A world full of wonders
When I first heard a decade ago that Swiss-Canadian adventurer Bernard Weber was inviting the world to vote for the seven most impressive man-made sites on the planet, I was sceptical.
First, who has the right to determine these things? And who would want to visit these seven most 'wondrous' places? They'd obviously be rammed with people, like all Unesco World Heritage sites. Third, since only the Great Pyramid of Giza survived from the old list of ancient wonders, there was little evidence that these things worked.
But today Weber's 7Wonders website (www.new7wonders.com) has become a global phenomenon with a social media spin very much in tune with modern society. Post-millennial people love to vote - look at all the reality shows with call-in voting - and everyone, we're told, is an expert.
At 11am GMT today (November 11, 2011 - you get the gist), voting ends on his most recent campaign: the seven new natural wonders of the earth. Speaking from South Africa, where Weber was visiting Table Mountain, one of the 28 shortlisted sites in the poll, he told me the current project was even more popular than the last one.
'People feel very strongly that nature belongs to them. It's their backyard,' he says. 'They want to protect what they view as theirs. People are conscious that these wonders could disappear. By creating awareness about these places, maybe we can help.'
Eleven entries in the shortlist are in Asia. 'Asians are very active participants in this,' Weber says. 'It's a poor testimony for the Western world - even where we have democracy - that we are no longer voting or participating.'
After 'hundreds of millions of votes' sent via SMS, internet and social media platforms, according to Weber, the original list of 440 sites was whittled down to 28.
Among the more surprising finalists are Lebanon's Jeita Grotto Poland's Masurian Lake District and Abu Dhabi's Bu Tinah Shoals.
A journalist who had worked in the United Arab Emirates capital told me how the government backed the 7Wonders project and encouraged people to vote. 'They want to show the world that Abu Dhabi belongs in the big league,' he says.
Weber says he is delighted that the Bu Tinah Shoals - a tiny but species-rich archipelago - made the cut. 'Because the authorities don't even want people to visit them, they don't want to turn them into a tourist attraction, they just want people to know they're there,' he says.
The shortlist also includes some obvious global tourism draws such as the Galapagos Islands, the Dead Sea, Milford Sound and the Amazon rainforest.
Putting all scepticism aside, here is our pick of five outstanding contenders.
One of those deserving the top spot is surely Venezuela's Angel Falls not just because it is the tallest waterfall on the planet, but because the surrounding landscape of rivers, dense forests and antediluvian tepuis - tabletop-like mountains - is truly breathtaking. When I recently visited it en route to Guyana, what struck me most was the contrast between the ugly, traffic-choked, crime-ridden, socially segregated Venezuelan capital, Caracas, and the wilderness around Angel Falls. If Venezuelans want to send President Hugo Chavez a message about man and nature, they could do worse than vote for their kilometre-high cascade.
Next up is Indonesia, which has more than 17,500 islands. It would just be wrong not to have one in the hotlist. There are 2,000-odd people on Komodo Island, so there's not too much pressure from the population on this section of the Komodo National Park. What keeps most people out might well be the island's star attraction, the Komodo dragon, an evolutionary one-off with a hideously venomous bite that kills deer, monkeys, goats and other prey slowly and painfully. That the supersized monitor lizard is up to three metres long is not insignificant, but again it's the whole scene - giant lizard, primeval forest, volcanic riverbank - that makes the island a worthy candidate.
Australia's massive Uluru sandstone, formerly known as Ayers Rock, is a crossover contender. Its Aboriginal name adds cultural weight to its impressive physical appearance. Knowing how fiercely proud Aussies are of their natural sites, they'll no doubt be voting as many times as they can.
The Maldives needs some votes, not least because these Indian Ocean atolls are too easily packaged as luxury spots. The 1,192 small islands harbour a stunningly diverse marine life - reef sharks, moray eels, manta rays, stingrays, sea turtles, coral reefs, underwater flora - and it's all under threat of exploitation, global warming and tsunamis.
The Maldives government, in love with the tourist dollar, has been slow to protect its fragile islands, and a ranking in the final seven might generate much-needed pressure.
Finally, I'd like Vietnam's Halong Bay to win because the limestone karsts and islets are like a divine joke: the geomorphology is too fabulous not to bring a smile to any traveller's face and a high rank will solidify Vietnam's place on the travel map.
So who will win? Nobody will know until this evening. But you have to hand it to Weber for conjuring up a successful social media campaign (not to mention a self-promotional behemoth) long before Facebook conquered the world.
And just when you thought it was finally coming to an end, a new campaign kicks off. The 7Wonders foundation has already soft-launched a campaign to select the world's most 'wondrous' city, which becomes the main focus of their efforts as of today.
'This campaign is very much about the future. You never know, it might help us work out how to live well in cities,' Weber says.
Hong Kong is in with a chance, no doubt. Weber says all urban centres with more than 10,000 people could qualify, and, anyway, no one controls anything in the social media world. All we can be sure of is this: post a list online and some people will vote. If Caracas wins, I'm going back to being sceptical again.
Find beauty in paths less travelled
Here is our selection of five alternative landscapes that should have made the shortlist: tourist-free, off the beaten-track, and naturally wonderful.
Deception Island, Antarctica
Why? This is a marvel to behold, with an abandoned sealing factory now a poignant piece of still life. With such pressure on the planet's icy extremes, it's mesmerising - and morally edifying - to be in places man has not yet ruined.
Go: fly to Ushuaia in Argentina and jump on a small adventure cruise ship.
Why? This off-the-radar wilderness straddles Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan and is the 'navel of the world' for its native people. It is a land of sweeping bare mountains, eagle-hunters, nomadic farmers and immense skies.
Go: fly to Barnaul in Russia and head south or travel via Ulan Bator and Bayan-Olgii province in Mongolia.
Why? With no roads connecting it to the rest of Russia, the best way to explore this densely forested peninsula is by military helicopter. Alternatively, you could climb one of the dozens of active volcanoes (below) to look across a landscape that is dream-like as well as deadly.
Go: fly to the Russian city of Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky.
Patagonian Steppe, Argentina
Why? This is one of the planet's least-celebrated deserts. Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Andes mountain range, Patagonia is at its most affecting deep inland where there is nothing but wind and solitude.
Go: fly to Buenos Aires and then take a 2?hour connecting flight down to Rio Gallegos, where you can take any road heading west.
Gullfoss Waterfall, Iceland
Why? Iceland is a traveller-friendly country, but when you get away from the capital, Reykjavik, and the surrounding towns, it is as surreal and strange as anywhere on earth. In winter, the mighty Gullfoss almost freezes and you can see the walls of ice battling with the rushing water.
Go: fly to Reykjavik and drive for two hours.