To Shoot Or Not To Shoot

30 06 2009

Kutima Mulilo mw 

 

If I had a dollar for every great photo I’ve missed because my camera was inaccessible, I’d be travelling the world right this moment instead of sitting at my computer! After a few too many ‘ones that got away’, I bought a small point-and-shoot camera. Sometimes, however, knowing what not to photograph is even more important than knowing what to capture!

 

Katima Mulilo is a town in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip: a panhandle of land in the country’s north-east corner that slices between Botswana, Zambia and Angola. We had stopped for supplies during the long drive from Etosha to Chobe National Park. While our truck went for gas, the rest of us headed for the supermarket. The shopping done, we stepped outside and sat on the curb in the shade with a cold bottle of Coke and watched every day life in this sleepy, dusty corner of Africa.

 

Within moments, the silence was split by shouts and roaring engines and a Casspir came tearing around the corner. It slammed to a halt in front of us and police armed with sjambok whips tumbled out and ran in every direction while more vehicles arrived. The Casspir is familiar to anyone who grew up watching news coverage of the Apartheid struggle in neighbouring South Africa. These high-wheeled high-sided armoured personnel carriers raced into Townships during demonstrations, firing teargas and high-powered water from cannons or dispersing police or army riot squads. It suddenly felt as though I was in one of those news reels.

 

The police ran down the side streets and into stores and businesses, knocking over stalls, dragging people out and throwing them in the Casspir or other trucks. Some fled, chased by the police as they thrashed the air with their long whips, others obediently surrendered. A police officer stood atop the armoured vehicle shouting into a radio and directing his men.

 

Amid all the pandemonium, we remained quietly sat on the curb. We didn’t know what was going on, but thought it best to sit still and not draw attention to ourselves. Instead of attempting to walk away or even stand up, we simply slid ourselves further against the wall in an effort to remain inanimate and invisible while all hell let loose.

 

On my belt was my small point-and-shoot camera. I could feel it burning into my side, screaming to be unleashed and record the turmoil surrounding us. While this may not quite have been Pulitzer stuff, it certainly beat sunsets and picnic tables. I told it to be quiet…while I attempted to dissolve into the shadows.

 

People continued to be pushed and dragged to the vehicles and thrown inside. Some of the detainees shouted instructions to others before they were hauled away. Army-booted feet thundered past just metres away. With great relief our truck returned and stopped on the opposite side of the road. An officer strode over and had a word with our driver before leaving again. Our driver gestured for us to quickly bring the shopping and start loading it into our truck, cautioning us not to get in the way. With everyone back on board, we left the mayhem behind and headed out of town.

 

Our driver explained that it was a police raid for illegal immigrants or anyone without ID papers. Not only did relatively-prosperous Namibia have a problem with illegal workers from neighbouring war-ravaged Angola, but at the time there was also a very odd Caprivi secessionist movement seeking independence for the 400 x 35 kilometre sliver of land and which had attacked remote police outposts and other infrastructure. The police weren’t interested in us, he added…unless one of us had tried taking photographs.

 

“That wouldn’t have been good at all” he added.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





The Devil of a Problem

26 05 2009

Tasmanian devil

             “Psst…gimme 5 bucks and I’ll dish the dirt on Bugs’ carrot dependency.”

My head is like a refrigerator. Not because it’s square, white and cold – which it is, especially in winter – but because it’s a great place to stick lists.

One of the most frequently consulted of these is the one that details the places I most want to visit. Some are fairly easy and inexpensive to reach, others will likely remain unfulfilled for quite sometime due to cost or difficulty. Some are there because of an appetite for the untouched – like Angola or the Northwest Passage. Others for culture – like Vietnam and Cambodia. While another good chunk have earned their positions on my list because they are home to wildlife that I would really like to see. These could be creatures that have long been of interest – like orcas or orangutans – or because they are endangered and I want to see them while I still can, like tigers or polar bears. Sadly, the endangered list has a new member today: the Tasmanian Devil.

Late last week, the Australian government upgraded the devil from vulnerable to endangered. This change not only assures that the small marsupial gets greater legal protection and increased funding, but is also an indication of the challenges that the species is currently facing.

Just over ten years ago, scientists on the island state of Tasmania discovered a disease ravaging their most famous animal. The disease was diagnosed as a form of cancer which spreads through bites and causes grotesque facial tumours which prevent the devils from eating and eventually kills them. Since 1996, the island has lost more than 70% of its devil population and scientists are struggling to prevent it from wiping out the wild species entirely.

Tasmania is the only place where the creatures live in the wild. Aggressive captive breeding programmes have been introduced in zoos on the Australian mainland in an effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct and with the hope of reintroducing them into the wild at a later date. In Tasmania itself, efforts are underway to protect isolated populations of devils which have so far remained unaffected by the rampant disease.

Visitors to Tasmania have long sought glimpses of the devil. Although not quite as ferocious as their Looney Tunes’ namesake, the devils do possess powerful jaws and a terrifying growl. While extremely violent amongst themselves, they pose little threat to humans, and many local tour operators offer night-time excursions into the bush hoping to spot the shy and elusive animals. For many visitors, such a sighting usually ranks amongst the highlights of their trips.

Today, these opportunities are obviously more limited than before but places do still exist where the chance of a sighting is still quite good…and some of these reinvest the proceeds from tourism into conservation programmes.

A decade ago the thought that the Tasmanian Devil might be wiped out within our lifetime was unthinkable. Although there is nothing yet to suggest that their plight can be tied to human encroachment or Global Warming, it is a sobering example of just how vulnerable our Home Planet and all of its species truly are.

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





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





Should I Stay Or Should I Angola Now?

9 12 2008

mara-sunset-1-mw

 

Adventure tour operators constantly seek new destinations for intrepid travellers. A new destination may be somewhere that has never been open to commercial tourism before, or somewhere that used to be a popular destination but was made inaccessible for a period by war, disaster or simply government rule. There has always been a certain cache amongst voyageurs to be amongst the first to visit or return to a new destination. A few years ago, Mozambique would have fallen into that category. Not long before that it would have been Zimbabwe, Namibia, Nicaragua or El Salvador.

 

One country on the threshold of such status is the southern African country of Angola – a country long ravaged by civil war but now enjoying peace and reconstruction. The infrastructure is still rather basic and the tourist facilities almost non-existent, but travellers heading there now get the reward of seeing a beautiful country untrammelled by tourists and inhabited by a warm, friendly and welcoming people.

 

So, for our first Adventure Blogger poll, we ask:

 

 

For more information on visiting Angola, contact your nearest Adventure Travel Company.





How Many Countries Have You Visited? Of twitchers, trainspotting and Toblerone

13 03 2008

A twitcher is someone who engages in bird watching. The really serious ones travel the world in search of particularly rare or exotic species and keep a log of all the feathered-friends they’ve sighted. It’s serious stuff. A trainspotter is someone who engages in trainspotting – of the locomotive sort, not the Ewan McGregor/Irvine Welsh sort. This used to be a popular pastime when people would stand on railway station platforms or on bridges over railway tracks and record the engine numbers of the passing trains. They’re also sometimes called anoraks. Then there are people who keep lists of all the flights they’ve ever taken, the aircraft and airlines they’ve flown on, or the countries they’ve visited.

 

The latter gets complicated. What constitutes ‘visiting’ a country? Does a change of flights at an airport mean that you’ve actually ‘been’ there?  I once nipped across a river in Africa so that I could touch the far bank – which was in Angola. I don’t really consider that I’ve been to Angola…but if I’ve had a few too many beers and I’m trying to ‘out-country’ a fellow traveller I might just pull that illegal incursion out of my hat.

 

If you’re being honest, then I guess you’ve only visited a country if you’ve properly entered it via a border point or through customs and immigration.  Honest, but also dull. I’m not suggesting that eating a Danish pastry entitles you to include Denmark as a visited country, but as far as I’m concerned that bar of Swiss chocolate I bought during the 15 minutes I spent in Zurich airport does justify the inclusion of Switzerland in my travels! 
 

 

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008