Saturday, November 29, 2014

#645 Milford Sound, New Zealand

The most famous view of Milford Sound, shown above, is of the steep-sided Mitre Peak (1962m, and actually five closely grouped peaks) sitting imposingly in the middle of the sound. However, this is only one view -- each direction is afforded spectacular views of snow-capped steep mountains, waterfalls, and deep green tanin-filled waterfall-fed ocean. It's impossible to see the open water of the Tasman Sea around the 16km of curves (and other mountains like the Elephant and the Lion), and the flat, calm waters bely its connection to the rough and windy western coast. 
The town of Milford (population 120) lies on a small area of marshy land at the head of the sound where the Cleddau, Tutoko and Arthur Rivers empty into the sea -- there is nowhere else the town really could be and it is one of the few sounds that has land suitable for a settlement. It includes an airstrip from which frequent scenic flights depart, a cruise terminal and jetty, and an old THC Hotel, but not really much else. Similar to Doubtful Sound (#729), its less famous neighbor, and the other 12 sounds, it is part of the Fjordland National Park and Te Waipounamu, the UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, it is the only sound in the park with road access for tourists.
For years, Milford Sound was only accessible by sea or by foot, until the famous 1.2km Homer Tunnel was opened in 1954 (it was begun in 1935) under the Darran mountain range. Milford is still very inaccessible, with the one road going in that's often snowed under in winter. It's 2 hours (121km) to the nearest town, Te Anau.
The wettest place in New Zealand, snow remains even in summer.
While the Maori have used the MacKinnon Pass (found in 1888 and made part of the Milford Track) to access the sounds to collect pounamu (greenstone) for around 1000 years, and called it Piopiotahi after the place of mourning of the "first" now extinct Piopio bird and the legend of Maui's death trying to win immortality for mankind, it wasn't until John Grono landed in 1812 that it was named Milford Sound after Milford Haven in Wales. Rudyard Kipling apparently called it the 8th wonder of the world!
The Eglinton Flats, along with the Te Anau Downs are the beginning of a road journey into Milford.
The Gleddau River
The landscape right outside the Homer Tunnel - Keas love it here!
The Chasm is halfway between Milford and the Homer Tunnel and gives an idea of the quantity of rainfall and the force of the water carving the valleys (although the sound itself was formed by a glacier during the last ice age.
The river marshes around Milford afford excellent bird watching!
Waiting in line for the single-lane Homer Tunnel on the
Milford Side, while keas pester tourists and land on cars.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

#646 Big Sur, California, USA

Number one on roads to see before you die, I can agree that it is a spectacular drive! This "most adored" of California's highways, took 18 years to build (as part of the Depression Era's New Deal), and most of its residents didn't get electricity until the 1950s. The Spanish bypassed it for being too rugged (they called it "el pais grande del sur" or the big country of the south, and until the road was built in the 1930s, it was one of the most remote parts of California. Aside for the famed 85km stretch of winding Highway 1 - which is NOT a freeway so take time -- there's a castle, sea lions, birds, redwood forests and many beautiful beaches and trails to see and walk.
From the Monterey Peninsula and Carmel in the north to San Simeon in San Luis Obispo County in the south, the road follows the Santa Lucia Mountains as they rise sharply from the sea (Big Sur's Cone Peak is the largest coastal mountain in the contiguous United States at 1571m).
Hearst Castle
The history of the area starts with the Native American Ohlone, Esselen and Salinan tribes, who left few artifacts aside from obsidian and flint arrowheads. The Spaniards sailed past in 1542, but chose to settle further inland where several Catholic Missions can be found. It was part of Mexico after their independence from Spain in 1821, but was ceded to the United States after the Mexican-American War in 1848. The 1862 Homestead Act brought hardy settlers who were granted plots of 160 acres, and many of the region's names date from this era and these families. The Gold Rush era saw the cutting down of many redwoods and the establishment of various landings and camps (as there were no reliable roads), but most of these have disappeared today. In 1894 the SS Los Angeles ran aground near Point Sur light station, but its inaccessibility encouraged politicians to propose a road.
The road was approved in 1919 and construction began with convict labor from San Quentin Prison. The route included 33 bridges (Bixby Bridge is the largest) which became part of the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Originally Route 56 when it was finished in 1937, it was re-designated Highway 1 in 1939.It was the first State Scenic Highway (in 1965) and also holds the title of All American Road. 
Relative isolation in the mid 20th Century brought artists and hippies, from Jack Kerouac to Henry Miller and Hunter S Thompson. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton also filmed The Sandpiper in the area, and bands from the Beach Boys to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers have eulogized the area in songs.
Los Padres National Forest is a unique ecosystem in the middle of the otherwise quite barren area.

The road is sometimes closed due to landslides and the seasonal California fog is a frequent visitor.

The most famous view of Big Sur is this view of Bixby Bridge, built in 1932.

#647 Arab Fund Building, Kuwait

The Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD) is a Kuwait-based finance group established by the Arab League in 1972. Their headquarters are in Kuwait City, and although they aren't a traditional tourist site, by appointment, you can request a tour of the magnificent facilities. 
Built along Arab design principles and incorporating specific decorative elements from across the Arab world, it is peaceful, airy and beautiful. It includes a large central atrium (8 floors high!) with wooden latticed windows leading into meeting rooms and other quiet alcoves. Craftsmanship from many countries was incorporated in the beautiful tile zellij, lush carpets, delicate stained class compositions, and fine wood carving. Enormous intricate chandeliers are hung in all areas and the brass doorknobs impress!