Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 8

20 11 2008

“Okay now, everybody take a deep breath…then blow….”  (Sossussvlei, Namibia)

Some balloon flights are full of hot air.


We watched the enormous glowing beacon of colour take shape and slowly rise from the desert floor in the pre-dawn darkness. The balloon flight was to take us over the ancient Namib desert and the mighty Sossussvlei dunes that tower hundreds of metres into the arid sky.  We were to coast silently over the flowing sands and experience a new perspective of the dramatic landscape we had previously only explored on foot and by vehicle. Barring coastal fog, we might also see the Skeleton Coast and Atlantic Ocean beyond.


With the sun splintering along the horizon, we climbed into the enormous basket. The burner roared, the lines connecting us to terra firma were severed and we lifted into the still air. We soon reached our optimal altitude and, opening a flap in the canopy to release some of the hot air, we levelled off and sat silently well above the desert.


As far as our eyes could see stretched the ambers, ochres and tans of the Namib. There was little evidence of humanity beyond the few park service buildings, our campsite and a road or two all directly beneath us. Those apart, there was nothing but endless desert. The peaks of the mighty dunes we had struggled to climb the previous evening rose from the floor into a rolling tide of sand that seemed to threaten to engulf all in its path. I snapped a few shots and eagerly longed for us to drift directly over their majesty.


Alas, there was no drifting. In fact, there was no movement at all. The air was as perfectly still as the night had been a short while earlier. There wasn’t so much as a whisper of a breeze and consequently not so much as a sway of movement. The pilot leaned over the side of the basket as if to see if we were still anchored.


“Let’s climb and find a current” he said hopefully.  Donning his protective gloves he opened the burner, singeing our scalps and deafening us.  Up we rose in a perfectly vertical trajectory gaining not so much as an inch in any other direction.


“Not much wind today” he said unnecessarily as we all gazed at him desperately. “We’ll try descending.” With that, he opened one of the flaps and we slowly lost altitude, again perfectly vertically as if sliding down a pole.


The support vehicle that was to follow and collect us at the end of our flight was still parked directly below. The engine was turned off, the doors were open, the driver looked asleep.


The view was impressive, but gently rotating above a 4WD in a barren patch of sand when towering sand dunes were but a heavy-breath away was more than a little frustrating. Our cameras were by now idle. Once the basket had done its first 360-degree turn, there was not a lot left to capture. The sun was climbing higher in the sky and it was getting warmer and warmer. In the close confines of the basket the pilot attempted to avoid our glares.


Eventually, after the promised minimum flight time, we slid back down the pole to the ground beneath, significantly less exhilarated than any of us had anticipated.  We despondently stepped from the basket and strolled over to the luxury breakfast table that had been set up just to the side. The same breakfast table that should have been in the middle of nowhere, hidden amongst the dunes, accessible only by valiant 4WD and romantic balloon. Instead, we sat near the shade of a shower block and a few telegraph wires and watched the occasional vehicle drive past.


We cracked the champagne and half-heartedly cheered our pogo-flight while digging into our gourmet mini sausages and scrambled eggs.


“Hmmm”, the pilot muttered as the corner of his napkin fluttered, “…a breeze.”



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan


Travel Photography 101 13/18

12 09 2008

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

A feet of photographic genius                           (Sossussvlei, Namibia)


All the greatest artists completed self-portraits.

We all like to have photographs of ourselves during our travels, but for those of us who often travel alone, we generally end up with only a couple of self-portraits taken at arm’s length and which distort your face and leave you with a bleached and flattened nose! If you don’t trust strangers with your camera and can’t be bothered to set yours up properly with a timer, with a bit of creativity you can still get good photos of yourself even when alone.  Try snapping a well-focused reflection of yourself in a mirror, shop window or a reflective surface. Photograph only your shadow or perhaps your feet against a unique or distinct background. Think outside the box…you may just like the view.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Beware The Midday Sun

10 09 2008

“Where’s the surf, man?”                  (Sossussvlei, Namibia)

Although I wouldn’t spurn the opportunity to live somewhere perpetually warm and sunny, I really do enjoy the change of seasons. After a long sticky summer, those first, fresh, softly-lit autumnal mornings are a most welcome change. I am still as excited as ever by the first flakes of snow that drift past the window and instantly dissolve on the pane, and by the annual novelty of the inaugural major storm. By spring, I enthusiastically embrace the rejuvenating rains that wash away the grey of late winter, but it is those first days of summer when the early morning is brighter than winter’s noon that are most exciting of all.


Whether bitterly cold or furiously hot, weather conditions are always a challenge but it is intense heat that is often the most dangerous for travellers.


The greatest heat I have ever experienced was in Abu Simbel in southern Egypt. Although still morning, even in the shade the thermometer read 52 celsius, but it was also intensely humid due to the close proximity of Lake Nasser. The sun was relentless, the air turgid and difficult to ingest and the water in our bottles was soon as warm as tea. In Namibia, my deodorant stick melted into an oozing cream while in the Zambezi Valley, the small thermometer clipped onto my backpack exploded, sending microscopic spheres of mercury throughout my tent.   


Heat and sunstroke can not only spoil a holiday but they can also take lives. We all know to wear hats and light clothing and drink plenty of fluids, but sometimes we get distracted, especially on vacation. When surrounded by wondrous sights and enthralled by new experiences, it’s far too easy to forget to drink or to linger too long in the sun and end up thoroughly lobstered…even if you’re a medical professional.


I was once in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe on an overland truck. My fellow travellers were a mixed group from 8 different countries ranging in age from early 20s to late 50s and included artists, veterinarians, accountants, students and retirees. Late one afternoon, I found an Australian nurse in our group sprawled on a Thermarest mattress in the shade of our vehicle surrounded by several other travellers. She was a sickly white and looked extremely ill. Every few moments she strained to roll over and dry retch on the ground. Her speech was barely audible and the others were desperately trying to coax her to drink water, but each time the bottle reached her lips, she convulsed with sickness.


A recent medical graduate among us returned to the truck. He instructed the others to run a cold bath in the shower block. He prepared a makeshift ‘electrolyte’ of water, salt and sugar to replenish the minerals lost during the day. The woman was carried to the bath and cold, wet cloths were placed on her head. Drop by drop, the doctor managed to get her to drink his concoction and over the course of the night, she recovered.


The whole group was rather subdued by the experience. We all believed we were taking the proper precautions to avoid following in her footsteps but also admitted to occasionally being a little lax, especially on eventful days. The fact that it was the nurse in our group who’d been felled was particularly sobering.


Our travelling companion fully recovered, but her bout had deprived her of enjoying 4 or 5 days of her trip. Had it not been for her new friends and the good fortune of having a doctor on our truck, it could have been infinitely worse.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan