A Chip Off The Old Block

19 05 2009

Stonehenge mwIt was recently reported that two U.S. tourists have returned a small piece of Rome’s Colosseum that they chipped off 25 years ago. The fragment of stone, small enough to fit into a pocket, arrived in Italy in a package from California and was accompanied by an apology that explained they “…should have done this sooner.” The couple said that every time they looked at their little souvenir they felt guilty and realised that if every visitor chipped off a piece of the Colosseum as they had done, there would be nothing left.

I was reminded of visiting the pyramids and crouching down beside the great structures to tie my bootlaces. The shade of the massive limestone blocks provided a wonderful respite from the blazing sun and as I pulled my laces taut, I realised I was kneeling on a treasure-trove of tiny fragments of the ancient monuments that were far superior souvenirs to the mass-produced papyrus sold around the corner. It would have been easy to casually pick up a particularly appetising fragment and slip it inside my boot for transport home –until I noticed the heavily-armed Tourism and Antiquities Police officer standing a few feet away smoking a cigarette.

Even if I hadn’t spotted the machine-gun glistening in the sun and the nicotine-stained finger idly caressing the trigger, I am pleased to say that I actually wouldn’t have slipped away with a morsel of ancient Egypt. Partly out of respect for the site and future visitors, and partly out of fear for being caught with my illicit souvenir at the airport and spending 20 years in a Cairo prison. But I can appreciate the temptation and understand the Colosseum tourists’ actions – except for the bit about actually carving off a chunk: that goes beyond souvenir-collecting and headlong into sheer vandalism.

I imagine that Rome and Egypt aren’t the only places that have this problem. In fact, every famous site in the world likely has similar difficulties. It is likely only perimeter ropes, security and pangs of conscience that have prevented Stonehenge from being whittled down to a ring of miniscule stone-teeth over the years. There was a similar dilemma in Israel with the mountain-top fortress of Masada. I once read that the problem of visitors collecting rocks and pebbles from this ancient site became so great that the authorities began trucking in a load of gravel every week to top-up the ground on which the visitors walked. This not only helped preserve the site – and stopped Masada being turned from a mountain into a molehill – but also means that there are likely thousands of tourists around the world who treasure shards of rock from some anonymous southern Israeli quarry!

 

Photograph and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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Possessions or Experiences?

18 05 2009

Serengeti sunset mw

                 “Do sunsets usually growl?”                           (Serengeti sunset)

If you were given the choice between a 60” high definition plasma flat panel television with Dolby Surround Sound or a luxury two-week South African safari with private guide, which would you choose? If you said ‘both’, you are a person after my own heart. But greed aside it does raise the interesting question of whether you cherish experiences or possessions more.

Of course, there are some people out there who do have both, but we don’t like them much. For the rest of us mere mortals, if we are very lucky we might be able to pick one or the other once every 5 or 10 years. So what provides the greatest satisfaction in the short-term…and in the long-term?

I am a homebody who has the unenviable burden of also enjoying travel. I say unenviable because while some of my acquaintances are quite happy to live in a shoebox over a subway grating with 43 roommates and live on day-old birdseed in order to pool all of their money into travelling the world, I really do like a few special home comforts and lots of travelling. Alas, not being married to Donald Trump’s daughter, I usually have to pick between the exotic trip or the slab of apple-smoked cheddar.

As I get older I find that experiences seem to be gaining more and more importance. Perhaps it’s a taste of my own mortality, but when I reflect on my life the things that give me the greatest satisfaction and fondest memories are not things at all, but experiences. I rarely sit back and think to myself “Wow, I loved that triple-speed pastel-green mixer with ice-crusher”, but I do remember the first time I smelled the heady scent of eucalyptus in Australia, standing in a jungle-clearing in Costa Rica watching lava cascade from a volcano late one night or hearing a leopard prowling around my tent in Kenya. I will never forget the first glimpse I had of a wild mountain gorilla after several hours of arduous trekking, of waking to a spectacular view of the pyramids from my Giza hotel room or of a wonderful evening in a small basement jazz club in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

When I’m 80 years old, I can probably still have a pair of 2,000 watt speakers with 12-inch aluminium woofers, titanium mid-range drivers and .75 inch tweeters… but I may not have the ability to trek the Himalayan foothills, photograph Angkor Wat at sunrise or camp on the farthest reaches of the Great Wall of China.

I think for now I’ll make do with my 18” TV and continue to indulge my passion for adventure.

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009





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





Jewel Off The Nile

11 09 2008

“I’m sorry, but do you have a room with a better view?”  (The Mena House, Cairo)

I am more than happy to call a tent my home, to share a dorm room with eleven flatulent souls, to sleep on a dirt floor surrounded by unseen nimble-footed scurriers or to squat in a budget hotel so budget that water comes in a large bucket…but only when the end justifies the sleeps. If the only way to veer from the beaten track is to forgo the flat panel television, the Parisian toiletries and the lush bathrobe, then sign me up! Besides, there’s a sense of achievement and a strengthening of character that comes from filtering the brown tap water before you clean your teeth, of keeping an eye on a herd of elephants in your shaving mirror or covering yourself in wet towels to try to sleep in the broiling heat of an equatorial no-star hotel room.

 

Of course, adventure travel and the absence of ceiling geckos, one-eyed night watchmen armed with bows and arrows and mosquito-netted bunk beds are not mutually exclusive. In fact, sometimes the very essence of an adventure is not the hardship you endure but the exotic luxury you savour in the most unlikely of places.

 

As I have grown older, my lust for adventure travel hasn’t diminished in the slightest but my creaking bones do need a little pampering from time to time. When I travel now, I like to splurge on a nice hotel for my first night before moving on to more modest abodes. Nice doesn’t necessarily mean expensive or well known. Instead, I seek a refuge with history, character and perhaps a telephone in the bathroom, a brass toilet plunger and a 12,000 finger massage bed.

 

In Cairo, the Mena House fit the bill perfectly…except for the telephone, plunger and vibrating bed. Once a sumptuous private home, the Mena House is unique in that the pyramids are quite literally in its back garden. Although it has a modern wing with all the amenities you would expect, the original building oozes opulence and past privilege and is rich with enough Egyptian, Ottoman and colonial grandeur to transport you to a bygone era. In fact, I was wishing I’d packed my jodhpurs…if I actually knew what they were.

 

It was all so gentrified and evocative that I felt compelled to stroll everywhere slowly with my hands clasped behind my back, nodding reverentially to anyone I passed, and to order only gin and tonic in the bar. A pre-dinner wander through the immaculately manicured lawns of the Churchill Garden had me gazing awestruck at the pyramids which loomed over the flowering hedges. It was only the mosquitoes biting my ankles that brought me back down to earth.

 

After a blissful sleep, I pulled back the curtains to a magnificent view of the wonders of ancient Egypt bathed in morning light. It seemed heresy to turn on the television so instead I took my breakfast onto the balcony and breathlessly drank in the view as I quaffed my croissants.

 

All too soon, my indulgence was over. I dragged my dusty backpack down to reception, checked-out, and quietly whispered the name of my budget hotel to the doorman so that he could hail a taxi. He feigned ignorance of its location, but I saw his nose twitch as he passed on my request to the driver. I clambered in and he closed the door with disdain, then wiped his now-soiled white gloves on his trousers.

 

For the amount that my one night where Churchill, Conan Doyle and Waugh had stayed cost me, I could have spent a week in my rustic new accommodation with a front door that didn’t close properly and a view of an alley between two office buildings. I dropped my bag on the rickety bed, cranked on the deafening air conditioning and headed to the bathroom….to find a telephone and a tarnished brass toilet plunger.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Travel Photography 101 3/18

23 07 2008

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

Egypt1

Souvenir left by aliens.

 

  

 

The subject doesn’t have to be central…or big.

 

The subject of your photo doesn’t have to be dead centre or fill the entire frame.  In fact, it’s often far more interesting if it is doesn’t! Try putting it to one side of the frame, at the very top or very bottom of the photo – try different compositions. The Old Masters rarely put the focal point of their paintings smack-dab in the middle of the canvas. Use the sky, other buildings or the countryside to balance the picture.

 

But again…remember to focus on the subject and not the background!

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008