Even the most careful travellers occasionally find themselves getting lost, failing hard at local etiquette, or otherwise blundering and puking around a new destination. And while we’re seasoned explorers, Lonely Planet’s writers and staff have experienced their fair share of travel disasters.
But there are some anecdotes we only dare to share in hushed whispers, to wincing, open-mouthed (or nauseated) listeners. The run-up to Halloween seems like a fittingly morbid season to share them further. From pyrotechnic failures to illness on the road, all the way through to guns waving and wildlife encounters gone horribly wrong, these are a few of our travel horror stories.
Brothel-bound in Malawi
Lusaka, Zambia. We're headed east to Lilongwe, Malawi, by local bus. We've bought reserved seats on an express bus... that never arrives. So along with two other busloads of resigned people, mostly locals, four hours later we're herded aboard a bus making any stops and detours it is the driver's wallet-guided whim to make.
Somehow, my girlfriend and I wedge into side-by-side seats within reach of our bags, which have lurched aboard on the backs of touts who demand exorbitant service premiums. Most of the remaining freight gets piled on top of the bus to heights so excessive that roadside villagers point in shock. Uncustomarily for Southern Africa, the driver even slows on turns and we watch the bus' metal superstructure shift and strain under the unwieldy weight.
Well after dark, 12 hours into a nine-hour journey from which we have had only one short bathroom break, the bus limps into Chipata, a town several kilometres short of the border. But we're not disgorged at the station; we're at a depot deep within a shuttered and unlit market. Not at all comfortable, we follow the sound of music. To a brothel, of course. The owner sees me as an opportunity and my girlfriend as a business buzz kill, but he takes pity on us. We secure a room until dawn if we promise to stay inside it. This suits us just fine.
I was wobbly and parched from 10 hours of trekking through the land-before-time jungle of southern Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park. After a thorough leech check (at our guide’s behest), I melted into a bamboo lounger at my guesthouse. A meal, sunset and several icy Singhas later, as I peeled myself from the chair, I felt the slightest sensation on my upper thigh. I glanced down to find a leech, engorged with (my!) blood to the size of a fingerling potato, between my feet. Realizing that it had fallen drunkenly from my shorts, I found the energy to sprint to the toilet, where a small hole drilled into my bikini line proceeded to bleed for three days. Straight.
Emily K Wolman, Lonely Planet's Editor-at-Large
Bitten by a tramp in Bordeaux
It was my first ever solo trip at the age of 19. I had been out sampling some of the region’s more affordable vintages with a group from my hostel and after the maison du vin closed we decided to grab a couple of bottles from the local supermarché and sit in the park across the road.
As most drinkers know, after a few too many your bladder becomes impatient and when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. Conveniently there was a little thicket of trees on the edge of the park. Less conveniently it also contained a desperate young man who saw a perfect moment for an opportunistic mugging.
Being a belligerent teenager I instantly forgot that this is exactly the kind of situation you buy travel insurance for and retaliated. Emerging victorious, with my opponent in a headlock, I was unprepared for my vindication to abruptly end with him sinking his teeth into my arm.
The French doctor that treated me muttered darkly about ‘la rage’ (rabies) as he bandaged my arm and although I tried to soldier on for several days it quickly became apparent that backpacking on your own isn’t much fun when you’re wearing a sling.
Almost a year later and long after the chunk of flesh missing from my left elbow had regrown, I still found myself enduring regular blood tests and inoculations at my local hospital and wishing I had just let him have my phone.
Silenced at gunpoint in DC
I’m a reluctant hostel stayer but it seemed the best (that is, cheapest) option when I was in Washington DC. One morning roommates and I were in our room discussing plans for the day. It was mid morning but another guy was still in bed and grumpily asked us to keep the noise down. We lowered our voices but continued talking. Suddenly the sleeping guy reached under his pillow, pulled out a gun, aimed it at us, and shouted ‘I told you to be quiet. Don’t make me tell you again.’ We exited the room sharpish and within minutes our gun-toting roommate was being led away by police. The rest of the day’s events couldn’t really compete with that. And I’m more reluctant than ever to stay in a hostel.
Clifton Wilkinson, Destination Editor (and reluctant hostel visitor)
Disastrously disoriented in Budapest
I get off the plane and the baggage carousel is on fire. Hungarian voices scream as smoke pours into the baggage claim. I am marooned without my bags, and the friend I am supposed to meet is ensconced in a post-work pálinka session (pálinka being petrol-strength vodka with the flavour of peaches). When I eventually reunite with my luggage and find him, it’s not long until we’re both the worse for wear.
We end up in a warehouse bar, where I’m stuck with a guy who is ranting about how Lou Reed is a greater composer than Schoenberg or Mahler. My friend has vanished and isn’t answering his phone. Rookie mistake no. 1: I do not have a map. Rookie mistake no. 2: I do not have a phrasebook to ask for directions in Hungarian.
I can remember the street name and that his apartment is number 56 so I use the international language of charades to request directions. The ensuing instructions take me to a kebab shop – tasty, but ultimately not what I wanted. By now I'm lost, tired, drunk and unable to communicate. I interrupt a pair of snogging guys and charade at them; they charade back. I think they’re inviting me to sleep at their place. I don’t want to but motion that I’ll walk with them for a bit. We finally reach their apartment door. Miracle - it's number 56 and it’s on my friend’s street! They know the security code and I stifle tears of joy whilst hugging them profusely. I wander up to my friend's door. Knock. Knock again. Bang. More banging. The neighbours yell at me so I give up and sleep in the doorway. My muscles seize, the nerves in my back pinch, cold creeps over my body and I fall asleep wishing I’d brought my guidebook.
Kate Sullivan, Corporate Lawyer
Chased by guard dogs
My idyllic sunset stroll along a deserted Vietnamese beach turned nasty after I spotted a sprawling mansion in the dunes, complete with sinister-looking watchtower. In the tower was a khaki-clad guard glaring at me angrily and clutching his AK47. As I beat a hasty retreat, I heard a snarling, panting noise and glanced back to see three enormous guard dogs racing towards me. Desperate to avoid a chase I forced myself not to run, and the menacing but well-trained dogs escorted me away, leaving me a gibbering wreck at the other end of the beach.
Anna Tyler, Destination Editor
Gore on Iceland’s Ring Road
The bird was safely tucked in among the tall grasses on a roadside verge. As I drove along at the speed limit of 90km/h I had plenty of time to admire the speckled plumage and graceful beak from afar.
What I didn't know was that the bird was cursed with unfortunate timing. Or perhaps he harboured a darkness in his avian brain, the prospect of endless days foraging for worms stretching out pointlessly in his mind. Maybe he could take no more, after another unsuccessful mating season. We may never know.
In any case, a mere moment before my car could zoom safely past, the snipe launched himself into the air - and thunked directly into my windscreen with a queasy splatter. After the collision, the bird ricocheted over my car. All that remained after that split-second was a bloody trickle on the wind shield. I whimpered queasily as the windscreen wipers slicked the gory evidence across the glass.
Explosive error in Bolivia
When I was nineteen I went to Bolivia and me and my friend Phil bought some dynamite to give to the workers in a mine near the city of Potosi – they make very little money and lead dangerous lives, so when you visit you can give them some almost as a tip . Unfortunately, we forgot to give it to them and so decided to blow it up by a deserted lake when we were on a tour of the Atacama desert. We lit the fuse nervously, scurried away, and felt slightly disappointed that the resulting explosion wasn’t more dramatic. But it was loud enough! It turned out that the deserted lake was right by border with Chile. A couple of soldiers came running over with rifles and marched us into an office, where the local commandant shouted at us. I barely spoke any Spanish at the time and kept mumbling ‘desayuno’, which means ‘breakfast’, rather than ‘lo siento’, which means ‘sorry’. Thankfully our tour guide knew the commandant quite well and he let us go after we gave him a roll of camera film for some surveillance photos, before waving us off cheerily the next morning.
James Smart, Destination Editor
Midnight arrest in London
An innocent working-holidaymaker on my first trip to the UK, I booked a bed in a London hostel with a bar so I could ‘meet people’. The hostel turned out to be a couple of beds above an old men’s boozer. Needless to say, the old men didn’t want to be my friend. One night at about 1am there was a loud banging on the door followed by a torch being shone in my face. It was the police, mistaking me for one of my dorm mates, who they found on the bunk above me and arrested for grievous bodily harm after a bloody fight with one of the downstairs drinkers. Welcome to England!
Jessica Crouch, Lonely Planet’s Online Editorial Team
Fear and food poisoning on safari
My husband got an unfortunate bout of food poisoning while we were camping on safari in the middle of a national park in Tanzania. Due to the threat of wild animals you were supposed to go to the toilet in pairs but he was up all night, I got fed up of going with him and he had to keep running the gauntlet on his own. Feeling horribly ill and terrified of being eaten – poor thing!
Becky Henderson, Foreign Rights Manager (and bad wife)