Friday, August 29, 2008

Photo of the Week - Dye Pits (Fes, Morocco)

The ancient medina in Fes (one of my African top ten) is an assault on all your senses. Narrow alleys in this walled area of the city connect souks producing and selling woodwork, leather goods and hand-made clothing, crafts and jewellery. The leather is cured and the wool and leather dyed in these huge ancient vats with various coloured potions in them. It is one of the eternal visions of this historic and lively north African travel wonder.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bacon Beer and Bishops (Bamberg, Germany)

Sitting back in a quiet German beer-garden on a warm summer’s afternoon sipping on a browny-crimson colored beer called rauchbier (smoky beer), I thought how I’d almost missed this most remarkable small urban travel wonder. After all, I wasn’t really planning to go to Bamberg – just another nice German town with lots of half-timbered buildings from what I’d read – when someone in a hotel mentioned that it was home to ten breweries for a population of only 75,000! The beers included one that tasted a little like bacon. Better check that out!

Bamberg proved to be an architectural treasure trove of ornate palaces, numerous churches and narrow cobblestoned lanes, rich in history and relatively unspoilt by ugly modern buildings.

Over a thousand years old, Bamberg is sliced in half by the Regnitz River. Historically, one side of the river were inhabited by the deeply religious citizens and the other side by the non-religious middle-class merchants and workers. The picturesque town hall (Alte Rathaus) was built on the river between the two parties (see lead photo), richly frescoed and with its half-timbered building draped over the bridge most strikingly.

Bamberg was designated a bishopric around 1000 years ago, maybe for its site among seven hills similar to Rome and is spattered with historic churches and cathedrals. Indeed, it is often referred to as the Franconian Rome, being in the German state of Franconia. Two churches are notable and worthy of a quick viewing. Kloster St. Michael, perched on one of the hills is originally a monastery and has a ceiling painted with around 600 medicinal herbs and plants. A small garden includes some of these herbs and a superb panorama of the city of Bamberg.

The cathedral (Dom) houses the tomb of Pope Clement II – the only pope buried outside of Italy or France. Nearby is the 900-year old Bishop’s Palace with its courtyard encased in half-timbered buildings, the overhanging balconies draped in scarlet geraniums.

Further down the river is Little Venice (Klein Venedig), a row of small half-timbered cottages (originally for fishermen) sit perched on poles over the river with bright red blooms reflecting into the water below.

Walking in this grand town along the narrow streets and laneways seemingly uncovers glorious mansions, castles and palaces around every corner but tired legs will eventually steer you to a brewery or bar for a refreshing ale and some relaxation. I was driving so couldn’t avail myself of the self-guided beer-tasting tour (sold by the thoughtful tourist office) where you get to sample a number of mugs of local brews from the various breweries.

Oh, and rauchbier does taste a little of bacon, though I am assured that no pigs are harmed in the brewing process.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Photo of the Week - Bad Hair Day

While riding on a bicycle, I quickly fumbled for a camera as I was caught by surprise. Two women emerged from a side road carrying huge mounds of dried grass carefully balanced on their heads.

Friday, August 22, 2008

New International Monopoly - Which Cities Can You Buy?

The folks at Hasbro, the makers of Monopoly have announced the winners of their new 22 city International edition. This was done by a world-wide poll (over 5 million recorded votes) early in the year, where each person could select ten cities from an original list of 68. Two wildcard cities of Taipei and Gdynia (Poland) were selected outside of the original list and won the location of the cheapest properties.

The cities are:

Dark blue - Montreal, Riga
Green - Capetown, Belgrade, Paris
Yellow - Jerusalem, Hong Kong, Beijing
Red - London, New York, Sydney
Orange - Vancouver, Shanghai, Rome
Magenta - Toronto, Kyiv (Kiev), Istanbul
Light blue - Athens, Barcelona, Tokyo
Brown/Purple - Taipei, Gdynia (Gdansk)

Canada and China each contributed three cities, while Montreal won the valued prime location typically held by Mayfair (UK edition) or Boardwalk (US edition). Six of my votes made the final board. No South American city made the cut.

What cities do you think should have made it that missed out?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Pink Pageant (Lake Nakuru, Kenya)

With a rich supply of blue-green algae, the UNESCO-listed travel wonder of Lake Nakuru plays host to immense quantities of flamingos, one of the greatest bird pageants on the planet. From afar at vista points such as Baboon Cliffs, the vast flamingo numbers give the rich saline soda lake an appearance of candy pink stripes.

With the flamingos typically in the shallow shores of the lake, nothing beats sitting quietly near the edge (Pelican Point seems best - see map) and watching them methodically go about their business. Mainly feeding, they also spend time parading on their skinny angular legs, the pink straw-like legs reflecting in the deep blues of the lake. The fading afternoon light leaves a silhouetting effect against the background hills.

In places, baboons and hyenas pace the shores in hope of a meal but the briny alkaline water provides a natural protection for these mesmerising birds and frustration for these opportunist carnivores.

The flamingos feed busily but nervously, their heads bobbing up and down continuously. If one flamingo spooks a little and seeks the sanctity of the sky, suddenly whole flocks take flight with an ungainly savage flapping of their wings. Despite their take-off, they fly gracefully, their long necks craning forward supporting their strange beak. Unusually, they eat with their beak upside-down, using it to filter the lake silt from the small shrimps and algae that they eat and which gives them their vivid pink coloring (apparently caused by the same chemical that makes carrots orange). I wonder if that gives them good eyesight?

The lake is protected as a national park complete with the usual cross-section of African wildlife including giraffe, zebras, lions, antelope and leopards. The park is actively assisting in the breeding and protection of the highly endangered white rhinoceros. It is encouraging to see these elegant animals waddling along with their broad mouths hoovering up the grass, rarely lifting their head from the joyous chore of eating.

The wildlife of the extraordinary Rift Valley is one of Africa's most compelling experiences (I rate it as second in my African top ten). Whether at dawn or dusk, being in the live audience to nature's greatest wildlife show leaves lifetime memories.

The travel wonder of Lake Nakuru makes a wonderful couple of days only 100 miles from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Beyond the wonderful flamingo pageant, the likelihood of seeing the rhinos on the wide open plains makes it a wildlife experience to savour.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Travel Website with a Difference - Where the Hell is Matt?

Where the Hell is Matt is a travel quasi-blog which has taken on a life of its own. In simple terms, Matt Harding has traveled the world recording a strange jig-like dance in front of some of the great travel wonders of the world. Indeed, there are recordings of Matt dancing in places as diverse as the Pyramids, Kuwait and Petra in the Middle East, Machu Picchu in the Americas and Iceland in northern Europe.

Matt Harding was interviewed on a leading Australian program called Enough Rope last night. A short video clip and the full transcript are available on the internet, which gives a view into the accidental nature of the whole creation and shows some of the down-to-Earth character of Matt.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Photo of the Week - Remote Sign

This photo is from central Iceland - a land left barren from regular volcanic eruptions. NASA thought it so resembled a moonscape that the Apollo 11 astronauts trained around here before their famous moon landing. At least there are signs to avoid being lost! Iceland is also a stunning country full of natural travel wonders such as waterfalls, glaciers, lakes and strange rock formations from the geological activity.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Photo of the Week - Icy Hoodoos (Bryce Canyon, USA)

It was a chilly February afternoon and the wonderful Bryce National Park was virtually devoid of people. But the late afternoon light left a fantastic contrast of the reds and oranges of these strange rock formations (called hoodoos) with the white snow. It was also the only chance in my life that I got to go snow-shoeing, a weird sensation like walking on giant tennis rackets. It is exhausting but uplifting surrounded by such superb scenery.

Related Posts
Unveiling Nature's Grand Masterpiece (Grand Canyon, USA)
Invasion of the Termites (Pinnacles, Australia)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

From Dead Duck to Bird Heaven (Bharatpur, India)

It is difficult to imagine something dreamier than cycling gently through the travel wonder of Keoladeo Ghana National Park. The main road (vehicle-free except for rickshaws and bikes, both available for rent) cuts through the middle of a large lake with surrounding wetlands and forests. Smaller paths allow exploration for the more than 220 resident bird species and 140 migrants along with various deer, wild boar, civets and other small animals.

Sandwiched in India’s golden triangle of Delhi, the famed pink city of Jaipur and the home of the Taj Mahal (Agra), Bharatpur makes for a superb one day excursion.

Now a UNESCO-listed world heritage site, its existence is owed to the Maharaja of Bharatpur who did not share the same conservation values. This parkland was deliberately flooded to attract birds so that the maharaja could ensure a consistent supply of waterbirds for the regal dining table or to issue much sought-after invitations to a day of duck shooting. A monument inscribed with bag counts attest to the incredible success of both the design of the park as a bird sanctuary and the maharaja and his friends as sharp-shooters. The most “successful” single day witnessed the shooting of over 5,000 ducks and partridges.

