Travellers learn to grab forty winks in some pretty taxing situations: overnight bus trips, hostel rooms of 15 snorers, humid places with no air-con. But some nights test even the most hardened sleeper. Here are seven of the best 'worst night's sleep' stories we've ever heard:
A sleep-fuelled tale, Senegal to Mali
'I was catching the train from Tambacounda in Senegal to Bamako in Mali - a three-day trip. The train turned up three days (yes, days) late at midnight, and an already full train was filled by about as many people again. We managed to eke out about two square metres in a corridor and when fatigue really kicked in about 4am, I tried to curl up and sleep with my head resting on my tent bag. I managed this with some success over the next two nights but had really bad headaches during the day - when we got to Bamako and I unpacked my stuff I discovered (and I can't believe I didn't notice this along the way), the petrol bottle for my camp stove had been leaking in my tent bag and I'd basically been drugging myself to sleep each night with low grade petrol. I think it says a lot for the general hygiene and aroma of the carriage that I didn't notice the petrol smell until I got off.
To make matters worse, I had these horrible stomach pains during the trip and discovered at a hospital in Bamako that I had kidney stones. It's three days I'll never forget and without a doubt my most horrific travelling memory.'
A tall man on a train, China
'I needed to be halfway across China in a week to start a job and was pretty much bankrupt. I went to buy a soft sleeper train ticket and found they were sold out for a week. Hard sleeper: sold out. Soft SEAT: sold out. I eventually purchased a hard seat ticket, and I had the centre seat in a block of three. The journey itself was FORTY FOUR (44!) hours, so I needed to sleep twice. Being tall, there was no WAY I was going to be able to sleep in those seats, so I laid down newspaper under the seats (I don't want to even think about how filthy they were) and then wedged myself (and all my valuables) under the seat. I could just lie flat, but I couldn't roll over as the seat was so low. My accommodating fellow passengers looked rather bemused as I jammed myself in there, with my head jutting out around their feet. Arriving in Xi'an two days later was one helluva relief!'
Railway sleeper, Australia
'I once slept under a disused railway bridge in Katherine in the Northern Territory, Australia after I'd run out of money. Worried about snakes, I pulled my sleeping bag above my head and after an hour of quiet I fell asleep, but was soon woken up by footsteps coming towards me. I didn't dare get up in case I gave away my position. I stretched my head around as much as possible, but it was too dark to see anything. The steps increased in volume; there were now several people surrounding me. I feared I was sleeping in a spot where homeless people came to get drunk or drunker and this was confirmed by the randomness of their movements, but they had yet to make any sounds other than their footsteps. I lay awake frozen rigid and listened for what seemed like an eternity, until I couldn’t take it anymore and sat up to look around properly. The sound of my movement froze the footsteps. I stared into the abyss, trying to anticipate their next move. After a minute, I made out the shapes of my enemies: a mob of wallabies. After a few minutes they moved away to forage elsewhere. But my mind was full of imaginary bunyips for the rest of the night and I didn't sleep another wink!'
Bugged out, India
'I was in India just before the monsoon and it was bugs bugs bugs. I made the really bad mistake of keeping the fluoro on till about midnight (I was engrossed by Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow). The combination of white sheets and fluoro light was way too alluring for legions of little black bugs that began raining down on me. I finished the book sitting up in an armchair, watching as my bed blackened with them. About 2am, exhausted, I carefully swept every bug off the sheets and turned off the light, thinking this would signal the end of the bug bacchanale. But no. I spent the rest of the night listening to the 'pock! pock!' of bugs hitting sheet and engaging in an exhausting 'brush-brush-brush' routine. My quasi-Buddhist ideals held out for about an hour; towards the end I was dazedly decapitating each bug and throwing the bodies on the floor. One of the most hideous nights of my life.'
Bloody hell, South Africa
'After an error in our pre-planning, we were sad to learn that there was no way we were entering South Africa without a Yellow Fever certificate. One option remained – 24hrs in the airport. It was 9:30pm and all the rooms in the transit hotel were taken but the chap said it was worth waiting as a room could become free at anytime. So we settled into the foyer and duly waited. The hours passed and there was no order to the growing queue, which included a distraught woman on her way to Cote D'Ivoire for a hysterectomy. She spoke only French, and it seemed I was the only other person who could manage a few words of her language. She groaned and moaned on the floor insisting on a room, which didn't materialise; the reception staff looked past her as her pain crescendoed and she waddled to the toilets. When she didn't return, I thought I'd better check on her. I found her on the bathroom floor in a puddle of blood and quickly raised the alarm. A doctor arrived and a surreal situation ensued where I translated between doctor and patient in the bathroom of a transit hotel in Johannesburg at 1am. She was taken off in a stretcher and I returned to the foyer and my bemused partner and continued waiting for the increasingly mythical 'room'.
At 2am they finally admitted what we had suspected all along - there were no rooms and what's more, we were no longer allowed to wait in the foyer as we were making the place look untidy. We felt like vagrants as we were moved on into the now empty airport. We found a closed Starbucks, pushed two sofas together and slumped finally into a fitful sleep. An hour or so later my partner woke with a scream, which I echoed as we found ourselves face to face with a fierce man leaning over us. He was a security guard, his sole goal the protection of Starbucks and once again, we were moved on.
A few shops down there were a couple more chairs and we attempted some more shut-eye, just as the cleaners arrived. They began to vacuum around us but we pushed on through for a few more moments (I remember dreaming that our possessions were being vacuumed off us) until they turned on the radio, frequency set to 80s rock. It was 5am. We gave up. Starbucks opened, we bought ourselves a coffee and began 12 more hours of waiting like zombies in the airport from hell. I used to want to visit South Africa, but not anymore. I feel like I've already spent a lifetime there!'
Zombie bus, Indonesia
'Thirty-six hours on a zombie bus from Bukittinggi (Sumatra) to Jakarta spanned two nights. The first night I was stuck right up the back where everyone else used me as a pillow, while at the same time trying to steal anything they could find. I lost my sunglasses, but managed to beat off the woman trying to nick my watch. I then got moved next to an old man who stoutly refused to open the window even though the bus wasn't air-conditioned. At the end of the second night I got dumped onto the side of a six lane motorway on Jakarta's outskirts. I squeezed onto a crowded local bus feeling more dead than alive. When the driver slammed on the brakes I grabbed a woman in a headlock as I headed towards the windscreen and we both ended up in the stairwell. I took trains for the rest of that trip.'
Sleepless nights with a newborn, India
'I was in India an overnight train from Shimla to Delhi. In an effort to save my pennies, I’d booked into second class, expecting at least a seat. I was disappointed to find that it was standing room only and the eight hours yawned before me as I wedged myself into the rabble for the night. A few hours in to the journey, a woman a few sardines down began to moan. A makeshift curtain was hastily erected as those near her shuffled away, and the muffled moans continued until the unmistakable sound of a newborn pierced the air. The sheet came down and I watched as the baby was swaddled and the exhausted woman slumped in the corner. I was astounded– did that really just happen? Those around me continued to natter and doze as though all she'd done was sneeze. Sometime later I must have dropped off and as I woke, I noticed there seemed to be more space near where the woman was. At last! I thought, a chance to sit down! It was dark, I was befuddled and sleep–deprived; it didn’t occur to me to wonder why no one else had made the move as I nestled down. But once at floor level, a smell overwhelmed me and something damp seeped through my shorts.
I was sitting in the afterbirth.
I jumped up in horror and forced my way back to my original position, willing morning and my destination to arrive. I’m fairly sure I was in deeper shock than the poor woman who’d had the misfortune to give birth on a train!'
What is your worst tale of sleep deprivation whilst travelling? Do share...