December 18, 2012
“Faces From Afar” is a new series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at email@example.com.
On September 6, 2011, excited North Korean soccer fans took part in a “wave”—that tradition of American baseball games in which spectators stand in unison row at a time, creating the effect of a moving swell of people that surges around the stadium. It may have been among the first waves to occur in Pyongyang international soccer stadium. To Michael and Larissa Milne, the two American tourists who helped initiate that particular wave, the incident bore underlying elements of conformity, fear and repressed freedom of expression. The wave took easily within the seating section of the Milnes’ 50-person tour group. The North Korean spectators, however, were wary, trained from birth in the arts of restraint, caution and passivity. They resisted through several false starts—but finally, the wave overpowered their inhibitions. Maybe it just seemed safer at this point to join. Anyway, the wave surged along with the seemingly unstoppable force of rapture and critical mass—before stopping dead as perhaps only the wave can in a dictatorship.
As Michael Milne described it on his blog Changes in Longitude, “When it finally reached the central seating area set aside for party VIPs, not a fanny left its seat. The wave didn’t just ebb there but was stopped cold, like it broke against an unyielding stone jetty.”
The party, of course, rules North Korea, where a line of dictators has run the nation with almost superhuman power since the years following the Korean War. While citizens are sternly guarded from outside influences—including Internet access and global film culture—traveling here is surprisingly easy for tourists. Thus, when the Milnes sold their Philadelphia home and most of their possessions in the summer of 2011 and commenced on a long and ambitious world tour, they quickly struck upon the wild idea of visiting one of the world’s most mysterious and forbidding places. They made mandatory arrangements with one of several government-permitted tour companies, paid a slight visa fee at the border crossing from China, temporarily forfeited their cellphones, computers, other handheld tech gadgets and even their books, and took a five-day plunge into full darkness.
“In North Korea, you’re totally cut off from the outside world,” Michael told me from New York City during a recent phone interview. “You have no idea what’s going on outside. We didn’t even know how the Phillies were doing.” (They made it as far as the National League Division Series.)
Military omnipresence and jeering loudspeakers bring the classic Orwellian distopia to life. Party members in North Korea are well-fed and prosperous, while citizens walk in straight lines and speak softly—and Big Brother is always watching. For natives, there is no exit. But tourists enjoy surprising liberty. They must remain either in the company of the group tour or within the confines of their hotel, and photography is restricted in places, like during bus rides between tourist attractions. Otherwise, outsiders may mingle with the people—whom the Milnes describe as being just as friendly and gregarious as can be—and take photos of the country’s grandest features. Popular tourist attractions include monuments honoring former national leader Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 and is now known both as Great Leader and Eternal President, various museums and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between the two Koreas. Here, no physical barrier separates the nations, and soldiers from each side stare coldly at one another. The DMZ offers tourists a rare opportunity for a telling side by side comparison of North and South Koreans.
“The soldiers on the South Korean side are muscular, vigorous,” Michael said. “But the North Koreans are swimming in their uniforms, and these are the soldiers they’ve chosen to put on display.”
The difference in stature can be attributed, the Milnes told me, to hunger. Food is of poor quality in North Korea, they said, and many people can’t afford it. Restaurants for tourists are a different story, providing lavish feasts that may leave visitors impressed by North Korea’s evident opulence—or just embarrassed, as the Milnes were, by the needless waste.
The Arch of Triumph is another showpiece proudly presented to all tourists. The monument was built in 1982 to honor Kim Il Sung and commemorate North Korea’s military resistance to Japan. It was also built a few inches taller than the Parisian Arc de Triomphe—which tour leaders, who speak a transparent curriculum of government-mandated material, are quick to point out.
Propaganda sounds from all directions in North Korea, and for outsiders it’s easy to identify. For example, state-run media perpetuates an altered history of World War II in which the military forces under Kim Il Sung supposedly defeated Japan singlehandedly. The Milnes also visited the ship-turned-museum USS Pueblo, which North Korean authorities captured, detained and kept as a military trophy in 1968. Here they saw a piece of U.S. Naval history wiped clean of fact and refurnished with exaggerations. The ship is now presented as a symbol of North Korea’s dominion over the United States—considered a great enemy of the state. Larissa, also on conference call, said to me, “For America, the Pueblo incident was a minor blip in a series of many, many world events, but for them, it’s a bright and shining event. It really shows how North Korea clings to the past.”
During an outing to a North Korean amusement park called the Pyongyang Fun Fair, the Milnes and the other tourists quickly noticed that something strange was at play here: There were no laughter, shrieks or cries of joy. The people were silent. “An amusement park without noise is a strange thing,” Michael said. Surely, the physiology of North Koreans is not immune to that electric thrill that most of us know from roller coaster free falls—but nobody dared raised their voice. At least, they didn’t dare until the British and American tourists did so first. Then, the effect turned contagious; whoops and cheers spread through the crowds, and vocal chords chronically underused began to explore uncharted territory of decibel levels.
The trained passivity of the people showed itself, too, at the aforementioned soccer match between Tajikistan and North Korea. Though the home team would ultimately beat the visitors 1-0, the Milnes watched North Korea play with a troubling absence of spirit. Michael wrote on his blog at the time that the players, after maneuvering the ball past the legs of the defending Tajikistanis all the way down the field, would turn sluggish, unambitious and reluctant each time it appeared there was a chance to score. Repeatedly, just shy of the goal, the North Koreans appeared to intentionally divert the ball away from the net. Michael and Larissa attributed this pattern to the North Koreans’ reluctance to be noticed and their fear of failure.
“This is a society where no one wants to be the standing nail,” Michael said.
Throughout their world tour, the Milnes had used a creative and surprisingly effective tool for breaking ice and building bridges across cultures: a six-inch-tall statue of perhaps the world’s most famous boxer, Rocky Balboa. Many times during interactions with strangers, when words between the people could not be produced, the Milnes took their little plastic prize fighter from a day pack, and what followed was nearly always laughter, cheers and shouts of “Rocky!” But when the Milnes took out “Little Rocky” for a photo op at the North Korean Arch of Triumph—part of an ongoing series featuring Little Rocky around the world—nobody in a group of bystanders recognized or knew the name of the muscled likeness of Sylvester Stallone, his arms raised, boxing gloves on his hands. It was only one of two times that Rocky was not recognized (the other was in the Kalahari, when the Milnes produced Little Rocky for a photo op with a group of San people). North Koreans, of course, are deprived of Internet access, of literature, magazines and newspapers from the wider world, of popular television and of most films. That a movie glorifying an American fighting champion has never publicly screened in North Korea is hardly a surprise.
The Milnes are currently resting in New York and plotting their next moves—which may include writing a travel memoir as well as beginning a tour of North America. Whatever they do, they don’t want to settle just yet. They are enjoying a rare level of freedom, a nomadic lifestyle void of belongings as well as that thing most of us believe is only a blessing—a home.
December 11, 2012
As polar bears watch their winter ice recede farther and farther from boggy Arctic shores each year, skiers may notice a similar trend occurring in the high mountain ranges that have long been their wintertime playgrounds. Here, in areas historically buried in many feet of snow each winter, climate change is beginning to unfurl visibly, and for those who dream of moguls and fresh powder, the predictions of climatologists are grim: By 2050, Sierra Nevada winter snowpack may have decreased by as much as 70 percent from average levels of today; in the Rockies, the elevation of full winter snow cover may increase from 7,300 feet today to 10,300 feet by the year 2100; in Aspen, the ski season could retreat at both ends by a total of almost two months; and throughout the Western United States, average snow depths could decline by anywhere between 25 and—yep—100 percent.
These, of course, are just visions of wintertime future produced by climatologists and their computers—an easy venue for climate change naysayers to assault. In fact, a recent report commissioned by Protect Our Winters, an environmental organization, and the Natural Resources Defense Council on declining snow levels also noted that annual snowpack depth has remained stable or even increased in parts of California’s Sierra Nevada. Another study, published in January in Environmental Research Letters, foresaw similar outcomes, predicting that global warming could trigger counterintuitive winter cooling in certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere. But those findings seem tantamount to just the tip of the iceberg—which is undeniably melting. Because the thing is, global warming has already delivered serious wounds to the world’s ski industry. Europe, especially, has been hurting for years. Back in 2003, the United Nations Environmental Program reported that 15 percent of Swiss ski areas were losing business due to a lack of snow. A few years later, in 2007, one ski resort in the French Alps—Abondance—closed down entirely after a 40-year run. The closure came following a meeting of local officials, who reluctantly agreed that there simply wasn’t enough snow anymore to maintain the Abondance lodge as a ski operation. For several years, low snowfall had been attracting fewer and fewer tourists, and Abondance—once the recipient of millions of tourist Euros each year—began stagnating. The Abondance lodge and the nearby town of the same name lie at a little over 3,000 feet above sea level—low for a ski resort and, so it happens, right in the hot zone of 900 to 1,500 meters that climatologists warn is going to see the most dramatic changes in annual snowfall.
But more alarming than the Abondance shutdown is that which took place at almost six times the elevation, at Bolivia’s Chacaltaya Lodge, once famed as the highest ski resort in the world. Here, outdoorsmen came for decades to ski the Chacaltaya Glacier, which historically flowed out of a mountain valley at more than 17,000 feet. But that wasn’t high enough to escape rising temperatures. The glacier began retreating markedly several decades ago, and over a course of 20 years 80 percent of the icy river vanished. The lodge, which first opened in 1939 and was a training ground for Bolivia’s first Olympic ski team, closed in 2009.
Similar results of global warming can be expected in the American ski and snow sports industries. Already, as many as 27,000 people have lost their seasonal jobs in poor snow years in the past decade, with revenue losses as much as $1 billion, according to the recent study conducted for Protect Our Winters and NRDC. The study cites reduced snowfall and shorter winters as the culprits. In total, 212,000 people are employed in the American ski industry.
The irony of the ski industry’s impending troubles is the fact that ski resorts, equipment manufacturers and skiers themselves have played a role in fueling the fire that is melting the snows. The carbon footprint of the ski industry is a heavy one. Seventy million people visit the Alps alone each year to ski or otherwise play in the snow—and travel to and from the mountains is recognized as perhaps the most carbon-costly component of the industry. But excluding tourist travel, lodges and ski resorts are major users of energy and producers of trash. A 2003 book by Hal Clifford, Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment, details the many ecological and cultural problems associated with the skiing industry. Among these is clear-cutting to produce those dreamy treeless mountainsides that millions of downhillers long for on many a summer day. The ski resort Arizona Snowbowl, for one, was lambasted last year for plans to cut down 30,000 trees—a 74-acre grove of pines considered holy by indigenous nations. And just prior to the kickoff of the 2006 Turin Winter Games, in Italy, The Independent ran a story under the headline “Is it possible to ski without ruining the environment?” The article named “ski tourism-induced traffic pollution and increasing urban sprawl of hotels and holiday homes in former Alpine villages to the visually intrusive and habitat-wrecking ski lifts” as faults of the industry. The article continued, noting that with the “spectre of global warming … now stalking the Alps,” the ski industry of Europe “is waking up to its environmental responsibilities—just in the nick of time.”
Right: “Just in the nick of time.” That article came out almost seven years ago, and look where we are now. The earth, by most measures, is warmer than ever, and snow is declining. A study just published in Geophysical Research Letters reported that locations in Eurasia have set new records for lowest-ever spring snow cover each year since 2008. In North America, according to the same report, three of the last five years have seen record low snow cover in the spring. It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that commercial use of snow machines is on the rise. These draw up liquid water and blast out 5,000 to 10,000 gallons per minute as frosty white snow. It may take 75,000 gallons of water to lightly coat a 200- by 200-foot ski slope, and the energy-intensive machines have been blamed for their role in pollution and excessive water use. And while snow machines can serve as a crutch for limping ski resorts, the snow they produce is reportedly quite crummy in quality—and they’re anything but a cure for the greater problem.
Where do you like to ski? Have you seen more exposed rocks and muddy December slopes and snow machines at work? This article offers a summary of how several major ski regions in the world will feel the heat of global warming. Every mountain range around the world will feel the heat.
Will warmer winters mean richer skiers? In 2007, the mayor of the French Alps town of Abondance, Serge Cettour-Meunier, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Skiing is again becoming a sport for the rich,” explaining that soon only more expensive, high-elevation ski resorts would have enough snow for skiing.
December 7, 2012
Nowhere in the world is it legal to hunt wild tigers, as each remaining subspecies of the giant cat is infamously on the verge of extinction.
Yet the close cousin of the tiger, the lion—almost equally large, equally charismatic and, in places, equally threatened—is legally killed by trophy hunters across its shrinking African range. The remaining lion population, centered in eastern and southern Africa, has declined by as much as 30 percent in the past 20 years, and the cats are considered seriously imperiled. Yet every year 600 lions fall to the bullets of licensed and legal tourists on safari hunts. The activity is opposed by many, but those in favor argue that trophy hunting of lions and other prized targets generates employment and revenue for local economies. The Huffington Post ran an editorial in March 2011 in which the author—lion researcher Luke Hunter—condemned the act of shooting a big cat but still argued that lion hunting is an important tool in generating revenue for land preservation. The author reported that trophy-hunting tourists may pay $125,000 in fees and guide services for the privilege of killing a lion, and he questioned the wisdom in protecting the animals under the Endangered Species Act, an action the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering. A hunter’s organization called Conservation Force also makes the case on its website that African “tourist safari hunting” benefits land, wildlife and communities while imparting “no detrimental biological impact.”
But a report published in 2011 says otherwise—that the environmental and economic benefits of trophy hunting in Africa are negligible. The paper, produced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, states that in 11 sub-Saharan countries that allow trophy hunting of large game, 272 million acres—or 15 percent of the land—is open to the sport. However, returns from trophy hunting are dismal. While hunters in Africa kill, in addition to lions, 800 leopards, 640 elephants and more than 3,000 water buffalo each year, among other species, they leave behind only 44 cents per acre of hunting land. In Tanzania, that figure is much smaller—a per-acre benefit of less than two cents. A closer look by the report’s authors at seven of the 11 countries—Namibia, Tanzania, Botswana, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso and Benin—revealed that trophy hunting employs not even 10,000 people on a permanent and part-time basis. About 100 million people live in these seven nations.
The IUCN’s report points out that since the economic benefits of trophy hunting appear to be virtually nil in Africa, the only way hunting can be used as a conservation tool is by allowing it as part of carefully designed conservation strategies. Which beckons the question: What species are to gain by hunters prowling their habitat? Certainly, in some cases of overpopulation—usually of grazing herd animals—hunting can serve a direct purpose and even benefit ecosystems. Even elephants are widely said to be overpopulated in certain locations and in need of intervention via rifles.
But for lions, can the intentional removal of any animals from remaining populations be tolerated? Their numbers are crashing from historic levels. Lions once occurred in most of Africa, southern Europe, the Arabian peninsula and southern Asia as far east as India. But nation by nation, lions have disappeared. In Greece, they were gone by A.D. 100. In the 1100s, lions vanished from Palestine. The species’ greatest decline occurred in the 20th century, when Syria, Iran and Iraq saw their last lions die. In 1950, there may have been 400,000 left in the wild; by 1975, perhaps only 200,000. By the 1990s, their numbers had been halved again. Today, an isolated population in the Gir Forest of India numbers more than 400 and seems even to be growing. But the current African population of 32,000 to 35,000 is declining fast. (Defenders of Wildlife has estimated that not even 21,000 lions remain.) In Kenya, the situation is dire: In 2009, wildlife officials guessed they were losing about 100 lions per year in a national population of just 2,000 and that they might be extinct within 20 years. The causes are multiple but related; loss of habitat and decline of prey species are huge factors which, in turn, mean increased lion conflicts with livestock herders—and, often, dead lions; and as numbers drop, the gene pool is dwindling, causing inbreeding and weakened immune systems. Disease outbreaks have also had devastating impacts.
Then there is trophy hunting, which may remove powerful breeding males from a population. David Youldon, the chief operating officer of the conservation group Lion Alert, said in an e-mail that no existing lion population needs culling. The only potential benefit from hunting could come as revenue for land preservation and local communities—but this, he says, isn’t happening.
