Flight To Comet Sold Out But There Are Other Options

Astronomers are calling 2013 “the year of the comet” as the first of two comets set to swing by Earth comes within view of the naked eye. Some avid sky watchers may be viewing with binoculars. Others may get an even closer view, thanks to a German travel agency.

On March 16, Eclipse Travel of Bonn, Germany, will have Air Berlin’s flight 1000 full of stargazers, giving them two hours closer to the comet than anyone else on the planet.

The company will fill just 88 of the 144 seats on board the Boeing 737-700, allowing everyone to have a window view at an average ticket price of $500 per person, reports TravelMole.

Wish you had booked a seat? Is astronomy your passion? You have options.

Closer to home, Spears Travel of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has a Sky & Telescope’s Iceland Aurora Adventure set for April 7. Currently, the event is also sold out, but they are accepting names for a waiting list. The seven-night astronomy adventure to view the northern lights in Iceland sold for $2995 per person.Eclipse Tours of Houston, Texas, has more options, planning trips through 2015. Providing guided expeditions of astronomical events throughout the world, Eclipse Tours is the home of Ring of Fire Expeditions (ROFE), the longest consecutive astronomical tour organization in the United States.

This year, Eclipse will visit the island of Tarawa, Kiribati, for its 41st Annular Solar Eclipse Tour in May and space is still available. Another tour heads to Guadalcanal in the South Pacific’s Solomon Islands for a post-eclipse tour.

Even more exotic, Melitatrips, a Travel + Leisure world’s best-award winner, takes the road less traveled for stargazing excursions from Argentina to Zimbabwe. This year, Melitatrips has a Kenya Total Solar Eclipse Safari promising unrivaled views “from the place where man was born,” according to its website. An English Astronomers Tour returns to where the greatest scientific researchers once lived and worked, with stops in London and surrounding towns of Bath, Cambridge and Oxford, with a special visit to Greenwich Observatory and the Maritime Museum.

Sound interesting but not in the budget?

Northern hemisphere stargazers who look to the west as the sun sets should note that just to the left of the horizon they should be able to see the comet Pan-STARRS over the next few days.

“Comets visible to the naked eye are a rare delicacy in the celestial smorgasbord of objects in the nighttime sky,” says NASA on its Asteroid and Comet watch page that offers viewing tips and more information about asteroids and other near-Earth objects.

Another option? Google Sky.

[Photo credit – Flickr user ϟStormLoverSwin93ϟ]

Zimbabwe’s last resort- an interview with bestselling author Douglas Rogers

After a decade of political unrest, seizures of white-owned farms and record hyperinflation that forced the government to print 100 billion dollar banknotes, Zimbabwe is finally starting to inch back onto the tourism radar, thanks to a power sharing agreement and a move to use U.S. dollars as the de-facto currency of the country.

But Zimbabwe’s long-dormant tourism sector has also received a small boost from the popularity of The Last Resort, Zimbabwe native Douglas Rogers‘ bestselling account of life at Drifters, his parents’ backpacker lodge turned brothel near Mutare, in eastern Zimbabwe. The book won the British Travel Writers’ Guild Book of the year in 2010 and BBC recently bought the film rights. Gadling caught up with Rogers near his new home in Loudoun County, Virginia last week.

People loved this book so much that some decided to visit your parents’ lodge in Zimbabwe?

The book came out at the end of 2009 and within a few months, people started turning up. The first visitor was the Swedish Ambassador. He hugged my mother and said he felt like he knew her. Now they keep coming, at least a few hundred so far. They bring books and want the staff to sign them.

This is very personal memoir where you talk about how your parents’ lodge sort of morphed into a brothel and explain how your parents tried to grow marijuana in the yard as the tourists disappeared. Were you nervous about how your family or the staff at the lodge would perceive the book?

I was more nervous about the politics of it. That there would be negative repercussions for my family there, but so far there haven’t been.

Has Mugabe’s regime banned the book?

No, it’s available in Harare but there are so few bookshops left it’s hard to find. I wanted to change the names of people I wrote about in the book, but the staff at my parents’ lodge were dead set against that. The 2008 election violence was terrifying and, at that point, the book was about to come out. But they wanted their named in the book- they’re very proud and brave.

So many other white owned farms in Zimbabwe have been seized, and your parents had some close calls which you describe in the book, but how is it that they’ve been allowed to keep their property and the lodge?

Legally, they aren’t supposed to lose the place, because it isn’t an agricultural farm. But that doesn’t really matter anymore; people can lose their land for any reason. Officially though, the government owns their property and someone could show up and take it at any time.

When did the backpacking scene at Drifters hit its peak?

It was going strong in the 90’s and really peaked just months before the land invasions started in February 2000. We had lots of South Africans, overland travelers, Americans, backpackers and gap-year students from the U.K. and around Europe.

And then tourism dried up, but it started again after your book came out?

Yes, my parents were quite amazed when visitors started showing up again. During the land seizures, they rented the backpacker lodge out to guys who turned it into a brothel, so they haven’t been managing it on a day to day basis for awhile.

What does it cost to stay there?

It’s very cheap. I think it’s $10 per night. It’s not high-end accommodation, so a lot of people just come to see the place and don’t stay the night. They have a Last Resort guestbook which people like to sign, have a beer and a look around.

You led a small group of travelers on a trip to Zimbabwe last year?

I partnered with a safari company called Aardvaark, and we advertised the trip. we brought a small group of four American travelers to see the place last May. We had interest from a few dozen people but we ended up with just four Americans and we went in May 2011. They were really adventurous. Two friends, one from Kansas and another from San Francisco, who went to college together and a couple from Annapolis, Maryland.

Where did you take them?

It was a two week trip. They had one week in Harare and eastern Zimbabwe where the book is set. And then they did a safari and toured Victoria Falls. Drifters is somewhat run down, so they had an option to stay there or at another place a half hour away. There was no power or electricity when I showed them around, so they ended up at the other hotel. But that ended up being worse I think. Still, it was authentic!

Is Zimbabwe a good place to visit right now?

You can have a great safari in Zimbabwe. And in the Victoria Falls and Kariba areas there are some sophisticated, very nice places. In the last few years, the tourist trade has picked up- new places are being built. You have investors who are anticipating that when the politics in Zimbabwe changes, it’ll take off and they want to be on the ground floor.

2011 was a bad year for dictators, but Mugabe survived.

Right and a lot of them were old comrades of Mugabe. Gaddafi. The Dear Leader in Korea. When I was in high school, we used to get state visits from Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Ceausescu, Kim Il Sung. Those were the kinds of people who visited Zimbabwe.

So once Mugabe (who is 87) departs the scene, tourism is likely to pick back up in Zimbabwe?

If there’s a stable transition and someone worse doesn’t take his place. Tourism has already picked up in the last year or two. If you watched news reports, you’d think Zimbabwe was Mogadishu or the Congo, but it’s not like that. It’s safe unless you’re involved in opposition politics or you’re a white farmer on a list. It’s completely safe in terms of day-to-day security. The economy has improved; you can buy what you need. The dollar is the currency used. Parts of Harare look like a first world city.

Your parents are part of a very small community of whites there that never left. Is there a movement of whites moving back to Zimbabwe?

I know people who have moved back. I have a cousin who lived in London and has now decided to move back because it’s an easier way of life than in Europe and much healthier for her young kids. Amazing, but true. The weather is good, the schools in Harare are great.

What other areas of the country do you recommend to travelers?

I’d love for people to see eastern Zimbabwe, but that might be more for people who have already spent time in the country before. Northern Zimbabwe where the Zambezi River splits Zimbabwe and Zambia, there’s an area called Mana Pools which is quite beautiful. A lot of safari operators in Zimbabwe are telling people to come now, because it’s cheaper and you can still see all the animals you’d see in other parts of Africa. Hwange reserve is the main game reserve. Kariba is another great place. It’s where Nick Price the golf pro would take Greg Norman on his houseboat. If you live in Zimbabwe, that’s where you go.

Are there still marijuana plants and prostitutes at Drifters these days?

My mother made my father dig up his weed. It’s against the law and she thought they’d be caught. It might have been profitable but she was paranoid, and didn’t want to draw any extra attention. When I returned home and saw that the place had turned into a brothel and my parents had all these refugees (who’d been kicked off their farms) living there, I knew I had to write a book about it.

Was it an actual brothel?

It was an informal knock shop. A place where men would bring prostitutes or a mistress or second or third wife. It’s pretty secluded so it’s perfect for that.

So who frequents the Drifters bar these days?

The occasional hooker, I suspect, but mostly passing salesman, adventurous backpackers, and the new class of foreigner who lives in Zimbabwe: missionaries, aid workers and diplomats.

Zimbabwe is still a really troubled country but it sounds like the people are resilient and ready to welcome visitors again?

You wouldn’t expect it but people are going on holiday to Zimbabwe now. You hear the stories of the people who run small hotels and lodges staying open all these years. Some of them without seeing a single guest for six months. They didn’t have electricity and had to use gas cookers and when the gas went out, they had to cook with wood fires to make meals for their guests. They’d make trips to Botswana and South Africa to find food to feed their guests and smuggle it back in so as not to lose it all at customs. Now, having come through that, these guys are starting to see some business again. They deserve it.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, M.K. Boersema via Flickr, and Douglas Rogers.

World’s worst places: Top 10 places you do not want to visit in 2012

Update: Check out the World’s Worst Places of 2013 here

What comes to mind when you think of the world’s worst place? While it is easy to complain about rural Wal-marts, La Guardia, Applebee’s, and any government office with motor vehicle in its title, none of those places escalate the game from nuisance to immediate danger. All of them can be horrible, yes, but a threatened existence they do not pose.

The places on this list are the bad places. Some have run out of hope. Others have fought war for so long it is the new normal. Most are exceptionally dangerous and heartbreaking. And while none of them are fighting for write-ups by travel bloggers or inspiring travel with the NetJet set, some of these locations may someday be on the travel map. After all, it was not long ago that current hot-spots like Cambodia and Croatia would have made such a list.


10. Harare, Zimbabwe
Recently voted by the Economist as the world’s worst city to live in, Harare is a unique study in failed fiscal policy. The once acceptable city fell into disrepair during Zimbabwe’s severe bouts with hyperinflation and corruption. The troubles began in the early 21st century when Zimbabwe’s inflation rate increased to 112.1%. Sounds terrible right? As it turns out, those were the sunny days. In 2008, the inflation rate peaked at 231,150,000% per annum. In U.S. terms, this means that if you deposited $10,000, it would be worth about 4 thousandths of a U.S. cent in one years time. That sucks. (For the record, 10,000USD = 46.720 quadrillion Zimbabwe dollars in 2009.)

This sort of economic arrangement allowed Harare to fail. There are not enough printers in Zimbabwe to print enough of its Z100 Billion notes, and when a loaf of bread costs trillions, doom is soon to follow. Unemployment grew to 80% and many services faltered. Today, foreign currencies have been adopted but the damage has been done. Much of Harare is in disrepair, and few foreign companies care to directly invest in the troubled city. That said, it is probably the safest place on this list to visit with flights direct from London on the national carrier – Air Zimbabwe.

9. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
The lone entry from Oceania is the ultra-diverse Port Moresby of Papua New Guinea. PNG is home to over 820 languages – more than any other country in the world. As such, its capital Port Moresby boasts a diverse crew of opportunists and island cultures. It was recently voted by the Economist as the 137th out of 140 places in the livable cities index, making it a tough place to get by.

Rapes, Murders, and HIV are just a few of the daily tragedies that befall this enclave at the edge of the map. Here, even riding in cars is a dangerous activity. Gangs called Raskols are known to rob vehicles transporting foreigners at gunpoint.

Port Moresby is best used as a temporary gateway to nearby dive sites and for flights to PNG’s jungle interior and its solitary treks. Reaching Port Moresby is easy from Australia on PNG’s national carrier Air Niugini.

8. Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
37 years ago, Ali and Foreman traded blows in one of boxing’s most historic matches. The match took place in Kinshasa. At the time, the country was known as Zaire, and the future looked hopeful for the mineral-rich nation. But as is common in 20th century African history, corruption at the top derailed the future. The country became a model for African kleptocracy as President Mobutu matched Zaire’s national debt with deposits into his personal bank account in Switzerland – to a tune of 4 billion (1980) U.S. dollars. He was forced to flee in the late nineties.

