The Little Bag of Tricks

27 02 2009

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At the back of the cupboard there’s a small waterproof bag with a drawstring. It’s the sort of stuff sack found in any camping store and is designed to hold a sleeping bag or inflatable mattress. Quite when or why I acquired this I have no idea, as my sleeping bag and mattress both have covers of their own. However, judging by its condition, it was some time ago.

 

The bag is now a little Aladdin’s cave of travel odds and ends and is the first place I visit before I head away. I would assume that at one time everything in the bulging bag was useful and served a genuine purpose. Unfortunately, not all its contents are quite so valuable today but I am loathe to part with anything because, if it was good once, it just might well be good again!

 

There are some things that are truly handy like a ziplock bag that holds a couple of wooden pegs, some environmentally-friendly laundry suds and an elastic clothes line with a small metal hook at each end. There is a rather dishevelled money-belt, a rubber all-size sink plug, a small bar of travel soap, a tiny nail brush, assorted carabineers, boot laces, utility gloves, a small mirror, electricity adaptors, spare Velcro, a travel alarm clock, a disposable rain poncho, head-torch, waterproof matches and travel sewing kit.

 

At the other end of the spectrum of usefulness lie a few other things whose value is a little less clear. There are luggage straps so short that their only possible use could be as tourniquets for injured moles. There’s an unopened packet of flashlight bulbs for a fancy flashlight that I never had and coloured filters that I never used for other flashlights that I no longer own. There are mysterious small batteries for which I don’t believe I ever had a use, and a few loose AAs and AAAs from unknown manufacturers. There’s a combination compass/thermometer that doesn’t serve either function, and a few small plastic travel bottles of indiscernible content. There’s a patch kit for inflatable mattresses in which the adhesive has solidified, and a bunch of luggage locks without keys…and keys without locks. There’s a packet of disposable toilet seat covers that seemed like a good idea at the time except that they’re useless on the long-drop squat toilets for which they were bought, and loose change from countries that no longer exist. And there’s a bottle of insect repellent that I have had for so long that it has since been deemed illegal by virtue of a chemical content so concentrated that it eats through plastic.

 

It is always my intention to sort through this magical mystery bag but alas, the only time I venture near it is shortly before I depart when I’m packing and in a hurry…and after my return, when I’m unpacking and in a hurry. I suppose I could go in there right now, but part of me knows that the moment I throw away the WMD insect spray or the fancy flashlight bulb will be the same day that someone gives me the fancy flashlight…or Hans Blix knocks on my door looking for his mosquito repellent.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

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A to Z of Adventure Travel: G is for Galapagos

26 02 2009

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                  “You’d be dancing too if your feet were this cold!” (Blue footed booby)

 

 

The Galapagos Islands were untouched by human civilisation until the early 19th century, but have more than made up for that since as a haven for those drawn by its wildlife, scenery, science and snorkelling.

 

Located in the Pacific Ocean 972 kilometres west of Ecuador, the world famous archipelago is comprised of 19 islands and more than a hundred islets and outcrops, although most visitors tend not to explore more than eight of them. The islands are of course legendary because of their role in Charles Darwin’s formulation of the Theory of Evolution and they remain a natural paradise to this day. The Ecuadorian government, while keen to allow travellers from all over the world to see this natural wonder, are also committed to ensuring that their trespass doesn’t adversely affect the very thing that people travel from all over the world to see – their unspoiled beauty. As a result, the numbers of visitors to the islands are limited and their movements and activities restricted. However, these constraints do not in any way detract from an incredible experience.

 

The vast majority of people who visit the Galapagos take a cruise around the islands. After a flight from the mainland, visitors are transferred to the harbour to board their vessel. Galapagos operators cater for all tastes and budgets from those seeking seaborne luxury and sparing no expense, to others with more modest tastes and more limited funds. Regardless of the price tag however, almost all boats have their own onboard naturalists who assist with the daily shore excursions and with general lessons in zoology, biology and oceanography to maximise visitors’ experiences and to provide them with the best appreciation of their trip.

 

Different islands in the chain offer different sights and experiences. Santa Fe is particularly renowned for its colony of sea lions with which it is often possible to swim. Espanola is home to red-billed tropicbords, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and is a nesting site to what is virtually the entire world’s population of waved albatrosses. Santa Cruz is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station and a nursery that caters for young tortoises. Bartolome boasts the rare Galapagos penguins while Floreana Island has a wooden barrel planted in the 18th century to be used as a post office for passing ships…and is still used by some visitors today!

 

Trips to the Galapagos vary from a few days to several weeks depending on how many islands the visitor wants to see. While almost all boats boast snorkelling facilities and many also offer scuba, there are also specialist operators catering for more experienced certified divers. But if you’re a bit of a landlubber and your sea-legs are as wobbly as a plate of Jell-O in a hurricane, there are also land-based trips that still explore the islands by boat but remain in hotels at night.

 

Although now connected to the outside world by direct flights from the mainland, the Galapagos remains as exotic and mystifying as the day that Darwin’s Beagle first explored the beaches, channels and volcanoes.

 

 

Photo by: Mariko Yuki     Post by: Simon Vaughan





Hippo Hoedown

24 02 2009

 

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“For the sixth time, I don’t do hedges or rose bushes, okay?” (Kazinga Channel, Uganda)

 

It was a dark and stormy night…no, really!

 

Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda stretches from Lake George to Lake Albert along the Kazinga Channel and offers wonderful scenery, excellent wildlife and one of the highest hippo populations in all of Africa.

 

We had set up our tents on a clear patch of grass not far from the water. After dinner, we headed up the hill to a lodge with a panoramic view of the channel. Lightning flashed in the distance and thunder rolled across the lake. The sky quickly changed from the gentle hues of sunset to boiling black clouds and within minutes torrential rain swept across the lodge’s immaculate lawns and lashed at the colonial verandas. We sat in the bar and watched the maelstrom outside, wondering how our tents were fairing in the deluge. As quickly as it had arrived, the storm swept away and we were left with only the gentle sound of drips from the eaves.

 

Cocktails over, we headed back down the hill towards our sodden campsite. Most tents were fine, with only one or two blown over and lying forlornly on the saturated ground. Earlier in the day we had washed clothes and hung them on laundry lines strung between our tents. These were now scattered around the campsite or hanging limply from the lines. We re-pegged them hoping they would dry overnight.

 

Before we retired, a ranger told us to be very careful during the night. Located as close to the channel as we were, hippos would likely emerge from the water and graze around our tents. If we got up, we should quietly open our tent flaps, stick our heads out and have a good look around before coming out, he instructed. Hippos were extremely aggressive and could easily outrun a human. He also added that we should not use flashlights because if we startled a hippo, it would definitely charge. With those happy notes ringing through our heads, we climbed into our canvas cocoons and settled down for the night.

 

Several hours later I awoke to the unmistakable sound of hippo snorts, grunts and an extremely large animal munching on the grass nearby. It was hard to know how close the self-propelled lawnmowers were, but they were close enough that I had no desire to take a look. Staring upwards, I could hear every breath and exhalation…along with constant munching. It was only then that I remembered the clothes line strung between the tents and suddenly envisioned a short-sighted masticating hippo bumbling into one, becoming alarmed and angrily charging off towards the river…dragging the tents and their occupants with them. In the darkness, my imagination grew and I could picture other hippos joining in the rampage and the occupants of the tents being pummelled like chicken breasts in a bag of seasoned flour. Sleep was now impossible. I listened intently to every sound and longed to hear my nearest grazer move away.

 

Eventually, the coast seemed clear. I quietly eased out of my sleeping bag and edged down the tent. Lying prone on the ground, I silently opened the zip and slid my head out at grass level. With baited breath I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I could hear hippos but not see any. I crawled free of the tent and crouched just in front of the flaps. I peered around the sides, but all was still clear. I tip-toed between the two tents and peered around the back…still clear. I eased up, undid the clothes line, turned around and edged back towards the entrance.

 

I could still hear the hippos but not see any…I hoped they couldn’t see me either. A shiver of relief went down my spine as I climbed back in and closed the zip behind me. In my sleeping bag, exhausted from stress, I slid back into unconsciousness.

 

Safe in my untethered world, the hippos now serenaded me to sleep…until my bladder suddenly woke up and demanded that I take it for a walk. I reluctantly started the climb back down the tent.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





Pipe Dreams

23 02 2009

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At age 4, I had a nasty accident with a candy cigarette when the sharp red end poked me in the eye. It was not only sufficient for me to give up the filthy habit forever, but the trauma also ensured that in my teen years when under daunting peer pressure I was never so much as tempted to try a genuine cigarette, a fine Havana cigar or even a smoldering Meerschaum pipe. But my aversion to inhaled substances didn’t last forever and in Turkey I proved that I can indeed resist everything except temptation.

 

I had always been fascinated by photographs of men savouring a shisha pipe. There was something so singularly exotic about such an image that even if the photos were taken that morning and the men were sporting Hugo Boss suits or a Jay-Z t-shirt, it still resonated with thoughts of mysterious lands, crowded casbahs, dates and camels and certainly had more romantic allure than a pack of Marlboros and a Bic lighter.

