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

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Possessions or Experiences?

18 05 2009

Serengeti sunset mw

                 “Do sunsets usually growl?”                           (Serengeti sunset)

If you were given the choice between a 60” high definition plasma flat panel television with Dolby Surround Sound or a luxury two-week South African safari with private guide, which would you choose? If you said ‘both’, you are a person after my own heart. But greed aside it does raise the interesting question of whether you cherish experiences or possessions more.

Of course, there are some people out there who do have both, but we don’t like them much. For the rest of us mere mortals, if we are very lucky we might be able to pick one or the other once every 5 or 10 years. So what provides the greatest satisfaction in the short-term…and in the long-term?

I am a homebody who has the unenviable burden of also enjoying travel. I say unenviable because while some of my acquaintances are quite happy to live in a shoebox over a subway grating with 43 roommates and live on day-old birdseed in order to pool all of their money into travelling the world, I really do like a few special home comforts and lots of travelling. Alas, not being married to Donald Trump’s daughter, I usually have to pick between the exotic trip or the slab of apple-smoked cheddar.

As I get older I find that experiences seem to be gaining more and more importance. Perhaps it’s a taste of my own mortality, but when I reflect on my life the things that give me the greatest satisfaction and fondest memories are not things at all, but experiences. I rarely sit back and think to myself “Wow, I loved that triple-speed pastel-green mixer with ice-crusher”, but I do remember the first time I smelled the heady scent of eucalyptus in Australia, standing in a jungle-clearing in Costa Rica watching lava cascade from a volcano late one night or hearing a leopard prowling around my tent in Kenya. I will never forget the first glimpse I had of a wild mountain gorilla after several hours of arduous trekking, of waking to a spectacular view of the pyramids from my Giza hotel room or of a wonderful evening in a small basement jazz club in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

When I’m 80 years old, I can probably still have a pair of 2,000 watt speakers with 12-inch aluminium woofers, titanium mid-range drivers and .75 inch tweeters… but I may not have the ability to trek the Himalayan foothills, photograph Angkor Wat at sunrise or camp on the farthest reaches of the Great Wall of China.

I think for now I’ll make do with my 18” TV and continue to indulge my passion for adventure.

 

Photo and 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





Asia In Style

5 12 2008

 

I don’t feel as though I am truly an adventurous traveller unless my hotel room has a rusted fan bolted to the ceiling, a television with three channels (or better yet…no television at all), a constant din rising from neighbouring streets, a lingering air of insect repellent and periodic power cuts…but I’m not so dedicated that I won’t occasionally stray towards something a little more opulent and luxurious that boasts white gloves, white sheets, white towels and fine white wine. Ultimately, a vacation is a treat or an opportunity to re-charge well-worn batteries, so why not indulge a bit?tic1

 

It was long believed that adventure and comfort don’t mix. Unless there was a dirt floor, a lumpy bed or a lack of air-conditioning it couldn’t possibly be adventure. However, as more and more people are drawn to exotic destinations, so the ability to travel in small groups and experience genuine cultural immersion while also enjoying a bit of comfort at night are no longer mutually-exclusive.

 

Oned of the best places to combine both worlds is in Asia. Boasting some of the best hotels and finest service in the world while still offering ancient ruins, congested markets, vibrant culture and thriving tradition, Asia can provide it all. Intrepid adventurer by day sampling food that would cause the neighbour to pass out, considerable comfort by night. Stimulation for the mind and senses by day, pampering for the weary body at night.

 

If your idea of adventure doesn’t extend to dorm rooms, mosquito nets and communal showers, click here.





The Human Stain

6 08 2008

Slave chamber

The Arab Slave Market, Stone Town, Zanzibar

I have never been to Auschwitz, Dachau or Buchenwald; never visited the Killing Fields of Cambodia or the genocide memorials in Rwanda. My omission has been neither through a lack of desire or squeamishness, but simply because my travels have yet to take me there.  Those I know who have been have said they were changed by the experience. I can’t imagine that anyone could remain unchanged after visiting any site of such epic barbarity, hatred and depravity.

 

For most of us, travel is an escape from the everyday norm. It is a diversion and distraction from the stresses of work and the tedium of laundry and shopping. Whether we’re lying on a beach, visiting ancient sights or hiking in the wilderness, travel provides us all with a much-needed break and revitalises our souls and our minds. But some travel transcends mere entertainment or relaxation, brings us face to face with our darkest side and becomes a life experience.

 

One of the greatest crimes against humanity is also one of the most ancient: slavery. Since the beginning of time, people have incarcerated others; traded, sold and transported them as possessions and dehumanised, mistreated, assaulted, tortured and murdered them. It is estimated that there are presently 27 million people in slavery throughout the world, more than at any other point in history. For many, the reality for those who are enslaved today is no less horrific than for those who crossed the Atlantic in their millions in centuries past.

 

In a small building in the centre of Stone Town, Zanzibar, sits the slave market through which an estimated one million African slaves passed on their way to the Middle East. Little still remains of the market today, except for a basement chamber in which the slaves were held before being sold and loaded onto dhows for the sea voyage to Arabia.

 

There is nothing even slightly commercial about the chamber. It is a sombre place accessed through a simple entrance, devoid of all tourist-trappings, as it should be. The ceiling is low and little light penetrates the small windows carved in the thick stone. When in use, there were no windows at all. No light. No air. No reprieve from stifling heat and humidity, from the crush of bodies, from illness and death. There are two chambers: one for men and one for women and children. From the walls and ceiling hang great iron chains and manacles.

 

There are no artist’s illustrations, scale models or animatronic figures to convey what things were like because they are not necessary.  There is nothing architecturally oppressive about these rooms, because the weight of history is sufficient. It requires little knowledge and no imagination to picture tired, hungry, terrified and ill humans pressed in; to hear their sobs and moans; to taste their fear, despondency and utter helplessness. To ache for the grotesque inhumanity and greed that led others to sail to these shores to steal the innocence of childhood, the sanctity of family, the essence of dignity and the very breath of life.

 

When the walls and ceiling press in too much, we are free to climb the stone steps and emerge into the blazing light of day. We can stand in silence and gaze at the clear blue sky, feel the refreshing breeze on our cheeks and sate our thirst on bottled water or Coke. Unlike those who preceded us, we can go home whenever we like, not be forever separated from our loved ones and transported to distant shores for a life of ritual abuse, brutal labour, cruel servitude and an untimely death.

 

When we have had enough we may leave the slave market forever, but I defy anyone to have the slave market forever leave them.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan