Winds Of Change

21 05 2008

Salima Bay

Malawi: Any way the wind blows…

At home, a wind is just a wind. We are rarely excited by prevailing air currents and certainly never wax lyrical over a gale. But when travelling, especially in an exotic locale, we suddenly gush all poetic at breezes and rave about zephyrs, chinooks, sciroccos and mistrals.


When your day is not consumed with overtime, rush hour traffic and reality television, you become more relaxed and more in tune with the natural elements. You notice the subtle differences in light between morning and evening, the stillness of water at dawn and the hum of insects.


However, it is gentle breezes and invigorating gusts that become something very special indeed.


It is a breeze that carries the first hints of sea air as you near the coast or that refreshes at the end of a long hot day. It is a strong wind that invigorates when hiking atop cliffs or near the summit of mountains, or that heralds the approach of a storm. It is a gentle current that transports the tantalising scents of fresh baking and spicy cooking or the perfume of colourful blossoms. And a steady blow that whips up the dust that stings your eyes, or that rattles your tent flaps and signals the arrival of dawn. But in the darkness, when it makes long grass sing, tree tops whisper and coarse scrub hiss it takes on a paranormal quality that resurrects ancient superstitions and fears.


It was a very cool evening on the shores of Lake Malawi near the Tanzanian border and we huddled around our campfire on the sands and hunched against the chill. Our circle was tight as we watched the fire steadily glow and the embers listlessly drift towards the starry night sky. We sat in silence, the lake invisible in its inert ebony and the only sound the occasional crackle of the fire. Everything was still and crisp.


Just beyond our group stood our night-watchman. He was a local man who we’d hired for a couple of dollars and armed with a large kitchen knife to wander around our tents while we slept. He stood quietly just beyond the glow of the fire, and shivered despite the heavy grey blanket that was wrapped around his shoulders.


“Come and join us” someone called to him as we all moved over to make room.


“No, no.” he answered. “The wind will blow me into the fire if I come closer.”


We looked at each other curiously.


“But there is no wind,” we replied. “Come over here, it’s cold by the water”.


Still he refused. Finally, someone got up and led him over. The orange glow of the flames illuminated his face and revealed eyes wide with caution and discomfort. He squatted down amongst us but still seemed ill at ease. No sooner had he joined our circle than a massive gust blew in from the lake. It roared and whipped the sand into our faces, fuelled the fire into a mighty inferno, sent embers flying, and knocked us all off-balance.


The night-watchman bounded to his feet and fled away from our group, disappearing into the darkness. The gust disappeared with him and all was still and silent once more. The fire died down. There was no conversation. There was nothing to say.


Perhaps it was all just a coincidence.


Or perhaps not.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008


Nippon A Flight To Tokyo

20 05 2008

When I was little, Japan was the coolest country on earth. Not only did they have gigantic fire-breathing monsters strolling their streets and news reporters and police who spoke English without moving their lips, but they’d also invented pachinko. How much cooler could a country be?


As I grew older, Japan became one of the places I most wanted to visit despite reports of $20 apples and $200 steaks. The unique culture – both ancient and pop – was highly appealing but fears of language difficulties and the cost were as intimidating as a Godzilla rampage. However, having survived the Cyrillic alphabet in Russia shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, just how difficult could Japanese Kanji really be, I pondered?


Japan is one the most intriguing countries on earth. Even in a bustling city such as Tokyo, tradition plays a very strong and important role. If you make the effort to explore beyond the main population centres however, you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse of a revered culture steeped in time-honoured custom.


A friend of mine once ventured to Japan with much trepidation and a huge wad of traveller’s cheques. The trip was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream and he was armed with phrase books, maps and what he had determined was enough money to stave off starvation. What he discovered was a country not half as expensive as he’d read or feared. He quickly learned that the small noodle shops and other Japanese fast food equivalents were really no more expensive than eating-out at home and although the language was a challenge, it added to his experience and never became a problem. He has returned several times since.


There are two ways to see Japan: independently, or as part of a group. Both styles can be as expensive or inexpensive as you wish. Japan offers everything from youth hostels that are part of international organisations, right up to 5-Star deluxe hotels that can rival the average person’s monthly mortgage payment for a single night stay. In between, there is something for everyone and every budget. Japan Rail offers passes to help get around the country and local transit systems are easy and inexpensive to navigate.


