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

Of tour guides and car park attendants

19 06 2009


It was recently widely reported that a car park attendant at Bristol Zoo in the west of England never missed a day’s work. He was there from morning ‘til night, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. He was one of those unsung local heroes who, come rain or shine, cheerily welcomed visitors as he collected £1 for cars and £5 for motor coaches. Several weeks ago the gentleman failed to arrive at work. It was the first day he’d missed in 25 years. The zoo were concerned and called the city council to see if he was okay and to ask that a replacement be sent. The council replied that they had no idea what the zoo was talking about as the car park wasn’t their responsibility. It quickly became apparent that he was neither working for the zoo or for the council but had been diligently collecting at least £300 every day for a quarter of a century…and was likely now retired to a palatial seafront villa in southern Spain surrounded by a coterie of grape-peeling senoritas.Botanical Garden mw


The story reminded me of a visit to Uganda. Entebbe sits on the shores of Lake Victoria thirty miles from the capital Kampala. There’s not much there except for the airport, the lake and the Botanical Gardens. Early one morning with little else to do, I set off to visit the gardens. After entering with a friend, a small boy on a bicycle came alongside. He asked where we were from and slowly pushed his bike as he walked with us. He told us his name and asked about life in our countries. We followed the winding paths through thickets of bamboo, forests, flowering bushes and the reed-filled lakeshore. A beautiful bird flew past and we asked him what it was, he said it was a crowned crane. We nodded and thanked him even though it clearly wasn’t the national bird of Uganda. We pointed to some monkeys in the treetops and asked what type they were. He replied “Monkeys”. Similarly, a nearby blossoming bush with a beautiful scent was “flowers” and a tree with bright yellow bark was…”a tree”. We stopped asking questions. After accompanying us for our grand tour, we arrived back at the entrance and readied to say good-bye. He extended his hand…palm up.


“For the tour.” he explained with a straight face. “I was your official tour guide. I have to pay a fee to the park.”


“But we didn’t ask for a tour guide.” we explained. “We thought you were just walking with us.”


“I was working.” he added, seriously.


My friend and I gave him a few Ugandan shillings each. The young entrepreneur inspected our payment, nodded, jumped on his bike and pedalled away, and is likely now in Spain with the car park attendant. Except…


In the course of researching this blog, I discovered a very sad footnote to the Bristol Zoo story. A few days after the report was first published more information came to light about the fate of the hardworking car park attendant. After the story generated interest all over the world, an intrepid local journalist attempted to track down the subject and ended up with a story of almost unimaginable tragedy. After following the most vague of leads and using his finest investigative skills, he was devastated to learn that the story wasn’t true. It is simply an urban myth…but as of tomorrow I am ‘working’ in the car park down the street!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Holidays in the Danger Zone

11 05 2009

 Virunga Rangers mw

                 (Trekking for gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo)

Afghanistan and Iraq don’t feature on many lists of Top Vacation Destinations for 2009. While both countries genuinely have a lot to offer visitors from archeological and historical sites to natural beauty, even if peace burst forth tomorrow and rainbows and doves shot from the ground, it would likely be quite a few years before ‘The Amazing Race’ played an over of cricket in Kabul on a Fast Forward or we saw “Survivor: Euphrates.” However, it wouldn’t be long at all before adventure travellers started to flock to the two newly ‘re-opened’ countries.


Real travellers tend to have fairly short memories of major conflicts and problems – or perhaps that recent infamy makes such destinations all that much more appealing. One minute we’re looking at disturbing photographs and reading horrific accounts of brutality and the next we’re packing our Lonely Planet guides and boarding flights to go there on holiday.


It wasn’t so long ago that the last places in the world anyone would ever visit on holiday were Northern Ireland, El Salvador and Rwanda, yet all do a pretty healthy trade in tourism now. Croatia has been one of Europe’s hottest destinations for several years, quite unimaginable just 20 years ago when some of its most beautiful and historic sites were being destroyed by shelling. Cambodia was famed for Pol Pot and the Killing Fields, Uganda for Idi Amin and mass slaughter and Nicaragua for the Sandinistas and Contras, yet now the first two are amongst the most popular adventure destinations and the latter offers all-inclusive beach resorts for those seeking somewhere new and different.


Algeria and Sudan are re-appearing in some overland and specialist itineraries and companies are already sending small groups into Angola as a precursor to re-opening the southern African country to tourism for the first time in many decades.


Some travellers seek out these until-recently hot-spots because of a life-long interest or a family connection, because they’ve been everywhere else or due to the cache that comes with being the first person on the block to have been there. But of all the reasons to be amongst the first travellers back is the reception you get visiting a country after a bleak period.


What these intrepid travellers sacrifice in comfort, t-shirts, postcards or basic infrastructure they more than make up for in the friendliness, warmth – and even gratitude – of the local people. The welcome is genuine and the cynicism and frustration that mass tourism so often creates is still years away. Entire generations have grown up without ever meeting a traveller who’s not wearing fatigues, a blue helmet or handing out food. Although it may take them only a few years to tire of the camera-wielding, polyester sporting masses, the reappearance of the traveller is a sign of normality and success. It’s proof positive of the country’s re-emergence from its darkness and its re-entrance into the real world.


So, although I’m not sure I’ll be jumping the queue to join the next Mosul Mosaic or Colourful Kandahar tours, Angola 4X4 sounds pretty good to me!



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

The Last King of Scotland

14 04 2009


        “Och, I’m looking for the Idi Amin tartan, please.”  (Market day, western Uganda)



It is said that lazy foreign correspondents gauge a country’s mood by chatting with taxi drivers. Given that taxi drivers spend almost as much time chatting with locals as bartenders and barbers, their feelings probably are somewhat of a barometer of a nation’s opinions and it’s an easy trap in which to fall.


I must confess that I’ve probably learned more about world affairs from taxi drivers than from CNN Bureau Chiefs. An Eritrean driver in Toronto taught me all about that country’s brutal independence struggle against Ethiopia, while an Iranian in Melbourne related what it was like to be a westernised bank manager in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. But as fascinating as those conversations were, probably the single most memorable of all came in Uganda.


Kampala’s international airport is located on the shores of Lake Victoria in nearby Entebbe. To any student of history, Entebbe is synonymous with a 1976 act of terrorism when a hijacked Air France Airbus was directed there after sympathetic Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada promised safety to its Palestinian and German hijackers. After several days during which all non-Jewish hostages were released, Israel launched a daring commando raid and safely rescued almost all the hostages.


It was early morning when my aircraft swept in over the impossibly blue lake. I strolled into a new terminal building but as my taxi drove away, we passed the old building now overgrown, falling apart and still pockmarked by the raid’s bullets. When my head swivelled to get a better look, the cabbie noticed my interest.


“Over there is the plane,” he said, his eyes making contact with mine in the rear-view mirror. The Air France livery was sun-bleached to nothing, and the aircraft had been picked-apart to remove anything of use or value. The area around it was overgrown with weeds and grass but it seemingly sat as an unintended monument to one of the world’s most famous acts of terrorism…and to an infamous Ugandan dictator.


Even before Giles Foden’s novel and Oscar-winning movie “The Last King of Scotland”, Idi Amin’s name was synonymous with a blood-thirsty – if slightly buffoonish – dictator. Amin rose to power in a coup in 1971 and soon reaped a reign of terror that included human rights abuses, political repression, murder and war. Amnesty International estimated he was responsible for as many as 500,000 Ugandan deaths while former colleagues claimed he indulged in cannibalism. By the time of his death in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003, Amin’s place in history as one of the world’s most feared tyrants was complete.


My driver tutted as we drove past.


“I wish we had him now,” he muttered quietly.


“Amin?” I asked, trying not to let my incredulity show at his confessed support for a man that most of the world still considers a monster.


“Yes, Amin” he said. “We wouldn’t have the problems that we’ve got now. There was law and order here. People had jobs. We were powerful. Now we have terrorists in the north and AIDS everywhere. It wouldn’t have happened under Amin.”


For once I was at a loss for words and quietly stared at the passing scenery. Perhaps a tabloid journalist would have reported that Uganda “longs for return of strong man”, but during the following weeks I spent in the East African country, his was the lone voice of support I heard.


Most likely, he was not alone but just like the London taxi driver who believed that Milli Vanilli were musical geniuses who were framed, he was certainly in the minority.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Tracking Chimpanzees

2 04 2009


Sure Jane Goodall has the books and the fame, but where would she be without me?”


The scientific journal “Current Biology” recently reported the case of a male chimpanzee stockpiling weapons for attacks on visitors. Santino was recorded calmly making projectiles from bits of his concrete enclosure and hiding them before the Stockholm zoo opened. Hours later, he hurled them at visitors in what is one of the few cases of an animal planning for future events – and one of the reasons that tracking chimpanzees in the forests of Africa can be more of a challenge than tracking their considerably larger gorilla brethren!


There are only a handful of places in which it’s possible to track wild chimpanzees. Although rangers have been habituating lowland and mountain gorillas for several decades, efforts to view chimpanzees in their natural habitat are far more recent.


The Kibale Forest in western Uganda was amongst the first to accustom chimpanzees to small groups of visitors…although when I visited, the project was still in its infancy and the chimps were less than cooperative or hospitable.


It was almost an hour of trekking before our ranger spotted a chimpanzee at the very top of a tree. It was little more than a black smudge, but given that none of us was particularly confident of seeing one at all, we were thrilled. We edged closer until we had our best possible view, and then hoisted cameras and binoculars to watch one of humankind’s closest relatives.


It wasn’t long before the chimp was aware of our presence and began to scream its protest of our trespass. Although we were certainly no threat, this was one cantankerous chimp and she definitely hadn’t baked a cake for her visitors. Her irate screams echoed through the forest like Tarzan’s Cheeta deprived of red M&Ms in his trailer. From some distance away other chimps answered.


“We won’t stay long” our guide explained. “We don’t want to distress her too much, and we also don’t want to alarm the rest of the group.”


Unlike most other primates, chimpanzees are omnivores and aggressively hunt down monkeys and even small antelope. The guide said he’d seen a gang of chimpanzees sweep through the trees in pursuit of colobus moneys, surrounding and attacking the smaller primates and eating them. Attacks on humans are certainly not unknown as well, especially when they feel threatened.


“Would you rather face an irate silverback gorilla or a group of angry chimps?” one of our group asked the guide as we all craned our necks skyward.


“Gorillas, definitely. Although they can and do attack, it’s easier to avoid a confrontation with a gorilla…and it’s unlikely that a gorilla would attack to kill. If a group of chimpanzees attacked it would almost be like a feeding frenzy. They’re very excitable.”


We watched the chimpanzee for a while, the screams and shouts echoing wildly through the thick forest. Other chimps continued to answer although they didn’t appear to be coming any closer…which made the attack that followed all that much more surprising.


“Ow” someone shouted, stomping their feet hard on the ground. Within moments someone else shouted and hopped and then everyone began performing an unhappy jig.


“Ants!! They’re everywhere!”


The trail beneath us teeming with thousands of tiny ants which were now boiling over our feet and up our legs. Although we were all wearing hiking bots and most of us had our trouser legs tucked into our socks, the tiny little menaces were savaging us.


Each bite was like a pin-prick of fire. The chimpanzee forgotten, we began swatting desperately at the ants on our legs and moving quickly away from their swarming path. We yanked our trousers legs out and began to individually extract each ant, all the while contending with their continuous feasting. The bites were surprisingly painful and just when we thought we had removed them all, another would start biting.


Stumbling out of the forest we reached a patch of grass and hurriedly removed our boots and socks and began thoroughly inspecting them for ants. Despite our diligent efforts, they were still everywhere…and still biting. Eventually, the feasting over, we relaxed in the warm sunshine.


“See, I told you tracking chimps was dangerous!” some wise guy exclaimed.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan

Snakes on a Plain

5 03 2009


      “I’m not going to say this again: it’s a tent pole, not a petrified snake!”    (The Nile, Uganda)



For many people, the mere thought of a snake is enough to prevent them from travelling to exotic places…or even eating spaghetti or licorice. However, the fact remains that Red Twizzlers aside, unless you go searching for them with a tethered mouse on a stick, your chances of actually seeing a snake even in the wildest of places are actually quite slim.


Although Australia has the distinction of being home to more deadly snakes than anywhere else on earth, Africa has its fair share…although most visitors would never know that after the average safari. And, not every snake is deadly. In fact, if you really want to see deadly serpents, you’re probably better off to spend the day at the local zoo rather than travel to deepest, darkest Africa.


We were driving from Kampala, Uganda, to Nairobi, Kenya and had stopped for a night beside the Nile near Bujagali Falls. It was a magical camping spot that overlooked the river’s lush green gorge not far from one of its first identified sources. We set up our camp and prepared dinner as the last light of the day slowly faded. With dishes done and many of the group retired for the evening, a handful of us remained around the fire, quietly chatting or writing diaries.


We sat on our camp stools and watched the sunset while the noise of the rapids drifted through the air. Suddenly, one of our group pointed to the ground.


“Look,” she exclaimed, “a snake!”


Our visitor slithered between the stools making a bee-line for the fire before skirting around the flames and disappearing into the darkness and trees beyond. We had all remained calmly seated and watched it cautiously with apprehensive fascination.


Once our friend was gone, someone collected a wildlife identification guide. They sat down and began to flick through the book while we all chipped in with our description of the snake.


“Hmmm,” the owner of the book exclaimed. “Here it is.” He held the book up facing towards us, a glossy page of illustrations illuminated by his head torch.


“Yeah, definitely” we all agreed, one by one. “What is it?”


“It’s a boomslang,” he announced. “One of the deadliest of all snakes. It ‘…delivers a potent hemotoxic venom through large, deeply grooved folded fangs positioned in the rear of its mouth’” he read. “The venom affects the circulatory system, destroying red blood cells and causing organ degeneration and generalized tissue damage.”


We all looked at each other warily, and then toward the dark trees and bushes into which the snake had disappeared.


“Right then,” someone announced. “I’m off to bed.” And with that the entire group got up as one and ran to our tents, quickly zipping them shut behind us.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Hippo Hoedown

24 02 2009



“For the sixth time, I don’t do hedges or rose bushes, okay?” (Kazinga Channel, Uganda)


It was a dark and stormy night…no, really!


Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda stretches from Lake George to Lake Albert along the Kazinga Channel and offers wonderful scenery, excellent wildlife and one of the highest hippo populations in all of Africa.


We had set up our tents on a clear patch of grass not far from the water. After dinner, we headed up the hill to a lodge with a panoramic view of the channel. Lightning flashed in the distance and thunder rolled across the lake. The sky quickly changed from the gentle hues of sunset to boiling black clouds and within minutes torrential rain swept across the lodge’s immaculate lawns and lashed at the colonial verandas. We sat in the bar and watched the maelstrom outside, wondering how our tents were fairing in the deluge. As quickly as it had arrived, the storm swept away and we were left with only the gentle sound of drips from the eaves.


Cocktails over, we headed back down the hill towards our sodden campsite. Most tents were fine, with only one or two blown over and lying forlornly on the saturated ground. Earlier in the day we had washed clothes and hung them on laundry lines strung between our tents. These were now scattered around the campsite or hanging limply from the lines. We re-pegged them hoping they would dry overnight.


Before we retired, a ranger told us to be very careful during the night. Located as close to the channel as we were, hippos would likely emerge from the water and graze around our tents. If we got up, we should quietly open our tent flaps, stick our heads out and have a good look around before coming out, he instructed. Hippos were extremely aggressive and could easily outrun a human. He also added that we should not use flashlights because if we startled a hippo, it would definitely charge. With those happy notes ringing through our heads, we climbed into our canvas cocoons and settled down for the night.


Several hours later I awoke to the unmistakable sound of hippo snorts, grunts and an extremely large animal munching on the grass nearby. It was hard to know how close the self-propelled lawnmowers were, but they were close enough that I had no desire to take a look. Staring upwards, I could hear every breath and exhalation…along with constant munching. It was only then that I remembered the clothes line strung between the tents and suddenly envisioned a short-sighted masticating hippo bumbling into one, becoming alarmed and angrily charging off towards the river…dragging the tents and their occupants with them. In the darkness, my imagination grew and I could picture other hippos joining in the rampage and the occupants of the tents being pummelled like chicken breasts in a bag of seasoned flour. Sleep was now impossible. I listened intently to every sound and longed to hear my nearest grazer move away.


Eventually, the coast seemed clear. I quietly eased out of my sleeping bag and edged down the tent. Lying prone on the ground, I silently opened the zip and slid my head out at grass level. With baited breath I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I could hear hippos but not see any. I crawled free of the tent and crouched just in front of the flaps. I peered around the sides, but all was still clear. I tip-toed between the two tents and peered around the back…still clear. I eased up, undid the clothes line, turned around and edged back towards the entrance.


I could still hear the hippos but not see any…I hoped they couldn’t see me either. A shiver of relief went down my spine as I climbed back in and closed the zip behind me. In my sleeping bag, exhausted from stress, I slid back into unconsciousness.


Safe in my untethered world, the hippos now serenaded me to sleep…until my bladder suddenly woke up and demanded that I take it for a walk. I reluctantly started the climb back down the tent.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 26

27 11 2008

“Dear Diary, Day 4: Fell off my stool again…”         (Mgahinga, Uganda)



“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

Oscar Wilde





Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan