The Dark Side of Safaris

6 04 2009


Oy you, lion…you distract them and I’ll grab the boiled eggs…” (Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania)


African parks are inherently dangerous, and that’s not just the abundance of flammable khaki polyester and suspiciously tacky safari hats. Sartorial inelegance aside, it’s the close proximity of wild and dangerous animals that’s obviously part of the great appeal for many visitors.


Even before arrival, travellers are warned of the dangers that lurk in the wild places. With rare exceptions, it’s never permitted to get out of vehicles in national parks. Private lodges tell guests not to leave their rooms until ‘collected’ by an armed guide the next morning. Tented camps give visitors bells to call spear-toting askaris to escort them around after dark…and overland trips just advise their clients to run really quickly. But is all that precaution and fear actually warranted or is it just to give visitors a greater sense of adventure?


Like much of life, activities in Africa fall into three categories: generally safe, outlandishly dangerous and calculatedly risky. Most safaris qualify as safe with the occasional dash of calculated risk and perhaps the odd – but always memorable – soupcon of unanticipated downright danger. In a world of snakes and crocodiles, predators and pachyderms, attack sometimes comes from the least expected of places, however.


Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater is truly one of the natural Wonders of the World. A massive volcanic crater, it offers visitors a self-contained Garden of Eden with forests, lakes and abundant wildlife. A half-day game drive often provides more wildlife viewing than several days in most other parks, and all set against the spectacular backdrop of the crater walls. Once your Landcruiser has made its precarious way down, you’re told not to venture outside except at one picnic spot. When you start spotting rhinos, elephants and prides of lions, you understand why.


The picnic site is a picturesque spot thoughtfully equipped with tables. Vehicles gather, visitors stretch their legs, and lunches packed earlier in the day are retrieved. At first, everyone’s a little edgy realising there’s nothing separating them from the game they’d previously been watching and photographing. But gradually, they relax and nibble.


It’s when you relax that you are at your most vulnerable.


The first attack came moments after the sandwiches were unwrapped. There was a scream from the other side of the clearing and everyone jumped to their feet, expecting to see a victim dragged into the tall grass. Someone was faintly whimpering and holding their head. The commotion died down. Shortly afterwards there was a second, louder scream, and a man was seen diving for a safari van. A ripple of fear ran through the panicked picnickers.


The third scream sent the Pringles flying. Clearly, we were under attack by an as-yet unidentified menace. And then the sky darkened and our enemy revealed itself.


The black kite loomed menacingly out of the blue sky, talons extended, sharp beak gleaming in the sun. It swooped down before arcing skyward just inches above our ducking heads. Again and again the large birds of prey descended attempting to steal bananas, sandwiches, Twiglets and Twinkies. A guide raced around shouting for food to be hidden and heads kept down. Gaggles of tourists dashed for minivans all the while dive-bombed by hungry wheeling and soaring raptors.


“Beware!” the guide shouted, “They’ve been known to slice open scalps with their beaks,” he explained as he leapt for cover beneath a picnic bench.


The big birds continued their attack. Some visitors threw their sandwiches away like offerings to the Gods, while others fought the good fight and continued to eat, grabbing a bite in between each air raid. It was like being besieged by seagulls…only armed with machetes and hedge-clippers!


Once the food was gone, the birds disappeared into thin air as quickly as they’d arrived, although eagle-eyes claimed they were seen lurking in tree tops eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next bounty of boiled eggs and unwary picnickers.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Mild, Isn’t It?

2 02 2009



“I daid, my node id froden”                   (Niagara Falls, Ontario)


My nostril hairs froze on the way to work the other morning. It’s not the first time this has happened – in fact, it happens several times each winter – but it is always a source of frosty bemusement. Although I don’t know at which precise point of centigrade the fringe curtain that protects my brain crystallises, I do know that it is usually accompanied by thermal underwear and general discomfort.


On the scale of chilly, nippy and bloody freezing, frozen nostril hairs rate a ‘seriously cold’.


However, what is seriously cold to me, wouldn’t be for everyone. For example, someone from Vostok, Antarctica or who works in a fish finger factory, might find a similar day to be positively balmy and regard me as a sissy…whereas someone from Fiji likely wouldn’t even leave bed.


The more you travel, the more you realise that meteorological extremes tend to be relative. Early morning in equatorial Africa often sees people heading to work wearing woolly hats and thick sweaters even though the temperature would likely be considered nice and warm by anyone from the northern hemisphere. But after only a week in the tropical heat, you too find yourself rummaging around for something heavier until the sun has returned to full-strength.


Although I like to consider myself a fairly hardy sort, I must confess that it’s only a few days before I forego morning showers in favour of afternoon ones when bush camping, or dive for the sweat pants and windbreaker around the evening campfire. The most agonisingly painful showers I can ever recall took place in early morning South Africa along the banks of the Orange River, and late evening Tanzania on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater – two places not exactly renowned for frigid temperatures. Yet, after days of sweltering heat, they were quite the ordeal and I can still remember the water and air being ‘seriously cold’.


So, next time you’re travelling somewhere exotic and you scoff at the brochure’s description of ‘cool mornings’ when you know the temperature is warmer than the average diner breakfast, give some thought to the extremes of the day and remember that ‘seriously cold’ doesn’t always have to involve nostril hairs!



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 18

2 09 2008

“I gnu you were lookin’ at me!”        (Wildebeest, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania)

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Marcel Proust



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Photography 101 5/18

27 06 2008

Confessions, musings and tips from a snap-happy wanderer.

Ngorongoro 2

Rush hour (Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania)



Use crowds for perspective


It’s nice to get a clear shot of some famous landmark without having people all over it, but sometimes crowds of tourists provide a better photo. Don’t always attempt to photograph around the crowds or go into hysterics attempting to cut them out, instead, see if incorporating them into the image actually makes it a better shot.  A snap of the Mona Lisa is never as impressive as the postcard reproductions they sell in the gift shop…but  a photograph of 300 people photographing the Mona Lisa is!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 6

23 06 2008


The lesser two-headed zebra – Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania


“Should I stay or should I go now.”


– Joe Strummer, The Clash.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 35

17 06 2008


The last photo found on the late Adventure Blogger’s camera (Ngorongoro Crater) 



“Items in the viewfinder may be closer than they appear.”



– Minolta handbook



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008



5 06 2008


What’s that lion’ in the bushes? – Chobe, Botswana

Humans are rarely satisfied. No sooner has our dinner arrived at a posh restaurant, than we’re busy ogling the food at the next table. We’re happy with our first 28” colour television only until we’ve seen the 44” flat screen that’s on sale down the road. And one week spent on a palm-fringed sun-soaked white sand beach with colourful little drinks is absolutely perfect…until we’ve met the couple who are there for two weeks.


Safaris in Africa are much the same – unless you’re only doing it to one-up your annoying next-door neighbour who spent a week braving the perils of Disney’s Animal Kingdom (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).


You finally see your first elephant. The thrill is almost as massive as the beast itself. You’re bowled-over by it’s immense size, the roughness of its hide, and the silence and grace with which it moves despite its enormous weight. You are drawn in by its huge soulful eyes and captivated by the deft manipulation of its trunk. You are mesmerised by its low gurgles and breaths, could spend the entire day watching it and regard the experience as one of the greatest of your entire life.


But moments later you want more.


You want a young calf. You want a gigantic bull elephant with huge tusks. You want a family. You want hundreds in a loose herd, traipsing across the savannah or bathing in a river. In other words, your life-fulfilling event of just moments earlier has suddenly failed to satisfy and you simply want…more!


I must somewhat ashamedly confess to a similar experience with lions. I still vividly remember seeing my first lion…two, actually:  a young brother and sister in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, lounging away the midday heat in the park’s semi-desert by reclining in the shade. It was incredibly exciting. My first pride of lions was in the Masai Mara, and my first gigantic male lion with a classic black mane was in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater. All were incredible. In fact, every lion sighting I have ever had has left me completely satisfied…so why did I want to see one savour a poor little semi-defenceless warthog in Chobe, Botswana?


An eagle-eye among us had spied the lion hidden deep in a bush. She was sprawled in a lifeless stupor, her face barely visible. We watched her for a moment until someone mentioned that a warthog was coming. We all turned to look. The little Pumba was merrily trotting along, tail ramrod straight like the pole in a bumper-car, seemingly not a care in the world. He was also heading directly for the lion.


Our initial reaction was one of fear for the poor little thing…but a darkness soon descended over our group and replaced concern with a vicious and brutal bloodlust that consumed us all…even the rampant vegetarians who had spent the previous week avoiding stepping on the grass! We watched with undisguised and unabashed hunger. The warthog continued along, an accident just waiting to happen. The lion raised its head and watched intently. The distance between the two shortened. Our breath quickened, we were willing carnage just lusting for the warthog to become a platter of sausages, ham and bacon. Soon the gap had disappeared…and the warthog was past the trouble. The lion sank back down. Although as easy as opening the door to a pizza delivery boy, it was clearly too much effort for the lion.


The little warthog had no idea how close it had come to being a light afternoon snack. In a nutshell, that little encounter had been life in Africa.


We settled back down and our game drive continued. The wanton savagery that had united us minutes earlier had suddenly divided us like an iron curtain. We avoided eye contact and remained silent, each held deep in our shame. We had seen each other in our true light and it wasn’t pretty.


The uncomfortable silence continued until we saw a kettle of vultures circling near the river.


“Cool,” someone shouted. “Perhaps there’s a kill!” and we were all back on our feet enthusiastically cheering our driver onwards in the hope of some real blood-strewn horror.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2008

Like A Bicycle Out Of Water

30 04 2008


Just lion in the sun – Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania,

Even if you gave me a VIP pass, a bucket of popcorn and a Keg o’Cola, I wouldn’t attend a 72-hour Monster Truck Marathon. I don’t have anything against that type of event, it’s just that it doesn’t appeal to me personally. Likewise I wouldn’t pay money for a yodelling contest, a squirrel taxidermy exhibition, or a llama-milking competition - not that there’s anything wrong with any of them. However, I have met plenty of travellers in places where they quite simply didn’t want to be.


Travelling is not cheap. For most of us we’re lucky if we have one vacation a year, and if it’s something very special it could well be the trip of a lifetime. Yet I once met someone in Kenya who didn’t like the heat, had no interest in wildlife and wasn’t particularly keen on Africa. He had booked the trip because he liked the sound of a safari. I initially wondered quite what he was thinking until I realised that he actually wasn’t thinking at all!


‘Tick-off Tourism’ is that strange phenomena that causes people to spend good money to travel to places in which they have little or no interest or knowledge, and often into an environment or climate that they dislike. Their sole motivation is that their next door neighbour did it last year, or that they haven’t ‘done’ the Taj Mahal, The Great Wall of China, or Jello-wrestling before.  The fact that they are not in the slightest bit interested in these places or events doesn’t even occur to them.


Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania is one of the natural wonders of the world. The 600-metre deep volcanic crater is more than 260 square kilometres in area and is home to most of the species found in East Africa including lions, rhinos, leopard and elephant. In short, it is a veritable Garden of Eden with the sharp crater walls and cloud-fringed rim providing a breath-taking backdrop to spectacular game viewing. So why did several members of our group opt to spend their time in the lodge bar at the top, rather than in a 4WD on the floor of the crater?


I am a wildlife nut. I could spend all day watching a herd of elephants and I once allowed myself to be eaten alive by mosquitoes and black fly just to spot a black bear, but I fully appreciate that I might be quite odd! However, to travel halfway around the world to Tanzania, spend days travelling over very rough and dusty roads through one-zebra towns, endure cold showers and warm beer and then reach Ngorongoro Crater and spend your one day there sipping drinks by the pool because you discovered that you didn’t really like wildlife as much as you thought, strikes me as being, well, rather a shame.


Travel can be enlightening, awakening, educating or just plain entertaining but it should always be enjoyable. This is especially true for adventure travel. Conduct research before you travel. Chat to someone who’s been before, read first-hand accounts of other’s experiences and find out what the destination is really like.  Study the climate, the conditions and the infrastructure.


If you plan with your head as well as your heart you are guaranteed to have the experience of a lifetime.  If not, you might have just spent your life-savings on the most expensive gin and tonic in the world!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008