UNESCO World Heritage Site #262: Twyfelfontein or /Ui-//aes

UNESCO World Heritage Site #262: Twyfelfontein or /Ui-//aes
UNESCO World Heritage Site #262: Twyfelfontein or /Ui-//aes

From the World Heritage inscription:

In the 1940s the Twyfelfontein land was granted on licence to a settler. At that time a few Damara people lived close to the spring in 32 huts. The land was transferred to communal use for Damara farmers in 1964 on the recommendation of the Odendaal Commission. But no farmers came forward to make use of it and it lay abandoned for 20 years. Following Namibian independence in 1990, the land became State Land under the Ministry of Lands, Resettlement and Rehabilitation.

Before the 1940s, there is little evidence for the use of the area by the Damara; it is likely that as nomadic pastoralists, they used the area on a seasonal basis congregating near the spring after rains. However nomadic pastoralism had been almost completely destroyed in the preceding 100 years by the Rinderpest epidemic of 1897 and by ensuing government policies which encouraged people to leave the land.

Interviews with local residents in 2004 failed to collect oral evidence for living cultural association with the rock art, although the rock art sites were seen as powerful places and the rock art the work of ‘ancestors’. The imagery of the art suggests it is part of the belief system of hunter-gathers, the San, who lived in the area until partly displaced by Damara herders about 1,000 years ago and finally displaced by European colonists within the last 150 years. No San now live in the area, although the beliefs of present-day San who live some 800km away in the north-eastern part of Namibia, give insight into the meaning of the rock paintings and engravings at Twyfelfontein.

Twyfelfontein is one of the more popular destinations in Namibia, but it not necessarily easy to get to. It is approximately a 4 hour drive from Swakopmund and 6 hours from Windhoek, most of which is on gravel road. While it is theoretically possible to visit Twyfelfontein on a day trip, it probably is best to plan an evening in the Damaraland region. The easiest way to visit would be to go with a tour company who can take care of transportation and lodging.

The site itself can be visited in 1-2 hours, most of which will be walking in the hot sun. Given the dry nature of the region, the rock engravings have been preserved rather well. It is not a large site but does require some light walking on rocks.

An interesting note, the local name of Twyfelfontein is /Ui-//aes. The / and // characters reflect clicking sounds in the Damara language. Damara is unique in that it has FOUR different clicking sounds, as opposed to the one click you get in languages such as Swahili.

View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The Namib Sand Sea

UNESCO World Heritage Site #261: the Namib Sand Sea
My 261st UNESCO World Heritage Site: The Namib Sand Sea

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Namib Sand Sea lies along the arid African coast of the South Atlantic lying wholly within Namibia’s Namib-Naukluft Park. It covers an area of 3,077,700 hectares, with an additional 899,500 hectares designated as a buffer zone.

The Namib Sand Sea is a unique coastal fog desert encompassing a diverse array of large, shifting dunes. It is an outstanding example of the scenic, geomorphological, ecological and evolutionary consequences of wind-driven processes interacting with geology and biology. The sand sea includes most known types of dunes together with associated landforms such as inselbergs, pediplains, and playas, formed through aeolian depositional processes. It is a place of outstanding natural beauty where atmospheric conditions provide exceptional visibility of landscape features by day and the dazzling southern hemisphere sky at night.

Life in the fog-bathed coastal dunes of the Namib Sand Sea is characterised by very rare behavioural, morphological and physiological adaptations that have evolved throughout its specialist communities. The large number of endemic plants and animals are globally-important examples of evolution and the resilience of life in extreme environments.

There are some world heritage sites that you can visit in under and hour and see everything there is to see. There are others which take days to explore properly. The Namib Desert is one of the later.

Prior to a conference I was attending in Namibia, I explored the desert for 5 days with a group in 4×4 vehicles. We went up, down, over and across dunes. We camped in the middle of nowhere with nothing but sand and stars. I even drove down a dune that was over 100m (300ft) tall that terminated at coast of the Atlantic!

I’ve been to many deserts around the world, but nothing quite compares with the size and scale of the dunes in Namibia. If and when I get around to creating my own personal list of the wonders of the world, I think the dunes of the Namib desert will be on it.

Visiting the Namib is best done from the cities of Walvis Bay or Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast. From either city there are trips available which will take you into the dunes as well as sightseeing flights which will take you over the desert. I did both and I can highly recommend doing both as each gives you a different view of the desert.

View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #260: Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey, and St Martin’s Church

UNESCO World Heritage Site #260: Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey, and St Martin's Church
UNESCO World Heritage Site #260: Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey, and St Martin's Church

From the World Heritage inscription:

Canterbury, in Kent, has been the seat of the spiritual head of the Church of England for almost five centuries. St Martin’s Church, St Augustine’s Abbey and the cathedral are directly and tangibly associated with the history of the introduction of Christianity to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The influence of the Benedictine abbey of St Augustine was decisive throughout the high Middle Ages in England. The influence of this monastic centre and its scriptorium extended far beyond the boundaries of Kent and Northumbria. Christ Church Cathedral, especially the east sections, is a unique artistic creation. The beauty of its architecture is enhanced by a set of exceptional stained glass windows which constitute the richest collection in the United Kingdom.

Within the urban perimeter of Canterbury, three distinct cultural properties are on the World Heritage List: the modest St Martin’s Church; the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey; and the superb Christ Church Cathedral, a breathtaking mixture of Romanesque and Perpendicular Gothic, where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. These three monuments are milestones in the religious history of the regions of Great Britain before the Reformation.

St Martin’s Church, to the east, located outside the walls of Roman Durovernum, existed in 597 when the monk Augustine was sent from Rome by Gregory the Great to bring Christianity to the Saxon kingdom of Kent. The church was built for the most part before the 8th century. It undoubtedly includes a Roman structure from the 4th century. Of the church located within the city walls, which St Augustine made his cathedral (probably at the very spot where Christ Church now stands) nothing has been conserved. However, ruins of the abbey are still visible, halfway between St Martin’s Church and the cathedral. The abbey was dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul. In 978 the primitive institution, veritable cradle of Benedictine monasticism in England, was restored following the Scandinavian invasions. The abbey buildings virtually disappeared in their entirety following the dissolution of the Community by Henry VIII in 1538. The Royal Palace that stood in their place was located against the northern side aisle of the nave. It included the gutter wall and a few old portions, but this structure, too, has disappeared.

I’m guessing that most people in the western world have at least heard of Canterbury Cathedral. It was the subject of one of the most well known works of middle english: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It was the site of the assassination of Thomas Beckett, who was later sainted. It was the location where St. Augustine established the first cathedral in England and it was also a key location in the English Reformation.

I had been to London probably a dozen times and never bothered to take the hour long train trip to Canterbury. I finally got around to visiting, and I am glad I did. Not only is the cathedral worth visiting for its history and architecture, but the town of Canterbury itself is one of the nicest towns in England which I’ve visited. Despite how well known the cathedral is, I never got the impression that the town was touristy.

There are regular trains which run to Canterbury from Paddington and Victoria Stations in London. The trip is approximately 60-90 minutes.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #259: Blaenavon Industrial Landscape

UNESCO World Heritage Site #259: Blaenavon Industrial Landscape
UNESCO World Heritage Site #259: Blaenavon Industrial Landscape

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Blaenavon landscape constitutes an exceptional illustration in material form of the social and economic structure of 19th-century industry. The area around the Blaenavon ironworks provides an extraordinarily comprehensive picture of the South Wales coal and iron industry in its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was one of the world’s largest iron and steel producers. All the necessary elements can be seen in situ : coal and ore mines, quarries, a primitive railway system, furnaces, the homes of the workers, and the social infrastructure of their community.

From at least 1675, iron ore was extracted on the mountains of Blaenavon. However, the area was virtually unsettled and used only for small-scale iron mining and grazing. In 1788 Thomas Hill, Thomas Hopkins, and Benjamin Pratt built a major new ironworks at Blaenavon, putting into practice the latest technology and organization of the Industrial Revolution in a new and resource-rich setting. By 1789 the ironworks consisted of three blast furnaces using steam power, making it one of the largest in the world.

In 1817 adit mining for iron ore and coal developed on a larger scale, replacing surface scouring, and shaft mines were introduced, with sophisticated drainage, haulage, and ventilation arrangements. Population grew rapidly through the migration of workers from rural areas of Wales, from the industrial Midlands, Ireland, Scotland and rural England. Blaenavon parish, which had been minuscule before the ironworks was built, had grown to 11,452 in 1891. The social development of the area created a thriving urban culture. A rapidly created industrial landscape grew up of iron-ore patches, coal mines, limestone quarries, iron forges, brick works, tram roads, watercourses and workers’ houses, all controlled by the Blaenavon Company, which was reorganized as a joint stock company in 1836.

