One of the joys of travelling is hearing the often wild and hairy travel tales of the people you meet. I’ve spent more than a few evenings in some of the world’s remote outposts, listening to other travellers tell the stories of the strange, crazy and sometimes wonderful things that have happened to them on the road. Here are a few of the stories that have stayed most vividly in my mind.
Stabbed with a fork on the boat to Bali
On the island of Bali, I ran into a pair of blonde, tanned brothers from Australia making their way around Indonesia on a surfing safari. So far, they’d made it to the country’s most beautiful spot, but the trip had been an eventful one.
Being adventurers, they had decided to travel from Australia to Indonesia – right next door, in geographic terms – on a ship. So they booked two berths on a tramp steamer and set off. But trouble soon began to brew. The ship had an Indonesian captain. But because of national regulations, it also had an Australian captain, whom he hated and resented.
Also on board was a young Dutch girl, who spent much of her time flirting with the Indonesian crew. The Australian captain soon forbade the crew to associate with the girl. And when the Indonesian captain was found in a cabin with her, someone locked the door from the outside. When he got out, he decided his Australian counterpart was the culprit, and in a fit of rage he attacked him and stabbed him with a fork.
The ship had to stop at the next port, and the police were called. And as for my Australian friends, they had to take their surf boards and paddle on.
Polynesian car carriers, and the angry pig
One winter, I found myself staying in a guest house on the Cook Islands, a Pacific paradise that’s sometimes called New Zealand’s Polynesian backyard. My fellow guests included a couple of young fellows from Birmingham, England. And as often happens, one of them had a few travel tales to tell.
His father had been in the British navy, and on one of his voyages, the ship had stopped at a Pacific island to spend a few days. So they offloaded some of their equipment, including a vehicle, which they drove into town. But when they got to the main drag, thee was a parked car blocking their way. The owner was nowhere to be found, so they started thinking: they were a platoon of young, strong men – whey not just pick it up and move it? And with the whole village watching, that’s what they did.
The next morning, the English sailors heard a commotion out on Main Street, and looked out the window to see a strange sight: a group of hefty Polynesian men gleefully picking up cars and carrying them up and down the street. They had unwittingly invented a new South Pacific sport.
On another island, the sailors found a local herd of wild pigs, which let to a tantalizing thought: a pig roast. All they needed to do was catch one. And one sailor had a plan: the pigs loved coconuts, but couldn’t crack them open. So he took an axe, cracked a few, and hid in the bushes to wait.
Soon enough, a wild pig appeared. And once he’d set himself down for a feast, the sailor jumped out of the bushes and gave him a mighty crack on the head with his axe. The pig dropped like a stone. But pigs have thick skulls, and a minute later he jumped up and took off after his attacker. So the British sailors didn’t get their pig roast, but one of them did find out just how fast he could run.
When the stone age met the space age
About 10 years ago I cruised the French Caribbean on a barquentine, a recreation of an old-time merchant sailing ship. The captain was the definition of an old salt, a man who had sailed both the Arctic and the Antarctic before taking this relatively cushy job. And one night at dinner he told me a fascinating, almost mythical story.
In his youth, 30 years before, he had been a crew member on a Canadian coast guard ship that sailed the frigid waters of Labrador and the eastern Arctic. And one day they sailed into a remote bay, where to their surprise, they saw people on the shore: a man and a woman, with a baby. They were dressed in the fur parkas of the Inuit, and it was obvious that the ship was just as much an apparition to them as they were to the crew.
The captain sent a boat ashore to meet them, and seeing their astonishment, the sailors decided to invite them on board. They accepted, and came aboard the strange iron boat for a tour of the bridge, the galley and all the high-tech equipment a coast guard vessel carries. They looked at it all with wonder– or perhaps disbelief.
This couple lived in a culture where most of their possessions were made of skins or bone; even steel tools were a scarce commodity. And here were gadgets that looked as if they came from another planet, made of strange materials and covered with arcane symbols. It was as if they’d been taken aboard a space ship.
After a meal, the sailors ferried the Inuit visitors back to shore and continued on their way, with a wave goodbye. And the man and woman went back to their lives, with a memory that must have seemed like a dream – did it really happen?
The leg or the wing?
Long ago, while waiting out a particularly rainy week in Kuching, on the island of Borneo, I met a Dutch fellow who was there on a work assignment. He was a botanist, visiting Kuching to help with the taro crop. It lacked biodiversity, and the local bureaucrats had a plan: they wanted to send him into neighbouring Indonesia to collect different plant strains – without a permit.
That was a story in itself, but one night, over sips from a bottle of whisky he’d brought from Holland, he told me a few other travel tales, including this one. Being a good Netherlander, he had travelled extensively around what had once been the Dutch East Indies. And at one point he had landed on an island in the Molucca chain, where he was taken in by the local villagers.
He had intended to camp nearby, and they were happy to let him. But they had one rule: no one ate alone. So the village elders picked a family to be his hosts. Every day, in exchange for a little money, they would welcome him into their home for his meals.
He was happy with the arrangement. That is, until one night, when he arrived to find a net full of live bats hanging on the wall, all wriggling and squeaking, “What are they for?” he asked. “They’re your dinner,” said the lady of the house, with a smile.
And so he became one of the few Westerners to have dined on a true Moluccan delicacy — roast bat. I asked him what it was like. “Not bad,” he said, “tasted like chicken.”
The tale of the cruiser’s curse
While making my way to my ship in Civitavecchia, Italy’s largest cruise port, I bumped into an English woman who turned out to be quite a cruise veteran. Or maybe she was better described as a cruise survivor, in light of recent history.
A couple of years before, she’d decided to take a cruise in the Indian Ocean. And all had gone well – until the ship was attacked by pirates. Luckily, its defences were good enough to fend them off, and the passengers got to the next port with their valuables intact.
Undaunted, she booked another cruise, this time sailing through the Suez Canal, The major stop on the itinerary was Cairo. But when they arrived, a disturbing announcement came across the intercom: all shore excursions were cancelled. The reason was clear if you stepped out on deck – coming from the city were the unmistakable sounds of gunfire.
The English lady was headed for the same cruise I was on, but I never saw her again. It could have been that her cabin was far from mine – or perhaps she’d had a last-minute premonition and jumped ship. Either way, we got around the Mediterranean without incident — I guess it was third time lucky.
Someone once said that every person has one good story. And if that’s true, every traveller must have half a dozen. Travel is always an adventure, whether you’re trekking through the Himalayas or travelling first-class through the capitals of Europe. And where there’s adventure, there are travel tales. I always enjoy hearing them, hope you do too. And if you have a good one, leave a comment below and share it with us. A good tale always bears retelling.