One Night In Bangkok…or Dubai…or Santiago…or…

31 03 2009

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I once spent 26 hours in Santiago, Chile. It’s not that I didn’t want to spend longer or that I was deported for being drunk, simply that I had the opportunity for a free stopover. Okay, so it wasn’t quite free as I had to book a hotel and then discovered the Pisco Sour (the national cocktail), but still, it’s not every day I find myself in the Chilean capital! And in fact, in addition to the free stopover I also got an extra hour free because the clocks happened to turn back that very day!

 

After collecting my bags, I arrived at my hotel late one Saturday night. At check-in I booked a 4-hour city tour for the following morning, had a quick bite and my first Pisco Sour and enjoyed a good sleep. I had the tour, had a Pisco Sour or two with lunch, explored some more on my own, had an early dinner – avec Pisco Sour – and then headed to the airport for another Pisco Sour and my onward flight home. Curiously enough, my memory of the flight is a bit fuzzy, but I do remember that May 16th is Chile’s Pisco National Day.

 

I always keep my eyes open for free or cheap stopovers when travelling. I’m not saying that I’d fly Air Dodgy just to have a bargain stopover in Ouagadougou, but if it’s more or less on my route and I get the chance to see somewhere I’ve never seen before – and may never see again – then I’ll jump at the chance. And the more exotic, the better!

 

There are many excellent airlines that offer service via exotic cities and some of the best are based in the Middle East. One of these is Etihad Airways of the United Arab Emirates who fly to Asia and Australia via Abu Dhabi and Dubai. While you could just head straight for your final destination, why take the chance that you’ll miss out on your very own Pisco Sour?

 

In recent years, the UAE has become one of the ‘in’ places for celebrities, the rich and anyone simply seeking endless warm sunshine with a difference. Although hugely popular in Europe, it hasn’t really caught on yet in North America – which gives it a certain cache and the opportunity to casually boast to friends about the great weekend you spent there!

 

Some people head to Dubai and never venture away from the beaches and shopping, but there’s a great deal more to offer including markets and museums. For the more adventurous, there are desert safaris which head inland to a luxury camp for dinner and entertainment, or possibly for an overnight stay. And of course there’s the opulent Burj Al Arab hotel which is so luxurious that they charge admission to non-guests just to take a look around!

 

Pre-arranging a stopover package that includes airport transfers, accommodation and perhaps a tour are usually considerably less expensive than if bought separately. Although Dubai is a great destination in its own right, it’s even better when you get it for next to nothing as a bonus on your next trip! And if you don’t have time to enjoy a few days, you can simply connect through the UAE and use your two-hour stop to impress friends at Christmas with a cornucopia of exotic gifts like dates, hand-woven rugs and sheesha pipes!

 

 

Post by:  Simon Vaughan

Photo by: Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





Grave Discoveries

30 03 2009

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                               Cementerio Cristobal Colon,  Havana                                   

 

Geography question: How do you find the dead centre of a city?

 

Answer: Follow the signs to the cemetery.

 

Okay, I’ll admit that jokes like that could be the death of me, but cemeteries are often some of the most interesting places in any city and yet overlooked by many visitors – even though people are just dying to get in. (Sorry, couldn’t resist it). Although often filled with architectural masterpieces in the forms of monuments and mausoleums and tributes to some of that city’s most famous sons and daughters, their locations are often buried in most guidebooks (I promise, that was the last one…maybe!).

 

There are some famous cemeteries around the world that do feature on the tourist trail, however. Moscow’s Novodivechy is that city’s third most popular tourist attraction and is ‘home’ to Chekhov, Prokofiev, Schostakovich, Gogol and Eisenstein as well as cosmonauts and former presidents. London’s Highgate attracts so many visitors keen to see its beautiful monuments – not to mention the grave of famous Marx brother Karl – that they charge admission, even if you’re not in a wooden box!

 

Paris’s Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise has a steady line of visitors coming through its Doors to see Jim Morrison’s grave, while hundreds of thousands of people pay their respect to former teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa by visiting Giants Stadium each year.

 

Even if a cemetery doesn’t boast the rich and famous or its head stones are in an unintelligible script, they are still culturally and historically significant and well worth a visit. Cairo’s “Cities of the Dead” are home not only to the dead but also to the living who have moved into many of the vaults and turned the cemeteries into overcrowded neighbourhoods. Havana’s Cristobal Colon cemetery encapsulates the city’s history where cardinals rub shoulders with communists and even the country’s love of baseball is acknowledged.

