30.10.11: The Papuan Chief pulled into foggy Melbourne town in the wee small hours of Sunday morning. Port Philip Bay, the vast jigsaw-tip shaped body of water that sits to the south of the city is constantly in need of dredging to keep the shipping channel open – the build-up of silt streaming out of the Yarra river (and others) is pretty immense… tons of Australia eroded into the sea every year, gone forever.
The channel is incredibly narrow and is tricky enough to navigate when the weather is behaving itself. This morning it was a pea-soup, the kind of fog in which you’d expect to run into Sherlock Holmes… or if you’re a rather unfortunate lady of the night, Jack the Ripper.
By 9am we were alongside and waiting for customs to come onboard. Captain Santos had a email which implied we could be waiting all day, but it seems that an ‘am’ had been accidentally entered as a ‘pm’, so I didn’t have long to wait.
Whilst in PNG, I bought a small clay Mudman figure for Mandy. As Australian customs officials are notorious around the world for being anal, difficult and rude I thought it best to declare my contraband. I’ve been told that as long as it isn’t made of wood I should be okay (finding a cultural artefact not made of wood in PNG is something of a task!).
The customs guys came on board and one came down to my cabin to give my bags the once over. He let the clay figure be. I was especially heartened by how not even slightly rude the customs guys were. In fact, the last couple of times I’ve entered Australia they’ve been positively helpful.
What’s going on here? I have three theories on this matter. One is that they’ve all been told that everyone thinks Aussie customs officers are nasty little Vogons, and in the interests of Australia receiving repeat visitors (especially in this time of economic austerity) they have been ordered to be reel in their inner-Fawlty and be nice to tourists: customs are the first Australians that tourists meet after stepping off the plane and first impressions matter.
Another theory is that they treat older people better than young whippersnappers (like myself in 2002). Maybe once you’re 32 you’re less likely to do crazy things. To old people (they that stand at the back of the gig with their arms folded) Crazy Things = Paperwork. Maybe they think that as a hip young gunslinger, if your introduction to Australia is reminiscent of the Boot Camp scenes from Full Metal Jacket you’ll be less inclined to add to the Paperwork.
Finally, there may be a guilty-until-proven-innocent thing going on. This is my eighth visit to the Land Down Under and (so far) I haven’t outstayed my visa, got in trouble with the law or smeared jam all over my body and run down Collins Street singing The Impossible Dream at the top of my lungs. Maybe they’re giving me the benefit of the doubt.
Whatever the reason, I was out of the clutches of customs before 10am and ready to FINALLY, OFFICIALLY and UNEQUIVOCALLY hit my 186th country… AUSTRALIA!
Australia, Australia, Australia… my second home, the place after the UK I’ve spent the most time in, have the most friends in and have the most opinions about. I’ll have a good rant about the state of the commonwealth before I leave, but not today. Today I get back with my partner in crime, Mandy Newland. It’s been twelve years since that swelteringly hot day in Egypt when we first met. Her sister told me she slept with an axe under her bed. What’s not to love? Time has not exactly mellowed her: hell hath no fury like a Mandy scorned… or woken up on a Sunday morning.
Why can’t you get the train?
My awesome reception from my family and friends when I arrived back in Liverpool in 2009 was a long long time ago. Nowadays everyone I know is getting pretty sick and tired of this journey and the pressure for me to quit and come home is immense. But, like the Man from La Mancha, I have a Quest, and even if I’m the only one left reading these blogs, even if I’m the only one left giving a toss, I intend to complete it. I will never – could never – regret doing The Odyssey Expedition, even though if I had to do it all over again I’d do it very differently. I would regret giving up when I only have FIFTEEN countries left to visit for the rest of my life.
Mand, I’m in the middle of Buttf— Nowhere. Please come and pick me up.
Alright. Fine. I’ll be an hour.
And so that’s how I entered Australia – in a swirling cloud of fog and fury. I said my farewells to Ronnie the steward, Jerry the chief officer, Burt the second officer, Jonell the third officer and Dave the chief engineer. Captain Bernie Santos was asleep (he’d been up all night manoeuvring the ship into the Webb Dock), but I promised I’d get him a bottle of scotch to say Thank You.
Soon enough I was waiting for the ‘courtesy bus’ to take me to the port entrance. The bus was actually one of the security guards in his car. Mand was waiting for me at the gate. She liked the Mudman figure. Phew.
We headed out to St. Kilda for lunch – with the intention of meeting up with my old accomplice Rocco Fasano, the chap what took that nice photo of me on the border of Equatorial Guinea that you can see up top on this website’s banner. Mand usually gets a nosebleed if she ventures this far south, but for Rocco’s sake she gritted her teeth and bore it. Rocco is heading off to East Timor tomorrow to help shoot the first East Timorese film made in the local lingo. Good friends are either interesting or interested, the best are both.
After lunch we returned to Mand’s house in Thornbury, north Melbourne – the place I’ve squatted for most of the year. The grand indifference towards my arrival might be explained by that fact – to the people here, I’ve just had a holiday in Papua New Guinea. Although I did avoid a plane crash, survive an earthquake and am probably the only tourist to enter Melbourne on a cargo ship from The Solomon Islands, ever. I guess that’s all in a day’s work for the good people of Australia.
Okay. So. I’m here. What now?
Well, I’ve still got to cross eleven more Pacific Islands off my list. They are (in some sort of order) Vanuatu, Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Nauru, Micronesia and Palau.
The first two should be relatively easy – there’s loads of cargo ships and cruise ships heading that way from Oz. If I can get onboard the ‘Southern Pearl’ freighter in Fiji, that should be Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshalls ticked off. Back to Fiji, there are a good number of ships doing a Fiji – Samoa – Tonga – NZ route.
Getting to the last three will NOT be so easy. Nauru is about as popular as a ginger kid who wears Dunlop Green Flash to PE and Palau cannot be accessed from the South Pacific. Yes, I should have attempted to get there from Taiwan when I was there in September 2010.
But I shall endeavour. I shall fight, and I shall win. Australia, you’re done. The final massive splodge of white on my TravBuddy map has now turned green.
Now for the final fifteen. But first…