Places To Avoid On Halloween

31 10 2008

“I told you not to come dressed as Humphrey Bogart”  (Hoover Dam, Nevada/Arizona)



No.1 – Hoover Dam.




Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Lessons Learned the Hard Way: No. 23

30 10 2008

“No photos please, the Skywalk’s very shy…”   (Grand Canyon Skywalk, Arizona)

A perfect photo opportunity isn’t necessarily a perfect photo opportunity.


Leaving behind the bright lights and clanging slots of Vegas, we headed south past the Hoover Dam and through towns still advertising for one-horse. Trailing mighty clouds of dust, we bounced along rough desert roads dodging tumbleweed and cacti and rounding flat-topped mountains before finally arriving at a remote airstrip on the edge of the great void known as the Grand Canyon.


Having only one day to visit this wonder of the world, we had chosen against the scenic flights assuming they would stay well above the canyon and not guarantee a window seat, and instead thought the best photographs would be at the west rim and the newly-opened Skywalk. Upon arrival at the airstrip, we were transferred to buses to cover the last few miles to Eagle Point.


During the short journey the driver explained that the Skywalk was constructed of one million pounds of steel and had exceeded all engineering requirements by more than 400%. It could withstand winds in excess of 100 mph from eight different directions, an 8.0 earthquake and support 71 fully-loaded Boeing 747s – should they all just happen to be looking for a short semi-circular landing-strip jutting out of a cliff face 4,000 feet above the Colorado River.


The coach stopped near the incomplete visitor’s centre and like lemmings we all traipsed to the edge of the gorge and started snapping away furiously. There were no fences, but there was a very severe drop to the canyon floor below. Now, I’d say I’m pretty good at judging distances whether in feet, metres or football pitches, but trying to picture a drop of 4,000 vertical feet was a challenge. You can hear that it’s three Eiffel Towers, 711 Paris Hiltons, 12,000 Mars Bars or 40 centipedes all you like, but it’s still just a number….until you peer over the edge and watch microscopically-small helicopters fly past 3,000 feet beneath you!


The Skywalk shot out from the rim just to our left. It was a perfect horizontal arch that extended 65 feet from the canyon wall before looping back in and, apart from its support and a railing, was constructed entirely of 4-inch thick glass. As I eagerly strode forward I was already mentally formulating my photos and angles:


         A nice wide shot taken from a low vantage point to capture the view through the glass floor as well as the horizon through the glass wall and the vast desert sky above.

         A shot of my feet standing on the glass and the devastating drop beneath.

         A self-portrait lying on my back on the transparent floor as if falling through thin air…smiling non-chalantly, of course.

         A shot looking straight down between the Skywalk and the canyon wall using both as a frame.

         …and several thousand shots of the magnificent canyon itself.


We entered the Skywalk’s temporary visitor centre to be greeted by a large symbol of a camera with a line drawn through it. “No cameras allowed on the Skywalk” a security guard with a hand-held metal-detector announced, directing me to a wall of lockers.  I stammered my objection, but it was clearly pointless. It wasn’t the first time I had encountered something like this. Usually, there was an option to purchase a ‘camera pass’ or ‘video pass’ for an additional fee…or visitors could instead opt to buy over-priced photos at the gift shop. Believing I was being fleeced by yet another cynical tourist extortion, my back stiffened and I headed for the manager under a puff of indignant steam.


“We have to protect the glass floor”, she explained sweetly as my bubble of ire evaporated. “We’ve already had to replace several panes because of scratches” she added to rub it in. “But we do have photographers on the Skywalk who will be happy to take your photo for you” she finished, completely draining my resistance. I nodded, smiled meekly and relinquished my camera bag and creative independence.


The Skywalk was impressive although the thick glass made the drop rather surreal. The staff photographers were busy snapping and said the digital photos would be available at the gift shop. At least they were making an effort to accommodate disappointed visitors after unfortunately having to deny them their own photos, I mused. Having completed the circuit we were channelled into the gift shop. A helpful and selfless soul stood by a bank of computer screens eager to assist in finding and printing your own photo.


The pictures were nice and very similar to the angles I had envisaged. They had two packages on offer: a 5×7 of our favourite mounted in cardboard, or a memory stick containing all six photos they’d snapped of us, a few of their all-time favourites – plus a free coffee mug. The price?


“$29.99 for a single photo…or $107 for the memory stick and free coffee mug” he smiled ernestly.


I re-boarded the bus and returned to Vegas where the casinos at least say thank you before they steal your shirt.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 12

29 10 2008

 “I would rather describe it as rustic.”                  (Nyika Plateau, Malawi)



“If the room’s $29.95, skip the complimentary breakfast.”


         Gary Mule Deer




Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan



(answer to yesterday’s Spot the Imposter: Venice on left, Vegas on right)

Spot The Imposter

28 10 2008


One is Venice.



One is Vegas.





 Which is which?





(answer tomorrow)


Photos and post by:

Simon Vaughan

Cruel And Unusual Punishment

27 10 2008

Not runway, I said run away! Run away!!!      (Zanzibar Airport, Tanzania)

Torture was banned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but I know for certain that it is still practiced with ruthless efficiency in Zanzibar.


After a wonderful week exploring the legendary Spice Island we returned to the airport for our return flight across the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. The airport was a simple facility: we checked-in at one of two counters and had the lone Customs officer stamp our passports. We were diligenty and politely searched by hand-held metal detectors before being waved through to the departure lounge.


Our home for the next 90 minutes was a single room structure with a few rows of well-used chairs bolted together. There was a small shop selling souvenirs to those who needed one last shot of Zanzibari retail therapy. There was a small counter offering basic drinks and snacks, a pay phone and a washroom. And that was it. Like all departure lounges, once in there was no way out except to board your aircraft…unless you wanted to raise great suspicion and invite interrogation.


We sat and gazed through the large windows at the airstrip beyond. Green grass spread to the scrub brush on the far side of the airfield beneath a flawless blue sky.


Although efficient, everything was laid-back and calm and consequently the temporary residents were suitably relaxed.


Until the music began.


I love music. I have rather eclectic taste that ranges from classical to jazz, golden era to classic rock, new wave and punk right up to the present day. When I travel I love the local sounds and invariably pick up a CD or two to play at home. I have an open mind and although I’m no expert, I know what I like…and what I didn’t like was what I was beginning to recognise.


The first few notes sounded disturbingly familiar. It certainly wasn’t African or even Arabic. It was western and…Celine Dion.


I should mention that I can not sing to save my life. In fact, the sound of my voice actually endangers my life and the lives of those within ear-shot. I can’t carry a tune if it has shoulder straps and is securely placed on my back. My attempt at whistling is unrecognisable and humming sounds like a poorly tuned lawn-mower at the bottom of a lake. Celine Dion has a magnificent voice and having attended one of her concerts in pennance for sins committed in a past life, I can honestly say that she puts on a good show and seems like a nice person. I just don’t particularly care for her music. I would even choose Kenny G ahead of her, and that says a lot.


The start of the next song sounded equally familiar…and it was again Dion. As was the third, fourth and fifth. Just as one’s heart can go on and on, so did the entire album.  I had no iPod or ear plugs and, being held captive, no reprieve from one of my worst nightmares.


I gazed longingly at my watch only to discover there was still more than an hour. I tried to read, to count the tiles on the floor, to stare at the blue sky beyond and find a happy place…but nothing worked. Eventually, the album came to an end. There was silence. My hair began to settle back down and my ramrod-straight back slowly eased. The sounds of spoons tinkling in cups at the snack bar, the buzz of the ceiling fan and the roar of aircraft engines were music to my ears. After a shortwhile, there was a gentle crackle from the speakers signalling something new. It couldn’t possibly be worse than the previous album, I mused.


The hiss eased across the room followed by the first notes. They again sounded familiar. Extremely familiar. It was the same album again…only louder. As the first tears started to well in the corners of my eyes I stared desperately at my watch. Still almost 30 minutes to go. I glanced at the plastic spoons at the snack bar and wondered how long it would take to cut off a limb with one.



Photo post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Photography 101 2.5/18

24 10 2008

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

“Okay, you pose for the photo and I’ll arrest him”  (Presidential Palace, Santiago, Chile)

Always be on your guard.


The guards at Buckingham Palace or Washington’s Arlington National Cemetery are likely amongst the most photographed individuals in both capital cities, but always be careful when taking snaps of anyone in uniform. In many countries it’s not only illegal to photograph police or military, but there’s little hesitation in confiscating your camera and film/memory card and even prosecuting you. Although a night or two in jail can be an interesting cultural experience for some, it’s preferable to do your research before you go and familiarise yourself with the dos and don’ts of your destination.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Lending a Hand

23 10 2008

Maasai children                                              (Lake Natron, Tanzania)

I used to love visiting the shops with my grandmother on pension day. I was extraordinarily adept at tugging on her coat, lovingly gazing up at her, batting my big eyes and with gut-wrenching sincerity and heart-tugging earnestness pronouncing my life-long dream to own a particular toy car, book or model aircraft. Quicker than you can say “emotional blackmail”, the target of my efforts would be in a small bag in my hand and life would be great…until I reached home, my parents scolded me for my calculating manipulation and my new acquisition would be confiscated. Until the next pension cheque.


Sadly, for millions of children throughout the world, their lives are consumed not with a longing for toys or games, but for food and the basic essentials of life. Even more sadly, many of these children live in developing countries visited each year by millions of tourists who stay in unimaginable luxury just minutes from terrible poverty and in many cases the only time the two meet is when the children approach the tourists with hands outstretched begging for money or gifts.


Not so many years ago, tourists were often encouraged to take pens, balloons or sweets to developing countries to give to the children encountered along the way. It was not unusual to pack a plastic bag full of gifts and treats to give to the children who invariably crowd around tourist buses or shops looking for a hand-out. Most tourists did this out of the goodness of their hearts, but unfortunately these good intentions created a sometimes hostile environment and a culture of begging that is in no one’s best interest.


I know I am incredibly lucky and I am constantly grateful for everything I have and everything I have seen and done. I am painfully aware of the suffering of others less fortunate and do what I can to assist their terrible plight. However, whereas once I would indeed enthusiastically give to these children and feel good about it, I now see the problem that this causes and the dehumanising affect it has on the children themselves.


That doesn’t mean to say that you can’t interract and contribute along the way, however.


Many tour operators partner with local communities so that donations of clothes, pens or other items can be given to a school or a village elder for distribution. This not only ensures that visitors are still able to help, but it also eliminates the less palatable encounters between travellers and locals.  If travelling independently, check with NGOs and other charitable organisations like UNICEF before you travel and ask their opinions.


It can be hard saying no to a small child wearing rags when you know that your pockets are stuffed with more money than their family earns in a year. But if handled correctly you can not only assist them infinitely more by better distributing your gifts but you can also help restore their childhood innocence by instead sharing a high-five, a silly dance or even just a genuine smile and laugh.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan