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Magnetic hill, Ladakh, India
A land of high snowy passes and ancient gompas on the borderlands of Tibet, Ladakh is the kind of place where your imagination can run away with you. Here you can encounter the phenomenon of a magnetic hill, also known as a gravity hill, where vehicles left out of gear appear to roll uphill. This astounding effect has led to stories about how the magnetic force pulls planes off course. But in fact this is just a powerful illusion -- the slope is actually slightly downhill, but the shape of the surrounding landscape and mountainous horizon obscure our usual reference points. The hill can be found 30km from the historic capital of Leh along the Leh-Kargil-Baltic highway.

Desert mirage, Nullarbor, Australia
This is a commonly observed phenomenon – a heat haze that makes the air shimmer and can make roads look wet. For exhausted travellers in brutal heat, the appearance of an illusory lake in the distance cruelly raises and then dashes hopes. On the other hand, if you are cruising comfortably along in a car with a bottle of mineral water at hand, the hazy refractions of light just add to the atmosphere of your road trip. Australia's Nullarbor Desert (its name means “no trees”) is the ultimate flat horizon. Driving along this seemingly endless road affords great opportunities for flirting with mirages.

Paasselkä devils, Lake Paasselkä, Finland
In England they are called will-o'-the-wisps or jack-o'-lanterns. In America they are called spook lights. The Scots call them spunkies. The phenomenon they are referring to is a light that appears at night, often in marshy ground. If followed it will back off; it can also appear to follow you. Most cultures have seen such lights as evil spirits, luring travellers to doom, or as harbingers of disaster. Finland's deep Lake Paasselkä is famous for mysterious balls of light. In Finnish folklore, the lights are believed to mark the sites of treasure.

Sun dogs, Timbuktu, Mali
A sun dog, or parhelion, is an effect seen around the sun. It looks like bright spots of light (or “mock suns”) sitting on either side of the sun itself and it can last for hours. In earlier times it was seen as a frightening omen of bad times ahead. But when you know it is just innocent ice crystals making prisms in the air, it is a lot less threatening. You will have the best chance of seeing one when the horizon is flat. Timbuktu's baked-sand vistas and ancient mud temples could make a good setting for a sighting.

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© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘The world’s strangest optical illusions’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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