It's said that having a near death experience changes you in some way. I can't say if that's true or not but I will certainly never forget some of the experience I encountered whilst travelling around the world In this instalment, I recount more of those bizarre moments, where thing could so easily have turned out rather differently.
Here are some more of my brushes with death…
5. Swakopmund, Namibia
Quad-biking over the precipice
Near death experiences fall into one of a couple of categories. There are those close brushes with death that are genuinely terrifying and you come out of the ordeal with a deep sense of horror at what just happened. On the other hand, there are those that are an absolute adrenaline rush and you come out the other side not realising what just happened or that you’ve even had a brush with death at all. This one definitely falls into the later category.
During our African overland truck safari, we spent a few days in the Namibia dessert and were offered the chance to take a quad-biking excursion, which pretty much meant riding some quad-bikes across the dessert flats and dunes. Our round-the-world tour was as much about new experiences as anything else, so we decided to give it a go. As luck would have it, the quad-bike I was given was one of the more powerful ones which didn’t have a limiter, as some of the others did. This meant I could open up the throttle and give it some welly, as we Brits say. The guides were still very insistent that we behave ourselves and remain in single file behind the lead guide, which had the net effect of limiting any freedom we might otherwise have expected. The main reason given for this was that the wind can often create eddies that can cause bus-sized holes to open up in the dunes at random places pretty much overnight, and so even the guides themselves weren’t entirely sure where all the dangers were. Experienced in navigating the dunes, however, the guide would, well, guide us safely – providing we stayed behind them at all times and didn’t wander off in another direction, nobody would get hurt.
After about half an hour of slowly meandering in single-file behind the guide, we stopped somewhere to break for lunch. It was a rather uninteresting place, with little visible in all directions other than a few gentle sand dunes. However, I asked if I could have a bit of a ride on my own whilst everyone else was having their lunch. No problem, they said, but just remember to stay in this general vicinity and to not go too far. Great! This was my chance to really open up the throttle and off I duly flew. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had and I was literally screaming with delight with the wind rushing against my face. Now, the wind was blowing the sand around quite a bit and it wasn’t particularly easy to see where I was going with my visor and helmet on. However, I set off at high speed towards a gentle slope. I figured, I’d have a crack at getting the quad-bike airborne – even if it was just a little. So, after a few twists and turns, I positioned myself for a run-up to the slope and sped off with the throttle set to full. I had accelerated to full speed when the next thing I know, another quad-bike comes shooting across my path out of nowhere dead ahead. It cut me off abruptly and I only just managed to bring the machine to a sliding halt, barely avoiding a collision. “Where do you think you’re going!” yelled a voice from behind the mask. We both took off our helmets and masks and I walked over to him. “What do you mean? What’s the problem?” I asked. The guide motioned in the direction I was heading. Not three or four meters further was a sheer precipice with a drop of about 15 metres. It blended seamlessly into the landscape like a mirage and I hadn’t seen it at all. Had I continued, I would have gotten a lot more air than I was looking for.
Incidentally, I also fell into one of those bus-sized holes later that day and the quad-bike landed on top of me. I escaped that one with minor abrasions to my leg but OMG, I can’t tell you how much fun that was either!
6. Border Swaziland & South Africa
Tense moment with the locals
Before we set off travelling, I spent the better part of a year doing research in my spare time. Nobody can ever accuse me of being unprepared for the trip, that’s for sure. I used to spend endless hours discussing the finer points of travel with numerous other travellers in various forums. A particularly meme that was often discussed was the notion of how safe it is to travel and how the media tends to make people believe that the world is a dangerous place, when in fact that’s just not the case. When we travelled, it was safe in the knowledge that it’s not a generally dangerous thing to do. Still, there were some tense moments, like this next one.
We started travelling at the height of the tensions in the gulf with war imminent. We were on the road for barely a few days when Dessert Storm actually kicked off. Some of the media throughout Africa, as it turns out, was rather anti-America and ant-war, and this sentiment spilled over in this next incident.
We had just finished our Kruger National Park stay and were in our rental car on our way to Swaziland, where we hoped to catch sight of the Black Rhino at the Mkhaya Game Reserve. When we reached the border crossing into Swaziland, it was like stepping back in time. Having made it through the passport formalities, we pulled the car up to a filling station to get fuel. In no time at all, about eight strapping kids, all in uniform, came running over to the car. My immediate reaction was one of tense surprise but they then immediately set about wiping the windows and filling the car up with fuel. I hadn’t told them to do this and in another situation, I might have been a bit annoyed at them taking the liberty of doing this without knowing, for example, how much fuel I wanted. In this instance, however, I very quickly decided that I needed whatever fuel they were going to be giving me.
Now, I have previously described Africa as White Africa and Black Africa. That is to say, that there are parts of Africa where there are mostly a combination of white & black people and parts where there are pretty much only black people. This trip represented the first time ever we were in a non-white part of the world. Here, we were definitely in Black Africa and I felt just a little out of place. The group of enthusiastic kids tending to the car may have been teenagers but some of them were quite stocky. One of the taller kids calmly walked over to me. With clearly no sense of personal space, he pushed his face right up close to mine and in a deep, burly, African accent, he looked down at me and said, “Why is Colin Powell such a bad man and want to kill all those people in Iraq!?” I looked up at him…and gulped. Looking around, I noticed that all the other kids had now turned their attention to the two of us squared up against each other. Suddenly, the realisation dawned on me that this might become something of a tense situation. I mean, here I was, an outsider, a rich white man in a poor black country, with a shiny brand new car and looking totally out of place – the enemy, to all intents and purposes and now with the very real prospect of being surrounded by an angry mob all looking to take retribution on me for, what they at least perceived was, an unjust war against a peaceful people. I gulped again.
Thinking fast (funny how pressure and the threat of death bearing down on you can make you do this), I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Well, not everybody agrees with Colin Powell.” The boy smiled at me. We then continued to have a rather lovely chat about a number of things – essentially we got to know each other. Now, let me be clear here, I was never actually in any danger. These kids were a lovely bunch and we had a bit of a laugh together. However, for a split second in my mind, I was in mortal danger and my body responded physiologically accordingly. I…um, I don’t think any further explanation is necessary.
7. Khao Lak, Thailand
Left just in the nick of time
Despite the worldly benefits and wonderful experiences afforded to you by travelling, it can be arduous and tiring. When we were in Thailand, we spent quite a bit of time SCUBA diving, which itself can be a very strenuous activity. After several weeks in Thailand, the combination of the travelling lifestyle and all the diving we did really took it out of us and so we decided to splurge on some up-market accommodation – something a bit nicer than our usual daily shoestring budget would typically allow for. We found ourselves a very nice hotel that set us back $30/day. In Thailand at the time, this afforded us a level of luxury that even tourist would be envious of. Tourists typically spend considerably more money on things like accommodation than do travellers. It’s easily ten times the cost to book something in advance from your home country versus just showing up on the doorstep and asking if there are any vacant rooms. Our $30 bought us a very luxurious double room with a fantastic courtyard view onto a pristine pool and we enjoyed sumptuous massages and room service for the duration of our stay. For those few days, we lived like royalty and everything was at our beckon call.
During our travels, we were on a follow-the-sun strategy. We would circumnavigate the globe in such a way that we would be in the northern hemisphere during the northern summer and the southern hemisphere during the southern summer. In other words, we would go where the climate was always warm. This way, we would only need to take with us light, summer clothing and our back-packs wouldn’t be quite so heavy. Whilst we were sunning ourselves in Thailand, we were contemplating our next destination, which would be Australia. We had been thinking of hanging around some more and enjoying the luxuries of Thailand, but, as it was December, the summer was coming into full swing in Australia, so we decided, somewhat reluctantly, that now might be a good time to move on to the next part of our world tour and we bid a bitter sweet farewell to Thailand.
Two weeks later, the Thailand tsunami struck. Khao Lak – the very place we were enjoying just before we left – took the full brunt. It was razed to the ground and totally devastated. Had we decided to stay a bit longer after all, I might not be writing quite the same story…if indeed any at all.
