Travel secrets: ‘Play it too safe, and you won’t wind up with many stories worth telling’

There’s nothing like a good idea – and sometimes my ideas are nothing like good ones, admits Mo Gannon after a trip to the Serengeti.

Thunderbolt: not the best weather to get stranded in whole on safari in Tanzania – in an open vehicle. Photo by Alamy
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This was not a good idea! How often have you had that thought on a journey? I’m not talking about the “I wish I hadn’t listened to TripAdvisor” thought. I mean the more dire kind, the white-knuckle one that people must have when they’re confronted with an untimely end on an adventure gone horribly wrong.

I’ve had this thought twice on my travels this year, wondering in moments of utter despair whether my fate might merit an item on the news wire. One was on a whale-watching trip in Sri Lanka that produced no whales, only five hours of being pitched back and forth by towering waves, in a sea so vast I wondered whether we might find MH370. The other was when our safari group got stuck in a ditch in the Serengeti in a thunderstorm. In an open vehicle. After dark. Just after watching a lion that had caught a baby antelope for dinner.

As a seasoned travel pro, I wish I could tell you I’d done my research on the tour operators before placing my life in their hands, or known what the plan was in case of emergency. But I did what most of us do when we ignore the preflight safety demonstration on the plane in favour of more interesting things like the duty-free catalogue – I just trusted I was in good hands and assumed everything would be alright.

In Sri Lanka, I was on a press trip; in Tanzania, I was on a luxury safari. Both, you would think, would be guarantees that everything would be meticulously orchestrated according to plan. But travel, like life, carries no guarantees, no matter who you are or what sort of money you shell out for the trip of a lifetime. It is wise to be more mindful of this: be reassured that there’s an emergency plan before you set out, and if your gut doesn’t like the feeling, don’t be afraid to say “turn around”.

I’ll take the, er, lion’s share of the blame for getting myself into those messes, letting my desire to see something worthwhile override my instincts for safety.

In Sri Lanka, our group had been warned the waves were high, but we really wanted to see the whales. In fact, when we first ventured out in a smaller boat, one woman in our group had the sense to demand we return to solid ground. Our travel editor and I were torn between cutting our losses and entertaining the idea that there was still the faintest chance of seeing whales, and so two men took us out in a bigger boat, which, they warned us, would be slower to reach the whale-watching area, far from shore, but better off in the high waves.

Only slightly better, as we soon found.

It took the first hour to find a place to brace ourselves where we weren’t being tossed or sprayed by seawater; by the time we’d noticed there was no life raft in sight, we were too far from land to do anything about it.

In Tanzania, one safari guide had told my friend and me that we had just missed the Great Migration, but that night at dinner, another guest told us that it was happening a three-hour drive away; not to be deterred, we asked to go. We had stated our preference was for an open vehicle, which had been great for getting close to the wildlife at our previous camp, but not, as we were to find, so comfortable on a long day’s trip full of bumpy roads and swarms of tsetse flies. And definitely not in a thunderstorm. Even less so when stranded.

As the sun set, turning the lightning bolts a rather dramatic neon pink as they cracked over the Serengeti, and as our guides radioed the rangers for help, we started searching the vehicle for an emergency kit, flares or supplies in case the rangers couldn’t come to our rescue. All we had were some soda bottles in the cooler, which someone suggested we could throw at a hungry lion. Again, it was too late to prepare ourselves, a fact of which we were all too well aware as we sat helplessly in desperate silence waiting for rescue or disaster to befall. When another vehicle’s lights appeared on the blackened horizon and took us to the safety of a nearby camp, I wept with relief. Lest you think I exaggerate the danger, as we travelled home on the same road – in the safety of a closed vehicle – a pride of lions ambled out from the tall grass into our path.

Happily, I lived to tell these tales, and because of that, I can say there’s some value in them. No one really cares to hear about your fabulously idyllic holiday, but nothing gets your co-workers’ attention like saying that “I almost got eaten by a lion on safari”.

That said, there’s a fine line between being able to say that and, well, actually getting eaten by a lion on safari. Most don’t want to get too close to that line. But then, stay too far away from that line, play it too safe, and you won’t wind up with many stories worth telling.

On my most recent trip to China, I had another “this was not a good idea” thought. I had booked a night train between Shanghai and Beijing, in a “luxury” sleeper, taking the chance that someone would not book the bunk over me. I ended up sharing a small cabin with a man named Wong (a nice enough man, it seemed, but definitely not Mr Right). We spoke not a word of each other’s language. “Canada,” I said, pointing to myself, which is the one word I usually summon worldwide to establish that everything’s cool. “Ka-nah-ta?” he repeated, as if he were saying it for the first time. Then he pulled out his phone, spoke Mandarin into it, and a Siri-like voice said in English: “I must warn you that I snore very loudly.” We laughed.

After about an hour of questions and answers using his translation app, surely the most bizarre mode of conversation ever, I asked him where I could get dinner and some tea. Off he went and returned with a can of stew, cracked the top and proudly held it out to me with a spoon.

“It’s cold,” I protested weakly, and he just smiled invitingly. I ate a bit of that stew like a champ, then he dumped the rest out and made me tea in it with the kettle we had in our cabin. I tried to tell him it was like a campfire meal in Canada: not exactly good, but better because of the effort involved. I think that got lost in translation.

Soon after he announced it was time for bed and climbed up into his bunk. He did snore very loudly, but I felt safe, and it ended up being not such a bad idea.