Friday, July 30, 2010

Photo of the Week - The Nile: Lifeblood of Egypt

Even as a child, I recall learning of the huge importance of the Nile flood plain to the ancient Egyptians as their source of crops. Twisting its way through the Sahara Desert, the Nile was the lifeblood of Egypt throughout the ages.

This hazy photo snapped from a plane flying to Luxor shows the sharp contrast between the rich, fertile soils of the Nile and the arid sands of the Egyptian desert. Every square inch of arable land is dedicated to growing food, the housing relegated to the desert sands. I think the photo captures in the sharp contrast of green and yellow, the significance of the Nile as a source of food and transportation and its support of virtually the entire Egyptian population who live within a short distance of this meandering famed river.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Rocks Aroma Festival and Marilyn (Sydney)

Around 5,200 cups, 780 litres of coffee and 680 litres of milk were used to produce a stunning caffeinated mosaic of Marilyn Monroe at the historic Rocks area in Sydney last Sunday. As part of Sydney’s annual Aroma festival, a group of creative artists sculptured a sultry image of Marilyn over around four hours armed only with cups of coffee. The folks have a claim with the Guinness Book of Records of it being the world’s largest coffee mosaic (see it on video).

Over 100,000 Sydneysiders and visitors sampled their way through coffees, teas, chocolates, spices and tasty snacks as the who’s who of warm beverages promoted their various wares. The festival was split into four zones: the Latin quarter showcased the best of Central and South America, Europe highlighted the Italian and Greek passion for coffee, the Oasis adopted Turkey and its exotic culture and the Orient primarily promoted teas, chai and spices among dancing dragons and drummers. Music, dancing and street theatre rang out from all four quarters.

While people are probably still awake from overdosing on caffeine, the Aroma festival is a wonderful celebration of food, coffee, tea and music on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Five Breathtaking Sights in Norway

by Keith Wild

Norway is one of the most captivating, scenic countries in the world. This is a list of five special Norwegian travel wonders.

1. The Northern Lights

When the conditions are just right in Norway, you can witness one of the most spectacular natural phenomenon on earth, the Aurora Borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights. Beautiful ribbons of colored light dance in the skies when the solar wind stream meets the earth's magnetic field, and you can watch them twist and turn like ribbons of living color as they zip overhead towards the North Pole.

Photographing the northern lights requires skill. But if you want to try, get away from the city lights, set up a tripod and patiently wait for the spectacle to unfold. But no mere picture can ever show the true beauty of this eerie and fascinating reminder of the subtle energies that wash across our planet from beyond.

2. Pulpit Rock

Towering over the long narrow Lysefjord is the historic Pulpit rock (Preikestolen), a huge flat topped cliff which juts out of the steep surrounding mountains to offer breath taking views of the sea and lands below. There is a dizzying 400 meter drop from the top of Pulpit Rock, originally know as Hyvlatonnå, to the cold waters of the fjord.

You can reach it either by ferry or car, but be prepared for quite a walk to actually make the summit. The well worn trail is very steep in places, and not recommended in the depth of winter or early spring when the track can get slippery. But if you time it right, your two hour climb will be rewarded with the feeling of standing on top of the world.

3. Ice Hotel Norway

You will never forget a visit to the Ice Hotel on the Alta River at the edge of the Arctic Circle. This incredible fantasy in ice is reconstructed each year and features amazing rooms with fur-lined ice beds. Beautifully crafted chandeliers of ice bathe the hotel in soft colors that reflect through the snow and ice carvings of Norwegian wildlife. The fabulous ice bar is a great place to warm up from the inside, because even the barstools and glasses are made of ice. The crystalline Ice Chapel conducts regular church services.

4. Urnes Stave Church

This UNESCO World Heritage site holds fascinating glimpses of days gone by, with many of the original medieval decorations still in this stave church that was built in the 1100s entirely of wood. The old portal on the north wall displays an interesting carving that continues to baffle historians, who cannot seem to decide it if depicts a Christian icon or is telling the story of a far older Norse legend. The intricate carving is fascinating to contemplate, and stirs up images of the ancient tribes whose skilled craftsman left their legacy carved in this church's timbers.

5. Vigeland Sculpture Park

You will not soon forget a trip to view the incredible sculptures made by Gustav Vigeland located just three kilometers form the center of Oslo. Eighty acres of grounds invite visitors to stroll over the bridge to the main gate, through the wheel of life, past the fountain and on to the Monolith Plateau -- the main attraction of the park. Begun in 1924, it took 3 stone carvers 14 years to fashion the massive granite stone into a monolith displaying 121 intertwining figures that are said to represent man's desire to climb closer to spiritual wisdom.

Photo Credits: Northern Lights, Pulpit Rock, Ice Hotel, Stave Church, Vigeland

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Enduring the Col du Tourmalet (France)

Watching highlights of the Tour de France on television as I write this post, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the greatest endurance test of any sport. For twenty-one days, the finest road cyclists in the world ride the roads of France including the savage slopes of the Alps and Pyrénées. Over 15 million spectators stand by the roadside and on the slopes to watch the cyclists live at some point throughout the tour.

Some years ago, I drove up a couple of the famed cycle passes of the Pyrénées (not during the race!!) and couldn’t help but be amazed by the steepness and narrowness of the roads even in a car. The most celebrated is the Col du Tourmalet, the highest road in the Pyrénées, where the cyclist climbs and winds his way through multiple hairpin turns over 1500 metres in a distance of around 20 kilometres. It is cycling at its most gruelling and is often where the race is won or lost.

Names of favoured cyclist are painted across the roads while superb mountain vistas and verdant farmlands spill from the road’s edge while amateur cyclist struggle their way up this mighty climb throughout the warmer months.

At the top, there was quite a gathering of cyclists (more than there are cars), primarily from France but some holidaying from other countries. I spoke briefly with a man from the nearby town of Pau who was in his sixties. Appearing decades younger in the sleekest and most colourful of cycling outfits, this diminutive Frenchman tells me that he has climbed this pass (along with other Pyrénéan passes) every year since he was sixteen – almost fifty years of cycling. He appeared fresh and relaxed and quietly proud of his achievement, even with his understated, dismissive way of discussing it. It is likely that he’d be now in his seventies and I wouldn’t mind betting that he’s continued to maintain his annual Pyrénées pilgrimage.

Ironically, we chatted under the silvery monument to Octave Lapize, the rider up the first Tour de France climb of this mountain peak in 1910. The thought of riding this slope as a dirt track with a heavy steel, primitive, ungeared bicycle adds more to this achievement exactly 100 years ago.

The Pyrénées are one of the wonders of the world with their rich culture, glorious vistas and timeless villages. Every year in July, the strength, colour and bravery of the world’s cyclists bring the Pyrénéan mountain tops to life in the Tour de France.

Note: For a second great Pyrénées travel wonder, check out the Little Yellow Train.

Photo Credit: Tour de France

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Natural Jacuzzi (Saturnia, Italy)

In the south of Tuscany, a couple of kilometres south-east of its ancient namesake hillside village and west of the stunning Pitigliano are the remarkable hot springs of Saturnia. With the haphazard parking of cars and vans, a steady stream of half-naked people strolling along a dirt track and the less-than-subtle scent of sulphur wafting in the air, the Saturnia Cascades gushes warmed water from the Earth which settles into a series of small rock pools.

Gracelessly slithering down a natural stair to enter the hallowed waters, people step into the mineral-rich vivid turquoise bath. Even with a fair crowd of people chatting animatedly, the Saturnia hot springs are remarkably relaxing and a wonderful afternoon tonic to Tuscan adventures. Settling nearer the small waterfall offers a robust massage while sitting in one of the natural pools up to your neck is like bathing in champagne, the effervescence of tiny bubbles tingling the entire body.

With no change rooms, limited signage and a lone van selling ice-creams and cool drinks, this is as uncommercialised as can be. Lean back and enjoy the warming spa waters of this offbeat wonder of the world in much the same way as historic documents show that the Etruscans, Romans and Italians have done for over two millennia. And maybe like these predecessors, the memories will stay for a day or two as the sulphurous smell lingers despite any efforts to wash it off.

Travel Tips on raveable

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Wooden Wonderland of Nimis (Arild, Sweden)

Like a rustic treasure-hunt or a tale from Middle Earth, enthusiasts track the bright yellow “N” markers painted on trees from the tiny pastel-coloured fishing of Arild. With no official signs and a bit of a scramble down rough rocky stone stairs, this short trek in Sweden’s south-west has a real feeling of adventure. But the prize at the end makes the rough path worthwhile – a chance to explore Sweden’s most infamous sculpture.

Eccentric arts professor, Lars Vilks, constructed a grand driftwood and dry branch structure of towers, pathways and tunnels called Nimis.

Scrambling around this giant wooden playground, people enjoy a bizarre sculpture on a wonderfully peaceful peninsula of verdant green forests, chilly water and natural reserve - in sharp contrast to the decade long court battles and arguments with the Swedish authorities to have the construction torn down. Whatever the official position, crawling and walking around and over the remarkable construction site is entertaining and eye-opening with several groups enjoying picnics on the dark, sandy shores.

The highlight is a climb up the fifteen metre Tower of the Winds (one of several climbable towers), an impressive freestanding tower on the water’s edge. While feeling a little rickety, many make there way up this main tower while others look nervously below.

Some years alter, Vilks added a second sculpture. This time Vilks built a concrete and rock based artwork called Arx, which is supposedly a stone book (each page being part of the overall monument) but it doesn’t share the same fascination as Nimis. Page numbers litter the dissolving sandcastle-like structure with the tome weighing in at a hefty 352 pages but the reader needs to move to access each “page”.

Going to absurd levels to protect his artwork and to fight for the sculptures’ very existence, Vilks created and declared the micronation of Ladonia with a flag, motto and a shopping list of strange ministries (including the Ministries of Deeper Mysteries, Procrastination, Folktales and Postcards). Anyone keen on “citizenship” (there are around 15,000 such folks) can apply for free at the micronation of Ladonia’s website, though obtaining a ministry is chargeable.

Three thousand excited Pakistanis keen to leave their country applied for citizenship of Ladonia and sought its nearest embassy, to find a disappointing result that no-one actually lives in Ladonia.

Returning to Arild, lunch can be a truly Swedish affair with a range of the freshest seafood and seasonal berry drinks from the local fishing co-operative. Try the bright purple, richly flavoured elderberry juice.

There has always been a thought that some of the most eccentric and most tortured souls have produced some of the world’s finest artworks and music. While Vilks and Nimis hardly rate in that category, it is an extraordinary travel wonder that melds into the natural beauty of this tiny Swedish peninsula.

Other Swedish Posts
The Viking Stonehenge (Kåseberga, Sweden)
The Seventeenth Century Titanic (Stockholm, Sweden)

Travel Tips on raveable

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Photo of the Week: Gauri Shankar (Nepal)

As our group sat in our tents, a warming cup of tea trying to fend the biting cold wind, the last vestiges of yellowish sunlight glistens against the giant 7000 metre Gauri Shankar. Small chortens of stones pay respect to this elegant giant that stood guard over our small trekking group for the evening. As the light changed, Guari Shankar changed mood, the dark rock walls and vivid white snow being replaced by a subtle yellow in the evening moon light.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

My Four Wonders of Turkey

guest post by Henri Mikael for

Turkey is a large, culturally rich and historic nation with a wide variety of places to explore and discover. This is my personal list of four favorite locations in Turkey.

Museums of Istanbul

One hardly needs to visit museums while visiting Istanbul as the city itself is a testament to centuries of history with incredible architecture, ancient walls, towers and magnificent palaces. However, Istanbul features a number of excellent museums for those who wish to dig deeper than the surface. The Istanbul Archaeology offers a wealth of historic treasures and is, in fact, three museums in one - including the Museum of Ancient Orient and the Museum of Islamic Arts.


A famous place to say the least, especially after the 2004 box office hit Troy which starred Brad Pitt and Diane Kruger. While most of the film was fictional, surprisingly the Trojan horse did exist, at least according to history. The Trojans used a big wooden horse ‘gift’ to get inside the Greek walls. The same term has entered our modern language with it being the descriptor for a well known computing virus, that relies on creating a ‘back door’ to a PC to give access to hackers.

Aside from Hollywood films and viruses, Troy is magnificent for its old ruins which were dug up in 1868 with the city thought fictional for a few millenniums until discovered by Frank Calvert in 1863. It is certainly worthwhile adding Troy to your list of places to visit while in Turkey. Note that the wooden horse in Troy is just for fun, not the real deal.


Also known as one of the seven wonders of the world and on the location of the Temple of Artemis, Ephesus was an ancient Greek city, with a quarter of a million in population and boasting the status of the second largest city in the world in the first century BC. The Temple of Artemis, however, has been long gone and only ruins remain. Despite this, the ruins of Ephesus are a well known travel wonder and are easily accessed from Adnan Menderes Airport.


Turkey offers so many wonders making it impossible to visit everything the country has to offer. While your Turkey holidays may only be short, it is worthwhile visiting Miniatürk, which offers reproductions of the major constructions and buildings that are spread throughout Turkey. While the buildings aren’t the real thing, it is great for those that don’t want to get in-depth with their history, yet want to enjoy their time in Turkey.

Photo Credits: Trojan Horse, Istanbul Museum, Troy Amphitheatre, Ephesus, Miniaturk

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Father of Australia in Lights (Sydney)

There is an old clichéd travel joke that encapsulates Australia’s convict history. It goes something like:

A man approaches the immigration officer at the airport. The officer takes his card and asks “Do you have a criminal record?. A little despondent, the traveller responds “No. I didn’t know you still needed one”.

When Lachlan Macquarie became the colony’s fifth governor in 1810, the fledgling British outpost had more convicts and ex-convicts than free settlers, with more prisoners arriving regularly. Macquarie took dramatic decisions that set about Australia developing as a nation, bringing early prosperity to this distant land and earning him the epithet of “Father of Australia”. Macquarie’s name appears all over Australia as suburbs, towns, waterways, streets, banks, hospitals and rivers.

Completely changing the standards of the day, Macquarie ordained that emancipists (convicts who had completed their sentences or been pardoned) were to be treated as equals and were to be given the full opportunity to contribute to the emerging country. Some were offered high roles with ex-convicts becoming head architect, a judge and poet laureate among others.

Other convicts on suitable completion of a difficult task were pardoned. The road over the restrictive Blue Mountains which blocked Sydney from the wide open farming lands of Australia was built to a high standard in just six months, with the convict construction crew offered free land to farm along with their freedom in exchange. Indeed, Macquarie is credited with Australian’s value of classless society and a fair go.

Impressively, Macquarie built reasonable relations with the (rightly) suspicious native Aboriginals and unfashionably greatly respected and promoted women’s rights. He planned cities for the future, introduced banking and coinage into Australia, and commenced projects to explore the vast lands and construct key buildings for the future. His canny judgement often overrode the English rulers of the day, his being on the ground being more important than the thoughts of his superiors back home.

Today, along the broad Sydney boulevard of Macquarie Street in Sydney that runs from the Opera House to Hyde Park are many of Sydney’s key historic buildings, including the state parliament, state library, mint (no longer functioning), original convict barracks, an early hospital, St Mary’s cathedral (where Macquarie laid the original stone) and botanic gardens.

To celebrate the bicentenary of Macquarie’s governorship, his stewardship over Sydney and Australia's development and his considerable legacy, the Sydney Vivid festival recently highlighted his achievements in lighting and film projected against these remarkable buildings.

While six buildings were lit, the projections onto St Mary’s cathedral and the Conservatorium of Music were simply spectacular. The columns, arches and doorways were accounted for with the lighting needing such precision that altering a projector by the width of a coin would have completely upset the images.

The photos through this article highlight a small number of these remarkable lighting spectacles enjoyed by thousands of Sydneysiders and visitors alike in an exhibition titled Macquarie Visions, all a part of the Vivid Sydney festival. Other events included a concert for dogs and a Bollywood production over water.

While today, it is nearly impossible to imagine the difficulties of settling a new country, over 12,000 kilometres away from the home country, there is little doubt that Australia enjoys the fruits of visionaries like Lachlan Macquarie that built the foundations of the cultural and civil fabric of today's Australian society.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Photo of the Week: Independence Day (Craig, Alaska, USA)

This scanned photo from the 1990s is taken on July 4th in the small rustic timber and fishing town of Craig on Prince of Wales Island in southern Alaska. Three of us stayed there for a night before heading into the scenic Alaskan waterways on a boat that looked like the African Queen. With a population of less than 1500 people, everyone seemed to be involved in celebrations with a long parade of vehicles and various sporting and social groups followed by a wonderful afternoon of food and festivities in the main park.

One striking vehicle was the services truck with Smoky the Bear and an unidentified creature on board. Is this a beetle or an alligator or turtle or what? Anyone got any suggestions?

To my American readers, best wishes for 4th of July and to my Canadian readers, my thoughts for the recent Canada Day (1st July).

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Drinks Around the World: Masala Chai (India)

I have only been to India once but my endearing memory is of the superb and varied masala chais served throughout the country. Whether sold by a jaunty chai wallah (someone who serves or sells tea) at a railway station or sold from a rickety stall, heated on charcoal stoves and poured into a clay cup for a few rupees, the sweetened and strongly spiced brew acts as an uplifting instant refresher. I drank at least one cup every day seeking the wonderful Indian markets for the most rustic examples. The smallest villages had chai wallahs eagerly endorsing their fine products.

While recipes and ingredients vary from maker to maker, the primary ingredients are cardamon seeds, cloves, cinnamon sticks, ginger root, fennel and black peppercorns mixed with black tea in boiling water. Strain the tea and spices, add a generous amount of sugar or honey to bring out the intensity of the spices and add milk to taste. While chais are sold in packaged form in Australia (and probably America and Europe), none capture the delicate spicy sensation brewed in India from scratch.

Mostly, masala chai was served with a flamboyant high lift of the pot, ceremoniously poured into a cup from a distance. Chai captures the essence of India and is an experience not to be missed in this remarkable and culturally varied nation.
At the start of every month, Travel Wonders highlights a characteristic drink experienced on his travel. Previous non-alcoholic Drinks Around the World include Mint Tea from Morocco, Vietnamese slow-drip coffee, Coca Tea from Peru and Austria's herby Almdudler.

Photo Credits: Smoky stall, mixing chai

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