From epic animal encounters to walking in the footsteps of ancient civilisations, Janine Stephen offers some trips to stoke your explorer’s soul
SEE THE GREAT MIGRATION IN KENYA AND TANZANIA
Some 1.5 million wildebeest, plus accompanying predators, move from Tanzania to Kenya and back again in search of sweet new grass during this greatest show on Earth. A sighting you don’t want on safari? A noisy row of vehicles lined up along the Mara River, waiting for a flood of herbivores to cross. This is an unfortunate reality at peak season (August to September) in our overpopulated world.
But those averse to crowds have options: head for the conservancies, pay for excellent guides and space at private camps, or visit at other times of the year.
A trusted source recommends March: “The rains are just coming so there are babies everywhere (being snacked by spotty cats), there are massive skies and thunderstorms and far fewer tourists.”
Also consider a mobile camp that follows the herds. Those with deep pockets are spoilt for choice.
GO DOGSLEDDING IN ALASKA
Alaska attracts tough characters, and tough dogs. Yet swishing through powdery snow on a dogsled seems such a gentle way to travel, the 1,000-mile endurance race Iditarod Trail aside.
I went gliding behind a team run by former Coldfoot, Alaska, resident Joe Henderson — the man who, with his dogs, appeared in Disney’s 1991 White Fang. It was just a quick trek, a taste of glory, but once the yipping, squirming hounds were in their traces, which bind the dogs to their sleds, and the order to mush had sounded, they ran silently, breaths steaming, the crunch and slide of skimming over snow the dominant sound. Black spruces whipped by at an astonishing rate.
It was an entirely joyful experience in an extreme environment. This winter Joe will offer 30- to 40-minute rides with his Alaskan malamutes in Anchorage for $75pp (R1,075). alaskanarcticexpeditions.com
DIVE CHINA’S LOST CITY
In 1959, a dam built on the Xin’an River to supply hydroelectric power to Zhejiang, China, was finally completed. Liquid crept slowly into the stone streets of Shi Cheng, or Lion City, drowning a metropolis that dates back some 1,400 years to the Eastern Han Dynasty.
Now the five ancient city gates, the remains of arches, bridges and even preserved trees, stand in inky silence 25 40m below the surface of “Thousand Island Lake”.
To see the elaborately carved ruins, pull on a couple of wetsuits (the water is freezing), load up with lights and go on what is essentially a night dive to explore.
You’ll need a guide to hit the spot in enormous Qiandao Lake. Sadly, this one will have to stay on the bucket list a while longer: Big Blue Scuba in Shanghai says the local government has closed the site indefinitely. But check with them or Beijing Dragon Diving Club to enquire about other dive spots in the lake and when Lion City will reopen.
DRIFT UP THE AMAZON IN BRAZIL
Fancy swinging in a hammock on a river boat up the Amazon? You can get a cabin for a price, but choosing the hammock for the five- or six-day journey from Belém to Manaus, Brazil, means lots more fresh air and company. Young villagers sometimes paddle furiously alongside, asking for handouts. But overall, it’s a soporific, languid experience — days and nights sliding by like oil, remarkable insects attracted to the lights, and rice and beans served up time and again for meals. You need to be able to let go, snooze a lot and ideally have a novel or two in hand as not a whole lot happens. A lesson in how to stop time. Buy tickets at whichever port you choose to sail from.
STALK RHINO IN SA OR SWAZILAND
With a dose of luck and the right guide, it’s possible to get close enough to hear the beasts chewing — without paying thousands for the privilege.
On a bush walk in Marakele National Park, Limpopo, a few years ago, the guide stood me downwind from a white rhino with a multi-ton youngster at her side — and didn’t blanch when a big male suddenly motored up. The rhinos had a standoff, complete with mock charges and the odd squeal. The experience is branded in my memory, all dust and adrenaline. A bush walk in Marakele costs just R360. Another reasonable option is Mkhaya Game Reserve in Swaziland.
WALK THE CAMINO IN SPAIN
Years ago, we arrived in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, by bus, not on foot as thousands of pilgrims do. The ancient city’s cathedral is the epicentre and final destination for those who walk the Way of Saint James, following iconic scallop-shell markers on various routes from Portugal, France, the Northern Basque region of Spain or Seville.
It can be busy: in August 2018, over 60,000 pilgrims arrived in the great Praza do Obradoiro, the town’s main square.
But that day, after a hushed few hours in the golden glory of the church, we walked out of Santiago with vague plans to hitch to Barcelona. Lovely old women tutted and called and told us we were going the wrong way. I’ve wanted to walk the famous Camino ever since – the 1,000km Via de la Plata route is my current pick. All that’s required is to set forth with “at least an attitude of search”. oficinadelperegrino.com. ●
SWIM IN OMAN
Fjords in Oman are called khors — and contain spinner dolphins. A six-day swimming tour allows waterbabies to explore some spectacular gashes of blue sea amidst the dry Hajar Mountains: the khors of the Musandam Peninsula, on the northeastern tip of Oman.
Various guided swims are 1km - 4km long. Two support boats follow the swimmers and the water is warm.
Guests travel between sites on a traditional dhow, which also serves as a lunch spot; nights are spent in a hotel overlooking the Strait of Hormuz. Additional pleasures are local food, visits to fishing villages, Telegraph Island, remote coves and a hike up an isthmus separating the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman. From £1,250 (R23,400).
EXPLORE A RUIN IN MEXICO
The Kingdom of Bone in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, was abandoned around the 9th century and is now surrounded by dripping, breathing forest. The ancient city of Palenque is easy to visit on your own steam. The outskirts are still dotted with still-to-be-excavated piles of stone, with only trees and deafening insects for company.
But the key excavated sites of this Unesco World Heritage Site — ball court, palace, temples — are set in wonderful clearings in the forest. Glyphs, carvings and murals decorate the walls, and the palace itself is a wonder of chambers and bats.
King Pakal was buried under the Temple of Inscriptions, his body dusted in poisonous red cinnabar, his face covered by a jade mask. At Palenque, the natural and supernatural worlds feel tightly entwined, and death is ubiquitous: many a carving shows a decapitated victim or two. Don’t rush it and be sure to visit the on-site museum.
ESCAPE TO ANTARCTICA
Frozen cliffs in shades of blue; remarkable wildlife, such as Earth’s largest penguins, plus the sense of going where few have gone before all draw travellers to our southernmost continent.
Most depart by ship from Ushuaia, Argentina, and cross the volatile Drake Passage to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. Do some research to find the perfect trip: some (such as SA’s own Rockjumper) specialise in birding while others concentrate on wildlife photography or activities such as kayaking, snowshoe outings, diving and mountaineering. Some offer the chance to camp on the ice overnight. The vessel is also important. Smaller boats mean faster disembarkation, but larger ships can be better for seasick-prone stomachs. The weather and the fact that there’s zero infrastructure mean you can’t travel far inland on the continent itself. Many trips include visits to islands such as the South Shetlands and South Georgia for added doses of natural beauty and wildlife.
rockjumperbirding.com; oryxphotography.com; responsibletravel.com.
SEE PYRAMIDS IN SUDAN
Sudan is a challenging destination, which is the only reason there are no throngs at its remarkable pyramid fields. The best preserved are the Meroë pyramids, about 200 steep-sided triangles up to 2,700 years old, scattered about the desert.
Other crumbling key sites are at Nuri, where the remains of more than 70 Nubian pyramids stand in two wide arcs, and Gebel Barkal, the site of a sacred mountain. Here, sculptural elements also remain, like chunky stone rams.
“Twice a year, on special occasions, the sun — setting exactly behind the sacred mountain — casts the last, fading shadow of its rock pinnacle (in which the ancients saw a giant sanctified cobra crowned with the sun-disk) on the necropolis of Nuri,” says Agnieszka Dobrowolska, of Archinos Architecture, who works on preserving Sudan’s cultural heritage.
Tours can take you to the ancient sites in relative comfort if solo travel is too daunting.
● encounterstravel.com; corinthiantravel.co.uk
● L S. ©Janine Stephen