Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Astride the Continents (Iceland)

Iceland is one of the world’s most remarkable countries, full of natural travel wonders and contrasts. In a small area, soaring icy glaciers, spouting geysirs, black lava flows and plunging waterfalls compete and complement to paint an extraordinary landscape. Much of this highly active landscape is due to the gradual parting of two continental plates – where Europe and America truly meet. Most such activity happens deep in the ocean floor, but this continental junction weaves a path through the centre of Iceland, where it is known as the Reykjanes Ridge (or the less interesting Mid-Atlantic Ridge to geologists). It produced the rich Norse legends where the sagas of mighty gods and unearthly powers replace the geological explanations of today.

In the north of Iceland, Mt Krafla has erupted regularly as recently as 1984. A road of black sooty lava replaced the emerald green grasslands that had struggled to grow over the remains of prior eruptions. The tell-tale yellow sulphurous deposits and venting steam (top photo) shows the Earth continues to bubble where the tectonic plates drag apart from each other at two or three centimetres per year.

In places like Krafla where the gap is narrow, you can stand astride the two continents, being careful to avoid the heated fissures.

The world’s first parliament was conducted in Þingvellir (pronounced “Thingvellir”) over 1,000 years ago. Maybe symbolically for the fractious behaviour of many parliaments, the continental ridge runs through Þingvellir where again it is possible to stand astride the two continents.
Near Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik and its beloved Blue Lagoon, a recently constructed bridge that needs to be adjusted every few years to account for the moving ground, stands astride a broader division between the two plates. A short stroll over the typical black volcanic soils quickly transports you from Europe to America.

While exploring the wild beauty of this majestic and mysterious landscape, keep a thought for those trying to build roads, pipelines and bridges as this wonderfully hospitable country literally slowly tears itself apart.

Other Scandinavian Posts
The Little Little Mermaid (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Fish, Fjords and Fantasy (Lofoten Island, Norway)
Reindeer Paté, Cloudberry Pie and Sweat (Kuopio, Finland)
The Seventeenth Century Titanic (Stockholm, Sweden)
The Viking Stonehenge (Kåseberga, Sweden)

Photo Source: map

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Anzac Day Memories (Australia)

I have two abiding memories of Anzac Day – a national day celebrated in Australia and New Zealand on April 25, when the two countries remember those who fought and lost their lives in military actions involving the countries. It commemorates the specific day in 1915 when ANZAC forces landed in Gallipoli, a remote peninsula in Turkey, meeting stiff resistance from the Turkish army. Over 10,000 died over several months in a savage campaign under severe hardships.

One memory is the story of Simpson and his Donkey, taught to me in school. The other is a story about Jack.

In Australia, on Anzac Day alone, it is legal to play a gambling game called two-up. This same game was played in the trenches as a form of escape from the rigours of war. Unofficial games pop up in parks, pubs and clubs around the country on ANZAC Day. It is a simple game where you bet against another person or the spinner himself on whether two pennies thrown in the air from a flat wooden stick will result in two heads or two tails. A head and a tail results in odds and the coins are re-thrown. Much laughter and yelling adds to the raucous atmosphere as cash passes hands after each throw.

Some sixteen years ago, four of us wandered down to a local pub to partake in such a game and enjoy the comraderie of Anzac Day. With a glass nearly empty, I slipped to the bar to buy another beer and noticed an aged man sitting alone, hunched over the bar, resplendently dressed with a crisp navy blue jacket and a slightly askew rack of medals gleaming over his heart. I offered this old warrior a drink and started to chat.

Jack was born in 1898 and had fought at the tail end of the First World War as a very young man. He wouldn’t speak of the war and said he never had to anyone – it was too evil and shouldn’t be spoken of. I’d have loved to have learned more and despite gentle nudging, Jack kept repeating that war was evil and wouldn’t be drawn. With a heavy heart, Jack passionately described his closest friend, a near neighbour and school buddy from a small rural town in NSW who had travelled to the western front in Belgium with him. His friend was killed in the first 48 hours there and Jack still spoke of his friend’s fine qualities and enduring friendship. He said that he would have preferred it to have been him. While the medals symbolise battles past, Jack seemed to have battled with this burden of the arbitrary loss of his dearest friend and the burden of war locked away inside him every day from that time throughout his life. An old fuzzy photo of his friend kept in his wallet accompanied these mixed memories of a much admired friend cut down in his prime.

Every small town across Australia has a prominent memorial listing those inhabitants who perished in war. It is impossible to miss the strings of names from the same family – the loss of two or three or four or more sons, husbands and fathers must have been a burden almost too intolerable to handle. I am sure that Jack’s friend is memorialised in their small town.

Since that time, Jack is likely to have passed away but the memory of our conversation will last forever. Today, Anzac Day has undergone a revival as the last soldiers of World War I have died and those of World War II grow into their elder years. The sacrifices that these young soldiers made half way across the planet in such foreign lands has etched itself into part of the national character and forged part of the Australian identity as increasing numbers every year crowd Gallipoli, the European memorial at Villers-Brettoneux and memorials around the country for the dawn commemorative service.

