"Is this story actually fit to print?" That's a question travel writers have to ask themselves on almost every assignment they take on.
Sometimes, the answer is no, but not because the story is bad. Sometimes, the yarns you won't get to read in Traveller are very, very good, but we writers are in the business of inspiring people, not horrifying them, or misleading them, or boring them with something too personal.
Sometimes, stories just don't work. Sometimes things go wrong when we're travelling – spectacularly, hilariously wrong. Those tales are perfect for the sort of wild embellishment and injections of personal heroism that you can indulge in at the pub.
Sometimes, it can seem unfair to commit a story to print, like you're doing the destination a disservice. In the same way a photograph can capture an expression or an action that misrepresents the reality, so too can a single anecdote give the wrong impression of a place, make it seem to readers as if a freak occurrence would happen to them as well. Experience is not always representative.
And, sometimes, the best stories from our travels are just too personal, too raw. Is this even a travel story, you wonder? Or is it just a thing that happened to me while I was away?
The rules, however, are about to be broken. The stories, untold until now for some reason or another, are right here in black and white. Here, we present to you a series of travel tales without context, without fear, without favour. These are the yarns we've never seen fit to print before, because they're too disastrous, too personal, too freakish or too raw. - Ben Groundwater
THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED
By Craig Tansley
Bet you didn't know how close the Earth came to annihilation on US Election Day, 2016? I did. I was in South America and only in South America can you truly believe the impossible is actually very, very possible.
Tuesday, November 8, 2016, started much the same as any other day – but went rapidly downhill at about 8am. I'm right beside Cotopaxi, one of the world's highest volcanoes, 50 kilometres south of Ecuador's capital, Quito.
My guide, Diego, is driving: "You saw the news this morning?" he asks.
"Of course," I answer. "Trump has no chance, it's Hilary by a landslide."
"No, the other news," he looks pale. "The world may be ending today. There have been explosions on the sun, there's now a solar storm and there'll be radiation on Earth equivalent to 15 nuclear bombs detonating simultaneously. We have to cancel your flight back to the US, planes will fall from the sky. And we must get to sea level, it's our only chance."
My first response, understandably, is denial. So Diego calls his tour company in Quito to confirm. "That's right, sir, the world could be ending today," the voice is low, and slow. Pablo hands me his phone, I Google, "world ending, sun explosion".
Every Ecuadorian news site has the same picture, a gigantic, orange fireball, and a headline (Diego translates these for me) confirming our fate.
So what happens in these moments? Fifteen months on I'm still trying to process the depth of my despair, but what I remember most is staring at locals selling vegetables beside the road and thinking, these people will all be dead soon. I wonder how it'll happen … an explosion, perhaps? Or we'll all melt? I keep my window sealed, and shield myself from the sun with a towel.
At the exit from Cotopaxi, rangers wish Diego godspeed. Diego fills the car with fuel and buys as many bottles of water as he can fit inside for the long drive to the sea. He drives fast, for here at 5000 metres above the Earth, we have no chance, he says.
And then, as we race towards improbable salvation, the threat just … well, it … wanes. By mid-afternoon news sites go back to reporting on football stars and their mistresses. Diego's agency confirms Flight UA 1036 will most likely not drop from the sky on its way to Houston. We turn the car round and head back to Quito.
I doubt I've ever felt so happy to be alive: the people I love won't be incinerated, with me, in a nuclear catastrophe. Six hours later I land in Texas and find the planet isn't out of trouble just yet …
WHEN ESCAPE IS THE LAST RESORT
By Terry Durack
In desperate need of a get-away-from-it-all holiday, the two of us booked a week at a newly opened Fijian island resort. As it turned out, we did get away from it all – from sunshine, good company and good food. It might have been 20 years ago, but I am still scarred.
It seems the resort had been built on the wrong side of the island – the side beaten down by the ocean winds, the side where the beach was stones, not sand. The only other guests were a handful of representatives from the investment company that owned the resort, all determined to out-drink each other.
And as for the food, the first dish sent out by the chef – watery pasta topped with an immovable béchamel sauce – made me so curious I went into the kitchen to see who had possibly thought that was a good idea. He was a nice young bloke, whose most recent job was with British Railways. I'm still not convinced his job with British Railways was as a chef, but never mind.
Disappointed, we tried to make it work, but after two days, we wanted out. Not possible, apparently. With no light plane to Nadi for another five days, we despaired. My wife cried – and she never cries. Wait, said the manager. There was one other way off the island, on the boat that picked up the resort's rubbish and took it to Nadi, a six-hour trip.
We jumped at it, and left the island at 8 the next morning with a portable cooler of sandwiches, water and beer kindly provided by the resort. It was relentlessly hot on the open deck on the open sea, but anything was better than staying on the island. After the first three hours, sweaty, parched and starving, we opened the esky, only to find they had forgotten the ice. The sandwiches were a warm, steamy, soggy, gloopy mess; the beer undrinkable. Hey ho.
Soon after, we passed a boatload of Fijian men, women and children, whose engine had died, leaving them stranded. They all clambered on board until we were sitting elbow to elbow, every space taken. I would have offered them a sandwich, but figured they were having a rough enough time as it was.
The women started singing, almost crooning, and before long, we had more visitors. A pod of small, sleek dolphins adopted us, staying close to the boat for a good 15 minutes and leaping out of the water by the prow. One of them even hitched a ride by hooking his fin onto the bow. It was as if they were personally escorting us to safety. Suddenly, stony beaches, vicious winds, warm beer and soggy sandwiches disappeared into the ether, and we all pointed and laughed and sang together, under the hot sun.
THE CASE OF THE DISAPPEARING DRIVER
By Kerry van der Jagt
When philosopher Albert Camus said "What gives value to travel is fear", he'd clearly never been abandoned on a mountain road at nightfall in the Peruvian Andes.
In one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions I'd opted to extend my stay in Peru with a few extra nights in the Sacred Valley. The troubles began when I shunned my hotel's offer to book a car to take me from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, in favour of a bare-footed tout who'd sidled up to me in the main square.
To be honest, he did look a little shifty, but my guard was down, I was on a travel high and he was promising a cheaper fare. What could go wrong?
Everything – from the car's cracked windscreen and lack of seatbelts, to the way the driver threw my luggage into the boot like he was disposing of a body.
It was late afternoon and the shadows were long when we left the urban sprawl of Cusco, hitting a series of tight switchbacks just as the sun was setting across the steep valley. As the gritty road and landscape emptied, taken over by the soaring Andes in the distance, I noticed a shift in my driver, his eyes darting to the rear-view mirror, his forehead sweating.
Suddenly he swerved off the road, slammed on the brakes and brought us to a grinding halt close to the edge of a precarious drop. Without a word he snatched the keys from the ignition, flung open the door and ran away, disappearing around the bend like he'd never existed.
And there I sat, alone and terrified, darkness falling and footage from Proof of Life playing in my head. For the first minute I was too stunned to move, scared equally of staying with the car or taking my chances on the lonely road. A part of me clung to the idea that he would come back; with a grimace and an excuse that he had had diarrhoea or something. Except he didn't come back: not after 10 minutes, not after 30 minutes. Not after one hour.
Just as I'd decided to start walking he came sprinting back, screaming at me to get into the car before driving off like a man possessed, never speaking a word all the way to Ollantaytambo. Five years on, these memories still give me goosebumps; I have no idea what happened, but my gut feeling is I got off lightly.
HITCHING A RIDE IN MUMBAI
By Anthony Dennis
Look, I admit it wasn't quite The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the '70s Hollywood flick about the hijacking of a urban commuter train starring the craggy bloke from The Odd Couple movie. However, my non-singing, non-dancing Bollywood version was, in parts, as scary and all the more real.
It began with an announcement aboard my chartered luxury train between Delhi and Mumbai. A railway signal box had caught fire in the latter mega-city, paralysing the electric commuter train system.
It would mean that our arrival at the end of our gloriously pampered journey through India would be somewhat delayed. Que sera sera and all that, I thought. More time for more pampering.
However, it soon became abundantly clear the railway signal box failure had grown into the sort of fearfully chaotic and threatening event that only an at times fearfully chaotic and threatening place like India and its masses can conjure.
As I walked through the lounge car, our diesel train crawling through the outskirts of Mumbai, I noticed that station platforms were crowded by tens of thousands of stranded, and increasingly irate commuters, most of them male.
Further along, I was soon staring at some, nay, many, of the same commuters directly in the face through the windows of the carriage. They had, after all, begun to attach themselves to the sides of our moving train – human Velcro – as they attempted to hitch a ride to their respective destinations. Gosh, they may have even taken, India-style, to the roof, I thought. Walter Matthau, where the hell are you?
Aside from the odd freight train, our train, feeling like a fully clothed person at a naturist convention, seemed to be the only one still on the tracks, right across this massive metropolis.
Suddenly, a couple of heretofore unseen, khaki-clad, moustached and armed security guards appeared in the lounge car. In full view of passengers, they hauled in several of the interlopers, loudly remonstrating with them and rendering each with a fierce slap across the back of their heads. I'm reminded of the Paul Theroux line that, luxury train or not, the view from a train carriage is always the same.
Then, with an obvious nod to the escalating mob-like atmosphere on the platforms through which we gingerly passed, train staff, unannounced, raced through the lounge and dining cars closing Venetian blinds and drawing curtains. Clearly they feared that our train was going to be stoned or torched.
The train manager devised a plan to de-train, as they say, the passengers at a suburban railway station where a hastily arranged truck would collect our large cargo of luggage and a fleet of (black and yellow Fiat) taxis would convey us to the safety of hotels.
But the train manager and my turbaned carriage attendant hadn't counted on the train driver receiving a must-obey green light signal (maybe that signal box had been repaired).
Obediently, the train took off, with the train manager racing frantically, clipboard under one arm, vainly attempting to leap back on. It meant that both he and the attendant were left stranded on the platform, along with my two pieces of luggage, but sans passengers.
Eventually, I was reunited with my bags. My jangled nerves found their way back sometime the following day.
By Ben Groundwater
The timing was perfect. Or at least, I thought it was perfect. It turns out the timing had actually been perfect for me to propose to my girlfriend Jess about 18 months earlier when we'd been standing together on the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town and she was waiting and expectant but, back then, I missed my cue.
So, as far as I was concerned at least, the timing of this trip to Vietnam was perfect. I would propose to Jess at some point on this holiday. I would ask her to marry me when the time felt just right, when we were sharing a special experience, when we were in a memorable place, when the stars aligned and everything came together and I would be taken by the urge to drop to one knee.
Of course, it's now the final night of the trip, and I still haven't done it. I could have proposed back in the Mekong Delta, when we were cruising around on a scooter and sleeping in a guesthouse, but that didn't feel very romantic. I could have done it in Hoi An, on one of those quaint old streets, but that seemed like too much of a cliché. I could have asked at the fancy restaurant in Saigon, but it felt too public there, too staged.
So now here I am on the final night of our holiday, and I'm panicking. At least we're staying somewhere nice, I figure, at Hanoi's historic Sofitel Metropole, in a junior suite. This place has charm. It will do. It will suffice.
I've been to the front desk to order a bottle of champagne to be sent to the room, but the staff there don't seem too sure about the whole thing. There was some confusion. I'm not convinced it's actually going to turn up.
Then I'm up in the room, and I'm waiting. I'm sweating. Jess has just suggested we go out for a walk, and I've snapped that we have to stay inside. She's confused. I'm nervous. I wait some more.
Finally, the doorbell rings. It's the bottle of champagne, and it's … warm. Great. Jess is baffled. "What's with the champagne?"
"Ah," I mumble, forgetting that I don't have a ring, forgetting that I had a little speech planned and it's just disappeared from my head, forgetting even to get down on one knee in the traditional way and instead just blurting out the question, holding her hand in my own sweaty palm and staring into her eyes and pleading.
As proposals go, it's a complete disaster. Except for one thing: she says yes.
THE WRONG FLIGHT, PLANE AND SIMPLE
By Catherine Marshall
My name is being bellowed over the public address system at Kuala Lumpur's international airport as I'm charging forth at lightning speed in the hope I'll make my flight. I'm hurried through the final security check at the appointed gate; an attendant swipes my ticket and ushers me through the entrance; I queue on the bridge and board the plane.
Why the hurry, I wonder, when other passengers are still streaming in behind me? Why weren't they shamed with a vocal admonition: "Will you please make your way to gate lounge five. NOW!" as I was?
But no matter. I'm on my way now, to Yangon, to write a feature on Myanmar from a literary perspective. I've read Rudyard Kipling's Road to Mandalay and have tucked George Orwell's Burmese Days (borrowed from my library) into the seat pocket.
But what is this? My name is being called again, this time with greater urgency. A flight attendant beckons me to the front of the plane. I squeeze past the incoming passengers to reach her; she informs me I've boarded the wrong flight.
A second flight attendant is shouting at me now to identify my backpack, which she removes from the overhead bin and passes through a chain of hands towards me.
I'm frog-marched off the plane, past a long queue of bemused passengers, through the departure lounge and a second gate, along an empty bridge and towards a plane where a flight attendant stands poised to close the door. I step on board and feel it whooshing shut behind me.
The walk of shame to the single empty seat on the plane – mine – is interminable. I slink into it just as we pull away from the apron. And I remember my library book, still tucked into a seat pocket on a plane bound for Manila.
ABANDONED ON A MOUNTAINTOP IN CHINA
By Brian Johnston
It all started so well. I was heading to Qingsheng Mountain, 60 kilometres north of Chengdu where I lived, for a weekend break with friends Hedvig and Mark. The holy mountain of lush forest and farmland was, in those days, scattered only with dilapidated monasteries, which bunked visitors for the night and fed them austere meals of tofu and fried chillies. What could go wrong?
Our getaway had just shimmered into sight when the engine of our bus overheated, steaming like a dragon. We groaned to a halt. Passengers ran back and forwards to a stream for water.
A crowd of farmers gathered, fixing perplexed stares on the foreigners, then quite the novelty in China. They commented loudly on our blond hair and refused to understand our Chinese. Eventually, we lurched uncertainly onwards.
The hike started pleasantly enough through bean fields and mud-brick villages. As we wound upwards we reached a series of wooden ladders and bridges across a foaming river gorge.
Hedvig, who had no head for heights, balked like a skittish horse. Who knew she had such bad vertigo? It took 20 minutes to coax her across just a single bridge, screeching and trembling. Mark and I brooded and considered tipping her into the torrent.
Further up and into bamboo forest, the humidity settled on us like a mouldy rug. We schlepped up the flights of endless steps that bedevil every mountain walk in China as hawkers followed, blowing whistles and spruiking straw hats. Finally, we arrived at a monastery surrounded by tea plantations and rose bushes with views to the plains.
After dinner, Hedvig, exhausted by the horrors of her dizzying walk, fell asleep. I thought a night stroll among the roses might be pleasant, and slipped out in the dark. When I finally blundered back up to the monastery, its wooden doors had been firmly barred for the night. Nobody heard my banging and shouts. This was a rambling old complex behind high walls. I spent hours circulating them in the pitch black trying to get in. Hedvig and Mark remained fast asleep, oblivious to my ordeal.
I was there, exhausted and irritated, until the nuns awoke at dawn. I staggered off to bed, but clashing cymbals and xylophones boomed through wooden walls. My friends, unsympathetic and unapologetic, thought my ordeal hilarious.
MORE BEAN THAN BOND
By Rob McFarland
On paper, it was pure Bond. Rather than take the ferry from Hervey Bay to Fraser Island (yawn), my brother and I would jet-ski there. The plan was to set off at dawn, spend an hour skimming across the glassy warm waters of the Great Sandy Strait and arrive into the collective embrace of a dozen swooning Swedish backpackers (admittedly, this last part was always ambitious).
When we arrived at the rental centre at 6am, the sea was mirror flat and the sun was just peeking over the horizon. I assumed we'd have a jet ski each but it turned out we'd be sharing one. Not ideal, but I was still confident we could pull it off with Bond-like panache.
For the first few minutes we flew across the tranquil waters, the island a shimmering silhouette on the horizon. Then we cleared the protective shelter of the coast and noticed an ominous grey weather front ahead.
The wind picked up and the sea morphed from an unruffled sheet to an angry white chop. Suddenly, we were slamming into an unstoppable barrage of waves while being relentlessly splashed in the face. So persistent was the onslaught that we had to stop to don our swimming goggles.
When we eventually arrived at Fraser Island an hour later, I was a broken shell – drenched, whimpering and clinging onto my brother like a rag doll. Needless to say, the Swedish backpackers were unimpressed. In theory it was Bond; in practice it was Bean.
THRILLER IN A FAVELA
By Keith Austin
One of the great things about travel is that moment you crest a rise, attain a ridge, turn a corner … and discover something unexpected and breathtaking.
The short climb in Tasmania, perhaps, that ends in the view of Wineglass Bay. Or the drive down Sydney's Bondi Road and the left-hand bend that brings about the sweeping curve of Bondi Beach.
And then there's the little alleyway in the Santa Marta favela in Rio that ends in a miniature piazza with eye-poppingly pulchritudinous views and a statue of … Michael Jackson?
There, on a bare concrete platform overlooking the favela and the great sweep of Rio, is a pretty much life-sized statue of Jackson, fists clenched, hands raised in the air in his classic pose. On the wall behind is a large mural of the man himself.
This is Espacio Michael Jackson. There's even a little shop selling souvenirs both of the favela and of Mr Jackson. The reason for this unexpected discovery is pretty much on a loop on the TV in the corner – Spike Lee's 1996 pop video of Jackson performing his hit They Don't Care About Us in this very favela.
The video starred people from the favela and was credited with bringing a measure of international fame to what was then a crime-ridden slum. Jackson is pretty much a hero here. The statue was unveiled in 2010, one year after his death, and is shiny in parts from the constant handling of people who want a picture with him.
In my humble opinion it hasn't got much more than a passing resemblance to Michael Jackson but, then again, neither did Michael Jackson.