Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas greetings

Hi Everyone. No matter where you are in the world this Christmas, I wish you all the very best. And here's hoping that the New Year brings us all much happiness, adventure and of course lots of travel!

Monday, December 15, 2008 Travel Writing Scholarship

Calling all aspiring travel writers! is offering the opportunity for you to launch your career with their 2009 Travel Writing Scholarship. The recipient of the scholarship will go on assignment to Kerala, India, with professional travel writer and photographer David Stott, spending 10 days on tour with The Blue Yonder exploring the River Nila civilization and 10 days writing and reviewing for the upcoming Frootprint India Handbook.

The scholarship is open to all non professional travel writers 18 years and over who are available for travel between 16 February and 7 March, 2009. It also includes the submission of a 500 word travel focused essay based on a personal experience of one of the following themes: A Journey that Changed Lives, Responsible Travel, or, Adventure in an Unknown Culture. But you better get in quick as applications close on 9 January, 2009. See for more details.

Be warned though, working as a guidebook is a tough gig. If you're in doubt, read what my friend Dan had to say about accompanying me while I was updating the Bradt Travel Guide to Tanzania earlier this year here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Getting my kicks, on Route 66

Without a doubt, the most famous highway in the US – if not the world – is Route 66. No other stretch of asphalt has been eulogised so frequently and fervently by movies, songs, books and television shows. In fact, Route 66 has been mentioned in so many songs it has earned the nicknamed the 'Rock 'n Roll Highway'. Almost 4000km long, America's 'Mother Road' starts in Chicago in Illinois crossing the country through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before ending at the beaches of Santa Monica in Los Angeles, California. Fortunately, part of my epic roadtrip across the US took in part of this legendary road. So I thought I'd share some of the pictures I took along the way.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Roadside America

Anyone who has read my blog regularly will know I hold a somewhat bizarre fascination with offbeat attractions. But, when it comes to the weird, wacky, and wonderful, no one does it better than the U.S. From giant dinosaurs and whole miniature towns to the world's largest ball of twine, America's two-lane highways and winding back roads are dotted with all kinds of oddities. Call them tacky or call them kitsch, but without these weird and wondrous sights to break the monotony of the long "are we there yet?" roadtrip, in my opinion, getting there wouldn't be half the fun it is.

One of the quintessential icons of roadside America is the classic diner. In the mid-twentieth century as cars began to be mass-produced, so too were these fabulous aluminium gems, whose metal bodies and neon signs quickly became a symbol of modernity. Fortunately, as I discovered, the diner of popular imagination can still be found – even in the form of a thoroughly retro Denny's Diner (pictured above). These catching eateries are the place to stop when you're craving a cholesterol-laden hearty American breakfast. Not only are they cheap places to refuel, but decked out in over-the-top retro style with everything from vintage gas pumps to classic Coca Cola paraphernalia they are loads of fun.

Then when it's time to rest your head, you needn't confine yourself to a boring hotel bed. Lining the roads around countryside America is a plethora of weird and wonderful motels. A throw back to glory days of 1950s when taking a drive was still in style, these cool motels use gimmicky architecture to lure customers. For the ultimate in kitsch you can even try bedding down Fred Flintstone-style in Bedrock City Campground on the Grand Canyon Highway in Arizona. Sadly, I didn't get to personally try this out, but this slice of Americana is worth sleeping in just for bragging rights alone. As Fred would say "Yabba Dabba Doo!"

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Turned to stone: Petrified Forest National Park

At long last, I have finally handed in my update for the new Bradt travel guidebook to Tanzania and am taking a well-deserved weekend off! So before I get back to work again, I thought I'd share some more pictures and notes from my recent Southwest USA Road Trip.

Southeast of the Grand Canyon between Holbrook and Navajo in Arizona is the bizarre, yet hauntingly beautiful, Petrified Forest National Park. Just don't expect to see any lush green trees in this forest. A wonderland of spectacular desolation, it is home to the world's largest and most colourful concentrations of petrified wood. The park's appeal is heightened by the sprawling badlands of the Painted Desert, which changes hue as the sun moves across the sky. Watching the variegated lunar landscape, transform in a kaleidoscope of psychedelic pinks, reds and oranges as the sun sets really is an extraordinary sight.
All images copyright Kim Wildman

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Like sands through the hour glass

I'm now back home in Australia, busily writing day and night racing to meet my deadline for the Tanzania guidebook update – 15 days and counting! I promise I'll emerge from my self-induced writing exile soon and start paying more attention to my blog (not to mention my friends and family whom I'm currently ignoring – sorry everyone!). In the meantime, though, I thought I'd share some more of my photographs and musings from my road trip across Southwest USA starting with White Sands National Monument. Enjoy!

In stark contrast to the ragged, red rocks and dull, dusty deserts, the gleaming snow-white dunes of White Sands National Monument rise like a mirage from the plains of southeast New Mexico. No, it's not a mirage. But you'll still need to wipe your eyes, as what on first look appears to be giant glistening mountains of snow, is in fact the world's largest gypsum dune field. Blanketing 275 square miles of desert, these great undulating dunes of gypsum continually change and advance engulfing everything in their path. Yet while the plants and animals have had to adapt and evolve in unique and unusual ways to survive, the lusciously luminous dunes provide us humans with the perfect playground. Just looking at the towering dunes makes you want to grab a toboggan. In fact it's encouraged. What could be better? It's all the fun of the snow without the cold and ice!
All images copyright Kim Wildman

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Picture of the Week: The grand view

Just so you don't think that I was totally unimpressed by the Grand Canyon, I thought I'd share this picture that I took as the sun was setting on the canyon's Southern Rim. I have to admit, it really is an awe-inspiring sight. (Mind you, I still favour Monument Valley!).
All images copyright Kim Wildman

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Of monuments and men: Searching for the "Duke"

When it comes to iconic American landscapes, in my opinion Monument Valley beats the Grand Canyon hands down. Located on the border between southern Utah and northern Arizona, the towering flame-red rocks have served as the backdrop for more than 50 Hollywood films, including Easy Rider and Back to the Future III, not to mention dozens of video film clips and television advertisements. Though it is perhaps most famous as the techniclor cinematic setting for director John Ford's classic American westerns such as Stage Coach and The Searchers starring the "Duke", John Wayne. It would be an understatement to say that my father - the greatest John Wayne fan ever - was more than a little impressed. But then again, so was I. Here are just a sample of the more than 200 odd photographs I took.

All images copyright Kim Wildman

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The truth is out there...or is it?

Today we visited Roswell in New Mexico. I have to admit that in spite of my expectations, I was really disappointed. Perhaps it was because I had built up the town in my mind over the years – I was totally engrossed by the late 90s TV show, Roswell, and watched every episode of the X-Files – but it really was one of the biggest let-downs of any town I've ever visited. For the uninitiated of you, Roswell's greatest claim to fame is that a UFO reportedly crashed in a field near the town in 1947. While investigating officials originally reported that they'd discovered a "flying disk" at the scene, within hours they'd changed their story claiming that it was in fact a weather balloon not a UFO. This of course led to claims of a government cover-up and so until this day the mystery surrounding the Roswell "incident" continues to be debated. In my opinion, the real mystery is why anyone would ever come here. It truly is the most boring, uninteresting and lifeless town I've ever visited... I think the aliens sucked all the life out of the town when they left!

Monday, October 20, 2008

On the road - again!

Hi everyone! Sorry it has been a little while since I last posted. Things have been a little hectic to say the least. Mostly with work, but I've also just hit the road again. In fact, I'm currently in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I've just spent the weekend hanging with two of my dear travel writing friends, Becca and Aaron, attending their wedding as a bridesmaid. The weekend has been fabulous – in my opinion Santa Fe has to be one the US's most unique and interesting towns – though I'm really looking forward to taking off tomorrow for a 10 day cross-country road trip across Southwest USA. Oddly enough, after all my taking up of joys of travelling solo, I'm actually being accompanied on this trip by my parents (they were also invited to the wedding). Since I haven't travelled anywhere with them since I was eight years old, we could be in for one heck of a wild ride - I'm crossing my fingers that my mother and I don't end up driving each other off the edge of the Grand Canyon Thelma-and-Louise-style!

Wish me luck!!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Five reasons to travel solo: #5 Personal growth

Finally, here is my top reason why you should consider travelling solo. As Leyla from Women on the Road pointed out in her comment on my first post, the greatest benefit of travelling solo is that it boosts your confidence and helps you grow. Travelling solo is when you really find out what you're made of. With no one else to rely on, you must learn to trust your own instincts and make your own decisions. Things of course will go wrong – remember I wound up in hospital on my last solo trip – but it's these very challenges that'll make you stronger. And with every new hurdle you conquer, your confidence will grow as you discover that you're far more capable than you ever imagined you could be.

Happy travelling!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Five reasons to travel solo: #4 Make up your own mind

Have you ever noticed that when you travel you tend to change your opinions of a place depending on who you’re with? For example, you finally set your eyes on the Pyramids in Egypt and are in total awe, when your travelling companion turns to you and says, “They’re not that impressive.” So you take another look and have to agree your friend’s right – surely they should be bigger? Alain de Botton, author of The Art of Travel, argues that how we see the world when we travel is greatly influenced by those we travel with. Not only do we change our views, but we also limit our curiosity to fit in with our companion’s expectations. Therefore, the only way to truly see and experience a place is to travel alone.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Five reasons to travel solo: #3 Local connections

As a solo traveller not only will you find it easier to meet other travellers, but you'll also be infinitely more approachable to the locals who can easily be intimidated by large groups of foreigners. If you're alone they'll be more inclined to invite you to eat with them, or even to put you up for the night than they ever would if you’re travelling with someone else. I've had some of my best local experiences when I've been by myself: I had dinner with a real Transylvanian Count in his castle in Romania, I celebrated the Orthodox Easter with a local family in the tiny Republic of Moldova, and, I was given a personal tour around Bardia, an isolated town in the far north of Libya, by two elderly men who expected nothing except a heart-felt thank-you in return. I would never have had these opportunities if I had not been alone.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Five reasons to travel solo: #2 New found friends

Most people assume that travelling solo means you travel like a hermit and spend all your time alone. Far from it - you only need to be alone if you want to be alone. In reality meeting other people tends to be much easier when you're on your own. For starters, you'll be forced to come out of your shell and initiate conversations with others. And moreover, as a solo traveller you're far more approachable than a couple or a group of friends.

A casual chat in a local cafe can easily turn into an invitation for dinner or even the opportunity to discover a region of a country you'd never dreamed of going to. For me, a chance meeting with two other travellers in L'viv in the Ukraine turned into a cross-country train journey into the heart of the Carpathian Mountains to trace the family roots of one of my new found friends. It was actually one of the most fascinating, fun and entertaining trips I've ever been on. Yet while most friends you make on the road will temporarily provide you with the benefits of having a travel partner without the commitment, there are those kindred spirits that you'll meet that will become friends for life. In fact, many of the friendships I have to this day have been made when I've been travelling solo - that includes my two travel buddies I met in the Ukraine!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Five reasons to travel solo: #1 Freedom & flexibility

Most people are surprised - some even shocked - when they find out I travel alone. Reactions to my revelation vary from long, sympathetic stares to appalled cries of: "Don't you get lonely?"

Sure it's great to share your travelling experiences with others: Having my friend Dan join me on my recent research trip through Tanzania for the first four weeks was fantastic, but I equally enjoyed the journey when I was on my own (with the exception of winding up in hospital of course!). The fact is travelling solo is one of the most self-satisfying experiences you're ever likely to have. So for anyone who's never contemplated taking-off alone, I thought I'd share five fabulous reasons why you should consider flying solo.

The biggest attraction of travelling solo is the sense of freedom and independence you'll feel. It's one of the few times in life when you get to call all the shots. You decide when to go where and you don't have to consult anyone. When travelling, you're often presented with opportunities to experience new places or sights that weren't in your original plan. If your travel companion doesn't want to go, you'll either end up comprising or, worse still, miss out altogether and then bemoan the decision for the rest of the trip. But if you don't have anyone to consider, you can spend all your time lazing on a beach if you want, or suddenly decide to explore that little-known temple which piqued your interest. What's more, if you don't like a place, you can simply move on. No debates; no arguments; no compromises. Bliss!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Top tips for taking better travel photographs: Part 2

Here are my next few tips on how to take better travel photographs continued on from part 1:

Shoot during the 'magic hour'
The best photographs are taken during the 'magic hour' - the hours immediately after sunrise and before sunset – when the light is golden. So try to take your pictures early in the morning or late in the day when the light is soft and warm, and the colours more intense. Shadows are also elongated during this time, so lookout for great for angles.

Horizontal or vertical?
When it comes to travel photography most people seem to be stuck in a horizontal rut. Remember, your camera works vertically as well as horizontally. So next time turn your camera sideways and consider whether your subject would look better photographed vertically.

Look for leading lines
When framing your photograph, look out for lines that will give depth to your picture. By using the lines such as those made by a wall, a fence, a road or even a shadow you can draw the viewer's eyes through the picture towards the main area of interest. Diagonal lines are especially eye-catching.

Watch your background!
While it's important to concentrate on your subject, it's equally important to be aware of what is happening in the space around them. Make sure there are no distracting elements or that you’re not about to take a picture of someone with a pole or tree sticking out of their head!

Look behind you
I’ve mentioned this previously on this blog in my post on Tourists of reality, but sometimes the best photographs are of what has been left out of the frame. Just because you're in Paris doesn't mean the best shot is of the Eiffel Tower. Turn around and take a picture of what is behind you. You just might be pleasantly surprised with what you see.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Top tips for taking better travel photographs: Part 1

Following on from my recent posts offering advice on how to become a travel writer, I thought I'd also share some tips on how to take better travel photographs. With many editors today asking writers to provide a package of text and photographs, it pays to know how to take a better than average picture. So here are my top tips to help transform your travel photographs from mere holiday snaps into great pictures you’d not only happily hand over to any editor, but, better still, would be proud to hang on your wall.

Do your homework
Before you head off on your next trip spend some time researching your destination. Buy a guidebook or do a little surfing on the internet to find out what there is to see and do. Then make a list of possible shots including information on whether it's better to be there in the morning or in the afternoon. Pay particular attention to events and festivals or local markets which will provide you with the perfect opportunity to capture the colour and flavour of the destination.

Include personality
The best way to add more depth and atmosphere to your photographs is to include people within your frame. They not only provide local flavour to a region, but can also add a sense of scale to vast landscape features such as the Grand Canyon. Be sure to ask for permission first and respect people's wishes if they don't want to be photographed.

Move your subject off-centre
Whatever you do resist the temptation to place your subject dead in the centre of your picture. Instead, bring your photographs to life by framing them off-centre. Simply following the 'rule of thirds'. That is, place your main subject roughly one third of the way from the top or the bottom of the frame, or one third of the way from either side of the frame.

Get in close
There's nothing worse than looking through someone's pictures and seeing their subjects appearing as ants in the distance. To make your photographs bolder, fill the frame with your subject. By getting in close you'll not only leave no doubt as to what your subject is, but you'll also reveal more fascinating details such as the lines on a person's face or the texture of fabric.

Look for a unique angle
Just because you hold your camera at eye level or view a sight square on doesn't mean this is the best view. In fact, it's probably already been done to death, so why not find a view that is a little more unusual and make your picture stand out? Try moving a few steps to the left or right or turn your camera at an odd angle. Better still, get down low and shoot up or stand on a chair or step and shoot down.

Happy snapping!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

So you want to be a travel writer: Part 2

After the feedback I received from my recent post, So you want to be a travel writer?, I thought I'd share a few more of the insights I imparted on my class.

So, you've ticked all the boxes on my 'what it takes to be a travel writer list' and think you're ready to start pitching..... Er – not quite.

While today with the rise of the internet and the travel e-zine there are a lot more opportunities for writers wanting to break into travel writing, there's also a lot more competition. What's more, many of the writers you'll be pitching against will be so eager to see their name in print, they'll happily give their work away for free. So how do you make it as a professional travel writer without selling your soul for a byline? Here are a few tips:

Write what you know: As I mentioned previously, you don't need to travel overseas to be a travel writer. Take a closer look at the town where you live now; it's full of interesting stories just waiting to be told. Does your town have any unusual landmarks, remarkable museums or attractions? What about festivals? Is there a festival or event particular to your region? While you might not find the local history museum or flower festival terribly exciting, someone, somewhere in the world will. What's more, editors are always looking for an 'insider's perspective' to give a destination some local flavour. So who better to write about your hometown than you?

Make the most of your knowledge and skills: Do you have a favourite hobby? Do you have a degree in art history or environmental science? Or are you interested in food and wine or yoga and tai chi? If so, then why not combine your passion with travel writing? By using your knowledge and experience on a particular subject, no matter whether it is horse riding or basket weaving, you'll bring more depth and interest to your travel articles.

Research, research, research: Before you even think of contacting an editor, you need to do your homework. Editors are very busy people, and if you contact them with a half baked idea that doesn't suit their target market you might ruin your chances forever. Read some back issues of the publication to get a feel for what their style is. How long are the articles? Are they dry or humorous? Are they written in first person? What destinations have they already covered? Who are their readers? Are they hip young 20 somethings, middle-aged professionals, couples with children or retirees over the age of 60?

Look for an interesting or unusual angle: It's important to think outside of the square when trying to come up with an idea for a travel article. Most editors are not interested in bland, run-of-the-mill articles such as 'Sydney's Beaches' or 'Discover the Red Centre' that just give you the details of what's there and what to do – Yawn! But if you were to pitch an article about a first-time surfer learning how to hang ten at the ripe old age of 37 on a Sydney beach, or a prima donna princess tackling the Australian Outback stilettos and all, you’ll be more likely to grab an editor's attention.

Find your voice: I know I mentioned this previously, but it is a point well worth reiterating – the best way to make your articles shine is to find your voice. Don't try to intimidate another writer's style, an editor will see right through you immediately. A great way to find your voice is to write about your own personal experiences. By nurturing and developing your voice, the articles that you write will soon begin to stand out.

For more information on how to get started as a freelance travel writer check out David Whitley's new blog 1001 Travel Writer Tips. He's only just started it up, but by the time he makes it to 1001 you'll be well on your way.

Happy writing!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Top 10 things to do in Havana

I should be writing up Tanzania, but instead I find myself reminiscing about my time in Cuba. So since I'm in the mood for procrastinating, here are my top 10 things to do in Cuba's sultry capital, Havana (these are in no particular order).

1. Indulge in the legend of Hemingway while sipping a daiquiri at El Floridita, where 'Papa's' former seat is preserved as a shrine.

2. Embrace American heavy metal with a rumbling ride down the streets of Havana in a classic Chevy.

3. Smoke a fresh cigar straight from the factory at Fábrica El Laguito, makers of Montecristos and Cohibas, the finest Havana cigar.

4. Catch the spectacular Las Vegas-style cabaret at the Tropicana, the famous pre-revolution open-air nightclub where Carmen Miranda once performed.

5. Stay at one of the city's hundreds of casa particulares and experience a little of what life is like for everyday habaneros. (I can thoroughly recommend Casa de Jorge Colla Potts in Vedado.)

6. Take a walk around Plaza Vieja, Havana's old commercial square. Once the site of executions, processions and bullfights, today the square is more renowned for its smart boutiques, unusual museums and as the site of the city's only micro-brewery.

7. Soak up the history at Hotel Habana Libre (the 'Free Havana Hotel') in Vedado. Built in 1958 as a Hilton Hotel, it was the prerevolutionary haunt of American mobsters and even served briefly as Castro's headquarters.

8. Hit the beaches of Playas del Este, just east of the city along the coastal highway, which offer an uninterrupted six kilometre stretch of palm-shaded sands, deliciously warm turquoise seas and picture postcard vistas no matter which way you look.

9. Learn the grisly details of the Cuban Revolution at the Museo de la Revolución. Then to lighten the mood check out the museum's Rincón de los Cretinos (the 'Corner of Cretins') display which makes fun of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

10. Join the habaneros for their evening ritual as they watch the sunset from 'Havana's sofa', otherwise known as The Malecón (the 'seawall'), on Avenida Antonio Maceo.

Friday, August 29, 2008

So you want to be a travel writer?

On Wednesday night I gave a guest lecture on travel writing to a postgraduate class at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. I thought some of you might be interested in reading a little of the advice I gave the students. So here it is. Enjoy!

Along with fashion model and rock star, travel writer certainly ranks high in most people's perception of glamour jobs. After all, what could be more glamorous than hotel hopping your way around the world on someone else's dollar? Before you all quit your day jobs and sign up, let me set you straight about a few things. Being a travel writer is not nearly as fun or as glamorous as it seems. In fact, it is a lot of hard work and often done for very little financial reward.

People imagine that being a travel writer my life is like one long holiday, where I spend all my time sitting on a beach, sipping a cocktail and tapping away at my laptop every now and then. Don't I wish! On the contrary, while everyone else is sunning themselves on the beach, I spend my days running around between tourist offices, attractions, restaurants and hotels, talking to numerous PR people, while frantically scribbling down notes and drawing up maps. What's worse, I'm usually dripping in sweat and wearing the same smelly clothes that I've been wearing for days on end. Then, come the evening, if I have any energy left, I usually end up alone in my hotel room typing everything up. Hardly glamorous at all!

Travel writing of course has its perks otherwise no one would do it. Over the last eight years it has taken me to some amazing places that I never dreamed I would visit and given me the opportunity to meet and learn about people that have challenged my way of thinking and opened my eyes to the world. Travel writing has also provided me with some of the most memorable experiences of my life: I had dinner with a real live Count in his castle in Transylvania in Romania, I island hopped my way around the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece all in the name of research, I spent five days in the mountains of the Transkei in South Africa as one of only two outsiders invited to witness an inauguration ceremony of a Traditional Healer, and last year I travelled to Libya to attend a small dawn service on Anzac Day to honour the Rats of Tobruk.

Mind you on the downside, I was almost arrested in the breakaway Republic of Transdneistr in Moldova for arriving at the border crossing half an hour late and on my most recent trip I wound up spending three days in hospital in Jamaica after picking up a severe case of salmonella food poisoning from something I ate in Cuba. But, even though I still have no permanent base and continue to live out of a backpack, I wouldn't change a second of it.

What does it take to become a travel writer?

Apart from loving to travel and being content to live the life of gypsy, to be a travel writer you also need a few other very important qualities and skills:

  • 1. This should go without saying, but you need to be able to write well. You need to be able to write in a way that transports your reader to the region or place you are writing about. They need to be able to see it, feel it, smell it and breathe it.

  • 2. Going hand in hand with writing well you also need a sharp eye for detail. You need to be able to observe details about a place and its people that other travellers might miss.

  • 3. You also need to be well-organised because travel writing of course involves travel; usually within a very limited time frame and budget. So you need to be able to organise your itinerary in such a way that you cover every aspect of a place quickly and efficiently without missing out on the details.

  • 4. You must be able to think quickly on your feet. Travel is never smooth – flights get cancelled, your luggage might go missing, attractions might be closed – so you must be able to work your way around any curve ball that is thrown at you.

  • 5. And finally, you must be a good salesperson because to be a successful travel writer you need to be able to sell your story ideas to editors and publishers.

Where do you start?

Write what you know: You don't need to travel overseas to be a travel writer. Take a closer look at the town where you live now. While you might not find the local flower festival exciting, but someone, somewhere in the world will. So who better to write about it than you?

Find your voice: You need to write with your own voice, not imitate someone else’s. By writing about your own personal experiences, your voice will begin to develop. And as you nurture and develop your voice, the articles that you write will stand out.

Good luck!

Monday, August 25, 2008

The things we leave behind

I recently stumbled across this article, What we leave behind, by Kelly Westhoff on the Wanderlust and Lipstick website. Not only did her article intrigue me because it was about an encounter she had in Cuba, but it got me thinking about the trail I've left behind in my many years on the road. While like Kelly, I'd like to believe that as a traveller I've "taken only photographs and left only footprints", as I'm usually limited by what I can carry and, of course, can't resist buying a few souvenirs along the way (not to mention all the PR paraphernalia I collect as part of my research) I inevitably leave things behind to "lighten my load".

On my recent round world trip alone, I left behind my jeans, a sweater and a pair of thick woollen socks (which I had worn every day in cold and chilly Cape Town) at a hotel in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania along with a note for the maid telling her to either donate them to charity or keep them for herself. Considering it was averaging around 38 degrees Celsius outside, I'm sure she had as much use for them as I did – none! In Nairobi, I left behind two of my three travel guides to Tanzania and a DVD I’d been given at a friend's place. Then in Cuba, I left behind my towel and some more clothes with the local family I was staying with, before finally dumping some of my souvenirs from Cuba, including Cuban cigars, in my hotel room in Jamaica because I was too afraid to enter the US carrying them!

The oddest thing I've ever left behind though was a drum in Libya last year. I'd spent a day shopping in the souks of Benghazi with my guide who rather charmingly, though disconcertingly, insisted on buying me every item I vaguely showed interest in, including a large terracotta drum which was covered with what looked like a very fresh goat's hide (I swear I could still see blood around the edges!). Knowing that there was no way that I would ever be able to get the drum through Australian customs I "accidently" [read: on purpose] left it behind in the lobby of the hotel I was staying at in Tripoli on the morning before I departed. (I had actually tried to leave it behind in my hotel room in Benghazi the previous day, but my guide spied it just as I was closing the door to my room!).

If this is what I left behind on only two trips, it truly frightens me to really think back and start listing the trail of belongings I've dumped in unsuspecting hotel rooms and backpacker hostels over the years!

Most travellers have been guilty of leaving behind books and clothing – they're the first things to be evicted from my bag when I start getting weighed down – but perhaps this says much about about the throw-away society we live. What have you left behind in your travels?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I'm dreaming of Africa: My top 10 movies set in Africa

With Australia in the middle of its coldest winter on record (well in my books in any case!), I'm finding myself dreaming of Africa and longing desperately to be back on the beach in Mwanza with an ice, cold Tusker in my hand. Of course it doesn't help that I am writing up my research from Tanzania! So here are my top 10 movies set on the continent that help me keep my African dream alive when I cannot be there:

1. The Power of One (1992)
I’ll probably be universally paned for this listing The Power of One as my all time favourite, but this is the movie that started my love affair with the continent. It's undoubtedly a very flawed movie, but it's nevertheless a good adaptation Bryce Courtney's 1989 novel of the same name. Set in South Africa against the backdrop of apartheid it tells the story of Peekay (Stephen Dorff) a lonely English orphan and perpetual outcast who through his two mentors - Doc (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a liberal German scientist, and Geel Piet (Morgan Freeman), a black prisoner – learns that to overcome life's adversities and to make a difference all he needs to do is reach into his inner spirit and discover of the power of one...OK, you can start throwing the tomatoes!

2. Tsotsi (2005)
I loved this gritty drama and was so happy when it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006. The film centres on the life of a young Johannesburg township gang leader named Tsotsi - a colloquial term roughly meaning "thug" in township patois – played by Presley Chweneyagae. After hijacking a car one night he inadvertently ends up looking after the baby that was still in it and is thus propelled along the not-so-easy road to redemption.

3. Cry Freedom (1987)
Another movie that helped fuel my passion for the Africa continent, Cry Freedom is based on the true story of newspaper editor Donald Woods' investigation into the murder of Steven Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa. While originally mistrustful of Biko (Denzel Washington), after being persuaded to meet with him, Woods' (Kevin Klein) attitude changes and the two men become friends. When Biko is brutally killed by the South African police, Woods is determined that the world knows the truth and, as a result, he and his family are forced to flee South Africa.

4. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Labelled by some as the Schindler’s List of Africa, Hotel Rwanda tells the story of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, played brilliantly by Don Cheadle, who saved the lives more than 1,200 people Tutsi refugees by sheltering them in the hotel during the midst of the Rwandan genocide. While it may not be the greatest film, it is certainly an important one.

5. Yesterday (2004)
This beautiful yet heartbreaking story puts a human face on the AIDS crisis in Africa. The film tells the story of Yesterday, played by Leleti Khumalo, a young mother who, after learning she is HIV positive, becomes determined to live long enough to see her daughter, Beauty, attend her first day of school. The first commercial feature-length production in isiZulu, Yesterday was nominated for an Oscar.

6. U-Carmen in eKhayelitsha (2005)
U-Carmen is a bold, bawdy, and offbeat remake of Bizet's classic 1875 Sevillian gypsy opera Carmen. Set in a modern day cigarette factory in the township of Khayelitsha, near Cape Town, the film is sung entirely in isiXhosa. In the movie Bizet's Carmen (Pauline Malefane) is transformed into an alluring and outspoken cigarette roller who has a doomed love affair with weak-willed police sergeant Jongikhaya (José in the original opera).

7. Red Dust (2004)
This is another movie that I am sure would not make it on too many people's top 10 list, but for me it is all about location. The film which stars Hilary Swank as a South African-born attorney who reluctantly returns home to represent a young black politician (Chiwete Ejlofer) forced to confront his former torturer who is seeking amnesty from the TRC, was shot on location in my favourite dusty Karoo dorp, Graaff-Reinet. What can I say? I’m a Karoo girl at heart!

8. African Queen (1951)
No list of great movies set on the African continent would be complete without this 1951 classic adventure staring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Set during World War I, it tells the story of a drunken riverboat captain (Bogart) who provides passage for a Christian missionary spinster (Hepburn). Taking an instant dislike to each other, the pair bicker continually whilst tackling white water rapids and dodging German bullets and in the process eventually fall in love.

9. Out of Africa (1985)
This multiple Oscar winning epic follows the life of Danish writer Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep), better known as Isak Dinesen, who travels to Kenya to be with her German husband (Klaus Maria Brandauer) but falls for an English adventurer, Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford). Who could forget the incredibly romantic scene in the bush where Denys washes Karen's hair while quoting from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"? … Sigh!

10. Casablanca (1942)
“Of all the gin joints, in all the in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine”… Yes, another great Hollywood Golden Era classic, this time starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Yet while Rick’s “gin joint” was supposedly located in the Vichy-controlled Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II, the movie was shot entirely on a Hollywood sound stage. Location aside, there’s still plenty to admire in this doomed wartime romance saga including wonderful performances and cracking dialogue – So go on, play it again Sam! (The actual quote was in fact: "You played it for her, you can play it for me. Play it!")

I’m sure I’ve left many great movies off my list such as Cry the Beloved Country, which – Shock! Horror! – I still have not seen yet. So if you have a favourite movie set in Africa you want to add to (or remove from) my list let me know.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Oh where, oh where can my luggage be?

Losing your luggage is every traveller's nightmare. Unfortunately on this trip not only did I wind up in hospital, but my luggage also went astray...

I'd just arrived at the airport in Nairobi, and was waiting patiently at the carousel for my luggage when I suddenly realised more than an hour had past and everyone on my flight (including Dan) had already collected their bags and long departed. When the carousel finally came to a grinding halt, my heart sank as I realised my bag had not made the journey with me. What was I going to do? I was stuck in a foreign country without even a change of underwear!

No traveller wants to deal with the hassle of lost luggage. Unfortunately, however, misplaced or lost luggage is as inevitable as flight delays and cancellations. So here are my best tips on how to ease the pain.

Look around
Before you panic, take a look around. Luggage can often be placed on the wrong carousel by mistake, so search the other carousels for your bag. Also, look out for bags that resemble yours and are left on their own; another traveller could have accidently taken the wrong one.

Report lost luggage immediately
If your luggage cannot be found, report it immediately, and do not leave the airport without completing the appropriate paperwork. Also, make sure you get a copy of your lost luggage claim form and a contact name and number so that you can monitor the progress of your claim.

Find out what the airline can do for you
This wasn't something I was aware of at the time, but most airlines will provide you with petty cash to cover basic necessities, such as toiletries, if your luggage is lost or delayed, while others will reimburse you for essential purchases. If I had known this, perhaps I might have at least been able to recoup the cost of the expensive new underwear I purchased (I was still thinking in Tanzanian shillings, so accidentally paid $US25 for a pair of undies!). So make sure enquire about the airline's policy.

File a claim
In most cases, as with mine, your luggage will usually turn up within a day or two. If it is lost, however, inform your travel insurance company straight away and supply them with a list of items that were in your bag. Also, ensure you list the value of the suitcase itself and include any out-of-pocket expenses you may have incurred to replace any items (keep all receipts).

The only fool-proof way to prevent lost luggage is to only take a carry-on. This, of course, is not always possible. So here are some tips on how to make sure you luggage arrives with you:

Pack important items in your carry-on
Take as much on-board with you as you can. Make sure you pack a change of clothing and carry important items such as keys, money, essential medication, glasses and toiletries (keeping in mind restrictions on gels, liquids and aerosols) with you. Not packing a change of clothing and underwear was of course the big mistake I made. As it was only a short one-hour flight, I didn’t see the need – Never Again!

Label luggage clearly
Ensure that every piece of your luggage is labelled both inside and out with your name, home address and contact details as well as your destination address and phone number. This way if your luggage does go missing, at least the airline will know where it is meant to be.

List your contents
Before you take off on your holiday, make a list of everything you pack in your bag. Also keep a note of the make, model and colour of your suitcase. If your bag does go missing, this will help when making your claim.

Check-in on time
The most common cause for lost luggage is a late check-in. Try to arrive at the airport a few hours before your flight departs to avoid any problems. Of course this still won’t guarantee that your luggage won’t go astray. I was the third person to check in for our 6.00am flight and my bag still managed to get lost. What’s more, it was the only flight leaving Dar es Salaam at that time of day, so God only knows how it missed the flight!

Double-check the destination
It is not uncommon for staff to make a tagging error. On my way back from Cuba I almost had my bags checked through to Montego Bay in Jamaica instead of Kingston. Luckily I noticed and had the tag changed immediately. So double-check the tag the airline puts on your bag to make certain it is checked through to the right destination.

Image sourced from

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

From Cape to Cuba

I know I've mentioned this before, but when I lived in Cape Town I loved spending my weekends hanging out in the small seaside suburb of Kalk Bay; having breakfast at the Olympia Cafe & Deli, rummaging through the antique shops and second-hand book stores or stopping in for a beer at the Brass Bell. It was here where I took the above photograph of one of my favourite watering holes; the Cape to Cuba restaurant. Now as I sit back home in Australia reflecting on my 11-week round-world journey, it's only just dawned on me that this trip quite literally took me from Cape to Cuba. So before time gets away from me, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share a few of the most memorable moments from my Cape to Cuba odyssey.

Getting down and dirty in Cape Town
As many of you are aware I'm a big fan of offbeat tours and attractions, so the first thing I did when I arrived in Cape Town was to organise a Below the Surface sewer tour of the city with Figure of 8. The tour, which was part of an "amazing race" experience organised to raise funds for one of the outlying townships, took us through a network of secret underground tunnels to emerge in the grounds of the city's castle; the Castle of Good Hope. It was certainly an odd experience shuffling my way through the pitch-black tunnel with only my dim headlight lighting the way, all the while trying desperately not to fall into the stream of cold water that ran between my feet. Luckily I'm not claustrophobic!

Traipsing around Tanzania
Naturally topping my list of highlights from my time in Tanzania were the couple of days Dan and I spent game viewing in Ruaha and Mikumi National Parks – being charged by an elephant is not something I’m likely to forget anytime soon! But, there is of course much more to Tanzania than famous parks and abundant wildlife.

In Tanga, a quiet seaside town near the country's northern border with Kenya, Dan and I met the indomitable Mama Ruth and joined her to watch a local village soccer match (made all the more entertaining by the appearance of a herd of stray cows!). Outside of Mbeya, a sprawling town in southern Tanzania, we stayed at the wonderfully delicious Utengule Coffee Lodge, where we learned the art of coffee cupping – a tasting technique used to evaluate the aroma, fragrance and flavour profile of a coffee. In spite of my newfound understanding of what it takes to make a perfect brew, I still remained an avid tea drinker, so was thrilled when we took some time out for tea with Rungwe Tea & Tours in Tukuyu.

My most heartfelt and emotional experience in Tanzania was visiting SOMAFCO; the former ANC school close to the town of Morogoro where young exiled South Africans were educated between the late 70s and early 90s after fleeing the apartheid regime. Finding the campus however proved a difficult task, with the campus now the Sokoine University of Agriculture and many people either unable on unwilling to remember the school and its location. This discovery was made more special knowing that one of my dear friends from Cape Town had grown up here. You can read about my friend's experience in the paper I wrote: I dreamed of South Africa: History, memory and identity.

Walking on the wild side in Nairobi
I know many tourists can't wait to come to Australia so that they can hug a koala or see a kangaroo, but for me nothing beats coming face-to-face with the world's tallest creature –the giraffe – or watching the antics of a mischievous baby elephant. Surprisingly, Nairobi, Kenya's big, bustling capital city unfortunately renowned as Nairrobbery, is one of the best places to get up close and personal with Africa's wildlife. Just 12 kilometres from the city centre in the leafy suburb of Lang'ata is the Giraffe Manor, a quintessential English manor which is a sanctuary for the endangered Rothschild giraffe. At the manor's attached Giraffe Centre Dan and I lined up with busloads of local school children to feed and hug a giraffe – Dan even kissed one! The next day we then visited the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a haven for orphaned baby elephants next to the Nairobi National Park, where we watched the playful baby elephants as they were fed milk from bottles and were given a dust bath. For anyone who is interested, the Trust has created an online fostering program whereby you can adopt an orphan elephant. It might not be the same as having one at home – but then again, do you really think an elephant will fit in your backyard?

