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July 6, 2008
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In Explorers' Footsteps

Ten key sites in the history of discovery

Grytviken harbour, South Georgia.
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1. L’Anse aux Meadows, Canada. (Leif Eiriksson): Vikings came tough as the Arctic winter and restless as the northern sea. The Sagas say Eiriksson sailed west from Greenland to a land of green grass and kind winters named Vinland. Its location is murky, but all agree Eirikkson reached America – the first European to do so – and many link him with Norse ruins at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland.

2. Kashgar, China. (Marco Polo): Since antiquity, the Silk Road - from China to Constantinople - had been the great artery of global trade. By the Middle Ages, the Chinese led the world in knowledge and power. But it was a nosy Italian, Marco Polo, who wrote the first end-to-end account. Today, Kashgar’s Sunday Market, at the gates of the Middle Kingdom, captures the magic best

3. Mactan, Philippines. (Ferdinand Magellan): Europe's Age of Discoveries exploded in the 15th century. From the discovery of Madeira, it was just 90 years until Magellan’s ship circumnavigated the earth. But the man never made it – he was cut down in the Philippines. The actual spot, Mactan, is uninspiring (it’s an airport). Pay respects, then head for Bohol's sublime Chocolate Hills nearby

4. Tenochtitlan, Mexico. (Hernán Cortes): When Cortes arrived in the New World, the planet’s greatest city lay ahead not behind. At half a million, the Aztec Capital, was bigger than anything in Europe. Yet within two years it had fallen to his Conquistadores. It was a beauty too – as you can see for yourself amongst its sprawling pyramids and ruined streets on the edge of Mexico City.

5. Source of the Nile, Ethiopia / Burundi. (multiple claimants): Think of an explorer and think of a pith-helmeted male, machete in hand, train of native porters to rear. The Victorians were fanatical about filling blanks on the map and granddaddy of them all - their Moonshot – was the search for the source of the Nile. Turns out there are two: a puddle in Burundi and Ethiopia's majestic Lake Tana. You choose.

6. Ujiji, Tanzania. (David Livingstone and Henry Stanley). In the pantheon of one-liners, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” ranks up there with “This is one small step for man…”. The immortal words were uttered in the slave station of Ujiji on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Although neither realised it, this was the end of the era of the gentleman explorer. Stanley, a journalist, had come looking for a scoop

7. Coopers Creek, Australia. (Burke and Wills): The harshest habitable continent, Terra Australis – Australia – was the last settled byEuropeans. Its desiccated interior, negligible otherwise, is central to Australians’ self-image, and central to this is Burke and Wills’ fatal south to north crossing. Brave men but inept, the desert outpost of Coopers Creek still resonates with their ghosts.

8.South Georgia. (Ernest Shackleton): The dawn of the 20th century saw explorers turn to the poles. This was the age of adventurer heroes, and none topped Shackleton. After his ship was lost to the Antarctic, he made an epic journey by open boat and over the unscaled peaks of South Georgia to secure rescue for his men. Visit for ice, isolation and the echoes of daring deeds done well.

9. Liwa, UAE. (Wilfred Thesiger): Is exploration dead? Endurance. Research. Adventure. Yes to all three. But new places on the map? Ponder amongst the sand dunes of the Empty Quarter at Liwa oasis – first surveyed by Thesiger, last of the great old-school explorers. Ironically, Liwa is just a few hours drive from Dubai, perhaps the ultimate 21st century travel invention.

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