We haven’t got them all — in fact we barely scratched the surface. But we have picked out a few of the scenes that, if you’re lucky enough to witness them, will invariably leave you spellbound.
Watching the sun rise over the hundreds of stupas and Buddhas before the public descends in droves to disturb the peace is one of the world’s most rarefied experiences.
Guests staying within the village compound are allowed to enter this 9th century monument, hidden beneath volcanic ash for centuries, before opening time.
Black Tomato offers three nights bed and breakfast with private sunrise tour at lavish Amanjiwo, decorated with its own Buddhas and stupas, from US$1,195 per person.
They’re not exotic and in the european case they’re not even that pretty, but when you have thousands of starlings swooping and wheeling like some kind of hypnotic cloud, they become one of the most mesmerizing sights in nature.
See a stunning video of the phenomenon on Vimeo.
These murmurations happen just before the birds roost down for the night, and while starling numbers have crashed in the UK, you can still see up to a million birds coming together in these huge swarms in England’s nature reserves or at certain piers such as Brighton Pier, just an hour’s train journey from London.
The murmurations are most common in winter, November being the best month.
See the RSPB website for details on where and when to see
This astronomical phenomenon is best seen in winter from northern Scandinavia — but there are never any guarantees, which makes the magic moments when they do appear all the more special.
A great place to keep watch is from the sheltered coastal waters of western Norway, whose coves are free of artificial light.
Travel there on Hurtigruten, the country’s national coastal steamer, and enjoy inspirational fjord views by daylight.
Six-day voyages from US$735;
No sight in the world replicates the timeless drama of tens of thousands of wild beasts charging across the African plains in search of food and water while pursued by their predators.
The best way to experience the migration is via a mobile camp which ups sticks and follows the animals every day.
A four-night safari combining two nights in Singita’s Explore mobile camp and two in a fixed location in the Serengeti costs from US$5,110, including internal flights, full board and safari activities;
Picking out Orion’s Belt and The Big Dipper is even more impressive if there are a million other stars distracting you from the task.
A 1,600-square-mile area in New Zealand’s South Island comprising Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin has just been designated the world’s fourth International Dark Sky Reserve, making it “one of the best stargazing sites on Earth” according to IDSA’s executive director Bob Parks.
Nature’s Highway arranges three-night/four-day cycling tours to Mackenzie Basin from US$995 per person. Includes accommodation, bike hire, and luggage transport;
In the heart of Patagonia, glaciers rise in the midst of mountainscapes and alpine meadows, close enough to hike right up to and touch. They make Torres del Paine one of the most special national parks in the world — you’ll never forget your first sight of ice on the beach.
Explora offers a four-night package including transfers from Punta Arenas, full board and excursions from US$2,780;
If any city has a vast expanse of street theater at its beating heart, it’s this Moroccan metropolis where Moorish influences give way to a throbbing African pulse.
This huge empty space over which the sun rises comes to life from mid-afternoon as the local characters creep in — storytellers, snake charmers, musicians, Berber apothecaries, henna-painters and lady-boy dancers.
First-floor cafes are the best places to overlook the action as the scene unfolds, but when night closes in and smoke starts rising from the food stalls, it’s time to join the crowds at trestle tables for a UD$5 feast of grilled meats and flatbread.
Stay in a riad –- a traditional townhouse hotel — within the Medina, for maximum impact. Riad Farnatchi sets out a great little handbook for guests of what not to miss, including the best food stalls on the square. Rooms from US$360 per night;
Not just any old mountains, Half Dome, Sentinel and El Capitan have been immortalized by landscape photographer Ansel Adams. The view catches in the throat of first-time visitors who trace the route taken by the Gold Rush settlers who discovered this breathtaking land of pine forests and soaring granite peaks around 1850.
It’s mandatory to stay within the National Park boundaries to breathe the pine-scented air, absorb the grandeur and hike in peace after the day-trippers have left. While simple lodge cabins are good value, the magnificent 1920’s Ahwahnee Hotel overlooking Half Dome is worth the splurge (rooms around US$450 per night).
Because they’ve been the subject of so many Renaissance paintings, the iconic landmarks of Venice stop the heart when you see them for the first time.
The Rialto, the Bridge of Sighs, the vast expanse of San Marco look much as they did 400 years ago, but nothing evokes the mystery of La Serenissima quite like Santa Maria Salute looming out of the mist at the entrance to the Grand Canal.
The perfect place to catch this view is from a vaporetto approaching Venice from the lagoon — the most magical way to arrive from the airport.
Mayan pyramids pervade the eastern side of Mexico, but none are more breathtaking than those of Palenque in the far south. The jungle temple of this site inspired “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and it has a lost world, Indiana Jones kind of feeling other ruins lack.
This is the year to hit the Mayan ruins — the ancient tribe believed the world would end in 2012.
Tucan Travel’s 22-day End of the World tour hits Palenque on New Year’s Eve and takes in other Mayan sites; $2,240;
From thunder to lightning to tornadoes, you can see it all by joining a storm-chasing crew in Tornado Alley, the area between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains where 25 percent of America’s “significant” tornadoes occur, according to the National Atlas by the US government.
The best time to catch a glimpse of one is from May to June.
Wannabe stormers can join the seven-day tour hosted by Storm Chasing Adventure Tours. Be prepared for a rough and tough tour — they may drive 500 miles a day in the chase.
Seven-day tour costs US$2,400;
Sydney has two spectacular city icons, and they share the same fabulous harbor. The Opera House may be the one with the fancier lines — its “sails” were designed to resemble the boats that sail past the building — but it doesn’t dwarf the magnificent Harbour Bridge.
A great place to view both of these landmarks is Circular Quay, from where ferries go back and forth to the North Shore. You can gaze comfortably on one of the world’s most unforgettable maritime skylines from the patio of Peter Doyle’s, a spectacular fish-and-chip-cum-sushi restaurant on the quay.
Iceland is a spectacular living wilderness, and in summer it’s possible to journey right into the inner cavity of the Thrihnukagigur volcano, which has been dormant for 4,000 years.
After a short hike across lava fields, participants descend 120 meters via a cable car into the heart of the volcano and its magma chamber, only accessible between mid-June and the end of July.
Discover the World offers three nights in Iceland including accommodation, volcano visit and a look at other natural wonders as well as the capital, Reykjavik, from around US$1,130;
You’d be forgiven for thinking this thrilling red rock vista at the conjunction of Arizona and Utah was a movie set. But although it’s served as the backdrop for many John Ford movies, this corner of the Navajo Nation is for real.
The best way to experience the area is to stay overnight, then ride into the park with a Native American guide who can arrange a visit with some of the residents. Particularly magical is a nighttime visit around the time of the full moon.
General admission US$5; www.navajonationparks.org
It may be the most clichéd image in the world, but visitors still gasp the moment they first set eyes on the world’s most famous shrine to love.
Best enjoyed at sunset, when there are not too many tourists around to spoil the spell, or over a drink from a distance at Amarvilas, a luxury hotel overlooking the magnificent white marble mausoleum.
Built by Shah Jehan in the 17th century in memory of his third wife Mumtaz, the Taj Mahal forms part of the Golden Triangle, which is the classic first tour for new India hands.
Intrepid Travel offers seven days from Delhi, taking in the pink city of Jaipur as well as the Taj Mahal, from US$805; www.intrepidtravel.com
Five million bats cluster together in one tiny corner of Zambia’s Kasanka National Park every November.
Orange-brown in color, they feed off the swamp forest’s delicious wild fruits, on which they chomp solidly every night (making sunset and dawn the best times to view them). After the bats abandon it, Kasanka is spectacular in a different way: all that remains of Bat Central are stripped, broken trees and an eerie silence.
Naturetrek has a Swamps & South Luangwa Zambia safari departing on November 4, taking in the bat migration. US$2,725 includes all transport, full board accommodation, park fees and guides; www.naturetrek.co.uk
Although Carlsbad also has a colony of bats that fly out at dusk when the cavern is closed, they can’t equal the utter spectacle within.
Some 230 meters beneath a stand of cactus-studded rocky slopes in New Mexico lies a wonderland of 117 caves formed when sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone.
Allow a couple of hours to marvel at the eerily-lit stalactites, stalagmites and other rock formations as you wander through these amazing subterranean halls.
It’s like being in Hans Anderson’s “Snow Queen,” the fairy-tale set in a mysterious ice palace — but this one is just comfortably cool and not slippery. There’s even an elevator for the 79-story ride back to the surface.
This rare natural phenomenon occurs for three days around the full moon during high-water season at Zambia’s most stunning waterfall.
The best “moonbows” tend to occur between April and August, and a great place to view them is on the banks of the Zambezi at Tongabezi just upstream from the heart of the action.
Tongabezi guests stay in thatched lodges and can also take canoe safaris, swim in the Devil’s Pool and go rafting under the falls as well as gaze upon the moonbows. From US$485 per person, per night including all meals, drinks, laundry service and activities; www.tongabezi.com
The Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia is home to the highest tides in the world, creating a rare Tidal Bore — or giant wave — in the Shubenacadie River.
The tide enters at its widest point and the water piles up as it flows up the bay. At the head of the bay this advancing tide becomes a wave, varying from a ripple to up to three meters high.
The Shubenacadie River Runners operate Zodiac trips which ride the crest of the tidal surge and on through several sets of natural sand rapids; half-day rafting from US$60 per person;www.tidalborerafting.com
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The lush green coastal strip of Cape Tribulation, the most northerly settlement of Queensland, Australia, is one of the few places where the rainforest meets the sea.
Nowhere else are these two natural side-by-side wonders so accessible to travelers. It’s understandable, then, why this is one of the world’s finest spots to watch a sunset.
Visitors can rent a four-wheel drive out of Port Douglas, drive to Daintree, take the five-minute ferry crossing across the mangrove-encrusted estuary and brace for an endurance test of a drive, enough to test the suspension of any off-roader.
Once at Cape Tribulation, a variety of boardwalks lead to the shoreline and, at sunset, one of the world’s most breathtaking views.
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This year marks the 200th anniversary of the rediscovery of this former lost city, considered one of the greatest jewels of the Middle East.
Carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, people who settled here more than 2,000 years ago, this magical rose-red metropolis was a hub for the silk and spice routes in ancient times.
Entrance to the city is through the Siq, a narrow gorge flanked on either side by soaring, 80-meter high cliffs. The colors and rock formations are dazzling, and at the end of the gorge stands the lst-century Treasury, with its fabulous carvings.
Movenpick’s Resort Petra is located at the entrance to the ancient city and its roof garden has spectacular views of the Great Rift Valley. Rooms cost from around US$155 per night double, including breakfast; www.moevenpick-hotels.com
Sunset in the Dolomites — which were recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site — is a time when a unique natural phenomenon known as Enrosadira occurs, turning the west-facing rock face flame-red in the dying rays of the sun.
Every evening, these stunning peaks lay on a glorious display of color, starting out bright yellow before turning an intense red that softens to indigo and violet before darkness finally envelops the mountains.
Formed over 250 million years ago, The Dolomites were part of the earth’s tropical zone where coral, algae, fish and mollusks collected on the seabed, with magma from volcanic eruptions. After the passing of the Ice Age, rivers, landslides, wind and rain sculpted the valleys, leaving today’s spectacular landscape behind.
This remote area of Central Turkey is covered in amazing “fairy chimneys” — volcanic peaks through which it’s possible to trek, explore the caves of an underground city or survey from above in a hot air balloon or helicopter.
Early settlers made homes within these chimneys, creating rock-cut churches, whose facades interplay with the natural castles and other formations.
Travel the Unknown’s Magic of Cappadocia tour covers the region over three days from US$655 including domestic flights, ground transport, entrance fees, guides and half-board accommodation;www.traveltheunknown.com/cca
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There’s something mystical about the quiet bodies of still water ringed by majestic fells that feature in the new movie “Snow White and the huntsman.”
The Lake District is the glory of northwestern England, and was a favorite of poets Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit, who celebrates his 110th anniversary this year.
At Keswick travelers can climb the fell above Ashness Bridge to see two lakes at once, including magnificent Derwentwater. Also spot the serene Ullswater, dark and dramatic Wastwater and tiny but perfectly formed Grasmere, where the poets hung out.
Pullwood Bay offers award-winning lakeside and woodland self-catering cottages, plus a boathouse; www.pullwoodbay.com
Lake District visitors’ information at www.visitcumbria.com
Dubbed “the greatest shoal on earth,” the sardine run on South Africa’s Wild Coast holds two titles — the world’s largest animal migration also featuring the greatest gathering of predators on the planet.
Sharks, dolphins, Cape Gannets, cormorants, seals and sometimes Orcas, follow the sardines as they head to the warm waters of the Indian ocean.
The spectacle is best viewed on a scuba dive in late June and throughout July; however, if you have a snorkel, you can still get in on the underwater action.
