Trazzler

Rocks worthy of legend

From sleeping snakes to fire-breathing goddesses, we explore natural anomalies that spawned fascinating myths

  • Escaping the stress of Hong Kong life in Tung Ping Chau

    Camping might not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of Hong Kong, but like any city worth its salt, Hong Kong has its wild places, too — beyond the clubs of Lan Kwai Fong. Tung Ping Chau, the most remote island in the archipelago, is as far-flung as Hong Kong gets. In contrast with the stark igneous rock that forms other islands, Tung Ping Chau consists of a stripy wonderland of sedimentary rock, the strata cast about in dramatic abstract arrangements. Local legends explain the geological anomaly as the scaly remains of ancient dragons who got out of hand and were slain by the gods. Whether you’re a geologist, a folklorist or just looking for an escape from urban life, the island makes an ideal weekend getaway (ferry only runs on weekends and holidays) and for the intrepid, offers seaside campsites. Make dinner on the beach while the sun sets. The island’s bizarre, tilted rock formations make excellent trekking, along with tidal pools full of marine life and sea caves that would cheer any pirate. Just don’t miss the return ferry Sunday afternoon — or you’ll spend the rest of the week as a castaway. Not a bad thought, come to think of it.

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  • Flowering in Paradise, Mount Rainier, Wash.

    The year was 1885. Virinda Longmire, wife of the mountain’s first European settler, rode a horse to the high meadow and exclaimed, “O what a paradise!” The name stuck. And for good reason. Superlatives trip off the tongue when it comes to Paradise, the most popular stop at Mount Rainier National Park. A 5,400-foot-high alpine meadow that overlooks the Nisqually Glacier, the luscious landscape boasts a vitality that is world renowned. Naturalist John Muir called the Paradise valley, “The most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountaintop wanderings.” Liberated from their refrigerated slumber, these meadows are awash in petaled sunsets for a few glorious weeks each summer. The Lummi Indians say that when Mount Rainier abandoned her husband, Mount Baker, she took the choicest flowers and fruits with her. When Chinook summer winds flutter alpine frocks and frolic over blushing swells of mountain heather, Western anemones, and the flaming heads of Indian paintbrush, you can’t help feeling that the legend is true. And that Virinda was right.

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  • Taking giant steps on volcanic rock in Northern Ireland

    Forty thousand volcanic basalt columns spew from the earth to form the Giants Causeway. This wild landscape in the farthest reaches of Northern Ireland is the stuff of legends. Heroic poetry tells how the giant Finn McCool used these bizarre outcroppings to march right into the sea to the nearby islands and beyond to Scotland (where Fingal’s cave awaited him — another basalt oddity). The effect is a helter-skelter honeycomb of perfectly formed, hexagonal stepping stones that lead into the crashing waves, some up to 40 feet high. While mere humans lack the mythological dimension necessary to hop, skip and jump across the north Atlantic, it’s still a fun time scrambling among the 60-million-year-old frozen lava jungle gym and hiking the many misty trails around the promontories and clifftops.

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  • Gracing the Outback Dreamtime in Kata Tjuta, Australia

    She’s the sister sleeping silently to the west, as brilliant in temperament and style as her kindred Uluru but less famous in nature. Weave your way through Kata Tjuta’s 36 domes, a background tapestry of red rock and blue skies upon which the Anangu Dreamtime legends paint their secret stories of a great snake who inhabits the summit, hides in caves, slithers through the gorges, and breathes wind through the landscape. Aptly named for the cooling gusts propelling you along its rocky track, the Valley of the Winds 7.4-kilometer circuit hike is a foray into the world of expansive being and reflective silence. Walk it and dream of your own time and spirit.

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  • Respecting a landmark Navajo canyon shrine in Arizona

    From one of the eight overlooks in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in eastern Arizona, visitors can gaze at a legendary natural landmark. Here, a spire called Spider Rock stands impossibly upright like an antenna or pole, rising 800 feet above the valley floor. Formed over 230 million years ago, this stratified, sandstone monolith is sacred to today’s Navajo people, also known as Diné. Ancient lore tells of an ancestral earth goddess, the Spider Grandmother, who lived atop the pinnacle and was a master weaver of natural fibers. Her greatest work was that of spinning a web, sprinkling it with dew, and casting it in the night sky to create the stars. She taught the tribe how to weave baskets, rope and lacing, and is still respected as a deity. This area is considered sacred land, and visitors must be guided by the Navajo inside the valley and canyons. Thunderbird Lodge is inside the park and offers lodging and jeep tours.

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  • Watching two oceans collide at Cape Reinga in New Zealand

    At the tip of New Zealand’s North island sits the windswept Cape Reinga. It’s not actually the most northern point of the country — that title belongs to Surville Cliffs on North Cape. Nevertheless, standing at the lighthouse and watching the turbulent waters of the South Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea converge has a certain majestic feel about it. For the Maori this is the spot where the male sea Te Moana tā Pukapuka o Tawhaki meets the female sea Te Tai o Whitireia. The swirling whirlpools represent the coming together of male and female and the creation of life.

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  • Channeling Karen Blixen on the Ngong Hills in Kenya

    One legend explains the knuckled appearance of the Ngong Hills this way: Ngai (god) tripped over Mount Kenya and his hand landed here. The four main humps, their steep backs to the Rift Valley, stand sentinel over the sprawling city of Nairobi. From the ridge, over 8,000 feet above sea level at its highest point, it is easy to see why Karen Blixen loved this place so much and immortalized it in her book “Out of Africa.” Kenya spreads out at your feet; golden grasses writhe in the winds that run down the slopes. Finch Hatton’s grave is here, and some claim that lions still occasionally range up from the national park. Take a picnic, and brush up on your Danish accent: “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” Follow up with a visit to the writer’s home, now the Karen Blixen Museum, on the site of her ill-fated coffee plantation.

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  • Treading water until midnight in Lake Kournas, Crete

    Legend has it that the people of Kournas were so sinful back in the day that God decided to show them what for, or in the biblical, smite them. Basically God flooded the place and created a freshwater lake at Crete’s heart. The priest’s daughter, though, was sufficiently pure to save her eternal soul and, indeed — it is said — she appears over the lake every night at midnight to feed the fish, water the trees, and perform similar general maintenance duties. And she works hard; Lake Kournas is one of Crete’s most beautiful spots. A motorboat ban ensures the calm, so sun-soak on the beach surrounded by mountains or paddle-boat around the 3.5-kilometer perimeter (pretend you can’t hear them calling you in). Kournas village is an intimate lakeside huddle of tourist shops and taverns. All together now: Thank God for Lake Kournas. After the salty sea, swimming here leaves you feeling cleansed.

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  • Hiking Into the jaws of Goddess Pele in Kilauea, Hawaii

    Our Jeep took us to the newest land on earth: Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. On the massive flanks of Kilauea, the Goddess Pele simultaneously displays her devastating beauty while demonstrating her volatile temper. Oceans of molten lava have spilled from her crater to form massive crevasses and rift zones threatening to swallow not only cars but buildings alike. Solidified lava in glassy filaments (Pele’s Hair) and small droplets (Pele’s Tears) litter the barren ground. It’s against the law to pick them up — if that’s not enough of a deterrent, Rangers suggest that taking a souvenir will also stir the fiery deity’s wrath. All of this geological drama, according to legend, is the fallout from a battle between the goddess of fire and volcanoes and the rain god, Kamapuaʻa. To avoid total Armageddon, they divided up the island, providing a mythological explanation for Big Island’s surreal juxtaposition of verdant tropical paradise and scorched-earth desert. Traversing this moonscape requires extreme care as shards of glittering lava give way to heart-sinking drops underfoot, albeit only inches, accompanied by the crackling sound of shattering glass. Recent eruptions have made this primeval environment off-limits, but on this particular day we were lucky this area was accessible.

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  • Weeping for young love at Lagoa das Sete Cidades in the Azores

    On the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores, from the vantage point Vista do Rei, you’ll have a fabulous view of the twin lakes Sete Cidades in the middle of a volcanic crater. One lake appears blue, the other green. This is, rather prosaically, caused by variations in the reflection of sunlight into the caldera. Much more romantic is the legend that tells of a pretty blue-eyed princess falling in love with a shepherd boy with beautiful green eyes. Sadly, the king had other plans and forced his daughter to leave the shepherd. Saying goodbye, the young lovers cried so much their tears formed two lagoons at their feet, reflecting the color of their eyes.

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  • Walking the mystic path of El Dorado in Guatavita, Colombia

    Climbing at 9,950 feet in elevation, your heavy feet pound the dusty stairs to the ridge like hollow drums in the thin Andean air. Wheezing for breath, it’s a struggle to inhale enough oxygen to keep from passing out. At this altitude, it’s easy to forget that the sun will bake your cheeks like arepas (corn cakes) without high-SPF sunblock. Travelers who make it this far search for glints of gold or gems cast off anciently. As the legend goes, the gold-dust-encrusted Zipa (King of the Muiscas) threw his offerings — and himself — into the watery deeps of Lake Guatavita as a sacrifice to the gods. The legend of El Dorado is serious business. In the 16th century, Spanish conquistador Hernán Pérez de Quesada made an unsuccessful attempt to empty the lake using gourd buckets and forced labor. Another gold-crazy treasure hunter, Antonio de Sepúlveda, enlisted 8,000 local people to cut a notch in the side of the mountain. The water level was lowered by 65 feet, surfacing an assortment of gold artifacts that were promptly sent to King Phillip II in Spain. Tragically, most involved in the enterprise were killed by a rock slide. Sepúlveda died a pauper and is buried in a local church.

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  • Observing the oddity of Mima Mounds in Littlerock, Wash.

    Are they the work of Native Americans, glacial activity or gophers? In a state known for its towering mountains and lush forests, Washington’s Mima Mounds are largely overlooked. Yet this 637-acre preserve south of Olympia contains some of the oddest geologic formations in the Northwest. Walking alongside the grassy mounds, it’s clear the gopher theory won’t explain this “pimpled prairie.” At 6 feet high and 30 feet wide, it’s likely they were formed 13,500 years ago by a glacier melting at breakneck pace, much like the ice shelves of Antarctica today (not as cool as the giant gopher theory, but still …). A word of advice: If you do stop for fuel or groceries in nearby Littlerock, it is pronounced “my-muh,” not “mee-muh”.

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