I have been scared a few times in my travels (restaurant bills in Europe scare the hell out of me for a start), but thankfully nothing too bad has happened to me. Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t die or break any bones or end up in jail, but I have had a few almost-poo-your-pants moments. Here are my Top 5 Scariest Encounters (in no particularly scary order):
Gun to the head – Trans Mongolian train, Russia
The train was trundling along through the middle of Siberia when I was confronted by two scarily drunk Russians on my way back from the dining car. One asked a me a question in Russian and when I said that I didn’t understand he began shouting at me and grabbed my arm so I couldn’t get away. Then he reached into his jacket and brought out a gun. A gun? It took my brain a second to register that he was holding a real-life handgun. As he was bringing the gun up to my head his friend screamed out ‘NYEY! NYET! and grabbed his arm. The gun fell to the floor. They both dived to the ground and a struggle for the gun ensued. It took me another few seconds for my brain to figure out that it was probably a good idea to get the hell out of there. I did get back to my compartment, but I never did see them again and I’ll never know whether he was just trying to scare me, rob me or murder me and throw me off the train into the Siberian wilderness (which happens quite a bit apparently).
Motorcycle crash – Koh Samui, Thailand
Okay, I’m not a very good motorcycle rider and I’ve had a few crashes in my travels, but one crash was not only so frightening, but I was worried that I was going to bleed to death before I got back to civilisation. I’d ridden up a steep dirt track to a view point, but riding down was not so easy – particularly with my riding skills. It certainly didn’t help that I lacked the most basic of skills and I had to use my feet for balance, so could only use the hand brake. I had my hand tightly gripped around the handbrake as I crawled down the steep hill at a snail’s pace when suddenly the handbrake cable snapped. The bike (and I) hurled down the steep hill at full speed. How could I stop? In the split second that I had to make a decision I pointed the bike towards the jungle, but the bike tipped over and dragged me along the ground. I was still holding on (in hindsight, that was probably not a good idea). The bike stopped dead and I lay on the track covered in blood. My leg had torn open and blood was gushing out all over me. Anyway, I somehow managed to jump back on the motorbike and get my foot on the brake (and crawl down the hill) then spent a painful two hours riding in first gear (my leg had seized up and I couldn’t change gears) back to ‘town’ while being chased by dogs and bleeding all over the seat. And do you know what? On my very next trip to Asia I hired a motorbike again – and fell off again.
Violently ill – Togo, Africa
I’ve had a few dodgy tummies in my travels, but when I got sick in the jungles of Togo I thought I was going to die. It probably didn’t help that I had no idea where I was (which was my whole idea for my book Where’s Wallis?) or where the nearest hospital was or what was wrong with me or the fact that I literally had to drag myself through a steamy jungle with cramps that would kill a black dog. I guessed that it was some sort of food poisoning, but my whole body ached (including my eyeballs and even my eyebrows). I had to cross a large lake in a tiny wooden canoe, trudge through thick jungle then stand on a stifling hot road and hitch for a ride (there was no public transport). I got dropped off at the first place that resembled a hotel then spent 24 hours in bed in a fitful sleep. I hadn’t eaten anything in 36 hours by the time I crawled out of bed, but I forced myself to eat something so I could get enough energy to find out where the hell I was.
A scary proposition – Benin, Africa
I was in the dark back streets of Cotonou in Benin (for my book Where’s Wallis?) when I stopped for a drink at a bar. First of all I probably shouldn’t have been walking around in the first place (Lonely Planet suggests that you shouldn’t be walking around the area I was in AT ALL!). The streets were pitch black, so when I saw a well-lit bar I stopped for a drink, even though the bar’s name was a tad discouraging. The inside of Rita’s Rough Bar was full of boisterous drunk locals, so I grabbed a table on the footpath. Before long I was surrounded by a band of merry men asking me questions. After about thirty minutes a young very large muscly fellow asked me if I would like to go to his house for a party. ‘We can have lots of fun,’ he enthused. He then leant in, while putting his hand gently on my knee, and whispered, ‘I promise I won’t be violent with you.’ I took that as a cue to leave (and sprint back to my hotel).
Skiing off a cliff – Mt Hutt, New Zealand
I’ve done the bungy jumping thing and the biplane and other ‘extreme’ scary sports, but the most scared I’ve been is when I was skiing. I’ve skied every season for 25 years and I also worked as a ski guide, so I can ski, but one day at Mount Hutt in New Zealand I was sure I was going to die. I’d gone out of bounds to find some wind-blown powder and found myself a great steep gully full of the fresh stuff. It was only when I finished skiing the gully that it got freakin’ scary. I had to ski along the top of a steep, narrow ridge to get back to the ski area. I only had to traverse across it but it was all ice. As in blue, shiny, ice. But what put me on the edge of complete panic was that there was a sheer cliff directly below me. As in a sheer drop of hundreds of metres to certain death. It was only the sharpness of my ski edges and my steady slow traverse that kept me gripped to the ice. Just one tiny mistake and I would have been gone for sure. I was even worried that my heart was beating so hard that it might make my skis ‘chatter’ and I’d lose grip. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited skiing when I got back over the ridge and back to the ski runs.