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A NEW WAY TO TRAVEL

Two continents covered in three hours, all from the comfort of home. Preeti Maheshwari explores a vicarious way of travelling during a global pandemic. As an added bonus, it’s free and there’s no waiting in lines.

I remember being at school, a group of us crowded around a computer screen as our teacher showed us blurry bird's-eye view images of where we lived, or where our school was located through Google. Back then I found it a little boring. However, certain situations can change your mind and what was once a waste of time, is currently the only way to see the world.

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended our day-to-day lives and snatched away nearly all normality. Our best-laid travel plans have fallen by the wayside, but technology has picked up where grounded flights left off.

Girltraveltours.com offers a “virtual guided tour” experience with local hosts and travel enthusiasts taking tourists around the world via Zoom. Some travel companies, museums and zoos also offer live or recorded experiences. These webinars are packed with photos, sometimes videos and an interactive chat function. There is also a live Q&A session at the end.

My virtual tour kicked off in the home of the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Egyptian tour began in Tahrir Square, one of the liveliest spots in Cairo. Aside from the hustle and bustle of a local market, Tahrir Square is a site for political activity and public gatherings. Virtually wandering the streets surrounding the Square, murals and street art are splashed on buildings, delivering a powerful punch as homage to the revolutionary settlement.

A stone's throw away from Tahrir Square is the Egyptian Museum, home to the largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities in the world. Located on the banks of the Nile River, the museum was inaugurated in 1902 and has become a historic landmark in downtown Cairo. Tourists come from all over the world (pre-Covid) to enjoy some of the world's most magnificent ancient masterpieces, including statues of the great kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure.

A trip to Egypt would not be complete without a virtual tour of the Pyramids of Giza. The pyramids, constructed more than 4500 years ago, are relics of Egypt's Old Kingdom era. To prepare for the afterlife, kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure erected the massive temples and tombs, and filled each with everything they would need to ascend to the godly kingdom.

The first interactive tour session was so lively that I wanted to take up more tours and I slowly got hooked. My next destination was Transylvania – the home of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The name Transylvania is enough to send shivers pulsing through the spine, bringing to mind visions of vampires, werewolves, and dark forests you dare not enter. However, contrary to this fictional belief, Transylvania actually does exist and is nothing like the world of fantasy. Rather, it is a lot more welcoming than the Dracula stories portray. One of the best-known legends from the Romanian region is that of the Pied Piper, a mysterious character related to Saxon's arrival in Transylvania.

The local guide made the virtual tourists delve into the history surrounding Romania's most infamous historical figure, Vlad the Impaler (Count Dracula). The visit to the impressive castles made me add Transylvania to my list of places to go once we live in a pandemic-free world.

Exploring the world, virtually

Bran Castle perches dramatically on a hill in Transylvania. Its burnt-orange-tiled turrets and steeples rise above a crown of trees in Romania's Carpathian Mountains. It's certainly the cynosure of all eyes. It felt as if, on a moonless night, the imposing castle may look like a lair for the Prince of Darkness, but in broad daylight the place may actually be more suited for a queen.

Sighisoara was yet another stop on the tour, where the pastel-coloured buildings, stony lanes and medieval towers left me rubbing my eyes in disbelief.

On a trip to Hunedoara, a visit to Corvin's Castle is a must. It is the most spectacular Gothic-style castle and one of the largest in Romania. The beautifully preserved structure features a sumptuous Knights' Hall, an impressive drawbridge, high buttresses, inner courtyards, a chapel and nearly 50 rooms resplendent with medieval art.

The virtual guide took to us many other places such as Poenari Fortress, Cluj-Napoca and Sibiu to showcase the striking and spectacular landscape of Romania.

After leaving the birthplace of Dracula, the next spot on my list was Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. My love of zoos and safaris made this virtual tour a must-do. Hwange is the largest national park in Zimbabwe and is well known for allowing visitors the chance to safely observe animals up close.

At approximately 15,000 square kilometres, this immense wildlife reserve is packed with big game and is famous for its broad range of species.

During the dry winter months (May to October) wildlife congregates around the shallow pans and manmade waterholes, making for excellent game viewing.

Once the monsoon season arrives, vegetation bursts into life, dry pans fill up and wildlife disperses to graze the more remote stretches of the park. Bird watching is particularly good at this time.

With over 400 species of birds, herds of elephants, iconic cecil lions, hyenas, cheetahs, white storks – the safari offers an overwhelming sightseeing adventure. The lunch on the safari, although not edible in the virtual scenario, looked very interesting as they served food as per visitor's choice and need. Apart from the description on safari, the host gave an insight into what other activities can be done, where to stay and how to reach the desired destination. It was a truly memorable journey into the wilderness of an African safari.

Not being able to travel due to the lockdown and border restrictions forced me to find ways to visit places that I've always had on my bucket-list. Touring them in a virtual sense was the only option. I made it my mission to visit as many places as I could — Madrid, Japan, Germany, Vienna, Highlands of Scotland — all from the safety and comfort of New Zealand. Where to next?

THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA: One of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Pictures supplied
ELEPHANTS CROSSING THE ROAD AT AFRICAN SAFARI
CORVIN'S CASTLE, ROMANIA
CHEETAH AT HWANGE NATIONAL PARK