Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Easter Bunny in the Red Sea

My father loved Easter. I remember, when we were little, on Easter weekend, he would paint hard-boiled eggs in bright colours ad patterns, and the ‘Easter Bunny’ would hide them in the garden at Palliser Road, Wellington, New Zealand, for my brother and I to find.

Well, I haven’t really ‘done’ Easter for a long time, and I certainly didn’t expect it to be in any way celebrated on a ship in the middle of the Red Sea. But that would have been counting without our Captain Chris. Easter was decreed ‘on’, and I got the job of being an Easter Bunny!
Marie and I took half a dozen eggs from the galley, painted with numbers by our Tina and, while the crew and officers were on morning tea break, we secreted them around the castle and after-deck of the ship. Then we sat back, for what I was sure would be an extended period, to wait and watch whilst thirty folk tore the place apart in pursuit of an egg. The eggs, needless to say, all exchangeable for more tangible prizes after lunch.
I thought I’d been a hell of a good Bunny: I’d hidden one egg in the bottom of the crew cigarette-sand-bucket, another (wrapped in tissue) in the middle of a discarded cable reel, and my third inside an ancient pair of greasy work-gloves that didn’t look as if they’d been touched in years. The sand-bucket held out the longest, but in half an hour it was all over, and cadets Kerry and Charles, the bosun, and three crew members were the winners



Next came the Passengers’ Egg-and-spoon race. Oh, yes! Twice round the bridge deck, including four‘hurdles’ at the bridge doors and a heavy right turn into a strong breeze behind the smokestack on each lap, spoon to be held in the left hand and by the back end of the handle. No piece of cake! The ladies’ heat was a hecatomb of cracked eggs, and Ann Marie (Germany) staged a bullocking run from midfield to edge out Tiny (Holland) in the home straight. The men’s heat was very different. This time the eggs stayed in the spoons, but the New Zealand representative shot from the barrier, quickly gapped the field, and came home clear by the length of the straight. Germany second and Canada third.



And so, we lined up for the final. Anne-Marie and I. Once again, New Zealand zoomed from the starting stalls and into the lead with Germany hot on his tail, but down the first straight Ann-Marie started to close with reckless speed as we raced for the narrow bridge doorstep…



We never made it. Two figures went flying, two eggs sailed through the air, two finalists burst into giggles and agreed, when they could get through their laughter, that a dead-heat was an entirely suitable result.

And a jolly evening was had by all!

Not so jolly Roger

The part of my sea journey from Port Kelang – with all our ports visited, and a month and more of open sea in front of us – is always my ‘quiet’ period. Reading, writing, a jigsaw puzzle from time to time, fresh air and lazy sunshine on the upper decks.

Somehow, this year, on this oh so atypical voyage, that hasn’t quite happened.

First of all, on leaving Kelang we hit brutally hot weather. Thirty degrees in the shade before breakfast, and a good deal more by midday. Humidity weighty enough to stifle a frog. My favourite corner of the deck became unbearable, my computer screen and my spectacles misted up, each in turn, and I felt altogether very disagreeable. I wasn’t the only one, either. The atmosphere on board, usually so extravagantly jolly, fell with a steamy squelch, and we (most particularly, I) fell with it. Jollity fled. I swooned at the lunch table and got foolishly sozzled on Famous Goose after dinner. I was not born for excess heat. I would have been hopeless in the Raj.

The excesses were just calming when we hit the next hurdle in our path. Pirates. Yohoho, Jolly Roger, Johnny Depp and Captain Hook? Don’t you ever believe it. The pirates of the 21st century are just as foul, cruel and despicable thieves as their romanticised corsair predecessors, nothing better than a bunch of murderous robbers equipped with 21st century weapons and enough drugs to give them the Somali courage and disregard for life (their own included) to do their dirty work.
Modern-style pirates have been around for yeas now, but suddenly (perhaps thanks to the large ransoms paid out for captured ships) they have escalated the game. Whereas, before, we sailed these waters with just a slightly wary eye, now crossing the Gulf of Aden has become a major exercise, patrolled by NATO warshipa, through a limited ‘corridor’, and at no time safe from attack by the motorised, equipped and armed (by whom?) skiffs which the thieves use to board ships.



We had been warned that we would go on Pirate Watch from 1pm, as we entered the guarded corridor, but the weather was fine, the seas were calm, and the seaway shit-stirrers were out in force. I was deep in the nineteenth-century, typing away on my corner of the bridge, at 11am, when the alarm came. A pirate attack on the ship directly in front of us, which had just come out of the corridor. The elderly tanker, unable to muster more than 10 knots, was just 13 miles away from us – almost, had it not been for the sea wrack, visible to the naked eye. That’s how close we were. The NATO helicopter was quickly on the scene, and as we hove into view could be seen on the radar, out to port side, pursuing (or, rather, keeping an eye on) the attempted rapists. Would they come back, we wondered? Would they take another shot at the tanker or, indeed, at us?



The crew’s daily jobs were forgotten. They had scuttled immediately to main deck and their emergency stations, and readied their water cannon and other weapons. On the bridge, we could do nothing but stare endlessly, sentry-like, at the blue sea and the musky horizon, waiting, and hoping that the cry ‘small craft approaching fast from portside’ would not come.
But it did.
Thankfully not from us.

The ship’s radio was red-hot with calls for identification and assistance being sent to the NATO warship into whose area of influence we were sailing. The waters were obviously lousy with ill-intentioned small craft. I listened in horror as a gentleman called (or his ship was) something like Gian Battista Bottiglione (they made him spell it, for cripe’s sake!), recounted in his broken English the approach of two speedboats … over the horizon and swiftly to within 2 miles of his ship. The warship urged him to get in closer to her, but Gian Battista wasn’t receiving them properly. And, then, before his problems were settled (and I never did find out how they were settled) another ship came in, reporting three craft descending on him, and the sighting of a mothership and skiffs at a distance of 4.5 miles … And so it went on. It was simply aghastmaking.
Finally, we hasteend at an effortful 14.6 knots into the corridor, and were able to drop our full alert, but as we sailed on through the afternoon and into the next day, that radio was never silent. And, as the world knows, that same morning the American ship the Maersk Alabama was taken. I have yet to find out just how far from us she was at the time, but I think the answer is ‘not very’. As I write, we are still waiting to know how that saga will end.

I think ‘piracy’, with its mixture of straightforward financial greed and human kidnapping, is one of the most despicable crimes in existence. And I shall never again think of Somalia and of those of its people who venerate these nasty little sea-thieves with any kind of sympathy or respect.

And now we are past Djibouti, and into the Red Sea. It is Easter Friday. We are sailing towards Mecca (although, of course, since it is inland, we don’t go there). The sky is blue, the wind is embracing, and I am back in the bridge-corner. It could all be as if the past days hadn’t happened. But they did, and I won’t forget them.

So, onwards to the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean and Europe. To Hull – for Hamburg has, unbelievably, been cancelled – and then to Antwerp from whence, instead, shall make my way to Berlin and my rendezvous with friend Kevin…


PS Since I wrote this, our sister ship the Boularibank (on which I travelled some months ago) which was following on behind us has been attacked by these precious pirates. At the price of a 35 minutes battle with planks and water cannons, she got away.. but .. BUT. It appears our ships may travel by the Cape of Good Hope next year. That will make the Suez Canal officlals hopping mad (no cartons of Marlboro!!) and maybe they will join Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton (huge bravo to two politicians I never thought I'd say bravo to) in suppressing these pitiful criminals.

Steamboats in Singapore

More or less restored, Big John, Tina and I headed back into town for a long-promised night out together at a restaurant. We didn’t quite so much ‘head’ as ‘race’, for Jimmy and Salleh were scheduled to close shop at 9pm, and I was clutching what they call my ‘Alibaba pants’, ready for reproduction. As I’d promised them, I was also giving a first outing to the already cherished crimson shirt…
We made Abba’s at 8.58, and they certainly didn’t close at 9 that night. While I picked out fabrics for my trousers (no, Salleh .. NOT silk, cotton!), John got measured for a handsome suit and a beautiful shirt and … I missed the rest. A couple of thousand dollars later, we were ravenous, so Salleh – having first presented Tina with a very lovely scarf ‘compliments of the house’ … led us a few doors down to what he recommended as our restaurant for the night.

Chinatown is absolutely elbow-to-elbow restaurants. Our one was Chuan Jiang Hao Zi, number 12 Smith Street, where we served by a delightful young lady who dissolved in fits of giggles over the fact that – none of us having ever before dined ‘steamboat’ fashion -- we really didn’t know what we were doing.



But we got the idea quickly... we learned how to drop the delicious raw Chinese vegetables, the shrimps, the meat and fish balls (the others, alas, jibbed at the pig’s liver and kidney – next time!) into the boiling pan of spicy and slightly less spicy water, fish out the bits with a slotted ladle, and consign them (via even spicier self-constructed sauce) by chopstick to the mouth. It is a wonderful way to dine, and I shall certainly do it again.
Smith Street was bright, lively but not crowded, the Chinese beer was cold and good, the food delicious, and a simply great time was had by all.
The occasion was propitious for the camera, so I got my favourite picture of Big John, he snapped me in the famous crimson shirt (you see, I didn’t exaggerate), and you won’t look at either of us because there’s la treès belle Tina at our respective sides…





I could have, and perhaps should have, been back at Singapore at the crack of dawn, but somehow I didn’t want to risk spoiling the memory of the first day by doing anything less splendid on the second. In the end, I waited till mid-afternoon before taxi-ing in to Smith Street to pick up my new trousers. Almost total success. They are beautifully made, better than the London-tailored original, but … as I looked at the parcel I noticed a violent lilac colour. The tailor had misread the order, and I had three pairs of demure brownish pants … and one of the most abusive lilac. Most colours I could take, I who cheerfully sport crimson, but I‘m sorry, not lilac. Salleh rang and berated the workshop, we sorted out the right material, and John will pick up the replacement trousers during the week.
For, yes, my grand new friend has left the ship here. Life will be much less colourful without him, and I shall miss my morning bearhugs dreadfully, but we shall have to get together in Europe now, as he has my trousers…

Now its Friday morning – heavens, March must be nearly over! – and we are anchored off Singapore taking on our final cargo. Soon we shall head for Port Kelang. Last year I didn’t go ashore … have I learned my lesson?

Coda: Visitors to Singapore, if you intend to buy clothing here – and I mean the top quality hand-made clothing for which Singapore is famous, and not the cheapo stuff which you can get at any bazaar back home – do go and see Jimmy and Salleh at Abba’s Department Store (it doesn’t actually have departments, just clothes) no 2 Smith Street. They are a class act, they are great guys, and hey – they even do mail order. (email: abbas@mbox2.singnet.com.sg). And, no, I’m not on commission, its just that when I hit lucky I like to share the good news!

Never never never...



Never have a closed mind about anything. I should know better by my time of life, but one always thinks that one’s own wisdom is infallible …

And so it was that, at 5.30am this morning, as I stood on the bridge watching us glide into the glitter of night-lit Singapore, I was in half a mind as to whether I would saunter into town during the day, or whether, as I did last year, I‘d simply give this big, sprawling, overpopulated place a miss. Sightseeing and shopping? Botanical gardens and cheap clothing? Scarcely my scene. Like ‘Resorts’. Five million people on a small island…? Surely not my scene..
And, after all, I’d been through Singapore thoroughly thirty-five and thirty years ago. So, why bother…?

It was Horst who made up my mind for me, with his outspoken enthusiasm for the place, and his description of the picturesque walking opportunities, so when Gareth and Charlotte (the most indefatigable of all of us when it comes to discovery) lit out for shore, I thought ‘why not?’, and I grabbed a place in their cab.

Thank goodness I did. Singapore 2009 is, to coin a cliché, a jewel. Never, anywhere in the world, have I visited a place where the utmost of shining modernity blends so happily with the beautiful relics of the nineteenth century. The ‘Civic District’, so called, of Singapore – the recently restored old colonial area -- is a stunning mixture of ancient and modern, beautifully realised and amazingly maintained. I, to whom modern buildings are more or less anathema, simply gaped at some of the impressive examples on display here, just elbows away from a piece of delicious colonial architecture and everywhere greenery…
Our taxi driver said that though there are 5 million people in Singapore, there are 7 million trees, and I believe it
Oh dear, I gush, but I gush sincerely.



I wandered down Orchard Road and into the Civic District. I lunched in the courtyard at Raffles Hotel, where Ian and I had always intended to go but somehow never did. It was $65 for two (large) beers and a (large and very splendid) club sandwich, but what the hell. There was still a little bit of the atmosphere of C19th elegance around, before the fat-legged, loud-voiced, back-pack and bussed-in tourists turned up round midday, and I rejoiced to see two ladies who could have walked straight out of the Monte Carlo Café de Paris of my youth imperiously ordering good champagne at 11.30am. So I photographed them. Good on you, girls.



I wandered on down to the waterfront, avoiding the recently-installed Big Wheel (sorry, but imitation Riesenrads are becoming as big a tourist cliché as ‘Sky Towers’), and marvelling at the new development. Why, I wondered, would one stay in a hotel on Orchard Road when one could be down here?
On, down Esplanade Drive, heading for Chinatown… But, oh dear, Chinatown seemed to be one vast worksite. It certainly wasn’t the Chinatown of the 1970s. I squirmed through the mess, and finally found myself amongst the market stalls of the new reconstituted tactfully touristy Chinatown. I felt I ought to buy something. I used to love the happy coats and underwear of Singapore in the 1970s, but happy coats and underwear seem now to be out-of-date. I bought a pair of $9 pyjama pants in bright orange with a turtle design, and started thinking about a taxi home.
But then magic happened. I was looking at my street map, trying to decide whether to stay or go, when a gentle voice said ‘can I direct you?’ And so I met Lew. Lew is a 72 year-old Singaporean Buddhist. He lives, alone, in an old people’s home, under doctor’s care for something alarmingly cranial because of which he was told six years ago that he had five years to live. He is still quite cross about the inaccuracy.



Anyway, Lew decided I couldn’t possibly leave Chinatown without a visit to the new Buddhist temple, and duly and persuasively led me there. Well! Not only is the temple itself stunningly beautiful and atmospheric (in spite of heathens like me flashing cameras at its interior) but it houses an awe-inspiring little museum, a library and (of course) a souvenir shop. I’m so glad I didn’t miss it…



From there, Lew led me on to where (he said) I might find my happy coat. In fact, he led me to ‘Abbas’ at number two, Smith Street. Well, I don’t know if Abbas is known as being the classiest joint in town, but I can’t imagine anything much classier. Of course, it knows it’s the classiest joint in town, and – nestled among stalls and shops selling shirts at $10 a pop -- it sells pure silk shirts at $100 a pop. But one of Abbas’s shirts are, I suspect, worth ten of the others.
I’m going to find out, because I now own four. One beige, one sort of khaki, one determinedly crimson and one honey-coloured with a gloriously impractical dragon on its back, bought at what must have been $250 in place of the old $5 happy coat which apparently no longer exists.
While I was buying, Horst and Anne-Marie turned up, and they now own four as well.
Jimmy and Salleh of Abbas, you are some salesmen!

And now I am back on the Gazellebank, for the recovery stakes. If I can get back to Jimmy and/or Salleh before 9pm, they will copy my favourite baggy pants for me. They don’t have lawn cotton, but do have some very splendid silk… oh hell, in for a dollar in for a thousand…

Gensan

When I booked for this trip, I was looking forward, above all, to returning to Dumaguete – its splendid walks, endearing people, amazing barbecued prawns and Ricky’s magical massage a la maison – so I was devastated when our itinerary was changed and the city of General Santos, and its palm oil complex, was substituted for beautiful Dumaguete. ‘You won’t like it’, I was told. ‘It is big, overcrowded, noisy, dirty, shabby, dangerous ..’.
Well, after three days in General Santos, I can report that my informant was right. It is big: 2.5 million inhabitants, all of whom seem at any one time to be on the streets. It is probably – thanks to end to end unmufflered traffic and ubiquitous muzak of the most appalling kind -- the noisiest place I have ever been to in my life (and I used to live not far from Piccadilly Circus). The streets and footpaths (when they exist) are chaotic, many buildings, both weathered bamboo and filthy breezeblock, look as if a healthy belch would send them flying, and here and there one comes upon military checkpoints and soldiers (‘Combat Support Company’) with machineguns, desultorily guarding .. what? Worst of all, the air is so full of exhaust (and other) fumes that you could slice it with a chainsaw. I dissolved in allergic reaction instantly.
I shouldn’t have liked it. How could you? But I did.
There is something about the Philippines, even on this scale, that you just simply have to like.
Our dock, a private one belonging to the Cargill palm-oil company, is some 16 kilometres from the city centre. It is tidy, tightly policed and impregnated with the sweet cloying reek of copra. We had two thousand tons of said copra to offload, but alongside us moored smaller vessels which had chugged two or three days across the straits to bring in their few hundred bags. Watching the lively lads – so many of them – bounding ashore from these boats, practically juggling 50 kilo sacks of sharp-edged copra on their shoulders, was quite something.



In spite of all discouragements, we ventured forth, and drove the 16km of congested, ear-searing road into town, where our minibus driver dropped us off at … a large, plastic ‘safe’ shopping mall. I couldn’t have been more bored. The venture was only made worthwhile by an interesting ‘mango sago shake’ and by my realisation during the trip in that, in spite of the intermittent machinegunners, ‘dangerous’ (by daytime at least) was surely an overstatement. Tomorrow I would escape the shops, and go walking.
However, on day two, another bus was arranged to take us to a ‘resort’. Well, if there’s not a lot else to do, I suppose I can get used to doing the resort thing. This one, La Parilla Resort (www.safihotels.com). turned out to have a very agreeable swimming pool (with very agreeable waterfall, see Trevor the waternymph below) , very agreeable food (and amazingly palatable wine) at very, very agreeable prices, and all in all it was a decidedly agreeable place to pass a few hours.



On day three, however, I finally got my act together and my boots on. Big John was a starter and turned out to be an ideal walk-mate: he can steam along effortlessly at my preferred speed, and we both enjoy nosing into the odd backstreet of native life. We knocked off a very happy dozen kilometres (in 37 degrees!), downed much 10-cent ‘popcola’ and water, and waved, grinned and shouted, every inch of the way, at the merry local lads, to whom the sight of two large white men doing what to them is power walking is evidently a vast novelty. ‘Hey, Joe!’ seems to be the popular greeting. Is this a GI legacy of the 1940s war?



Our grand morning ended up at the Saranganni Highlands restaurant, perched at the top of a steep hill, above our ship
It is a genuine beauty spot, built with flair and character, a fine view, and set amongst the most beautiful gardens of bougainvillea and frangapani and all sorts. Alas, a beauty spot is all it is. A restaurant it is not. My ‘fresh chicken sandwich’ was thick, dry, white bread spread with tuna paste. My ‘lemon juice’ was squash. Remembering the fine food at La Parilla, I though: ‘there’s no excuse for this’. Ah, well, you win some and you lose some.



But I was soon back on a winning streak. The itinerary may have deprived me of my repeat rendezvous with Ricky, but I was determined to get my annual Filipino massage. Trevor and I leaped into a chokingly consumptive tuktuk and headed for town and the Gensan holiday spa (recommended) at Tandem Centre. After two hours in the hands of the very beautiful and expert Tina (I didn’t catch the name of Trevor’s therapist), a session which ended with some decidedly acrobatic semi-osteopathy, we wobbled forth delightedly and fell into a return tuktuk. We hit on a merry speed-freak driver and, I can tell you, half an hour bouncing over the streets of Gensan after two hours heavy massage gives a new meaning to the phrase ‘all shook up’.
In some ways, I didn’t want day three to end: the wonderful walk, the pretty view, the splendid massage (OK, Ricky, it didn’t have last year’s romantic rusticity and balmy breezes, and I will come back…) ... but after swallowing half a beer and a little roast pork I tumbled straight into my bunk and slept the eleven hours till dawn.

Today is our fourth and last day in Gensan (we know each other well enough now for the familiar abbreviation), but I am not going ashore. Yesterday fulfilled all my wants and wishes, and I prefer to say goodbye on a strong upbeat…
I still want to go back to Dumaguete next year, but I won’t tear out my non-existent hair if our Philippines stop turns out to be Gensan.

PNG

The remainder of our time in Papua New Guinea was a little dis-organised. Shipping schedules and berth availabilities forced us to reorganise our route, and so Rabaul was (slightly impractically) followed by Bialla, Lae, Madang and finally Kimbe.

This meant I got some time off. Bialla is basically a wharf with a pipe line: the manufacturing community is over the hill, and there is the equivalent of an ‘officers club’ for those determined to go ashore, which I wasn’t.
The horrors of Lae, of course, after last year, I had no intention of revisiting.

Madang, however, is something else. I had the fondest memories of Madang, and I intended simply to revisit the pretty spots I had found before, and stroll a little further down the coast to whatever lay beyond. John, too, was keen to explore, and Trevor and David expanded ‘the walking group’ (I’ve never had company on these escapades before!) to four, as we set off at a good pace in the Sunday heat. We headed for Coronation Drive, the pretty seaside stretch where I’d had such a grand photo session with the local children last year .. and found that on Sunday the whole town emigrates to that coastline, to cook, eat, bathe, drink and/or generally just sit around passing the time of day. We encountered the usual feux d’artifice of friendliness, not to mention a very well-attended funeral, an informative policeman, a rather curious golf course, unending boys, babies and other ‘photo opportunities’, two huge trees full of liberally-excreting flying foxes and a menacingly darkening sky.





Our return leg ended at the Madang Resort (another resort!) where we encountered cold beer, Peter and Marie (from Canada) of our fellow passengers, the officers and crew of an Australian navy survey ship which we’d seen parked in the berth alongside ours, and a thumper of a tropical rainstorm which scampered us for cover. There is nothing sadder than a resort in the rain. The whisper went round that we’d eat cheaply and well down the road at the Yacht Club, so those of us with eating in mind pilled into the minibus piloted by Petty Officer Cannon (below) and off we all went.



The Yacht Club is good fun. Probably not used to being descended upon by the representatives of two ships ate once, so the fine food arrived in serried ranks, but the beer and the wine flowed and all were merry. I especially enjoyed the Australians (Kurt from his lofty 63 years of age to handsome young man ‘What do you do on the ship?’ Reply: I’m the Captain’ arghh), and, above all, Doctor John, ex-Australian local physician, who got the benefit of the slightly soggy end of my evening.
It was Doctor John who returned us to the Gazellebank, in pretty respectable shape, after another thoroughly delightful day in Madang.



