The Petrifying Grottoes, Where Everyday Objects Turn to Stone
At these limestone caverns in central France, everyday objects turn to stone.
Items left for six months to a year under the mineral-rich springs of Les Grottes Pétrifiantes de Savonnières—the petrifying grottoes of Savonnières—emerge coated in a perfectly pure white layer of limestone.
The owners of the adjacent Museum of Petrifaction have capitalized on this natural phenomenon by placing rubber molds in the caves and retrieving them two years later, when calcite deposits have collected in the molds to form intricate bas reliefs. These beautiful petrified objects are presented for public display and offered for sale at the grotto gift shop.
It's not just rubber molds that get calcified: gnomes, vegetables, Buddha statues, and pine cones are among the objects that have been placed in the caves. The longer they stay, the more amorphous they become. Some have been getting dripped on for a decade. In order to ensure even distribution of the limestone layers, the museum owners must turn each object regularly.
Other curious caves around the world:
The Georgia Guidestones: Mysterious Stone Slabs Inscribed With Odd Instrutions
When in need of life guidance, some turn to a higher power. Others turn to Oprah. Still others look to four granite slabs in rural Nuberg, Georgia.
In 1979 a man using the name “R.C. Christian” approached Georgia’s Elberton Granite Finishing Co. with plans to build a monument. He stressed that money was no object and discretion was paramount. The design of the monument incorporated four granite slabs, each almost 20 feet tall, arranged in a cluster and topped with a smaller, horizontal slab. Each of the four vertical stones was to be inscribed with the same 10 precepts for humanity, carved in eight languages.
These guidelines for living ranged from common-sense advice (“Balance personal rights with social duties”) to New Agey maxims (“Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite”) to downright impractical instructions, served up with a hint of genocide (“Maintain humanity under 500,000,000”). The placement of the stones was carefully configured to align with solar solstices and equinoxes.
Armed with the detailed blueprints, the Elberton Granite Finishing Co. duly created this mysterious monument and installed it in a field off Highway 77. A granite tablet was placed a few feet from the monument to provide some context for the “Georgia Guidestones,” as they have come to be known. It reads, in part, “Let these be guidestones to an Age of Reason.”
The guidestones opened to the public in March 1980 and immediately became a magnet for conspiracy theorists, particularly those fond of using the phrase “blueprint for a New World Order.” Over the years, visitors to the guidestones have scrawled symbols and commentary on the monument, and, on rare occasions, even made alterations to the design.
In 2009, a 6-inch cube of granite was removed from the top of one of the guidestones. Four years later, police arrested William Jeremy Ellis, having caught him trying to replace that same cube in the middle of the night. He confessed he was the original thief, and explained he stole the chunk of granite for “personal esoteric and numerological reasons.” When apprehended, he was in the process of returning it because he “didn’t want that weight anymore.”
The notch from which the cube was filched remained empty until just this summer, when a new cube marked with letters and numbers appeared in the hole. Speculation over the addition ran rampant, as did numerological analysis of the 8, 16, 20, and 14 that had been carved into the cube’s faces. One online theory name-checked The Simpsons, Ebola, and 9/11 in its analysis of the cube's meaning.
An anticlimactic explanation came in November, when Michael Massanelli posted an hour-long YouTube video explaining, among various other conspiracy-fueled ramblings, that he had created and installed the new cube to commemorate his wedding date: 8/16/2014.
There is still no definitive explanation for what the Georgia Guidestones mean, who they are meant to instruct, and when the Age of Reason is due to be ushered in.
More stones with fascinating backstories:
The Magnificent Ruined Mansion of Talisay
Its proper name is the Don Mariano Ledesma Lacson Mansion, but locals just call it “the ruins.” Built on a sugar plantation in the Negros Occidental province of the Philippines circa 1920, this 10-room Italianate manor was the grandest home for miles around. Its origin story has a lot of variants—each more dramatic than the next—but the prevailing tale is that Don Lacson, a Spanish-Filipino sugar baron, built the home as a tribute to his Portuguese wife, Maria Braga, who died in an accident while pregnant with their 11th child.
