Your questions answered by our panel of travel experts, including a doctor and a lawyer
Can I Find Myself In The Desert?

WE ARE planning a cross-Africa motorbike ride and our projected route will take us through some pretty uncharted territory, eg, Mauritania. I am told that there is some kind of lightweight computer we can take to help us locate ourselves in the desert, but the shops don't seem to stock them. We don't want to be loaded down with heavy equipment.

Tim Sutcliffe


Clive Tully replies: What you need is a hand-portable GPS receiver. GPS stands for Global Positioning System, and is a constellation of 24 American military satellites orbiting 12,500 miles above the Earth, and its associated ground stations which together provide a very accurate electronic version of the kind of triangulation you'd do to establish your position using a map and compass alone.

Between pounds 200 and pounds 300 will buy you a GPS receiver the size and weight of a pocket mobile phone, with an LCD screen which displays not just your position, but a whole lot of other useful information, including the time (each GPS satellite has four atomic clocks). A typical GPS receiver can be programmed with your route in advance. You should enter the co-ordinates for waypoints - which in your case could be towns, oases or other topographical features identified from your map. En route, the receiver can be put into navigate mode to take you from one waypoint to the next; or, if you don't fancy staring at a screen too much, it's best simply to switch it on when you feel you need to get a position fix - which saves batteries, too.

The GPS satellites actually transmit two signals, one military, one civilian. The military P code provides positioning accurate to one metre, but you won't be able to make use of that. The civilian service is subject to what the Americans call selective availability, a process which randomly degrades the positioning signals so that accuracy is within 100 metres 95 per cent of the time horizontally, 150 metres vertically, with the other five per cent of the time accurate to within 300 metres. In reality, I've found accuracy between 30 and 60 metres far more common, and that's far better than you could achieve with map and compass alone.

You need to be aware that GPS signals are line of sight, so if your receiver can't see sufficient satellites to lock on to for a fix (three for positions without altitude, four for positions with altitude), because mountains, trees or buildings are blocking its view of the sky, you may lose your position, although it will remember where it was until that point. In the desert, that's unlikely to be a problem.

If you're reasonably used to computer software, you won't have any problem with the menu-driven displays of GPS receivers. But the main point for you to check is that their databases include the maps you're using on your trip, otherwise you will have to make do with a default setting.

Check out the Magellan GPS2000 if you want a budget priced model for less than pounds 200. The new Garmin GPS II is just over pounds 300, with a host of useful functions. The Eagle Explorer 12-channel parallel receiver has just arrived in the UK, and at pounds 260 is well worth a look. For further information and stockist details, contact Magellan on 01722 410800; Garmin on 01794 519944; and Eagle on 01752 662129.

Clive Tully is a journalist/broadcaster specialising in clothing and equipment for walking, backpacking and adventure travel. He will be presenting lectures on equipment and travel at Campex '97 - at Arley Hall, near Northwich, Cheshire, 25-27 April; National Water Sports Centre, Holme Pierrepoint, Nottingham, 2-5 May; and Kempton Park Racecourse, Sunbury on Thames, Middlesex, 9-11 May.


WE HAVE just returned from a holiday which was spoiled by the fact that it did not live up to its billing in the brochure. According to the blurb, the swimming pool in our hotel was "magnificent". It was not. There were said to be three restaurants; in fact two of them were closed for most of our stay. Finally we were supposed to be "across the road from the beach". In fact we were three blocks away. Could these discrepancies become a legal matter?

Jane Denny


Ian Skuse replies: Most holiday brochures are published way ahead of the dates when passengers travel on their holidays. For all tour operators this is a real headache, as brochures not only have to be accurate when they are published, but have to be kept totally up to date during their shelf life which can be for up to eight or nine months. Most reputable tour operators have devised very careful systems to ensure that all of their brochures are accurate at the time of going to press and that customers are updated with any changes when they book their holiday. Often any changes or "errata" will be advised to the customer at the time of booking or will be printed on the confirmation invoice sent out when the booking is made.

Your question raises the following possibilities:

n You have a claim for breach of contract against the tour operator as your holiday did not match up with what you were promised. You will be entitled to bring a claim against the tour operator and the value of your loss would be the difference between what you paid for and what you got, plus any damages for inconvenience and distress.

n Your local Trading Standards Officer might be interested in some of your complaints. Criminal offences are committed by tour operators if brochures are inaccurate in the way you describe, at the date when the brochure is read. The TSO may investigate the fact that two restaurants were closed when three were advertised to be open and that you were rather further from the beach than advertised in the brochure. He can bring proceedings under the Package Travel Regulations or the Trade Descriptions Act which could result in the travel company being fined. He will be less interested in the claim that the swimming pool was "magnificent" as arguably this is a matter of opinion.

The operator may have a defence, if it can show that it operated good "due diligence" systems and took reasonable steps to advise you of the changes to the promises in the brochure.

Ian Skuse is the senior litigation partner with Piper Smith & Basham, which has specialised in advising the travel industry for over 20 years (tel: 0171-8288685).


WOULD you please give us more information about the solar eclipse due to be visible in Cornwall in 1999?

Alison Jeffers


The Travel Editor replies: Yes, following next year's total eclipse which will be visible in parts of South America and the Caribbean, the Earth's next-but-one total eclipse of the sun will be visible over west Cornwall at 11.11am on 11 August 1999 (according to some, the abundance of ones and nines in this date is highly ominous, compounding the fact that this eclipse is taking place in the last year of the millennium).

The central line of totality passes just north of Penzance and south of Falmouth, and don't worry - even if it's cloudy the sky will go thoroughly dark. For a guide to the eclipse, complete with a viewer, send a cheque for pounds 5.95 payable to the Royal Greenwich Observatory, to The Observatory, Madingly Road, Cambridge CB3 OEZ.

Accommodation is certain to be heavily booked, though for lists of properties you can call tourist information centres in Penzance (01736 62207), Helston (01326 565431) and Falmouth (01326 312300).

Note though that even if you are one of the few residents of these isles not crowded into Cornwall in 1999, you will still be able to view a partial eclipse of the sun throughout the whole of Britain on that day.


I HEARD a short while ago that there was talk of a ferry service to Portugal from England in the pipeline. Have you any information on this?

Anna Zlotkowski


The Travel Editor replies: Not much, but the Portuguese tourist board assures me there is a service starting up from late July. Rumour has it that it may run from Weymouth, but both Brittany ferries and P&O deny any knowledge of it.