Come up with the top 10 best list? – too hard, there are thousands to choose from! Come up with the top 10 most disappointing, that’s more manageable – actually they are the only 10 I can think of after all these years. I’ve always believed that I can find something to enjoy, to appreciate, anywhere I went. And the vast majority of the time that has been true. But let’s be honest, sometimes, not very often, I am really, really, disappointed. Maybe it doesn’t measure up to the hype, maybe something else interferes with my enjoyment. So at the risk of generating a bit of an argument, in no particular order, here’s my 10 most disappointing from 23 years of travel:
- Venezuelan beaches. I should re-phrase that, the beaches along the Venezuelan coastline are beautiful, but are ruined by the locals. In short, the beaches are junk yards, with litter throughout the sand and the water. It’s particularly bad if it’s a weekend and the beach is within a daytrip from Caracas. Playa Colorada looks beautiful, but the sand was full of glass, bottle tops, cigarette butts and other litter, and many of the families visiting the beach disposed of their litter each day by throwing it in the sea.
- Taj Mahal. I have never met anyone else that didn’t love the Taj Mahal so I know I am out on my own on this one. But I can’t help it, when I visited the Taj Mahal I thought “great, looks just like the post card”, then I thought “I should take a photo” , and then I was bored. All those lovely large alcoves are empty, it’s a big hollow tomb and has no atmosphere. However I loved Agra and I spent hours enjoying the Red Fort, and found the distant view of the Taj Mahal from the Red Fort the most interesting way to see the Taj Mahal.
- Alcatraz. Reputedly the most visited attraction in San Francisco, and I cannot understand why? The boat trip to the island and back is very enjoyable and provides a great view of either the bridge or the fog, depending on weather. Maybe if I had grown up with the history, with Alcatraz stories, it would’ve seemed more atmospheric. But it’s some old, not really ruined, buildings on a rock, that was once a jail. And Hollywood made some movies about it. I even did the night tour to try and amp up the atmosphere, but it still felt like a school trip to a not very exciting museum.
- Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco. It’s sounds good doesn’t it? The harbourfront wharf, the famous clam chowder. Maybe a few decades ago it was like that. Now it is a plastic theme park of fast food and tacky souveniers. There is so much good food, great shops, interesting neighbourhoods and great views in San Francisco, so avoid this bit and enjoy the rest.
- the Mona Lisa, the Louvre. Mona Lisa’s smile is the most visited (and best known) art work in the world, housed in a massively impressive building. So by the time you search through the vastness of the Louvre and queue for a while, it’s a bit disappointing to discover the painting is so tiny, and for its own protection hidden away behind perspex. Maybe if I could see if alone, instead of from beneath a rugby scrum, I could appreciate it more.
- Dallas, Texas. To be fair, I didn’t choose to go to Dallas as a tourist destination – I was sent there on a work trip – for seven weeks. On the first afternoon I had covered the two things worth getting excited about – SouthFork Ranch (preserving the iconic Dallas TV show) and the Grassy Knoll. With hindsight I kind of wish I had done the second one with the “JFK death route” tour company who drive you along the same route that he took, in an open top limo, and they even play a gunshot sound in the car as it passes the appropriate spot. Sick and yet at least not boring. After that afternoon I was done, Dallas beat me down into sheer boredom. I saved my sanity by racing to the airport every weekend and jumping on a Southwest flight to anywhere else!
Salar de Uyuni. This is a very different kind of disappointment. I was really keen to see this, one of the world’s largest salt lakes and at a high altitude of over 4000 metres, with it’s quirky salt hotels and traditional villages and cottage salt businesses. It’s immense and links Bolivia and Chile. We arrived there during floods. The arid salt flats were under water, not just a normal downpour but a real flood. The owners of the 4×4 tour vehicles that normally take tours around the salt lakes were not running, as they feared their vehicles will stall and break down in the wet. We finally found one guy who took us a few hundred metres into the vast flats and then chickened out and took us back to the town of Uyuni which was also completely flooded. I am absolutely sure that I will go back one day and see Salar de Uyuni and not be disappointed.
- Riding camels. If you read my blog about camels in Morocco, you will understand why I find camels disappointing (as well as scary and distinctly dangerous). Suffice to say, do not ride a camel that is in heat, or is being mounted by another camel. Actually just don’t ride camels, end of story.
- Riding elephants. Yes, it does seem like a theme is developing here. I love elephants, beautiful, fun animals. In Laos I went to one of the many good elephant sanctuaries that are dotted around South East Asia. I fed the elephants, I stroked them, I talked to them. They were in an idyllic riverside setting next to some stunning shallow pools under the tropical jungle foliage. So I went for a ride on one, thinking it would be slow and majestic. It turned out to be disappointingly like an out-of-control rollercoaster. I stepped off the platform onto the “chair” on the elephant’s back, right up the front by it’s neck. This chair is really a wooden plank for a seat with another thin plank for a backrest and a tiny dowling rod across the front of me, to keep me in the seat, all tied loosely to the creature’s back. Off we go, with a very young mahout sitting on the elephant’s head and steering him. And then suddenly we were climbing up near vertical 3 to 4 metre high mud banks and back down near vertical drops of the same scale – all in deep slippery mud. And the elephant was sliding. I was clinging to a very unstable dowling rod for dear life while gravity tried to claim me, and most of the time I had my eyes squeezed tightly shut – it didn’t seem so bad when I couldn’t see how much of an extreme angle we were on. To add insult to injury the mahout, who seemed about 10 years old, was rolling around laughing hysterically at my discomfort. I knew that logically it was much safer than it felt but it did not help one bit. I still love elephants but I will admire them on the ground from now on. This picture shows the misleadingly pleasant part of the ride.
- Juliet’s balcony in Verona. Firstly, it is a fake. The “balcony” is an ugly recent addition to the outside of a house, to con tourists out of their money. The queue to get in is like standing in a particularly crowded and dirty subway. Most of the courtyard is a shop selling a variety of red synthetic plush love hearts to separate romantics from their cash. Again, Verona is a beautiful town with much atmosphere, much to see and do, and this little bit of fakery is not a good example of that.
Is there somewhere you’ve been that didn’t live up to your expectations? Anywhere you’d recommend against going as you found it disappointing?
There were a few warning signs, but we chose to ignore them.
I had always wanted to do a felucca trip up the Nile, I knew people who had been and it seemed like it would be one long slow party in the sun. Sure the felucca is very basic, a flat wide traditional boat with just enough height at the front to squeeze our packs under the ‘deck’, and just enough space to roll up on the deck at night in our sleeping bags. It’s the traditional way to travel and no self respecting backpacker is going to do it any other way.
Just in case you have the same romantic vision of the felucca ride, here’s my list of 8 warning signs that maybe you will get the felucca trip from hell instead.
- When it is cold and windy. Egypt is generally known for hot weather, so even though February in Egypt is winter, we were expecting it be fairly mild. If you hear the words “coldest winter in decades”, and it is cold and windy outside, and it snowed last week, you might want to reconsider. You won’t get a suntan, you’ll be shivering in the breeze instead.
- When only one felucca in the whole of Aswan is prepared to go, and the captain tells you it’s a large felucca that can take all nine of you instead of the usual six. Don’t believe this just because it has a cool name like “Kiwi Magic”. All feluccas are the same size. No-one else is leaving because the weather is not good.
- When your cook is able to tip over the portable gas cooker and set fire to the wooden boat – twice, on your first afternoon. You will then get to watch bucket loads of Nile water being thrown over your packs (although that is better than seeing them go up in flames too). You will see your dinner, in its early stages of cooking, going over the side as the cook ditches it to use the saucepan to get water to put out the flames.
