Pacific Ocean

Port-Moresby, Papua New Guinea… A delicate stopover…

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I preferred to stay several dozen miles out at sea to avoid the coastal piracy. We were going along the coasts in "raskol" country, the gangs which make Papua New Guinea one of the most dangerous countries on earth. At night we sailed with all our lights off. And I decided that we would only arrive in Port Moresby during the daytime so that I would have time to evaluate any potential security risks that we might be exposing ourselves to, and to be able to remedy any situation before nightfall. So it was direction Port Moresby, although I certainly harbored a few concerns. I had mentioned a few things to Barbara and the kids, but nothing that might cause any alarm. During our last internet connection on Vanuatu I had taken time to read up on the reports of attacks (some extremely violent) that had been carried out on boats along the Papuan coast. It was very instructive. All had happened close to the main island's coastline and none around the further flung islands. So my plan was to head straight for the capital from the Louisiades and to arrive in daylight. 

I am however convinced that the security situation in this country will improve. The country's economy is growing rapidly and there is considerable foreign investment. Our stopover in this unattractive place was down to my eldest son's journey schedule, as he was leaving for France to carry on his studies. The plan? Head straight for the sanctuary of the protected marina (so we adapted our speed as a consequence) of the Royal Papuan Yacht Club. Apparently it was protected by outside walls topped with barbed wire! It was the only (and apparently quite chic) yacht club that we would frequent in our whole journey. Our first sight of Port Moresby did not make me consider spending my retirement there, but the economic boom created by the exploitation of natural gas reserves is obviously behind the very visible development in this charmless town.

Port-Moresby, a risky stopover…

At around midday on the 22nd June, Jangada arrived at the Basilisk Passage, surrounded by two large coral reefs. In the lagoon, the wind suddenly whipped up to 30 knots. It was the start of a windy episode which had been forecast.  We headed for the back of the bay, zigzagging between anchored vessels, cargo ships, fishing boats and supply ships. The town developed around the port. The Royal Papuan Yacht Club Marina is situated to the north, just after the commercial port in the Konedobu quarter. I called Papa Yankee Charlie, the yacht club code on VHF channel 84. We sailed into the marina under the watchful eye of the armed security guard who had come out of his hut at the end of the jetty. I spotted a camera which monitored the comings and goings from the marina. The security guard signaled for me to take the one remaining mini floating pontoon inside the marina, a few dozen meters from the main pontoons which were full of local boats with not a single space available. We understood later, that the RPYC has a policy of not encouraging passing boats. The club members, who are mainly Australian prefer to stay amongst themselves rather than socialize with badly dressed and usually less well-off long haul cruisers. However, the town's bad reputation puts off most of the long haul cruisers from mooring there anyway. The marina and the Club are there for the whites of Port Moresby. Full stop. Passing boats are at best tolerated and are left out on the floating pontoons (of which there are four) or worse, forced to anchor within the marina. We understood that the main reason to stop here for passing boats was to benefit from the high security of the walled-in marina, especially at night. The Yacht Club also had armed security guards on permanent duty, whether on the land side or the sea side. Welcome to Port Moresby!   

Before the authorities visited, we made the most of being allowed to step onto the pontoons and visit the gigantic club house. The Royal Papuan Yacht Club has a very British atmosphere, although the pure Brits might now find it a little bit too Aussie! The ambiance is a reminder of a time not that long ago: colonial times.  Independence was only granted in 1975. You don't need to own a boat to be a member: the bar, restaurant and terrace are some of the best frequented places in Port Moresby. Above the door in the entrance hall, guarded by henchmen of course, is the old colonial flag and the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. It's as if time has stood still. On the wall are the names and black and white portraits of all the commodores who have taken the help of the RPYC since the early twentieth century. Apparently none of them were Papuan

A Tale Of Everyday Corruption…  

We asked the group of tanned young girls at the Club reception if we could book our meeting with the authorities for the next morning, to avoid paying "overtime", which is a favored ruse of civil servants in these zones. So the meeting was set for 9am. Perfect. However, less than an hour later, the supposed customs officer, who also deals with immigration arrived and requested to come on board to deal with the formalities. Given his shifty demeanor, I understood that this colossus was planning to use us to make a bit of cash on the side, by getting us to pay top dollar for a rapid service that we hadn't requested. A classic case! Unfortunately, I have plenty of experience of dealing with these odious types. Something which they tend to understand fairly quickly. The best way to deal with this type of situation is to be forceful right from the outset so you immediately have the upper hand. I'm talking mental strength here, as physically there would be no contest with this refrigerator, and he played on this to intimidate us. So it's about brain power then, which might be my only chance to get one over on this man-mountain. I look him straight in the eyes and tell him that the rendezvous was fixed for 9am the following morning, and that if he had turned up early then that was his problem and not mine. It was 3pm and the giant confirmed that we were indeed in "overtime"…  I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins as it always does when confronted with this type of person, and before we got in the dinghy to head to the boat I told him with a firmness which he wasn't used to, that I wouldn't be paying for any overtime. He was a little disconcerted but didn't say anything and was probably expecting me to cave in later on. (He was obviously used to passing sailors paying up without saying a word). Eventually, my firm and falsely relaxed attitude paid dividends, as the man mountain quickly got on with his job and didn't try anything else on. This type of crooked customs officer can cause a lot of problems for all sorts of reasons!

I took him back to land with a smile on my face, although his seemed rather forced. Brains had won over brawn. The next day at 9am, the young lady in charge of the "quarantine" was much more amenable and didn't hassle us over our fruit and vegetables from the Louisiades (despite it being a forbidden destination). She told me about the primitive existence in her village in the Papuan highlands. If only we'd had more time I would have followed her to that village!  

The next day we took our first tentative steps outside the club, under the watchful eyes of the concerned security guards at the main entrance to the car park, who offered to accompany us. We were interested in a small supermarket just 300m from the RPYC. However, we were told to watch out for the Raskols, the local bandits whose numerous attacks have created such a bad reputation for the town (one murder every two days on average). I pass on the rules: no jewelry, no watches, nothing in your hands and nothing in your pockets. I alone put a little money in the bottom pocket of my Bermudas, and a 20 kina note in my top left hand pocket. It's a well-worn technique. If we are attacked by the Raskols, we give them the cash and run the other way. In my right hand, I carry a portable VHF radio (switched off), which could suggest a permanent radio link with a control center. It's simple, dissuasive and cheap. So we were out in the Wild West. We saw filthy roads, rubbish everywhere and the downtrodden faces of the uprooted highland Papuans stuck in the big city (where unemployment is 80%), far from their villages where they can live well with next to nothing. The taxi drivers confirmed that they all come from the mountainous interior and just want to go back there with a bit of hard-earned cash. This first sortie had been well calculated. Half way along the 300 meter route there were two banks, ANZ and BSP, who had hired a crew of armed security guards. This made the trip that much safer. It's better not to stare at the Papuans in the street for too long. The majority have blood red mouths from the betel nuts which the south-east Asian populations enjoy chewing constantly. When there are any sidewalks, they are covered in red spit stains. It looks as though there has been a murder every two meters, and adds to the general ambiance. And there's no doubt, although it's not their fault, but some Papuans have faces which by our European criteria are frightening.  Although they all look frightening to us, most of those that we crossed in the street seemed friendly enough. We walked together at a brisk pace. The little supermarket was full of security guards, even in the aisles! We did our shopping under high security… We then returned to RPYC with our provisions, still walking at a good speed. We went through the main security point and then the second. The guards looked relieved to have us back in the fortress safe and sound. 

There's no doubt that I certainly wouldn't walk around alone after dark in Port Moresby. The white settlers, (the term seems to fit here), who are mainly Australian although there are English and Americans too, drive around in big 4x4s with tinted windows, air conditioning blasting and the doors constantly locked… 

Our next sortie the day after, was to the Indonesian embassy, where we needed to get our visas. We asked the front desk of the Yacht Club to call the taxi for us. This would avoid us being picked up by a driver who might drop us off in the middle of a gang of Raskols in his tribe's shanty town, ready to be beaten up and robbed…  We still had to go through all the haggling over the price, but I'm an old hand when it comes to this! I never get into a taxi in this kind of area without having agreed the price in advance with the driver, after having asked around to get an idea of what the price should be. We managed to move the price from 40 kinas to 20, and we set off across the town on our 10 kilometer trip. The urban landscape resembles that of deepest Africa. We get onto the region's only section of highway which is about 3 km long. The capital is not well served by roads from the rest of the country.  We went past a prosperous looking Industrial zone, as is the case in many developing countries which are rich in raw materials. Along the roadside we see lots of happy children playing football, schools, travelling salesmen, fruit and vegetable stalls, slums, and of course plenty of down and outs.  We drive past the big open air Papuan market in the suburbs of Port Moresby where I would have liked to take a walk, but this is just not on the cards unless escorted by 4 armed Special Forces troops…  At least that's what our driver said. Our deal with Philip, our Papuan driver from up in the hills works well. After going to Jackson airport, he comes back to meet us at the agreed time and takes us to the only hypermarket in the area, the RH hypermarket, pompously called Vision City by its developers. It was full of embassy staff, government families and those whites here for the natural resources. The fact is that PNG with its 6 million inhabitants spread out over 463000km², with a parliamentary democracy and independent since 1975, with 600 islands, as many tribes and 800 dialects, has been growing fast over the last few years. There are riches underground.

Timothée got his flight and we got our Indonesian visas. So it was time to go. We waited for three hours at the Yacht Club for the arrival of the customs officer who was even more corrupt than the first one. He had made us wait to accompany an Italian-Canadian couple to the airport. They had arrived on a monohull and had a few problems. Apart from not having visas, the bill they must have had to pay in cash to the customs officer must have been eye-watering.   It's just the sort of situation that you should avoid with this type of person… But his lucrative day isn't finished, or so he thinks. When he arrives, my first feeling was one of repulsion. You could read it written large in his face. This is a bandit. I'm not sure whether it's a criteria for being recruited by the customs department, but he must weigh 120 kilos, and it's all muscle. His biceps must be three times the size of mine… He's the chap who Lydie and Alain (Paradoxe) must have paid a tidy sum to when they arrived.  The bloodsucker seemed pleased to see them! Wilson he was called. A real handful. But we'll try to avoid coming to blows with him! He immediately takes us away from the front desk, and sits at a table in the outside bar where we won't be heard. I get the feeling that this will be complicated. He seems to have grown to the size of a building. I get the feeling that I may have trouble containing my anger… I ask the children to stay with us and to sit at our table. I know that this will annoy Wilson, and perhaps calm me down. Alain and Lydie are there too and they are also doing their formalities in an attempt to make the most of the weather window and make the passage. They are determined not to be done over this time. This kind of situation is won through intellect and composure. Wilson is truly enormous and doesn't have to try hard to look mean. He no doubt plays on this to triple or quadruple his monthly salary… Let the match begin. I'm sat opposite him, about 60cm away, and straight away I take a tough, even aggressive stance. I try to catch his eye but he makes a point of not looking straight at me. That's one up for me! 

We need to use this when he is forced to accept that he is corrupt. He begins by clearing Paradoxe, which is another good sign. Although he only has to stamp the passports and write a few words on the clearance papers (which are always demanded at the next stopover), and then stamp it.  He turns it around in his hands and puts it down then picks it up. I start to show a little impatience in an attempt to put the pressure back on him and I keep staring at him. He finally stamps Alain and Lydie's passports and stamps the clearance papers. Just when he should be handing them back to the skipper, he announces that   "There is a departure tax to be paid. 50 kinas/person!"  I exploded. He was surprised. Although I'm not directly concerned yet, I tell him straight to his face that there is nothing to pay for customs formalities, and that I will go and tell the manager of the Yacht Club that we have a serious problem: not with the customs but with Wilson himself. I also mention the French embassy if necessary. He responds:  "Ok, in this way, I go back"! I get up and run to the desk. This surprises him. I inform the group of charming uniformed Papuan girls at the desk that we have a corruption issue with the Customs Officer who is demanding 50 kinas per person (a fortune in PNG) despite the fact that just before his arrival I had checked with the Yacht Club that there was nothing to pay. They stared at me open-mouthed, not knowing what to do. Without awaiting a response, I go and sit back down with Wilson, looking angrily at him. I tell him that the French embassy will be informed of the problems we have had with him, Wilson. He grudgingly gives Alain the clearance. But at least he did it. Now it's our turn and I try to keep the pressure on him as he laboriously fills in our papers. I worry that he could threaten us with a visit on board and cause us trouble (although I have nothing to hide), and for a couple of minutes he questions us over Timothée's departure during our stopover. He looks for any possibility to get the upper hand, but everything is in order. He knows that he has lost this one.  He plays with his stamp and finally stamps our documents and hands them back lazily with a disgusted air. I made the error of saying Thank You which I shouldn't have done. From my point of view, I’m happy to think that Wilson has more respect for me than if I had handed over his crooked 200 kinas. It won't change the world, but hey!

So the formalities are done with and we have our clearance and we can set off for Indonesia. It was just an everyday tale of corruption. We got back on board, left our little pontoon, sailed across the bay and headed for the Basilisk Passage. It's weird. Nothing really happened, but we're relieved to be on our way! Bye-bye Papua New Guinea!

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