The True Size

The traditional atlases of the world always have distortions, such is the nature of translating a 3 dimensional globe onto a flattened 2D plane. Thus the notorious Mercator version (used as a dartboard among geographers), that was traditionally used to increase the size of northern (read: Western) countries has been accused of long peddling the incorrect sizes of landmasses to millions in generation after generation, and we’re not just talking physical size and distances, but the map as envisaged in the political mind. Any map that say elevates Eurocentrism, or puts China in the centre, or the US (thus splitting Europe and Asia to opposite sides) can be equally accused -yet which is most correct?

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In truth, countries compared… you’ll need to be a bit of an atlas-savvy nerd to appreciate the differences in size of some of these comparison, but onwards:

https://mapfight.appspot.com

First off…

Ecuador, that tiny cut in the western side of South America is actually bigger than the UK. Fun fact, it is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries despite its small size, more so than say the US.

Also, it’s capital Quito has fantastic potential as a destination, and one of the world’s truly undiscovered next big thangs, should it ever clean up get and get the flower baskets out. It’s blessed with one of the world’s largest and most encompassing Old City’s that swamps over numerous hills and mountain vistas, like San Fran but with more grit, crime, streetkids etc. Actually exactly like San Fran:

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Quito

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Laos slightly smaller. Fun fact – one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries unlike almost all other Asian territories (pop 7.2 million in comparison to the UK at 68 million). Lots of room for cows, temples and minefields -the world’s heaviest bombed country, that took more fallout than all the ammo and explosives used in both World Wars combined. Not only was this paradise so mullered, it was done secretly, that the outside world had no clue the US was bombing (as a nice little sideline in the Vietnam War). But now it’s hippy heaven, lush and laid back in every direction, just don’t stray off the paths.

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Koreans would come in at a 76 million count were they ever to reunite. The difference would be stark within the new populace – not just in culture and clothing, even in height where the Southerners would average a 3-5 inch difference thanks to the North Korean famine during the 90s. But it’s also said the Northerners are a happy, convivial bunch contrary to assumption, and the opposite holds truer for the south. The closest we’ve gotten to believing ourselves in paradise are those living in Pyongyang.

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Next off, England.

Sri Lanka. Until as late as 1480 Sri Lanka was connected to India by Adam’s Bridge, a 50 km/ 30 mile limestone shoal that is now about 1-3 metres underwater. Quite a hike, paddle and swim but bring your shark net. Where no boat ever dares:

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Tasmania, with a population of only 537,000 is very sparsely populated. Its original inhabitants were wiped out within 30 years of British conquest, and one of the few human ethnicities (distinct from Mainland Aborigines for 12,000 years) to become extinct. But yeah, let that little footnote in history hold you back. An extraordinarly beautiful island, also a little known pinnacle of fresh, inordinately organic produce from seafood to wine to bush tucker.

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Suriname, a country of half a million mostly living along the coast is South America’s smallest. It is also the first in the world to reach carbon neutrality, whose vast interior of rainforest goes far to mitigate carbon reduction for the rest of the planet. Caribbean in culture, it speaks Dutch formally and English Creole (unintelligible to the English) among the populace, who are one of the world’s most cosmopolitan, an even mix of Afro-Surinamese, Indian, Javanese, Chinese and mixed race. Basically anyone from anywhere could look Surinamese.

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Svalbard (popularised by its largest island, Spitzbergen) is Norway’s northern archipelago and a wondrous, tortured landscape of mountains, glaciers, pinnacles and ice. Only 2,700 people live across the archipelago, making it third in place from Antarctica and Greenland as the least populated land spot in the world. One of its most arresting sights are the annual waterfalls that form mile-long walls of water pouring off the melting glaciers, and the fact the inhabitants have to tote guns everywhere they walk for fear of polar bears, even if it is to take the rubbish out. Actually ESPECIALLY if you’re taking the rubbish out, such is the attraction for foraging ice monsters.

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Newfoundland floats in the world’s largest estuary, islanded also as an English speaking outpost (one of the Maritime Provinces) before French Canada takes over. Its accent is still discernibly Irish sounding as is its old sea shanty laden history -about 70% of its population claims some ancestry from the British Isles, compared to 6% from France. Small towns and fishing villages create a sleepy backwater of an island, the first part of North America (other than Greenland) discovered by Europeans, complete with a Norse settlement about a millennium ago – take that Columbus! [/snappy Geonerd speak circa 1992 school video].

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Togo, one of the smallest countries in Africa no less holds more than 40 ethnic groups, and was once known typically as to what it offered the colonials -the Slave Coast, sandwiched between the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Ivory Coast that still bears its name. Togo nowadays might be known as the Phosphate coast, having the world’s fourth largest deposits -peddler of fortune but also tying 30% of the economy to the whims of price fluctuation.

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Tunisia, the northernmost country of Africa and an even mix of Berber and Arab worlds. It is classified as the only ‘Free’ country on the continent and the only full democracy in the Arab World, in part helped by igniting the Arab Spring in 2011, and the martyrdom of lowly market trader, Mohamed Bouazizi. Thousands of years of culture, from Phoenician to Roman to Berber to Arab to Ottoman to French -and it’s more famous for the scenes shot for the Star Wars franchise. I mean, fuck the ruins.

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Japan’s northern island was once home to the Ainu people, who now number 25,000 and could be as high as 200,000 due to those who have no idea of their ancestry. They were claimed to be the world’s hairiest people, whose women would tattoo moustaches onto their faces. They were also proto Caucasoid -that doesnlt mean White, but looking similar to the Central Asians (think Afghans riding/ fighting bears and living like the native Americans).

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Louisiana comes in as the 19th smallest state in the US -which means it’s on the small size over there. Its history of Spanish, French and British colonisation, with large amounts of imported slaves and Creole culture has resulted in a heady mix of urban societies unique to the country -in 1974 English was officially unofficialised as the state language of instruction in schools, with people free to practice the tongues of their heritage. Bajan, Cajun, Creole, Caribbean, French, English and Spanish influence is redolent in cities such as New Orleans, that lends to the culinary mix. Think French food a la swamp, soul food a la spice route, Americana tropicalia.

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Panama’s 80km (50 mile) canal carved out in the 19th – 20th centuries connects the Atlantic with the Pacific without the rigmarole of going round the whole of South / North America, a journey saving thousands of km and untold hazards from sea ice to stormy straits to financial lawyers. It contributes a full 40% to the economy, though that’s now diversifying into conservative banking and luxe tax haven, notably exposed by the Panama Papers . Panama City currently looks like condo heaven for the part.

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Guatemala, the most populous of the Central American states (with 17 million) and the core of the former Mayan civilisation. About 45% remain indigenous, while the rest are mixed. They happen to be one of the world’s shortest countries, where women average 4″10 (147cm) and men about 5″3 (160cm). It’s also one of the youngest countries outside Africa, whose median age is about 20 – almost half of all people are kids. Like kid kids. Like the Dino exhibit in the Natural History Museum in Half Term with Santa Claus riding the T Rex over an Easter Egg Hunt on Disney Nite. Everywhere.

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Denmark’s size is the most varying of the world’s nation, due to whether you’d include self ruling Greenland. From 130th position it can be propelled to the 12th largest territory, overtaking Mexico or Saudi Arabia, or equivalent to 6 Germany’s. Even if you were to take just that little poky nib pointing out of Germany as the be all and end all, thanks to the exactitude of how coastlines are measured it comes in as having one neverending seaside longer than Chile’s (who measures things quite laxly, doesn’t take in so many indents and doesn’t quite give a fuck unlike map nerds). Geo-porn right here.

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Iceland is so sparsely populated it stands at 3 people per sq km for its 364,000 inhabitants, mostly in the capital Reykjavik. The island is powered by geothermal energy, and almost completely renewable, plus the first on the Global Peace Index, though to be fair it’s sitting on a giant bubbling vat of energy as the one place on the planet still being formed, and there’s plenty to go round for a pool of people so small there aren’t enough wankers to get pissed off about. Even the dating apps have to run the gamut of ancestry/ DNA tools that alert you (giant flashing letters, industrial screaming, pop up of Michael Jackson’s face) if you inadvertently swipe right on your cousin.

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Greece has 6,000 islands, of which 277 are inhabited, and 80% of the country is mountainous to boot. This topography of islanded, competing city states led to the cradle of Western civilisation, and the translation of history, landscape, culture and food today has seen it become a leading destination for visitors, notably winning ‘world’s best country’ by Condé Nast. The big secret not yet overrun with 20 quacking cruise ships a day are the mountains, dramatic idylls, that command much of the mainland and that are only visited by natives. Epirus in the west, is where its at.

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Welcome to the world’s densest country (non-city state), that fits in 13% more people than Russia -a territory 115x larger. 165 million Bangladeshis call this, the world’s largest river delta, home. Its capital Dhaka, will rise from today’s 21 million to 35 million in the next decade, then slow (Bangladesh already has below replacement fertility levels). Still, by 2100 the city will have reached 54 million, many of them climate refugees as the sea level rises and the delta sinks, though the long term plan is for a giant version of the Netherlands -the sea held back, the economy with few resources, invested in people.

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One of Russia’s most beautiful spots and a major stop on the Trans Siberian, this is the world’s oldest lake and actually the largest body of freshwater in the world. Not due to its footprint (where other lakes are multiple times in size) but depth, at over a mile down. It holds nearly a whopping quarter of the world’s freshwater, and have the only freshwater seal species, more famed for the fact they look like fat cigars /fuzzy zeppelins zipping about.

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Hawaii is the planet’s most distant island, that takes multiple continent sized expanses of water in every direction to reach. Slap bang in the middle of the Pacific (half the world’s water area and about a third of the planet surface) it’s so hard to reach only a few birds made the up to 10,000 km /6,000 mile journeys about 8 million years ago, and evolved in utter isolation into 140 different species. No mammals made it other than a flying bat, and of course the genius of Polynesian explorers in 300 AD and another wave in 1100. Imagine rafting up your belongings, pigs and family, saying goodbye to your relatives (who’ll never know your fate) and striking out from the Isle of Wight, in a hope you’ll get an angle right to reach a spot of land near Tehran, if everything in between and all around and in every direction is ocean. For all their expertise with finding land (based on clouds, currents, birds etc) hundreds of flotillas likely never made it.

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The last major spot made habitable by humans on the planet NZ was recently discovered to be the mountaintops of a previously undiscovered continent that now lies beneath the seas. Separated by 1700km / 1000 miles from Australia the islands also enjoyed unique wildlife that propagated in isolation before humans hit it in 1350. They entered a wondrous land (world’s most varied in terms of topography and climate types, on par with the entirety of the US), where birds ruled the roost, filling the niches of mousey pickers (kiwis), giant grazers (11ft moas) and the predators that swooped on them (eagles that stood a metre tall and whose spine-snapping talons were the size of tiger paws). None of them, many who nested on the ground, were prepared for the human, rodential and livestock onslaught that followed.

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Japan is -typically dichotomous for its culture -one of the worlds most densely populated yet also most forested and mountainous countries. Tree cover accounts for 70% of the land, while the 125 million-strong population crams into the strip of coastal cities on the Kanto and Osaka plains, including the world’s singularly largest – Tokyo with 39 million inhabitants. But look again at the size of the islands, each massive -just so riddled with topography humans are islanded again.

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Somalia, with the longest coastline on Mainland Africa is the continent’s most homogenous country, standing out in a panoply of states in the world’s most diverse region, that will normally count hundreds of languages and ethnicities within any border. 85% are Somali, albeit divided into 8 tribal/ chieftain groups. In the north Somaliland has declared itself independent, a functioning, peaceful state, as opposed to the civil war decimating the rest.

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WALES

Qatar can claim the title of not just the richest country per capita whom earn nearly $100,000 each every year (and that still takes into account the legions of indentured underclass and guest workers), thanks to 14% of the worlds natural gas and plenty of petrol to boot. It can also claim the world’s most multicultural country, where only 12% are native Qatari, and its capital Doha is 92% foreign born.

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Fijians are a mix of Melanesian, a few Polynesian and later waves of Indian emigrants. Melanesians share a blonde hair gene, long assumed to be traces from European colonials, but has been found to be endemic, and long before Western contact.

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Lesotho is a mountain kingdom entirely surrounded by South Africa, a mere spot on the map that shows its real size below. With spectacular cliffs, gorges, mountains and waterfalls it remains an undiscovered gem, though now rising in the tourist ranks for its verdant landscapes, plus the novelty of snow in Africa.

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Beijing has grown from 1.6 million in 1950 (barely growing since 1700 when it was the world’s largest city for the next century) to 20 million today. The govt has since curbed the growth via urban citizenship registration, but is now building a new city on its outskirts, Xiong’An.

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The Aussie state is nearly 40x larger than it’s namesake but only 2.6x larger in population  (ergo about 15x more sparsely populated), albeit a large majority live in in the Sydney area -5 million out of 8 million.

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London

Hong Kong (7.5 million) appears similarly populated as London in density (9.2 million), though in reality the large majority of HK is open countryside and mountain. If counting only the urban areas of the territory it becomes 20x denser- in fact the world’s most heaving spot of humanity surmounting to 60 sq km -about the size of Manhattan but 3x the population and built density, also being the world’s most highrise city, including 380 skyscrapers (over 150m/ 492ft in height):

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Luxembourg, a mix of French and Germanic culture, came about in 1815 as a fiefdom of the king of the Netherlands who installed a Prussian guard to defend against another French attack, thus bringing about the crossroads that is this little nation, though one of the fastest and richest in the world. Fun fact: the worlds largest manufacturer of dentures, not just a tax haven.

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Hawaii actually has the world’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea, that is a gently sloping cone volcano (dormant) with a snow capped peak on Big Island, most of it underwater. If measured from the sea floor it comes to about a km taller than Mount Everest, at over 10,000m or 33,500 ft. Above water it 4,200m or 13,300 ft, slightly taller than Mont Blanc.

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New Caledonia, a gorgeous colony of France out in the Pacific, and one of the few places where you find tropical conifers.

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Germany.

Ghana, the rising star of West Africa this ‘small’ (well on the map it looks tiny of course), gold and petrol-rich kingdom, already diversifying into tech and biotech, is estimated to climb from a population of 30 million today to 80 million by the turn of the century:

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Uganda -another supposedly small country on the banks of Lake Victoria. However it will become the nexus of one of the world’s great population centres alongside eastern China, northern India and West Africa. A state that features little in many minds, by 2100 its nondescript capital, Kampala (present population 3.3 million) will hold 40 million, more than twice NYC. Further along the lakeshores will be Malawi, a thin thread of a country, but which will also transmogrify its sleepy towns of Lilongwe and Blantyre to similar sizes.

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Welcome to one of the world’s most mineral-rich (and suffering for it), mountainous and beautiful countries, and a former jewel of the Silk Route, whose populace is a sensual mix of the Middle Eastern, East Asian, Central Asian, Caucasoid and Indian peoples. A place remarked by invaders as an epic place to stage a war, with beauty in every direction, and crosshair.

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This ancient version of Arabia, Yemen is redolent of a medieval world where ancient mud-brick skyscrapers and exotic oases now share airspace with the current whizz of Saudi bombs and insurgent missiles.  One of the poorest, most indentured, and most beautiful nations on the planet, like Afghanistan paying the price for its isolation.

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Rights Managed

Yemen, Hadhramaut, Wadi Do’an, Khuraibah. A view of the oasis in Wadi Do’an.

From a glance at an atlas CAR looks like a small nondescript territory in the middle of the continent. It is literally the heart of darkness to many mindsets -the world’s poorest, unhealthiest nation, and worst place to be young, largely thanks to its civil war. Despite its true size shown below, only 5 million call it home, though typical of Africa they consist of 80 ethnic groups each speaking their own language. Fun fact the country is the best place in the world to view stars with the least light pollution, as well being bounded by the Bangui Magnetic Anomaly. So named after its capital that stands at the heart of this displacement in the Earth’s magnetic field, possibly caused by a meteor impact.

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The world’s newest country South Sudan broke from Sudan in 2011 after years of civil war (Sudan has been under 6 continuous conflicts since independence in the 1960s), but has recently entered its own civil wars now. In the south the country holds what may be the largest movement of large animals on Earth, in the annual migration of savannah grazers that rivals the Serengeti, only recently spotted by naturalists as a cloud on the horizon 50km (30 miles) wide and ongoing for 80km (50 miles).

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Thailand looks like an upended Germany but with a vast umbilical that stretches into the Andaman sea, haunt of tourist coves and terrorist strongholds as Islamic separatists (more affiliated with Malay culture further south) conduct their intrigue among the spectacular karst scenery. Despite its size and population (70 million), only one major city occupies the country- Bangkok, steamy denizen of the east and home to 15 million, vaults far over any other Thai city (runner up Chiang Mai only holds 200,000). One of the few cultures never to have been colonised by an Abrahamic religion or power, and thus ferw hangups about sex, and free lovin’m.

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Sulawesi, the fourth largest of Indonesia’s islands is a range of peninsulars isolated from each other by a mountainous centre. A full 60% of its species are endemic (found nowhere else), and its range of ethnic groups, tribes and religions, each with their own cultures, architecture, languages and cuisines, also owe their existence to the varying levels of geogrpahical isolation. Indonesia at large holds 388 ethnic groups, whose national motto is ‘unity through diversity’.

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100 million people, 175 ethnolinguistic groups, nearly 8,000 islands, of which 5,000 haven’t even been officially named yet, spanning the equivalent distance from Norway to the Sahara. That’s a lot of ferries and a lot of timetables. Sitting on the Pacific Ring of Fire it is perhaps the world’s most disaster prone country (including the bi-annual typhoons and flooding), but also benefits from the vast natural resources that location endows, alongside one of the world’s greatest hotspots for biodiversity.

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The world’s sparsest populated country, or territory outside the poles Mongolia counts 2 people per sq km. Imagine a rolling grassland from London to Russia and you’ll get the idea of the empty expanses that have made it even hard to invade, though helped the other way round. In the past nomads would keep track by building cairns just before the last one went out of sight in the distance.

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Extra:

Australia is a continent

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Precolonial

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This is not Argentina – it is the southernmost tip of Argentina. Once populated by the world’s tallest people, many of whom were taken into human zoos and circuses round the world -now extinct. The men were said to average 6.5ft -7ft.

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As mentioned above, Russia population 145 million, Bangladesh 165 million:

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Chile is not a thin country, just a neverending one.

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The Moon displayed below is actually just splayed out. As a three dimensional ball it would look about the size of Australia.

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Mawr:

Peru

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Japan

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Colombia

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Saudi Arabia:

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South Africa

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Algeria

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Indonesia

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Chile

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FIN

25 Amazing Places You Can’t Go To

 

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?  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:

 

  1. The world’s largest annual animal migration, South Sudan.

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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, zebra, 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.

 

  1. Battleship Island, Japan.

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So called for its brutish profile on the horizon, Hashima island was one of the world’s densest ever pieces 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), till its closure in 1974. 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 strong 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.

 

  1. Chateau Miranda, Belgium.

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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 children 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.

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This ancient dynastic capital miraculously survived the Korean War that levelled the other capitals on the peninsula, and has been preserved in aspic ever since by the Communist state. 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 socialist statuary, architecture, banners and posturing you could wish for. In short, medieval life unchanged, moving onto regimented modernism 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.

 

  1. The oldest living thing, California.

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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.

 

  1. Scott’s Hut, Cape Evans, Antarctica.

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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 wall to wall 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 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.

 

  1. Coming of Age Day, Japan.

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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.

 

  1. The Red Forest, Ukraine.

Bumper cars at an amusement park in the abandoned city of Pripyat in 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.

 

  1. The eternal fire, Democratic People’s Republic of Congo.

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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.

 

  1. Vintgar Gorge, The Land of Rising Mist.

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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 (it’s that safe), 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.

 

  1. Middle Earth, China.

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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.

 

  1. The Cave of Crystals, Mexico.

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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.

 

  1. The world’s oldest city, Iraq.

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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.

 

  1. Portobay Hotel roof, Rio de Janeiro, New Years Eve.

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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.

 

  1. The last oasis, Chad

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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.

 

  1. The lost tribe of the Enriva river, Brazil.

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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.

 

  1. The balancing rocks of Julianatop, Suriname.

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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.

 

  1. The vale of flowers, Pakistani Kashmir

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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.

 

  1. The fairy tale forest, Nagorno-Karabakh.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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 deadly 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.