Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Volunteer Wildlife Conservation (Tanzania)

Sam Lloyd reports from the Kilembero Valley in Tanzania, where he is working for Frontier, a UK based NGO, on a conservation project that is working with the local community to protect the vital Ruipa Corridor. The resurrection of wildlife corridors is a favourite conservation issue of mine and Frontier are doing great work in this area.

Between the gargantuan Selous game reserve and the mighty Udzungwa mountains nestles the Kilombero valley. This rich tapestry of wetlands and forests once linked these two game reserves, allowing elephants, buffalo and other great beasts to pass between them. Today however the area is greatly degraded. The steady drip of deforestation has turned to a raging torrent as large numbers of immigrants have moved to the area and cleared land for great herds of cattle. There remains one dwindling hope that the two reserves can remain connected, a strip of remaining forest called the Ruipa Corridor. This potential link is currently all but vanished with a well used road blocking the way and farms encroaching on it from all directions. It would be a blow to conservation if these two reserves were to be cut off from each other, limiting genetic flow between their animal inhabitants.

In a project funded by DEFRA, progress has been made to halting the destruction of this crucial natural highway, bringing together four villages in the most vulnerable area to form land management plans. These plans would crystallize an agreement between the villagers to conserve the remaining fragments, preventing them from being illegally sold or destroyed. The project has already managed to ignite the enthusiasm of the local people; at one recent meeting two hundred people turned up, many cycling four hours each way just to hear about the project. All that the plans require is for the area to be mapped so that they can be made based upon accurate land use information.

That’s where I and our wildlife conservation volunteers come in. The local people need the resources that the forests supply, from medicines to timber. They collectively own the resources and no conservation project in this area will succeed unless they are happy with their decision to conserve. As a conservation biologist I hope that we will be able to streamline the development of plans, both acting as mediators and giving advice. For example we are going to continue existing work and attempt to identify the most crucial fragments of the corridor to large mammals, meaning that the strongest conservation effort can be concentrated where it is most needed.

It is unsure at this stage whether this once pulsing natural artery will flow again in the future. If we are lucky it will be possible to bring this corridor back from the brink of destruction. If not then at least we hope to safeguard enough significant fragments of the corridor to allow future generations to regenerate the corridor and re-link these two reserves. I sincerely hope that it will be possible to help provide the local people with the tools to help them protect their natural resources as the uncertain future unfolds.

About Frontier
Frontier was established in 1989 as a non-profit conservation and development NGO dedicated to safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystem integrity and building sustainable livelihoods for marginalised communities in the world's poorest countries. You can find all of Frontier’s latest scientific reports by visiting the Publications area of their website.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sydney Turns On the Lights (Australia)

Sydney has just closed the doors on the third Vivid Festival - a wintry celebration of light and sculpture. While a variety of artists contribute some forty works focussed on energy-efficient lighting and sprinkled around the Sydney foreshore and historic Rocks and Circular Quay area, the highlights are the exquisite lighting of some of Sydney's premier buildings.

In FireDance, forty jets of flames leap high in the air in a choreographed incendiary show set to music under the backdrop of the Sydney harbour Bridge.

The Opera House featured an exquisite ever-changing pattern of lights illuminating the famed sails in a mix of bright colours and unusual modern patterns. The French art group, Superbien combined light animation, psychedelic designs and three dimensional projections that seem to combine cartoons, geometric shapes and dazzling colours in a strange collage of light. The effects can be seen in the various photos below (click on each photo for a larger image).

Customs House was the undoubted highlight, choreographing projections onto the colonial building to music with a revolving ten minute sequence featuring tricks of light that made elegant sandstone building crumble, sneeze, bulge, fill with water, liquefy, burn and be splattered in paint (check out a video here that details the show). The alignment of lights with the columns, balconies and intricate features of the building is so precise that the movement of one of the projectors by a distance less than the width of a coin would spoil the image completely.

Enjoy the wonderful shots of the Opera House and a handful of the light sculptures. A sequence of photos of Customs House will come in a few days.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Photo of the Week: North End of South Facing Deer (Banff, Canada)

Two mule deer seem oblivious to the majesty of the Rockies, the shimmering blue of Two Jack Lake (and the camera) just outside Banff in the Canadian Rockies.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sights of the USA – East to West Rail Tours

guest post by Titan HiTours

A vibrant labyrinth of culture and colour, New York is the ideal location to begin the epic adventure of coast-to-coast rail tours. When you’re done shopping along Fifth Avenue and taking a cosmopolitan stroll through Central Park, view the cityscape from the towering heights of the Empire State Building (where Tom Hanks or King Kong may be waiting, depending on your luck). Look out upon the USA’s inspiring symbol of freedom, the Statue of Liberty, and contemplate the journey of discovery to come.

If architectural splendour is your thing then you’ll find plenty of it in the nation’s capital, Washington DC, a living monument to historic and contemporary America. Home to the Senate and the House of Representatives, discover where all the biggest decisions are made and soak up the power with a tour of the Whitehouse. The national monuments are truly spectacular, best viewed at night when illuminated in this beautifully crafted city.

There are equally important decisions being made in the next rail-tour destination, Chicago. Hawaiian or Four seasons? Meatballs or Mozzarella? Find your own version of the best Chicago pizza after working up a hunger in the delightful grounds of Millennium Park (Anish Kapoor's famous bean-shaped sculpture might inspire your appetite) or shopping on the Magnificent Mile.

With a history of gold seekers, outlaws, buffalos and beer brewing the Wild West is very much alive in the next destination, Denver. The final resting place of Buffalo Bill, you can find out more about this colourful character (Express rider, army scout, buffalo hunter and showman), in the dedicated museum atop Lookout Mountain. Enjoy views of the snow capped Rockies in one direction, the Great Plains in the other. For another angle of history, check out the art Museum's unparalleled collection of Western and Native American art and artefacts.

Hollywood is the next stop, where dreams and drama are in plentiful abundance. Once you’ve taken ample pictures of Hollywood’s iconic sign, saunter down the Walk of Fame, where stars on the sidewalk commemorate those who have made a name for themselves in radio, television and movies. Grauman’s Chinese Theatre sits beside the famous footprints in the forecourt, a charming viewing experience from the golden age.

If you’ve ever wanted to be directly confronted by the awesome power and depth of nature then the Grand Canyon, next stop on the rail tour, is the place to do it (although Thelma and Louise style is not advised). An ancient Native American holy site, a geological wonder; the Grand Canyon is an astounding 277 miles of fiery rock and sublime depth exposing almost two billion years of the planet’s history.

Look back on your journey from the suspended beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, a perfect end to the tour. A modern day miracle of man’s ingenuity and architectural achievement, the bridge spans two miles across the waters of San Francisco bay. Joseph B. Strauss’ lifetime masterpiece is among America's most cherished landmarks.

Photo Credits: Statue of Liberty, Buffalo Bill, Golden Gate

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sahara: The Endless Desert (Algeria and Niger)

The inky blackness is only broken by a glittering sea of stars. Meteorites paint short-lived stripes of light across the cosmos. The Milky Way gleams like a celestial highway unsighted in the urban areas of the world. Snuggling into a sleeping bag - yes, it gets cool at night despite reaching well into the fifties (over 120 in the Fahrenheit scale) during the day – there is a strange sensation of a vast emptiness. The eerie silence is suffocating. The air is dead still.

Undoubtedly, one of the most treasured and unique travel experiences is sleeping under the stars in the unworldly endless expanse of the Sahara. Though alert, the nothingness and the silence dulls the senses into sleep.

There are no roads and no people. The path is defined by regular marker posts every few kilometres to ensure that your vehicle doesn’t career off into the wilderness (or is that, even greater wilderness). Apart from vague tracks in the sand, there are no signs of life.

Yet, the Sahara (desert in Arabic) is full of surprises. A lone tree is marked on our map, an ideal spot for lunch and a little escape from the draining rays of the sun.

In many areas, huge windswept dunes, perfectly sculpted by nature, rear from the desert floor (see top photo). They reflect the early morning and evening sun in an artist’s palette of red, gold and ochre, the gentle waves creating a striped landscape. But, the landscape is far more than a giant sandpit. Rocks litter the path while barren mountains, pockmarked and weather beaten by the cruel environment, gives definition and shape to the Sahara.

In the morning, our small party makes tea when two Tuareg people (or maybe Berber?) and their lumbering camel stroll into our group. Wrapped in indigo headwear and near matching robes and undoubtedly aware of us from the night, we must have made for a most incongruous sight. They join us for a quiet warming cup but little conversation takes place, their language completely indecipherable to our ears (certainly not French or Arabic). As mysteriously as they arrived, they walk off into the heat dissolving into the horizon and heat.

The parching sand and rock and the unrelenting sun casts images of shimmering waters afar. I have enough water but what these mirages must have done for travellers past, desperate for water to soothe their dried throats.

The path south through Algeria includes a number of cars, expired in the conditions. Clearly there for some time, the paintwork sandblasted away but the unrelenting dry preserving the car body. What comes of the driver and passengers?

After days, a small settlement and the southern extent of the Sahara comes into sight. A ramshackle stone village with only a handful of people sits uneasily in the Saharan landscape. An old woman stands near the entrance stooped at an awkward angle, her wizened face straining from the effort of sweeping the sand from her tiny one room house. The brush is nearly as worn as the woman wielding it. Her husband sits outside, his body near lifeless and sapped of energy from the years of extracting life from the harsh climate.

Stopping for mint tea, the couple describe the ongoing southern retreat of their village. They estimate that a few more years will see them moving further south, the sand winning a cruel battle for the village as the Sahara marches grimly south. Heart-wrenching stories of hunger and death in sub-Saharan countries like Niger will increase as the Sahara unrelentingly grows south at an estimated rate of around 50 kilometres per year, swallowing once fertile soils with desert.

The Sahara is a difficult journey with complicated and ever-changing visa and travel arrangements. The effort is rewarded with a unique limitless landscape of rock and sand, a nothingness where you continue to see and discover new things. A place that sparks your senses and fills your memories forever.

Note: No photos (by request) were taken of the village. A general photo of desertification courtesy of John Spooner.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Photo of the Week: Juanita, the Inca Ice Maiden (Arequipa, Peru)

In 1995, two scientists stumbled upon a grisly find near the summit of a Peruvian mountain. A young teenage girl had been sacrificed to the Inca Gods some five hundred years ago. Buried by Inca priests and well preserved by the harsh icy conditions, Juanita has helped scientists discover details of this remarkably advanced civilisation.

Juanita, christened the Inca Ice Maiden (or la niña de los hielos), was clubbed to death with a savage single blow to her head. In excellent health and dressed elegantly in an alpaca shawl and fine clothing, Juanita was buried with a treasure trove of bowls, tools and small gold figurines (also on display in the museum).

Juanita now lives in a climate-controlled unit in the Andean Sanctuary Museum and continues to be examined. Through DNA, scientists are trying to discover current relatives.

Along with the stunning city of Machu Picchu, the secrets of the Inca people continue to be unveiled though I can only feel that only a snippet of the whole story is really yet known.

Note: National Geographic details much of the discovery and autopsy here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Exploring Johannesburg (South Africa)

guest post by Amy Baker

Mention Johannesburg and often people will dismiss it as being a place famous for the danger you are sure to face should you choose to go there. The reality is very different. Johannesburg is a city rich in fascinating history and culture and as the major gateway to Kruger National Park, not to mention the rest of South Africa, Johannesburg is well worthy of some exploration.

A population of 3.2 million citizens makes Johannesburg the largest city in the country. Interestingly it is the largest city in the world not to be situated on a lake, river or coastline and is a result of the gold mining industry which earned it the nickname ‘Egoli’ or ‘Place of Gold’. Gold mining is still the major trade in the city and you will see reminders of this dotted all around.

Due to such a mix of cultures, a wander around the city can reward you with sights of brand-new skyscrapers nestled next to impressive 19th century buildings. One minute you might be exploring an Indian bazaar and the next you could find yourself haggling over produce in an African multi-shop. In addition to this Johannesburg hotels and restaurants are some of the best you will experience in South Africa.

As a tourist, it is important to gain an understanding of the culture and history of a country and to get a true grasp on Apartheid, a visit to the Soweto Township comes highly recommended. You can tour around the area on foot, by car or by bike. Soweto is the all-black area most famous for the Soweto Uprising of 1976 which saw close to 200 people killed as they protested against Afrikaans becoming the major language spoken in black schools. There is an insightful and thought-provoking museum, along with a moving memorial (photo) named after one of the child casualties, Hector Pieterson.

Nelson Mandela was a resident of Soweto and visitors have the opportunity to visit his modest, old house (photo) which has since been made into a museum. Another museum worth a visit is the Apartheid museum which offers another way to learn more about the country that you are holidaying in before you venture further afield. The Old Fort Prison was once home to Mahatma Gandhi and Mandela and you can walk in their shoes on one of the tours held daily.

To gain a sense of Johannesburg’s sprawling CBD and the suburbs and shanty towns beyond, take a ride to the top of the Carlton Centre, the tallest building in Africa. The observation deck sits at 731ft high and provides an excellent perspective of the city.

The drive from Johannesburg to Kruger is an adventure in itself and during the three hour journey you will pass through the dense city, through the urban sprawl and out into the well tended farmland and vast landscape that will accompany you all the way to the National Park and, hopefully, your unforgettable encounters with The Big Five and their friends. For more information, head to My Destination Johannesburg.

Photo Credits: city view, elephant, gold mine, Pieterson memorial, Mandela house, Carlton Center view

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Wartburg Castle: A Thousand Years of German History (Eisenach, Germany)

The unrelenting climb up the forested slopes outside Eisenach (whether by foot, donkey or shuttlebus) past the towering plain walls highlights the imposing location of Wartburg Castle. Shaped like a cigar (click layout to enlarge) with one narrow gated entrance and with such natural defences, Wartburg Castle has played a significant role in German history and is a powerful symbol of the Reformation. Almost a thousand years old, the castle is a pot-pourri of building styles and architecture and has played witness to some of the most significant aspects of German history.

A tour of the castle focuses on the historic Palace (or Palas), built in the 1100s. On the ground floor are the cavernous Knight’s Hall and Dining Room along with the unusual Elizabeth’s Bower. The room was encrusted with glistening mosaics last century in memory of Saint Elizabeth who in a remarkable but short life married Wartburg’s owner in the early 1200s, donated to the poor her entire life, reputed had bread taken from the castle for the poor miraculously turn to roses, died at age 24 and was canonised by the church only four years later. An entire passage way details her life in a sequence of murals.

The first floor includes the chapel and the Hall of Minstrels where a famous singing competition (a kind of 13th century American Idol) were conducted resulting in a Wagner opera (Tannhäuser) centuries later and a beautifully painted room with excerpts from medieval. Six of the finest voices competed, with the poorest effort to be punishable by death (which would focus the practice sessions to say the least!!). The top floor is a grand festival hall that continues to be used and which leads to an excellent museum.

The highlight of Wartburg is undoubtedly the Bailiff’s Lodge and Luther’s Room. It includes a modest wood-panelled room where Martin Luther in 1521, excommunicated from the Church (after nailing his demands to a Wittenberg church), hid as the Knight George or Junker Jörg (as the portrait behind the desk shows) and translated the bible into German (in a frenzied ten weeks). Sadly the furniture isn’t original but it is a moving location, and a pilgrimage site to many. Witness and feel how a man in disguise changed German and Christian history and culture, a change that continues to affect the world today.

Luther bought commonality to the German language, a new branch to Christianity (Lutherians) improved methods in translation and bought the words of the most powerful book in Christendom to the common people. Two centuries later Goethe, the father of German language, worked at Wartburg bringing a more modern Bible translation.

In 1817 as detailed by a beautiful woodblock painting, Wartburg Castle was the central rallying site for students protesting for German unity (Burschenschaften). Having hidden Luther and having recently defeated Napoleon, Wartburg was an ideal symbol for German nationality and was the source of the black, red and yellow tricolour that became the German flag a century later.

Enjoy the grounds and the various buildings before taking a final walk up the South Tower, which offers a superb view of the tiny township of Eisenach, the castle grounds and the Thuringian Forest. Wartburg Castle is UNESCO World Heritage Listed and one of Germany’s finest travel wonders. View a thousand years of architecture and history where a saint lived her short life, Martin Luther made his dramatic impact on Christianity and students protests led to the eventual unification of Germany.

Note: The Wartburg Castle website gives a good history and tour of the castle.

Note: The woodblock painting is in the public domain. Plan courtesy of CarneyCastle.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Photo of the Week: Half-Timbered Beauty (Schiltach, Germany)

Seemingly lost in medieval times, the central Black Forest town of Schiltach is a jewel of half-timbered houses. The triangular market square has the most impressive samples, some dating back to the early 1600s.

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