Lessons from the road: mistakes travel writers make (so you don’t have to) – part II

As we’ve learned from Lonely Planet authors in our earlier article, travel-writer mishaps can result in pearls of wisdom for readers. Here we continue telling the real stories behind some of the simplest advice in travel guidebooks.

Team effort with a broken-down car. Image by Kazunori Nagashima / Taxi / Getty Images.Team effort with a broken-down car. Image by Kazunori Nagashima / Taxi / Getty Images.

Don’t off-road in your rental car

San Francisco Chronicle Travel Editor Spud Hilton recommends confirming what the ‘4’ in 4WD really means.

We were already lost and driving further into Oman’s Jebel Akhdar mountains. We turned a corner in the narrow dirt road and saw the ruins of an ancient city on the slope above a dry riverbed of polished stones. I needed photos but didn’t want to block the road, so I drove out slowly onto the stones.

Merely 20 yards in, we got stuck – the stones were too smooth and too round, and the tires weren’t getting traction. I looked down at the controls, only to discover that the rental 4WD was not, in fact, a four-wheel drive vehicle – apparently the ‘4’ stands for the number of wheels it has.

I circled the car several times and started piling rocks behind the tires. When I looked up, the closest wall of the ruins was lined with young faces. The ancient-looking village was still in use and it seemed that we had become the afternoon’s entertainment. It was a good reminder to keep a sense of humour, but also a lesson in knowing your limitations – and those of your car – before you get too adventurous.

Not for beginners

Lonely Planet UK Travel Editor Tom Hall shares how to avoid getting in over your head.

Independent travel is great – but sometimes you need a helping hand and it pays to know when to ask for one. I thought this with great clarity as I was dragged skis-first, but with head advancing steadily towards a large spiky rock, up a ski slope in the Argentinean Andes.

My excitement began earlier in the day at finding out just how easy it was to arrange DIY skiing in Mendoza. This beautiful city in the Andean foothills is home to a number of tour operators who were happy to lend me some kit and transport me to a nearby ski resort. Some suggested I should take a lesson, as I had never skied before. I ignored them, strapped on my skis and launched myself up the mountain.

After narrowly avoiding a skull-bashing on the rocks next to the tow bar leading up to the beginner slope, I spent the day falling over, smashing my new camera in the process and getting covered in bumps and bruises. Nearby a class of fun-having beginners steadily improved over the course of the day…

Don't overstretch your skiing talents if you want to avoid a snowy mishap. Image by Nikki Bidgood / E+ / Getty Images.Don't overstretch your skiing talents if you want to avoid a snowy mishap. Image by Nikki Bidgood / E+ / Getty Images.

Look before you touch – or taste

Curiosity can yield unforgettable adventures – or flavours, as travel writer Andy Murdock tells us.

I was in the Kuala Lumpur Hilton and the room had the most high-tech toilet I had ever seen, with multiple unfamiliar knobs. I didn’t even have to use the toilet – I was just fiddling with it to see what it could do that a normal knob-free toilet couldn’t – when suddenly one of the knobs caused what looked like a bristle-free toothbrush to project from the rear of the bowl.

‘What’s that?’ I wondered, leaning in closer to examine it. When it started spraying me in the face, it was clear that I had discovered the in-toilet bidet. So take it from me: when inspecting something unfamiliar, don’t do so up-close with your face.

One of Asia's mysterious multi-button thrones. Image by ilya_ktsa. CC BY 2.0.One of Asia's mysterious multi-button thrones. Image by ilya_ktsa. CC BY 2.0.

Enjoy the silence

CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg shares two lessons: pay attention to road signs – even if you can’t read them – and preserve the magical silence of the desert.

In 1970, three journalists and I were in Tel Aviv and wanted to see the Palestinians. We rented a car and headed to the West Bank for some interviews, which ran late and long.

As the sun set, we got into the car and headed back to Tel Aviv. It wasn’t long before we noticed a number of large signs along our route, written in Hebrew and Arabic. None of us read or spoke either language; we simply thought they were direction or exit signs.

After about ten miles, we remarked that we were the only car on the road. And there in front of us, lighted by the full moon, was the desert – a great photo opportunity.

So we pulled over to take some pictures and got out into the still, silent desert night. Not a single person or car around, no wind, no noise.  I shouted out a big ‘hello’, hoping for an echo. No echo. We took our photos and drove on for a few minutes…

And then the first warning shot was fired at us. I hit the brakes hard, kicking up sand and dust, and instantly the car was surrounded by Israeli commandos.

They spoke no English. We spoke no Hebrew. Using hand gestures and waving their guns, they ordered my three colleagues out of the car, tied their hands and marched them off into the desert. As they disappeared over the top of a sand dune, one of the reporters shouted angrily back at me, ‘Greenberg, did you have to yell in the desert? You’re going to get us killed!’

With guns trained on me, the commandos motioned for me to open the trunk. We had never used the trunk, and I was praying there was nothing inside. Luckily it was empty, except for a jack and a spare tire. Unsatisfied, they ripped up the liner to see if anything was hidden underneath. And there was something: the name ‘Hertz’ drilled into the metal.

‘Hertz?’ the commando asked. ‘Yes, Hertz,’ I replied. He yelled something in Hebrew and suddenly the other commandos hustled my friends back over the dune.

The chief commando smiled at me. ‘Hertz… Hertz. Go...you may go.’ Apparently the commandos believed that terrorists would never rent a car. That ‘Hertz’ sign on the floor of the trunk saved us.

And later we learned what the road signs said: ‘Warning! Military Road. No civilian vehicles after dusk.’

Is your hiking equipment sturdy enough for the job? Image by puuikibeach. CC BY 2.0.Is your hiking equipment sturdy enough for the job? Image by puuikibeach. CC BY 2.0.

Bring water and hiking shoes

And finally, some learned outdoor-adventure advice from Tony Wheeler, who founded Lonely Planet 40 years ago.

Halfway between New Zealand and the Cook Islands lies Niue. It’s a ‘makatea’ island, that is an upthrust coral reef…the rock is all jagged, razor-sharp, dried-out coral.

The main settlement is on the west coast. A road runs right around the island, although along the less inhabited east coast, it was a mile or two inland from the very rugged coastline. I’d left my car by the road and set out to walk to the spectacular east coast cliffs. Dumb decision number one was to think ‘this is only going to take half an hour’ and not put my water bottle in my day pack. Dumb decision number two was not to mark where the trail emerged onto the coast. When I came to return I couldn’t find it.

Rocky cliffs, dramatic sea views, tangled vegetation: it all looked the same. I walked back and forth along the coast, trying various places but all the trails inland petered out. I was soon clambering up and down jagged gulleys and ravines, fighting my way through twisted undergrowth, scratching my legs and arms and getting thirstier by the moment.

An hour later I’d travelled perhaps a hundred yards. On this knife-edged terrain I began to have visions of bleeding to death before I had a chance to die of dehydration.

Of course I did eventually find my way out, although back at the hotel I tossed my shoes straight in the bin. They’d been cut to ribbons on the jagged rocks.

Want to read more lessons learned on the road? Check out the earlier instalment of mistakes made by travel writers.