Sunday, May 31, 2009

Raiders of the Lost Tombs (Nazca, Peru)

Nazca would remain off the map of all but the most intrepid travellers except for the mystifying Nazca Lines. Once in Nazca, there are two more far less known but still remarkable travel wonders to explore, namely the Nazcan aqueducts and the Chauchilla Cemetery.

Scattered across the arid lunar landscape are thousands of graves, most of which have been recently discovered and looted of pottery, weavings and other treasures leaving the skeletal remains exposed to the harsh elements. Buried in a cotton wrap and coated in a special resin, the dry conditions and sandy soil have acted as natural mummification.

Over a thousand years old, skeletons bleached by the harsh sunlight, many with matted brown dreadlocks, crouch in their tattered robes and blankets creepily grinning back from mud-brick vaults with their icy, silent glare. Shards of pottery and ceramics litter the displayed tombs.

The landscape remains pockmarked by pillagers and scattered with bones and debris, the depressions symbolic of the cultural and archaelogical vandalism (triggered by rich western collectors) that wreaked havoc on this necropolis as recently as fifteen years ago. It is an eerie feeling wandering the marked paths of this stark underworld peeking down at ghostly white skeletons, their braided hair adding a little too much life for comfort.

Though the heat and dryness of the area is unrelenting, reflect on the exceptional culture of the people who carved their lives out of the desert and left remarkable legacies and travel wonders including the wonderous Nazca Lines, a sophisticated water management system and a surreal cemetery.

Other Peru Posts
Top Ten Travel Wonders of South America
Exploring the Incan Wonderland (Machu Picchu)
Trekking to the Lost City (Inca Trail)
Potatoes with your Guinea Pig, Sir?
Flight of the Condor (Colca Canyon)
Living in Reeds (Lake Titicaca)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Aqueducts for Life (Nazca, Peru)

There is little doubt that Nazca would be little more than a dusty remote Peruvian town were it not for the world-famous mysterious lines and images that cover the desert. If travellers venture this far to explore the Nazca Lines, then there are two more travel wonders to discover.

The advanced culture that etched the lines in the hash desert also constructed an extraordinary aqueduct system that continues to be utilised today by local farmers. Called puquios, the Nazcans constructed a complex of stone-lined canals and reservoirs (partly underground and partly on the surface) run from mountain springs to provide water for living and irrigating crops in the dry desert plains. These canals are S-curved to slow the water flow and contain stone rampways to provide access to the underground streams and an entrance to clean out the canals if blocked. The water is surprisingly warm, fresh-tasting and crystal clear – very refreshing in the unrelenting heat of the Peruvian day.

Some scientists believe that Nazca Lines are drawn to indicate the sources of water in the surrounding mountains with site guides describing this fact. Undoubtedly, water was the source of life in this stark environment and it remains a wonder that the ingenuity to tap the mountain’s water functions so successfully that it outlived the Nazcan culture itself.

The second travel wonder is extraordinary tombs of Chauchilla in the Nazcan desert, but that is a story for another day.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Photo of the Week - Emu (Australia)

The flightless emu is native to Australia and is the second tallest bird in the world. Though not regularly seen in the wild, this one was sighted in Western Australia not far from the moonscape area of The Pinnacles. It seemed contented to stay near its waterhole. Despite their slightly bedraggled shaggy feathers, emus are powerful runners capable of deceptive speeds. Seeing a flock of emus running on the dusty outback ground is a spectacular sight.

The emu is one of two animals on the Australian coat of arms supporting the shield. Both animals are notable for the fact that they cannot walk backwards, symbolic for Australia's forward progress.

Other Wildlife Photos of the Week
Mountain Gorilla
Brown Bear

Friday, May 22, 2009

Pathways to the Gods (Nazca, Peru)

Ever since reading Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods? as a child, I’ve been enchanted by the mysterious travel wonders of the Nazca Lines. Though, even as a child, I have never entertained the notion that this was used as an airport for alien spacecraft, the idea that a past culture etched super-sized motifs of animals, birds and sea-life into this harsh desert landscape struck me as truly bizarre.

Evidence that this ramshackle unattractive town once attracted an advanced culture is not only evident in the world-famous lines but also in a mesmerising aqueduct system that supplied water for farming the parched soils of this unforgiving desolate area.

The geography of this area ensures that the lines created a couple of thousand years ago still exist. Each line and image is created as a single continuous line, clearing the thin layer of darker metallic soil and unveiling the pale coloured sandy ground below. Completely devoid of vegetation and with virtually no recorded rainfall and unchanging windless conditions, these small furrows etched into the soil have survived the ravages of time. Hundreds of lines and trapezoidal shapes, kilometres long, crisscross this huge arid expanse, combined with roughly seventy stylized animal figures or geoglyphs, many over 100 metres across.

The only way to properly appreciate the sight is from the air. Not for those with weak stomachs, light aircraft take visitors on thirty to forty minute morning flights traversing the desert area and tipping the plane from side to side like a carnival ride to offer everyone good views of the most significant figures.

The spider has a special story. One theory is that it is a diagram of the sacred Orion constellation. Another details that it is a particular rare giant spider only found deep in the Amazon valley, many thousand of miles away. The male of this spider has its reproductive organ at the tail end of one of its legs (visible only under microscope) and this appendage is clear in photos of the Nazca image (it is the bottom left leg in the photo).

A monkey with a spiral tail, a hummingbird, a killer whale, a condor, a strange astronaut figure, a huge lizard (cut in two by the highway, built before the figures were apparent), a dog, a spider, a flamingo (which is over 300 metres long) and other animal figures litter the landscape like a whimsical zoo, no geoglyph being repeated.

With the spiral shape being an ancient symbol for water, a commodity more valuable than gold in this dusty parched environment, claims that the area represents a water ceremony for the gods may make more sense than some of the far-fetched theories espoused by supposed scientists. Whether this large Peruvian pampas was an extraterrestrial landing strip, an advanced astronomical and agricultural calendar, exotic ancient art or something completely different, we are unlikely to ever truly know. Being halfway between the capital, Lima, and the stunning colonial city of Arequipa, it is well worth a stop to view and wonder about these unforgettable desert markings, along with the ingenious aqueduct system and ancient burial grounds in the same area.

Other Peru Posts
Potatoes with your Guinea Pig, Sir?
Exploring the Incan Wonderland (Machu Picchu)
Trekking to the Lost City (Inca Trail)
Flight of the Condor (Colca Canyon)
Living in Reeds (Lake Titicaca)
Top Ten Travel Wonders of South America

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Waterfall Hidden in a Mountain (Trümmelbach Falls, Switzerland)

If one location can summarise the travel wonder of the European Alps and Switzerland, it is Interlaken and the Bernese Oberland. Sandwiched between two sparkling azure lakes, Interlaken stares at the towering giants of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau and the snaking icy river, Aletsch Glacier, which is Europe’s longest. Beautiful days in nature can be spent wandering between the traditional mountain villages and through the scenic verdant valleys.

One excellent journey starts by taking a train from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen and walking around five kilometers along a well sign-posted route to Trümmelbach Falls. The crisp fresh air, the amphitheatre of mountains, the tranquil setting and the glorious blooming wildflowers all brighten the steps and quicken the stride. Glorious waterfalls tumble down niches in the rock walls, none more impressive than the 300 metres Staubbach Falls that seemingly tumbles into Lauterbrunnen itself and gives it its name of Valley of Loud Waters.

In under an hour, the path crosses a small bridge with a raging torrent of water (turns out to be the bottom of Trümmelbach Falls) and an elevator which shoots to the top of the falls. Step out and meet a wall of deafening noise. Trümmelbach Falls gushes and carves its way down a tortured path of twists and turns having gouged its tumultuous journey over many thousands of years. Tiny lookouts onto the gushing water litter the path, the freezing spray stinging the face as small droplets strike unguarded skin. Subtle lighting along the narrow damp pathway and natural shafts of light from crevices in the rock sets an eerie scene with a background of the constant ear-piercing drumming of columns of milky glacial foaming water pounding into rock. Indeed, this waterfall is far more heard than seen.

A tri-lingual sign at the bottom summarises the crescendo of sound in numbers:

"Ten glacier-waterfalls inside the mountain made accessible by tunnel-lift and illuminated. The Trümmelbach alone drains the mighty glacier defiles of Eiger (3970m), Monk (4099m) and Jungfrau (4158m) and carries 20,200 tons of boulder detritus per year. Its drainage area is 24 sq km, half of it covered by snow and glaciers. Up to 20,000 litres of water per second. The only glacier-waterfalls in Europe inside the mountain and still accessible."

It is certainly worth a short journey through this mountain hideaway waterfall as a break from the visual feast of stupendous Swiss mountain and verdant valley beauty. The intensity of the sound from the huge volumes of water escaping the narrow rocky passage test the hearing but leave an incredible impression of the outrageous power of nature and time.

Photo Source: map, mountains

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Photo of the Week - A Window to China (Sydney, Australia)

The Chinese Garden of Friendship in Darling Harbour near the centre of the bustling city of Sydney was given to Sydney in 1988 as a gift for Australia's bicentennial. It is a tranquil, restful place with beautiful lakes holding reflections of various Chinese temples and weeping trees. There are many points of symbolism as characterises a typical Chinese garden.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lake of Stars (Cape Maclear, Malawi) - Part Two

See Lake Malawi for part one of this story.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of this area is a day trip to one of several rocky islands off Cape Maclear. Guided by young locals, small fishing canoes ferry visitors to a nearby island. On the way, our small group stopped at an island with giant monitor lizards distinctly annoyed at having been disturbed from their basking slumber. With huge heads that look like they could bite your foot off in one chomp, the canoes soon made their way to a more peaceful sandy beach.

While snorkelling among the colourful sealife, the local lads (with biblical names of Moses and Isaac) fried some superbly fresh fish over an open fire, along with rice, a spicy tomato sauce and a sticky maize with a consistency more suited to filling cracks in walls. Laid out on the beach, it is simply a matter of scooping up some of the sticky maize and rice in your fingers with a chunk of fish and the zesty sauce and popping it into your mouth. It is difficult to imagine a better setting than a deserted beach on a sunny day eating fresh fish while surrounded by glistening waters. Scratching the putty-like maize from our fingers bought the mbuna rushing to the waters edge.

Moses showed a clever trick where he could take this putty, splash his hand in the water and catch one of the brightly coloured mbuna. Naturally enough, it was a well-developed skill and despite a fair effort, none of the visitors managed a single catch.

Heading back towards Point Otter and Cape Maclear, the canoe slowed. Isaac let out a piercing whistle and tossed a chunk of fish over the side. One of two African Fish Eagles (both with names) swept from a nearby tree and in one fluent motion, carefully plucked the fish from the lake’s surface as it just started to sink. This was repeated a few times as the group tried to snap photos precariously rocking the canoe.

Eager cormorants sat on anchored fishing boats, eyes peeled for any morsels missed by the fish eagles, but looking generally fearful of getting too close to the eagle's domain.

Lake Malawi is a beautiful and restful lake offering a chance to escape the efforts of African travel for a few days. Whether keen to canoe, kayak, dive, walk and snorkel or simply read a book on the palm-fringed beaches, the Lake of Stars is likely to leave an impression on you long after you have left its sandy shores.

Other African Posts
The Great Congo River Journey (Congo)
Real Africa? (Central African Republic)
Living on Stilts (Benin)
African Top Ten Travel Wonders

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lake of Stars (Cape Maclear, Malawi) - Part One

More than any country on Earth, Malawi’s character is predominantly defined by its major travel wonder, a large freshwater lake that runs almost the entire length (over 500 kilometres) of its eastern border and represents around 20 percent of its total area. The lake is extremely deep, sitting in a rift in the continental shelf.

Nicknamed the Lake of Stars, this majestic lake sets a photogenic scene. Sparkling in the bright sunny days, the sandy, palm-fringed beaches, towering baobab trees and small African villages of grass and mud huts contrast on a background of Mozambique’s mountains. Long tables of small fish bake dry in the sun outside the huts.

Most backpackers head for the southern end of the lake and Cape Maclear. With regular matola (trucks or vans with open backs piled high with up to fifteen or twenty people, the occasional chicken and bags of belongings) plying the route along a rough dirt tract, the cape is an idyllic beach location. With the hostels integrated into the local village and some places managed by Malawians, Cape Maclear has a more comfortable feeling of supporting and working with the local population.

UNESCO-listed, this area of the lake is a National Marine Park. Walking a short way around to a rocky outcrop called Otter Point, the water is teeming with mbuna. Snorkelling reveals a dazzling display of blues, yellows and oranges as hundreds of these friendly small cichlids swarm, nibbling bread from your hand. Relaxing on the shore, otters can be seen floating on their back feasting on their quarry of shellfish.

The mbuna are a freaky fish. Attracted to the brightest coloured male, the female lays her eggs and stores them in her mouth. On the male releasing his sperm, the female swoops through the water fertilising her eggs. The eggs stay in her mouth even after birth when the small fish stay inside this protective environment till large enough to fend for themselves.

In this anniversary year of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the mbuna are also a lesson in evolution. Scientists have found that in different parts of the lake, the fish have evolved to suit their eating. Some have sharpened angular teeth to scrape algae off rocks while others have flat mouths to filter small marine life from the sandy lake bottom. Various others have adapted for their chosen diet of snails, fish or water plants, each with suitably evolved mouths and teeth.

The sunrises and sunsets in this area are quite spectacular. Avoiding the heat of the day, sunset is a time of high activity. Local fishermen in dugout canoes cast nets while the women wash clothes and children at the water’s edge.

Lake of Stars continues.

Other African Posts
Real Africa? (Central African Republic)
The Great Congo River Journey (Congo)
Living on Stilts (Benin)
A Real Voodoo Experience (Benin)
African Top Ten Travel Wonders

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Photo of the Week - Busy Shopping (Congo)

A small town in East Congo, not a long way away from Goma and the mountain gorillas, bustles with lively activity in the food markets. Though taken over a decade ago, I still enjoy the contrast of the colourful women's outfits and vibe of the market with the drab grey exteriors of the sad surrounding buildings and their corrugated iron roofs.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bad Karma? (Hong Kong)

I rolled over trying to work out where the alarm was. I'd only got into Hong Kong late the night before so what moron had set the alarm for 5:30 in the morning? Startled from my deep slumber, I suddenly realised it wasn't the alarm but a phone. I flapped about the table in the semi-dark slowly coming into mild consciousness and finally answering this obtrusive device. I scrambled open a curtain to allow a sliver of light to escape into my room.

It was home and it was bad news. It normally is at that time of the morning. I decided there was little I could do about it right at that moment and thought I'd go back to sleep. Sure enough I couldn't sleep, my mind going a million miles an hour. My eyes flashed around the room to get my bearings when I stared transfixed at a small goldfish bowl in the centre of the decorative table - the only room furnishing in the tiny room apart from two rickety wooden chairs. The sole goldfish lay upside-down floating on the surface.

This must be bad karma. And bad things happen in threes...

I decided to get up and go in search of food. Compared with the bustle of the night before, Hong Kong is surprisingly serene at this early hour. The weak sunlight paints the harbour in a dull yellowish glow as it tries to penetrate the heavy haze. I stagger into a small cafe and grab some food and a steaming black tea. I have never trusted the coffee in Asian countries and their tea is always excellent. Both the breakfast and hot drink are surprisingly refreshing and I head back to my room a little better in spirit, ready to face the day. I still have to handle the issue back home but the body feels much better than its shock awakening an hour and a half earlier.

I fidgeted for my room key to find the door ajar to the sound of vacuuming. I stepped in to the fully lit room, curtains drawn open with the bed made. To my surprise, I discovered that Bubbles had miraculously revived, swimming contentedly around his bowl and circumnavigating the single black rock and sad wilted water plant. Do goldfish really sleep and was Bubbles simply resting?

The cleaner whispered to have a good day as she rolled her trolley out the door. And the truth stood before me. Among the little bars of soap and mini-shampoo bottles was a large bowl with two dozen or more of Bubble's relations gliding around. A plain over-sized white ashtray sat next to the bowl with not one but two dead goldfish. They were planning for a goldfish pandemic.

Along with the bed-making and cleaning, it seems that goldfish replacement is part of the standard service at this hotel.

Bad karma or clinical indifference? During the day I couldn't get the goldfish out of my mind. It gave me an eerie feeling. The third bad thing never did occur that day but I have never faced the discomfort of a goldfish in a hotel room ever again.

Do you have your own story of animals and hotel rooms?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Chianti Classico (Tuscany, Italy)

The word Chianti evokes images of tasty light red wines served from strange squat bottles wrapped in straw, marked with the telltale black rooster emblem on its neck. Though most actually come in conventional bottles, these wines are produced among stunning rolling hills in an area between the two pillar cities of Tuscany - Florence and Siena. One of the truly great Italian experiences is spending a few days driving or walking through the Chianti countryside with its quilt of hillside vineyards, olive groves and small forests on a backdrop of ancient churches, medieval walled towns, elegant villas, stone farmhouses and historic Florentine castles - almost unchanged from the superb Renaissance images of centuries ago.

Tuscany is a great place to open the wallet. Blessed with some of the finest hotels in Italy, the region offers opportunities to enjoy beautiful accommodation and sumptuous dining in picturesque surroundings on the grounds of working vineyards and olive farms.

Each of the four main Chianti towns (Greve, Castellina, Radda and Gaoile) have their own charm but the central Radda has best preserved its original character. While a car makes visiting the various small towns and villages much easier than the limited public transport, one highlight is a loop walk of around twelve kilometers between Radda and Gaoile (get a map to assist) through a number of enchanting Chianti villages and wineries.

From Radda, walk past a number of villages dotted on the rolling hills to the idyllic fortified hillside hamlet of Vertine. Walking under the entry arch (top photo) as inhabitants have done for almost ten centuries and past the stone keep and bell tower, the walled village of around thirty houses lining a circular street seems unchanged from the middle ages. There is an austere harmony about Vertine with its roughened wall exteriors built of stones that alternate from white to deep orange-brown. A small bar near the arch offers tasty Tuscan treats washed down with a glass (or two) of wine produced from the vineyards which radiate down the gentle slopes from this charming medieval village.

A little further on is the historic village of Spaltenna with its fortified pieve (rural church) and monastery, built in 1030, and now a hotel and restaurant. Nearby Gaoile is Chianti’s market town with a piazza of restaurants, cafes and wine shops and a good place for lunch.

Returning to Radda, the honey-coloured village of Volpaia is a highlight. Within its ancient walls, the castle was converted into a premium winery and olive press around forty years ago. This village slowly unveils itself as you wander the narrow curved cobblestone laneways, past an unusual eight-sided well and a church, now converted to a cellar. The wine tasting is quite a show including a memorable red with the lyrical name of Balifico.

Wander back to Radda and reflect on a wonderful outdoors day strolling in the Chianti countryside, uncovering historic hamlets while feasting on the centuries old delights of Tuscan food and wine. The travel wonders of Chianti epitomise the Tuscany region and there is no better way to fully sense and experience it than to spend a relaxed day strolling the gentle slopes of this historic region.

Things To Do on raveable

Friday, May 1, 2009

Photo of the Week - Mahatma Gandhi's Memorial (Delhi, India)

In a beautiful verdant park on a river in Delhi, a simple, elegant platform of black marble, adorned with floral wreaths and lit with a single lantern marks the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation of India. The simple words "O God" in Hindi mark the bottom of the platform at Raj Ghat (as the site is called), believed to be Gandhi's last words on being shot. Even today, visiting Raj Ghat brings a harmonious feeling of peace and tranquility and is in sharp contrast to the bustling pandemonium which characterises much of the remarkable Indian capital city of Delhi.

Today, the International Day of Non-Violence is celebrated on his birthday of 2 October every year and marks a public holiday in India. His peaceful approach to mass people-driven civil disobedience has set the standard for civil rights movements around the world.

In the same area, there are memorials marking the ashes of five Indian prime ministers and several other notable Indian politicians.

Other India Posts
It's All in the Stars (Jantar Mantar, Jaipur)
A Royal Facade (Palace of the Winds, Jaipur)
A Monument to Love (Taj Mahal)
From Dead Duck to Bird Heaven (Bharatpur)

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