Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 32

11 06 2009

Natron campsite mw

 “And before retiring for the night, please check your sleeping bag for elephants.”


Always be very careful where you pitch your tent.


I consider myself quite adept at pitching a tent. I find a patch of ground as level as possible. If there’s an incline, I place my head on the high ground. I carefully clear away rocks and check for roots. If there’s rain, I avoid obvious depressions in which water could pool. If I’m there through the day, I pitch under the shade of a tree. If it’s particularly hot, I aim the tent into any possible breeze and leave the flaps open. If I’m doing laundry, I position myself close enough to a tree or fence to string a clothes’ line. And, if anywhere particularly wild, I make sure I’m neither on migratory routes, hunting grounds, mating spots or pitched over suspicious looking holes.


In northern Zimbabwe I had a perfect spot that met all of my important criteria. I placed my tent by a tree for shade and strung a clothes’ line. Although this meant I was partially in the dead foliage that surrounded its trunk, the ground was level and there were no uncomfortable bumps. Nighttime came and I zipped up the flaps.


A few hours later I awoke to a rustling sound. I lay on my back waiting for my eyes to adjust to the soft light that was filtering through the canvas and attempted to locate the source by sound. It emanated from three sides and was a quiet but steady rustling and scratching noise. As I stared, my eyes gradually grew accustomed and there, on the outside of the canvas, silhouetted by the light, were hundreds and hundreds of giant millipedes.


Crawling and sprawling and slithering and sliding over each other. Two or three inches deep on the incline of the canvas. A heaving and writhing mass of insectitude. Even in the soft light, I could make out their millions of spindly legs, and their bobbing heads and hear their sharp little mandibles scraping against the taut canvas.


Now, I’m not especially an insectophobe. I don’t particularly like crawly things -especially when they’re in my food or crawling on my body or eating my flesh – but I don’t have massive fears of them either. However, seeing this seething mass encircling my fragile fabric cocoon was more than a little disconcerting. I used my flashlight to frantically scan for holes, but there were none. My door flap remained properly closed and there didn’t appear to be any friends massing at the front with battering rams. I contemplated making a running, screaming dash for safety…but couldn’t quite figure out where I would go, and I certainly wasn’t going to wade into the knee-deep millipede maelstrom and re-locate my tent.


The horror heightened and every few moments my leg would spasm at the caress of an imagined visitor. My periodic flashlight surveillance continued until I finally fell fast asleep again. Come the morning and the sunlight, my nocturnal visitors were gone and my restless night seemed silly…but I will never again pitch my tent on the dead foliage around the base of a tree!



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009 

A to Z of Adventure Travel: O is for Overlanding

23 04 2009


“Yes, and I expect the lobster bisque to be delivered to my tent with the chilled Dom.” (Namib Desert) 


Thirty years ago, it was popular to quit your job, buy a second-hand Landrover in London, pack a sleeping bag, tent, pots and pans, an atlas, spare tyre, a pair of sandals and a few mates and drive to Kathmandu. When the journey was complete, the Landrover would be sold to similar wandering souls in Nepal who’d then make the reverse journey back to London. Once in the UK, these inveterate travellers would realise that an office job just didn’t hold much appeal after spending 6 months or several years driving across the world on 25 cents per day, and they’d start Overland companies. This would allow them to take truckloads of similarly-minded but less-independent souls on journeys through Asia, the Middle East, Africa or South America…and get paid for it.


Overlanding still exists today although the old 30mph ex-army Bedford trucks that were the mainstay of such trips for decades have been replaced with custom-built Mercedes with docking stations for iPods, re-chargers for laptops, and mini-fridges for beer and gourmet tofu. However, the sense of adventure still remains the same.


An Overland truck is a self-contained eco-system. Held within are long-range fuel tanks that permit trips to remote and often inaccessible areas; water containers; storage units for tinned food and other staples; modern camping equipment; spare parts and bits of equipment for tricky terrain like sandmats, hooks and winches. Although water, bread and fresh produce are picked-up along the way, the self-sufficiency of the onboard stores allow overland vehicles to head well off the beaten path and explore areas of the world previously only available to unemployed people with Landrovers!


Although good value for money, this ability to explore without being a world famous explorer isn’t for everyone. There are usually 18-20 on a truck and everyone is required to assist with the chores. Whether preparing the food, shopping in the markets, doing the dishes, collecting the water or starting the fire, everyone has a duty that rarely occupies more than a few minutes of any day. Overlanding attracts all ages from early 20s to adventurous retirees in their late 60s and everyone from students to engineers, doctors and bank managers. It’s not unusual to find 7 or 8 different nationalities on any trip, women often narrowly outnumber men and singles usually outnumber couples. In fact, overlanding is probably the best mode of travel for adventurous single travellers.


In most destinations, overland trips spend the entire tour camping. This keeps the cost down and also allows for greater wanderings away from tarred roads and civilisation. Camping itself can also be separated into two categories: camping, using organised sites often with bathroom facilities and sometimes a bar or even swimming pool, and bush camping, which entails turning off the road and stopping wherever your travels find you. No bathrooms, no bars, no swimming pools, just untouched wilderness and perfect solitude.


In some cases, however, smaller budget accommodation is used either for convenience, weather or reasons of security usually paid for from a kitty or local payment fund. Regardless of where you lay your head at night however, the truck quickly becomes your home and the travelling companions often become life-long friends. It’s hard not to experience the wonders that overlanding provides and not form an unbreakable bond with your new mates.


Overland companies usually require that you bring nothing more than a sleeping bag, a sense of adventure and an appetite for the unexpected. But whether venturing through Africa, South America, Asia or the Middle East and travelling for 2 weeks or 8 months, they are guaranteed to provide the experience of a lifetime.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Snakes on a Plain

5 03 2009


      “I’m not going to say this again: it’s a tent pole, not a petrified snake!”    (The Nile, Uganda)



For many people, the mere thought of a snake is enough to prevent them from travelling to exotic places…or even eating spaghetti or licorice. However, the fact remains that Red Twizzlers aside, unless you go searching for them with a tethered mouse on a stick, your chances of actually seeing a snake even in the wildest of places are actually quite slim.


Although Australia has the distinction of being home to more deadly snakes than anywhere else on earth, Africa has its fair share…although most visitors would never know that after the average safari. And, not every snake is deadly. In fact, if you really want to see deadly serpents, you’re probably better off to spend the day at the local zoo rather than travel to deepest, darkest Africa.


We were driving from Kampala, Uganda, to Nairobi, Kenya and had stopped for a night beside the Nile near Bujagali Falls. It was a magical camping spot that overlooked the river’s lush green gorge not far from one of its first identified sources. We set up our camp and prepared dinner as the last light of the day slowly faded. With dishes done and many of the group retired for the evening, a handful of us remained around the fire, quietly chatting or writing diaries.


We sat on our camp stools and watched the sunset while the noise of the rapids drifted through the air. Suddenly, one of our group pointed to the ground.


“Look,” she exclaimed, “a snake!”


Our visitor slithered between the stools making a bee-line for the fire before skirting around the flames and disappearing into the darkness and trees beyond. We had all remained calmly seated and watched it cautiously with apprehensive fascination.


Once our friend was gone, someone collected a wildlife identification guide. They sat down and began to flick through the book while we all chipped in with our description of the snake.


“Hmmm,” the owner of the book exclaimed. “Here it is.” He held the book up facing towards us, a glossy page of illustrations illuminated by his head torch.


“Yeah, definitely” we all agreed, one by one. “What is it?”


“It’s a boomslang,” he announced. “One of the deadliest of all snakes. It ‘…delivers a potent hemotoxic venom through large, deeply grooved folded fangs positioned in the rear of its mouth’” he read. “The venom affects the circulatory system, destroying red blood cells and causing organ degeneration and generalized tissue damage.”


We all looked at each other warily, and then toward the dark trees and bushes into which the snake had disappeared.


“Right then,” someone announced. “I’m off to bed.” And with that the entire group got up as one and ran to our tents, quickly zipping them shut behind us.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Silence Isn’t Golden

23 01 2009


iceland-10-mwYou have only attained true silence when your ears buzz from the strain of trying to detect any sound in the aural void. It is a very rare state that is so unusually encountered that it’s instantly noticed. Houses creak. Pipes rattle. Refrigerators turn off and on. Neighbours bang. Bed springs squeak. Dogs bark. Cities endure endless traffic but even the wilds are rarely quiet. Whether the buzz of insects, the rustle of wind, the ripple of water on the shore, the roll of distant thunder, the eerie song of nocturnal birds or the ceaseless shrill of frogs, true silence is extremely elusive.


One of the few times I can recall pure and genuine silence was in Iceland. We were camping in the interior near Mýrdalsjökull glacier. Although there had been a veritable swarm of midges and annoying insects during the day they had all disappeared by evening and taken their buzzing with them. There was no other wildlife to disturb the peace and the air was perfectly still. We were far enough from the glacier not to hear any of its cracking or groaning, not near any glacial streams or babbling brooks, and our campsite had no electricity of generators to hum the night away. The campfire had been properly doused and once everyone had finished their night-time ablutions, unzipped and zipped their tents and nestled into their sleeping bags, silence descended like a heavy fog.


Being the middle of an Icelandic summer, darkness was as elusive as sound. Although soft and muted, the light was ever-present and no one required flashlights. It was even possible to read a book in the tent without assistance. After a long day of trekking in the fresh mountain air, I instantly fell asleep.


I awoke in the night and assumed it was dawn. The light was softer but still bright enough to make out everything in the tent. I lay on my back staring at the canvas above and instantly noticed the silence. An all-consuming complete and utter silence. Not so much as a mere rustle or breath. It was as if the entire world had stopped or everyone and everything had left the planet without telling me. My ears buzzed and rang with the effort to detect any sound, any proof of life, but none was to be had. The harder I concentrated, the louder the buzzing became.


Glancing at my watch, I saw that it was 2am and as bright as an early morning. I closed my eyes and rolled over but sleep wouldn’t come. The lack of noise was keeping me awake. It was utterly deafening. I tossed and turned with nothing ringing loudly in my ears. I longed for traffic, for a crying baby…for a snoring neighbour. I reached into my bag and pulled out my ear plugs in an effort to shut out the ceaseless and unrelenting silence. With the torture over, I finally slipped into sleep. In future, I would travel with a metronome.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

It’s Just Not Cricket!

8 09 2008

“Never mind the buffalo behind the toilet, what about the crickets behind my tent?!” (Nakuru, Kenya)

Apart from cockroaches, maggots, mosquitoes, black widow and redback spiders and anything I find in my bed, I generally don’t kill insects. But there are exceptions.


It was a chilly evening spent huddled around the campfire with the heat of the fire on our faces and the cold of the night on our backs. After saying goodnight and dousing the flames, we all traipsed off to our tents. By torchlight I hurriedly removed my boots and clambered into my sleeping bag, pulling the zip closed and hunching deep down inside the cocoon. I flicked off the flashlight and lay in the darkness as a wave of delicious tiredness washed over me.


The bush that encircled our camp was unusually quiet except for the rustle of wind through the trees and the occasional call of a nightjar. Just as I was dozing off, the shrill chirrup of a cricket rang through the tent. I awoke with a start and stared into the inky blackness. After a few seconds, my eyes closed again under the weight of heavy lids. The cricket sounded again. I sat bolt upright. He went silent. I remained sitting. He remained silent. I lay down, he chirped tauntingly.


As silently as possible, I slid from my sleeping bag, the cool air immediately sending a rippling chill down my warm body. I sat motionless awaiting his next move. I became colder but he stayed quiet. Finally, he blinked and peeled off a high-pitched note. My ears instantly rotated like tracking dishes. I flicked on the flashlight and shined the beam directly at the source of my torment. There was nothing there. I searched the whole area but quickly determined that my insomnia siren was on the outside of the tent.


I shined the torch around hoping that the bright light would drive him away and settled back down in the warmth. The caress of the wind through the long grass quickly lulled me to sleep. My head sank into the folded fleece jacket I was using as a pillow and consciousness flooded from my body. Until my nocturnal nemesis rang again. Several times, loudly, just to ensure that I was paying attention.


Jumping up like a madman, I thumped the canvas from ground to ceiling right the way round my shelter, cursing wildly under my breath.


“Don’t make me come out there” I hissed like a man deranged.


I sat breathlessly until the cold got the better of me and again retreated into my sleeping bag. The silence was enveloping. Even the wind seemed to have gone to bed, but the cricket wasn’t fooling me this time. I knew that the moment I surrendered to sleep, he’d be back. Unable to fight it any longer, my eyes involuntarily closed and I slipped into a deep luxurious sleep, my heavy body sinking into the ground.


His next call was the loudest yet and had my heart exploding in my chest. I leaped up, grabbed my boots, dived out of the tent and maniacally searched both sides of the flysheet for Satan’s little grasshopper. There was nothing there. I’d driven him away. I’d won. Victory and sleep were mine.


Exhausted, shivering and demented, I climbed back inside, slipped off my boots, and retired to my sleeping bag. The battle had lasted an hour but I was victorious. The silence was like the trumpet of angels and a satisfied grin eased across my face. I plummeted into a magnificent deep sleep.


And then the frog began to call his mates.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 33

1 08 2008

Vervet Samburu

…and can you send up some toast with butter and jam, some orange juice… (Samburu, Kenya)

Never leave corn flakes unattended.


Almost everyone who heads to the wilderness anywhere in the world hopes to have a close encounter with wildlife. Whether it’s kangaroos, koalas, macaws, bears or orangutans, the local fauna is usually a big attraction and the closer the encounter the better the experience…within reasonable limits!


I have been attacked by brown kites, dive-bombed by skewers, pursued by a leopard seal, bent-double to avoid a jelly-fish, driven insane by a cricket, deprived of sleep by noisy frogs and been chased by elephants and hippos.  But there’ll always be a special place in my heart for monkeys…particularly in Africa.


It’s not unusual to find notices in African campsites warning visitors to take care while walking and not to keep food in the tents. In Amboseli the warnings pertained to elephants, which – until an electrified fence was installed – had a habit of dropping by for afternoon tea but often overstayed their welcome. In most parks however, unless you are fond of keeping a side of zebra in your tent, the biggest problem are baboons and monkeys.


I was on breakfast duty in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. It was a beautiful sunny morning and already tropically warm. The Ewaso Nyiro River wound past our idyllic shaded camp from where we had seen elephants, buffalo, giraffe and hyena and had in turn been watched by voyeuristic tree-top baboons while we took our showers. The only company I had for breakfast was a scattering of superb starlings, a few mourning doves and a tree full of vervet monkeys that seemed half asleep and rather disinterested in my activity.


Or so I thought.


Pans of sausages and eggs sizzled on the fire while large kettles of water boiled away. I started to unpack the breakfast cereal, fruit, powdered drinks and loaves of bread all the while blissfully unaware of the stealth-like encroachment of my simian chums.  In hindsight, I imagine they shimmied down the trees on the side furthest away from me. Once on the ground, they likely belly-crawled towards the food using a few active youngsters playing with each other on the nearest branch to distract my attention. I continued to stoke the fire and toast bread until I heard a clatter of pots and pans behind me.


I spun around.


There before me stood a vervet monkey, a bag of corn flakes in his small hands. We stared at each other. He squinted in the bright sunlight. I lunged with my sausage tongs. He feinted to the left, did a neat step-over and then darted up the nearest tree. From a low branch just beyond my reach he taunted me by opening the bag and eating the flakes one overflowing handful at a time.


I contemplated throwing a stick in his direction but reasoned that he’d probably catch it with a free hand and hurl it back with greater accuracy and force than I could ever manage. Instead, I did what any self-respecting male would do in that situation: I went to my tent, got my camera…and then told my campmates that if they thought the monkey was bad, they should have seen the leopard!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan







Lessons Learned the Hard Way: No. 74

16 05 2008

Namibia camp

“I want my mamba!”

When camping in the desert, kindly resist the temptation to visit the local snake and reptile farm. I had spent a fascinating afternoon in Namibia’s Swakopmund Snake Park watching black mambas, green mambas, Egyptian cobras and puff adders through thick glass. I had studied photographs of the devastating effect their toxic venom had on various victims’ arms and legs, and been captivated by lurid accounts of past attacks.

I then spent several extremely sleepless nights in my tent in the wilderness, listening to every tent-zip, rustle and breeze, too terrified to even visit the toilet.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Things That Go Bump In The Night

9 04 2008


Lake Kariba, The just-before-dark Continent


When the 19th explorer Henry Morton Stanley wrote “Through the Dark Continent” on his travels in Africa, his title referred to the large uncharted area in the centre of the continent that hadn’t yet been reached by Europeans. When the lights went off in my Nairobi hotel room and I tripped over my backpack and fell flat on the floor while looking for my flashlight, I couldn’t help but wonder if Stanley had actually been inspired by a similar experience a century earlier.


I consider myself to be a fairly perceptive person, but the large plastic garbage bin of water that I had found in the bathroom when I’d arrived several hours earlier had had me stumped. In my jet-lagged state, I reasoned that the cleaners had left it behind when they prepared my room. Just quite why they wouldn’t simply have used the water from the taps didn’t occur to me. When I unpacked and found a stack of long white candles and a box of matches in my bedside table, I still didn’t make the connection between these provisions and the reliability of the power supply.


It was only when the lights went off that evening that I saw everything clearly – while actually seeing nothing at all!


There I stood, like a deer in the headlights – except without the headlights – listening to the ebbing-creak of the ceiling fan as it ground to a halt. Outside the window I could hear insects and the hum of traffic, and watched as a sea of candles gradually flickered to life in the neighbouring windows and surrounding buildings. Kenyan life had barely missed a beat, but unfortunately I hadn’t missed my luggage and now had my nose pressed against the wooden floor. I eventually found my flashlight, climbed to my feet, and lit several candles – just in time to see the electricity return.


Nighttime is very special in Africa. There is a gentle scent of wood smoke that drifts from every village and even seems to permeate most cities. It mixes with the ever-present smell of dry-earth and the occasional blossom to provide an unmistakable aroma. Once away from the cities, you can follow the embers of your campfire as they dance skyward and join a myriad of stars, planets and galaxies.


If you’re well off the beaten path you may hear laughter or singing from distant villages carried through the cool air, and occasionally even the beat of drums. But for me, the greatest allure of an African night is one particular sound heard while sitting around that campfire, warming your hands as the hard dry ground quickly surrenders its daytime heat, or when separated from it by only the thin canvas of a tent.


There is something utterly primeval about the mournful roar of a lion at night. The sound starts as a low bass roll that grows louder and more forceful, somehow pitching in your chest before reaching a crescendo and dissipating into the air. It is infintely more powerful, more solemn and more blood-curdlingly fearsome than anything Hollywood has ever produced. There is a physicality to this sound that seems to scythe through the canvas, pummel your lungs and raise every goose bump, yet it is a sound that I love for reasons that I do not quite understand. If I was standing outside alone and unprotected I would be rightly terrified, but in the sanctuary of my tent, I lie open-mouthed and open-eyed relishing every breathy grunt and exhalation with utter wonderment and fascination.


It is these moments that provide experiences that last a lifetime and which have made me an addict for adventure travel.


Unfortunately, it is also invariably these moments that my bladder chooses to remind me just who is boss and dispatches me into that very darkness.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008