Knot Spots: September 29, 2017

In the category of What Will They Think of Next, how about carry-on luggage that carries you? When I spotted the ad for this, I thought it was a joke. But no, there’s a real website touting what appears to be a real product, complete with endorsements from cool, hip-looking folks who, in the slick promo photos, are doing their best to ignore the fact that no matter how cool and hip they are, they look completely silly sitting on a little suitcase.

In the online manual under Key Safety Points, I see this caution: “Do not modify the Modobag.” But how long before speed freaks and the compulsively competitive begin tweaking the factory model so they can reach the security line-up asap? On the page titled Riding Etiquette, there’s this: “When riding with other Modobag riders…do not ride side-by-side.” Yeah, right. How are owners going to test the mettle of their dragsters if they don’t race side by side? One can just imagine the rush-hour traffic jams and inevitable collisions. Soon, these will come equipped with airbags and, more importantly, horns.

Can’t wait to spot one of these in real life.

 

Calidris Reads: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

 

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

A Guide to the Birds
of East Africa

Nicholas Drayson

Read for: A longed-for return visit to Africa

First sentence: “’Ah yes,’ said Rose Mbikwa, looking up at the large dark bird with elegant tail soaring high above the car park of the Nairobi Museum, ‘a black kite. Which is, of course, not black but brown.’”

The comparison to Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is inevitable, so let’s tackle that straight off. This book is very similar in length and in style to Smith’s hugely successful franchise. A Guide is equally character-driven and provides the same fascinating glimpses into the idiosyncrasies of African life. So if you are a fan of Mma Ramotswe and her world, you will very likely enjoy Mr. Malik and his.

There are some differences, however. I welcomed the fresh perspective of a “person of colour” (that is, in African terms, someone who is neither black nor white; in this case, Indian in origin). And, being a birder, I enjoyed the link to the often-wacky world of “twitching,” although I would have been even more impressed if the characteristics of the many bird species mentioned somehow contributed to the plot rather than simply being catalogued.

I found fewer laughs in A Guide, either because there was less humour intended or because I didn’t find the writing particularly funny. The book is quirky and amusing but has less out-loud chortle moments. The picture painted of Kenya—and Nairobi in particular—is darker than Smith’s bucolic Botswana. I suspect that Botswana tourism tripled in the wake of the No 1 Ladies’ TV show, as busloads of fans who had never previously heard of Botswana eagerly sought out the dusty roads, sleepy towns, and friendly people drinking bush tea who feature so prominently in Smith’s books. A Guide, however, is more likely to make visitors shy away from Kenya. (Unless they are birders, of course. But birders are crazy, and have no survival instinct, as we all know.)

I really liked the way Drayson slowly unfolds the character of Mr. Malik throughout the novel and I’m looking forward to more adventures arising from his various strengths and weaknesses.

4 knots Recommended (non-birders) 5 knots Highly recommended (birders)

7 Tips for Reading Online Reviews

“Worst experience ever! I’ll never stay here again.”

“Cheerful staff, good pub-style food.”

“Slept like a baby. A real find!”

“Terrible. We waited an hour for our food and then they got the order wrong.”

Oh, those online reviews. TripAdvisor, Yelp, Urban Spoon, Google Reviews, Expedia, Airbnb, VRBO, blogs, and travel sites; there are more every day.

Every time I read an online review, I wonder what it’s worth. How can I allow anonymous opinions to influence decisions that may involve thousands of my precious dollars? But I do. It’s hard not to. In pre-Internet days, I relied heavily on recommendations in travel guides. I still read those guides, but the sheer volume of online reviews and the specifics of those opinions make them irresistible.

Is there any way to be sure that reviews are fair and accurate? The simple answer is no. You can never be sure. However, with a willingness to invest some time and basic common sense, I think those reviews can work for you. Here I’ve listed some ideas for sifting through online reviews.

  1. Don’t believe everything you read, bad or good. This is the crucial point. Read every review with a critical eye. Stilted, “bumpfed-up” language that sounds suspiciously like promo copy is a red flag that the review may be a fake posted by the business owner or her mother. On the other side, a review that runs down a business in vague terms and suggests you patronize a specific competitor instead may come from the rival (or his mother).
  2. Read between the lines. Is the reviewer complaining about a situation beyond the business’s control? Could it have been a one-time problem? Is the reviewer so angry about something that he or she is completely unfair? Sometimes a negative review is clearly based on a situation where any reasonable person would side with the business; e.g., I’ve read a review where the writer complained that the manager shut down their fun late-night party “just because” other guests were disturbed by the noise. This is not a legitimate basis for a negative review.
  3. Match your own expectations and standards against those of the reviewer. What you want from a hotel, restaurant, or tour may not be the same as what the writer wants. He might complain that meal portions are small, but if you’re a light eater, you might prefer small portions. She may be thrilled that an establishment allows smoking; you may not.
  4. Watch the numbers. The more reviews, the better. It’s unlikely that the manager will fake 50 reviews. Also, if there are 100 reviews and 97 say it’s great and 3 say it sucks, that’s significant. Read the ones that buck the trend: sometimes it will be clear that the dissenting reviews are unreasonable. Sometimes they will make a valid point.
  5. Notice the specifics. A long review with many details is more believable than a one-liner. In addition, the details can be very interesting. A review based on a visit during a specific time period could yield valuable information about what it’s like to be there during that time. If you’re planning to visit the Amazon during January, try to find reviews from people who went in that month. They may mention how bad the mosquitos were, what the weather was like, or how the humidity affected their electronic devices, great things to know in advance.
  6. Check the room tips, if they are included. Again, your preferences for noise/quiet, front street/back courtyard, clawfoot tub/walk-in shower may not align with the writer’s, but you can still use those room details to make a better choice.
  7. Flip through the photos. Photos can be faked, but for most people, it’s too much bother. Looking at photos can give you an idea how far the official business description veers away from reality. The classic case is references to “views.” Many properties will tout their “ocean view” or “mountain view,” but when you look at the photos posted by guests, you may notice that the “view” is a tiny sliver of distant horizon visible only when you stand in one corner of the balcony and lean way over the railing. This is the kind of truth-stretching that disappointed guests love to jump all over with photos revealing the actual picture.

Booking anything sight unseen is a risk, but it’s hard to avoid doing that when you travel. Reading reviews is just one way of reducing that risk. While reviews must be approached with a healthy degree of caution, ignoring the collective experience and knowledge of the online community would be foolish.

PS: Don’t forget to post your own reviews. It can be fun and certainly helps other people—some of my reviews on TripAdvisor have been read over a thousand times! It can even help the business in question if you provide a great review or point out a problem that they can fix. If you’ve used review sites yourself, it’s only fair to contribute to them.

Do you read or post reviews? Have you had a bad or good experience with an online review? Let me know in a comment.

Kakadu National Park, Australia

Cattle egrets fly over a billabong in Kakadu.

“You’re going to the North? What for? There’s nothing there but crocs and stinking heat.”

This was the encouraging conversation I had with someone from Queensland, Australia, when I mentioned that our next destination was the Northern Territory. Given that Queensland itself has no shortage of either crocs or heat, his opinion of the north was worth noting.

The answer to his question was simple, however: Kakadu. The park had been on my bucket list since we watched Kakadu: Australia’s Ancient Wilderness, part of the PBS series “The Living Edens.”

Recognized as a World Heritage Site for both its natural environment and its cultural significance (thanks to over 20,000 years of Aboriginal occupation), it’s one of those places that you don’t get to by accident. You’re not toodling along a pleasant country lane when you notice a sign “This way to Kakadu” and you decide on the spur of the moment—because you have nothing to do between lunch and teatime—to pop in for a bit of a look-see.

From the west coast of North America, we flew 17-plus hours to Cairns (in Queensland) and then a further 2.5 hours to Darwin, the closest town. We then drove 3 hours to get to the centre of the park, the little village of Jabiru, where we rented a tiny cabin for four days.

Yes, it was stinking hot. And yes, we saw lots of crocs. But we also saw thousands of birds, remote and unforgiving landscapes, peaceful billabongs, and awe-inspiring rock paintings.

Kakadu isn’t always this dry and dusty; we visited in August, probably the driest part of the year.

The magpie geese are plentiful and happy after a season of good eating.

 

Little corella in Jabiru town.

Sunrise on the Yellow River cruise.

Nanking heron hiding along the Yellow River.

White-bellied sea eagle enjoying her breakfast along the Yellow River.

Gum tree.

Great egret spear-fishing.

Big croc on the Yellow River.

Rainbow bee eater.

Billabong. Yes, as in: “Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong….”

Forest kingfisher.

Aboriginal rock art.

Rock painting of Tasmanian wolf.

Red-collared lorikeet

Loved this Wicked Campers Beatles tribute spotted in a Kakadu parking lot.

Snorkeling Cruise on the Reggae Queen Part 2

Sunset from aboard the MV Reggae Queen.

Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the boat’s name, the Reggae Queen. Being the naïve person that I am, I merely thought, Oh, reggae music. How nice! The connection between reggae and smoking slipped my mind completely. I should not have been, but was, surprised to see that the guide was a chain-smoker and six of the 15 passengers smoked as well. The dining area was frequently filled with smoke. Thank goodness it was open air or it would have been intolerable.

They didn’t smoke during meals, but as soon as they finished eating, they would all light up, so we would flee. As a result, we missed some of the social chitchat and the guide’s information. The passengers quickly sorted into two unspoken camps: puffers and non-puffers. The puffers mainly stayed on the dining deck and the non-smokers hung out on the top (sun) deck. There was no animosity, we were all very friendly, but since the guide was in the other camp, we did miss out on some stuff.

What else to say about the tour leader? One online review read: “R who runs the trip is…a great character.”  A “character” is a good way to put it. You either enjoy his style and think he’s a barrel of laughs or you find him brusque and annoying. Let’s look at a couple of other online comments.

“The snorkeling tour…was very disappointed [sic]….We believe that in this island the only one that enjoy were Mr R and those who spent the time drinking with him. Instead of making the guests happy, he spent his time drinking and smoking a lot of reggae style.”

Another customer complained:

“The German owner smoked and drank beer the whole day long (even started before breakfast and smoked at the same time the guests were having breakfast).”

Our most generous interpretation of his behaviour was that he has probably been doing this tour too long and is simply burnt out. He didn’t seem to care much whether we had a good time or not and he certainly wasn’t going out of his way to ensure that we did.

When we all had to cram ourselves into a small zodiac, he literally screamed at people to move, even though we were already packed in like sardines and the boat was madly tossing about on the waves. As we climbed into the zodiac, instead of telling us the safest way to get down, he waited until after several people slipped and nearly injured themselves before yelling at us not to do it “that way.”

The Thai crew, on the other hand, were very solicitous and helped everyone on and off the boats as much as they could, and we passengers helped each other as necessary. R never once bothered to help anyone (as far as I saw).

Although there was a white board on the ship for him to leave notes on each day’s schedule, he didn’t bother doing this, so we never knew when to show up for lunch or dinner.

Brahminy kite off Koh Bon island.

This was all in contrast to a couple of other guides that we had in Thailand and Cambodia, who went out of their way to make sure we enjoyed ourselves and couldn’t have been more polite and helpful. We aren’t looking to have someone hold our hands, but we expect clear information, courtesy, and concern for safety.

Having some mobility issues (I have a total knee replacement with some limits on range of motion and my other knee is also not 100%), I inquired prior to booking about the ladder for climbing out of the water onto the boat after snorkeling. I have encountered many boat ladders that are impossible for me, as they are too short or angle away, requiring the skills of a rappelling rockclimber to scale. The person who answered my inquiry sent me photos and a description of the boat ladder which reassured me. In fact, I had no trouble with that ladder. However, she did not mention that half the time we would not be using that ladder, but would be climbing from the water into a small zodiac instead, one with a very different kind of ladder. In the end, I was able to manage—awkwardly and with help—but it would have been nice to know in advance.

Transferring between the boat and the zodiac was another challenge. Two vessels leaping and plunging in the waves on separate schedules x slippery decks on both sides + two shaky knees = disaster waiting to happen. Again, I have to thank the Thai crew for their steady hands always ready to aid. I got the definite feeling these young men viewed me with the respect they would give to their infirm and slightly dotty grannie.

Our final run to the harbor was fairly short, disembarkation was quick, and we were all loaded into various vehicles for transfer to our next destinations. I think we had the longest journey and we were at our hotel in time for dinner.

In summary, there were a lot of great things about this trip, but those who book should go into it with their eyes open. This not a mini cruise ship. You can expect hard beds, rough and ready conditions, and lots of smoke. Don’t expect clear information or much concern for your comfort. You must take things as they come, stay on top of what’s going on so you don’t miss out (i.e., don’t relax and expect to be taken care of), and adapt to the conditions on board, especially the moods of the guide. If you have any mobility challenges, be doubly cautious about booking.

Have you done any small-boat cruises? Share your experience in a comment.