Singapore! World’s End! You can get here all the way across the mega-continent of Eurasia from John O’Groats to Raffles via the Channel Tunnel, the Urals and the causeway without ever stepping foot on a plane or a boat. But this is the end of the line I’m afraid. From now on it’s going to be ship-this ship-that and ship’s-your-uncle. Ticking a magnificent 179 countries off my list: a daunting and unsettling task lay ahead: the final 21 countries are all islands, parts of islands or full-on archipelagos and (as if I haven’t been at pains to point this out already) I’M NOT ALLOWED TO FLY.
Nature’s borders prove much more troublesome to me than man’s invisible lines.
I am more than happy to pay lip-service to Singapore, with it’s miles and miles of docks and smug (and lucrative) placement right in the middle of things: you know, where Liverpool was 100 years ago. I’ve always found it a bit too clean, a bit too sterile, a bit too Demolition Man (an under-rated film if ever there was one). Considering it’s the death penalty for drug smuggling and Blueberry Hubba Bubba Bubblegum is against the law, it’s the kind of place Britain could be if everyone who writes into the letters page of the Daily Mail were in charge.
And wouldn’t THAT be fun!
Although, I must point out that there is a lovely underground (possibly run by a Chinese Dennis Leary) vibe going on in Singapore, IF you know where to look, but unfortunately I don’t. Bah!
But Singapore’s purpose (not porpoise) today is to serve as LAUNCHPAD OCEANIA: and I’m including all of the final 21 nations in that ‘Oceania’ tag (even though some are in the Indian Ocean) cos I have to take a boat to get there. The first boat of the day leaves for the island of Pulau Batam at 7.50am. Pulau Batam is just a few miles off the coast of Singapore, but it’s one of the forty THOUSAND (count ’em!) islands that make up Nation 180, INDONESIA.
I got to the Harbour Front straight off the bus, at around 5am. It was still dark, but the shopping complex (that including the ferry terminal) was open – well, bits of it were – the ferry terminal didn’t open till seven. According to the Yellow Bible, the first ferry to Pulau Batam leaves Singapore at 6am, but as you will find if you ever come to South East Asia, the Yellow Bible (like the real Bible) is paved with good intentions but there are many glaring inaccuracies, omissions, half-truths and downright lies told; and the older the copy the more inaccurate things become. Mine was from 2008 so it was filled with more bloopers than an Ed Wood movie. Then again, look at the real Bible – it’s from, what, the bronze age? Good luck with that!
The first boat left at 7.50am. This more than scuppered my plans for the day, it kinda torpedoed them. It meant that the ferry got in at 7.40am Indonesian Time (I’m nothing if not a Timelord) and – get this – the THREE FERRIES to the big Indonesian island of Sumatra ALL LEAVE at 7.30am Indonesian Time. Yes, it would take a lobotomised aphid with learning difficulties to come up with a more IDIOTIC system, but there you go, it looked a lot like I’d be spending the night in this, lets be fair, shithole called Pulau Batam.
But IN YOUR FACE KENOBI, in my experience there IS such thing as luck: the daddy ship direct to Jakarta that leaves once a week was leaving today(!) at 3pm. No poncing about fighting the Sumatran road system down to the island of Java: I was going straight to the Big Smoke.
Oh… something I should point out at this point while you’re flapping your map of the world about and screaming that Jakarta is 100% in the wrong direction if I want to head to Brunei and The Philippines next, I KNOW. But for some unfathomable reason there is no domestic ferry link between Peninsular Malaysia (that bit what attaches to Thailand and Singapore) and Malaysian Borneo (that bit what attaches to Indonesian Borneo and, more importantly, has Brunei sitting in the middle of it). So my only option is to take a ship to Jakarta, then another to Pontianak in Indonesian Borneo and then fight my way overland from there.
Which is what I plan to do.
So, completely fortuitously, by 2.45pm I was in a taxi heading for the domestic ferry port – oh yeah, when they said the ship was leaving at 3pm, they MEANT IT. Crikey – I raced through an empty terminal, threw my bags through the X-ray scanner, headed out onto the quayside and hurled myself up the gangplank (as it was rising). Sweating and out of breath, I was welcomed on board by a young Indonesian guy called Rangga.
“You’re that guy off National Geographic aren’t you? Are you STILL going?!”
Sweating and panting like Michael Moore running the London Marathon, I dropped my bags on the deck, nod and shook the guy’s hand. By 3.09pm we were under sail. Result!
On board the ship I met up with Chiefy – a top Aussie guy who I had met earlier that day on Pulau Batam who was trying to travel the world without flying, but not for any kind of time record – he was happy to spend the next ten years doing it. In a wonderful bit of synergy I also met a bunch of Brits who were making their way down to Australia on a kinda-Oz bus affair and so we got to share our overland adventure stories. Most – like John and Matt – were a little older than me, but some, including a scouser from Aigburth called Claire, were around the same age (we scousers either have scouse-dar or we’re just the friendliest people in the whole of the UK… I have a suspicion it’s the latter, AND BILL BRYSON AGREES WITH ME).
It would appear that I’m not the only one who regards flying as cheating. The weird thing was that while we were enjoying the fresh air and camaraderie out on deck, their comrades on this monumental trek across Eurasia hid in the bowels of the ship, content to miss the cracking sunset and the late night Karaoke (and secret whisky stash on an otherwise dry voyage – thanks Rangga!) which – of course – us scousers found and took advantage of. Anti-social buggers. But then, after hearing some of the stuff that had been going on since they started their adventures five months ago, I was glad to be travelling alone: would YOU want to be travelling with your ex-girlfriend who had now got with somebody else from the same expedition? Thought not…!
It was a BIG ship – over 1000 passengers. But by midnight Claire and I had the run of the place, everyone else being a bunch of sissies going to bed early. I was looking out for the Southern Cross – I haven’t seen it since Rwanda last December, but cloud cover dashed that hope. The sleeping situation was a set of large cabins, each containing over 100 beds in rows separated by wooden dividers. I slept between a nursing mother and a girl in her early twenties.
Indonesia: Muslim it may be, Saudi Arabia it is not.