A to Z of Adventure Travel: W is for Western Australia

18 06 2009

Wave Rock 2 mw 

Everyone knows Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef and Ayers Rock…but for a fresh taste of Downunder, Western Australia offers some of the most spectacular scenery and untouched wilderness in the entire country – and far fewer tourists! 

 

The state of Western Australia (WA) occupies almost one-third of the country and includes spectacular coastline, ancient forests, rugged outback and natural bushland. WA’s Indian Ocean coast has some of the country’s most beautiful and most unspoiled beaches and offers extensive snorkelling, sea-kayaking and some of its best seafood. At Monkey Mia, north of the state’s capital of Perth, visitors travel from all over the world to interact with wild dolphins whereas in Exmouth it’s possible to swim with giant whale sharks in season. The unspoiled Ningaloo Reef offers magnificent snorkelling and scuba diving with its and its colourful coral and vast array of sealife or from nearby Coral Bay, hope aboard a catamaran in search of humpback whales, dugongs, manta rays and turtles.

 

If you’re feeling energetic and want to explore the area on foot, The Bibbulmun Track is one of the world’s great long distance walk trails, stretching nearly 1000 kilometres from Kalamunda near Perth to Albany on the south west coast. Designed for foot traffic only, it meanders through peaceful rural and coastal towns like with names like Dwellingup and Balingup. Not physically challenging like the trails in New Zealand or elsewhere, the Bibbulmun offers the quintessential Australian bush experience and is best enjoyed point to point with the help of a good map. Trekkers can either make it a wilderness experience by camping out or do it in comfort staying at accommodation in towns along the way.

 

Several hundred kilometres east of Perth sits Wave Rock, a mammoth rock formation that resembles a giant surf wave of multicoloured granite about to crash onto the bush below. Formed perhaps 2,700 million years ago, the 15 metre-high barrier stretches for 110 metres and pre-dates even the dinosaurs and is as spectacular as it is isolated.

 

If it’s Baz Luhrman’s ‘Australia’ that you want, then it’s the movie’s location in WA that you should visit. The Kimberley is one of the world’s last great wilderness areas. Covering almost 423,000 square kilometres and with a population of only 30,000 it has fewer people per square kilometre than almost any other place on Earth. People come here to immerse themselves in the awesome landscape and to meet the locals. The Kimberley has two distinct seasons – the dry and the wet. During the dry, which continues from May until October, the temperature is warm and comfortable. The wet, which extends from November until April, is characterised by heavy and short downpours in the evening or late afternoon, providing a refreshing change to the heat of the day.  This is the real Australia of red earth, jagged rock formations, wilderness and wildlife, waterfalls and billabongs.

 

Although Western Australia sees fewer tourists than some of the country’s other regions, the area’s recent mining boom has created some headaches for visitors seeking hotel accommodation. If planning on visiting WA and exploring its endless unspoiled and natural wonders, make your arrangements before you arrive…unless you’re traveling with your own tent!

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009

Advertisements




The Golden Arches

16 06 2009

 

My name is the Adventure Blogger and I have a problem: I’ve eaten in McDonald’s in more countries than I have fingers.

 

Now, before you denounce me as one of “those” who won’t try local foods and instead always heads to the nearest McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, I should hasten to add that I have never been to an overseas Pizza Hut. It’s not that I am afraid of local food – indeed I’ve eaten sheep’s eyeballs, mopane worms, bottom-dwelling jungle catfish and man-eating Malawi crocodile – but sometimes McDonald’s is just so convenient. Like in airport departure lounges.

 

Although there’s something quite captivating, almost hypnotic and suspiciously addictive about the aroma of McDonald’s fries, I really do prefer many local dishes. Like mouthwateringly fresh feta, delicious savoury samosas or a divine bowl of pad thai. But sometimes it’s easier and quicker to dash into the Golden Arches and order Uno Big Mac or Ein McNuggets than to grapple with a foreign language and end up with raw liver instead of a chocolate croissant.

 

I’m not proud, just honest.

 

There’s one academic justification to frequenting McDonald’s, I’ve always told myself, and that’s comparing the menus or the prices around the world. Austria breads their McNuggets and serves beer; Atlantic Canada offers McLobster in-season and Australia has a selection of deli-style sandwiches – a veritable goldmine of information for social anthropologists. As for prices, a Quarter Pounder in Iceland costs about the same as an entire meal (super-sized…no less!) in Canada.

 

I thought I was a genius to think of using McDonald’s as a gauge of the local cost of living…until I discovered that The Economist publishes the  “The Big Mac Index” every year as an informal way of measuring the purchasing power parity between two currencies. After all, you can’t really use the local price of bananas in a direct comparison between Greenland’s Danish krone and Costa Rica’s colon but a fry is a fry is a fry is a fry…

 

The Economist introduced the “Big Mac Index” in 1986 and although it’s obviously not as scientific as comparing genuine economic data, it’s easier to understand and tastes better. It’s also not necessarily an indication of how much lunch costs in the various countries as a bowl of ramen in Tokyo will likely always be less expensive than a McHappy Meal in the Ginza, but it is still interesting.

 

As of February 2009, the five most expensive Big Macs in the world (converted into US dollars) were to be had in the following countries:

 

  1. Norway (USD 5.79)
  2. Switzerland (USD 5.60)
  3. Denmark (USD 5.07)
  4. Sweden (USD 4.58)
  5. Eurozone (USD 4.38) 

 

And the five most affordable Big Macs were found in the following countries:

 

  1. Malaysia (USD 1.70)
  2. Hong Kong (USD 1.71)
  3. China (USD 1.83)
  4. Thailand (USD 1.86)
  5. Sri Lanka (USD 1.95)

 

Now, please excuse me while I sink my teeth into some more valuable economic research.

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





No Spoons For You!

15 06 2009

Elephant close-up mw

“What do you mean I’m over my weight limit? I haven’t even given you my luggage yet!”

I have fortunately never had a problem with my weight, although the people on whom I have sat usually have.  Therefore, I wasn’t especially worried when told to stand on the scales at check-in with my luggage in my hand while my combined weight was recorded by a man with a clipboard…in full view of everyone in the terminal. Judging by the reaction of some of my fellow passengers in the queue, it would be safe to assume that given a choice between their aircraft plunging into the side of a mountain because of excess weight or having their personal weight revealed publicly, many would opt for the mountainside.

 

That flight was on a small turboprop and the total weight of the aircraft was extremely important because our destination was a rutted grass strip in the middle of the jungle. It was basically just a new twist on the old “20 kilograms of luggage” limit that we’re all accustomed to, but it is an indication of how important weight is for airlines. Apart from safety issues, every single kilo that can be shaved from a flight saves litres of fuel…and that saves a considerable sum of money.

 

Given the economy, airlines are striving to reduce their costs, and weight is one of the key focuses. One airline recently – and rather quietly – removed the lifejackets from their flights because they are technically only required on flights that travel over water for a certain period of time. Still, it didn’t exactly seem like a positive announcement and was therefore divulged rather silently.

 

Other airlines are being more creative in their reductions. Northwest Airlines has eliminated spoons from flights if the in-flight meal does not require one, while JAL shaved a fraction of a centimetre off all of its cutlery after calculating the savings from 400 people times 3 meals on each flight over the course of a year.

 

Some have discontinued the in-flight magazine, while others have loaded a digital version of the the duty-free catalogue into the seatback entertainment systems rather than carry a glossy magazine. The days of blankets and pillows for every passenger on every flight disappeared some years ago and little socks and travel toothbrushes are but a thing of the past unless you’re in the comfy seats or travelling on one of the few carriers which still believe in those nice little extras. Many airlines even carry less bottled and tanked water than before.

 

New aircraft are being designed with fuel consumption in mind far more than ever before. This is partly motivated by the cost to the airlines, and partly by concerns for the environment. The weight of everything is carefully scrutinised before new aircraft even go into production and all sorts of composite materials are used instead of  more common metals and materials.

 

While all of this is good news if it helps protect the environment or reduce the cost of your ticket, it’s rather inconvenient for anyone who prefers to eat their chicken wellington and garden fresh vegetables with a spoon.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009 





A to Z of Adventure Travel: V is for Victoria Falls

12 06 2009

 Vic Falls aerial mw

 

There are lots of spots around the world that have been dubbed ‘Adventure Capitals’ either for the activities available or the rugged wilderness that surround them. The adventure capital of the world is arguably Queenstown, New Zealand. The adventure capital of Australia would be Cairns. And the adventure capital of Africa is definitely Victoria Falls.

 

Not only are the Falls one of the natural wonders of the world, but the area is one of the finest adrenalin capitals and even if you venture there solely for the sights, it’s difficult not to be lured into at least one unforgettable activity!

  

Victoria Falls sits on the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia. In past years, the centre of the tourist trade was most definitely the town of Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwean side, but due to recent political unrest and economic problems, much of that has shifted to Livingstone, Zambia.

 

The Falls themselves are every bit as magnificent as any photograph suggests. During the rainy season, the cascade of water over the steep precipice is positively breathtaking – if you can actually see it through the billowing clouds of drenching mist. In the dry season, the flood is reduced to a comparable trickle, but this not only allows a less-wet viewing experience but also provides a look at the chiselled rock cliffs that stretch almost as far as the eye can see. Even veterans of Niagara or Angel Falls can’t help but be impressed by Mosi-au-Tunya, or ‘The Smoke That Thunders’, as it is called by the locals.

 

For many visitors, Victoria Falls’ most captivating feature might well be its relative lack of commercialisation. There are no enormous skyscraper hotels towering above it and no neon-strewn casinos crowding its edges. Instead, there is bush stretching in every direction and only the most basic of paths and most rickety of fences preventing visitors from tumbling over the edge and into the frothing maelstrom.

 

This modest development has ensured that the area is still healthy with wildlife and the even the town centre has its baboons, watrthogs, birdlife and occasional stray elephant. Lion tracks are sometimes seen in the early morning in the soft sand that lines the paved road and pedestrians are warned to watch out for buffalo…all this within sight of hotels and curio stands.

 

The two most famous of Victoria Falls’ adventure activities are the whitewater rafting on the Zambezi – regarded as the best one-day rafting in the world – and the 111 metre bungee-jump from the bridge that spans the chasm, both within view of the Falls. However, there are also helicopter and microlight flights over the Falls and surrounding river and bush, sunset boat trips above the drop and game drives in the neighbouring parks and wild areas. You can embark on horseback or elephant back safaris, or take a walk with unleashed domesticated lions. There are night game drives in open-back 4WDs and guided hikes with armed rangers.

 

Both Victoria Falls and Livingstone have international airports and can also be reached overland by vehicle or train from larger centres – if you have the time and spirit of adventure. Both sides of the river offer basic campsites, budget hostels, deluxe riverbank tented safari camps and luxury hotel accommodation.

 

Most visitors today tend to use Zambia as their base and sadly often never venture across the border to its neighbour. Although not immune to the turmoil that has plagued Zimbabwe in recent years, the town of Victoria Falls has remained an island largely isolated from the political violence…if not the rampant inflation and basic shortages.

 

Victoria Falls provides something for everyone from the magnificence of the Falls themselves to wildlife and adventure.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 32

11 06 2009

Natron campsite mw

 “And before retiring for the night, please check your sleeping bag for elephants.”

 

Always be very careful where you pitch your tent.

 

I consider myself quite adept at pitching a tent. I find a patch of ground as level as possible. If there’s an incline, I place my head on the high ground. I carefully clear away rocks and check for roots. If there’s rain, I avoid obvious depressions in which water could pool. If I’m there through the day, I pitch under the shade of a tree. If it’s particularly hot, I aim the tent into any possible breeze and leave the flaps open. If I’m doing laundry, I position myself close enough to a tree or fence to string a clothes’ line. And, if anywhere particularly wild, I make sure I’m neither on migratory routes, hunting grounds, mating spots or pitched over suspicious looking holes.

 

In northern Zimbabwe I had a perfect spot that met all of my important criteria. I placed my tent by a tree for shade and strung a clothes’ line. Although this meant I was partially in the dead foliage that surrounded its trunk, the ground was level and there were no uncomfortable bumps. Nighttime came and I zipped up the flaps.

 

A few hours later I awoke to a rustling sound. I lay on my back waiting for my eyes to adjust to the soft light that was filtering through the canvas and attempted to locate the source by sound. It emanated from three sides and was a quiet but steady rustling and scratching noise. As I stared, my eyes gradually grew accustomed and there, on the outside of the canvas, silhouetted by the light, were hundreds and hundreds of giant millipedes.

 

Crawling and sprawling and slithering and sliding over each other. Two or three inches deep on the incline of the canvas. A heaving and writhing mass of insectitude. Even in the soft light, I could make out their millions of spindly legs, and their bobbing heads and hear their sharp little mandibles scraping against the taut canvas.

 

Now, I’m not especially an insectophobe. I don’t particularly like crawly things -especially when they’re in my food or crawling on my body or eating my flesh – but I don’t have massive fears of them either. However, seeing this seething mass encircling my fragile fabric cocoon was more than a little disconcerting. I used my flashlight to frantically scan for holes, but there were none. My door flap remained properly closed and there didn’t appear to be any friends massing at the front with battering rams. I contemplated making a running, screaming dash for safety…but couldn’t quite figure out where I would go, and I certainly wasn’t going to wade into the knee-deep millipede maelstrom and re-locate my tent.

 

The horror heightened and every few moments my leg would spasm at the caress of an imagined visitor. My periodic flashlight surveillance continued until I finally fell fast asleep again. Come the morning and the sunlight, my nocturnal visitors were gone and my restless night seemed silly…but I will never again pitch my tent on the dead foliage around the base of a tree!

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009 





The View From The Cockpit

9 06 2009

Cockpit

“Excuse me…pilot? Can you keep your radio communications down…I’m trying to sleep.”    

 

In the good old days prior to 9/11, it was possible to visit the cockpit during a flight. I don’t think they admitted just anyone and probably denied access to anyone wearing a bandolier of large-calibre bullets even then, but children were regularly taken to the cockpit for a look around. Today, I’m not sure that even Britney Spears dressed as a schoolgirl would get past the 3-inch thick armour-plated door before a slot opened and she was hosed-down with high-pressure tear gas and a barrage of taser fire.

 

It’s a shame really, because flying is a lot more exciting than sitting in a pressurised bubble with a plastic tray of luke-warm food and the germs of 400 other people. It’s just that you rarely get a hint of flying at all…which for some people is probably a very good thing!

 

Very small commuter aircraft often have no division between the passengers and the pilot. I remember one such flight in northern Ontario when the pilot simply turned around in his seat and asked the dozen passengers to let him know if it was too hot or too cold. Somehow, attempting to tap the average 747 pilot on the shoulder would likely end up with you pinned to the floor by several burly plain-clothed Skymarshalls and shot out of a torpedo tube to Guantanamo…or wherever they send people now.

 

I love watching what the pilot does. Sometimes his or her actions can actually be a little disconcerting, like when he starts fighting with instruments or controls or leans forward and frantically scans the sky all around for something unseen that’s clearly of considerable concern.

  

Some airlines used to have cameras which provided passengers with live views of take-off or landing. That stopped when it was rumoured that passengers aboard a doomed DC-10 may well have watched themselves cartwheel into the runway. That was many years ago and I believe that some airlines now offer that again on one of the channels of the backseat personal entertainment system.

 

United Airlines have an audio channel that provides you with all the communications between your aircraft and air traffic control. I love spending the entire flight listening to my aircraft being handed off from Albuquerque control to Salt Lake centre and so on, or hearing the pilot request permission to change course to avoid some particularly rough weather. ATC re-direct us to 33,000 feet on a new heading and the next thing I know, my aircraft is banking and climbing. Such eavesdropping adds a new dimension to a flight and makes a 5-hour cross-continental haul far more interesting than watching a re-run of a 7-year old sitcom on my backseat screen.

 

Even if there’s no live video or audio, most airlines do at least now offer the ‘Map’: the video channel that plots your progress on a moving map and provides you with live information on your altitude, speed, outside temperature and your ever-changing time of arrival.

 

Of course, none of these are quite as interesting as sitting in the cockpit itself, but all of them beat being arrested by Homeland Security and banned for life for simply knocking on the pilot’s door!

 

Post and photo by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Breakfast of Champions

8 06 2009

Oxpecker mw

“Can’t we go somewhere else for breakfast? I always feel someone’s watching me here.” (Masai Mara)

My Mum has always said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, although we didn’t always see eye-to-eye on just what constituted a good breakfast. For the record, I see nothing wrong with twiglets and Coke.

Many travellers would certainly agree that breakfast is extremely important. It is the fuel that keeps legs pumping during sightseeing, and a great way to avoid expensive lunches – or at least eat less at mid-day. There’s also a certain magic to breakfast that’s possibly due to the excitement of anticipating what wonders the rest of the day holds in store, or of finding yourself in beautiful surroundings so far removed from a quick stale muffin devoured on a cramped subway train on your way to work.

There are many breakfasts that stick in my memory as being nigh on idyllic. Anything on a sun-dappled terrace, patio or balcony overlooking the ocean always qualifies for instant consideration as a Top Ten spot. The daily ritual of a large platter of fresh fruit and miniature oven-warm pastries in Fiji still brings a smile to my face. Daily breakfast in the garden of the Pink Baobab in Victoria Falls accompanied by the roar of the water – and a nearby fence crushed by a wayward elephant during the night – will always be remembered fondly. And for a touch of civility, who could ever challenge a vast spread of cheeses, meats, jams and croissants in a palazzo overlooking a quiet canal in Venice with enormous French windows ushering in the fresh morning air and the sound of church bells?

But the most memorable breakfast ever was simple picnic fare in Kenya’s Masai Mara.

As anyone who has ever been on safari knows, the best wildlife viewing takes place in early morning and late afternoon. The higher the sun, the lower the animals stay trying to avoid the oppressive heat and conserve their own energy. Morning game drives generally set off in the dark, just as the orange glow of dawn seeps along the horizon. At such ungodly hours, a full breakfast is generally out of the question and a simple plate of biscuits and cup of tea is more customarily followed by a hearty brunch upon return. Occasionally though, there is an opportunity for a picnic along the way. Not only does it provide sustenance to quell growling stomachs that might otherwise scare away particularly nervous wildlife, but it also provides some of the most unique and memorable breakfast spots on earth!

After several hours of exploring the Mara’s savannah and being captivated by prides of lions and herds of elephant, we pulled to a stop in the shade of a large acacia tree. The engine was turned off and a large picnic basket removed from the back of the Landcruiser and placed on the hood. From within were withdrawn foil-wrapped cold sausages and hardboiled eggs, bread and jams, bananas and pastries, juices and flasks of tea. No champagne, no gourmet omelettes – but who needed luxuries with such a view?

All around us the great African plains rolled to rocky outcrops and thickets of trees. With naked eyes we could see elephant and buffalo, giraffe and impala, zebra and Tommies. Apart from the metronomic ticking of our cooling engine, the only other sounds were the lonesome song of African mourning doves and our silent devouring of breakfast. Even now, I can still taste those cold sausages and remember the wonder of that perfect morning.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009