What a wonderful world to explore

by Terri Cook
Friday, October 31, 2014

Editor’s Note: We asked our staff and some frequent contributors to write a short commentary on something that they had been thinking about in 2014. We gave everyone carte blanche. What follows is a collection of extremely varied, often very personal insights into how the planet impacted each individual.

Exploring this planet is a seminal experience, but my children don’t always see it that way. Over the last year, I was fortunate to travel extensively with my family across Europe, New Zealand, Australia and portions of Southeast Asia. From Croatia’s dazzling coastline and Australia’s dusty Outback to Bali’s mist-clad volcanoes, I immersed myself in dozens of diverse landscapes and numerous cultures. I was privileged to share these encounters with my husband, a fellow geologist, as well as my children — as it turned out, this was not always as enriching an experience for them as it was for us.

One extremely hot summer day in Cambodia, while my kids straggled through the thick sandstone walls of Angkor Wat, one of the planet’s most important geoarchaeological sites, they announced that this unique temple complex was “totally boring” — that timeless childhood adage. Partly to distract them, and partly out of curiosity, I asked, “Is this the most boring thing you’ve ever done?” My daughter, age 9, promptly responded, “No way. Those hilltop towns in Italy were worse.” My son, age 13, chimed in: “The fossils and vineyards in South Australia were even more boring.”

My son has been to 43 countries, my daughter 25. They have absolutely no idea how fortunate they are to have seen so many remarkable places. There is simply no substitute for travel and firsthand exploration, whether it’s in the backyard or halfway around the world. This is especially true for people interested in learning about our planet. Every time I see a new landscape, I am awed by our planet’s magnificent diversity and humbled by the extent to which Earth’s lengthy history has shaped each aspect of our lives and our societies.

This connection lies at the heart of the Global Geoparks Network, an initiative currently boasting 100 parks in 30 countries, but without representation in the United States. Overseen by UNESCO, this network includes sites that demonstrate geological heritage with significant international scientific, cultural, educational or historical value. But the program is also about developing and celebrating links between this heritage and other legacies, both natural and cultural, and “reconnecting human society at all levels to the planet we all call home,” according to www.globalgeopark.org.

In addition to celebrating notable geologic landscapes, a fundamental component of the program is to promote geotourism: tourism that sustains or enhances a place’s geological and geographical character, including its environment, aesthetics, culture, heritage and the welfare of its residents.

Geoparks conserve and capitalize upon the special features within their borders to attract visitors. In turn, through educational programming and firsthand exploration, visitors gain insight into the geologic events and processes that created attributes like fossils, canyons, mountains and waterfalls, as well as an increased awareness of each environment’s uniqueness. Although relatively new, this form of special-interest educational tourism is a rapidly emerging global phenomenon.

One of the sites our family visited in 2014 was the Kanawinka Geopark, part of southeastern Australia’s Newer Volcanic Province. Like all global geoparks, Kanawinka comprises a number of geoheritage sites of particular scientific significance, rarity or beauty. In the case of Kanawinka, the park is divided into five areas featuring various volcanic features, such as the Craters & Limestone Precinct. This precinct’s best-known attraction is Blue Lake, one of three hosted in maar craters in a young (30,000-year-old) volcanic complex near the South Australian town of Mount Gambier. Blue Lake is famous for its dramatic and geochemically caused color change from steel gray to vivid turquoise over just a few days each November, at the start of the Southern Hemisphere summer.

Geoparks also heavily promote potential visitor activities, which are often unique to the park, such as the elevator ride down Blue Lake’s original dolomite well shaft to learn about Mount Gambier’s water supply. In southern France’s Luberon Geopark, our family hiked through a colorful ochre quarry originally mined by the Romans. Other options there include three bicycling routes and a new geology museum hosting an extensive collection of the region’s well-preserved Oligocene fossils.

Global geoparks do not bear any formal legislative designation; the host nation retains complete control over the land, although it must be protected and comprehensively managed to retain its UNESCO status. To be considered a geopark, a region’s attractions, educational opportunities and materials must be linked scientifically and thematically.

One of the best examples we saw of the geoparks' integrated concept of protection, education and sustainable development was Indonesia’s Batur Global Geopark on the island of Bali. We witnessed how visitors and the local community can both directly benefit from geotourism. All visitors who hike up Mount Batur, the park’s signature stratovolcano, must pay for a local guide, who passes along safety notes as well as information on the area’s geologic and cultural history. Further, because the ascents are usually conducted before sunrise, many visitors choose to stay overnight at the closest village and are thus more likely to visit the local volcano museum and soak their tired muscles at the recently developed hot springs resort. With increasing visitation, locals become more motivated to protect the area, further enhancing visitors' experiences.

Perhaps most telling was my children’s positive response to our guide, who spent hours regaling them with facts and stories and answering their ceaseless questions — on every conceivable topic — as we climbed and descended the volcano. Not once did they say, “This is boring.”

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