The rarest travel experiences. The toughest. The dearest. The ones that won’t be around forever. These are the real do-before-you-die journeys.
Sleep at Everest Base Camp, Nepal
Everest Base Camp
To complete an epic trek, then snooze with the summiteers. The trek to Everest Base Camp – a breathtaking 14-day out-and-back into Sagarmatha NP to the foot of the world’s highest mountain – is a classic.
But while the teahouse hospitality and Himalaya views en route are magnificent, most treks are not actually allowed to stay at Everest Base Camp – it requires specific permission. Most hikers visit their 5,340m goal for a ‘been there’ photo op, then descend to nearby Gorak Shep to sleep.
However, a few special departures do offer the chance to overnight at the iconic camp. Also, these trips may be timed to coincide with peak summit-attempt season, when groups of climbers are also in residence.
It’s a unique opportunity, to both sleep in the shadow of the mighty mountain and to speak to the brave/mad souls making their final preparations; you might even see teams setting off up the notorious Khumbu Ice Fall, the start of their push for the top.
Summiteers usually arrive at Base Camp April/May, so plan your trip accordingly. keep yourself healthy, too, as trekkers with illnesses will not be allowed to stay at Base Camp to avoid potentially infecting the climbers.
Trek to Machu Picchu, Peru
It’s more satisfying than the train, and there are lots of options. It’s virtually impossible to make a bucket list that doesn’t include Machu Picchu. A secret city, never found by those pesky conquistadores, perched in the mountains, swirled by mists and mysteries – it’s the stuff of travel legend.
The trouble is, when you’ve seen so many, many photos of the Inca citadel, there’s a danger it’ll be a bit of a let-down. And that’s one reason why, if you can, you should go on foot. The city deserves the slow build, the accumulated excitement, that trekking there provides.
Also, deciding to lace up doesn’t mean you have to hit the Inca Trail. There are plenty of alternatives to the classic: you can hike via the much less-visited ruins of Choquequirao; head along the dramatic and diverse Salkantay Trail (with posh lodges en route); or tackle the tough Vilcabamba Traverse.
Hikes vary in length, altitude and difficulty, so you’ll need to acclimatise before setting off. Remember, dry season (the best time to go) is April to October. You also need a permit for the Inca Trail. Only a limited number are released each year and they sell out quick.
Sleep under the stars in NamibRand, Namibia
The NamibRand under a night sky
To experience some of the world’s best celestial sights. Sure, leave the big city and you can see stars almost anywhere. But the experience will be extra heavenly if you travel somewhere very dark, very clear and very remote.
Namibia’s vast NamibRand Nature Reserve is one of only a few gold-certified Dark Sky Reserves. Simply, it has some of the world’s best dark skies. There are no towns or settlements inside it, or even nearby – Namibia is one of the planet’s most sparsely populated countries. And the dry climate means cloudless skies are the norm.
By day, explore NamibRand’s ochre-hued wilderness of dunes, mountains and plains, looking for oryx and Hartmann’s zebra. Then, after a blazing sunset, it’s time to turn your eyes skyward.
It may seem difficult to get to the desert, but the reserve is around 375km from Windhoek. So, you can always start from the capital, and find your way to the reserve.
Splurge on a stay at Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, which has its own observatory and ten luxurious chalets, each with a terrace, telescope and skylight over the bed. Or join the Tok Tokkie Trails three-day desert walk, on which nights are spent sleeping on a canvas stretcher under the stars.
Swim with turtles in Ningaloo, Western Australia
A green turtle at Ningaloo Reef
To take a dip with endangered species. Western Oz’s Ningaloo Reef isn’t as big as the Great Barrier, on the opposite coast.
But it’s still attracts around 500 species of fish; best of all, in parts it lays only 100m offshore, making its underwater riches extremely accessible – the snorkelling is superb, too.
Three of the world’s seven species of marine turtles nest on beaches and islands near Ningaloo between November and April: green (listed as endangered), hawksbill (critically endangered) and loggerhead (vulnerable).
However, turtles swim offshore year-round, their lumpen on-land movements transformed into a graceful ballet once they’re in the water. Good spots include Shark Bay, the Muiron Islands and Turtle Bay on Dirk Hartog Island.
Spot a snow leopard in Ladakh, India
A snow leopard in India
Few have seen this endangered cat. There are thought to be just 4,000 to 6,500 snow leopards left in the wild. Coupled with the fact that these charismatic big cats tend to live in cold, inhospitable, rocky clifftops at altitudes above 3,000m, they’re not that easy to spot.
This makes a sighting very special, and most trips that venture into their domain – largely Tibet, the Himalaya and the ’Stans – make it clear that you’d be fortunate to see even a paw-print. However, in recent years Ladakh’s Hemis National Park has gained a reputation as the world’s snow leopard capital, with hundreds of leopards, and as time passes, local guides gain an ever better understanding of their habits.
There are still no guarantees, but in Hemis’s Husing, Tarbuns and Rumbak Valleys, sightings are relatively common; Husing is on a well-known snow leopard corridor. Visit in winter, when the snow brings the cats to lower ground and, with the help of local knowledge, trained trackers and spotting scopes, you might be in luck.
Flights connect Delhi to regional hub Leh, which is 40km from Hemis NP. There are six villages in the park; accommodation is in homestays or camping.
Descend into a volcano, Iceland
Thrihnukagigur magma chamber
For a unique descent into the Earth’s belly. To inject some Jules Verne adventure into your bucket list you need to head to Iceland. It’s a strange, singular place; a newborn babe in geological terms, you can virtually see it being formed before your eyes – the land groans, hisses and spews.
This makes delving beneath the surface quite exciting indeed, though something that’s been easy to achieve since 2012, when commercial tours began plunging into Thrihnukagigur volcano.
Clipped on to what’s essentially a window-cleaner’s lift, you’re slowly lowered 120m into another world – a magma chamber uniquely drained of its magma. Lights reveal a cavern of many colours – bruise purples, sulphur yellows, blood reds.
Water drip-drips from above, while breaking into song demonstrates the excellent acoustics. It is wonderful, and very weird. Thrihnukagigur is dormant, last erupting over 4,000 years ago. There’s no sign that it’s about to spring into life, but tours are only announced on a year-by-year basis because, well, you never know…
Whale in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica
Antarctica is a land of grand voyages. Powerful, dangerous, but undeniably exciting. The chance to venture where so few others have visited is perhaps the very reason it tops so many wish lists.
To visit a place even less well known to travellers, embark on a cruise into the Weddell Sea to the east. The crashing icebergs, vast ice floes and often unpredictable and treacherous conditions will show you what real adventure looks and feels like.
Spot a variety of wildlife including impressive baleen whales just under the surface and colonies of penguins and seals clustered on the thick ice on top.
Weddell Sea voyages are limited to just a few a year. If you want to go, you need to be organised and plan well in advance.
Climb Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
It’s travel’s greatest trekking summit – and it could well be losing its snows. Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro deserves to be on every travel bucket list.
No other mountain manages to combine such a wealth of wow-factors to tick all those boxes: it’s an aesthetically awesome monolith poking out of the African plains; it’s a tough but achievable challenge; at 5,895m, it’s the roof of a continent; it’s a climatological oddity, proving snow can sit virtually on the equator. Tick, tick, tick, tick.
But just to add an extra bit of tock to all those ticks, doom-sayers predict that those snows might be gone in just a few decades – all the more reason to tackle Kili quick.
Kilimanjaro cannot be climbed independently. Choose a longer trip to allow more time for acclimatisation and increase your chances of success.
Tour Havana in a classic car, Cuba
Classic cars in Havana, Cuba
Hop in an iconic vintage motor before they get scrapped. It’s all change in Cuba. A gentle thaw in relations with their big neighbours to the north means that some travel to the island has become (slightly) easier for American citizens and some trade restrictions have been lifted. And with 2019 marking the 500th anniversary of the founding of Havana, there’s never been a better time to visit.
For now, Cuba remains quite unique, with an intoxicating je ne sais quoi that’s strong of culture and loose of hips. Perhaps the most iconic Cuba image, though, is of a classic 1950s car bumping down a Havana backstreet.
While you can, take a tour in vintage motor, listening to its retro roar as you glide by the capital’s crumbly grandeur.
You can’t self-drive a classic car, but several companies offer tours with driver/guides. Do some Havana reading to make sure you’re prepared for your journey, too.
Capture the Northern Lights on camera
Photographing the Northern Lights
To record a spectacular photo of the Northern Lights that you saw. In this age of instant images and selfies, it’s not good enough anymore to just see the planet’s most spectacular light show – to hopefully be in the right place at the right time – now you have to snap a frame-worthy photo of it too.
One way to increase your chances of filling that memory card is to join an aurora photography tour. You’ll not only get tips from pros on how to snap the show – sharpening up those DSLR skills for those future travels – but they’ll also be attuned to where those spectral waves are most likely to start pulsing through the night.
Your daylight hours will then be spent exploring the wild Arctic terrains that best yield luminous results – Finland, Norway, Sweden or Canada.
October to November and February to March are the best times to see the Northern Lights. Remember that dark skies yield better displays, you’re best off avoiding the full moon, and you’ll have to be flexible during your trip. The Aurora Borealis may not appear on the night of your schedule tour, but they could be out in full-force the next night – so be prepared to change your plans at a moment’s notice.
See an eclipse in Argentina, Antarctica or Australia
A total eclipse
To be in the best place when the world goes weird. Total eclipses – when the moon blocks out the sun, basking the earth in an eerie glow – happen roughly every 18 months. But you need to be in the right place, ideally somewhere in the path of the solar maximum, to fully appreciate the effect, and you’d have to wait an average of 375 years to see two total eclipses from the same spot.
Sometimes being in the path of an eclipse is simple. On 21 August 2017, the total eclipse swung right across the middle of the USA, visible in states such as Wyoming, Nebraska and South Carolina; its point of greatest eclipse just north-west of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where totality lasted for over two minutes.
Sometimes, though, it’s a bit trickier – the eclipse in March 2015 was best viewed in the snowy wilderness of Svalbard. Part of the battle is securing a place on a good, expert-led eclipse-watching trip: these specialist departures can fill up well in advance.
The next total solar eclipse is due on 14 December 2020, visible in Chile and parts of Argentina. 26 May 2021 will be the next lunar eclipse, visible from Australia. There is also a total eclipse in Antarctica in December 2021. Cloud cover will affect the quality of eclipse-viewing; if possible, check forecasts and head for clearer skies. The NASA Eclipse site is a mine of information.
Raft the Zambezi River, Zambia
Hippos in the Zambezi River
Why the Zambezi River? Run the great river, while you can. The Zambezi is one of the world’s most iconic waterways, slicing its way through south-eastern Africa and famously plunging over Victoria Falls.
Rafting it – whether you choose a short trip from Livingstone or a multi-day, beach-camping expedition – is up there with the world’s greatest river journeys. You’ll tackle hair-raising rapids called things like Oblivion and The Devil’s Toilet Bowl. You’ll might spot hippos lazing in the channels and even crocs on the banks.
Book your trip to the Zambezi for sometimes between August and December – that’s low water season, and the best time for rafting.
By Wanderlust UK