 

The shisha is a water pipe used to smoke tobacco, fruit… or other substances of a less corner-store variety. You often see men smoking the shisha in small bars or narrow bustling sidewalk cafes. Some sit alone and stare vacantly with glossy eyes (usually a sign that they don’t have strawberries in their pipe) or while chatting with friends or reading the newspaper. Sometimes each person has their own pipe, other times they share one, passing around the hose.

 

I had seen them everywhere in Egypt but never tried one, but when an opportunity arose in Istanbul, I thought I’d give it a whirl…or a suck, as the case may be. A group of friends were sitting on cushions on the floor surrounding a hookah pipe, as they’re known in Turkey. The water bubbled and the hose was passed around the group. They laughed and chatted convivially and motioned me to an empty cushion.

 

At the base of the pipe were clean disposable mouthpieces. The hose was passed to me and I clipped one on. Unlike Bill Clinton, I inhaled. I heard the water bubble into life and felt a nice fresh apple flavour circulate around my mouth. I exhaled through my nostrils and took another drag. Fortunately, this pipe had been prepared with amateurs in mind and was appropriately mild otherwise my virginal lungs would likely have had me sprawled on the floor coughing and spluttering. Despite that, I found the experience quite intoxicating and took another deep drag. Common courtesy made me reluctantly pass the hose onto the person on my left, but I longed for its return.

 

Soon enough, the hose was back and I sucked on it like a pro, visions of opium dens dancing in my head. With eyes closed I pictured myself as the decadent colonial sporting a flowing cotton gown, sprawled luxuriantly across a sea of fluffy silk cushions, propped on one elegant elbow. A fan wallah tirelessly worked to keep the beading perspiration from my tanned brow. I could see shafts of sunlight streaming through the latticework shutters and illuminating the blue smoke that drifted towards the wooden-beamed ceiling. The hustle and bustle of the street outside barely penetrated the sanctum as I drifted in and out of consciousness. The hunched and fawning proprietor made his way towards me: “Sir…Sir…” he called….

 

“Hey dude,” the guy on my left said while kicking out at my foot. “Can I please have the pipe back now?”

 

Post and photo (of shisha…or possibly just a small Egyptian perfume bottle, hair band, sticky tape and tin foil!) by: Simon Vaughan





Hong Kong Kerfuffle

20 02 2009

 

We’ve all had days when nothing goes right. The batteries died in the alarm clock and you overslept; your hair was still damp when you sprinted for the bus and ended up drying perfectly vertically like a rooster; you were trapped on the subway with a mysterious ‘tooter’ who believed that “shares in gas” was a positive attribute and not a Financial Times headline; upon arriving at work you discovered a massive stain on your shirt front…and you forgot yesterday’s egg salad sandwich overnight in your desk drawer by the radiator and it now, well, has a character all of its own.  But for all that you remain stoic, overcome the urge to sever an artery with the flap of an envelope and instead focus all of your telepathic abilities to advancing the hands of the clock to 5pm.

 

However, some things just get the better of some people and for all their efforts to keep their frustrations and disappointments in check, they just have to let go. Travel can be one of those things and often requires a great deal of patience or a good sense of humour…or both.

 

This lady at Hong Kong airport had evidently forgotten both at home when she was apparently advised she had missed her flight…

 

 

 

Do not try this at home. This is a controlled environment and this woman is a professional.

 

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan





Jungley Bits

19 02 2009

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          “So why’s it called a rainforest?”  (Tapanahoni River, Suriname)

 

The jungles of Suriname are about as jungley as jungles get. Nearly 80% of the South American country is still rainforest covered, stretching from the mangroves of the Caribbean all the way to Brazil. This is serious Amazonian jungle interrupted by only the odd winding river and the occasional village. From above, it is a rolling carpet of green as far as the eye can see, but from ground level it is a dark and verdant world that prevents the eye from seeing very far at all.

 

To the uninitiated, it’s a hostile place of deadly snakes, poisonous insects and piranha-filled rivers where jaguars lurk behind every bush. Step in and you are completely disoriented and lost forever…unless you have a local guide and a little timeless knowledge.

 

We were staying in thatched huts along the Tapanahoni River deep in the interior. From the clearing around the huts, the jungle looked magical but intimidating. Certainly not the sort of place you would venture alone. For the local villagers, the jungle was everything from garden to hunting ground. One morning the men headed off armed with bows, arrows, spears and hunting dogs no larger than Jack Russells. They returned with a string of monkeys, wild pigs and satisfied smiles.

 

Leading us through the green curtain and into the rainforest beyond, one of the Arowak men led us down almost indistinguishable paths. Barefooted, he walked effortlessly while the rest of us struggled with fallen branches and clinging vines. Monkeys screamed overhead while our guide eyed them eagerly, clearly disappointed that he’d left his arrows at home.

 

We stopped at a small plant and were each handed a green leaf to chew. The extreme bitterness turned our mouths inside out and puckered our faces as though we’d swallowed working vacuum cleaners.

 

“For diarrhoea.” the guide explained while the rest of us wondered if the cure was worse than the ailment. Further along we tried cures for sore throats and fever, an antiseptic the colour of iodine and a clear fruit that became a dark ink when applied to our skin. It seemed that everything could be eaten or used and that the jungle was not only a grocery store but also a drug store…only without the loyalty points and express checkouts.

 

In a sun-dappled clearing created by a fallen tree, we sat on tree stumps and ate manioc and cold catfish using large green leaves as plates. Our guide grabbed a large vine perhaps two inches thick and withdrew his machete. Holding the bottom of the green cylinder, he gave it a mighty whack and removed a section with a diagonal cut. He held it up, tilted back his head and opened his mouth. Water began to trickle from the vine and into his mouth. He passed it around. The water was cool, fresh and sweet and certainly enough to relieve a thirst. With lunch over, our trek continued.

 

Our guide picked up a thick stick and banged the gigantic buttresses of an enormous tree, explaining that if ever we were lost in the rainforest, this was the best way to attract attention. The sound reverberated through the jungle.

 

Finally, we emerged back into the clearing by our huts. We stopped and squinted in the harsh light before gazing at the clear blue sky that we’d barely seen all day. We turned and looked back at the jungle. It was no longer intimidating or frightening: it was a wonderland of greens laced with shafts of light and colourful birds and stocked better than any corner store. Our guide waved farewell as he headed back to his village to collect his bow and arrow and return to try and find the monkeys.

 

 

Photograph and post by: Simon Vaughan





A to Z of Adventure Travel: F is for Fiji

17 02 2009

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    “Is it possible to PVR this evening’s sunset?”                  (Viti Levu, Fiji)

 

 

You know your vacation has truly begun when you land at your destination and are greeted at the airport by a band of musicians and singers. Not necessarily a full brass band or symphony orchestra, but just a small group of locals singing traditional songs and handing out lays with smiling faces and warm and welcoming greetings. When you see a separate immigration queue for seniors and families, you know you’re somewhere special. 

 

For most people, the name Fiji conjures images of sun-soaked jungle-covered tropical islands with white sand beaches lapped by warm, clear waters…and for once, the product matches the billing.

 

Located in the South Pacific approximately 3 hours flying time from New Zealand and 10 hours from Los Angeles, Fiji is comprised of 322 islands of which 106 are inhabited. The two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu are home to 87% of the country’s population as well as its capital and its international airport.

 

Fiji does indeed offer some of the world’s greatest reefs, clearest waters and best beaches. Much of the islands are jungle-covered adding to the feeling of tropical bliss and with a slower pace of life, it’s hard not to quickly find yourself immersed in mandatory relaxation and rejuvenation. The Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands offer some of the world’s most beautiful and luxurious resorts either hidden amongst the trees on the edge of private islands, or suspended on stilts above the water itself. If a helicopter transfer and full spa is a little beyond your means, Fiji’s hospitality is just as warm as its weather for even those on more modest budgets and offers unforgettable hostels and inexpensive simple beach-front bures, or cabins.

 

It would be a shame to visit Fiji and just stay on one idyllic beach for the duration, however. It’s possible to take a cruise and visit many of the smaller islands in a week or less, or to purchase a hop-on/hop-off boat pass and spend a couple of nights on different islands travelling as the mood takes you. Whether your idea of a vacation is to remain as inert as possible and move only when the next umbrella-adorned drink arrives beside your recliner, or to engage in every sport known to humanity, Fiji can offer both with excellent scuba diving, snorkelling, windsurfing, horseback riding and many other activities.

 

Although difficult, it is highly recommended to pull yourself away from the beach and veer off the beaten path for at least a few days. The Fijian people are renowned for their warmth and hospitality and any trip that didn’t include a visit to a village, an arts centre, a school or church would be an opportunity lost. While away from the coast, you can also further satisfy your thirst for adventure with a challenging hike up the rain forest-shrouded mountains or a spot of whitewater rafting on jungle rivers.

 

With a diverse culture, Fiji is also a great destination for food-lovers. Whether the freshest seafood imaginable or superb curries, Fiji has something for everyone and doesn’t forget those with more timid tastes.

 

Fiji can easily and inexpensively be visited on the way to or from Australia or New Zealand but is an excellent destination in its own right and one that will truly never be forgotten.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan