A to Z of Adventure Travel: X is for Xai-Xai

26 06 2009

 

Dhow 2 mw

 

Xai-Xai, Mozambique is a bustling town on the banks of the Limpopo River, just 12 kilometres from Praia do Xai-Xai and its massive coral reef. Although this long, sweeping beach and its safe waters have been popular with tourists since Mozambique re-emerged onto the international scene after years of brutal civil war, like much of the country it is blissfully free of mass tourism and commercialism.

 

After almost 500 years of Portuguese colonial rule, Mozambique gained its independence in 1975 but fell into civil war just two years later. It was only in 1992 that the fighting ended and the country began to rebuild itself from the devastating violence. With little infrastructure for its own citizens let alone international visitors, only the most intrepid of travellers ventured to Mozambique during its early years. The one exception to this being some of the country’s islands located in the Indian Ocean along its pristine coastline which quickly attracted visitors looking for world class fishing, snorkelling and diving.

 

Located in south-east Africa and bordered by South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi amongst other countries, Mozambique is not a country to visit in search of wildlife. Much of the game the country had was destroyed or migrated to neighbouring countries during the independence struggle and civil war that followed. However, the advent of peace and the recent opening of the Transfrontier Peace Park which spans Mozambique and its neighbours has seen a steady and healthy increase in game. Although still not on a par with other southern African countries, Mozambique’s advantage is the lack of tourists who visit the country and the unique experiences that this still-emerging country offers to visitors.

 

Mozambique’s greatest draw is undoubtedly its coastline, however.  The country offers some of the most beautiful, pristine and picturesque coastline in Africa or indeed the world. Unspoiled by mass tourism, the coast still offers many idyllic resorts, usually small and luxurious rather than enormous and overblown. Think thatched roofs, hammocks in the sea breeze and excellent food. For those on a tighter budget there is far simpler accommodation that is still clean, safe and inexpensive enough to suit anyone’s budget. Regardless of the style of travel, the crystal clear waters offer superb snorkelling and scuba diving on the reefs, swimming or sea kayaking. There are lazy cruises on traditional dhows, or simply beach-flopping on the wide uncrowded stretches of sand.

 

Perhaps not the best destination for a first visit to Africa, Mozambique is a great extension to a longer tour or the perfect place for a second visit. If you have a sense of adventure, want to be amongst the first to explore a rebounding nation…or crave unspoiled beaches and crystal clear water, have a cool drink on the soft sand of Praia do Xai-Xai.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Piece of Cake!

22 06 2009

 

Serengeti campfire mw

 

 

At age 12 I attempted to bake muffins. In the process, I managed to get flour throughout the entire house, slipped on a splodge of butter on the floor, and burned both thumbs on the oven rack. However, the wonderful aroma of baking wafted everywhere and when the timer rang and I withdrew the evidence of my efforts…well, let’s just say that it was the first and last time I attempted baking – except for one idle afternoon in a distant campsite.

 

African camp cooks are phenomenal. Give them a campfire and two large pots, and they’ll produce anything. No microwave oven or Lagostina…just two pots and a stack of firewood and off they go. Stews, soups and curries are obvious, but I’ve had a full Sunday roast with very respectable roast potatoes that would be the envy of highly-rated pubs! I’ve had spaghetti bolognaise executed perfectly al dente. I’ve even had superb fish and chips…you try deep-frying potatoes over a campfire! The possibilities are endless and their skills limitless. I’m not quite so blessed.

 

It was a lazy day on a long overland haul and a fellow traveller and I decided to bake a chocolate cake, as one does in the wilds of Africa! Neither of us had ever made a cake before. In fact, I think my muffins were probably the extent of our combined baking skills. Still, there was no lack of enthusiasm. We gathered together flour, cocoa powder, UHT milk, sugar, eggs and an oddly-hued margarine. We had no idea of quantities but just kept mixing until the colour and consistency looked vaguely familiar. We scooped our brew into a large metal pot and stood it on the fire. Then we went and wrote diaries and washed socks.

 

Several hours later we returned and removed the lid. The concoction looked just as when we’d finished our laborious mixing: a thick, gooey, brown mess. It did smell good, however. We added some wood to the fire and replaced the lid. The day wore on and our cake remained a congealed pudding. One by one our travel mates returned from their wanderings and asked what we were doing.

 

“Baking a cake!” we exclaimed proudly.

 

The announcement created great excitement and soon the entire group was impatiently awaiting our culinary masterpiece.

 

With light fading and dinner long since served, we moved the pot onto the grass. Our companions crowded around eager for the first glimpse of our mound of nirvana. The lid was removed and once the steam had cleared we peered in…to see the same semi-liquid congealed pudding gurgling back.

 

Our camp cook casually strolled over and looked into the pot, picked it up and put it back on the fire. He put the lid back on and then covered that with smoldering embers from the fire. He glanced at his watch before walking away. One hour later he returned. With supreme confidence he placed a stack of plastic bowls on the table along with forks. He removed the pot from the fire and, holding the lid firmly in place, flipped it over. Carefully removing the pot, sitting elegantly on top of the flat metal lid was our cake. Not the prettiest in the world, but mouthwatering to those of us who had been anticipating it all day.

 

We shyly accepted the group’s gratitude and congratulations but knew that if it wasn’t for the assistance of our professional, we would instead all be scooping spoonfuls of ooey-gooey sweet brown stuff!

 

But at least this time I hadn’t burned my thumbs!

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





A to Z of Adventure Travel: V is for Victoria Falls

12 06 2009

 Vic Falls aerial mw

 

There are lots of spots around the world that have been dubbed ‘Adventure Capitals’ either for the activities available or the rugged wilderness that surround them. The adventure capital of the world is arguably Queenstown, New Zealand. The adventure capital of Australia would be Cairns. And the adventure capital of Africa is definitely Victoria Falls.

 

Not only are the Falls one of the natural wonders of the world, but the area is one of the finest adrenalin capitals and even if you venture there solely for the sights, it’s difficult not to be lured into at least one unforgettable activity!

  

Victoria Falls sits on the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia. In past years, the centre of the tourist trade was most definitely the town of Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwean side, but due to recent political unrest and economic problems, much of that has shifted to Livingstone, Zambia.

 

The Falls themselves are every bit as magnificent as any photograph suggests. During the rainy season, the cascade of water over the steep precipice is positively breathtaking – if you can actually see it through the billowing clouds of drenching mist. In the dry season, the flood is reduced to a comparable trickle, but this not only allows a less-wet viewing experience but also provides a look at the chiselled rock cliffs that stretch almost as far as the eye can see. Even veterans of Niagara or Angel Falls can’t help but be impressed by Mosi-au-Tunya, or ‘The Smoke That Thunders’, as it is called by the locals.

 

For many visitors, Victoria Falls’ most captivating feature might well be its relative lack of commercialisation. There are no enormous skyscraper hotels towering above it and no neon-strewn casinos crowding its edges. Instead, there is bush stretching in every direction and only the most basic of paths and most rickety of fences preventing visitors from tumbling over the edge and into the frothing maelstrom.

 

This modest development has ensured that the area is still healthy with wildlife and the even the town centre has its baboons, watrthogs, birdlife and occasional stray elephant. Lion tracks are sometimes seen in the early morning in the soft sand that lines the paved road and pedestrians are warned to watch out for buffalo…all this within sight of hotels and curio stands.

 

The two most famous of Victoria Falls’ adventure activities are the whitewater rafting on the Zambezi – regarded as the best one-day rafting in the world – and the 111 metre bungee-jump from the bridge that spans the chasm, both within view of the Falls. However, there are also helicopter and microlight flights over the Falls and surrounding river and bush, sunset boat trips above the drop and game drives in the neighbouring parks and wild areas. You can embark on horseback or elephant back safaris, or take a walk with unleashed domesticated lions. There are night game drives in open-back 4WDs and guided hikes with armed rangers.

 

Both Victoria Falls and Livingstone have international airports and can also be reached overland by vehicle or train from larger centres – if you have the time and spirit of adventure. Both sides of the river offer basic campsites, budget hostels, deluxe riverbank tented safari camps and luxury hotel accommodation.

 

Most visitors today tend to use Zambia as their base and sadly often never venture across the border to its neighbour. Although not immune to the turmoil that has plagued Zimbabwe in recent years, the town of Victoria Falls has remained an island largely isolated from the political violence…if not the rampant inflation and basic shortages.

 

Victoria Falls provides something for everyone from the magnificence of the Falls themselves to wildlife and adventure.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





The Great Lake Robbery

4 06 2009

Naivasha

                   “I have this strange craving for a salad…”     (Lake Naivasha, Kenya)

Being a city boy subjected to constant noise, I relish the near that comes in the wilderness. There’s a magic to hearing nothing more than the rustle of trees and the trill of cicadas or crickets or of staring at the heavens and catching a glimpse of infinity. It’s that escape from the constant sensory assault of everyday life that’s always one of the most rewarding aspects of travel, but sometimes the things that go bump in the night tend to go bump in a way that put even cities to shame!

 Lake Naivasha is a serene spot in the Great Rift Valley. With a comfortable climate and the blue waters of the lake as a backdrop, Naivasha became a popular spot with Kenya’s Happy Valley white settlers. The lake’s shorelines are filled with swaying reeds while the lapping waters gently nudge at moored boats and rickety wooden jetties. Hippos wallow from the heat and come ashore to dine on the grasses at night. The surrounding plains are full of antelope and gazelles while the trees are filled with colobus monkeys and hundreds of colourful birds. Naivasha is a delicious escape from the heat and dust of safari.

After dinner and a campfire chat, we retired for the night. We were pitched on a large tree-shaded lawn with the lake at one end and farmland on either side. Serenaded by snorting hippos, I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.

The noise began just after 2am. I awoke with a violent start to the sound of a man shouting. He was very agitated and closeby. I lay on my back staring into the darkness of my tent. The shouting continued and was soon accompanied by shrill blasts on a whistle…and then more shouts. I could hear people running and soon the performance escalated into an absolute cacophony as though the world had exploded. Vehicles started racing around, their horns blasting.

Clearly, we were under siege.

Lying flat on my stomach I inched towards my tent flap and silently undid the zipper. I was about to poke out my head when pounding feet raced through our campsite and around our tents chased by more shouts. The vehicles continued to roar around, the shouts and whistles and footfalls increased. I quietly dressed and once again edged to the flaps and poked out my head.

All was silent. Everything was dark. I eased myself out and, staying low to the ground, continued my survey. Even in the eerie half-light of a waxing moon, everything was still. There was no sign of the earlier turmoil and drama. Confused, I used the opportunity to visit the toilets, carefully watching as I went…but still nothing. After completing my inspection I returned to my tent and fell fast asleep.

The next morning we all gathered for breakfast and the obvious topic of conversation was the night’s entertainment. Our guide joined us over a mug of hot tea.

“Asparagus thieves,” he explained as though it was the most normal event in the world. “The night watchman on the farm saw someone in the fields and blew his whistle. All the pickers raced out to protect their livelihood. They chased them with the farm truck and they ran off through our campsite.”

“Happens all the time.”

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





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





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





A to Z of Adventure Travel: O is for Overlanding

23 04 2009

namibia-camp-mw

“Yes, and I expect the lobster bisque to be delivered to my tent with the chilled Dom.” (Namib Desert) 

 

Thirty years ago, it was popular to quit your job, buy a second-hand Landrover in London, pack a sleeping bag, tent, pots and pans, an atlas, spare tyre, a pair of sandals and a few mates and drive to Kathmandu. When the journey was complete, the Landrover would be sold to similar wandering souls in Nepal who’d then make the reverse journey back to London. Once in the UK, these inveterate travellers would realise that an office job just didn’t hold much appeal after spending 6 months or several years driving across the world on 25 cents per day, and they’d start Overland companies. This would allow them to take truckloads of similarly-minded but less-independent souls on journeys through Asia, the Middle East, Africa or South America…and get paid for it.

 

Overlanding still exists today although the old 30mph ex-army Bedford trucks that were the mainstay of such trips for decades have been replaced with custom-built Mercedes with docking stations for iPods, re-chargers for laptops, and mini-fridges for beer and gourmet tofu. However, the sense of adventure still remains the same.

 

An Overland truck is a self-contained eco-system. Held within are long-range fuel tanks that permit trips to remote and often inaccessible areas; water containers; storage units for tinned food and other staples; modern camping equipment; spare parts and bits of equipment for tricky terrain like sandmats, hooks and winches. Although water, bread and fresh produce are picked-up along the way, the self-sufficiency of the onboard stores allow overland vehicles to head well off the beaten path and explore areas of the world previously only available to unemployed people with Landrovers!

 

Although good value for money, this ability to explore without being a world famous explorer isn’t for everyone. There are usually 18-20 on a truck and everyone is required to assist with the chores. Whether preparing the food, shopping in the markets, doing the dishes, collecting the water or starting the fire, everyone has a duty that rarely occupies more than a few minutes of any day. Overlanding attracts all ages from early 20s to adventurous retirees in their late 60s and everyone from students to engineers, doctors and bank managers. It’s not unusual to find 7 or 8 different nationalities on any trip, women often narrowly outnumber men and singles usually outnumber couples. In fact, overlanding is probably the best mode of travel for adventurous single travellers.

 

In most destinations, overland trips spend the entire tour camping. This keeps the cost down and also allows for greater wanderings away from tarred roads and civilisation. Camping itself can also be separated into two categories: camping, using organised sites often with bathroom facilities and sometimes a bar or even swimming pool, and bush camping, which entails turning off the road and stopping wherever your travels find you. No bathrooms, no bars, no swimming pools, just untouched wilderness and perfect solitude.

 

In some cases, however, smaller budget accommodation is used either for convenience, weather or reasons of security usually paid for from a kitty or local payment fund. Regardless of where you lay your head at night however, the truck quickly becomes your home and the travelling companions often become life-long friends. It’s hard not to experience the wonders that overlanding provides and not form an unbreakable bond with your new mates.

 

Overland companies usually require that you bring nothing more than a sleeping bag, a sense of adventure and an appetite for the unexpected. But whether venturing through Africa, South America, Asia or the Middle East and travelling for 2 weeks or 8 months, they are guaranteed to provide the experience of a lifetime.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009