Snakes on a Plain

5 03 2009

 nile-1

      “I’m not going to say this again: it’s a tent pole, not a petrified snake!”    (The Nile, Uganda)

 

 

For many people, the mere thought of a snake is enough to prevent them from travelling to exotic places…or even eating spaghetti or licorice. However, the fact remains that Red Twizzlers aside, unless you go searching for them with a tethered mouse on a stick, your chances of actually seeing a snake even in the wildest of places are actually quite slim.

 

Although Australia has the distinction of being home to more deadly snakes than anywhere else on earth, Africa has its fair share…although most visitors would never know that after the average safari. And, not every snake is deadly. In fact, if you really want to see deadly serpents, you’re probably better off to spend the day at the local zoo rather than travel to deepest, darkest Africa.

 

We were driving from Kampala, Uganda, to Nairobi, Kenya and had stopped for a night beside the Nile near Bujagali Falls. It was a magical camping spot that overlooked the river’s lush green gorge not far from one of its first identified sources. We set up our camp and prepared dinner as the last light of the day slowly faded. With dishes done and many of the group retired for the evening, a handful of us remained around the fire, quietly chatting or writing diaries.

 

We sat on our camp stools and watched the sunset while the noise of the rapids drifted through the air. Suddenly, one of our group pointed to the ground.

 

“Look,” she exclaimed, “a snake!”

 

Our visitor slithered between the stools making a bee-line for the fire before skirting around the flames and disappearing into the darkness and trees beyond. We had all remained calmly seated and watched it cautiously with apprehensive fascination.

 

Once our friend was gone, someone collected a wildlife identification guide. They sat down and began to flick through the book while we all chipped in with our description of the snake.

 

“Hmmm,” the owner of the book exclaimed. “Here it is.” He held the book up facing towards us, a glossy page of illustrations illuminated by his head torch.

 

“Yeah, definitely” we all agreed, one by one. “What is it?”

 

“It’s a boomslang,” he announced. “One of the deadliest of all snakes. It ‘…delivers a potent hemotoxic venom through large, deeply grooved folded fangs positioned in the rear of its mouth’” he read. “The venom affects the circulatory system, destroying red blood cells and causing organ degeneration and generalized tissue damage.”

 

We all looked at each other warily, and then toward the dark trees and bushes into which the snake had disappeared.

 

“Right then,” someone announced. “I’m off to bed.” And with that the entire group got up as one and ran to our tents, quickly zipping them shut behind us.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

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A to Z of Adventure Travel: E is for Egypt

12 02 2009

philaetemple

                     “Needs a bit of work, but has potential…”              (Philae, Egypt)

 

I always like to save the best for last. Whether it’s a box of Smarties or the biggest and heaviest Christmas present, half the fun is working your way up to your favourite. So, when my two week tour of Egypt started with the pyramids I thought it would be all downhill from there. I could not have been more wrong and not only did each site surpass the previous one, but the entire country exceeded my already very high expectations!

 

Egypt seems to offer more history than the rest of the world combined. After a few days, a temple merely dating back a thousand years feels as modern as Frank Gehry’s latest creation and the vivid colours painted on a ceiling look fresher than a Cairo bus shelter.

 

Cairo is an enormous, bustling city that sprawls around the lower Nile. Apart from the glorious if somewhat faded Egyptian Museum and its awe-inspiring King Tutankhamun room, and the equally magnificent pyramids of Giza, Cairo offers wonderful markets and enough restaurants to sate a pharaoh. There are dinner cruises on the Nile, casinos and 5-star hotels – or hostels at barely $1 a night. Not only is Cairo the starting point for any Egyptian adventure, but it is also a great destination in its own right.

 

A short flight or sleeper-train ride south lies Aswan. Flanked by the rolling sands of the Sahara and the palm-fringed great expanse of the Nile, Aswan has the feel of an elegant frontier town. The Old Cataract Hotel is the setting for Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile” and a great spot for afternoon tea (when it reopens from its current renovations!), while further up river sits the tranquil site of Philae. Aswan can be the base to explore Nubian villages, to see the great Aswan High Dam or to head further south towards the Sudanese border and the truly incredible Abu Simbel on the shores of Lake Nasser. Day trips are offered by bus (leaving in the very early hours for a lengthy trek across the Sahara, returning late afternoon) or by air.

 

Egypt can be navigated by land or air, but perhaps the most romantic method is by water: the Nile. There are many cruise boats operating between Aswan and Luxor. Some offer all the facilities of a 5-star hotel including swimming pools and gourmet food while others are better suited to the budget-conscious. For the truly intrepid, try living on the deck of a traditional felucca, sailing by day zig-zagging from bank-to-bank and sleeping moored to the shore at night. Feluccas offer no luxuries – or even facilities! – but provide a lifetime of memories.

