Like A Bicycle Out Of Water

30 04 2008


Just lion in the sun – Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania,

Even if you gave me a VIP pass, a bucket of popcorn and a Keg o’Cola, I wouldn’t attend a 72-hour Monster Truck Marathon. I don’t have anything against that type of event, it’s just that it doesn’t appeal to me personally. Likewise I wouldn’t pay money for a yodelling contest, a squirrel taxidermy exhibition, or a llama-milking competition - not that there’s anything wrong with any of them. However, I have met plenty of travellers in places where they quite simply didn’t want to be.


Travelling is not cheap. For most of us we’re lucky if we have one vacation a year, and if it’s something very special it could well be the trip of a lifetime. Yet I once met someone in Kenya who didn’t like the heat, had no interest in wildlife and wasn’t particularly keen on Africa. He had booked the trip because he liked the sound of a safari. I initially wondered quite what he was thinking until I realised that he actually wasn’t thinking at all!


‘Tick-off Tourism’ is that strange phenomena that causes people to spend good money to travel to places in which they have little or no interest or knowledge, and often into an environment or climate that they dislike. Their sole motivation is that their next door neighbour did it last year, or that they haven’t ‘done’ the Taj Mahal, The Great Wall of China, or Jello-wrestling before.  The fact that they are not in the slightest bit interested in these places or events doesn’t even occur to them.


Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania is one of the natural wonders of the world. The 600-metre deep volcanic crater is more than 260 square kilometres in area and is home to most of the species found in East Africa including lions, rhinos, leopard and elephant. In short, it is a veritable Garden of Eden with the sharp crater walls and cloud-fringed rim providing a breath-taking backdrop to spectacular game viewing. So why did several members of our group opt to spend their time in the lodge bar at the top, rather than in a 4WD on the floor of the crater?


I am a wildlife nut. I could spend all day watching a herd of elephants and I once allowed myself to be eaten alive by mosquitoes and black fly just to spot a black bear, but I fully appreciate that I might be quite odd! However, to travel halfway around the world to Tanzania, spend days travelling over very rough and dusty roads through one-zebra towns, endure cold showers and warm beer and then reach Ngorongoro Crater and spend your one day there sipping drinks by the pool because you discovered that you didn’t really like wildlife as much as you thought, strikes me as being, well, rather a shame.


Travel can be enlightening, awakening, educating or just plain entertaining but it should always be enjoyable. This is especially true for adventure travel. Conduct research before you travel. Chat to someone who’s been before, read first-hand accounts of other’s experiences and find out what the destination is really like.  Study the climate, the conditions and the infrastructure.


If you plan with your head as well as your heart you are guaranteed to have the experience of a lifetime.  If not, you might have just spent your life-savings on the most expensive gin and tonic in the world!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Travel Words of Wisdom: No. 3

29 04 2008

explosives 2

Malawi: It’s a blast!

“Don’t look back: something might be gaining on you.”


– Satchell Paige



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Rebel Without A Pause

28 04 2008

I derive a certain spine-tingling thrill from breaking rules, scorning authority and just generally being a rebel, which is why I stood in the elevator grinning from ear to ear, having slipped past the vigilant concierge with my bag of junk food in full violation of the lobby sign that emphatically stated “No outside food in the guest rooms”.


A glamourous life of spectacularly tasteful crime clearly loomed. I could envisage a future spent abseiling from art gallery ceilings in black spandex or relieving state depositories of their entire gold reserves accompanied by vertically-challenged circus acrobats.  There was clearly no stopping me now - until my room card wouldn’t work and I had to sheepishly return to the front desk clutching my illicit food and bashfully request a new one.


Every hotel and hostel has its rules and regulations. Many make perfect sense - like not smoking in the rooms, or refraining from throwing furniture off the balcony into the swimming pool. But the sign in the elevator of my hotel in Kuala Lumpur had me stumped.


It was a small, engraved plaque fastened to the wall just above the floor buttons. It depicted something akin to a medieval projectile: a peculiar oval-shaped object with little spikes around the outside, with a line drawn through it. My elevator-mate, observing my quizzical gaze, explained that it referred to the durian - a popular fruit whose odour is so offensive that it is banned from most hotels and public places throughout Asia.


Clearly, the gauntlet had been raised: I had to have one - and in the illegal seclusion of my hotel room too!


In the nearby market I quickly located the stinky-fruit stand. Disappointingly, it looked rather innocent. The seller instantly rumbled me as a curious tourist rather than a connoisseur of his tropical wares and offered to let me try it right then, instead of going to the bother of actually buying one. Somewhat disappointed that this was cheating and would deprive me of the naughty pleasure of noxious fruit smuggling, I nevertheless shrugged my shoulders and agreed.


