Misguided Everywhere and Anywhere: Whereby a seasoned traveller learns the hard(ish) way, you can’t believe everything they tell you.
Stories and illustrations by Simon Vaughan | Senior Editor, Outpost Travel Media
My travels have taken me far and wide, and almost everywhere I’ve ventured I have encountered wonderful people more than happy to go out of their way to help a wayward visitor. In an attempt to return their kindness, whenever I see someone struggling with a map at home, no matter how busy I am I will invariably try to assist with directions. If they ask me a question and I don’t know the answer, I will make something up. After all, they will likely never see me again and it could be months before they find out that I was, well, so creative.
As wonderfully philanthropic as this is, I suspect I am not the only one who helps others like this. In fact, I have often found tour guides and hotel staff who seem to share my selfless devotion to others. Like the guide in Chile who, when asked why flamingos stand on one leg, said it was so they can use the other leg to kick themselves free should a flash-freeze ever trap them. Not sure why flamingos in tropical places take this precaution, but I have no doubt it’s true.
In Cuba, I met an equally kindly host at a small resort who addressed the question of dangers on the island nation.
“Oh, it’s very safe,” he replied with a beaming smile. “You don’t have to worry about anything in Cuba. There’s no crime, no malaria, and we don’t even have snakes.”
I thought it a little odd that a large tropical island filled with forest-clad mountains, thick jungle and mangrove swamps would have no snakes, but it was possible that St. Patrick, having rid Ireland of all of its snakes in the fifth century, might have then come to Cuba on holiday.
A few minutes later, as we strolled across a patch of scrub grass towards the beach, a snake slithered out from beneath a bush. It stopped and looked at us agape, likely surprised because its own serpentine holiday-host had told it that Cuba was free of humans.
The Red Sea is touted as among the best dive spots in the world. The water is warm, the weather is consistently good, and the sea’s gentle currents stir up little sediment, thereby leaving the water crystal clear. When you add all of that to the beautiful and historic surroundings—not to mention the opportunity to eat fantastic hummus, falafel or kofta—you end up with some great diving. From Eilat in Israel to Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt, and even Yanbu in Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea really is a diver’s dream.
Having spent a couple of weeks touring the hot and dusty sights of ancient Egypt, it was nice to finally reach the Sinai and dip my toes in the beautiful water. A few miles north of Dahab we bumped down a dirt track and arrived at a little encampment on its shores. The water was a vivid blue, in stark contrast to the sepia scenery of the surrounding desert, and the shoreline was dotted with large open tents each with pillows strewn on the floor, shisha pipes in the corner, urns boiling sweet Arabic tea, and coolers filled with soft drinks and water.
As the divemaster was handing out snorkels and flippers, someone asked if there was anything we should be worried about.
“No, no,” he replied emphatically. “There is nothing dangerous at all in the Red Sea, OK? No sharks. No snakes. Nothing.”
He led us along a walkway that crossed a reef, before entering the water down a wooden ladder. We swam through the clear waters, mesmerized by brilliant fish and spectacularly colourful reefs glinting in diffused rays of sunlight. Our swim took us out over the edge of the famed 130-metre-deep Blue Hole, the reef disappearing into a seemingly bottomless indigo void below.
When the time came to return, we gently propelled ourselves toward the wooden ladder. I was casually treading water, waiting for a new group of arrivals to clear the way and enter the sea, when a sudden wave pushed me toward the steep wall of coral to which the ladder was attached. I extended my hand, fingers outstretched to prevent myself from colliding with the jagged rock face, when I suddenly felt a piercing pain in my index finger. It was an intense sensation and I instantly knew I’d been bitten or stung by something. I snapped back my hand and saw two perfect punctures near the fingertip, now bleeding.
I clambered up the ladder and headed back across the wooden walkway, the pain throbbing through my wounded digit and disconcertingly working its way up my hand. “Uh, I think I’ve been stung by something,” I said to our guide, trying not to unduly alarm anyone.
