To Shoot Or Not To Shoot

30 06 2009

Kutima Mulilo mw 


If I had a dollar for every great photo I’ve missed because my camera was inaccessible, I’d be travelling the world right this moment instead of sitting at my computer! After a few too many ‘ones that got away’, I bought a small point-and-shoot camera. Sometimes, however, knowing what not to photograph is even more important than knowing what to capture!


Katima Mulilo is a town in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip: a panhandle of land in the country’s north-east corner that slices between Botswana, Zambia and Angola. We had stopped for supplies during the long drive from Etosha to Chobe National Park. While our truck went for gas, the rest of us headed for the supermarket. The shopping done, we stepped outside and sat on the curb in the shade with a cold bottle of Coke and watched every day life in this sleepy, dusty corner of Africa.


Within moments, the silence was split by shouts and roaring engines and a Casspir came tearing around the corner. It slammed to a halt in front of us and police armed with sjambok whips tumbled out and ran in every direction while more vehicles arrived. The Casspir is familiar to anyone who grew up watching news coverage of the Apartheid struggle in neighbouring South Africa. These high-wheeled high-sided armoured personnel carriers raced into Townships during demonstrations, firing teargas and high-powered water from cannons or dispersing police or army riot squads. It suddenly felt as though I was in one of those news reels.


The police ran down the side streets and into stores and businesses, knocking over stalls, dragging people out and throwing them in the Casspir or other trucks. Some fled, chased by the police as they thrashed the air with their long whips, others obediently surrendered. A police officer stood atop the armoured vehicle shouting into a radio and directing his men.


Amid all the pandemonium, we remained quietly sat on the curb. We didn’t know what was going on, but thought it best to sit still and not draw attention to ourselves. Instead of attempting to walk away or even stand up, we simply slid ourselves further against the wall in an effort to remain inanimate and invisible while all hell let loose.


On my belt was my small point-and-shoot camera. I could feel it burning into my side, screaming to be unleashed and record the turmoil surrounding us. While this may not quite have been Pulitzer stuff, it certainly beat sunsets and picnic tables. I told it to be quiet…while I attempted to dissolve into the shadows.


People continued to be pushed and dragged to the vehicles and thrown inside. Some of the detainees shouted instructions to others before they were hauled away. Army-booted feet thundered past just metres away. With great relief our truck returned and stopped on the opposite side of the road. An officer strode over and had a word with our driver before leaving again. Our driver gestured for us to quickly bring the shopping and start loading it into our truck, cautioning us not to get in the way. With everyone back on board, we left the mayhem behind and headed out of town.


Our driver explained that it was a police raid for illegal immigrants or anyone without ID papers. Not only did relatively-prosperous Namibia have a problem with illegal workers from neighbouring war-ravaged Angola, but at the time there was also a very odd Caprivi secessionist movement seeking independence for the 400 x 35 kilometre sliver of land and which had attacked remote police outposts and other infrastructure. The police weren’t interested in us, he added…unless one of us had tried taking photographs.


“That wouldn’t have been good at all” he added.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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

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

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

Missed It By That Much…

4 09 2008

Robben Island, ‘home’ to Nelson Mandela for 13 years – from Table Mountain, Cape Town.

They say that timing is everything, which is probably why I have trouble keeping a beat and generally fall over when dancing…and why I missed seeing Nelson Mandela in person by just a single day.


I arrived in Entebbe, Uganda to find South African flags hanging from the lights, workers busily sweeping the streets, and posters and banners welcoming the legendary South African president to Uganda. Sadly, his arrival was just one day after I was due to be driving west for an appointment in Zaire with a family of mountain gorillas. Alas, my trekking permit was already set and there was no way for me to hang around long enough to catch a glimpse of one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.


Nelson Mandela’s name had been well known to me for as long as I could remember, although for much of my life the only photos I had seen of him had been small, grainy, old black & white pictures taken before his imprisonment. It was only when I watched live on television as he walked free from Victor Verster Prison in 1990 that he sprang from the newspapers and became a real flesh & blood person. As he progressed from being an almost mythical figurehead for the anti-Apartheid movement to a remarkable and articulate leader renowned not only for his efforts to end injustice and restore the most basic of rights but also for his compassion, forgiveness and desire for reconciliation, so he progressed for me into a genuine hero – a mantle he has maintained ever since.


I was fortunate enough to visit South Africa while he was still president. Although I unfortunately did not see him during my stay, I feel privileged to have been in his country at such an important time in its history. Likewise, I am still very grateful that I visited Russia shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union at a time when the country was still trying to find its feet and its new identity. And that I travelled through Malawi just weeks after its first ever democratic election when everyone was still celebrating their global suffrage.


Equally, I shall always be glad that I visited Cuba when Fidel Castro was still president. I will never forget flicking on the television one evening to find live coverage of one of Castro’s legendary speeches. Although I couldn’t speak Spanish, I watched it for a few minutes before changing the channel to find something else…and failing, as he was on every channel. Several hours later, I tried again, but he was still on and still going strong.


Every country has a leader, but the names and deeds of only a relative few survive the test of time and carve their places in history. Although my travels don’t revolve around revolutions or stake out state visits, I do pay attention to current events when travelling and take an interest in the political and social situations wherever I go. It not only allows those that I meet to know that I have a genuine interest in their country but it also adds an extra dimension to my own experiences.


Although I will always regret missing Mandela by a day – and missing the homecoming of the King of Buganda a few days later in the western Ugandan city of Fort Portal! – I do seek comfort in the knowledge that I did at least miss Chris de Burgh’s visit to Swakopmund, Namibia!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

There Will Be Sun

23 04 2008

Orange River

The Orange River, yellow sky, red grass 

Unfortunately, because I am not very tall I am unable to see the top of my head.  I am therefore blissfully ignorant of just how rapidly my hair is thinning…until I spend a day in the sun and see steam rising from my reddened pate in the shower the next morning.


Being of northern European extraction, I was not designed for vast quantities of sun or extreme heat. I am well accustomed to rain, not especially perturbed by gnawing damp and consider a fine mist to be, well, just fine. However, even though I love hot sunny weather, it has been known to take its toll and leave me resembling Larry the Lobster.


There is a tree in Costa Rica which the locals refer to as “The Tourist Tree”, because its bark turns bright red before peeling off. It could just as aptly be named “The Adventure Blogger Tree”:  it doesn’t seem to matter how much sun block I apply, how big the brim of my hat is or how careful I am in choosing my place to sit, I always end up somewhere between pink and puce. It’s as if the sun takes out a slide-rule and determines how best to refract off any available surface in order to burn me.


Given the decrease in the ozone layer and the rise in skin cancer, this is not something I take lightly. As my favourite trips are active ones in tropical areas, it’s always an issue for me and despite my plentiful experience with them, severe sun burns are not a lot of fun. I once embarked on a 5-hour canoeing trip on the Orange River in southern Africa. Well aware of how brutal the combination of water and tropical sun is, I wore a baseball cap and slathered myself with the highest sun block available until I look like a lard-covered turkey just before the Thanksgiving trip to the oven.


I emerged from the trip seemingly unscathed. My arms, my face, my knees…even the tops of my ears were all fine. It was only when I climbed ashore and attempted to lift the canoe from the water that I realised that I had quite possibly become the first human ever to sunburn their armpits. For comfort and ease of movement, I had worn a loose cotton t-shirt and unbeknownst to me while on the river, with each upward movement of my paddle, the sun evilly shot-down the baggy sleeves and singed my pits…stroke after stroke, hour after hour.  I spent the next few days in annoying discomfort, applying a careful concoction of aloe and deodorant to the tenderness.


Sunburns are very serious and the closer you travel to the equator, the more brutal the sun is. Even if you are not susceptible to sunburns at home, make sure you are properly prepared when you travel. Overcast days can be just as perilous as a clear blue sky, and a bad burn can not only spoil your trip, but can have considerably more serious repercussions later in life.


A nice tan is one thing, but sunburned armpits are, well, quite simply, the pits.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008