To Shoot Or Not To Shoot

30 06 2009

Kutima Mulilo mw 

 

If I had a dollar for every great photo I’ve missed because my camera was inaccessible, I’d be travelling the world right this moment instead of sitting at my computer! After a few too many ‘ones that got away’, I bought a small point-and-shoot camera. Sometimes, however, knowing what not to photograph is even more important than knowing what to capture!

 

Katima Mulilo is a town in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip: a panhandle of land in the country’s north-east corner that slices between Botswana, Zambia and Angola. We had stopped for supplies during the long drive from Etosha to Chobe National Park. While our truck went for gas, the rest of us headed for the supermarket. The shopping done, we stepped outside and sat on the curb in the shade with a cold bottle of Coke and watched every day life in this sleepy, dusty corner of Africa.

 

Within moments, the silence was split by shouts and roaring engines and a Casspir came tearing around the corner. It slammed to a halt in front of us and police armed with sjambok whips tumbled out and ran in every direction while more vehicles arrived. The Casspir is familiar to anyone who grew up watching news coverage of the Apartheid struggle in neighbouring South Africa. These high-wheeled high-sided armoured personnel carriers raced into Townships during demonstrations, firing teargas and high-powered water from cannons or dispersing police or army riot squads. It suddenly felt as though I was in one of those news reels.

 

The police ran down the side streets and into stores and businesses, knocking over stalls, dragging people out and throwing them in the Casspir or other trucks. Some fled, chased by the police as they thrashed the air with their long whips, others obediently surrendered. A police officer stood atop the armoured vehicle shouting into a radio and directing his men.

 

Amid all the pandemonium, we remained quietly sat on the curb. We didn’t know what was going on, but thought it best to sit still and not draw attention to ourselves. Instead of attempting to walk away or even stand up, we simply slid ourselves further against the wall in an effort to remain inanimate and invisible while all hell let loose.

 

On my belt was my small point-and-shoot camera. I could feel it burning into my side, screaming to be unleashed and record the turmoil surrounding us. While this may not quite have been Pulitzer stuff, it certainly beat sunsets and picnic tables. I told it to be quiet…while I attempted to dissolve into the shadows.

 

People continued to be pushed and dragged to the vehicles and thrown inside. Some of the detainees shouted instructions to others before they were hauled away. Army-booted feet thundered past just metres away. With great relief our truck returned and stopped on the opposite side of the road. An officer strode over and had a word with our driver before leaving again. Our driver gestured for us to quickly bring the shopping and start loading it into our truck, cautioning us not to get in the way. With everyone back on board, we left the mayhem behind and headed out of town.

 

Our driver explained that it was a police raid for illegal immigrants or anyone without ID papers. Not only did relatively-prosperous Namibia have a problem with illegal workers from neighbouring war-ravaged Angola, but at the time there was also a very odd Caprivi secessionist movement seeking independence for the 400 x 35 kilometre sliver of land and which had attacked remote police outposts and other infrastructure. The police weren’t interested in us, he added…unless one of us had tried taking photographs.

 

“That wouldn’t have been good at all” he added.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Cracking the Airport Codes

29 06 2009

 YYZ

 

 

You’re not a real traveller until you can talk in airport codes. It’s all fine and well to say you’re connecting in Chicago, but until you’ve texted your friends and said you’re grabbing a hot dog in ORD, you haven’t lived.

 

Every airport in the world has a three letter code. The system was based on one introduced by the U.S. National Weather Service who created two-letter codes to organise the data they gathered from their weather stations around the country. Airlines copied it, but as commercial aviation expanded in the 1930s and airports began to appear in places that didn’t have weather stations, it became clear that two-letter codes were insufficient…and so they expanded to the three-letter system that is today officially known as the “International Air Transport Association Location Identifier.”

 

Many codes are easily identifiable with their cities, like AMS for Amsterdam, CAI for Cairo or SIN for Singapore, or with their proper airport name like CDG for Charles de Gaulle, JFK for Kennedy or LHR for London Heathrow. But some aren’t so obvious, like YYZ for Toronto or EWR for Newark.

 

As the U.S. created the system, they had first crack at the codes. The U.S. Navy quickly claimed all the N codes for their bases, which is why somewhere like Newark is EWR while Canada claimed the Y codes, hence YVR for Vancouver etc. Although don’t be fooled, not every Y is in Canada and not all Canadian airports begin with Y.

 

That would be far too simple!

 

Unless you work for an airline or are in the travel industry, you will likely only learn airport codes through your own travel experiences. As your airport code vocabulary expands, you can start to read people’s luggage tags as you await your bag at the carrousel. “Oh look,” you can mindlessly think to yourself as that large tartan case with the pink ribbon tied to the handle trundles past for the fourth time “they’ve come from Istanbul and are continuing on to Omaha, Nebraska.”

 

Well, it beats throwing paperclips at the security guards!

 

If you have a very small brain like me, you can even amuse yourself by giggling at humourous codes or trying to think up interesting routings just to get a combination of codes onto a plane ticket. For example, did you know that if you flew from San Vito, Costa Rica to Fresno Yosemite your itinerary would read TOO FAT? Or that if your baggage claim tag reads SAY BIE it’s probably not that you’ll never seen it again but rather because you’re flying from Siena, Italy to Beatrice, Nebraska.

 

Apart from the fun you can have, there is a practical reason for familiarising yourself with airport codes and that’s that you can double-check that your bag has been properly tagged by the airline representative when you check-in for your flight. If it at least has the correct destination on it, there’s already a better chance you’ll see it again.

 

But just remember, the next time that airline rep hands you a tag that says BIG BUM on it, don’t get angry: it could just be that you’re on a domestic U.S. flight from Intermediate Airfield, Alaska to Butler, Missouri!

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





A to Z of Adventure Travel: X is for Xai-Xai

26 06 2009

 

Dhow 2 mw

 

Xai-Xai, Mozambique is a bustling town on the banks of the Limpopo River, just 12 kilometres from Praia do Xai-Xai and its massive coral reef. Although this long, sweeping beach and its safe waters have been popular with tourists since Mozambique re-emerged onto the international scene after years of brutal civil war, like much of the country it is blissfully free of mass tourism and commercialism.

 

After almost 500 years of Portuguese colonial rule, Mozambique gained its independence in 1975 but fell into civil war just two years later. It was only in 1992 that the fighting ended and the country began to rebuild itself from the devastating violence. With little infrastructure for its own citizens let alone international visitors, only the most intrepid of travellers ventured to Mozambique during its early years. The one exception to this being some of the country’s islands located in the Indian Ocean along its pristine coastline which quickly attracted visitors looking for world class fishing, snorkelling and diving.

 

Located in south-east Africa and bordered by South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi amongst other countries, Mozambique is not a country to visit in search of wildlife. Much of the game the country had was destroyed or migrated to neighbouring countries during the independence struggle and civil war that followed. However, the advent of peace and the recent opening of the Transfrontier Peace Park which spans Mozambique and its neighbours has seen a steady and healthy increase in game. Although still not on a par with other southern African countries, Mozambique’s advantage is the lack of tourists who visit the country and the unique experiences that this still-emerging country offers to visitors.

 

Mozambique’s greatest draw is undoubtedly its coastline, however.  The country offers some of the most beautiful, pristine and picturesque coastline in Africa or indeed the world. Unspoiled by mass tourism, the coast still offers many idyllic resorts, usually small and luxurious rather than enormous and overblown. Think thatched roofs, hammocks in the sea breeze and excellent food. For those on a tighter budget there is far simpler accommodation that is still clean, safe and inexpensive enough to suit anyone’s budget. Regardless of the style of travel, the crystal clear waters offer superb snorkelling and scuba diving on the reefs, swimming or sea kayaking. There are lazy cruises on traditional dhows, or simply beach-flopping on the wide uncrowded stretches of sand.

 

Perhaps not the best destination for a first visit to Africa, Mozambique is a great extension to a longer tour or the perfect place for a second visit. If you have a sense of adventure, want to be amongst the first to explore a rebounding nation…or crave unspoiled beaches and crystal clear water, have a cool drink on the soft sand of Praia do Xai-Xai.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Stargazing and the Aurora Borealis

25 06 2009

Aurora Borealis 2 mw

“…and today’s forecast is for green skies with a slight chance of slime.”                      (Aurora Borealis from the International Space Station)

 

When my grandmother was very young, she saw the Aurora Borealis – or Northern Lights – dancing in the sky above her house. By her own accounts, it was quite an incredible sight, if not perhaps a little frightening to a small girl in the pre-internet age of innocence. Her tale whetted my own desire to see this breathtaking natural phenomenon, but being a city slicker, that was easier said than done.

 

One of my favourite things when travelling is gazing at the night sky away from the blinding light of the city. I can stare at the heavens and lose myself amid the constellations and billions of twinkling stars. I get excited by satellites and thrilled by meteors. Although I impress myself by identifying Venus (my brilliance never ceases to amaze me!), I couldn’t distinguish Betelgeuse from a Betel nut and I am therefore that most amateur of amateur astronomers…the astro-moron.

 

Whenever I have been in the wilds of the reasonably-far north or reasonably-far south, I have hoped for a glimpse of the Northern or Southern Lights, but they’ve always proved elusive either due to weather, light pollution, alcohol or my inability to determine direction.

 

Landing in a small airport in Northern Ontario late one Christmas Eve, our car made its way from the airport along pitch-dark snow-covered country roads. As there were no street lamps, houses or businesses to mar the view, I couldn’t resist gazing into the crystal clear night sky at an ocean of stars and the dancing lights of the airport.

 

The airport searchlight was huge and weaved and waved across the sky. It must have been visible for miles…which I guess is the whole point of such a thing. Instead of being a static pillar of light as I had seen elsewhere, it wobbled like a tower of Jell-O and swayed like a drunken stilt-walker on ice, deftly painting the sky with its white and blue illumination. Although quite mesmerizing and captivating, it was also a source of annoyance as it obscured my views of stars that I couldn’t name if my life depended on it.

 

It didn’t seem to matter how far we got from the airport, the light continued to hamper my view of the heavens and all too soon we were back amongst the electric lights of the city and my window of opportunity for stargazing had slammed shut.

 

“Beautiful evening” my hosts said to me upon arrival. “Did you see the Northern Lights on the drive in…all blue and white and swaying.”

 

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Photo by: NASA





Airline loses 5,017,212 people in one month!

23 06 2009

 

Every time you check in a bag before a flight you wonder whether you’ll see it again. Although a relatively small amount of baggage actually does get lost given the number of travellers worldwide, it’s everyone’s worst nightmare to arrive at a staid conference wearing only a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops, to lie on a tropical beach in a heavy wool sweater and fur-lined boots, or to attend a funeral in your finest Monty Python “I’m not dead yet” t-shirt.

 

The Air Transport Users Council reported that in 2007, airlines mishandled 42 million pieces of luggage and irretrievably lost 1 million.  Knock on wood, I have only had my bag lost once, and it was returned late the following day. Although I know people who haven’t been quite so fortunate, airlines are forever striving to eliminate these losses completely. But one airline recently lost more than just a few dozen suitcases.

 

The Italian airline Alitalia has apologised after ‘misplacing’ the island of Siciliy on the maps in their in-flight magazine. Although other islands like Sardinia were there, Sicily was missing…and presumably along with it, its population of over five million people. Alitalia assured concerned travellers – and even more concerned Sicilians – that the island was indeed still there and that it was just an oversight that would be rectified in the next edition.

 

Rumours that the airline diverted flights from Cairo to Rome to overfly the island and visually verify its existence have proven unfounded.

 

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Piece of Cake!

22 06 2009

 

Serengeti campfire mw

 

 

At age 12 I attempted to bake muffins. In the process, I managed to get flour throughout the entire house, slipped on a splodge of butter on the floor, and burned both thumbs on the oven rack. However, the wonderful aroma of baking wafted everywhere and when the timer rang and I withdrew the evidence of my efforts…well, let’s just say that it was the first and last time I attempted baking – except for one idle afternoon in a distant campsite.

 

African camp cooks are phenomenal. Give them a campfire and two large pots, and they’ll produce anything. No microwave oven or Lagostina…just two pots and a stack of firewood and off they go. Stews, soups and curries are obvious, but I’ve had a full Sunday roast with very respectable roast potatoes that would be the envy of highly-rated pubs! I’ve had spaghetti bolognaise executed perfectly al dente. I’ve even had superb fish and chips…you try deep-frying potatoes over a campfire! The possibilities are endless and their skills limitless. I’m not quite so blessed.

 

It was a lazy day on a long overland haul and a fellow traveller and I decided to bake a chocolate cake, as one does in the wilds of Africa! Neither of us had ever made a cake before. In fact, I think my muffins were probably the extent of our combined baking skills. Still, there was no lack of enthusiasm. We gathered together flour, cocoa powder, UHT milk, sugar, eggs and an oddly-hued margarine. We had no idea of quantities but just kept mixing until the colour and consistency looked vaguely familiar. We scooped our brew into a large metal pot and stood it on the fire. Then we went and wrote diaries and washed socks.

