“In that privileged place, reality and the sublime dimension almost come together. My mystical paradise begins in the plains of the Empordà, is surrounded by the Alberes hills, and reaches plenitude in the bay of Cadaqués. This land is my permanent inspiration. The only place in the world, too, where I feel loved. When I painted that rock that I entitled The Great Masturbator, I did nothing more than render homage to one of the promontories of my kingdom, and my painting was a hymn to one of the jewels of my crown.”
It is no secret that the mind of Salvador Dalí was one of intense complexity – “I am the drug; take me, I am hallucinogenic” – but in the corner of Catalonia where he was born, and would forever hold close, nature’s own complexities had sown seeds of surrealism in the great artist’s impressionable mind. Indeed, the wind-beaten rocks of Cadaqués and the lunar landscape of the Cap de Creus peninsula were lifelong inspirations.
The Costa Brava is emotive and electrifying, one of the planet’s most devastatingly arresting coastlines. At its easternmost point, in the fishing village of Port Lligat where Dalí would build his home, that unforgettable scenery reaches its peak, transcending into a dreamlike state where nature itself turns surrealist. It is a location fitting of the infamous short film Un Chien Andalou, which Dalí would script here with fellow creative revolutionary, Luis Buñuel. It is beautiful, but uncompromising, too; compelling like no other place on earth. In The Persistence of Memory, the peninsula serves as a backdrop to the first occurrence of Dalí’s melting pocket watch – for this is a scenery where time is figurative.
With entrepreneurs of Elon Musk and Richard Branson’s ilk rocketing millions of dollars up into space, the belief has long been held that the final frontier remains away from the place that every last 7.6 billion of us calls home. “Mystery creates wonder, and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand”, said Neil Armstrong. In a world where the truly wonderful exists, why are some so compelled to look outside of it?
“To Conway, seeing it first, it might have been a vision fluttering out of that solitary rhythm in which lack of oxygen had encompassed all his faculties. It was, indeed, a strange and almost incredible sight.” Hugh Conway, the protagonist of James Hilton’s 1933 classic Lost Horizon, would find inner peace in the mystical valley of Shangri-La. Sailing slowly down Li River in China’s Yangshuo County, you might find yours. The karst landscapes of this Unesco World Heritage Site are almost impossible to comprehend, a 50-mile section of the river cutting through the surreal limestone mountains as they crash back down to earth; it feels as though a lack of oxygen may have encompassed all your faculties.
Seven hundred kilometres north is Wulingyuan, where more than 3,000 quartzite sandstone pillars and peaks pierce the skyline. It is a site of indescribable artistry, where nature proves its dominance over the imagination; a real world Arcadia which contravenes conventional conceptions of landscape.
Throughout fiction, from sci-fi to fantasy, other-worldly scenery has bewitched millions, but it might be that one needn’t travel to Tolkien’s Middle-earth or Arrakis, the desert planet of Frank Herbert’s Dune. From lunar terrain to the Red Planet, fictional utopias or the extremities of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, it is all here in a tangible reality. “The Earth is just incredibly beautiful when viewed from space”, begins former NASA astronaut Ronald J. Garan, “and all those buzzwords you’ve heard astronaut after astronaut say about how beautiful and tranquil and peaceful and fragile this planet looks from space – those are all true. It really does look like this jewel in the blackness of space; a fragile oasis.” Those in search of expanded horizons might want to look closer to home.
Like Garan, Messrs Armstrong and Aldrin wanted to be part of the select group of explorers who could look at us from the outside in, but two years prior to the Apollo 11 Lunar Module touching down in the Mare Tranquillitatis, those famous feet had made similar footsteps; NASA and the United States Geological Survey having recreated the moon’s landscape in Arizona. With engineers having blasted 47 craters into a 500-square-foot area of Cinder Lake, the former volcano became almost an exact replica of the Sea of Serenity – now popular with off-roaders and space travel fanatics, it’s a reminder that other worlds can exist in our own.
Ignore misguided travel snobs and head to Lanzarote, with its Timanfaya National Park made entirely of volcanic soil. The last eruptions here were in 1824, but low rainfall means it appears almost as it did then. It is Iceland in the sun. Barren and beautiful, capable of instilling your soul with the surreal romanticism science fiction writers conjure. Elsewhere on the island, Buenavista Lanzarote is a series of chic country houses backdropped by a jet-black landscape that is unexpected and mystical in essence; their offbeat interiors make for bohemian, fashion-conscious boltholes where guests can contemplate the abnormality of their surrounds.
For those in search of the fire and brimstone of Mordor, Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano is the Timanfaya of almost 200 years ago. Beginning in 1983, its current eruption is still very much in progress; nature at its most literally devastating, it is irresistible in its unflinching grace. Molten lava churns through the landscape, a new world being forged as its fiery interior folds out from within and into the ocean. Stay at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai and let a helicopter take you to the heart of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where more than a million gallons of lava flow each hour.
Dubbed the world’s largest mirror, Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt flats stretch for more than 4,500 square miles. Almost 12,000 feet above sea level, conventional perspectives are blown away. In Summer, the illusionary landscape reflects all as far as the eye can see; it is an M.C. Escher work in semi-reality, infinity realised before your eyes, while in winter it is a crystalline terrain straight out of the escapist mind of a fantasy novelist. An ethereal paradise that reminds you of nowhere, navigate the planet’s most expansive salt flats by 4×4, a classic Airstream bottled to the back. In unearthly solitude, the landscape rolls out in front of you as you feel an emotional connect to the earth like Dalí did in Cadaqués: a ‘privileged place’ where “reality and the sublime dimension almost come together.”
Like technicolour landscapes straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, the kaleidoscopic mountain range of the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park in China ripples with layers of magentas and maroons; natural abnormalities turn expanses of water like Australia’s Lake Hillier and the Costa Blanca’s Las Salinas de Torrevieja shades of bubblegum; the Phlegraean Fields just west of Naples simmer away whilst the sulphur from below turns scenery shades of a scene from a pop video. Whether at the ends of the earth like Tristão da Cunha, a volcanic island with the most remote permanent settlement in the world (its closest neighbour some 1,800 miles away), in New South Wales’s Mars-like Mungo National Park, or in European destinations maligned for mass-tourism, literary landscapes from the most imaginative minds exist in palpable glory.
As Dalí said: “I did nothing more than render homage to one of the promontories of my kingdom, and my painting was a hymn to one of the jewels of my crown.” Fictitious panoramas or worlds we may never reach, but the real curiosities lie among us; it is a simple case of looking into the beyond.
James Davidson is Editor-In-Chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.