From the treasures of ancient Egypt to the wilds of Tanzania, a National Geographic photographer shares his most beloved destinations…
TAJ MAHAL, INDIA
The Taj Mahal is famous for being beautiful (certainly), famous for being the symbol of enduring love (perhaps,) and most of all famous for being famous. Even if it were not sublime symmetry set in stone, its proportions elegantly tempered by centuries of monumental building by the Mughal rulers of central India, it would still beguile us for its place in the history of world travel. For centuries it was the “must see” tourist sight of them all. Millions of photographs have been taken from the exact same spot at the reflecting pool, each “perfect” in the same way that the marble monument itself is perfect. In some ways taking that picture is a pilgrimage of its own, seeing for oneself what millions of others have also seen.
MACHU PICCHU, PERU
Lost to most for 400 years under the encroaching jungle of the high Andes, Machu Picchu’s magic was rekindled after iconic explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911 and brought it to the modern world. A century later it is still astounding, evoking wonder for the Inca kings and their opulent retreat in the high mountains, a stupendous sanctuary wrapped by surrounding mountains, plunging valleys, and ever swirling clouds. Even the llamas seem to be able to hear their ghosts. The stone houses and avenues, the plazas and sacred sites all speak to us of life still present but unseen.
Graceful, beautiful, and constantly enchanting, Venice is also a prime example of the tragic, all-consuming lust for wealth, power, and sordid ambitions. That all these contradictions coexist in such a sumptuous milieu makes it, rightly, a destination synonymous with worldly experience. “See Venice and die” puts the city squarely at the ultimate conclusion of any bucket list. For the Victorians life was not quite complete, youth not adequately finished until Venice was crossed off the list. Yet it surmounts all the clichés; it’s never tawdry, always remarkable. Today, this island city of lost hegemony is a museum unto itself, a time capsule we can’t quite bear to relinquish. It is so ravishing.
Even today, Antarctica overwhelms us. Already iconic, seared into our imaginations from the tales of heroic exploration and tragic, fatal failure of the last century, Antarctica overpowers us from afar, humbling even seasoned travelers, more vast in reality than our imaginations can muster. Relegated to obscurity at the bottom of our schoolroom globes, our scant knowledge ill prepares us for the stunning outbursts of towering mountain ranges ripping across the face of the deep blue sky, the sublime blue and turquoise icebergs and glaciers, and the inconceivable abundance of life. Indeed it is the limitless nesting colonies of penguins, always comical but utterly indifferent to human visitors, that ultimately define Antarctica as a world unto itself.
Few places invoke timelessness like Stonehenge. The absolute knowledge that every year for the past 5,000 years the Earth, the sun, and Stonehenge have all lined up just so that the rays of light glancing across the face of Salisbury Plain slip through the upright stones— it sets our sense of cosmic order on fire. The rocks hulk there, brawny yet graceful, set in place by crafty people we can scarce imagine or recall. Then the moment is gone and we realize that we, too, have been aligned, if only briefly, with time itself.
Standing in their haunting rows, Easter Island‘s statues, called moai, arouse our subconscious thoughts. The stone statuary, at once unreal and yet known to us deeply, conjure up ancestor worship in exactly the way the islanders, lost in the vast Pacific, likely intended. Our imaginations reel at the solitude: Polynesians made their epic journey across the vast Pacific to this speck of an island, and then no one else came for nearly a thousand years. Left to their own imaginings, the islanders invented their own version of eternity. In the darkness, under the southern starry night, the hulking statues have the power to haunt the mind like few other places on Earth.
TA PRAHM TEMPLE, CAMBODIA
The temple of Angkor Wat, rising out of the Cambodian jungle, is the world’s largest religious structure. But nearby is another temple, Ta Prohm, less grand in scale but more penetrating to the psyche. Here the roots of towering strangler figs cascade over the intricately carved stone walls, framing doorways. They depend on each other, neither the walls nor the trees able to stand without the other. The roots snake over and around the religious symbols, looking like synapses of some ancient central nervous system, connecting lost thoughts set in stone.
THE SERENGETI, TANZANIA
The Serengeti offers an epiphany to most visitors: Wildness still has a place in our world. Out on the sun-drenched grasslands of Tanzania, life is elemental, the food chain obvious and unsentimental, the art of survival an everyday thing, kindness and mercy totally without relevance. The great migrations combine the many actors into a vast, thronging drama. The immense vistas are tranquil but for the stalking shape of a lion in the tall grass. We are intruders here redeemed by accepting our insignificance. It is both humbling and comforting.
THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA, EGYPT
The Pyramids virtually define the concept of iconic, their very triangular shape instantly recognized, seared into our collective human cultural blueprint, defining place, time, and ethos. That shape! And so for some 4,500 years they have been the most wondrous of wonders, in a league of their own, unchallenged for their sheer audacity, paragons of all design. And then there is the Sphinx, a riddle evoking a mystery that we don’t want solved. Lurking always, somehow more intriguing the less we know about it, especially beguiling in old photographs when it was buried up to its neck in the sands of the Egyptian desert. Tombs to kings, monuments to human aspiration, all under the blazing Egyptian sun.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
In the highlands of Papua New Guineawe come face to face with the parts of our mind that the modern world has hidden away very well. The Huli Wigmen (and many other peoples and cultures) carry forth traditions rooted deeply in time and mind, dredging out inner spirits and (through intricate outfits and lavish makeup) wearing them proudly at sing-sings. The transformation from everyday folk to apparitions from the spirit world is astounding. Looking into their faces we confront our own unresolved, fractured nature. Throughout Papua New Guinea each group displays, with pride, their own identity and inner being.