By 1998, the Congo region was engaged in the Second Congo War – the most deadly military conflict since World War II. In the end, over 5 million perished, and to this day the mineral-rich country has a per capita (nominal) GDP of about $186.

Chinese foreign direct investment has allowed Kinshasa to grow into a more reasonable place over the last decade, though it is not yet ready for its tourist close-up. Violence and political instability still ravage the second most populated city in Africa. It has come a long way from the time of Mr. Kurtz, but the heart of Africa is still an exceptionally complicated place. Just a month ago during the presidential election, thousands fled Kinshasa in anticipation of violence, and tanks rolled in to police the streets.

Tens of thousands of orphaned street children call the slums of Kinshasa home and are also routinely accused of witchcraft by locals. Carjackings are one of the more common types of tourist robbery, especially outside of the city center. And one more thing, photography is illegal.

Reaching Kinshasa is easy from Paris on Air France.

7. Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro. While its infrastructure exceeds that of lesser favelas and its view of Rio is truly breathtaking, it is also home to several hundred thousand Brazilians packed onto a steep hillside. It is a playground for modern day little Li’l Zes.

With one of the highest murder rates in the world, Brazil has been cracking down on violence in anticipation of hosting both the Olympics and World Cup. In fact, local authorities have effectively declared war on this slum in an effort to clean it up and push out the drug cartels, and just a few months ago, Rocinha was occupied by the military and police forces. Their aim is to restore government control in the sprawling favela. While progress has no doubt been made, when visiting Rio (which is generally safe), it is wise to avoid favelas unless accompanied by a local guide.

6. Sana’a, Yemen
“Just off the horn of Africa…” is a common statement that generally precedes a story about modern piracy. And just on the other side of the dangerous Gulf of Aden where such piracy goes down is treacherous Yemen – a land frozen in time.

It is a time machine to the modern edge of the Islamic dark ages. On one hand this brings old world Arabian architecture and cultures of antiquity, but on the other, it brings out Islamic fanaticism. It is a place of child brides and a training ground for Al Qaeda. Men walk around freely with weapons per their religious rights, and these weapons range from the ubiquitous Jambiya to battle-worn Kalashnikovs. Sana’a is old, dangerous, and has its share of political unrest. As a westerner, you can keep your travel plans safer by avoiding Yemen.

The tragic thing about Yemen is that it possesses such beautiful sights. It has unbelievable Red Sea beaches, Socotra Island (Similar to the Galapagos and on my own personal travel shortlist), and old forts amid craggy mountains.

Reaching Sana’a, Yemen is possible from Dubai, Doha, London, and Sharjah.

5. West Point, Monrovia, Liberia
Clean water, electricity, basic services – all things we take for granted in the West. In the West Point area of Monrovia, a city named for James Monroe, these are luxuries. West Point, a peninsular slum jutting out into the Atlantic, is home to a special breed of disgusting squalor. Home to 75,000 Monrovians, it is one of Africa’s most notorious and crowded slums. Cholera is at an epidemic level, drug use is rampant, teenage prostitution is a commonality, and toilets are scarce. In fact, since it costs money to use neighborhood toilets, many Monrovians in West Point just crap in the streets or on the beach.

Vice did a great series on Liberia a few years ago. In the series, they meet with with an ex-war leader known as General Butt Naked – the commander of a group of child soldiers called the Butt Naked Brigade. He earned this name by charging into battle wearing only sneakers and his AK-47. Aside from sacrificing humans and partaking in cannibalism, he also regularly communicated with the devil. Today, he is a minister.

Delta flies from Atlanta to Monrovia, Liberia.

4. Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
Just as turbulence occurs where hot and cold air meet, similarly a point of human turbulence occurs in this nasty city where Mexico meets the United States. Drug violence, government incompetence, and poverty mix to form what has been called the murder capital of the world (this dishonor has since been ceded to Honduras). As drug wars continue to rage, Juarez continues to be a dangerous place. The drug cartels continue to fight for one of the most valuable things in the world – access to the United States narcotics market.

Neighboring El Paso, oddly, has one of the lowest murder rates in the United States. In fact, among major cities, El Paso is tied with Lincoln, Nebraska for having the lowest murder rate in the United States. It is indeed strange to have such a dichotomy separated by a river.

