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Oh So Quiet: Ten Wildernesses (with Catherine Fairweather)
Harpers & Queen, 2004

Castles Of Myth | Steppes Of Central Asia, Mongolia | Lost City | Frontier District | Wilderness - Mountain At The Heart Of The World | Outback Australia | Skeleton Coasts | Jungle, Venezuela | Salmon Fishing in the Kola Peninsular | Tribal India |The Garden Of God


    The snow-covered peaks of the Alborz mountains look down over a lush coastal plain where paddy fields and a dense rain-forest border a humid inland sea. These Caspian mountains of Persia have always sheltered a rich diversity of communities, myths and monuments. It is the home of the Simurgh – the all-seeing, all-knowing bird of Persian myth as well as the land where Persia’s St George, Rustam, battled against the white demon. It also sheltered a near-legendary community of believers – known and feared throughout the Middle Ages – as the Assassins. There according to the popular tales, their leaders, the “Old Man of the Mountains” had built a walled citadel with a great library and a gorgeous garden populated by learned scholars, beautiful maidens and comely man-servants. Led there under the influence of hashish, his pious followers felt certain that they had been given a privilieged foretaste of paradise and happily surrendered all authority to their master. Thus empowered the Old Man of the Mountains directed his servants to serve his enemies but at his instruction they would carry out desperate acts of terrorism –quite careless of their own lives. His followers became known as the Hashishim, hence our word Assassin. Much of this story is myth, though some is true enough. Amongst the wilderness of the Alburz mountains it is possible to find the stone castles of the sect, some of which have only been recently discovered- Alamat, Gerdkuh (which withstood a 12 year siege) and Sorou – the finest of them all.

    On such an expedition you should travel with the experts, such as archaeologist Warwick Ball who runs Eastern Approaches, 5 Mill Road, Stow, Selkirkshire, Scotland, TD1 2SD T 01578-730361, F 01578-730714, E w.ball@easynet.co.uk


    There are no direct flights to Mongolia. The best method of entering into the country remains the Trans-Siberian express, on the Beijing to Ulaanbaatar track. The modern capital reeks of the state-building excesses of the Stalinist period when the nearby ancient religious centre of Karakorum was purged of its monks and teachers and virtually raised to the ground. Fortunately the chants of the Mongolian Lamas and the scent of juniper burning on the ancestral altars have returned (assisted by exiles from Tibet) to reintegrate this nomadic people with their Buddhist past. As Stanley Stewart in his recent travel-book “In the Empire of Genghis Khan” reports, “We were riding in uninhabited country. For six days we saw no one. Stags trumpeted in the woods, deer fled like ghosts through the trees, and every morning we found the fresh tracks of wolves..” He was on his way to the mountain of Burkhan Khaldun, the Mongol garden of Eden where a blue wolf and a fallow deer mated to create the first Mongol at the head of the Onon river. Genghis would be born downstream.

    Steppes East have long experience of organising expeditions into Mongolia. Due to the vast distances and total lack of any infrastructure they counsel against individual travel – not that it is dangerous – but just prohibitively expensive as everything has to be flown from Ulaanbaatar. Unless you are content with exploring the immediate hinterland around the capital they advise joining one of their group departures which includes visits to eagle hunters, reindeer herders and a first taste of the Gobi desert with its distinctive nomadic culture based on the Bactrian camel not the Mongolian pony.

    Steppes East Limited, The Travel House, 51 Castle Street, Cirencester, Gloucershire, GL7 1QD
    T 01285-651010, F 01285-885888, E sales@steppeseast.co.uk


    The Quest for the Lost City is an enduring part of the mythology of travel; whether it is Raleigh vainly searching for El Dorado, Burkhardt stumbling upon Petra, Laing dying outside Timbuktoo or the temple-cities of the Mayans, Incas and Khymer revealing themselves from out of their jungle tombs. It might be thought that this questing era is now firmly wrapped up within the bound covers of the great explorer narratives. But there are modern jungles at work. In Northern Cyprus the city of Famagusta is in itself something of a time-warp; a walled 14th century boom town, packed full of Gothic churches built by the Crusading knights and Levantine merchants after they had finally been expelled from the Holy Land. Only a dribble of visitors come to look at this extraordinary gallery of medieval architecture. None however can progress south into Varosha, the lively Greek quarter of the city where beach-front hotels, holiday apartments and villas lie entombed by barbed wire and army patrols. Here posters first applied in 1974 peal and shred in the sun, and shutters still shake in a city which has lain deathly still for thirty years. Do not hurry to visit this apocalyptic vision. It remains completely inaccessible, a key pawn in the negotiations, between Turkish north and Greek south.


    Of all the many battle-scarred, castle-clad, grave-strewn frontiers of the British Empire there is only one that can claim to be “The Frontier”. The North-West Frontier of the Raj still divides the modern states of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It has no ethnic, religious, linguistic or commercial purpose. It was merely a military hault, a line drawn across the mountains – which in fact neatly bisects the famously bellicose Pashtun tribes. One night listening to the sound of gunshot cutting through a night in Dir helps to propel the traveller back into centuries of violent history. Chitral is a more comfortable base – though many of the tribesman wander down the central bazaar fully armed and you will not see even so much as veiled face of a lcoal woman. Chitral is a key point for crossing over into Afghanistan and for visiting the kalash villages – the last pocket of pagan Nuristan and for crossing the snow-covered summits of the Lowari pass in a convoy of ox-tail decorated trucks or for trekking north to catch the annual polo-match between the rival Chitral and Hunza regiments of scouts.

    A bit off the travellers map these past few years (what with the post 9:11 invasion) though it will no doubt open up again soon. The man to take you there is the travel-writer Jonny Bealby who has a house amongst the Kalash and can arrange for your safe arrival in the Chitral Mountain inn (the Faulty Towers of the Hindu Kush which has a Chinna, a Himalayan sycamore, at the centre of it’s garden) and for you to take tea up in an old royal summer palace - Brimbo Lasht – the place of the walnuts.

    Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel Ltd
    40A Peterborough Road, London SW6 3BN
    T: 020 7736 3968 F: 020 7751 0710
    E: office@wildfrontiers.co.uk W: www.wildfrontiers.co.uk


    Never believe the evidence of a map. Ethiopia is not a nation, it is an Empire, packed full of nations, tribes, ancient dynasties and tens of thousands of holy places. Nor can you measure places in Ethiopia from a map for there are neighbouring villages that are actually days apart, which can only be approached by zig-zagging your way down across gorges, around mountains and across high plateau. At the height of the famine, one aid worker calculated that due to these challenging logistics it cost the same to get a plate of millet pancakes to a starving farmer as to eat a three course meal – with wine – in one of Paris’s leading restaurants.

    The Simien, the highest range in Ethiopia, are the mountains that sit on mountains. An extraordinary range of volcanic plugs that rise to the heavens, wrapped in shifting clouds and rich in a dazzling range of mineral colours. They are also home to their own indigenous species – the gelada or bleeding heart baboons. They are also relatively easy to climb and reasonably approachable. Start from Gondar with its ruined 17-th century palaces and hill top monasteries, and then pass through the valleys of the Falashas (the indigenous Jews of Ethiopia) on a 60km journey to Debark, the gateway to the Mountain Region where you can hire mules and mountain guides.

    Tim Best knows the region as of old and can sketch out some likely itineraries:
    Tim Best Travel, 68 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3LQ, T 020-7591-0300, F 020-7591-0301, E info@timbesttravel.com, W www.timbestravel.com


    The Southern Outback provides the classic European expectation of Australia without straying into the tourist trial to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock. In the Flinders Ranges there are creek beds lined with red river gums and deep red sandstone gorges where galahs and rock wallabies come down to drink in the evening light. In the Gawler Ranges great mobs of kangaroos and emus can be found grazing the grassland steppes. Off the shallow coastal waters of the Australian Bight you can spot dolphins, sea-lions and Humpback whales.

    For a native-born, the Kimberley Plateau (northern reaches of Western Australia) would rate as the continent’s greatest wilderness. Here unexplored caves hide Bradshaw rock paintings, so old that even the aboriginal people do not know their origins. The wet season brings waterfalls cascading from the heart of the continent and into the sea.