During the 1840s and 1850s the scattered housing of the workers and the works’ school, church and chapels were complemented by the evolution, on land outside the company’s ownership, of a town with a variety of urban functions. There were three principal clusters of buildings in the area, one around the Ironworks, one along the east-west axis, now King Street, and one around St Peter’s Church.

Relative decline in steelmaking from around the turn of the century permitted the growth of coal production for export. Steel production ceased in 1938, and Big Pit, the last substantial working colliery, closed in 1980. Big Pit is now a museum of coal mining of international significance, and one of only two mining museums in the United Kingdom where visitors can be taken underground. The conservation of Blaenavon Ironworks has contributed to economic regeneration. The town and the surrounding landscape have survived little altered to represent the story of their past.

One of my favorite type of world heritage sites to visit are industrial sites. Sites which preserve and commemorate advancement in industry from the 18th-20th centuries. One of the most important industrial heritage sites in the world is at Blaenavon.

In the 19th Century, southern Wales was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution. Here you had the two building blocks of early industry: coal and iron.

Within the town on Blaenavon are two preserved facilities: The Blaenavon Ironworks and the Big Pit National Coal Museum.

The Ironworks started business in 1789 and is the world’s best preserved 18th century ironworks. (The ironworks are seen in the photo at the top of the page.) The ironworks are also famous for being the first place where the Bessemer process was used to make steel. It was discovered by Sidney Gilchrist Thomas in Blaenavon and was the foundation for global steel production through the 1960’s.

The Big Pit National Coal Museum is just a short trip up the road from the ironworks. It was a working coal mine through the 1980’s and is one of the most popular museums in the UK. In addition to the surface buildings you can also take a tour underground and it is one of the only places in the UK which does underground tours.

However, the scope of the world heritage site goes beyond the industrial sites in the town of Blaenavon, it also includes many square miles of the surrounding countryside which was influenced by industrial development. This includes everything from iron and coal mines to centuries of medieval ore digs and ponds built during Roman times.

This might be the only world heritage site which preserves a sizable tract of land precisely because of human impact upon it.

Blaenavon can easily be visited by train from any major city in Great Britain. It is currently the only world heritage site in the UK which has a dedicated visitors center. It is also adjacent to the Brecons Beacons National Park, which should also be included to any trip to the region.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #258: Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast

UNESCO World Heritage Site #258: Giants Causeway and Causeway Coast
UNESCO World Heritage Site #258: Giants Causeway and Causeway Coast

From the World Heritage inscription:

The site lies on the north coast of the County of Antrim, Northern Ireland, and includes the Causeway Coast extending for about 6 km between Causeway Head and Benbane Head. The Causeway Coast has an unparalleled display of geological formations representing volcanic activity during the early Tertiary period some 50-60 million years ago. The most characteristic and unique feature of the site is the exposure of a large number of regular polygonal columns of basalt in perfect horizontal sections forming a pavement.

Tertiary lavas of the Antrim Plateau, covering some 3,800 km2 , represent the largest remaining lava plateau in Europe. The coastline is composed of a series of bays and headlands consisting of resistant lavas.

The average height of the cliffs is 100 m, and has a stepped appearance due to the succession of five or six lava flows through geological time. This geological succession during the Tertiary period consists of the Lower Basalts, where about six of the 11 lava flows are 67 m thick and are exposed between Plaiskin Head and Benbane Head; the Interbasaltic Bed which are exposed along extensive sections of the cliffs east of Giant’s Causeway; and the Middle Basalts, which are thick flows ranging from 30 m to over 150 m. The Giant’s Causeway displays the columnar basalt structures and includes the Specific sites of interest include the Giant’s Causeway itself (a sea-level promontory of almost entirely regular polygonal columns averaging 45 cm in diameter and numbering 40,000 columns), the Giant’s Organ (60, 12 m high regular columns and the three-tier structured Middle Basalt), Chimney Tops and Hamilton’s Seat (a viewpoint). The coastline is also cut through by olivine and theoleiite dykes.

In addition to its geological features the site has a range of habitats covering seashore, cliff, scree, grassland, scrub, heathland and marsh.

The Giant’s Causeway itself (a sea-level promontory of almost entirely regular polygonal columns averaging 45 cm in diameter and numbering approximately 40,000 columns); the Giant’s Organ (about 60 regular columns, 12 m high; Chimney Tops (a number of columns separated from the cliffs by erosion); and Hamilton’s Seat (a view point). The coastline is also cut through by olivine and tholeiite dykes, a good example of which can be seen at Roveran Valley Head. Exposure of these columns, in perfect horizontal sections at such a scale creating a pavement, is considered a unique combination of features.

Giant’s Causeway is undoubtedly one of the best known destinations in Northern Ireland. It is approximately a one hour drive from Belfast and is easily reachable by car. There are also many day tours from Belfast you can take. It could even be reached by car from Dublin as it is only a 2-2.5 hour drive.

The actual Giant’s Causeway rock formations for which is it best known is actually quite small. Far smaller than I thought it would be. It is also crawling with people, so getting a shot without a bunch of tourists took me about 15 minutes of sitting in one spot waiting for a 2 second window when no one was standing on the formation I wanted to photograph.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #257: Sceilg Mhichíl

UNESCO World Heritage Site #257: Sceilg Mhichíl
UNESCO World Heritage Site #257: Sceilg Mhichíl

From the World Heritage inscription:

Skellig Michael is an outstanding, and in many respects unique, example of an early religious settlement deliberately sited on a pyramidal rock in the ocean, preserved because of a remarkable environment. It illustrates, as no other site can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterizing much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe.

The island of Skellig Michael lies 11.6 km off Bolus Head, the westernmost tip of the lveragh Peninsula of County Kerry. Faulting of Devonian sandstone and gravels has created a U-shaped depression, known today as ‘Christ’s Valley’ or ‘Christ’s Saddle’, 130 m above sea level in the centre of the island, and this is flanked by two peaks, that to the north-east rising to 185 m and that to the west-south-west 218 m. The rock is deeply eroded and weathered, owing to its exposed position, but is almost frost-free. Landing is possible at three points, depending on the state of the sea. These communicate by flights of steps with the principal monastic remains, which are situated on a sloping shelf on the ridge running north-south on the north-eastern side of the island; the hermitage is on the steeper South Peak.

The approach to the monastery from Christ’s Saddle leads to a long narrow terrace. A doorway in the rear wall gives access via a flight of Steps to a larger enclosure, which is in its turn terraced and subdivided; the lowest level contains the main monastic enclosure, comprised of a church, oratories, cells, a souterrain, and many crosses and cross-slabs. The white quartz paving between the buildings gives the ensemble an urban quality.

The Large Oratory has the usual inverted boat-shaped form, with a door in the west wall. It is built from coursed stone, rectangular at the base and becoming oval as it rises in height; the elongated dome terminates inside in a row of large slabs. The Small Oratory is more carefully constructed, and is considered to be later in date. Nearby are the unique remains of a beehive-shaped toilet cell. Cell A is the largest of the six cells and must have had a communal function. Several have cupboards and projecting stones for hanging purposes. They vary in plan – square, rectangular, and D-shaped; several retain their original flagged floors.

St Michael’s Church is rectangular in form, unlike the oratories, and would originally have had a timber roof. Two stages of construction can be identified: a small church in mortared stone was later expanded, using much larger sandstone blocks.

Simply put, Skellig Michael (aka Sceilg Mhichíl) is fantastic.

It is by far that most amazing thing I’ve seen in Ireland and in my book it is one of the top world heritage sites in all of Europe. It is also one of the more difficult to visit world heritage sites in Europe.

To get to Skellig Michael, you first have to get to the village of Portmargee in county Kerry in the extreme southwestern part of Ireland. Then you need to book passage on one of the boats which go to Skellig Michael. They don’t go every day due to weather and they are limited in the number of passengers they can take. Only about 50 people were on the island the day I visited. I don’t think the island can accommodate many more.

The difficulty of visiting is more a statement about how easy most European sites are to visit than how hard it is to get to Skellig Michael.

Upon visiting, I was astonished that people ever managed to land on the island, let alone live on it. The rocks on the island are almost all vertical. If there wasn’t a modern platform for the ships to dock at, I don’t know how it would be possible to get on the island. That monks once lived here and created a small community is simply amazing.

There is another small island near Skellig Michael called Small Skellig which can be seen in the above photo. It has no human presence and is covered with seabirds.

If you are in Ireland, I highly recommend putting Skellig Michael near the top of your list of things to see.