Discovering Jamaica
In Jamaica I met up my dear friend Natasha Himmelman to attend the 2008 ACS Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference at the University of West Indies in Kingston. While sadly our time in the country was limited and, of course, marred by my unfortunate 3-day stint in hospital, we did manage to squeeze in a little sight seeing in between seminars and preparing our presentation. Not only did we explore Bob Marley's Kingston and taste-test the country's famous jerk chicken, we also popped by the prime minister's house for dinner – OK, so it was a reception dinner for the conference, but I still got to check out the PM's diggs and drink Jamaican rum on his lawn!

Cars, cigars and cabarets in Cuba
Visiting Cuba was definitely a dream come true. The politically isolated Caribbean island has been on the top of my "must see" list for as long as I can remember. After reading Hemingway’s "The Old Man and The Sea", I was keen to indulge in the legend of 'Papa'. From sipping daiquiris at El Floridita, where the novelist’s former seat is preserved as a shrine, and rumbling down the road in a classic chrome-laden Cadillac to smoking a fresh cigar straight from the factory and watching the spectacular Las Vegas-style cabaret at the Tropicana, the famous pre-revolution open-air nightclub where Carmen Miranda once performed, my fantasies were not only fulfilled, they were surpassed. While Cuba is undoubtedly intoxicating it is still clouded by the sinister shadows of the past with the stern visages of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Fidel Castro keeping a careful watch over the country's citizens. Yet somehow this caught-in-a-time-warp feel only added to its appeal!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Tales from the road: My latest travel articles in print and online

I know many of you think that my recent round-world adventure was all fun and games, but it spite of how it may have seemed my trip was definitely all about work. (Okay, with a little game viewing on the side). Not only was I helping author Philip Briggs update the new edition of the Bradt travel guide to Tanzania, I also researched and wrote a number of travel articles that were published while I was on the road.

Oddly enough, even though I was travelling around Tanzania and Kenya, I had several articles published on other destinations, most notably on Australia for Ninemsn Travel. I even managed to crack a couple of new markets with a blog style travel article on going in search of Count Dracula in Romania's Transylvania published in Australian Women's Health as well as a new destination guide on Queenstown, New Zealand, for Fastcheck AB. But, my biggest coup, of course, was scoring an interview with Terri and Bindi Irwin.

Meanwhile for MSN Travel NZ I wrote two pieces on my travels in Kenya - An elephant tale and the Get out of Africa at the Giraffe Manor - as well as a series of travel advice articles including How to travel for free, The dos and don’ts of haggling, How to waste time in an airport and How to save money on holiday costs.

Yet no matter how often I am published, I must admit that I still get a thrill out of seeing my words in print whether it is online or in glossy magazine or book. I suppose that is why I continue to be Wild About Travel + Writing!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

World in Focus photographic competition

Have you ever dreamt of becoming a National Geographic photographer? I certainly have! Well, here is your chance. National Geographic Traveller along with Photo District News are sponsoring the annual World in Focus photographic competition.

If you're not a pro with a camera don't worry, the contest is open to both amateur and professional entries and covers a number of categories including Travel Portraits, Outdoor Scenes, Sense of Place, Spontaneous Moments and Photo Essay.

The first prize for amateurs is a 15-day trip for two to Antarctica aboard the National Geographic Endeavour with National Geographic Expeditions. The top prize for professionals includes a 6-day professional photography workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as professional camera equipment (how does a Nikon D-80 digital SLR sound for starters?). For details on the terms and conditions for entries see the official website.

The original deadline of 21 August has now been extended to the 8 September (an additional fee of $10 is for entries received after the 21 August). So you’d better get snapping.

Gook luck!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Travel disasters: When things go wrong

I know it has been ages since I have posted on my blog. Unfortunately, the last few weeks have been very hectic, internet access has been erratic and I've had a few major dramas along the way that have spiced things up a little. So I hope that this blog explains at least one of the reasons for my lengthy silence.

When it comes to travelling the old saying, "hope for the best, and plan for the worst" rings true. Because, in spite of the best laid plans, things can and will go wrong. While most travel frustrations can easily be navigated around, as I recently discovered, there are those unavoidable bumps in the road which can quickly turn a fun, relaxing holiday into a stress-filled nightmare.

In all the years I've been travelling for work the most that has gone wrong has been a delayed flight or two and the odd case of traveller's diarrhea. (Mind you, I did once almost get arrested in Transdniestr for arriving at the border crossing half an hour later than I was officially allowed – but that's another story!). This time, however, not only did my luggage manage to go missing on a short 1-hour flight from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi, but, en route home I unfortunately got waylaid by a nasty three-day stint in a hospital in Jamaica after picking a severe case of salmonella food poisoning from something I ate in Cuba.

The drama all started the day I was leaving Cuba. Sitting waiting for my flight in the departure lounge of the airport in spite of searing outside temperatures I suddenly began to feel very cold, my head started throbbing, my stomach turned and I began to visibly shake. Not wanting to get stranded in country where I couldn't speak the language, I simply boarded the plane and buried myself under a blanket for the 2-hour flight back to Jamaica hoping that whatever was wrong with me would soon pass.

By the time I made it through immigration and to my hotel room in Kingston, however, I could barely stand. Still not wanting to draw attention to how sick I was for fear I'd miss my flight the next morning to the US, I thought that it would be best if I tried to sleep off my illness. When I woke up three hours later and realised I was getting worse rather than better, I finally decided to call reception to ask for a doctor. With no doctor available and the on-call nurse MIA, the hotel's duty manager came up to check on me, though, after taking one look at me he decided to rush me to emergency room of the nearest hospital. Luckily for me he did as by the time we made it to the hospital my temperature had reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit and I was verging on delirium. Needless to say I was immediately admitted.

Landing in hospital wasn't exactly how I envisaged I would end my trip (yes, that is a picture of the view from my hospital bed above), but I suppose I should consider myself lucky – at least it didn't happen at the beginning and stop me from enjoying the journey. What's more, I was so inspired by this latest [mis]adventure that I contacted one of my editors and have now sold three separate story ideas for a short series of articles on "What to do when things go wrong"!

So what are your worst travel disaster stories?

Friday, July 4, 2008

How to waste time in an airport

The journey towards our ultimate destinations can be very tedious, especially when it involves long hours wasted in airports. I certainly understand the frustration and boredom of lengthy airport waits — I was once forced to spend 10 hours in the airport in Accra, Ghana, with nothing more than my Lonely Planet West Africa guidebook (which I had just spent the previous two months working as part of a team to update!) to keep me company, and over the years I've spent more hours hanging out in Singapore's Changi International airport than I care to remember. So here are my best tips on how to entertain yourself and pass the time while waiting for your next flight.

Take a city tour
If you have more than a four-hour stopover in an airport, try to arrange a short city excursion. Naturally, this will depend on visa regulations, but these days, most international airports offer a variety of city tours for transiting passengers that range from half-day to full-day excursions that take in the city's major sights. I recently had an unexpected 12 hour stopover in Cairo and to my surprise I was able to arrange a tour to see the Pyramids of Giza — the stopover actually became the highlight of my whole trip as I was finally able to cross off one of my "must sees" from my travel wish list.

Shop 'til you drop
Most international airports have at least one duty free store. In some cases, such as at London's Heathrow, you'll find virtual shopping malls, so the long airport transit provides you with the perfect opportunity to pick up all those last-minute presents for family and friends back home. Even if you aren't interested in buying anything, window shopping is a great way to fill in time — start making your Christmas list or imagine what you'd buy if money wasn't an issue.

Read a book
Long airport waits are perfect for catching on your reading. I normally have at least one or two books on the go as part of my research. Though, reading for work can be tedious in itself. So I'll often pick up a quick pulp-fiction novel that I can easily immerse myself in for few hours, or I'll buy a magazine or local paper at one of the airport kiosks.

Talk with people
Deliberately choose a seat in the waiting room, bar or restaurant where you can maximise your chances of striking up a conversation with other travellers. Most people enjoy talking about themselves and what's important to them, and if they, too, have a long wait until their next flight, they'll probably be just as happy for the diversion as you are.

People watch
If you're like me and not the most gregarious of travellers, sitting back and observing the comings and goings of the people around you can be quite entertaining. I usually focus on one particular thing, such as comparing everyone's shoes or hairstyles. Otherwise, I'll try to imagine where the person is from and where they are going. I am sure the scenarios I come up with are far more romantic and adventurous than is really the case!

How do you waste time when stuck waiting at an airport? If you have any tips to add let me know.

An edited version of this article is on MSN NZ Travel
Image sourced from

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Picture of the Week: Walking on sunshine

There is nothing like a sunset. The way the sky is transformed into a dazzling display of colour as deep oranges, rich reds and powerful pinks splash across the horizon announcing the fall of night is truly mesmerising. For me though, you can't beat the African sunset. It somehow has a power that reaches right into my soul; a power which has kept me transfixed for more than a decade. (Perhaps this is why I feel such a connection to the African continent?) Case in point is this sunset I captured a couple of days ago on Lake Victoria in Mwanza, Tanzania. While I was focusing my lens on the play of light as the sun set on the lake's far horizon, a Massai warrior silently walked across the beach and into my viewfinder – where else but Africa would that happen? Mzuri sana!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Guest Blog: It's a hard life, but someone's gotta do it

After four weeks of having a travel buddy, Dan has finally deserted me and left me for the greener pastures of Edinburgh. In his last Guest Blog, he reflects on his experiences on the road trailing a travel writer:

I've been on the road with Kim for four weeks, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a travel writer. As I prepare to fly back to the UK what ground-breaking (or not so ground-breaking) insights have I had as a result?

There are good days and bad days: For aspiring guidebook and travel writers, those dreams of luxuriously jetting around the world will likely remain just that, dreams. Sure, we've spent some time in some beautiful and luxurious accommodation in game parks and on coffee plantations, but at the same time we have been in numerous low-end hotels and guesthouses which let rooms by the hour and have signs cautioning that 'women of immoral turpitude are not allowed in rooms'. There are a lot of miles to be covered, and a lot of places to be visited in the researching of a guidebook. It's a tough slog at times, but at others I haven't been able to think of where else I'd rather be than sipping on a chilled Tusker beer watching the sunset over a herd of wildebeest in the middle of a national park or watching a possum steal my bread roll off the dinner table.

Hair raising and hair conditioning: When travelling around Tanzania there have been a few hair-raising moments (often involving the condition of the road network, the speed of our driver and driving skills of other road users, but also involving a ngake kifutu (a puff adder), and a charging elephant). Travel writing will involve such moments and they add another layer to the vocation – if you are someone who needs to keep their nails manicured and hair well conditioned, this might not be the job for you.

Expert packers: The tight schedule of updating the guidebook meant we moved rapidly from place to place, often only spending one night in a place before moving on. This sense of movement is simultaneously a huge appeal of this work but also a drawback – there is little time to stop and reflect and to get to know the nooks and crannies of a place. After four weeks of movement, my rucksack packing skills have improved and I’m more attuned to the 'essential' things I need and to getting rid of the bits and pieces I haven’t needed in order to travel as light as sensibly possible.

A lonely road: The guidebook writers' lot can be a lonely one – weeks on the road by themselves (perhaps with a driver if they’re lucky) with only sporadic contact with friends and family back home. The highs and lows of the trip have been far more enjoyable with someone to share them with and I can imagine that doing this kind of work without a travel companion could get very lonely at times.

The guide book is not a bible: That dog-eared guidebook sat in your rucksack should not be taken as gospel. The time pressures on collecting information for guidebooks means the writer will not have been able to eat at or sleep in every place listed therein. Descriptions are based on visits to the establishments and the prices set at that time – but it could easily be two years or more from the research visit to the day you arrive at a hotel and things change. Treat the guidebook as a general introduction to a place and be prepared to work with changes on the ground. The number of times on this trip I’ve heard people talking about the guidebook as being the final word on a place or price has been chastening.

Thanks for sharing the journey with me Dan!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Drink this!

Over the last four weeks two drinks in particular have punctuated Dan's and my journey throughout Tanzania, providing us with well-deserved refreshment after long days on the road. The first is the omnipresent Tusker Lager. Reputably named after an elephant that killed one of its founders, Tusker holds the honour of being East Africa's first beer. The second is the quintessentially English G&T – the only drink to have as you watch the sunset over the African veld. (Yes, sadly, I have succumbed to the colonial gaze – hopefully it will wear off soon. Mind you, tonic water is said to be great for malaria prevention; the Gin, of course, is an added bonus!) Bottoms up!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Character of the Week: Mama Ruth

When I began organising my research trip to Tanzania several months ago, I discovered that a Norwegian friend from the University of Cape Town had family living in a place I was covering for the guide – Tanga, a quiet seaside town near the country’s northern border with Kenya. My friend immediately put me in touch with her mother who ran a meeting centre just out of town, and, after contacting her, Dan and I were invited to stop by and stay the night. I didn't know what to expect from the introduction – but I certainly didn't expect Mama Ruth!

Arriving by car from Dar es Salaam around midday, we were greeted at the gate by an elderly Maasai man who in perfect English inquired about the purpose of our visit. "I'm here to see Ruth," I responded. He looked at me blankly and shrugged unknowingly at the name. "You know Ruth...the owner?" I tried again. By this time another man from the gate post joined him by the car and together they chatted in Swahili and scratched their heads over my seemingly odd request. Our driver then interjected and asked after Ruth, this time in Swahili. But, again, the two men drew a blank.

Turning to Dan I asked, "How do I say her last name?" Having not known my friend at all his reply was a short, "How would I know?" Looking back at the two men I fumbled hopelessly over the pronunciation of the Ruth's Norwegian name, "I think it's Ruth or Nes..ja?" Suddenly the Massai's eyes widened and he beamed, "Oh, you mean Mama Ruth!" Of course, Mama Ruth, why hadn't I thought of that I smiled.

It certainly wasn’t difficult to miss Mama Ruth; dressed in a colourful tie-dyed kaftan with a crop of white-blonde hair framing a deeply tanned face, she was bright and bubbly with a loud, infectious laugh. First coming to Tanzania in 1984 Ruth had spent the better part of the last 20 years working on various HIV/AIDS programs throughout the region. Keen to promote a more positive image of Africa and to encourage sustainable development through tourism, in January 2008, along with two other investors, she opened the Meetingpoint Tanga - a community meeting point, an international conference centre and accommodation facility all rolled into one.

While there are numerous tourism projects throughout Africa that claim to be environmentally friendly and community conscious, for many it is simply rhetoric and as the pockets of the wealthy investors are lined, local communities are often left wanting. Meetingpoint Tanga, however, is different. Apart from self-satisfaction, investors in the centre earn no financial dividends. Instead, all money raised is reinvested in various community projects from hosting local music festivals to HIV/AIDS education. Tourists, too, are invited to "make a difference" by sharing their knowledge, skills and experiences during their stay at the centre. In one particular instance, a visitor from Norway helped fund and set-up a recording studio, which now produces and sells CDs for a local hip-hop group.

Dan and I were subsequently invited to join Mama Ruth and three other Norwegian visitors to watch a local football match in a nearby village. In this latest venture, Mama Ruth was hoping to secure international sponsorship of the team and lure skilled players over to help train the local team. In true Mama Ruth fashion, we barrelled onto the field in the middle of the village (after taking several wrong turns) unannounced in a large white Land Cruiser, much to the amusement of the crowd of onlookers who had gathered for the match.

After some initial confusion as to whether we were indeed in the right village and at the right football match, with her Norwegian flag held proudly in hand Mama Ruth was ceremoniously introduced to her team, TICC, who were dressed in the unmistakable red and white uniforms of Manchester United. With the official proceedings over, her team took to the field to take on another team from a nearby village, who were rather fittingly kitted out in Real Madrid royal blue, in a local friendly.

I'm not a huge fan of football, or soccer as we call it at home, so I found all the back and forth play with no point scoring a little bit tedious. That was, until a herd of cattle suddenly decided to storm the field. While both teams carried on seemingly oblivious to antics of the stray cows, the interruption obviously affected our team’s concentration as not long after Real Madrid landed the first goal of the match (perhaps the cows were all a ploy?). Despite the fact that it was the opposition that scored the goal, the children from the village swarmed the field cheering and clapping in jubilation – some even entertaining us with a few clever back flips. Sadly, in spite of Man United’s best efforts to regain control of the ball, in the dying minutes of the game Real Madrid managed to sneak the ball past our goalie to win the match 2:0.

While I’m no expert on football, it does appear that the Man United team would benefit from some proper training – perhaps David Beckham would like to help his old English team’s namesake out? So if you know anyone who’d be interested in sponsoring the team, or if you’d like to find out more about the centre and its projects, give Mama Ruth a shout.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Guest Blog: Surviving Stone Town

While I slaved away researching hotels in hot and humid Dar, Dan set off to Zanzibar for a few days of diving and exploring Stone Town. Here's what he had to say about his adventure:

Stone Town, the main urban settlement on the island of Zanzibar remains a top Tanzanian tourist attraction as travelers seek to revisit the history of slaves and spices of the island and wander the maze of narrow streets that comprise the old town. The history of African, Persian and Asian influences on the islands are evident throughout the town in the range of food available. Twists and turns in the maze of backstreets reveal hundreds of stalls and shops, craft vendors and craftspeople, the sound of the ocean rapidly replaced by a school-room of children reciting Arabic verses, and pedestrians, bikes and motorbikes jostling for space on the narrow alleyways.

My visit to Stone Town left Kim in the sweltering heat of Dar es Salaam as I took an early morning ferry across the water to Zanzibar for a few days of scuba diving. Whilst the neighbouring island of Pemba is touted as the better destination for diving, time constraints kept me to Stone Town.

For three days a small hotel in the heart of the Shangani district of Stone Town was my home as I set out each morning on Bahari Divers' dhow and explored reefs and wrecks in the Indian Ocean. Amongst the nudibranchs, clown fish, puffer fish, lion fish, ramoras, trigger fish and parrot fish, the highlight was at the end of the third dive: a close encounter of the turtle-kind.

Where guidebooks and tourists talk of the sound of Zanzibar being taarab music, for me the audio accompaniment for the trip was the noise of hundreds of petrol generators. An ongoing powercut (9 days and counting by the time I left the island) meant businesses were reliant on petrol generators for power, and the constant chatter of these engines was the soundtrack of the visit. A side-effect of this was for hotel, restaurant and shop prices to increase dramatically as operating costs rose due to the cost of generating electricity.

Sadly, all diving trips must come to an end, and after my third day on Zanzibar the afternoon ferry brought me back to Dar es Salaam.

Tips to surviving Stone Town:
Touts: As soon as you set foot off the ferry you will be beset by porters, taxi drivers and ‘guides’, some offering their services outright and others making conversation before guiding you to a hotel or guesthouse. Stone Town is a maze of streets so unless you know exactly where you are going, a guide may be of use to show you the way – but be aware they will expect payment for this and will likely loiter outside your hotel until you reappear and then attempt to guide the rest of your visit. Trying to shake these guides loose can be tiresome and some tourists opt to retain a guide as once you are ‘spoken for’ the hassle from other touts disappears. If, as I did, you walk alone then be prepared for a near constant bombardment of people offering goods and services. If you do ‘retain’ a guide, treat their claims and advice with a large amount of caution – one tourist I met on the boat back to Dar was left furious and distraught by the lies and claims made by the tout she had used for two days.

Losing your cool: In hot weather and with constant attention from touts, it is easy for tempers to become frayed. Rows with touts and pan-handlers will not get you far; try to keep your cool. On the two occasions when touts became overbearing and forced me into confrontations, a simple but firm re-assertion of your refusal of their services/products sufficed to put them off and to gain the attention of and support of locals who were visibly annoyed that these touts were acting in an aggressive manner.

Eating and drinking: The fish market, now based in a street between the Old Fort and the Zanzibar National Museum, is a great place for good quality street food (especially sea food and sugar cane juice) from about 6pm until 9pm. Watch out for overcharging and take a bit of time to look at the different stalls before being pressured into eating from a particular one. Expect a degree of hassle from pan-handlers and guides if experiencing the market alone. There are numerous cafes, restaurants and shops selling food and drink during the day, but a quick way of cooling down is from the street vendors who ply the streets with handcarts laden with oranges or coconuts. For a few hundred shillings a handful of oranges or a coconut-milk will provide a quick and mobile pick-me-up (and amusement to small children as you, the crazy mzungu, inevitably spill half the coconut milk down your shirt).

Streets of Stone Town: Stone Town’s charm is the maze of alleys and streets, but it is easy to get lost amongst them. Try to keep an idea of your general orientation, but if all else fails and you find yourself lost, just head in one direction until you reach the edge of the old town, work out where you are and carry on from there.

Learn some Swahili: A few basic words and phrases in Swahili will serve you well. Being able to work through greetings and declining offers of help (Hapana, asante) will help with shaking off touts and with getting assistance from staff and locals.

Dress appropriately: As with many other parts of Tanzania, dressing conservatively with long trousers and long sleeves is advisable – not only is this culturally sensitive, but it does seem to reduce slightly the hassle from street touts, and helps prevent sunburn!

Find a reputable dive company: There are numerous companies offering scuba diving and snorkeling in Stone Town and across Zanzibar. Seek recommendations as to reputable companies before booking and diving with a company, and check they are appropriately certificated by the government and the diving industry. Bahari Divers and One Ocean in Stone Town have very good reputations.
The passport stamp/port tax scam: Con artists working at the Dar ferry terminal will say you need to pay them or a colleague money for your passport to be stamped back into Dar (it doesn’t) or for the port tax (you don’t, buy your ticket from a ticket office and the tax is included in the total price). Ignore such people and don’t pay them anything. There is little point reporting such activities to the local police as they are unlikely to do anything about it.

Remember the good things: Despite the hassles and heat, try to remember the good times and positive experiences. Would you rather be being hassled to buy a bracelet by a beach on Zanzibar or to take part in a piece of market research on a rainy afternoon back home?