1) Waimangu Volcanic Valley, Rotorua, New Zealand
With its sulphurous landscape, steaming mud pools, delicate silica formations, colourful mineral deposits, explosive geysers and bubbling volcanic pools, Rotorua is an extraordinary geothermal playground. Created by the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1986, the volcanic rift valley is home to a vast array of geothermal activity, as well as a rare and fascinating eco-system.
This devilishly flamboyant landscape is awash with geological features as diverse as the aptly named Frying Pan Lake (the largest hot spring in the world), the steaming cobalt-coloured Inferno Crater Lake, the picturesque Bird’s Nest Terrace with its continually erupting geyser, and the white and orange silica buttresses of Marble Terrace.
2) Thingvellir National Park, The Golden Circle, Iceland
The 300km Golden Circle loop in the South of Iceland boasts some of the most breathtaking geological gems in the world. In Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can quite literally see the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates slowly separating.
You can even swim between the two continents in the tectonic rift valley of Silfra, a narrow canyon in the lava field which features some of the clearest water on the planet. Filtered down from the Langjökull glacier, the water here has an unparalleled average underwater visibility average of 70-80 meters!
3) Plitvice National Park, Croatia
In this UNESCO World Heritage Site near Zadar, sixteen interconnected lakes, ranging in colour from azure to green, grey and cobalt blue, cascade over the hilly landscape in tumbling waterfalls. According to legend, it was after a long drought that the “Black Queen” took pity on the people and animals that cried for water, and let fall heavy rain, eventually resulting in the Plitvice lakes.
The lakes are separated by natural dams of travertine, continuously growing in height, formed by the interplay between water, air and plants as encrusted moss, algae and bacteria pile together. The result is a visually stunning, quasi-mythical landscape of verdant flora, thriving fauna and ethereal waters, pulled straight from a fairy tale.
The best of the rest
4) Oudomxay Province, Laos
The rugged mountainous landscape of this province boasts three rivers, an eleven kilometre waterfall, and stunning natural rock formations. The jewel in its crown, however, is its 16km long hidden waterway, Chomg Ong Cave (known to locals as Bat Cave). Running along a mountain ridge, with an interconnecting fossil and river passage, the cave system is filled with impressive stalagmites and stalactites.
5) Makgadigadi Pans, Botswana
Part of the central Kalahari, this vast and desolate plain of salt has a feeling of epic isolation, a flat whitewashed vista dotted here and there by lone rocks and baobabs. Incredibly, bushmen have managed to survive here for millennia, and evidence of their ancestors can be found through archeological expeditions.
6) Remarkable Rocks, Kangaroo Island, Australia
500 million years of relentless pounding from the wind, rain and waves has beaten these impressive granite boulders on Kangaroo Island into their uniquely alien, craggily neolithic forms. Black mica, blue quartz and pinkish feldspar covered by tawny lichen, they come into their own at sunset or sunrise when bathed in an other-wordly glow.
7) Trolltunga, Norway
Not far from Bergen is the epic rock formation of Trolltunga (“Troll’s Tongue” in Norwegian). 1,100 metres above sea level and a 20 kilometre hike to reach, this gravity-defying shard of rock juts out into the air a dizzying 700 metres above Lake Ringedalsvatnet. Not one for the fainthearted.
8) The Great Blue Hole, Belize
This formidable 480-foot deep sink hole just off the mainland coast of Belize is widely regarded as one of the most astonishing diving sites on the planet. Seen from the air its intense, cavernous blue mouth makes a striking contrast with the turquoise waters surrounding it. A coral reef surrounds this geological monster.
9) Halong Bay, Vietnam
Over 2,000 limestone islets and plinths rise from the waters of Vietnam’s Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Suffused with a deep and luscious green, and scattered with caves, grottos and sandy coves, the archipelago is best seen from the deck of an authentic wooden junk.
10) Ausangate, Peru
Rising majestically from the surrounding mountains, the unearthly mineral red, green and ochre shades of the Ausangate mountain with its swathes of snow led the ancient Incas to believe that it had a special spirit, nurturing life in the Andes. A landscape of hanging glaciers, plunging slopes and glassy lakes, peppered with herds of llamas and alpacas, trekking through this terrain is like something out of a dizzying dream sequence.
11) Uluru, Australia
One of Australia’s most iconic symbols, this ancient monolith is a monument of indigenous culture and spirituality, as well as a geological marvel. Depending on the time of day, the colours around Uluru change from pink to purple and a dark, smoky red, giving the structure a particularly majestic glow at sunset and sunrise.
12) Chinhoyi Caves, Zimbabwe
The forbidding limestone and dolomite Chinhoyi Caves in Zimbabwe are both eerily beautiful and historic. In the main cave is a pool of cobalt blue popularly known as the Sleeping Pool or Pool of the Fallen, in light of local legends. The rest of the caves have haunting names such as Bat Cave, Dark Cave and Blind Cave, and are linked by a subterranean passage. The site is popular with technical divers performing ultra deep diving.
13) Sierra Negra, Galapagos
On the south-eastern side of Isabela Island is one of the world’s largest volcano craters: Sierra Negra. With its most recent eruption only in 2005, this is indeed an active volcano with amazing geological traits. You can hike to the rim of the six metre Galapagos crater to witness the surreal landscape of lava fields and views of Isabela and Fernandina Islands’ northern volcanoes.
14) Brightstone Bay, Isle of White, England
Take a trip back in time at England‘s Brighstone Bay, where you can join a fossil-hunting tour and be in with a chance of digging up dinosaur bones. New specimens are frequently turning up as the sea wears away at this part of the coast, so this could be your best chance at digging up a genuine fossil.
15) Colca Canyon, Peru
Created by a huge geological fault between two volcanoes, with areas twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, natural hot springs, vibrant landscapes filled with traditional villages and the remnants of pre-Inca terraces, this is one landscape you won’t forget in a hurry. Watch the glorious Andean Condor hunting in the early morning and late afternoon.
16) Sossusvlei, Namibia
In this uniquely surrealist landscape, sweeping terracotta sand dunes of up to 325 metres, shaped by the winds and the underground Tsauchab River, lie shoulder to shoulder with vast, flat, silver clay pans of fine mud cracked into a mosaic pattern, punctured occasinally by stark, dead acacia trees that plot the old routes of the river from up to 500 years ago.
17) Danakil Depression, Ethiopia
This section of the Great Rift Valley’s Afar Triangle encompases a sweeping Venusian landscape of salt pans, sulphuric springs, crusty sun-scorched mountains, vast arid desert and hyper-saline lakes, as well as one of the world’s six persistent lava lakes, Erta Ale. So alien and inhospitable is this landscape that astrobiologists work here to try and understand how life may arise on other planets.
18) White Island, New Zealand
New Zealand‘s only permanently active volcano, the landscape here is constantly changing as activity forms new features and removes old ones. Active steam vents, hot streams, vibrant sulphur formations and the steaming crater are made all the more haunting by the crumbling mining ruins of the working factory abandoned here in 1933.
19) Skaftafell National Park, Iceland
Volcanic eruptions and glaciers have sculpted the alpinesque landscape of Iceland‘s Skaftafell National Park over the millennia, but perhaps its most fascinating feature is the Svartifoss waterfall, with its striking basalt column walls giving it the look of a neolithic cathedral.
20) Chapada Diamantina, Brazil
This stunning but little-known Brazilian landscape of table-top mountains, waterfalls, vast plains, caves and crystal clear streams was once the site of a huge gold and diamond mining industry, where caverns of ethereal blue pools still remain with their subterranean rivers, rare stalagmite formations and the fossils of extinct animals’.