Ticking off the world's natural wonders

By Chris Leadbeater

Last week saw the provisional unveiling of the 'New Seven Wonders of Nature'. See which places made the cut...

Vietnam's Halong Bay - named fourth on the provisional list of the 'Seven New Wonders of Nature'. Photo / Thinkstock
Vietnam's Halong Bay - named fourth on the provisional list of the 'Seven New Wonders of Nature'. Photo / Thinkstock

Last week saw the unveiling, amid considerable publicity, of the "New Seven Wonders of Nature" - a septet of what are supposedly the most iconic natural landmarks on the planet. (The list is provisional; the final seven will apparently not be confirmed until early next year.)

Reaction to the news was mixed: joy from the countries of the "attractions" that made the list, anger from those who missed out - and confusion from everybody else.

There is no denying the wonder factor and global renown of several of the "winners".

Spread across nine countries and covering an area six times the size of France, the Amazon rainforest is arguably the natural wonder.

South Africa's Table Mountain, a distinctive flat-topped bluff looming to 1084 metres above Cape Town, is second on the list, while Iguazu Falls, where water fizzes and snorts through the wide bowl of the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat), is is third.

Similarly, Vietnam's Halong Bay, fourth in the list, is a worthy candidate. Pinned to the lip of north-eastern Vietnam, the limestone karsts that fill its shallows (some two thousand in all) are a true spectacle.

Yet the three other Asian finalists may not be so familiar.

Jeju Island is an outpost 161 kilometres off the southern coast of South Korea. Its dormant Hallasan volcano rears to 1950m and a labyrinth of lava tubes tell the tale of the isle's infernal birth.

The Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park in the Philippines (where 9.7km of underground waterways drip with stalactites) is similarly not on everyone's travel radar and Indonesia's Komodo National Park (home of the Komodo Dragon, the planet's biggest lizard) possesses camera-calling charm. But should it displace Yosemite in California?

Of course, the natural wonders of the world are very much in the eye of the beholder.

If this writer were to compile a group of seven natural wonders, it would certainly feature Kaieteur Falls, a waterfall hidden in the jungles of Guyana. At 251m, it is five times taller than Niagara but, with just a handful of visitors a day, is magnificent in its isolation - yet not inaccessible.

WONDER WHY?

Seven is frequently deemed to be a lucky number. But when it comes to travel and geography, this much-mythologised digit has - of late - been subsumed in controversy.

Decided via an international poll conducted over four years, the "New Seven Wonders" list had begun to provoke questions long before its make-up was revealed eight days ago - one issue being the role of the New 7 Wonders Foundation, the Zurich-based marketing organisation that has been responsible for the whole concept.

Initially, 220 countries submitted 440 sites for consideration, although the Maldivian and Indonesian governments tried to withdraw involvement in May and August respectively.

Further concerns related to the ballot: 28 "wonders" made the shortlist, but with nothing in place to prevent interested parties from casting repeat votes, the results that appeared last week are, at best, unscientific.

Other criticism was specific. Despite the frontrunner status of Table Mountain, Gordon Oliver, an ex-mayor of Cape Town, asked ahead of the poll: "What authority does this organisation have to determine a natural wonder as a finalist?"

We have, of course, been here before.

The same organisation was behind the search for the "New (ie man-made) Seven Wonders of the World" - a poll that, in July 2007, produced a line-up of the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum, Machu Picchu, the "lost" Jordanian city of Petra, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro and the Mayan archaeological site of Chichen Itza in Mexico.

The Great Pyramid of Giza was added as an "honorary" eighth site after Egypt declared the absence of the only extant member of the original Seven Wonders of the World "absurd".

But then, perhaps the difficulty here is the format. Seven is a small number that proffers much scope for omission when applied on a global scale. Even that first septet - attributed to the ancient poet Antipater of Sidon, and reputedly drawn up as a guide to the sights of the areas that lay under Greek control in the first and second centuries BC - bears retrospective analysis. Whither the Parthenon - by this time the jewel of Athens?

MORE 'WONDERS OF NATURE'

Storming sands

Defiantly faceless, the Sahara Desert is earth at its most gloriously inhospitable.

In Chile, meanwhile, the Atacama Desert is a raw expanse fringed by volcanoes and blessed with clear skies, that make it an astronomy hotspot.

Further north, Monument Valley is a postcard of the American West, its fame encapsulated by the weathered buttes - such as the East and West Mittens - that dot its surface.

Rock stars

Table Mountain's grandeur is emphasised by its solitude - a trick repeated by Mount Fuji, Japan's symmetrical volcano.

Smaller but no less emblematic, Uluru is Australia's red celebrity, 863m of sacred sandstone rising from the Outback dust.

Now freed from the shackles of civil war, Sri Lanka also boasts a mighty monolith. The magma plug of Sigiriya has been used as monastery and fortress since the 5th century BC.

Forest fervour

The world's third-largest island, Borneo, is rainforest-clad and home to rare species such as the orangutan and the Sunda Clouded Leopard.

Australia has its forested corners, notably the Daintree Rainforest, which coats areas of Queensland.

Waterworld

There's something eternally wondrous about a waterfall in full flow. The world's highest, Angel Falls, plunges 807m in Venezuela's Canaima National Park.

Alternatively, make a visit to Victoria Falls, where the Zambezi roars between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

If you prefer placid water, Lake Superior is the world's largest body of fresh water.

For those wanting to glimpse the wonders beneath, the merits of Australia's Great Barrier Reef - 2575km of coral off Queensland's coast - are clear.

Colossal charms

No list of natural wonders can ignore the Grand Canyon, Arizona's 277-mile geological scar, with its subtle shifts in colour.

Peru has a rugged miracle in Colca Canyon, a serrated slice twice as deep as its Arizona rival, where Andean Condors surf the thermals.

South Africa joins the party with the Blyde River Canyon. This is a tear in the eastern flank of the Drakensberg Escarpment noted for the Three Rondavels - a trio of giant, rounded outcrops.

A few alternatives

A wonder of nature need not be universally revered to justify the tag. It just has to be wonderful. In which case Loch Ness, with its 23-mile length and dark depths abuzz with monstrous legends, counts.

If lone-rider peaks are a cause célèbre, then Italy has one of the original rebels - Vesuvius, AD79's slayer of Pompeii.

Then there is that final exclamation mark. In many ways the last corner of the planet, the steep-sided fjord of Milford Sound lurks at the lowest ebb of New Zealand's South Island. Rudyard Kipling once called the fjord the "eighth wonder" - as great a recommendation as any poll.

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