Amex For Visa?

20 04 2009



If a pot of gold fell from the heavens and landed at my feet, I might well splurge on a beautiful plantation house cooled by gentle sea breezes and blessed with a shaded hammock, flowering bushes, frolicking dolphins and a lifelong supply of English breakfast sausages. Given the general shortage of dolphins and plantations, I’d probably have to emigrate – but with pockets jangling with doubloons, I’m sure there’d be no shortage of countries welcoming me with open arms…if not sausages.


Many countries would be overrun if ever they threw open their doors to the world, but these are often the easiest ones to visit. It’s the ones in which life is so rough that the longest queues are for people fleeing to neighbouring refugee camps that can be the most difficult to enter!


Zaire likely never appeared on lists of the Best Places in the World to Live and certainly by the late ‘90s it wasn’t on the cover of Conde Nast. With war raging in the east and a dictator for whom the term ‘Kleptocracy’ was coined in recognition of his style of government, Zaire wasn’t exactly flavour of the month…but it was home to mountain gorillas. With flights booked, it only remained to obtain a visa – but how difficult could it be to visit such a country? Surely, they’d love any visitors not carrying AK-47s!


I phoned the embassy only to find the number out of service. More rummaging revealed a second address but the outcome was the same. Beginning to doubt the wisdom of sending my passport to an embassy possibly trying to avoid bill collectors, I resorted to a visa servicing company. They sent me the current forms and promised to hand-deliver the passport to the drifting embassy and return again to collect it. It seemed like a bargain even when factoring in their fee.


The package arrived and I carefully reviewed the requirements. The form was intimidating enough, but they also wanted half-a dozen passport photos, a not unsubstantial sum of money…and letters from my employer and bank manager. Apparently, Zaire was concerned that once I visited their country I would never leave. Therefore, they wanted proof that I had a job to return to and enough money to support myself for my 3 days in a country in which the average person earned less than one hundred dollars per year.


I’ll be the first to admit there have been vacations from which I never wished to return, but they usually involved sun-soaked tropical paradises – not Central African war zones. Perhaps if I was a diamond smuggler or a coltan dealer, Zaire might have been a tempting place to stay, but strangely enough I’ve always been a bit of a sissy when it comes to violent anarchy and rampant corruption.


Forms completed and letters acquired, I shipped off my passport and a wad of cash (in small denomination unmarked bills). A short while later I was asked to clarify a few points and re-submit my form. Weeks ticked by. Eventually, my paperwork arrived. When I later stood in the dust and neglect of the Uganda/Zaire border, the immigration official seemed surprised and disappointed that I already had my visa.


“Was this difficult to get?” he asked, holding the page up to the sunlight.


I nodded in the affirmative.


“You should have just bought it from me, friend…I do you a deal.”



Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan © 2009

Disappearing Destinations

5 01 2009



Snows of Mount Kenya – Africa’s second highest mountain.


In the back of a desk drawer sits an expired passport bearing the visa and stamp for a country that does not exist. Sadly, it is not Narnia or Middle Earth, although a childhood spent hiding in my parents’ wardrobe and a pair of very hairy feet suggest that I actually have familiarity with both. Instead, it is for Zaire: a country that existed in name from 1971-1997.


Over the past 50 years, many places have disappeared. No matter how hard you look, you can’t find Upper Volta, Rhodesia, Peking, Nyasaland, Bombay, Bechuanaland, Ceylon, Dutch Guyana, Yugoslavia, Leningrad or Czechoslovakia on current maps.


While these places have only changed names or borders and may not have actually disappeared, there are unfortunately many places in the world that are at risk of existing only in memories and photographs.


Some years ago, famed author Douglas Adams wrote “Last Chance to See”, a travelogue/natural history book examining the plight of desperately-threatened species. Now, Kimberly Lisagor and Heather Hansen have contributed “Disappearing Destinations” which highlights the plight of such well-known threatened spots as the Amazon rainforests, the Maldives, glaciers, Kilimanjaro’s snowcap, Tuvalu, Timbuktu, China’s Yangtze River Valley and even Machu Picchu.


Very recently, Australian scientists announced that the Great Barrier Reef experienced less growth last year than at any other point in the past 400 years and is under very severe threat from global warming and high levels of acidity in the world’s oceans.


While we have long been aware of the threat to individual species such as whales, tigers and gorillas, for the first time in most of our lifetimes, we are seeing particular sites or entire eco-systems under threat.


Not only are we on the threshold of our very own ‘last chance to see’ with many of these epic places, but visiting them may actually help to save them. In cases where today’s threat may in part be due to past unrestricted tourism, sensible limits have in many cases been imposed and responsible tour operators created to ensure that visitors are now not only no longer part of the problem but actually part of the solution. Park fees and environmental taxes are re-invested in conservation efforts and many people who visit these endangered places often return home as their most enthusiastic supporters and greatest activists.


Like never before, we not only have a chance to see the great sights of the world, but to actually help to ensure that they are still there for future generations.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 30

6 10 2008

Housekeeping? I would like to register a complaint…   (Virunga National Park, Zaire)

Check the fine print before availing yourself of laundry services.


We had spent the day trekking the Virunga mountains in search of mountain gorillas. The thick vegetation had us crawling on all-fours through bamboo thickets, clambering over fallen trees, fighting through vines and wading in ankle-deep mud. The heavy rain that accompanied our trek back to camp at day’s end had left us thoroughly dishevelled like the exhilarated explorers we felt we were.


Gathered around the wooden hut on whose dusty floor we had slept were a group of local boys eager to sell us bottles of Coke or to pick up a few dollars in exchange for odd jobs. The interaction and enthusiasm of the local population in such a poor and troubled part of the world was vital to the survival of the mountain gorillas and the success of local tourism and conservation efforts. It was also significantly favourable to begging…not to mention that a Coke sounded pretty good at that moment.


A teenager approached and offered to wash my mud-splattered trousers for a couple of dollars. I shifted uncomfortably, not keen on the subservience that such an act would suggest but also aware that these jobs were important to the community.  


“Will they be dry by the morning?” I asked, aware that we would be trekking back to the border very early.


“Oh yes.” he replied enthusiastically. “I will hang them over the fire.” he added, gesturing to the modest crackle not far away.


Against my better judgement, I nodded my agreement and changed into the long underwear I had brought to sleep in during the cold nights at altitude. He grabbed my trousers and disappeared.


The rain increased throughout the evening and we huddled in the hut as it pounded the corrugated tin roof and dripped noisily into the deep puddles that had formed beneath the roof’s overhang.


Early the next morning I was up as the sun started to rise over the fields and hills below. I ventured outside to find the grass saturated, everything lush and low clouds hugging the trees. The remnants of the campfire smouldered tiredly giving off far more smoke than heat. My trousers were nowhere to be seen.


As I stood cleaning my teeth and gazing down towards Uganda, my new friend strolled up.


“Jambo!” he exclaimed enthusiastically. “Your trousers are over there” he said, pointing to a line strung near the fire. “They are very clean. And dry.”


I handed him the money and thanked him for his help. With a wave and a smile he strode away. 


After rolling up my sleeping bag, I headed out to retrieve my trousers. They were clean…but also most definitely wet. The line drooped from their sodden cotton weight. I pulled them down and held them in my hands. Glancing down at my long-johns, I knew I had little choice and walked behind the hut to slip them on.


They were indeed very wet and as I struggled to pull them on, also startlingly cold. They clung to my skin like a bowl of vichyssoise. I shivered and grimaced. As I knelt to tie my hiking boots, I felt them stick to me everywhere and walked like I’d just dismounted a horse. I put on my belt, filled my pockets and eagerly waited to start the trek in the hope that the rising sun and my body heat would dry them.


The wetness squelched with each step and I felt like a toddler who’d just had an accident on his first day in nursery school. It was soon apparent that they were not going to dry quickly enough for my liking. As my legs chaffed, my stride became more bow-legged until I no longer looked like someone who’d just stepped off a horse, but more like someone who was still riding one.


After a couple of hours, they were dry everywhere except for the seams and waistline. At the border awaiting immigration formalities, more boys came forward offering bottled water and Coke. I sat in the shade, asked for a Coke and was quoted four times the going rate. The boy smiled cheekily knowing he had a captive audience and no competition. Admiring his entrepreneurial spirit, I nodded my agreement and reached into my pocket to remove a few one dollar notes.


They came out soaking wet and stuck together. I carefully unfolded them and handed them across.


The boy looked at them once, shook his head, tutted and walked away.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Gorillas In My Midst…Part II

17 04 2008

Gorilla 3

“Though shalt not covet thy neighbour’s gardening gloves” is not one of the Ten Commandments, but as the pack of envious and covetous souls closed around me, I would have taken any help I could get. 


It was still dark when we awoke and stepped from our hut into the brisk, cool air of the Virunga Mountains. We divided into groups and set off through the wet grass towards the forest edge, arriving just as the sun began to warm the mists that hugged the plains and valleys below.


Threatened by war, poaching, deforestation and disease, there are barely 600 mountain gorillas left in the world. Thanks to the tireless work of local rangers and international wildlife and conservation groups, they have valiantly struggled to survive in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo against the odds. Not only do those who see the gorillas in person have the experience of a lifetime, but they also make a concrete contribution to their survival as much of the USD$500 permit fee is used to help protect the critically endangered species.


On the edge of the trees our ranger drew us to a halt. We were accompanied by two more rangers armed with automatic rifles, and a tracker with a machete whose job it was to lead us to the gorillas. He explained that we would head directly for the spot at which the gorillas had last been seen and then pick up their trail from there. Gorillas tend to stop and eat quite regularly, so with luck we would gain on them quickly, he had added.


The forest was thick, dark and already very humid. We took the most direct route to the last nesting site, our feet soon sinking ankle-deep in cloying mud. We clambered through bamboo thickets, over fallen trees and under low-hanging branches, periodically stopping to extricate ourselves from the razor grip of thorns. Sun streamed through the canopy, dappling the forest floor and highlighting the occasional flower.


Before leaving, the tour operator had provided a list of items necessary for the trip. These ranged from sleeping bag and hiking boots, to water bottle and rain jacket. What was not on the list but had been recommended by a friend, were gardening gloves, which he said were great for scrambling through the undergrowth. We stopped in a clearing to catch our breath and with my companions’ hands scratched by thorns and red from nettles, I felt like the squirrel with the last nut. As the group closed in on me, I distracted them by pointing at a butterfly and hurriedly moved on.


After almost four hours of trekking, we came to a halt. In hushed tones, the ranger told us that the gorillas were just ahead. He whispered to us to be quiet and to move slowly. We ducked through one last curtain of vines and there, scattered amongst the thick foliage was a group of perhaps six or seven gorillas. They regarded us with complete disinterest and continued to eat while gradually and effortlessly drifting through the woods.


Gorilla 2

There is something utterly indescribable about sitting mere feet from a wild mountain gorilla, separated by nothing more than shafts of sunlight. We could hear their every breath, grunt, sigh and tummy rumble; see the deep warmth of their eyes; the blue-ish black of their thick fur and feel their immense power yet great gentleness. Any initial fear I may have had melted into a healthy respect and a tremendous awe.


While most acted as though we were of no interest, one young male charged through the grass and bounded onto a low branch just in front of us. He raised his arms and pounded his chest in defiance. The rangers hissed for us to remain still – which was considerably easier said than done! He continued his display, screaming and shouting, then jumped down and charged away. The rangers laughed and smiled at their quaking mob.


All too soon, our hour with the gorillas had ended. They slowly moved deeper into the forest, dissolving into the vegetation for the last time. We sat in silence, beaming smiles at one another and feeling distinctly privileged to have been admitted to their domain. We headed back down the mountain and out of the forest just as the heavens opened again.


It had taken me a lifetime of dreaming and three years of waiting to see the gorillas. Normally, when you anticipate something for that long, it fails to live up to expectations. This had surpassed mine. Perhaps the uncertainty, determination and effort that had taken me to Zaire had increased my appreciation.


Or perhaps the experience really was just that great.


Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Gorillas In My Midst…Part I

15 04 2008

Gorilla 4

Djomba, Zaire


I like warmth and friendliness as much as the next person, but friendly Immigration people always make me nervous.


It’s not that I have an irrational fear of uniforms – although I do tend to stammer and blush even when donating money to the Salvation Army at Christmas – but I’ve long believed that any such pleasantry is the precursor to the smack of latex gloves, a cavity search and quick deportation.


When the Zairean border official greeted me sporting dark glasses, a shiny tracksuit, expensive leather shoes and lots of gold jewellery I was concerned, but when he beamed an enormous smile I knew I was in serious trouble,


We had arrived at the border post of Bunagana at dawn. Sheltering from the already blazing sun, the immigration officer stood beneath a tree beside the dusty road, cigarette in hand, a small boy polishing his shoes. He eagerly beckoned us to a hut furnished with a worn wooden desk, Bakelite telephone, battered electric fan and framed photo of President Mobutu Sese Seko. With a smile he gestured for me to sit down. He enthusiastically opened my passport and flicked through it before noting my visa with evident disappointment. Seemingly dismayed that everything was in order, he hurriedly stamped my documents and dismissed me with a wave, before turning to the next person with renewed optimism.


Outside, children gathered seeking to be our porters for the lengthy trek into the Virunga Mountains. The occasional tourists who passed through were the children’s only source of income and despite feeling uncomfortable hiring someone half our size to carry our day-packs, we soon all had hiking companions. We set off on the trek and our long line straggled through the small town, across farmers’ fields and up towards the jungle-covered mountains in the distance.


Zaire is, and was, one of the poorest nations on earth. The land previously – and now once again – known as the Congo had inspired Stanley’s “The Dark Continent” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. Whether under brutal colonial rule, subsequent corrupt dictatorships or intermittent civil war, the people had always suffered and that poverty was very apparent during our trek. Toddlers with distended stomachs waved to us from the doorways of their mud and straw huts while their parents watched shyly from the shadows. We walked on in silence, feeling a distinct guilt that we had travelled halfway around the world to indulge in a luxury that was beyond their comprehension.


By late afternoon, the final stretch of the trek ascended steep terraced fields towards the edge of the forest that marked the park boundary. We were shown to a small wooden hut built some years earlier by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and gazed back down the mountainside over the tranquil hills and fields of Uganda and Rwanda. Black clouds and dense mist rolled in from the mountains and there was soon the crack of thunder and a heavy downpour.


After a simple dinner, a park ranger visited us to explain that there were two groups of gorillas not too far away. He said that we would leave at first light and with luck would find them within four or five hours of hiking.


We spread our sleeping bags on the dusty concrete floor and bunk beds, and settled down for the night. The last paraffin lamps were extinguished and we lay in the darkness serenaded by the pounding of rain on the corrugated roof and the scampering of unseen friends on the floor around us.


To be continued…



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008