Going To The Dogs

16 12 2008

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“Fetch? What do you mean, fetch?! I’ll show you fetch!”  (Chobe, Botswana)

 

The yap of a dog was some distance away but quite distinct. Being a city boy, it meant nothing to me, but Mark motioned for me to be quiet as he listened intently for an encore. Within seconds there was a second bark.

 

“Wild dogs,” he said with a huge smile. “Come on, let’s find them.”

 

I was on a three-day walking safari in the remote Gwayi Valley of western Zimbabwe. Mark was my professional safari guide and constant companion for the time we spent in the bush. We slept in clearings around the campfire, and set off early each morning following sometimes barely discernible game trails. Mark had years of experience – and a loaded rifle – to keep us safe from the wild animals that surrounded us and he was sharing all his knowledge with me in a way that you simply can’t get from a vehicle or in an expensive lodge.

 

We had heard the wild dogs on our second morning. The dogs, one of nature’s most efficient and ruthless hunters yet notoriously inquisitive and generally gentle to humans, were wiped out almost to extinction throughout much of Africa. Living in complex family systems, the dogs were trapped, shot and poisoned by ranchers and subsistence farmers and devastated by diseases borne by domestic pets. After concerted efforts their numbers had gradually recovered although any sighting – no matter how fleeting – was always a cause for excitement and jubilation.

 

Mark led us in the direction of the sound. We moved quickly but carefully watched and listened for any indication of the the fleet-footed predators. Mark had explained that they had been seen on neighbouring property, but not in this particular area. Every few minutes we would stop and listen again, hoping for further indication of their whereabouts.

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For hours we tracked those dogs. We saw fresh tracks but never caught so much as a glimpse of a tail or ear-tip. At one point we stood on a slight hill and watched the tops of very tall grass swaying as something dashed around below. We were startled when a large kudu antelope dashed from the grasses right before us. His eyes were wild and saucer-like, while foam flew from his mouth. He barely broke step when he saw us and continued to race away quickly, clearly deeply disturbed by something life threatening. With Mark in the lead, we waded into the meadow completely blinded by the towering grass.

 

My bare arms and legs were soon lacerated by thorns and razor-sharp grass blades and leaves. Blood trickled down towards my boots but the thrill of the hunt spurred me on. 

 

As the shadows grew longer and the brutal heat began to ease, we finally had to give up our pursuit and return to camp. Apart from a few birds and that single kudu, we hadn’t seen any wildlife at all that entire day, but the thrill of the hunt – with only a camera and our eyes with which to capture our prey – had been better than any game drive spent with the Big Five.

 

I have been fortunate to have spent many weeks on safari in game parks and reserves. I have been in vehicles surrounded by lions and buffalo, in canoes chased by elephants, boats surrounded by hippos and on foot within a cat’s whisker of leopard, but that day spent tracking an elusive prey that I never actually saw, will always rank amongst the greatest days I have ever spent in Africa.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

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Equatorial, My Dear Watson, Equatorial

15 12 2008

 

equator-mwThe first time I crossed the equator I was flying from London to Nairobi and it was early morning. The cabin crew was clearing away the breakfast trays and fellow passengers were gathering their things for our imminent arrival. I had opened the window blind and was gazing down at a rolling terrain of green hills and arid sun-scorched plains hoping for my first glimpse of African wildlife. ‘Was it possible to see an elephant from 20,000 feet?’ I wondered while surveying the sunrise that illuminated the not-so-dark Continent.

 

The First Officer announced that we had just passed the equator. Naturally, there was nothing to see or feel, but a murmur of excitement rippled through the cabin. We were in the southern hemisphere.

 

A few days later while driving to Kenya’s Northern Frontier

District, we crossed the equator for a second time, although on this occasion on the ground and there was something to see: a large roadside sign marking the invisible line that encircled the planet. We stopped the minivan and all bailed-out for the obligatory photograph…and science demonstration.

 

Everyone knows that in the northern hemisphere water flows down the drain in a clockwise direction whilst in the southern hemisphere it travels anti-clockwise. In my excitement and jet-lagged state I had forgotten to verify this phenomenon in my Nairobi hotel room, but now I had someone standing before me willing to provide a personal demonstration.

 

Anthony led me over to a bright yellow plastic jug filled with water and a large orange plastic bowl. He showed that the bowl had a small hole drilled in the bottom which he plugged with his finger tip, then bent over and filled it with water. He placed the jug upright on the ground, removed his finger from the hole and positioned the bowl on top of the jug. The water slowly drained into the jug beneath. Anthony took several small pieces of wood from his pocket – each no larger than a toothpick – and dropped them into the water. After a moment, the two sticks began to rotate anti-clockwise demonstrating that the water was flowing out of the bowl in that direction. With that, he fished out the sticks, picked up his equipment and led us 40 feet north into the northern hemisphere.

