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.
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.
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.
One of the things that holds back many people from travelling is the prospect of wasting time and effort attempting to get into countries that would quite prefer it if you didn’t bother. However, it is a false presumption. In more than 150 countries worldwide you can turn up without shelling out $$$ for an invitation first.
So here’s a comprehensive list of the visa requirements for British Passport Holders for every country in the world, although it may come in useful for other nationalities as well.
I’ve split the world into four main categories: No Visa Required, Visa On Arrival, Prior Visa Required and Letter of Invitation (LOI) Required.
No Visa Required: You beauties!! Note the (very) high prevalence of prosperous, confident and democratic countries in this list.
Visa on Arrival: Not quite as good as no visa at all, but much, much less hassle than:
Prior Visa/LOI required: Crikey. What a bitch. Don’t turn up without a visa to any of the countries on this (mercifully short) list of grubby and inhospitable nations. They will fly you straight back home again at your expense because you didn’t ask their f—ing permission first. So go queue outside their ostentatious embassies in the pouring rain for hours, pay them a bundle of fivers and then wait and wait and wait for the privilege of visiting their stupid godforsaken country.
I find the whole process quite demeaning – it’s like having to write to someone to ask if you can attend their wedding – take the hint man, take the hint – these countries are obviously not much interested in you, or tourism in general.
Many of these countries hilariously require an onward ticket, some want you to write a begging letter to come in, others want a letter off your employer or even copies of your bank statements… remember this is not to LIVE THERE, this is just to VISIT FOR A FEW DAYS.
The worst of the worst require a Letter of Invitation (LOI) – I’ve cast these down into the very lowest rungs of hell. Not only do you have to pay extortionate amounts of money to Ambassador Ratbag for the stamp, you also have to pay someone in the country to ‘vouch’ for you.
I would actually like a list of all of the illegal refugees and economic migrants pouring out of our rich democratic nations and claiming asylum in… Nigeria? Papua New Guinea? TURKMENISTAN?? Seriously? WHAT?
I hold Australia in particular contempt for this policy – it is the ONLY rich westernised power on an otherwise quite hellish list of paranoid basketcases.
Oh, and by the way, Aussie tourists are granted a SIX MONTH stay in the UK, upon arrival, for free. So, Australia, when you ask me in your rasping nasal tones where the bloody hell am I – I guess I’m in a country that welcomes me with open arms rather than a punch in the face and a bill of sale.
But look on the bright side, there are 150 (other, better) countries which don’t make you beg for permission to pop in for a visit…
Here’s your at-a-glance VISA MAP OF THE WORLD:
NO VISA REQUIRED (WOO!)
Antigua & Barbuda
St. Kitts & Nevis
St. Vincent and The Grenadines
Trinidad & Tobago
USA (but you do need a prior visa if you arrive on private boat or plane)
Bosnia & Herzegovina
THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Iraq (Kurdistan only, entered from Turkey)
Jordan (if you enter on the ferry from Egypt)
VISA ON ARRIVAL
Cuba (well, I got a visa on arrival, but I came on a yacht…)
THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA Jordan
SE ASIA/OCEANIA Burma (but only valid for border regions)
East Timor (though no longer available on land border with Indonesia)
Indonesia (though not available on land borders with East Timor and PNG)
That’s over 150 countries where you can get in without asking prior permission. Now here’s the naughty list:
PRIOR VISA REQUIRED
Suriname (letting the side down there somewhat)
Cuba (but I doubt they’d turn you back)
EUROPE Belarus (no surprise there – they still have the KGB)
Central African Republic
Democratic Republic of Congo
Eritrea (best obtained in Jeddah – next day delivery)
Ethiopia (best obtained in Nairobi – same day delivery)
Madagascar (but it’s free, so can’t complain)
Sao Tome & Principe
Sudan (best obtained in Cairo – same day delivery)
Burma (for travel into interior)
India (AND now requires you to leave for 60 days between visits!)
Iraq (for travel beyond Kurdistan)
Papua New Guinea
*visa obtainable on arrival at airport with prior permission over internet
LETTER OF INVITATION (+ PRIOR VISA) REQUIRED
Azerbaijan (no LOI required if visa bought in Georgia)
Libya (AND you must pay for a ‘guide’)
THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
*To make matters worse, these visas can only be obtained in your country of origin (although it is possible to get a Nigerian visa from Ghana and an Algerian visa from Mali if you’re lucky).
Right. That’s it. If there are any mistakes/updates/excuses you’d like to make (this is pretty much all off the top of my head), please comment below.