World Tour Highlights: 20 Near-Death Experiences

Probably a lot of peoples’ travels don’t share this quality, but looking back over the years of the trip, it seems to me that we’ve been in more than our fair share of life-threatening situations. It’s not that Sheryl and I take risks deliberately, or that we’re poor judges of consequence. Sometimes things just… happen. Something unexpected comes out of nowhere, or small mistakes compound themselves or a dangerous animal jumps on you, and all of a sudden you’re in trouble. It’s a good thing I’ve got more lives than a dozen cats. Ninth in the series of World Tour Highlights lists, this article presents in sequence our Top 20 Moments of Ghastly Peril.

1. Near-Death by Falling and Electrocution (The Cliffs of Moher, Ireland)

There’s a path that runs along the top of County Clare’s famous Cliffs of Moher. It’s a beautifully picturesque walk, looking out over the ocean. There’s no railing or fence on the cliff side, and on the safe, landward side the fields with their electric cattle fences run right alongside the path. The path suffers badly from erosion and had crumbled to a hair’s width in some spots. There’s nothing to hold onto to steady yourself except the fence on the wrong side that will shock you, so we had to very slowly and carefully edge our way along the narrow crumbling ledge with nothing below but a 200m drop down the sheer cliff face to the raging ocean. It was very windy that day, and the gusts, strong enough to make us stagger, were coming off the land. Somehow all of us made it to the end of the path - to be greeted by the wrong side of a big signboard warning that the path was in dangerous condition and shouldn’t be used.

2. Near-Death by Tick (Hungary)

While camping in northern Hungary I was unlucky enough to pick up a tick. They’re horrible little parasites, I hate them. Everybody has a special folk remedy for removing them, but none of them actually work. Normally I’d worry about Lyme Disease and leave it at that, but this summer there was something special in northern Hungary - an outbreak of Tick-Borne Encephalitis. It’s untreatable once acquired, and has a 2% mortality rate which, while not as high as some other diseases, is still higher than I’m comfortable with. Sheryl started out the tick-extraction operation with a penknife and ice and a stiff drink for me, but turned green when I began to bleed and so I took over. The damn thing was buried so deeply that I had a massive excavation in my hip before I was done. The disease has a 4-week incubation period, and waiting that out to see if I was going to die was a bit nerve-wracking. With a few days to go I developed the headache, fever, fatigue and tremors that are the first symptoms, but it turned out to be another near-death experience entirely (see below).

3. Near-Death by Falling, Exposure and Enteritis (The Făgăraş Mountains, Romania)

Sheryl and I had gone hiking in Transylvania’s harsh and forbidding Făgăraş Mountains. We’d followed the Trans-Făgăraş Highway up to the Bălea waterfall and taken the cable-car to the heights at Bălea Lake. Despite being late August and warm at the bottom, up top it was bloody freezing, and right in the middle of the clouds, reducing visibility to almost nothing. The trails were tough - hard exposed climbs over harsh rock, and cold, windy sections along the ridges. We had a vague trail-map, but between the poor visibility, the sporadic trail markings, and the fact that our landmark (a spring) had dried up, we missed our turning for the trail that would have taken us down onto the sheltered leeward side of the mountains where we’d planned to camp for the night. By the time we were sure of what had happened, we’d already had to spend fifteen dangerous minutes inching precariously along a narrow rock ledge over a sheer drop, clinging to wires bolted to the stone, with the weight of our packs dragging us out into space, and we weren’t about to do it again.

We made the long, cold trek to where an emergency shelter was marked on the map, high up on a ridge. The shelter was full, the freezing wind was fierce, and there was nothing but rock all around - nowhere to peg the tent down. We did the best we could, setting up inside a circle of rocks and using more rocks to weight the tent, and spent a long, frozen, sleepless night. In the morning I was strangely weak and shaky. I could barely walk and kept passing out on nearby boulders. Uncontrollable vomiting kept me from eating or drinking. I was dreading the onset of Tick-Borne Encephalitis (see above) but it was much more likely that we’d somehow insufficiently sterilized the lake water the night before. It was a very long day, stumbling down the mountain, but somehow we made it to the nearest village, where a nice motherly lady who ran a bed-and-breakfast nursed me back to health.

4. Near-Death by Car Crash (Braşov, Romania)

The day after the near-death experience above, Sheryl and I hitched a ride out of the mountains with an Italian man on vacation. He’d already had some bad luck - he’d crashed his motorcycle and hurt his leg at the beginning of his short trip. He’d taken his rental car out from Sibiu and up the Trans-Făgăraş that morning, was now heading out of the mountains and wanted to get to Braşov and Sighişoara before dark. This was already 6pm. It’s really not that far by road, the route he was talking about, but he’d never been in Romania before and was basing his driving-time estimates on Italian roads. We didn’t reach Braşov until just past midnight, by which time he was practically asleep at the wheel. Only he could legally drive the rental, so we couldn’t take over from him. Entering Braşov he and I were talking in the front seats, me giving directions, when Sheryl began shrieking from the back seat - he was driving straight for the raised central island of a roundabout at 60kph. He swerved just in time and missed by a hair. If Sheryl hadn’t yelled we’d have crashed and flipped the car for sure. And if the roundabout hadn’t been empty at that hour, we’d have caused an accident when we swerved.

5. Near-Death by Falling (Mt. Triglav, Slovenia)

We were reaching the literal high point of a multi-day trek into the Slovenian Alps to climb Mt. Triglav. We’d reached the last lodge, dropped our packs and set off lightly loaded for the summit. The summit is about 500m higher than Planika Hut. There were two trails leading there - the long one and the short one. Both trails were dotted red lines on our map, a convention that the Slovenian trail association uses to represent a “difficult or dangerous” route. In a dramatic failure of brain on our parts, we decided that - if they were both difficult - we should take the shorter of the two. Not thinking that since they both led to the same spot, the one that was substantially shorter would have to be almost straight up. We came to regret our decision a hundred meters above the hard rock, clinging with toes and fingers to tiny ledges, frozen in gut-wrenching fear and knowing the only way down was the fast, hard way. As we finally reached the top, two men started down in full climbing harness, helmets and a belt full of pitons, and favoured us with a disgusted shake of their heads for our foolhardiness.

6. Near-Death by Bush-Pig (Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania)

Halfway through a multi-day safari that had already covered Serengeti National Park, we were camped on the top rim of Ngorongoro Crater for the night. It was well after dark and we were all sitting around the fire after dinner when a rustling began out in the shadows. I asked one of the rangers what it was and he shrugged. “Probably bush-pig”, he said. So I grabbed my flashlight and went to look. Panicked yells from the ranger followed me as I stepped out of the firelight and saw the bush-pig. I’d been expecting something… I don’t know, smaller. Pinker. Cuter. What I saw was a massive black humped shape the size of a cow, with a ridge of bristles along its spine. It snorted and turned toward me as I leapt back into the circle of firelight and took my dressing-down from the ranger.

7. Near-Death by Elephant (Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania and Khao Yai National Park, Thailand)

This particular experience happened about an hour after the near-death experience with the bush-pig, above. Not a stellar day for me. Simba Camp A, where we were spending the night, is on a path the elephants like to use down to the crater floor, and the rangers told us about one particular elephant that had learned to turn on the water taps to drink from them. So later, when word went round that an elephant had been spotted by the water tanks, Sheryl and I took off with our headlamps to have a look. When we got there, we realized that it wasn’t the right elephant - instead of an old, amiable, smallish bull, this was a massive, bad-tempered young bull, feeding in the trees just across the dirt track from us. Our feeble head torches only lit up his bum, and then he turned around, eyeballing us and revealing his huge, long, white tusks. At this point two of the Masai rangers faded out of the darkness - three-meter tall men with night-black skin and deep voices - shone their Maglites on us, the bull, and back and forth again, and one said “This is not a nice elephant. You must go now”. We didn’t argue. We went.

There were no rangers to help us in Khao Yai National Park in Thailand when, following the elephant trails through the grassland, we went around a bend and came face to face with a cranky old bull. Asian elephants aren’t as big as African elephants, but they’re still a lot bigger than us, and we took one look at his ragged ears, scarrred and wrinkled forehead and red-rimmed eyes, and froze. There was a brief, confused impasse and then he snorted, shook his head, and charged. It was only a mock-charge (you can tell it’s real if they put their ears back) but that didn’t stop us turning tail and running. I wasn’t about to dispute the right-of-way with something that size.

8. Near-Death by Hippopotamos (South Luangwa National Park, Zambia)

Another in the vein of near-death-by-wild-animal. Hippos are big, mean and a lot faster than they look. As we were gleefully informed many times in Africa, hippos are the front-runners in the human-killing game. And if you think you’re safe away from the water, think again – they like to roam around on land at night. At a campground in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park we were told not to put our tents too close together, since if there isn’t enough room for a hippo to go between the tents, he’ll just go through. So later that night we discovered the campground was infested with hippos. You don’t really realize how big these suckers are until you see them out of the water; they’re huge. One got a little too close to me and I had to run up a nearby tree and perch in the lower branches while it browsed on the grass underneath, close enough that I could reach down and touch its rubbery back. A disadvantage to my elevated position soon became clear: another thing you don’t fully realize about hippos in the water is just how amazingly bad they smell. It nearly knocked me out of my tree.

9. Near-Death by Drowning and Crushing (Zambezi River, Zambia)

All right, sometimes an activity is just plain high-risk. White-water rafting on category IV and V rapids on the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls in Zambia probably qualifies. Twice I was swept overboard and nearly drowned, and once I managed to catch hold of the side of the raft to stop myself from drowning only to hear everyone on board yelling and screaming and pointing at the massive rocks the raft was about to smash into, smearing me into a paste in between. I’m still not sure how I got onto the raft so quickly. I think I levitated straight up out of the water.

10. Near-Death by Leopard (Brandberg, Namibia)

At a campsite in the scrub desert near Brandberg in Namibia, we pulled up in the truck to see a tame antelope being hand-fed fruit by the bar. All overland campgrounds have a bar, no matter how humble, but this was the first to have an antelope. Our campsite was easily a kilometre from the bar along unlit sand tracks through the scrub, and so when, after dark had fallen I set out from the bar to the campsite, I got hopelessly lost. The campground owner had warned us about bad-tempered bush elephants at the site, and that a leopard had been hanging around. I ran into the elephants while walking lost with my pitiful head torch, was able to creep away without them noticing me, but didn’t see the leopard. Mixed feelings, because you don’t see leopards until they jump on you. At last, getting scared, I found our campsite, only to be told that Sheryl had gone toward the bar looking for me. Shit. Tried for the bar, got lost again in the pitch black, finally found the bar. Sheryl’s there with the guys I’d left there the first time around. Left with Sheryl, got lost, found ourselves back at the bar again. The guys are mercilessly taking the piss now, and decide to play the big men and lead us to the campsite… and got us lost. Somewhere along the way we all became aware of a massive pair of green eyes reflecting our light from the bushes. We all froze, our blood running cold, all of us thinking the same thought: I don’t have to outrun the leopard, I just have to outrun one other person. And then into the torchlight stepped the owner of the eyes – the stupid tame antelope. He was just as afraid of the leopard as we were; he followed us and slept at the doorway of my tent all night. We never actually saw the leopard, so it’s not really a leopard near-death-experience, but we certainly thought we were going to die, and that’s as close as I want to get.

11. Near-Death by Autorickshaw Crash (Mumbai, India)

Mumbai’s traffic is legendary. The darting little three-wheeled black and yellow autorickshaws are banned from the city centre, but roam freely around the suburbs. A very long series of train rides from Jaipur in Rajasthan found us in an autorickshaw in very heavy traffic, trying to get to the Versova suburb. The autorickshaw driver was a maniac, dodging and weaving through tiny spaces at breakneck speeds, wrenching the wheel in all directions and taking corners on two wheels, blaring the horn constantly in a jaunty tune and keeping up a running commentary, half the time with his head turned around and his eyes on us. So far, so India; autorickshaw drivers are like that only. Then we hit a long clogged section in the road and without missing a beat, he swerved to the right, bumped over the wide concrete median and started dodging and swerving through the lanes of oncoming traffic. He drove like this for 200 meters as, white-knuckled and bug-eyed, we hung on for dear life in the back-seat. Just as we passed the traffic jam and a split-second before being creamed by a gaily-painted oncoming truck, he swerved left, jumped the median again and rejoined the flow of traffic. Another autorickshaw gunned its tiny motor to pull up alongside, and its driver, a dignified white-haired gentleman, shouted over the engine noise in affronted yet still polite English “Sir! Are you crazy, sir? Our driver gave him a toothy maniacal grin and yelled back “Yes! Crazy!”. We really didn’t need any further proof.

12. Near-Death by Freezing (High Camp, Thorung-La, Nepal)

Sheryl and I had successfully avoided winter for more than a year, but when we decided to do the three-week Annapurna Circuit trek in the Nepalese Himalayas we knew that it crossed the highest mountain pass in the world, Thorung-La, at 5,420m altitude, and that even at that time of year we’d be above the snow-line for at least three days – at the highest points between Yak Kharka and Muktinath. Because of the constraints of high-altitude acclimatization, you can’t cover much distance when the climbs are steep, so we’d planned to stop at Thorang Phedi at 4,420m one night and then push up past High Camp 200m directly above Thorang Phedi, over the pass and down to Muktinath on the other side. What actually happened was… otherwise. You can never tell who’s going to be susceptible to altitude-sickness and when it will strike. We reckoned Sheryl would probably suffer from it at some point, and she being allergic to the drugs which alleviate the symptoms, would just have to suffer. Sure enough, she began to experience debilitating altitude-sickness just before we reached Thorang Phedi.

We spent an extra day and night there to let her acclimatize, and spent the day climbing up to high Camp and back down to help it happen. One day later we made our delayed attempt at the pass, heading back up to High Camp, stopping for tea and then onward and upward. But only a kilometre past High Camp Sheryl was struck with a sudden agonizing migraine-like headache out of nowhere. She said it was like an explosion in her head. I’d done a lot of research and was terribly afraid this was a thing called High-Altitude Cerebral Edema – basically a blood vessel bursting in the brain, and it can kill you (I’ve since had my speculation confirmed by a doctor). We got her back down out of the pass to High Camp somehow, despite that she could hardly walk. We should have gone all the way back down to Thorang Phedi at least, but she couldn’t make it any further. We had to spend the night there in a snowstorm, in a wooden shack with holes in the walls and the snow and ice whipping through, wrapped up in every scrap of fabric we had, shivering and frozen. All day and night, three of the stumpy little shaggy Nepali horses stayed crowded around our shack’s door. Whenever I opened it to make the trek to the outhouse there would be three horse noses trying to push their way inside. We seriously considered letting them in to help keep us warm – they couldn’t possibly have smelled worse than we did at that point in the trek.

13. Near-Death by Broken Neck (Kep, Cambodia)

Night falls early and quickly in the tropics. I knew that well enough, but I lost track of time. I and our travelling companion at the time, Sayaka, had rented bicycles and taken them out on a long ride through the countryside around Kep in the south of Cambodia. We’d had a very good day, riding along roads through rice paddies, watching the water buffaloes, visiting a couple of temples and waving hellomister to about a thousand little kids. But it was a lot later than we thought it was, and we were still 20 kilometers from Kep when it began to get dark. I had only a feeble headlamp that I had to wear backwards so that Sayaka could see where I was, which meant that in front of me was pitch-black - and Sayaka had nothing at all. I was worried about a few things - hitting a pothole and breaking our necks, of course; getting creamed by a car bombing along the remote road, naturally; but also… well, Cambodia is a poor country with a very violent history. Kep’s a comparatively peaceful corner, but a couple of falang all alone, in the dark, far from town… it might have made a tempting target for an inconvenient carload of the wrong kind of guys at the wrong moment. There were a couple of dodgy moments when one of the rare cars passed very slowly, or stopped ahead and waited for us to pass (which we declined to do) or once, even reversed down the road so they could pass us again, but nothing came of any of it. By the time we made it back to a busier road there were still 5 kilometers left to go. Five kilometers of riding on the shoulder, with no reflectors, getting sideswiped by traffic. Back at the hotel Sheryl had been panicking and preparing to send out the search parties, but had no idea which direction to look in. But Kep’s a small place and somebody who’d passed us on the road brought her word about fifteen minutes before we got back. We were pale and shaken and immensely relieved to be back safely, but she, forewarned, was as cool as a cucumber and just greeted us with a casual wave.

14. Near-Death by Giardia (Luang Nam Tha, Laos)

Sickness is a constant companion of the budget traveller. Dodgy food and water and dirty conditions conspire to provide a more or less constant low-level gastrointestinal upset. But sometimes there’s a spike in the background radiation and you get really sick. This happened to both Sheryl and I in Luang Nam Tha in Laos. We’d only been in the country for a little more than twenty-four hours, so I’m not sure if I should blame Laos or the previous country, Thailand. Sheryl fell sick first with fever, nausea, vomiting, and the usual issues at the other end of the digestive tract. I followed about four hours later, right after a dinner of Lao sticky rice (which, I can tell you, looks more or less the same on the way up as on the way down). We were bedridden for two days, sweating out the fever and trying to drink enough water to keep from dehydrating. When the fever finally broke, we tottered outside, feeble and shaky and weirdly sensitive to light. We’d begun yet another self-prescribed course of antibiotics, but an Australian nurse that Sheryl had met recommended an anti-parasitic as well, in the very likely case of giardasis. We were so weak that the 1500-meter walk downhill to the regional hospital clinic took us half an hour. After stocking up on Metronidazole, the walk back uphill took us an hour. In the end we were to spend more than eight days in Luang Nam Tha, convalescing.


15. Near-Death by Jellyfish (Pulau Weh, Sumatra, Indonesia)

The snorkelling around the northern tip of Sumatra in Indonesia is unbelievable. We were well off the mainland on the island of Pulau Weh. A smaller island lay offshore of Weh, separated by a channel of water with a fairly strong current. One day this channel was so full of stinging jellyfish that the water was nearly solid. Vast shoals of them, hundreds of meters long and wide, impossible to swim around or avoid. The only thing we could do was cover our mouths and noses where the snorkelling masks didn’t, grit our teeth and swim hard through the swarm. Their stinging tentacles dragged all over our bodies, shocking and burning. The water was so full of jellyfish that we lost our bearings more than once and got turned around back into the school. by the time we fought our way through we had had so many stings that our muscles were twitching and jerking uncontrollably and we were covered in yellow slimy flecks from their tendrils. We had to swim through the crashing surf and pull ourselves up onto a jumble of razor-sharp volcanic rocks, so I was covered in freely-bleeding slashes as well. Between the stings, the panic, the muscle spasms and the rough waves, there was more than one moment I thought we weren’t going to make it. And then we had to do it all again on the way back.

16. Near-Death by Earthquake (Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia)

What with one thing and another, Sumatra had certainly done its best to kill us. It was a few days after Sheryl’s hospitalization for Dengue Fever, and we were due to leave soon for Lombok, but Sumatra wasn’t going to let us go without one last try. We were sleeping during the early hours of the morning in our room on the third floor of a flimsy budget hotel when we were woken up by our bed moving. Not just the bed, we groggily realized - the floor, the walls, the whole building was swaying back and forth like a ship at sea. My confused brain slowly registered the word earthquake and I stumbled to the window to see all the other buildings on the street leaning back and forth, tree branches waving and power lines bouncing. There was a big fizzing pop somewhere outside and the sudden silence from the wall fan announced the death of the electricity. Finally awake enough to realize that the third floor of a cheap building wasn’t the best place to be during an earthquake I was opening my mouth to suggest we get out to the street, when the shaking began to subside. We heard later that the 7.8-magnitude quake had struck 50 or 60 kilometers off the west coast of Sumatra about 250 kilometers from Medan. There was no tsunami or major damage or loss of life, unlike the 2004 earthquake which happened in roughly the same area. The electricity was the only casualty in Medan; a mixed blessing since we no longer had to endure the nearby mosque’s deafening loadspeakers, but did have to swelter fanless in the heat. When we got power and internet back the next afternoon there was a series of increasingly panicky emails from people afraid we were buried under a pile of rubble.

17. Near-Death by Crocodile (Kakadu National Park, Australia)

Sometimes a near-death experience is the result of bad luck, but other times we’re just stupid and actually deserved to die. Such was the case in Kakadu National Park in northern Australia. The whole Northern Territory is infested with “salties” - man-eating saltwater crocodiles. Ingrained deeply in every local from babyhood is the commandment Don’t Go Near the Water. We knew that, and we knew Kakadu is full of crocs, we just forgot for a minute. So when we took our lunch down to Cahill’s Crossing on the appropriately named East Alligator River near Ubirr, I noticed that the picnic spot was raised up on a retaining wall high above the bank, but didn’t really think about it. We wandered down the car ramp to the ford to check out the muddy brown water. Cue a lot of shouting and arm-waving from the picnic area. Took us a second to realize they were shouting “croc” and then it all clicked, we realized in a sudden rush how stupid and absentminded we were being, and were back up the ramp and the hell away from the water like lightning. A saltie can rush out of the water and grab a human in the blink of an eye, and the people in the picnic area had watched a big one submerge right by the boat ramp just a few seconds before we showed up.

18. Near-Death by Heatstroke (Katherine Gorge, Australia)

The central Northern Territory of Australia is known for brutal heat. Just three days before in Nourlangie we’d completed a terribly hot eight-hour hike for which we had to carry fourteen liters of water (and which, we found out afterward, actually killed a German hiker two weeks later). We don’t take stupid risks with heat. I’d rather break my back carrying a massive load of water than get heatstroke. But the gorge walks near Katherine don’t really offer any shade. A signboard posted at the trailhead warned that it was 45°C in the shade that day, and out on the rocks it would be 10° higher. 55°C is something like 130°F. Plenty hot enough to kill. The oven-like rocks reflected the heat from both sides as we walked. Despite the endless liters of water we drank our heads were spinning by the time we reached shade in the river gorge a couple of hours later. We hadn’t planned to swim in the river because of the risk of crocodiles, and so we hadn’t brought swimsuits, but that seemed less important by that time and we stripped naked and dived in. I swear the water boiled when we touched it. Sheryl likes to remind me at this point in the story that I wasn’t technically naked because I had my underpants on my head to keep the sun off. Hey, you do what you have to. Luckily the crocodiles were absent or thought we were too weird to eat, so we were free to brave the heat again on the walk back. When we finally reached the car, parked in the shadeless parking lot at the visitor’s centre, everything inside it was blisteringly hot to the touch, and a cheap thermometer I’d bought which maxed out at 60°C had gotten so much hotter even than that, that it had actually exploded.

19. Near-Death by Falling (Gertrude Saddle, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand)

The Gertrude Saddle track, in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, is a challenging hiking track that should only be attempted in good weather. The route takes you about 800 vertical meters up steep rock slopes. The view is said to be magnificent from the saddle… in good weather. Needless to say, given our normal luck and the fact that Fiordland experiences 8000mm of rain yearly, the weather was not good. It started out fine, with blue skies and optimism all around. We parked the car at the trailhead on the Milford Road and followed the easy part of the trail along the glacier-valley bottom to a dry riverbed full of boulders, then jumped from boulder to ankle-turning boulder up the bed to the waterfall pool at the base of the ascent. The trail description said to go “true left” of the waterfall. I’ve done quite a lot of hiking, but for some reason I can never remember that particular orienteering convention. I understand why it’s done - you can’t always say “the north bank”, for example, because rivers aren’t always conveniently oriented. But I can never make it stick in my head, whether True Left and Right are supposed to be decided when you’re facing downstream or upstream.

So, the trail not being visible on the rocky ground, I had to guess at the route. Wrongly, as it turned out - after a lot of effort we got high up above the waterfall toward the saddle and then had to turn back to try the other side. There we found the trail that was invisible from down below and followed it all the way to the top of the saddle, a tiring uphill slog. Bad weather was rolling in by the time we got to the top, obscuring the view and making the smooth, steep rock slopes slippery and treacherous. Heading up, the trail had switched back and forth across the gully several times, and coming down and having to watch our footing so closely, we somehow lost the trail but didn’t realize it until we were too far along to turn back - stubborn as we both are. Turning back really would have been a good idea, because the trail we found for ourselves was hideously dangerous. We picked our way slowly and precariously down the steep, crumbling slope, full of dead-ends, blind drops and rockslides. At one point, trying to inch down a treacherous gully on my bum, the scree beneath me began to slide and I went with it, right over the edge. Only luck gave me a ledge to land on beneath and not a long fall to the valley floor. That was the worst moment, especially since after that it was no longer possible for me to go back and Sheryl had to take the same slide, blindly, trusting me to stop her going all the way down. By the time we finally found the real trail again we were trembling wrecks, bruised, scraped and scratched - and I’d ripped the butt out of my pants during my slide down the mountain. It took us a long time to collect ourselves enough to finish the trail in anything approaching good form.


20. Near-Death by Crushing and Drowning (Vava’u, Tonga)

Humpback whales are one of the most fascinating creatures in the world, and we’d come all the way to the Vava’u island group of Tonga in the South Pacific for the chance to swim with them during their calving season. The only way to do it is to go with a licensed operator, and since these boat trips aren’t cheap and we’d only be able to do it once we were desperately hoping that the whales would cooperate. The seas were rough and high that day, and though we spotted a few whales and got the boat pretty close, none of them were interested in stopping to play. Finally, though, we encountered a family group of three - bull, cow and calf. The male was making magnificent breaching jumps out of the water, exposing his ridged white belly to impress the female, and crashing back down to the surface with a huge splash. The boat hit a wave and heeled over, and I stumbled badly and broke two toes, but right at that moment the operator gave the signal for Sheryl and I and two others to jump in with the whales, so I just jammed my fins on over the broken toes, too excited to worry about them. The other two girls hung back with the boat, frightened of the rough, open sea and the big animals, but Sheryl and I took off for the whales under full steam.

Powering toward the whales as fast as I could, running on adrenaline and excitement, I was conscious only of one overwhelming need (predictable in retrospect because it’s my automatic response when presented with any animal of any size) - Must Pet the Whale. Must Play with the Whale. I have no idea how I was imagining I might actually accomplish this when I finally reached the whales - I hadn’t really thought it through that clearly. It was at this point, I remember, that I lost sight of the big male underwater and popped my head up to see if I could spot him. I did - he was out of the water. All the way out of the water, standing on his tail at the apex of a breach, only maybe 30 meters from where I was swimming, and about to crash back down onto the surface and crush me like a bug. As the towering white belly leaned over and its shadow fell onto me, cutting off the light, there was still room for only one thought in my mind, but now it was this one: Whales are really big. He missed me, obviously, but the massive wave bowled me over and swirled me down into the depths where I hung suspended, stunned and unbreathing, because right in front of me was the mother whale with her calf swimming alongside. I swam after them as long as my breath held out, and as I rose to the surface I saw them give one lazy flick of their massive tails and vanish into the blue water.


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2 Comments on this Dispatch:

February 6th, 2012

I read till #13 and had to stop. Smell of near-death is everywhere, even in the comfort of my apt. I need to take a break and shake off this doom and gloom

¬ Wong Choong Cheok
April 15th, 2014

Reading these over again makes me realize we should be thankful to be still alive :)

¬ Sheryl
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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Thrill to the exploits of our infamous sidekick Spidey (a small gentleman adventurer himself) in photo-essay form in his very own gallery!
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