 

An equal distance from the sign, he repeated the experiment. Except this time, the little sticks rotated clockwise. Finally, we followed him back to the sign and directly beneath it, right smack-dab on the equator, he did it all a third time. Although the water was clearly flowing into the jug below, the sticks were only slightly oscillating, moving neither to the left nor right. It was an impressive display for which we happily paid Anthony a few dollars and received our commemorative equatorial science certificates.

 

Back in the van we continued our journey north through lush rolling hills not far from Africa’s second-highest peak, Mount Kenya. All but one of us had our certificates. The odd man out was sitting quietly by the window with a bemused smirk on his face. “You didn’t want the demonstration, David?” we asked curiously.

 

“It wasn’t true,” he explained. “How the water drains depends on how it was introduced into the bowl and on what forces have affected it since,” he continued.  “This is true anywhere on earth, not just at the equator. The question seems to be based on the false, but often asserted, premise that the Earth’s rotation causes basins and toilets to drain clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the southern hemisphere. This is certainly true of cyclones and other large-scale weather phenomena, but the Coriolis force is so weak that it simply cannot affect a system as short lived as a basin full of water.”

 

With that, he turned back to the window while we folded up our certificates and placed them in our pockets…and no one spoke to David again for the rest of the trip. Next thing, the poor disillusioned young man would be telling us that Santa Claus didn’t exist.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Travel Photography 101 5.5/18

12 12 2008

Confessions, tips and musings from a snap-happy wanderer

“I said ‘Make the beds’…not ‘Make the beds’…”          `             (Kenya)

The best photographs sometimes hide in plain sight. 

The photographs that grab the most attention and cause the greatest conversation are often not the ones of the famous landmarks, the spectacular scenery or the beautiful wildlife. Often, they are of every day things that many people overlook, or if they do notice them, fail to photograph.

 

Good travel photography is an art that goes well beyond an expensive camera or an exotic destination. It’s all about having your camera at the ready and keeping an eye open for things that are out of the ordinary. You don’t have to spend every moment of your vacation with the viewfinder glued to your eye – this is a holiday after all! – but always have a camera at hand and if something turns your head, a photo of it will likely turn the heads of your friends and relatives as well.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





I’ll Drink To That!

11 12 2008

 

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“Hey Ernest, you’ve been propped up there so long you look like a fixture!” (Havana, Cuba)

 

I once worked part-time in a small shop that sold newspapers, magazines and sweets and chocolates from the United Kingdom and which offered video transfers from international formats to the North American system. People of all nationalities would transfer their family videos of weddings, vacations and get-togethers. Often, it was only when they returned to collect the finished product that they would learn just how long the video their relatives had sent was – and they would leave richer for the family-link in their bag, but considerably poorer for the 9-hour blurred and shaky wedding they’d just paid for!

 

Then there were the people who had returned from their vacation and forgotten to buy a souvenir for Uncle Fred. They’d race in and pick up some rare imported chocolate that they would then claim had been thoughtfully purchased at Heathrow on their way home. Around the corner was a UNICEF store which I suspect was similarly raided by absent-minded travellers.

 

I used to faithfully buy gifts for people during my travels until I realised that not everyone appreciated snowglobes, fridge magnets and bobble-heads as much as souvenir shop owners do. Gradually, I weened myself from the habit although just to ensure that wealthy Great Aunt Agnes doesn’t leave me out of her will, I still diligently send postcards from most of my travels.

 

Duty-free alcohol used to rank high on my list of overseas purchases and neighbours would know when I was returning from a trip by the clanking sound as I walked down the road. I would seek either something unusual – like a fancy bottle of Curacao from Curacao, Konyagi from Tanzania or berry-liqueur from Finland – or a downright bargain. A nice bottle of grog made a great gift for someone or a great addition to my own bar: ie the space beneath the kitchen sink. However, as airport security tightened, the bobbleheads looked more and more appealing.

 

Before you buy duty-free alcohol, make sure you familiarise yourself not only with your own country’s limits on what you are allowed to bring home, but also on what security arrangements allow you to carry in your checked luggage or your carry-on. Otherwise, the closest you may come to a tipple will be watching a uniformed official pouring your nectar down the drain!

 

The U.S. is one of many countries that does not permit liquids to be carried in your carry-on unless they meet strict security restrictions. While this may seem obvious, you can still be caught off-guard if you are transitting via a third country. While most airports now again permit you to purchase duty-free alcohol and carry it onto the aircraft, if you are changing flights in another country, you will likely be advised that you must place those bottles in your checked-baggage or have them confiscated. Just because it was security-cleared at one airport does not mean it has been security-cleared at all airports enroute. It is a common sight in places like Los Angeles, Chicago or New York to see dozens of travellers on the floor frantically re-packing bottles into their checked-baggage in the secure baggage-claim area before re-checking it for an onward flight….and people travelling without checked-baggage have no alternative but to abandon their booze altogether.