Since the recipe had worked so well in Madang, and walking opportunities being about to become scarce, I decided to take another swift spin over mostly familiar ground in Kimbe. Alas, this time ‘my’ group over-expanded, the ‘walking’ idea got lost amongst non-walkers’ considerations, and so, before long, did I. I lit out on my own, for a pipe-opener down the roads out of Kimbe. There isn’t a lot outside Kimbe (let’s face it, there isn’t a lot inside it), so my few kilometres’ stroll was uneventful but invigorating.
Looping back, eventually, I met up with Horst and Anne-Marie from the ship (and Germany, have they come into this story so far?) and we ducked into the ‘Kimbe Beach Hotel’ for a cold one. Cold would just about describe it. A featureless room in a faceless place, with overpriced beer …
I wouldn’t have gone back there after dinner, except that Tina and Kerry, our cadets, who are unrefusable, kidded me out of pyjamas and back across the road … we tried the hotel, we tried the adjacent and virtually empty club, a sort of concrete bunker with the personality of an abbatoir, but when the others went off to try a third place, I pleaded age and slunk home.
Like Rabaul, Kimbe at night is a very forgettable place. Like Rabaul, I prefer it by day. And, like Rabaul, less than I did on my last visit.

Rabaul by night

So here I am back in Papua New Guinea, for a swift run through five ports. Last year, I found Madang beautiful, Kimbe charming, Rabaul interesting and Lae unspeakably foul (we didn’t go to Bialla) and, as I’ve enjoyed myself ever so much more in each revisited port on this year’s trip, I’d unconsciously expected that trend to continue.
Wrong.
Rabaul was the big sleeper of last year. I didn’t expect to like it, and I had a fascinating time. But last year I went out in the daytime and in sunshine, there was no wind, the ash from the volcano was unintrusive and Suzie from the Hamamas Hotel arranged us a fine tour. This year …
As we sailed in, half the horizon was blanked out by a dirty beige blur. Turvurvur was spewing up its usual quota of smoke and ash which, caught by the prevailing wind, whirled and hung in a scratchy beige-out cloud for miles around. Standing on deck, you could fancy your face was undergoing a surgical sandpapering.
Once we got docked, behind the wind, a sort of atmospheric normality returned, and an evening out sampling the well-reputed Chinese food at the Hamamas seemed like the thing to do. And thus, all eleven of us stepped ashore under darkening skies, perforated by a first few drops of rain, to head for the dock gate, and our hotel transport ‘into town’. The rain got heavier, the night got blacker, the underfoot ash turned to black glue, the transport turned out to be a vastly beat-up four seater with jammed-half-open smoked windows, and the road a nightmare of slalomed potholes. The Hamamas, which I remembered as bright and lively, didn’t look so much like an oasis in this glabrous gloom as an air-raid bunker. I clocked the louche lads and the amazingly ugly whores lolling in the slithy shadows and scuttled behind big John into the foyer.
The hotel was unchanged, except in that it seemed to have lost its spirit. Even the friendly barman in the empty bar (where someone nevertheless managed to nick of Chief Engineer’s wallet) couldn’t quite revive it. We shared the eight-table restaurant with two groups of Taiwanese and a single, vastly stressed-out and obviously wholly inexperienced serving lady of uncertain age and gait. The kitchen was clearly equally understaffed. It was nearly two hours from setting out before I got to taste food. It was splendid food (apart from soggy rice) when it did come, three nice cold SP beers later, most particularly the honey chili chicken and the crispy chow mein, but the long wait, scrambled for me into an aural miasma by echoing Taiwanese chat and ceaseless muzak, had taken the joy off it.
Truthfully, I was glad finally to escape from the frightful, deeply undermanned foyer with its looming lowlife, to crawl into the old four-seater and bump my way back through the sinister, vaguely-peopled blackness to the cheerful comfort of the Gazellebank.
Where has the soul of this historic hotel gone? No Bruce nor Suzie in sight, no brightness (and I don’t just mean the erratic electricity supply) and no enthusiasm. Just that dark, wet flavour of uncaring loucheness and the ugliest whore I’ve seen in years.

And now it’s the morning. The rain has gone and so has the wind, the sky is blueing, Turvurvur has put on its most alluring of dramatic displays, the cocoa is loading, the huge moths are swooping and the fish making white holes in the sea, and Rabaul looks much more like the town that I recalled with such interest from my last visit.

Well, I’ll know what to do next year. This places has two faces, and Rabaul by day is a vastly preferable place to Rabaul by night.

Noro

Leaving Lola Island behind us, we zoomed and flat-bottomed back through the blue to the Gazellebank in time for Tina’s 4 o’clock watch. But John and I had further adventures in mind. We clambered out of the launch shoreside, and set out to investigate the little town. Not one but two banks (ANZ and South Pacific), a miniscule police station, a tiny post-office, a handful of tiny shops and what I’m sure was a tiny bar, a little doctor’s rooms, and a little market where the main thing on offer seemed to be limes. An essential, of course, as an accompaniment to betel chewing. John spent his last local money on half a dozen tiny cans of locally canned tuna in the tiny general store. A decidedly practical souvenir.
Noro is in my eyes the proof of the maxim small is beautiful. It is a delightful place, and its people are delightful as well…
We stopped to speak with one very pretty young dark lady and her blond shock-headed son. Baby Timothy shook hands with me, but John was too much for him and he buried his tignasse of blond curls in mother’s shoulder, and declined to be photographed by such a massive white man



We walked on for an hour or more through the suburbs (can you have suburbs without an urbs?) of Noro, greeted all along the way by the children. I tempted one football-playing lad to kick the ball to me, and, wonder of wonders, I trapped it correctly and sent it perfectly back, just as I’ve seen Andre Guesdon and his like do on the field and the telly. Another lot, with a coloured umbrella, seemed to have been schooled especially to be photographed



I’d been sure that somewhere along our road there was a dilapidated hotel, which it might be fun to investigate, but as the afternoon drew on, and all we found was a concrete motel (motel? but there aren’t any cars!), and we decided to turn round. It was at that stage that we got ourselves a guide. His name is Alfred, his uncle runs a general store, and he apparently goes to school and also works there. We think that is right, for, as John remarked later, the agreeable and well-spoken lad simply said ‘yes’ to every question! Anyway, Alfred said he had spotted us from afar and run to meet us, because he liked people ‘like us’. Once again, we aren’t quite sure what he meant, but I think the nitty gritty of it was that he was hoping to be allowed aboard the ship.
He took it in good spirits when we reached the dock gate and we told him ‘no can do’. Thanks Alfred, you were a merry young (anywhere between 12 and 16, I imagine) companion, and we enjoyed you a lot.




We negotiated the Jacob’s ladder efficaciously if unenthusiastically, and within 15 minutes I was double-showered and flat on my back on my bunk…
I awoke to find I was late for dinner and hurtled downstairs to be greeted by ‘So you and John went to a motel for the afternoon, did you?’. It’s not that I mind the insinuation, but it’s a bit rough when you haven’t even earned it!
I staggered through dinner, then outside where it was now raining with tropical fervour, to look at a pair of frolicking dolphins and our Captain cheerfully pulling schnapper and unpronounceable local fish from the ocean ..
But it was no good. By 7.15pm, I was back on that bunk and there until morning I snored.

Another grand, grand day.

So, yes, the Solomon Islands are not just Honiara. Beyond that struggling, scowling town there is a megatonne of Pacific beauty and a plenitude of Pacific pleasures to be found.
I’m so very glad I did. Sigh. Maybe next year I shall even have to give Honiara a try.
Any offers?

The Solomons - second time around

Last year, after visiting the Solomon Islands, I blogged grimly and at length over my deeply unfavourable impressions. Honiara, I cried, was one of the most depressing places I had ever visited. My cries raised an answer from a local resident ‘We’re not as bad as all that’. And another, ‘Don’t judge the Solomons by Honiara’.
So I issued a challenge. ‘I’m back in Honiara in 2009. Come and meet me, take me out to all the good bits in and around town, no expense spared, and I’ll foot the bill’. But nobody took up the challenge.
I nodded wisely, and, when we hit Honiara, I curled myself up on deck with half a dozen good books, and let my companions go ashore without me. They found the town’s several hotels, the Botanical Gardens and the market, and took one tour mostly to the various World War II sites (not my scene at all, at all), and I had a very pleasant three days, instead of two (Honiara dockers seem incapable of keeping a schedule, maybe it’s the heat) on a sunbed with Minette Walters, Edith Wharton, Ellis Peters et al. So, I’m sorry, Honiara, I didn’t give you a second chance.

From Honiara we sailed to Noro. Now, last year we stopped so briefly at tiny Noro (one Soltai tuna factory and associated village) that only the hardiest man among us shinned down the Jacob’s Ladder quickly to check out the place. His delightful photos and tales made me determined to tackle the ladder this year. But our purser, Natasha, had come up with something better. Eight passengers and our Tina scrambled down the ship’s side into a small motor boat, and sped off through the blue seas and green palmy islets to what is called the Zipolo Habu Resort on Lola Island.



‘Resort’ has always been a word to turn me off. But I’m learning. It doesn’t have to mean a kind of plastic over-developed Paradise lost. After Oyster Island, now Zipolo Habu has proved that to me. Glorious. Splendid. Wonderful. You bathe in warm, shallow waters, some parts sandy bottomed while in others inquisitive seaweeds rise up to tickle your body alarmingly and the odd blue prickly thingummybob inhabits the ocean floor. Our snorkelling Trevor came face to face with a reef shark which the locals assured us was ‘friendly’. Charlotte confirmed the sighting, but when I tried, I got mostly just the inquisitive seaweed. Perhaps just as well.



A delightful sunny jetty, a pretty cool restaurant and bar, and hardly another soul to share it with us…
We lounged around, lunching on delicious fresh crayfish and a flood of ice-cold Chardonnay…



Ayjay, the gentlemanly barman, was the life and soul of the day, coping magnificently with our jesting John, who was riding the peak of one of his most outrageous waves. Having failed to interest the young man in (amongst a selection of deviations) me, he then introduced him to Tina. That was something different. Ayjay’s eyes lit up. So, actually, did Tina’s! But it was time to go…

Thank you Ayjay, thank you Joe (Joe Entrikin is the owner of this luscious place), thank you the young folk who rustled up the delicious crayfish, thank you Zipolo Habu… we had a day truly to remember. And, Ayjay, I snapped this photo of Tina on your beach. I’ll email it to you as a souvenir!





Zipolo Habu Resort has a website, so visit it at www.zipolohabu.com.sb
Better still, visit the place
It has five stars from one ‘international prize-winning author and critic’. Me.

Santo

Two days and one night in Espiritu Santo. What I mean is JUST two days and one night… ones I shall certainly not forget in a hurry.

In Santo, the shipping line takes the passengers on a tour to the ‘selected highlights’ of the island – the pretty coral-sands of Champagne beach, the impressive Blue Holes, a copra processing barn, a tidy native village. A delightful tour, but I did it last year – and I was keen to stretch my legs – so the bus rolled out of Santo wharf without me. I was already a good kilometre down the road, setting out on one of my Walks.
Down through the little town of Lugainville, across the river which provided me with a couple of my favourite photos last year, and out into the green, green countryside with its masses of exotic leaves, its extraordinarily clean and picture-book cows, its smiling, hello-ing faces and its endless bevy of tiny Korean taxis … No one walks far in Santo, but the toing-and-froing taxidrivers soon got the message that this crazy fella was walking on purpose, and the offers of a ride changed into cheers, waves and hel-los…



Santo hasn’t gone undiscovered. Here and there are nestled amid the greenery fine, new, undoubtedly ‘foreign’ houses, occasionally there is a fairly discreet ‘resort’ or a glistening yacht moored alongside the cheery little pirogues. But here the mix works. Where new buildings have gone up since last year, they are sensible, low constructions and have replaced the most dilapidated of the old. Somehow, it all just seems right. And, it goes without saying, it is very lovely.
After an hour or so of walking, the tarmac underfoot gave way to a dirt road, a perilous affair, deeply potholed and runnelled by tropical rainstorms and baked solid by tropical heat. But I marched on, bouncing from pothole to pothole and paddock to paddock, under a ferocious white sun, taking in the countryside with a real enjoyment.
It was 20 kilometres and nearly four hours before I ground to a halt back at Lugainville, desperately in need of a very cold beer. I checked out the town’s hotel, I checked out a couple of beachside type resto-cafés, but I knew where I was going. I’d spotted ‘Le Némo’ on the way out, a little and unpretentious ‘French restaurant’ hidden behind a mass of trellis…
This was a day when everything was going to be perfect, and Le Némo did its part. Four Tusker beers and a plate of sizzling garlic crevettes (served by Diana, who must be quite the prettiest waitress in the entire Pacific) later, I booked the terrace table for the evening for the ship’s Eaters-Out, and headed back to the wharf.



But I didn’t quite get there. An English ‘hel-lo!’ and there was Christina (from Knaresborough), Gazellebank cadet officer, taking advantage of some time off duty for a dip in the Pacific. So we sat on the coral sand and nibbled coconut and chatted until the sea became irresistible and I (who haven’t been in the sea in years) plunged cautiously into the warm shallows .. delicious! Tina was more adventurous, and seemed at one moment to have the whole of the Pacific to herself …



The evening lived up to all the promise of the day. Gareth and Charlotte, John, Trevor and I took a leisurely sample of the delicacies of Le Némo – fresh lobster salad, roast pigeon, the local poulet fish and, quite simply, the best fish carpaccio – served with lime and capers – I have ever tasted. No-one was game to try the civet of flying fox. Alas, the rosé de Provence was ‘off,’ but a very fair Australian sauvignon blanc did sterling service instead …
Day two was going to have a lot to live up to.
But it did it.
As I’d steamed through Lugainville at the start of my Walk, a big very black man in a big very red car stopped and waved at me. I was already into the standard explanation (‘walking for pleasure, yes’) when it dawned on me, this was Kenneth who had driven us on our tour last year. Did I want to go somewhere tomorrow? Yes, I did. I wanted to go to a genuine kastom village, the kind that your average tourist doesn’t reach. And I was pretty sure the Eaters-Out would be starters as well.
And so, the next morning, the famous five plus Tiny (from Utrecht) boarded the minibus piloted by Sandie (Kenneth had gone AWOL, but this was his brother!) and headed up via joltingly hole-y dirt roads to the back country and the village of Fanafo.
Fanafo is an historic place in Santo, for this little village, where, give or take the odd plastic bucket and pair of speedos, life is lived pretty much in ‘traditional’ fashion, was the birthplace of Jimmie Stevens, the most celebrated political personality of the years during which the New Hebrides became Vanuatu.
We weren’t there for history and politics, though. Just as visitors.
You feel kind of awkward, looking at people and their homes as if they were something of a curiosity, but any kind of embarrassment vanished utterly when we were faced with the village children. What a wonderful little band! Little? I don’t know where so many babies could fit in such a small place. I didn’t see one male of child-bearing age, but they are obviously around and they are obviously decidedly active.
Every one of us fell in love with the children of Fanafo, and every one of us came away with a cameraful of infantine photos… here are some of my favourites…






When lunchtime hove to, Sandie suggested we go to where his daughter worked. Since he’d done us proud to date, that seemed like a good idea. But my heart sank when I saw the sign, bearing the dreaded word ‘Resort’. If I don’t do swimming, I definitely don’t do ‘Resorts’.
Another of my ‘don’ts’ crushed.
Oyster Island Resort is less a Resort than what the Victorians would have called ‘a Spot’. And a glorious one. I don’t know if I’d love it so much if its six bungalows and restaurant were teeming with visitors, but on this occasion we had it virtually to ourselves for a nice lunch (I had luscious calamari, but rued it when I saw John’s superb Santo steak!), and a leisurely swim in clear water, on white coral sand, thronged with little fishes…
The height of sybaritic luxury .. cold beer served to us in the warm sea .. I couldn’t resist it: I took my camera and swam out to photograph our merry band and their bathing bottles. I am rather an inept swimmer and some of the results were decidedly curious, but I managed to get Trevor and Charlotte up the right way, without sinking or drowning my camera…



John and I both checked out prices and plane schedules .. ‘for our honeymoon’ explained John (who somehow gets away with this sort of thing) to our shy young black boatman, who seemed rather delighted and not at all put out at the thought that two 60 year-old men were ‘getting married this evening’, and only slightly confused when John offered to let him take his place in the ceremony! A delightfully silly, fun ending to an utterly marvellous day…

For, yes, after we had bumped our way back to the wharf, vague thoughts of a second visit to Le Nemo faded quickly away … by 8.30pm the bar was empty, and not one of us felt the ship depart, come midnight, from the lovely, lovely land of Espiritu Santo.

How to keep your pants up in Vanuatu

Noumea was just the other day, wasn’t it? Yes… but so much has happened since, so much so delightful has happened since… I’m sort of… ‘déborder’ .. how do you say that in English? – running over (?) with wonderment and joy.

Between Noumea and Vanuatu, I celebrated my 63rd birthday. I celebrated it with flagons aweigh, with the nicest bunch of folk you could hope to meet in a century’s sailing, and the part of the evening I remember was grand. Big vote of thanks to Trevor from Leeds who (so it is said) tucked this hilarious old boy into his tiddley bed at some uncharted hour…
And to John from Maastricht et al (our resident blagueur par excellence) for the biggest birthday bearhug on record…




First stop in Vanuatu was Port Vila. My abiding memory of Vila from last year was rain. The torrential rain that resulted in The Day of the Transparent Trousers. This year it rained only comparatively lightly, I was more safely clad, and my mission was the purchase of a belt, to replace the one that had inconveniently exploded in Auckland airport. Now, you’ld think that you could buy a plain ordinary belt anywhere, wouldn’t you. Not in Vila. At the fourth or fifth clothing store I enquired plaintively of the head-shaking young man ‘How do you keep your pants up in Vanuatu?’. He suggested I try a hardware shop! A couple of hours and I finally found a French supermarket with a choice between a baby-blue rhinestoned affair and a $5 plain brown strip of leather which I now sport most relievedly.

A pleasant place, Vila, where we dined pleasantly at the Waterfront Restaurant, and strolled pleasantly round the markets and streets, amongst the very pleasant people… even the light warm rain was not unpleasant. The only unfortunate thing about Vila, the capital of that group of isles that were once the New Hebrides, is its neighbour. For where Vila is pleasant, Espiritu Santo is quite simply stunning. Glorious. The real Pacific paradise that one is inclined to think, these days, only exists in film and fiction. No island I’ve ever visited (and I’ve visited a good few) can outshine Santo in my eyes.



A Week at Sea

I’m back on the ocean wave. Revelling. And at the end of week one I can report that everything is shipshape, sharp, and as good as ever.

Had an easy flight to Auckland, a grand day at Avondale races (highlighted by Doug’s turning out a fine winner by the throttling name of Bigproudandready), another lounging about the country estate of my pal Rickster, and then heigh ho for Auckland wharves and the good old Gazellebank. A little rustier, a little shabbier, and manned by and carrying a whole different team of folk…
But I’ve struck lucky again. Captain Chris (my favourite kind of bear!) and chief engineer Andy, and all I’ve met so far who sail with them (English, French, Russian, Flipino, Indian) are a splendid team. And our dozen passengers, all experienced travellers (4 Brits, 2 German, 2 Dutch, 2 Canadian, 1 French and stateless me), are, likewise, a very convivial bunch. I foresee a very, very lively trip!

Yesterday we arrived at our first port, Noumea. Last year, on a rather dull day, I wandered sort of sadly around the town which I first visited 47 years ago, feeling its shabbiness (that word again), and the layer of ‘internationalism’ that seemed to have infiltrated the charming French-colonial-cum-Polynesian mix that had appealed to me so much in 1962. But this year my impressions got a thorough revision.
To start with we arrived in blazing sunshine. Shabby (and in Pacific climates everything goes shabby in record time) looks so much better in sunshine. Secondly, I was more adventurous. I donned my walking shoes, and determinedly set out to find the unspoiled beaches where Jacques, the New Caledonian Police Commissioner’s son, and I had teenaged together nearly half a century ago.
Four hours, 2 litres of water, and 37 degrees of heat later, I’d done it, and I felt altogether more positive about Noumea. In fact, I liked it a heap. The beaches of the Baie des Citrons and Anse Vata are still stunningly beautiful. The tacky highish-rise ‘developments’ which line them are not, and the almost as tacky rows of bars, cafés and the like … well, I guess they’re no worse than some parts of the South of France and Great Yarmouth …–but turn your back on those and look at the beach, where the kanak bears and bearesses and their adorable babies (when did I last call a baby ‘adorable’?) gambol and sport in the water, amongst a smattering of the less plastic kind of tourist ... and, oh yes!
I’m so glad I revisited, for the vast modern mall, the advertising panels for new apartment towers, and the looming, forbidding presence of the usual big orange crane tell us that it won’t be like this forever. Sad.




Noumea has, of course, moved with the tourist times. They say the town has only 100,000 inhabitants. In which case I think every family must own at least one pleasure craft. The sea simply bulges with them.



Money just glistens from the ocean wave … yet the central town has no appearance of richness. Still, it must be there, for prices are high. I dined out in the evening with Gareth and Charlotte from Dartmoor, fellow passengers, at one of the few restaurants (full, as I understand from other passengers, all its equivalents were) that wasn’t of the seaside steak-n-chips variety. I was impressed by the reasonably priced wine ($20NZ) and ordered accordingly. Imagine my horror when the bill arrived, and I discovered that French Sancerre is, in New Caledonia, not $20NZ a bottle but a glass! Lesson: read your menu carefully!

It was a splendid day, a happy day, a fun day .. even the dentist Charlotte had to visit en catastrophe was fun. Loic is the only (excellent) dentist I’ve ever met who has his name strewn across his surgery door in a shower of … sequins!!!
But my most memorable moment of the day and the visit came on my walk. Dripping and burning in the midday heat, I arrived at a little point, overlooking the blue, clear ocean with its darting angelfish and silver reflections. In the sea, an enormous kanak bear-man with a broken forearm, encased in plaster, was flailing around, his arm held carefully out of the water and his crutch floating beside him like a discarded leg. Under a scraggy bush, smiling beige mama sat in the shade, and around the very serious monument celebrating the bicentenary of La Perouse, what I assume were their three little ones were playing a carefree hide-and-seek, so much in their own wee world they didn’t even see me click my shutter...
So this is my souvenir of a grand day in Nouméa.