Thursday, December 29, 2016

Where to go?

Stanley – Thursday

Mette and I are on the road again.  This time to visit friends in Malawi, which was called Nyasaland by the colonising Brits.  Sitting on an airplane is always an opportunity to ponder.

Not having travelled much before I left South Africa in my mid-twenties, I’ve been very fortunate to make up for that since, partly through work and partly because I have itchy feet.

As a result, I am frequently asked where I suggest as a destination.  Of course, the answer depends on who is asking.  One answer certainly doesn’t fit all.  However, over the years, I have developed a shortlist of places that I think everyone should see.

Before I tell you what’s on the list, I should clarify the two criteria for making the list.

1.         The place has to be astonishing. 
2.         It has to make you shake your head in wonder.

The implication of these two criteria is that the place doesn’t have to be beautiful, although it can be.

Number 1:

My number one must-see destination is Egypt, both as a whole, and more specifically Luxor, hundreds of kilometres up the Nile from Cairo.

In Cairo, of course there are the pyramids, astonishing in size and construction – structures that made me seriously consider that aliens could have been part of our history.  More astonishing is the Museum of Cairo – not the gussied-up places such as the British Museum or the various Smithsonians, but rather a large, ho-hum building with amazing artifacts.  Set aside several days just for it.

Most astonishing in Egypt is Luxor, home of the Temple of Karnak, Temple of Luxor, Valley of the Kings, and Valley of the Queens.

Construction of the Temple of Karnak was begun about four thousand years ago and lasted for several thousand years.  It is astonishing that the obelisks there, weighing over 300 tonnes, were cut from quarries nearly two hundred kilometres farther upstream.  The Egyptians of the time figured out that slinging these huge stones under barges made transporting them much easier (fifteen hundred years before Archimedes).  These huge slabs were then taken from the barges, moved some distance to where were to be erected, then rotated into their vertical position.  The plinths of some of the tall columns weight 70 tonnes.  How did they get them up there?

On the other side of the Nile, the treasures of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens defy my ability to describe them adequately.  You have all seen the photographs of the various amazing artifacts.

To experience this must-see place, it is absolutely worth putting up with the never-ending assault by kids and other street vendors.

Number 2:

From the remarkable man-made (or alien-made) structures of Egypt to the natural beauty of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

Rising in central Angola, the Kavango River flows south towards Namibia, then turns east into Botswana.  When it reaches the area around the small town of Shakawe, the river fans out into a delta of islands and crystal-clear water covering about 15,000 sq. km, before evaporating or disappearing into the desert.

Satellite photo of the Okavango

Michael and me in a Mokoro (in the 1980's)

The Delta is a haven for wildlife, including the ones you’d expect to see in an African game reserve – lions, elephants, leopards, hippos, crocodiles – as well as some amazing antelope, such as the sitatunga and Lechwe.  Even more so, it is a paradise for birds.  Michael, some friends and I were camping in the Delta once and recorded about 130 different species in twenty-four hours.  The prize for birders is Pels Fishing Owl – rarely seen.  Shakawe is the only place I have ever suffered from bird overload – more species in greater numbers than my mind could take in.

There is nothing more magical than being punted silently through the numerous channels of the Delta in a Mokoro – a dugout, usually from a Sausage tree.  The sights and sounds are food for the soul.

Number 3:

Jerusalem.  I am not religious, but the confluence of three major religions, with all the ramifications, historic and contemporary, filled me with wonder.  So much of so many cultures has ties to this city that I was in a constant state of awe. 

Temple Mount - holiest site in Judaism 
Church of the Holy Sepulchre - some believe Jesus was crucified here

al-Aqsa Mosque, where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended into heaven

Excavations in the area show human settlement over seven thousand years ago, and in that time, the city has been destroyed twice, besieged numerous times, recaptured numerous times, and always a city of turmoil.  

I didn’t find it a particularly attractive place visually, but rather was amazed at the extent that historic old was embedded in the bustling new – existing side by side, within each other.  It felt perfectly natural that an electronics shop could be neighbours with a place mentioned in the bible.

It was also a place that embodied what I find so incongruous in so many religions – peaceful philosophies surrounded by men with automatic weapons, trying to change the beliefs of others.  Not much acceptance of difference here.

Number 4:

Most people baulk at my next recommendation, exclaiming that it is not beautiful and that it embodies everything that is bad about human nature.  I always agree, because that it is exactly why Las Vegas is also on my list of places everyone should see.  It is an astonishing place that makes me shake my head in wonder.

It is a place with no redeeming features.  It is the ultimate shrine to crassness and greed.  And it is no accident that a town that grew out of the nothingness of the desert is where everyone wants something for nothing.

The Strip

It is so awful that I like to go there every four or five years.

I like to see the gazillion lights beaming invitations to people who fantasise about winning fortunes at the tables or hitting the jackpot on the slots.  I love watching men, past their prime, ogling the scantily-dressed women, also often past their prime.  And the more drinks the men have, the more they ogle and the worse they behave, and the more money they lose.  And since many drinks are free, the they drink even more.  And so on ad nauseam.  I love the sight.

And I love the tackiness dressed up in tuxedos.

Of course, the real reason Vegas is weird may lie in the fact that the US military conducted many atmospheric tests nearby in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Mushroom cloud near Vegas

And number 5:

There is nothing like seeing tens of thousands, nay hundreds of thousands, of migrating animals on the Serengeti (and Maasai Mara in Kenya).  There is no place on the planet that rivals this in terms of sheer numbers.  And of course, there is the accompanying hunting – by lions, by leopards, by cheetah, and crocodiles.

Uncountable wildebeest

The famous river crossing

Other countries, such as Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, and South Africa have wonderful wildlife, but for sheer spectacle there is nothing to compare with the Serengeti migration.  Add to that a trip to the Ngorongoro crater, and a visit to Tanzania is a must.

So that’s my list of must-see places.  All astonishing.  All fill me with wonder.

Do you have such a list?  If so, what’s on it?

Wishing you all a very healthy, happy, and boring New Year. 


  1. Stan, Bragging: I have been to all of your picks and agree, though only reluctantly on Las Vegas. I would return to the others repeatedly with glee, every year if I could. And never seeing Vegas again feels more like a natural goal than going there yet again would.

    Adopting your criteria, my additions include: the Great Wall of China, Iguasu Falls, Potosi, Jordan (both Petra and Jerash) the top of the Empire State Building , and ALL of Italy. The final one may seem too obvious. BUT. I have been here so many times, and I am not finished seeing it. And I am still shaking my head in wonder. Forty-five years are not enough. 60% of the Patrimony of Humanity is here. The Cathedral of Siena all by itself is worth flying it Italy from anywhere in the world.

    Things I would still like to experience: the northern lights and Christmas Eve in King's College Chapel, Cambridge.

    And the Masai Mara--again and again and .....

  2. So much to see, so much to experience, so much to do... so little time. Sigh.

  3. I bought him indoors a trip to Neuschwanstein castle for his Christmas. ( that's the one Walt based the Disney Castle on). He has always wanted to go there. I am taking him now EasyJet are flying Glasgow Munich direct for twenty quid!

  4. I visited Amsterdam earlier this month for the first time, and now I'm urging everyone I know to go. The canals and historic homes; the Rijksmuseum and other great cultural attractions; the thousands of people on bicycles whizzing by at all hours -- I thought it was a place unlike any other I've ever visited. For natural wonders, I'd recommend New Mexico, which is an overlooked gem in the U.S.

  5. Ephram's Alley & Boat Houses on Schuylkill River & View of CBD from top steps of Art Museum all special snapshots of USA civic design

  6. I think you've made some wonderful choices. I've been to Jerusalem and Las Vegas. In one I had an epiphany, in the other a lobotomy of sorts as there I got engaged.