If you fancy a tour, there are as many options as there are products bearing Hello Kitty and her friends. The best bet for combining the security of a group with the freedom of independent travel are small group trips offered by a number of adventure travel companies. These usually have no more than 12-16 people, travel in a variety of transportation including private vehicles and public buses, stay in smaller locally-owned and operated accommodation and provide a proper taste of the Japanese culture and people. Their cost is often comparable with a similar trip to Europe…or even cheaper, and can leave you with enough money to engage in some serious retail therapy in the Ginza.


If you’ve always had a yen to visit Japan, start your research, contact a professional who knows their way around…and learn to speak English without moving your lips!!



Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Postcards from the Edge

19 05 2008

Havana books

Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your postcards.

As a child, I ate a veritable forest’s worth of rice paper-wrapped chocolate cigarettes. I would saunter about with the imitation vice between my fingers, before downing it with one bite. It was initially an effort to emulate my favourite TV and movie smokers, but there was also something very cool about being able to eat paper without risking parental punishment. I was easily a one-pack-a-day guy and ate so many I actually assumed that the old adage that we all have one book in us was in fact a literal reference to my fibre intake, and not a literary one.


With age, I gave up the filthy habit and moved on to far more mature confectionary addictions, like snorting red licorice. Thanks to travel, however, I do now feel as though I have at least one book in me. This time, indeed of the literary variety.


Ever since my very first exotic wanderings, I have maintained a travel diary. They’re useful in identifying photographs when you get home, and are also a great way to unwind in the evening while sitting by the campfire, the pool or in the bar. You can make point-form notes in order to jog your memory when you get home, or be more detailed and write great long tracts. I have a whole slew of tattered and moth-eared notebooks that served as diaries during my various travels. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever looked at them more than once – if at all, but they are nice to have. And, if ever Steven Spielberg decides to make a movie adaptation of my life and cast some precocious 8 year old to play me as an adult, I can assist with the specifics.


Postcards are another great way to record your travels. You obviously have to be far more concise on a postcard than in a diary, but combined with the image on the other side, you can paint a pretty good picture of your feelings and mood at the time. Instead of merely bringing home a couple of nice postcards as souvenirs, I started to actually mail one to myself when I travel. This is only partly to con the mailman into thinking that I have well-travelled friends…or friends at all, really. I try and be creative and humourous in my message aware that I’ll likely be depressed to be home again when I next see it, but invariably get no more original than “Wish I was still here”.


In all my travels, I have only had the postcards from one place completely fail to arrive at their destination. I have mailed them from small towns in the African bush and tiny villages in the Amazonian jungle; from the Australian outback, the Sahara and the extreme north of Iceland and Finland. Even from a Ukrainian research station in the Antarctic. But the only ones that failed to reach friends and family completely were mailed in Cuba.


Perhaps I shouldn’t have added the little stick drawing of Fidel munching on chocolate cigars?


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Lessons Learned the Hard Way: No. 74

16 05 2008

Namibia camp

“I want my mamba!”

When camping in the desert, kindly resist the temptation to visit the local snake and reptile farm. I had spent a fascinating afternoon in Namibia’s Swakopmund Snake Park watching black mambas, green mambas, Egyptian cobras and puff adders through thick glass. I had studied photographs of the devastating effect their toxic venom had on various victims’ arms and legs, and been captivated by lurid accounts of past attacks.

I then spent several extremely sleepless nights in my tent in the wilderness, listening to every tent-zip, rustle and breeze, too terrified to even visit the toilet.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Fear Is The Key

15 05 2008

Suriname 2

The Island of Unmentionable Horrors – Suriname

Many years ago I read a fascinating book on cryptozoology, the study of species that may or may not exist. Things like Bigfoot, Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster and helpful tax collectors. I tend to keep an open mind on such matters, whether through wishful thinking or because I used too many toxic felt-tip pens as a child, I’m not sure. However, for all my optimism, there is one thing that I don’t think will ever be found – a man-eating frog.


Everyone has their own fears. I’ve known people who will happily pay top dollar to devour gelatinous raw fish in fancy restaurants, yet run a mile from a bowl of jiggling Jello. Others who faint at the thought of a paper cut yet spend their Saturday evenings glued to the most graphic slasher movie ever.


Different things evidently bother different people.


