Blog WHS Visits

WHS #800: Red Bay

I did not ‘engineer’ my 800th visited World Heritage Site: my Canadian itinerary was already set before I decided to go to Tunisia first. With no ‘misses’ in between, the Red Bay Basque Whaling Station became my #800. The place does not sound as exciting as Okavango and Uluru for example, which were my #700 and #400 respectively. But in the end, I was happy with it as I found it an enjoyable site in a rather remote location.

If you look up on a map where this is located, you will see how remote and isolated it is. Labrador's first "big" town - with the beautiful name Happy Valley Goose Bay - has only 8,000 inhabitants and is 550 km away. Fortunately, Labrador is part of the province of Newfoundland & Labrador, so the province subsidizes a ferry that runs daily between the tip of Newfoundland (near L'Anse aux Meadows) and Blanc Sablon (an hour south of Red Bay). Ideal for the WH traveller.

I was a bit concerned about this ferry beforehand: it gets very bad reviews, the company has a terrible website and you can only reserve by phone.  On the spot, it turned out not to be too bad and both trips were right on time on a spacious ship. There was also a lot of freight traffic and a single tour bus on this 1.5-hour crossing.

The drive along the Labrador coast the next morning was beautiful. You see mountains, endless coniferous forests and fast-flowing rivers. There was even more snow here than in Newfoundland, also bordering the road (this was June 22!). The villages looked tough to live in, they reminded me of those in Greenland. On the Town of Red Bay Facebook page, an interesting glimpse into what it means to live there is given: volunteers are needed to shovel snow / professional snow blowing equipment is for rent. And remove your boats from the dock when the cruise ships are there! Surprisingly, Red Bay is on the itinerary of some of the large cruise lines. Their summer schedule for example shows the HAL Nieuw Statendam arriving, with 2666 passengers on board. Seven other cruise ships are expected between July and September 2022.

In town, the Visitor Center was closed but the Exhibition Center at the bottom of the street wasn’t: it features exhibits on the life of the Basque whalers here, who arrived with about a thousand men during the summer season. It was the start of whaling on an industrial scale and in 70 years the Basques depleted the waters.

I quickly moved on to the quay, where I joined the boat that brings tourists to Saddle Island every hour. There were only 3 other passengers. On Saddle Island you can take a one-hour walk along the archaeological sites. Because of the bird breeding season, part of the island was closed and we had to return via the same path. Fortunately the sites have signs with numbers next to them, otherwise, you would have walked right past them. The Basque remains mainly consist of ovens. There is also a cemetery. After being excavated, they have been covered with earth again. So at best you see an elevation in the ground. Even worse is the situation with the underwater finds: from the coast, you can stare at the water, where a few meters deeper (invisible) must lie a complete ship.

A few minute's drive outside the town of Red Bay (but still included in the core zone) lies the Boney Shore Walking Trail, a trail focused on whalebones. It lies high enough to have beautiful views over the bay again: there is an inland harbor and a seaside part. Islands protect the entrance, and the remains of buildings and ships can still be seen, but people haven’t lived there for a long time. The whalebones were a bit difficult to find at first – they are not on the beach and not on the path, but just in between. They look like stones, but their shapes still betray them.

Along the coast here you will also see many interesting water birds that are typical of this northern climate. I'm not good at recognizing them, but I think I've seen Common loon, Common eider, and Red-breasted merganser, among others.

To celebrate my 800th milestone, I ended my visit at the Whalers restaurant in Red Bay (the only restaurant in town). They have good Fish & Chips here, and I finished it off with a piece of Bakeapple (= cloudberry) Crumble pie!

Els - 3 July 2022

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Blog WHS Visits

WHS #798: Mistaken Point

Along with Red Bay in Labrador, Mistaken Point is the hardest-to-reach World Heritage Site of the 10 in Eastern Canada. Located in the far southeastern corner of the island of Newfoundland, it can only be visited with a prearranged tour. I reserved 4 weeks in advance by e-mail and was given a choice between two time slots on my preferred day. Fortunately, the tours rarely get cancelled ("about 5 times a year") as bad weather does not deter the Newfoundlanders, they are only called off when the waves are so high that they cover the fossils or it gets dangerous. The day before the visit, I drove from Deer Lake in the West to St. John's, the largest city in the East (which takes 6.5 hours). Then it's a further 2 hours to the South via the “Irish Loop”, a coastal road across the Avalon Peninsula past many villages of Irish origin.

12 people showed up for the 10.30 a.m. tour, all Canadians except me. We were then invited to follow our guides by car in convoy towards the starting point of the trail towards the fossils. Do they do it this way to discourage illegal entry? The entrance (just a rope across a path) and parking lot aren’t exactly hidden, but they don’t advertise it either. You could find the exact location on Google Maps of course but it is not signposted from the road. Also, when we parked our cars, we had to put a sign with the text “Tour” behind the windscreen: the police(?) apparently do check on illegal visitors.

Above the cliffs, a narrow strip of peat has been designated as a buffer zone, with a sign referring to the Ecological Reserve every few hundred meters. Besides tourists who go on a tour like this (about 1000 per year), local people with a special permit are also allowed to enter the area. They may hunt and pick berries there; the bakeapple (cloudberry) is popular for making jam.

The 3km trail is easy, and a wooden bridge was even recently built to help you across a little stream. It rained heavily at the start of our visit, but fortunately, the sky cleared when we got to the fossils. These are best seen on two flat, horizontal coastal rocks. You are allowed to walk on the rocks, as long as you take off your shoes and leave behind other items such as a backpack or hiking poles. They don’t hand out slippers or free socks anymore – instead, the trip confirmation e-mail said: “bring a spare pair of socks”! In the end, I didn’t even need them, as the rocks had dried up enough to stay dry with some clever positioning of your feet.

We were given laminated papers with examples of what the various fossils look like, and the guide pointed out the most important ones. Some look like leaves, or like the ferns you see in Joggins. However, they are all small organisms with no shells, bones, or other hard parts. Compared to Miguasha and Joggins, relatively few fossils have been removed here. This is probably because they were discovered so late (1967) – but still, until the 1980s the area was unprotected and 200-250 fossils have disappeared into museum collections. You can still see in a few places that a piece is missing. Sometimes also a boulder has fallen on top of them, you can see the damage. Erosion however is the main cause that more and more fossils are lost.

Visiting Mistaken Point will also introduce you to the charming Avalon Peninsula. It is recommended to drive the full Irish Loop (as mentioned above). There are gas stations along the way but hardly anywhere to buy food or drinks (so bring your own). There seem to be more amenities on the east side of the loop than on the western side. Not to be missed there as well is Witless Bay Ecological Reserve – home to hundreds of thousands of breeding seabirds at its islands. I joined a very satisfying 1.5-hour boat tour here and saw more common murres than I had ever seen together in my life, as well as loads of puffins and we had good views of both minke and humpback whales.

Els - 26 June 2022

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Blog WHS Visits

WHS #797: Gros Morne NP

Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park isn’t very well-known and doesn’t receive as many visitors - both among the general population and within our community - as comparable parks in the USA such as Olympic NP. When I visited in mid-June, there were usually only one or two cars at the viewpoints and trailheads parking lots. In 2018, it saw about 39,000 visitors. By comparison, Olympic NP counted 2.72 million….

The park has a large variety of landscapes, ranging from glaciers and fjords to freshwater lakes, tuckamore forest and coastal cliffs. I spent 2.5 days there: driving around while enjoying the views, hiking some of the trails, and doing the Western Brook Pond boat tour. From a logistical view, the park has a northern and a southern zone, separated by Bonne Bay. During my preparations, I enjoyed the lovingly detailed guidebook ‘Gros Morne National Park’ by Michael Burzynski.

In the southern zone, I did the Tablelands hike and the Green Gardens hike. Driving up there, Tablelands draws the attention right away: it’s a barren, brown mountain range among the surrounding forested ones. It looked stunning with the still remaining bits of snow and ice on its top and flanks. Its origins are fascinating too and it is an essential part of the OUV of this WHS: it is where deep ocean crust and the rocks of the earth's mantle lie exposed after having been uplifted through the action of plate tectonics. An easy, 4km return path with information panels gets you close. There is no ‘real’ soil here, only a few specialist plant species such as pitcher plants can survive.

The Green Gardens hike is a fine combination with Tablelands, as it has totally different scenery while still being only 5km or so away. This is a more strenuous hike (labeled ‘medium’, 9km return). You climb across a ridge and then descend towards the coast. Along the way a tuckamore forest provides shelter from the sun: these tuckamore trees are another signature feature of this park. They are spruce and fir trees that are stunted by the winds and winter weather, so they lean over to one side. The trail ends at a long stretch of coastal meadows, with views of sea stacks and fine areas for a picnic.

The northern zone is dissected by Highway 430, which is a nuisance as it comes with speeding trucks and other through traffic. I did a couple of short walks here, the Berry Head Pond trail (a loop around a lake) and Lobster Cove Head (with a lighthouse and more tuckamore trees). The main excursion here though is the Western Brook Pond Tour. This is the single most popular thing to do in the park: you need to pre-book weeks beforehand and when I arrived at the car park, 2 buses were just unloading their (elderly) passengers. It’s a 3km walk from the parking to the dock. The tour was a bit too cheesy for my taste and the boat very full, but the landscape again did not disappoint. Western Brook Pond is an inland or freshwater fjord since being cut off from the sea. I found the experience very similar to Norway’s Geiranger Fjord, with waterfalls, oddly shaped rocks and towering cliff walls (up to 700m high) along the route.

The park earned my 4 stars easily, but there were some disappointments as well. The main highway that cuts through it, as mentioned above. The park also lacks a certain wildness and sense of adventure, the visitor experience has been organized so well that it feels tamed down (there’s always a boardwalk to prevent wet feet). Also, Newfoundland is low in mammal wildlife and this park is no exception. There are some 400 native Caribou still roaming around and almost 10 times as many Moose, which were introduced from the mainland in the 19th century. I saw neither species during my stay here, although my start had been promising as at the Gros Morne mountain viewpoint, another traveller pointed out a bear moving about on a meadow high up. It could only be seen via binoculars.

Els - 19 June 2022

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Blog Connections

Critically endangered fauna species

I like reading mammal-watching trip reports and even sometimes the birding reports at Cloudbirders, although for the latter I still fail to see the fun in just going somewhere and ticking off large numbers of 'subjects' in one morning. Via one of those reports, I discovered that the iconic Mountain Gorilla isn’t critically endangered anymore. That made me have a second look at our connection Critically endangered fauna species, which hadn’t been updated much since 2010. I now did so, using the latest data from IUCN which can be found on their ‘Red List’ website

Positive changes

A critically endangered species according to IUCN is “facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild”. It is the highest at-risk status, just prior to “Extinct in the wild” and “Extinct”. 3,714 fauna species are currently on that list.

It turned out that a lot of species that we had in our connection are not critically endangered anymore. They include the Leatherback Sea Turtle, which can be found in Malpelo, Rio Platano, Guanacaste Sian Kaan, etc. The fates of the Blue Crane, Black-bearded Saki, Cone-billed Tanager, Mediterranean monk seal, Iberian Lynx, Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Pygmy Hog, Bonin Flying Fox, Hawaiian Monk Seal, Dryas monkey, and Srilankan Rose butterfly all have improved over the past decade and have been removed from the connection.

Sometimes a subspecies is critically endangered, while the species it belongs to is not. Or the other way around. That is actually what happened to the Mountain gorilla: it was 'promoted' to the status of endangered, but the species Eastern gorilla still is critically endangered because the other subspecies (Eastern lowland gorilla) is too. I decided to leave subspecies where the species isn't critically endangered out of the connection to keep the consistency. 

New species

My observation is that the AB evaluation usually names a few, but not all, of the species, and then these are reiterated many times in all later IUCN sources (such as the IUCN Outlook). So, I did some searches the other way around – which species are Critically Endangered, and are they found in any of the WHS? Most of the species are located in very small distribution areas. I didn’t check all 3,000+ of them, I mostly did so based on their names. So, the Darien Stubfoot Toad must live in Darien NP and the Aldabra Banded Snail on Aldabra Atoll (and they do!).

I added the Great Hammerhead (which occurs in Shark Bay, but there must be more). And the wonderful Helmeted Hornbill, it must still be flying around somewhere in the Tropical Rainforests of Sumatra.

The locations to find the Hawksbill Turtle have been extended to include the Great Barrier Reef, Sian Ka'an, Tubbataha Reefs, and El Vizcaino. Black rhinos are also found in iSimangaliso, Selous, Mt. Kenya (and have recently been evacuated from Okavango). And there are some more sites with Eastern gorillas that hold the critically endangered subspecies Eastern lowland gorilla: Dja, Kahuzi-Biega, and Ivindo.

I haven’t been able to find a WHS to match (wild) Bactrian camel. Could it be Uvs Nuur? The North Atlantic Right Whale has a wide range, but the North Atlantic Ocean doesn’t seem to have a suitable coastal / marine WHS: Ibiza, Wadden Sea, the West Norwegian Fjords, and Ilulissat are all more coastal than oceanic. 

Random Trivia 

  • The WHS where you can find the most critically endangered fauna species is: Rainforests of the Atsinana (8 species of lemur).
  • Kahuzi-Biega has the species with the lowest number of known remaining specimens: the Mt. Kahuzi Climbing Mouse ("This species is only known from two specimens").
  • The Lord Howe Horn-headed Stick-insect (Lord Howe Island), New Caledonian Lorikeet (Lagoons of New Caledonia), Galapagos damsel (a fish) and Fernandina Giant Tortoise (both Galapagos) all got an additional indicator: Possibly extinct (which is even worse).

Have you ever encountered a critically endangered fauna species at a WHS?

Els - 12 June 2022

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Comments

Liam Hetherington 18 June 2022

Shandos - that's certainly what I understand from watching 'Octonauts' with my kids!


Shandos Cleaver 17 June 2022

The consensus is now that the Lord Howe Island stick insect is not extinct, but survived on the inhospitable Balls Pyramid: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/lord-howe-island-stick-insect-dna-spd


Jurre 12 June 2022

Just as it happens, there is an update in the media on the Fernandina Giant Tortoise. I put the link in the forum thread "WHS in the news".


Blog WH Travellers

Michael Ayers ... cycling to over 300 WHS

Remember that stunning photo of Burkhan Khaldun? Or that first review of Thimlich Ohinga? They were made by Michael Ayers, who has just finished his second world tour on a bicycle. A trip that took place between 2019 and 2022, where he visited 124 new Sites, bringing his total to over 300. For a total of 1,121 days, he visited one WHS every 8.6 days. Discounting the 317 days being inactive for Covid procedures, general travel disruptions, or convalescence, it was more like one every 6.2 days. He’s also a keen birder and managed to add 1,152 new species to his worldwide Life List. Meet Michael below, while he shares his experiences as a WH Traveller on a bicycle.

How do you decide on the itinerary for such a long tour?

I have always been a cartophile, and have continuously studied geography as a hobby, so for me working out the itinerary is almost as enjoyable as the travel itself. I have happily spent many hours looking at maps, deciding which parts of the world would be most compelling to visit. Technology has, of course, had an effect on that process, and for this tour I accomplished in days, what took weeks previously, which may, or may not, be a good thing. There are a few other considerations, specific to cycling, that also require attention when devising an itinerary. One of those involves trying to create a route where the cycling conditions would be at least tolerable for most of the time. This is becoming increasingly difficult as many parts of the world continue to downgrade their road networks by bringing them to “modern” standards. Another challenge is trying to ensure that you will always be in a particular region at its best time of the year, with regard to the summer/winter, or wet/dry seasons. For a very long tour, achieving that completely is a practical impossibility.

Do you especially target WHS that few other people have visited?

I don’t think I have ever said, “What is the most remote place I can go to?” But it would be dishonest for me to state that I didn’t receive a certain amount of satisfaction when visiting places that most mainstream tourists rarely get to see. It is also true that many remote WHSs have as their primary OUV the types of qualities that most interest me: beautiful forests, the ruins of ancient cities, rock art, interesting geology, and unique flora and fauna, for example. Additionally, when on a cycling tour that encompasses a large portion of a continent it is likely that any route you may come up with will take you fairly close to at least one remote Site, so why not adjust the route a little to permit a visit? Sites like Australian Fossil Mammal (Riversleigh) and Serra da Capivara, were examples of both of those factors for me.

Your trip coincided with the Covid-years of 2020-2021. What has been the impact on the trip?

I am sure that in the spring of 2020 people were wondering why I did not abandon the tour once the closures started occurring. As you might suspect, the decision whether, or not, to do that was more complex than it might have appeared. For me, the World2 Tour was an intermediate point in the process of permanently relocating my home from the USA to a much more distant part of the world. Therefore, in 2019 I let my old house go and put all of my belongings into a shipping container for storage. Had I decided to return home in March 2020, my first task would have been to find a new place to live, quite challenging considering that the US was, at the time, one of the worst places to be regarding Covid. Additionally, the country I was intending to move to had quickly closed its borders, which remained that way for over two years, so I could not go there. So the only realistic option was to keep moving as best as possible, until the circumstances improved.

The most depressing period was the first six-week “lite” lockdown I spent in Berlin, where every day I would cross a number of expected WHS visits off of my future plans, while realizing that I might never have another opportunity to make those visits (eventually I did get a few of those back, but usually at great expense.) After a while, I was able to move around to wherever was letting people in at the time, and I generally became numb to the continual disruptions and changes in plans. Those included, but were not limited to, two strict 14-day quarantines, several self-isolation periods, being denied boarding at airline check-in counters five times, being denied entry at an airport after disembarking for visa issues, and a total of 46 Covid tests (32 PCR/14 Antigen, costs between $0 and $160, for a total of $2,775,) all negative, of course.

What were the WHS during this trip that have impressed you most?

There were definitely many that presented their OUV very well, however, for me, the most memorable are those visits where all the important factors, including weather, lack of crowds, cycling conditions, and the characteristics of the Site itself, all came together perfectly to make for an extraordinary experience, and I will actually give you four examples:

Chacho Culture. There are some WHSs where having your own bicycle is a tremendous advantage, Angkor, for example. This Site was another, and once the tiresome dirt road between the highway and the Park entrance was behind me, everything was perfect. On a beautiful spring day, with only a few other visitors around, cycling along the loop road, with numerous exceptional ruins and rock art panels spaced out nicely along the way, was simply glorious.

Aasivissuit-Nipisat. This was a visit that could have gone wrong in so many ways. Flight on a small aircraft from Nuuk to Kangerlussuaq; reassembly of the bike at the airport; cycling to the end of the gravel road of unknown quality; spending the night there; cycling back the next morning; disassembling and repacking the bike at the airport; another small flight to Illulisat in the afternoon. Fortunately, everything worked perfectly. The weather was spectacular, I saw musk-ox, the scenery was incredible, and camping under the midnight Sun within sight of the Greenland Ice Sheet was an unforgettable experience.

Bwindi. The dirt road that climbs up the mountain to the Park was not as difficult as I expected, and the cool weather of Uganda got even more exhilarating as the altitude increased. Best of all, on the day of my tracking, when I was the only visitor present, the Gorillas chose to settle down for their day at a particularly convenient location. Additionally, to help restart tourism in late 2020, Uganda had temporarily reduced the tracking fee to $400, down from $700 (the only noteworthy covid-related discount I ever had.)  On my first long tour, at one point I found myself at the tracking base in Rwanda, but foolishly talked myself out of going to see the Gorillas, and I was very relieved to have finally been able to correct that major error.

Surtsey. If you had only asked me for only one Site, this would have been my choice, even though the actual visit was made by boat, not by bike. In addition to the uncommon-destination effect mentioned above, this was another case of both seemingly unlikely scheduling and weather coming through at the last minute to make a visit possible, with a destination that had long been a personal aspiration for me. I was very pleased to learn that a few other community members have been able to get there since then. The cost for that visit was 2.5 times what I told myself I would be willing to spend, but when the time came I found myself agreeing without hesitation, and I am so glad that I did, it was a near-perfect day!

Which were the WHS you visited (on this or the previous tour), which were the best for birding?

Not surprisingly, all of my recommendations will be Sites in the tropics. Most people will immediately think of rainforests. While there are always many great birds in that habitat, tropical forests are notoriously difficult places to see birds well, even for birders who are much more experienced than I am. Central Suriname turned out well for me this time, but Central Amazon was rather disappointing. I tend to prefer areas where the environment is a little more open. Pantanal was really excellent, as was Kakadu for the unique Australian birds. I was in Korea at exactly the wrong time of year for migratory birds on the mudflats, so I didn’t even try there. However, my personal favorites are the Sites on the East African savannas, Kenya Lakes, Serengeti, and Ngorongoro, for example. Not only are there many beautiful and unusual bird species there, but they are often much easier to see, even around the Lodges, or nearby towns and cities. The drawback is that you probably won’t be able to do that independently, but on the plus side there is always the chance that you might get eaten by a Leopard!

Your way of travelling also is a tribute to slow travel. Some people would go crazy about what happened to you when trying to visit the Rock Islands of Palau…

Slow travel is definitely the best travel. And if you are going to be slow, Palau is an excellent place for that. The country was my first destination after leaving my cursed stay on Guam [Michael had a serious cycling accident here, ed.], and I intended to be there for a while, to begin my rehab and, of course, enjoy the Rock Islands. After about two weeks, I was feeling mostly ready to organize my visit to the Site, but it was not going to be simple. Only relatively few tourists had made it back to Palau at the time, but all of the tour operators would only run tours with at least four people, so no one was going to the Islands any time soon. I had just started to look around for a more costly private tour, when another delay became apparent. The chief of Koror State, Ibedul Yutaka Gibbons, had just passed away while receiving medical treatment in Taiwan.

Palauan tradition required that there would be a period of mourning, with all official offices, services and many businesses on Koror closed until after the official funeral, and this included the Rock Islands. Apparently, this usually lasts for a few weeks, but this time it would be a little longer, to allow time for the Chief to be brought back from Taiwan, and no one could say for sure when everything would be open again. I was supportive of the idea of keeping up the tradition, especially since I learned that Chief Gibbons seemed to have been an admirable public servant, who was one of the officials who had previously stood up to the U.S. Navy by prohibiting nuclear warships from operating in Palauan waters. The local tourism industry was more distressed, however, since they had just started up again after being shut down for over eighteen months.

In the end, the closure lasted for about four weeks. The ferry I took from Koror to Peleliu Island actually passes right through the core zone of the Site, and it provided nice views, so in the worst case I probably would have counted that as a visit, but I still wanted a more proper experience. During my final days in the country the Site was open again, but bad weather prevented small boats from going there up until the very last day, right before my midnight flight out. Six weeks is a personal record for the length of time required to visit a Site, but I was definitely happy to finally see that beautiful WHS up close.

Finally, tells us what it is about dogs and bicycles?

Free-roaming dogs have been a contentious topic in the cycling community for decades. However, from experience, I can say that this is primarily a problem in the Americas, Europe, and a few other places, where dogs are more likely to be “purebred,” a situation that has caused many of them to go insane. In other parts of the world, the de-evolving mutts you are more likely to encounter are usually much less aggressive. It has long been my strategy when unfriendly dogs are around to simply try to outrun them, which usually works. One time when it didn’t was during the early weeks if this tour, as I was riding across the US state of New Mexico. For the first time in my life, one of those snarling beasts actually got its teeth briefly on my left ankle, drawing blood in the process.

A few days later, I was making my way uphill to get to the Taos Pueblo Site. The highway leading to the town of Taos is deficient in a typically American way, being too narrow for the amount of high-speed traffic it carries, so I was already feeling quite stressed. There is only one smaller road that covers the final few kilometers to the Pueblo and I was dismayed to see a sign there that read, “Walking Prohibited, Bicycling Prohibited.” Of course, I thought, “That’s outrageous!” and kept on riding to the Site, an act for which I was politely scolded by the Puebloan staff when I arrived. Later, I learned that that policy was enacted because the Puebloans in the area are worried that someone might get bitten by one of the mean feral dogs that live around that road. I wanted to say something like, “I’ve already had a dog bite in New Mexico, let me ride through!” but mainly I just thought that perhaps finding a nicer home for those dogs might be a better solution.

Els - 5 June 2022

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Comments

Michael Ayers 9 June 2022

Gracias, Esteban! I enjoyed cycling across Costa Rica (south>north) way back in 2008. :-)


Esteban Cervantes Jiménez (vantcj1) 7 June 2022

Really inspiring testimony. Definitely an amazing way to travel!


Michael Ayers 7 June 2022

Thanks, Astraftis! Good luck to you too. I'm looking forward to more of your reviews :-)


Astraftis 6 June 2022

Great! This is a real inspiration, and I love the slow-travel aspect of it. Good luck for everything! :-)


Michael Ayers 6 June 2022

Thanks, Jay & Kyle, I really appreciate your comments! All of the reviews and discussions that whs.org provides really make travel to the Sites much more efficient and enriching. :-)


Jay T 5 June 2022

I've enjoyed following Michael's travels; it's quite an impressive way to see the world!


Kyle Magnuson 5 June 2022

Impressive, we have incredible travellers here! An excellent read, safe travels in the future.


Blog Countries

Top Tips for Tunisia

I had always been hesitant about going to Tunisia, it seemed boring and geared to package holidays for the masses, but I enjoyed it a lot more than I had expected. What it lacks in originality (I would be hard-pressed to name anything typical Tunisian), it makes up for it by just delivering it all well at a relatively low cost. I visited all of its 8 current WHS within a week, at an average all-inclusive cost of 117 EUR per WHS. Please find below my Top Tips for Travelling to Tunisia as a WH Traveller.

1. A little bit of French goes a long way

My French isn’t good, but right when I started using it in my interactions with the Tunisians I was taken by the friendliness of random shop owners, ticket sellers, and restaurant staff. People are much less comfortable in English and will look at you as if you’re from another universe. In French, they will make small-talk and smother you in helpful directions.

2. Louages are the way to go

The louage is Tunisia’s gift to the world’s public transport. It’s an improved version of the marshrutka that you encounter in the former Soviet countries: a minibus that functions as a shared taxi. In Tunisia, they don’t take more people than there are seats, prices are fixed (set by the government) and you buy the ticket at a ticket window. The minibusses drive from A to B, from the louage station in Sousse to the one in Tunis for example, and usually don’t stop along the way (or maybe once near the city center). Trains are much slower, prone to delays, and serve only part of the country.

3. Include the Northern Loop

The 3 WHS in northern Tunisia (Dougga, Kerkuane, Ichkeul) are a bit harder to reach than the other 5. For sure by public transport, but possibly also by rental car, they may take a day trip each. The landscape here is much greener though than in the rest of the country, and here you will understand why the region was seen as the breadbasket and olive grove for the Roman Empire. It still is a very rich agricultural area. My best drive was the road between Dougga and Bizerte, with quiet roads and great scenery, including at the end the views on Lake Ichkeul.

4. Don't let the political-economic situation scare you

If you read The Economist or similar global affairs news sources, you may get the impression that Tunisia is on the brink of total collapse and becoming the next Lebanon or Sri Lanka – the Parliament has been sent home by the President, and Tunisia is a big wheat importer from Russia and Ukraine. It has been prone to social unrest in the past and there were a number of deadly terrorist attacks between 2002 and 2015. On the positive side, however, it’s a small and culturally homogenous country, much more secular than its neighbours and with a longstanding democratic and civilized backbone. On the ground, in May 2022, it felt totally safe and welcoming, without any signs of food shortages. Travelling around as a solo female traveller also is no issue at all: you’ll meet single Tunisian women using public transport and hotels all the time.

5. Breakfast as the food highlight of the day

While evening meals can be good as well, if you know to find a good restaurant, Tunisia’s food highlight for me was breakfast. You certainly do not start the day here on an empty stomach. In fact, the breakfasts in the midrange hotels where I stayed were always so great and abundant that lunch could easily be skipped. Usually, it was a mix of French and Tunisian dishes, from croissants and pain-au-chocolat to several kinds of fresh Tunisian bread. Accompanied by fig jam, olive tapenade, local cheeses, and even some early morning spicy harissa. Eggs for those who like them. And then fresh strawberries and yogurt for dessert. Or should I take that piece of chocolate cake?

Els - 29 May 2022

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Clyde 29 May 2022

thanks for the useful tips, especially regarding the North!


Blog WHS Visits

WHS #789: Kairouan

I visited Kairouan on a half-day trip from Sousse by louage, the typical Tunisian minibus share taxi. The 60km distance is easily covered within an hour and a ticket costs only 5 Tunisian dinars (1.70 EUR). It was a scorching day, but still I managed to see all of Kairouan’s significant sights on foot – I walked the streets for 10km in total. With about 140,000 inhabitants, it is a fairly large city, located in a semi-arid region. Fortunately, there are many mini-markets where you can stop for a cool drink.

I started at the Aghlabid Basins, 1 of the 3 locations that make up this WHS. This is already quite a trek from the louage station. The Basins, large water reservoirs from the 9th century, were built outside the city walls and are fed by an aqueduct. I entered from the side, where the gate was open; the official entrance wasn’t and there were no tickets checked or sold. Local boys were using the reservoirs for swimming, although with plastic garbage floating in them this didn't look inviting. Still, I found the monumentality of the reservoirs quite impressive – the largest is 128m in diameter. Later I heard from the guide in Dougga that more basins have been found recently.

I then continued to location #2, the Zaouia of Sidi Sahib which shelters the remains of a companion of the Prophet. It is a white, domed building just inside the city walls. I found it closed for entrance, but there’s another Zaouia, that of Sidi Abid Al Ghariani, deeper into the medina. Here I was allowed in, even without a ticket. After a reception room with benches covered by green, blue, and yellow tiles, you enter a courtyard with black-and-white arches. It opens up to several rooms, including the one where the tomb is. That one has a pretty wooden ceiling with multiple layers of ornamentation.

The Great Mosque I left for last, and here I could finally buy the 12 dinar entrance ticket that covers 6 sites in Kairouan. Its ancient origins (in an Arab-Muslim context, so from the 7th century onwards) and theological schools gave the city holy status. Kairouan’s current inhabitants don’t seem to be overly pious, nor was the mosque busy. The ambiance was more museum-like than religious, although it must be said that as a non-Muslim I was not allowed into the prayer halls (who knows what happens there).

What you can admire in the porticoes around the courtyard are ‘better’ remains of Carthage than at the current archaeological site itself. The Punic-Roman city was one of the sources for the rows of columns in various marbles and granite. Also, stones with inscriptions in Latin were reused, upside-down, to construct the walls.

In between these main sights, I enjoyed strolling through the quiet medina. Overall, I found the hassle factor higher than in the medinas of Tunis or Sousse, where it was barely existent. It consisted of harmless “Hey, where are you from?”-calls and invitations to visit carpet shops. Still, I found the medina in Kairouan the best of the 3. The streets here are wider than in the medinas of Tunis or Sousse. Many of the white buildings have light-blue colour accents, such as doors or towers.

Els - 22 May 2022

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Blog WHS Visits

WHS #786: Carthage

Carthage may not be Tunisia’s grandest attraction anymore, its rich and powerful empire by far superseded the importance of the country it currently is part of. Unfortunately, not a lot is known about the cultural history of the Carthaginians – most books focus on the military history and their battles with the Romans (using sources written by Romans). You'll know enough if you listen to only one podcast on that subject. At an exhibition on Punic Carthage that I visited in Leiden in 2015, I found more to my taste (those white and blue glazed pendants!). The accompanying book, “Carthage: fact and myth”, still is the best one I could find as it covers a range of topics including the Punic writing system, the relationship with the Numidians, and its influence on European art.

I choose to do a half-day tour with Le Lemon Tour for my real-life visit. They own a bicycle shop in Carthage and conduct tours – on a bike of course! - to the archaeological sites. They are very professional and you can also just rent a bike to explore the area on your own. That a bike is such a good way of transportation here, also says a lot about the terrain. The sites are all separate “islands”, with their own access, in between the quiet and prosperous residential areas. Fortunately, you have to pay your entrance fee only once: for 12 TD (4 EUR) you can visit the 8 associated sites and they will stamp your ticket at each location.

We started our tour at the Tophet. During the whole itinerary today I tried to concentrate on the Punic aspects and 'think away' the later Roman ones, but this is a Punic location only. Here they buried their children in amphoras, with hundreds of headstones still remaining. The headstones show writing in the Phoenician alphabet and depictions of local gods such as Tanit. It’s a very atmospheric place, especially because of the many trees. One of the species present, the pomegranate, even was named after the Punic: its Latin name is Punica granatum

We then cycled on towards the Punic harbour. As its naval fleet was Carthage’s greatest asset, they built a military harbour with restricted access behind the commercial harbour. The commercial one was rectangular, the military one circular shaped. The current 2 Tunisian dinar coin shows these two connected harbours very nicely. We cycled along both, but the best views may be had from Byrsa hill. It’s a long distance away, but the shapes can be clearly seen.

Byrsa Hill probably is the main location of this WHS. It has remains from Punic, Roman and colonial times. Here we also encountered the most other tourists. The Punic ruins consist of a residential quarter, now signposted as “the Hannibal district”. It had houses and shops in a fan-shaped plan, that suited the steep terrain.

We further visited remains from the Roman period: the Roman theatre and the Antonine Baths. The baths are the most impressive Roman remains, especially because of their size and their elaborate setup. It really was a spa ‘avant la lettre’, with a huge variety of baths and pools. Except for Byrsa Hill, all locations we visited were very quiet and the roads between them as well. So I had a very pleasant cycling tour and I am happy that I have seen the works of the Carthaginians with my own eyes.

Els - 15 May 2022

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Blog WHS website

Spring Cleaning

Over the past 6 weeks, I have spent 3 to 4 hours a day improving much of the outdated content on this website. Country by country, I touched upon every single WHS site page; all 1154 of them. I replaced old photos, verified links, spell-checked texts, and re-evaluated reviews. I finished last week with Spain and Italy, which took a full day each but brought back good memories of so many short trips. Find below what I learned from it, plus some hints on how you can help to improve these pages even more.

1. Site Intro

Every WHS site page starts with a short introduction to the WHS and one identifying photo. I tackled these photos first, some were over 15 years old. They were tiny, scanned from an analog photo, or unsharp in general. In the process, I replaced 633 old photos with bigger/better/newer/sharper ones. But there are still 85 photos left that are older than 10 years. Can you help refresh them? I've provided a list and the requirements at the Forum.

The intro texts I haven’t yet touched content-wise (that may be a project for next year). But I did try to make them all of a similar length. So some became shorter, and others got a few extra lines. Especially for the newer sites without clear OUV, I find it hard to write something.

2. Reviews

The review sections also have had a major upgrade. Starting with my own reviews: I have moved most (583 out of 755) of them to the generic “Community Reviews” section. While copying them I did a spell-check (finding out that I make the same mistakes over and over again – I seem to not be able to spell “volcano” right for example). I can recommend other non-native English speakers to use a tool like Grammarly as well.

Regarding the Community Reviews: I disabled 205 reviews of other people, less than 3% of the total. I still have been quite lenient I think in the interpretation of “quality”, but have removed those without proper punctuation marks, the ones that were written as a school exercise, or without clear reference to actually having been there, and those just stating that they loved the shops or pointing to outdated weblinks.

What I noticed, in general, is that some countries are seriously under-reviewed: Armenia is a good example. Norway also has not that many contributions. Other sites seem over-reviewed (Vienna, Cologne Cathedral) but lack substance. The serial transnational sites on the other hand seem popular for all their locations to cover: there’s a great spread among the Beech forests, Struve Arc and Le Corbusier reviews!

If you’re looking for an original review to write: I’ve made a list of sites that have not been reviewed in the past 10 years – it includes Quebrada de Humahuaca for example (pictured below), and the Drakensberg Mountains.

3. Site Links

Surprisingly, the most effort went into the Site links section. I verified the links of all official and related websites. Some brought me to casino websites or triggered browser security warnings. I had to throw away a lot, including “official” web pages. So now we're left with 84 WHS without reference to an official website!

Some countries also have significantly improved their web presence in English. Glamorous national tourism websites all named “Visit [countryname]” have been developed, such as Visit Saudi (“Welcome to Arabia”) and Visit Montenegro (“Breathtaking Beauty”). There now even is a Visit Pitcairn for those who want to hit Henderson Island.

Els - 8 May 2022

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Martina Ruckova 8 May 2022

Amazing work done, Els, as always! As a regular, I would like to say to all of you who review sites, Ivan and I love reading your insights both before and after our own visit. They are a great source of information and many are very amusing. I will try to add some more of my own where they might be helpful.


Jay T 8 May 2022

Thank you for all the work you put into this site — I really enjoy the layout and the reviews, as well as the community here. I’ll see if I can find some photos for a couple sites you are hoping to update.


Blog Connections

Petrosomatoglyphs

Among the farewell gifts from my last (and final?) job was a book called “God. An anatomy”. It describes the depiction of body parts of God in early sculptures and paintings as found in the region where Christianity developed. It is chock-full of descriptions of places where such examples can be seen. Of course, I immediately considered whether a new connection could be derived from it. However, depictions of (parts of) God are rare at WHS, or are so small or precious that they have been moved to museums.

But we already have a similar connection, about a subject which the book also touches slightly: Petrosomatoglyphs. These are (supposed) impressions of part of a human or animal body incised in rock. I updated the connection details, deleted a couple, and found some more; the sources used can be found for reference in the weblinks on the connection page.

Divine Footprints

These prints are often used in religious ceremonies, a practice that is present in all main religions.

Christianity

  • In the Church of San Sebastiano Fuori le Mura in Rome, the alleged footprints of Jesus can be seen. They are related to the apocryphal episode called Quo Vadis, where St. Peter fled Rome, and met Jesus at the Via Appia who was going the other way “to be crucified again”.
  • At Kernavë, a stone has been found with 'footmarks of the Christ, the Virgin Mary and the lamb'. I suspect it is in the on-site museum, but have failed to find pictures of it.

Islam

The veneration of the Footprints of the Prophet is common in Islam as well, although it is rejected by the orthodox. This article explains well how it developed.

  • The tradition may have started at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, where there are "marks" of the footprint of Mohammed (made as he stepped upon it to mount his horse Barak when commencing his ride to Paradise), Barak's Hoofprint and the hand/fingerprint of Gabriel (who was holding back the rock as it tried to follow Mohammed). Its discovery may have been a 7th-century answer to the footprints of Christ which were shown to pilgrims at the Mount of Olives.
  • In Caïro, two footprints have been preserved in the Mausoleum of Qaitbey.
  • In Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, there is a whole collection of Mohammed’s footprints, brought there from other places.

Buddhism

The most and best-known examples of divine footprints surely come from Buddhism. “In [the] early years, when overt representations of the Buddha image were taboo, the main artistic vehicle for symbolizing the Buddha’s presence was to show the Buddha's ‘footprint.’” * Among the WHS, they can be found at:

  • Ancient Nara: at Yakushi-ji, footprint incised stone with circles of truth engraved in the feet (dated to 753 AD)
  • Ancient Kyoto: at Kiyomizu-dera 
  • Central Highlands: a footprint-shaped mark at the summit of Adam’s Peak. This is believed by Buddhists to be that of the Buddha. Christian and Islamic traditions assert that it is the footprint of Adam, Hindu tradition refers to the footprint as that of Shiva.
  • Luang Prabang: at Phu Si, “it must be an abstract representation rather than the real deal, as it measures three metres.”
  • Bagan: for example at the Ananda Temple, which has two Buddha footprint symbols on pedestals. In Bagan, the tradition was started to ”depict the 108 auspicious signs on the soles of the Buddha’s feet”.
  • Sanchi: the bottom of the pillar face of Stupa 1 has two footprints of the Buddha with a wheel of the Law on their sole.

Prints left by common people

Foot and handprints of common people, without the symbolic connotations, have also survived. They were left accidentally in clay or concrete, or maybe on purpose by the people who built the sites: 

  • Hal Saflieni Hypogeum: a carved left hand of a human is to be found on the wall of the Decorated Hall in the Hypogeum
  • Frontiers of the Roman Empire: at Vindolanda, a partial print of an adolescent’s right foot has been found and dated to 160-180 CE.
  • Tchogha Zanbil: the floor tiles show both animal and human footprints, one or more said to be of children.

Petroglyphs of footprints are very common in the Valcamonica rock art (over 200 in the single Rock 6 in the Foppe di Nadro area). They also appear as part of the petroglyphs of Twyfelfontein and Tanum. They seem similar to the Hand Prints, which are painted instead of engraved.

Do you know of more examples to add to this connection? Any Hindu ones within WHS core zones? 

Els - 1 May 2022

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Els Slots 2 May 2022

Found one in Ephesus as well, as mentioned in Clyde's review.


Els Slots 2 May 2022

Thanks, Astraftis. I have added the Danevirke one.


Astraftis 1 May 2022

As for other footprints of common people, at the Danevirke museum near Schleswig one exhibit is a brick with a small human footprint. You could vote whether you think it is of a child, or a gnome...

You can see it in the first image here: https://www.danevirkemuseum.de/de/startseite/


Astraftis 1 May 2022

I cannot remember any such stone with footmarks at Kernavė's museum, which I visited quite attentively. Is it exhibited at all or will it be some sort of mirage?!


Els Slots 1 May 2022

Good additions, Pavel and Juha!


Juha Sjoeblom 1 May 2022

I remember that inside the Dingding Gate (Silk Roads) of Luoyang there are lots of footprints of human and horse and traces of horse cart wheels from Silk Road times.


Matejicek 1 May 2022

...and there are also hand-prints and footprints of pilgrims in underground corridors of the sanctuary (Santuario di San Michele Archangelo).


Matejicek 1 May 2022

In Santuario di San Michele Archangelo in Monte Sant`Angelo (component of Longobards in Italy WHS), Michael the Archangel descent from Heaven and left his footprint on the rock in the cave.


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