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This is a new video that we have just produced on Skyrail in Cairns, Australia. Please view and LIKE it and we would be delighted if you would also subscribe to our channel.
Here is another Experience Guides video that has just been published. I hope you enjoy watching it.
Check out this new video from Experience Guides on iconic Monument Valley in the USA.
Spellbinding red-rock desert, dramatic canyons and high-altitude forests are just a few of the wonders to discover in Zion National Park in the state of Utah, USA. A visit last month showed me a red-rock wonderland created by wind, water, and snow that is almost too spectacular to believe.
Zion is the third most visited park in the USA for very good reason. It is large, accessible and downright dramatic. The few hours I spent in the park were clearly not enough. It deserves several days of your time.
Human use of the area dates back to at least 6,000 B.C. but it was not known outside the local area until Mormon pioneers arriving in the area in the 1860s. They were so overwhelmed by the natural beauty of Zion Canyon and its surroundings that they named it after the Old Testament name for the city of Jerusalem.
In 1863, Issac Behunin built the first log cabin in Zion Canyon, near the location of the present Zion Lodge. Soon the canyon was dotted with other homesteads but these struggled to survive and were eventually abandoned.
The park is centred on Zion Canyon—24 kilometres long and almost 1,000 metres deep in places. The old riverside town of Springdale is the park’s primary gateway. The main street is flanked by scores of hotels, restaurants, art galleries, and shops, as well as outfitters and tour operators that arrange adventure activities in and around the park.
Pedestrian and vehicle bridges connect Springdale with the park Visitor Centre on the other side of the Virgin River. In addition to exhibits and information, the visitor centre is the southern terminus of the Zion National Park Shuttle, which is the only way to reach the heart of the canyon during summer when visitation peaks.
The first stop on the shuttle route is the Zion Human History Museum, which details the heritage of Native Americans and Mormon pioneers in the region. Entering the canyon, the shuttle makes seven stops, including historic Zion Lodge, a classic national park lodging opened in 1927. The park’s most celebrated landmark—the Great White Throne, a 500-metre-high rock face—can be seen from numerous places along the canyon road.
The road and shuttle route ends inside the Temple of Sinawava, a colossal natural amphitheatre. A riverside path continues to the Narrows, where the three-hundred metres-high canyon walls are sometimes just 7 to 10 metres apart.
I found Zion Canyon epic, and it is full of off-the-beaten path adventures and hidden gems, perfect for seeking out during the crowded summer high season. There are also plenty of activities other than hiking. You can choose between rock climbing and rappelling, helicopter and 4×4 tours, guided hikes along the Narrows, and tubing on the Virgin River downstream from the park.
Zion, is not without its myths and legends. The major one is that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid built a cabin hide-out in Zion Canyon but there is no evidence of this. Though Cassidy grew up in nearby Circleville, Utah, virtually all of his train and bank robberies occurred out of state, where quick hide-outs were necessary.
The park’s ecosystems support about 800 native plant species, including more flowers than anywhere else in Utah. With an elevation change of about 1,500 metres, a myriad of habitats and species thrive here. Plants vary, as fir, ponderosa pine, and aspen prefer the snowy high-country winters, while other plants flourish in the desert heat. Likewise, animal life is diverse. Tiny pinon mice, golden eagles, California condors, Mexican spotted owls, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain lions are all found in the park but I saw only a few of these.
Accommodation and eating
Historic Zion Lodge is the only in-park lodging at Zion National Park and it fills up fast. Accommodation is in historic cabins with two double beds, full bath, gas log fireplace and private porch, and in hotel rooms. All rooms have air conditioning, phones, radio alarm clocks and hairdryers. There are also three campgrounds where reservations are recommended. There are dozens of hotels near Zion National Park, ranging from family-friendly hotels with pools to exquisite bed and breakfasts in Springdale.
Non-guests can eat at the year-round Red Rock Grill at Zion Lodge and enjoy spectacular views of the surroundings, while outdoor dining is available at the seasonal Castle Dome Cafe. Before or after touring the park, Springdale is the fuelling point for quick bites and leisurely meals.
