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February 21, 2013, United States

Space fantasy

Soak in the spirit of space exploration at Cape Canaveral in Florida

Winston Len

FLORIDA is known for many attractions: orange groves, Mickey Mouse, the entire posse of Disney princesses, the slam-dunking Orlando Magic basketball team. But for something different, consider a trip to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, an operational facility run by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or Nasa.

That’s where space history was made in 1969 when Apollo 11 lifted off and landed the first men on the moon. From where my wife and I stayed, just north of Orlando, it was a long drive there. For a breezy ride, we turned the music up and rolled the windows down to enjoy the luscious scenery and feel the sun’s warm kiss on our faces. Since the Sunshine State’s beauty is on display year-round, many beachcombers come here during summer, while crowds of northerners escape winter to visit during Christmas and New Year.

As we glanced at the silver light shimmering off the myriad lakes, we spotted a lazy Anhinga bird drying its wings.

Between long stretches of scenery, my wife looked up Nasa trivia while I drove. Established in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, Nasa’s history is rooted in Cold War fear, yet it has transcended over time. From CAT scanners to water filters, Nasa’s scientific enterprise has benefited the world. And who is not inspired by Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, which remapped the boundaries of the possible?

As we neared Kennedy Space Center, the highway was replaced by a wide road, which arrowed across a calm river. There were no cars around, only wheeling seagulls and a speck of a distant launch pad that reminded me of space, the final frontier.

“Can you imagine space travel?” I asked as the speedometer quivered over 120, then 130kmh. The last stretch of road that led to Kennedy Space Center was so straight, it begged me to rocket forward. The wind through the window crack fluttered and I imagined cruising past the sound barrier, faster and faster.

“Slow down!” my wife shouted above the roar of the wind.

Simulated space travel

Space travel is not for the fearful. Thankfully, one can have a safe, vicarious experience at the Space Center. Once inside, the silhouette of decommissioned rockets on display inside a garden impresses the recurring theme of the visit on visitors: the grandeur of an infinite universe and mankind’s attempt to explore it.

To kick off our tour, we took a free bus ride that shuttled us around the sprawling grounds. During the ride, the guide pointed out the gigantic factory that assembles the shuttles, titanic tractors to haul multi-tonne equipment and towering edifices that support the rockets pre-launch. Geeks can linger over the statistics on signboards and interactive displays at each stop — the place is a veritable nerd heaven — and people hop on and off the bus at will.

Our favourite was a moment of time travel: We sat in a launch control station and experienced a simulation of a historic shuttle launch, accurate down to the quivering window shutters, the taut voice of the on-site controllers, and the boom of lift-off. After that, we wandered about the Apollo/Saturn V display inside a cavernous warehouse, which showcased a dismantled booster rocket and patches of past Apollo missions — many successful, a few tragic.

Finally, inside an Imax theatre, Leonardo DiCaprio narrated us through the repair of the Hubble telescope by astronauts. After that, we drifted inside stunning 3-D views of deep space where we saw baby planets, swaddled in blankets of cosmic dust.

As we drove back, the moon was a slight sliver in the darkening sky, 400,000km away. I would never travel there in my lifetime, but to indulge in your own space fantasy, Cape Canaveral is a not-so-distant alternative.

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Breathtaking beauty in Swat Valley

THE town of Kalam in Pakistan’s Swat district is a true gem of nature.

Words cannot truly describe the breathtaking beauty of this area, its gushing streams and splendid mountains. With the Afghanistan Taleban movement long gone from the area, Kalam is now resurging as one of Pakistan’s tourist spots.

In terms of altitude, Kalam is close to Murree, but it seems far higher than the other popular hill station because you’re surrounded by tall peaks as far as the eye can see. The most prominent peak is Falak Sar (5,918m), capped by pristine white snow. The valley is flooded with greenery, so lush that all I felt like doing there was lie down in the grass and gaze around.

One distinct feature of Kalam is the abundance of streams and waterfalls. The hotel where my family and I stayed, Walnut Heights, is situated on a hill beyond the main bazaar, right next to a stream that flows down into the lower part of town.

Every night, I lay on a sofa with my eyes closed, just giving in to the sense of tranquillity from the sound of water gushing down the hill.

But it would be a waste to make a 13-hour drive from Islamabad only to stay indoors. The air is so clean that it would be criminal not to step out and fill my lungs with its crispness.

With my family and a hotel employee named Waris Khan, I hiked up the hill for about half a day. It was lovely, with so much grass and colourful flowers. It was also an excellent vantage point from which to view the valley.

We had the most fun visiting Lake Mahodand, which is roughly 40km from Kalam in the Ushu area of Swat. We went in an open-top jeep that the hotel had arranged.

While bumpy and often uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have gone any other way; the lack of windows and a roof meant I could see all the glaciers and waterfalls which came into view. Falak Sar was also nearby, humbling us with its brilliance as we got nearer.

Mahodand itself was a real treat. Blue waters, graceful mountains and gorgeous meadows gave it the allure of a place one finds by accident. In reality, it is not so secret. Plenty of other tourists were there that day. Many just stood around and enjoyed the sight, while others rode horses and boats.

The presence of other tourists was slightly irksome because Mahodand is one of those places that you want to claim as your own; a private sanctuary where you can lie down and relax without a single care in the world.

Yet, the rush was also pleasing; it was an indication that Swat was back to its former glory as a tourist destination following the disastrous Taleban period.

The army’s operation in Swat, Operation Rah-e-Rast, ended successfully six years ago. Army checkpoints can be found frequently throughout the Swat Valley, and soldiers patrol on jeeps every so often. The region is now safe and stable, though the effects of the Taleban era are still felt by its people.

When I talked to a 10-grader from Mingora named Manzoor, I developed a better  understanding of the terrorist organisation’s rule, and the horror and hopelessness it had brought upon the people of Swat.

Life was at a standstill. People were forbidden from venturing too far from their homes.

Violating any of the draconian laws in place led to public beatings. Girls were not allowed to go to school and violence was the norm. My heart sank when Manzoor told me that he saw bombs go off on a regular basis, a sight that to this day traumatises him.

The scars of yesterday must not be forgotten. That said, memories of a bygone era takeaway from the pleasure Kalam brings.

While I am now back in Karachi and to the banality of a regular schedule, I am clinging to my fond memories of the serene Swat Valley. The heart keeps asking the mind: Will we go back soon?


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