Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 76

19 01 2009

  

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                 What evil lurks in these quiet streets?              (Annapolis, MD)

 

 

Always mind your own business.

 

Annapolis, Maryland is a quaint city dominated by the U.S. Naval Academy and an attractive main street that is classically Colonial America. First settled in the 17th century and having a rich history, it sits on the picturesque Chesapeake Bay from which the scent of salt air is carried on sea breezes during hot summer’s days. Although lovely, it’s not exactly synonymous with adventure…but never judge a book by its cover.

 

Heading south towards the pristine coast of Chincoteague, Virginia and its wild horses, we had stopped in Annapolis for lunch.

 

It was my first time in the capital of the former royal colony, and I immediately felt comfortable. The town was positively picture-book and I thoroughly enjoyed strolling the streets and wandering around the harbour. A small shop offering naval antiques and souvenirs caught my eye and we popped in for a closer look. A bell rang as I opened the door and a gentleman at the back gave us a nod of welcome before continuing with paperwork. Glass-topped display counters were arranged around the periphery with items similar to those we had seen through the window on the right side and more modern electronics, cameras and other items at the far end. I gazed into the cases at the historic odds and ends.

 

When the bell rang and the door opened, I idly turned to look more by force of habit than any particular curiosity. A man walked in with a large black garbage bag under his arm. He stepped forward and the door swung closed behind him. As if in slow motion, I saw him reach into the bag and withdraw an enormous shotgun. My heart pounded and I turned my head back towards the display case in the hope that I wouldn’t be noticed. Having been raised on a healthy diet of action movies, I had always thought that if caught in a situation like this I would vault forward like the Matrix, grapple the firearm from offending hands and magnificently save the day. Instead, I found myself bravely rooted to the floor, my stomach valiantly churning like a cement mixer and my hair heroically standing on end like a hedgehog.

 

With time standing still and me standing even stiller, I watched the visitor’s reflection in the glass of the case, hoping that I would suddenly just dissolve into the wall. My throat was parched, all moisture evidently coursing through the palms of my hands and onto the countertop. Suddenly, saving the day didn’t seem quite so appealing and it was clear that invisibility was the better part of valour. I remained motionless, awaiting the unmistakeable sound of gunfire and the smell of cordite to which Hollywood had made me so accustomed when somewhere, from another world, I heard the storekeeper speak. His voice was calm and seemed courageous to my trembling ears.

 

“Sorry, we don’t buy guns,” he said, returning once more to his paperwork.

 

“Okay,” the assassin replied obediently over the rustle of the garbage bag, “Thanks.” With that, he turned for the door and walked out into the warm rays of sunshine.

 

“You okay?” my oblivious companion asked. “You look a little pale.”

 

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan   Photo by: Dan Smith

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Win A VIP Trip Downunder

16 01 2009

 

 

 

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“When you said there was some great Rock in Australia, I thought you meant music.”

 

A friend of mine once checked-in for a flight behind Marilyn Manson. He leaned forward straining to hear if the shock-rocker ordered a bowl of black M&Ms with his seat. Much to his dismay however, he reports that Manson was extremely polite and apart from the multiple tattoos, chains, jewellery, black liptick, black eyeliner, white make-up, and long black leather trench coat and fingerless gloves, was just like any other passenger….if you ignored the long dagger.

 

Although Jason didn’t get to hang out with Manson, he did enjoy his airport encounter. However, there is a way to hang out with some of your favourite bands at SoundWave 2009 in Brisbane, Australia next month. 

 

The SoundWave Festival originated in Perth, Australia and now features a mixture of Australian and international music acts from Metal, Hardcore, Punk rock, Pop punk and Alternative rock. This year’s event boasts 51 bands on 6 stages including Canada’s Bedouin Soundclash, Moneen, Attack in Black and Rival Schools.

 

Travel CUTS, Tourism Australia and Dine Alone Records are giving one lucky person and a friend the opportunity to win the trip of a lifetime. The winners will be flown to Brisbane for three days and nights of sightseeing, touring, partying and VIP access to SoundWave 2009. From Brisbane it’s on to Cairns for 5 more days of skydiving, bungy jumping, whitewater rafting and a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. The prize includes flights, accommodation and some meals… but you are required to bring your own black M&Ms.

For more information and to enter, click here.

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Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





Prisoner: Hotel Room H

15 01 2009

  

 

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                   “I said I wanted a room with a bar, not bars!!!”   (Istanbul)

 

As long as I have a book, I am quiet happy to be confined to a small room for extended periods of time. Perhaps this stems from a childhood spent in solitary confinement when banging my tin cup across the bedroom door was frowned upon, but I am quite contented in my own company…when prepared for it.

I always travel with a small library of books. When I know that I am staying alone in modest budget hotels in distant lands, I always pack a small shortwave radio to keep me company. I am generally happy enough to sit in my room in the evening, listening to the fizz and crackle of a weak radio signal while through the mosquito net bustles the world or the airborne nasties that want to sup on my flesh.

However, if I am not expecting such confinement and I am not prepared for such sensory deprivation, I have been known to end up like Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape” and spend my time throwing rolled-up socks against the wall.

I was due to spend a couple of nights in a good centrally-located hotel in Sydney, Australia on my way home. I had arrived in the late evening after a long day and a tiring flight and headed to my room. Although tastefully appointed, it was conservative in size…but did have a television at the foot of the bed. I dashed out to get some food, laid my feast on the bed and flicked on the television ready for an evening of Australian “Big Brother”.

As I tucked into my burger, the TV warmed up to a soft glow. Alas, there was no picture. I played with the remote but got nowhere. I crawled over the scattered fries and played with the TV itself, but still nothing. Finishing my gourmet meal, I phoned the front desk and told them of my predicament. They replied that cable was down for most of the city and would be fixed by the morning.

During the flight I had finished my last book. It was too late to get a newspaper and there were no magazines. My iPod had died so I rolled over to the bedside table to explore the clock radio. Unfortunately, it was all clock and no radio and offered no entertainment beyond watching the LED digits changing.

I drew back the curtain hoping at least for a view of a park full of frolicking possums, but instead I stared into a canyon of large, dark office buildings. I returned to the bed. I didn’t need to re-pack my bag as I had done that expertly that morning. There were no holes to sew in my socks; I wasn’t keeping a diary; I’d sent my postcards; I always lost when I played noughts-and-crosses by myself and had never bothered to download games onto my mobile phone. I was too tired to go out for a wander and too awake to go to sleep.

Lying on my back, I tried to name the countries of the world, but kept losing count and repeating myself. I tried capital cities but became similarly lost. I attempted to count the stucco on the ceiling but went cross-eyed. Finally, I removed my socks, rolled them into balls and played catch…by myself. Eventually, I felt sufficiently tired to attempt sleep, climbed into bed, turned off the light and lay in the darkness watching the red light of the TV taunting me mercilessly.

The following morning I awakened early and flicked on the TV. There was still no signal. I looked into the hall to see if I had a newspaper, but I didn’t. I phoned the front desk to request one but was told I had to have ordered it the previous evening. I would have had a nice leisurely soak in the bath, but there was only a stand-up shower. It was a Sunday and too early for anything to be open…and the rain made a walk fairly unappealing. Eventually, it was time to venture out. I had a full and rewarding day of sightseeing with friends, an early dinner and returned to my room ready for a quiet evening of TV viewing ahead of an early trip to the airport.

I kicked-off my shoes, sprawled on the bed and flicked on the TV. The screen warmed to a milky white. I stared, disbelieving until distracted by a rustle at the door. A notice had been delivered announcing that the cable was still off and wouldn’t be returned until the following afternoon. Newspapers were available if requested by 8pm. I looked at my watch: it was 8:05pm.

I picked up my socks and returned to the centre of my cell.

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





The Right Stuff

13 01 2009

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 “Luke, follow my light-sabre, Luke….”               (Gliding near Las Vegas)

 

One of my favourite film scenes has legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager (portrayed by Sam Shepard) walking across the Mojave Desert away from the flaming wreckage of his aircraft. The earlier sequence of his crippled jet spinning and tumbling helplessly through the heavens was real edge-of-the chair stuff, but there was something even more dramatic about his laboured walk away from the wreck. Quite why I chose this moment to recall the scene I had no idea, walking as I was across a Mojave Desert airstrip towards an aircraft with no engine that was about to take me several thousand feet into the hot sky.

 

The metal glider seemed far too basic to be towed, never mind carry us high into the sky, soar around for a bit and hopefully return us safely to earth. I climbed in, sat down and faced the Rubic’s cube of seatbelts. There were canvas shoulder straps and waist straps, heavy metal hooks and clasps, locks and bolts. I quietly tried to figure it all out, wondering if it had been designed to restrain the first monkeys that flew into space. The pilot asked if I needed a hand. Requesting assistance with a seatbelt was similar to asking for directions and I shook my head…until I pictured gravity smearing me against the Perspex canopy, my feet twisted over my shoulders and wrapped around the back of his head, and nodded gratefully.

 

The canopy was pulled closed and locked. I noticed cables running along the floor.

 

“Make sure your feet don’t get in the way,” the pilot instructed, “or you could affect my control.” I snapped my legs together obediently.

 

Ahead of us a small propeller-driven cropduster, revved its engine. Our pilot radioed that we were ready and our tug moved forward. The tow-line tightened and suddenly we were moving along the runway. Within seconds we were off the ground and soaring into the wild blue yonder. We climbed in wide, gentle circles higher and higher, following our escort’s lead. Considering that we had no engine, it was remarkably noisy as the wind banged and buffeted at the canopy.

 

“There’ll be a loud bang when the cable’s detached” the pilot warned.

 

I nodded in understanding but still jumped a mile when the loud clanging-snap echoed through the fuselage. I quickly checked to make sure that both wings were still attached. The tug banked to one side and disappeared from view as we continued our gentle climb.

 

The Mojave stretched away as far as the eye could see in every direction. There was nothing but endless desert, dry lake beds, ragged mountains and the occasional arrow-straight road. As it was still early, the view was crystal clear.

 

“That’s California” the pilot pointed out just ahead of us. “Those hills are in Arizona” he gestured off one wing. “That’s Utah” he added on the other side. “It’s early so we shouldn’t hit any thermals, but keep your belt tightly fastened just in case” he added unnecessarily given that I couldn’t have removed it with a chainsaw.

 

The Mojave and Sierra Nevada offer some of the best soaring in the world. As the ground heats up, hot air thermals rise from the desert floor providing almost endless lift for gliders. It was possible to soar from thermal to thermal along the ridge lines all day, he explained. In fact, many world records for duration had been set in this part of the world.glider-2mw3

 

The glider gently banked over, one wing raised and then the other. Despite the rush of the wind, it was remarkably serene and wonderfully relaxing. The warmth of the sun through the canopy, the clear blue sky above and the stark beauty of the desert below were utterly captivating and I never wanted the flight to end. It was hard to imagine that we were powerless and simply coasting with the wind. It seemed the most natural way possible of flying.

 

We swooped over a ridge and received a solid thump beneath our seats that jolted us upwards.

 

“A thermal!” the pilot announced excitedly. “It’s early for that, but it’ll give us a bit of extra air time.” he added with a smile.

 

We continued to coast and bank, gently circling high above the airfield, one wing raised and then the other. Gradually, the cars on the road became larger and our orbits dipped below the mountain tops. The pilot radioed for clearance to land, and we swung around in an enormous arc until the runway was directly ahead. Our nose aimed down and we lined up with the centre of the landing strip. It was only as we neared touchdown that we regained any sense of speed as the ground rushed by just feet below.

 

Touchdown was smooth and quiet…until the metal fuselage also regained terra firma with a loud banging and grating sound. We quickly slowed and coasted off the runway. The canopy was opened, my seatbelt miraculously released and I climbed free, caressing the yellow fuselage affectionately. There was no plume of smoke, no mushroom cloud of fire and no weary airman striding from the mayhem…but my hour spent slipping earth’s surly bonds had been even better than “The Right Stuff”.

 

 

Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan





A to Z of Adventure Travel: A is for Amazon

12 01 2009

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“Garden looks a bit over-grown, luv.”                               (Suriname)

 

The Amazon is the largest river in the world. Starting high in the Andes and continuing for more than 6,000 kilometres, it eventually reaches the Atlantic Ocean having drained almost 40% of South America along the way. In the rainy season it can be almost 45 kilometres wide and has the distinction of being one of the few major rivers in the world not spanned by a single bridge. For most people however, the Amazon is synonymous as much for the dense jungle which sweeps down to its banks as for the body of water itself.

 

The Amazon rainforest is not just the area around the great river, but also that which lines its many tributaries. This vast basin covers not only Brazil and Peru, but also Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Suriname and Guyana and is home to more than one third of all the species on earth and one of the richest eco-systems in the world.

 

For adventure travellers, the Amazon is a wonderland of exploration and discovery that offers something for everyone. Luxurious ships serve as waterborne hotels and cruise its wide expanses with smaller craft employed to explore the narrow tributaries. For the more intrepid, there are classic wooden riverboats that offer mosquito nets, ceiling fans and oodles of character. For those happier on terra firma, there are luxury lodges hidden in the jungle, lit by oil lamps and serenaded by the sounds of the bush. There are camps with minimal facilities but maximum experience and rustic lodges that combine comfort with unforgettable adventure.

 

Regardless of the country in which you choose to explore the magnificence of the rainforest, there are always plenty of people eager to share their verdant paradise. Whether guides, biologists, geologists or enthusiastic locals, you can choose between hiking the thick undergrowth, following easier jungle tracks or strolling wooden walkways with access available for every level of fitness and every appetite.

 

While some people stay for a week or more, most are satisfied with a few days spent watching for monkeys and parrots, dolphins and caimans and learning of the indigenous people and the threats to the environment. A trip to the Amazon can be made by aircraft and boat from most major cities in the area and combined with a beach stay, a week exploring cities, towns and markets, or a trek to Machu Picchu.

 

Regardless of your budget, choice of accommodation or style of travel, the Amazon will reward you with spectacular wilderness, an almost-overwhelming verdancy and magnificent – if sometimes elusive – wildlife.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





New Year’s Reservations

9 01 2009

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“Hey, wiseguy, do I a moose you?”                        (Algonquin Park, Ontario)

I’ve long wondered just what precisely ‘doing’ a country means. You often hear people say they’ve ‘done’ China, which is a pretty big ‘do’ considering it has more than 9.5 million square kilometres and a population of more than 1.3 billion people. If each day you managed to cover 100 square kilometres and shook 13,698 hands, it would take you more than 260 years to ‘do’ the whole country.

I’m not sure that a t-shirt from the Terracotta Warriors, a pot noodle near Tiananmen Square and a postcard from Shanghai constitutes ‘doing’, but I think I know what they mean: they’ve visited China and are looking for a new destination to explore.
 
We all have our lists of places we want to visit. Generally, I find they tend to fall into one of three categories:
 
1)    The ‘dream’ vacations (North Pole, Orient Express, Victoria’s Secret product launch)
2)    The ‘I’ll do it one day’ vacations (African safari, The Galapagos, Alaskan cruise)
3)    ‘My next’ vacation (Cuba, Costa Rica, skiing at Whistler)
 
In order to help you lengthen your own lists and further blur your plans and dreams, Lonely Planet has just published “Best Travel in 2009” which features more than 850 of the world’s hottest travel trends, destinations, journeys and experiences for the year ahead. Dubbed as the “ultimate inspirational year­book”, the book promises to entice armchair and seasoned travellers alike.
 

So, what do they propose for 2009? Bearing in mind that Lonely Planet cater to travellers of all tastes and derring-do from those who climb Kota Kinabalu in flip-flops to those who prefer La-Z-Boy as their tour operator of choice, their lists run the gamut from Sir Edmund Hillary to Dame Edna Everage.

 

The Top Countries for 2009 (in alphabetical order):


Algeria

Bangladesh

Canada

Georgia (the country…not the state!)

Greenland

Kyrgyzstan

Oman

Peru

Rwanda

Sierra Leone

 

The Top Cities for 2009:

 

Antwerp, Belgium
Beirut, Lebanon
Chicago, USA
Glasgow, Scotland
Lisbon, Portugal
Mexico City, Mexico
São Paulo, Brazil
Shanghai, China
Warsaw, Poland
Zürich, Switzerland

 

So, forget the list of New Year’s Resolutions that you’ve already either forgotten or completely broken, how about starting the year off on a travelling note and making a New Year’s Reservation to one of the spots on your own list?

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





Back In The Saddle Again…Part II

8 01 2009

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“I think it needs a jump-start.”                   (Near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)

 

Our parade of elephants ambled into the bush in a loose line. Despite his earlier misbehaviour, my elephant was now behaving impeccably…apart from the occasional ticklish exploration of my bare leg with the snout of his trunk. I would like to think he was just being inquisitive or affectionate, but I had noticed that he only ever did this when the mahout was looking the other way and I began to suspect that it was actually a form of intimidation.

 

Apart from our little convoy of elephants we had one other companion: a man with a gun. As if sitting on top of an elephant wasn’t security enough, the armed guide who walked alongside us acted as a reminder of just what lurked in those long grasses and prickly bushes.

 

“Is he here for lions?” I asked my mahout, gesturing at our escort.

 

“No, no” he replied dismissively. “Lions aren’t much of a threat.”

 

Buffalo?” I asked, attempting to recover some semblance of respect.

 

“No. Not buffalo” he answered. “He’s here in case we encounter any wild elephants. They could charge us and attack. Or they could try and mate with one of our elephants. You wouldn’t want to be caught between two mating elephants” he explained.

 

The thought of being crushed between an amorous bull elephant and his love interest didn’t really merit much contemplation and I looked nervously behind us. In keeping with my perfect record when it came to eventing in dangerous neighbourhoods, we were of course the last elephant in the group. I just hoped romantically-inclined elephants could differentiate between males and females long before they came forward for a dance.zim-elephant-1-mw

 

From our lofty swaying perches, we spied antelope and warthog who regarded us with only passing interest. We ducked beneath branches and if the coarse hide wasn’t tenderising the insides of my legs enough, thorns were doing a mighty fine job on the outsides leaving my appendages like two sausages chewed by a pack of Rottweilers. I smiled with tears in my ears when the mahout asked if I was having a good time.

 

At one point, a lone cape buffalo emerged from the bushes to survey us menacingly. He stood a few hundred feet away, his fine curved horns and solid boss framing his glaring face. Not generally comfortable in the company of one of Africa’s most feared beasts, I must admit to a certain cockiness this time around and had to fight the urge to poke my tongue and make rude faces at his ugly countenance. Our armed guide tucked closer to our entourage and we ambled past with little worry.

 

We eventually arrived in a small clearing in which a table had been set for breakfast. Our elephants knelt down, and we clambered free although I was convinced that it would be several weeks before I walked properly again. I used to mock John Wayne and other cowboys for always walking as though they were riding horses, but I now looked as though I’d been straddling an elephant for several hours…which I had.

 

The elephants were freed of their saddles and allowed to wander around the clearing, while the rest of us were seated at the table and treated to a cooked breakfast. It was a surreal experience to sit at such a civilised table surrounded by a small herd of elephant, made even more surreal when one of our former steeds persistently attempted to steal our sausages and had to be chased away by a mahout.

 

On the drive back we spotted a group of circling vultures. Our guide stopped the vehicle, collected his rifle and led us through the bush to the source of the scavengers’ attention. There, not far from the road was the carcass of a young dead elephant. She had died during the night, the guide explained, likely of the cold or natural causes. He added that she had probably become separated from her mother and the herd. The sadness in his voice and the pained expression on his face were quite evident.

 

“If only we’d known she was out here” he continued, “we could have brought her to the ranch and looked after her.”

 

We returned to the vehicle and continued in silence. What had a few minutes earlier been a fun excursion and great experience without much thought of conservation, had suddenly become something a bit more meaningful. Whether or not domesticating elephants for tourist rides was a worthy cause was debatable, but with the alternative still burned into our memory, we were all very glad that our jaunt had played some part in saving a few orphans from a very sad end.

 

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan