Of Pandemics, Quarantine and Monica Bellucci

30 04 2009


Getting caught in a pandemic sounds pretty exciting…until it happens.


Our impressions of disasters often tend to be influenced by Hollywood and the idea of being caught in an outbreak of Tropical Galloping Gob Rot usually includes a nurse who looks like Monica Bellucci, a doctor like George Clooney…and a closing scene in First Class with champagne in one hand and Monica or George by our side. Reality is a little more sobering and I’m sure there aren’t many people in Mexico right now who are finding the experience particularly romantic.


Thankfully, I’ve never been caught in a pandemic and I hope I never am, but there was one occasion when it seemed that I might and I wasn’t really thinking of Monica or George at the time!


While in Africa some years ago, news filtered through of an outbreak of plague in India. Plague seems such a dark, ancient and deadly disease but according to the World Health Organisation, there are 1,000-3,000 new cases each year. Despite being treatable with antibiotics, a plague outbreak is still not a thought that warms the cockles of most hearts…especially when on the other side of the planet.


Although on a different continent, we felt strangely vulnerable. If the plague outbreak did become a pandemic as was being suggested, we were in the wilds of a country that could easily be ravaged and which had a poor medical infrastructure and inadequate antibiotics – and we were several days drive from the nearest airport. Admittedly we were leaping miles ahead of what little we knew of the situation, but it was difficult not to have such thoughts when passing through very poor towns inhabited by children with distended stomachs, permeated by the smell of baby vomit and open sewers and just a single flight away from India.


A local newspaper didn’t really help matters either. A small piece on the front page reported that suggestions had been made to restrict air travel from infected areas. If the plague crossed the Indian Ocean, would we even be allowed to travel home or would we at best be subjected to lengthy quarantine?  Another overland truck we passed had heard that the WHO and local authorities were acting quickly, but that the outbreak was not contained and there were concerns of it spreading beyond India. Tanzanian and Kenyan officials were reportedly screening people at the airports already. We had never felt so far from home or out of touch.


As the fragments of information slipped from the news, so the threat receded from our minds. By the time we arrived in Nairobi several weeks later, our worries seemed silly and overblown, but I will certainly never see anything romantic or exciting in pandemics, quarantine or government airlifts again…with or without Monica Bellucci!



Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Gerald Ford Slipped Here

28 04 2009


“That’s nothing that flossing and a good dental hygienist can’t remove.” (Stone Town, Zanzibar)


On buildings all over the world there are plaques and signs commemorating famous people who were born, died, lived or sometimes just fell over therein. Some are quite fascinating, others utterly bemusing. If it’s a house in which Michelangelo sculpted, Machiavelli schemed, Casanova seduced, Beethoven composed or Hemingway wrote, they are well worth a detour and a photograph, but if it’s somewhere that Paris Hilton once lost her chihuahua, not so much. Sometimes the buildings don’t have signs and it’s only local knowledge that identifies them – like the building in the backstreets of Zanzibar where Farrokh Bulsara – later better know as Freddie Mercury – grew-up.


Few people plan their travels solely around these spots, but if in the neighbourhood many of us swing by for a glimpse or possibly even a visit if the building now houses a museum, no matter how modest.  However, there are some people who do follow the trails of their heroes and tour companies who make it easy to do so.


Of course, it would be possible to read Che Guevara’s ‘Motorcycle Diaries’, pick up a detailed Michelin map of South America, hire a motorbike, pack a sleeping bag and tent, a wad of pesos and follow the route yourself, but that’s a lot of work for the average person with two weeks annual vacation. Instead, there are companies who are more than happy to lead you on at least part of his route and show you a few iconic spots along the way. An air-conditioned minibus doesn’t quite capture the spirit of Guevara and Granado’s adventures aboard La Poderosa, but for those with a keen interest in the Argentine revolutionary, it at least gives them a taste of what he saw several decades ago.


There are trips that take you to spots that were inspirational for artists or poets, or that follow in the footsteps of adventurers or explorers…but not that many for famous tax collectors or politicians, possibly because tax and politics are two of the last things people like to think of when on vacation. However, there is one new one that is an exception.


Earlier this year the “Roots of Obama” tour was introduced in Kenya. In addition to visiting the usual sites like Nakuru National Park and the Masai Mara, the trip heads to western Kenya and its towns and markets before landing in ‘Obama land’. There are visits to Kogelo, the birthplace of Barack Obama Senior. A member of the family leads visitors through the village to discover the family’s roots and to visit the household. There’s a walk to Nyangoma to visit Senator Obama High School and all along there are tastes of the local warmth and hospitality and plenty of traditional food!


Even without the connection to the 44th president, this trip provides a glimpse of real Kenyan life that passes completely unnoticed for almost all visitors – even if you don’t get to see where Gerald Ford fell down.



Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan © 2009


27 04 2009


A rare image of Marcel Marceau being attacked by a tropical fish  (Puffin, Vik, Iceland)


Plenty of people throughout history have died for their art. Whether slipping from a scaffolding while painting a fresco, inhaling too many emulsion fumes, portraying an ogre-like monarch as an ogre-like monarch or simply being a stand-up comic to a silent and unamused crowd, dying goes hand in hand with art. I’m not sure that my travel photography qualifies as art, but I almost died for it once.


Even in the middle of summer, the cliff tops of Iceland are often shrouded in low mist and driving rain. People trekking the tops must not only be properly equipped with raingear, but they are also warned to be especially cautious that the swirling mists don’t obscure the cliff edge – thereby leaving them intimately acquainted with the crashing waves below. However, any meteorological inconveniences or inherent risks are worthwhile as these cliff tops provide the best views of Iceland’s puffins.


Before trekking through the fields to reach the nesting sites, our guide called us together. With the wind howling and heads hunched, she bellowed that we had to watch out for skewers – large territorial sea birds with a penchant for attacking anything that ventures too close. She said we would walk in single file with her in the lead waving her walking stick in the air….and off we set.


Having had more than a few close encounters in Africa – and one in a subway car when I came between a tired office worker and an empty seat – I couldn’t imagine that a skewer could be more troubling than past scares. I did vaguely recall seeing wildlife guru Sir David Attenborough hunched on a cliff top while dive-bombed by a large sea bird, but really, it’s a bird after all. Surely Sir David’s reaction was driven by theatre and drama and not genuine fear.


We were halfway to the cliff edge when the bombardment began. The skewer swooped angrily from nowhere, talons extended. It soared down, wings pivoting like a tightrope walker’s balance pole, eyeing up the weakest link in our human chain. With a deft wave of our leader’s walking stick, the bird twisted and screamed past, swinging high around like a fighter jet on a strafing run and prepared for its next assault. We hunched as it wheeled towards us. The guide wielded the stick again, and once more it veered upwards and repositioned itself for another attack.


Reaching the far side of the danger area, we carefully peered through the mists at the puffin nests along the buffetted cliff face. Spying the plump little seabirds with their white mime-artists’ faces and multi-coloured beaks was more than reward for our efforts, and we busily snapped away with our cameras. The visit over, we turned and headed back across the killing fields to our minibus. However, just as our trek began I spotted a puffin perfectly framed by a large rock. I dropped down and crawled around to find the perfect angle before taking a photograph that I instantly knew was a winner.


By the time I got up, my group was miles away and under assault. I realised I was tail-end Charlie: the poor sap in the movies that gets eaten by the swamp monster, abducted by the serial killer or sucked-up by the UFO without anyone noticing. I sprinted across the grass, ducking and diving as I came under attack. The skewer, undeterred by a hiking stick, dived lower and lower. I zig-zagged across the open ground hunched like a laden busboy and eventually reached the safety of the carpark.


“Oh,” the guide remarked with surprise as I emerged, breathless and ashen-faced. “I didn’t realise you weren’t with us.”



Photo and post: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Things That Go Bang in the Night

24 04 2009


“I love the sound of firecrackers in the morning, it’s the sound of victory!”   (Mt. Meru, Arusha, Tanzania)



Night is always the most dangerous time in Africa. It’s when lions and leopard hunt, when hyenas and jackals forage and villagers barricade themselves and their livestock behind acacia thorn and stay safely inside their huts. It’s at night when every sound makes hearts palpitate, when campers lie in their tents wide-eyed and sleepless and when spear-toting warriors patrol campsites to fend off dangerous trespassers. But sometimes, it’s the guards themselves that cause the biggest frights.


Arriving back in Arusha, Tanzania after several weeks on safari, we found our campsite on the outskirts of town guarded by several soldiers in fatigues with automatic rifles. They smiled happily and raised the gate as we drove in, before resuming their posts. As there’d been no such security when we’d stayed in the same spot two weeks earlier, we couldn’t help but wonder if there’d been a coup while we were off in the wilds…or anything else similarly dramatic.


After setting up our tents and relishing long-awaited showers, we headed to the rustic bar for a cold beverage. It wasn’t long before someone asked the bartender what the army was doing at the gates.


“Someone tried to rob the campsite last week,” he explained non-chalantly, pouring from a bottle of Konyagi. “The owner heard them and came running out with a rifle. There was a scuffle and the owner and one of the robbers was shot. The police arrested the owner, but they’re worried that the robber’s friends will come back for revenge.” He shrugged and went to the other end of the bar while we stared at each other in shock.


“So,” someone finally said after an uncomfortable silence, “we’re staying at a campsite guarded by police in army gear carrying AK-47s in case the friends of a shot burglar come back to shoot the whole place up in revenge for their friend’s injuries???”


“Yeah, pretty much.”


“Right, I’ll have another beer.”


After dinner we headed for our tents expecting to be awakened by gunfire. Alas, at the usual hour the beer I had consumed to help me forget that I was sleeping in the middle of the O.K. Corral bid me to visit the toilet. I shuffled into the cool darkness and walked towards the cinder block building that was dimly lit by a single naked light blub. As I approached the building I heard a loud noise and peered nervously into the shadows.


There, slumped in a tyre-swing hanging from a tree was one of our police guards, fast asleep. His head lolled on his chest, he snored noisily, his rifle lay across his legs with his finger on the trigger. I tip-toed past terrified that I would make a noise and be felled by a startled burst of automatic rifle fire.


Safely inside, I heaved a sigh of relief. Business done, I headed to the doorway and glanced across at the swing. Our sentinel was still asleep and still snoring. Legs shaking, I held my breath, and tip-toed back past him, all the while daring not to breathe less a particularly loud exhalation suddenly woke the marksman.


I dived into the tent and threw myself flatly to the ground. The rest of the night passed uneventfully, but I realised that I’d sooner walk past a pride of starving lions or an amorous bull elephant in the night than again venture past a sleeping, possibly trigger-happy policeman with a machine-gun!



Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan © 2009 

A to Z of Adventure Travel: O is for Overlanding

23 04 2009


“Yes, and I expect the lobster bisque to be delivered to my tent with the chilled Dom.” (Namib Desert) 


Thirty years ago, it was popular to quit your job, buy a second-hand Landrover in London, pack a sleeping bag, tent, pots and pans, an atlas, spare tyre, a pair of sandals and a few mates and drive to Kathmandu. When the journey was complete, the Landrover would be sold to similar wandering souls in Nepal who’d then make the reverse journey back to London. Once in the UK, these inveterate travellers would realise that an office job just didn’t hold much appeal after spending 6 months or several years driving across the world on 25 cents per day, and they’d start Overland companies. This would allow them to take truckloads of similarly-minded but less-independent souls on journeys through Asia, the Middle East, Africa or South America…and get paid for it.


Overlanding still exists today although the old 30mph ex-army Bedford trucks that were the mainstay of such trips for decades have been replaced with custom-built Mercedes with docking stations for iPods, re-chargers for laptops, and mini-fridges for beer and gourmet tofu. However, the sense of adventure still remains the same.


An Overland truck is a self-contained eco-system. Held within are long-range fuel tanks that permit trips to remote and often inaccessible areas; water containers; storage units for tinned food and other staples; modern camping equipment; spare parts and bits of equipment for tricky terrain like sandmats, hooks and winches. Although water, bread and fresh produce are picked-up along the way, the self-sufficiency of the onboard stores allow overland vehicles to head well off the beaten path and explore areas of the world previously only available to unemployed people with Landrovers!


Although good value for money, this ability to explore without being a world famous explorer isn’t for everyone. There are usually 18-20 on a truck and everyone is required to assist with the chores. Whether preparing the food, shopping in the markets, doing the dishes, collecting the water or starting the fire, everyone has a duty that rarely occupies more than a few minutes of any day. Overlanding attracts all ages from early 20s to adventurous retirees in their late 60s and everyone from students to engineers, doctors and bank managers. It’s not unusual to find 7 or 8 different nationalities on any trip, women often narrowly outnumber men and singles usually outnumber couples. In fact, overlanding is probably the best mode of travel for adventurous single travellers.


In most destinations, overland trips spend the entire tour camping. This keeps the cost down and also allows for greater wanderings away from tarred roads and civilisation. Camping itself can also be separated into two categories: camping, using organised sites often with bathroom facilities and sometimes a bar or even swimming pool, and bush camping, which entails turning off the road and stopping wherever your travels find you. No bathrooms, no bars, no swimming pools, just untouched wilderness and perfect solitude.


In some cases, however, smaller budget accommodation is used either for convenience, weather or reasons of security usually paid for from a kitty or local payment fund. Regardless of where you lay your head at night however, the truck quickly becomes your home and the travelling companions often become life-long friends. It’s hard not to experience the wonders that overlanding provides and not form an unbreakable bond with your new mates.


Overland companies usually require that you bring nothing more than a sleeping bag, a sense of adventure and an appetite for the unexpected. But whether venturing through Africa, South America, Asia or the Middle East and travelling for 2 weeks or 8 months, they are guaranteed to provide the experience of a lifetime.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Antarctic Tourism

21 04 2009


The 32nd Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting ended last week in Baltimore, Maryland. Among many issues discussed by the assembled scientists and world leaders was the impact of tourism on the Antarctic and concerns that its steady growth could potentially damage the fragile environment. chinstrap-penguin-1-mw


Only a few decades ago, Antarctica was the exclusive domain of scientists and explorers but tourism has quadrupled in the past ten years with more than 46,000 people visiting the continent and surrounding area last year alone. Compare that with 1990’s total of 5,000 visitors and it is clear that tourism to the End of the World has exploded.


Hillary Rodham Clinton was amongst those expressing a desire to see tighter controls on Antarctic tourism. Although there was no call to ban tourism completely, there were suggestions for limits on the number of ships and landings, restrictions on how close vessels come to shore, a ban on the construction and development of tourist facilities and hotels on the continent, and rules on waste discharge from ships.


In the past few years there have been a number of well-publicised incidents involving small, specialised Antarctic expedition cruise vessels. Although none resulted in death or serious environmental damage, these events did raise awareness of the risks involved in operating in such a remote, hostile and fragile region. Of particular concern to scientists and environmentalists are the large cruise ships which visit Antarctic waters as part of South American itineraries. Although these ships attempt to avoid the ice and do not yet send passengers ashore, fears remain that without ice-strengthened hulls and experienced pilots, one will eventually have a problem and the result will be an epic disaster for both the 5,000 passengers and the environment.


A further concern centres on the impact that tourism has on the area’s fragile ecosystem. The British Antarctic Survey has been monitoring gentoo penguins at Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula for several years. During that time they have determined that although the area is heavily visited, provided the tourists are properly managed and controlled while ashore, the impact is minimal. However, as numbers increase there remains the distinct possibility of less well-supervised visits and negative interaction or possibly even the introduction of disease, rats or insects which would cause devastation.


As can be evidenced by the British Antarctic Survey’s study, the majority of companies that currently take adventure travellers to the Antarctic are responsible and environmentally sensitive. Visitors are properly prepared for their trips even before they leave home, and once there they are carefully supervised in what is unquestionably the trip of a lifetime. Delegates to the conference agreed that tourism has tremendous value in publicising the threats from Global warming, pollution and other issues that the Antarctic increasingly faces. There was general consensus that efforts should be made to keep both visitors and the environment safe rather than close the area completely, but it is clear that maximum numbers and greater restrictions will likely be imposed in the near future.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009

Amex For Visa?

20 04 2009



If a pot of gold fell from the heavens and landed at my feet, I might well splurge on a beautiful plantation house cooled by gentle sea breezes and blessed with a shaded hammock, flowering bushes, frolicking dolphins and a lifelong supply of English breakfast sausages. Given the general shortage of dolphins and plantations, I’d probably have to emigrate – but with pockets jangling with doubloons, I’m sure there’d be no shortage of countries welcoming me with open arms…if not sausages.


Many countries would be overrun if ever they threw open their doors to the world, but these are often the easiest ones to visit. It’s the ones in which life is so rough that the longest queues are for people fleeing to neighbouring refugee camps that can be the most difficult to enter!


Zaire likely never appeared on lists of the Best Places in the World to Live and certainly by the late ‘90s it wasn’t on the cover of Conde Nast. With war raging in the east and a dictator for whom the term ‘Kleptocracy’ was coined in recognition of his style of government, Zaire wasn’t exactly flavour of the month…but it was home to mountain gorillas. With flights booked, it only remained to obtain a visa – but how difficult could it be to visit such a country? Surely, they’d love any visitors not carrying AK-47s!


I phoned the embassy only to find the number out of service. More rummaging revealed a second address but the outcome was the same. Beginning to doubt the wisdom of sending my passport to an embassy possibly trying to avoid bill collectors, I resorted to a visa servicing company. They sent me the current forms and promised to hand-deliver the passport to the drifting embassy and return again to collect it. It seemed like a bargain even when factoring in their fee.


The package arrived and I carefully reviewed the requirements. The form was intimidating enough, but they also wanted half-a dozen passport photos, a not unsubstantial sum of money…and letters from my employer and bank manager. Apparently, Zaire was concerned that once I visited their country I would never leave. Therefore, they wanted proof that I had a job to return to and enough money to support myself for my 3 days in a country in which the average person earned less than one hundred dollars per year.


I’ll be the first to admit there have been vacations from which I never wished to return, but they usually involved sun-soaked tropical paradises – not Central African war zones. Perhaps if I was a diamond smuggler or a coltan dealer, Zaire might have been a tempting place to stay, but strangely enough I’ve always been a bit of a sissy when it comes to violent anarchy and rampant corruption.


Forms completed and letters acquired, I shipped off my passport and a wad of cash (in small denomination unmarked bills). A short while later I was asked to clarify a few points and re-submit my form. Weeks ticked by. Eventually, my paperwork arrived. When I later stood in the dust and neglect of the Uganda/Zaire border, the immigration official seemed surprised and disappointed that I already had my visa.


“Was this difficult to get?” he asked, holding the page up to the sunlight.


I nodded in the affirmative.


“You should have just bought it from me, friend…I do you a deal.”



Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan © 2009