Earth, water, wind and fire – it seems these powerful elements never fail to surprise us with their sheer force and might. But, aside from the devastation they so often cause, our planet’s elements are also responsible for a host of stunning ancient legacies which litter the less inhabited areas of our planet. From cerise-pink lakes where swimmers can float beneath the sky to mysterious rocks that move across the desert of their own accord, we explore some of the world’s strangest and lesser known natural wonders.
Pamukkale Thermal Pools
Ever yearned to bathe in an infinity-edge pool without paying exorbitant prices for a hotel suite? The opaque chalk cliffs above Pamukkale, Turkey, could be nature’s answer. Formed by the high concentration of calcium carbonate deposits flowing down from the mountain’s seventeen ssubterranean hot springs, the huge Travertine pools above Pammukale resemble steaming, mirror-like hot tubs carved out of the cliff-face. Locals have dubbed this natural architectural wonder the “cotton castle” of Turkey, owing to the cloud-like aesthetic of the white terraces, but its real appeal is the alleged health-giving properties of the mineral spa. Visitors come from far and wide to benefit from the high concentration of minerals in the water, which are said to alleviate high blood pressure and blood circulation disorders.
Cap Vert, Senegal
It may look as though someone dropped a plane-load of henna into this placid lake, but let us assure you this deep pink hue is entirely natural. The vivid hue of Lake Retba is caused by a pigment released by a reactive native algae – Dunaliella salina – which flourishes in heat and bright sunlight. Because of this, Lake Retba is extremely high in salt content – estimated to be around 40% during the dry season. While it’s generally safe for swimmers, locals who make their living harvesting the salt daily cover themselves in shea butter to prevent long-term tissue damage.
Marble Caves Chile
General Carrera, Chile
Described by natives as “nature’s cathedral”, the exuberant Marble Caves of Chile’s ancient glacial Lake Carrera are one of the few must-visit natural wonders that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Characterised by huge archways and undulating stripes of vivid turquoise, blue and white, this magnificent cave system is the result of nearly 6,000 years of natural wave erosion. Spanning an area in excess of 1,850 square kilometres, Lake Carrera stretches from the snow-capped mountains of the Argentinian border to Aysen Province, Chile, and has become one of Argentina’s most popular glacial lakes for kayaking enthusiasts. With proposals to dam several rivers feeding Lake Carrera, the future of the Marble Caves looks uncertain, however, visitors are still free to explore the site by boat until further notice.
Moeraki Beach, New Zealand
Thanks to “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson, nearly everyone in the Western world has been privy to a glimpse of New Zealand’s unspoiled landscapes.
But while the swirling mists cloaking her jagged mountains create an aura of mystery about the place, nothing quite compares in terms of weirdness to the bizarre round boulders strewn across Moeraki Beach. The huge spherical stones dotted along the sand have long divided visitors. Some believe they are ancient dinosaur eggs belonging to an unknown species, whereas others prefer to think of them as the lost marbles of prehistoric giants. Geologists have a simpler explanation: concretions. Allegedly formed by masses of sediment compacted under pressure some 50 million years ago, these huge balls of rock have slowly begun to protrude through the ground because of sand erosion. Similar occurrences have been reported in various places around the world, including the aptly named Bowling Ball Beach in Mendocino, California!
Salar de Uyuni
The Dead Sea maybe known for its high salt concentration, yet its beauty is nothing compared to nature’s stunning handiwork in Potosi, Bolivia. Situated on a high rocky plateau at the foot of the Andes, the bleached salt flats of Potosi are the remains of a salt lake that dried up here some 30,000 years ago. Huge, white hexagonal tiles carpet the landscape, divided by deep yellow chasms that were formed as the lake bed dried out. Encompassing an area of just over 4,000 square miles, this pristine wilderness of geometric shapes is home to the world’s largest salt flat – 25 times bigger than the huge Bonneville salt pan in Utah, USA. At3,656 metres above sea level, the climb to Salar de Uyuni is a challenging one, however, the 16-room Palacio de Sal hotel (made entirely of salt) offers an interesting stop-off if you need a little respite and refreshment en route to the summit.
Racetrack Playa, Death Valley, California
There are few natural phenomenons that haven’t been thoroughly investigated; magic crop circles, vivid red seas – nearly all have some straightforward, scientific explanation.
Yet there’s one that continues to baffle even the most experienced geologists: the Sailing Stones of Racetrack Playa in California’s sun-scorched Death Valley. A huge arid plain with cracks and ravines as far as the eye can see, Racetrack Playa is a desolate wilderness punctuated by lunar-like boulders and long, straight tracks carved into the dusty earth. No-one knows how they were created. The only logical explanation offered is that, when icy or wet, the rocks – which exceed several hundred pounds in weight – are more susceptible to being pushed along by hurricane-force winds during winter months. Analysis of the deep tracks left behind suggest these huge boulders may travel up to 700 feet from their original location!
The Wave Arizona
Paria Canyon, Arizona, USA
Encompassing an area some 112,500 acres in size, the huge national monument formally known as The Pariah Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness in Northern Arizona is somewhat smaller than the word’s foremost natural wonder (the Grand Canyon just down the road at Phoenix), yet arguably has far more interesting rock formations. Carved by the thundering Paria River over millions of years, the huge undulating, sandstone canyons of Coyote Buttes (collectively known as “The Wave”) look like something out of a Star Wars movie, marked by brown, white and terracotta stripes that follow every curve and dip. But if you’re thinking about visiting God’s marbled skate park, you’ll have to plan well in advance. State law requires that all visitors must have a permit from the Bureau of Land Management – and you’ll need to bring your own ‘human waste’ bag!
Skaftafell National Park, Iceland
It’s better known for its hidden volcanoes than dramatic landscapes, yet Iceland can easily compete with the best of them for its abundance of breathtaking natural wonders.
Formed by shifting glaciers and water erosion over millions of years, the Svartifoss Waterfall within Skaftafell National Park boasts an impressive backdrop of soaring grey basalt cliffs (allegedly the inspiration for Reykjavik’s National Theatre). But this striking waterfall would be nothing without the huge geometric blocks of rock which hang like organ pipes from the cliff face. The stepped ‘pipes’ were once the sides of a huge basin, gradually eroded by the water over millions of years as the level slowly dropped. Today, the filled lake is little bigger than a garden pool, making it easy for visitors to pick their way across and admire the waterfall from directly beneath.
Palawan Underground River
Scuba-diving geologists have an enviable job. Not only do they get permission to recce some of the most beautiful subterranean caves on earth before everyone else, they also get to experience the thrill of finding huge cathedral chambers and going down in the history books. Recently voted one of the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World, Puerto Princesa National Park has long been a popular attraction for the more adventurous visitors to the Philippines. However, its main attraction is the underground river which flows through the limestone karst mountains into the South China Sea. St. Paul’s Underground Cave, the longest in the underground system at 24 km in length, is the primary channel of the Cabayugan River, and features an impressive array of stalagmites and stalactites estimated to be over 5 million years old. If you’re lucky enough to get there at low tide, don’t miss a stop-off at the Italian’s Chamber – at 2.5 million square metres in volume, it’s one of the largest cave chambers in the world!
Ever fancied a warm mud bath beyond the confines of a posh hotel spa? Less than 65 km South of Baku, the warm, revitalising mud mounds of Gobustan have long been a place of sacredness for locals.
The landscape itself is a little underwhelming; martian-like with small grey tors dotted about the place, and what look like endless mud puddles to contend with. But these mud puddles are in fact the result of an entirely natural volcanic phenomenon, and one which visitors come here from far and wide to take advantage of. So, strip off, lather up and bake in the Azerbaijani heat – this is one memorable natural spa experience that’s worth the plane fare!
Caves of Aggletek and Slovak Karst
Hungary and Slovakia
Dissected by deep ravines and huge limestone mountains, the UNESCO World Heritage Caves of Aggletek and Slovak Karst collectively form one of the most extensive karstic cave systems in the world at just over 135,000 acres. Their importance as a recognised natural wonder is justified by the presence of one of the world’s largest stalagmites within the Olimposz Hall chamber – a huge pillar of aragonite standing 5.1 metres tall! The stalagmite is found within the fairytale underworld of the 24 km Baradla-Domica cave system, which runs right beneath the Hungary-Slovak border. Besides the curious stalagmite and dripstone formations, there are also a series of igloo-like ice caverns you can walk through, connected by metal bridges that pass right beneath ancient glacial rivers!
Osoyoos, British Columbia
From afar they look like giant lily pads providing shelter for a super-sized frog species on the spotted lake at Osoyoos, just 5 minutes drive from the border with Washington State. In fact, the natural phenomenon isn’t quite so fantastical.
The huge green, brown and yellow spots that form on the waters of Spotted Lake each summer are actually the result of water evaporation. Spotted Lake is a mineral-rich glacial lake with high deposits of sulphates, titanium, sodium and calcium, and when the water evaporates, it acts as a catalyst which causes the various minerals to react with one another, creating these huge coloured circles. Undeterred by this scientific explanation, the First Nations of the Okanagan Valley continue to be fiercely protective of this privately owned sacred site. Visitors aren’t permitted to get up close to the lake, however, you can still get a pretty decent photograph from the winding road beside it.
Yunnan Province, China
China is teeming with beautiful natural wonders, yet few are as curious as the standing stones of Shillin Stone Forest, located just over 75 miles from the regional capital Kunming. Spread across an area almost a third of the size of Hong Kong, the statuesque stones appear to form a forest of grey karst stalagmites, emerging like petrified trees from the sacred ground. Legend tells that the forest began with a single stone, the figure of a woman who cursed herself in act of rebellion after being forbidden to marry her first love. It’s a fairytale disproved by geologists, who estimate the karst stones are over 270 million years old!
Eye of the Sahara
It seems wherever strange circles appear around the globe, there will always be some speculation as to whether aliens are trying to communicate with the human race. As much is true of the Richat Structure, a huge target-like depression close to Oudane in the Mauritania Desert.
At 30 miles in diameter, the huge eye-shaped formation is easily visible from space, and was often used as a landmark during pre-1980 space missions. Scientists reckon the most likely explanation for the almost perfectly symmetric ‘target’ is erosion – either by water or magma – a few million years ago, but there is little solid geological evidence to back up the theory. Whatever the nature of its origin, the Eye of the Sahara is a fascinating feat of natural art and a great place to visit if you fancy some extreme off-roading in a 4×4!
Caño Cristales River
Serranéa de la Macarena National Park, Colombia
A mecca for well-heeled hiking enthusiasts, Serranéa de la Macarena National Park in Bogotá lies at the confluence of the Amazon, Orinoco and Andes eco-systems, making it a truly special place for unique plant and animal species. But most people don’t come here for the flora and fauna. The star attraction of this huge mountain reserve is actually a small river, known locally as the “River of Five Colours”. The river is so called due to a summer plant phenomenon which causes the bed of the river to transform into a hotch-potch of vivid reds, oranges, blues and greens. The blooms of the plant, known as Macarenia Clavigera, only blossom for a few short weeks between September and November when the water is shallow enough for it to get plenty of sunlight. It’s these UV rays which cause the plant to change colour, thus influencing the strange kaleidoscope of colour on the riverbed.
Farafra, Western Egypt
Anyone doubting the sandman’s existence might want to think again after a visit to the Sahara el Beyda Desert, near Farafra in Western Egypt.
Humongous white figurines resembling everything from dwarves to snowmen litter the arid, sun-bleached desert, their sinister features eroded, yet still discernible to those with an over-active imagination. But these are no ancient sculptures to the Gods created by wandering nomads. The bulbous rocks are in fact the remnants of a seabed. As the sea dried up, the layers of sediment began to break away and crumble, leaving these huge mounds of rock to the mercy of the wind. Wind and sandstorms have, over many thousands of years, eroded the outer sediment of the stones, fashioning curves and indentations that make them look like mushrooms, ogres and giants.
Chocolate Hills Bohol
Bohol Island, Philippines
It may appear as if Bohol Island has a giant mole infestation, but locals have an altogether more fanciful explanation for the 2,000 or so perfectly rounded hills that punctuate the agricultural landscape.
Some say they are the result of a boulder fight between two giants, whereas others are more inclined toward the notion that they are the tears of a giant mourning his lost love. Naturally, there is a more straightforward scientific explanation. Rising up to 400 feet above the landscape, the huge hills are actually fractured cones of karst limestone, pushed up through the seabed millions of years ago and gradually eroded by surface and rain water. Covered in lush wild grasses during the wet season, the conical hills brown off as temperatures rise during summer months, giving them the appearance of huge Hershey’s Kisses.
If the prospect of visiting a fairytale cave system over 400 million years old wasn’t enough to excite you, how about one that boasts the largest music instrument in the world? Situated just West of Luray in Virginia State, the humongous cave system is one of the most celebrated discoveries of the 20th Century owing to the sheer diversity of its mud flow formations, stalagmites and stalactites.
Saracen’s Cave, one of the larger chambers in the network, is thought to house one of the finest ceiling draperies in the world, with crystal and limestone speleothems that exceed 6 feet in length in some places. The “Fried Eggs” formation is yet another of the fascinating mud sculptures to be found here; a series of mud bubbles which have hardened so quickly, the central ‘yolk’ remains perfectly intact. But all this pales in comparison to Luray’s masterpiece – the Great Stalacpipe Organ, built in 1954. Each key of the organ is connected to a nearby stalactite by a “solenoid actuated rubber mallet”, and when pressed, causes the mallet to strike the stalactite, producing a sound not dissimilar to a very large triangle!