Things That Go Bang in the Night

24 04 2009


“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 

A to Z of Adventure Travel: K is for Kenya

26 03 2009

gerenuk-giraffe-gazelle-mw        “Phone home…..”                                      (Gerenuk – Samburu, Kenya) 


Although there may be a better park or more prolific wildlife somewhere, nowhere else offers the variety and diversity of Kenya in such a compact and accessible area. In short, Kenya offers the one-stop-shopping of safaridom.


The East African country is of course best known for its wildlife and game parks. It’s most famous is the sprawling Masai Mara which lies along the Tanzanian border and is the Kenyan continuation of the Serengeti. For most visitors, the Mara is Africa: rolling amber plains filled with herds of elephant and antelope; rivers teeming with hippos and crocodiles; flat-topped acacia trees; rocky outcrops; mud-hut villages and resplendent warriors. When you’re in the Mara there is nowhere else on earth you could be than Africa.


The Mara is renowned for the annual wildlife migration which sees massive herds moving from one grazing rea to another while predators line up like rugby players at a buffet. Although the migration is every bit as great as any television documentary suggests, the Mara is just as awe-inspiring at any time. If you visit only one park or reserve and want a truly African experience, it must be the Masai Mara.


Further to the east and still on the Tanzanian border is Amboseli, a great wildlife park in its own right, but with Kilimanjaro in the background, one of the most scenic parks on the continent. Anything photographed standing before the snowcapped peak immediately becomes poster-worthy. Be forewarned, however…Kili can often be shrouded in cloud leaving nothing more than its lowest slopes visible.


For a different taste of Africa, try Samburu in the mid-north. Nestled in the semi-desert, Samburu is reminiscent of the Australian Outback…except with lions and leopard. For keen wildlife buffs, there are also species found here and not in parks further south, like the gerenuk or giraffe gazelle. Samburu is also home to the Samburu people who branched off from the Maasai many generations ago and have maintained their own traditions and customs.


The Rift Valley provides epic scenery from its origins in Mozambique until its demise in Jordan, but few countries benefit from it as greatly as Kenya. From soda lakes painted red by millions of flamingos to volcanoes and baboon-strewn escarpments, Kenya’s Rift Valley is a magnificent wonder.


Lake Naivasha was a playground for colonials before independence, but its tranquil waters and reed-lined shore belie the hippos that lurk beneath. “Born Free” author Joy Adamson’s home is now open for overnight visitors or just for afternoon tea, while Hell’s Gate National Park provides a rare opportunity to get out and walk amid the wildlife – thanks to the absence of most of the more dangerous animals!


If a week on safari has you yearning to stretch your legs, there’s always Mount Kenya to provide a challenge. Although conquering Africa’s second-highest mountain requires no technical skill, it is a much tougher trek than Kilimanjaro but every bit as rewarding. Climbs generally take 5 days with an additional day necessary to get to and from Nairobi.


Kenya’s Swahili coast is a wonderful mixture of relaxation and cultural enrichment. The palm-fringed beaches caress crystal clear waters while the towns bustle with busy markets and the call to prayer. For a truly tranquil experience, try to find a quieter property on the edge of town. Or, for a spot of adventure take the legendary “Man-Eater Express” sleeper train from Nairobi, so named for the lions that stalked the men who laid the track more than a century ago.


Whether starting or ending your trip in Nairobi, be sure to visit the dusty National Museum and the legendary Carnivore restaurant. And, if you want one last taste of wildlife that’s not as literal as that at Carnivore, take a spin through Nairobi National Park for the opportunity to catch some of the Big Five with the city’s skyscrapers in the background.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Feeling The Heat

10 02 2009



                                                         Bushfire, Northern Territory, Australia


Although all natural and man-made disasters are frightening, watching the news from southern Australia this week reminded me of how I find wildfires particularly terrifying. They are extremely destructive, quite unpredictable and move very quickly. Their smoke and ash can block out the sun and travel thousands of miles. They can destroy entire towns, claim hundreds of lives and even the most sophisticated and abundant of resources struggle to contain them.


Since time began, people have conducted controlled burns to help contain the risk of wildfires. These managed fires also help eradicate disease-carrying insects and clear the land ready for new growth. Sadly, as population centres have grown and technology progressed, so we have lost touch with the land, too rarely conduct controlled burns and now pay the price with sweeping bush, forest and grass fires.


Thankfully, I have never been caught in a wildfire. I have seen amber clouds of smoke from massive forest fires in Manitoba hundreds of miles away; I have rafted past raging grassfires in the Zambezi Valley and felt the heat stinging my face, and I have seen modest bushfires in Australia singeing the Outback. But only once have I ever truly felt in danger.


The Maasai still regularly conduct controlled burns in Kenya and Tanzania. Although their ageless experience is better than any computer programme, occasionally even they fall victim to natural elements.


The glow of their fires first appeared shortly after sunset one evening as we sat around our own campfire in the Masai Mara. It was a faint line of orange in the distance, seemingly suspended in mid-air against the jet-black sky. By the following morning, the flames had been rendered invisible by the brightness of the sun, but the whispy grey smoke signalled their continued existence. Later that evening, the line was longer, the flames brighter and it was apparent that the fire was drawing closer.


We were assured we were separated from the bushfire by a dry riverbed that it wouldn’t cross, but the scent of smoke the next morning couldn’t help but leave an uneasy feeling as we set off on a day’s game viewing. Amid herds of elephant, prides of lions and a family of cheetahs, the fire was forgotten…until we returned to camp at dusk. Although not yet fully dark, the fury of the fire was already evident.


Before going to sleep, we packed our bags and readied our clothes and boots for a quick exit. The glow of the fire was visible through the tent canvas and the distant crackling clear in the still night air. Sleep proved elusive as we feared a late-night call to evacuate and run for the Landrovers.


By dawn, the hills were blackened and smoke lingered like morning mist, but the flames had either burned themselves out or moved on. Our game drive headed in that direction and we saw the area apocalyptically charred, the tufts of grass that somehow survived in a sea of black, the trees that were but ebony skeletons and the snakes that were still fleeing the hot ground.


Remarkably, the dry riverbed had indeed contained the burn just as our guides and the Maasai knew it would. There were a few, small, black patches on the opposite side but nothing that mattered. Within weeks, we were told, there would be fresh green buds and life would begin anew. Shortly, the game would return and the Maasai would bring in their cattle.


And perhaps most importantly, the risk of a devastating and uncontrollable wildfire had been reduced.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Photography 101 17.5/18

28 11 2008

Confessions, tips and musings from snap-happy wanderers.

Maasai elder                                   (near the Masai Mara, Kenya)

Never leave anything but a good impression.


Amongst my favourite photographers are Yousuf Karsh, Lord Snowdon and Jack Cardiff who, while taking great portraits have been able to capture so much more than someone’s mere appearance or facial features. On so many occasions, these great artists have been able to capture their subjects’ personalities and character – no mean feat when wielding a camera.


Travelling always brings us into contact with so many fascinating people who we will never forget. Whether fellow travellers or people we meet along the way, it is so often the people that stay in our memories even longer than the sights or experiences. Photographing the local people is, in my opinion, significantly more difficult than snapping wildlife, buildings or scenery but it’s well worth the effort. However, if attempting to photograph those you meet on your travels always remember to be respectful and seek their permission, be warm and friendly and thank them afterwards and never photograph children without first asking a parent or guardian. While many cultures do not like having their photographs taken at all, none of us ever like having a camera shoved in our face by a complete stranger.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Lending a Hand

23 10 2008

Maasai children                                              (Lake Natron, Tanzania)

I used to love visiting the shops with my grandmother on pension day. I was extraordinarily adept at tugging on her coat, lovingly gazing up at her, batting my big eyes and with gut-wrenching sincerity and heart-tugging earnestness pronouncing my life-long dream to own a particular toy car, book or model aircraft. Quicker than you can say “emotional blackmail”, the target of my efforts would be in a small bag in my hand and life would be great…until I reached home, my parents scolded me for my calculating manipulation and my new acquisition would be confiscated. Until the next pension cheque.


Sadly, for millions of children throughout the world, their lives are consumed not with a longing for toys or games, but for food and the basic essentials of life. Even more sadly, many of these children live in developing countries visited each year by millions of tourists who stay in unimaginable luxury just minutes from terrible poverty and in many cases the only time the two meet is when the children approach the tourists with hands outstretched begging for money or gifts.


Not so many years ago, tourists were often encouraged to take pens, balloons or sweets to developing countries to give to the children encountered along the way. It was not unusual to pack a plastic bag full of gifts and treats to give to the children who invariably crowd around tourist buses or shops looking for a hand-out. Most tourists did this out of the goodness of their hearts, but unfortunately these good intentions created a sometimes hostile environment and a culture of begging that is in no one’s best interest.


I know I am incredibly lucky and I am constantly grateful for everything I have and everything I have seen and done. I am painfully aware of the suffering of others less fortunate and do what I can to assist their terrible plight. However, whereas once I would indeed enthusiastically give to these children and feel good about it, I now see the problem that this causes and the dehumanising affect it has on the children themselves.


That doesn’t mean to say that you can’t interract and contribute along the way, however.


Many tour operators partner with local communities so that donations of clothes, pens or other items can be given to a school or a village elder for distribution. This not only ensures that visitors are still able to help, but it also eliminates the less palatable encounters between travellers and locals.  If travelling independently, check with NGOs and other charitable organisations like UNICEF before you travel and ask their opinions.


It can be hard saying no to a small child wearing rags when you know that your pockets are stuffed with more money than their family earns in a year. But if handled correctly you can not only assist them infinitely more by better distributing your gifts but you can also help restore their childhood innocence by instead sharing a high-five, a silly dance or even just a genuine smile and laugh.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

The Beautiful Game

25 07 2008

Maasai 2

Maasai United practicing free kicks near the Masai Mara, Kenya

They stood before us, line abreast: four stern-faced Maasai morani, or warriors. The razor-sharp blades of their spears glinting in the sun, wooden knobkerries and well-worn daggers thrust through their belts. They had suddenly appeared from the acacia scrub that surrounded our tents and watched us disdainfully as we scrubbed our socks in a large bowl of dirty grey water.


“Football?” one of them asked, pointing at the volleyball lying on the ground.

“Sure.” we responded, swiftly downing our laundry in an effort to regain our compromised masculinity. They spoke minimal English, we spoke no Maa and only the odd word of Swahili, but the common language was soccer.

The metal flight of a spear was used to draw a goal line before four spears were thrust into the hard, sun-baked ground as goalposts. Daggers and clubs were placed beside them and our opponents’ flowing red shukas were hoisted up and tucked into their belts. It was to be four against four. The Maasai were fit, lithe and sinewy and loomed over us by at least a head. By comparison we were short, unshaven, sun-burned and in trouble.

It was mighty warriors against Hobbits.

We lined up facing each other. Sandals made of shredded tyres versus fancy footwear with velcro, elaborate treads and silly brand names. Aluminium water bottles versus gourds of cow’s blood and milk. T-shirts versus togas. Tan lines versus battle scars.

We graciously allowed the side with the most weapons to kick-off. The light volleyball hopped and bounced across the rutted dusty ground and disappeared into the bush. Hands on hips, we exchanged glances before a Hobbit volunteered to retrieve it. Play resumed, the dust began to fly and the sweat fell. The Hobbits were soon breathless, the Warriors effortlessly striding about in the equatorial heat. There were shouts, tackles, crosses and shots but neither side could hit a cape buffalo with a banjo.  It was soon clear that while the Warriors were supremely fitter and stronger than we’d ever be, they’d spent their formative years engaged in far more worthwhile pursuits than kicking a ball around: things like hunting lions and staying alive.

As the match progressed, the Warriors seemed to grow younger. They shed their gladiatorial demeanour and reverted to the fun-loving teenagers that they actually were. With the transformation came more smiles and laughs and more fun…until the volleyball met an untimely end with a sharp acacia thorn, popped and slowly deflated with a whimper.

We all shook hands and patted each other on the backs. They picked up their spears, clubs and knives and with a wave, headed off back into the bush whistling and chatting.

It was a cross-cultural experience of the finest order. There was no bartering for souvenirs, no begging for pens or money, no requests for photographs and no patronising or hostility. We were simply eight guys from four different countries all engaged in fun for fun’s sake. All of us, perhaps for the first time, realised that regardless of surroundings, appearance, occupation or culture, we were basically all the same…and none of us would ever be a threat to David Beckham!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 7

24 07 2008


Lake Natron, Tanzania


“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

Maya Angelou


Photo by: Allen Bollands Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Peril In The Long Grass

24 04 2008


A room with a view

I am fluently bilingual in Canadian and English. I know that a lorry is a truck, that a lift is an elevator, football is soccer and that lemonade is lemon juice and not fizzy soda. It only becomes confusing when crisps are chips, chips are French fries, French fries can be crispy but crisps can’t be French Fries.


My grasp of Swahili is considerably less robust, however. I know the usual pleasantries and I’m proud to proclaim that I understood what hakuna matata meant even before “The Lion King”. Over time, I’ve learned numbers and the Swahili names for some of the wildlife encountered on safari.  But I’m certainly not bilingual and that never particularly concerned me until one June evening.


We were camping in the middle of Kenya’s Masai Mara. The savannah rolled as far as the eye could see, interrupted only by rocky hills and clusters of acacia trees. From our campsite we could see elephants, giraffe and antelope all with the naked eye and separated from us by….absolutely nothing. There were no fences, walls, moats or fields of land mines. If a pride of lions wanted to visit us to borrow a cup of sugar or exchange e-mail addresses, they could. The only thing protecting us from a jolly good mauling were a couple of Maasai asgaris, or guards, armed with spears, knives and a few thousand years’ worth of genetic nous.


Each evening, we sat by the campfire chatting about the day’s sightings or listening to the wonderful sounds of the African bush. All was good until it came time to go to bed.


Being in an area of the reserve filled with predators, chargers, stompers, biters and gorers, we had been advised that we couldn’t walk around unescorted after dark. Instead, when time came to head to our tents we would be accompanied by a Maasai warrior. If we had to go somewhere during the night we had to blow a whistle and someone would assist us. All rather reassuring when you’re protected only by thin canvas.


Our asgari led the way. Spear in one hand, flashlight in the other, we traipsed through the darkness towards our tent. Just as we arrived he hissed for us to stop, and hurriedly whispered something to us in Maa, and then again in Swahili, all the while crouching and gesticulating at the bushes and grass directly in front of the tent.  We cowered behind him trying to see what he was indicating and racking my brain to try and translate the word ‘komba’. I knew it wasn’t lion, buffalo, leopard or elephant, but beyond that I just couldn’t determine what was about to leap from the bushes and tear us limb from limb.


Finally, the viscious komba threat apparently over and our asgari frustrated at being unable to tell us what horrific death he’d just bravely prevented, he led us back to the campfire and a stack of reference books. He thumbed through one, stopped at a colour plate and handed it over.


The picture was of a small squirrel-sized teddy bear with enormous dark eyes, fluffy ears and a long curly tail that was wrapped around a small tree.


“Komba” he said. “Bush baby”.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008