We’ve all had plans ruined by nature. Whether it’s Alanis Morissette’s ironic rain on your wedding day or the effects of gale on a day at the beach (sandblasted skin is oddly refreshing), sometimes the best laid plans fall foul of the elements.

My father and I have a knack of encountering these sorts of issues. I’d like to detail two of them below, the second of which will reinforce the message that persistance is a vital tool in the traveller’s mindset.

Story #1: China

In 1999, the UK became a frenzy of solar eclipse excitement. I was 14 at the time, and recall all the advice about not staring at the sun (one newspaper recommending that children observe the eclipse in the reflection of a bucket of water. Even my teenage self recognised that as being utterly stupid). We were given out special eclipse glasses, and everyone gathered in their gardens ready to watch. My family and I were in France for the summer, and watched the eclipse in champagne country. It was incredible – the memory of the moon’s shadow racing across the open field we stood in and the howling of the animals around will stay with me forever.

It also impressed my father, and created a new hobby for him: eclipse chasing. He began researching and found a few coming up around the world. He went with my brother to observe one in the middle of the Gobi desert in Mongolia and another in Libya.

Then came my turn. My father and I flew out to China in 2009 for what would be the longest eclipse of the 21st Century (6 minutes and 39 seconds). Eager to beat the likely clouds, we made the effort to climb up the sacred Buddhist mountain Mount Emei. We bedded down for the night, and woke up bright and early to get a good spot for the eclipse…

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Sporting our British Society of Gastroenterology t-shirts. Never miss an opportunity to promote your brand, even on sacred Buddhist mountains

…and found ourselves in the middle of a cloud. Not a small cloud, not a thin whispy one. A stonking great pea souper. Seeing your own shoes became a challenge. We stood looking out towards where we imagined the sun might be, and stood waiting for the moon to move across it.

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I wore my protective glasses. You know, just in case the kilometre-wide cloud dissipated in time…
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We diligently set everything up. It was totally pointless, but we did it anyway.

This was a case when nature was going to win. We couldn’t come back the next day, or any day. This was the one shot, and nature spoilt the party. However, all was not totally lost. It did become spectacularly dark (darker than it does at night… at least that’s what we convinced ourselves). Despite missing the main event, we still had an incredible time on the mountain and enjoyed the ‘eclipse’ as best we could.

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Look! It is night time! BUT IT IS REALLY THE MORNING!

We also didn’t just go to see the eclipse, and the rest of the brief time in China was packed with exciting adventures, like:

 

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Such as seeing the terracotta army…

 

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…ENLISTING in the terracotta army…

 

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…and taking obligatory touristic photos near big religious statues.

(We also went to Beijing and saw the Great Wall, but those photos seem to have vanished…)

Story #2: Borneo

My father continues to impress my friends with his travelling nature. Despite nearing 70, he still wants to get out there and see the world. That’s how we ended up meeting up for 12 days in Borneo in 2015. I had just done my first scuba diving courses, so we wanted to take the opportunity to dive together for the first time.

Along the way, we saw some incredible sights, and we managed to cram a lot in to our week and a half. One of the stops along the way was to spend a few nights in the Mulu National Park. Famed for its caves and limestone formations, Mulu is a really enchanting place.

On the first day, we set off for a guided tour through the park. This involved a 3km walk (on a nice wooden walkway, we weren’t having to hack our way through with machetes). Along the way we encountered many tiny creatures.

He could lick his own eyeballs!

We then came to the Deer and Clearwater caves. These were really impressive, though our guide kept reinforcing some record that it had recently lost (I forget what it was, but he had to keep emphasising it was now the SECOND biggest/longest/highest/whatever cave). Apparently, Deer cave could fit five St Paul’s Cathedrals inside. And all with Abraham Lincoln guarding one of the entrances:

Abe keeps an eye on the bats

However, the main reason to come is the nightly exodus of bats. Every night (or, as you will soon learn, almost every night), 2 to 3 million bats come flying out of the caves in search of food. So, we took a seat and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

For two hours we sat there. The guides around were suggesting it might happen soon… but it never did. Eventually, the 80 people gathered there had to admit defeat. We walked the 3km back in the dark, slightly despondant.

The following day, we went to two further caves that included the need to take a boat down river. As part of the tour, we had to ascend and descend a lot of stairs. My father was pretty tired by the time we got back in the afternoon. We had suggested that we might go back to see the bats. However, a 6km round walk is not to be taken lightly when you’re tired and nearly 70.

Still, we decided to go for it. We marched the walk there much faster, ignoring every insect and lizard along the way, determined to get to the right place at the right time. We sat down again, looked up at the sky… and waited.

And waited.

And…

…experienced one of the most incredible natural wonders we’d ever seen. Truly. The sight of drove after drove of bat flying off into the dusky sky in corkscrew formation was insane. The crowd were all chatting away, then of course one person spots the first wave and everyone shuts up and looks up. It was a real crowd pleaser, awe inspiring for everyone aged 3 to 93. To look back now and consider that we nearly didn’t bother going back seems unthinkable. Sometimes, when travelling, you have to push yourself to do things you don’t feel up to. Sometimes, you have to take a chance or two. And sometimes, the rewards are startling.

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The bats spiral round and round as they fly out of the cave’s mouth.
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The idea is to appear to be a bigger creature to ward off would-be predators (the guide suggested it is so they can look like a dragon…)
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However, in this photo you can also make out the bat hawks just to the sides of the cloud of bats, waiting to swoop in and pick off their prey.

The story does not quite end there. On the way back, there were a few spots of rain. These spots turned in to drops, which in turn became an increasingly violent storm. You’d think that two grown, adult men with nearly 100 years of combined experience of living might have detected the clue in the name RAINforest. Sadly, we didn’t. We were poorly dressed and got SOAKED. We took refuge under a tiny shelter half way back, and had the awkward decision of whether to wait or brave the rain. We were already soaking wet, but I had my camera and worried it could be damaged. Ultimately, we had to still make a slow run for it. It was a real sight to behold; when it rains there, it really rains. We finally arrived back to the hotel soaked to the bone, but with huge grins on our faces. It had been bloody worth it.

Share your own battles with nature in the comments section below!

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