 

If you want to visit a cemetery, first enquire if it is permitted to do so as different cultures have different traditions when it comes to their dead. Also check if there is a dress code, if it is allowed to take photographs, if you need a guide or even if it’s safe to go alone: some cemeteries are in less than desirable neighbourhoods where visitors and even mourners are known to fall victim to thieves. Most importantly, if you do visit a cemetery, always be respectful. 

 

And finally, if there’s a particular grave you’re looking for, make sure you obtain a map so that you don’t lose the plot (that’s the last one, I promise!).

 

The end.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





Tourists in Space

27 03 2009

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Forty years ago this July, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin donned bulky white spacesuits and became the first to set foot on a Styrofoam set in a California movie studio designed to look like the moon. Incredibly, there are conspiracy theorists out there who actually believe that the two astronauts really walked on the moon, and ignore the overwhelming evidence that it was just shot on a back-lot using grainy 8mm film and beamed to televisions around the world.

 

Although tourists can follow in Armstrong and Aldrin’s footsteps and visit Hollywood, it’s not yet possible for them to spend Spring Break on the moon. Several years ago Sir Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic to give those so inclined the opportunity to join the select group of almost 500 people who have flown in space by trying a sub-orbital hop beginning next year…for a mere $200,000 a ride. But there are less expensive ways to reach the edge of space…slightly less expensive, anyway.

 

Since the retirement of Concorde, the only way for civilians and non-astronauts to see the curvature of the earth and the darkness of space without doing heavy-duty drugs is to pay hefty sums to fly in a fighter jet. In Cape Town, South Africa a sound-barrier breaking flight in a Cold War vintage English Electric Lightning sets you back the price of a second-hand minivan, while in Moscow there’s the opportunity to sample a whirl in an aircraft that was amongst the most highly classified and sophisticated in the world: the MiG 31 Foxhound.

 

The Foxhound was until recently a top secret Soviet aircraft and flies at almost three times the speed of sound and 60,000 feet altitude – or 8,470 Shaquille O’Neals. When little more than a rumour and the focus of western intelligence attention, it was laughable to think that one day western tourists would be allowed to take one for a spin to the edge of space. Yet 20 years later there’s no shortage of adventure seekers heading to an airfield near Moscow on a day-trip with a price-tag almost as lofty as the dizzying heights the double-engined jet itself attains.

 

Although they don’t serve meals or show movies on the flight and the experience lasts less time than the average hunt for a car in an airport parking garage, at least your luggage won’t get lost this time…and you won’t have to drink Tang!

 

 

Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan





A to Z of Adventure Travel: K is for Kenya

26 03 2009

gerenuk-giraffe-gazelle-mw        “Phone home…..”                                      (Gerenuk – Samburu, Kenya) 

 

Although there may be a better park or more prolific wildlife somewhere, nowhere else offers the variety and diversity of Kenya in such a compact and accessible area. In short, Kenya offers the one-stop-shopping of safaridom.

 

The East African country is of course best known for its wildlife and game parks. It’s most famous is the sprawling Masai Mara which lies along the Tanzanian border and is the Kenyan continuation of the Serengeti. For most visitors, the Mara is Africa: rolling amber plains filled with herds of elephant and antelope; rivers teeming with hippos and crocodiles; flat-topped acacia trees; rocky outcrops; mud-hut villages and resplendent warriors. When you’re in the Mara there is nowhere else on earth you could be than Africa.

 

The Mara is renowned for the annual wildlife migration which sees massive herds moving from one grazing rea to another while predators line up like rugby players at a buffet. Although the migration is every bit as great as any television documentary suggests, the Mara is just as awe-inspiring at any time. If you visit only one park or reserve and want a truly African experience, it must be the Masai Mara.

 

Further to the east and still on the Tanzanian border is Amboseli, a great wildlife park in its own right, but with Kilimanjaro in the background, one of the most scenic parks on the continent. Anything photographed standing before the snowcapped peak immediately becomes poster-worthy. Be forewarned, however…Kili can often be shrouded in cloud leaving nothing more than its lowest slopes visible.

 

For a different taste of Africa, try Samburu in the mid-north. Nestled in the semi-desert, Samburu is reminiscent of the Australian Outback…except with lions and leopard. For keen wildlife buffs, there are also species found here and not in parks further south, like the gerenuk or giraffe gazelle. Samburu is also home to the Samburu people who branched off from the Maasai many generations ago and have maintained their own traditions and customs.

 

The Rift Valley provides epic scenery from its origins in Mozambique until its demise in Jordan, but few countries benefit from it as greatly as Kenya. From soda lakes painted red by millions of flamingos to volcanoes and baboon-strewn escarpments, Kenya’s Rift Valley is a magnificent wonder.

 

Lake Naivasha was a playground for colonials before independence, but its tranquil waters and reed-lined shore belie the hippos that lurk beneath. “Born Free” author Joy Adamson’s home is now open for overnight visitors or just for afternoon tea, while Hell’s Gate National Park provides a rare opportunity to get out and walk amid the wildlife – thanks to the absence of most of the more dangerous animals!

 

If a week on safari has you yearning to stretch your legs, there’s always Mount Kenya to provide a challenge. Although conquering Africa’s second-highest mountain requires no technical skill, it is a much tougher trek than Kilimanjaro but every bit as rewarding. Climbs generally take 5 days with an additional day necessary to get to and from Nairobi.

 

Kenya’s Swahili coast is a wonderful mixture of relaxation and cultural enrichment. The palm-fringed beaches caress crystal clear waters while the towns bustle with busy markets and the call to prayer. For a truly tranquil experience, try to find a quieter property on the edge of town. Or, for a spot of adventure take the legendary “Man-Eater Express” sleeper train from Nairobi, so named for the lions that stalked the men who laid the track more than a century ago.

 

Whether starting or ending your trip in Nairobi, be sure to visit the dusty National Museum and the legendary Carnivore restaurant. And, if you want one last taste of wildlife that’s not as literal as that at Carnivore, take a spin through Nairobi National Park for the opportunity to catch some of the Big Five with the city’s skyscrapers in the background.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





If You Go Down To The Woods Today…

24 03 2009

 

bear-wm1When I was little I always wanted to attend a Teddy Bear’s picnic. Later in life when I finally did go down to the woods, I began to re-think my wish when I nearly became a nibbly!

 

Many towns in Northern Ontario are troubled by black bears. Every summer evening, bears emerge from the forests and have their own picnic in backyards, dumps and garbage cans. The province do their best to control the problem but short of a hunt, it isn’t easy to solve…until one local campground owner saw an opportunity to engage in a bit of ecotourism.

 

After presenting his proposal to local authorities, he built a tall wooden platform in a forest clearing. His plan was to take people to the lookout, and then lure the bears away from the town with leftovers…much the same way that some African lodges lure leopards. It’s perhaps not the most genuine or natural experience but for people short on time or without the ability to venture deep into the bush, it was a great opportunity. And it helped protect the bears.

 

Late one afternoon, a van collected us from a remote rest stop. We turned off the highway and, after opening a large metal gate, continued deep into the forest. As the dirt track continued we soon spied our first bear ambling slowly through the trees nearby. A short distance later we stopped at the base of the lookout tower and turned off the engine.

 

The guide surveyed the clearing before opening the van’s door. The moment my foot touched the ground, a young cub tumbled from the trees and made an inquisitive beeline for our vehicle….and everyone knows that where there’s a cub there’s a protective mother. Armed with nothing more than a whistle and some pepper spray, our guide ushered us up the stairs to the platform all the while keeping a close eye on the cub and an even closer eye for its mother.

 

The platform had a roof but no other protection from the elements…and was obviously also a picnic spot for mosquitoes. The day’s leftovers were dumped in a large drum on the edge of the clearing and our only link with the bear-free outside world drove away. Within moments, the picnic was underway.

 

The first bear was an enormous male. I had seen them on television and in zoos, but a close encounter with a large, healthy wild bear is seriously impressive. His coat gleamed almost blue and every step resonated with power and authority. He loped to the drum and began digging around for dinner.  No sooner was his head buried amid the butcher’s discards than more bears revealed themselves until we were surrounded by eight adults and two cubs…which quickly raced to safety up the nearest tree trunk.

 

The feast continued and although there was clearly a hierarchy and the occasional aggressive grunt to warn off rivals, there were no fights or challenges. It then occurred to me that we were well and truly stranded in the middle of their picnic much like sweet pastries on a tiered cake tray.

 

“Right, time to go,” the guide announced.

 

“How do we, err, do that?” I asked, looking down to see us completely surrounded.

 

“They’ll be gone shortly, then the van will come back,” he replied nonchalantly.

 

With the sun dipped below the tree tops, the clearing was quickly in heavy shadow. The van arrived and our guide looked through the spy-hole in the door to see if there were any bears on the stairs. He cautiously opened the door and poked his head out to ensure we were indeed alone before leading us down to the ground. Every shadow, bush and tree trunk looked like a bear and only once we were inside the van did we heave a sigh of relief.

 

The moment we slammed the door shut and began scratching our mosquito bites, an enormous male emerged from the dark woods just yards away and stared at us.

 

“Hmmm,” our guide muttered. “I didn’t see him.” And with that we left the picnic and headed home for dinner.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





The Horror of Petrified Forests

23 03 2009

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                          “Absolutely terrifying!”                          (Namibia)

 

 

There have been several occasions in my life when I was petrified. You know, when your blood literally runs cold, your throat dries to a sand-like texture, your stomach drops out of your knees and you just want to curl into the fetal position and melt into the ground. One came when face to face with a cape buffalo, another when caught between a mother mountain gorilla and her inquisitive infant…and a third when trapped at a women’s shoe sale. But the fear of one person is nothing compared to an entire Petrified Forest.

 

If I may be permitted to anthropomorphise for a bit, I would suspect that trees get very nervous during maple syrup season much the same way that most of us don’t enjoy giving blood. I would also guess they aren’t thrilled by the sight of hungry woodpeckers, lumberjacks or termites, but it must take something pretty serious to petrify an entire forest like one in northern Namibia.

 

In the wilds of south-west Africa, there’s a spot missed by many travellers more interested in the wildlife of Etosha or the rolling dunes of Sossusvlei. In fact, although declared a national monument in 1950, the Petrified Forest is easy to miss even if you know it’s there.

 

Although I had long heard of such phenomena, I’d never really given much thought to precisely what a petrified forest was…until I found myself in one. Somewhat disappointingly it was neither a forest in the traditional standing-up sense, or a collection of really scary trees from some twisted 17th century nursery rhyme written solely to torment small children. For those who don’t know, they’re trees that have turned to stone – and no gorgons were involved.

 

The ones in Namibia are estimated to be 250 million years old and were deposited in the area by a flood. From afar and to the uninitiated, they simply appear to be crumbling stone cylinders, but upon closer inspection they really do look like trees with rough bark, knots and age-rings. It’s impossible not to touch them and be surprised by the hardness of stone rather than the warmth of wood. A sign explained that the trees had sunk into a silica-rich soil that was completely devoid of oxygen and which had consequently prevented the wood from decaying. Instead, over the course of time tiny molecules of silica penetrated the wood, replaced its molecules and perfectly preserved the trees…as stone.

 

Sadly, much of the petrified wood has been pilfered by light-fingered locals and visitors, although what remains is still very impressive. Today, there are guides and parks officials patrolling the site ensuring that Namibia’s natural heritage of ancient fossils aren’t stolen and signs that warn of severe repercussions for anyone tempted to try. Penalties range from considerable fines to lengthy prison sentences – punishment that some would say is positively petrifying.

 

 

Photo and post by:     Simon Vaughan





I Wish To Register a Complaint

20 03 2009

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             “I wish to complain about the gratuitous violence on my recent safari…”

 

I was once asked if I had to catch my own food while on safari. I fleetingly pictured myself standing atop a speeding Landrover in pursuit of a herd of fleeing impala, Indiana Jones hat flapping in the breeze, a glinting spear wielded mercilessly above my head. Alas, I instead explained that we generally restrict our hunting to the supermarket of the nearest town before heading into the bush. My inquisitor seemed somewhat disappointed that my adventures were not intrepid enough for their liking and headed off to find someone more exciting.

 

The fact that hunting in a national park or reserve designed to protect wildlife from hunting would likely be frowned upon by heavily-armed rangers hadn’t quite registered with my chum. But then again it’s not the first time someone embarked on travels without having all their luggage in a row!

 

The Association of British Travel Agents recently compiled a list of the most ridiculous complaints made by holidaymakers. Any resemblance to Adventure Bloggers is purely coincidental:

 

“On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food at all.”

 

“Topless sunbathing on the beach should be banned. The holiday was ruined as my husband spent all day looking at other women.”

 

“We bought ‘Ray-Ban’ sunglasses for five euros ($8.00) from a street trader, only to find out they were fake.”

 

“No-one told us there would be fish in the sea. The children were startled.”

 

“It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England. It only took the Americans three hours to get home.”

“My fiancé and I booked a twin-bedded room but we were placed in a double-bedded room. We now hold you responsible for the fact that I find myself pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked.”

 

“We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as yellow but it was white.”

 

“I compared the size of our one-bedroom apartment to our friends’ three-bedroom apartment and ours was significantly smaller.”

 

“The brochure stated: ‘No hairdressers at the accommodation’. We’re trainee hairdressers – will we be OK staying here?”

 

“There are too many Spanish people. The receptionist speaks Spanish. The food is Spanish. Too many foreigners.”

 

“I was bitten by a mosquito – no-one said they could bite.”

 

“I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts.”

 

“The beach was too sandy.”

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan