It’s been a month of celebration for The Displaced Nation, beginning with the announcement of our very first birthday on April 1 (no fooling!).
We may be nearing the end of the month, but the festive spirit continues unabated. In fact, in today’s post I’m hosting my own little celebration of Obscura Day, which takes place tomorrow, April 28.
As you may know — or maybe not, since by definition, it’s a little obscure! — Obscura Day is where people all over the world get to show off the unusual and little-known places of interest near wherever they call home. Locals volunteer to give guided tours of such spots — and it’s all organized by the folks who’ve set up Atlas Obscura, a user-generated and editor-curated compendium of the world’s wonders, curiosities and esoterica.
To do my part in enhancing the Obscura Day cause, I’ve rounded up the 5 most interesting and unusual places near the various towns and cities I’ve called home in the past five years.
1. Sail Rock (Hin Bai), off Koh Phangan, Thailand
I happened upon this rock, which for me is one of the foremost world treasures, when living in Thailand in 2007. I was staying in Thong Sala, on the island of Koh Phangan, to train as a professional diver.
This small rock protruding from the Gulf of Thailand doesn’t look like much from the surface, but it’s a world-class diving site — and a comparatively undiscovered one, as it lies off a tiny island famed more for its party scene than its underwater exploration.
There is a vertical tunnel through part of the rock which is absolutely teeming with aquatic life.
I had to earn my way in there by learning enough control over my diving gear and techniques to keep the descent smooth and calm. My boss was very concerned that this place would be preserved for future generations of divers, and he knew how clumsy I was out of the water!
But at long last the day came when I was allowed to enter. I drifted gently downwards, spinning slowly in place to take it all in. I was in a tube filled with corals and sponges, surrounded by weird and colorful creatures like nothing on land. Tendrils waved, lethal looking spikes and spines protruded, fur-like coverings rippled. All in brilliant shades of blue, green, yellow…it was the closest I can imagine to being on some alien planet in a galaxy far, far away!
And yet this amazing world had been right underneath my boat the whole time!
2. Lookout Trees near Pemberton, in the South West region of Western Australia
It was not long after I started living in Perth (where I still am!) that I discovered the Lookout Trees near Pemberton — unimaginably tall trees that had been used as look-out posts for vigilant fire-spotters for almost fifty years. Now they can be climbed, just for the hell of it, by anyone who is a) curious, and b) has the balls of a concrete elephant!
It’s a long — LONG — way to climb on steel rungs driven into the side of the trees, 58 meters (or 190 feet!) to the viewing platform, perched rather precariously above the forest canopy. You can see for hundreds of miles from this towering vantage point, which is all the well; you certainly need something to take your mind off the twin thoughts that a) you’re ridiculously exposed, insanely high and supported only by a single tree, and b) you’re going to have to climb back down…
If you do make it up, you’ll be amazed. At your own bravery as much as the view. If you don’t…well, you’re not alone. More than three quarters of the people who try it never make the top.
3. Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England
My list wouldn’t be complete without an obscure-ish (nothing is truly obscure any more on the overdeveloped British Isles) sight that’s near my original hometown of Highbridge, in Somerset. I speak of the Cheddar Gorge, a 137m-deep split in the Earth’s crust revealing a fantastic labyrinth of caves extending nearly half a kilometre under the ground.
It wasn’t until I was visiting last year that I made the effort to tour the gorge. There’s a company that runs a caving experience for any level of tourist — so I took my Mum! Bless her, she did have fun slithering across ledges, abseiling down underground cliff faces, and best of all — squeezing through tight tunnels carved by water flowing through the caves.
My favorite part was making her laugh by describing the look of just one end of her protruding from the tunnel. She found it so funny that she couldn’t stop laughing to pull herself any further, and was stuck half-in, half-out for quite some time!
Thankfully, there were experienced guides helping us along and tough overalls and wellies — every part of us was encrusted with mud by the time we saw the sun again.
It was quite a relief to emerge from the darkness, especially after the ritual of turning off our helmet lights in the deepest recess of the cave — experiencing an absence of light so profound I could touch my own eyeball without seeing my finger. Spooky…and awesome!
4. Knife-making in Barrytown, New Zealand
An unassuming little bay on the rugged northwestern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, you could be forgiven for thinking there is nothing in Barrytown at all. You’d mostly be right — I passed through there on a road trip in 2010, trying to get a better sense of the island I was living on (yes, I was living in Christchurch at the time).
I checked into a completely empty backpackers hostel (a novelty itself in tourist-mad New Zealand) and noticed a lone advertising flyer on the wall…which is how I came to meet Robyn and Steve, a couple of modern-day artisans, in their home-based knife-making workshop.
Steve is a self-taught blacksmith. Under his tutelage, I heated and hammered metal, ground and sharpened a blade, carved and polished a handle… and within the day I had created a perfect steel knife like something right out of Lord of the Rings!
It was a fantastic feeling to know I’d hand-crafted something so beautiful and unique — well, okay, I had a bit of help from the expert! As a skill, it was highly addictive.
I quizzed him late into the night about just how difficult it would be to make a sword the same way — and got the feeling I wasn’t the first person to ask him that!
If you ever get chance, do this. Obscure? Check! And absolutely fascinating.
5. Sedlec Ossuary, near Prague, Czech Republic
Okay, I wasn’t really living in Prague — I was just passing through in 2006 — but for obscure treasures, this one takes the biscuit!
Not too far from the city — in a suburban part of Southern Bohemia — lies a small Roman Catholic chapel beneath a small cemetery, known as the Sedlec Ossuary or Bone Chapel, as it’s decorated entirely in human bones. There are bones everywhere one looks, from streamers and chandeliers made from complete skeletons, artfully rearranged, to giant pyramids of skulls on display in the four corners. Altar statues and wall decorations are also fashioned completely from bones — it’s estimated that over 40,000 bodies have contributed to the décor!
Perhaps more macabre is that this isn’t some ancient monument to the grotesque, a product of some long-forgotten civilization like the Mayans; no, this is modern work. Although many of the remains date back to the Black Death in the 14th century, the artful sculpting and artistic arrangement of the bones happened just over a century ago!
It really has to be seen to be believed. Especially as photos aren’t allowed — unless you’re very persuasive, and happen to be in there on your own (which is exceedingly creepy)…and happen to have 100 Czech koruna ($4) to bribe the curator!
So. What’s unusual about where you live? Are there any undiscovered gems nearby — cool places, crazy things to do, strange legends? Tell, tell! We want to know! Let us know all about them in the comments. Cheers to obscurity!
STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, another expat book review by Kate Allison.
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Images: Tony Slater’s own photos