Don Lacson and his progeny occupied the home for 20 years. Then came the encroachment of World War II. When Japan invaded the Philippines in December 1941, the mansion became a target. To prevent the Japanese from taking over the mansion and using it as a military command center, American and Filipino armed forces took a dramatic step: they torched the place.
The magnificent mansion burned for days. When the fire died, all that was left of Don Lacson’s stately home was its majestic concrete skeleton, streaked with soot and ash.
After sitting idle for decades, the ruins and gardens at Talisay have been restored, and are now open to the public. The mansion is still without windows, a roof, interior walls, and much of the floor that once divided the first and second stories.
Other ruined wonders around the world:
The Dark Hedges: A Delightfully Dramatic Tree Tunnel in Northern Ireland
On a small section of Bregagh Road, in the Northern Ireland parish of Ballymoney, rows of beech trees stretch their limbs from either side to form a canopy of intertwining boughs. This dramatic stretch of road, known as the Dark Hedges, was originally intended to impress visitors to Gracehill House, the mansion built at the end of the road circa 1775. The Stuart family, owners of Gracehill, planted the beeches so that those approaching their home by horse-drawn carriage would gaze up and think, "Wow. Stately. This is truly a manse to remember."
If your thoughts when looking at these photos are more along the lines of, “That looks exactly like the King’s Road along which Arya Stark traveled in the guise of a boy with Yoren, Gendry, and Hot Pie in order to join the Night’s Watch in season two, episode one of Game of Thrones,” you’re a sharp one. That scene was shot on this very road.
The Tree-Climbing Goats of Morocco
In the southwest of Morocco, goats climb trees. And it’s not a case of the odd unruly goat scrambling up a trunk for the sake of mischief. You could easily find a dozen goats standing on the branches of a single tree.
The trees in question are Argania spinosa, or argan, a species endemic to Morocco and a small region of western Algeria. Goats are drawn to the argan’s fruit, which ripens in June each year. They have no qualms about scampering to the top of the 30-foot-tall trees in search of a feast, and will stand on a skinny branch post-nosh, looking blissed out and whinnying softly.
The small, firm argan fruit has a thick peel and pulp surrounding an almond-shaped nut. When a goat eat the fruit, this nut passes through its digestive system whole and eventually gets excreted. Traditionally, members of the indigenous Berber population would gather nuts from the goat droppings, crack them open with stones, then roast and grind the seeds inside. The argan oil extracted from this process is high in essential fatty acids and vitamin E, and has long been used locally as a skin treatment and cooking ingredient.
In the last decade or so, argan oil has become a cult beauty product in the U.S. A 1.7-ounce bottle of Josie Maran 100 percent Argan Oil, for example, retails for $48. The production process, however, does not involve goat excrement—these days, argan oil intended for export is produced by women’s cooperatives in southwest Morocco, who gather the fruit straight from the trees.
Other arboreal astonishments around the world:
Carousels of Criminals: The Revolving Jails of the Midwest
In the spring of 1881, architect William H. Brown and iron foundry owner Benjamin F. Haugh, both of Indianapolis, filed a patent for a most ingenious innovation: a jail with revolving cells.
“The object of our invention,” they wrote in their application, “is to produce a jail or prison in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard … This arrangement makes the whole prison as convenient to the keeper as though it consisted of but a single cell, and as safe as if it contained but a single prisoner.”
The submitted design consisted of a two-tier cylindrical cell block with a central column that served as both support and plumbing for the individual toilets in the cells. Each tier had eight wedge-shaped cells, but the surrounding structure had only one door. When a guard rotated a hand crank, the cell block spun, sending the prisoners on a disorienting carousel ride past the lone access point.
Brown and Haugh's invention quickly became a reality. In 1882, the first spinning jail, a two-tiered, 16-cell institution known as Montgomery County Rotary Jail, opened in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Other states in the midwest soon got in on the idea—the three-tiered, rotating Pottawattamie County Jail, nicknamed the "Squirrel Cage Jail," opened in Iowa in 1885, followed by a single-story spinning jail in Gallatin, Missouri, in 1889. Records vary, but between six and 18 rotary jails were built in the United States, mostly in the midwest.
