Face your fears
On your next vacation, give yourself a good fright, and then get over it
Angry volcanoes, ravenous hyenas and extreme isolation - your worst fears are ready to be faced.
Fear of cemeteries
The dare: Observe the empty gazes, hollow mouths and peeling skin of more than 8,000 corpses preserved at the Catacombe dei Cappuccini in Palermo, Italy.
Mummified between the late 16th century and 1920 in their finest attire (requests for regular changing of clothes were included in wills), the deceased were displayed in open caskets or plopped against walls for relatives to visit. These are not nameless figures, either – one of the last corpses to be admitted here, two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo, who died of pneumonia in 1920, still has her pretty eyelashes intact. Got the shivers yet?
The reward: To prevent nightmares, a visit to the soothing Norman-Arabic Cappella Palatina chapel is recommended. Or you could drown the heebie-jeebies with the pitch-perfect acoustics of a performance at the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest theatre (Teatromassimo.it). Don’t leave without sampling Sicily’s diverse street food: the arancini (fried rice balls stuffed with meat, mozzarella and peas) is a local favourite.
Fear of wild animals
The dare: Feed wild hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia. Not by hand, that’s a cakewalk; clench a stick with meat dangling off it between your teeth, instead, and wait for the scavengers to snatch their dinner. The ‘hyena men’ of Harar have been feeding these animals for decades to safeguard their livestock and now invite tourists to try recreating the iconic Lady and the Tramp moment. Did we mention hyenas have one of the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom?
The reward: The UNESCO-certified walled city of Harar is considered the fourth holiest city in Islam (you’ll find 88 mosques and several shrines here). Explore the narrow alleys, visit the homes of hospitable locals, chew the mildly intoxicating khat leaves, taste camel meat at the local market and study the poetry on the walls at the Arthur Rimbaud Cultural Centre (a memorial to the French poet who made Harar his home for ten years).
Fear of the cold
The dare: Embark on the nine-day Chadar trek (Chadartrek.com) across the frozen Zanskar river in Leh, where temperatures range from -1ºC to -20ºC and can drop to -30ºC. Subzero temperatures are not the only obstacle to worry about – portions of the river are thinly iced and an errant step could send you into the freezing currents. Numb extremities, fatigue and unpredictable weather often force trekkers to quit even before they reach the halfway mark.
The reward: You mean apart from the exhilaration of completing one of the world’s most arduous treks? Eating warm thukpa with the locals, visiting monasteries, camping in caves, drinking chhang (local beer), seeing frozen waterfalls and soaking in mind-bending views from the Zanskar ranges are a few treats that lure trekkers to the inhospitable cold. Changing weather conditions (damn you, global warming) might put an end to the Chadar trek in the next five years, so don’t spend too long mulling
Fear of volcanoes
The dare: Slide down an active volcano in León, Nicaragua, along with adrenaline junkies for whom a thing like diving off a plane is humdrum. Bigfoot Hostel (Bigfootnicaragua.com), where the unusual sport of volcano boarding was born, provides trips to the drop zone at Cerro Negro – from where you zip down 728m at a speed of your choice. This isn’t a gentle, tumblein- the-snow kind of descent though; the rough terrain guarantees light bruising and ashy mouthfuls. As for eruptions, the last one took place in 1999, and volcanic activity is carefully monitored – but there remains the infinitesimal possibility of being chased by a burning hot trail.
The reward: León is a treat for the culture vulture, with its colonial churches (the Catedral de León is the largest in Central America) and unusual museums. Meet creepy, life-sized papier-mâché figures depicting local folklore at the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones – including the big-busted woman, who after facing a lifetime of rejection, took to using her bosom to knock down men. If you’re spent from the boarding, head to the unsullied Corn Islands for pristine waters and uninterrupted siestas.
Fear of heights
The dare: At 7,000 ft, Mount Huashan in China boasts (threatens) one of the most dangerous walks in the world – along a narrow wooden plank (its sturdiness is accepted in good faith) with no railings to break your fall and a harness that’s optional. Walking the plank makes even the most intrepid visitors slightly weak-kneed, which might explain why one man chose this two-foot-wide spot to go down on his knee and pop the question.
The reward: Xi’an, near Mt Huashan, is an ancient city that has preserved its relics well – the latest evidence being 8,000 human-sized Terracotta Warriors. Turns out the (rather paranoid) first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, commissioned the replicas of his army to protect him in the afterlife. Another timeworn favourite, the Xi’an city wall, has witnessed many iconic moments in history – Michelle Obama jumping rope in its premises being the most recent.
Fear of water
The dare: Plunge into the ocean. In a confined cage. In the midst of great white sharks – 10 or 12 on a good day – to the background score of AC/DC (the hard rock music is actually used as bait). The Neptune Islands near Port Lincoln in Australia are a hub for shark cage diving, and while many companies offer the experience, Rodney Fox (Rodneyfox.com.au) shares a special rapport with these deadly mammals. One shark attack and 450 stitches later, Fox decided to dedicate his life to them – studying, documenting and planning social gatherings for sharks. Talk about forgiveness.
The reward: Watching these captivating creatures at arm’s length is an unforgettable experience. The expeditions generally last from two to eight days and the boat rides help ward off jitters with wine, fresh seafood and sunbathing sessions. There is also less formidable sea life in the Neptune Islands, like Australian sea lions and New Zealand fur seals. Or you could hop across to Coffin Bay town (46 km away) known for its fishing retreats, kitesurfing adventures and utterly exquisite oysters (Coffinbayoysters.com.au).
Photograph: Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions
Fear of isolation
The dare: Take a solo trip to Socotra island in the Indian Ocean (Socotraislandadventure.com), one of the remotest locations in the world with no GSM connectivity, just about four hotels and a handful of internet cafés with sluggish speeds. The archipelago (comprised of four islands; the largest being Socotra) is home to 800 plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth. Socotra is so withdrawn from the rest of the world, it has its own unique language with no written script (Socotri) and the locals are only just getting up to speed with the Gregorian calendar. Though a part of Yemen, the island is unperturbed by the country’s political turmoil and beginning to blip loudly on the backpacker radar.
The reward: Trees that look like giant broccoli, rare species of birds (the Socotra Starling) and chameleons with piercing screeches add up to Socotra often being described as an alien ‘sci-fi’ planet. Vegetate on stunning beaches, take boat rides alongside dolphins, sled across sand dunes, find gorgeous trails to trek – if you’re looking for a real getaway, this is it. We suggest you get there before McDonald’s does.
Fear of firearms
The dare: Visit the Thunder Ranch Shooting Range in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where you will be offered a seat, a drink and a menu card. The day’s specials typically include AK-47s, bazookas, hand grenades and M16s; firing a rocket-launcher qualifies as dessert. While coconuts double up as sacrifices for your pent-up rage, replacing it with a photograph of your ex might improve accuracy.
The reward: After you’ve experienced the thrill of firearms, spend some contemplative time at The Killing Fields nearby, where mass executions were conducted by the autocratic Khmer Rouge. For more soothing visuals, take a six-hour bus journey to Siem Reap, to the vast Angkor ruins (sunrise views at Angkor Wat and swinging across vines at the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple are essential). Post sunset, follow the thumping beats at Pub Street to reach the Angkor What?! club (Tel: 00855-12 490 755) – after you’ve had sufficient rounds of Angelina Jolie’s signature cocktail at The Red Piano (Redpianocambodia.com), that is.