Today, Keoladeo is a bird paradise simply teeming with owls, vultures, kingfisher, ducks, herons, egrets, storks, ibises, spoonbills, cormorants and bee-eaters all exuberantly mating, nesting, feeding, flapping and fluttering around the lakes, grasslands and trees. The cacophony of sounds ranges from the highest pitched tuneful chirps to deep-throated squawks.

Though our party never saw one, the pin-up bird is the rare and highly endangered Siberian Crane which migrates here with a flight of over 6,400 kilometres (4,000 miles) to avoid the savagery of the East Russian winter. Easier to spot creeping around the reeds are the towering Saras Cranes at around human-height with scarlet red heads, yellow beaks and steel blue bodies

For those that, like me, can’t tell the difference between a babbler and a warbler, a guide with a rickshaw is a worthwhile investment. They tend to know where the various nests are and can point out a wide variety of the more interesting birdlife. Once you have your bearings, swap the rickshaw for a bicycle, or simply walk. Take time to simply wander the small pathways or sit near one of the lakes and enjoy the antics of the waterbirds tending to their day’s business. An electric-blue kingfisher stalked his prey for fifteen minutes before proudly producing a small grasshopper – he seemed aware of his small but appreciative audience!

So add Keoladeo Ghana National Park to your Indian itinerary, considered by many as the finest bird travel wonder in the world.


Sadly, Bharatpur is undergoing a severe drought with all the available water being used for the farmers and none being diverted into the national park. A number of news articles reference the difficulty that the park is currently experiencing.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Photo of the Week - Johnston Canyon, Canada

Banff National Park contains some of the world's most stunning scenery. The Rockies are a wonderful backdrop for thunderous waterfalls, glacial lakes and superb wildlife. Johnston Canyon, just north of Banff, provides a scenic three kilometre (0.6 miles) walk through the chasm and past a series of waterfalls. The best two falls are the uninterestingly named Lower Falls (top photo) and Upper Falls (bottom photo). The unusual lower falls turns at right angles and contains fantastic colors around the narrow gorge.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Fish, Fjords and Fantasy (Lofoten Islands, Norway)

Far above the Arctic Circle, a curved spray of craggy mountainous islands seeks solace from the tempestuous Norwegian Sea. Tiny russet-colored fishing villages are pushed on the coastal fringes by the Lofoten Wall, a jagged spine of mountains carved by glaciers millions of years ago which rear from the cod-rich surging waters – the lifeblood and heritage of these majestic islands.

Sheep paddocks are sprinkled across the rolling emerald hills while small boats bob in the azure inlets and bays. Like a fantasy scene from Middle Earth, the travel wonder of the Lofoten Islands are stunningly beautiful with its overwhelming scenery and long languid summer days. The sun doesn’t set for a period of around eight weeks from late May to mid-July. In summer, visitors remember to close their curtains after being awoken once with sun streaming through their windows at 1:00am in the morning.

A road connects the main Lofoten islands making a motor scooter or bicycle an ideal way to enjoy the mild Lofoten weather and comfortably view the unveiling scenery. Take a jacket as the weather changes quickly from sunshine to Lofoten’s frequent rain showers. Hiking trails intertwine across the islands offering numerous postcard shots of small brightly-colored villages among sapphire blue waters and towering mountain ranges. Behind Reine, a typical Lofoten township, lies a superb trail up Reinebringen and a breathless vista of nature at its finest.

Fish racks stretch around the Lofoten villages. The cod are tied to these huge A-frame racks and dried producing a product called stockfish which stays edible for years (though I’d suggest it is an acquired taste!). The locals claim that stockfish is incredibly nutritious, providing four to five times the benefit of the same weight of fresh fish.

Further south and sounding more like an expression of surprise than that of a town, the bizarrely named Å (pronounced or) – yes, that is the entire name – and ironically the last letter of the slightly extended 29-letter Norwegian alphabet, is the end of the road in the Lofotens. Like a town frozen in time, the fishermen’s huts, now used for visitor accommodation (called rorbuer) line the shores, their earthy red coloring reflected in the waters (see lead photo). The cod-liver oil factory, fish-drying racks and boathouse reveal the harshness of these past times.

Just south of Å is an extraordinary natural sight where the tidal flows between the islands result in a dramatic brewing maelstrom, enjoyed by the teeming birdlife but extremely dangerous for those steering boats.

There are a number of picturesque small towns and villages around the Lofoten Islands with most having a similar feel. Settle in for a relaxed and serene pace for a couple of days, enjoy a walk or ride to a neighboring remote hamlet and relax in this remote Norwegian wilderness travel wonder.

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