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worldwide wednesdays :: who goes there? [part 2]

so, earlier we dealt with the great mysteries of our planet: the oceans and antarctica. while those two are definitely the most likely places to belch forth something that will kill us all, it might surprise you to know that there is plenty of stuff on the places we've actually mapped that's still pretty much unknown.

how can it be, i hear you say, that we've been able to create maps of a place, but we don't even know what's in it? in an age where we can all see our homes on google earth and try to moon the satellites to see if we'll end up in street view [just me?], how can it possibly be that there are quadrants of this earth that remain unknown? and to that i say: you have perfectly valid questions.

here's the thing: there is a huge difference between knowing that something is there and knowing what that something is. i know that there are sewers in montreal, but they could be awash in a river of ecstasy and pansies for all know, because i've never been in them. likewise, there are places on earth that we know are there, because there are images of them, but the images are all that instructive on what's going on.

one persistent rumour is that the places we've never truly explored are filled with basically all the magic in the world. and there are good reasons to think that might be the case, considering the stuff that exists around the places we don't know. but again, we don't know them. they could be home to a race of giant marshmallow people and we wouldn't be any the wiser.

there are many reasons why we've never gotten around to checking out these places. first of all, they're inaccessible. second of all, they're dangerous. third [and worst] of all, we just don't think that we'd get anything of value, so we don't bother. there's a mix of these factors at work in all these exotic locations [and the "danger" element takes a few different forms], so chances are that we aren't going to get a chance to look around them any time soon. and what's truly disgusting is that we may destroy them before we explore them. because those are our fucked up priorities.

so, here is a not-exhaustive, but hopefully interesting synopsis of places we know fuck all about that are in the middle of the 30% of the planet we can actually walk on.

papua new guinea
papua new guinea

how is it that a country that inhabits half an island can be so unknown? well, for starters, it's physically hard to get into. there's little infrastructure to speak of, because the national government isn't interested in getting more people in there to begin with. the tease is that the country is already stuffed with flora, fauna and cultures that exist nowhere else in the world. there are also persistent, but unfounded, rumours of cannibalism among the more elusive tribes, which can put a damper on travel plans.

every time someone pushes a little further into the unknown, they come back with evidence of new species of animals [like poisonous birds] and plants, the likes of which exist nowhere else on the planet. there are 800-odd languages unlike anything on earth and many which have never been committed to writing.

what has preserved png is the fact that its dense brush and fierce natives have yet to demonstrate that they have anything of value to outsiders [or at least, anything that can be extracted in bulk]. as a result, the pressure to strip or drill the unknown region to death hasn't swept over the country like a storm cloud. that said, nothing will completely stop people from looking, and there is currently a push on to do some exploratory mining for metals and minerals in the mysterious star mountains.

northern mountains, colombia

this one is heartbreaking.

the mountains of northern colombia aren't actually that difficult to get to. yes, it's a wild and unstructured environment, but people have gone there and come back with evidence of new flora and fauna [it's one of the few places on land where evidence of decent-sized fauna has been discovered in recent times- several bird species]. the climate, with temperatures between 16 and 23 celsius throughout the year, is quite pleasant, compared with many other hard-to-reach places. naturalists would love a chance to get up there and explore in more detail, but there's just one problem: colombia has been mired in a civil war for over fifty years, and the mountains have been a preferred retreat for the anti-government rebels. even the most accessible place seems a lot less enthralling when there's bullets flying and hostages being taken.

everyone's heart lifted a little when, just a few months ago, the president of colombia and the leader of the farc rebels negotiated a peace agreement, so that the country could finally move forward. colombian prime minister won the nobel peace prize for his efforts to put an end to the fighting. and then, out of nowhere, the deal collapsed when it was rejected by a narrow margin in a national referendum.


there is an undocumented crucible of plant and animal life that interested people just can't get to without risk of ending up as the proverbial 'innocent bystander'. and the thing about civil wars is, they don't tend to factor the risk to delicate, unique ecosystems into their plans. [oh, and it's having tremendous problems adjusting to climate change. because things weren't bad enough.]

the greenland ice sheet

greenland is to the northern hemisphere what antarctica is to the south. yes, the antarctic is larger, but that doesn't stop greenland from offering some pretty remarkable treasures. of course, the trade-off is that you have to be able to trek off into a cold wasteland, where no one can hear you scream. more accessible [insofar as such terms apply] is the greenland ice sheet, a place which is exactly what its name would lead you to believe it is.

the official website of all things greenland describes the ice sheet as one of the island's greatest attractions, although it does warn that you need both a strong constitution and a government permit if you're planning on checking it out.

the ice sheet has been unpopulated, as far as anyone can tell, since the last ice age, the people of greenland wanting to stick near the coastal regions in order to have access to things like food and materials for building shelter. it may never have been populated, because whatever was happening earlier is buried under three kilometres of ice. and while visitors can make their way out for a look-see, it remains pretty mysterious for the simple fact that it's uninhabitable. it's accessible only through a single dirt track, and while you can fly over it, it's too dangerous to land.

greenland as a whole remains a pretty unknown quantity, as we've discussed before. as recently as 1999, cartographers realised there were several islands near its coast that they'd never noticed before [buster bluth was right!], and more recently, scientists have found strange ice sculptures the size of skyscrapers underneath the surface and a type of shark that appears to live for hundreds of years.

but once again, the ice sheet is being destroyed faster than we can discover it, as it continues to melt at an alarming rate.

namib desert

it's not the biggest or the hottest, but it is one of the very oldest [possibly the oldest] deserts on earth, and a home to surprising biodiversity found nowhere else. that's saying something, because it's also one of the driest regions on earth, and usually a lack of water = a lack of life. indeed, it does lack human life. namibia, home to most of the desert, has the lowest population density in all of africa.

in addition to biodiversity, the desert also has pretty remarkable features like 300m sand dunes, sparkling crystal formations and probably lots more that we don't know about because huge sections of it are unexplored. as in, people don't set foot in them.

even the parts that are accessible can be pretty intimidating: the temperatures can swing from 0 celsius to 60, and the lack of landmarks makes wandering off-road without a knowledgable guide a death wish.

although the area is still threatened, it's in better shape than other places on this list. it's less likely to be pillaged for its resources, less likely to be flattened for development [although mining is a potential threat], its dryness give it some defence against rising tides caused by climate change. but most important, namibia is the first country ever to enshrine the protection of the environment, wildlife and natural resources in its constitution. go namibia.

hang son doong cave

just looking at photos of this makes me feel weak. a local discovered the entrance to the cave in 1991, but it was a group of british "cavers" who first took a detailed look inside [missing the days of exploring and conquering, i suppose]. and what an inside it is

the cave is so tall it could accommodate a 40-story building. it has its own jungle, its own climate, clouds of mist, a bustling river and ornate columns worn out of limestone. even now, knowledge of the cave is extremely limited, because explorers haven't been able to examine the network of 150 other caves that are connected to the nearly 10km main main, so most of those remain unexplored. a small city full of unique life and we barely even knew it was there until seven years ago.

the cave may have lucked out, being discovered in an age where conservation is a bigger issue than it once was. access to it is strictly controlled by the government and requires their official permission. about 500 permits a year are given out, and there does not seem to be any major interest on the part of the vietnamese to see that increase. instead, they've taken a slow approach both to tourism and to exploration; the cave has survived everything else thus far and they don't want to be the thing that ends such an impressive run.

i could go on [as you know]. seriously, what i've done here is just pick examples of four different types of places that are still unknown to us. the amazon rainforest, biodiversity's poster child for upwards of thirty years, is still a mystery. people who know stuff estimate that 50% of the planets plant life is in there, and more than a dozen tribes of human beings who've had no contact with the outside world, but for all we know it could be a water park masked by cleverly placed overhead canopy.

think the mountains of colombia are fascinating? gangkhar pensum is over 7 500m and no one has ever made it to the top. and, if the bhutanese government holds firm, no one ever will. they banned climbing mountains over 6 000m out of respect for their religious significance. although china disputes that the mountain is completely in bhutan [it's on the border with tibet], reaching the summit pretty much requires entering bhutan. at least, that's what people think.

if you like the cold, but greenland doesn't quite ring your bell, you could explore kamchatka, whose mysterious allure is a combination of its remoteness, its cold war history, and the fact that, amidst the siberian tundra and brown bears, there are three hundred volcanoes, many of them active, including one that's been belching up smoke on a regular basis for twenty years. wanna visit? you need to charter a helicopter even to get to the capital city. then you get to find roads that will allow you to explore the countryside.

if you think hang son doong is impressive, keep in mind that 90% of the world's caves are unexplored.

so, in answer to my own question: yes, there are surprisingly huge swathes of the planet on dry[ish] land about which we know next to nothing. now we just need to make sure we don't kill them before we have the chance to get to see them. 


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