It was a hot, humid day in Manila, and I was sat on the rooftop of my hotel, five floors high, working on my laptop and enjoying the occasional sea breeze that flew in from the bay.
I felt a faint shaking, which grew stronger and stronger until the entire roof was swaying from side to side. The entire city was shaking, but only when it stopped, did I realise that I’d just experienced my first, powerful earthquake.
Shaken from the quake, I rushed out of the building, not really knowing what to do, but understanding that I’d just had a close encounter. It had felt as if the whole building should have simply collapsed, but it didn’t.
But this wasn’t my first brush with death on the road. I’ve visited some of the world’s most disputed territories, travelled through countries prone to natural disasters, and at times, I’ve just been a complete idiot. I’ve picked up serious injuries, seen friends almost killed and accidentally ended up in war zones.
Luckily, these days, I always travel well insured, so if the worst does happen, I’m always covered when I’m abroad. As a digital nomad who’s always travelling, I’ve started using SafetyWing to keep me covered in case of any medical issues or travel accidents. They are incredibly good value and best of all, they offer monthly subscriptions that are totally flexible, so if I’m heading home for the month, I can simply cancel.
The huge 6.3 magnitude earthquake that hit Manila, on April 22 2019, had me thinking about all the close encounters I’ve had while travelling, and for the first time, I’ve decided to put the best (or worst!) of these stories into words.
These are my close encounters of the near-death kind!
An Infection of Gangrenous Proportions
On my left leg, I have a horrible scar. It’s from a travel wound I picked up when I was motorcycling across East Timor.
The roads in East Timor are rough, and I’d decided to bike on a 125 CC scooter from Dili, the capital, all the way east to the deserted island of Jaco. On the map, it’s only around 250 kilometres, but in reality, the trip took a few days.
After hanging out with ex-guerilla fighters in the mountains, scaling a treacherous peak in the rain, and dodging death around a lake that was literally infested with hundreds of saltwater crocodiles, it was safe to say that I thought I was invincible.
But, after traversing rocky, non-existent roads for days, I was riding the bike slowly over a small bump, as the surface changed from sand to tarmac – I was barely going a kilometre an hour, but in the sand, the back wheel skidded out and I lost balance in an almost comical, slow-motion manner. I simply toppled over.
My leg grazed a few rocks, and I was left with a small cut. It was a little deeper than other scrapes I’d already picked up on the ride, but I thought little of it.
But the scrape didn’t go away. I reached Jaco Island, and then made the long journey back to Dili. The scrape was a little red now, and I’d busted the scab off once or twice swimming, but still, it didn’t look too bad.
How foolish I was. I flew from Dili, East Timor, to Bali, Indonesia, and within a week, my leg was aching. Then, overnight, it had swollen horrendously.
Okay, now it was not looking good. I’d ignored the potential infection and it had rapidly deteriorated in the tropical climate.
I was scheduled to fly to Australia, and for the few days leading up to the flight, I cleaned the wound every day and took antibiotics that my friend had leftover from a similar injury. I didn’t want to go to a doctor and pay a large excess, as I only had basic insurance, and I knew that in Australia I could see a doctor for free. The antibiotics, though should do the job, I thought.
In Melbourne, I was convinced to go straight to the doctors. This was getting worse than I’d thought. The nurse seemed shocked by the sight of my leg. The doctor asked why I hadn’t gone straight to a clinic in Bali. In fairness, at this point, my leg was three times its normal size and the wound was turning black.
It was cleaned up and I was prescribed more antibiotics. There was little to do but wait now. I should have gone to the clinic right away, of course, the doctor was right, but for the simple fear of paying an excess of believed that my own powers of medical deduction were sufficient.
Letting the wound fester, meant that I couldn’t walk properly for several weeks, and it took time to heal, leaving a hideous scar that I still have today.
If I’d have stayed in Bali longer though, and not had access to the free healthcare in Australia, I might even have lost my leg by the time I’d decided to take action. These days, I’ve learnt my lesson, and I take injuries a little bit more seriously. I also take much more comprehensive travel medical insurance, with companies such as SafetyWing, who offer a low excess and flexible monthly subscriptions that I can manage well as a Digital Nomad.
Near Death Waterfalls
Losing a leg would have been bad, but losing a friend would have been worse!
On my first backpacking trip around Southeast Asia in 2009, I was travelling through Laos with two old school mates.
We were young and reckless – now it seems, I’m old and only slightly less reckless – and we were excited to get off the beaten track and to visit the twin drop waterfall of Tad Fane.
We made our way along a bumpy track, through the forest, and ahead of us, we could see the magnificent sight of this twin drop waterfall, which falls from a staggering height of 120 metres over steep cliffs.
A rough track led down through the trees to the base of the falls, but the dirt trail was loose and warning signs at the entrance seemed to suggest that any further exploration would be hazardous to our health. Recent rainfall had made the path even more treacherous.
My friend and I decided to turn back. We weren’t in the mood for a muddy scramble, and the view from the top was spectacular enough as it was, but our third friend wanted more.
After an hour of waiting at the lookout above for him to return, we started to wonder where he was. We trekked back to the path, and carefully walked along a section of the trail until it diverged. To the left was a sheer drop, to the right the trail continued.
We decided to wait again, imaging he had taken, of course, the safe route. We went back to the start, in case he’d already made it to the top and was looking for us there. He wasn’t.
Minutes later though, he appeared. Covered in mud. Visibly shaken. In shock.
After some time, he told us what had happened. The path had given way. The sheer drop we’d seen and had reasoned that no one would try to walk down, was, in fact, the point where the trail had collapsed, taking our friend with it.
He’d hung on to vines and tree roots as rocks and mud fell around him. He’d clung on for his life, as below there was nothing but a 100-metre fall onto the rocks.
Somehow, he’d managed to reach up and eventually pull himself back up the muddy precipice.
It had been a reckless decision to carry on along the path, but despite the dangers, never had any of us thought that events would become so extreme that he would almost have fallen to his death when he began the trek to the base of the waterfall.
A Frozen Conflict That Heated Up Quickly!
I’ve travelled to many unusual destinations, and none more so than the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a self-declared republic in the Caucasus that’s populated by ethnic Armenians, but the land is claimed by Azerbaijan. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, a fierce war was waged for control over the territory, and it’s a conflict that’s never been resolved.
Both sides still face each other across trenches and barbed wire, but over time it’s become what’s known as a Frozen Conflict.
In April of 2016, I made the journey from Armenia into Nagorno-Karabakh. The road leads through a tight mountain pass, where friendly soldiers checked my passport and told me to visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when I arrived in the capital, Stepanakert.
News can be slow to make it out of the disputed territory, and when I met with an official to arrange a permit for my stay, he thanked me for visiting his country but added that this wasn’t the best time to be in Nagorno-Karabakh.
On the border, the usually frozen conflict had suddenly erupted. There had been firing, shelling and a helicopter had even been shot down.
I was told that I couldn’t leave the city, but that I’d be safe here. Apparently, this sort of thing always happened in Nagorno-Karabakh. I stayed for a few days, but things remained tense, and locals, although appreciative of my visit, began to question why I hadn’t left yet when there were more reports from the front lines of fighting, just a few miles away from Stepanakert.
Frozen Conflicts, I had learnt, could turn hot, very quickly, and in full on Dark Tourist mode, I’d found myself right in the middle of a war.
The Thrilla in Manila
On April 22, 2019, an enormous earthquake rocked Manila. The epicentre was to the north, and in the province of Pampanga, several people were killed, while the Clark airport almost collapsed.
It was a 6.3 magnitude quake, and it rocked Luzon to the core. In Manila, I felt the true power an earthquake for the first time, as for several minutes the building I was in shook and swayed. I truly feared that the worst could happen.
When the shaking subsided, I realised that I had no idea what to do in an earthquake. I raced downstairs and onto the street, but this was Manila, and there are pylons, wires, trees and buildings everywhere. Nowhere seemed safe.
Luckily, there were no large aftershocks. Through the day though, my friends in the city sent me messages telling me how their office buildings shook, how the floor in front of them had cracked open or windows had shattered.
In a contemplative mood, I realised that this had a been close encounter. The huge earthquake had shaken me to the core as much as it had shaken the city, but luckily, in Manila at least, the damage had somehow been only superficial.
Since the earthquake, I’ve educated myself on what to do should I experience another. But I hope that I won’t have to put any disaster plan into action any time soon!
Travelling has its risks, but I’m not trying to be a scaremonger in this article.
Anything can happen in your home country too, or in destinations that are generally perceived to be safe.
I love travelling to off beat destinations and experiencing new things, overcoming challenges and fears, but from my travels, I’ve also learnt that it pays to be prepared.
I check the news now before I head anywhere new or potentially unstable, but only the worst dangers would make me change my plans.
Most of all though, after years of travelling I’ve realised that I’m not invincible, that I very well could have lost my leg to an infection, and that one day, something even worse could happen to me.
That doesn’t make me fear travelling – rather I see it as the challenge of travel – but it does ensure that I have adequate travel medical insurance, both for my gear and for myself.
Like I said at the beginning of the article, I’ve recently started using SafetyWing for my travel medical insurance coverage, because not only is it really affordable – at USD 37 for 4 weeks – but it’s also really flexible. You’re only covered when you need to be, which in my line of work as a travel writer, is perfect!
I encourage everyone to travel if they can. I encourage people to uncover the strange and to see the unusual.
I also encourage people to be prepared, to keep up to date with political events, and to be covered in case of accidents or injuries because life is unpredictable – and that goes for being home or abroad!.
For me though, it’s the unpredictability that is the best part of life and travel.