Friday, November 30, 2012

#902 Boracay, Philippines

Idyllic, beautiful Boracay, the pride of Philippine beaches for decades, and a truly well-deserved reputation for spectacular gorgeousness! It's an island in the Visayas, and not so easy to get to considering the nearest airport is a banca boat and van/bus ride away. But of course, it's been years since I went and am sure the infrastructure is improved since 2001! What more to say about a picture-perfect, motorbikable, wanderable island in the warm Pacific Ocean with diving and snorkelling and suntanning?

Apologies, once again, for the poor quality scans of film photos. All you have to do is close your eyes and imagine crisp white sand beaches, turquoise oceans and tranquility and you're there, anyway.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

#903 Gold Souq, Dubai, UAE

I never really knew what rich was until I visited the Gold Souq in Dubai. It was a sweltering mid-July day when if you're wearing glasses and you try and go from inside to outside, they immediately fog up because of the humidity. It is so sweaty that being outside for any length of time is draining. The gold souq was empty, but the gleaming windows were free of onlookers so we could gawp all we wanted! Wow -- so much yellow (the preferred variety in this part of the world as purity is more important than durability). So big! So much! It's not much more than a block or two, but it feels like the concentration of shops and jewelry makes up for its small size. I could wander and find a favorite design or simply marvel at the styles. Some are ugly and others elegant. Some can clearly only be afforded by a rich oil baron, but almost all is intended to be part of a dowry. An amazing cultural exchange!

Monday, November 26, 2012

#904 Musandam Peninsula, Oman

Very few people, if they know where Oman is, know about the enclave of Oman at the northern tip of Arabia, jutting into the straits of Hormuz. The most common visitors tend to be from the United Arab Emirates, as it is much closer than the main cities of Oman proper. Forming the land barrier between the Indian Ocean and the Arabian/Persian Gulf, the geology is similar to that of Oman on the other side, and is an ancient rock formation of spectacular arrangement. With barely one sealed road, and many off-road 4WD excursions available, it is a place to go with your own car. 

The main town on the western (and more developed side) is Khasab, but really, it is a one-service station town, with only a handful of hotels and even fewer restaurants. It is the setting off point for cruises into the isolated bays of Musandam, where you can find Telegraph Island, where poor souls were stationed for months on end to man the British telegraph station that was connecting continents here.

Because most of the peninsula is made up of small primitive villages, little has changed in the past millenia. Rock art can be seen in many villages, and the animal life is great -- many egrets and other birds nestle on the sea-side rocks, while dolphins frolic through the bays jumping over the wake of the relatively few boats that visit. Most boats are in the image of the ancient dhows that have plied the water routes across the gulf for centuries - a lovely day out!

Friday, November 23, 2012

#905 Stonehenge, England

File:Stonehenge2007 07 30.jpgOne of the most beautifully preserved relics from the Stone Age is that of Stonehenge -- large solid beautifully shaped rocks remain standing and with the tops of arches also being used. Unfortunately this also makes it a crazy tourist trap for every visitor. I always think of it as being the "first" UNESCO world heritage site, even if that isn't true it certainly embodies the soul of the idea.
My own photos of Stonehenge are film and are completely buried deep in my parents garage, so not much chance of seeing them any time soon, but these are from Wikipedia -- isn't the fish eye amazing? Most visitors don't get that image.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

#906 West Coast Glaciers (Te Wahipounamu), New Zealand

Fox Glacier ice cave
River emerging from Fox Glacier
People are often quite astonished to discover that New Zealand has growing glaciers -- it perhaps does not seem cold enough, but the Southern Alps provide a perfect environment for the mountain glaciers to feed the coastal ice flows that end in the rain forest not far from the ocean's edge.
Fox Glacier -- rainforest surrounding it
Very accessible in around an hour's walk from the main road, but surrounded by spectacular high peaks, they are a magical other-worldly place to visit. Like most other place's on New Zealand's West Coast South Island, there are minimal people living anywhere closeby allowing it to remain untouched and wild.
Franz Josef Glacier


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

#907 Gobustan, Azerbaijan

About an hour south of Baku, off a rugged, simple highway, on a nondescript hill are a series of fabulous natural phenomenon: mud volcanoes. In an area famous for being the first place of oil, Azerbaijan many minerals and gases close to the earth's surface, and one would think that this one is important enough for the government to regulate and monitor, but it remains un-signposted with no road access, found only by 4WDs who've received vague tips to turn after the stone house, before the big rock, and between the small rise of a nearby settlement.

The mud volcanoes are cold, and spout frequently, with others bubbling away at a regular pace. You can put your hand (or body parts) into the mud, but there's nowhere remotely close enough to wash off!

Further north are a treasure that the Azerbaijan government do value enough to regulate: Petroglyphs. Amazing rock drawings including a series of women in dresses, an unusual boat that has been likened to ancient Mediterranean cultures (suggesting a water passage connecting it and the Caspian sea that no longer exists), many animals and other people and shapes. They are up on a hill among many rocks and boulders and there is a small, poorly maintained museum.
 The last stretch when heading back into Baku has to be one of the ugliest oil rig areas in the world, where nodding donkeys, rigs and pools of oil vy for the ugliest item in a panorama of ugly items.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

#908 Colombian Rio Amazonas, Colombia

The Colombian stretch of the Amazon is tiny... probably not much more than 50km, but because it's the only part, it is well developed and easy to visit. While in reality you might actually pop over to the Peruvian side, and maybe you'll go shopping for chocolate (or in my case, Havianas) in Tabatinga in Brazil, the Colombian Amazon is beautiful.
All sorts of amazing animals to see -- while I never got to see the massive pirarucu fish, I ate it often and the scales are for sale in various forms of jewelry and ornamentation across Leticia. Piranas and other fish that swim up inside you are not really in this part of the Amazon, but alligators and anacondas swim the waters and can best be found at night. We took a small wooden canoe to "hunt" them -- finding alligators from their reflective eyes using our torch lights. Anacondas eyes shine back red, and I only saw them from afar, constantly remembering the Hollywood movie and feeling excited even though they are afraid of humans for the most part. The birds are absolutely amazing! Whereas I saw tourists excited about a toucan 20m away in Guatemala, in this part of the Amazon, toucans are friendly and hang out at jungle lodges, causing mischief as they squawk down from you while sitting on the loo! Other friendly green parrots chirp and chat, but it took me a while to get a response until I realised they only speak Spanish. "Hola!" The fascinating capybara is a small rodent and there are also monkeys, turkeys, toads, and of course, hundreds of spiders. I can still remember thinking that a divet in a tree was a perfect place to hang my hammock from, but when I went to shine a torch inside I discovered it was home to a large tarantula! When we saw some beautifully colored parrots on one of the lodges, I had an interesting conversation with a Colombian about which one was more beautiful. She said the red, which I think of as a typical parrot color, whereas I thought the blue one was nicer, and she said that was the typical color for them! There were lots of butterflies and moths, and even a terrapin sunning itself on a log. You can see another Amazon trend in the picture below -- the fruit of the huito is turned into a blue body paint!
Another animal that's common in the Amazon is the dolphin. There are two kinds, pink and grey, and where they swim, you know it is safe to swim because they chase away other predators.

Sleeping in the jungle in a hammock is a magical experience: sitting in the pure dark with the odd monkey call, and waking up the the music of the birds. Getting it set up is another deal entirely. The mosquito net and the rain tarp make for a complicated setup, but I felt as safe as could be, and only sighed over the annoyance of having to get out of it to pee in the middle of the night... shaking those gumboots out in case of critters in the dark!!

As my students like to say, when you first see Leticia, it is a tiny village, but upon emerging from the jungle it is the height of civilization! The docks are on ferries to counter the seasonal flood and ebb of the river

As for the villages dotted along the river, I've had the privilege of visiting three of them. Puerto Narino, to the western-most extent of the Colombian Amazon, on a little side river, is developed, groomed and charming, with little concrete paths and wooden huts. Following a boardwalk and then ending up on a jungle path leads you to Valencia, and further along back towards Leticia is Macedonia. 

Downtown Puerto Narino
The boardwalk just outside of Puerto Narino.
The viewing and water tower in Puerto Narino.
The view from Puerto Narino tower.
In general, the Amazon is mystical, primitive, simple, down-to-earth where nature is at its closest to human civilization. Medicine from the jungle, la selva is still used, and most people are actually afraid of the water. To build the airport in Leiticia, there are stories of having to bring all the concrete and stones in from Brazil because the earth by itself is too soft, but this is hard to imagine when seeing all the concrete roads in Leiticia. With its amazing sunsets, abundant bird life, multiple new animals, and peaceful vibe, it is a privilege to have visited.