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





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





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