World's most surreal landscapes

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Much of the inspiration for well-known sci-fi films and novels has come from real places, many of which most people have never heard of. These nine destinations look more like something you’d find in a surrealist painting than on an overseas adventure.

Danakil Depression
One of the lowest places on earth, located 125 metres below sea level, the Danakil Depression sits at the junction of three tectonic plates, features tiny geysers, yellow sulphur fields, active lava flows, salt lakes and water and rock coloured by red iron oxides and copper. When measured by the average year-round temperature, Danakil Depression in Ethiopia is the hottest place on the planet. Both dangerous and fascinating, this intriguing landscape could have been plucked out of a Star Wars film.

Zhangye Danxia
Layers of red sandstone and minerals piled up some 24 million years ago to form what is now the Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park. Also known as the ‘Rainbow Mountains’ this landscape is comprised of rock formations, isolated mountains, pillars, cliffs and ravines.


Darvaza Crater
This gaping borehole in Derweze, a small village in Turkmenistan, in the middle of the Karakum Desert, has been burning for more than 50 years. Known as the ‘Door to hell’, this crater is more than 90 metres deep, and was set alight to stop the spread of dangerous gasses released when it collapsed in 1971.

People have bathed in the pools of Pamukkale, meaning ‘Cotton Castle’, for centuries. Located in southwest Turkey, these calcite-rich waters attract more than two million tourists a year, making it the country’s most visited attraction. In 1988, Hierapolis-Pamukkale was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though tourists are still granted access to the smaller pools for bathing.

Salar de Uyuni
Sitting at an altitude of more than three-and-a-half kilometres is the world’s largest salt flat. The glistening crust is made from salt and lithium-rich brine, is more than a metre deep and can reflect the sky like a mirror when wet. Located in Bolivia, the landscape is beyond surreal, and makes for some wacky photo opportunities.


Volcanic eruptions and natural erosion have formed folds, caves, clefts and the surreal ‘fairy chimneys’ that make up Cappadocia’s distinctive landscape. Located in central Turkey, these rock formations have been carved into and used as homes or refuges for hundreds of years. The area is also known for its hot air balloon launch, when the rainbow colours of the balloons contrasts the pink and white rocks in the early morning light. 

Tsingy de Bemaraha
Located in Madagascar, this UNESCO World Heritage site is comprised of enormous jagged limestone turrets known as tsingy, meaning “walking on tiptoes”. Much of the flora and fauna found here exists nowhere else in the world and much of it remains unrecorded.

Namib Desert
Stretching across Namibia, Angola and South Africa, the Namib Desert is accurately named ‘vast place’ or ‘immense’ in the Nama language. The 55 to 80 million-year-old desert is home to the world’s highest sand dunes and is devoid of human habitation. You can easily imagine one of Dalí’s clocks hanging from these burnt branches.

Zhangjiajie Forest
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China is home to more than 3000 quartz-sandstone towers that jut from the forest below. If the view makes you think of flying around on winged beasts, you’re not alone. The vertical forest inspired Pandora’s ‘floating peaks’ in the 2009 blockbuster Avatar.

Would you travel to any of these surreal destinations?

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Written by Liv Gardiner


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