With all of last month's earth celebrations, I took time to reflect on all the natural highlights this globe has to offer. From lush green rainforests to fish-filled tropical reefs to grassy savannahs dotted with herds of elephants and giraffes, our globe has a bountiful feast of natural features. It used to be that global exploration was for the well-to-do only, but in this modern day of budget travel, it’s easier than ever to explore these natural wonders on your own. One of the best ways to do it is on a trip around the world, which is easily accomplished by piecing a series of one-way tickets together using a consolidator like Airtreks or by purchasing a single airline’s, or airline group’s, around-the-world-fare. This travel experience is possible on a budget by staying in locally-owned small hotels and taking local ground transport. In some areas you can get by on just a few dollars a day, including fantastic food!
I was lucky enough to take my own trip around the world….I won’t say how many years back. After graduating college and working for a few years, I traded in my briefcase for a backpack and took an eight-month sabbatical, which included visiting five continents. I would love to repeat that trip with my kids so they can get a sampling of all the natural paradise the globe has to offer. Here are a few of the natural wonders I discovered along the way.
Hat Noppharat Thara-Ko Phi Phi National Park, Thailand
Tucked in the Andaman Sea off Thailand’s south western coast, Ko Phi Phi’s tall limestone crags, white sand beaches and turquoise waters are the stuff of postcards, and movies…most specifically, The Beach – a tale of backpackers attempting to create the ideal island civilization. Deep caves punctuate the cliffs around Ko Phi Phi, which are ripe for exploring by kayak and rock climbing. Shallow bays are lined with powder white sand beaches where floating market boats sell fresh fruits and supplies. And beneath the water, tropical fish swarm coral heads in a massive underwater society.
My favourite part about Ko Phi Phi is that you could walk just minutes through the jungle to reach three different incredible white sand beaches. I spent my days sitting on the flour-like beaches, nibbling on pineapples bought from local vendors and climbing through the rocky caves backing the beaches.
Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia
The island of Sumatra in Indonesia hosts a lush jungle habitat unbroken for miles on end. This park, named after its highest peak, Gunung Leuser, which reaches over 10,000 feet in elevation, encompasses a diverse area of mountains, lakes, jungle and coastline. It is also home to the Bukit Lawang Animal Sanctuary, which cares for the Sumatran Orangutan, a critically endangered ape whose numbers are limited to about 7,000 animals left in the wild. These orangutans are endangered because their habitat is disappearing – an area equal to six football fields every minute of every day according to the Sumatran Orangutan Society. Visitors to Sumatra have the opportunity to see orangutans, elephants, gibbons and more.
This is where I met Abu, a two-year old orangutan who had been rescued from captivity, where he had lived since birth. He was being taught to survive in the wild by trainers at the sanctuary. I walked through the verdant jungles with the trainers as they taught Abu to climb trees. To my surprise as we walked along the path, Abu reached up to hold my hand and on the way back into the sanctuary, he opened the gate for me. After so much human interaction, Abu will never be able to live completely on his own, but the scientists at Bukit Lawang hope to release him into their semi-wild program to breed. His amazingly human hands and expressions made me wonder how much we really do have in common with apes.
Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal
It’s said the Himalayas are the gateway to the heavens, and with six peaks in the Annapurna Conservation Area alone, reaching over 23,000 feet in elevation, it’s easy to see why. The rolling green hills around Pokhara, the base town of the region, are backed by soaring white capped peaks piercing the blue skies. The area is renowned for its trekking…the most famous of which is the Annapurna Circuit. The entire circuit climbs steep mountain passes, cuts through terraced fields and deep valleys, passes by Hindu and Buddhist holy sites and takes about two to three weeks to complete.
I took the Royal Trek made famous by Prince Charles, who hiked it in 1981. I figured if a prince could do it, then so could I. So I strapped on my hiking boots, hired a guide, and headed up the hills through tiny villages where children came running from school houses to greet us. The views of the snow-capped peaks of Annapurna and Macchupucchre, the "Fishtail Mountain", were incredible their white jagged edges cutting through skies so blue they would make Prince Charles envious. The trek ended by cutting through verdant fields of rice, terraced into the hillside for miles in every direction.
The Red Sea and the Dead Sea, Middle East
Very different, these two seas of the Middle East: one teeming with unique marine life and one…well…dead. The Dead Sea, also called the Salt Sea because of its high salt content, is a great blue dot in the vast brown of the Israeli desert. Because of the high salinity, almost 34% (about the same as the ocean), you are very buoyant. The water is warm, almost too warm, and feels a bit slimy, but the area around the sea is famous for its biblical historical sites. The Red Sea, which also has its share of biblical history, is a living ecosystem with over 1,200 species of fish. It has coral reefs and atolls and excellent snorkeling and scuba diving.
I went on a night dive in the Red Sea. The warm waters swayed around me like a comforting blanket protecting me from the darkness beyond. Fish swarmed my light as spiny lobsters twitched their antennae warning me to keep my distance. The colors and variety in this desert surrounded sea are spectacular.
Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya & Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Located in the Great Rift Valley, with a protected area of almost 400 sq. miles of Savannah grasslands dotted with acacia trees, Masai Mara Game Reserve hosts a multitude of animals: zebras, giraffes, elephants, leopards, lions and cheetahs to name a few. The much larger Serengeti National Park, which covers about 7,500 sq. miles is immediately adjacent.
I visited Masai Mara and the Serengeti during the wildebeest migration in summer when the rain dries up and thousands of wildebeest move towards Lake Victoria to the west. The wildebeest trailed off in lines into the dusty plains like ants inching along a giant dirt pile. Along with the migration, come the predators – following their prey to greener pastures - and a whole slew of other animals. There were leopards and lions, huge herds of elephants and giraffes, zebras striking their pattern against tall grass and rhinos blocking the road.
The Amazon Rainforest
Often called the lungs of the earth, the Amazon Rainforest is the largest forest on the globe covering over three million square miles. It spans the borders of nine countries and hosts trees reaching over 200 feet tall, which house entire ecosystems in their branches. The Amazon has the highest biodiversity of anywhere on the planet with over 400,000 species of plants alone. This is one nature-thrill we have taken the kids and they loved it. Zipping up and down the river in canoes looking for capyberas, monkeys and alligators and trotting through the forest at night searching for bugs...a boy's dream come true!
According to the National Academy of Sciences, a typical four square miles in the Amazon contains over 100 mammal species, 400 species of birds, 100 species of reptiles, 50 species of amphibians, and 150 different kinds of butterflies; and I believe it. When I visited the Amazon in Peru, the lush green foliage dripped with insects – caterpillars dangling from thin threads, spiders burrowing holes, butterflies flitting past, ants marching along the forest ground. Along the river banks there were mammals such as capybaras – huge rats – and in the trees spider monkeys swung and screeched.
The earth is filled with natural wonders and beautiful landscapes hosting a huge array of wildlife. With Earth Day ever present on the horizon, this is the perfect time to make a commitment to see it all. And, even if you can’t make it around the globe this year, remember there are plenty of national parks and wonders to explore right here in Arizona.
Star Alliance Round the World Fare
Hat Noppharat Thara-Ko Phi Phi National Park
Sumatran Orangutan Society
Annapurna Conservation Area
Masai Mara Game Reserve
Serengeti National Park
Carrie Simmons is the producer of Travel With Kids, a family travel documentary series airing on television around the world and has traveled to five continents in search of adventure. For more information on the series, visit TravelWithKids.tv
Article originally published in Green Living Arizona magazine.