Unfortunately, Brown and Haugh's novel, almost whimsical design had its flaws. Chief among them was the fact that a prisoner standing at the front of a cell with his hands resting on the bars had a decent chance of getting an arm crushed when the rotary mechanism was engaged. Natural light was scant, ventilation was poor, and mechanical problems could interfere with the operation of a jail. In the case of a fire, all the prisoners whose cells weren't aligned with the access door would likely be doomed.
In light of these problems, many rotary jails had their turntables immobilized during the 1930s. After operating in a modified state for decades, Montgomery County Jail closed for good in 1973. Pottawattamie County Jail sent its prisoners away in 1969, while the Gallatin jail shut up shop in 1975. All three now operate as museums. Montgomery County is the only one that still spins.
Tales of other odd jails:
Head to the World’s Steepest Street for the Annual Racing of the Candy
Suburban Baldwin Street, in Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island, is only 1,150 feet long, but walking to the end of it will leave you panting for breath and in need of a drink. At a gradient of 1:2.86 (a 19-degree slope), the residential street is the steepest in the world.
Baldwin Street’s claim to fame came about quite by accident. When British surveyor Charles Kettle drew up road plans for Dunedin during the mid-19th century, he modeled the design on the elegant grids of Edinburgh’s New Town. Dunedin’s erratic topography, however, was less than ideal for the street system that had worked so well in Scotland. Nonetheless, city planners forged ahead and ended up with Baldwin Street, whose gradient has earned it a place in the Guinness Book of Records.
Every July the street hosts a Jaffa race, in which 25,000 individually numbered Jaffas (spherical chocolate-orange candies with red shells, popular in Australia and New Zealand) are released at the top of the hill. Spectators can bet on a Jaffa for a dollar, with proceeds from the sales going to charity.
Other streets of intrigue:
Flamenco Beach is Paradise With Battle Tanks
With its soft white sand, turquoise-tinted water, and proximate empanadas, Flamenco Beach on the Puerto Rican island of Culebra is regarded as one of the best beaches in the world. But there is one incongruous sight in this paradise: a pair of rusting battle tanks, left on the sand as a souvenir from the U.S. Navy.
In 1901, following Spain's ceding of Puerto Rico to the U.S., President Theodore Roosevelt allocated all of Culebra's public land to the Navy. Soon, troops were conducting test landings and ground maneuvers on the island. In 1936, the Navy began using Culebra for bombing practice. Bombardment reached its peak during 1969, when pilots trained for the war in Vietnam. Missiles hit the island on 228 days of that year.
By 1970, the 700 residents of Culebra were well and truly fed up with the Navy using their home as a bombing ground. Unexploded ordnance littered the island and the ground bore craters and pock marks from the shelling. A naval attempt to evict the entire population of Culebra was the last straw. In the summer of 1970, residents began a series of non-violent protests, aiming to rid the island of naval occupation.
After seven months of marches, sit-ins, and human blockades of naval sites, the Culebra activists succeeded. In January 1971, the Navy agreed to stop using the island as a test location by 1975. A New York Times article on the deal called Culebra "the Caribbean mouse that roared at the United States Navy."
Though it's been almost 40 years since the Navy left, the force's long-term presence is still evident. The tanks on the beach, painted over and over by locals, are the most obvious sign, but sometimes unexpected reminders occur. In March 2013, a young girl visiting Culebra with her family found unexploded ordnance on Flamenco Beach. Oblivious to its danger, the girl carried it around and played with it, causing the fragile object to break open and burn her.
Other intriguing beaches around the world:
Pink Slugs and Drunk Parrots: Australia’s Fascinating (Non-Lethal) Fauna
Australia is renowned for being being filled with dangerous animals that can’t wait to kill you. Snakes, spiders, sharks, box jellyfish, and blue-ringed octopuses are but a few of the fauna that have the power to end you. But the country is also home to a menagerie of vibrant and fascinating creatures that are much more benign—at least to humans. Here are five of them.
The Giant Pink Slugs of Mount Kaputar
Mount Kaputar, an alpine peak in the southeastern state of New South Wales, is home to a plucky band of neon-pink slugs. Resembling glistening strips of raw tuna, these slugs can grow to over 7 inches long. They usually hide out under the leaves whose mold they feed upon, but at night they emerge by the hundreds, slithering around in search of tasty moss.
The slugs are the most striking residents of Mount Kaputar, but by no means the only unusual animal. Three species of cannibalistic snails live on the mountain, always chasing after one another’s slime trails.
The Drunk Parrots of the Northern Territory
Australia’s binge-drinking culture is not confined to its human inhabitants. Every October, when the wet season arrives in Australia’s north, drunk parrots begin falling from the trees. The birds are red-collared lorikeets who feed on fermented fruit and get, in the words of Australian Geographic, “completely sloshed, and sometimes for days at a time.”
Rotten fruit may not the sole reason the parrots get blotto. The lethargy and loss of coordination could also be symptoms of a virus that vets have not yet been able to identify. Whatever the cause, the effects are serious: The birds can die if left untreated. (As with human hangovers, treatment involves hydration, rest, and comfort food.)
The Giant Earthworms of Gippsland
The Gippsland earthworms are so big that when they were discovered in the 1870s they were initially mistaken for snakes. Inhabiting the blue-gray clay of Gippsland in the state of Victoria, the earthworms are an average of 1 inch wide and 3 feet long, but in rare, horrifying instances, can exceed 9 feet.
The worms spend most of their lives buried deep in their burrows, where they squelch around in the wet earth making impressive gurgling sounds. This clip from David Attenborough’s BBC series Life in the Undergrowth provides an intimate portrait of the earthworms.
The Lobsterlike Stick Insects of Ball’s Pyramid
Ball’s Pyramid, an 1,844-foot sea spire 12 miles off the east coast of Australia, is hardly lush with vegetation—it is almost entirely rock, its near-vertical cliff faces inhospitable to fauna and off-limits to mountain climbers without government permission. But in 2001, scientists scaling the rock found something wonderful: a nest of 24 Lord Howe stick insects, a lobster-esque species long thought to be extinct.
In 2003 a team from the National Parks and Wildlife Service scaled the pyramid and collected two pairs of stick insects for breeding in captivity. One pair died shortly after, but the pair dispatched to Melbourne Zoo—“Adam and Eve”—met with success, producing eggs that became the foundation of the zoo’s now thousands-strong tree lobster population.
The Seething Crab Hordes of Christmas Island
For most of the year, the red crabs of Christmas Island, an Australian territory located to the country’s northwest, wander the forests unobtrusively. But when the wet season arrives in October, the crabs stream toward the ocean to breed and lay eggs, turning the ground, grass, and roads into a crawling red carpet.
The crabs have a tiny but lethal enemy: yellow crazy ants, which were introduced to the island in the 1920s and have since wreaked havoc on its ecosystem. The ants shoot jets of formic acid into the crabs’ eyes, causing harm or even death. Yellow crazy ants have been such a menace to Christmas Island’s ecology that the Australian government established a seven-member Crazy Ant Scientific Advisory Panel in order to come up with harm-reduction strategies. Ant super-colonies were blasted with insecticide in 2009, but the little blighters’ numbers are rising again.
Cyclists Who Hate Hills, Meet Norway’s Bike Escalator
Cycling is wonderful way to get to and from work. So healthy. So environmentally friendly. So cost-effective. But if your route home involves a giant hill, it’s way too easy to say, “Screw this. I’m taking the bus.”
The residents of Brubakken Hill, in the Norwegian city of Trondheim, do not have this problem. In 1993 they were blessed with Trampe: a bicycle escalator that pushes riders up the hill without requiring them to dismount.
To use the escalator, a cyclist rides up to the station at the bottom and places her right foot on a small footplate sticking up from the slot running along the curb. The plate then moves all the way up the hill, lifting the rider along with it. There are multiple footplates, spaced every 66 feet to allow up to six cyclists to use Trampe at the same time.
Trampe is the world’s first and, thus far, only bicycle escalator. In 2013 it was refurbished by a French cable-supported transport company named SKIRAIL and rebranded as a CycloCable. The company says it is optimistic about being contracted to install bike escalators in cities around Europe, USA, Canada, and East Asia, but so far a lack of money devoted to bicycle infrastructure has kept the market from taking off. The CycloCable costs about $2,800 per meter to install, and can handle ascents of up to 500 meters (1,640 feet).
Other treasures for two-wheelers: