Flying High, But What’s Down Below?

Bali's famous ricefields.

By Ben Jarman

Have you ever gazed out of an aircraft window at a mountain range, city, island or small cluster of lights in the middle of a desert and asked, I wonder what that is down there? Who lives there? What mountain range am I flying over?

The Hidden Journeys Project, run by Royal Geographical Society in London, with the Institute of British Geographers (IBG), aims to answer these questions and enliven the flying experience by providing interactive guides to air travellers about the parts of the world they fly over from departure to arrival

The Hidden Journeys website, at hiddenjourneys.co.uk, is a not-for-profit resource that is free for public use, and is one part of the Society’s public-engagement programmes which aim to foster an informed knowledge and appreciation for our world.

The latest flight path guide to be released covers the route from Singapore to Sydney, exploring some of the world’s most remote and spectacular landscapes in Southeast Asia and Australia.

From the isolated reefs of the Timor Sea, to the horizontal waterfalls of Australia’s Buccaneer Archipelago, to the red sand dunes of the Simpson Desert, the interactive guide covers an amazing diversity of people, places and landscapes.

One of the many fascinating places beneath the flight path from Singapore to Sydney is the island of Bali: the website explores the unique culture, stunning volcanic landscape and the extraordinary ecology of the island.

Bali's sacred Mt Agung, an active volcano to the east.

The Society uses striking imagery, intriguing statistics and accurate descriptions to bring Bali to life for the passenger flying over it thousands of metres in the air.

Using the interactive guide, visitors can learn about the strange and beautiful species that have evolved on the island due to its geological history; the Balinese-Hindu myths that surround Mount Agung, the tallest volcano in Bali; and the Nyepi festival and the story behind the intimidating ogoh-ogoh figures.

To create these resources, the Society uses is vast archives, containing the world’s largest private geographical collection, as well as its network of experts to ensure the content is accurate as well as entertaining to the passenger.

Vast stretches of the rest of the flight path have seen no human influence at all, yet others have been dramatically altered by their human inhabitants. Land reclamation in Singapore, rice terraces in Bali and the farmland in the Murray Darling Basin are but a few examples. Every country along this route also has its own colonial history: from the British in Singapore and Australia to the Dutch in Indonesia, each nation has left its mark on the landscape along the way.

The famous sight of Sydney Harbour.

As well as Singapore to Sydney, Hidden Journeys has also revealed the breathtaking natural and human landscapes beneath flight paths, including London Heathrow to Johannesburg, South Africa, and New York City to Los Angeles in the US.

The website allows visitors a view of the flight paths at three different altitudes, with each level offering a new perspective on the Earth below.  For example, whilst flying over the English Channel at 12,000m, you can explore the geology of this narrow stretch of water and how a land-bridge once connected Britain to France. Fly at 1,000m, however, and discover the history of smuggling on the South Coast of Britain. At ground level, having crossed the Channel, learn about the traditional cultures of the people of Normandy.

The Society is investigating how best to develop the project further for the enjoyment of air travellers across the world, including looking at how we could apply this geo entertainment content to an in-flight entertainment system.

Millions of passengers fly every year, unaware of the fascinating parts of the Earth that they cross between departure and arrival. The Hidden Journeys Project allows people to explore the patchwork of people and places under a particular flight path, transforming an aerial jaunt from A to B into a fascinating journey through the scale and diversity found along the route.

The horizontal waterfalls of the Buccaneer Archipelago off Western Australia.

The Royal Geographical Society, with the IBG, is the learned society and professional body for geography. Formed in 1830, our Royal Charter of 1859 is for “the advancement of geographical science.”

Today, we deliver this objective through developing, supporting and promoting geographical research, expeditions and fieldwork, education, public engagement and providing geographical input to policy.

Ben Jarman is project coordinator of The Hidden Journeys Project in London


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