5 of the Smelliest Places in the History of the Planet
Given the impossible choice of losing one of sight, sound, taste or smell, I think most people would shut down their sniffers. Yes, you might miss the aroma of a fresh cup of coffee, and forever be crushed with the anxiety that you secretly stink without the ability to perform a pit check. But compared to the ability to see beauty, taste delicious food and hear a city bus that’s about to flatten you, it makes the most sense (pun unavoidable).
A second part of that might be that the schnoz is a facial extremity that sometimes forsakes us. A loud bang or an over-salted meal might be unpleasant, but few things can completely take over our mind like a true, persistent stink. I could knock out a higher SAT score taking the test in the same room as a constant, wailing siren, versus one incontinent dog. And I generally make at least a medium effort to exist in places that don’t reek like the set of niche German pornography.
With that in mind, I would avoid these five places throughout the world and history famous for their stink…
Lake Rotorua, New Zealand
Rotorua is a lake in New Zealand. And if you planned a trip based on only that information, you’d likely be a fairly furious tourist. You might show up with a fishing pole in hand, expecting a serene weekend and still waters, only to receive a roundhouse kick directly to the nose in the form of an overwhelming rotten egg smell. That’s because the lake and mud pools of Rotorua spit out a constant stream of hydrogen sulfide, and the sulfurous smell that comes with it.
When something’s commonly pegged as the smell of demons, you can imagine it’s not particularly peachy, and sulfur (aka saltpeter) fits the bill. The smell in the city of Rotorua isn’t always as strong as near the lake itself, depending on the wind, but the odor of one of Hell’s dive bar bathrooms is pretty inescapable. A tourist says of the smell on TripAdvisor, “It is BAD. We were gasping for fresh air, and yes, it does still stink in the hotel room.”
Not my ideal use of vacation days.
Seal Island, South Africa
A big advantage of being a civilized life-form is that we’ve found myriad ways to temper all the stink we produce. Animals without intelligent thought, on the other hand, aren’t worried about much more than survival, and positive smells are a luxury. Everybody loves a TikTok of some cute farm animals or a horse getting brushed, but you should be thankful Smell-O-Vision is still a thing of the future.
If you want a concentrated hit of the worst aroma pure animal function can provide, Seal Island in South Africa is an excellent example. True to its name, there’s not much going on there outside of an island and a shit ton of Cape Fur seals, but even with that limited list of ingredients, they’ve cooked up one of the world’s worst smells. It’s described as “a mix of rotting flesh, fish and excrement.” Basically the three scent notes of the world’s worst perfume.
Garum Factories in Ancient Rome
Fish make their second appearance in this story, and it’s not too surprising. They’re remarkable for their ability to produce a god-awful odor in a surprisingly short time. Handle a bit of fish with anything less than the care reserved for organ donations and your entire house is quickly going to smell like you live in a whale. For that reason, intentionally letting fish rot isn’t a popular cuisine strategy.
In Ancient Rome, though, a specific sauce made of fermented (read: rotten) fish was their number one condiment. At, I assume, the sacrifice of their breath, they put that shit on everything. The “shit” in question being garum, and the recipe was basically: fill a barrel with fish and salt and leave it in the sun for two months. This process smelled so rank it was illegal to make garum too close to the city. It was so bad that even people who lived in the first century A.D. thought it smelled like shit, which is saying something.
Rafflesia Forest Reserve, Malaysia
This is maybe the most contained location on the list, both in square footage and in active stink time. All the other entries make ruining your appetite a 24/7 affair, but the Rafflesia Forest Reserve only enters its woeful window of wafting smell every five years or so, when its namesake flower, the Rafflesia, blooms.
You might know the Rafflesia better from its much more colorful alter-ego, the “stinking corpse flower.” Great word economy there for letting you know that, above every other possible identifiable trait, this flower is best known for smelling like absolute shit. When it does bloom, people seeking a uniquely awful experience have five days to drink in the horrific smell. Described with the perfect honesty of an 11-year-old by visitor Marlene Brasco, it smells like “broccoli in my garbage can.”
Pretty Much Every City, For A Long Time
Of course, outside of places that have specifically sprouted tales of an intolerable signature scent, you have to remember that we’re pretty lucky when it comes to average aroma in current times. A fun reminder of just how far we’ve progressed in the olfactory department is seen in this BBC segment. The host proffers a mystery scent for participants to sniff, and every snort is met with great dismay. What’s the particular perfume he’s sampling? A recreation of the average, day-to-day scent of the streets in 18th century Paris. A good reminder to tuck a clothespin in your time machine.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comic in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.