No sooner had his large knife penetrated the skin than the smell of victory reached my nose. My nostrils twitched. Imagine taking some very dirty and well-worn socks, stuffing them with a wretched quivering mass of rotten mouldy-onions, stirring in some turpentine and adding a hint of death - and you would be close. I suspected that its character-building scent was illegal under the Geneva Convention.


Not content with permanently damaging my olfactory senses, a small bit of its flesh was then offered on the end of his knife.


I grinned nervously, the sweat beading in my hairline. This was a living breathing Fear Factor without the bikinis or prize money. It slid onto my tongue and sat there before I quickly swallowed it whole, successfully managing to circumvent all taste buds. I smiled and nodded that it was lovely, although in fact cowardice had ensured that I discerned nothing more than its slimy consistency.


I returned to my hotel obediently devoid of durian but wondering if my nose would ever truly be durian-free again.


Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Fancy a Bite?

25 04 2008


Lake Baringo, Kenya


It had been a hot and humid night filled with the buzz and whine of unseen insects, the high-pitched lilt of frogs, and the occasional sing-song snort of hippos. I climbed from the stuffy tent and headed for rejuvenation in the cold showers. The cubicle was small and I eased in, closing the slatted wooden door behind me and hanging my towel and shorts on a rusty nail. As I turned to open the tap I noticed the mosquitoes.


Wall-to-wall mosquitoes. Covering every square inch of the three walls. Millions of them. It was like a horror film when someone enters the chamber filled with sleeping zombies, or that scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when every roof, tree and telephone line is covered with starlings and crows.


I stood motionless and silent, wondering whether I could escape without rousing the masses and being eaten alive. The deliriously cold water dripped from the naked showerhead, taunting me to escape the heat. Reasoning that mosquitoes don’t bite during heavy rain, I turned on the water, all the while keeping an eye on the fuzzy wallpaper and an ear open for the sound of them licking their chops. The bloodsuckers didn’t stir. They’d clearly enjoyed a night of feasting and were now enduring the parasitic-equivalent of a hangover.  I finished washing, threw on my shorts, and fled as quickly as I could to dry off somewhere else.


In the First World, mosquitoes are little more than an inconvenience, but for most people in developing countries they are a threat from the moment they are born. While the worst we tend to suffer are nasty itchy bites, more than a billion people each year contract malaria, yellow fever and dengue.


Today is UN World Malaria Day, aimed at increasing awareness of the disease that infects more than half a billion people a year. The United Nations is endeavouring to eradicate the disease through education and the distribution of bed nets, repellent, and free or affordable drugs.


For tourists, malaria should be respected but not particularly feared. It can generally be avoided completely through the use of prophylactics, insect repellent, nets and by taking sensible precautions like wearing lighter coloured clothes, and covering up in the mornings and evenings. Should we still be unfortunate enough to contract it, we already have an advantage over many locals in that we are generally fit, strong and well fed. In addition, we usually have travel insurance and can access medication and proper medical care quickly even when on vacation. Although certainly not a pleasant experience, malaria is very rarely fatal for travellers unless they happen to be in an extremely remote area far removed from all medical assistance.


When travelling to any tropical area, be sure to visit your travel clinic before leaving – and if you ever have a nightmare of being locked naked in a small cubicle with several million blood-suckers staring hungrily, just remember to cover your unmentionables and run really, really quickly!


Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008


Peril In The Long Grass

24 04 2008


A room with a view

I am fluently bilingual in Canadian and English. I know that a lorry is a truck, that a lift is an elevator, football is soccer and that lemonade is lemon juice and not fizzy soda. It only becomes confusing when crisps are chips, chips are French fries, French fries can be crispy but crisps can’t be French Fries.


My grasp of Swahili is considerably less robust, however. I know the usual pleasantries and I’m proud to proclaim that I understood what hakuna matata meant even before “The Lion King”. Over time, I’ve learned numbers and the Swahili names for some of the wildlife encountered on safari.  But I’m certainly not bilingual and that never particularly concerned me until one June evening.


We were camping in the middle of Kenya’s Masai Mara. The savannah rolled as far as the eye could see, interrupted only by rocky hills and clusters of acacia trees. From our campsite we could see elephants, giraffe and antelope all with the naked eye and separated from us by….absolutely nothing. There were no fences, walls, moats or fields of land mines. If a pride of lions wanted to visit us to borrow a cup of sugar or exchange e-mail addresses, they could. The only thing protecting us from a jolly good mauling were a couple of Maasai asgaris, or guards, armed with spears, knives and a few thousand years’ worth of genetic nous.


Each evening, we sat by the campfire chatting about the day’s sightings or listening to the wonderful sounds of the African bush. All was good until it came time to go to bed.


Being in an area of the reserve filled with predators, chargers, stompers, biters and gorers, we had been advised that we couldn’t walk around unescorted after dark. Instead, when time came to head to our tents we would be accompanied by a Maasai warrior. If we had to go somewhere during the night we had to blow a whistle and someone would assist us. All rather reassuring when you’re protected only by thin canvas.


Our asgari led the way. Spear in one hand, flashlight in the other, we traipsed through the darkness towards our tent. Just as we arrived he hissed for us to stop, and hurriedly whispered something to us in Maa, and then again in Swahili, all the while crouching and gesticulating at the bushes and grass directly in front of the tent.  We cowered behind him trying to see what he was indicating and racking my brain to try and translate the word ‘komba’. I knew it wasn’t lion, buffalo, leopard or elephant, but beyond that I just couldn’t determine what was about to leap from the bushes and tear us limb from limb.


Finally, the viscious komba threat apparently over and our asgari frustrated at being unable to tell us what horrific death he’d just bravely prevented, he led us back to the campfire and a stack of reference books. He thumbed through one, stopped at a colour plate and handed it over.


The picture was of a small squirrel-sized teddy bear with enormous dark eyes, fluffy ears and a long curly tail that was wrapped around a small tree.


“Komba” he said. “Bush baby”.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

There Will Be Sun

23 04 2008

Orange River

The Orange River, yellow sky, red grass 

Unfortunately, because I am not very tall I am unable to see the top of my head.  I am therefore blissfully ignorant of just how rapidly my hair is thinning…until I spend a day in the sun and see steam rising from my reddened pate in the shower the next morning.


Being of northern European extraction, I was not designed for vast quantities of sun or extreme heat. I am well accustomed to rain, not especially perturbed by gnawing damp and consider a fine mist to be, well, just fine. However, even though I love hot sunny weather, it has been known to take its toll and leave me resembling Larry the Lobster.


There is a tree in Costa Rica which the locals refer to as “The Tourist Tree”, because its bark turns bright red before peeling off. It could just as aptly be named “The Adventure Blogger Tree”:  it doesn’t seem to matter how much sun block I apply, how big the brim of my hat is or how careful I am in choosing my place to sit, I always end up somewhere between pink and puce. It’s as if the sun takes out a slide-rule and determines how best to refract off any available surface in order to burn me.


Given the decrease in the ozone layer and the rise in skin cancer, this is not something I take lightly. As my favourite trips are active ones in tropical areas, it’s always an issue for me and despite my plentiful experience with them, severe sun burns are not a lot of fun. I once embarked on a 5-hour canoeing trip on the Orange River in southern Africa. Well aware of how brutal the combination of water and tropical sun is, I wore a baseball cap and slathered myself with the highest sun block available until I look like a lard-covered turkey just before the Thanksgiving trip to the oven.


I emerged from the trip seemingly unscathed. My arms, my face, my knees…even the tops of my ears were all fine. It was only when I climbed ashore and attempted to lift the canoe from the water that I realised that I had quite possibly become the first human ever to sunburn their armpits. For comfort and ease of movement, I had worn a loose cotton t-shirt and unbeknownst to me while on the river, with each upward movement of my paddle, the sun evilly shot-down the baggy sleeves and singed my pits…stroke after stroke, hour after hour.  I spent the next few days in annoying discomfort, applying a careful concoction of aloe and deodorant to the tenderness.


Sunburns are very serious and the closer you travel to the equator, the more brutal the sun is. Even if you are not susceptible to sunburns at home, make sure you are properly prepared when you travel. Overcast days can be just as perilous as a clear blue sky, and a bad burn can not only spoil your trip, but can have considerably more serious repercussions later in life.


A nice tan is one thing, but sunburned armpits are, well, quite simply, the pits.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008


Lessons Learned the Hard Way: No. 4

22 04 2008

Automated kiosks at airports are a fast and easy way to check-in, but kindly ensure that you concentrate when completing the process.


Having used the kiosks many times before and in an effort to impresAutomated s the rookies behind me with my jet-setting prowess, I whizzed my way through the procedure…until the red light began to flash, a warning box popped-up on the screen, the computer shut-down, and I was instructed to speak to an airline representative immediately. I gathered my documents and sheepishly headed for the counter.


The airline agent and his security guard assistant surveyed me warily, before coolly and cautiously demanding to know what explosives I was carrying.


Apparently, in my over-confident haste, I had inadvertently declared that I was carrying dangerous goods. I fortunately avoided the strip search and free trip to Guantanamo and was eventually able to convince them of my innocence and my error, and permitted to check-in.


I am now the person who uses the terminals extremely slowly and reads each and every word by following it across the screen with my fingertip, reading out loud letter-by-letter, line-by-line.


Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008