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Otherworldly landscapes: a photo story

Photographer of the Month Nickolas Warner shares his favourite alien landscapes from his travels.

Currently living in Alaska, Nickolas Warner is a chef, tour guide and avid traveller who has a particular fascination with extreme and unusual locations and understanding humanity’s place and impact within them. This interest began nearly a decade ago, after spending a winter working along the coast of the Arctic Ocean and seeing first-hand mankind’s impression on the landscape.

Since then he has travelled to nearly 50 countries across six continents, focusing on photographing remote wilderness areas, strange wildlife and bizarre phenomena. Nickolas realises the importance of being inspired by nature and to understand that we don’t need to rely on science fiction to transport ourselves to another planet. Here are nine of his favourite otherworldly locations.

The Danakil Depression, Ethiopia

The Danakil Depression is the reason I travelled to Ethiopia. (Although to be honest, the food was pretty high on the list as well.) Nestled right up against the conflict-plagued border with Eritrea, the Danakil Depression is accessible only with a local guide, sturdy vehicle and armed military escort.

Danakil Depression Ethiopia

Those willing to risk the ongoing dangers in the area will be rewarded with access to one of the most alien-looking landscapes on the planet. Hydrothermal pools made of salt hold a kaleidoscope of acidic water inside, salt miners smile and wave with a mouthful of teeth that have been sharpened to a point, and at night you can walk right up to what the locals believe to be the Gates to Hell, a volcano opening holding a bubbling lake of lava inside.

Danakil Depression Ethiopia

Though the area is all senses of inhospitable, the Danakil Depression alone was worth the trip to Africa.

Candy Cane Mountains, Azerbaijan

Before coming to Azerbaijan, I truthfully had no idea that these so-called Candy Cane Mountains even existed. It was only by luck that a friendly kebob hawker told my girlfriend and I about the nearby oddity.

Candy Cane Mountains Azerbaijan otherworldly landscapes

Located just 15 minutes off the highway, these psychedelic striped hills pepper the landscape. What was most shocking to us was the complete lack of any sign posts, trail heads or information about the area. There is a nearby pullout for a church where we parked our car while we spent the day exploring and climbing across the multi-coloured hills and valleys. Over the course of an entire day’s hiking around we didn’t see a single soul – except for a hungry stray dog who kept us company.

Mud volcanoes, Azerbaijan

Just a few hours away from the Candy Cane Mountains are Azerbaijan’s utterly unusual mud volcanoes. Though there have been some large eruptions in the past, presently most of them barely let out a slow, grey stream of lukewarm mud accompanied by a comically flatulent burst.

Mud volcanoes Azerbaijan otherworldly landscapes

Most of the ones people visit are clustered around the popular Gobustan National Park, but those with a high-clearance vehicle can access dozens more, some large enough in which to take a dip. Even though I can’t speak Azeri, there’s an unmistakable bonding experience to be had when nearly naked and neck deep in mud with half a dozen strangers.

White Desert, Egypt

Deep into Egypt’s portion of the Sahara lies the perplexing White Desert. Here, bright white chalk deposits have been carved by wind and sand into hundreds of peculiar shapes. Some of them have such recognisably distinct features that you’d swear they were transplanted from an artist’s studio.

White Desert egypt otherworldly landscapes

Our bus journey from Cairo was bumpy, dusty, and scattered with military checkpoints whose guards flipped through my passport with scrutiny. Up to this point, travelling through Egypt had felt restrictive, but once inside the desert, there was a distinct feeling of freedom. It was like being let loose into a giant playground where you can speed over sand dunes and get lost wandering through the miles of curious rock formations.

Enchanted Forest, Alaska

If you travel north on Alaska’s Dalton Highway between January and March, as you cross mile marker 51 you’ll notice the trees’ snow coating becoming thicker and thicker. Though this area isn’t marked on any map, it is well known among the ice-road truckers and tour guides like myself as the Enchanted Forest.

Enchanted Forest Alaska otherworldly landscapes

This area has the perfect situation of being located near a thermal spring that lets out steam all winter long and a barren valley with exceptionally strong winds. The wind carries this steam into a little section of forest, allowing for the slow buildup of hoarfrost, eventually becoming several feet thick.

Enchanted Forest Alaska

Even though this area is beautiful, its strong winds combined with sub-arctic temperatures mean that humans can usually only stand to be outside for a few minutes, even when fully geared up. To get these photos, I took a special trip on the winter solstice, when the sun barely skims the horizon at noon, painting the sky cool, pastel colours. After just a few minutes of being outside, my girlfriend’s face had frosted over.

Coyote Buttes, United States

Straddling the Utah–Arizona border are the bizarre looking Coyote Buttes. Throughout this sandstone section of desert are thousands of mind-boggling rock formations known as ‘teepees’. Each conically shaped teepee holds varying concentrations of iron oxide, which gives the vortex shaped rocks a distinct tie-dye pattern.

Wadi Rum jordan otherworldly landscapes

Although the Coyote Buttes are extraordinarily beautiful, they can only be accessed via a permit that is distributed through a lottery which allows inside just 12 lucky individuals each day. It took me six days of showing up early in the morning, along with a hundred other hopeful hikers, until I finally won the permit. Once inside, you’ll find yourself in a glorious lunar landscape with no trails, gift shops or even other people.

Cappadocia, Turkey

What makes the Cappadocia region in central Turkey unique from other locations on this list is that it has been continuously inhabited since the Paleolithic era. Dotted along the tops of so called ‘Fairy Chimneys’, you’ll see small, dug-out caves that used to house troglodytes, right above modern homes dug into the same rocks.

It’s truly strange to see the heavily touristed town of Göreme, dense with carpet sellers, trendy restaurants and chic cave hotels, smack dab in the centre of these undulating, rocky pillars.

Borneo jungle at night

Borneo insect otherworldly landscapes

Though daytime in the Bornean jungles is impressive, once the sun goes down it reveals itself to be almost supernatural. What were once just scattered leaves on the floors of the forest now glow green, oddly coloured and shaped frogs croak in rain puddles, and it seems that every other leaf you turn over has a new type of alien looking insect crawling along underneath.

Stick insect Borneo otherworldly landscapes

In just a few hours of tramping through the rainforest at night, I had filled up an entire 64GB memory card with hundreds of different animals and creepy crawlies. This beauty and wonder, however, comes at a price as no trip to Borneo is complete without a blood donation to its unending supply of land leeches. I’m fairly certain I plucked off more than a hundred of the thirsty things from my ankles, legs and waste over the course of just a few days.

Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum in Jordan is characterised by red, rolling sand dunes and massive, monolithic mountains jutting out of the ground. Nearly devoid of any trees, this Arabian Desert landscape parallels something you might find on mars. Petra might be Jordan’s most famous attraction, but I found Wadi Rum to be far more enchanting with its tent dwelling Bedouin population, children herding goats, wandering camels and star-filled night skies.

Wadi Rum Desert Jordan otherworldly landscapes

I spent seven days photographing the area for a local business, but between the extraterrestrial looking petroglyphs, world-class hiking, natural rock arches and deep, hidden crevices, I could have easily stayed an entire month.

For more of Nickolas’s photos, check out his Instagram page.