(1) Great Pyramids of Giza vs (16) Lalibela, Ethiopia
Our third region – an eclectic mix of three of the southern hemisphere’s continents – gets under way and it proves to be an exciting mix of adventure, culture and history. In our first match-up, two ancient civilizations go at in the battle of the stone edifices. As even the most inept of historians out there will already be aware of the awesome size and history of the pyramids, this contest is more about getting to know Lalibela. A town in Northern Ethiopia, it is home to the underground monolithic churches, built nearly 1000 years ago in response to the Muslim sacking of Jerusalem. The king of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian community wanted to mimic the outline of Jerusalem and had a dozen or so churches cut out of the rock in the ground. No doubt these are impressive structures, but quite frankly, in the world of rock architecture, we have to consider the Egyptian pyramids the forbearers and the leaders in the field. Amazing what slavery can achieve. If you are one of those people who simply have no need to see the pyramids, I’m sorry to hear that, but they’ll be sticking around this tournament for at least one more round.
(2) Easter Island vs (15) Timbuktu, Mali
When you are a kid, you hear about each of these places, but neither one seems real. Even now, as a science backed Ivy League grads, I have my doubts about the metaphysical existence of each one. Nonetheless, Wikipedia assures me that they are indeed true. To say that Easter Island lies off the coast of Chile is a bit of a misnomer, when in fact it is over 2,200 miles away from Chile. This pacific island is home to the famous moai, giant stone heads constructed by the Rapanui people. Oddly enough, there is no chocolate egg hunt, nor is there any big bunnies in pink outfits. Timbuktu is literally a mud city in the middle of Mali. Famous for its location along the ancient Saharan trade route, it was once rumoured to be the home of opulent stones, gold and great riches. Today it is little more than a poor city with a reputation for being in the middle of nowhere (in this case, nowhere is appropriately defined as the Sahara dessert). So each location brings a great deal of myth. In the case of Easter Island, tourists travel thousands of miles over water to see giant stone heads; in Timbuktu’s case, you travel thousands of miles over sand to see more sand structures – namely its mosques made of mud. Since water destroys mud, I’ll give this one to Easter Island.
(3) African Safari vs (14) Expedition on the Amazon
Take your pick of African National park – Serengeti or Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, Maasai Mara in Kenya, or even Kruger in South Africa. In each one, the wildlife will be plentiful and to be honest, fairly safe. An expedition on the Amazon, I fear, will be a bit more hazardous to your health. To be quite honest, before I put this one in as a contender, I figured there must be some established tours of the Amazons. Although there are some, it is nowhere near as prodigious a tourist destination as I expected, and nowhere near the volume of Safari tourists. In fact, an awesome page can be found here: http://www.walkingtheamazon.com/. This guy is literally WALKING the length of the Amazon. Having recently returned from East Africa, I can give a first hand account of the joy and amazement of seeing cheetahs devour a zebra mere meters in front of me. By all accounts, an African safari is fairly straightforward if not a little expensive – get some shots, take a long flight, navigate some pretty bumpy roads, decide on staying in a low end tent or a high end lodge, snap some photos, return to show your friends. A trek on the Amazon, I can only imagine requires months, if not years of study simply on the flora and fauna, not to mention the diseases, the languages and the tribal people you will encounter. Although it would be an incredible adventure, it seems beyond the reach of 99% of military graduates, not to mention mere mortals like the rest of us. So, sadly, this one goes to the Africans; I’ve never felt so unadventurous for having been on a wild African safari!
(4) Rio de Janeiro vs (13) Buenos Aires, Argentina
The battle of the South American cities is a no contest. In Rio you have arguably the greatest party on earth, the greatest beaches on earth and the sexiest women on earth. What does Buenos Aires have? Well, it does have a lot of European culture; hmmm, if I wanted European culture, I would go to Europe. This argument didn’t work for Montreal, and it ain’t going to work for you Buenos Aires. Take and seat and watch the Carnival parade, you’ll enjoy. While you are at it, ask forgiveness from the Christ the Redeemer statue – that may help too!
(5) Machu Picchu vs. (12) Kilimanjaro
Would you rather take a multiple day hike to end up at an ancient city in the sky or a flat barren and windy rock where there aren't even any glaciers anymore? Each of these destinations is an iconic figure of its respective region’s tourism industry. Hiking the Inca trail the 80km from Cuzco will get you to the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu in about 4 days. Hiking up the shortest of Kilimanjaro’s trails will get you to the top in about the same time. Kilimanjaro is at much higher elevation and may allow you a bit more prestige with your friends, but the most culture you are going to get is seeing how much Tanzanian porters like to text message and smoke. In Machu Picchu you are literally looking upon a lost city. The Incas majesty lives to play another day.
(6) Bwindi National Park, Uganda vs. (11) Wine country, South Africa
If you read the Bwindi Park bit and Uganda and wondered what kind of a world-renowned destination is that, well the answer is that Bwindi is one of the few places on earth that you can see the mountain gorillas. To see what Diane Fossey died for, you will have to hike many hours through steep and treacherous terrain, and be lucky to boot. To enjoy South African colonial life, all you have to do is to flash some Rand or meet a really well placed Afrikaner. In either case, you’ll be treated to luxurious wines in a postcard setting. So, lap of luxury, or treacherous ravines for the chance to see your great-great-great-great – great x 2 billion uncle? Call me home sick, but I’ll go for the hairy uncle.
(7) Patagonia vs (10) Stone Town, Zanzibar
A few years ago a pollster called me about a survey of Ontario travel destination. After a number of questions regarding Niagara Falls, Toronto and Northern Ontario, he asked me a very straightforward question: ‘If you could only visit one travel destination on earth, where would it be?’ My answer, immediately was Chile – and more specifically the Patagonia region. If this is indeed the case, why even bother with this whole fictional bracket pitting one destination against another? Shouldn’t the conclusion now be apparent that Patagonia will win? Well, not necessarily. Quite frankly, I only decide the winner as I write the blog entry. As they say, that is why we play the game. No one would have figured that the US would beat the Soviets in 1980, but it happened didn’t it? Well, Patagonia is hardly the tourism equivalent of hockey in the Soviet Union, but it stills knocks out Zanzibar. Having just returned from the spice island, I would greatly recommend it – it has beaches, history, great food, great people and could quite literally be called paradise. But Patagonia seems like it has all that culture plus Yellowstone like wilderness. If I ever get to visit, I may stand corrected, but it gets the nod on this day.
(8) Antarctica vs (9) Seychelles
Two more incongruous locations could not be said to exist. On one hand, you have a destination where it is regularly below –50 (in any scale, that is stupid cold), ice ridden, requires treacherous and a rough sea voyage to attain and has no permanent inhabitants nor any structures with any kind of historical or cultural value (Shackelton’s hut aside - http://www.coolantarctica.com/PhotoPost/showphoto.php/photo/57/cat/507). On the other, you have an island paradise in the Indian ocean: crystal clear water, consistently nice weather, great sustainable tourism, lovely people and no doubt world class cuisine. Why on earth have I bolded Antarctica as the winner? If this victory holds up the protest put forth by Seychelles – they claim that Antarctica has no business in this region, a claim that may very well make logical sense, but one which tournament organizers will certainly ignore – this will mean that this region was free of first round upsets. All 8 top seeds will have advanced to the next round.