Okay, we’ve often seen the lists of places on the verge of being the Next Big Thing, awaiting discovery. Think idyllic Mediterranean isles, forgotten tribal valleys or overlooked, off-grid cities now spruced up. -But what about those so far removed one needs way too much organisation, money or a deathwish to reach? These prime spots are perhaps the way they are due to the lack of footfall, danger and obscurity. Indeed some of these may be possible with titanic perseverance, a briefcase of cash, a low regard for respecting the law, or an outright disguise, just have the luck on your side. Failing that, read it and weep:
- The world’s largest annual animal migration, South Sudan.
When scientists flew over this vast region of savannah and swamp in 2007, in the midst of war they witnessed a never before seen spectacle on Earth: a darkening convoy of animals on the horizon – nearly 50km (over 30 miles) across, yet stretching 80km (50 miles) long. In short this may well be the biggest movement of large mammals on the planet, more so than the Serengeti, and made up of countless antelope, zebras, elephants, giraffes and buffalo, with the accordant beasts that stalk them. Unfortunately the country has been a warzone for most of the past 30 years, and currently a battleground in a new civil war for the world’s newest country. It may be the last time we ever see animals on this scale.
- Battleship Island, Japan.
So called for its brutish profile on the horizon, Hashima island was purportedly the world’s densest ever slice of urbanity – a tiny islet 9 miles off the coast from Nagasaki where 5,300 miners and their families lived on barely 16 acres (which equates to a population density of about 140,000 per sq km, or 363,000 per sq mile). That is until its closure in 1974. Now hauntingly desolate, and with a dark past as a labour camp during the war, the ruins of the mines and apartments, and the left behind belongings of their hastily evacuated residents, stand testament to a forgotten community in isolation.
Long barred access for 35 years, a trickle of visitors can finally see the place from a newly built walkway – but 95% of the island is still walled off as too dangerous to explore for its crumbling structures. You’ll just have to make do with the scenes from James Bond in Skyfall, where it doubled as a megalomaniacal lair.
- Chateau Miranda, Belgium.
No, it’s not a Hollywood set, this really is the most spooky looking place you’ll likely ever see. A genuinely abandoned chateau, complete with ivy choked statuary, spiralling towers, 500 darkened windows, a roof open to all elements, and a rumoured child’s graveyard. Built as a country estate for French aristocrats fleeing the guillotine it fell into financial ruin over the century, shortly before being taken over as – you’ve guessed it – an orphanage for children in WWII, a ‘holiday camp’ where the pupils were worked to a strict regimen by authoritarian staff. Finally abandoned in 1991, the estate is currently off limits except to unexplained fires, vandalism and violent storms that are slowly dismantling the structure. In 2013 the owners formally applied for its demolition.
4. Kaesong, North Korea.
This ancient dynastic capital miraculously survived the Korean War that levelled almost all cities on the peninsula, thanks to its switching of sides at opportune times, and the heed to protect its cultural treasures even from the enemy. It has been preserved in aspic ever since by the North Korean regime that is a modern embodiment of the Hermit Kingdom. Surrounded by royal tombs and home to several universities, it’s famed for its sumptuous cuisine, caught-in-time streetscapes and enduring cultural relics, many of which are so priceless they’ve been shipped to fallout vaults in Pyongyang. On the new side it has all the Communist statuary, architecture, banners and posturing you could wish for. In short, medieval life unchanged, moving onto socialist realism as you progress.
Visitors to the country require a guide at all times to strictly delineated areas, with a base rate of at least $1000 for 3-4 days minimum. However the current heightened tensions have effectively sealed off this real life diorama, with various travel bans in force, and a pioneering scheme of cross border factories now closed.
- The oldest living thing, California.
Welcome to Methuselah, measured to be 4,849 years old and long thought to be the oldest living, non-cloned organism. That is until they found another bristlecone pine nearby that was 200 years older. This starkly beautiful landscape in Eastern California is made up of otherworldly rock and shale in the northernmost reaches of the Mojave desert, peppered with stands of hundreds of disfigured trees, all reached via a visitor trail that branches off to former mining sites. Why is it so unreachable? Well the oldest specimens are in secret, unmarked locations, for fear of vandalism. Good heed for in 2008 arsonists set fire to the visitor centre and its exhibits, destroying several of these rare giants.
- Scott’s Hut, Cape Evans, Antarctica.
Built by the ill-fated 1917 expedition to reach the South Pole, this snapshot in time is hauntingly untouched as it was when they headed off for the last time, even the local fowl on the table they had readying for a meal, and the seal meat in the larder. Tables are scattered with lamps, cutlery, papers and bottles, the bunks slung informally with clothing, and everywhere strewn are never used supplies, including a cache of penguin eggs. Handmade tools hang off the ceiling and pillars, even a rusted bike mounted forever on the wall, while outside the bones of loyal dogs wait out an eternity. Dug out of the ice in 1956 this is one place far, far removed from the rest of the world – that you’ll need to organise your own expedition to reach.
- Coming of Age Day, Japan.
On a brisk January Monday in Japan you may witness gaggles of kimono clad young people on the train tapping on their phones – cue priceless sneaky travel shots. This is how Japan should look you think, a world of tradition melded with ultra-modernity. But then they are fleetingly gone, in droves to ceremonies at obscure prefectural offices, the insides of which you’ll never see, while everyone else looks on with a mixture of envy and regret. Later they will reappear, staggeringly drunk by evening, then back to Western dress and hangovers the next day. Why don’t more people wear this outstanding attire, many updated with modern accessories? Why can’t every Monday be beautiful, young and kimono-clad? Well, it takes an average 2 hours to fold themselves into those layers of silk, hair and makeup – not something you could prep on the daily commute. The exclusivity? Well to get with the in crowd, you have to be of 20 years in age and Japanese to join in the fun, on the one day they say goodbye to childhood and hello to the responsibilities of the adult world. Missed the boat? Leave maturity behind and go in disguise.
- The Red Forest, Ukraine.
North of Kiev lies an untouched landscape despite being so close to the capital, full of forest life and brimming with natural diversity little seen elsewhere on the continent. By some counts the wolf population alone – a sign of plenty of other animals and food – is six times higher than the norm, not to mention the counts on elk, deer, lynx, boar, bears and a carpet of new growth forest. You won’t see another human for miles, nor hear any sign of habitation – other than the occasional ghost town with trees growing in its streets and eerily abandoned playgrounds. For you are in a ‘Zone of Alienation’, and nearby lies Chernobyl, the power station that exploded in 1986, sending a nuclear cloud across Europe. The Red Forest was so called because the trees initially died en masse, along with local insect life and small animals, and is unsafe for human habitation for the next 20,000 years. Since 2011 radiation levels allow only a few die-hard tourists in on private tours for brief visits, provided they sign the disclaimers.
- The eternal fire, Democratic People’s Republic of Congo.
The world’s largest lava lake lies deep in the jungles of Central Africa, in the crater of the highly active Mt Nyiragongo, and has been in existence since at least 1894 . Within human memory a lake of fire 2km wide and up to 10,660ft (3.25km) deep, it’s since shrunk to a mesmerising cone within a cone within a cone. Never mind the trekking through endless jungle nicknamed the ‘Green Hell’ by explorers, and the setting for the Heart of Darkness by Conrad (be prepared to be covered with thousands of tiny, stingless bees); never mind the fact the country is in a civil war that has claimed untold millions since 1998 – it’s the volcano you should worry about. With lava measured at a record-breaking 100 km (60 miles) p/h, and studded with pockets of odourless gases known as the deadly mazuku, this is the most dangerous volcano in the world. In 2002 several ‘spatter cones’ emerged to spread a molten stream up to a kilometre wide through the quake hit city of Goma, evacuating 400,000 people and rendering 120,000 homeless. Worse, a 1974 fracture of the crater emptied the entire lake in an hour, causing a fiery tsunami that killed 70 villagers nearby. Be warned.
- Vintgar Gorge, The Land of Rising Mist.
So called because that’s what Slovenia is everywhere you look in winter, with this canyon in particular becoming an atmospheric vision of trees clinging to steep slopes, echoing off into the mists above an unearthly crystalline river. This woodsy, watery country bedecked with attractions in the sunnier months sees a sharp fall in numbers by December, but transforms into a landscape of purple mountains studded with castles, waterfalls and lakes, and cloaked in fairy tale forests and wooden architecture. The gorge, coming off Lake Bled is not hard to reach, where a pre-booked hostel room comes attached with a welcome note, keys taped to the front door (the world’s safest country), and a suddenly emptied villa to yourself, not even a proprietor, as per course for that period. However the gorge is officially closed by then, due to the hazards of falling rocks, landslips blocking the path, and perpetual fog so close to the rapids, with no staff in low season to police the place – thus closing off one of the most romantic and ephemeral backdrops in Europe. Though local dog walkers, with helmets, are known to jump the barrier and warning signs. That’s all I’m saying.
- Middle Earth, China.
Only ‘discovered’ in 2014 the titanic Er Wang cave is so large it has its own weather system, a cloud factory in a space that stretches 42 km into the earth, where mist rises, gets trapped and comes back down as waterfalls. The villagers even rely on the cave for their weather predictions, noticing when fog comes out, rain is expected. To reach it you’ll have to go far into rural China, finding a friendly local who will stump you up for the night (expect a pigsty toilet and a piece of ground), before rappelling the next day 820 ft into a giant sinkhole, crossing fast-flowing rivers and climbing through waterfalls to reach one of the caverns so large you won’t be able to see the sides. This geological area, the size of France and Spain combined, is made of soft karst limestone, eroded to produce the famous hump backed hills of Chinese paintings, but also honeycombed with gigantic unseen caves. Another nearby has recently been discovered with a cavern that’s the world’s largest, nearly 3km long, that a jumbo jet could fly down. And you’ll only have to reach that one by swimming up an underground river.
- The Cave of Crystals, Mexico.
Discovered in 2000 after the groundwater was drained in Naica mine, Chihauhau, this cavern is 980ft (300m) below ground and formed by 500,000 years of optimum temperatures and chemicals to create these huge crystals, including the world’s largest nearly 40ft (12m) long and 55 tons in weight. Such is the temperature (nearly 60C), and a humidity of 99%, visitors can only last ten minutes. The fragility of the crystals’ exposure, decaying in the air, meant that the caves were only ever temporarily open; allowing just for documentation for posterity and science. Mining operations have since closed this year, meaning the pumps are off and the caverns have refilled.
- The world’s oldest city, Iraq.
Erbil is billed as possibly the world’s oldest existing settlement, dating back 7,000 years. A diverse population following 8 major religions reflects in its history being in at least 18 different empires, now dotted with mosques, minarets, churches, shrines, steeples and temples. The Ottoman citadel at its heart is nearly the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing (the world’s largest palace), and about 60% larger than Hradčany in Prague (Europe’s largest castle), plus being the site of the oldest town in existence. Waves of settlement outward from there reflect the continuing history, with bazaars, cafes, restaurants, modern day squares, fountains, shopping plazas and a network of Orientalist alleyways and Arabesque streets. This is the most stable and liveable part of Iraq, but still haunted by terrorism, and now facing heightened tensions as the Kurdish area moves toward independence. All travel is now advised against.
- Portobay Hotel roof, Rio de Janeiro, New Years Eve.
This 19 storey hotel right on Copacabana Beach sells heavily priced tickets to its rooftop, once-in-a-lifetime view of the world’s largest New Year’s Eve celebrations. It’s that or staying at the 4* for a minimum 4 nights, but at preposterous mark ups. It’s not so much the prices, but the lottery of how few tickets are available if you choose to splash out on the night. If you do get in, be sure to tread in the time honoured tradition of wearing white, watching the epic, horizon filling fireworks (in both directions), then going down to the beach to jump 7 good luck waves (and make 7 wishes). But don’t look back, as that will anger Yemanjá, the Candomblé sea goddess.
- The last oasis, Chad
Archei Gorge, populated solely by camel caravans and Saharan crocodiles that will likely go extinct in our lifetimes, lies in a sculpted warzone a four day drive by 4×4 through unforgiving desert. The large crocs, who learnt to bury themselves in logs, sometimes for years, were found recently to be a unique subspecies to the Nile variety, and the last remnants of a population when the Sahara was green. They were also found to have so few numbers as to be unsupportable. Meanwhile the camel herds, stone age rock carvings, and exotic tribes who still trade in salt, haunt a landscape of sandstone arches and pinnacles, drifting dunes and dried river beds that is the Eneddi Plateau. An adventure writ in stone, it’s gruelling to reach and harder to return from.
- The lost tribe of the Enriva river, Brazil.
Close to the border of Peru, in a federally barred area lives an uncontacted tribe – one of 77 in Brazil – whose name remains unknown. The plane which photographed this scene, a target for arrows and spears two years previous, is run by Brazil’s Indian protection agency, which tries to scare them every year, in order they keep their distance. For first contact may mean exposure to our microbes and diseases, that wiped out 90% of tribes in the rubber boom of the ’70s, not to mention murder and exploitation by cocaine farmers and miners after their land. Ever since, the survivors have avoided the outside world to great lengths, almost all constantly moving, with some coming out only at night. One tribe has systematically stopped having children, while another is down to the last man, who still hides from all attempts at communication. Since this photo was taken in 2010 this tribe is on the move again, fleeing massacres and takeover of their land by cartels.
- The balancing rocks of Julianatop, Suriname.
The country’s highest peak is no easy matter to get to. Charter a plane from the capital to a dirt airstrip deep in the interior, then canoe downstream for a couple of days, including navigating several dangerous rapids. Apparently the inlet fork you’re looking for is easy to miss, and after that it will be machete work for three days, with time to camp in malarial swamps – make sure you’ve had every shot possible. But then you will reach one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, rife with life, much of it unexplored and new to science, plus a view to die for, literally. The hair raising journey to this gargantuan rock and its dangerously balancing boulders was only first forged in 2006 in order to climb it, and has not been attempted since.
- The vale of flowers, Pakistani Kashmir
This is one of the most beautiful countries on Earth – that is if it was a country. Torn between Pakistan and India, Kashmir is in a situation far more complex than appears, with a painful history of political violence, war and terrorism.
But what a stunning battleground – alpine landscapes of pinnacle peaks, rippling glaciers, thickly wooded hillsides, brilliant lakes, clear rushing streams and famous wildflower meadows, at times dominating every inch of land. Dotted with traditional villages, welcoming locals and rare animals this is a place of crystalline air and scented vessels laden with blooms, slowly journeying to floating markets. Although travel is possible, especially from the India side of the Line of Control, the Pakistani half with much of the heartstopping scenery -such as the Neelam Valley, for all appearances a version of Switzerland in ancient times – is especially restricted. Foreigners are not allowed within 10 miles of the unofficial border, with almost all foreign governments advising against any travel to the province. Plus you’d have to traverse the lawless areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, rife with banditry and curfew. Good luck.
- The fairy tale forest, Nagorno-Karabakh.
A disputed enclave of Armenians in Azerbaijan this heavily wooded area of great oaks and birches, replete with isolated villages, hilltop churches, natural springs and ruined shrines, glowering over haunting steppe landscapes is like discovering a much older version of Europe (or is that Asia?). Where one keeps to the path in the forest for fear of wolves, bears, witches, and the odd few thousand land mines. Government advice warns against all travel to the region, due to recently heightened tensions between the powers, plus one needs clearance to visit from the Azerbaijani government – internationally recognised as the state in power – yet not in control since 1994. Effectively islanded, NK is trapped in circumstance, and time.
20. Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea.
Welcome to an island so thick with virgin rainforest you can see the huge size of the old growth canopy and clarity of the water from the air, as it cascades off the mountain (the Luba Crater Scientific Reserve) in a series of waterfalls, finally dropping in a rare cataract straight onto the beach. Even more surprising is that this untouched forest shares its slopes with the nation’s capital. The country is (in)famous for the recent discovery of oil that has propelled its GDP per capita to surpass many European nations overnight, yet with resultant inequality, corruption and coups, many funded by international businessmen. To even enter the country one needs a letter of invitation from a citizen, such is the precariousness of its politics.
21. A seat at Paris Fashion Week
Okay the ‘easy’ way to do it for the average mortal is to go to the https://fhcm.paris/en/ website (formerly modeaparis.com) and peruse the list of shows. Pick your party, and send an email to the organisers, stating who you are, who you’re with, and how simply fabulous it would be if your presence should grace their little get together. If you’re not a tried and tested, lean, mean and utterly clean fashion journo/ editor, A-list celeb that the French have actually heard of, or another high up industry professional, you could always try blogger extraordinaire with a following of millions, at which point you might get a stab at getting the ‘standing invitation’, rather than a seat. And don’t even think about Haute Couture, darling.
22. The greatest life on Earth
At the bottom of the Antarctic lies undersea volcanic vents, brimming with life. As the ocean floor cracks open with tectonic activity, it creates fissures that dot our oceans, that may have been the original source of life on the planet. A chemical soup of startling temperature change, life has sprung about these deep sea towers, some over 300ft (100m) in height. And in such abundance they are possibly the most diverse spots of Earth, with up to 30 million lives in a square metre -these are the coral reefs of the ocean floor, populated with entirely unique species and ecosystems, and utterly dependent on whether the vents continue to spout. Wavering ‘bushes’ of 6.5ft (2 metre) long worms, encrustations of crustaceans, and armies of shrimps and weird fish dodge in and out of freezing temperatures and fiery seas in complete darkness. Inches away from being instantly cooked in pressures and chemicals that allow for water at higher temperatures than boiling and lower than freezing. For this scene you’d need to be a scientist, oceanographer or member of a film crew to traverse the roughest seas on the planet, the Southern Ocean, that spans the globe devoid of landmass to break up the winds and currents, then charter a submersible to reach the bottom of the subzero sea.
23. The Grand Corridor, Windsor Castle
Used exclusively by the Queen, this is one part of the royal residences that is off limit to the snapping tourists – usually the grandest State rooms used for wining and dining visiting royalty are for show. The 550ft (170m) walkway, filled with priceless treasures – rumours of lost Canalettos, portraits of famous royals through history, cabinets of Burmese jade and other pilfered artefacts from the age of empire – was designed by Jeffrey Wyatville in an 1820s remodelling of the east and south wings. It connects the private quarters of the monarch, including her entirely single bedroom, with the guests quarters (look out too for the elegant White Drawing Room and the restored Private Chapel, with it’s stained glass depiction of a fireman dousing the 1992 fire). An area so exclusive, even finding a photograph of the thing is a rarity. So make do with an 1846 painting, and depiction of what they think is the 27 year old Queen Victoria.
24. Wadi Do, Yemen
Welcome to Yemen, a land filled with medieval cities, and horrors. One of the most beautiful and untouched destinations, this is a place of pre-modern life in all its colours, antiquity and romanticism that you could shake an incensed hookah at. But currently enduring a civil war that’s now got Saudi Arabia sending in its hi-tech troops and satellite bombs, and Islamist insurgencies that see tourist buses attacked, killing four in the very picture above in 2008. Wadi Do is an oasis traditionally reached through camel caravans across the shifting deserts, traversing the passes of the immense plateau and gorge akin to the Grand Canyon. It’s sides are studded with multi storey, stained glass mud brick architecture that was a pre-cursor to the skyscraper up to 700 years ago.
25. The top of the world, Mount Everest.
Whether you climb up the Chinese side or from the Nepalese base camp, you’ll need a cool $35,000 start off fee for the 32lbs of allowable gear and the $10,000 permits, getting higher depending on the size of your party. And you’ll need to be super fit, for after a certain altitude your body starts DYING (unless you’re a Sherpa who is biologically evolved to intake more oxygen at these altitudes), and you’ll only have a short window of time to reach the top and get back down again before you succumb to the elements. The death rate is a full 10%, although it improved in recent years with better tech and safety, including ladders to traverse the worst of the ravines, some recent avalanches have raised the casualty rate again. Base camp at a lowly 17,600ft (5380m), is popular with tourists, looking at the mountain which looks surprisingly smaller than its neighbours, and mingling enviously with the teams about to set off or returning with looks of war in their eyes. It’s just climbing the last 11,430ft (3470m) to really look down on the world that’s the issue.
Got to the end? Any other suggestions or experiences for hard to reach places, for the next brochure? Post below.