He went pale, grabbed me by my good arm and ran me toward the divemaster’s tent. A young Australian woman in our group came along to see what the commotion was all about. Upon seeing the symmetrical pricks on my finger, she turned an even whiter shade of pale and screamed out: “It’s a sea snake: you’re gonna die!”
Now, if there’s one thing Aussies know it’s throwing shrimps on the barbie. But if there’s a second thing they know, it’s snakes. Australia being home to at least five of the 10 most deadly snakes in the world, they all grow up with a healthy respect for the coldblooded killers, and therefore, somewhat sadly, I assumed my fellow traveller was likely to know more than our divemaster, and that I was indeed about to shuffle off my mortal coil.
The divemaster plonked me down on the cushions in his tent and looked at my hand, while the Aussie whimpered quietly in the background. He inspected my finger with a rather grave countenance and withdrew a dive knife from its sheath, the enormous razor-sharp metal blade gleaming in the afternoon sun. I was tempted to faint but figured not only was that not terribly manly, but that it would be a silly waste of some of my last few precious moments on Earth.
Instead I gazed forward stoically, searching for the Pearly Gates. Putting down the knife, he reached for a small glass which he filled with some vinegar and boiling water from a kettle. It wasn’t exactly my idea of the perfect last meal, but I appreciated his hospitality and pursed the trembling lips that surrounded my now parched mouth. He grabbed my finger and before I could utter so much as a “Just a moment, my good man!” he thrust it into the tea glass.
Pain is a funny thing. We may use the word agony to describe a toothache that kept us awake all night, or a kidney stone that sent us rushing to the hospital, or having to spend eight hours listening to the entire “Best Of” collection of our least favourite recording star.
The pain of my lethal sea-snake bite had been verging on agony and was certainly enough to make my eyes water, my knees wobble and possibly even produce a bead or two of perspiration along my hairline. The sensation from having that same finger then plunged into boiling water and vinegar was similarly unpleasant, and my efforts to ponder and analyze the subtle differences between the two torments was interrupted only by my desire to quickly stifle a rapidly rising high-pitched scream.
“I bet there’s no anti-venom here either,” I heard the Australian whisper from behind.
My finger withdrawn from the waters—and now almost as red as my flowing blood—the divemaster began to massage, poke and prod the punctures with his calloused fingers as the blood streamed down my hand and swirled like wisps of smoke in the tea glass below. As a fit of generosity overcame me, I almost used one of my precious final breaths to bequeath him my flip flops in gratitude for his vain efforts, but my generous thought was interrupted.
“Sea urchin,” the divemaster interjected. “I think I got the spines out. You should be fine.”
I heard the Aussie slither away behind me. Back at the hotel, a diver noticed my bandaged finger and asked what it was.
“Sea urchin stings,” I said nonchalantly, as if nothing had happened. “I would have been worried, except there are no snakes or sharks in the Red Sea,” I added with a tone of expertise.
“Well, I don’t know who told you that,” he began, “but there are definitely sharks in there. More than 40 different types actually. As for sea snakes…” *
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Whereby the love of animals in the wild ignites a lifelong wanderlust.
When I was young I had a menagerie of small plastic animals in a miniature plastic zoo, complete with a tiny zookeeper in long coat, peaked cap and rubber boots armed with a large broom. There were the usual elephants, giraffes and lions, of course, but my particular favourites were an okapi and a tapir.
Even at age six I knew I was peculiar.
Tapirs—a smallish, pig-like mammal with a sad attempt at a trunk that inhabits the jungles of South and Central America and Southeast Asia—and okapis, another jungle-dwelling creature—this one an antelope with a long giraffe-like neck and four delightfully-striped legs—are likely not familiar to many first-year zoology students, let alone someone still suffering withdrawal symptoms from their first sippy cup.
My collection was just one aspect of a lifelong interest in wildlife that saw me prefer nature films to Star Trek (much to my long-suffering older brother Michael’s continuing dismay), and which even extended to my career ambitions: my first dream job was zookeeper, followed by pilot, architect and writer (fourth time lucky, I guess!).
I not only scoffed at those who struggled to differentiate between a leopard and a cheetah, but I knew what a pangolin was, that a spiny anteater was more properly an echidna, and even that my two-inch long plastic tapir was a Malayan Tapir, the grandest and most colourful of that odd species.
It was this interest in wildlife that first kindled my love of adventure travel. Although I had wandered a bit, it was my great desire to see the Big Game of Africa that led to my first true adventure trip, and an addiction that continues to this day.
Although not all of my travel destinations have been selected because of wildlife, it’s always been something that has featured quite highly on my list of qualifiers. The more obscure, endangered, lethal or difficult to see the animal, the more alluring the destination, and as thrilled as I was by my first wild glimpse of a giraffe, it was the serval hiding in a culvert that really got my blood pumping and my camera shutter clicking at warp-speed. (A serval is one of the wild cats of Africa.)
On my very first trip to the Amazonian jungles, I had spent weeks beforehand researching the wildlife I could hope to see during my travels. Under no illusions of just how hard it can be to see any wildlife at all in thick rainforest, of course. I nevertheless studied lists of everything from large mammals—like my beloved tapir—to smaller creatures like birds, reptiles and even some insects.
Had I been asked what my first choice sighting would have been, I would have struggled to choose between a magnificent skulking jaguar and, you guessed it, a tapir. Although even something small and especially obscure would have done the trick.
While familiarizing myself with the best spots and times of the day to see a tapir, I also paid particular attention to the region’s nasties: the snakes, deadly spiders and other bloodsucking, venom-injecting, throat-ripping monsters that lurked among the trees.
In short, by the time I left home, I was a veritable living, walking and talking encyclopaedia of all Amazonian creatures great and small.
Over the coming days at the hutted camp on a raised island in the middle of a meandering jungle river, my wildlife sightings were as rare as I had feared they might be. Although I had seen macaws and parrots and been serenaded to sleep by howler monkeys each night, I had also been especially impressed by one particular fellow traveller who seemed utterly fearless of everything that did cross our paths.
From arcing-tailed and pedi-palp-snapping scorpions to glistening giant cockroaches, she was completely unfazed. When on our first evening we were told to ensure that we didn’t sleep with our mosquito nets pressed to our skin lest vampire bats snuggle up and drain our blood, she barely reacted. When one morning we found the camp’s dog fast asleep surrounded by two blood-bloated bats so gorged they were struggling to crawl away never mind fly, she watched with rapt curiosity, not an ounce of squeamishness.
So it was with some alarm that one morning I was awakened by her bloodcurdling screams.
I fought my way through my mosquito net and stuffed my feet in flip-flops as I burst through the door of my hut and sprinted towards her deafening shouts. In one of those odd life moments in which things move fast but our brains move even faster, I was mentally running through the entire list of things that could have caused such a composed soul to have such a terrifying meltdown.
Had my imperturbable campmate been bitten by a Brazilian wandering spider, an Amazonian giant centipede, a swarm of bullet ants, a South American bushmaster, a fer-de-lance or a green anaconda? Was she cornered by a jaguar? In the clutches of a boa constrictor? Was my unrequited tapir using its stunted trunk to nuzzle her face?
I found her standing in a clearing in front of the showers. She was holding her face in her hands and gesturing while stammering unintelligibly. Several of us grabbed long sticks, and like the unruly mob of villagers in Frankenstein, advanced towards the shower. It had to be something fairly small to fit in the cubicle, I reasoned, but smallish didn’t necessarily make it less deadly.
We swung open the door and jumped back, and there on the floor of the shower was the cause of the commotion. Sitting by the drain in all its evilness, it glared at us with cold, malefic eyes. Riled-up and ready to pounce.
Or at least hop. It was a frog.
Granted it was the biggest frog I had ever seen—but it was still only a frog. On reflection, rather a nice, pretty green one, too. Although I hadn’t memorized all of the Amazon’s frog species, I did know that this wasn’t even a suitably deadly poison dart frog.
“I really hate frogs,” sobbed our erstwhile fearless fellow traveller, unnecessarily.
• • •
I had informally—but enthusiastically—studied the wildlife of East Africa virtually since birth. Between my plastic menagerie, a library of books that ranged from simple children’s volumes to seriously hardcore scientific works and endless television documentaries, I had a good grasp of everything that lived in the long grasses and other ecosystems of Kenya and Tanzania.
Or so I thought.
And so when I found myself camping in the middle of Kenya’s Maasai Mara, I felt completely equipped for the encounters to come. The savannah rolled as far as the eye could see, interrupted only by rocky hills and clusters of acacia trees. From our campsite we could see elephants, giraffe and antelope all with the naked eye and separated from us by absolutely nothing. There were no fences, walls, moats, mortar pits, machine gun nests or anything.
If a pride of lions wanted to visit us to borrow a cup of sugar or exchange email addresses they could, and in fact on two nights, a leopard did stroll between our tents undoubtedly looking to see if there were any hiking boots left outside that they could steal and sell online.
The only thing protecting us from a jolly good mauling were a couple of Maasai askaris, or guards, armed with spears, daggers and a few thousand years’ worth of genetic nous. Each evening we sat by the campfire chatting about the day’s sightings or listening to the wonderful sounds of the African bush. All was good until it came time to go to bed.
I had camped in the Mara several times before and had hyenas and baboons defiantly strut through in daylight, but this campsite was apparently in an area of the reserve that was particularly filled with predators, chargers, stompers, biters and gorers. As such, one of the camp’s rules—or at least one of the camp’s insurance company’s rules—was that we were not allowed to walk around unescorted after dark.
Instead, when time came to head to our tents we would be accompanied by a Maasai warrior. In the unlikely event that we had to go somewhere during the night we had to blow a whistle and someone would assist us.
On one particular evening after excusing ourselves from the campfire-side chat, our personal askari led the way to our tent. Spear in one hand, flashlight in the other, we traipsed beyond the dancing glow of the fire and through the all-encompassing darkness. Just as we approached our tent, our guard anxiously hissed for us to stop, and hurriedly whispered something to us in Maa, and then again in Swahili, all the while crouching and gesticulating at the bushes and grass directly in front of the tent. We cowered behind him trying to see what he was indicating, all while racking my encyclopaedic brain to try and translate the word “komba.”
I knew it wasn’t lion, buffalo, leopard or elephant, but beyond that I just couldn’t determine what was about to leap from the bushes and tear us limb from limb. My heart pounded in my chest. After what seemed an eternity, the vicious komba threat apparently abated and our askari, frustrated at being unable to tell us what horrific death he’d just bravely prevented, led us back to the campfire and a stack of reference books.
He thumbed through one, stopped at a colour plate and handed it over. We took it with bated breath and held it in our sweaty palms, wondering want demon from the dark we’d just dodged. The picture was of a small squirrel-sized teddy bear with enormous dark eyes, fluffy ears and a long curly tail that was wrapped around a small tree.
“Komba,” he said with a smile of satisfaction and elation, poking the picture with an emphatic finger. “Bush baby.”
Being nocturnal and very small, sightings were scarce and therefore our sentinel was very happy. The fact that only he had actually seen it didn’t detract from his delight. Our hearts returned to their rightful spot in our chests and we once more headed to our tent for the night.
I may not have seen the komba, but I had learned the word, and next time someone told me one had reared its terrifying face, I at least wouldn’t embarrass myself by running away screaming! *