Planning on a big, overseas adventure? Here's some tips I wish someone would have told me:
Over many nights and many beers, through long journeys and bored boat rides, I 've asked a United Nations of backpackers for their best travel tips. Here's what they came up with:
You see, the universe wants you to book your ticket!
I know these things, because I'm the starshine travel guru they're warning you about.
Feel free to add your nuggets of wisdom.
For the first time in a very long time, I don't have much travel booked, as I prepare for the arrival of an important character in the ongoing Adventures of Esrock. Serendipitously, I stumbled across an old notebook which listed the highlights from much of my travels over the last decade. It's a good as time as any for some reflection, a list of a life well lived (hopefully with plenty to go). When I left high school, if someone would have said: "Robin, you will do all these things before you turn 40" I would have laughed so hard ice-cream would eject out my nostrils, even if I wasn't eating any. Which all goes to show: Anything is possible.
Hiking the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, eating fresh ceviche on the beach.
Mountain biked the world’s most dangerous road (twice), crossed the Salar De Uyuni (the world’s biggest salt desert) in a 4×4, overnight on a catamaran on Lake Titicaca.
Climbed an erupting volcano (Villarica), sandboarding in the Atacama Desert, catboarding in the Andes, getting lost on my bike in the Valley of the Moon.
Climbing and river rafting in Patagonia, partying in Buenos Aires, eating those huge steaks just about everywhere.
Hanggliding over Rio, visiting Iguazu Falls, relaxing in Jericoacoara, Sunday nights in Olinda, sailing off Salvador, Carnaval in Rio, New Year's Eve at a super club near Florianopolis, the Pantanal.
Visiting the bone church of Kutna Hora Sedlec, listening to sweet jazz on the Charles Bridge, absinthe adventures with old hippies and errant US soldiers in the countryside.
Kayaking and swimming in the Dalmatian Coast, paintballing on the Serbia-Croatia border.
Milking Ilir’s cow, visiting the abandoned castle in Gijirokaster, and hitching through the countryside.
Swimming with wild dolphins, being chased by a tapir, seeing a pink river dolphin while swimming in piranha infested waters, abseiling off a waterfall.
The red wine, olives and sunsets of Santarini, island hopping, smuggling contraband into Corfu.
Paragliding over the sparkling Med in Olu Deniz, exploring Cappadocia, and sunset on a boat in Koycegiz, sunrise with 2000-year old statues atop Mount Nemrut.
The world's highest bungee jump (off a TV tower), gambling in Macao, underground alley cat bike racing on Halloween.
Paragliding in the Julien Alps, ringing the bells on the island in Lake Bled.
Dune buggying in the desert, high tea at the Burj Dubai hotel, sandboarding.
Yoga on the Ganges, seeing the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, getting a tattoo in Goa, Mumbai and New Delhi, Taj Mahal.
Riverboats in the jungles of Borneo, playing with monkeys, tigers, crocodiles, eagles and iguanas, eating nasi kinder curries, Penang,
Singing Karaoke, meeting the Harajuku girls, being pushed inside a train.
Meeting locals along the South Coast, a visit to a Rastafarian village in the Blue Mountains, Weddy Weddy in Kingston, birdwatching and fishing with locals.
The lantern festival in Chiang Mai, riding an elephant,the buzz of Khao San Road, late nights in Pai.
The two-day slowboat down the Mekong, exploring temples by bicycle in Luang Prabang, tubing the river bars in Vangvyieng
Burning coconuts at the Katharagama Festival, picking tea in the Highlands of Ceylon.
Exploring the temples of Angkor, firing an Ak-47, visiting the Killing Fields and S-21 prison, massages on the beach in Sihanoukville.
Climbing the 72m tree in Western Australia, meeting kangaroos in Tasmania, cricket at the SCG, connecting with family and friends in Sydney.
Spending a night in Chernobyl, pressing the button at a former top secret Soviet nuclear missile base.
Skydived, Swooped, Zorbed, rafted the world’s highest vertical drop, speed races, Agrojetted, Bodyflying, mountain biking, 4×4′d, and lugeing in Queenstown and Rotorua.
Spearfishing giant lobster and hunting deer.
Taking shelter from a tropical storm.
Zipgliding the Great Wall of China, stumbling on Tiananman Square at dawn, visiting Mount Hua and the Yellow Mountain, cruising up the Yangtze River
Learning a medieval martial art, drinking homemade wine out of a horn, mock battles in real castles.
Galloping on the plains, camping in a traditional gur.
Petra, exploring Amman, the Dead Sea (from the other side)
A week in a luxury ocean-villa
Swimming in Lake Baikal, Siberia, doing the Trans-Siberia Railway, exploring St Petersburg by foot, Star City, the Moscow State Circus.
Learning to meditate in a Buddhist temple, meeting Dr Fish, teaching English to school kids.
Hunting winter sun and avoiding bombshells.
Absinthe and Christiania in Copenhagen, biking with a beer in Arhus
Papua New Guinea
Learning to scuba dive with the Scuba Diver Girls
Getting the Fire Doctor treatment, Yiheu Geological Park, Taipei 101, a toilet-themed restaurant
A week with the moose on “Moose Mountain”.
Learning how to kitesurf and upright paddleboard with a Bajan world champion, making barracuda ceviche, learning to play polo.
Camped in an old Nazi bunker in Narvik, under the midnight sun in the Arctic circle, bathing in fjords, partying in Bergen.
Camping on the beaches of Nungwe, getting lost in Stone Town
Bullet proof vests in Bogota, the mud volcano of youth outside of Cartagena
Being rescued by a mountain shaman, dancing on a bus roof in Quito
Swimming in a rock pool overlooking Victoria Falls, and flying up north for an afternoon.
Finding my grandfather's old village, learning about my past, dressing like a knight in Vilnius.
Swimming in the king’s sacred rock pool, meeting a hippo, smuggling contraband.
Finding my grandmother’s village, the haunting visit to Auschwitz.
The Migration of the Wildebeest in Masai Mara National Park, helping the Flying Doctors with a medical evacuation.
El Nido, Palawan, Jeepnies in Manila (and everywhere else), Chocolate Hills in Bohol, Bicol, diving with Thresher sharks off Malapascua Island, Cebu
Lalibela, and tribe watching in the Omo Valley.
Caving with underground waterfalls, riverboating to jungle ruins, meeting an odd village of Mennonites.
Working on a kibbutz, floating in the Dead Sea, climbing Masada, clubbing in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Riding a camel by the pyramids in Giza, snorkeling the Blue Hole in Dahab, belly dancing in Cairo, dirt biking in the Sinai.
Vagabonding and hustling my way at the Edinburgh Festival, exploring the Highlands
Running with bulls in the Azores, blindfolded walking tours in Lisbon, wine tour along the Douro, Porto, Halloween in a haunted 17th century hacienda
Living in London for a couple years, and all that comes with it, oh, Cornwall, spending a romantic night in an old castle.
Getting growled at on New Years Eve in Abergavanny.
New Year’s Eve in Temple Bar, visiting Belfast during a security alert, drinking Guinness from the source.
Romance, the Louvre in Paris, Jim Morrison’s grave, the red carpet in Cannes, the Rugby World Cup.
Gambling in a casino in Monte Carlo.
Art Nouveau building watching, backstage at one of the world's oldest circuses, chasing stag parties in Riga.
Diving, hiking with Pa, paradise islands, midnight scooter runs around Rarotonga, bush pub in Atiu, magic in Atitaki.
Michaelangelo’s David in Florence, the Vatican, pizzas and toga parties in Rome, driving a Lamborghini and a Ferrari near Modena, real Balsamic vinegar, toga party in Rome.
Too much beer at a beer hall in Munich, exploring the Rhine.
A disastrous yet fun train ride to Amsterdam, where the memories are still pretty fuzzy.
Running about with the Hash House Harriers of Bucharest, dancing in Cluj Napoca, overnight in a traditional Transylvanian village.
