Exploring Transylvania for signs of Dracula

Exploring Transylvania for signs of Dracula

Published by Pique News Magazine October 30 2019
Bran Castle in Brașov, Romania - SHUTTERSTOCK
  • Bran Castle in Brașov, Romania

WE ARE DRIVING along narrow, winding roads through dense, dark, ancient forests and over steep mountain passes through the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania.

Tales of the supernatural have featured in Romanian folklore for centuries and the countryside seems so right for this that we now find it easy to be caught up in the Dracula story. Certainly, Transylvania evokes powerful images of vampires and Gothic castles.

We are here now because we want to visit some sites associated with Dracula and try to sort legend from truth. When Irish writer Bram Stoker wrote his famous novel, he started something outside the country which at first was shunned by the locals but is now accepted by many for what it is; a great tourist attraction.

Count Dracula, a fictional character in the Stoker novel, was inspired by one of the best-known figures of Romanian history, Vlad Dracula, nicknamed Vlad the Impaler, who was the ruler of the Romanian province of Walachia in the mid 1400s. As we travel around, we find some physical evidence and hear many stories about him, which have vague connections with the Count.

The city of Sighisoara is at the heart of the Count Dracula legends. This was founded in the 12th century by Transylvanian Saxons, but it’s Dracula that has put the town on the map with today’s visitors. Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the town is full of cobbled streets and ornate churches. We climb the 175-step wooden staircase leading up to the Church on the Hill, following the steps of Saxon churchgoers, students, and visitors since it was built in 1642.

Sighisoara is the birthplace of Vlad Dracula. You can visit his birth home which is now a restaurant and museum. As we climb the narrow stairs to the museum in almost complete darkness, something falls on my neck causing goose bumps all over my body. Emerging into a darkened room we come face to face with a vampire in a coffin. As we approach, his arm springs out causing muffled screams from several visitors. For one second I almost believe in vampires.

Not too many people can call vampire acting their full-time occupation!

The birthplace of Vlad the Impaler - PHOTO BY PHRENSI RUTLEDGE
  • PHOTO BY PHENSRI RUTLEDGE
  • The birthplace of Vlad the Impaler

Brașov is the largest city in this part of Romania. It is fringed by the Southern Carpathian Mountains and resplendent with glorious architecture and historical attractions. It was founded by Teutonic Knights in 1211 on an ancient site and was settled by the Saxons as one of their seven walled citadels.

We stroll around the old Town Hall Square where we admire colourfully painted and ornately trimmed baroque structures. We go inside the Black Church, the largest gothic church in Romania, named for damage caused by the Great Brașov Fire of 1689, when flames and smoke blackened its walls. The interior is impressive and it houses one of the largest pipe organs in Eastern Europe.

Part of the defensive wall, once 13-metres-high, two-metres-thick, and over three-kilometres-long, can still be seen today. So too can Rope Street, the narrowest street in Europe, at just 1.3‑metres wide.

The relationship between Vlad Dracula and Brașov was problematic over a number of years. In 1460 he invaded southern Transylvania and destroyed the suburbs of Brașov, ordering the impalement of all men and women who had been captured. It is said that Brașov has the distinction of seeing more stakes bearing Dracula’s victims than any other place. Fortunately, there is no evidence of this today.

CLICK TO ENLARGEBrașov, Romania - PHOTO BY PHRENSI RUTLEDGE
  • PHOTO BY PHENSRI RUTLEDGE
  • Brașov, Romania

Sibiu is the other city in this region. The heart of the city is its medieval centre complete with open squares, stone wall defences, towers, and centuries-old buildings and churches. Staircases link the Lower Town with its small, colourful houses and the Upper Town, which was inside the main fortifications.

The Council Tower dates back to the late 1500s and sits in the passageway between the Big Square and Small Square. We climb the stairs for fantastic views overlooking the city. We notice the houses with eyes. They’re actually ventilation windows, however, throughout periods of political strife, locals believed they were being watched by the “eyes” to ensure they were not causing trouble.

Sibiu, Romania - PHOTO BY PHRENSI RUTLEDGE
  • PHOTO BY PHENSRI RUTLEDGE
  • Sibiu, Romania

From 1451 to 1456 Vlad Dracula lived in Sibiu yet just four years later he mercilessly raided this region and killed, impaled and tortured 10,000 of his former fellow citizens and neighbours. I wonder if Count Dracula would be impressed.

Perched on top of an 80-metre-high rock, Bran Castle owes its fame to its imposing towers and turrets as well as to being the castle Stoker used in his book.

Although Stoker never visited Transylvania, his book has encouraged persistent myths that this was once the home of Vlad Dracula. While the association with Dracula is dubious, the castle continues to hold a strong attraction for all fans of the Count, so naturally we have to visit.

Narrow winding stairways and torturous passages lead through some 60 timbered rooms. It’s easy to tour the castle on your own, but expect to spend several hours doing so and keep in mind there are always crowds. The castle is in private hands and the owners have, fortunately, resisted the temptation to add any Dracula features here.

While Bran Castle is the spooky place that inspired Stoker’s tale, it’s really Poenari Fortress about two hours west that is considered to be the real Dracula’s Castle. Poenari Castle was erected around the beginning of the 13th century then later was abandoned and left in ruins. In the 15th century, Vlad the Impaler repaired and consolidated the structure perched high on a steep precipice of rock, making it one of his main fortresses.

The ruins of Poenari Fortress are all that are left today. If you decide to climb the 1,462 stairs, you’ll be able to touch pieces of the walls and towers that are still standing.

Did we find Dracula?

We encountered a make believe vampire and learned much about Vlad Dracula and his exploits. While vampires may not be real, there is no doubt that Stoker’s Dracula has become a powerful reminder of the rich and authentic Romanian folklore, and a great tourist attraction and money-spinner for the country today.

IF YOU GO:

There are one-stop flights from Vancouver to Bucharest the capital of Romania. Transylvania is about 200 km north of Bucharest. You can reach there on package tours, by train or by rental car.

Sibiu, Romania - PHOTO BY PHRENSI RUTLEDGE
  • PHOTO BY PHENSRI RUTLEDGE
  • Sibiu, Romania

The lure of the Kenai Peninsula

Imagine a breathtaking land shaped by glaciers, an ancestral home for Native Americans, pristine wilderness with abundant wildlife and some scenic towns ideal for those seeking meaningful connections with nature. That, in a nutshell, is the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, one of the last U.S. frontiers.The Kenai peninsula extends approximately 150 miles southwest from the Chugach Mountains, south of Anchorage, and is bordered on the west by Cook Inlet and on the east by Prince William Sound. The glacier-covered Kenai Mountains, rising nearly 7000 feet, run along the southeast spine.

There are several cities and towns in this region, including Seward on the Gulf of Alaska Coast and Homer on Kachemak Bay. One of the most visited tourist areas in Alaska, this area is especially popular with anglers of all ages lured by its excellent salmon and halibut fishing, so visitor facilities are excellent and there are tour opportunities galore.

Alaska is often seen as a young person’s outdoor adventure area and it certainly is that, but I found it is also excellent for seniors, as hundreds of thousands of cruise passengers who visit each year can confirm.

Seeking sealife in Seward

A nice catch in Seward on the Kenai Peninsula

Seward, a town of around 3000 permanent residences, is at the end of the Inside Passage cruise boat route from Seattle and Vancouver, and is about two hours by road south of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. The area is a photographer’s paradise with glaciers on land and porpoise, whales and sea lions in the water.

The long summer days are perfect for enjoying world-class fishing, tours of Kenai Fjords National Park, walks along the waterfront, learning about local history and culture, and enjoying the town’s restaurants, bakeries, shops and galleries.

Seward is home to some of Alaska’s finest year-round sport fishing. Anglers can fish for giant Pacific halibut, fight an acrobatic silver salmon or catch a trophy lingcod. Thirty fishing charters offer half-day or all-day excursions.

A highlight in Seward is a visit to the Alaska Sealife Center, which is designed as a research, rehabilitation and education facility. It has 15 aquariums and a huge netted space showcasing 150 different animals from the Gulf of Alaska, including birds, seals, sea lions, octopus and invertebrates. Allow several hours for a visit.

The Sealife Center in Seward

A sightseeing tour into the Kenai Fjords National Park offers the chance to see calving glaciers, humpback whales, orcas, otters, sea lions, eagles, puffins and other birds. One such trip includes lunch on exclusive Fox Island, where orcas come right up on the beach to rub against the rocky shore.

Seward’s Exit Glacier is one of the most accessible in Alaska. The wheelchair-accessible Glacier View Loop Trail meanders through a cottonwood forest before arriving at a panoramic viewpoint. The Glacier Overlook Trail is an additional 0.7‑miles full of jaw-dropping sights. Tours offer the chance to walk on the ice and those with a sense of adventure can try ice climbing.

Angling the Russian River

Russian River drift fishing on the Kenai Peninsula

Forty-five miles north of Seward is where you find the gin-clear Russian River. This is one of the few streams in North America where sockeye salmon are easily caught on artificial flies. There are two contrasting zones: the infamous crowds of the ‘combat zone’ and the much quieter area near Russian River Falls, where you can see leaping salmon. The upper river is an area where you are more likely to see a bear than another angler.

In both areas, an angler fishing from the bank can catch trophy-size rainbow trout and Arctic char, but odds of catching good fish increase dramatically if you are able to float the river in a drift boat. Fortunately, experienced drift boat guides are available. All offer-full-day charters while a few also offer two-day trips.

Apart from fishing, this area of the Kenai Peninsula has one of the most extensive systems of maintained hiking trails in Alaska. You are likely to see eagles, mountain goats and Dall sheep. Brown and black bear, moose, wolf and caribou are also in the area.

Homer: The end of the road on the Kenai Peninsula

Shops on the Homer Spit on the Kenai Peninsula

This charming, colorful town is literally at the end of the road if you have driven up from the Lower 48 states. The town is surrounded by an incredible panorama of mountains, white peaks, glaciers, and the famous Homer Spit, a four-mile-long strip of land that stretches into beautiful, deep blue Kachemak Bay.

The Spit is a hub of bustling activity during the summer. There are throngs of tourists, people camping on the beach, charter boats heading out to catch halibut, beachcombers, and birders amazed at how many bald eagles they can spot. King salmon can be caught here from mid-May to the end of June, while silver salmon run in August.

Some of the most colorful and attractive shops, restaurants and food stalls you can imagine line the spit road. Many are built on stilts over the water and are accessed by boardwalks. Scattered among them are bars, charter operators, art galleries, and grocery and liquor outlets. It may be a town planners’ nightmare, but the public loves it.

Back on dry land, there are plenty of lodging choices, more shops, some interesting museums, a botanic garden, a farmer’s market on Wednesday and Saturday, and waterfront walks. Festivals include Winter Carnival in February, the King Salmon Tournament in March, the Shorebird Festival in May, and the Writer’s Conference in June.

On the other side of the bay is Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park, a 350,000-acre paradise of glaciers, mountains, protected coves for paddling, and an extensive trail system to explore on foot.


What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?

  • The laid-back vibe throughout the Kenai Peninsula encourages visitors to take their time and enjoy all there is to see and do.
  • If offers unique opportunities to see wildlife both on land and water. You are likely to see seals, sea otters, porpoises, whales and numerous species of sea birds while out on the water, and moose, black or brown bear, eagles, sandhill cranes, and perhaps rabbits, fox or porcupines on land.
  • Bear viewing is popular because people can see these wild animals up close in their natural surroundings, in relative safety and comfort. Well-equipped lodges and experienced guides make this popular with all ages.

Take note

  • This area gets very cold and has short days in winter, so it is not ideal for sightseeing at that time. Some shops, tour operators, and lodgings close but you will escape the crowds.
  • May to September is the popular time for most visitors. Days are long and everything is open. Lodging and restaurant prices can be higher than in the Lower-48 because the season is relatively short, and some pre-booking of accommodation is recommended.

All photo credits (except lead photo): Phensri Rutledge

Zion National Park on i2Mag

The Wonder Of America’s Zion National Park

Posted on Jul 17 2019 

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.

Getting There

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

About the Author
Len Rutledge

Len Rutledge is the author of the Experience Guide series to Thailand, Norway, Ireland,& Northern Italy, Myanmar, Singapore, India, Istanbul and Melbourne. Books are available as ebooks or paperbacks from https://amazon.com by typing in Len Rutledge in the search box & on that site.

Istanbul on Travelfore

There is another side to Istanbul apart from old Constantinople

There is another side to Istanbul apart from old Constantinople

Words: Len Rutledge   Pictures: Phensri Rutledge

Roman ruins, great mosques and churches, huge city walls, palaces, 500-year-old bazaars, and intriguing museums make Istanbul a ‘must-see’ city. Despite the recent strife in the Middle East, Istanbul remains a fascinating city for visitors of all ages and my wife and I found it perfectly safe and very welcoming. It was in the 10 Top Visited Cities in 2018.

It is common to say that Istanbul is caught between Europe and Asia and while this is correct, it is just a small part of the picture. Others romanticise the fact that this has been a ‘world city’ for over two thousand years and talk up its ancient buildings and monuments as the greatest appeal of the city. They are probably right.

Much is written about the Old City that once was called Byzantium then later Constantinople. Less well known, but also impressive, is ‘New’ Istanbul just a few hundred meters across the stretch of water known as the Golden Horn. You are still in Europe but in many ways, it is as though you are in a different city.

The Asian side of the city is less visited but this too provides cultural insights that cannot be gleaned elsewhere. Walking is the best way to explore but for those who do not find this enjoyable, taxis and public transport is available. Be aware though that motorists rarely stop to let pedestrians cross roads even at major crossings.

In 1503 the ruling Sultan wished to construct a bridge between Old Istanbul and Galata and he asked Leonardo da Vinci to produce a design. His design for an unprecedented single span 240 m bridge was rejected, however, and the construction of a bridge was not completed until the 19th century.

Galata

When you cross the bridge from Old Istanbul, you enter Galata which is almost as old as Constantinople but there are few relics from the early days. The area had city walls at least 1600 years ago and there was also a fortress here during early Byzantine times. In 1261, Galata became a semi-independent colony controlled by the Genoese.

The 67 m Galata Tower is the most obvious landmark. It was built in 1348 and for many years it was used as a fire lookout tower. Today you can ride to near the top by elevator and the view from the narrow outside balcony is impressive.

For those who don’t like walking up hills, the Tünelis a godsend. It was opened in 1875 and was one of the first underground urban railways in the world.

Istiklal Caddesi

There is another side to Istanbul apart from old Constantinople

When you climb the hill from the Galata Bridge or exit the Tünel, you are on Istiklal Caddesi, one of the most important streets in the city. It is lined with hundreds of shops selling just about everything you need, and much you don’t. It has many large and small stores and street vendors of all kinds.

If you get tired and thirsty, there are plenty of cafes along the way for refreshments and there are many bars to drop in on if you feel so inclined. A kebab or freshly baked simit (circular, sesame seed-coated bread), are good choices followed by some melt-in-your-mouth Turkish Delight.

Enjoying the local food in Istanbul is one of the real joys of the city. Midway along Istiklal Caddesi, there are a couple of beautifully restored arcades on the left. The most famous is Çiçek Pasajı (Flower Passage) which is outstanding and has several attractive restaurants inside.

For something cheaper, you can head through the nearby fish market and find some local eating places along Nevizade, a small street parallel to Istiklal Caddesi. These are safe and you will find someone who speaks good English.

Shopping

Istanbul has some of the best shopping to be found in Eastern Europe with modern shopping centers, ancient bazaars, independent boutiques, design shops, and thousands of street stalls. You can start shopping in Istiklal Caddesi and keep going north.

Cukurcuma is a charming area of winding side streets and alleyways where rambling apartments house some of the finest collections of antiques, boutique fashion, and kitsch in the city.

A complete contrast if provided by Abdi İpekci Street, located in the Nişantaşı district which hosts luxury retail shopping venues and is currently the most expensive street for retail stores in the city.

Visitor attractions

There is another side to Istanbul apart from old Constantinople

The area also has some excellent visitor attractionsIstanbul Modern is a contemporary art museum in a converted warehouse by the Bosphorus. If you walk further you come to Dolmabahçe Palace,home to six Sultans from 1856 until 1924, and the largest palace in Turkey.

Further on is Ortaköy, an artsy neighborhood with two structures that dominate the area- the baroque Ortaköy Mosque and the First Bosphorus Bridge. The charming waterfront hides a lattice of narrow cobbled streets filled with nice cafes and trendy small clothing boutiques.

Across the Bosphorus, there are huge suburbs on the Asian side with their own commercial centers and transport systems. You reach here by ferry or by an undersea rail tube. I strongly recommend that you check out this area.

If you go

An Istanbul Tourist Pass can be useful if you plan extensive sightseeing. It also includes a one-way transfer between the airport and your hotel by car, a Bosphorus cruise, and unlimited mobile internet access.

Len Rutledge is the author of Experience Istanbul, available as an e‑book at https://www.amazon.com/Experience-Istanbul-2019-Guides-Book-ebook/dp/B07LD3JT2S/ or as a paperback at https://www.amazon.com/Experience-Istanbul-2019-Guides/dp/1793826404/

www.LenRutledge.com

Travel to the Australian Outback and fascinating Lava Tubes at Undara

I’m rapidly discovering that very few things are considered unusual at Undara.

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SHARES

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.

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.

 It takes awhile to sort out the Undara Experience. The whole package consists of accommodation, meals and facilities, tours and activities. You can cherry-pick bits and pieces but you will find that more is always better because this experience is very special.

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.

To get there

There are non-stop air services from Johannesburg to Sydney and then on-flights to Townsville or Cairns.

www.LenRutledge.com