An Itinerary of Impossibilities

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

There’s something uniquely attractive, thrilling even, about those things in life that defy an easy explanation. Perhaps it's the act of turning curiosity into knowledge as we learn what makes these things what they are, or the simple unbridled joy of exploring beautiful things that we, at least on a personal level, cannot explain. Whether as yet fully explained, or simply the kinds of places that make one stop to think as we stand awestruck, taking it all in, these are some of the world’s more mysterious sights. Some lacking a verified explanation, others so otherworldly and beautiful, that upon seeing them, an explanation becomes quite unnecessary.

Venezuela’s Everlasting Storm

As dusk settles over the calm waters of Lake Maracaibo, and the brightly painted homes of local fishermen, balanced on stilts over the water, fall quiet, cracks form in the sky, colliding with pockets of warmed air and zigzagging as they force their way to the ground. This Catatumbo Lightning fills the dark sky with intense light, striking on some nights up to 280 times per hour, and on rarer occasions as much as 200 times a minute, for an average of 297 nights a year. It’s been a constant of the known world for as long as history can remember, so much so that it’s perhaps best known as the Beacon of Maracaibo because sailors entering the Catatumbo river mouth from the Caribbean have historically embraced the lightning as a natural beacon. A lighthouse bursting from the heavens coaxing all towards the lake.

But there’s little mystery as to why this happens. It comes down to the lay of the land. To the south, the mountains of the Andes wrap around the lake’s shores, and to the north, the lake swims into the river and eventually collides with the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. This results in cool mountain breezes that dance through the valley eventually joining with the warm winds of the sea, creating perfect conditions for lightning and deadly entertainment for the few travellers who make the journey, usually from nearby Mérida.

Scotland’s Red River

If impossibility could be measured in degrees of awe, then Scotland would be one of the world’s most impossible places. It is impossibly beautiful. Its lochs and fairytale castles look fictional, impossibly real. But the red river, the Finnich Gorge, or rather, the Devil’s Pulpit, close to Glasgow, is otherworldly. Renowned sci-fi author, Arthur C Clarke’s third law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, but speaking of the here and now, one could add that any sufficiently unique nature is also indistinguishable from magic.

And at Finnich Gorge the magic is clear to see. Crimson waters brush up against an ancient bulbous stone that local folklore dictates was either Satan’s podium, delivering speeches with blood at his feet, or a meeting place for secretive druids, hiding at the bottom of the towering moss-covered walls, a vein full of ruby red waters providing mysticism by the gallon. In truth, the fantastic aesthetic of the gorge belies the water’s true nature, as the distinct red shade is simply the result of the red limestone that the river flows atop. But with or without this knowledge the entire area is breathtaking, inspiring and impossibly pretty. 

Namibia’s Fairy Circles

Depending on who one consults, the fairy circles that mark the arid landscape of Namibia are both explained and unexplained. Various ideas exist for their formation, although none are proven. The most likely hypothesis is that they are the boundary lines of termite colonies. But the local Himba population believes in a more fantastic explanation: that the circles are created by fairies. Regardless, the circles appear suddenly in grassy outcrops, dark sandy spheres providing a stark contrast to the perennial belt at its edges. But the entire place is achingly attractive, with a seemingly unending supply of nature to explore. One finds the circles by travelling to the Marienfluss Valley (northwest Kunene), a vast landscape framed by dark jagged mountains, soft sands punctuated by tufts of honey-hued grass, and the odd wind-posed tree, that in such arid lands offers an alluring sign of water beneath.

A Boiling River In The Peruvian Amazon

The Boiling River was once little more than a colourful legend, a story whispered through the generations. Tales spun like literary silk, of cities of gold, adventurers and a river protected by a shaman, so hot it could boil anything that falls into it alive. But years after hearing these stories, Andrés Ruzo embarked on an expedition to central Peru to see if he could find the root of the legend. And as he hiked through the rainforest he started to noticed vapours rising through the trees in the distance, and he found them both: the river and the shaman. Since then, Ruzo, with the help of various organisations, most notably the National Geographic, has discovered much, including new species that can survive the heat, but he is yet to crack all the secrets of Shanay-Timpishka, the boiling river. To be clear, the temperatures are consistent with other geothermal systems, and it’s clear that the river is heated by a natural geothermal source.

But the river is 400 miles away from the nearest volcano and at four miles long, it is anomalously large, making the size of the river and the source of the heat the real mysteries. And so for now, in an attempt to understand the river’s anomalies, other researchers are turning their attentions to the river, and Ruzo seeks to educate policymakers around the world to help protect it (from deforestation for the most part) and uncover more of its mist-shrouded secrets. But equally, locals consult the shaman on the river’s secrets, some even brewing tea with its pre-heated water as a base, and health tourism is forming organically at Mayantuyacu's lush healing retreat. But the source of Shanay-Timpishka’s heat, will, for now, have to remain a mystery.

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