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

Disappearing Destinations

5 01 2009



Snows of Mount Kenya – Africa’s second highest mountain.


In the back of a desk drawer sits an expired passport bearing the visa and stamp for a country that does not exist. Sadly, it is not Narnia or Middle Earth, although a childhood spent hiding in my parents’ wardrobe and a pair of very hairy feet suggest that I actually have familiarity with both. Instead, it is for Zaire: a country that existed in name from 1971-1997.


Over the past 50 years, many places have disappeared. No matter how hard you look, you can’t find Upper Volta, Rhodesia, Peking, Nyasaland, Bombay, Bechuanaland, Ceylon, Dutch Guyana, Yugoslavia, Leningrad or Czechoslovakia on current maps.


While these places have only changed names or borders and may not have actually disappeared, there are unfortunately many places in the world that are at risk of existing only in memories and photographs.


Some years ago, famed author Douglas Adams wrote “Last Chance to See”, a travelogue/natural history book examining the plight of desperately-threatened species. Now, Kimberly Lisagor and Heather Hansen have contributed “Disappearing Destinations” which highlights the plight of such well-known threatened spots as the Amazon rainforests, the Maldives, glaciers, Kilimanjaro’s snowcap, Tuvalu, Timbuktu, China’s Yangtze River Valley and even Machu Picchu.


Very recently, Australian scientists announced that the Great Barrier Reef experienced less growth last year than at any other point in the past 400 years and is under very severe threat from global warming and high levels of acidity in the world’s oceans.


While we have long been aware of the threat to individual species such as whales, tigers and gorillas, for the first time in most of our lifetimes, we are seeing particular sites or entire eco-systems under threat.


Not only are we on the threshold of our very own ‘last chance to see’ with many of these epic places, but visiting them may actually help to save them. In cases where today’s threat may in part be due to past unrestricted tourism, sensible limits have in many cases been imposed and responsible tour operators created to ensure that visitors are now not only no longer part of the problem but actually part of the solution. Park fees and environmental taxes are re-invested in conservation efforts and many people who visit these endangered places often return home as their most enthusiastic supporters and greatest activists.


Like never before, we not only have a chance to see the great sights of the world, but to actually help to ensure that they are still there for future generations.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan