Most Unusual Travel Insurance Claims

13 04 2009

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The Nakuru Cat Burglar is remarkable for its resemblance to the baboon. (Nakuru, Kenya)

 

Though I’ve had more tropical diseases than the average petri dish and once had to survive in Iceland for 24 hours without so much as a toothbrush and clean socks, I have been fortunate that I’ve only once had to make a claim on my travel insurance.

 

Travel insurance is one of those things that I faithfully buy but hope never to get my money’s worth from. Over the years I have probably spent enough money to pay for a pretty decent vacation, but so far apart from one visit to a doctor in London (see “How To Get A Head in Africa” 10 July 2008), I’ve never got back a penny – but I have scored a ton of peace-of-mind.

 

The silence at the end of the telephone line when I called the insurance company about my tick suggests it might well still be discussed around the water cooler. But I am glad to know that I am not the only one who has entertained or bemused travel insurance companies. Here are a few others that are likely pinned to a bulletin board beside Terry the Tick:

 

 

        A pensioner, whose false teeth fell out while he vomited over the side of a cruise ship, put in a claim to his travel insurers for new dentures under “lost baggage”.

 

        A young traveller, distracted by the appearance of a group of women in bikinis, broke his nose when he walked into a bus shelter in Athens.

 

        A traveller lost his wallet in a drain in Israel. Instead of filing a police report and making a claim through his insurance, he instead stuck his hand down the drain – only to be stung by a poisonous scorpion. He ended up claiming for both a lost wallet and a hospital visit.

 

        A man who claimed for holiday cancellation when refused boarding was turned down by his insurance company when it emerged his ticket was for a flight from Manchester, New Hampshire…not from Manchester in the North West of England.

 

        Returning from India, a traveller filed a claim with his insurance company for $1100 worth of “Bombay Mix” snack food that he had lost from his luggage enroute. The insurance company performed a few quick calculations and determined that at less than $2 per 250g bag, the man would have had to have misplaced more than 137 kilograms of munchies…and refused to pay.

 

        A couple on vacation in Malaysia returned to their lodge to find that monkeys had climbed in through an open window, stolen their clothes and scattered them throughout the neighbouring jungle.

 

        A family’s camping holiday was ruined when a parachutist from a nearby airbase missed his target and landed squarely on their tent, destroying their equipment. Their insurer rejected their claims as they weren’t insured against accidental damage.

 

And in the category of needing a vacation to recover from a vacation:

 

        A holidaymaker in Sri Lanka needed hospital treatment after a coconut fell on her head while she was reading in the shade below.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

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Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 17

10 04 2009

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      “Quick, I think I’ve been spotted.”                      (cheetah, Masai Mara, Kenya)

 

 

 

“He travels the fastest who travels alone.”

 

Rudyard Kipling

 

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





Tracking Chimpanzees

2 04 2009

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Sure Jane Goodall has the books and the fame, but where would she be without me?”

 

The scientific journal “Current Biology” recently reported the case of a male chimpanzee stockpiling weapons for attacks on visitors. Santino was recorded calmly making projectiles from bits of his concrete enclosure and hiding them before the Stockholm zoo opened. Hours later, he hurled them at visitors in what is one of the few cases of an animal planning for future events – and one of the reasons that tracking chimpanzees in the forests of Africa can be more of a challenge than tracking their considerably larger gorilla brethren!

 

There are only a handful of places in which it’s possible to track wild chimpanzees. Although rangers have been habituating lowland and mountain gorillas for several decades, efforts to view chimpanzees in their natural habitat are far more recent.

 

The Kibale Forest in western Uganda was amongst the first to accustom chimpanzees to small groups of visitors…although when I visited, the project was still in its infancy and the chimps were less than cooperative or hospitable.

 

It was almost an hour of trekking before our ranger spotted a chimpanzee at the very top of a tree. It was little more than a black smudge, but given that none of us was particularly confident of seeing one at all, we were thrilled. We edged closer until we had our best possible view, and then hoisted cameras and binoculars to watch one of humankind’s closest relatives.

