it started with a sniff

proboscis monkey borneoThere’s no need to turn your nose up when you travel, in fact as Intrepid Express reader Paul Lynch explains, follow your nose and you can end up on some unforgettable adventures…

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single sniff” – not exactly the Lao Tzu quote that made the philosopher famous, but it’s close enough. Point being, do cities or countries possess a unique odour?

Travel should broaden the mind but more often dilates the nostrils, depending on the destination. You don’t have to possess the prominent feature of Cyrano de Bergerac to catch a whiff of the Guinness factory in Dublin, nor do you require a GPS to let you know that you have reached Faridabad, a sprawling industrial city north of New Delhi. The schnoz will let you know you have arrived.

However, in a blindfold test, hooter at the ready, could you sniff the difference between Marrakech and Hong Kong? If you have ever visited these places, the chances are you would instantly recall the aroma; Marrakech with its wood-smoke, spices and aromatic resin combined with the tanneries of the Medina – a pungent mixture that stays with you long after you depart – to the dried fish, over-cooked noodle infused fragrance of Hong Kong.

Cairo has the unfortunate claim of having the highest levels of aromatic hydrocarbons of any similar sized city – a rather flowery scientific term which translated means the air stinks and it’s polluted, but you know where you are. On the subject of science, the smells we receive come from molecules that evaporate off objects, everything from the cheese of Stilton (which is actually made in Melton Mowbray) to a dead possum in 100 degree heat on the road to Alice Springs (which by all accounts beats a dead skunk any day). All these aromas go to make up the waft of a region.

Some cities are proud of their pungent reputations. Rotorua, New Zealand, for example, is the self-proclaimed, most noxious city on the planet, where the volcanic sulphur fumes can choke a horse at 100 metres. No mistaking where you are here, just watch for the wheezing gelding at the Air New Zealand counter.

Singapore, on the other hand, could lay claim to being the only city (and country) to leave the nostrils empty, unless you are sensitive to the smell of money.

Before being accused of vilifying any of the destinations mentioned so far, bear in mind that not all aromas leave you reaching for a gas mask. A warm summer breeze kicks up the scent of evening primrose in the Jardins de Touleries in Paris or an afternoon stroll though the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen with its magnificent spring flower display. Then again, one wrong boarding pass and you could be ingesting molecules from Jacksonville, Florida – some claim the city to be the foulest smelling place in the western hemisphere, the attractive combination of sewer and swamp gas .

We all have photographs and videos of travels to remind us of places visited, but what about an aroma souvenir? And perhaps one day a scratch and sniff system will allow travellers to pre-sample the air of the city they are about to visit. Some of course will come with a warning “Care should be taken when about to scratch the cover off Vientiane, Laos, as it is the home of Cha om, the world’s smelliest vegetable”, a staple in its sour curry and just another example of a scent that permeates the air of most far off lands.

So breathe deeply the next time you travel and let those molecules tell
you where you are.”

* photo by Elaine Bettaney – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll read about Sue's travel experiences, find helpful travel advice and she loves sharing great tales from Intrepid travellers.

6 comments

Hi Robyn,
This handsome creature pictured is a proboscis monkey in Borneo.
Ahh, you bring back great memories of Morocco.
Best wishes,
Sue, Intrepid Express editor

Cadbury’s Chocolate factory, Dunedin New Zealand

What is the animal in the photo?
I remember the smell of the salt air at Essouira, Morocco, mingling with the wonderful foods in the restaurants and markets.

A great article that brought back many memory smells !! A few for those who have been there …or are eager to go … fish drying in the sun in Zomba, Malawi ; warm smells of Bangkok: the earthy smell before the rain in Africa; fresh, salty seaweed smells of most Australian beaches; the pleasant smell of fresh elephant dung in Zimbabwe; market cooking smells in Sapa; inside Singapore taxis; rose gardens in Dijon; mangoes in Queensland …and of course, the famous (infamous) durian !

And durians everywhere!!!

Not to mention the toilets in China

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