 

Several hours later we returned and removed the lid. The concoction looked just as when we’d finished our laborious mixing: a thick, gooey, brown mess. It did smell good, however. We added some wood to the fire and replaced the lid. The day wore on and our cake remained a congealed pudding. One by one our travel mates returned from their wanderings and asked what we were doing.

 

“Baking a cake!” we exclaimed proudly.

 

The announcement created great excitement and soon the entire group was impatiently awaiting our culinary masterpiece.

 

With light fading and dinner long since served, we moved the pot onto the grass. Our companions crowded around eager for the first glimpse of our mound of nirvana. The lid was removed and once the steam had cleared we peered in…to see the same semi-liquid congealed pudding gurgling back.

 

Our camp cook casually strolled over and looked into the pot, picked it up and put it back on the fire. He put the lid back on and then covered that with smoldering embers from the fire. He glanced at his watch before walking away. One hour later he returned. With supreme confidence he placed a stack of plastic bowls on the table along with forks. He removed the pot from the fire and, holding the lid firmly in place, flipped it over. Carefully removing the pot, sitting elegantly on top of the flat metal lid was our cake. Not the prettiest in the world, but mouthwatering to those of us who had been anticipating it all day.

 

We shyly accepted the group’s gratitude and congratulations but knew that if it wasn’t for the assistance of our professional, we would instead all be scooping spoonfuls of ooey-gooey sweet brown stuff!

 

But at least this time I hadn’t burned my thumbs!

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Of tour guides and car park attendants

19 06 2009

 

It was recently widely reported that a car park attendant at Bristol Zoo in the west of England never missed a day’s work. He was there from morning ‘til night, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. He was one of those unsung local heroes who, come rain or shine, cheerily welcomed visitors as he collected £1 for cars and £5 for motor coaches. Several weeks ago the gentleman failed to arrive at work. It was the first day he’d missed in 25 years. The zoo were concerned and called the city council to see if he was okay and to ask that a replacement be sent. The council replied that they had no idea what the zoo was talking about as the car park wasn’t their responsibility. It quickly became apparent that he was neither working for the zoo or for the council but had been diligently collecting at least £300 every day for a quarter of a century…and was likely now retired to a palatial seafront villa in southern Spain surrounded by a coterie of grape-peeling senoritas.Botanical Garden mw

 

The story reminded me of a visit to Uganda. Entebbe sits on the shores of Lake Victoria thirty miles from the capital Kampala. There’s not much there except for the airport, the lake and the Botanical Gardens. Early one morning with little else to do, I set off to visit the gardens. After entering with a friend, a small boy on a bicycle came alongside. He asked where we were from and slowly pushed his bike as he walked with us. He told us his name and asked about life in our countries. We followed the winding paths through thickets of bamboo, forests, flowering bushes and the reed-filled lakeshore. A beautiful bird flew past and we asked him what it was, he said it was a crowned crane. We nodded and thanked him even though it clearly wasn’t the national bird of Uganda. We pointed to some monkeys in the treetops and asked what type they were. He replied “Monkeys”. Similarly, a nearby blossoming bush with a beautiful scent was “flowers” and a tree with bright yellow bark was…”a tree”. We stopped asking questions. After accompanying us for our grand tour, we arrived back at the entrance and readied to say good-bye. He extended his hand…palm up.

 

“For the tour.” he explained with a straight face. “I was your official tour guide. I have to pay a fee to the park.”

 

“But we didn’t ask for a tour guide.” we explained. “We thought you were just walking with us.”

 

“I was working.” he added, seriously.

 

My friend and I gave him a few Ugandan shillings each. The young entrepreneur inspected our payment, nodded, jumped on his bike and pedalled away, and is likely now in Spain with the car park attendant. Except…

 

In the course of researching this blog, I discovered a very sad footnote to the Bristol Zoo story. A few days after the report was first published more information came to light about the fate of the hardworking car park attendant. After the story generated interest all over the world, an intrepid local journalist attempted to track down the subject and ended up with a story of almost unimaginable tragedy. After following the most vague of leads and using his finest investigative skills, he was devastated to learn that the story wasn’t true. It is simply an urban myth…but as of tomorrow I am ‘working’ in the car park down the street!

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009