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Here is a list of my 10 favorite UNESCO listed Natural Heritage sites I’ve visited on my trip, which at this point includes the Pacific, Australia and East/SE Asia. I’m sure this list will be updated at some point in the future as I visit more sites.
10) East Rennell – Solomon Islands
East Rennell is probably the least visited place I’ve been to on my trip. I was told that the island gets about a dozen tourists who visit each year. The east part of the island is a large lake and is home to the largest diversity of birds in the Pacific. Getting to Rennell requires a great deal of commitment. Getting to the Solomons is difficult. Getting to Rennell is difficult on top of that. Getting to the east end of the island from the landing strip in the west is a car ride that resulted in EIGHT flat tires. There is no organized tourism of any sort on the island. There are two “lodges” where you can stay, but it is very informal.
9) Purnululu National Park – Australia
Next to East Rennell, Purnululu is the most difficult to reach park on the list. It is located three hours off of the main road from a roadhouse, which is itself in the middle of nowhere in Western Australia. The most well-known feature of the park are the beehive domes, but there are other erosional features in the park which are equally as stunning. The park was unknown to the world outside of local aborigines and ranchers till the mid-1980’s. It is the highlight of any trip through the Kimberly Region on the way from Darwin to Perth.
8) Kinabalu National Park – Malaysia
Kinabalu is the 4th highest peak in SE Asia. The only reason this doesn’t rank higher is that it was raining in the park during my time there, so I wasn’t able to climb to the summit or explore the park as much as I would have liked to. In addition to the majesty of the mountain (which really did take my breath away the first time we rounded a corner and saw it), the park is home to many varieties of rare pitcher plants and the largest flower in the world, the Rafflesia. Borneo orangoutangs can be found in the park as well.
7) Uluru/Kata-Tjuta National Park – AustraliaLocated in the center of Australia, getting to Uluru is a chore in itself. It is perhaps the single most popular Australian icon after the kangaroo. Uluru is described as the world’s largest monolith (however that is defined) and is a sacred location to the local aboriginal people. Nearby Kata-Tjuta can literally be seen from Uluru and is in many respects more impressive than its more well-known sibling. Kata-Tjuta is higher and split open so you can hike inside the rocks. Sunset and sunrise on Uluru is an experience to behold as the color of the rock changes throughout the course of the day. Walking around the rock will take you about an hour or two and will give you are real feel for its size.
6) Volcanoes National Park – Hawaii
It is hard not to be impressed with an active volcano. I had the pleasure of visiting Volcanoes National Park several years ago with a geology group from the University of Minnesota. Having a geologists appreciation of the park made me enjoy it even more. Because it is active, what you see when you visit is very hit or miss. The two times I’ve been there Kilauea didn’t have lava flowing on the surface. Within the last year, it has been flowing. I’d love to go back when Mauna Loa erupts, which it is believed may happen soon. I’d also love to take a helicopter ride over the area where the lava meets the sea.
5) Ha Long Bay – Vietnam
While you are cruising in Ha Long Bay, you can’t help by say “wow”. The limestone rock formations are reminded me of the rock islands of Palau but on a much larger scale. Located four hours outside of Hanoi by bus, Ha Long Bay is very accessible to tourists. Most packages will let you stay one or two nights on a junk and may include a visit to a nearby national park. Ha Long has become very touristy which is the only thing which takes away from the atmosphere.
4) Yakushima – Japan
This is another park which is not very well known. Many of the people I know who live in Japan have never been here and some have never even heard of it. Yakushima is a small island about an hour boat ride south of Kagoshima. The island is very mountainous with elevations over 1,000m. The World Heritage parts of the island are the cedar forests high up in the mountains. Given its elevation, it is often in the clouds which make for a very magical experience. The time I spent in Yakushima resulted in vastly more quality photos than I take in most locations. Yakushima was the inspiration for the animated film “Princess Mononoke”.
3) Te Wahipounamu – New Zealand
This is better known as the Fjordlands National Park and includes Milford Sound. In addition to the fjords, the area also includes Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers. Much of the stunning beauty of the South Island can be found in this area. Other than Patagonia in South America, you will not find a landscape like this anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere. The day I was at Milford Sound it had been raining for 24 hours straight prior to my arrival and I was treated to a symphony of waterfalls on the side of the fjord. I also took a helicopter ride to the top of Franz Joseph Glacier which was one of the highlights of my trip to New Zealand.
2) Kakadu National Park – Australia
I had previously described Kakadu as the Australian Yellowstone. Since I was there, my opinion of the park has only increased. Unlike much of Australia which is dry and desolate, Kakadu is a veritable supermarket of wild game. Wetlands waterfowl, saltwater crocodiles, wonderful rock formations, and enormous termite mounds are all over the park. I was there at the wrong time of the year, but there are also 4×4 trips to some beautiful waterfalls. On top of all that, there is a cultural aspect to the park with some of the oldest Aboriginal rock art in Australia.
1) Gunung Mulu National Park – Malaysia
This might surprise people as my number one because they may not have heard of the park, but it surpassed my expectations in almost every way. There is a lot to Mulu. The most obvious thing is the Borneo rainforest, which you are smack dab in the middle of. There are no roads which go to Mulu. You have to fly in or take a boat. On top of the rainforest there are the caves. Deer Cave is the largest cavern in the world. It is enormous. They describe it as the volume of three St. Paul’s Cathedrals. In the cave live millions of bats which leave the cave in a flying river every night to go feed in the forest. There is trekking, mountain climbing, and enough stuff to keep you occupied for the better part of a week. I am really amazed that Borneo isn’t a bigger tourist attraction. This is ecotourism at its finest. The staff and facilities at Mulu are top notch.