Five Places That Fill Bill Weir with Wonder (and Worry)
Television journalist and CNN correspondent Bill Weir has built a career telling the stories of remarkable people, places, cultures and creatures in a state of transition. His documentary series The Wonder List profiled environments where the encroachment of the modern world threatens to permanently disrupt some of the world’s most extraordinary ecology.
Bill shared a few of the regions he’s discovered on his travels that inspire as much concern as they do fascination. While it’s difficult to recommend visiting places where tourism is already a threat to the landscape, we hope that the more adventurous of our readers will tread these lands with the respect they need to survive.
Tanna Island, Vanuatu
About 1,000 miles east of Australia are 82 lush, sugar-sand islands right out of a screen saver, where South Pacific isolation means life hasn't changed much since the first dugout canoes arrived. While the tribes on each island have different attitudes toward the outside world, Tanna features one of the most accessible live volcanos in the world and the Yakel Village, where families live in the trees as they have for a thousand years. Some locals on Moto Lava took me out on a reef-hopping camping trip in a boat alarmingly free of supplies. When I asked, "What are we going to eat?" they laughed and pointed to a net. Twenty minutes later, the boat was full of fish. As we feasted around the fire, they showed me their 4G phones and described the California man who tried to buy their island for $80,000 in cash, build a resort and hire them as waiters and maids. They were all for it but the women of the village voted it down.
Dubrovnik has survived more than a few sea invasions over the centuries but the latest comes from an armada of cruise ships full of Game of Thrones fans eager to stroll King's Landing. Crowds in the Croatian gem got so bad, UNESCO issued a warning and the mayor capped cruiser visits at 4,000 per day. Across a rival border 90 minutes south you'll find another walled city with similar Heritage Site charm and history but without the throngs... yet. Set on a placid, fjord-like bay that feels more like Lake Como than the Adriatic, the seafood is fresh and villa rentals affordable, but celebrity hideaways like Casa del Mare hint at a tourism industry ready for prime time.
Okavango Delta, BotSwana
I've chased wildlife in over 100 countries but this is the one place where I've woken to the sound of monkeys on the tent roof or the crunch of a browsing elephant near the outdoor shower, thrown back the flap and marveled at what looks like a casting call for The Lion King Live.
Water equals life, so this swampy oasis in the Kalahari draws the most incredible variety of creatures great and small...and some of the most luxurious safari camps in Africa.
After President Ian Khama banned trophy hunting and ordered his soldiers to shoot poachers on site, Botswana earned an eco-tour reputation as the last Garden of Eden, but citing an increase in human/elephant conflict, the new administration lifted the hunting ban in March. Some conservationists are calling for a boycott while others argue it's more important than ever to prove tourists with cameras are just as vital as those with guns.
Led by a benevolent royal family that believes in measuring success in Gross National Happiness, Bhutan is the last independent Buddhist Kingdom left. High in Himalayas between China and India, around 750,000 serene monks, friendly farmers and dancing archers live in gorgeous valleys so rugged, they saw their first outsiders in the 70's and their first television in 1989. American professional wrestling is now the most popular program but they are painstakingly trying to avoid losing their culture and pristine nature to the modern world. Smoking and plastic bags are banned, there is a national dress code and since wild marijuana grows everywhere (they feed it to the pigs), the kind of partying backpackers that trashed neighboring Nepal are not welcome.
Given their wealth of fresh water and hydroelectric power, the geopolitics of the region and the number of hotels under construction, I left wondering how long this Shangra La can last.
Buckskin Gulch, Utah
I grew up hiking the American West so when a friend invited me on an ultralight backpacking trip into "one of the longest slot canyons anywhere," I walked in cocky with the belief that it could never compare to Arches or Zion. Wrong. Surrounded by walls 30 stories high, we squeezed and scrambled, wound and waded down boulevards and alleys created by water, wind and time. Camping permits are tough to come by (the limit is 20 per day) but as Federal and state politicians move to shrink the size of public lands, even a day hike is a reminder that setting aside the best places for We The People remains one of America's best ideas.