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 


Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 67

5 02 2009


“It says: beware of man with shiny shoes for he has empty pockets.” (Istanbul, Turkey)


Never look where you’re going.


A friend and I were heading back to our hotel late one afternoon in Istanbul. As we rounded the final corner someone dodged the heavy traffic and hurriedly crossed the road just ahead of us. As his feet landed on the sidewalk and he jogged away, something fell to the ground with a clatter. My friend reacted quickest, bent down, picked up the shoe-shine brush and shouted after him over the noise of the cars, but he kept hurrying forward. My friend shouted again and this time he stopped, turned around and came back.


“You dropped this” my friend explained, proferring the brush.


The shoe-shiner looked at the brush, then into his wooden box and stepped towards us.


“Thank you so much” he said, with a big smile. “I don’t know what I would have done if I had lost it. You are good man. Honest man. I give you shoe-shine.”


My friend protested that there was no need, but our new chum was already kneeling down with his box beside him and moving towards his brown shoes, rag in one hand, brush in the other. My friend resigned himself to the service on offer.


“Where you from?” the entrepreneur asked, as he polished and buffed.


“Canada.” we answered.


“I have cousin in Vancouver” he explained, his hands working at lightning speed.


“Have you ever been?” my friend asked, attempting to make conversation.


The shoe-shiner stopped mid-buff, raised his head and inclined it to one side. Looking him squarely in the face he soberly said: “I am shoe-shine boy” and resumed his cleaning in silence.


We uncomfortably gazed at each other somewhat embarrassed.


The shiner put away his cloths, polish and brushes, stood up and extended his hand.


“That will be 10 lira” he said.


“But I thought it was fr….” my friend began to stutter before realising that there was no room for negotiation. The service was complete. His shoes gleamed…and he still felt guilty asking if a shoe-shine boy could afford a long-haul flight to the other side of the world. He reached into his pocket and handed over 10 lira.


“He dropped that brush on purpose, didn’t he?” he asked as we watched the shoe-shiner skip away back across the busy road, tucking the notes into his pocket.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 76

19 01 2009



                 What evil lurks in these quiet streets?              (Annapolis, MD)



Always mind your own business.


Annapolis, Maryland is a quaint city dominated by the U.S. Naval Academy and an attractive main street that is classically Colonial America. First settled in the 17th century and having a rich history, it sits on the picturesque Chesapeake Bay from which the scent of salt air is carried on sea breezes during hot summer’s days. Although lovely, it’s not exactly synonymous with adventure…but never judge a book by its cover.


Heading south towards the pristine coast of Chincoteague, Virginia and its wild horses, we had stopped in Annapolis for lunch.


It was my first time in the capital of the former royal colony, and I immediately felt comfortable. The town was positively picture-book and I thoroughly enjoyed strolling the streets and wandering around the harbour. A small shop offering naval antiques and souvenirs caught my eye and we popped in for a closer look. A bell rang as I opened the door and a gentleman at the back gave us a nod of welcome before continuing with paperwork. Glass-topped display counters were arranged around the periphery with items similar to those we had seen through the window on the right side and more modern electronics, cameras and other items at the far end. I gazed into the cases at the historic odds and ends.


When the bell rang and the door opened, I idly turned to look more by force of habit than any particular curiosity. A man walked in with a large black garbage bag under his arm. He stepped forward and the door swung closed behind him. As if in slow motion, I saw him reach into the bag and withdraw an enormous shotgun. My heart pounded and I turned my head back towards the display case in the hope that I wouldn’t be noticed. Having been raised on a healthy diet of action movies, I had always thought that if caught in a situation like this I would vault forward like the Matrix, grapple the firearm from offending hands and magnificently save the day. Instead, I found myself bravely rooted to the floor, my stomach valiantly churning like a cement mixer and my hair heroically standing on end like a hedgehog.


With time standing still and me standing even stiller, I watched the visitor’s reflection in the glass of the case, hoping that I would suddenly just dissolve into the wall. My throat was parched, all moisture evidently coursing through the palms of my hands and onto the countertop. Suddenly, saving the day didn’t seem quite so appealing and it was clear that invisibility was the better part of valour. I remained motionless, awaiting the unmistakeable sound of gunfire and the smell of cordite to which Hollywood had made me so accustomed when somewhere, from another world, I heard the storekeeper speak. His voice was calm and seemed courageous to my trembling ears.


“Sorry, we don’t buy guns,” he said, returning once more to his paperwork.


“Okay,” the assassin replied obediently over the rustle of the garbage bag, “Thanks.” With that, he turned for the door and walked out into the warm rays of sunshine.


“You okay?” my oblivious companion asked. “You look a little pale.”



Post by: Simon Vaughan   Photo by: Dan Smith

Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 12

22 12 2008



                        “Okay guys, let’s fill her in.”   (Fish River Canyon, Namibia)


Never let your drinking problem interfere with your sightseeing.


Namibia’s Fish River Canyon is the second largest canyon in the world and reached only after a long drive through the southwest African country’s arid and sun-baked landscape. Apart from the odd quiver tree and occasional one-tumbleweed town, there’s not much to see…other than perhaps a solitary ostrich or antelope.


We had arrived in the late afternoon and gazed across the rugged fissure that wound before us as though the earth had just violently split apart in a mighty and meandering crack. Hundreds of metres below, we could see the canyon floor and watched as the lengthening shadows slowly swallowed the enormous crevasse.


We were the only ones on the isolated rim and sat in contemplative silence. There were no souvenir shops, no expensive lodges or restaurants perched on the edge, no paved roads and no barriers to compromise the sense of unspoiled wilderness. As the sun finally disappeared and took the canyon with it, there was also no electric light to interfere with a breathtaking vista of stars.


Even the most amateur of astronomers could easily identify planets and constellations. We stood in the darkness gazing awestruck at an incredible celestial display and watched intently for shooting stars and satellites. Being a city slicker, a great view of the heavens is rare and shooting stars are particularly coveted. That evening I stared skyward until my neck locked, desperate for a glimpse of a meteorite. As we headed back to the campsite over the bumpy and dusty dirt road, my vigilance didn’t wane for even an instant as I continued to survey the sky like a man demented. My eyes hurt from the effort and my throat grew parched from concentration. I reached down and grabbed my water bottle, carefully undoing the top without my eyes ever straying from their cosmic duty.  I hoisted the bottle to my mouth and took a generous swig of the warm liquid, the bottle obscuring my view for just an instant.


“Look,” someone shouted. “There’s one!!”


I dropped the bottle and followed the outstretched arm while my companions oohed and aahed but alas, the show was over and its star had already disappeared. While all around me excited exclamations of “magnificent”, “best ever”, “superb tail” and “fantastic” filled the air, I could only stare malevolently at my water bottle.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 37

25 11 2008

Never ignore a guinea fowl.


The Okaukuejo campsite in Namibia’s Etosha National Park is unique in that the visitors are fenced in and the wildlife runs free. Trenches, walls and high fences surround the campsite on all sides with benches and mini-grandstands lining the perimeter allowing campers to view the floodlit waterholes and arid wilderness beyond.


Late one afternoon we had strolled to the benches for a few hours of game-viewing at the neighbouring waterhole. There was no shade and we sheltered beneath the inadequate brims of our hats and jealously guarded our water bottles. A steady parade of zebras and giraffe, elephant and antelope sauntered to the hole for a quick drink before wandering back onto the sun-parched plains. After a short while, the parade petered out and apart from two turtles half-submerged in the murky green water and a few guinea fowl hastily trotting past in the background, there was nothing in sight.


Despite the unrelenting heat, we continued our stakeout. The turtles remained motionless while more guinea fowl raced past. Initially in ones and twos, the fat little flightless birds were now racing past in packs like water-balloons rolling down a slope. In little clusters they sped past on short legs, wobbling as they speed-waddled in a mass fowl exodus.


We watched the display with bemused smirks. We half expected to see a herd of marauding elephants suddenly materialise from the scrub, or even Wile E Coyote with acme anvil in hand. The feathery stampede provided excellent entertainment for ages…until the reason for their mass migration became apparent.


With a mighty gust, the hot wind suddenly roared and carried with it half of Etosha’s sand. The air boiled with the browns and ambers of the stinging grit and we soon found ourselves hunched against the mightiest of mighty dust storms. It was the sort of apocalypse that had besieged Lawrence and from which the Tasmanian Devil had emerged. We turned our backs to the onslaught, but the particles whipped around and blasted our faces. We pulled our mouths and noses deep inside the collars of our t-shirts, pushed our sunglasses closer to our eyes, pulled our hats down as low as possible and attempted our escape.


The suffocating dust had turned day to night and we groped our way back across the compound in what we assumed was the direction of our camp, tripping over tent pegs and rock-lined pathways with each step. Although confident we were headed in the right direction, we instead reached the perimeter on the far side and had to double-back. The dust was now choking and the wind stronger than ever. The sand bit at all exposed skin while we attempted to protect our eyes and breathe through the filter of our shirts. Eventually, like wayward desert nomads, we stumbled back to our camp and clambered into the kitchen block, quickly closing the door behind us.


The storm banged at the windows and sent a tide of sand slithering across the tiled floor. It continued for perhaps an hour as we remained entranced by the menacing blast that buffeted the windows.  Though my ears remained clogged by the sand, over the roar of the merciless elements I detected another sound…a rising and ebbing song…a taunting melody…a high-pitched warble…as though several hundred porkie little guinea fowl were mocking those of us who had earlier laughed at their migration.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 5

10 11 2008

“Now, where’s my flashlight…”                      (Masai Mara, Kenya)

Don’t panic!


We had checked-in for our flight, cleared Kenyan Immigration and airport security and were resting in the Nairobi departure lounge awaiting our overnight flight to London. We had already done the circuit of souvenir and duty free shops and settled into two well-worn plastic chairs that faced the windows and the dark African evening beyond. It is always sad to bid farewell to a great adventure and we sat in contemplative silence sorry to be leaving but eager to get on our way, when we were suddenly paged.


The gate agent inspected our tickets and passports before handing us over to a sombre-faced security agent who muttered an ominous “Follow me” and led us through a key-pad controlled door.


I have often wondered what lies beyond those doors, but now that I was being led into the bowels of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport by a severe and unsmiling armed officer I dearly longed for the comfort and boredom of my chipped and cracked plastic bucket seat.


The officer led us down a corridor to another secure door. He again punched in an unseen combination and we found ourselves at the top of an exterior stairwell that led from the terminal building and down onto the tarmac. Leaving behind the tinned music and muffled loudspeaker of the lounge, our ears were assaulted by the din of generators and engines, the buzz of enormous arc lights, the hum of activity, the racket of transistor radios and the shouts of baggage handlers and mechanics. The night was sticky warm and I immediately felt perspiration beading on my neck and along my hairline – whether from the sudden heat or my fear of the unknown, I wasn’t sure. Carefully watching my feet on the metal stairs, I saw my long jagged shadow stagger before me and glanced upwards at the blinding light and the hundreds of giant moths swirling around it and the hungry bats pursuing them.


Having reached the tarmac, a new world opened up beneath the terminal: a cavernous oasis of artificial light and machinery with mountains of luggage and an army of men in coveralls working feverishly. We walked beneath the enormous nose of our aircraft and the network of cables and hoses which connected it to its life-support and I spied my bag sitting on a table against the wall guarded by another security officer.


“Would you mind opening it, Sir?” he asked politely, while the original officer stood silently behind us.


I fumbled for my keys and opened the miniature lock, my palms sweaty with apprehension and my mind running into overdrive. The officer reached inside purposefully and quickly emerged holding my enormous black metal flashlight.


“Ah” he smiled with understanding and perhaps a hint of relief, “A big torch.” He flicked it on and shone the bright beam at the ground. “It is bright too” he grinned.


I nodded enthusiastically and re-locked my bag. The first officer, now warm and friendly led us back up the staircase and to the departure lounge. All eyes turned to survey us as we returned from the netherworld beyond the security doors.


“Have a good flight” our new armed friend said, “and come back soon to Kenya” he added with a smile while I considered myself lucky that my mysterious long metal tube containing three large D-cell batteries hadn’t been subjected to a pre-emptive strike instead of a courteous inspection!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Lessons Learned the Hard Way: No. 23

30 10 2008

“No photos please, the Skywalk’s very shy…”   (Grand Canyon Skywalk, Arizona)

A perfect photo opportunity isn’t necessarily a perfect photo opportunity.


Leaving behind the bright lights and clanging slots of Vegas, we headed south past the Hoover Dam and through towns still advertising for one-horse. Trailing mighty clouds of dust, we bounced along rough desert roads dodging tumbleweed and cacti and rounding flat-topped mountains before finally arriving at a remote airstrip on the edge of the great void known as the Grand Canyon.


Having only one day to visit this wonder of the world, we had chosen against the scenic flights assuming they would stay well above the canyon and not guarantee a window seat, and instead thought the best photographs would be at the west rim and the newly-opened Skywalk. Upon arrival at the airstrip, we were transferred to buses to cover the last few miles to Eagle Point.


During the short journey the driver explained that the Skywalk was constructed of one million pounds of steel and had exceeded all engineering requirements by more than 400%. It could withstand winds in excess of 100 mph from eight different directions, an 8.0 earthquake and support 71 fully-loaded Boeing 747s – should they all just happen to be looking for a short semi-circular landing-strip jutting out of a cliff face 4,000 feet above the Colorado River.


The coach stopped near the incomplete visitor’s centre and like lemmings we all traipsed to the edge of the gorge and started snapping away furiously. There were no fences, but there was a very severe drop to the canyon floor below. Now, I’d say I’m pretty good at judging distances whether in feet, metres or football pitches, but trying to picture a drop of 4,000 vertical feet was a challenge. You can hear that it’s three Eiffel Towers, 711 Paris Hiltons, 12,000 Mars Bars or 40 centipedes all you like, but it’s still just a number….until you peer over the edge and watch microscopically-small helicopters fly past 3,000 feet beneath you!


The Skywalk shot out from the rim just to our left. It was a perfect horizontal arch that extended 65 feet from the canyon wall before looping back in and, apart from its support and a railing, was constructed entirely of 4-inch thick glass. As I eagerly strode forward I was already mentally formulating my photos and angles:


         A nice wide shot taken from a low vantage point to capture the view through the glass floor as well as the horizon through the glass wall and the vast desert sky above.

         A shot of my feet standing on the glass and the devastating drop beneath.

         A self-portrait lying on my back on the transparent floor as if falling through thin air…smiling non-chalantly, of course.

         A shot looking straight down between the Skywalk and the canyon wall using both as a frame.

         …and several thousand shots of the magnificent canyon itself.


We entered the Skywalk’s temporary visitor centre to be greeted by a large symbol of a camera with a line drawn through it. “No cameras allowed on the Skywalk” a security guard with a hand-held metal-detector announced, directing me to a wall of lockers.  I stammered my objection, but it was clearly pointless. It wasn’t the first time I had encountered something like this. Usually, there was an option to purchase a ‘camera pass’ or ‘video pass’ for an additional fee…or visitors could instead opt to buy over-priced photos at the gift shop. Believing I was being fleeced by yet another cynical tourist extortion, my back stiffened and I headed for the manager under a puff of indignant steam.


“We have to protect the glass floor”, she explained sweetly as my bubble of ire evaporated. “We’ve already had to replace several panes because of scratches” she added to rub it in. “But we do have photographers on the Skywalk who will be happy to take your photo for you” she finished, completely draining my resistance. I nodded, smiled meekly and relinquished my camera bag and creative independence.


The Skywalk was impressive although the thick glass made the drop rather surreal. The staff photographers were busy snapping and said the digital photos would be available at the gift shop. At least they were making an effort to accommodate disappointed visitors after unfortunately having to deny them their own photos, I mused. Having completed the circuit we were channelled into the gift shop. A helpful and selfless soul stood by a bank of computer screens eager to assist in finding and printing your own photo.


The pictures were nice and very similar to the angles I had envisaged. They had two packages on offer: a 5×7 of our favourite mounted in cardboard, or a memory stick containing all six photos they’d snapped of us, a few of their all-time favourites – plus a free coffee mug. The price?


“$29.99 for a single photo…or $107 for the memory stick and free coffee mug” he smiled ernestly.


I re-boarded the bus and returned to Vegas where the casinos at least say thank you before they steal your shirt.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan