The list of Unesco World Heritage Sites celebrates the earth’s most remarkable features: places where nature or humanity, often both, have carved out a truly unique corner of the planet. There are sites that mark cultural and evolutionary milestones, or natural wonders not yet damaged by the march of progress. These are remarkable destinations; places worth protecting, and deserving of a slot on your travelling bucket list.
To date, the list of World Heritage Sites stretches to more than 1,000 locations worldwide, including 10 in SA. And, it’s recently become a little longer, with the addition of 34 new sites across the globe. So, with the world opening up and with it the opportunity to dust off our passports, it’s time to start dreaming again. Make these five top of the list.
Ivindo National Park, Gabon
This remarkable national park in northern Gabon preserves 300,000ha of largely pristine rainforest, home to rare forest elephant, western lowland gorilla and chimpanzees. Spend enough time here and you may also be rewarded with sightings of African golden cat, or one of three species of pangolin that call the park home.
But the forest is not the only highlight here. The network of blackwater rivers tumble down innumerable rapids and waterfalls to create one of Africa’s most beautiful, yet unsung corners. A highlight is the 2km-wide cascades of Chutes de Koungou, the highest waterfalls in equatorial Africa. The rivers are also home to endemic freshwater fish, and the endangered slender-snouted crocodiles. Getting to the park isn’t easy, with access typically by pirogue or charter flight, but the effort will be well worth it.
Trans-Iranian Railway, Iran
Adventurous travellers will revel in Iran’s latest Unesco entry: the 1,394km train journey that connects the Caspian Sea with the Persian Gulf. En route you’ll traverse forests, plains and two towering mountain ranges, with this century-old engineering masterpiece crossing hundreds of bridges and charging through 224 tunnels across a remarkable little-touristed landscape. Plan your adventure with The Man In Seat 61, or Iran Rail.
Cordouan Lighthouse, France
For centuries the French wine region of Bordeaux has owed its prosperity to the Gironde River, with trading ships sailing up the wide estuary to berth at the quaysides in this handsome port city. And for more than 400 years those ships have been guided by the lighthouse of Cordouan, which sits on a rocky plateau amid the turbulent waters meeting the Atlantic. A masterpiece of engineering and innovation it is, literally, a shining light in the world of French architecture. Day-trips to visit “the king of lighthouses” are available on scheduled boat cruises from the waterside towns of Port-Médoc or Royan.
Ḥimā Cultural Area, Saudi Arabia
Southern Africa may be home to some of the most remarkable rock art on earth, but we’re evidently not the only show in town. The Ḥimā Cultural Area in southwest Saudi Arabia is now the country’s sixth Unesco World Heritage Site, celebrating the array of rock engravings and petroglyphs which trace the history of human habitation here for more than 7,000 years. That people settled in this arid and mountainous area is thanks largely to the presence of freshwater at the striking wells of Bi’r Ḥima, which transformed the region into a key stop — and toll station — on ancient caravan routes across the desert. The 1-Stop of ancient Arabia, if you like.
Chankillo Archaeoastronomical Complex, Peru
Finding today’s date isn’t hard; just consult your smartwatch or phone. But in 250BCE it wasn’t quite so easy. That’s brought home by the impressive engineering of this prehistoric site in the deserts of coastal Peru, where the landscape is transformed into an enormous calendar of stone towers and natural features used to mark the movement of the sun — and thus the date — through the year. Though built more than 2,000 years ago, it’s accurate to within a few days.