Travel fails - the best stories?
In an alternative universe we would have been on a Cornish beach in 25 degree sunshine this Easter (if you are not familiar with the area, can I just say that is a very rare combination and practically unheard of at Easter). During this new and strange period of confinement I have been busying myself digitising my whole life’s photo collection and have been reminded of the many other forerunners to this Easter’s plans in terms of travel tribulations. This is my compendium of a few of these “so bad it’s good” travel fails, reliving the good/bad times while new travel is off the table.
Various themes have emerged as factors in guiding travel activity away from its intended destination, from scene-stealing weather conditions, animal invasions, tricky transport, the power of nature, navigational nightmares, wardrobe malfunctions and holiday hospital. Turns out, travel disasters are sometimes the making of the trip as well as its downfall, and definitely make the best stories.
Animal invasions travel fails
Wildlife outside in
Our first travel tale takes us to this “Hide” in Malaysia, where we spent 3 days waiting for a large animal to appear out of the jungle and lick a salty rock (apparently that is a thing). Sadly the rock remained unlicked and the only large animals were the cat-sized rats that would run along the length of your body in the night to steal your food (which was hanging from ropes on the end of your bed to keep the rats away). Also, fat back-flipping leeches chasing you through swampy paths were a feature. Special shoe spray was required. But you would find dying ones in your socks.
Dead in the water?
When deciding whether to join in the fun and waterslide from this cafe into the river in Bukit Lawang, we were advised to get out of the water before being swept over the weir, but no one said anything about water snakes.
Italian jellyfish soup
This may look like an idyllic scene from the Italian riviera but exiting the slide, we realised it is actually the jellyfish forest scene from Finding Nemo.
Whilst watching a bull fight in Indondesia there is no safety in numbers. Don’t be lured into thinking you’ll be fine if you stand on a small hillock. Enraged/fleeing bulls are able to scale these more easily than you’d think.
Whilst snorkelling in Australia don’t travel with a guide who thinks its funny to drop bread on your head. Large fish will attack your face in the manner of a horror film feeding frenzy.
Photographed this beautiful green snake at close range in Bornoe about 5 minutes before a tour guide passed by, pointing it out to his entourage, and entreating them to stand right back as this was the most deadly snake in the national park, the Bornean Keeled Pit Viper. Its venom would kill a grown man stone dead. Didn’t though, so all good.
The Australian desert is not empty. It is in fact full of flies. You can cover your face with a fetching net (or traditional swinging cork hat) to stop them running up your nose and climbing in your ears but they still coat your hands and wearing shorts is a one time only rookie mistake. Lesson learnt for the next outing.
When launching your home made raft in Chiang Rai, Thailand, watch out for MASSIVE spiders who have been, up to this point, soundly asleep inside the bamboo you have decided to use. There’s nowhere to run from a spider on a raft.
On the lam
Animal thievery is a worldwide phenomenon – from stolen beach chips in St Ives to chipmumk daylight robbery in the Rockies. A surprise entry here is an Indonesian sarong thief pig. Am unsure how well its yellow and pink camouflage served it in the jungle
Surprise bearded pig
Just throwing this one in because, who knew bearded pigs were a thing?
Yes, they come out in the dark, snuffling about in Malaysian National Parks scaring the bejaysus out of you with its demonic eyes and hirsute ways generally.
Tricky Transport travel fails
Locals in Nias Island, Indonesia, like to cadge planks from local bridges for building materials. This can make crossing them in the local bus something akin to a corporate team building challenge. Decided it might be best to tip toe over on foot and meet them on the other side.
Avoid travelling down the Nile on a traditional felucca in high winds. Should one flip over, you will become part of a fairly traumatic flotilla rescue effort dragging crying people out of parasite-ridden waters. Everyone will then cry for a bit but at least the chef who was trapped beneath deck will eventually be found safe and well rather than dead as feared.
Then, carrying double the recommended passenger load, you will continue the afternoon’s sailing on more than a metaphorical edge, at a 45 degree angle in fact, in search of a substantial modern vessel to transport the rescuees to safety. They may have no luggage, passports or money – but they are lucky to the extent that will have safe passage back to port, unlike those continuing on with the felucca adventure for the next blowy and nerve-wracking few days.
Whilst it looks great fun to hang on to a net slung from the back of a speedy boat in warm Australian seas, beware this fish net activity if wearing a bikini. You can start holding on with 2 hands but as speed builds, one will be needed to save one piece of your outfit (you get to choose which) from the pull of the sea.
You will find yourself desperately clinging to the net with 4 ever-loosening fingers of 1 hand, whilst keeping one item of your outfit in the general area it is supposed to cover with the other, and at the same time endeavouring to keep face up out of the rushing water. Inevitably, as the speed increases people’s bodies becomes more horizontal then vertical and everyone gets at best kicked, and at worst, a bottom in the face. You will subsequently lose any remaining dignity exiting the sea back on to the boat, hugging what remains of your bathing outfit.
Indonesian boat jumping
Spent a evening not sleeping on wooden boards in our 40cm wide individual allocated troughs in this local overnight ferry boat, before being required to throw all worldly belongings and ourselves about 15 foot off the side of boat 1 and into boat 2, for the ensuing 10 day log-balancing Siberut jungle walk, next up..
Nature always wins travel fails
A 10 day leg wallowing mud bath on the remote Indonesian island of Siberut could be avoided by simply balancing for 6 hours a day on slippy logs over the semi-liquid earth instead. Tree branches are perched up to 6 feet over the mire for full fear-factor and slip impact. On the fairly regular falls that punctuated each day, submersion up to waist-level was not unusual. Don’t even mention the al fresco midnight toileting in these conditions.
Wave eats man/boy
Hunting the world's largest flower
Not only is the infamous Raffelasia the world’s largest flower, but it’s rare as hens’ teeth, being found in only a handful of National Parks in Asia. It takes 9 months for the flower to form and although it only blooms for a few days a year, in that time it can grow up to 1m in size, weighing up to 7kg. Charmingly, it is carnivorous and attracts flies by emitting the stench of rotting flesh, before itself succumbing to decay. This beast of a flower was not to be missed.
We called ahead to the Malaysian National Park, and yes there was one due to flower in the next couple of days. It would only cost us about $100 for the guide to take us there. The path was treacherous, not really a path at all but sheer drops through densely foliaged jungle. On our near vertical 90 minute descent, we clung to the occasional supportive rope, along which armies of ants marched angrily over our hands. But at last we came upon our destination flower. It was still alive, about 60cm across and just a bit rotten at the edges. As we stood back to take a trophy photograph we spied a tarmacked footpath along which strolled an elderly America couple who, having a clear view of the flower, took the 10 second detour from the main public route for their snapshot.
I guess we may have missed this real life triffid without the guide, but really we’d have been happy with the path and fewer ant bites.
Booking a balloon ride over the Australian outback, we couldn’t wait to see wild open plains of desiccated orange desert. We were greeted at dawn by a balloon man who was excited to tell us that we were in for a real treat. As it had been the rainiest season in 40 years, the desert was actually covered in grass. Result, still lovely but very English-y green fields on view for flight duration.
Spent some time photographing the incredible volcanic landscape at Rotorua, New Zealand before noticing we were on the wrong side of a roped area, warning you to stay off this very thin bit of the Earth’s crust for danger of falling though and being boiled alive. The Earth stood its ground and no comic book cracks appeared, so all good. Just a bit shaky.
Leap of faith
On a day off from our 8 hour factory shift in the Kibbutz in Israel (see below, dream jobs section), we were on a guided hike in the Golan Heights. This was disputed territory on the Israeli/Egyptian border and machine gun toting Kibbutz helpers accompanied us just to be on the safe side. Didn’t feel very safe.
But it was the military detail that looked the most distraught to find the group leader had chosen a route where the only means of descent involved a waterfall leap. Looking forlornly at our non -waterproof cameras (us)/weapons (them), no one dared to venture that some warning in terms of day-packing might have been nice. Or indeed pre-checking if all of the group could swim.
It’s been a long time since I have seen such well executed head-above-water swim badge jumps and energetic water treading exhibited by the more able swimmers, who then drew upon their other bronze award life-saving chin-cupping techniques to guide the non-swimmers to shore. As the gun carriers didn’t have to shoot anyone, I’m not sure if the guns still worked but my camera seemed to survive the day to record the moment for posterity.
Geology in action
When travelling in Iceland, invest in an up-to-date guide book, or geology will have intervened to move the hot springs from the place you have decided to visit for your child’s birthday to somewhere else entirely. Were these hot springs we saw before us? No. Just a pipe of hot water.
Dream jobs travel fails
In a pickle
Joined my sister on an apparently exotic kibbutz experience, where she got to spray the crops from an aeroplane, only to be rostered on the 4am shift in the pickling factory.
For fear of sounding overly negative, I think it is worth adding in a bit of detail about the job spec.
One of the tasks was to remove the dead rats that rumbled along the conveyor belt amongst the olives. On the late shift, ending at 11pm, you got to wash down the factory floor, being careful not to stand under the sludgy wash swilling down unannounced from the floor above you. I managed not to be sick at the ever-present stench of pickle, which was good as this meant I didn’t have to be transferred (unlike our less fortunate travel companion) to the metal work factory, where they were reintroducing recidivist offenders from the local prison back into the community.
I may not have landed my dream job, but there was a pool and twice weekly bar and adversity does tend to bring a crowd together so was still living the travel dream in a gritty, pickle-based diet kind of way.
Minnie Mouse meets Lady Di
More of a fashion felony this one. Working in Australia, landed not a cool bar job, but one working in Darrel Lea chocolate shops, located in a Mall an hour’s bus ride away – to be travelled in an outfit reminiscent of a cross between Mini-mouse and Lady Di.
Food fiasco travel fails
Don't forget the food
Don’t forget to pack your child’s formula milk when setting off on a half day boat trip from the tiny and sun-baked island of Gozo.
When travelling down the Nile – don’t confuse the communal “washing your hands after bush-toileting” disinfectant bottle, with your own actual water bottle (which will look exactly the same). Also, when bush-toileting you will find that the banks of the Nile are not unpopulated.
(Though in all fairness, drinking disinfectant may have saved me from Egyptial-stomach, which visited the other 22 members of the group.)
Camping it up travel fails
When your tent is MIA
Returned from day out on a French beach to find the wind had blown our tent away, but had kindly left all beds and belongings in place and flagrantly on display. The absence of any kind of groundsheet turned out to be a bonus after all, preventing a Wizard of Oz style whole house loss. We tracked it down at the other end of the campsite and popped it back on. No harm done. Were a bit less messy for rest of trip just in case.
Camping with the woodsmen - no tents 2
Disembarking from a night train somewhere in the Czech Republic with a very generic large scale map, we played hunt the campsite in the dark. Luckily we found one – a field, filled with hardcore Russian woodsmen sleeping on the ground in what looked like padded belts rather than tents. Although they looked a bit murderous they in fact did not kill us in the night and drank heavily in the bar with us instead – relieved half-smiles all round.
Camping with the army
Camping in Singapore involves pitching your tent on (always comfortable) concrete, having an army of red ants march through it followed by a torrential midnight flood. The sting in the tail comes not only from the ants but also from the pointing and laughter of passing school children in the morning. Officially the worst night spent under canvas (so far).
Camping out - fleeing to the trees
When travelling with small children to a villa in the hills near Barcelona always allocate a 1:1 child marker or keep all doors firmly closed, otherwise you are in with a good chance of your 2 year old escaping and being located after a lengthy period of panic, having climbed up an 8 foot ladder into a tree house in the scrub.
When in Portugal, don’t confuse Odeciexe with Odiaxere. Although visually similar, you will travel an unnecessary 2 hours to the incorrect destination and it will not be market day. The streets will actually be quite deserted.
When driving through the Rockies, if there is a chance of wildfires – listen to the local radio and find out which roads are closed to avoid adding a 200 mile round trip to your existing 10 hour journey itinerary.
Scene stealing weather front travel fails
First up weather-wise is landing on the first leg of our year of travelling in the otherwise idyllic Bali, in the wet season.When ditching the day job, wading through open sewage was not day one’s anticipated activity. Still, at least I was on foot…
When visiting Mount Rushmore, watch out for golf-ball sized hail. Especially in a soft top. We had parked undergound but did later view cars which had the appearance of having been attacked with hammers. The mountain was then closed to visitors to avoid death by hail.
Cloud-engulfing mountain hat-trick
Over the years, many a mountain has been climbed only for its view to be eaten by clouds. You come to expect this in Wales at Easter, you may think there is a 50/50 chance of it in the Lake District in July, but surely the Canadian Rockies in summer will deliver? But apparently there is a whole wild fire scenario to factor in and run off with the scenery.
We marched the children for a few hours up a fairly steep but dull path to the summit of Sulphur Mountain in Banff on the basis that I remembered it leading to some of the finest views of snowy mountains I had ever seen. Total wildfire misty whiteout ensued. Though we did see a chipmunk, so that cheered us up a bit.
Another one to watch in the mountains is rain water taking your return path hostage. In Scafell, for instance, at the start of the path is a river crossing together with a sign informing you that there is “no shame” in turning back if it is too swollen to cross safely. This sign is less effective, if you are setting out in decent weather with a sunny summit forecast in your back pocket. Be aware that sudden turns of weather and rain are in fact no strangers to the Lake District, and a stream that is fine to boulder-scramble over on the way up, may have grown significantly and ragingly by the time of your return crossing 5 hours later. We didn’t have to spend night on the mountain on this occasion, but the thought of it in the relentless downpour made the descent less than relaxing.
When white becomes grey
- Australia – Visiting the world renowned blindingly white Whitsundays in Australia in the rain.
2. USA – Catching the last ferry to Staten Island in NYC before the remainder were cancelled due to adverse weather. There are better photographs of the Statue of Liberty in the world.
Desert storm - Lanzarote
Saharan storms are like poltergeists- shifting swathes of sand into your pool and slamming shutters wildly in the night requiring pyjama-clad investigation. Specialist skills also include tree-snapping and painting formerly white villas, grey.
Holiday wardrobe travel fails
Boot up - 1
Buy your children waterproof boots AND waterproof socks – or you will be required to donate your own in the -15 degree dead of Moscow winter and spend the day trudging through 20 cm of snow bare-ankled.
Boot up - 2
When hiking inside a glacier in Iceland, accept the specialised rubber boots when offered – you will not regret it. Glacier puddle water is not warm on the toes and runs the risk of your child not fully appreciating the day out.
Holiday hospital travel fails
Mysterious mountain malaise
Whilst walking in the Himalayas in Nepal I was less than overjoyed to develop flu and a whole body chicken pox like rash, symptoms worryingly not familiar to locals. Having left all unnecessary luggage, such as weighty guide books with chapters on medical ailments, back at base camp and with no local diagnosis other than a shoulder shrug to go on, there was no option but to continue the climb for the remaining few days and hope it was nothing deadly.
Upon completing the trek (still weirdly spotty but alive), I flicked to the relevant section with some trepidation to find it matched quite neatly the symptoms of dengue fever, which I had been gifted by a rogue mosquito on our Delhi stop-over. Reading on to check the prognosis and see if it was in any way fatal if left untreated, I was relieved to learn that a happy ending was in store and that death only follows if you catch it for a second time. So all good for now. Maybe avoid India for a bit/ever.
Waterslide of doom
Watch out for water slides in Morocco. No one wants to see their child’s skull. Spent one of my least favourite nights wearing only a wet costume and a sarong in a Marakesh hospital struggling to communicate to plastic surgeons in medical French. I believe my best attempt at “The drip appears to be leaking on the sheets,” was “There is some water on the carpet”. But 27 stitches later – all’s well that ends well (apart from the car crash on the way back to hospital to get the stitches out).
Unintended travel tales/travel fails - lessons learned
As a wise traveller once told me, “The journey is the meal”. Some of our most memorable travel related events have been entirely unplanned. There would be no tales to tell if everything went swimmingly (without the snakes) and you could predict your holiday experiences in advance. Where would be the fun in that? Would love to hear your best worst bits – leave a comment if you’d like to share an unanticipated travel fails story…
Pin this unintentional travel tales/travel fails post: