Snakes On A Plane….for real!

17 04 2009


What time’s the next flight to Melbourne?                       (Python in Amboseli, Kenya)


I love babies and small dogs and have a soft spot for old people. Any façade of stoic, disinterested masculinity evaporates when confronted by a wide-eyed, bubble-blowing, gurgling, bouncing bundle of joy, and I am genuinely more than happy to help any blue-tinted, zimmer-framed, slow-motioned senior reach the pureed apple from the top shelf of the supermarket…but I confess to harbouring a deep resentment towards both while on long flights.


Flying is not only a way of getting from point A to point B, but it’s also a wonderful reprieve from the stresses and strains of cell phones, e-mails and everyday life –even if I lose the feeling in my feet after a couple of hours. It is also a perfect opportunity to read that book I’ve been crawling through for several months or to catch-up on much needed sleep ahead of a busy schedule of meetings or sightseeing. So, woe behold anything that gets between me and a positive aerial experience.


Fortunately however, teething, kicking, flatulent babies and hearing-impaired seniors who bellow every word and pound the back of my seat in an effort to get their entertainment systems working are generally the only annoying things I have ever experienced on any flight – and even that annoyance is tinged with guilt at my own intolerance.


Some passengers on a recent flight in Australia were almost not quite so lucky.  During a two and a half hour flight from Alice Springs to Melbourne, four pythons escaped from their container in the aircraft’s hold and started slithering their way throughout the plane.


Fortunately, none made their way into the cabin – or at least if they did, none were spotted stealing the packets of pretzels or using the paper seat-covers in the toilets. Unfortunately, when their absence was discovered upon arrival, the aircraft had to be pulled from service and searched from nose to tail.


The Stimson’s pythons were each about 6” long, which makes them less threatening than a fully-grown constrictor with cold scaly skin, beady little eyes and a darting tongue…but also means it’s easier for them to climb into your seatback pocket, your bag in the overhead locker, your discarded shoe…or up your trouser leg while you sleep. Luckily, Qantas thought of all that as well, and after a fruitless search, eventually elected to fumigate the plane rather than risk having one of the serpents drop down with an oxygen mask during a safety briefing.


Passengers incovenienced by the delay were said to be understanding when they realised the alternative.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009


A to Z of Adventure Travel: N is for North Island, NZ

16 04 2009



     Got a flat tyre? Call the Waitomo Caves Pit Crew! (Waitomo, New Zealand)


New Zealand’s North Island is the 14th largest island in the world and home to 76% of the country’s population and its biggest city, Auckland. While its South Island is renowned as one of the world’s great adventure and outdoor playgrounds, the North Island should never be overlooked.


Auckland is a cosmopolitan city of hills and extinct volcanoes on the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea. Having several times hosted the America’s Cup, at any given time, its harbour is filled with some of the most impressive and expensive private and racing yachts in the world – with the latter often available for charter or sightseeing trips. Restaurants, pubs and nightlife abound making it the perfect starting point for exploring this South Pacific nation.


To the north of Auckland almost at the northern-most point of the country lies Paihia and the Bay of Islands with its spectacular coastline. Boat trips are offered in search of dolphins and whales as well as skydiving, parasailing and scuba diving.


The geothermal capital of New Zealand is Rotorua, located south-east of Auckland. Rotorua is a wonderland of spas, bubbling mud pools and geysers, providing you don’t mind the smell of sulphur! Rotorua is also the centre for Maori culture and offers plenty of opportunities to learn more about New Zealand’s first nations through visitor centres and cultural villages.


For those seeking something different, there’s Zorbing! Created in New Zealand, Zorbers roll downhill in enormous clear-plastic spheres…a bit like being trapped in a large bubble machine except with gravity. If you want to try something that your neighbours haven’t and that doesn’t involved flinging yourself off a bridge, this is it!


Beneath Waitomo lies a vast network of caves displaying stalactites, stalagmites and glow-worms as well as the cave weta – a spider that even horror film directors couldn’t exaggerate! The subterranean world can be explored by abseiling from ground level and then wading and swimming through eel-infested waters before wriggling through narrow openings into chambers that seem undiscovered and untouched! Alternatively there are boat tours through the glow-worm caves or cave rafting down underground rivers. Great for the adventurous…but not for the claustrophobic or squeemish!


If after all your giant spiders, eels, geysers and zorbing you just want to relax and enjoy some beautiful scenery, North Island offers something for everyone from Wellington and Napier all the way to Cape Reinga.



Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Photo by: Doug Fry

The Last King of Scotland

14 04 2009


        “Och, I’m looking for the Idi Amin tartan, please.”  (Market day, western Uganda)



It is said that lazy foreign correspondents gauge a country’s mood by chatting with taxi drivers. Given that taxi drivers spend almost as much time chatting with locals as bartenders and barbers, their feelings probably are somewhat of a barometer of a nation’s opinions and it’s an easy trap in which to fall.


I must confess that I’ve probably learned more about world affairs from taxi drivers than from CNN Bureau Chiefs. An Eritrean driver in Toronto taught me all about that country’s brutal independence struggle against Ethiopia, while an Iranian in Melbourne related what it was like to be a westernised bank manager in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. But as fascinating as those conversations were, probably the single most memorable of all came in Uganda.


Kampala’s international airport is located on the shores of Lake Victoria in nearby Entebbe. To any student of history, Entebbe is synonymous with a 1976 act of terrorism when a hijacked Air France Airbus was directed there after sympathetic Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada promised safety to its Palestinian and German hijackers. After several days during which all non-Jewish hostages were released, Israel launched a daring commando raid and safely rescued almost all the hostages.


It was early morning when my aircraft swept in over the impossibly blue lake. I strolled into a new terminal building but as my taxi drove away, we passed the old building now overgrown, falling apart and still pockmarked by the raid’s bullets. When my head swivelled to get a better look, the cabbie noticed my interest.


“Over there is the plane,” he said, his eyes making contact with mine in the rear-view mirror. The Air France livery was sun-bleached to nothing, and the aircraft had been picked-apart to remove anything of use or value. The area around it was overgrown with weeds and grass but it seemingly sat as an unintended monument to one of the world’s most famous acts of terrorism…and to an infamous Ugandan dictator.


Even before Giles Foden’s novel and Oscar-winning movie “The Last King of Scotland”, Idi Amin’s name was synonymous with a blood-thirsty – if slightly buffoonish – dictator. Amin rose to power in a coup in 1971 and soon reaped a reign of terror that included human rights abuses, political repression, murder and war. Amnesty International estimated he was responsible for as many as 500,000 Ugandan deaths while former colleagues claimed he indulged in cannibalism. By the time of his death in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003, Amin’s place in history as one of the world’s most feared tyrants was complete.


My driver tutted as we drove past.


“I wish we had him now,” he muttered quietly.


“Amin?” I asked, trying not to let my incredulity show at his confessed support for a man that most of the world still considers a monster.


“Yes, Amin” he said. “We wouldn’t have the problems that we’ve got now. There was law and order here. People had jobs. We were powerful. Now we have terrorists in the north and AIDS everywhere. It wouldn’t have happened under Amin.”


For once I was at a loss for words and quietly stared at the passing scenery. Perhaps a tabloid journalist would have reported that Uganda “longs for return of strong man”, but during the following weeks I spent in the East African country, his was the lone voice of support I heard.


Most likely, he was not alone but just like the London taxi driver who believed that Milli Vanilli were musical geniuses who were framed, he was certainly in the minority.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Most Unusual Travel Insurance Claims

13 04 2009


The Nakuru Cat Burglar is remarkable for its resemblance to the baboon. (Nakuru, Kenya)


Though I’ve had more tropical diseases than the average petri dish and once had to survive in Iceland for 24 hours without so much as a toothbrush and clean socks, I have been fortunate that I’ve only once had to make a claim on my travel insurance.


Travel insurance is one of those things that I faithfully buy but hope never to get my money’s worth from. Over the years I have probably spent enough money to pay for a pretty decent vacation, but so far apart from one visit to a doctor in London (see “How To Get A Head in Africa” 10 July 2008), I’ve never got back a penny – but I have scored a ton of peace-of-mind.


The silence at the end of the telephone line when I called the insurance company about my tick suggests it might well still be discussed around the water cooler. But I am glad to know that I am not the only one who has entertained or bemused travel insurance companies. Here are a few others that are likely pinned to a bulletin board beside Terry the Tick:



        A pensioner, whose false teeth fell out while he vomited over the side of a cruise ship, put in a claim to his travel insurers for new dentures under “lost baggage”.


        A young traveller, distracted by the appearance of a group of women in bikinis, broke his nose when he walked into a bus shelter in Athens.


        A traveller lost his wallet in a drain in Israel. Instead of filing a police report and making a claim through his insurance, he instead stuck his hand down the drain – only to be stung by a poisonous scorpion. He ended up claiming for both a lost wallet and a hospital visit.


        A man who claimed for holiday cancellation when refused boarding was turned down by his insurance company when it emerged his ticket was for a flight from Manchester, New Hampshire…not from Manchester in the North West of England.


        Returning from India, a traveller filed a claim with his insurance company for $1100 worth of “Bombay Mix” snack food that he had lost from his luggage enroute. The insurance company performed a few quick calculations and determined that at less than $2 per 250g bag, the man would have had to have misplaced more than 137 kilograms of munchies…and refused to pay.


        A couple on vacation in Malaysia returned to their lodge to find that monkeys had climbed in through an open window, stolen their clothes and scattered them throughout the neighbouring jungle.


        A family’s camping holiday was ruined when a parachutist from a nearby airbase missed his target and landed squarely on their tent, destroying their equipment. Their insurer rejected their claims as they weren’t insured against accidental damage.


And in the category of needing a vacation to recover from a vacation:


        A holidaymaker in Sri Lanka needed hospital treatment after a coconut fell on her head while she was reading in the shade below.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 17

10 04 2009


      “Quick, I think I’ve been spotted.”                      (cheetah, Masai Mara, Kenya)




“He travels the fastest who travels alone.”


Rudyard Kipling




Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan

A to Z of Adventure Travel: M is for Malawi

9 04 2009


“If we hide here long enough, perhaps Angelina Jolie will find us first.”  (Nyika Plateau)


Until Madonna started visiting orphanages there, Malawi was relatively unknown to many people. This small South-east African country is bordered by Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia and offers some of the most picturesque scenery in southern Africa.


Although not a great destination for the Big Five, Malawi is a wonderful addition to any classic safari or for anyone seeking somewhere a little different. The country’s most popular attraction is Lake Malawi, a crystal clear freshwater lake that teems with tropical fish and is lined by pristine beaches, unspoiled wilderness, small villages, farmers’ fields and a few rustic lodges and luxurious resorts. Although not as safe as the government sometimes like to suggest thanks largely to the presence of bilharzia, Lake Nyasa as it is also known is still a perfect place to fish, relax and swim. Resting on the shoreline at sunset, sipping a cool drink and listening to the haunting call of African fish eagles is just about as good as Africa gets!


To the country’s north sits Nyika Plateau, a beautiful montane highland plateau that’s more reminiscent of Scotland or northern Europe than Africa. At over 2,000 metres altitude, the park offers great hiking and horseback riding amid rolling plains and thick forests. Immortalised by Laurens van der Post’s classic “Venture to the Interior”, the park has likely changed little since the great South African author visited more than half a century ago. Although looking like Europe, the plateau is home to plenty of wildlife including hyena, zebra, roan and eland and one of the highest populations of leopard in all of central Africa. Sitting around a campfire in a pine forest clearing on a cool evening and hearing the ‘sawing’ sound of a leopard is a surreal yet unforgettable African experience. Nyika offers few amenities so trips need to be properly planned.


Although not exactly a shopper’s paradise, Malawi is famed its wooden carvings that include small tables with interlocking legs carved from a single piece of wood and intricately detailed chairs. Although often also found in neighbouring countries, Malawi offers the highest quality – and best prices – and it’s often possible to purchase them in small markets from the actual artisan who made them.


Amongst Africa’s least developed countries, Malawi has a limited tourist infrastructure but no shortage of warmth and friendliness for those who visit this beautiful and largely undiscovered country.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

The View From The Top

7 04 2009


It’s a long flight to Australia and although the journey is less of an ordeal than at any time since the retirement of down-lined coracles, it can still be a test of endurance.


Airline seats are technical and ergonomic masterpieces while menus are created by master chefs designed to prevent passengers gnawing off straggling limbs. Cabin crew are attentive and merrily distribute peanut-free snacks, but it is the entertainment systems that have seen the biggest improvement.


Whereas once there was one mediocre family-oriented film shown on a small screen at the front of the cabin – with sound channelled through an uncomfortable hissing headset that left ears numb and occasionally discoloured – most airlines now offer personal entertainment systems…even when travelling with the smelly hordes down the back.


These systems not only provide uncut new releases but also TV shows, music channels and even video games…all the comforts of home if you’re accustomed to sitting in Grandpa’s recliner for 15 straight hours.


I had flown through the night, crossed the international dateline and was gazing wistfully at the sparkling sun-soaked Pacific Ocean seven miles below. I had eaten, slept, movied, dozed, gamed, slept, eaten and dozed and now my head was propped against the cold Perspex as I rotated my feet in an effort to stave off DVT – or Economy Class Syndrome: the modern travel equivalent of scurvy – when I spotted something in the water.


At first I thought nothing of it. Although it looked like a line stretched across the ocean, I guessed it was actually just something on the scratched glass. I moved my head but it remained in place. Perhaps it was the sun glinting off the wing and reflecting on my window, or something from inside the cabin bouncing off the overhead bin and across my line of vision. Curiosity piqued, I began to swivel my head like a bobblehead. But still it remained.


Satisfied that it was indeed actually on the water, I began to wonder what it was. This was a seriously long line indeed. Could it be the wake of a ship hidden beneath our wing? Perhaps a massively-long illegal fishing net scooping up half the world’s species? An oil slick? The meeting point of cold and hot waters? All were possible, but this line was arrow-straight – like the Tropic of Capricorn, only drawn on the ocean and not on a map. It was evidently unaffected by wind or tides or any change of course.


By now I was on the edge of my seat, my fingers clutching the window frame, my nose pressed flat against the glass which fogged-up with each excited breath. I strained to stare backwards and the line extended ad infinitum. Forwards it disappeared under the wing. Was I viewing some strange phenomenon? Was it the nautical manifestation of global warming? A top secret array laid by a submarine? A rift in the earth’s seam? A landing strip for UFOs equipped with seaplane floats? A line of migrating sea-lemmings? I was rapt, and it beat anything on my personal entertainment system.


My brain began to hurt with such intense concentration. My heart beat faster in the knowledge that I was viewing something extraordinary.


“Look,” I heard a child’s voice behind me exclaim. “You can see the shadow of our contrail stretching right across the sea!”



Photograph and post by:  Simon Vaughan