Top 10 Commonwealth countries you need to see
As the Commonwealth Games hit India this year, and the traditional sporting powerhouses of the old empire - Australia, England, Canada and New Zealand - outperform all comers to take the lion's share of the medals on offer, it is important to remember some of the smaller nations involved in this once-every-four-year sporting spectacle. For what they may lack in gold from the Commonwealth Games, these unsung heroes of the Commonwealth are more than pulling their weight in the cultural and nature stakes.
For an experience that belies its relatively small size, Belize is the
destination for those looking for lazy beaches with a touch more culture than recycled-paper umbrellas in their drinks. Belize has a near perfect climate ranging from 24°C in January, to 27°C in June and amazing testaments to nature's majesty in the Belize Barrier Reef, which includes the famous World Heritage-listed Great Blue Hole
, a scuba diver's dream. Who needs Commonwealth gold, when you have all the colours of the rainbow in the coral?
Whether you choose to sit atop the steep steps of Sigiriya fortress and watch the sun rise, or simply marvel at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka's most extensive and important ancient city, Sri Lanka provides more in cultural "wow", than many of its Commonwealth family. Every year in July and August, the locals dress up in extravagant costumes and dance for Esala Perahera (the festival of the tooth).
With a name derived from the Zambezi river, Zambia provides a cultural and wildlife smorgasbord for those who visit its shores. While the British colonisation brought a degree of urbanisation to Zambia, there are still locals traversing the land in nomadic tribes.
Travellers should be aware that the country has significant Third World problems, so it's a good idea to spend time within local communities contributing to some of the not-for-profit activities available to selfless travellers. These programs include reading and art clubs; community farming; school building and relief teaching which will send you back to your comfortable life with not only a tan, but a sense of accomplishment as well.
What the Maldives may lack in land mass, the country certainly makes up for with unique water-based activities, including snorkelling and witnessing the locals build their traditional dhoni (the sailboats used for fishing, and one of the oldest sea vessels on the islands). The Maldives is also renowned for being a celebrity honeymooning hot spot for the aspiring paparazzi traveller (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes have been snapped here, for the sake of a good name drop). If only relaxing was a Commonwealth sport!
Malawi gives the more adventurous traveller an insight into a culture that is far removed from the Western world. Witness a unique combination of native and colonial cultures including fantastic music, dance and art. On visiting the Malawian markets, Australian travellers must not miss out on a chance to purchase one of their traditional masks, where the people can show their incredible talents at carving (just make sure you declare it at customs).
Home to the magnificent Mount Kinabalu, South-East Asia's highest mountain, Borneo, Malaysia provides views that far surpass those of the podium in Delhi. Also a highlight of Borneo is the orangutan, the only exclusively Asian-living species of great ape, and amongst the smartest of all the primates. A short trip takes you to the must-see Orangutan Rehabilitation Sanctuary
, where orangutans have a 10am feeding. Make time to check out these "Wild Men of Borneo" relaxing and playing in their rainforest habitat.
The mountainous Kingdom of Swaziland, led by King Mswati III, is one of a handful of monarchies in Africa. Here you can explore Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary
, which is situated in the Swaziland's "Valley of Heaven", the Ezulwini Valley.
In stark contrast to the lithe figures cut by the Swazi athletes, visit some of their more rotund population the hippopotamuses. In parts of the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, several hippos have become so used to being fed in the afternoon that they plod out of the dam to chomp, dribble and munch in front of the Hippo Haunt Restaurant. So close are they, that your entire camera frame will be filled with their wide toothy mouth and glistening nostrils.
Formerly known as British Guiana (due to its Commonwealth status), the Co-operative Republic of Guyana is renowned for its ability to prevent "the man" from coming in and destroying its natural habitats. If you do head to Guyana, make sure you bring a good camera with the amount of unique flora and fauna (1168 vertebrate species, 1600 bird species, and 4000 species of plants found nowhere else in the world at last count), your friends will swear you stayed at home and cruised through Flickr
for weird and wonderful images.
Unlike many of the countries on this list, Uganda has actually had some minor success in the Commonwealth Games
an average of three medals per tournament since 1954, including 10 gold medals.
Australian travellers flock to Uganda to witness the magnificent mountain gorilla in its natural habitat. The mountain gorillas are a threatened species in Africa due to habitat destruction, disease and poaching, but they can be viewed up close in two places in Uganda Mgahinga National Park and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
A powerhouse on the international tourism stage, Kenya's sporting prowess has primarily been on the track. Most notably the 3000m steeplechase, a sport which nobody other than a Kenyan has won since 1994!
It's also impossible to not mention wildlife. We're talking the search for the "big five" lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. And, like children with Pokemon cards, it's not uncommon to see seasoned travellers collect photos and tell the stories for years to come.
Gap Adventures runs tours to a variety of the Commonwealth group of countries. To find out more head to www.gapadventures.com or call 1300 796 618.
Fancy some more adventurous world destinations? Check out our Top 10 World Cup destinations article.