 

With the holidays approaching and many would-be Santas carting bags full of gifts around the world, make sure that you check with your travel agent, airline or airport officials to familiarise yourself with the security arrangements for your entire trip, and not just your first flight. It can save a lot of frustration and thirstiness later on.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Should I Stay Or Should I Angola Now?

9 12 2008

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Adventure tour operators constantly seek new destinations for intrepid travellers. A new destination may be somewhere that has never been open to commercial tourism before, or somewhere that used to be a popular destination but was made inaccessible for a period by war, disaster or simply government rule. There has always been a certain cache amongst voyageurs to be amongst the first to visit or return to a new destination. A few years ago, Mozambique would have fallen into that category. Not long before that it would have been Zimbabwe, Namibia, Nicaragua or El Salvador.

 

One country on the threshold of such status is the southern African country of Angola – a country long ravaged by civil war but now enjoying peace and reconstruction. The infrastructure is still rather basic and the tourist facilities almost non-existent, but travellers heading there now get the reward of seeing a beautiful country untrammelled by tourists and inhabited by a warm, friendly and welcoming people.

 

So, for our first Adventure Blogger poll, we ask:

 

 

For more information on visiting Angola, contact your nearest Adventure Travel Company.





Take Only Photographs…

8 12 2008

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“Psst, wanna buy a souvenir?”      (Chinstrap penguins, Antarctic)

 

“Leave only footprints, take only photographs” is an oft-quoted sentiment stressing the importance of leaving the environment precisely as you found it. However, in the Antarctic, it is actually the law.

 

Under international treaty, unless you have a scientific permit, it is illegal to take home any souvenirs from the Antarctic. That means anything: whether a rock, feather, shell, vial of sand or historic artifact. If you visit one of the international research stations, you are often able to purchase postcards, badges or patches from the scientists…but that’s the limit of souvenir hunting at the bottom of the world. Then again, you’re probably not venturing across the wild Southern Ocean expecting to find a Louis Vuitton warehouse outlet!

 

Now, I’m not the sort of person who has a bathroom full of shells from all over the world but I do like the occasional something to serve as a reminder of my travels in addition to my photographs, memories and credit cards bills. The Antarctic really isn’t the place to indulge in a little retail therapy but then again, the experience itself is so rewarding that souvenirs aren’t particularly necessary.

 

But I did have a great compulsion to bring something tangible home from the Antarctic. Perhaps because it is the end of the world. Perhaps because it is a place that stole my heart as deeply as tales of its explorers had long-stolen my imagination. Or perhaps simply because I realistically know that I will likely never return. Regardless of what drove my compulsion, I stood on a volcanic black sand beach and gazed longingly down at my feet. Much like a land-locked Ancient Mariner, there was sand sand everywhere but not a bit to touch.

 

I would be lying to say that I wasn’t tempted to bend down, feign adjusting my boots, and surreptiously snare a handful of terra-australis-incognita-firma for my pocket. But either I really do care for the environment, am extremely obedient or just frightened of being locked in an Antarctic jail with drunken-and-disorderly penguins and pick-pocketing krill…I chose not to indulge my desires and instead returned to my ship empty-handed and empty-pocketed.

 

Back at home I unpacked my bag and began to store away my winter gear. As I pulled out my boots, something fell onto the floor. I reached down and there were several miniscule, black stones. I picked them up and inspected them in the palm of my hand. Tiny little fragments of a distant land that had been wedged in the treads of my boot. I touched them gently and reverentially before placing them on a shelf.

 

Although unnoticed by everyone else, those little specks will forever be treasured…until the Antarctic police come knocking on my door and drag me off to penguin penitentiary.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Asia In Style

5 12 2008

 

I don’t feel as though I am truly an adventurous traveller unless my hotel room has a rusted fan bolted to the ceiling, a television with three channels (or better yet…no television at all), a constant din rising from neighbouring streets, a lingering air of insect repellent and periodic power cuts…but I’m not so dedicated that I won’t occasionally stray towards something a little more opulent and luxurious that boasts white gloves, white sheets, white towels and fine white wine. Ultimately, a vacation is a treat or an opportunity to re-charge well-worn batteries, so why not indulge a bit?tic1

 

It was long believed that adventure and comfort don’t mix. Unless there was a dirt floor, a lumpy bed or a lack of air-conditioning it couldn’t possibly be adventure. However, as more and more people are drawn to exotic destinations, so the ability to travel in small groups and experience genuine cultural immersion while also enjoying a bit of comfort at night are no longer mutually-exclusive.

 

Oned of the best places to combine both worlds is in Asia. Boasting some of the best hotels and finest service in the world while still offering ancient ruins, congested markets, vibrant culture and thriving tradition, Asia can provide it all. Intrepid adventurer by day sampling food that would cause the neighbour to pass out, considerable comfort by night. Stimulation for the mind and senses by day, pampering for the weary body at night.

 

If your idea of adventure doesn’t extend to dorm rooms, mosquito nets and communal showers, click here.