New Zealand: Hiking paradise

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Updated 28 February 2013

New Zealand: Hiking paradise

New Zealand: Hiking paradise

White, sandy beaches and turquoise water surrounded by green hills covered with native bushes and trees, wrapped up with azure blue skies and mild temperatures. No, this is not a description of paradise, although one might wonder what heaven looks like if this place can be found on earth. It is the Abel Tasman National Park, one of the protected areas in New Zealand.
A country made up of two main islands and a large number of small islands located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, New Zealand is known for its natural beauty and variety of landscapes that include fiords, Alpine scenery, and grassland. Not surprisingly, New Zealand is often called “The Paradise of the Pacific”. It is the ideal place to mentally unwind, especially if you are looking for an active vacation. The country’s 14 national parks offer plenty of outdoor activities that include trekking, mountain biking, and kayaking in an unspoiled environment.
At 22,530 hectares, Abel Tasman is the smallest of all national parks, which together cover more than 30,000 square kilometers, but it is nevertheless also the most visited. Its location on the northern shore of New Zealand’s South Island protects it from the heavy winds and rain that often strike other parts of the country. The area’s mild and sunny climate makes it a popular destination throughout the year for both overseas tourists and Kiwis, as the inhabitants of New Zealand call themselves.
There are several options to explore Abel Tasman. Cars are not allowed inside, but there are four car park entrances from which visitors can walk into the park. Another way to enter the park is by taking a water taxi or waterbus and get dropped off at the beach of your choice. While some people enjoy Abel Tasman on a one-day trip, most choose to stay several days in the park and hike one of the two main tracks, the Abel Tasman Coast Track or the Inland Track. The former is the easiest and most popular of the two tracks and passes incredible beaches, whereas the inland track crosses rough and hilly land and is ideal for spotting wildlife. Both tracks take three to five days to complete. Overnight visitors usually sleep in huts or campsites provided by the Department of Conservation, the government body that administers all national parks in New Zealand. The huts have basic amenities like running water and a fireplace, but no electricity. Guests sleep in bunk beds and need to bring their own sleeping bags, food, and stove for cooking.
Apart from hiking — or “tramping”, as the Kiwis call it — sea kayaking has become a popular activity in the Abel Tasman National Park. Tourists often combine this with walking, by kayaking to a hut, spending the night there, and walking back, or vice versa.
The Abel Tasman Coast Track is one of the nine Great Walks, a series of popular tramping tracks crossing stunning landscapes. The Milford Track in Fiordland National Park, the country’s largest national park in the southwest corner of the Southern Island, is another favorite among overseas tourists. British poet Blanche Baughan baptized it some 100 years ago as “the finest walk in the world”. The track covers marvelous fiords, New Zealand’s tallest waterfall, pristine lakes, and snowcapped mountains. The huts on this track, however, fill up quickly, so booking in advance is a must.
Visitors who prefer to do one-day hikes have plenty of walks to choose from. Besides the numerous options in Abel Tasman National Park, a favorite walk — perhaps the world’s best single-day wilderness walk — is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. With often over 200 hikers a day during the peak season from December to March, this walk traverses Tongariro National Park in the middle of the Northern Island. Established in 1887, Tongariro was the first national park in New Zealand and the fourth in the world. The park encompasses three active volcanic mountains, lakes in various shades of blue and green, scenic views, desert-like plateaus, and hot springs. It is one of the few places in the world recognized by UNESCO as a dual World Heritage area because of the region’s cultural significance to the Maoris, the aboriginal people of New Zealand.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19.4-km walk over volcanic terrain, making it a challenging and lengthy day walk. Given that it is an alpine walk on open and high altitude terrain, hikers can be exposed to severe weather conditions like snow, rain, and heavy winds, and need to be well prepared before setting off. The track’s unique features, however, make the hike well worth it. It passes the active volcanic mountains Ngauruhoe and Tongariro as well as the latter’s big Red Crater. The color of this crater is a result of the high temperature oxidation of iron in the rock. Immensely enchanting are the three Emerald Lakes and the Blue Lake the walk passes. The former owe their name to their bright green color caused by minerals leaching from the adjacent thermal area. Blue Lake, as the name suggests, has a deep blue color. Its Maori name, Te Wai-whakaata-o-te-Rangihiroa, translates as Rangihiroa’s Mirror. On still days, it is easy to see why the Maori gave it this name. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing ends its long descent in native, lush forest, a refreshing change after a long walk in open volcanic terrain that hardly sees any vegetation.
The walks mentioned here are just a few examples of the numerous “tramps” through national parks and other protected areas in these islands of splendid beauty. The Department of Conservation is in charge of taking care of the parks, and most tracks are clearly marked. However, to prevent accidents and other hazards, people should prepare their hikes carefully. It is extremely important to wear warm and waterproof clothes, as the weather can change rapidly. In winter, temperatures can be well below zero and snow is common in most national parks, but even in summer temperatures may drop promptly at night or during the day. Many alpine areas are covered with snow in all seasons. Footwear should be sturdy to prevent injuries. Also, bring plenty of energy-rich food such as nuts, muesli bars and dried fruits, as well as water, since there are no shops in the national parks. Taking all proper arrangements will ensure you to have a memorable experience in New Zealand’s cherished wilderness.
For more information and to prepare for your trip, visit the website of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/

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Picture perfect: Saudi Arabia’s ancient beauty finds a new audience

Picture perfect: Saudi Arabia’s ancient beauty finds a new audience
Photographers now use drones to reach places that once were too dangerous or remote, and the resulting images shed new light on the power of photography and the beauty of landscapes. (Photos: Instgram/ @mysloppyadventures)
Updated 01 March 2021

Picture perfect: Saudi Arabia’s ancient beauty finds a new audience

Picture perfect: Saudi Arabia’s ancient beauty finds a new audience
  • Online platforms have become a melting pot of images taken by photographers who travel the country

JEDDAH: A new generation of Saudi photographers is relying on the power of social media to showcase the Kingdom’s vast beauty.

Online platforms have become a melting pot of images taken by photographers who travel the country — from the sandy beaches of the east and west, to the mountains of the north and south, and the green oases of the deserts — discovering the beauty of each region one picture at a time.

Fahad Al-Mutairi, 22, started @thesaudigate on Twitter to promote Saudi Arabia’s “hidden wonders” to a growing tourist market.

“I wanted to be part of the future somehow — that’s why I started Saudi Gate and this is what has motivated me to go on,” he told Arab News.

Many other photographers who travel the country share the same outlook.

Faisal Fahad Binzarah, 41, said: “I had to work on a few projects and went to places I had never been before. I remember thinking, where has this been all my life? I never thought I would find such gems in Saudi Arabia.”

Binzarah said that he looks for dramatic landscapes and tries to “capture the overall feeling of the place.”

He said: “The pictures I take are not unique, the uniqueness comes from the places. I am just the conveyer of the beauty and nothing else.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Fahad Al-Mutairi, 22, started @thesaudigate on Twitter to promote Saudi Arabia’s ‘hidden wonders’ to a growing tourist market.

• Al-Mutairi said that about a third of @thesaudigate’s followers are international, and they are usually surprised by what they see.

“As a photographer, I try to capture the right objects at the right time, but often I feel like the beauty is not represented,” he said.

Al-Mutairi said that about a third of @thesaudigate’s followers are international, and they are usually surprised by what they see.

“Often they are amazed but also very happy because after going through the pictures they know that there is a part of the world that they must explore.”

Hadi Farah, 28, a Lebanese photographer who now lives in the Kingdom, said that he had traveled widely in Saudi Arabia and “always felt a sense of welcome and ease.”

“I think tourism is directly influenced by photographers. Whenever I upload something, I receive questions with people asking if this is really in Saudi Arabia or have I accidentally put the wrong name.

“Unfortunately, people think that it is just a desert and nothing else. So by posting pictures of these places we are educating them about possibilities and attractions they thought never existed,” he said.

Binzarah agreed, saying: “Undiscovered places are of interest for professional photographers, because they are always looking for challenges, and I think this ignites their interests to go to these places and explore.”

he added that “while the desert might be nothing new to a Saudi resident, it will be of interest to people who live in greener countries.”

Saudi Arabia, as a land of ancient civilizations, is extremely appealing for archaeologists and tourists interested in history, Binzara said.

Farah described the beauty of nature in different places, saying: “We associate beauty with life, and in our minds where there is green there is life, but we forget that there is also life in rocks and sand, and they are rich in history. So, we need to keep in mind that the beauty of AlUla is different from other areas.”

Technology is also having a major influence. Photographers now use drones to reach places that once were too dangerous or remote, and the resulting images shed new light on the power of photography and the beauty of landscapes.

“Being on social media gives us the drive to do better,” Binzarah said. “If there is no community or people to engage with, it gets dull.”

He added: “It is a personal journey and one for everyone to discover Saudi Arabia one picture at a time.”

 


After 60 years, native gazelles return to Arabia

After 60 years, native gazelles return to Arabia
A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on February 10, 2019, shows gazelles running in the desert at the site of al-Ula in northwestern Saudi Arabia. (AFP)
Updated 26 February 2021

After 60 years, native gazelles return to Arabia

After 60 years, native gazelles return to Arabia
  • Last November, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman highlighted in a speech to the Shoura Council that conservation in the Kingdom has risen 14 percent in the past three years from just 4 percent

MAKKAH: After a 60 year absence, the Arabian oryx and rhim gazelle have now returned to Rawdat Attinhat at the King Abdul Aziz Royal Reserve, north of the Kingdom’s capital city Riyadh.

In close cooperation between the National Center for Wildlife Development and King Abdul Aziz Royal Reserve, five Arabian oryx and 30 rhim gazelles, both endangered species, have been released into one of the largest unfenced conservation parks in the Kingdom.

Arabian oryx once thrived in the region, but disappeared from the central region of the peninsula 60 years ago.

According to the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, plans to release animals from the endangered list will be closely monitored and will work with more partners, according to the criteria and work plan of this ambitious national project, to revive wildlife in reserves and parks.

Last November, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman highlighted in a speech to the Shoura Council that conservation in the Kingdom has risen 14 percent in the past three years from just 4 percent. This comes as part of the national project to protect the environment and heritage according to the principles of sustainable development.

The program aims to strengthen environmental balance, and protect the Kingdom’s natural assets that have environmental, economic and cultural importance.

The spokesman for the Special Forces for Environmental Security said that its task is to protect wildlife in all locations, and called on all residents to refrain from hunting wild animals, adding that violators will be referred to the authorities and fined.

Ahmed Al-Bouq, the environmental advisor at the National Center for Wildlife Development supervising the national launch program, told Arab News: “King Abdul Aziz Reserve has a number of parks including Rawdat Attinhat, Rawdat Nourah, and Al-Khafs. These are considered wonderful natural habitats for endangered species in the Kingdom. These parks include acacia, sidra, and thistle trees, in addition to pastoral plants like cucumber, and they have an integrated ecosystem.”

Al-Bouq noted that the center has a program, the National Program to Relaunch and Resettle in Reserves and National Parks, which is a comprehensive, ambitious, and dedicated plan for all national parks in collaboration with supervising agencies.

He noted that by 2030, the National Center for Wildlife Development intends to release animals into the wild in 100 locations, including more gazelles and oryx, Alpine ibexes, ostriches, Houbara bustard birds, and other local species.

“The main objective of this program is to revive the wildlife of animals that either became extinct or are about to go extinct, based on international regulations and criteria,” Al-Bouq said.

He added: “A while ago we arranged to release more than 30 falcons, including free hawks, Shaheen, and Al-Wakra, after rehabilitating them in collaboration with the Saudi Falcons Club.”


Dreaming of travel? Escape to Cape Town when you can

Dreaming of travel? Escape to Cape Town when you can
Updated 27 February 2021

Dreaming of travel? Escape to Cape Town when you can

Dreaming of travel? Escape to Cape Town when you can
  • The most prestigious venues in South Africa’s tourism capital have never been more affordable

DUBAI: The silence atop Table Mountain on a cloudless afternoon in December is an experience only the COVID-19 pandemic could have brought. 

As one of the most popular hikes (or cable-car rides, if you’d prefer an easier climb) in Cape Town, the summit is usually thronging with people wielding selfie sticks and smartphones whatever the day, leaving you jostling for a decent view of the famed Twelve Apostles to the left, and the sweeping city and harbor to the right. But on this Friday evening we find ourselves alone except for our guide and a peppy rock hyrax for company. 

Naturally, South Africa’s tourism capital is a different place during the pandemic. Like elsewhere in the world, it’s largely devoid of international travellers. This is bad news for the country’s tourism industry, but a positive point if you’re one of the few choosing to head abroad.

In Franschhoek, the picturesque valley filled with vineyards just north-east of Cape Town, a seat at one of the country’s premier restaurants has never been easier to come by. (Shutterstock)

The city’s top hotels are offering large discounts to entice travellers in. And Cape Town’s premier attractions — including its world-renowned restaurants — are easier to get into then ever.

South Africa opened its doors to tourists on November 1, but has since faced challenges in being perceived as a safe place to visit. In December, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the country was in a second wave of infections, one that was crippling the hospital system. The South African variant of COVID-19 was also discovered. Flights into and out of the country were cancelled. Ramaphosa closed beaches and public parks and enforced a number of other restrictions in perceived hotspots — including Nelson Mandela Bay and the famous Garden Route. The move was another blow for the tourism industry there, which, after a tough lockdown period earlier in the year, was relying on the incoming flock of domestic tourists for the festive season. 

If you’re staying at the One and Only Cape Town, seek out David. (Shutterstock)

Cape Town and the surrounding area escaped strict restrictions, however. Its beaches, as well as the sparkling white bays and the quirky towns dotted around Cape Peninsula (Hout Bay, Kalk Bay, Muizenberg etc) are humming with locals. It’s a relative hum, however, with only a few beachfront restaurants nearing capacity and a palpable air of uncertainty. 

Wandering along Cape Town’s beachfront, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear a foreign accent. You can wander through Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and not see another face for long periods of time. On a hike up Table Mountain, you might only encounter a couple of other people on the same route. The uncrowded outdoors beckon.

Many of the hikes in the city (Lion’s Head is another must-do) seem easy enough, but are better attempted with a guide — both for safety and enjoyment. Most hotels will either have one on staff or will be able to arrange one for you. If you’re staying at the One and Only Cape Town, seek out David. He’s knowledgeable about hidden spots on the hike, as well as about the area’s fauna and flora, meaning your hike will be peppered with educational tidbits too. 

Babylonstoren is arguably the region’s most popular spot. (Shutterstock)

One and Only Cape Town is a top choice if you’re looking to stay central — nestled in around the waterfront. Its affable army of staff positioned around the property at all times are vigilant about temperature checks and sanitization, and it’s a diverse enough hotel to mean you never have to leave if you’re nervous about mixing in crowds. A central island of resort-style rooms offer an escape to a tropical island in the middle of the city, surrounded by waterways where you can kayak or paddleboard. 

The hotel is also home to Africa’s only Nobu restaurant. Given the freshness of the catch in this area of the world, it’s the perfect place to break up all your heavy game meals. Better yet, spend a rainy day trying a sushi masterclass and learn Nobu’s famous six-step nigiri method. 

Given the freshness of the catch in this area of the world, it’s the perfect place to break up all your heavy game meals. (Shutterstock)

Best of all, the Western Cape’s world-famous restaurants don’t need to be booked months in advance at the moment. Even in the really touristy areas.

In Franschhoek, the picturesque valley filled with vineyards just north-east of Cape Town, a seat at one of the country’s premier restaurants has never been easier to come by. For instance, at Babylonstoren, arguably the region’s most popular spot, bookings for its restaurant Babel open nine months in advance, with its website recommending booking two or three months in advance. Now, you can book with less than 24-hours notice.

La Residence, Franschhoek’s most beautiful property (and a favorite of Sir Elton John), is a boutique option at the best of times, but now it seems almost as though it’s your own private mansion. The 30-acre estate is positioned on a hillock overlooking the village on one side and with lines of vines on the other, as emboldened peacocks wander around your room, and up to your table at breakfast time. One couple has booked in for 46 nights, which may be a bit much, but it’s hard to blame them, given the (relatively) bargain prices and lack of crowds.

If you’re willing and able to travel — and if the country’s borders are open again — this might be the best possible time to visit this dazzling city.


Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah project ‘on time and on track’

Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah project ‘on time and on track’
Jerry Inzerillo, CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority. (Supplied)
Updated 24 February 2021

Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah project ‘on time and on track’

Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah project ‘on time and on track’
  • DGDA chief vows to turn ‘Jewel of the Kingdom’ into a global destination

RIYADH: Despite challenges posed by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the multibillion-dollar Diriyah Gate Project is “on time and on track,” said Jerry Inzerillo, the tourism mogul and CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA).

In an interview with SPA, Inzrillo said development work on the biggest cultural project in the world, at a cost of SR75 billion ($20 billion), is forging ahead.
Seven square kilometers of the historic city of Diriyah, just 15 minutes northwest of Riyadh, are being transformed into one of the world’s foremost lifestyle destinations for culture, hospitality, retail and education.
“It will become one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated subsurface infrastructures,” Inzerillo said. “We have recently signed new contracts and are currently in the process of adapting different building techniques for our authentic Najdi architecture.”
In line with design, development and preservation standards, DGDA is creating an environment that enhances Diriyah’s national and international relevance, including the preservation of the At-Turaif UNESCO World Heritage Site, which sits at the heart of the development.
Officials hope the “Jewel of the Kingdom” attracts local and international visitors alike through its world-class entertainment and events.
One such world-class event will be held this weekend when the Kingdom hosts the Diriyah E-Prix double-header, two nights of racing set to launch the seventh season of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship.

HIGHLIGHTS

• DGDA is creating an environment that enhances Diriyah’s national and international relevance.

• Officials hope the ‘Jewel of the Kingdom’ attracts local and international visitors alike through its world-class entertainment and events.

• One such world-class event will be held this weekend when the Kingdom hosts the Diriyah E-Prix double-header.

Inzerillo said lighting up the Formula E race circuit with environmentally friendly lighting and low-consumption LED technology contributed to an increase in creativity and innovation. It led to the introduction of sustainable solutions that are more energy-efficient and reduce carbon emissions.
The health and safety of drivers and those who will attend the championship is a top priority for the organizers of the event as Inzrillo said strict COVID-19 precautions will be taken to ensure everyone’s safety.
A successful race event will only reinforce Diriyah’s position as one of the world’s greatest gathering places, with modern amenities and advanced infrastructure, he said.
“Hosting the Formula E race against the historical background of Diriyah is an appropriate representation of our vision,” Inzrillo said. “The DGDA wants to protect the history of Diriyah while taking steps toward the future.”
The authority has plans to host more international sporting events at Diriyah as Inzrillo predicts that sports and health will take leading roles in the Kingdom’s future tourism.
He said DGDA wants to build world-class golf courses, picturesque squares, outdoor plazas and tracks dedicated to horse riders that will enhance social and human interaction in Diriyah.
“Heritage and history will be honored and beautifully interwoven with sustainability and environmental considerations,” Inzrillo said.


Experts to resume excavation work on Saudi archaeological sites

Experts to resume excavation work on Saudi archaeological sites
The file photo shows foreign archaeologists excavating the site of Saffaqah in Saudi Arabia. The Arabian Peninsula is home to several ancients sites dating back thousands of years. (Social media)
Updated 24 February 2021

Experts to resume excavation work on Saudi archaeological sites

Experts to resume excavation work on Saudi archaeological sites
  • Before the pandemic, more than 40 teams of local and foreign experts were working in different areas

RIYADH: The Saudi Heritage Authority is preparing to resume survey and archaeological excavations in the Kingdom after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak forced projects to be suspended for almost a year.

The projects will be carried out in partnership with international missions from universities and specialized international research centers.
Teams from various Saudi universities also have been invited to contribute to the survey and excavation operations, and to help unearth antiquities in various regions in the Kingdom.
The Heritage Authority is responsible for conducting archaeological surveys and excavations to discover the rich cultural history of the Kingdom.
Before the pandemic, more than 40 international and local teams were taking part in archaeological excavations in Saudi Arabia. During their research, they discovered traces of ancient human settlements in the Arabian Peninsula, which were published in a string of scientific publications.
The authority collaborates with several research centers and universities to conduct archaeological surveys and excavation operations, and these missions will return to work on 20 sites in the Kingdom along with their Saudi counterparts.
Archaeological missions will resume survey activities at five archaeological sites within the framework of the authority’s cooperation with Saudi public universities.
The authority will also carry out archaeological survey and excavation projects at 19 sites in different regions of the Kingdom, in addition to registering shipwreck sites in the Arabian Gulf for the first time.
Remote sensing techniques and artificial intelligence are among the latest approaches used by the authority and its partner missions.
The authority is expected to launch new research projects this year in cooperation with local partners, including the King Abdul Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives, the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, the Royal Commission for AlUla, NEOM Co., AMAALA Co., the Red Sea Development Co.
It will also involve national cadres, including male and female students as well as archaeology and heritage researchers in the projects.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The Heritage Authority is responsible for conducting archaeological surveys and excavations.

• The authority will also carry out archaeological survey and excavation projects at 19 sites in different regions of the Kingdom.

• Remote sensing techniques and artificial intelligence are among the latest approaches used by the authority and its partner missions.

Fahd Alotaibi, a history professor at King Saud University, said: “The excavation of antiquities confirms the Saudi government’s keenness to root the cultural depth of the Kingdom and the history of human settlement there,” adding that the Arabian Peninsula is one of the oldest geographical areas in which man appeared.
He said that the return of archaeological surveys highlighted the Kingdom’s success in dealing with the pandemic as well as the high level of expertise achieved by Saudi antiquities specialists.
Alotaibi, author of “Language, Writing and Identity in the Arabian Peninsula Before Islam,” said that Saudi Arabia, with its huge archaeological remnants, is a magnet for scholars from around the world.
“The archaeological surveys will yield a lot of archaeological and historical results that will contribute to filling the gap in information about the Kingdom’s national history, or correcting some previous information,” he added.
Alotaibi said that Saudi antiquities researchers’ partnership with international experts through joint surveys, and the Saudi Heritage Authority’s keenness to deal with archaeology departments in local universities, will deliver field training opportunities for students’ and localize experiences related to antiquities.