Flu Free Guarantee

14 05 2009

Cancun

When old soldiers gather together they exchange tales of brushes with death while comparing old war wounds. When old travellers gather together they exchange tales of brushes with death while comparing tropical diseases. Because, let’s face it, you really can’t claim to be an adventurer until you’ve lost a digit to frostbite or started a conversation with “When I had malaria…”

Likewise, I would bet that anyone who sidles up to a bar now and casually says “I’ve just got over Swine Flu…” would likely be plied with free drinks until they tell the full story of their bout with H1N1.

Of course, there’s nothing humourous about diseases, especially tropical ones that kill millions of people in the developing world each year. But the occasional well-treated and thoroughly-defeated exotic disease for an intrepid traveller is a badge of honour that can be great fodder for dinner conversation for decades to come. Now however, such an infection can actually provide a free vacation…or three.

The recent outbreak of H1N1 has made headlines throughout the world, claimed the lives of more than 60 people and practically decimated Mexican tourism. But Mexico is fighting back!

So confident is Mexico’s Caribbean coast that the risk of contracting Swine Flu is over, that earlier this week several hotels on the Mayan Riviera offered free vacations to any tourist who catches H1N1 while on holiday there. Forget t-shirts and postcards, it’s a good virus that visitors are queuing up to take home these days!

“The ‘flu-free guarantee’ assures three years of free holidays to travellers who present flu symptoms eight days after returning from their trip,” explained one hotel group.

Another resort explained that the offer applied only to Influenza A-H1N1 and that guests “…must provide positive blood results, taken within five days of departure from the resort in addition to the certification of the doctor who performed the test in order to redeem the three free stays.”

“The guest must also not have been previously diagnosed with Influenza A-H1N1 prior to their stay,” they added.

No word as to whether the offer also applies to people who don’t wash their hands,  get enough sleep, eat properly, sneeze without covering their mouths…or don’t listen to their mothers!

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Photo by: Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau

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Holidays in the Danger Zone

11 05 2009

 Virunga Rangers mw

                 (Trekking for gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo)

Afghanistan and Iraq don’t feature on many lists of Top Vacation Destinations for 2009. While both countries genuinely have a lot to offer visitors from archeological and historical sites to natural beauty, even if peace burst forth tomorrow and rainbows and doves shot from the ground, it would likely be quite a few years before ‘The Amazing Race’ played an over of cricket in Kabul on a Fast Forward or we saw “Survivor: Euphrates.” However, it wouldn’t be long at all before adventure travellers started to flock to the two newly ‘re-opened’ countries.

 

Real travellers tend to have fairly short memories of major conflicts and problems – or perhaps that recent infamy makes such destinations all that much more appealing. One minute we’re looking at disturbing photographs and reading horrific accounts of brutality and the next we’re packing our Lonely Planet guides and boarding flights to go there on holiday.

 

It wasn’t so long ago that the last places in the world anyone would ever visit on holiday were Northern Ireland, El Salvador and Rwanda, yet all do a pretty healthy trade in tourism now. Croatia has been one of Europe’s hottest destinations for several years, quite unimaginable just 20 years ago when some of its most beautiful and historic sites were being destroyed by shelling. Cambodia was famed for Pol Pot and the Killing Fields, Uganda for Idi Amin and mass slaughter and Nicaragua for the Sandinistas and Contras, yet now the first two are amongst the most popular adventure destinations and the latter offers all-inclusive beach resorts for those seeking somewhere new and different.

 

Algeria and Sudan are re-appearing in some overland and specialist itineraries and companies are already sending small groups into Angola as a precursor to re-opening the southern African country to tourism for the first time in many decades.

 

Some travellers seek out these until-recently hot-spots because of a life-long interest or a family connection, because they’ve been everywhere else or due to the cache that comes with being the first person on the block to have been there. But of all the reasons to be amongst the first travellers back is the reception you get visiting a country after a bleak period.

 

What these intrepid travellers sacrifice in comfort, t-shirts, postcards or basic infrastructure they more than make up for in the friendliness, warmth – and even gratitude – of the local people. The welcome is genuine and the cynicism and frustration that mass tourism so often creates is still years away. Entire generations have grown up without ever meeting a traveller who’s not wearing fatigues, a blue helmet or handing out food. Although it may take them only a few years to tire of the camera-wielding, polyester sporting masses, the reappearance of the traveller is a sign of normality and success. It’s proof positive of the country’s re-emergence from its darkness and its re-entrance into the real world.

 

So, although I’m not sure I’ll be jumping the queue to join the next Mosul Mosaic or Colourful Kandahar tours, Angola 4X4 sounds pretty good to me!

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Travel Advisories

5 05 2009

 baboon-warning

 

             “I’d like a table by the bushes, please.”    (Cape Point, South Africa)

 

 

When early explorers and adventurers headed off to strange and exotic lands, they often had no clue what they’d face. There were no satellite photographs or guidebooks and often not even a map or first-person account. When they started trekking inland from the most accessible landing point, they had no idea whether it would be for weeks, months or years – not unlike today’s experience in many airport baggage halls.

 

If anything, today we have too much information and some of the wonder of discovery has been lost thanks to GoogleEarth, interactive 360-degree panoramic photos and webcams. Some would say you can never have too much information but when you can plot every step of the route from your beachside cabana to the swim-up bar using satellite photographs before you’ve even left home, modern technology might just be spoiling some of the sense of exploration that comes with a holiday! 

 

There is one source of information that should always be consulted before any travel, however – government travel reports.

 

The foreign affairs, external affairs or state departments of most governments have websites at which you can access detailed information about your travel destination. They provide an overview of all countries and their infrastructure, advise you what to avoid and to be wary of and give you contact details should you run into trouble. In addition to all of that, they also supply current travel alerts, advisories and warnings.

 

These travel advisories are more than just helpful, however. Many travel insurance companies won’t settle until their government’s travel advisory instructs travellers to avoid a particular destination completely and clients who travel to ‘black-listed’ countries may find their coverage suspended. In some countries, tour operators are legally bound not to take travellers to any country against which their government has issued such a warning.

 

Although the information is generally current and accurate, given that there are hundreds of countries to maintain it can sometimes take a government a frustratingly long time to lift a warning. I recall visiting Suriname and reading of problems with a violent rebel movement in the country’s interior. The description had me second-guessing my trip and fearing that I was venturing to a war zone. Once there I asked someone about the uprising, and, looking surprised, they replied that it had ended several years earlier! Other times warnings can be issued for political reasons that have more to do with embargoes, sanctions or poor relations than health or security issues. For these reasons it can therefore sometimes be useful to compare travel reports issued by several governments.

 

For more information, try the following:

 

Canada:   www.travel.gc.ca

 

U.S:  www.travel.state.gov

 

U.K: www.fco.gov.uk

 

Australia:  www.smartraveller.gov.au

 

 

Post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009





A to Z of Adventure Travel: P is for Peru

1 05 2009

 

Whether your personal choice is culture, history, wildlife or simply pushing yourself to your limit, Peru is one of the greatest adventure destinations on the planet.

 

Peru is synonymous with Machu Picchu and hiking the Inca Trail to the former royal city is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for many travellers. The Trail itself is most easily accessed from Cusco, the historical capital of the Inca Empire and an ancient colonial city high in the Andes. At over 10,000 feet altitude, Cusco is also the place that most people acclimatise before tackling the trail or travelling the 80 kilometres to the ruins by train. Served by an international airport, the city is home to both Inca ruins and colonial architecture and hosts a number of spectacular festivals.

 

Most people who opt to hike to Machu Picchu start their trek at kilometer 88 or 82. Due to limits imposed on the trail to protect the environment, all hikers now require permits which are strictly limited and must be obtained from the authorities many months in advance. Most operators not only provide these permits in their tours, but also include local porters and guides thereby allowing trekkers to gain better enjoyment of their experience. The trek generally takes 3-4 days and although it requires no technical skills, it does demand a good degree of physical fitness due to the distances covered and the high altitude.

 

The final morning of any trek emerges at at the Sun Gate and provides the classic sunrise view of Machu Picchu below. Trekkers also have the advantage of being able to explore the legendary site before the crowds arrive by bus.

 

For those with less time, Machu Picchu can also be reached by train from Cusco through the Urubamba Valley with a stop in the small town of Aguas Calientes and its eponymous natural mountain hot baths.

 

Machu Picchu was started in AD 1430 on a mountain ridge more than 8,000 feet above sea level and overlooking the Urumbamba River almost 2,000 feet below. Built for the Inca rulers but abandoned a century later, it became known as the “The Lost City of the Incas” until  ‘rediscovered’ in the late 19th century by the outside world and then popularised by American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911.machu-picchu

 

Further south in Peru lies the city of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. At more than 12,000 feet altitude, the lake is the highest navigable body of water in the world. Although boasting many colonial buildings, most people use Puno as their staging point to visit Taquile and Amantani islands and the floating islands of the Uros people. For centuries, the Uros have built their floating island homes from bundles of totora reeds as protection from more aggressive neighbours. They are most hospitable to visitors and it’s also possible to arrange a homestay in the area.

 

For a complete change of scene from the Andes and ancient cultures, head west into the Amazon jungle. Starting in Puerto Maldonado, travel by motorised canoe and on foot to a remote lodge deep in the jungle. From there, spend your days exploring the thick forest and winding waterways or the evenings looking for caiman. At night, lie in your bed listening to the distant roll of thunder, the rain pounding your thatched roof and all the wild sounds of the jungle.

 

And if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s always cosmopolitan Lima, local markets, Nazca Lines, Colca Canyon and the rugged Pacific coast.

 

 

Post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009





Gerald Ford Slipped Here

28 04 2009

livingstone-plaque1

“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





A to Z of Adventure Travel: O is for Overlanding

23 04 2009

namibia-camp-mw

“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