 

It wasn’t long before the chimp was aware of our presence and began to scream its protest of our trespass. Although we were certainly no threat, this was one cantankerous chimp and she definitely hadn’t baked a cake for her visitors. Her irate screams echoed through the forest like Tarzan’s Cheeta deprived of red M&Ms in his trailer. From some distance away other chimps answered.

 

“We won’t stay long” our guide explained. “We don’t want to distress her too much, and we also don’t want to alarm the rest of the group.”

 

Unlike most other primates, chimpanzees are omnivores and aggressively hunt down monkeys and even small antelope. The guide said he’d seen a gang of chimpanzees sweep through the trees in pursuit of colobus moneys, surrounding and attacking the smaller primates and eating them. Attacks on humans are certainly not unknown as well, especially when they feel threatened.

 

“Would you rather face an irate silverback gorilla or a group of angry chimps?” one of our group asked the guide as we all craned our necks skyward.

 

“Gorillas, definitely. Although they can and do attack, it’s easier to avoid a confrontation with a gorilla…and it’s unlikely that a gorilla would attack to kill. If a group of chimpanzees attacked it would almost be like a feeding frenzy. They’re very excitable.”

 

We watched the chimpanzee for a while, the screams and shouts echoing wildly through the thick forest. Other chimps continued to answer although they didn’t appear to be coming any closer…which made the attack that followed all that much more surprising.

 

“Ow” someone shouted, stomping their feet hard on the ground. Within moments someone else shouted and hopped and then everyone began performing an unhappy jig.

 

“Ants!! They’re everywhere!”

 

The trail beneath us teeming with thousands of tiny ants which were now boiling over our feet and up our legs. Although we were all wearing hiking bots and most of us had our trouser legs tucked into our socks, the tiny little menaces were savaging us.

 

Each bite was like a pin-prick of fire. The chimpanzee forgotten, we began swatting desperately at the ants on our legs and moving quickly away from their swarming path. We yanked our trousers legs out and began to individually extract each ant, all the while contending with their continuous feasting. The bites were surprisingly painful and just when we thought we had removed them all, another would start biting.

 

Stumbling out of the forest we reached a patch of grass and hurriedly removed our boots and socks and began thoroughly inspecting them for ants. Despite our diligent efforts, they were still everywhere…and still biting. Eventually, the feasting over, we relaxed in the warm sunshine.

 

“See, I told you tracking chimps was dangerous!” some wise guy exclaimed.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





A to Z of Adventure Travel: K is for Kenya

26 03 2009

gerenuk-giraffe-gazelle-mw        “Phone home…..”                                      (Gerenuk – Samburu, Kenya) 

 

Although there may be a better park or more prolific wildlife somewhere, nowhere else offers the variety and diversity of Kenya in such a compact and accessible area. In short, Kenya offers the one-stop-shopping of safaridom.

 

The East African country is of course best known for its wildlife and game parks. It’s most famous is the sprawling Masai Mara which lies along the Tanzanian border and is the Kenyan continuation of the Serengeti. For most visitors, the Mara is Africa: rolling amber plains filled with herds of elephant and antelope; rivers teeming with hippos and crocodiles; flat-topped acacia trees; rocky outcrops; mud-hut villages and resplendent warriors. When you’re in the Mara there is nowhere else on earth you could be than Africa.

 

The Mara is renowned for the annual wildlife migration which sees massive herds moving from one grazing rea to another while predators line up like rugby players at a buffet. Although the migration is every bit as great as any television documentary suggests, the Mara is just as awe-inspiring at any time. If you visit only one park or reserve and want a truly African experience, it must be the Masai Mara.

 

Further to the east and still on the Tanzanian border is Amboseli, a great wildlife park in its own right, but with Kilimanjaro in the background, one of the most scenic parks on the continent. Anything photographed standing before the snowcapped peak immediately becomes poster-worthy. Be forewarned, however…Kili can often be shrouded in cloud leaving nothing more than its lowest slopes visible.

 

For a different taste of Africa, try Samburu in the mid-north. Nestled in the semi-desert, Samburu is reminiscent of the Australian Outback…except with lions and leopard. For keen wildlife buffs, there are also species found here and not in parks further south, like the gerenuk or giraffe gazelle. Samburu is also home to the Samburu people who branched off from the Maasai many generations ago and have maintained their own traditions and customs.

 

The Rift Valley provides epic scenery from its origins in Mozambique until its demise in Jordan, but few countries benefit from it as greatly as Kenya. From soda lakes painted red by millions of flamingos to volcanoes and baboon-strewn escarpments, Kenya’s Rift Valley is a magnificent wonder.

 

Lake Naivasha was a playground for colonials before independence, but its tranquil waters and reed-lined shore belie the hippos that lurk beneath. “Born Free” author Joy Adamson’s home is now open for overnight visitors or just for afternoon tea, while Hell’s Gate National Park provides a rare opportunity to get out and walk amid the wildlife – thanks to the absence of most of the more dangerous animals!

 

If a week on safari has you yearning to stretch your legs, there’s always Mount Kenya to provide a challenge. Although conquering Africa’s second-highest mountain requires no technical skill, it is a much tougher trek than Kilimanjaro but every bit as rewarding. Climbs generally take 5 days with an additional day necessary to get to and from Nairobi.

 

Kenya’s Swahili coast is a wonderful mixture of relaxation and cultural enrichment. The palm-fringed beaches caress crystal clear waters while the towns bustle with busy markets and the call to prayer. For a truly tranquil experience, try to find a quieter property on the edge of town. Or, for a spot of adventure take the legendary “Man-Eater Express” sleeper train from Nairobi, so named for the lions that stalked the men who laid the track more than a century ago.

 

Whether starting or ending your trip in Nairobi, be sure to visit the dusty National Museum and the legendary Carnivore restaurant. And, if you want one last taste of wildlife that’s not as literal as that at Carnivore, take a spin through Nairobi National Park for the opportunity to catch some of the Big Five with the city’s skyscrapers in the background.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 12

22 12 2008

 

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                        “Okay guys, let’s fill her in.”   (Fish River Canyon, Namibia)

 

Never let your drinking problem interfere with your sightseeing.

 

Namibia’s Fish River Canyon is the second largest canyon in the world and reached only after a long drive through the southwest African country’s arid and sun-baked landscape. Apart from the odd quiver tree and occasional one-tumbleweed town, there’s not much to see…other than perhaps a solitary ostrich or antelope.

 

We had arrived in the late afternoon and gazed across the rugged fissure that wound before us as though the earth had just violently split apart in a mighty and meandering crack. Hundreds of metres below, we could see the canyon floor and watched as the lengthening shadows slowly swallowed the enormous crevasse.

 

We were the only ones on the isolated rim and sat in contemplative silence. There were no souvenir shops, no expensive lodges or restaurants perched on the edge, no paved roads and no barriers to compromise the sense of unspoiled wilderness. As the sun finally disappeared and took the canyon with it, there was also no electric light to interfere with a breathtaking vista of stars.

 

Even the most amateur of astronomers could easily identify planets and constellations. We stood in the darkness gazing awestruck at an incredible celestial display and watched intently for shooting stars and satellites. Being a city slicker, a great view of the heavens is rare and shooting stars are particularly coveted. That evening I stared skyward until my neck locked, desperate for a glimpse of a meteorite. As we headed back to the campsite over the bumpy and dusty dirt road, my vigilance didn’t wane for even an instant as I continued to survey the sky like a man demented. My eyes hurt from the effort and my throat grew parched from concentration. I reached down and grabbed my water bottle, carefully undoing the top without my eyes ever straying from their cosmic duty.  I hoisted the bottle to my mouth and took a generous swig of the warm liquid, the bottle obscuring my view for just an instant.

 

“Look,” someone shouted. “There’s one!!”

 

I dropped the bottle and followed the outstretched arm while my companions oohed and aahed but alas, the show was over and its star had already disappeared. While all around me excited exclamations of “magnificent”, “best ever”, “superb tail” and “fantastic” filled the air, I could only stare malevolently at my water bottle.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





A Walk On The Wild Side in Zimbabwe

3 11 2008

“You lookin’ at me?!”                                                 (Cape Buffalo)

It was mid-afternoon and the Zimbabwean heat was already easing as the sun softened to warm orange. I was on a 3-day walking safari through the remote Gwayi Valley near Hwange National Park and had been trekking since just after dawn. My guide and I were well off the beaten path, miles from telephones, roads and civilisation. We ate and slept deep in the bush and I was completely dependent on Mark’s experience and bushcraft for survival.

 

Following a narrow trail, Mark stopped and pointed at the ground. I came up alongside him and followed his finger to a patch of softer sand and an enormous track.

 

“That’s the freshest buffalo print you’ll ever see.” he said. “Come on, let’s find him.”

 

Although no expert on the Cape buffalo, I did know that it was amongst the single most dangerous creatures in all of Africa – especially lone buffalo and especially when followed. They were renowned for massive strength, considerable weight, surprising speed and a rather nasty temperament. They were also wily creatures known to circle back and leave their pursuers on the horns of a dilemma.

 

Before I could object, Mark set off with silent purpose while I scurried behind trying to keep up, remain quiet, not panic…and create enough saliva to dampen my suddenly parched mouth. Because of the dense bush, our vision was limited to a narrow corridor created by the rough trail we were following. Mark moved effortlessly along the path while my legs were sliced and diced by every thorn along the way.

 

Suddenly, there was movement ahead and a massive grey-black rump thundered across the path. Mark raised a hand for me to stop. With his eyes fixed on the bush ahead he gestured at the spot where our friend had been.

 

“Was it a rhino?” I breathlessly whispered, unable to believe that something that massive could be a buffalo.

 

“No,” he quietly replied. “It’s the buffalo. A Dagga Boy: a young male. He’s nearby. Follow me and do exactly as I say.”

 

With that, he placed his finger on the trigger-guard of the rifle, raised it across his chest and continued forward very slowly and quietly, his eyes scanning the bush and the trail.

 

I followed his every step, desperately wanting to tap him on the shoulder and suggest that perhaps I wasn’t really that interested in wildlife after all and that a spot of needlework in the nearest retirement home sounded better. But before I had a chance, Mark had stopped dead in his tracks and hissed for me to do likewise.

 

With my body struck with premature rigor mortis and my mouth slightly ajar, I stared ahead, beyond the barrel of Mark’s gun and straight into the malevolent eyes of the biggest Cape buffalo I had ever seen.

 

From barely a few dozen metres distance, he glared at us menacingly. I could see his nostrils opening and closing with each breath and the sun glinting on the moisture. A great boss of horns curled to sharp points either side of his huge head. He stamped heavily on the ground and edged forward shaking his head angrily. Mark hissed for me to remain still.

 

The buffalo shook his head again and snorted loudly. I remained rooted to the ground, frozen partly in obedience and partly fear. Mark was a statue before me. The buffalo stamped and shuffled forward again, staring at us and shaking his head in irritation. I swivelled my eyes to the extent of their sockets straining for a tree to climb. There was nothing other than thorn bush.

 

Again he stamped his heavy hooves and edged towards us. Sweat trickled from my hairline, stinging at my eyes, while flies taunted my inability to swat at them by gravitating to my open mouth. The stand-off continued for what seemed a lifetime but in reality was likely little more than minutes. It was broken only by Mark tapping on the stock of the rifle. The buffalo’s large ears twitched at the sound but his eyes remained fixed. Mark tapped again.

 

I had no idea what he was doing but was just glad that he was doing something! My appetite for the status quo had long expired and I wanted it to end…one way or the other. The buffalo edged forward again. Mark tapped. Finally, with one last shake of his massive head, the buffalo stamped forward and then swung around powerfully and charged away into the bush and out of sight.

 

I breathed again.

 

“Cheeky bugger!” Mark turned to me with an enormous adrenalin-fuelled smile. “He wasn’t scared at all.”

 

I confessed that I certainly had been, and mentioned my efforts to find a tree to climb.

 

“Wouldn’t have done you any good if there’d been one right beside us.” he explained. “He would have been on us before I could have raised my rifle and before you could have lifted your foot.”

 

I nodded sagely, glad that I hadn’t been aware of that little pearl a few moments earlier.

 

“But you know what did worry me?” he asked, obviously about to tell me whether I wanted to know or not. “There were two of them…and I didn’t know where the second one was!”

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Cruel And Unusual Punishment

27 10 2008

Not runway, I said run away! Run away!!!      (Zanzibar Airport, Tanzania)

Torture was banned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but I know for certain that it is still practiced with ruthless efficiency in Zanzibar.

 

After a wonderful week exploring the legendary Spice Island we returned to the airport for our return flight across the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. The airport was a simple facility: we checked-in at one of two counters and had the lone Customs officer stamp our passports. We were diligenty and politely searched by hand-held metal detectors before being waved through to the departure lounge.

 

Our home for the next 90 minutes was a single room structure with a few rows of well-used chairs bolted together. There was a small shop selling souvenirs to those who needed one last shot of Zanzibari retail therapy. There was a small counter offering basic drinks and snacks, a pay phone and a washroom. And that was it. Like all departure lounges, once in there was no way out except to board your aircraft…unless you wanted to raise great suspicion and invite interrogation.

 

We sat and gazed through the large windows at the airstrip beyond. Green grass spread to the scrub brush on the far side of the airfield beneath a flawless blue sky.

 

Although efficient, everything was laid-back and calm and consequently the temporary residents were suitably relaxed.

 

Until the music began.

 

I love music. I have rather eclectic taste that ranges from classical to jazz, golden era to classic rock, new wave and punk right up to the present day. When I travel I love the local sounds and invariably pick up a CD or two to play at home. I have an open mind and although I’m no expert, I know what I like…and what I didn’t like was what I was beginning to recognise.

 

The first few notes sounded disturbingly familiar. It certainly wasn’t African or even Arabic. It was western and…Celine Dion.

 

I should mention that I can not sing to save my life. In fact, the sound of my voice actually endangers my life and the lives of those within ear-shot. I can’t carry a tune if it has shoulder straps and is securely placed on my back. My attempt at whistling is unrecognisable and humming sounds like a poorly tuned lawn-mower at the bottom of a lake. Celine Dion has a magnificent voice and having attended one of her concerts in pennance for sins committed in a past life, I can honestly say that she puts on a good show and seems like a nice person. I just don’t particularly care for her music. I would even choose Kenny G ahead of her, and that says a lot.

 

The start of the next song sounded equally familiar…and it was again Dion. As was the third, fourth and fifth. Just as one’s heart can go on and on, so did the entire album.  I had no iPod or ear plugs and, being held captive, no reprieve from one of my worst nightmares.

 

I gazed longingly at my watch only to discover there was still more than an hour. I tried to read, to count the tiles on the floor, to stare at the blue sky beyond and find a happy place…but nothing worked. Eventually, the album came to an end. There was silence. My hair began to settle back down and my ramrod-straight back slowly eased. The sounds of spoons tinkling in cups at the snack bar, the buzz of the ceiling fan and the roar of aircraft engines were music to my ears. After a shortwhile, there was a gentle crackle from the speakers signalling something new. It couldn’t possibly be worse than the previous album, I mused.

 

The hiss eased across the room followed by the first notes. They again sounded familiar. Extremely familiar. It was the same album again…only louder. As the first tears started to well in the corners of my eyes I stared desperately at my watch. Still almost 30 minutes to go. I glanced at the plastic spoons at the snack bar and wondered how long it would take to cut off a limb with one.

 

 

Photo post by: Simon Vaughan