Zion National Park is located 75 kilometres northeast of St. George, 500 kilometres south of Salt Lake City and 250 kilometres northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. Most visitors will arrive by car, either their own or a rental but there are bus tours available from Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Images: Phensri Rutledge
Slam, bang, bif, pow! I awake to unfamiliar sounds and cautiously pull up the blind. Oh, it’s just two kangaroos having a ‘friendly’ stand-up fight just outside my window. There’s nothing unusual about that at Undara.
The wildlife, the vegetation, the lava tubes and the railway carriage accommodation would all be considered very different elsewhere but here they are part of the amazing Undara Experience.
I am in North Queensland, Australia revisiting one of the most fascinating Outback destinations easily accessible from the coastal cities. I first visited Undara with cattleman Gerry Collins back in the late 1980s when he had a dream to develop this unique area into a tourist attraction. At the time he was battling the Queensland Government for approvals and was trying to save his land from compulsory acquisition.
In the end he succeeded with his dream and Queensland has a unique top quality experience for both local and international visitors. It is a wonderful destination from either Townsville or Cairns.
For accommodation, we choose the beautifully restored one-hundred-year-old railway carriages. These are set along the original Cobb & Co. coach road and are shaded by tall trees and a canopy roof. The rooms contain a very comfortable double bed, old railway seats, ceiling fans, and a bathroom.
The carriages are unique, comfortable and romantic. We love them. Other options are the permanent swag tents, some of which have their own kitchen, the caravan park and camp ground, and self-contained air-conditioned Pioneers Huts.
After settling in we go exploring. We find the free tea and coffee that is always available and then relax in the deck chairs by the lagoon pool. This is perfect after the drive from Townsville. After recharging, we go on a self-guided bush walk. There are nine tracks ranging from 1.5km to 12km return. We climb a nearby knoll and gaze over the plateau towards some of the 164 old volcanoes in the province. There is no sign of human occupation as far as we can see.
We enquire about tours and are told about the Wildlife at Sunset trip that departs each day at around 5.30pm. Naturally we go on it. We watch the sunset while enjoying sparkling wine and cheese and then are taken to the entrance of a lava tube at dusk to see pythons and tree snakes capturing a meal of micro bats as they emerge from the darkness in their thousands.
Dinner at night is at the Iron Pot Bistro. The a-la-carte menu has beef, Georgetown sausages, chicken, fish, and vegetarian noodle stir fry dishes. Meals are large, delicious and filling. We linger over several glasses of wine and then share a ‘chocolate volcano’ dessert. After dinner, we relax around the campfire, enjoy the brilliant starry sky then wander back through the Australian bush to our railway carriage ‘home’ for a good night’s sleep.
It’s morning. The kangaroos have woken me so I watch nature’s world through the window. There are wallabies, wallaroos, parrots, kookaburras, currawongs and magpies all happily going about the business of eating. I guess it is time for our breakfast.
We wander off into the bush along a well-defined track and soon come upon the Ringers Camp. The fire is burning, the billy tea is boiling and the freshly brewed coffee spreads its aroma throughout the camp.
Cereal, fruit, sausages, baked beans, eggs, sautéed vegetables, bacon and a variety of juices make for a great breakfast. We toast bread over the coals of the fire and spread it with honey and jam. Why do I eat so much more when in a setting like this?
It’s 8am and we gather for the Archway Explorer tour. There are ten of us in the minibus as we drive to a lava tube. Lava tubes are the result of volcanic lava flowing down depressions. Eventually the surface cooled and formed a crust but underneath the lava continued to flow.
The eruption eventually stopped and lava flowed out of the far end of the tubes, leaving tunnels beneath the land. Eventually holes appeared when the roof collapsed on the tubes and rainforest sprang up in these dark, moist hollows.
We enter one of these depressions and are surrounded by life. The dry savannah has given way to lush vegetation. Dozens of butterflies flit around our heads. We are in a different world. The huge entrance to a lava tube is straight ahead.
Entering the tube is a wonderful experience. We come face to face with 190,000 years of history. Timber walkways lead deep into the darkness. Our Savannah Guide gives us environmental, geological and historical information on the region.
We visit two other tubes. A long wet season has raised the water table and some tubes are part-filled with water. At one, we strip to our swimwear and bathe in the clear water. We’re told that this is a very rare experience, happening on average, once every twenty years!
While it is possible to experience the highlights of Undara by staying one night, a two-night stay is clearly better. This gives you time to take a second tour to a different section of the tubes, explore more of the walking trails and visit some of the other attractions in the area.
There are non-stop air services from Johannesburg to Sydney and then on-flights to Townsville or Cairns.
Len Rutledge finds that Bucharest now welcomes all visitors
“There is no such thing as vampires,” I’m told on my first afternoon in Bucharest, Romania. “Dracula is our country’s biggest brand, but he is fake.” My wife and I had not come to Bucharest to find vampires. In fact, we were uncertain why we had come but a few days later it was clear. We had come to see a place once known as the “Paris of the East” which had suffered badly under five decades of communism but was now re-emerging as a welcoming place for all visitors.
Bucharest is unlikely to win any awards for beauty or style, but it surprised us with its cosmopolitan vibe and energy. Although much of Romania’s capital was bulldozed by the communists, the old town survived and is abuzz with bars, cafes and restaurants.
Nicolae Ceausescu, the megalomaniacal ruler for many years, ripped out a huge area of the historical centre — 30,000 houses, schools, and churches — to create his dream city with wide boulevards, stone-faced apartment blocks, and gurgling fountains modelled, it is said, on Pyongyang, North Korea. That is still there but thankfully so too are some wonderful art nouveau buildings, ancient churches and monasteries, lush parkland, lakes and elegant boulevards.
Romania joined the EU in 2007, but it is not in the Euro zone. Instead we changed our money to Romanian lei, and received a pleasant surprise with the result. That is another reason to stay longer than planned.
We started our sightseeing by visited the indisputably jaw-dropping Palace of the Parliament, a gargantuan concrete folly and an embodiment of communist-era might. Ceausescu bled the nation dry to erect the second-largest building in the world (after the Pentagon) and the huge annual maintenance bill is still a drain on resources. It finally opened in 1994 — five years after Ceausescu was executed in a bloody revolt.
We toured in a small group through a fraction of the 1100 rooms. Most are empty to this day but the ones we saw were lavishly decorated. Finally, we moved on to the balcony in Union Hall to take in the view down Unirii Boulevard. To visit, you need to have your passport with you and there is high security.
Palace Square was where in 1989, Nicolae Ceaușescu realised that the 80,000 people that had gathered had not come to hear his speech but to start a revolution. He began to deliver his speech but he was quickly airlifted by helicopter from the roof top. He and his wife were executed three days later and the square was renamed Revolution Square.
Around the square are the tall white Memorial of Rebirth Obelisque, the former Royal Palace which is now the National Museum of Art of Romania, and the mid-19th century Roman Athenaeum opera house where the Romanian Philharmonic Orchestra plays.
The National Museum of Art is separated into a European Gallery, with an impressive quota of old masters, and a National Gallery of Romanian art. Just north, the Roman Athenaeum is arguably the most beautiful building in town, and it’s worth visiting to sample its acoustics and to gawk at its opulence. This building is a Romanian symbol and appears on a 5 Lei note.
Art of a different kind is seen on the streets. There seems to be graffiti everywhere but as one local put it,” They’re just buildings being ‘spruced up’ with graffiti.”
One of the surprising delights was roaming around without a plan. Fresco-filled churches hide in corners where they escaped communist building projects. The majority of the population are Eastern Orthodox, and you will find Orthodox churches dotted throughout the city. Tiny but beautiful Stavropoleos Church is in the Old Town while St Apostles’ Church and Antim Church, are both near Unirii Boulevard.
For something different we strolled in the gorgeously landscaped Cismigiu Park and watched the boats on the lake. There is a chess and backgammon retreat for seniors, the most seats I have ever seen in a park, and buskers for entertainment. This is just one of several nice parks and gardens.
In another park, mills, parts of churches, old homesteads and agricultural structures are all on display in the National Village Museum, an open-air delight on the banks of Herăstrău Lake. It is comprised of some 300 buildings. It is a very long walk from the Old Town but several buses run past the museum.
Romanian food is not well known outside the country so we went to Caru’ cu Bere, the Old Town’s most famous beer hall with gorgeous painted vaults to try the Romanian national dish; cabbage rolls stuffed with mincemeat, with a side of polenta. It was excellent. We later tried this dish in other places and always found it enjoyable.
Bucharest was a surprise. After several days we were still finding new things to see, new places to eat and drink (the Old Town has hundreds of restaurants and bars), and new experiences to enjoy. We could happily go back there.
IF YOU GO
There are no direct flights from Australia to Bucharest but there are connections from many European capitals.
Australian passport holders do not need a visa for a tourist visit of up to 90 days.
Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge
1. Palace of the Parliament
2. Revolution Square
3. Orthodox Church of Sfantul Anton-Curtea Veche
4. Old Town Restaurants
Luxor is an hour’s flight up the Nile from Cairo. Luxor grew out of the ruins of Thebes the capital of Egypt from about 1500 to 1000 B.C. Now it is one of the Middle East’s major attractions.
Luxor has suffered badly in recent times because tourism almost collapsed, but now there are signs of a pick-up. Direct flights from many European cities ceased and the once-thriving river services to and from Aswan virtually stopped. Some of the 300 or so riverboats that took tourists in relative luxury along the Nile are back in business but most are still tied to the banks and many are rotting away.
This means it is a great time to visit. Hotels have cut prices, tour guides are readily available, crowds are nowhere to be seen and everyone is going out of their way to be friendly, helpful and courteous. Safety is on everyone’s minds and I must say my wife and I felt completely at ease everywhere we went.
The city has a nice riverside promenade, a flotilla of ferries crossing the river, huge hotels facing the Nile, and restaurants and markets competing for the relatively few tourists. The streets jingle with the sounds of bells on horse carriages, which we initially took to be for tourists, but actually they are part of the local transport scene.
This complex of three temples built over a 2000-year period is probably the biggest temple on earth. Our expectations were high and as we wandered the site we became more and more impressed. The stillness of the whole place with its stone columns soaring against the brilliant blue sky was breathtaking.
The surfaces of the grand courtyards are all covered by fine carvings. The scale and detail is staggering. I thought of the vision, the work and the investment that went into this huge structure and then was told that all this could not even be seen at the time by the public. It was only for priests, royals, and the gods.
A millennium later the public entered. We saw marks on the columns where Roman soldiers sharpened their swords, and early Christian images of Mary and Jesus are carved on the ancient pillars like graffiti. Many of the statues have had their noses cut off by the Romans to destroy the Pharaohs rebirth system, because Egyptians then believed that the soul needed to re-enter the body via the nose.
The Luxor Temple is all about the great warrior pharaoh, Ramses II even though it was started 100 years or more (around 1380BC) before his reign. Two 25m pink granite obelisk built by Ramses once stood before the entrance gateway but today only one remains; the other stands in the Place De La Concorde in Paris.
The temple has been in almost continuous use as a place of worship. During the Christian era, the temple’s hypostyle hall was used as a Christian church. Then for many centuries the temple was buried and a mosque was eventually built over it. This mosque was carefully preserved when the temple was uncovered and forms an integral part of the site today.
Originally an avenue lined with sphinxes ran the entire 3 kilometres between the Luxor and Karnak Temples. This avenue is currently under excavation and reconstruction and you see a short completed section near Luxor Temple.
In about 1600 B.C. there was a big change in the style of royal tombs. Until then, kings were buried in pyramids, but these were consistently being robbed, which meant kings were waking up in the afterlife without their precious earthly possessions. So, rather than mark their tombs with big pyramids, the kings started hiding their tombs underground in the valleys on the west side of the Nile.
Each buried king was provided with all the necessary things that would provide a comfortable existence in the afterlife, however, most of this has been looted over the centuries so most tombs were empty when they were rediscovered in modern times. The condition of the 63 tombs that have been discovered and the details on their walls, however, is incredible after all these centuries. Most are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology.
Most of the tombs are not open to the public. The entry ticket to the valley allows you to visit three tombs out of several that are open but some require additional payment. The cost is reasonable and the visitor arrangements are good, however, be aware that in summer the temperature can be stifling. Photography is not allowed in the tombs.
This is perhaps the most spectacular structure on the west bank. The mortuary temple was only discovered about 150 years ago and there is still some on-going restoration work underway. The temple rises out of the desert in a series of terraces that from a distance merge with the sheer limestone cliffs behind.
This temple was built by Queen Hatshepsut, the first known female monarch, who ruled for about two decades. Her reign was one of the most prosperous and peaceful in Egypt’s history. When Thutmose III followed her as pharaoh, he had all evidence of her reign destroyed by erasing her name and having her image cut from all public monuments, even within this temple.
Although unknown for most of history, in the past 100 years her accomplishments have achieved global recognition and her stunning mortuary temple has become one of the most visited structures on the West Bank.
There are few facilities for visitors on the West Bank. Most stay in Luxor and travel to the West Bank by bus or on a tour. Hotels and restaurants in Luxor are good and prices are very reasonable at present. You need a minimum of two days to see the major attractions.
Air access from South Africa or from the United Kingdom is via Cairo.
During World War II, the Nazis built KL Auschwitz, the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centers. More than 1.1 million men, women, and children lost their lives here. Prisoners were transported here for forced labor, cruel medical experiments, and death through gassing.
Today, a museum protects the post-camp relics. Admission to the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial is free of charge but it is wise to pre-book on visit.auschwitz.org. I strongly suggest engaging an educator or joining a guided tour as you will learn so much more than walking around alone.
We pay to join a tour and enter through the Auschwitz I camp’s gate, with its infamous proclamation “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Will Set You Free.” Three kilometers down the road stands the much larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau complex, which you also visit with your guide.
Once inside the camp, which remains surrounded by barbed wire, we walk through a maze of barracks. Inside we see documentary photographs, models, prisoners’ garments and hair, bunks and other furnishings from prisoners’ rooms, and items seized from inmates. We also see the gallows, where prisoners caught trying to escape or suspected of planning to, were hanged during daily roll calls.
We spend a quiet minute standing outside the former gas chamber, which still has the ovens that were used as a crematorium. Going inside and knowing how many were killed on this spot was absolutely traumatic. Nearby, stands a scaffold with a rusty metal hook where Rudolf Hoess, the Nazi camp commander, was hanged in 1947. Few on our tour felt sorry for him.
Debate continues over the ethics of allowing the public to visit here, as it is effectively a massive cemetery and an extremely sacred place. This was highlighted to me when I saw people checking their phones while they walked, and others in shorts and t-shirts consuming snacks and drinks as they ignored the guide while he talked about the horror that occurred here.
Despite this, the death camp left a profound impression on me that I doubt I will ever forget. It is an educational and harrowing day, and no one returns unaffected by the experience. I would like to see visiting it made compulsory for every politician and military person on the planet.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine began in the 1300s and was one of the original 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites named in 1978. Its displays depict how the mine has operated throughout the past seven centuries. We join a tour, enter the mine, and descend 376 steps, with many more to follow during the two-hour tour. Although we walk about 3 kilometers (two miles) while underground, we only see one percent of the mine, which extends via horizontal passages for over an astonishing 287 kilometers (178 miles). This includes underground lakes, huge halls, and an enormous cathedral carved into the salt/rock.
We’re guided through massive, timber-lined tunnels, some of which have 500-year-old, salt-preserved logs and planks. Within huge caverns, we see fantastic sculptures carved by the workers, and even working chandeliers, all made of salt. We visit a lake and are awed by the sound of Chopin’s music in this most unlikely location. We get insights into the mine operations, see stables that sheltered workhorses, and are amazed about this complex so deep underground. Naturally, there are shops, cafes, and a restaurant down here, and there is even free Wi-Fi. At the end of the tour, an elevator takes us back to the surface.
Half-day tours are available from Krakow or you can combine this with an Auschwitz visit for a very long day.
Zakopane is a resort town in southern Poland at the base of the Tatra Mountains. It’s visited by more than 2.5 million visitors a year and is a popular departure point for winter sports and summertime mountain climbing and hiking, and a wonderful change from urban Krakow. Kasprowy Wierch and Gubałówka, reachable by public cable car and funicular from Zakopane, are nearby ski destinations offering great mountain views which can be enjoyed by everyone.
The ski season in Zakopane usually begins around Christmas and lasts until the end of March, but some ski slopes can be closed earlier. At other times, many visitors come to experience the Góral culture of the local people, which has unique styles of speech, architecture, music, food, and costume.
Krupówki street, the main pedestrian zone of Zakopane, is where the post office, banks, shops, and restaurants are found. Zakopane has some large and beautiful wooden villas dating from the late-19th and early-20th centuries in the local Góral-style. Some now house museums, while others have been converted into hotels.
Various day trips are available from Krakow but staying overnight in Zakopane allows you to experience the mountains and culture at a more leisurely pace.
All photo credits: Phensri Rutledge