Friday, April 25, 2008

A Humbling Experience (Villers-Bretonneux, France)

My guidebook suggested that it would be a most humbling experience. It was still early and it was only the shortest detour from the road to Amiens and its majestic Gothic cathedral (the largest in France). It shouldn’t take long. The road ran through the gently rolling farms and fields of the Somme Valley on a sunny spring morning.

I stood alone at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial and I felt very humble and very proud. The lawns were immaculate. The red and white flowers bloomed with life from the manicured garden beds. The plain white tombstones seemingly ran forever in perfectly straight lines. Each represented a young man chopped down in his prime and so, so far from home. Each represented a son and a grandson. Some slightly older probably represented a husband and a father as well.

I read so many of those headstones and wandered up and down the rows in a trance. Behind stood an imposing tower, two flagpoles with the Australian and French flags drooped limply and flanked by two huge granite walls with over 10,000 names – many bodies that were never found or identified.

I didn’t leave till lunchtime and couldn’t drive further than the unassuming village of Villers-Bretonneux. Lovingly called “VB”, it seemed more Australian than Australia. The main street is Rue de Melbourne and one of the main eateries is Restaurant de Kangarou. The school had been built by donations from Victoria. Nearly everywhere had some sense of Australiana. Signs everywhere remind the villagers N’oublions jamais l’Australie – Never forget Australia.

I was told the story by an immaculately dressed local man in a heavily-accented but clear English - a story he told with a passion despite probably relating it many times before. He told the story that his father told him. On the night of April 24, 1918 – exactly 90 years ago – Australian soldiers fought through the town in a vicious war, denying the German soldiers possession of this village that they had won only a few hours earlier. It prevented their march to Amiens and Paris.

The village was flattened, 1,200 Australians and undoubtedly many French and German lives were lost. This gentleman vividly pointed out where various small incidents in the battle had occurred. His recall of detail was extraordinary. It seemed so realistic yet so impossible from today – spring fields, people chatting and going about their business.

We chatted for hours in one of the local bars over a red wine and a beer. His passion never waned.

And every Anzac Day (April 25) – Australia’s day of remembrance for those who fought and gave their lives for our nation – I can so clearly recall this day of images, the endless row of headstones, the granite wall of names, the passion and stories of this unnamed French gentleman.

There is a sign in a nearby museum which reads “They gave their today for our tomorrow”. Nothing could say it better. I have never felt so humble, yet so proud.

I never did get to Amiens that day.


There is a short Youtube video of some official footage of the battle at Villers-Bretonneux.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Iceland - Nature’s Wonderland

Rich in natural travel wonders with large snaking glaciers, weird and wonderful rock formations from the highly active volcanoes, sulphuric thermal pools and waterfalls galore from the melting snow and glaciers, Iceland’s natural beauty, rich Norse legends and easy going nature should put it on the itinerary of any avid traveller.

Expressive and energetic waterfalls seemingly tumble over every rock face in beautiful unaltered settings. Indeed, the word foss (for waterfall) is indelibly engraved in the minds of every visitor to Iceland. Many falls are unnamed yet are sufficiently impressive that many other countries would encompass them into national parks. With a true sense of nature, Iceland leaves their waterfalls au naturel uncluttered with fencing, restrictive paths or concrete viewing platforms. If you are stupid enough to fall into a chasm or step under a geyser, you are free to do so.

Not far from the colourful, peaceful capital of Reykjavik are two of Iceland’s most celebrated natural sights and its most significant historic location. Geysir, which gave the English word geyser for the spouting hot water springs, now lies dormant. Fortunately, for fans of spouting hot springs, neighbouring Stokkur is only a few hundred metres away lying in wait, belching, boiling and bubbling until it launches scolding water around 20 metres in the air every eight to ten minutes.

A couple of kilometres away is the appropriately named Gullfoss (Golden Falls), pictured at the top of this article, which, turning at right angles, cascades in two stages into a narrow gorge below.

Over a thousand years ago, Iceland conducted the first parliament in the world at Þingvellir (where the uniquely Icelandic character Þ is pronounced th). The people met yearly, enacting laws and punishing wrong-doers. Mothers of illegitimate children were drowned in a nearby river. In 1000 AD, the law-makers met and decided that the Icelandic nation, of primarily Viking heritage, would become Christian. The law speaker threw his idols and statues of the Norse deities into Goðafoss, the waterfall of the Gods.

At every turn in the road, waterfalls tumble in some mesmerising natural settings.

Svartifoss (Black Falls) tumbles over hanging hexagonal basaltic columns like a fountain in church organ pipes. These remarkable columns formed from an extremely slow cooling lava flow.

Ófærufoss once flowed with an elegant narrow natural bridge (as in the photo) which you could walk across, but this was shaken down with an earthquake in 1993.

Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss, helps empty the extensive and wild meltwater from Europe’s largest glacier pounding 44 metres into the river below. Meanwhile Skogafoss presents a photogenic symmetric fall elegantly tumbling 60 metres from the coastal Icelandic cliffs into a verdant valley.

Iceland remains an undiscovered treasure trove of wild beauty, left in its most natural state. Enjoy this travel wonder of lava fields, gushing waterfalls, emerald green valleys and twisted tortured rock formations, all continually changing with Iceland’s active geology.

Other Icelandic Posts
Lake of Dancing Icebergs
Astride the Continents
Nature’s Wonderland
Icelandic Phonebook Surprise
Active Iceland

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Top Ten African Travel Wonders - Part One (Rank 1-5)

This is part one of my top ten African travel wonder list. Travel wonders six to ten are posted separately.

Africa is the most geographically and culturally diverse continent on our planet. It the birthplace of humankind. Considerably less visited than the westernized Europe and North America, the rewards of visiting the vast emptiness of the Sahara, the rich rainforests of Central Africa, the 5000 year history of ancient Egypt, the colorful souks of Arabic Africa, the color of tribal Africa or the inspiring and fascinating wildlife of the rift valley offers a lifetime of memories, stories and experiences.

It is near impossible to nominate a top ten travel wonders list without omitting a number of “must see” sights. Here is my list. How many have you seen?

1. Mountain Gorillas of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo

Visitors to the mountain gorillas often describe it as the most moving and uplifting hour of their life. Trek through African jungles for some hours to spend an hour with an habituated group of mountain gorillas (group is typically between 8 and 20) including the alpha male – the silverback, characterised by a silver blanket of hair on his back. Only 700 of these remarkable primates (98% matching DNA with humans) exist across two mountainous areas in Central Africa.

2. Wildlife Safari in East Africa

The African rift valley has the greatest variety of viewing wildlife anywhere on the planet. Whether visiting Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa or another nearby African country, viewing the great African is an experience to savor. While may have seen television footage, nothing can prepare you to see a stalking pride of lions, a cheetah or a leopard hunt down its prey. Try to see the Big Five – the buffalo, lion, elephant, leopard and rhinoceros (both white and black), along with the familiar monkeys, zebras, baboons, giraffes, flamingos, wildebeest, antelope and birdlife. The single greatest experience is the wildebeest migration between the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Masai Mara of Kenya. Give yourself time in these national parks as viewing wildlife is a game of patience.

3. Pyramids and Sphinx of Egypt

The only remaining original of the Seven Wonders of the World, the three giant Pyramids of Giza have towered over 5000 years of Egyptian history. These brooding giants stand in a stark sandy expanse in a seething suburb of Cairo, touts eagerly flogging their wares or touting for camel rides. At night, the light and sound show briefly recount the pharaonic history with mood lights and piercing lasers.

4. Victoria Falls

The Smoke that Thunders describes the plumes of spray and the thunderous water explosions as the calm waters of the 1,500 metre wide Zambezi River suddenly plunge an average of 100 metres into a deep chasm below. Only rivalled by Iguaçu Falls on the Brazil-Argentina border, these majestic waterfalls dramatically varies in mood from the dry to the wet seasons.

5. Nile River and Egyptian Temples

Small battalions of river boats ply the Nile between Luxor and Aswan. Viewed at a gentle pace, locals farm the narrow fertile strip of land which has sustained ancient populations for centuries. This green thread is the only break from the yellow desert sands which extend as far as the eye can see. The journey is rich in staggering architectural wonders built as temples to the gods. Luxor’s Temple of Karnak is worship on a huge scale – 1.5 x 0.75 kilometres and highlighted by a hall of 134 towering pillars. Luxor also includes the pharaohs’ resting grounds of the Valley of the Kings in a barren, isolated sandy ravine. At the other end of the journey, south of Aswan lies the lovingly relocated Abu Simbel with the four giant statues of Ramses II as guards. Various other temples litter the banks of the snaking river.

This completes my top ten travel wonders list for this extraordinarily diverse and expressive continent. How many have you seen and which other wonders do you consider should make the top ten list?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Top Ten African Travel Wonders - Part Two (Rank 6-10)

This is part two of the top ten travel wonders of Africa featuring those sights ranked six to ten. A separate post lists sights ranked one to five.

Here are numbers six to ten of the list.

6. Sahara Desert

The parched emptiness of the Sahara is a mesmerising sight. Honed by centuries of wind and erosion, rocky plains, saw-toothed mountains, gravelly escarpments and sweeping sand dunes define a cruel terrain which remains inviting for its remoteness, unearthliness and vivid clear night skies. The small oasis towns reveal a fight for survival over the centuries, the small patches of green celebrating the availability of rare ancient wells and waterholes.

7. Moroccan Cities of Marrakesh and Fès

The greatest of the ancient imperial Moroccan cities, Marrakesh and Fès both boast labyrinthine souks. These remarkable bazaars challenge every sense, boasting every conceivable form of craft (leatherwork, carpet weaving, metal workers, etc.), food stalls and teashops. Exotic aromas of spices clash with the stench of the dye pits. Magnificent tiled mosques house hordes of locals obeying the five-times-per-day call to prayer. Marrakesh's huge Djemaa el Fna main square becomes a nightly circus with snake charmers, jugglers, acrobats, fortune tellers and magicians entertaining you as you eat from the broad variety of food stalls and fresh juice bars.

8. Dogon Villages of Mali

With traditional animist beliefs based on Sirius (the Dog Star), the Dogon people live in small villages sprinkled along the 200 kilometre Bandiagara Cliff. Their unique mud-brick houses are built along the cliff edge with a variety of buildings for habitation, meetings and grain storage (and other personal possessions).

9. Leptis Magna

The greatest of Africa’s Roman ruins, Leptis Magna overlooks the glistening Mediterranean Sea. Built as a full Roman city, Leptis Magna includes ruins of theatres, athletic areas, forums, markets and temples. A number of other ancient ruins exist in Libya.

10. Zanzibar

With its rich history of Arab trade, the Spice Islands are a relaxing break from “normal” Africa with its old Stone Town and palm-fringed beaches. The gentle aromas of cloves and nutmeg waft and permeate through the honeycomb of ancient narrow alleyways lined with whitewashed Arabic houses adorned with superbly carved doors and enclosed wooden balconies. Culturally independent of Tanzania, magnificent mosques and quaint bazaars and shops provide a treasure trove of exploring opportunities.

Return in a few days for the top five African travel wonders.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Pilgrimage to the Most Beautiful Sunset of All? (Assekrem, Algeria)

It is serenely quiet and bitterly cold. A small group of us have just scrambled over rocks with numb hands to get to a small stone hut. An almost spiritual light replaces the intense sunlight as shades of orange and pink paint the uneven tips of the wind-worn and jagged brown mountains which jut out of the Saharan sands. The eerie shadows of the valleys below fall into a deep mauve haze before evaporating into complete darkness. Only a handful of people huddled together for warmth are on hand to watch nature’s welcoming of a new night in this remote and desolate mountain hideaway.

We carefully pick our way back down to the small refuge, the dazzling stars of the evening sky belying the plummeting temperatures and biting breezes. Dining in candlelight, a steaming plate of cous-cous and stew, cooked by the local Tuareg desert dwellers, started to restore feeling to the body’s extremities.

Around 100 years ago, a French hermit monk and ex-army officer, Father Charles de Foucauld built a spiritual retreat in Assekrem, one of the highest points in the Sahara (around 2600 metres above sea level) in the Hoggar mountains in southern Algeria and the central Sahara. He traveled there because he believed that you had to live in the mountains to truly know God.

Exhausted, we settle into the dormitories onto tired, lumpy mattresses. A good night’s sleep is important as we’ll be awake at five to again clamber up the rocky path to view the sunrise. It is even colder than the night before as nature rolls away the stars and paints the Hoggar moonscape with a golden yellow.

Assekrem is a rugged four hour, 80 kilometre drive west from the oasis town of Tamanrasset through an incredible moonscape via a roadway barely distinguishable from the surrounding desert sands and rocks.

It has been described as the most beautiful sunset on Earth – maybe too strong an epithet. But it is an uplifting, rewarding, spiritual place in an unwelcoming and rugged desert environment. A steady flow of visitors from all around the world suggests that it is well worth the effort to see the majestic sunrises and sunsets of this mountain hermitage.

This journey was undertaken many years ago around the time of the first Gulf War. Note that Algeria remains a dangerous place to travel and you should seek the latest travel advisories before going. That being said, the south of Algeria and the desert region is far more peaceful than the north and populous areas of Algeria.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Remember! (Oradour-sur-Glane, France)

Souviens-toi! Remember! A sign at the entrance says only these words, yet says so much.

The town was almost deserted. Two other couples peacefully wander the streets of this small rural village in Central France in silence. A family with two young boys languidly stroll near the church. Even the children walk quietly here. A gentle refreshing breeze rustles the surrounding trees and speaks a quiet hush through the church spire. The early summer day was clear and sunny.

Indeed, the weather was identical on Saturday, 10 June, 1944 – the day this quiet unassuming village was forever changed. The soldiers entered the village and had everyone gather in the middle of town for a check of identity papers. Or so it was said. Only a few hours later, almost everyone in the town was dead – 642 people murdered in cold blood - the men shot in front of the nearby barns, the women and children burned alive in the village church. Only a bare few survived, escaping to the nearby forests. The population of Oradour-sur-Glane had been annihilated in one furious afternoon, the village looted and destroyed in the name of revenge.

The village today stands as it was left that day –a memorial, a martyred village. Only the ravages of time have altered the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Each year, the doctor’s car sitting on its grassy verge, rusts a little more. Ferrous brown bedframes sitting in the remains of the villagers’ houses, grow redder with age.

A bicycle lies discarded on a pile of rubble. A simple treadle sewing machine sits nearby. Tables and chairs await guests at the village café. Ovens remain open at the back of the boulangerie (bakery) ready for more loaves. You can imagine the sweet aroma of baguettes and croissants each morning wafting down the streets of Oradour-sur-Glane. A village frozen in time under a blanket of ashes.

A nearby museum holds many of the smaller treasured items. Watches poignantly stopped at the time of the massacre. Pairs of spectacles mounted in displays, their lens charred by the burning flames.

The silence remains with you for many hours after you leave Oradour-sur-Glane. No words seem adequate or appropriate. No expression able to capture your feelings. Lunch had been completely forgotten. Food seemed so unimportant.

Like many, I will never forget.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

And then there were Eight (Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia)

One of the great touring drives in the world is along a real travel wonder, the Great Ocean Road, west of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. This road hugs the southern coastline of Victoria passing a number of remarkable rock formations, the best known of which is The Twelve Apostles.

Originally called the Sow and the Piglets, the tourism marketing department gathered together, added value and renamed these towers of limestone rock some fifty years ago, though they never numbered twelve.

Two years ago (in July, 2005), one of the Twelve Apostles finally yielded to the years of wave erosion and collapsed into a pile of rubble. After all, the next piece of land south of the Twelve Apostles is Antarctica and so there is nothing to calm or absorb the waves which pound into this unprotected coastline. The soft rock has been gouged away leaving towers of harder rock to withstand the fury of nature’s waves. All down this expressive coastline, the cliffs have been sculptured by years of blowing winds and pounding waves, leaving an assortment of warped and wonderful formations.

Today, these are snapped by photographers. In the 1800s, they were feared by sailors. A number of well known shipwrecks litter this coastline, the fogs masking the warning lights of the nearby lighthouses. Loch Ard Gorge is a bay protected by huge rock walls with only the narrowest of gaps in between. In 1854, the Loch Ard ran aground in heavy seas and only two of 54 passengers survived, escaping into this narrow bay and up the angled sands of the beach.

To the naked eye, it appears that one or two of the other apostles do not have a long life left either as each wave nibbles away at the base of each rock tower to satisfy nature’s voracious appetite for these limestone towers.

It was only 15 years earlier that another nearby formation was partially lost to erosion. London Bridge lost its land-connected arch. Fortunately, no one fell in the water but several had to be rescued from the intact arch, now no longer attached to the land. It is a bit strange to look on knowing that I walked out over that now fallen archway. I noted recently that the signs have now been altered to London Arch, which is not nearly as evocative as a name.

The Great Ocean Road is a true travel wonder of the world. Enjoy it before there are only seven…or six…


The two old images are scanned photos which were taken in 1985 with a cheap camera on a dull overcast day. My apologies for the quality of these two photographs.

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