Leopard close-up

Some of the Stupidest Things I’ve Done While Travelling

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As you know, I’ve been doing this travelling thing for a while now.  I’d like to think that I’ve got better at it over the years.  That I’ve learned stuff, y’know?  Don’t book too far in advance, for instance.  Packing light is a virtue.  Imodium is a tradeable currency in Africa.  That kind of thing.

Every time I start getting a bit too cocky, however, I manage to find a way of bringing myself back to earth by doing something especially stupid.   It’s a good thing though, I reckon – while travel confidence is vital, travel over-confidence is not.  When you start to think you know it all, bad things start to happen.

Here’s just a few of many, many examples…

Leaving passports on buses

Picture the scene.  I was 22 years old, on my first ever trip outside New Zealand as an adult.  Arriving at Honolulu Airport late at night, my girlfriend and I blearily boarded the shuttle bus into the city.  With little sleep and jetlag kicking in, all I wanted to do was check in to the hotel and pass out for a couple of weeks.  Apparently I was in a little too much of a hurry to hit the sack, given that I didn’t bother to pick up my passport from the seat beside me as I exited the bus.  Thank god for the guy across the aisle who was more awake than we were, and dashed outside to hand the passport back to me.  Now that would have been a less than ideal start to my big adventure.

That was kind of understandable, I guess – I was as naive as anything, didn’t have a travel ‘routine’ figured out yet, all that kind of stuff.  Sure.  It can happen when you’re wet behind the ears, right?  So … why did I do exactly the same thing again twelve years later in Vietnam?  That was a much more painful experience and although I finally got my passport back due to the kindness of a stranger and a lot of good luck, things could easily have turned out a lot, lot worse.  What an idiot.

Kwang Si waterfall

A really bad choice of footwear in Laos

During my time in Laos last year, some new friends and I braved the rain to head out and see the Kwang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang.  After an hour in a songthew we hit the trail and started hiking to the top of the waterfall – at which point I realised that steep tracks, two inches of mud and flip-flops are not a winning combination.  Seriously.  It was actually bloody dangerous and there were several occasions, both on the climb up and the slide down, where serious injury went from a possibility to a likelihood.  I wrote a lot more about it at the time, but suffice it to say that the bruises were still very visible more than a week later.

The lesson I learned from that little excursion?  When you’ve walking muddy trails in Laos in the wet season, it’s not a bad idea to get your sandals out of your bag when leaving the guesthouse…


The Italian train incident

On a trip to Italy many years ago, my then girlfriend and I found ourselves at the station in Padua one morning, awaiting a train to Venice.  This was undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights of the trip and amazingly everything had gone to plan – we’d managed to buy the right tickets and had even remembered to validate them before boarding.  As the train slowed to a halt in front of us and we stepped on board, I quickly checked the destination screen one more time.  “Vicenza”.  Hmmm.  My Italian was appalling, but I wasn’t quite convinced that was the right name.

“Venezia?”, I asked the elderly woman beside me.  “Venezia?”

The widening of her eyes told me everything I needed to know, even before she answered in the negative.

As the doors started to close, I grabbed my girlfriend’s arm saying “We’ve got to get off!”.  I made it back onto the platform and she … did not.  Crap.  With her frightened face pressed against the glass, I watched the train quietly pull away.  These days this would be a minor inconvenience at best, but back then, with no mobile phones and no plan B, things went quickly downhill.

In the end I decided to catch the next train to Venice as planned, knowing that any train coming back along that line would stop there.  For the next several hours I met every possible train, walking a 20 minute round trip in a random direction between each one.  I got to see a lot of the lesser lights of Venice that day – but I didn’t find my girlfriend.

Eventually giving up many hours later as the evening drew in, I headed back to the hotel in Padua to find – you guessed it – a very distraught girl.  I’d rung and left a message at reception but it had never got through.  She had also eventually gone through to Venice but we somehow missed each other.  If it wasn’t for the wonders of gelato, I think that would have been the end of the trip right there.

All’s well that ends well, and it left us with a funny travel story to tell.  At the time, though?  Yeah, there wasn’t a huge amount of laughing going on.

Saigon scooters

Scooter accidents.  Two of them, in fact.

Every backpacker rides a scooter at some stage during their time in South East Asia.  It’s right up there with drinking buckets of whiskey and buying some ridiculous looking fisherman pants on the ‘rite of passage’ list.

The ride I took with a few lads from Hoi An to Hue and back was huge fun, although doing 80+ km/h at times in nothing more than a t-shirt and shorts wasn’t particularly smart.  When a swerving van pushed me into the ditch halfway up a mountain pass, I expected the worst.  Somehow I kept the bike upright and other than a couple of scratches on both the scooter and myself, everything was fine.

You’d think that might have taught me a lesson, at least about what to wear while riding if nothing else.  Of course it didn’t, and hence when a badly judged corner left me and my bike at the bottom of a four foot ditch on the side of the road in Koh Tao, my flip-flops didn’t save me at all.  Blood everywhere and scratches all down one side of the bike.  Oops.

The damage to my wallet ended up being less than expected and the damage to my foot only took a week or so to clear up.  The damage to my pride, however?  Hmm….


Acting as bait for a hungry leopard

My travel companion’s sister happened to be working at a private game reserve in South Africa while we were travelling through the country in 2008, and we were lucky enough to be able to stay onsite there with her for a few days.  One evening as the sun went down, we were invited to jump into one of the work jeeps and join an impromptu game drive.  Awesome!  We spotted plenty of wildlife in the fading light, and then started tracking the real quarry for the night – leopards.  They are one of the few animals that really scare me, with a vindictive streak that you don’t find in the other big cats, but there’s no way I was turning down an opportunity to see one up close and personal.

Armed only with a red-filtered spotlight, we eventually spotted a pair of eyes at the end of the dirt track and quickly pulled off the road.  Unfortunately we stopped right in front of a small tree – going forward in a hurry wasn’t an option.  Damn.

The jeep we were in had no canopy – ideal when it came to views, less ideal when it came to convincing a leopard not to jump inside.  As the big male padded closer, we all stopped moving.  I’m pretty sure we even stopped breathing as he came alongside the jeep, almost within touching distance.  And then he stopped.  And sniffed.  And looked directly at us.

When an experienced leopard researcher says ‘oh shit’ from the front seat, it’s perhaps time to get a little concerned.

After what seemed like a week, but was probably only about 20 seconds, our feline friend carried on wandering down the track and into the undergrowth and we all let out huge sighs of relief.  “I’ve never seen a leopard do that”, was the comment.  Oh good, that’s a relief then.

We found out the next morning why that big cat was so interested in us.  The jeep we had been in had been used to cart an impala carcass around earlier that day, and half of it was still sitting in the back of the vehicle.  Yes, that’s right, we’d been carrying around a fresh kill all night in an open top jeep, and waving it under the nose of a hungry leopard from a few metres away.

Quite frankly, I am astonished we didn’t become a statistic that night.  I have absolutely no idea how.


So there’s a few of the stupidest things that I’ve ever done while travelling.  Care to share a few stories of your own?


Leopard image via Mathias (strangely I didn’t take any pictures of my own that night)

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  1. I can totally relate to the train taking your partner experience! We had a plan for such circumstances but still, when the train doors close and your partner is on the other side, panic ensues. Luckily, for some unknown reason, the doors opened again and Jason was able to scoot out of the train. Cheers!

    1. Hehe, wish that had happened in my case! Several hours meeting trains at the station in Venice, followed by a very upset girlfriend, wasn’t the ideal way to spend the day… 😛

  2. These are some seriously great stories. The losing the girlfriend tale tops them all, I think. I wouldn’t call all of them – or any of them, really – stupid, though. This is stuff that happens when you travel a lot. It’s great that you can laugh about them – and write about them so others can laugh 🙂

    1. Thanks Sabina! I reckon leaving the passport behind – twice – has to be classified as pretty stupid tho, surely? I know I felt like a total muppet, at least!

  3. At least you’ve got some good stories out of it all!!! When I was in Italy a few summers ago with some high school friends, two of the boys overslept (as they’d been doing most of the trip) and missed the bus to Vatican City. We girls felt pretty smug–they were finally getting what they deserved for always making us late! Somehow, they woke up, caught a taxi, got a private tour behind Vatican City at sunrise–before the crowds–and managed to meet up with us for the tour. My friend Rex never fails to remind me of this when I freak out about us being late–you never know what can happen!

    1. Yeah – if it makes for a good blog post then it was an experience totally worth having!

      That’s a pretty funny story – don’t you hate it when the slacker ends up with the best experiences??

  4. Ahh – does it pay to let your father see what escapades have happened while in places afar? It’s o.k. – I knew about most of them – apart from the scariest of them all – the leopard incident. Perhaps there is a reason I didn’t know about that story until now!!

    1. Yeah I figured you knew about most of them! As for the leopard incident … well, it wasn’t really one that I felt the need to share until now!!

  5. This is hilarious–and what a great bunch of stories! Unfortunately, I must be a boring traveler because I don’t have any that really stack up…except for that one time I studied abroad in Greece and a crazy Albanian guy chased my group down the streets at night with a jagged piece of wood. But that would make for an entirely too long post.

  6. -Going to La Tomatina (yeah sorry, I know you loved that)

    -Taking Christine to the airport on our scooter at 5:00AM in the frigid cold with nothing at all warm on going 80km per hour or more. Seriously bad idea, but there was nothing to be done, the alarm didn’t go off, and there were no cabs to be found.

    -Every single bargain I try to strike with anyone in a developing or third world nation. I never win.

    Great stories here Dave!

    Oh I also washed (and dried!) my passport when I left them in my pants, but I wasn’t traveling at the time.

    1. Yeah I did love La Tomatina … tho that may have been due to the beers and sangria as much as anything…

      I’m surprised you survivied that airport trip – not because of the danger of riding a scooter, but that Christine didn’t murder you when she thawed out.

      And god, washing my passport is an ongoing fear of mine!

  7. Great post – How the hell you didnt get eaten by a leopard I’ll never know!

    I can wholeheartedly agree with you on the footwear…My feet still ache remembering how I managed to climb a mountain in heeled boots..never again!

    1. Hey thanks! I’m here to serve my readers … even if only to give them someone to laugh at when I do something extra stupid… 😉

  8. Backpacking thru Europe years ago with my insulin dependent brother who was 17 years old at the time. Boarded a train when we realized his insulin was in a pouch on a bench at the depot. I hopped off as the train was getting ready to pull away. Ran back to the bench with the attendant screaming at me, grabbed the insulin pouch and whew! made it on board by the skin of my teeth.

    1. Wow … yeah that really would have been a pretty crappy experience if you’d left that behind! Well done on getting it back!

  9. I can actually relate to the first two. I left my passport in the bathroom of the Calgary airport. Even though I was on my last leg (flying home to Edmonton from Newark) having left my passport back in customs would mean I’d have to file a police report. But luckily I knew someone who worked for customs who was able to retrieve it for me. And while I haven’t worn flip flops in the jungle I can say wearing them on a walk through the city is also painful.

    1. Lucky break knowing someone that worked in customs there!! And yup, it took my feet a while to get used to being in flip flops all day every day in SE Asia … of course, it took almost as long to get used to wearing shoes again after I left!

      1. My darling hubby, thought it would be clever to hitch around Europe in his thongs, I think he has them hanging on the wall in the garage with worn out spots through the heels (he is the biggest keeper of crap). And this is a man who has spent many months at a time clomping around the world in appropriate footwear that I remind him to put on..the first time I’m not there…he only takes thongs…so glad I wasn’t there for the whinging that would have ensued!

  10. Loved the story of the leopard!
    I also have too many stupid stories on traveling…. like missing a flight just because I was sitting in front of the wrong gate or arriving in a 4-days rock festival in interview clothes, before my festival backpack arrived and having to get into the festival barefoot and wearing only a t-shirt. I think I should write a post about this too, thanks for the great topic idea!

  11. I think my heart would’ve stopped if I had something like the Venice accident happen to me. I mean, I’m sure whoever I was travelling with would be able to find their way to the place where we were heading to, but those several hours in between and the guessing, etc would have a toll on my health.

    Last year a similar thing happen to me on the subway in Istanbul, but it was a much more predictable situation.

  12. Wow, that venice incident sounds awful! Glad it all worked out, I would be terrified if something like that happened to me!

    I think the stupidest thing I’ve done is not double check the dates on my bus tickets and so ended up having tickets for the wrong day (but it was fine, we spent the day doing something else and didn’t have to spend hours on the bus – plus at least I got a refund on the return tickets because I was able to cancel them)

  13. I think one of my all time stupid things to do involved a Mexican and an alleyway. Thankfully, this sounds worse than it actually was. I’ll begin this story explaining that I’m renowned for my terrible sense of direction. There is a running joke in my house that I spent 3 months in South America when I had only planned on being there 3 weeks… Anyhoo…..Whilst in Mexico city with a couple of other aussie girls I met in the states we decided to hit a couple of the markets in the city. Our security plan was that if we got seperated during the day we would meet at a pre-arranged spot at a certain time (this was before mobile phones). So of course, we became seperated and I got turned around. As I was passing the entryway of the aforementioned alleyway I glance up and recognise the church at the other end and decide to take a short cut. Yes…yes I did. Before I had taken more than 5 steps, a shadow emerges from a doorway and virtually blocks the entire alley holding a rather large gun that turns out to be (I’m reliably informed) an AK47. This of course focuses my attention on this individual who simply nods at me. I then do (remarkably for me) the smart thing and promptly turn around and find a less direct but far more interesting route back to my meeting place.

  14. Awesome post!
    Generally when people have stories like this I make up my mind that I immediately never want to travel with them, but your stories seem more exciting than stupid (aside from the scooter crashing)
    Maybe I’ll see you in Aus or SEA soon! 🙂

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