I once met a woman who seemed to be utterly fearless. We had spent several days together in the jungle and nothing perturbed her in the slightest. We’d seen scorpions and giant cockroaches and she never batted an eyelid. On our first evening we were advised to ensure that our mosquito nets weren’t pressed against our skin at night, lest vampire bats snuggle up and suck our blood. Still not so much as an eye twitch. When one morning we found the dog fast asleep surrounded by two bloated vampire bats so gorged on its blood that they were struggling to crawl away never mind fly, she gazed on with rapt fascination.


So imagine our panic when her blood-curdling screams filled the camp just after dawn. We volted from our sleep and ran towards the deafening sound. Had she been bitten by a snake? Cornered by a jaguar?  Was there a piranha in her water bottle? We found her standing in a clearing in front of the showers. She was holding her face in her hands, crying and shaking. She stammered unintelligibly and gestured frantically.


We grabbed long sticks and like the unruly mob of village-goers in Frankenstein, advanced towards the shower. We swung open the door and jumped back…and there was the cause of the commotion: on the floor of the shower, sitting by the drain in all its evilness, riled-up and ready to pounce.


It glared at us with cold, malefic eyes.


A frog.


Granted it was the biggest frog I’d ever seen, but it was still only a frog. Actually, a nice pretty green one.


“I really hate frogs”, sobbed our fellow traveller, unnecessarily.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008 

Travel Words of Wisdom: No. 4

14 05 2008


Annual caterpillar migration  

“There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open. “


- Jawaharlal Nehru


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

A Gift From The Gods

13 05 2008

Caprivi camp

Namibia: The dog days of summer

Sometimes, the best and most cherished souvenir from any trip is that given reluctantly by a casual acquaintance. 


The campsite was idyllically situated beside the Zambezi near Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. It was an oasis of green lawns, with a bar and toilet block constructed of bamboo walls and thatched roofs so as not to detract from the natural beauty of the spot. Large blossoming trees afforded shade, flower beds provided colour and a stone pathway wound its way lazily throughout. The place was enlivened by several small dogs which raced around playing with each other and anyone kind enough to offer a good belly rub. In short, it was bliss.


The owners welcomed us to their slice of Nirvana and invited us to pitch our tents wherever we liked. They offered hot water in the showers, cold beer in the bar and table tennis and pool tables overlooking the river. Before leaving us to settle in, they offered one stern warning.


“Beware of snakes” they said, solemnly. “We’ve had a bit of a problem, so when you walk around, particularly after dark, use your torch and stamp your feet. Snakes don’t look for trouble, but if you stumble upon one and surprise it, you’ll likely come off the worse.”


“What types of snakes?” someone asked needlessly, as if it makes a difference which venom kills you.


“Black mambas and spitting cobras” he answered, nonchalantly, before giving us a happy wave and strolling away.


We looked at each other nervously before laying stake to a plot of grass. The campsite was soon ringing with the sound of mallet on metal tent peg and before long a small village of rag-tag travellers had found a new home. Each of us carefully inspected the ground before pitching the tent, anxiously scanning it for snake holes. My spot was pristine and with the job done, I headed for a refreshing shower.


The evening passed uneventfully except for the increasing glow of a raging bush fire in the Angolan distance. We stomped off to the toilets and our tents, wielding our flashlights like light sabres. The next morning we awoke to another beautiful dawn filled with the song of birds and the yap of the campsite dogs eagerly seeking playmates.


After breakfast I returned to the tent to pack it up. I withdrew the pegs, poles and flysheet. Then, with a long stick, I raised a corner of the ground sheet to ensure there were no dozy snakes still slumbering away. With the coast clear, and the tent stuffed back in its sack, I noticed a small object on the flattened grass. I edged forward cautiously before picking it up for closer inspection.


It was a very small, crudely carved, wooden rhinoceros. Well worn, and bearing none of the craftsmanship or polish of most of the carvings found in markets, its naivety and honest character instantly appealed to me. But where had it come from?


I had scrutinised the area before pitching the tent, and had pegged it so closely to the ground that not even a breeze could have blown in. Strange things happen in Africa. Perhaps this was an ancient spiritual totem that had simply materialised in my presence. Never one willing to offend the Gods, I reverently placed it in my pocket and adopted it as a very special good luck token.


As we drove away, the campsite owners waved good-bye and the small dogs ran after us, yapping and jumping as if losing a playmate.


Later, I recovered the little icon from my pocket and examined it more closely. It was scratched and worn and bore little indentations, almost like…like…bite marks from small dogs who used it…as their favourite toy…


I have been wracked with merciless guilt ever since.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008