- When you find find nine people in sleeping bags having to fit into a space designed for six. You will top and tail, and all nine of you will have to turn over at the same time. No, make that eleven of you, your crew will try and squeeze any between any two girls they can, even though they have their own sleeping area.
- When you wake up to find a WATER RAT RUNNING ACROSS YOUR FACE. This will make you yell and will wake everyone else up, who will be annoyed. You won’t care because you can’t possibly go back to sleep now anyway. You think that maybe you don’t want to sleep in the open air, at the waterline, tied up to a riverbank again.
- When your captain casts off pre-dawn into a thick fog. For a few minutes it is an amazing feeling floating along with the current along in thick fog. Until a huge Nile cruise ship appears out of the mist about 100 metres from you, heading straight at you and seemingly unaware of your existence. You will have the excitement of screaming, paddling wildly with your hands and grabbing any poles you can find, to try and keep your boat a mere couple of metres off the side of the monster.
- When your captain is stoned and still capable of getting aggressive. After a wonderful time exploring Kom Ombo and a relaxing lunch on a river bank, our captain challenges the only other felucca we have come across to a race. After we have won the race, the captain of the other felucca turns his boat into us and rams us at speed, putting a large hole in the hull. We start to take on water. Our captain is incensed and proceeds to try and ram the other boat.
- When your captain carries a foot long knife and a large leather strap to sharpen it. Not content with ramming, our captain pulls his knife, jumps onto the other boat and starts slashing at the competing Captain. The two of them leap backwards and forwards between the two boats while wildy flailing the knives around within inches of our heads, as we cling to the deck. Our captain is now frothing at the mouth in anger as we all watch our felucca sink closer towards the waterline. We are wondering if it is better to drown or die from a vicious knife cut. The cook eventually separates the two of them and gets us to the riverbank to carry out some repairs, but our packs, (and sleeping bags), under the deck are soaked through again.
By this point we decide that when we make our evening riverbank stop, which will be at a village, we are going to get off the felucca and find our own way onwards to Luxor, even if we have to walk! This is not an easy thing to announce to an angry captain who is still sharpening his knife. Luckily for us, when we reach the village, the matriach of the captain’s family hears what has happened, and offers to put us up for the night in her compound of mud brick houses.
We have a great dinner and enjoyable evening with the extended family. Because they have to squeeze us in, three of us are given a room with a frail looking double bed and mattress – no problem, more topping and tailing! The door to our room is unattached to the door frame, so we just lean it over as best we can, and are ready to sleep. As we nod off, the bed collapses beneath us. We decide we don’t care and sleep on the mattress on the debris of the old bed frame. As the sun comes up next morning, about thirty chickens wake up in the compound. The rooster crows, and then the chickens find the gap at the bottom of our door frame and push their way in to say hello. As we sit up we scare the chickens who start flapping their wings and dropping chicken feathers and poo everywhere. We start laughing and can’t stop, rolling around in chicken feathers, trying to shoo them out of the room until breakfast is ready. We decide we really like Egypt, and we are ready for another day.
It’s the end of the year, time to reminisce, and I’ve been thinking about luxury, tranquility, getting away from it all. Not my normal mode of travel I must admit, that is usually more about comfort, interest and convenience, but every now and then I break out and indulge. Here’s my three favourites (so far) in Australia.
- Calabash Bay Lodge Accessible only by boat, surrounded by the azure waters of Berowra Waters, the eucalypt bush and limestone cliffs, this luxury holiday house is perfect for a weekend with friends, food, drink, books and music. I can sit on one of the balconies with a glass of wine and watch the jetty below for hours as the sky and water change colour.
- Seven Spirit Bay Lodge. In the upper reaches of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, is one of the original luxury outback lodges of Australia, a plane ride and 4-wheel drive trek past Darwin. I remember sitting by the spectacular pool on the first night, looking over the bay below, with three shark fins circling and crocodile tracks up the sandy beach – this may look like a tropical paradise but this sea is not for swimming in – the pool is fantastic though. As is the ancient rock art, the bush walks, the crocodile spotting, the deep sea fishing, the flora and fauna. All while being spoilt in my “habitat”, an individual private octagonal suite set into the bush, five of the walls are glass louvres to take in the view.
- Paperbark Camp, Jervis Bay. I think these guys invented glamping – the most luxurious form of camping I’ve ever had. My ‘room’ is a raised platform with a huge two roomed “tent” set amongst the paperbark trees. There’s an excellant bar and restaurant in the golden glowing two-storey ‘treehouse’ that is the center of the camp. In the morning we borrow a canoe from the camp and float down the tranquil river to one of the many beaches and bays on the nearby coastline. My tip for tranquility is to check what time the tide turns before heading off in the kayak, otherwise tranquil can quickly become adventure seeking bonding experience!
Which other luxury get-away-from-it-all spots have you enjoyed – what should I have on my wishlist?
Cradling my camera carefully as we bounce along the corrugated dirt track, wishing I’d worn a serious sports bra, getting painful bruises under my arms where I am standing up and clinging to bits of the open roof of the 4-wheel drive, coated in a potent mix of suntan lotion, dust and sweat, and grinning maniacally as we lurch to a stop, we spot a family of elephants just emerging to our left. Tanzania is a world-class spot for seriously impressive animal spotting, which is why we are all standing upright and clinging on for hours on end in the heat – we don’t want to risk missing a second by sitting down.
On my previous visit to Tanzania in 1992 I traveled through the Serengeti, Ngorongoro, and Mikumi national parks. This time I am visiting Tarangire, Ngorongoro and Lake Manyara, and it strikes me that animal numbers in the national parks appear to have increased dramatically in the intervening years, which is very encouraging. We have quickly determined a pecking order of what gets our attention. We have seen so many monkeys, antelope and wildebeest that we barely stop any more – it’s the elephants and giraffes and any big cat, hippos and rhinos that get us excited now. Here are a few of my favourite moments.
- The Hippo Pool at Lake Manyara. We are pinning our hopes on the promisingly named Hippo Pool in Lake Manyara, and boy does it deliver. Dozens upon dozens of hippos resting into a series of shallow pools, climbing in and out of the pools, lolling around in the mud, with a backdrop of hills and zebras and great colonies of storks. And then one right in front of me does a huge yawn and I am as happy as a hippo watcher can be.
- The large herds of Elephants in Tarangire. We are awestruck watching a column of elephants come towards us through the tree line, 50 or 60 in number, about a third of them young ones, striding three or four abreast. They tower over us as they cross the track just in front of us, ignoring us. Over the next hour we see at least three more herds of similar size, all within a few km of each other. One herd is running, stampeding (luckily not in our direction), and we watch them steer and protect their babies as they thunder by.
- Spotting a Leopard in Tarangire. Just on dusk, on our first evening drive in Tarangire, Peter pulls up and points to a large acacia tree, two or three hundred metres away, and says “leopard” . At first we can’t see a thing in the waning light, but as I extend my zoom lens and follow his direction – up to the first large horizontal branch sticking out to the left, pan along it, suddenly it comes into view. Magnificent, stretched out along the branch. We joke that it’s a stuffed toy planted by the guides to fool us, as the leopard hasn’t moved. Right on cue, it stands up, stretches, moves a couple of metres further out on the branch, and lies down again. It’s a small spot in the distance, but as we assess the size of the tree and the relative size of the leopard, we start to realise it is indeed big, it has to be at least two metres in length, and we stay there and stare at it till it is just too dark to see any more.
- The very self satisfied teenage lions in Ngorongoro Crater. The epitome of self assured adolescence – nine or ten teenage lions and lionesses having an afternoon seista on a sunny hillside. One male sits to the side as a very casual guard, the remaining males are all flat on their backs, limbs spread akimbo, baring their contented bellies to the sun. The lionesses are similarly napping, albeit in a slightly more conservative pose. We get the very strong message that these lions don’t have too many worries at all.
- The sole Rhino sighting in Ngorongoro. I can’t help wondering is it is still the same rhino that I saw in the same place eighteen years ago, I like the idea that it might be. Last time I saw it a lot closer as it charged our jeep (which had stalled). This time it doesn’t charge anyone, and while I tell myself that is a good thing, I am secretly a little bit disappointed.
- The black and white beauty of the zebra. We see what seems like thousands of zebra. We also see what seems like thousands of wildebeest and quickly get bored with them, but the zebras remain fascinating. Even though they tend to turn away from us when they hear us approaching, so we end up seeing a lot of zebra arses. Its the contrast between their funny donkey-like shape and the graphic beauty of the black and white markings, no two ever the same.
- The soda lake pink flamingos and the soaring storks. I’ve never been a bird watcher when I travel, but even I am impressed when there are huge flocks of birds. A solid pink carpet of flamingoes in a lake in Ngorongoro, or vast flight of storks forming intricate synchronous flying patterns, soaring around in aerial displays by Lake Manyara.
- The teenage giraffe argy bargy. It is so hard not to endow animals with human behaviours and motivations. As we do when we see three male teenage giraffes, two of them engaged in a bit of friendly pushing and shoving, for all the world looking like a couple of footy players trying to establish a pecking order, the third giraffe looking like the try-hard hanger-oner
- The Masaai village. It’s easy to imagine the Masaai get really annoyed with us for treating them like just another animal sighting – pointing our cameras at them, wanting to capture their ‘colour’, wanting to look into their life’s. Imagine if a horde of tourists descended into your house and workplace every day doing the same to you. Near Ngorongoro, in the Serengeti, there are a number of Masaai villages which have been built specifically for tourists to visit, for a fee. Here we get welcomed with traditional dances, get shown into traditional Masaai huts, visit a school room, and have the opportunity to buy some of their intricately beaded jewellery. And we are allowed, indeed encouraged to take photos of everyone and anyone. That’s because these are ‘theme’ villages, the Masaai only work there during the day, and go home to their real villages in the evening. This is a job for them, and they get paid for it. Some tourists object to paying an entrance fee, object to it not being a real live village. I wonder when we decided we have the right to invade peoples lives and expect them to perform on demand for us for free, in their own homes. Good on them for setting up a cultural performance, of finding a way to manage the interest in them and earn an income off it, while putting a boundary around their real lives.
- The monkey that tried to steal my lunch. Sometimes I get a good reminder that I can be a dumb tourist. This was one of those days. After an early start and a full morning in Tarangire I am looking forward to our packed lunch. We’ve stopped in an official picnic spot, sitting at the tables under the trees, a river valley teeming with zebra, wildebeest and giraffe below us. A few cute little monkeys playing on the fence yonder, one a mum with the tiniest baby monkey clinging on to her under her belly. I start pulling out items from my lunch box – sandwich, samosa, juice, chocolate bar – with a big loud “yum”. One of my fellow travellers yells “watch out”, and out of the corner of my eye I see the mother monkey with baby still attached doing a giant leap through the air from fence towards my unpacked lunch box. My brain flashed ” oh no, you’re not getting my lunch” and I somehow managed to sweep all the contents into the plastic lunchbox and slam the lid on in a split second, just as the monkey’s claw grabbed one corner of the box, about 2 mm from my hand, and yanked hard. I yanked back and pulled it out of her grasp, the plastic breaking off into her claw as it went – she sat back and snarled at me, looked like she was considering attacking me, and then turned and retreated back to her fence. Only then did I remember that I’d decided I wouldn’t need a rabies shot before I came on this trip, that her claws had been only 2mm from me and strong enough to rip a plastic lunchbox and that any sane person would’ve just let her take the sandwich.