 

Edfu and Luxor keep the excitement levels high with Kom Ombo and the Temple of Karnak. An early start by boat across the Nile and then by taxi, bus or even donkey for those so inclined, takes travellers to the Valley of the Kings – home to King Tut’s tomb and those of the other pharoahs. Although the treasure now sits in museums, the thrill of visiting the tombs first re-opened by Howard Carter and his team almost a century ago is every bit as exciting as seeing the glittering gold and jewels.

 

If the desert calls you to escape the beaten path, head west to the wilderness that surrounds Siwa Oasis. Siwa town is a maze of tunnel-like alleys and sun-dried brick houses, completely untouched by time and by tourist masses. Return via the Mediterranean coast and the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria which may no longer have a lighthouse, but does have European feel with North African flavour.

 

Across the Suez Canal sits the Sinai: a rugged chunk of desert that screams out to adventure-seekers. Whether trekking with the Bedouin and sleeping in oases, or climbing Mount Sinai at dusk or dawn, the Sinai is an adventure paradise. Once you’re ready to clean the sand from your ears, head to the Red Sea for snorkelling, scuba diving, swimming…or just relaxing on a carpet of cushions with a sheesha pipe and some dates.

 

Egypt can be as economical or expensive as you wish, as adventurous or luxurious. The food will tempt and please, the history will marvel and awe, the desert will challenge and the coastline will refresh and rejuvenate. Egypt is truly one of the world’s great destinations.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





Food For Thought

18 11 2008

“What a large table!”                                   (near Aswan, Egypt)

Some of my greatest travel memories involve food. Not that I am a gourmet or even a gourmand, it’s just that a taste of local cuisine so often provides you with the best taste of the culture and life. Although we all enjoy the familiarity of comfort food from time to time when away from home, it’s when we abandon that safety that we have our best experiences.

 

In Egypt we joined a small group for a visit to a local Nubian village for a traditional dinner one evening.

 

Our small motorboat cruised up the Nile away from the bright lights of Aswan. Dogs barked as we passed small villages and young children ran to the bank to wave and shout. The stifling heat of the day was quickly dissipating and the light breeze from the water was a welcome reprieve, especially as we had all forsaken our baggy and dusty cotton sightseeing clothes for slightly-more presentable attire. After a while we stopped on the shore, climbed out and made our way up a sandy bank.

 

No sooner had we crested the top than the village came into sight. Although almost dark, much of the town was gathered around the edges of a large open area to watch a hotly contested football match. The shouts and excitement of the game were immediately lost upon entering the labyrinth of narrow alleyways that dissected the town. We wound our way along the sandy paths and through the white-washed buildings, illuminated only by the soft light from open doorways and shuttered windows. Our small group slipped through practically unseen, easing past the shadows of the villagers along the narrow alleys. The smell of cooking and the muffled sound of laughs and conversation filled the air.

 

We finally stepped into a small dimly lit courtyard surrounded by high walls, climbed a series of steps in the corner and reached a whitewashed rooftop. The sky was a black-blue and splashed with a million stars. The relief from the heat of the village was instantaneous and we quickly realised that the rooftops formed a second village full of activity and flickering light. We crossed the roof and climbed a few more steps, ducking beneath a low archway. On this second roof we came across a little old lady bundled beneath blankets in a well-worn metal-framed bed. Feeling awkward and intrusive, we averted our eyes and attempted to speed through unnoticed…but she smiled warmly as we passed.

 

“It’s cooler on the roof, so they wheel out granny’s bed every evening to help her sleep.” our guide explained.

 

We finally reached our destination. It was another whitewashed rooftop, surrounded by a low wall that overlooked the town’s terraced upper tier. The floor was covered with colourful carpets and cushions with a large silver tray and tea set in the centre. We slipped off our shoes and the home’s owner greeted us warmly. He handed us each a small glass of sweet tea and gestured for us to sit on the pillows.

 

The owner’s family brought out a wide array of bowls filled with salads and cheeses, fig-leaf wrapped rolls, rice and small samosas, flat breads and sweet pastries. The guide explained what each dish was as the family looked on proudly and happily. Shyly, we each made our way forward and collected a few items expressing our thanks as we did. The food was fresh and delicious and we soon relaxed and began devouring the wonderful feast. With the help of the guide and the children’s basic English, we chatted with the family and learned about a life so removed from our own. The family host a small group of no more than a dozen travellers once a week or so. It provides them with some extra income but perhaps more importantly it gives them an opportunity to mix with people from all over the world. Their warmth and friendliness humbled those of us who shut our front door and ignore the phone every evening and barely even recognise our neighbours at home.

 

Eventually it was time to leave. We bid our farewells and played follow-the-leader past sleeping granny and back through the maze of rooftops and alleyways. The football pitch was now deserted and pitch black and we eased down the bank to our small boat for the journey back to Aswan.

 

As we neared the city we slipped past brightly illuminated Nile cruise ships and luxury hotels and caught glimpses of their fine-dining rooms. Their guests sat in abject comfort, sipping their chilled wine and eating their gourmet food. Their stomachs may have been as full as ours, but we were all confident that memories of our dinner would still be satisfying us for years to come.

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Of Turkey, Stuffing, Feta and Feluccas!

13 10 2008

“Did you order a pizza?”                         (Felucca on the Nile, Egypt)

It is believed that one of the first Thanksiving celebrations in North America was made by explorer Martin Frobisher in 1578 in gratitude for having survived a long journey in search of a possible Northwest Passage. However, for centuries before the arrival of Europeans, various First Nations had long given thanks for a good harvest and bountiful crops. Today of course, Thanksgiving is synonymous with family, turkey, autumn colours, the onset of crisper temperatures…and a mighty feast.

 

Food remains integral to most significant events, family get-togethers, religious festivals or simple celebrations. Whether weddings, birthdays, holidays or marking the end of a fast, there’s nothing like a good spread of food especially when surrounded by friends and family…and sampling new foods is one of the great highlights of any travel.

 

For all the great meals I have had whether in the fine restaurants, jungles, beaches or the bush, it is sometimes the most simple that remain the most memorable. One of those was on a felucca on the Nile in Egypt.

 

We had chosen to spend several days sailing down the Nile from Aswan to Luxor. The felucca is a simple wooden sailing vessel that has been used since ancient times to transport goods and people along one of the world’s great rivers. The boats are small and comforts for travellers are spartan with the deck used for reclining, sightseeing, cooking, eating and sleeping. The shade of a canvas awning, occasional breezes and a bucket of river water from the Nile are the only relief from the blistering heat of the Sahara, but the rewards far outweigh any lack of luxury.

 

The feluccas zig-zag across the width of the river to catch the breezes and along the way pass remote Egyptian villages, local fishermen and children playing along the shore. We passed abandoned quarries once excavated by the ancient Egyptians to build their temples and monuments, and rarely-visited archeological sites. At night, we tied ourselves to the bank before settling down on the deck serenaded only by the gentle lapping of water on the wooden hull and the splash of jumping fish.

 

Despite the deprivations, it was idyllic and not one of us would have exchanged our spartan existance for the buffet tables, air conditioning and swimming pools of the luxury cruise ships that churned past at night.

 

It was the food that perhaps most surprised us all. The two crew would busily prepare our meals as we sailed along surrounded by the towering dunes of the desert or the minarets of rural mosques. Amid the heat, a lunch of the freshest feta cheese, mint, tomato, cucumber slices, lemon juice and a hint of olive oil was like manna even for a rabid carnivore and not only sated our hunger but left us feeling utterly refreshed and rejuvenated.

 

After several days with only the occasional dip in the Nile to wash away the cobwebs, we arrived in Luxor. Although once more graced by comfortable beds, hot showers, flush toilets and all the food choices imaginable, all of us were grateful for our wonderful days on the Nile and the simple foods upon which we feasted.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Of Mosques, Minarets and Memories

18 06 2008

Nile night

The Upper Nile.

There is nothing more evocative than the call to prayer from a mosque. Nothing transports me quicker to narrow souks, humid evenings, dusty streets or fresh mornings than the sound of a muezzin’s hypnotic voice drifting through the air. Although heard in parts of London, Sydney or Toronto, it is a sound that for me will always be synonymous with wonderful travels, great experiences, new cuisine and the silhouettes of minarets dominating a simple skyline.

 

My first exposure came in Zanzibar as I walked through the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town. The call echoed from an unseen minaret, hidden by whitewashed homes and businesses and pulsing in the gentle sea breezes. Early the following morning, the call drifted between the wooden slats of my open window shutters and through the mosquito netting that covered my rustic four-poster bed, rousing me from my sleep.

 

In Egypt, from an unseen village it eased across the Nile like a gentle mist. Our felucca was moored to the bank of the life-giving river and we had settled down for the night. The Sahara, which swept away in either direction as far as the eye could see, had surrendered the extreme heat of the day leaving a slight chill rising from the water.  We were lying on the deck in our sleeping bags, watching the moon cast its spell across the tranquil river when the muezzin’s voice suddenly rose from nowhere. We listened in silence as the water gently lapped at our wooden hull.

 

Istanbul 1

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

 

In Istanbul it competed with the rush of traffic. At street level, the minarets were hidden by skyscrapers and concrete office towers, but despite the cacophony of big city noise, the ancient call still cut through the din. Turning away from modern roads we wandered through the narrowing side streets. The sun had set and there was little light. Indistinguishable figures slipped past in the growing darkness while the call grew louder the further we ventured from the main thoroughfare. We turned a corner and a warm yellow light poured from the mosque’s doors as people hurried in for prayer. Glancing skyward, the minaret was a jet silhouette against the subtle deep blue glow of the surrounding city.

 

For the devoted, it is a call to prayer. For me, it is a call to exotic lands and rich memories.

 

 

Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008