The weird and wonderful

21:59, Dec 26 2013
Neil Ratley
Neil Ratley, far right, drifts on the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
Neil Ratley
Hanging out with local kids in Rwanda.
Neil Ratley
A view from the tent in Torres del Paine.
Neil Ratley
Looking into the eyes of a mountain gorilla, Uganda.

Holidays come in many forms - they can be as simple as sitting on a beach watching the waves roll in, or they can be an elaborate multi-destination trip to an exotic location. Three well- travelled Southland Times journalists share the highlights . . . and lowlights from some of their holidays. Today Australian reporter Neil Ratley , has experienced the aurora borealis in Alaska, eaten roast guinea pig in Peru, been turned away from a brewery tour in Rwanda - his biggest disappointment to date - and fired AK47s in Latvia.

Best place

Deep in the forest of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, you hear the ripping and chewing of vegetation before you see any movement. Bwindi lies in the remote southwest corner of Uganda and is refuge to about 340 gorillas - half of the world's remaining mountain gorilla population. A silverback tears the stalks off a low growing plant and stuffs them into his mouth. I'm so close I can see the glint in his eye and the juices running through the bristle on his chin. Behind me in a tree a young mother traverses a branch while her baby clings to her back.

Neil Ratley
Times' reporter Neil Ratley in Uganda.

Worst place

Corrupt police on Tanzania's western roads left a sour taste in my mouth and my wallet empty. While driving a VW Golf through Africa, we were subject to thorough inquisitions of our purpose, possessions and purses. We could satisfy most but never all of the concerned police queries. Initially, I sat slightly overwhelmed and despondent and handed over the cash as the barrel of a machine gun slung over a shoulder poked through the open window. But eventually I broke before I ended up broke. So on a bumpy highway in Tanzania, I bribed the first of many African police officials.

Best journey


Buying a VW Golf, we christened Rufus, in Cape Town, my friend Josh and I set forth into the dark heart of Africa. In truth, we thought we might get to cruise through a couple of countries before having to leave Rufus at a border crossing with his keys in the ignition. Six months, 20,000km and nine countries later after surviving being stuck in flooding rivers, out- running charging elephants, bribing police and border crossing guards, breaking down in remote deserts, jungles and savannahs, we rolled into Nairobi, Kenya. But not before meeting a Kiwi working at a rafting and bungy centre on the Nile and swapping Rufus for a ride of the rapids and a jump.

For the adventures of Rufus go to:

Most memorable meals

Experiencing the exotic culinary delights on offer in distant lands is just as important as other aspects of the adventure. Sometimes what is on the menu challenges our preconceptions about fine dining but I must admit I have a weakness for saying yes to the weird and wonderful.

My top tasty and not so tasty treats:

Roast guinea pig (Peru)

Gutted and skewered whole, the furry creature known more for being a pet than a snack, is singed clean of its coat and roasted over coals. Ignore the paws praying towards you and empty eye sockets trying to unnerve you. And when asked, reply it tastes a bit like rabbit and pigeon.

Rooster head on a stick (Myanmar/ Burma)

Beak, eyes and comb make for a confronting brunch. But for less than 10 cents I couldn't go past another skewered delicacy on a recent trip to Burma. My first bite cracked through the beak, the second into the skull and brains squirting a stream of juice across my cheek, the third was a wee chew on the comb and . . . well, there was no fourth bite.

Pig's colon (Myanmar/Burma)

I will leave this one up to the readers' imagination. There was a healthy salad option or a deep-fried selection. I was on holiday so I went the unhealthy route whole hog.

Accommodation experience

Best: Sometimes the best stays are ones without four walls and a solid roof. My most memorable accommodation experiences have involved nothing but the nylon fabric of a tent separating me from the night cold of wild Patagonia, the hungry bears of Denali National Park in Alaska and the beasts of the African plains. The bite of the wind, rustle of trees and roar of animals nearby disrupted some sleep. But waking up at the crack of dawn, unzipping the tent flap and breathing in the beautiful surroundings of glaciers, mountains and savannahs can't be beaten.

Worst: A dorm in a Dublin backpackers where the sewerage was overflowing from the attached bathroom. Despite some unwelcome floaters sneaking into the room our requests for a shift of rooms or a refund were swiftly flushed aside. It did provide the perfect excuse to sample Dublin's nightlife - all night until checkout.

Best traveller experience

Meetings while travelling can be fleeting but often they stay with you forever. I met Jeannie Probala on an Alaskan ferry. She had come to conquer Mount McKinley after coming within a flap of skin of losing her foot in a climbing accident. I ran into Duncan in a backpackers in Scotland. He was travelling the world and being blind wasn't slowing him down. Maung Maung, the Burmese taxi driver, filled his cab with jokes despite losing his teaching job and going to jail under the junta. It was one of his jokes about a general who sent him there. He worked his way up from riding a rickshaw to having a taxi.

These are the encounters that may not leave you wealthy but they enrich you in more than wealth.

The Southland Times