Breakfast of Champions

8 06 2009

Oxpecker mw

“Can’t we go somewhere else for breakfast? I always feel someone’s watching me here.” (Masai Mara)

My Mum has always said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, although we didn’t always see eye-to-eye on just what constituted a good breakfast. For the record, I see nothing wrong with twiglets and Coke.

Many travellers would certainly agree that breakfast is extremely important. It is the fuel that keeps legs pumping during sightseeing, and a great way to avoid expensive lunches – or at least eat less at mid-day. There’s also a certain magic to breakfast that’s possibly due to the excitement of anticipating what wonders the rest of the day holds in store, or of finding yourself in beautiful surroundings so far removed from a quick stale muffin devoured on a cramped subway train on your way to work.

There are many breakfasts that stick in my memory as being nigh on idyllic. Anything on a sun-dappled terrace, patio or balcony overlooking the ocean always qualifies for instant consideration as a Top Ten spot. The daily ritual of a large platter of fresh fruit and miniature oven-warm pastries in Fiji still brings a smile to my face. Daily breakfast in the garden of the Pink Baobab in Victoria Falls accompanied by the roar of the water – and a nearby fence crushed by a wayward elephant during the night – will always be remembered fondly. And for a touch of civility, who could ever challenge a vast spread of cheeses, meats, jams and croissants in a palazzo overlooking a quiet canal in Venice with enormous French windows ushering in the fresh morning air and the sound of church bells?

But the most memorable breakfast ever was simple picnic fare in Kenya’s Masai Mara.

As anyone who has ever been on safari knows, the best wildlife viewing takes place in early morning and late afternoon. The higher the sun, the lower the animals stay trying to avoid the oppressive heat and conserve their own energy. Morning game drives generally set off in the dark, just as the orange glow of dawn seeps along the horizon. At such ungodly hours, a full breakfast is generally out of the question and a simple plate of biscuits and cup of tea is more customarily followed by a hearty brunch upon return. Occasionally though, there is an opportunity for a picnic along the way. Not only does it provide sustenance to quell growling stomachs that might otherwise scare away particularly nervous wildlife, but it also provides some of the most unique and memorable breakfast spots on earth!

After several hours of exploring the Mara’s savannah and being captivated by prides of lions and herds of elephant, we pulled to a stop in the shade of a large acacia tree. The engine was turned off and a large picnic basket removed from the back of the Landcruiser and placed on the hood. From within were withdrawn foil-wrapped cold sausages and hardboiled eggs, bread and jams, bananas and pastries, juices and flasks of tea. No champagne, no gourmet omelettes – but who needed luxuries with such a view?

All around us the great African plains rolled to rocky outcrops and thickets of trees. With naked eyes we could see elephant and buffalo, giraffe and impala, zebra and Tommies. Apart from the metronomic ticking of our cooling engine, the only other sounds were the lonesome song of African mourning doves and our silent devouring of breakfast. Even now, I can still taste those cold sausages and remember the wonder of that perfect morning.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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Battle at Kruger – The Best Travel Video Ever

4 05 2009

 

Anyone who’s watched National Geographic documentaries would be forgiven for thinking that Africa is just one big soap opera of sex and violence. Turn left to spy a leopard devouring an impala in a tree, turn right to see an elephant giving birth to twins, while straight ahead a pride of lions is engaged with a clan of insurgent hyenas. While it’s usually quite easy to see some pretty stunning wildlife in most game parks, the reality is that those spectacular Discovery Channel scenes are likely the result of months and months of intense effort and hard work. However, travellers sometimes do even better than the pros!

 

One of the most moving sights I saw was a confrontation between a herd of elephant and a pride of lions over the carcass of a dead elephant (Adventure Zone – July 29, 2008). It was the sort of scene that wildlife documentary makers spend years attempting to catch without luck. I’ve seen a giraffe giving birth, lions and buffalo mating (not with each other: Africa is still a bit too old-fashioned for that) and rhino, lion and elephant sharing the same floodlit waterhole at the same time. However, I’ve also spent 4 hours driving around and around the Masai Mara and quite literally seen nothing more than a hand-full of zebra and one or time indeterminate antelopes known colloquially as ‘brown-jobbers’.

 

The bottom line is that whether you’re in the jungles of the Amazon or Borneo, the plains of East Africa or on Hollywood Boulevard, there’s no guarantee you’ll see anything…but with a good guide, plenty of patience and a lot of luck, you might just be like the guy who filmed the following video.

 

I am a wildlife documentary junkie and feel as though I’ve seen every one ever made, but this 8 minute home video from a Kruger safari is arguably the most dramatic and incredible film I have ever seen. The camera is a bit jerky and not always focused, there’s no stirring music or famous actor narrating but it’s as gripping as anything I have ever seen elsewhere – and it was shot by a regular traveler like you and me, with a hand-held digital video camera and a whole lot of luck.

 

It’s a long video but keep watching right until the end…this is awesome stuff. If I sound overly excited, I am. To paraphrase Billy Bob Thornton, I’m a bit of a hump-backed geek when it comes to these things. So, enjoy…and then empty the penny jar and book that trip to Africa you’ve always dreamed of.

 

 

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Gerald Ford Slipped Here

28 04 2009

livingstone-plaque1

“That’s nothing that flossing and a good dental hygienist can’t remove.” (Stone Town, Zanzibar)

 

On buildings all over the world there are plaques and signs commemorating famous people who were born, died, lived or sometimes just fell over therein. Some are quite fascinating, others utterly bemusing. If it’s a house in which Michelangelo sculpted, Machiavelli schemed, Casanova seduced, Beethoven composed or Hemingway wrote, they are well worth a detour and a photograph, but if it’s somewhere that Paris Hilton once lost her chihuahua, not so much. Sometimes the buildings don’t have signs and it’s only local knowledge that identifies them – like the building in the backstreets of Zanzibar where Farrokh Bulsara – later better know as Freddie Mercury – grew-up.

 

Few people plan their travels solely around these spots, but if in the neighbourhood many of us swing by for a glimpse or possibly even a visit if the building now houses a museum, no matter how modest.  However, there are some people who do follow the trails of their heroes and tour companies who make it easy to do so.

 

Of course, it would be possible to read Che Guevara’s ‘Motorcycle Diaries’, pick up a detailed Michelin map of South America, hire a motorbike, pack a sleeping bag and tent, a wad of pesos and follow the route yourself, but that’s a lot of work for the average person with two weeks annual vacation. Instead, there are companies who are more than happy to lead you on at least part of his route and show you a few iconic spots along the way. An air-conditioned minibus doesn’t quite capture the spirit of Guevara and Granado’s adventures aboard La Poderosa, but for those with a keen interest in the Argentine revolutionary, it at least gives them a taste of what he saw several decades ago.

 

There are trips that take you to spots that were inspirational for artists or poets, or that follow in the footsteps of adventurers or explorers…but not that many for famous tax collectors or politicians, possibly because tax and politics are two of the last things people like to think of when on vacation. However, there is one new one that is an exception.

 

Earlier this year the “Roots of Obama” tour was introduced in Kenya. In addition to visiting the usual sites like Nakuru National Park and the Masai Mara, the trip heads to western Kenya and its towns and markets before landing in ‘Obama land’. There are visits to Kogelo, the birthplace of Barack Obama Senior. A member of the family leads visitors through the village to discover the family’s roots and to visit the household. There’s a walk to Nyangoma to visit Senator Obama High School and all along there are tastes of the local warmth and hospitality and plenty of traditional food!

 

Even without the connection to the 44th president, this trip provides a glimpse of real Kenyan life that passes completely unnoticed for almost all visitors – even if you don’t get to see where Gerald Ford fell down.

 

 

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

                                                         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





The Fifth Great Adventure Quiz

6 11 2008

“Call me Cochabamba”                                      (Masai Mara, Kenya)

1) What is the name of the lioness made famous by Joy Adamson?

 

a) Star

b) Eva

c) Digit

d) Elsa

e) Cara

 

 

2) Giovanni Caboto was…

 

a) The real name of explorer John Cabot

b) Christopher Columbus’ navigator on the Niña

c) The first person to reach the summit of K2

d) The captain of the airship Norge which first flew to the North Pole

e) The Doge of Venice who conquered Zanzibar

 

3) Cochabamba is…

 

a)     A large Amazonian cockroach

b)     An annual music festival in California

c)     A spicy Spanish bean dish

d)     A city in central Bolivia

e)     A Mexican term of endearment for a child

 

4) Which of the following books is set in Colombia?

 

a) “Getting to Know the General” by Graham Greene

b) “The General in His Labyrinth” by Gabriel García Márquez

c) “The Night Manager” by John Le Carré

d) “Risico” by Ian Fleming

e) “Death in the Afternoon” by Ernest Hemingway

 

5) Yoruba

 

a) A mining city in Australia’s Red Centre

b) A lost city of the Aztecs

c) A West African language

d) A Tongan drink of fruit juice and milk

e) An Arabic leather pouch for carrying water

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

 

Answers: 1d, 2a, 3d, 4b, 5c – answer to yesterday’s ‘Spot The Imposter’: Vegas is on the left