Weather Warnings!

12 05 2009

Serengeti storm mw

“Well, look on the bright side: at least you won’t get a sun burn!” (northern Tanzania)

There’s nothing quite like a thunderstorm on a hot, humid afternoon. The heat builds to a crescendo and black clouds slide in and the sky echoes with a mighty crack of thunder. The first spots of rain are big and heavy and release the heady scent of hot, dry dust from pavement and parched soil. The wind picks up and no sooner does the storm begin and the streets swim with water, than it moves on leaving cooler, fresh air behind.

Nobody wants their vacation spoiled by rain, but few would argue against a cleansing thunderstorm to drive away a day’s worth of sapping humidity. There’s something magical about daily downpours that breathe life to lush vegetation and make sleeping easier, but sometimes, a tropical storm can raise a more than hair!

Fiji is a tropical nation whose mountains are covered with dense rain forest and brown jungle rivers. On the white sand beaches, the only respite from the cloying heat comes in the waters of the South Pacific or from gentle sea breezes which rustle the palms that provide a token of shade.

It had been a typical autumn day in paradise but as evening approached so did heavy clouds. As the light faded and the setting sun glowed in orange cracks through distant clouds, far flashes of lightning could be seen illuminating the darkening horizon.

A party had been planned on the tennis courts over which an enormous marquee had been erected. Covering three courts, the huge white tent had taken the better part of two days to raise and was still a hive of activity as final preparations were made. By the time the party started, the wind had picked up to provide a refreshing breeze outside, while inside huge fans were circulating the warm air.

With music pounding and voices filling the space, it was only when guests ventured to the facilities a few hundred metres away that the arrival of the storm was evident.

Rain lashed and bounced knee-high off the surrounding courts and paths. People sprinted for the washrooms but within a few steps were completely soaked. The party soon took on an air of reckless abandon as everyone continued their fun in saturated linen and cotton. It wasn’t long before the driving rain and roaring wind drowned out even the music. The weather had turned from an afternoon thunderstorm to a virtual cyclone.

The massive marquee began to literally rise and fall with each growing gust. The ropes that tethered the huge structure strained as they attempted to prevent the tent from becoming a balloon. The weather worsened and sopping guests began to brave the horizontal rain and sprint away, wetter than at any time since they’d stepped from their showers that morning.

Finally, a fire engine arrived to evacuate the rest of the party as the rising and falling tent became a hazard in the violent storm. As the guests were shepherded away, the firemen attempted to better anchor the thrashing and heaving canvas. Hurrying back to the hotel, the swaying lights illuminated palm trees that snapped violently in the gale, bending almost horizontally at each limit. The ocean pounded ashore, crashing into the beach and the reef beyond with a malefic anger.

A notice had been slid under my door warning of the tropical storm and advising guests to take shelter. The high roof creaked and groaned under the elements. The rain lashed against my windows and pounded the wooden shingles mercilessly. The fronds of the palms scraped and slapped as the storm intensified. Water began to run beneath my door and spill across the tiled floors until dammed with a large towel. There was no television signal and the electricity soon went off too. I lay in the darkness listening to the wrath of nature. Eventually, I fell asleep.

The next morning, somewhat surprised to see sunshine, I stepped outside and surveyed the carnage. Small trees and bushes had been blown over while coconuts and palms were strewn everywhere. The beach was covered with seed pods and driftwood and a few large branches had broken off. The air was still and clear and the sky a flawless blue.

It was simply another day in paradise.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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Travel Photography 101 5.5/18

12 12 2008

Confessions, tips and musings from a snap-happy wanderer

“I said ‘Make the beds’…not ‘Make the beds’…”          `             (Kenya)

The best photographs sometimes hide in plain sight. 

The photographs that grab the most attention and cause the greatest conversation are often not the ones of the famous landmarks, the spectacular scenery or the beautiful wildlife. Often, they are of every day things that many people overlook, or if they do notice them, fail to photograph.

 

Good travel photography is an art that goes well beyond an expensive camera or an exotic destination. It’s all about having your camera at the ready and keeping an eye open for things that are out of the ordinary. You don’t have to spend every moment of your vacation with the viewfinder glued to your eye – this is a holiday after all! – but always have a camera at hand and if something turns your head, a photo of it will likely turn the heads of your friends and relatives as well.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Take Only Photographs…

8 12 2008

penguins-3-mw1

“Psst, wanna buy a souvenir?”      (Chinstrap penguins, Antarctic)

 

“Leave only footprints, take only photographs” is an oft-quoted sentiment stressing the importance of leaving the environment precisely as you found it. However, in the Antarctic, it is actually the law.

 

Under international treaty, unless you have a scientific permit, it is illegal to take home any souvenirs from the Antarctic. That means anything: whether a rock, feather, shell, vial of sand or historic artifact. If you visit one of the international research stations, you are often able to purchase postcards, badges or patches from the scientists…but that’s the limit of souvenir hunting at the bottom of the world. Then again, you’re probably not venturing across the wild Southern Ocean expecting to find a Louis Vuitton warehouse outlet!

 

Now, I’m not the sort of person who has a bathroom full of shells from all over the world but I do like the occasional something to serve as a reminder of my travels in addition to my photographs, memories and credit cards bills. The Antarctic really isn’t the place to indulge in a little retail therapy but then again, the experience itself is so rewarding that souvenirs aren’t particularly necessary.

 

But I did have a great compulsion to bring something tangible home from the Antarctic. Perhaps because it is the end of the world. Perhaps because it is a place that stole my heart as deeply as tales of its explorers had long-stolen my imagination. Or perhaps simply because I realistically know that I will likely never return. Regardless of what drove my compulsion, I stood on a volcanic black sand beach and gazed longingly down at my feet. Much like a land-locked Ancient Mariner, there was sand sand everywhere but not a bit to touch.

 

I would be lying to say that I wasn’t tempted to bend down, feign adjusting my boots, and surreptiously snare a handful of terra-australis-incognita-firma for my pocket. But either I really do care for the environment, am extremely obedient or just frightened of being locked in an Antarctic jail with drunken-and-disorderly penguins and pick-pocketing krill…I chose not to indulge my desires and instead returned to my ship empty-handed and empty-pocketed.

 

Back at home I unpacked my bag and began to store away my winter gear. As I pulled out my boots, something fell onto the floor. I reached down and there were several miniscule, black stones. I picked them up and inspected them in the palm of my hand. Tiny little fragments of a distant land that had been wedged in the treads of my boot. I touched them gently and reverentially before placing them on a shelf.

 

Although unnoticed by everyone else, those little specks will forever be treasured…until the Antarctic police come knocking on my door and drag me off to penguin penitentiary.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 8

20 11 2008

“Okay now, everybody take a deep breath…then blow….”  (Sossussvlei, Namibia)

Some balloon flights are full of hot air.

 

We watched the enormous glowing beacon of colour take shape and slowly rise from the desert floor in the pre-dawn darkness. The balloon flight was to take us over the ancient Namib desert and the mighty Sossussvlei dunes that tower hundreds of metres into the arid sky.  We were to coast silently over the flowing sands and experience a new perspective of the dramatic landscape we had previously only explored on foot and by vehicle. Barring coastal fog, we might also see the Skeleton Coast and Atlantic Ocean beyond.

 

With the sun splintering along the horizon, we climbed into the enormous basket. The burner roared, the lines connecting us to terra firma were severed and we lifted into the still air. We soon reached our optimal altitude and, opening a flap in the canopy to release some of the hot air, we levelled off and sat silently well above the desert.

 

As far as our eyes could see stretched the ambers, ochres and tans of the Namib. There was little evidence of humanity beyond the few park service buildings, our campsite and a road or two all directly beneath us. Those apart, there was nothing but endless desert. The peaks of the mighty dunes we had struggled to climb the previous evening rose from the floor into a rolling tide of sand that seemed to threaten to engulf all in its path. I snapped a few shots and eagerly longed for us to drift directly over their majesty.

 

Alas, there was no drifting. In fact, there was no movement at all. The air was as perfectly still as the night had been a short while earlier. There wasn’t so much as a whisper of a breeze and consequently not so much as a sway of movement. The pilot leaned over the side of the basket as if to see if we were still anchored.

 

“Let’s climb and find a current” he said hopefully.  Donning his protective gloves he opened the burner, singeing our scalps and deafening us.  Up we rose in a perfectly vertical trajectory gaining not so much as an inch in any other direction.

 

“Not much wind today” he said unnecessarily as we all gazed at him desperately. “We’ll try descending.” With that, he opened one of the flaps and we slowly lost altitude, again perfectly vertically as if sliding down a pole.

 

The support vehicle that was to follow and collect us at the end of our flight was still parked directly below. The engine was turned off, the doors were open, the driver looked asleep.

 

The view was impressive, but gently rotating above a 4WD in a barren patch of sand when towering sand dunes were but a heavy-breath away was more than a little frustrating. Our cameras were by now idle. Once the basket had done its first 360-degree turn, there was not a lot left to capture. The sun was climbing higher in the sky and it was getting warmer and warmer. In the close confines of the basket the pilot attempted to avoid our glares.

 

Eventually, after the promised minimum flight time, we slid back down the pole to the ground beneath, significantly less exhilarated than any of us had anticipated.  We despondently stepped from the basket and strolled over to the luxury breakfast table that had been set up just to the side. The same breakfast table that should have been in the middle of nowhere, hidden amongst the dunes, accessible only by valiant 4WD and romantic balloon. Instead, we sat near the shade of a shower block and a few telegraph wires and watched the occasional vehicle drive past.

 

We cracked the champagne and half-heartedly cheered our pogo-flight while digging into our gourmet mini sausages and scrambled eggs.

 

“Hmmm”, the pilot muttered as the corner of his napkin fluttered, “…a breeze.”

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Novel Ideas

17 11 2008

“This Hemingway guy writes so well, I feel like I’m actually in Africa!”  (Kicheche Camp, Kenya)

There’s nothing better than curling up with a good book whether on a rainy night at home or to help kill time during a 5-hour layover in a distant antiseptic and impersonal airport terminal. But picking the right reading material for your travels can be an art almost as intricate as writing the masterpiece in the first place.

I’m a book-junkie and spend a lot of time and effort selecting just the right books for my travel. I long ago learned that size does matter and always try to travel as light as possible. Whenever I can I try to choose thick pocketbook paperbacks that will last me many hours yet fit comfortably in my pocket or carry-on. I always try to avoid mammoth telephone-directory hardbacks that I know I will quickly come to resent no matter how good they are and vindictively want to abandon after the first few hours of lugging. It’s also better to carry books that I don’t mind leaving behind or trading along the way – rather than carrying a family heirloom first edition.

 

Light not only refers to size and weight, but also means something that can easily be put down and picked up amid the chaos and distractions of airports and train stations without losing the thread. Just because you’ve always wanted to read Stephen Hawkings’ “A Brief History of Time” and valiantly failed a dozen times at home doesn’t mean you’ll have more success on a train racing through the Swiss Alps or on a Central American beach. If it was a struggle at home, it will probably still be a struggle on vacation…so pack that new Stephen King instead!

 

Apart from airports and flights, you may actually have less time to read than you expected. After a long day of sightseeing and exploring, you may well fall into a deep sleep the moment your head hits the pillow. During train or bus trips in strange lands, you may will be so intent on drinking in every last drop of passing scenery that your face will be glued to the window throughout instead of glued to your book, so one or two titles will probably be enough.

 

However, if you are a voracious reader that eats books even while doing the grocery shopping, don`t assume you can find decent reading material along the way even when in an English speaking country. Although easy enough to find appealing titles in North America or Britain, books are often quite expensive throughout the developing world and the selection may be limited. Take a spare book in your luggage just in case you do manage to finish the first one.

 

Try to be a bit culturally sensitive. Brazenly reading the “Biography of Borat” while on public transport in Kazhakstan or a colouring book entitled “The Genius of Sarah Palin” in Wasilla, Alaska may not make you the most popular person in town so either leave them at home…or hide the covers!

 

Plan ahead and try to anticipate what might appeal to you along the way. If you`re interested in history you might just find that while travelling through Australia the constant references to Captain Cook may whet your appetite for more information and leave you searching for a decent biography. In South America it could be Simon de Bolivar, Che Guevara, Evita Peron or a famous local author. Try to think ahead to what might be piquing your interest while on your travels and pack accordingly.

 

Reading is one of the great pleasures of life and a good book can make a great trip even better.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Remembering

11 11 2008

Salerno, Italy

Several hours north of Bangkok there is a wide brown river spanned by a large metal railway bridge. It is a bridge like many others. Though thoroughly unremarkable in its design and appearance, every year travellers from all over the world make the journey to see it, cross it and pay tribute to those responsible for its construction. The bridge is located in the small town of Kanchanaburi: a place even less remarkable than the bridge itself yet now home to one of Thailand‘s major tourist attractions.

 

This is “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. A structure made infamous by books and an Oscar-winning film and built during the Second World War by the forced labour of hundreds of thousands of local Thais and many thousands of Prisoners of War.

 

Not far from the bridge sit two cemeteries that are the final resting place for more than 8,700 prisoners from Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, Malaya, India and elsewhere. If the bridge is the result of their brutal toil, the tranquility of Chonk-Kai War Cemetery is the reward of rest they were so cruelly denied during their last days.

 

Like war cemeteries everywhere, it is impossible not to be moved by these simple memorials. To walk amongst the immaculate headstones, to read the names of the fallen and witness their stolen youth is to see the destruction of innocence and the annihilation of entire generations. For those of us fortunate enough to have avoided conflict in our homelands, such loss of friends and brothers, fathers and uncles is incomprehensible, but sadly for millions of people throughout the world it is very much an ongoing reality even today.

 

Since the beginning of time, war has brought out the very worst and the very best in people. While it has been greed, hatred, powerlust and evil that has been responsible for war and the mind-numbing atrocities that have accompanied it, war has also provided us with some of the greatest acts of bravery, sacrifice and selflessness. Amongst the horror of violence and genocide are countless accounts of staggering heroism. Tales of seemingly ordinary individuals who risked – and often gave – everything to save the life of another.

 

When we travel, we often encounter memorials to those who have died in conflict and invariably we pass straight by on our way to a pub, restaurant, train station or art gallery.  The carefree attitude we have on vacation might well be the very same approach to life that those whose names are now carved in granite had until their own lives were interrupted and they were sent away to a distant shore.

 

Next time your travels take you past a memorial in a small town square or a perfectly maintained cemetery, spare a moment for those whose own involuntary travels never brought them home again.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





A Little Blue by the Red Sea

9 10 2008

From the Adventure Blogger’s blue period.

I have never seen the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman and only once sighted a Flying Object that I couldn’t Identify. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t exist because I’ve also never seen a baby squirrel or pigeon…or a genuine piece of meat in a tin of baked beans and pork. However, there was one enigma whose existence I disputed until I actually spied it with my own eyes.    

 

Many years ago I saw a photograph of the Appalachian Mountains. It was an evocative image likely taken in the late afternoon that featured the summits at the front in a dark navy blue while those behind glided through all the degrees of the blue spectrum to a very pale hue in the distance.  The photo pre-dated the marvels of Photoshop, but I suspected that the photographer had used a blue filter.

 

Over time, I saw many similar images of different ranges of hills and mountains. Some were photos and some were paintings, sometimes in yellows or greens, other times in reds or my original blues. Regardless of the medium or colour, the view always caught my eye and presented a picture of unspoiled wilderness, tranquillity and Mother Nature at its finest.

 

A few years ago I was in Dahab, Egypt on the Red Sea coast. It was late afternoon, the sun was setting and I had dashed out to pick up some postcards before dinner. The streets were quiet and the shadows were lengthening. To my right lay the Red Sea and beyond faintly twinkled the first lights of Saudi Arabia. I continued my walk and crossed a small footbridge beneath which a seasonal stream made its way from the mountains and into the sea.

 

Midway across, I glanced to my left through the opening between the low white buildings and towards the Sinai desert…and stopped dead in my tracks.

 

In the previous days I had come to love the Sinai. The rugged, barren interior was a stark land of jagged peaks, rolling sepia hills and harsh desert. It was the land of the Bedouin and rich with biblical and modern history, intrigue and wild solitude. But as I stood and stared at the view, it was not the yellows, beiges and browns to which I had grown accustomed…but a myriad of blues.

 

The pallet from which it had been painted was the one from which Gainsborough had painted his boy and Picasso had dabbled during his famous period. It was a mixture of navies and royals, periwinkles and cobalts, egg shells and skies. It was the Appalachians and definitely not a mirage, filtered or Photoshopped. I reached for my camera to capture the scene that had so long captured my imagination only to realise I had left it in my room. Instead, I stood and drank it in with my naked eyes, watching the shades change with each moment of sunset.

 

Although I didn’t have a photo of the vista whose existence I had long doubted, it was forever emblazoned on my memory. I would never again question any similar photo or painting…or those abducted by aliens, chased by Sasquatch or stalked by the Yeti who survived with vivid accounts but, curiously in an age of camera phones and pocket point-and-shoots, no decent photos or video.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan