Disaster Travel

See the world now - before the next disaster strikes - by Lesley Stones

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I have a theory about the future of travel – set off now before we’re cursed with another stroke of ill-luck!! 

The global Covid lockdown was unprecedented, but that doesn’t mean unrepeatable. And while you, me and some mad conspiracy theorists may suspect it was a little overblown, it proved that governments can shut borders, airports, hotels and even beaches on a whim when panic meets megalomania.
It wasn’t the first time, either. 

Remember when Iceland’s unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano grounded flights across Europe for weeks? Or the severe snow that closed Heathrow Airport? I was stuck there for five torturous days because I carelessly routed flights from Johannesburg to Costa Rica via a connection in London. I’d only packed suntan lotion and a bikini, but at least I could wear the top half as earmuffs in the cold.

So once the Covid crisis calms, I reckon we should visit everywhere we ever want to see as soon as possible, before our plans are washed away by endless possible disasters: a tsunami; Covid, the sequel; a mad dictator locking his citizens in; or a religious nut keeping the heathens out. 

A tragic war, perhaps, or just a frustrating airline strike. You could start with these amazing places – but don’t blame me if the world goes wonky when you’re there and you’re forced to stay a while!

Hong Kong

Well, call me clairvoyant, but the next disaster has already struck Hong Kong. This feisty, freewheeling city is my favourite, but it’s being swallowed up by authoritarian China. Hopefully, the rebellious citizens will triumph, but you may only get a taste of its unique spirit if you hurry.

It’s an incredible blend of international meets oriental, with fascinating attractions, unfathomable food and the hard-working Star Ferry, a dowdy commuter boat that chugs across the truly spectacular harbour.

A newer treat is Ngong Ping 360 cable car, with a cable running past the airport and across Lantau Island for 25 minutes of panoramic views. It stops at a cultural village in the mountains and from there you can catch a bus to Tai O, a quaint old fishing village with stilt houses perched above the water. 

The open-top Big Bus Tour is a great way to see everything, covering manic Mong Kok and Kowloon on the mainland and the more chilled Hong Kong Island. Hop off at Aberdeen, and haggle for a trip in a traditional sampan. 

The touchy-feely Maritime Museum is also excellent, with buttons to poke, videos to watch and a real-time display of all the ships in the harbour. 

Best avoid monsoon season (June to August) when you may not see its 1,300 skyscrapers for moody storm clouds and sheets of rain. 

Bolivia

Getting to Bolivia takes a serious effort, but it’s a land unlike any other. It was overrun by Spanish conquerors in the 1540s, but the enforced language and Catholicism feel like a veneer over the indigenous Aymara and Quechua cultures, and a heady sense of wildness and witchcraft swirls around.

Its capital, La Paz, is the highest in the world at an altitude of 3,650m, which is literally breathtaking. I could feel air moving past my mouth but it didn’t seem to be going in. So walk slowly as you explore the steep roads clinging to the surrounding mountains. 

Free city walking tours start outside the notorious San Pedro prison, where the criminals run shops and restaurants inside and share their cells with their wives and kids. The jail once housed a flourishing cocaine lab too, with packets lobbed over the walls to waiting colleagues. 

The Witches’ Market has stalls crammed with love potions, herbal remedies and llama fetuses, sold as offerings to Pachamama, the Earth Mother. 

A slow walk away is Plaza Murillo, the main square where the presidential building is often damaged in uprisings. In 1946 the president was flung from its second floor then hung from a lamppost in the plaza. 

But Bolivia’s real attraction isn’t edgy La Paz, it’s the blazingly bright white Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats. They were formed when tectonic shifts thrust out the Andes and drained an ancient lake, leaving bubbling hot springs, a geyser that shoots out hot steam, and rocks scoured into weird shapes by chilly winds.

A red lagoon filled with flamingos sits against a backdrop of the snowy Andes, and a plateau that was once an island is studded with giant cacti planted by the Incas. 

A stunning place. Just watch out for witches.

Machu Picchu

Once you’re in South America, grab the chance to visit Peru’s incredible Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. It’s a dream destination for many people, and they’ll all be there at the same time as you, despite attempts to thin the crowds to protect the ruins.

Lots of people arrive after a gruelling four-day hike along the high-altitude Inca Trail. Since I once fainted from low blood pressure on a hike in Johannesburg, I was delighted to discover that you can go by train. 

It chugs through spectacular mountains and leaves from Cusco, a lovely city that was the capital of the Inca Empire from 1400 AD until 1532 when Spanish conquerors arrived. It’s studded with fine buildings and palaces, plazas and the Qorikancha, a complex of temples where some rooms were literally covered in beaten gold. 

In Cuzco, I was even blessed by the descendent of an Incan shaman, which made me feel invincible!

Maccu Picchu itself is astonishing – a hilltop city abandoned when the Spanish invasion started, and only rediscovered in 1911. This royal estate for emperors has temples and houses, and wide agricultural terraces supported by hundreds of thousands of carefully placed stones. 

The Sun Gate offers the most spectacular views, reached by a path that ends in steep stone steps with a sheer drop at one side. Its scale, beauty and amazing state of preservation, plus stunning views of misty peaks rising through the jungle is quite extraordinary.

The Amazon

What a magical, mysterious place this is! A vast jungle sprawling across eight countries, with countless secrets still waiting to be discovered. 

I only saw a tiny fraction of it, but even that delivered the strangest noise I’ve ever heard: the spooky cry of a howler monkey, sounding like something straight out of Ghostbusters.

This vast rainforest contains creatures, plants and entire tribes unique to the region, with an estimated 390 billion trees sheltering 1,300 species of bird and more than 430 types of mammals.

My tiny corner was in Tambopata National Reserve in Peru. I flew from Lima to Puerto Maldonado then puttered up the caramel-coloured Bajo Madre de Dios river to the EcoAmazonia lodge. The jungle here is less dense and intimidating than I’d expected, and the lodge was very civilized, with a swimming pool and half-price cocktails at happy hour. 

On jungle walks, we saw a sloth hanging around in a tree doing nothing, as sloths tend to do. Then as we stood listening to the chirping, squawking, buzzing, cackling cacophony, a huge troop of wide-eyed squirrel monkeys peered out at us and swung down through the branches to investigate.

Even the trees are fascinating, with ‘walking palms’ that shift a little ever year, and strangler figs that wrap around a host tree until they smother it completely. 

Borneo 

The lockdown scuppered my grand plan to spend a month in Borneo volunteering at an orangutan sanctuary. It’s now rescheduled for 2021 when I’ll join the staff at Nyaru Menteng deep in a rainforest.

This rehabilitation centre was founded by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) in 1999, and it’s home to about 390 orphans.

My entire trip was inspired by the Twitter account @Orangutweets. After an hour spent admiring these gorgeous orange-haired baby fur-balls I signed up to work with them via Great Adventures, (www.thegreatprojects.com) which specialises in ethical volunteering.

Borneo is being devastated by the manmade disaster of deforestation, with rainforests ripped out to grow palm oil. That’s displacing orangutans and often the mothers are killed in the process. The orphans who make it to the sanctuaries are rehabilitated and released into protected areas. BOSF has released nearly 300 orangutans since 2012, although some that arrived injured will never be able to fend for themselves.

“Visiting Borneo as an animal volunteer could prove to be one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of your life,” Great Adventures promises. I hope so. At least the lockdown has given me an extra year to improve my Indonesian language skills.

Budapest

Big, bold Budapest has the ornate architecture to admire in the mornings, hot thermal spas to wallow in all afternoon, and a lively vibe to soak up in the evenings. 

The Hungarian capital is far cheaper than its more popular neighbours Vienna and Prague, and far less full of tourists. Every street tempts you down it with another mighty Renaissance, Baroque or Gothic beauty, interspersed with a few dreary communist blocks that were rapidly erected to fill gaps created by bombs in the Second World War.

What I like most is the underlying grittiness that makes the city feel well lived in. The excellent public transport is cheap, letting you jump on underground trains, trams, buses and ferry boats with one ticket. So, cruise along the Danube on the public ferry, then catch a tram to Buda Castle Hill, a complex of beautiful buildings in cobblestone streets with brilliant views over the river. 

Central Market Hall is an exotic attraction in itself, and the best place to sample specialities like sausages, cheeses and pastries and plated meals to eat at communal tables. Culture is big here too, with several theatres and a couple of palaces to enjoy.

London

As an ex-Brit, I’ve never been too excited about England. If I was, I wouldn’t have left. But calling London ‘English’ is like calling Cape Town ‘African’. Geographically accurate, but culturally miles out.

You can visit a tourist attraction every day and stay enthralled for a year. Its entertainment overload includes museums, galleries, castles and cathedrals, glorious parks, atmospheric pubs and a plethora of playhouses. 

Many attractions are free, including The British Museum, one of the oldest in the world, filled with ancient artefacts purloined during the height of the British Empire. The neoclassical rooms themselves, built-in 1847, are stunners even without the treasures. The National Gallery is also free and filled with centuries of European artworks. It stands in Trafalgar Square, another gem with statues of lions, zillions of pigeons and people-watching opportunities.

Westminster Abbey is the famous 11th-century Gothic church where royalty is crowned and married. The beautiful Tower of London is where those same royals used to behead each other with alarming regularity. A tour there includes ogling the Crown Jewels, lavish enough to make your eyes ache.

Other must-sees are Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament with the Big Ben clock tower, and the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel with brilliant views of the city. 

Theatre lovers can buy seriously discounted tickets to the current shows from ticket booths in Leicester Square. Then for food, London’s massive immigrant population translates into plenty of ethnic eateries in the back streets.

If you love the cold, go pretty much any time from October to May, while the sun may shine between June and September. Global warming has mixed that up a bit but always pack an umbrella.

Sri Lanka

If you’re hankering to go to India but feel daunted by the poverty, the hassle, or the risks to women, start with Sri Lanka instead. This teardrop-shaped island is India-lite, with spectacular scenery, delicious food, vibrant temples, friendly people, and gorgeous beaches lapped by the warm, swimmable ocean.

 

It’s also far more than a mini-version of its frenetic neighbour. It boasts eight Unesco World Heritage sites including Sigiriya Rock, a massive column of stone that soars straight up from flat grassy plains. It’s large enough to have supported a monastery and a palace, and tall enough for the troops of King Kassapa to have defended from marauding enemies back in AD477.

The picturesque town of Kandy has a lovely lake and the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic, where Buddha’s tooth is kept behind vast golden doors. 

A genteel taste of old colonialism comes at the Hill Club at Nuwara Eliya, founded by the Brits in 1876 as a gentlemen’s club and now a quaint hotel. It’s up in the cooler mountains and reached by twisting roads that pass tea plantations tumbling down steep terraces. From here you can hike to Horton Plains, a massive plateau overlooked by mountains and ending in a sheer drop called World’s End. 

If you take a round trip to Sri Lanka you’ll probably finish in the seaside town of Galle. Here the thick ramparts of a 1663 Dutch fort protect the old town, where the houses are now art galleries, boutiques and cafés.

For delicious street food try dhal curry with hoppers, which are like pancakes, except the batter is rolled around a high-sided bowl to make an edible basket. The national dish is curry and rice, a lavish affair with perhaps eight different bowls including tongue-tingling meat, potato and vegetable curries, rice, poppadums and fiery sambal.

Egypt 

Egypt is a crazy place and Cairo in particular.

It’s loud, dirty and crowded with too many cars and people, and has far too many priceless antiquities to ever protect them all. If you relish chaos, you’ll be delighted by the vastness of its treasures, the exuberance of its markets and the glory of its history. 

Cairo’s highlights are the Pyramids and the Sphinx, amazing structures you’ve seen a thousand times in pictures but that still make your draw drop in reality. You should be able to enter at least one of the main three pyramids, stooping along low passageways to reach their central chambers. 

The Egyptian Museum holds Tutankhamun’s gold funeral mask and 120,000 other treasures, like towering granite statues and mummified remains. Then visit Khan el-Khalili Market, where traders crammed in ancient narrow alleys sell gaudy tentmakers’ material and tinsel-topped shoes, and men gather in coffee houses to drink thick coffee and smoke shisha.

Next fly to Luxor for a Nile cruise to Aswan, where the views of feluccas sailing against a backdrop of palm trees, sand and temples is bewitching. You’ll visit astonishing sites like the Temple of Luxor, a sprawling compound built over several centuries by pharaohs including Tutankhamen, Hatshepsut, Ramses II and Amenhotep III. The dry and dusty Valley of the Kings housed King Tut’s tomb, the most famous but tiny compared to his extravagant predecessors.

Travel even further to see the breathtaking Abu Simbel temple, built by Ramses II. This modest chap had his workers carve four statues of himself, each 20m high. The entire complex was relocated in the 1960s when damming Lake Nasser threatened the original site. It’s reached in a day trip from Aswan and well worth the journey.

Amalfi coast

If you’re dithering between history or nature, Italy’s Amalfi Coast delivers both. Start by hiking the well-named Walk of the Gods, following a path along the clifftops. It’s interrupted every so often by steep stone steps leading down into towns like Positano and Amalfi, where higgledy-piggledy houses hug the cliffs all the way to the beach below.

The gravity-defying villages look like Walt Disney sets, with skinny little buildings heaped on each other’s shoulders, with narrow alleys and side streets that end abruptly at private front doors. It’s a crazy lifesize jigsaw puzzle.

The history part comes from nearby Mount Vesuvius, and the two cities it wiped out on August 24, 79AD in a volcanic eruption, Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Both have been excavated and give a real sense of Roman-era life, with almost perfectly preserved wide streets, an amphitheatre with room for 20,000 spectators, villas with colourful frescoes, and urns and bowls stacked neatly in a shop, waiting for customers who never came.

A display board explains that a sudden tremor interrupted the daily routine, followed by a tremendous blast that shot a column of lava 20,000 metres into the air. This hailed down on Pompeii, quickly submerging the city under 6m of debris.

Which is a fitting reminder to travel as soon as you can. Before the next disaster strikes.


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