Flying to Juarez from a number of cities is easy, but don’t do it. Go to Cancun and fist pump instead.

3. Cite Soleil, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Take one of the most damned places on the planet, knock the hell out of it with an earthquake, and you get the worst of Haiti – Cite Soleil. Port-au-Prince is generally a place of ephemeral hope and naked truths, and at its most rotten corner is this heartbreaking slum.

Cite Soleil is one of the largest slums in the northern hemisphere. It is a place where what you see is what you get, and what you see is abject third world poverty. The slum is void of sewers, schools, electricity, or healthcare facilities. It is the kind of place where relief workers are swallowed whole by the earth. In 2007, UN peacekeepers attempted to access the neighborhood and were welcomed with gunfire.

On top of this, many dangerous gang members escaped prison during the earthquake of 2010 and have returned to this crumbling slum. Reach PAP, Haiti from Miami on Insel Air.

2. Kandahar, Afghanistan
Surrounded by gorgeous mountains, it is a tragedy that Kandahar is so awfully dangerous. A one time trading center and strategic foothold, Kandahar is a victim of its perfect location between the world’s of East and West. It has been a point of interest since Alexander the Great stumbled upon it in the 4th century BC. For centuries, traders passed through this city when traveling between Asia and Europe. As result, wars have also passed through and control has changed hands over its centuries of existence, from Mongols to Arabs to Brits and beyond.

Kidnappings, suicide bombings, and other criminal activities have turned it into an absolute monster of a destination. War has a way of creating this sort of general lawlessness. Having a 28% national literacy rate does not help matters.

As a weird footnote, Kandahar has an Armani Hotel, though it is not licensed by Giorgio. Its TGI Fridays, once a bastion of Americana and cheese sticks in Afghanistan, has allegedly been shut down. One can reach Kandahar from Dubai on Ariana Afghan Airlines. During Taliban rule, Osama bin Laden used this airline for Al Qaeda operations including the smuggling of guns, money, and opium. Today, sanctions have been lifted against the troubled national carrier.

1. Mogadishu, Somalia
Still crazy after all these years, “Mog” has perhaps the most terrifying disclaimer (ever) hovering above its entry on wikitravel. It states, “Mogadishu is regarded as the most lawless and dangerous city on Earth and is currently experiencing a major food and refugee crisis. It is not safe for leisure or tourism. If you are planning a visit for international aid work, etc, you will need expert advice and planning.”

Civil War has raged for decades, and the government controls only a few blocks of the city. It is a base for modern pirates, the backdrop for the true story surrounding Black Hawk Down, and it is said that machine guns are frequently used by drivers to negotiate through car traffic. It is a land without law, a soulless place at the edge of Africa. Much of it bears more resemblance to the last level in an especially difficult video game than to life on Earth. It is more modern warfare than modern world.

Oddly enough, several supermodels were born in Mogadishu including Iman and Yasmin Warsame – a footnote of beauty for an ugly place. Flights to Mog can be booked on Jubba Airways from Jeddah and Dubai. Good luck with that. Seriously though, if you decide to go, be sure to wear a bulletproof vest and hire a small army of Ethiopian soldiers.

Zimbabwe has mixed success stopping rhino poaching

Zimbabwe has seen an increase in rhino poaching this year, the government newspaper The Herald reports.

At least 23 of the 700 or so black and white rhinos in the country were poached this year, but authorities managed to arrest 37 poachers and horn dealers. Rhino horns are popular for folk medicine, especially in Asia where they fetch high prices. One tactic of the poachers is to poison water holes, which kills not just the rhinos but any animal that drinks there.

More than $4 million is being spent to protect the animals, the government says, including implanting radio transmitters into the horns of 100 rhinos this year.

Zimbabwe isn’t the only country facing this problem. The Huffington Post reports that South Africa is doing more to train park workers on how to investigate incidents of poaching. Several poachers were killed in shootouts with authorities earlier this year, but that didn’t stop 341 South African rhinos from being poached in the first 10 months of the year, more than in all of 2010.

Photo of rhino in Matopos National Park, Zimbabwe, courtesy Susan Adams.