Gaspacho in Valencia, the smell of olive oil in the air at Grenada, meeting the Black Crowes in a Barcelona cafe.
The United States
Mardi Gras 2000, driving through Nevada, Arizona and Utah in a red convertible, Vegas parts I, II, III and IV, Alaska, rally racing the Oregan coastline in a vintage Porsche, Burning Man 2010/2012, Explorer's Club gala in New York.
Wrestling in the ring with Luchedores, Guadalajara, Manu Chao in Mexico City, backpacking the Yucatan Peninsula.
Getting smoked in traditional and public sauna, riding a rollercoaster with a manual handbrake, getting frugal in Helsinki
The Garden Route, the Drakensburg, Nambiti Hills, walking with a lion, bungee jumping in Gouritz River, a night in the Lost City, swimming with crocodiles, cage diving with Great White Sharks.
See: The Great Canadian Bucket List
Last week, a tragic accident took place at a ski resort in Russia. Two guys strapped themselves into a zorb - a kind of wild, plastic ball ride - rolled down a hill, breached the track, and promptly rolled off a mountain. Flung from the ball, one guy was killed, the other seriously injured. The Youtube video is a terrifying, as we see the fun bounce out of control. Was it an accident, or negligence? By all accounts, the latter. I've zorbed several times in New Zealand, where it is offered with other fun, locally-invented sports like the Luge, Swoop, Shweeb and Agrojet.
You sign your customary waiver, choose a dry zorb (pictured above) or a wet zorb, if you'd prefer to be tossed around like a sock in a washing machine. Both made me ill, but then these things usually do. In Russia, the operators clearly had no idea what they were doing (this was their first Zorb run) violated just about safety measure they could, and promptly hightailed it when the police came calling. So what can we learn from all this?
Zorbing with Agrodome Adventures in Rotorua, New Zealand
You'd think a heavy bouncy zorb would protect you from just about anything, but that's clearly not the case. You would also think that the Russian guys stepping into the zorb at the top of a mountain would consider the possibilities, which is drastically different from the zorb experience above in Rotorua, New Zealand. Here, the ball rolls down a short hill, hits a ramp, and stops on its own accord. Kiwis have perfected this kind of thing. Russians, not so much. Our two Russian friends could have saved themselves by asking some basic questions before their ill-fated ride:
- Did the operator have a safety record? (No)
- Did the operator follow course safety guidelines? (No)
- Did they know they were guinea pigs in a wheel? (No)
Therein lies that common sense we hear so much about when travelling, and yet need reminding of every once in a while. Accidents are accidents, but stupidity is dumb.
Zorbs, in the proper environment, are harmless fun. Odd, yes, dangerous no. A few weeks ago I did the public skeleton ride on the world's fastest bobsleigh track in Whistler. 100km/hr face first, inches above the ice. Harrowing stuff, but everyone emerged (mostly) unscathed. It is a tightly controlled, regulated and monitored thrill ride.
The next day I caught an edge on my snowboard, banged my neck on an icy traverse, and 6 weeks later am still paying for it with a pinched nerve. My legs were tired, it was the last run of the day, I should have taken it easy. There's no blaming the mountain, only myself. Likewise, there's no blaming the zorb. Just people who make stupid, deadly decisions.
The Wet Zorb, Rotorua
With his towering height, Max was always going to attract attention. Born in 1962, many people claim he might be the tallest male in all of Thailand - even after so many years of hope and pain, all the ups and downs of a rolling jungle hill. His adventures begin in the jungles of the north, where he is born into a poor family of festival performers. Max’s earliest memories paint loud parades, holidays and weddings, covered in bright robes to greet friendly smiles. But, like many others in the region, once he came of age, Max was sent to work. To put food in his mouth, he found work at a logging camp, where tough men would work long hours in scorching temperatures and torrential rain, clearing and cutting down thick jungles for wood. Here, Max developed a thick-skinned approach to life that would see him through many more hardships. Conditions were terrible, but soon enough another opportunity came his way, this time in the form of the exploding tourism industry.
Help was needed to accommodate and transport the ever-increasing number of tourists heading to the region. Unlike trees in the forests, Max discovered that tourists don’t break and splinter when they fall – they shout and scream and complain and threaten to sue. He was never a social creature, never one to roll over to those he didn’t respect. Simply put, he was stubborn, arrogant with youth and drunk on strength. One unfortunate day, a group of sunburned Englishmen pushed him too far, and he reacted violently, his intentions merely to scare, but his actions clumsy. The tourists got a few bumps, the authorities got involved, and Big Max, Big Clumsy Aloof Max, was locked away for the minor offence.
Refusing to remain chained up for long, he used his wits and power to escape, heading deep into the forest. Here, he would rely on the lessons learned from his youth, how to forage for food and berries, find shelter. Under the stars, he made raids into the fields of a nearby village, drank from their irrigation systems. Survival was possible, but the villagers soon discovered this new unwelcome stranger, and called in the monks to help. They coaxed Max out the jungle and into the temple, offering him a spiritual life, in keeping with their strict Buddhist practices. This quiet life, of meditation and thought, pacified him for a while. Although there was some peace here, there was also not enough food to support his giant personality, enclosed after so many months in the forest. His weight dropped dramatically, his skin flapping on his giant frame like the canvas of a tent.
Max felt trapped, restless, hungry. Villagers could see that the temple was too small to keep him tied down for too long, and demanded the monks release him instead. He was put in a truck, and sent away to the city. And so a new adventure began, as Max entered a strange new world, the biggest city with the brightest lights of all, Bangkok.
With no food and no place to stay, Max ends up on the streets, begging for scraps, living in parking lots and scrimmaging in garbage scraps. This concrete jungle is not like any jungle he has ever known. The constant noise vibrates in his skull, making him tired, irritable, unable to sleep. The lights burn his eyes like pin pricks, the choking pollution gripping his lungs, slashing his throat. His stomach rotting with whatever he can find to put it into it, the days and nights pass in blurs of screams and punches, a blend of violent animal instincts and docile submission. He was dying, and then he was almost killed. Wandering the streets one night, dazed by lack of sleep, an 18-wheel truck clips him on the side of the highway, dragging him underneath its wheels for a few meters before coming to a halt. Miraculously, he survives, but his right front leg has snapped in half.
Throughout his turbulent life, strangers had come to his aid, appearing like angels in a dream, briefly holding back the demons of reality. It is these strangers who help Max recover, regain his strength, feeding him what little there is to go around, putting his leg in a makeshift wooden splint. After a few weeks, he is able to limp again, and all wonder: was it his size or spirit that helped him survive the accident? And, in hushed tones, would he have been better off dead? What is there for him to look forward to? More begging? More angels, more demons? Luck finds him first, in the form of a tribal family who take pity on this homeless giant, bringing him back to the jungle where he can work for his food, instead of slowly dying on the streets of Bangkok. A warm, kind woman named Lek finds him second, horrified by his physical condition, and the sad story of his life. Lek Chailert had just started a refuge for the homeless, the hurt, the sick and the poor, and with the cooperation of the tribal family, takes Max under her care.
Five years later, Max has recovered his strength, his weight, his pride. He stands tall, dignified, like a political prisoner being released respectfully into the offices of power. His right leg will always be bent, making him walk slowly, thoughtfully, with purpose and esteem. Others at the camp regard him highly, revering his experience and the wisdom he has learned from it. Gentle with the babies, popular with the ladies, here he resides as an elder statesman, an example of how we can all conquer our adversity, temper our demons, and believe in hope. Max is still weary of the few tourists who visit the Nature Park. His memory is as fresh as that of an elephant.
Max is just one of the dozens of elephants supported through donations at the Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand. This unique wildlife reserve protects, rehabilitates and houses elephants rescued from abusive conditions such as elephant camps, illegal logging, and street begging. For more information, visit their website: www.elephantnaturefoundation.org.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.