash to SUPER DELUXE CLEAN PLUS. The rain didn’t so much come down in buckets as it did in Niagara Falls.

As a consequence of the lack of highway maintenance (and, more specifically, the lack of DRRRRRAINAGE!!) the road quite literally turned into a river. And not a pleasant meandering Huck Finn type of river. More like the thundering torrent you’d experience going down a log flume. The PMV driver, not a) wanting to slow down and b) wanting to acknowledge that his PMV was not, in fact, a kayak, decided his best course of action would be to ride the river down the hill. “WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG??!” I hear you scream. I drove my fingernails into the dashboard, fretted at my lack of safety belt (the bloody driver had one – not me!) and held on for dear life.

Of course I’m still here to tell the tale, so I have to say that my impromptu Papuan Log Flume Ride worked out alright, although the poor buggers in the back did get their luggage soaked and the bottom of the minibus suffered the kind of grating one would normally associate with cheese. Once back in the lowlands, the weather and road changed simultaneously from absolutely diabolically bad to not bad for Papua New Guinea (which is still bad). The rain eased off and the road allowed for short but frighteningly fast 100mph+ sprints in between slamming on the brakes in order to cross the skinny single lane metal-plated bridges which no doubt pre-dated the Charge of the Light Brigade. Think Super Mario Kart meets Mad Max and you’re halfway there.

The View From The PMV
The View From The Madang-Lae PMV

Somehow I arrived in Lae (still in one piece) at around 6pm. It was getting dark, and as the town of Lae has a lousier reputation than Mel Gibson’s drinking habit, I was (understandably) getting a little bit edgy. The only CouchSurf host in Lae is a guy called Stan. Unfortunately, Stan is out of town this week, but being a good egg he put me onto his mate Ben, who gallantly stepped up to the mantle and agreed to take me under his wing instead. I called Ben on Friday to ensure that everything was groovy and he apologised profusely and said he was going to be away this week as well. Ah. But he did offer to find me another home like the adorable lost kitten I no doubt am.

Ben was true to his word (yes he’s British) and he put me onto Alex, who greeted my phone call with the words “There’s nay way I’m letting a bleedin’ scoouser into ma hoose”. Typical bloody Glaswegian. So I told him that I’d go halves on the wedge I made from flogging them car radios and wheel-trims I acquired in Madang so he could buy some deep-fried Mars Bars and skag. He soon changed his tune.

Alex agreed to meet me at the Lae Golf Club (which he lives opposite and is the captain of) and so I asked Wesley the PMV driver really nicely if he would drop me off there on the way into town. No probs, says Wesley. We pull into the Golf Club car park just as the sun disappears over the western horizon. After all that bloody nonsense this morning, the timing couldn’t have been better.

Alex and his colleagues were enjoying post-work beverages and after introductions, the Scottish man in Papua New Guinea took me for a Chinese. Over dinner, I got to learn a little bit more about Alex’s job here in Lae.

The company that has agreed to help me get to Australia is called Swire Shipping, a division of Swire, one of the biggest companies currently floated on the Hong Kong stock exchange (as well as shipping, they’re a majority shareholder in Cathy Pacific and own the exclusive Coca-Cola bottling rights for the WHOLE OF CHINA… jeepers!). Alex works for Swire Shipping. This is incredibly fortuitous. I may need Swire’s help again if I’m to get around the Pacific region on cargo ships.

What’s more, Alex is friends with one of the directors of Reef Shipping – the New Zealand based shipping agency that runs cargo from Fiji to Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru and New Zealand. That’s over half the countries I’ll have left. Seriously, this could be HUGE for the Odyssey Expedition.

All this year I’ve desperately needed a lucky break. I should have known I’d have to get back on the road to get one. Who dares wins, Rodney, who dares wins…