Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Ten alternative uses for your travel guidebook

Dan and I are now in Dar es Salaam. As we wilt under the weight of Dar's oppressive heat, I find myself longing for the cooler plains of Tanzania’s open veld. The few days we spent game driving around the national parks certainly made for a refreshing break from the hectic pace of researching Tanzania's cities and towns. The only downside however was the Tsetse fly. After suffering from their relentless bites while we drove through parts of Mikumi National Park, Dan and I discovered that our best defence against the nasty little blighters was my Bradt travel guidebook to Tanzania. Having found a new use for the guide, Dan and I decided to come with our top ten list for alternative uses for travel guidebooks:

1. A [Tsete] fly swat: Thick and sturdy guidebooks make perfect swats for flies and all sorts of nasty bugs.

2. A self-defence weapon: If you find yourself in a sticky situation throw your guidebook at your assailant. It should hopefully stun them enough for you to make a fast getaway.

3. Emergency personal insulation: Stuck sleeping outside in the cold for the night without a sleeping bag? Don't worry! Simply tear out the pages of your guidebook (preferably pages you no longer need), scrunch them up and stuff them down your top.

4. A pillow (of sorts!): I've used my guidebook as a pillow plenty of times while on long-haul bus and train journeys – it might not make for the most comfortable pillow, but at least your head will have some support.

5. Fuel for starting a fire: The used pages of your guidebook can come in very handy if you are having problems getting your camp fire started. Just be sure not to burn any important pages you might want to refer back to in the future.

6. A conversation starter: (Or as Dan calls this one, a great pick-up tool!) Dying for a little conversation or an introduction to that cute local in the corner of the coffee shop? Then play the lost tourist and use your guidebook to ask for directions. Even if you don't know the local language, hopefully they'll find your bumbling use of the language guide at the back endearing.

7. A conversation blocker: We’ve all been in this situation before with the annoying stranger on the train, plane or bus determined to natter on to you incessantly about the minute details of their last holiday, their family back home or in some cases (and my pet peeve) their latest medical procedure. Simply burry your nose in your book and hopefully they'll eventually get the hint. If not, see suggestion 2.

8. Door jam/stop: If the door to your room refuses to stay open or bathroom door just won't quite close, your guidebook makes the perfect doorstop – especially if it's one of those hefty multi-country guides.

9. Toilet paper: Why is it that there never seems to be enough toilet paper when you really need it? In Romania I once paid for the privilege of being given one tiny square piece of toilet paper when using a public bathroom. It wouldn't have been a problem apart from the fact that I was suffering from a nasty case of traveller's diarrhea at the time. Again, just be sure not to use any important pages otherwise referring to them in the future might be a!

10. A sun hat: If you're like me and forgot to pack your hat (in spite of your trusty packing list!), then open the guidebook in the centre and place it Teepee style on your head. Don’t worry about looking foolish. As a khaki-clad foreigner walking around with a rucksack on your back you already stand out!

Have you used your guidebook for a purpose that was not recommended by the publisher? If you have any suggestions to add to our list, we'd love to hear them.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Tanzania: Call of the wild

It's official; you can't get more Out of Africa than Tanzania. With one of the world's largest and wildest animal populations, it offers some of the best safari opportunities on the African continent. Zebra, lion, elephant, antelope, flamingos, wildebeest, giraffe, cheetah – you’ll find them all here.

When it comes to game parks in Tanzania (or Africa for that matter) nothing compares to the Serengeti. The star of the country's Northern Safari Circuit, the Serengeti covers a mammoth 14,763 square kilometres and supports over three million different types of mammals including the Big Five. From experience I can tell you that there is nothing more mesmerising than watching the mass migration of thousands of wildebeest and zebra as they trek across its vast open plains, but as Dan and I have discovered the untrammeled games parks of Tanzania's Southern Safari Circuit also offer an interesting and stimulating safari experience. Fortunately my hectic research schedule allowed for two brief game park visits.

Our first stop was Ruaha National Park. Covering 12,950 square kilometres, it is the second largest national park in Tanzania after the Serengeti. Yet it remains one of the country’s wildest and most undeveloped game reserves. When you consider that the park is home to more than 12,000 elephants as well as large populations of buffalo, zebra, giraffe, lions, kudu and antelope it is easy to see why those in the know consider it to be one of Tanzania's best kept secrets.

While we easily spotted numerous giraffe, zebra, kudu, impala and elephant we struggled to spy the any of the park’s lions in spite of the fact that the other guests at the lodge had seen a pride of 27 lions the previous two days before we arrived. When we finally happened across three lone lions, our driver managed to scare them off before we had photographed them properly. He also managed to irritate a very large bull elephant by barrelling through the middle its herd. I'd never actually seen a riled-up elephant charge at full speed before nor seen a driver that scared!

The next and final stop on our abbreviated tour of the southern game parks was the much smaller 3,230 kilometre square Mikumi National Park. Located near Dar es Salaam it make the perfect weekend getaway, so you'll generally find a few more tourists here. Though still nothing like the crowds in the northern game parks.

While only a small section of the park has been developed for tourism, a typical game drive will reveal elephant, hippo, giraffe, zebra, buffalo, warthog, wildebeest and impala all in impressive numbers. What’s more with the Tanzam Highway running straight through the centre of the park, you don't even need to enter it to start your game viewing. After spending two days driving around the park hoping to spy a lion, we actually found one casually crossing the main highway just as we'd given up and left the park!

So if you want a safari experience away from the crowds Tanzania's Southern Safari Circuit is the place to head to.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Picture of the Week: Going nowhere slowly

I've now been in Tanzania just on a week travelling with Dan in tow south along the Tanzam Highway covering the Southern Safari Circuit as well as all the pit stops en route to the Malawian border. Yesterday when we stopped briefly to refuel in Iringa I spied two young men sitting atop of the skeletal remains of what was once a small four wheel drive and was inspired to take the above picture. After our driver spent the last couple of days hurtling a hundred-miles-an-hour along deeply, rutted dirt roads and overtaking trucks and lorries at break-neck speed around hairpin turns on mountain passes, I won't be at all surprised if this is how our snazzy little Rav4 hire car will look when we return to Dar es Salaam at the end of the week. Safari Njema! (Safe Travels!)

Friday, May 9, 2008

Going a little offbeat around the world

If you hadn't already guessed from my previous post I have a bit of an odd affection for strange, unusual and offbeat attractions that don't always make it into the pages of guidebooks or local tourist brochures. So much so that the first thing I did once I arrived in Cape Town was to organise a Below the Surface sewer tour of the city with Figure of 8 for tomorrow.

A sewer tour in the bowels of Cape Town might not sound very appealing – especially for anyone who's claustrophobic – but it's actually a great, fun way to learn a little more about the history of the city and experience it from a whole new perspective. The tour takes participants through a network of secret underground passages to the city's castle; the Castle of Good Hope. What's more the group I am joining is doing this tour as part of an "amazing race" experience to raise funds for one of the townships on the outskirts of Cape Town. So I'm really looking forward to my latest offbeat adventure.

Offbeat tours and attractions are obviously not limited to Cape Town and South Africa. There are a world of weird, wonderful and quirky experiences and attractions out there just waiting to be discovered. So I thought I'd ask a few other writers and bloggers to share some of their city's best offbeat experiences.

Heather, from Heather on her Travels, suggests that visitor's to Bristol, UK should explore its dark secret - the Slave Trade:

As you wander around Bristol's pleasant Harbourside area or admire the fine 18th century houses, you may not realise that much of Bristol's wealth was founded on the Slave Trade. Why not visit the Georgian House, a free museum which was once the home of a wealthy sugar merchant whose fortune was made from his slave plantations in the Caribbean. Then download the free MP3 walking tour from the Visit Bristol website, which will guide you around the centre, stopping off at the old sugar refineries and other sites that have connections with the slave trade. You can stay the night or relax in the bar of one of these sugar houses, now a luxurious boutique hotel, the Hotel du Vin. You might like to take a drink in one of the bars and old pubs, such as the Llandoger Trow on Welsh Back, where the merchant ships would moor up when Bristol was a thriving port. Or walk across the modern Pero's bridge in the harbour, named after the slave servant of John Pinney who built the Georgian House.

My co-author for my conference paper and travelling companion for Jamaica and Cuba, Natasha Himmelman recommends visitors get tangled up with a little "Yarn Tasting" in Oakland, California:

Montclair Village in Oakland, California is, at times, a seemingly random splice of the Bay Area a place where wanna-be Piedmonters, Berkeley yippies, and Oaklanders converge. Although this fusion is sometimes odd, if not outright awkward, some businesses in the area have managed to get the recipe just right. The Knitting Basket is one such place. A yarn store by birth, the Knitting Basket has become so much more. It's a community spot where one can pick up beautiful yarns, of course, but also take knitting and crocheting classes, join the knitting charity group, become a member of the Afghan Square of the Month Club, enjoy an afternoon of baseball and knitting titch Pitch, or just drop in to say hello to Kelly. But do not let this cute yarn store fool you; it has an edge. Come on in for a Friday Night Stitching Party (BYOB) or stop by for a yarn tasting. Yes, I said, yarn. The last yarn tasting took place on 4-20, a perfect date to check out some hemp. Kelly laid out some hemp yarns, hemp fusion yarns (i.e. hemp and cotton), and some knitting needles and tasters purled, knit, and stitched (crocheters are also welcome) the new threads. So, if you're in the Bay Area, looking for some new threads or just want to try something different, check out the Knitting Basket.

For anyone visiting Lisbon, Portugal, travel writer and blogger Anja Mutić from Ever the Nomad suggests you make a splash in the city's waterways:

For a unique view of Lisbon's hills hugging the Tagus River, take a commuter ferry ride from either the Cais do Sodré or the Terreiro do Paço terminal. Get a roundtrip ticket to Barreiro, Montijo or Cacilhas. For schedules, see Transtejo’s website.

Take a tour of Lisbon's historic Águas Livres Aqueduct, built in 1834. This remarkable 36-mile construction with 35 arches (the tallest is 213ft/65m) crosses the Alcântara Valley. On this excursion offered by Lisbon's Water Museum every weekend morning from March through November, you travel along the springs of the Aqueduct and visit its cavernous interiors.

New York City-based photographer and journalist, Wendy from Escape New York says there are plenty of offbeat ways to take a bite out of the Big Apple:

Some of the best views of Manhattan are from the water. How about taking in the skyline while kayaking on the Hudson River? The Downtown Boathouse, a volunteer organisation, offers free kayaking tours.

Take the subway to Coney Island where old world Americana still exists. Sideshows by the Seashore features 'Freaks, wonders and human curiosities'. The current cast includes fire eaters, chainsaw jugglers and glass eaters to name a few. Admission is $7.50 for adults and $5 for children under 12.

You won't find this museum on the tony Upper East Side's Museum Mile. The Museum of Sex opened its doors in 2002. Current exhibitions include Sex in Design and Sex and the Moving Image. You must be 18 years and older to enter. Admission is $14.50 plus tax.

Finally, Dan Hammett (aka Diver Dan) who will be accompanying me in Tanzania offers his advice for visitor's to Edinburgh:

Try one (or more) of the pubs in Edinburgh (there are plenty to choose from!), preferably those selling a good range of single malt whisky and real ale. Some of my favourites would be the Dagda Bar (Buccleuch St), Cloisters (Toll Cross), Guildford Arms (just off Princess St), Bow Bar (Victoria St), and the Cumberland Bar (Cumberland St). Most of these are off the tourist path, but the detour is well worth it for the quality of the drinks, and the atmosphere of the venues.

Look up. When you’re walking around remember to look up as the town is built on some crazy hills and it’s easy to miss the amazing Georgian architecture surrounding you if you don’t make the effort to gaze upwards occasionally. Climb Arthur’s Seat or Carlton Hill to get a panoramic view across the city and out to the Firth of Forth and even the southern highlands on a clear day.

Do you also have a fetish for the strange, peculiar and bizarre attractions? If so, what offbeat things would you recommend for people visiting in your city do?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Some day I'll fly away

When I was young I loved going to the airport with my family. It either marked the beginning of a new adventure as our family welcomed yet another international exchange student into our fold (my family has hosted 11 exchange students over the years), or a sad, but heart-warming, farewell as they one-by-one returned home to their respective families and countries. So airports have always held a special place in my heart.

Today when I think of airports I am reminded of the touching beginning and ending sequence of my favourite movie Love Actually where friends and family are re-united at Heathrow Airport. The pure joy and happiness of the airport hello-goodbye greeting is beautifully encapsulated by this montage as dozens of real life people share embraces, caresses and kisses. That's the thing about airports though, there's this happy energy about them that makes you feel like anything is possible. People are either excited because they are heading away on a holiday or a trip, or they're happy to be arriving home after time spent away from their loved ones.

Once you make it beyond the airport's main hallway, though, and pass through immigration into the departure lounge you enter a liminal space – a place of transition that is neither here nor there where everyone is a stranger. In spite of the geographical solitude, this border between what was and what is yet to come is still the site of possibility and everyone who enters it has the potential to be changed. No matter where you are going and what you are doing, the experiences you have, the people you encounter and the sights you see while away will change you; even if only in a small way. So as we wait patiently on the threshold of travel there's an air of expectation and excitement as we ready ourselves to move across the limits of what we were into what we can be.

But that is what I love most about airports; the possibility of what can be. Luckily for me, that 'some day I'll fly' away is in fact tomorrow.

See you on the other side!

Image sourced from