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IT HAD BEEN A BAD MONTH, a dreary October day, when I get a phone call at work. You had better sit down, he says.
Oh God, not again, I say, thinking the burglars have come back for another go.
Ive just been checking your emails, he continues. Eliminating all the spam, you know, do you want to buy Viagra DELETE, best rates for loans DELETE, best prices on Valium DELETE, you are a winner - I thought Id open that one. It says its from Mike Ball
Dive Expeditions. It says youve won a weeks free diving. Did you enter a competition on the Internet
I enter a lot of competitions. Ive only ever won a squirrel-proof bird-feeder before, but you never know.
Anyway he says he has checked to see if its some kind of scam, but my name is on Mike Balls website as this months winner of a weeks free diving.
So far so good. It doesnt include flights and its a long way from the UK to Oz. Anyhow, we decide to treat it as a generous discount and make it into a trip of a lifetime.
A week in Perth, three days at Ayers Rock, a week on Spoilsport from Cairns to the Osprey Reef via Lizard Island, up to Kavieng from Cairns via Port Moresby, seven days around Kavieng,10 days from Kavieng to Kimbe on Paradise Sport, and then back to work to pay for it all.
Some phone calls at midnight to Tanya in Mike Balls office, a phone call to my old choolfriend in Perth, Trailfinders for the flights, max out the credit cards and six months later were on our way.
OK, so John Liddiard can get away with 20kg of luggage. I cant. This trip involves Emirates, Qantas domestic, Air Nuigini International and Air Nuigini domestic. Each airline has different baggage restrictions.

Birmingham Airport: Emirates check-in desk, stress level 50. Baggage allowance is 20kg plus 10kg divers allowance plus one piece of hand baggage up to 7kg.
I check in 26kg. This includes teabags for my friend but no toiletries. Complete dive kit but with a fluffy Lycra two-piece wetsuit instead of neoprene. Three days change of clothes. Comprehensive first-aid kit including anti-malarials and antibiotics. Lots of wires and chargers.
Ive always got away with a piece of hand baggage containing a dive computer etc and a camera bag. The man from Emirates says no, I can have either the handbag or the camera case but not both.
We have to check in the housings in their hard cases at the fragile desk, but we take out my buddys stills camera and my new, expensive high-definition video camera and put it in the hand luggage. This is now over 7kg due to UK800 torch, which weighs 2.1kg on its own.
Take out torch, put in jacket pocket, walk around corner, take out torch and put back in hand baggage (safer than it falling out of my pocket onto my toe).
Now on to security. Have hand baggage x-rayed. Torch attracts renewed attention and is swabbed for explosives. Stress level 95.
We proceed to Dubai, which is not a problem, so we continue to Perth. Collect all luggage plus housings and breathe a big sigh of relief. Stress level 5.
Spend a week in Perth doing the usual touristy things, walking in the bush, stroking kangaroos etc. Getting into my Fourth Element wetsuit jumper top looks like two Labrador puppies fighting in a sack. So as not to entertain the boys on the boat too much, I find a wetsuit manufacturer and have it cut up the middle and a zip put in to make it into a jacket.
Why is it so difficult to persuade manufacturers and retailers in England that there are a lot of divers who want warmwater plankton protection and would quite like an easy-to-get-into, lightweight jumpsuit (not necessarily in tekkie black, as we arent pretending to be James Bond).

Perth to Ayers Rock: Qantas domestic allowance is 30kg, one piece of checked luggage and two pieces of hand luggage. Check in 26kg and carry camera bag and other piece of
hand luggage containing torch etc to Security. Requested to open both cases. Camera housing, torch and belt-buckle swabbed for explosives. No problems, and we carry on, stress level 20.

Ayers Rock to Cairns: Same luggage as above, same allowance. Requested to take battery out of torch at check-in. Terminals all get taped over with insulation tape. Requested to put torch case back in luggage and the battery in my pocket. Notes are made about this on my boarding card. Stress level 50.
At security my buddys Epipens for a nut allergy are picked up. Notes are made on his boarding card about having sharp needles. We explain that its not a good idea
to have emergency medication in the hold, in case he has an anaphylactic reaction to nuts that someone else might have on them.
All hand luggage is swabbed for explosives again. Forget to zip up case while the housing is swabbed, and torch, spare knickers and sundry other items roll around floor when
I pick it up. Youre looking very agitated, says my buddy. Stress level 150 and rising.
At Cairns we are collected by the shuttle bus for our complimentary transfer to the Colonial Club. Relax. Visit Tanya at Mike Balls office to pick up Air Nuigini tickets, buy lots of shampoo and conditioner and emergency rations of chocolate. After two days we depart for six glorious days on Spoilsport.
Before night-dive I check torch, which doesnt seem as bright as usual. The engineer finds that some of the cells have blown - aargh! All that aggro getting it out, and its not even working properly.
Dive Cod Hole, Pixie Pinnacle, Osprey Reef, etc. The weather could be better but its nothing anyone used to diving the sea off Britain would worry about. See 12 hammerheads, followed by a large manta and all before breakfast at Around The Bend. Herd of bumphead parrotfish, giant potato cod, flashing file clams, nudibranchs and loads of other stuff. The coral has recovered since the 1998 El Niño - there is a vast improvement from when I was last here four years ago.
After seven days of no news we arrive back in Cairns to find that the hand-baggage allowance to the UK is being reduced to zero after terrorists are arrested in London.
Stress level 0 to 90 in six seconds.

Cairns to Port Moresby: Air Nuiginis international allowance is 20kg plus 10kg dive allowance and 7kg hand luggage (one piece only). Leave large hand bag behind at Colonial Club in storage. This contains most of my clothes and my now-defunct UK 800 torch.
But I have 2.5kg of shampoo and conditioner to last three weeks (Ive got waist-length fine hair and this is the only way to avoid a tangled mess unless I have a number 2 to match my buddy) and also some pens, pencils and lollipops for the kids on the islands we are going to visit.
I check in 26kg and I am allowed to keep the camera bag and a small shoulder-bag as hand luggage. No swabbing for explosives. Stress level 10.

Port Moresby to Kavieng: Air Nuiginis domestic allowance is the same as its international allowance ,as long as flights into Papua New Guinea are on Air Nuigini. After a night at the Airways Hotel overlooking the runway, we arrive at the domestic terminal. Security is before check-in.
There is a large sign saying X-Ray Machine OUT OFF ORDER [sic]. All luggage will be hand-checked.
Stress levels start to rise, but I amuse myself by trying to pick out other passengers for Paradise Sport.
When we finally get to our turn, I try to adopt a serious but non-threatening pose. A security guard 6in smaller than me and a foot smaller than my buddy looks at our laden trolley: Is this yours
Yes.
Did you pack it
Yes.
Whats in it
Dive gear, were going diving in Kavieng. At this point Im expecting to have to unpack everything, but no, he smiles and slaps a Security Checked sticker on each bag.
At check-in I am bemused by the amount of luggage some Americans have with them - and I thought I had a lot. After charging them excess baggage, our check-in supervisor looks on us kindly and waves us on our way. Stress level 10.
Collected at Kavieng airport, we are soon on Paradise Sport. Seventeen days of wonderful diving... island visits... Pirate Pete playing his guitar to entertain us... local kids in their dug-out canoes watching these strange people dressed in neoprene going under the water with tanks on their backs... a twister heading for us in Kavieng...drinking the bar dry in Malagans... wrecks, reefs, strong currents, nautiluses, pygmy seahorses, a mini-sub, a WW2 Japanese fighter, a group of obnoxious Italians, a wonderful bunch of Californian dentists with some seriously expensive photo gear, sailing calmly into an extinct volcano, and muck diving for mandarinfish... bliss.
We finish up at Walindi Plantation in Kimbe on the last night, knowing that sadly we will never be able to repeat this trip, as Paradise Sport was travelling to Milne Bay for the rest of its time in PNG and is up for sale.
The effort of getting here is too much for many people, and many PNG dive operators are feeling the pinch.
From Kimbe we return via Port Moresby to Cairns, with only the Americans getting charged for excess baggage. But then, Harold does have a video camera and Gates housing, plus digital SLR and housing and changes of wetsuits.
He has more luggage than me and my buddy put together. Bill has only one camera but he has brought along a printer to produce photos to give to the locals.
In Cairns, despite the Internet and phone calls we have little luck in finding out what we can and cant take back as hand luggage. Throw away all non-rechargeable batteries, the dead UK rechargeable pack, toiletries and some clothing. In case cameras and buddys laptop are taken from us we get all decent photos put onto CDs to put in a pocket.
Its our last night in Australia when I find just the wetsuit I wanted. Fluffy lined Lycra, zip up the front, fast-drying, spine pad, various colours. I ask for my size, I can just squeeze it into the baggage, but they have only a small-size left. Im told they sell out as fast as they can get them in, and this is the only stockist in Cairns. We set off for home.

Cairns to Brisbane: Qantas domestic. We check in 26kg plus 28kg between us for the hold. We are allowed to keep the laptop, both camera bags and my roller bag (max cabin size but only 4kg) as hand luggage. We cant check baggage straight through to Birmingham as we are overweight for international.

Brisbane International: Emirates check-in. We claim the divers allowance and are allowed to keep both pieces of hand luggage we have, and we get the seats behind the bulkhead with extra leg-room.
Walking through into the lounge a man with a wand says: Do you mind if... and then looks puzzled as I laugh.
Its all right, I say, Ive been randomly selected at nearly every airport for swabbing for explosives. I ask you, do I look like a terrorist
Im female, middle-aged, fair skin, long fair hair and blue eyes. No. But as I look the opposite to what theyre looking for, I average out the numbers to make it fair.
We still have no idea about Dubai, where we change planes, so we buy no duty free in case it is being taken off us. Were late into Dubai, so after opening up the camera case for inspection yet again, we barely have time for a coffee and a rapid walk for our connecting flight. We find out that we can take our full allowance of heavy glass breakable bottles containing flammable liquid into Britain, its just coming out of Britain that has the problem.
Arrive back in Birmingham 30 hours after leaving Cairns, exhausted but happy. Thank you Mike Ball, for your contribution to what was truly a trip of a lifetime.
I love going diving. I just get stressed out at airports.
Is there any wonder when all the airlines have differing allowances
Now, wheres that brochure for the Galapagos And that spam email for: Do you want to buy Valium

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