“Hunting has the potential to generate conservation benefits, but the industry needs a complete overhaul, improved regulation and greater benefit to Africa if such benefits are to be realized, and I see little motivation within the industry to make those changes,” he wrote.
Incredibly, as lions disappear, tourists spur the decline; they may still shoot lions in Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Ethiopia also allows very limited hunting. Fifty-three percent of the cats are taken by Americans, according to Lion Alert, which has reviewed the IUCN’s report and warns on its website that the societal benefits of hunting in most of Africa are so minimal that the activity, in effect, creates little or no impetus to preserve land for the activity, maintain populations of target animals or stop poaching.
So what can travelers do to help? Take more pictures, perhaps. “Photographic tourism” generates 39 times the permanent employment that trophy hunting does, the IUCN report says, while protected lands generate on average two times the tourist revenue per acre as do hunting reserves. That is still just pennies—but at least it leaves the lions alive.
Other Big Cats to Protect—and See While You Can:
Tiger. Since 1900, tiger numbers from Turkey to Malaysia have dropped by 95 percent. Today, between 4,000 and 7,000 remain, and the outlook is grim. The largest population lives in India, where tourists have the best chance at seeing wild tigers in Ranthambore National Park, Kanha National Park and Bandhavgarh National Park.
Cheetah. The world’s fastest land animal once lived in 44 countries in Asia and Africa, with a population of possibly 100,000. Today, most cheetahs live in Africa, where numbers are down to as low as 10,000. A gene pool bottleneck thousands of years ago has left a legacy of inbreeding, one of the major threats to the cheetah’s survival. For now, an excellent place to see cheetahs is Kafue National Park, in Zambia.
Snow Leopard. The granite-colored snow leopard of the Himalaya numbers possibly 6,000 in 12 nations, but, like most wild cats, the snow leopard is disappearing. Trekkers in the Himalaya (PDF) have the best chance, though unlikely, of catching a glimpse.
Clouded Leopard. Perhaps the most mysterious of the big cats—and definitely the smallest—the clouded leopard ranges from Tibet through southern China and south through the islands of Malaysia and Indonesia. The animals weigh just 30 to 50 pounds and spend much of their time in trees. The current population is unknown but believed to be less than 10,000 individuals and shrinking. Seeing clouded leopards is rare—and we may take satisfaction simply in knowing that this beautiful creature exists.
December 6, 2012
The start of the northern meteorological winter on December 1 will bring with it short days of darkness, blistering cold and frigid blizzards. For many people, this is the dreariest time of the year. But for a small niche of water-happy athletes, winter is a time to play, as ferocious storms send rippling rings of energy outward through the ocean. By the time they reach distant shores, these swells have matured into clean, polished waves that barrel in with a cold and ceaseless military rhythm; they touch bottom, slow, build and, finally, collapse in spectacular curls and thundering white water. These are the things of dreams for surfers, many of whom travel the planet, pursuing giant breakers. And surfers aren’t the only ones with their eyes on the water—for surfing has become a popular spectator sport. At many famed breaks, bluffs on the shore provide fans with thrilling views of the action. The waves alone are awesome—so powerful they may seem to shake the earth. But when a tiny human figure on a board as flimsy as a matchstick appears on the face of that incoming giant, zigzagging forward as the wave curls overhead and threatens to crush him, spines tingle, hands come together in prayer, and jaws drop. Whether you like the water or not, big-wave surfing is one of the most thrilling shows on the planet.
The birth of big-wave surfing was an incremental process that began in the 1930s and ’40s in Hawaii, especially along the north-facing shores of the islands. Here, 15-foot waves were once considered giants, and anything much bigger just eye candy. But wave at a time, surfers stoked up their courage and ambition. They surfed on bigger days, used lighter and lighter boards that allowed swifter paddling and hunted for breaks that consistently produced monsters. One by one, big-wave spots were cataloged, named and ranked, and wave at a time, records were set. In November 1957, big-wave pioneer Greg Noll rode an estimated 25-footer in Waimea Bay, Oahu. In 1969, Noll surfed what was probably a 30-plus-footer, but no verified photos exist of the wave, and thus no means of determining its height. Fast-forwarding a few decades, Mike Parsons caught a 66-foot breaker in 2001 at Cortes Bank, 115 miles off San Diego, where a seamount rises to within three feet of the surface. In 2008, Parsons was back at the same place and caught a 77-footer. But Garrett McNamara outdid Parsons and set the current record in November 2011, when he rode a 78-foot wave off the coast of Portugal, at the town of Nazare.
But these later records may not have been possible without the assistance of jet skis, which have become a common and controversial element in the pursuit of giant waves. The vehicles first began appearing in the surf during big-wave events in the early 1990s, and for all their noise and stench, their appeal was undeniable: Jet skis made it possible to access waves 40 feet and bigger, and whose scale had previously been too grand for most unassisted surfers to reach by paddling. Though tow-in surfing has given a boost to the record books, it has also heightened the danger of surfing, and many surfers have died in big waves they might never have attempted without jet-ski assistance. Not surprisingly, many surfers have rejected tow-in surfing as an affront to the purity of their relationship with waves—and they still manage to catch monsters. In March 2011, Shane Dorian rode a 57-foot breaker at the famed Jaws break in Maui, unassisted by a belching two-stroke engine. But many big-wave riders fully endorse tow-in surfing as a natural evolution of the sport. Surfing supertstar Laird Hamilton has even blown off purists who continue to paddle after big waves without jet skis as “moving backward.” Anyway, in a sport that relies heavily on satellite imagery, Internet swell forecasts and red-eye flights to Honolulu, are we really complaining about a little high-tech assistance?
For those wishing merely to watch big waves and the competitors that gather to ride them, all that is needed is a picnic blanket and binoculars—and perhaps some help from this swell forecast website. Following are some superb sites to watch surfers catch the biggest breakers in the world this winter.
Waimea Bay, North Shore of Oahu. Big-wave surfing was born here, largely fueled by the fearless vision of Greg Noll in the 1950s. The definition of “big” for extreme surfers has grown since the early days, yet Waimea still holds its own. Fifty-foot waves can occur here—events that chase all but the best wave riders from the water. When conditions allow, elite surfers participate in the recurring Quicksilver Eddie Aikau Invitational. Spectators teem on the shore during big-swell periods, and while surfers may fight for their ride, you may have to fight for your view. Get there early.
Jaws, North Shore of Maui. Also known as Peahi, Jaws produces some of the most feared and attractive waves on earth. The break—where 50-footers and bigger appear almost every year—is almost strictly a tow-in site, but rebel paddle-by-hand surfers do business here, too. Twenty-one pros have been invited to convene at Jaws this winter for a paddle-in competition sometime between December 7 and March 15. Spectators are afforded a great view of the action on a high nearby bluff. But go early, as hundreds will be in line for the best viewing points. Also, bring binoculars, as the breakers crash almost a mile offshore.
Mavericks, Half Moon Bay, California. Mavericks gained its reputation in the 1980s and ’90s, during the revival of big-wave surfing, which lost some popularity in the 1970s. Named for a German Shepherd named Maverick who took a surgy swim here in 1961, the site (which gained an “s” but never an official apostrophe) generates some of the biggest surfable waves in the world. Today, surfing competitions, like the Mavericks Big Wave Contest and the Mavericks Invitational, are held each year. The waves of Mavericks crash on a vicious reef, making them predictable (sandy bottoms will shift and change the wave form) but nonetheless hazardous. One of the best surfers of his time, Mark Foo died here in 1994 when his ankle leash is believed to have snagged on the bottom. Later, the waves claimed the life of Hawaiian surfing star Sion Milosky. A high bluff above the beach offers a view of the action. As at Jaws, bring binoculars.
Ghost Trees, Monterey Peninsula, California. This break hits peak form under the same swell conditions that get things roaring at Mavericks, just a three-hour drive north. Ghost Trees is a relatively new attraction for big-wave riders. Veteran surfer Don Curry says he first saw it surfed in 1974. Decades would pass before it became famous, and before it killed pro surfer (and a pioneer of nearby Mavericks) Peter Davi in 2007. For surfing spectators, there are few places quite like Ghost Trees. The waves, which can hit 50 feet and more, break just a football field’s length from shore.
Mullaghmore Head, Ireland. Far from the classic Pacific shores of big-wave legend and history, Mullaghmore Head comes alive during winter storms in the North Atlantic. The location produces waves big enough that surfing here has become primarily a jet ski-assisted game. In fact, the event period for the Billabong Tow-In Session at Mullaghmore began on November 1 and will run through February 2013. Just how big is Mullaghmore Head? On March 8, 2012, the waves here reached 50 feet, as determined by satellite measurements. A grassy headland provides an elevated platform from which to see the show. Bundle up if you go, and expect cold, blustery conditions.
Other big wave breaks:
Teahupoo, Tahiti. This coveted break blooms with big swells from the Southern Ocean—usually during the southern winter. Teahupoo is famed for its classic tube breakers.
Shipsterns Bluff, Tasmania. Watch for this point’s giants to break from June through September.
Punta de Lobos, Chile. Channeling the energy of the Southern Ocean into huge but glassy curlers, Punta de Lobos breaks at its best in March and April.
Todos Santos Island, Baja California, Mexico. Todos Santos Island features several well-known breaks, but “Killers” is the biggest and baddest. The surf usually peaks in the northern winter.
There is another sort of wave that thrills tourists and spectators: the tidal bore. These moon-induced phenomena occur with regularity at particular locations around the world. The most spectacular to see include the tidal bores of Hangzhou Bay, China, and Araguari, Brazil—each of which has become a popular surfing event.
December 3, 2012
It took explorers centuries of great effort to make the first crude sketches of the world and centuries more to polish and perfect them.
But in just ten years, sales demand for paper maps appears to have dipped markedly, and it seems these formerly essential tools of travel could be going the way of the sextant and chronometer as travelers rely increasingly on electronic navigation devices to get them where they want to go. In Pennsylvania, printers who once produced three million road maps a year now make just 750,000. AAA, too, has observed a decline in customer use of maps. And even print-out directions that lead from point A to point B—which I always thought was cheating, anyway—seem now to be a figment more of memory than of practice as that robot voice from the dashboard becomes an increasingly ubiquitous component of driving anywhere.
If we are, in fact, ditching the map for flashier gear, will we be better off? Maybe not. A study conducted in Tokyo found that pedestrians exploring a city with the help of a GPS device took longer to get places, made more errors, stopped more frequently and walked farther than those relying on paper maps. And in England, map sales dropped by 25 percent for at least one major printer between 2005 and 2011. Correlation doesn’t prove causation—but it’s interesting to note that the number of wilderness rescues increased by more than 50 percent over the same time period. This could be partly because paper maps offer those who use them a grasp of geography and an understanding of their environment that most electronic devices don’t. In 2008, the president of the British Cartographic Society, Mary Spence, warned that travelers—especially drivers—reliant on electronic navigation gadgets were focusing mainly on reaching a destination without understanding quite how they got there. And Tom Harrison, a cartographer in California, told me recently in an interview that he feels digital technology usually does a clean job of directing travelers where they want to go—but without quite showing them where they are.
“Trying to see and understand the big picture on your phone or laptop usually isn’t possible,” said Harrison (who also noted that he has not observed a decline in sales of waterproof topographic maps via his website). “There’s too much zooming in, scrolling down, losing your bearings.” At best, hand-size GPS screens show one “the here and the now,” he said, while only paper maps can reliably “show us where we are and also what’s around us.”
Using real printed maps also demands—and can help users develop—critical thinking skills.
“You look at the map for a minute,” Harrison said. “Then you say, ‘I’m here, and I’m going there. What’s the easiest way?’ But with GPS in the car you don’t even have to think about it anymore.”
The shift to full reliance on navigational technology is happening at sea, too. Grant Headifen, the founder of the online sailing academy NauticEd, says sailors are increasingly relying on GPS systems while neglecting to learn what he calls “the fundamentals”—the basic skills of navigating only by charts, compass, sky and the mighty strengths of the human brain.
“You need to be able to say, ‘If north is straight ahead of me, then east is to my right,’ and ‘If point A is 50 miles ahead and we’re moving this fast, then this will be our estimated time of arrival,’” said Headifen.
Reliance on electronics, which operate under the guise of flawlessness, is “very dangerous,” Headifen says—mainly because navigation charts may themselves be drawn incorrectly. For instance, a GPS system may guide you with perfect accuracy past a treacherous seamount—but if that reef was originally mapped incorrectly, the GPS system could actually be guiding you into a million-dollar accident. Headifen cites a time that he was sailing off the coast of Croatia. Because of incorrectly drawn charts, his GPS system placed his location at roughly 300 meters inland among the coastal olive orchards. Another time, a sailing companion with his eyes glued to his iPhone muttered directions to Headifen. “In 50 meters we want to veer left,” the man said. Headifen replied, “Um, look away from your phone for a minute, and look ahead of us.” A rock stood precisely in the course the iPhone recommended.
Harrison, too, has noted previously to reporters an important difference between being “precise” and being “accurate,” both of which a GPS device can be at once by pointing a tech-tuned traveler straight to the wrong place.
In spite of the growing prevalence today of navigation technology, enough people remain interested in traditional navigation that Headifen offers a course on celestial navigation. This brilliant science has its roots in ancient Arabian cultures of the desert, where travelers long ago determined their location on Earth by watching the heavenly bodies above. For travelers in the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star, or Polaris, made determining latitude a piece of cake: The star’s distance above the horizon in degrees equals the viewer’s degree distance north of the Equator. Thus, when sailors left port in the old days, they often remained at a given latitude by watching Polaris and appropriately adjusting their course. They knew that by following that line, they would reach home again. (Determining longitude was a much more difficult endeavor, and would only become relatively easy with the invention of the chronometer in the late 1700s.)
Still, navigation remained challenging. Sailing expeditions often had a crew member whose specific job was to navigate—and these were among the most skilled people on the seas. They were familiar with the stars, the ecliptic of the Sun and also the orbital path of the Moon. They carried a variety of beautiful and ingenious tools over the years, like the astrolabe, octant and quadrant. But the sextant has remained the most used. It’s actually based on rather simple geometry, allowing one to sight a point in the sky—usually the Sun or a star—and measure its distance from the horizon. Combined with the chronometer and basic star charts, a good navigator could track a vessel’s location exactly—though this was a very difficult task. In fact, if executed correctly and accurately, celestial navigation is flawless—for our place on Earth is written in the stars; one must simply have the tools and skills to read the sky.
Celestial navigation made easy: Even if we’re too lazy to read maps anymore, reading the stars can be fun. Measuring latitude is a basic calculation and an engaging way to track your progress should you decide to tackle a long-distance north-to-south hiking or cycling route. Before your next trip, try this: Fix a sturdy plastic straw to the straight edge of a protractor. This device, familiar, I hope, from high-school geometry classes, should have a pinhole at the center of the baseline. To this point, tie off 12 inches of string and fix a heavy nut or bolt to the other end. Pack the contraption along. On your first night out, hold the device with the protractor facing down, look through the straw and aim it at Polaris. When you are able to see this conveniently located star, pinch the string to the side of the protractor. If the string is crossing, say, the 53-degree mark, subtract that number from 90. The answer, 37, is your latitude. If the next night you get a reading of 54, meaning 36 degrees latitude, that means you have traveled 69 miles (the distance between latitude lines) toward the Equator. In the Southern Hemisphere, there is no equivalent of Polaris, and celestial navigators may need to rely on a measurement of the Sun at its zenith to determine latitude. This website describes how.
Navigation of tomorrow: While no-brainer navigation systems currently dictate directions to drivers, tech companies are busy designing the next step in the road to laziness: automated vehicles. Nevada, Florida and California have already legalized driverless cars. While these marvels of technology aren’t yet publicly available, they do exist. Google has been testing one that reportedly had gone 300,000 miles, and counting, without an accident. What’s astonishing is that the machines seem to work perfectly well. What’s scary is the thought of them failing—of missing an offramp by ten feet, of not recognizing a pedestrian, of misinterpreting an obstacle in the road, or otherwise failing where a human mind might not.