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

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Things That Go Bang in the Night

24 04 2009

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“I love the sound of firecrackers in the morning, it’s the sound of victory!”   (Mt. Meru, Arusha, Tanzania)

 

 

Night is always the most dangerous time in Africa. It’s when lions and leopard hunt, when hyenas and jackals forage and villagers barricade themselves and their livestock behind acacia thorn and stay safely inside their huts. It’s at night when every sound makes hearts palpitate, when campers lie in their tents wide-eyed and sleepless and when spear-toting warriors patrol campsites to fend off dangerous trespassers. But sometimes, it’s the guards themselves that cause the biggest frights.

 

Arriving back in Arusha, Tanzania after several weeks on safari, we found our campsite on the outskirts of town guarded by several soldiers in fatigues with automatic rifles. They smiled happily and raised the gate as we drove in, before resuming their posts. As there’d been no such security when we’d stayed in the same spot two weeks earlier, we couldn’t help but wonder if there’d been a coup while we were off in the wilds…or anything else similarly dramatic.

 

After setting up our tents and relishing long-awaited showers, we headed to the rustic bar for a cold beverage. It wasn’t long before someone asked the bartender what the army was doing at the gates.

 

“Someone tried to rob the campsite last week,” he explained non-chalantly, pouring from a bottle of Konyagi. “The owner heard them and came running out with a rifle. There was a scuffle and the owner and one of the robbers was shot. The police arrested the owner, but they’re worried that the robber’s friends will come back for revenge.” He shrugged and went to the other end of the bar while we stared at each other in shock.

 

“So,” someone finally said after an uncomfortable silence, “we’re staying at a campsite guarded by police in army gear carrying AK-47s in case the friends of a shot burglar come back to shoot the whole place up in revenge for their friend’s injuries???”

 

“Yeah, pretty much.”

 

“Right, I’ll have another beer.”

 

After dinner we headed for our tents expecting to be awakened by gunfire. Alas, at the usual hour the beer I had consumed to help me forget that I was sleeping in the middle of the O.K. Corral bid me to visit the toilet. I shuffled into the cool darkness and walked towards the cinder block building that was dimly lit by a single naked light blub. As I approached the building I heard a loud noise and peered nervously into the shadows.

 

There, slumped in a tyre-swing hanging from a tree was one of our police guards, fast asleep. His head lolled on his chest, he snored noisily, his rifle lay across his legs with his finger on the trigger. I tip-toed past terrified that I would make a noise and be felled by a startled burst of automatic rifle fire.

 

Safely inside, I heaved a sigh of relief. Business done, I headed to the doorway and glanced across at the swing. Our sentinel was still asleep and still snoring. Legs shaking, I held my breath, and tip-toed back past him, all the while daring not to breathe less a particularly loud exhalation suddenly woke the marksman.

 

I dived into the tent and threw myself flatly to the ground. The rest of the night passed uneventfully, but I realised that I’d sooner walk past a pride of starving lions or an amorous bull elephant in the night than again venture past a sleeping, possibly trigger-happy policeman with a machine-gun!

 

 

Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan © 2009 





The Last King of Scotland

14 04 2009

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        “Och, I’m looking for the Idi Amin tartan, please.”  (Market day, western Uganda)

 

 

It is said that lazy foreign correspondents gauge a country’s mood by chatting with taxi drivers. Given that taxi drivers spend almost as much time chatting with locals as bartenders and barbers, their feelings probably are somewhat of a barometer of a nation’s opinions and it’s an easy trap in which to fall.

 

I must confess that I’ve probably learned more about world affairs from taxi drivers than from CNN Bureau Chiefs. An Eritrean driver in Toronto taught me all about that country’s brutal independence struggle against Ethiopia, while an Iranian in Melbourne related what it was like to be a westernised bank manager in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. But as fascinating as those conversations were, probably the single most memorable of all came in Uganda.

 

Kampala’s international airport is located on the shores of Lake Victoria in nearby Entebbe. To any student of history, Entebbe is synonymous with a 1976 act of terrorism when a hijacked Air France Airbus was directed there after sympathetic Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada promised safety to its Palestinian and German hijackers. After several days during which all non-Jewish hostages were released, Israel launched a daring commando raid and safely rescued almost all the hostages.

 

It was early morning when my aircraft swept in over the impossibly blue lake. I strolled into a new terminal building but as my taxi drove away, we passed the old building now overgrown, falling apart and still pockmarked by the raid’s bullets. When my head swivelled to get a better look, the cabbie noticed my interest.

 

“Over there is the plane,” he said, his eyes making contact with mine in the rear-view mirror. The Air France livery was sun-bleached to nothing, and the aircraft had been picked-apart to remove anything of use or value. The area around it was overgrown with weeds and grass but it seemingly sat as an unintended monument to one of the world’s most famous acts of terrorism…and to an infamous Ugandan dictator.

 

Even before Giles Foden’s novel and Oscar-winning movie “The Last King of Scotland”, Idi Amin’s name was synonymous with a blood-thirsty – if slightly buffoonish – dictator. Amin rose to power in a coup in 1971 and soon reaped a reign of terror that included human rights abuses, political repression, murder and war. Amnesty International estimated he was responsible for as many as 500,000 Ugandan deaths while former colleagues claimed he indulged in cannibalism. By the time of his death in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003, Amin’s place in history as one of the world’s most feared tyrants was complete.

 

My driver tutted as we drove past.

 

“I wish we had him now,” he muttered quietly.

 

“Amin?” I asked, trying not to let my incredulity show at his confessed support for a man that most of the world still considers a monster.

 

“Yes, Amin” he said. “We wouldn’t have the problems that we’ve got now. There was law and order here. People had jobs. We were powerful. Now we have terrorists in the north and AIDS everywhere. It wouldn’t have happened under Amin.”

 

For once I was at a loss for words and quietly stared at the passing scenery. Perhaps a tabloid journalist would have reported that Uganda “longs for return of strong man”, but during the following weeks I spent in the East African country, his was the lone voice of support I heard.

 

Most likely, he was not alone but just like the London taxi driver who believed that Milli Vanilli were musical geniuses who were framed, he was certainly in the minority.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





A to Z of Adventure Travel: M is for Malawi

9 04 2009

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“If we hide here long enough, perhaps Angelina Jolie will find us first.”  (Nyika Plateau)

 

Until Madonna started visiting orphanages there, Malawi was relatively unknown to many people. This small South-east African country is bordered by Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia and offers some of the most picturesque scenery in southern Africa.

 

Although not a great destination for the Big Five, Malawi is a wonderful addition to any classic safari or for anyone seeking somewhere a little different. The country’s most popular attraction is Lake Malawi, a crystal clear freshwater lake that teems with tropical fish and is lined by pristine beaches, unspoiled wilderness, small villages, farmers’ fields and a few rustic lodges and luxurious resorts. Although not as safe as the government sometimes like to suggest thanks largely to the presence of bilharzia, Lake Nyasa as it is also known is still a perfect place to fish, relax and swim. Resting on the shoreline at sunset, sipping a cool drink and listening to the haunting call of African fish eagles is just about as good as Africa gets!

 

To the country’s north sits Nyika Plateau, a beautiful montane highland plateau that’s more reminiscent of Scotland or northern Europe than Africa. At over 2,000 metres altitude, the park offers great hiking and horseback riding amid rolling plains and thick forests. Immortalised by Laurens van der Post’s classic “Venture to the Interior”, the park has likely changed little since the great South African author visited more than half a century ago. Although looking like Europe, the plateau is home to plenty of wildlife including hyena, zebra, roan and eland and one of the highest populations of leopard in all of central Africa. Sitting around a campfire in a pine forest clearing on a cool evening and hearing the ‘sawing’ sound of a leopard is a surreal yet unforgettable African experience. Nyika offers few amenities so trips need to be properly planned.

 

Although not exactly a shopper’s paradise, Malawi is famed its wooden carvings that include small tables with interlocking legs carved from a single piece of wood and intricately detailed chairs. Although often also found in neighbouring countries, Malawi offers the highest quality – and best prices – and it’s often possible to purchase them in small markets from the actual artisan who made them.

 

Amongst Africa’s least developed countries, Malawi has a limited tourist infrastructure but no shortage of warmth and friendliness for those who visit this beautiful and largely undiscovered country.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Just How Dangerous is Nairobi?

13 03 2009

nairobi-rhino-mw“Hand over your wallet or I’ll charge!”            (Nairobi National Park, Kenya)

 

 

The other evening I was watching a documentary on gun trafficking. In the course of the programme, the story described Nairobi as one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

 

Not for one moment would I dispute the Kenyan capital’s reputation, but I should say that in my time spent there I have never had a problem. In fact, it is amongst my favourite cities in the world.

 

Over the years I have heard the stories of people mugged at knife point or car-jacked at the end of an AK-47. All are apparently true, but then again Saskatoon is officially the most dangerous city in Canada and a friend of mine was once mugged in a Swiss village of less than 700 people. I should also add that apart from one pick-pocketed backpack, I have never personally known a single traveller who actually had a problem in Nairobi.

 

So, just how dangerous is ‘Nairobbery’?

 

Well, very…apparently. Although much of the crime afflicts residents rather than tourists because we have the luxury of frequenting better parts of town and travelling by taxi.

 

I am undeniably a cautious traveller. Although I don’t barricade myself in my hotel room, I do take sensible precautions especially in unfamiliar cities or ones with dubious reputations. These are the customary practices of knowing where you’re going, not flaunting wealth, flashing money, wandering into quiet areas or strolling in drunken pride late at night singing ‘Bay City Rollers’ songs. Although all quite sensible, they of course do not guarantee that you’ll end up unmolested…but they help.

 

Nairobi is a big, busy city. Its sidewalks are constantly jammed with people and there’s a steady vibrancy. The Kenyan people are wonderfully warm and friendly. By day, you can stroll the markets, shops or city centre free of fear…unless scared of aggressive souvenir sellers or people just wanting to make conversation with a visitor. If you don’t mind a bit of mild adventure, you can even ride the public buses or shared taxis.

 

Nairobi changes by night, however. Although its sidewalks still bustle – especially on a Friday or Saturday evening – it’s always advisable to travel by taxi. But don’t let the darkness leave you locked in your hotel eating room service spaghetti because Nairobi should not be missed after sundown.

 

Tourist haunts like Carnivore aside, Nairobi has great restaurants including one of my favourite Italian places in the world – and that includes Italy. Restaurants will always happily call a taxi at the end of your meal, although most taxis will either offer to come back once you’ve finished or actually wait outside until you’re done…at no extra charge!

 

There are plenty of other places to eat including traditional Kenyan establishments and superb curry houses. There are also fast food outlets and even decent pizza places. After dinner, you can head to a club for dancing, socialising or people-watching and see what affluent young Kenyans do after work…which is pretty much the same as anywhere else in the world: dancing, socialising and people-watching.

 

And there are always the legendary bars and watering holes for a nightcap, like the Lord Delamere Terrace at the Norfolk Hotel.

 

Although by no means a perfect country, Kenya’s newspapers are as critical and honest in their assessment of their leaders as any in the west and its citizens proud of their democracy. The people waste no time in sharing tales of untrustworthy politicians, are courageous in the face of systemic corruption and love meeting visitors. If passing through Nairobi on the way to or from your safari, don’t be put off by its reputation and be sure to spend a few days in one of the world’s great cities.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan