Of Pandemics, Quarantine and Monica Bellucci

30 04 2009

 

Getting caught in a pandemic sounds pretty exciting…until it happens.

 

Our impressions of disasters often tend to be influenced by Hollywood and the idea of being caught in an outbreak of Tropical Galloping Gob Rot usually includes a nurse who looks like Monica Bellucci, a doctor like George Clooney…and a closing scene in First Class with champagne in one hand and Monica or George by our side. Reality is a little more sobering and I’m sure there aren’t many people in Mexico right now who are finding the experience particularly romantic.

 

Thankfully, I’ve never been caught in a pandemic and I hope I never am, but there was one occasion when it seemed that I might and I wasn’t really thinking of Monica or George at the time!

 

While in Africa some years ago, news filtered through of an outbreak of plague in India. Plague seems such a dark, ancient and deadly disease but according to the World Health Organisation, there are 1,000-3,000 new cases each year. Despite being treatable with antibiotics, a plague outbreak is still not a thought that warms the cockles of most hearts…especially when on the other side of the planet.

 

Although on a different continent, we felt strangely vulnerable. If the plague outbreak did become a pandemic as was being suggested, we were in the wilds of a country that could easily be ravaged and which had a poor medical infrastructure and inadequate antibiotics – and we were several days drive from the nearest airport. Admittedly we were leaping miles ahead of what little we knew of the situation, but it was difficult not to have such thoughts when passing through very poor towns inhabited by children with distended stomachs, permeated by the smell of baby vomit and open sewers and just a single flight away from India.

 

A local newspaper didn’t really help matters either. A small piece on the front page reported that suggestions had been made to restrict air travel from infected areas. If the plague crossed the Indian Ocean, would we even be allowed to travel home or would we at best be subjected to lengthy quarantine?  Another overland truck we passed had heard that the WHO and local authorities were acting quickly, but that the outbreak was not contained and there were concerns of it spreading beyond India. Tanzanian and Kenyan officials were reportedly screening people at the airports already. We had never felt so far from home or out of touch.

 

As the fragments of information slipped from the news, so the threat receded from our minds. By the time we arrived in Nairobi several weeks later, our worries seemed silly and overblown, but I will certainly never see anything romantic or exciting in pandemics, quarantine or government airlifts again…with or without Monica Bellucci!

 

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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Things That Go Bang in the Night

24 04 2009

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“I love the sound of firecrackers in the morning, it’s the sound of victory!”   (Mt. Meru, Arusha, Tanzania)

 

 

Night is always the most dangerous time in Africa. It’s when lions and leopard hunt, when hyenas and jackals forage and villagers barricade themselves and their livestock behind acacia thorn and stay safely inside their huts. It’s at night when every sound makes hearts palpitate, when campers lie in their tents wide-eyed and sleepless and when spear-toting warriors patrol campsites to fend off dangerous trespassers. But sometimes, it’s the guards themselves that cause the biggest frights.

 

Arriving back in Arusha, Tanzania after several weeks on safari, we found our campsite on the outskirts of town guarded by several soldiers in fatigues with automatic rifles. They smiled happily and raised the gate as we drove in, before resuming their posts. As there’d been no such security when we’d stayed in the same spot two weeks earlier, we couldn’t help but wonder if there’d been a coup while we were off in the wilds…or anything else similarly dramatic.

 

After setting up our tents and relishing long-awaited showers, we headed to the rustic bar for a cold beverage. It wasn’t long before someone asked the bartender what the army was doing at the gates.

 

“Someone tried to rob the campsite last week,” he explained non-chalantly, pouring from a bottle of Konyagi. “The owner heard them and came running out with a rifle. There was a scuffle and the owner and one of the robbers was shot. The police arrested the owner, but they’re worried that the robber’s friends will come back for revenge.” He shrugged and went to the other end of the bar while we stared at each other in shock.

 

“So,” someone finally said after an uncomfortable silence, “we’re staying at a campsite guarded by police in army gear carrying AK-47s in case the friends of a shot burglar come back to shoot the whole place up in revenge for their friend’s injuries???”

 

“Yeah, pretty much.”

 

“Right, I’ll have another beer.”

 

After dinner we headed for our tents expecting to be awakened by gunfire. Alas, at the usual hour the beer I had consumed to help me forget that I was sleeping in the middle of the O.K. Corral bid me to visit the toilet. I shuffled into the cool darkness and walked towards the cinder block building that was dimly lit by a single naked light blub. As I approached the building I heard a loud noise and peered nervously into the shadows.

 

There, slumped in a tyre-swing hanging from a tree was one of our police guards, fast asleep. His head lolled on his chest, he snored noisily, his rifle lay across his legs with his finger on the trigger. I tip-toed past terrified that I would make a noise and be felled by a startled burst of automatic rifle fire.

 

Safely inside, I heaved a sigh of relief. Business done, I headed to the doorway and glanced across at the swing. Our sentinel was still asleep and still snoring. Legs shaking, I held my breath, and tip-toed back past him, all the while daring not to breathe less a particularly loud exhalation suddenly woke the marksman.

 

I dived into the tent and threw myself flatly to the ground. The rest of the night passed uneventfully, but I realised that I’d sooner walk past a pride of starving lions or an amorous bull elephant in the night than again venture past a sleeping, possibly trigger-happy policeman with a machine-gun!

 

 

Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan © 2009 





A to Z of Adventure Travel: M is for Malawi

9 04 2009

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“If we hide here long enough, perhaps Angelina Jolie will find us first.”  (Nyika Plateau)

 

Until Madonna started visiting orphanages there, Malawi was relatively unknown to many people. This small South-east African country is bordered by Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia and offers some of the most picturesque scenery in southern Africa.

 

Although not a great destination for the Big Five, Malawi is a wonderful addition to any classic safari or for anyone seeking somewhere a little different. The country’s most popular attraction is Lake Malawi, a crystal clear freshwater lake that teems with tropical fish and is lined by pristine beaches, unspoiled wilderness, small villages, farmers’ fields and a few rustic lodges and luxurious resorts. Although not as safe as the government sometimes like to suggest thanks largely to the presence of bilharzia, Lake Nyasa as it is also known is still a perfect place to fish, relax and swim. Resting on the shoreline at sunset, sipping a cool drink and listening to the haunting call of African fish eagles is just about as good as Africa gets!

 

To the country’s north sits Nyika Plateau, a beautiful montane highland plateau that’s more reminiscent of Scotland or northern Europe than Africa. At over 2,000 metres altitude, the park offers great hiking and horseback riding amid rolling plains and thick forests. Immortalised by Laurens van der Post’s classic “Venture to the Interior”, the park has likely changed little since the great South African author visited more than half a century ago. Although looking like Europe, the plateau is home to plenty of wildlife including hyena, zebra, roan and eland and one of the highest populations of leopard in all of central Africa. Sitting around a campfire in a pine forest clearing on a cool evening and hearing the ‘sawing’ sound of a leopard is a surreal yet unforgettable African experience. Nyika offers few amenities so trips need to be properly planned.

 

Although not exactly a shopper’s paradise, Malawi is famed its wooden carvings that include small tables with interlocking legs carved from a single piece of wood and intricately detailed chairs. Although often also found in neighbouring countries, Malawi offers the highest quality – and best prices – and it’s often possible to purchase them in small markets from the actual artisan who made them.

 

Amongst Africa’s least developed countries, Malawi has a limited tourist infrastructure but no shortage of warmth and friendliness for those who visit this beautiful and largely undiscovered country.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





The Dark Side of Safaris

6 04 2009

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Oy you, lion…you distract them and I’ll grab the boiled eggs…” (Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania)

 

African parks are inherently dangerous, and that’s not just the abundance of flammable khaki polyester and suspiciously tacky safari hats. Sartorial inelegance aside, it’s the close proximity of wild and dangerous animals that’s obviously part of the great appeal for many visitors.

 

Even before arrival, travellers are warned of the dangers that lurk in the wild places. With rare exceptions, it’s never permitted to get out of vehicles in national parks. Private lodges tell guests not to leave their rooms until ‘collected’ by an armed guide the next morning. Tented camps give visitors bells to call spear-toting askaris to escort them around after dark…and overland trips just advise their clients to run really quickly. But is all that precaution and fear actually warranted or is it just to give visitors a greater sense of adventure?

 

Like much of life, activities in Africa fall into three categories: generally safe, outlandishly dangerous and calculatedly risky. Most safaris qualify as safe with the occasional dash of calculated risk and perhaps the odd – but always memorable – soupcon of unanticipated downright danger. In a world of snakes and crocodiles, predators and pachyderms, attack sometimes comes from the least expected of places, however.

 

Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater is truly one of the natural Wonders of the World. A massive volcanic crater, it offers visitors a self-contained Garden of Eden with forests, lakes and abundant wildlife. A half-day game drive often provides more wildlife viewing than several days in most other parks, and all set against the spectacular backdrop of the crater walls. Once your Landcruiser has made its precarious way down, you’re told not to venture outside except at one picnic spot. When you start spotting rhinos, elephants and prides of lions, you understand why.

 

The picnic site is a picturesque spot thoughtfully equipped with tables. Vehicles gather, visitors stretch their legs, and lunches packed earlier in the day are retrieved. At first, everyone’s a little edgy realising there’s nothing separating them from the game they’d previously been watching and photographing. But gradually, they relax and nibble.

 

It’s when you relax that you are at your most vulnerable.

 

The first attack came moments after the sandwiches were unwrapped. There was a scream from the other side of the clearing and everyone jumped to their feet, expecting to see a victim dragged into the tall grass. Someone was faintly whimpering and holding their head. The commotion died down. Shortly afterwards there was a second, louder scream, and a man was seen diving for a safari van. A ripple of fear ran through the panicked picnickers.

 

The third scream sent the Pringles flying. Clearly, we were under attack by an as-yet unidentified menace. And then the sky darkened and our enemy revealed itself.

 

The black kite loomed menacingly out of the blue sky, talons extended, sharp beak gleaming in the sun. It swooped down before arcing skyward just inches above our ducking heads. Again and again the large birds of prey descended attempting to steal bananas, sandwiches, Twiglets and Twinkies. A guide raced around shouting for food to be hidden and heads kept down. Gaggles of tourists dashed for minivans all the while dive-bombed by hungry wheeling and soaring raptors.

 

“Beware!” the guide shouted, “They’ve been known to slice open scalps with their beaks,” he explained as he leapt for cover beneath a picnic bench.

 

The big birds continued their attack. Some visitors threw their sandwiches away like offerings to the Gods, while others fought the good fight and continued to eat, grabbing a bite in between each air raid. It was like being besieged by seagulls…only armed with machetes and hedge-clippers!

 

Once the food was gone, the birds disappeared into thin air as quickly as they’d arrived, although eagle-eyes claimed they were seen lurking in tree tops eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next bounty of boiled eggs and unwary picnickers.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Feeling The Heat

10 02 2009

 

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                                                         Bushfire, Northern Territory, Australia

 

Although all natural and man-made disasters are frightening, watching the news from southern Australia this week reminded me of how I find wildfires particularly terrifying. They are extremely destructive, quite unpredictable and move very quickly. Their smoke and ash can block out the sun and travel thousands of miles. They can destroy entire towns, claim hundreds of lives and even the most sophisticated and abundant of resources struggle to contain them.

 

Since time began, people have conducted controlled burns to help contain the risk of wildfires. These managed fires also help eradicate disease-carrying insects and clear the land ready for new growth. Sadly, as population centres have grown and technology progressed, so we have lost touch with the land, too rarely conduct controlled burns and now pay the price with sweeping bush, forest and grass fires.

 

Thankfully, I have never been caught in a wildfire. I have seen amber clouds of smoke from massive forest fires in Manitoba hundreds of miles away; I have rafted past raging grassfires in the Zambezi Valley and felt the heat stinging my face, and I have seen modest bushfires in Australia singeing the Outback. But only once have I ever truly felt in danger.

 

The Maasai still regularly conduct controlled burns in Kenya and Tanzania. Although their ageless experience is better than any computer programme, occasionally even they fall victim to natural elements.

 

The glow of their fires first appeared shortly after sunset one evening as we sat around our own campfire in the Masai Mara. It was a faint line of orange in the distance, seemingly suspended in mid-air against the jet-black sky. By the following morning, the flames had been rendered invisible by the brightness of the sun, but the whispy grey smoke signalled their continued existence. Later that evening, the line was longer, the flames brighter and it was apparent that the fire was drawing closer.

 

We were assured we were separated from the bushfire by a dry riverbed that it wouldn’t cross, but the scent of smoke the next morning couldn’t help but leave an uneasy feeling as we set off on a day’s game viewing. Amid herds of elephant, prides of lions and a family of cheetahs, the fire was forgotten…until we returned to camp at dusk. Although not yet fully dark, the fury of the fire was already evident.

 

Before going to sleep, we packed our bags and readied our clothes and boots for a quick exit. The glow of the fire was visible through the tent canvas and the distant crackling clear in the still night air. Sleep proved elusive as we feared a late-night call to evacuate and run for the Landrovers.

 

By dawn, the hills were blackened and smoke lingered like morning mist, but the flames had either burned themselves out or moved on. Our game drive headed in that direction and we saw the area apocalyptically charred, the tufts of grass that somehow survived in a sea of black, the trees that were but ebony skeletons and the snakes that were still fleeing the hot ground.

 

Remarkably, the dry riverbed had indeed contained the burn just as our guides and the Maasai knew it would. There were a few, small, black patches on the opposite side but nothing that mattered. Within weeks, we were told, there would be fresh green buds and life would begin anew. Shortly, the game would return and the Maasai would bring in their cattle.

 

And perhaps most importantly, the risk of a devastating and uncontrollable wildfire had been reduced.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Mild, Isn’t It?

2 02 2009

 

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“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





Travel Photography 101 17.5/18

28 11 2008

Confessions, tips and musings from snap-happy wanderers.

Maasai elder                                   (near the Masai Mara, Kenya)

Never leave anything but a good impression.

 

Amongst my favourite photographers are Yousuf Karsh, Lord Snowdon and Jack Cardiff who, while taking great portraits have been able to capture so much more than someone’s mere appearance or facial features. On so many occasions, these great artists have been able to capture their subjects’ personalities and character – no mean feat when wielding a camera.

 

Travelling always brings us into contact with so many fascinating people who we will never forget. Whether fellow travellers or people we meet along the way, it is so often the people that stay in our memories even longer than the sights or experiences. Photographing the local people is, in my opinion, significantly more difficult than snapping wildlife, buildings or scenery but it’s well worth the effort. However, if attempting to photograph those you meet on your travels always remember to be respectful and seek their permission, be warm and friendly and thank them afterwards and never photograph children without first asking a parent or guardian. While many cultures do not like having their photographs taken at all, none of us ever like having a camera shoved in our face by a complete stranger.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan