Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Photo of the Week - Mountain Gorilla

At the suggestion of a good friend, I have decided to add a weekly favorite photo to my postings. Most will be of either wildlife or places of stunning beauty with a short article on the photo.

The first is a photo from what I rate as my best ever travel day, viewing the remarkable and endangered mountain gorillas in East Congo. I rate this experience as the best of my top ten African travel wonders. Only 700 of these extraordinary primates remain though the efforts to conserve them has improved in recent times. The countries of Rwanda, DR Congo and Uganda have all been savaged by war in the last twenty or thirty years at the expense of the lives and habitat of these intelligent beings.

The entry Gorillas in the Mist details the journey to see the gorillas.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Aquamarine Necklace (Plitvice Lakes, Croatia)

In central Croatia lies the UNESCO World-heritage listed travel wonder of Plitvice Lakes. This necklace of 16 lakes, in an artist’s palette of colors from emerald green, through azures and turquoises to deep sapphire blue, are separated by walls of algae, moss, roots and stone. The water flows between the lakes in a series of tumbling waterfalls and gushing streams, constantly refreshing and filling the neighboring lake.

The geological story is remarkable and fascinating. The water in the lakes is rich in calcium carbonate leeched from the dolomite and limestone valleys in the area.

This mineral enriches the water giving the lakes their vivid shades of blue and green. Calcium carbonate has an unusual chemical property which means it releases from water only when the water is running, tangling and embedding itself in the plants and mosses between the lakes, hardening and turning itself into a porous rock called travertine. These hardened stone walls effectively act as barriers between the lakes acting like dam walls.

Much as limestone caves slowly evolve over the centuries and millennia, Plitvice Lakes continue to change as the travertine walls, plant life and water form and erode, continually and subtly changing the landscape of this majestic area.

Surrounding the lakes are rich forests of beech, firs and pine trees, creating elegant patterns and reflections in the crystal waters.Wooden boardwalks and natural paths surround many of the lakes. Electric buses ferry visitors to the far end of the lakes and an electric boat plies the waters of the largest lake which connects the so-called Upper Lakes with the four Lower Lakes. Strolling around and between these lakes on the undulating paths is comfortable and relaxing, the walk being spiced with the soothing sounds of running streams and the twittering of birds and the vision of colorful flowers and thousands of small fish.

One useful tip suggested to me by the helpful national park staff was to walk up-hill so that the best views of this enticing water garden always lay in front of you. The vast majority of people take the easier downhill approach.

Near the lower lakes and a favorite vantage point for group photographs is Croatia’s largest waterfall at around 80 metres (90 yards), though other waterfalls were more striking for their setting. Ironically this largest waterfall is fed from an external river and not from the runoff of another lake.

Plitvice Lakes make for a wonderful day-long escape to nature. Watch in awe at one of nature’s great travel wonders as water magically turns to stone.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Generosity and Gemütlichkeit (Vienna, Austria)

I boarded the train for a restful afternoon of travel, moving from Salzburg, the city of Mozart and The Sound of Music , to the elegant Austrian capital of Vienna. Being early afternoon, the train was devoid of business people and was almost deserted. Indeed, I only had to share the carriage with a Mum and her two children. The journey promised some beautiful alpine scenery of snow-capped mountains and emerald green farmlands.

The boy of around eleven sheepishly approached me and asked “Are you from Australia?” in halting, nervous English. My cap had Australia plastered across it so it was a pretty safe inquiry. He stated with a growing confidence and said as if read from a textbook “My name is Robert.I am learning English at school. Will you practise with me?”

His Mum and older sister looked on with a mixture of reassurance and discomfort.

We chatted for a while, his English fairly good for someone who had been learning the language for such a short time. His classes had included details of Australia so the conversation was littered with kangaroos, koalas, beaches and Ayers Rock. Having chatted for half an hour or more as the stunning Alps sped past, Robert had had enough. I presented Robert with a new Australian cap (I carried two as special presents for my journey) and this seemed as good a time as any.

On arrival in Vienna as we left the train, Robert’s mother in broken English invited me over to their place for the following afternoon and for dinner. I eagerly accepted as this would be a great experience away from the norms of travel – Viennese Spanish horses, castles and cathedrals could wait.

And what an afternoon and evening it was. Elisabeth (the mother), Katrin and Robert drove us to a quiet winery in nearby Grinzing to experience heuriger, a uniquely Austrian experience, where local wineries can serve their own wine with some tasty snacks. There were 50 or so local people grouped around rustic outside tables digging into the local produce with gusto on this sunny Saturday. It was a superb languid afternoon of chatter, great food and wine, interesting stories and laughter.

With the meandering conversation, one of the guests introduced me to the idea of gemütlichkeit, a deep concept which I interpret as social acceptance and relaxation in a cheerful, easy-going, cosy environment. He proudly claimed that this word was uniquely German/Austrian and there was no English equivalent. A Scandinavian friend of mine believes that hygge is the same idea in their Nordic languages. The word and idea has stayed with me for all the years since and I have discussed the idea with a number of friends and colleagues. Despite this, I am not sure I have completely decoded this mysterious idea of social inclusiveness.

On returning to Vienna, they invited me in to dinner. To say it was good would be to describe the Grand Canyon as nice or the World Cup final as a game. The family ran an excellent restaurant in Vienna and they put on quite a show for their newly discovered guest. All kinds of Austrian delicacies and specialities nourished the evening away.

Though the memory stays fresh, this happened twenty years. We stayed in contact for a while but the communication faded. We have never met up again. I continue to treasure this great memory of such generosity and friendship and continue to search for gemütlichkeit, part of life itself.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Living on Stilts (Ganvié, Benin)

Precariously balanced in tiny wooden canoes called pirogues, we poled and paddled a few kilometres around the stilt villages of the tiny West African nation of Benin. These unusual travel wonders were created over three hundred years ago when the local tribes moved into the shallow Lake Nakoue to avoid capture and enslavement by the dominant Dahomey people whose spiritual beliefs forbade them from venturing into the lake.

As we approach, the awkward wooden and bamboo huts perch on posts only a couple of yards above the lake surface, their thatched roofs sitting atop like unkempt hair.

Most of the men are fisherman. Fishing is a combination of traditional throw-nets along with a carefully managed system of fencing off parts of the lake with local reeds. The fences are moved and the areas reduced to corral the fish into small areas to provide an easy and ready source of food. The extra fish is taken to market and traded for other necessities.

These water pens are like fields of a farmyard, taking large expanses of the lake leaving narrow roads or channels for navigation around the lake. It is quite an operation without the need for bullocks, ploughs and planting.

Meanwhile the women go about their every day life as if they were on living on land, tending to their family’s laundry, meals, childcare and the typical daily chores of home life. Often hidden under oversized hats, the women trade fish, fruit and vegetables with other villagers treating their pirogue as a veritable floating market. Few houses are connected with walkways so any business away from their hut requires paddling to another wooden building.

By far the most popular of these stilt villages is Ganvié which to my mind is far too touristy to be enjoyable, or even comfortable. There is an ugly tourist shop and café while the children clamber around yelling “yovo, yovo” (which loosely translates as "stranger" or “white man” in a friendly way) and demanding “cadeaux, cadeaux” (gifts). Some try to sell primarily tourist tat at inflated prices, though some of the local colorful patchwork is impressive. Others pose for photos (handstands in the pirogue is a popular trick though you have to admire their balance given that sitting in a pirogue is enough of a feat) and ask for money in return. That being said, the funds they collect from visitors have built Ganvié up and undoubtedly improved the health and well-being of the villagers.

A number of other far less visited villages also populate the lake and have not yet acclimatized to the wealth of visiting tourists. These small settlements were far more pleasant to spend time in, with the villagers going about their every day business, provided you can keep your travel and photography habits respectful and quiet (many of the women do not like to be photographed).

Ganvié is sometimes described as the Venice of Africa which gives a very false impression. However, it is an interesting insight into an unusual life bred from personal safety several centuries ago. Don’t get your expectations too high for a truly cultural experience but enjoy Benin’s stilt villages as an African travel wonder.


The aerial photo (lead photo) is sourced from here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Czeching Out the Capital (Prague, Czech Republic)

As it emerges from hijacking by Russian communism for 43 years, the travel wonder of Prague remains the glittering diamond of architectural and cultural Europe. A millennium’s worth of magnificent and stylish buildings must deep down be the envy of every city in the world. Rich in culture with an inspiring history of kings, writers and musicians, royal palaces, cathedrals, theatres, art galleries and opera houses sit among smoke-filled bars (after all, the Czechs invented beer), buzzing nightclubs and a general youthful exuberance for life.

This quick tour will try to capture this extraordinary gem and one of my favorite European cities in a few short words. But Prague needs time to wander the ancient streets, feel the lively atmosphere and experience this burgeoning Czech capital.

Standing aloft of Prague and dominating its skyline, Prague Castle (hrad) is a vast mind-boggling collection of churches, palaces, gardens and statues built in a variety of architectures linked by courtyards and narrow alleyways. The Gothic St Vitus Cathedral is characterised by gloriously colorful stained glass windows.

The nearby Old Royal Palace includes a massive hall with vaulted ceilings large enough to host indoor jousting tournaments. The staircase at one end is designed as an entrance for mounted horses with broad steps.

Check out St. George Basilica on the way to the old goldsmith street called Golden Lane. Lined with colorful 16th century cottages, today this narrow cobblestoned street is packed with tourists and souvenir shops but remains worthy of a visit.

Around dusk, enjoy a stroll across the Vltava River on Charles Bridge which has connected the Castle area to the Old Town (Staré Mešto). Bedecked with 30 religious statues, this 600 year old bridge was the only passage across the river until the 19th century.

End your day with a cooling beer (the Czechs have the highest per capita consumption of beer) in one of Prague’s numerous great pubs or microbreweries. Indeed, the only word I can remember from the bewildering Slavic-based Czech language is pivo (beer). One great custom is that a new beer arrives at your table just as you finish the previous one. You only need to tell the waiter when you want to stop by simply putting the beer mat on top of your glass.

One uniquely Czech liquor worth trying is the smooth, flavorsome and slightly bitter Becherovka, with its numerous secret herbs and spices -many more than KFC - and much tastier and more enjoyable to boot. It makes for a great pre-dinner drink.

Start your next day in the historic Jewish Quarter (Josefov) includes an evocative, emotional museum area (including five synagogues) memorializing over 600 years of suffering and oppression. Two poignant memories from this area will remain with me forever. To the humble background reading of the victims’ names, the Pinkas Synagogue (now a memorial) is inscribed with the handwritten names of 77,297 Czech (and Slovak) Jews who were killed (primarily in concentration camps) in World War 2, along with their date of birth and disappearance date. Upstairs is a display of artwork from children held in the Terezín concentration camp.

Out the back of this synagogue, experience the mournful atmosphere of over 12,000 tombstones in the tiny Jewish cemetery. Being the only location for Jewish burial for some 350 years until 1787, tombs were piled on top of each other – over 100,000 graves are estimated to lie in this small melancholy setting.

Refresh with an over-priced coffee in Prague’s historic Old Town Square. A market area for over 900 years, this thriving square of hawkers, buskers, horse buggies, tourists and locals is encased with elegantly architected pastel buildings of a past age and is overlooked by the towering gothic Týn church.

The mesmerising Astronomical Clock has been keeping time in the Old Square for over 500 years. On the hour, Death turns his hourglass, the twelve apostles parade by and the rooster crows. The time is shown in a 24-hour clock (midday is at the top and midnight is at the bottom), along with the phase of the moon and the zodiacal sign of the sun and the moon. The lower clock reveals the day of the year (along with the associated saint) and twelve seasonal rural pictures.

There is so much more to see and enjoy in Prague. More like a boulevard, the New Town’s (Nové Mešto) Wenceslas Square is where over quarter of a million Czechoslovakians gathered every night for two weeks in 1989 to see the end of communism during the so-called Velvet Revolution. With its cultural traditions, it was appropriate that the new president was a poet. Nearby and sometimes lit with candles, is a moving memorial to Jan Palach who burned himself to death in 1969 in protest of the Soviet invasion of his country.

The fortress area of Vyšehrad, the beguiling Municipal House and a number of churches, gardens and museums all add to the wonderful experience of this golden treasure of travel wonders, the incomparable Prague.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Unveiling Nature's Grand Masterpiece (Grand Canyon, USA)

It was minus fifteen outside but this is one of the world’s great travel wonders. I can’t recall if that was Fahrenheit or Celsius but it doesn’t really matter when it is that cold. Such temperatures are simply never experienced in my home town in Australia. I was half asleep wrapped in a cosy blanket in my cabin. The alarm had just gone off and it was still dark outside. Should I just sleep like most sensible people or should I head off outside. I bet that I’ll be the only one there.

It was mid February and there was snow everywhere. It had snowed a fair bit during the evening though the roads were open. I warmed a little as I shovelled snow from my vehicle, dressed like the proverbial Michelin Man. At least I think it was my vehicle or did I park in the next spot. Shovelling snow with your arm and a credit card is hardly so much fun that you wanted to do it for a complete stranger as well. Yes, that is my vehicle – now to check that it will start. First time, thank goodness. A few minutes more wait while the car (and most importantly, its heater) warmed up and we hit the road.

And it was only a few minutes drive anyway. The car wouldn’t even get properly warm. At least parking wouldn’t be a problem – there was no-one on the road anywhere. I arrived twenty minutes before sunrise and the dull glow of the emerging celestial globe was starting to break the dark dominance of the night sky. The canyon started to reluctantly radiate a dull reddish orange and awaken from its long evening winter's slumber. The sky was clear and the weather so crisp you could break it off in small icicles.

The high peaks in the canyon really started to catch the sun's rays and glow varying shades of reds, oranges, pinks and yellow, almost to a deep mauve. A dull light even started to penetrate the deeper reaches of the canyon, unveiling its true grandeur that nature has slowly carved over the last two billion years. The dusting of snow glinted as the sun first peeked over the horizon and the light grew more and more intense. The buttes and various towers of rock started to come into full light, casting dark shadows into the reddening valley below.

I snapped a few photos till I realised my left hand had gone numb from the cold and I couldn’t hold a camera any longer. Nature’s light show had erased the temperature from my mind for a few minutes, the senses warmed by the spectacular colours of the morning light. I had this view to myself, not another soul had visited this most recommended and stellar of early morning vantage points. The car remained alone in pole parking position.

The sun was fully above the horizon and light had fully taken over from the evening darkness before. It was time to return to the warmth of the cabin.

The Grand Canyon was more than could be imagined from all the photos and TV programs. Beyond viewing, it is a place to be fully experienced. It is truly one of nature's great masterpieces. But nature rarely disappoints.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Invasion of the Termites (Pinnacles, Western Australia)

Around three hours drive north of Perth (Australia) is a weird travel wonder with thousands of limestone pillars poking out of an arid, sandy desert floor. The Pinnacles are a striking sight especially on sunrise and sunset as thousands of mounds protrude from a sweeping desert of arid Western Australian sands.

The geological story goes something like this. Many millions of years ago, shells from marine life broke down into lime-rich sand which blew inland into this area. Over time, rainwater leached the limestone from the sand and hardened below into a material called calcrete. Roots of local vegetation exploited cracks which developed in the calcrete, and which grew as water seeped in. These cracks kept widening and filled with quartz sand while the softer limestone continued to erode. Some of the sand cleared with the winds and the strongest parts of the calcrete remained as a sea of pointed rocks jutting from the sandy floor, some as tall as five metres.

Whether the geology is of interest or not, it has left a truly remarkable sight – what appears to be a camp ground for white ants - an ocean of termite nests over an area of many barren square miles. A loop road circles this main area where it is easy to stop and enjoy the eerie scene.

Nearby, stray emus (the native Australian flightless bird and second largest bird in the world after the ostrich) can be seen battling the elements and using the occasional waterhole to stay refreshed. A bit like an ostrich in appearance, these durable birds are one half of the Australian coat of arms (the other being the kangaroos), both sharing the unusual characteristic of not being able to go backwards.

Sunset approaches and the show really starts. Yellow by day, the unusual pinnacled rocks cast silhouettes against the dusty dusk air creating an ever-changing mesmerising scene of pinks, oranges and mauves. An eeries silence settles over the desert scene as the Pinnacles see the end to another day and rests for another evening - the temperature dropping to a refreshing cool. Settle into a comfortable spot, open a bottle of wine and enjoy the sinking sun and its orchestra of hues cast across this haunting travel wonder.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Great Congo River Journey (DR Congo)

This trip was undertaken in 1991 when the country was called Zaïre, the river was called the Zaïre River (and even the currency was the Zaïre). Today it is called the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) and the river has returned to its more familiar name of the Congo River. I have no idea whether this remarkable boat trip continues today. Even if it does, it would be difficult and dangerous for foreigners to travel through DR Congo as I did – a great tragedy indeed.

Nothing quite prepares you for one of the world’s great travel adventures – riding the Congo River Boat upstream from the capital, Kinshasa to Kisangani over a period of around two weeks. A seething mass of humanity boards – couples, families, luggage, market stalls, animals (including crocodiles, monkeys, pigs, goats, tortoises, chickens and more), radios / music machines, crafts and many things that defy description.

The river boat is a steamer lashed together with a number of barges. Even amongst the mayhem, travel comes in three classes – first class (deluxe with nice comfortable rooms), second class (rooms with four bunk beds) and third class which consists of space on the deck somewhere, all classes including two surprisingly nutritious and tasty meals each day.

The boat departs and the party begins. African rhythmic music blares from every music box and radio for 24 hours a day. The untiring passengers and their brightly colored clothing sway to the rhythmic beat for hours at a time while others tend to the important business of shopping at the informal markets setup by the more entrepreneurial folks. Seemingly everything is for sale – pots and pans, torches, clothing, food, batteries, strange carvings and more.

The late afternoon (evening) meal time is a form of organised bedlam with crowds of people like peak-hour in a Friday afternoon bar. On the menu are mounds of rice with a tasty stew or sauce based on one of the menagerie of animals boarded in Kinshasa. When the meat runs out, another is selected and slaughtered – at least you know the meat is fresh. Over the days, more traditional western meats like chicken and pork is mixed with goat, monkey and crocodile. After a couple of days, I stopped asking – somehow it seemed better that way.

Every day, the kitchen performs miracles and gets everyone served, most balancing their bowl or plate on their knee or a flat part of the boat. A few smarter ones sneak up to the top deck.

Some peace can be found on the top deck – a flat area where you can watch the world go past or enjoy the dazzling evening sky unhindered by the typical city lights back home. In the river darkness, the Milky Way really does appear as a creamy heavenly highway. The music is a little more distant up here and the top deck appears accepted as a more tranquil area – a haven from the hurly-burly of river boat life. With a decent blanket, this is as good a place to sleep as any – the gentle speed of the river boat creating enough breeze to keep the insects at bay.

As time soaks by, we pass a number of river-side villages with their wooden and straw huts. For many villages it includes an energetic paddle on their pirogue (a wooden canoe) to tie up to the main boat for a session of trading their goods for other needs of the village. Others simply hitch a ride upstream. The bartering is vigorous but all seem to leave contented with a broad smile and a gentle handshake. Some on board seem solely to take the river boat to trade with the various villagers along this aqua highway. With the bartering complete, the pirogue unties and simply eases its way back downstream back to the village, carefully balancing their new goods in the small wooden craft, avoiding capsizes from the wash of the river boat. For many villages, it is their sole contact with the outside world with no road network at all and no other village within walking distance.

In the end it seems so disappointing to arrive at Kisangani as mayhem ensues with the disgorging of the many hundreds of passengers – the way of life on the river, the temporary friendships formed, the spirited bartering in the river boat markets, the energetic music and dancing, the menagerie of animals and the waves from the passing villages left a great two week escape for the visitors and a continuation of life for the locals – many undoubtedly bound for the return journey the following day.

Surely the vibrant spirit and color of the Congolese people, the Congo River and its river boat is one of the world’s great travel wonders. We can all only hope that DR Congo can one day return to a more peaceful and normal life and that this magnificent waterway can again be used for the benefit of all that live near her.

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