With the world so vast and so diverse, it would seem an impossible task to highlight the most impressive parts of it. How do you judge what is worthy on a list as small as seven mentions? A few key adjectives emerge: unique, large, beautiful, irreplaceable. The 2013 incarnation seems to have ticked all of these boxes, with all of the following attracting admirers in their millions each year. How many have you experienced with your own eyes?
Aurora Borealis – The Northern Lights
The breathtaking lights of the Aurora Borealis are perhaps the most profoundly beautiful sight that the natural world offers us. Giant streaks of green, red, pink and yellow dance across the dark backdrop like a painting in motion. Auroras appear above the magnetic poles in both hemispheres, but viewing the Aurora Australis in the south is difficult. From the north we have ample opportunity to see the sheets, ripples, streamers and arcs of the otherworldly light as it haunts the skies. It makes it no less awe-inspiring to know the lights are generated by gaseous particles in the earth’s atmosphere colliding with electrically charged particles from the sun, blown in by solar winds. Generally, these particles are deflected by the magnetic field that surrounds the earth, but the field weakens at the poles and some of these particles float right through. The resulting aurora soars between 80 and 600 kilometres above earth’s surface. Science has never looked so glorious.
The best launching pads from which to view the lights are very northerly and remote, away from light-polluting cities. The best opportunities to travel to these locations are in the winter months, owing to the extended periods of darkness. Aurora photographers recommend watching out for a period of clear skies, and aiming to be at your viewing destination by midnight. Activity is cyclical, and unfortunately has just peaked in 2013 after eleven years, but this certainly doesn’t mean that the sky won’t still perform for you. The following is a list of some of the premium locations from which to marvel at the lights:
Fairbanks, Alaska, United States of America
- View from: The hot springs of Chena Resort or Manley Springs
- Chena Resort is equipped with an aurora alarm that will alert guests when the aurora is visible
Paatsjoki Bridge, Nellim, Finnish/Russian border
- View from: Nellim Aurora Quest tour (December-March)
- Paatsjoki Bridge has the highest incidence of aurora sightings in the world, and is favoured by prolific aurora photographers, along with Finnish Lapland
Muonio and Kilpisjarvi, Finnish Lapland
- View from: A private cabin, a snowmobile, or a husky-sled
- This is prime aurora-viewing territory, hence the multitude of tour options
- View from: The deck of a steamer ship
- Tromsø is a beautiful and highly accessible location; an Astronomy Voyage tour runs from September through to March, and includes astronomy lectures and a visit to the Northern Lights Planetarium.
For around 17 million years, the Grand Canyon has been carving its way into the Colorado River basin, leaving exposed a strikingly preserved geological layer-cake of ancient rocks that form the canyon walls. This stunning timepiece stretches out across remote Arizona terrain, looking both staggeringly beautiful and quietly menacing to the millions who stand at its rim every year.
Those flying in will travel a further 4.5 hours from Phoenix or 5 hours from Las Vegas, so it’s important to leave adequate time to really appreciate the canyon from multiple angles. First time visitors are likely to head towards the South Rim, where tourists are catered for with guided tours, hotels and amenities. It’s also open year-round, which makes it a good winter location. Peak times are often booked out well in advance, so those planning a trip are best advised to lock in your tours and accommodation with plenty of time to spare. Budget-conscious travellers would be well-advised to consider travelling in the winter months when local hotels offer sizeable discounts.
Sunrise and sunset are the ideal times to experience the grandness of the canyon, and visitors should plan their travel times accordingly. The light changes and intensifies continuously as it creeps across the canyon walls, giving a sense of moving depth and changing dimension, instantly turning every visitor into a worthy photographer. In full light, hiking down one of many trails can enhance your appreciation for the sheer scale of the rock face. Some of the trails are quite a leisurely 30 to 60 minutes down, but the return ascent will easily double that time. The Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge is a five kilometre round trip that offers expansive views for the distance travelled.
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon has a restricted season, but is less populated by tourism and visitor services, making it a better choice for hikers, the able-bodied, and those travelling without children. There is just one hotel in this area (compared with six at the South Rim). For those wanting a more low-key experience all round, Grand Canyon West, which is located on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, has great accessibility to the bottom of the canyon and is open year-round. Since there is no accommodation at this point, visitors will have to travel to Peach Springs or Kingman, both 1.5 hours away, to lodge.
Arizona has more than a single offering, and if you’ve come all that way it’s worth spreading out. Straddling the border between Utah and Arizona sits Lake Powell, an incredibly vast man-made reservoir on the Colorado River. The Glen Canyon was flooded to form this vast recreational area which now attracts three million visitors annually. The clear water juxtaposed against the red rock walls makes for a surreal desert oasis, punctuated by houseboats, tour boats and motor boats over 300 kilometres. This is because there are over 90 major canyons to explore within the lake, and with few roads, a watercraft is really the only way to take it all in. You can also swim, go fishing, scuba diving, water-ski, snorkel and hike, or skip the water altogether and take a scenic flight.
The other main attraction in the vicinity is the Hoover Dam, a giant feat of twentieth-century engineering. The dam, sitting on the Arizona/Nevada border, was constructed in the 1930s over the Colorado River to provide water security and power to the Southwest. Tours of the dam have been operating since 1937, and today attract around a million visitors each year. The Hoover Dam is a dauntingly vast construction containing technology that remains impressive in its sophistication even today. Enormous hydroelectric generators, a power plant, and giant towers with plunging spillways are more reminiscent of science-fiction novels than a desolate patch in the south-west. The only thing that gives away the dam’s age is the art deco styling of the building’s ornamentation.
Paricutin – A Cinder Cone Volcano
In the Mexican state of Michoacán, about 320 kilometres west of Mexico City, sits the Paricutin volcano, the only volcano on Earth whose creation and extinction has been witnessed and studied by humanity. Forming in a cornfield in the town of Paricutin, the volcano erupted for a full nine years from 1943 to 1952. Rising over 400 metres above the lava field on which it now rests, the Paricutin dominates the surrounding landscape of hardened lava and volcanic sand. So violent were the eruptions that nearly a thousand people perished in 1949 alone, after one major burst. Ash from the volcano fell hundreds of kilometres away. Paricutin is just one of hundreds of volcanoes in central and west Mexico, but the only one in the Ring of Fire to be recently active.
Visitors to Paricutin depart from the town of Angahuan with a guide. Guides can be officially engaged through tour bookings, or selected from one of the many informal guides that will happily negotiate a rate after they approach you. You can expect to pay between 300 and 500 pesos per person ($25-$40 AUD), depending on the length of the tour and your negotiating skills.
Most visitors choose a tour that includes the San Juan Parangaricutiro church ruins, abandoned during the Paricutin eruption, but still standing majestic in the forest. Horseback is the preferred mode of transport, and the initial trip to the church ruins from Angahuan is just thirty minutes at a trot. From there, the crater is a further 2.5 hours, and a steep hike to the rim (depending on your level of fitness) can take up to an hour. A full day is required to make the most of this trek, and it is advisable to leave at sunrise in the hottest months. For a minimal cost, you can stay in one of three hotels in Angahuan, and the local food is plentiful and delicious.
“No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” – David Livingstone
Victoria Falls forms the most dramatic border on earth in the form of a giant, falling sheet of water, standing twice as high as Niagara and stretching many times longer. Crashing 108 metres towards the Zambezi River below, the chasm separates Zimbabwe and Zambia and provides visitors with spectacular views of nature at her wildest. The locals call the falls “smoke that thunders”, which is a beautifully succinct description of this natural wonder. Victoria Falls lacks the commercialisation that perhaps cheapens Niagara, so it’s easy to lose your sense of self as you take in the dark poetry of Africa’s most celebrated natural attraction.
The surrounding town is also called Victoria Falls, and lies in the western region of Zimbabwe. Across the border you’ll find Livingstone, named after the famous Scottish adventurer who is believed to be the first European to lay eyes on the falls in 1855. The most important factor to consider for your trip is the best location from which to explore the falls, and this means evaluating the cost and the potential vantage points. Two-thirds of the falls lie on the Zambian side of the border, but tourists often choose to approach from Zimbabwe because of accessibility and better visibility.
The 100-year old footbridge over the Zambezi can be crossed, but you will need to pay for Visa entry each way, at $20-$35 AUD per person. The views from the bridge itself are staggering and worth the time and money. There are, however, many wonderful vantage points along the trail. A waterproof poncho is essential to avoid getting completely drenched by the ambient spray, but trying to stay altogether dry is futile. And in the African summer heat, why would you want to?
Safety is a legitimate concern for foreign visitors of the falls, so tourist police have a heavy presence in and around the town. They can be identified by their bright clothing, and they are helpful and trustworthy. Local safety tips are best given by hotel staff and tourist police in your immediate area, but as long as you use common sense and follow advice, your safety will not be compromised.
The particular experience you have at the falls will depend on the season. The wet season spans from December to March, during which the water volumes will be much higher, and the falls itself heavier and more dramatic. The downside to this is that some of your views will be obscured by the spray. From April to October, when the water volume decreases, you can begin to see the rocky ledges of the falls, but the falling water itself is diminished and less spectacular.
Victoria Falls is best reached by bus or train. The bus travels to the Zambian side of the falls and runs thrice-weekly, and the overnight train from Bulawayo leaves each day and takes you directly to the Victoria Falls township. The 1950s British coaches are charmingly old and in need of maintenance, but offer cheap first class tickets and brilliant scenery.
Downtown offers a range of lodgings for a range of budgets, and each can connect you with a tour operator to arrange walking tours, canoeing, a sunset cruise, or perhaps something more adrenaline-inducing like bungee jumping from the footbridge. There are a full range of culinary options in town, from low-key cafeterias to swanky fine dining. The markets are a great source of fresh produce also, and a fine way to really meet the locals.
The Great Barrier Reef
The title of the largest of our natural wonders is easily held by our own Great Barrier Reef. At 3,000 kilometres long, it’s so vast that it’s visible from space. The delicate and diverse web of coral and reef hugs Queensland’s coast from Bundaberg to beyond the northern tip, and hosts thousands of rare and unique species of sea-life. UNESCO lists the reef as a World Heritage site in recognition of its unrivalled marine conservation value, but this isn’t why visitors from all over the world line up to experience it for themselves. The reef also happens to run parallel to thousands of kilometres of stunning sandy beaches and sun-drenched islands in a band of temperate and tropical climates, making any visit a trip of indulgent relaxation as well as one of discovery.
So, what can one expect to find once they submerge into the reef? How about the largest collection of corals in the world, sea turtles, around 1500 species of tropical fish, rays, dolphins, molluscs, sea reptiles, and giant clams? Nearby in the open waters, humpback whales and dugongs frolic close enough to observe. There is a multitude of different ways to see the reef, and they range from scuba diving to seaplanes and everything in between. Glass-bottom boats, snorkelling, kayaking, and paddle boarding are just some of the offerings. So how do you decide where to start? Well, it depends on the type of accommodations and facilities you want, and the kind of all-around experience you desire. There are some fantastic access points from the more popular locations, but these perhaps aren’t the most remote and pristine sections of the reef that would appeal to serious divers. Local guides and tour operators are there to facilitate your encounter, so contact them early and see what they can offer.
- Go fancy: Sitting snug against the ancient Daintree Rainforest is the beautiful Cape Tribulation, 90 minutes north of Cairns. The reef is a 30 minute boat ride away, and from here visitors can do a full or half-day trip out on the water either snorkelling or diving. The reef here is rich in marine life, with the waters teeming with bright-coloured tropical fish, and turtles paddling by casually. For a quieter experience, you can kayak along the coastline and perhaps indulge in a spot of fishing. Because the forest stretches right out to the coastline, access will be easy, so your marine experience can be complemented with a crocodile-spotting cruise on the Daintree River, and hikes along one of the many boardwalks in the area. Accommodation here tends towards the luxurious, with resorts and eco-lodges in abundance.
- Go fancy-free: Heron Island is a brilliant place from which to explore the reef, and a favourite of divers. This is a laid-back place with few of the luxuries that some of the other islands offer their guests, and that makes it perfect for finding solitude under the water. The fish numbers are higher here, and you’ll feel more connected to your surroundings without bumping into other tourists.
Towering an astounding 8.8 kilometres into Nepal’s airspace is the highest place on Earth, Mount Everest, also referred to as Qomolangma and Sagarmãthã in local languages. Perched in the 25 million-year-old Himalayan Mountain Range that extends into Tibet, this treacherous terrain is freezing cold, dangerous and unpredictable, but somehow still draws explorers and climbers by the thousands. Tourism is the second-largest industry of employment in Nepal after agriculture. It has created revenue and stability in many communities as well as the capital, Kathmandu, and visitors are well catered for.
The mountain itself is not quite what it used to be in the time of Sir Edmund Hillary, when adventurers set out with very little familiarity with their track and ultimately died by the dozens. Now, climbing is highly regulated, very expensive, and for many, simply out of reach. To get above Base Camp, the first established rest area along the conventional trail, a $25,000USD climbing permit must be purchased from the Nepalese government. The Base Camp trek is in no way a disappointment, though, and the hike remains incredibly challenging and incredibly exhilarating. Those less inclined to exertion can opt to see the mountains from the relative safety of a guided flight, and many who are unsure of their physical capabilities choose this view. This is also a way to ensure more photographic opportunities, as additional equipment on the walking trails can be cumbersome, and cameras require protective gear in the extremely cold temperature.
For those planning to ascend beyond Base Camp, the best advice is: start early. Get a full medical check, focussing on your cardiovascular system. Start saving the tens of thousands of dollars required to complete the climb. Become active in mountaineering and survival groups, start with small challenges and raise them incrementally, introduce high-altitude training, communicate with people who have completed the climb, and regularly test yourself in snow, rocky terrain, and up steep rock faces. Gather your required paperwork at least six months prior to your trip and submit the documentation to the Nepalese authorities for approval.
Keep in mind that the best time to visit is the start of the dry season during November and December. February to April is also an acceptable period. Snow is least likely to prohibit a climb during these months, so make plans accordingly. Remember, if you are under-experienced you will likely be deemed a risk by the government and denied a permit. It’s only fair – you are placing your life in very real danger, and that directly affects the safety of your guide and your fellow mountaineers. Think about these odds: over 3000 people reached Everest’s summit, and 219 have died trying. This is no small risk. It is ultimately up to you, however, to monitor your own capabilities and experience, obtain the correct equipment, and hire a Sherpa (a mountain guide) with intimate knowledge of the conditions and terrain you will face.
Harbour of Rio de Janeiro
Along Brazil’s Atlantic coast, the huge, irregular-shaped Serra do Mar mountains meet with the ocean to form the glory that is harbour of Rio de Janeiro. Portuguese explorers first sailed into the area in January 1502 whilst mapping the South American shoreline, and initially mistook the huge, balloon-shaped bay for an enormous river; Rio de Janeiro was thusly named, and literally translates to “January River”. The unique geological formations of the granite and gneiss rock have arisen as ocean waves eroded the latter over millions of years, carving out the sheer cliffs and plunging valleys that distinguish Rio de Janeiro and cement its place as a natural wonder.
A 400-metre tall granite monolith known as Pão de Açúcar (or Sugarloaf Mountain) marks the entrance of the Rio harbour, and, boasting one of the world’s oldest cable-cars, is an attraction in itself. Visitors to the top will be rewarded with 360 degree views over the harbour. 130 islands lie within the bay, some of which are the peaks of underwater mountains. The dominant feature in the landscape is the towering Corcovado mountain, the region’s highest at 700 metres. Corcovado is world-famous for its 40-metre high statue, Christ the Redeemer, shimmering in white robes with arms raised to the side, visible for miles around. The statue was completed in 1931 and remains enormously popular with tourists.
Between the harbour and the city are a number of spectacular beaches, equally popular with locals and tourists, with two in particular obtaining such a remarkable status that they’ve etched their way into popular culture: Copacabana and Ipanema. Both have been the subject of popular English-language songs and are legendary holiday destinations to the stars.
Ipanema is known as the best urban beach in the world, and the summer season invariably sees an influx of tourists arriving for the sun, sports and clean, rough water. The shore will be packed with sunbathers, volleyball players, surfers, and swimmers, and locals happily engage with visitors for some healthy competition.
Copacabana began its days as a small fishing village until the Copacabana Palace Hotel took pride of place on the foreshore. Tourism flourished and wealth flooded in, and soon restaurants, bars, kiosks and tourist stands established themselves close by. The neighbourhood also boasts an old fort which now serves as home to the Army Historical Museum.
Rio de Janeiro is known not just for its natural wonders, but also the culture of celebration. Carnival parades in spring attract hundreds of thousands to the streets, with music, dancing and brilliantly coloured costumes on display. Vendors sell incredible food in the streets and pop-up markets flog their wares to passers-by. Street festivals span across much of the city during this time, with revellers happily partying wherever they can find space.
A World of Wonders
So – how far are you prepared to go to experience the beauty of these natural wonders? Would you plunge into subzero temperatures to catch a glimpse of the northern lights? Catch a steam train in Zimbabwe to get drenched on the footbridge over the Zambezi? Or perhaps traverse the Arizona desert to stand on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim? Or perhaps you have your own wonderful list. Wherever it is your travels lead you, just don’t forget to arrange your travel documents ahead of time, pack carefully for the conditions awaiting you, and invest in a trusty travel insurance policy. Bon voyage!