Just Deserts

21 04 2008


Wadi Rum: The dead centre of the Sinai Desert

When I was little and we headed to the beach on holiday, nothing made me happier than a jam and sand sandwich. I can’t say that I actually liked the sand part of the sandwich as I’ve never been partial to the crunch of grit between my teeth, but sand in my food has always been synonymous with a holiday.


The sand, of course, was not part of the original culinary design, but had managed to work its way into the picnic basket, past the paper bag and through the plastic wrap, as sand tends to do. In fact, sand tends to work its way into anything and everything as any beach bunny can attest. So imagine living in a desert…a fancy name for a really big beach that’s devoid of water, ice creams, enormous inflatable bananas and magenta thongs.


Most people can understand someone with a passion for mountains, or rugged coastlines or even pretty Bambi-luring forests. But deserts are an acquired taste that can’t be truly appreciated until properly experienced.  


The Sinai desert stretches from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean in eastern Egypt. It is a magnificent desolation of mountains, wadis and much biblical significance and home to the nomadic Bedouin people. I was to spend a few days with the Bedouin, sleeping in their oasis camps and trekking the sands they have called home since time immemorial. 


Our 4WD turned off the isolated road that had wound its way through the mountains from the coastal town of Dahab. We stood in the blazing sun and were met by our Bedouin guide in his traditional dress. This was no costume for tourists: his loose wraps and flowing gown were the most sensible thing to wear in such a hostile environment. He checked our water bottles, footwear and headwear. We had been advised to wear a white cotton keffiyeh rather than a baseball cap, as the keffiyeh provided protection while allowing the circulation of air. Once satisfied that we were ready, we set off into the drifting sands. 


As we plowed through the fine powder, our calves and leg muscles burned from the effort of taking one step backwards for every two forward. We eventually reached more solid ground and picked up our pace. There are few places in the world that seem untouched by humans, but the Sinai is certainly one. For hour after hour, we found no trace of human presence. We passed the carcasses of camels bleached by the sun, and saw the side-winding trail of snakes. We eventually squeezed through an opening in the rocks and descended into a narrow canyon, sheltered from the sun and deliciously cool. The silence caused our ears to buzz.


In late afternoon we reached the Bedouin’s oasis camp. A simple awning had been raised over a sea of carpets and small cushions. Small glasses of tea were brought out for us and we sat and learned about Bedu life. After a traditional dinner we climbed into our sleeping bags and snuggled down against the bitter cold of the desert night, all the while trying not to think of scorpions, cobras and other company.


The night was eerily silent save the crackle of the dying campfire. The stars shined brightly enough to read a watch and there was the occasional feather-like caress of the wind on our exposed faces. We packed our small packs and after a light breakfast headed back into the canyons and desert. 


By the time we reached the end of our trek and emerged once again at the tarmacked road, we had all gained a great appreciation for the beauty of the stark surroundings, and the hardiness and hospitality of the Bedouin people. We arrived back at Dahab just as the lights began to twinkle across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.  

We all returned home with not only enough memories to last us forever, but enough sand hidden in every nook and cranny to build a small fortress.  

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008


Jetlag: The Bare Facts

18 04 2008

When I awoke to find a woman standing at the foot of my bed holding a large aerosol can, I was alarmed. When I realised I was lying on my back stark naked, I was panic-stricken and scrambled for a pillow to conceal my modesty. She smiled widely and started distractedly spraying insecticide around my room before leaving with a cheery wave and a giggle.


Jetlag can be a beast. Often it’s no worse than being wide-awake at 3am, mindlessly flicking the TV to discover the only thing worse than late-night television on 143 channels at home, is late-night television on 3 channels abroad in a language that you don’t even understand. It is inevitably accompanied by a vicious hunger when the only food around is the packet of stale, prune-flavoured simulated fruit-boblets that slipped through the lining of your jacket several months earlier.


But sometimes it can be more serious, like the friend of mine who fell asleep mid-afternoon on the Paris Metro and claims he ended up in Romania.


Everyone has their own theory on how to beat jetlag. Apart from never leaving home, I advocate changing my watch to destination-time the moment I board the aircraft, and never giving home-time another thought. I drink lots of water and drug myself on the plane, and stay awake at my destination until it’s the local bedtime. It’s probably all just psychological, but it generally seems to help me. And if that fails, there’s always match sticks to prop your eyes open.


It used to be that if I arrived somewhere early in the day, I would have a quick hour-long power nap just to put me on the right footing.


In theory, at least…unless you have a shower, lie down on the bed for ‘a minute or two’ and are awoken several hours later by a startled cleaning lady armed with a tin of Bugs-B-Gone and an enormous smile.


Thankfully, I couldn’t have offended her sensibilities too much however: for the rest of my stay the entire housekeeping department treated me with great hospitality and friendliness, warmly laughing and pointing every time they saw me.


Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Gorillas In My Midst…Part II

17 04 2008

Gorilla 3

“Though shalt not covet thy neighbour’s gardening gloves” is not one of the Ten Commandments, but as the pack of envious and covetous souls closed around me, I would have taken any help I could get. 


It was still dark when we awoke and stepped from our hut into the brisk, cool air of the Virunga Mountains. We divided into groups and set off through the wet grass towards the forest edge, arriving just as the sun began to warm the mists that hugged the plains and valleys below.


Threatened by war, poaching, deforestation and disease, there are barely 600 mountain gorillas left in the world. Thanks to the tireless work of local rangers and international wildlife and conservation groups, they have valiantly struggled to survive in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo against the odds. Not only do those who see the gorillas in person have the experience of a lifetime, but they also make a concrete contribution to their survival as much of the USD$500 permit fee is used to help protect the critically endangered species.


On the edge of the trees our ranger drew us to a halt. We were accompanied by two more rangers armed with automatic rifles, and a tracker with a machete whose job it was to lead us to the gorillas. He explained that we would head directly for the spot at which the gorillas had last been seen and then pick up their trail from there. Gorillas tend to stop and eat quite regularly, so with luck we would gain on them quickly, he had added.


The forest was thick, dark and already very humid. We took the most direct route to the last nesting site, our feet soon sinking ankle-deep in cloying mud. We clambered through bamboo thickets, over fallen trees and under low-hanging branches, periodically stopping to extricate ourselves from the razor grip of thorns. Sun streamed through the canopy, dappling the forest floor and highlighting the occasional flower.


Before leaving, the tour operator had provided a list of items necessary for the trip. These ranged from sleeping bag and hiking boots, to water bottle and rain jacket. What was not on the list but had been recommended by a friend, were gardening gloves, which he said were great for scrambling through the undergrowth. We stopped in a clearing to catch our breath and with my companions’ hands scratched by thorns and red from nettles, I felt like the squirrel with the last nut. As the group closed in on me, I distracted them by pointing at a butterfly and hurriedly moved on.


After almost four hours of trekking, we came to a halt. In hushed tones, the ranger told us that the gorillas were just ahead. He whispered to us to be quiet and to move slowly. We ducked through one last curtain of vines and there, scattered amongst the thick foliage was a group of perhaps six or seven gorillas. They regarded us with complete disinterest and continued to eat while gradually and effortlessly drifting through the woods.


Gorilla 2

There is something utterly indescribable about sitting mere feet from a wild mountain gorilla, separated by nothing more than shafts of sunlight. We could hear their every breath, grunt, sigh and tummy rumble; see the deep warmth of their eyes; the blue-ish black of their thick fur and feel their immense power yet great gentleness. Any initial fear I may have had melted into a healthy respect and a tremendous awe.


While most acted as though we were of no interest, one young male charged through the grass and bounded onto a low branch just in front of us. He raised his arms and pounded his chest in defiance. The rangers hissed for us to remain still – which was considerably easier said than done! He continued his display, screaming and shouting, then jumped down and charged away. The rangers laughed and smiled at their quaking mob.


All too soon, our hour with the gorillas had ended. They slowly moved deeper into the forest, dissolving into the vegetation for the last time. We sat in silence, beaming smiles at one another and feeling distinctly privileged to have been admitted to their domain. We headed back down the mountain and out of the forest just as the heavens opened again.


It had taken me a lifetime of dreaming and three years of waiting to see the gorillas. Normally, when you anticipate something for that long, it fails to live up to expectations. This had surpassed mine. Perhaps the uncertainty, determination and effort that had taken me to Zaire had increased my appreciation.


Or perhaps the experience really was just that great.


Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Travel Words of Wisdom No.2

16 04 2008


Kibale, Uganda



“Never judge a book by its cover.”



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Gorillas In My Midst…Part I

15 04 2008

Gorilla 4

Djomba, Zaire


I like warmth and friendliness as much as the next person, but friendly Immigration people always make me nervous.


It’s not that I have an irrational fear of uniforms – although I do tend to stammer and blush even when donating money to the Salvation Army at Christmas – but I’ve long believed that any such pleasantry is the precursor to the smack of latex gloves, a cavity search and quick deportation.


When the Zairean border official greeted me sporting dark glasses, a shiny tracksuit, expensive leather shoes and lots of gold jewellery I was concerned, but when he beamed an enormous smile I knew I was in serious trouble,


We had arrived at the border post of Bunagana at dawn. Sheltering from the already blazing sun, the immigration officer stood beneath a tree beside the dusty road, cigarette in hand, a small boy polishing his shoes. He eagerly beckoned us to a hut furnished with a worn wooden desk, Bakelite telephone, battered electric fan and framed photo of President Mobutu Sese Seko. With a smile he gestured for me to sit down. He enthusiastically opened my passport and flicked through it before noting my visa with evident disappointment. Seemingly dismayed that everything was in order, he hurriedly stamped my documents and dismissed me with a wave, before turning to the next person with renewed optimism.


Outside, children gathered seeking to be our porters for the lengthy trek into the Virunga Mountains. The occasional tourists who passed through were the children’s only source of income and despite feeling uncomfortable hiring someone half our size to carry our day-packs, we soon all had hiking companions. We set off on the trek and our long line straggled through the small town, across farmers’ fields and up towards the jungle-covered mountains in the distance.


Zaire is, and was, one of the poorest nations on earth. The land previously – and now once again – known as the Congo had inspired Stanley’s “The Dark Continent” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. Whether under brutal colonial rule, subsequent corrupt dictatorships or intermittent civil war, the people had always suffered and that poverty was very apparent during our trek. Toddlers with distended stomachs waved to us from the doorways of their mud and straw huts while their parents watched shyly from the shadows. We walked on in silence, feeling a distinct guilt that we had travelled halfway around the world to indulge in a luxury that was beyond their comprehension.


By late afternoon, the final stretch of the trek ascended steep terraced fields towards the edge of the forest that marked the park boundary. We were shown to a small wooden hut built some years earlier by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and gazed back down the mountainside over the tranquil hills and fields of Uganda and Rwanda. Black clouds and dense mist rolled in from the mountains and there was soon the crack of thunder and a heavy downpour.


After a simple dinner, a park ranger visited us to explain that there were two groups of gorillas not too far away. He said that we would leave at first light and with luck would find them within four or five hours of hiking.


We spread our sleeping bags on the dusty concrete floor and bunk beds, and settled down for the night. The last paraffin lamps were extinguished and we lay in the darkness serenaded by the pounding of rain on the corrugated roof and the scampering of unseen friends on the floor around us.


To be continued…



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Gorillas I Had Missed

14 04 2008

Gorilla 4

For some strange reason, whenever I mention that I appeared as an extra in the movie “Gorillas in the Mist”, people ask which gorilla I was. Professional help has assured me that this is in no way related to my posture or my hairy shoulders, but rather an attempt at humour. At which point they generally hand me their bill and a banana and ask that I not drag my knuckles as I leave their office.


The fact remains that the opening scene of the movie on the life of primate researcher Dian Fossey was filmed not too far from where I lived. In this scene, Fossey attends a lecture by paleontologist Louis Leakey and approaches him afterwards seeking his support to conduct field research in Africa. The movie was critically acclaimed and received a number of Oscar nominations, not least because of the sterling performance of my head bobbing in the background when Fossey and Leakey have their conversation.


When I was young, I had been given Fossey’s book and others by chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall and dreamed of one day heading to the jungles and mountains of central Africa to see it all first-hand. At that time, it really was nothing more than a dream as I had assumed it was too expensive, too difficult and simply not possible. When, many years later, I finally did look into such a trip, I discovered it was not only not particularly difficult, but in fact eminently possible, and shortly afterwards I began to make plans for the following year.


The few remaining mountain gorillas in the world are located in one of the most unsettled regions of Africa, spread throughout a chain of mist-shrouded, jungle-covered, volcanic mountains that form the border between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  In my research I learned that it was possible to have a short trip that included 5-star hotels and luxury tented bush camps complete with butlers who did your laundry everyday, sommeliers who served fine wine, and chefs who prepared gourmet food. Transport was by light aircraft and private four-wheel drive vehicles and accompanied by expert guides. Alternatively, you could opt for a longer overland trip in a truck with a group of like-minded international travellers of all ages. Accommodation was in small two-person tents and everyone lent a hand with food preparation, dishwashing, camp duties and grocery shopping in local markets. I opted for the latter and started making plans.


The trip I selected started in Bujumbura, Burundi and spent three weeks travelling throughout the tiny country then known as the Switzerland of Africa. It continued across the border into the then-Zaire and trekked for Eastern lowland gorillas, before returning to Burundi. It was as much a cultural experience as a wildlife expedition and I began reading more and more about the places I would be visiting and their history and peoples in order to benefit the most from my trip.


Several months before I was due to depart, the aircraft carrying the presidents of Burundi and neighbouring Rwanda was shot down as it came in to land in Kigali when returning from a peace summit in Arusha, Tanzania. Both men died and the subsequent violence and unrest that swept the two countries also claimed the lives of perhaps a million people. Having developed an affinity for the people of Africa’s Great Lakes through my new interest in that part of the world, these events were particularly shocking and saddening for me.


The awful events not only put my own trivial cares and concerns into perspective, but obviously also put my travel plans on hold. My life-long ambition of seeing the gorillas once more seemed to recede into nothing more than a dream. My interest and desire to visit the area was stronger than ever, but I knew I would have to be patient and await my opportunity.


A couple of years later that second chance came and I headed to Uganda.


To be continued.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

The Ageless Question

11 04 2008

Kom Ombo

Kom Ombo, Egypt: Evidence of the sartorial elegance of ancient Egypt


Barely a week passes without the question raised of how the pyramids were built, who erected the Moai statues on Easter Island or for what purpose Stonehenge was assembled. For me, however, there really is only one genuine international travel question.


Is it ever really acceptable to wear socks with sandals?


I am not a slave to fashion, but there are some things that I find unacceptable regardless of the situation or surroundings. Men should not wear light cotton sarongs whilst standing on subway grates. Women should avoid flammable polyester ball gowns with metal sequins and tassles during thunderstorms, and thongs should be outlawed for anyone particularly hirsute or whose waistline exceeds their age.


The socks and sandal question is more than just a sartorial dilemma, however.


After a long day of trekking in tropical climates, there is no greater thrill than undoing the laces on your thickly-soled, hand-stitched, water-proof, ankle-supporting, high-tech hiking boots, pulling forward the sewn-in gusseted tongue and hearing the fizz of hot steamy air escaping. You pull your feet free, peel off your double-layer wick-away New Zealand merino wool socks and expose your pasty-white feet to the fresh air, wiggling your toes in an absolute frenzy. The last thing you want at that point is to confine them once more, so you reach for your sandals and feel the delirious pleasure of walking almost bare-foot.


As night falls and there’s a slight chill, you are still loathe to return to closed footwear…but you can’t sit by the campfire in just sandals lest the nasties devour your toes. Bare ankles and feet – even smelly ones – are manna for mosquitoes, and ants will happily plunge their razor-sharp mandibles into your exposed flesh and remove chunks with relish. There are also ticks, earwigs, scorpions and poisonous centipedes to consider.


The boots are a non-starter, so you are left with the decision between donning socks with your sandals to provide comfort, some freedom and a degree of safety…or remaining bare-footed in your sandals and risk having the flesh ripped from your bones, swelling-up like a balloon from nasty itchies, or contracting a tropical disease.


As a logical sensible-thinking person, there’s really not much of a question: better that the socks be thrown in the fire than worn with sandals!



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008