Lest we forget.

Source: Lead Photo

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Simpson and his Donkey (Australia)

As Australians and New Zealanders approach Anzac Day, a day where the two countries remember and pay respects those who died at war, I recall a story of herosim from my school days. It is the story of Simpson and his donkey. In Gallipoli, a remote peninsula in Turkey, ANZAC troops were ordered to land and take out the Turkish army, a key ally of Germany in the First World War. Meeting stiff resistance from the Turkish army, the savage campaign ensued for several months with heavy casualties (over 10,000) on both sides.

From dawn each day and unarmed, Simpson and his trusty donkey Duffy would travel a couple of kilometers through the evocatively named Shrapnel Gully to an area where the opposing forces were in trenches less than twenty metres apart. He would crawl forward, at times under fire, aid a wounded soldier, load him across his donkey and make the trek back. He repeated this same journey ten to fifteen times a day, often well into the night.

Just under four weeks later, Duffy returned with an injured soldier but without Simpson. This brave man had been killed under fire carting over 300 injured warriors from the fields of war. This story was taught in schools as Simpson was one of many who epitomised what became known as the Anzac spirit – qualities of endurance, courage, friendship and good humour. Simpson and Duffy are commemorated with a stirring sculpture outside the national war museum.

These stories are enshrined in Australia's psyche and ensure that Australians continue to treasure the ANZAC tradition.

Painting by Horace Moore-Jones now hangs in the National Library of NZ.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Photos in the New Banner

I recently introduced a new banner to this blog and asked whether readers knew what the thirteen merged photos of some of the world's travel wonders were. Here is the list from left to right:

1. Sydney Opera House, Australia
2. Louvre, Paris, France
3. Stern of the Vasa, Stockholm, Sweden
4. Sistine Chapel, Rome, Italy
5. Sphinx, Cairo, Egypt
6. Half-timbered houses, Black Forest, Germany
7. Machu Picchu, Peru
8. Easter Island
9. Small village on the Congo River
10. Moraine Lake, Canada
11. Taj Mahal, Agra, India
12. Grand Canyon, USA
13. Chinstrap Penguin, Antarctica

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Photo of the Week - Cheetah (Kenya)

To me, cheetahs make the most elegant and regal of all the African cats. They are superbly designed for speed with their long sleek body and lengthy tail used like a rudder. Paired with his brother and ever alert, this young male cheetah surveys the Masai Mara bushland.

Other Wildlife Photos of the Week
Mountain Gorilla
Brown Bear
Hoary Marmot

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The little Little Mermaid (Copenhagen, Denmark)

Among the travel wonders of the Danish capital, Copenhagen, rich in castles, canals and Viking history, it is difficult to understand how the tiny statue of the Little Mermaid, immortalised in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, continues to maintain top billing.

Much like Brussel’s famous Manneken Pis, the statue is surprisingly small at little over a metre. Its small stature does not prevent the constant snapping of cameras as visitors make their brief pilgrimage to view the Little Mermaid, many surprised and even disappointed by how small it is. Perched awkwardly on a small rock in Copenhagen Harbour, the statue has apparently had a rough life, twice decapitated and vandalised with paint on several other occasions.

Every August 23, the mermaid celebrates her official birthday (the statue was built in 1913) with a small army of locals (equivalent to the birthday number) jumping in the water releasing red and white balloons and forming a human number of her birthday in the water. So 2009 will see 96 keen folks form the number ‘96” in the chilly water.

Like most iconic sights, if you are in Copenhagen, the stroll to the travel wonder of the Little Mermaid is worth it - just don't set your expectations too high.

Photo Source: 91st Birthday

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Modern Medicine in Ancient Egypt? (Kom Ombo, Egypt)

With scant and imprecise records, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to how developed in the science of medicine and health some of the advanced ancient civilizations were around the world. One such mystery lies in the elegant travel wonder, the Temple of Kom Ombo, built on a bend in the Nile just over two thousand years ago.

Most visitors to Egypt split their time between the seething pandemonium of Cairo with its world-famous Pyramids, Sphinx and museum and enjoying a few days cruising the snaking Nile between Luxor and Aswan (or vice versa). Between restful scenes of farm and rural life along the banks and the gentle flutter of white sails on the feluccas as they exploit the subtle breezes, the cruises stop off at various temples. These remarkable feats of engineering on an immense scale are richly inscribed and delicately decorated in hieroglyphics detailing the deep sense of the importance of religion and culture in Egyptian life at the time.

Strolling around the dual temple at Kom Ombo, unusually dedicated to both Sobek (the crocodile-headed god of creation and fertility) and Horus the Elder (the falcon-headed god of protection) there is a sense of familiarity with the towering symmetric columns of the hypostyle halls and the remains of the various rooms, halls, chambers and sanctuaries. The flecks of paint that have survived the test of time serve as a reminder of what an extraordinary sight these striking structures must have been in full vivid colour back in ancient times. A small crypt off to one side houses a handful of mummified crocodiles.

However, along the back wall in among the hieroglyphics is a surprise. The wall contains engravings of scalpels, forceps, small bottles, scissors, scales, hooks, probes, dilators and various other pieces of medical supplies – the first known depictions of surgical equipment and surely an indicator of advanced medical expertise. Despite the ancient Egyptian’s remarkable skills in dealing with mummies, is it feasible that such medical practices were available over two thousand years ago and numerous centuries before most of these procedures are generally accepted to have been performed?

Another wall shows what appears to be a stethoscope complete with its two cords for the ears and cup for placing against the patient’s chest. Yet, the invention for this instrument is credited to a Frenchman, René Laennec around twenty centuries later in 1816. While opinion among Egyptologists vary as to whether this is a stethoscope, it is difficult to come up with another sensible view on what we may be.

As the small boats paddle for home silhouetted by the reds and oranges of the setting sun painted on the Nile and the floodlights start to dominate the Ptolemaic temple, it is interesting to contemplate on whether Kom Ombo will ever yield its medical secrets to the modern world. Irrespective, it is interesting to hear the stories of the guides around the Egyptian travel wonders and to speculate on the skills of this extraordinary ancient civilisation.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A New Banner for Travel Wonders

After a year or so, I have decided to update the banner and slightly alter the colour scheme of this travel blog. I'd love to get opinions on the new banner. Do you prefer it over the old banner of Sydney harbour?

While I love the view over my home city of Sydney, I wanted the banner to more greatly reflect the idea and spirit of the travel wonders of the world and the wide variety of stunning travel experiences and sights accessible across our planet. This banner includes photo snippets of thirteen different wonderous countries from my travels including wonders both natural and man-made, from across the ages and covering all seven continents. While stretching the bounds of my scant skills in Photoshop, I managed to include sights which are artistic, cultural, curious, iconic, extraordinary and awe-inspiring - some maybe more familiar than others.

I hope that this site continues to encourage people to explore and seek out their own personal travel wonders - to travel with respect and to travel with an inquiring mind to discover and understand better the wonderful peoples, culture, history and natural beauty which knit together to form the wonderful planet which we inhabit.

While several are reasonably obvious, can anyone work out what the thirteen travel wonders are? A list will follow in a few days.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Photo of the Week - Jacob's Ladder (Cheddar, England)

Cheddar is a village in the south-west of England in an area threaded with deep gorges. This popular travel wonder is famous for being the original home for a tasty hard cheese and for its limestone caves.

The unremarkable photo is part of Jacob’s Ladder (named after the stairway to heaven), an ordinary set of 274 concrete steps through light forest, which take visitors from the gorge floor to a view over the expanse of county Somerset. To give an idea of the huge passage of time, it gets visitors to imagine that each step represents one million years. On that basis, the dinosaurs roamed the Earth for around 160 steps, dying out about 65 stairs ago while the caves were carved by flowing waters over a comparatively recent single stair.

All of human history is represented by a single sheet of paper resting on the very top step of this calf-burning climb. Makes you think about the fleeting nature of life.

Other British and Irish Posts
Soaking Up Culture (Bath)
A Bit of British (Gibraltar)
The Illuminated Manuscript (Dublin, Ireland)
Half-Timbered Houses (Lavenham)

Friday, April 3, 2009

Riding the Devil’s Nose (Riobamba, Ecuador) - Part Two

Read Part One of the journey down Devil's Nose firstly.

Along the platform, enthusiastic street vendors parade a wide variety of food and drink to sate empty and dry bodies. Small kids dance along the train’s roof with the aplomb of Russian circus performers balancing trays of tasty morsels and shuffling currency with the flair of a central banker. No-one leaves their seat on the roof for fear of losing it with the influx of new passengers – possession being ten-tenths of the law on Ecuador railways!

The train finally starts its journey down the Devil’s Nose past a sequence of abandoned buildings. The sun has comfortably won the temperature battle as passengers have shed any semblance of winter clothing and try to catch any cooling breeze and hide from the harsh equatorial sun. The train rides past a junction in the line before a crew member clambers down and switches the junction. The train proceeds in reverse a further distance before repeating this same technique, zig-zagging down the mountain-side until we arrive at the abandoned town of Sibambe, with its shell of a railway station and church. We all get to stretch our legs for a few minutes before the train commences its slow journey back to Alausi, simply reversing its journey and struggling up the steep slopes of the Devil’s Nose.

With dust-encrusted skin, slight sunburn from the mountain sun and sore legs from perching on the roof all day, most agree that it is good to be off this train that only a few hours earlier, people had rushed onto with excited anticipation. The switchback engineering is more interesting to read about than see, the views are pleasant rather than spectacular and the towns somewhat sad as they slowly fade from their colonial glory. Yet, in many ways, the Riobamba-Devil’s Nose train is a travel wonder worth experiencing.

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