8. Border Zimbabwe & Zambia
Bungee jump...the wrong way
It’s fair to say that we’ve had our fair share of thrilling experiences whilst travelling. Some of the voluntary ones, like this one, were somewhat more harrowing than others.
I’ve always wanted to do a bungee jump. More accurately, I’ve always been curious as to whether I’d actually ever go through with doing a bungee jump if the opportunity arose. Well, when we arrived at Victoria Falls on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, I was going to find out. Unbeknownst to me, Sandy, my dearest wife and partner in crime, had arranged to book me in for a bungee jump off the bridge that straddles the Zambezi river at the border between these two countries. When she dropped this little gem on me, I found my bluster and bravado about having the guts to go through with a bungee jump suddenly evaporating faster than I could say, “Oh, shit! Seriously? You did that…for me?”
Now, Sandy is a little less gung-ho than I am in these matters and insisted that I take the safer option of doing what’s called a star jump. Normally, a bungee jump is done head first, with the bungee cord tied securely to your feet and you pretty much just dive off head first and end up dangling upside down. With a star jump, you have a harness strapped to your chest and the bungee is strapped to this harness. You jump backwards with your hands and feet stretched out (like a star) and you end up dangling upright instead of upside down. Don’t ask me to explain why Sandy felt this was the safer option but she was fairly insistent that this was the condition upon which I would be allowed to go through with it. To add further insult to injury, she also insisted that she wouldn’t be able to do a bungee jump herself, as someone needed to be available to take photos of me doing my death jump. How convenient!
OK, so it eventually came to my turn to get strapped up and out onto the platform. I peered nervously over the edge. This particular bungee jump location is suspended about 111m meters above a crocodile infested torrent that is the very fast-moving Zambezi River. I gulped. At least, I tried to gulp but I was having some difficulty controlling my own physiological body functions, you know, like breathing and such. “Don’t worry,” said the helpful young man that was going over the safety features of the harness and bungee with me, “we haven’t lost anyone yet.” I tried gulping some more. “Well, not this year,” he added just under his breath. I frowned at him but he just smiled back with a wink. So, after some initial reluctance on my part, I got into position, and with the aid of a little help from that same smiling young man (and by this I mean he just pushed me off), I jumped backwards and stretched my arms out.
Now, the thing is with the star jump style of bungee jumping, I would now learn (nobody bothered to point this out ahead of time), is that you can’t see where you’re going. Consequently, you have no idea how long the jump will go for. What was in reality only a few seconds felt in fact like minutes. Everything races very quickly in your mind and you sort of lose the ability to identify how much time has elapsed. Worse still, it takes a long time before the bungee cord elastic kicks in and so I thought it had just snapped and wasn’t ever going to kick in. For a brief moment in time, I was utterly convinced I was falling straight to my death into the raging croc-infested torrent below. Memories of my life rushed through my mind and I screamed in blind panic. Just as I was about to great death, there was a lurch and the bungee cord kicked in – finally – and I bounced several times above the river. I think I might actually have been crying also, as my face was wet. By the time they pulled me up, everyone was laughing in hysterics. Bastards!
Well, that's about it but before I go, there are a few other honorary mentions I'd like to, well, mention. There's the time we were in Datong, China, on the umpteenth floor of a high-rise when an earthquake struck, shaking the building several times. I was on a SCUBA dive on the west coast of Thailand when I discovered that I was out of air prior to my three-minute safety stop. I had to borrow some air from one of the dive masters. We were staying a place in New Zealand and decided to move on to the next destination, only to discover the following day that a tornado had ripped through the town we had been staying at. Whilst in Quito, Ecuador, we called it a night and spent the evening rugged up listening to what we thought were some fireworks from some sort of local celebration. We found out a few days later that it was actually a military coup taking place and what we were listening to was actually gunfire. Another incident whilst diving saw me playing with a very nice little eel. When I showed the dive master the photos I'd taken later that day, he told me that was I was actually playing with was a sea snake and that it was considerably more venomous than the most venomous land snake. Finally, we were enjoying some terrific views of New York on one of the twin towers just a couple of months before they came down.
So, there you have it. Quite a litany of near misses and brushes with death. Do you have any? Describe them in the comments below.