Acacia Africa runs a seven-day Coast To Cape Town small group safari from around US$1,300 including transfers, accommodation, most meals and local guide; www.acacia-africa.com
The notion of a string of idyllic desert islands off the coast of northern Spain is an unlikely one. However, viewed from a hilltop in Vigo in the remote region of Galicia, this string of marine pearls is no mirage.
The Islas Cies have been cited among the world’s 10 best beaches, with pristine white sands lapped by calm waters of Caribbean turquoise, against a pine forest backdrop.
The former pirates’ lair is now a national park protected from hotel developers and beach vendors. But there’s a campsite for those who want to linger when the day-trippers leave on the last ferry, and a restaurant dispensing the fabulous seafood for which Galicia is famous.
Vigo, a handsome port offering seasonal ferry service to Islas Cies, connects with major European cities. Travelers can reach Vigo from London for around US$75 in season. www.vueling.com
Island information: www.parquenacionalillasatlanticas.com
The tin mines may be closed, but the ruins of the structures which once housed them near St. Just make a thrillingly dramatic counterpoint to the rugged rocks and wild seas of Cornwall’s north coast.
The remnants of 3,000 engine houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.
Visitors can walk heritage trails, go underground to see how the miners labored, pan for minerals and gems or bike the 31-kilometer coastal trail known as the Cornwall Mineral Tramway.
In a video posted to YouTube a stingray appears to charge at a swimmer who was foolish enough to deliberately provoke it in on the beach at Broadwater on the Gold Coast.
Now her remarkable journey has been turned into a feature film, called “Tracks,” starring Mia Wasikowska (pictured). The adventure took nine months for the 26-year-old, setting off from Alice Springs and ending at the Indian ocean, a journey of 2,700 kilometers. “I disappeared, but I’ve never felt so alive,” Davidson told CNN.Davidson was initially resistant to Smolan, feeling as though she’d “sold out” by having a National Geographic photographer with her. Smolan said he was “smitten” with the “intense and fascinating” woman.Over three decades later, they remain firm friends, having shared an adventure across one of the most punishing landscapes on Earth. Here they are pictured on the set of “Tracks.”Why did Davidson cross these red plains? “Why not,” she says. “Maybe for men it’s a longing to conquer something. They conquer the mountain, they conquer something in themselves. I never felt that way. For me it was more of a merging into, entering into, becoming part of.”
(CNN) — A lone blonde woman, wrapped in nothing but a sarong, leads four camels and a little dog across one of the most uninhabitable environments on Earth.
Startlingly beautiful, with skin roasted a deep chestnut from the desert sun, the petite 26-year-old in flimsy leather sandals appears the unlikeliest adventurer for a nine-month expedition across the Australian outback.
Appearances can be deceiving.
In 1977, Robyn Davidson trekked 2,700 kilometers from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, armed with little more than a map and a rifle, in a landscape which had destroyed many a hardened explorer before her.
Adventurers are often asked why they push themselves to the human body’s limits.
“It’s only in hindsight that there’s any psychologizing of it,” Davidson tells me in between bites of her croissant, at a trendy inner-city London café on a humid spring morning.
“At the time it just seemed like a perfectly sensible, good thing to do. Above all else, it was pleasurable.”
And in an age of instant communication, where you are never far from a text message, tweet or Facebook post, perhaps Davidson has a lesson for us all.
“I disappeared but I’ve never felt so alive,” she says in her soft Australian accent.
It’s no coincidence these punishing red plains are nicknamed the country’s “dead heart.” A place where temperatures can exceed a scorching 120F and the nearest town is often hundreds of kilometers away.
His intimate images of the intrepid young woman — tenderly feeding her camels, or swimming in a rare watering hole — helped make it one of the most popular photo essays in the magazine’s history.
It plunged the girl who grew up on a cattle station in remote Queensland into the international spotlight — her outback odyssey became the toast of New York.
Davidson’s book detailing the marathon mission, called “Tracks,” has since sold over one million copies, bringing to life the beauty and brutality of a landscape mysterious to many outside Australia — and indeed to the majority of people living in the country’s coastal cities.
The book has now been turned into a feature film, with actor Mia Wasikowska possessing an unnerving resemblance to the real-life desert woman.
A literary life
Wearing a crisp white shirt, Davidson’s broad face remains unmarked by a lifetime in the sun.
At 63-years-old, she is still as quietly striking as those images of a fair-haired girl on camel-back staring fiercely into the camera three decades ago.
How do you follow an expedition of such epic proportions? In her late 20s, Davidson moved to a shoe factory in London’s East End, of all places.
She fell in with a literary circle that included housemate and celebrated author Doris Lessing, and boyfriend-of-three-years Salman Rushdie.
A nomad at heart, Davidson lived across the world, shifting like the sands of her impressive landscapes.
Now she’s back in the UK capital to write her memoirs — about as far away as you can get from her extreme pilgrimages, including two years traveling with nomads in north-west India in the 1990s.
Pleasure and pain
“Why not?” has become Davidson’s enduring response to why she ventured into Australia’s great unknown in the 1970s an era before.
Where other people might see a vast expanse of arid nothingness, Davidson saw the desert as a “limitless garden,” a place “teeming with life.”
It was a desert she traversed without GPS trackers and high-tech camping kit.
Learning bush skills from the aboriginal communities she met along the way, Davidson ate witchetty grubs — which to the easily-queasy might resemble enormous maggots.
She quickly learned not to trust her maps in this unchartered landscape, and instead followed animal tracks towards water.
Not bad for the girl who police initially wouldn’t register a rifle to, because they thought they’d have to go chasing after her when she got lost.
Even Smolan — the 27-year-old photographer who spent three months with Davidson at intermittent points throughout the journey — was convinced that each time he looked back at her in his rear view mirror, it would be the last.
“There were herds of wilds animals, crazy people out there,” he says over the phone, the sound of traffic blaring in the background of his native New York.
“Her camels could have thrown her, she could have broken a leg, she could have gotten lost. It’s the kind of place where if you take the wrong road, after three weeks you come to a fence and find you’re out of water.”
Much is made in the film of the pair’s romantic coupling, but in the searing heat it was a relationship tempered by more complex emotions — some still raw for Smolan.
“I was resistant to Rick because I felt I’d sold out to National Geographic,” says Davidson, who never intended to write about her personal pilgrimage at all.
“He’s a sweetie, but hopeless in the desert. But when you are forced to deal with somebody, you either kill them or you learn tolerance. And we’re still very good friends so… I think it forged a very deep friendship actually.”
Smolan has a different take: “It was much more of a romance — at least on my side — then it was in the movie.”
“I was pretty smitten and you can see that in the photographs,” he says of the “intense and fascinating woman who didn’t want me there.”
“She had no idea how beautiful she was. Several times I developed my pictures and brought them out to show her, thinking I could win her over — because most women like it when you show them how beautiful they are. And I remember being really stunned that the more beautiful my pictures where of her, the more she hated them.
“She just said: ‘I’m not some god dammed model out here.”
Was Davidson’s real adoration for her faithful dog Diggity and four camels, a type of ramshackle circus family inching across the desert together?
“The love story of the movie is much more between her and the dog, than her and me,” says Smolan, chuckling good-naturedly. “This little dog was like her protector. If there were snakes, if there were intruders… Diggity had her back.”
But why camels? “They’re the perfect form of transport,” explains Davidson matter-of-factly in her book. “One sees little by car, and horses would never survive the hardships of desert crossings.”
This was not about conquering nature, she says, bristling at the suggestion. Instead, Davidson wanted to meld into the environment, her skin slowly turning the same reddish brown as the ancient lands she walked.
“Maybe for men it’s a longing to conquer something. They conquer the mountain, they conquer something in themselves. I never felt that way. For me it was more of a merging into, entering into, becoming part of.”
She’d see other travelers “hurtling through the desert in a four-wheel drive, with two-wave radios, and iceboxes, and think — why bother?”
“My procedure across that desert was about getting rid of stuff — both physically and metaphorically.”
Did that include the memory of her mother’s suicide when she was 11-years-old, as suggested in the film?
Davidson sighs, and you get the feeling it’s a diagnosis she’s heard many times before.
“It kind of seems to say that for a woman to have done anything extraordinary, she has to be a bit strange, or have something to work out, or there has to be some sort of dark thing in her past.
“I don’t think my mother’s death had much to do with it at all, frankly.”
Myth and memory
These days, where even NASA astronauts can tweet every step of their missions to millions across the world, Davidson’s slow and deeply personal journey feels all the more rare — and mysterious.
“It’s a tale with mythical elements,” she says, her gray eyes revealing the only hint of sun damage on her serene face.
“If you think of all the enduring stories in the world, they’re of journeys. Whether it’s Don Quixote or Ulysses, there’s always this sense of a quest — of a person going away to be tested, and coming back.”
How lucky we are she did.