Lenins Learned the Hard Way – No. 1917

31 07 2008


That’s fare!



If there are three things I learned from my mother it was never to venture outside without clean underwear; not to mix colours with whites when doing the laundry, and never to hitchhike. A pair of pink and grey dappled boxers and a harrowing experience in St Petersburg suggests that I should have paid more attention!


I was in Russia as the dust of the fallen Berlin Wall still floated in the air and Glasnost and Perestroika were news headlines and not the names of technopop bands. I had discovered that one way to avoid the necessity of a visa was to travel by Russian ship from Helsinki and stay on board from 1am to 6am each of the three nights in St Petersburg.


We had arrived just after dawn and cruised into the labyrinthine port slowly passing rusting hulks and spits of land glowing with small campfires. The enormous art deco terminal still bore the legend “Leningrad“. I headed down the gangway and had my passport stamped, was met by a friend and headed into the city.


Later that evening after dinner and a few drinks in a hidden courtyard patio reached through a dark and damp passageway, it was time to return to the ship before curfew. With the ‘White Nights’ burning bright and mosquitoes devouring my ankles, I hailed a taxi.


“Be here tomorrow morning at eight and we’ll get the train to Tsarskoe Selo, the Summer Palace.” Lena suggested.


“Can I get a bus from the port?” I asked optimistically.


“Ummm, no.” she replied.


“There are buses but they don’t run very often – and you won’t find a taxi there either. You’ll have to hitch a ride.”


“Hitchhike?” I stammered unenthusiastically, visions of every slasher film I had ever avoided dancing in my head – except this time in Russian with English subtitles.


“Yes…just flag a car heading in the right direction. Someone will give you a lift. But don’t get in a car with more than one person…just to be safe.” she said as I climbed into my taxi.


“Oh…” her voice rang out as I was whisked away, “…and don’t get in a BMW or anything expensive: they’re probably mafiya.”


The next morning I set off towards the road with great trepidation, glancing over my shoulder every few feet in search of a suitable ride. Docks tend to be industrial and generally unappealing in any city. St Petersburg was no exception. The cracked sidewalk was deserted and weed-strewn and the surrounding buildings seemed abandoned, overgrown and darkened by the long shadows of dawn. Apart from a stray dog and squad of jogging naval cadets, I was worryingly alone.


I surveyed the traffic intently. BMWs and SUVs were avoided, less resplendent vehicles carefully scrutinised for multiple occupants. Finally, a battered and exhaust-spewing Lada chugged into sight. There was only the driver and he seemed old…and harmless. I raised my arm and he stopped.


“Petropavlovskaya, puzhalsta?” I implored using half of my entire Russian vocabulary in one sentence.


The driver leaned across and let loose a rabid torrent of Russian, his right arm gesticulating wildly.


Nyet Russkoya” I struggled unnecessarily, exhausting the rest of my Russian and backing away from the car.


He beckoned me back and opened the door. I climbed in but unfortunately we didn’t drive away. Instead, we sat there by the side of the road while he continued his diatribe. I shrugged intelligently and went to reach for the handle to leave, just as he stepped on the accelerator and we jolted into the rush-hour traffic.


I have often found that the longest moments in life tend to be when you’re with someone and there’s little or nothing to talk about. True friends are those with whom you can be silent in complete comfort. This particular one-sided conversation was the verbal equivalent of a trip to the dentist.


My driver’s tirade continued as we wheeled through the busy roads. His finger tapped the fuel gauge furiously.


After the longest trip of my life, we arrived at Petropavlovskaya station. I reached into my pocket and removed $5 in rubles – a lot of money in newly post-Communist Russia.  I proffered it, unsure whether it was an acceptable payment or not.


My driver went silent for the first time, took it, held it in his hand, and then beamed the biggest brightest gold-toothed smile in the world. He gripped my shoulder and rigorously shook my hand. Reaching under his seat he removed an unlabelled bottle of a mysterious cloudy liquid, took a swig and handed it to me with a hearty “moi drug” (my friend). I smiled politely and raised the bottle to my lips, the scent of pure alcohol singeing the hairs in my nostrils and almost causing me to cough. I pretended to drink and, spaseba-ing him profusely, returned the bottle and escaped his car.


Heaving a sigh of relief I watched my new best friend tuck the bottle back under his seat and drive off waving enthusiastically…and then checked to see if at least my underwear was clean.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 9

30 07 2008

 Freshies 1

 “Stop complaining…you’ve still got nine toes left!” (Northern Territory, Australia)


“Remember what Bilbo used to say: It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

J.R.R. Tolkien



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Travel Photography 101 9/18

29 07 2008

Confessions, musings and tips from a snap-happy wanderer.



Space Shuttle Discovery, Kennedy Space Center

Carry spares…of everything!


Pretend you are going into space: take extra batteries, extra rolls of film, extra memory cards…extra everything. Assume that you can’t buy anything locally. Take an extra camera or extra camera body (even if it’s just a disposable). It doesn’t have to be as good or expensive as your main camera, but at least you won’t miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity if the unmentionable happens and yours gets lost or broken.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

The Circle of Life

28 07 2008

Etosha 2


My first trip to the cinema was to see “Charlie the Lonesome Cougar”, which was not about an aggressive middle-aged woman named Charlotte and her club-hopping antics, but rather a Disney film about a mountain lion. It was enjoyable, but I would have rather been with most other 5 year olds watching “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”. However, it is possible that my first cinematic foray whetted an appetite that still rumbles to this day.


I really do enjoy nature documentaries. I’m not terribly fond of hour-long studies of the mating rituals of the microscopic mites that live on the end of my eyelashes, but I will opt for a wildlife film over the biography of an unknown actor whose on-screen career highlight was holding the door for Tom Cruise.


While in school, I dreamed of being a nature photographer. I romantically imagined myself living under canvas, risking life and limb lying in wait for days and shooting hundreds of breathtaking images.  When, years later, I made my first trip to Africa, I came close to my dream, albeit only briefly and never in any particular danger.


The great game parks of Africa provide the majority of visitors with their own National Geographic moments. A visit to any major reserve almost guarantees elephants and giraffes and a good chance of lions. In addition, most people have at least one lucky encounter and spy a cheetah, a leopard or possibly a kill. But some experiences transcend even those and make even the professionals jealous.


We were on a late afternoon game drive in Nambia`s Etosha National Park and came across an elephant carcass. Our guide estimated the giant beast had died recently and likely of natural causes. Jackals and vultures were investigating. In reverence we watched until darkness and then returned to our campsite. That was when the debate began.


The following day was scheduled for an early start and a long drive. Half our group wanted to get up even earlier and return to the elephant, whilst the rest wanted a lie-in. Splitting the group and making everyone happy wasn’t an option and so the arguments began. If people were opposed to returning out of sadness, I would have been more understanding. But their opposition was entirely due to their desire for an extra hour’s sleep. My intolerance rose and I soon led the elephant chorus. After all, we had plenty of time to sleep when the trip was over.


Amid much acrimony, the ‘elephant people’ finally won, and we all awoke in the pitch dark, broke camp and headed on our game drive. The ‘sleepers’ were clearly longing for it to be a fruitless journey so they could vent bitter satisfaction. There was stony silence during the short trip.


As we approached the carcass someone whispered “lions”, and all heads – including those of the ‘sleepers’ turned forward. Two large lions were using every single ounce of their impressive strength to feed on the carcass. Their muscular bodies strained at the immense weight as they worked together to manipulate the body to their advantage. The display of power was awe inspiring and terrifying at the same time. Then, mid-struggle, their noses turned to the air and they abruptly stopped. They glanced to their right and stood off, watching the bush intently.


An elephant suddenly charged into view. With trunk raised it trumpeted loudly and raced towards the lions. Other elephants followed and the lions backed away into the shade. Satisfied that the predators had left, the herd gathered around and warily smelled the air. One by one, each elephant came forward towards the carcass. They stood beside their young comrade who had lived barely longer than its own gestation, raised one leg bent at the knee and then slowly moved their trunk over the body. We watched in rapt silence.

Etosha 1


The ritual lasted for several minutes until all the older elephants had visited the youngster. Then, with one final angry mock charge towards the lions,they trumpeted again and charged back into the bush.


We started the engine, and in silence drove away as well.


You see many things on safari. You may laugh, squirm, or even cry, but no one on that truck – not even the ‘sleepers’ – will ever forget that incredible experience in Etosha National Park.


Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

The Beautiful Game

25 07 2008

Maasai 2

Maasai United practicing free kicks near the Masai Mara, Kenya

They stood before us, line abreast: four stern-faced Maasai morani, or warriors. The razor-sharp blades of their spears glinting in the sun, wooden knobkerries and well-worn daggers thrust through their belts. They had suddenly appeared from the acacia scrub that surrounded our tents and watched us disdainfully as we scrubbed our socks in a large bowl of dirty grey water.


“Football?” one of them asked, pointing at the volleyball lying on the ground.

“Sure.” we responded, swiftly downing our laundry in an effort to regain our compromised masculinity. They spoke minimal English, we spoke no Maa and only the odd word of Swahili, but the common language was soccer.

The metal flight of a spear was used to draw a goal line before four spears were thrust into the hard, sun-baked ground as goalposts. Daggers and clubs were placed beside them and our opponents’ flowing red shukas were hoisted up and tucked into their belts. It was to be four against four. The Maasai were fit, lithe and sinewy and loomed over us by at least a head. By comparison we were short, unshaven, sun-burned and in trouble.

It was mighty warriors against Hobbits.

We lined up facing each other. Sandals made of shredded tyres versus fancy footwear with velcro, elaborate treads and silly brand names. Aluminium water bottles versus gourds of cow’s blood and milk. T-shirts versus togas. Tan lines versus battle scars.

We graciously allowed the side with the most weapons to kick-off. The light volleyball hopped and bounced across the rutted dusty ground and disappeared into the bush. Hands on hips, we exchanged glances before a Hobbit volunteered to retrieve it. Play resumed, the dust began to fly and the sweat fell. The Hobbits were soon breathless, the Warriors effortlessly striding about in the equatorial heat. There were shouts, tackles, crosses and shots but neither side could hit a cape buffalo with a banjo.  It was soon clear that while the Warriors were supremely fitter and stronger than we’d ever be, they’d spent their formative years engaged in far more worthwhile pursuits than kicking a ball around: things like hunting lions and staying alive.

As the match progressed, the Warriors seemed to grow younger. They shed their gladiatorial demeanour and reverted to the fun-loving teenagers that they actually were. With the transformation came more smiles and laughs and more fun…until the volleyball met an untimely end with a sharp acacia thorn, popped and slowly deflated with a whimper.

We all shook hands and patted each other on the backs. They picked up their spears, clubs and knives and with a wave, headed off back into the bush whistling and chatting.

It was a cross-cultural experience of the finest order. There was no bartering for souvenirs, no begging for pens or money, no requests for photographs and no patronising or hostility. We were simply eight guys from four different countries all engaged in fun for fun’s sake. All of us, perhaps for the first time, realised that regardless of surroundings, appearance, occupation or culture, we were basically all the same…and none of us would ever be a threat to David Beckham!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 7

24 07 2008


Lake Natron, Tanzania


“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

Maya Angelou


Photo by: Allen Bollands Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Travel Photography 101 3/18

23 07 2008

Confessions, musings and tips from a snap-happy wanderer.


Souvenir left by aliens.




The subject doesn’t have to be central…or big.


The subject of your photo doesn’t have to be dead centre or fill the entire frame.  In fact, it’s often far more interesting if it is doesn’t! Try putting it to one side of the frame, at the very top or very bottom of the photo – try different compositions. The Old Masters rarely put the focal point of their paintings smack-dab in the middle of the canvas. Use the sky, other buildings or the countryside to balance the picture.


But again…remember to focus on the subject and not the background!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 21

22 07 2008

You know you’re a city slicker when…


Victoria Falls is a relatively small, unhurried town in the middle of the Zimbabwean bush. Although visited by tens of thousands of tourists each year its sidewalks rarely bustle and it’s more customary to find a wayward elephant or warthog strolling the dawn streets than a rush of commuters. Despite that, the constant muted roar of traffic from a nearby highway disturbed me night and day and detracted from the otherwise natural setting. 


I was camping in the centre of town in a large campsite that boasted showers, flush toilets, enormous trees for shade, was conveniently located near restaurants and shops and was only a short walk from the town’s eponymous natural wonder. Apart from the occasional train shunting on the nearby tracks or the claxons of the antiquated fire engines, the only sounds were the calls of colourful birds…and the incessant rush of traffic.


The Falls were spectacular, even in the dry season with the water levels considerably lower than in full flow. Unlike Niagara, there was no expensive visitors’ centre or souvenir shops cluttering the entrance, no skyscraper hotels and casinos with rotating restaurants towering over the gorge. There were no waxworks, night-time illuminations or massive car parks. Instead, there were rustic pathways that wound their way through the rainforest, knee-high wooden barriers separating visitors from a dizzying drop and warnings to watch for dangerous wildlife.


It was a spectacular natural wonder in a spectacular natural setting and it was very easy to imagine that little had changed since Dr Livingstone became the first European to set his eyes on it more than a century earlier.


On my third day, while buying a postcard in a small shop cooled by a creaking, rusted fan, I asked where the motorway was.


“Motorway?” the shopkeeper asked, confused. “There are the roads that lead to and from town, but I wouldn’t really call them ‘motorways’” she replied.


“But I can hear the constant roar of traffic…even at night. It must be trucks transporting goods to and from Zambia?” I insisted.


“No, that would be the Falls.” She replied scornfully, hurriedly ringing in my purchase and ushering me to the door.


Post by: Simon Vaughan  © 2008