    Travel with Wilderness Australia, a small, privately owned company set up by Charles Farlow that use guides who are also conservationists and have access to a select portfolio of small lodges, bush camps and private outback properties.

    Wilderness Australia, PO Box R446 Royal Exchnage, Sydney, NSW 1225 Australia
    T 61-29231-2113, F 61-29223-3661, E info@wildernessaustralia.com.au


    I have acquired a morbid love for the Western Sahara. This disputed war-torn territory stretches immutably south from the foothills of the Moroccan Anti-Atlas mountains to the frontiers of Mauritania. It has nothing of the conventional Saharan beauty about it, no great sand deserts, no towering black mountains but consists of a vast shelving plain of raked gravel, now and then broken by a nomad-grazed wadhi floor but mostly sealed from the sea by a thousand mile parapet of cliffs. Cormorants watch the rusting hulks of the dozens of merchant ships that lie crushed beneath the cliffs, which are themselves bathed at dawn and dusk in sea-mist still flavoured by horror tales from the raft of Medusa. However I have never found anyone else remotely touched by this territory and as the hotels have been block booked for a decade by UN personnel supervising the truce with the Polisario I think I should also make honourable mention of the more celebrated Skeleton Coast of Namibia. The Schoeman family – who have been running safaris since 1977 – have set up their own unique brand of fly-in explorations based on their three camps at Kunene, Purros and Kuidas that straddle this 660,000-acre National Park. Alternatively you can fly in twice a week (every Wednesday and Saturday) to the 12-bedded Skeleton Coast Camp; a luxurious centre for a week long schedule of trips exploring the hinterland whose fauna includes the Desert Elephant. Here sunsets can be enjoyed beside a dinning room sited beneath the penumbra of an ancient leadwood tree. By contrast my best – indeed my habitual dinner in the Western Sahara consists of a tin of sardines poured into a small pancake loaf of local bread.

    For more information contact the Schoeman family Skeleton Coast Safaris, PO Box 2195, Windhoek, Namibia, T 26461-224248, F 26461-225713, E sksafari@mweb.com.na, W www.orusuvo.com/sksafai and the rival

    Wilderness Safari represented in England by Nigel Crofton of Outposts, T 01647-231007, with their website found at


    My brother lives close to El Dorado, in a mining town that on the map looks not so far from the Brazilian-Venezuelan border. On the ground it is a different matter for the frontier region of the Gran Sabana literally stands removed from the surrounding jungle in an extraordinary micro-climate of its own formed by the altititude. You climb out of the equatorial jungle into the tepui country which looks like a pastoral mountain region though in fact the local grass can cut your legs to ribbons and has been found to be too tough even for elephants to chew upon. What thrives here are bugs, snakes, spectacular mountain plateau, jaspar cliffs and waterfalls beyond imagination. Conan Doyle set his The Lost World here. I remains a startling other-world with the Angel Falls as the central lodestone that sucks in quite a few hardy travellers.

    My brother’s home town with its seedy bars and it’s fine church overlooking a piazza filled with a dozen gold dealers and their armed guards never gets to see a gringo. In a jungle clearing later that week we were introduced to a refugee from Gambia who made his living by trapping animals and snakes for zoos. My brother had taken to supplying him with sugar and coffee in exchange for jungle gossip, especially about the semi-legal gold-mines that have squatters rights providing they don’t use any machinery. In one such clearing I was lowered down by rope into a fox-hole that led down, down into the deep delved earth. Shafts, illuminated by candles, stretched out, following the tight seams of gold bearing quartz.

    Tim Best Travel, 68 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3LQ, T 020-7591-0300, F 020-7591-0301, E info@timbesttravel.com, W

    Or another Latin America specialist?


    If you imagine Scandinavia to be the silhouette of a bad tempered mule’s head, then the Kola peninsula, straddling the Arctic Circle, is its flattened back ears. Beneath the surface, the Kola is as rich in minerals as the Periodic Table, but the land itself is like a massive black beach at low tide. Undulations in the sodden, peaty soil create millions of small pools, and the only crop is forestry – which in recent years has been most profitably assisted by salmon fishing. The group I travelled with, eight of them, caught 79 salmon on one day. Such was the enthusiasm and the continuous polar daylight, that many of them fished on into the early hours of the morning. I’m not a fisherman, so you can take my word for it.

    The arrival of foreigners in this introverted spot, a forbidden destination for seventy years except for supply ships during the Second World War, had its surreal moments. We flew first to a tented camp, 130kms from the nearest village, on a piece of blasted tundra with only an ancient belching tractor engine to generate electricity. Yet within the wind-buffeted kitchen tent, two microwave ovens, a magimix and a pair of brand-new filter coffee machines gleamed next to a corroded vintage refrigerator. Our second camp was a group of log cabins on a flat bend in the river, a couple of kilometres south of the village of Varzuga. As we flew in by helicopter, the pilot dipped right down to look at the Church of the Ascension, a seventeenth century wooden structure which towers heavenwards from the endless tundra.

    Steppes East Limited, The Travel House, 51 Castle Street, Cirencester, Gloucershire, GL7 1QD
    T 01285-651010, F 01285-885888, E sales@steppeseast.co.uk


    I asked a respected India travel-hand, Mary Anne Denison-Pender, to give me her advice on a Wilderness destination for India. “If Kerala is ‘God’s own country’ then Chhattisgarh (the place of the 36 forts) comes a close second. In a nutshell, it offers stunning scenery, colourful local culture, rolling hills, plateaus, jungles, wildlife, waterfalls, ancient sites and temples, palaces, and diverse village and tribal communities It is also completely unknown – having just broken away from the much larger state of Madhya Pradesh just three years ago.

    In Chhattisgarth the tribal communities make up just over a third of the population. In their anonymity and seclusion, the tribals have remained unthreatened by the onset of tourism, they have thrived, and continue to live a way of life which has changed little over the years. It’s not the first time traveller to India but is not purely for the explorer either for there is a basic, simple infrastructure already in place, but it is definitely for those with a sense of adventure and exploration; for those who are interested in village culture and small time living; for those who love the great outdoors, nature and the environment. It is one of India’s last truly unspoilt wilderness regions.”

    Further information from Mary-Anne Denison-Pender, MAhout Ltd, 36a Kensington Mansions, Trebovir Road, London SW5 9TQ
    E-mail: mary@mahoutuk.com, Office: +44 (0) 20 7373 7121, Fax: +44 (0) 20 7373 5770, Home: +44 (0) 20 7370 3772, Mobile: 0788 775 8222, Web: www.mahoutuk.com


    Fortunately in travel, nothing is what it first seems. The Sahara has possessed my imagination for years, though it also remains extraordinarily elusive, expanding and contracting with the seasons to an uncatchable rythmn of its own. Barren wadhis can rage like the Nile for three days and then lie still for a decade. Desert landscapes can be transformed by a chance thunder storm into a butterfly-filled meadow. As we crossed such a landscape, my guide whispered that this was the Tuareg dream, to watch their flocks fatten and multiply on good grazing. Elsewhere on this journey through the Air mountains of northern Niger, I kept watching the delighted incredulity of our guides. In one barren, dune-dominated valley they noticed that a stand of eleven acacia had put forth green leaves. The first time in living memory. Elsewhere we saw camels graze in hills where they had not been seen since Independence. I asked how their owners managed to retrieve them from this wilderness. “Do they use dogs like we use on the sheep in England? Or perhaps they lure them back home with fodder?” I received an amused smile at my ignorance before the driver replied, “Here we have water. In this land if you can offer water you can tame both man and beast.”

    Later that day we reached our campsite in the lee of the Blue Mountain, an outcrop of blue-veined marble that emerges from the sands. It is an extraordinary thing in its own right but for me the view east at sunset from the summit was even more spell binding. Here I looked for the first time over the “Tenere” – the desert within the desert, the Sahara of the Sahara. Nothing can survive here unless it carries with it what it needs to exist. By the campfire that night we heard the respect with which the local Tuareg treat this area as they recounted the tales of the many camel caravans and jeep squads that had disappeared into its depths. Some writers – though I noticed not the locals –have taken to calling it the “Garden of God”, for here the deity can walk undisturbed by mankind. It was not always so.

    In the first light of dawn we walked down from the mountain into a vast bleak field of stone. At first I couldn’t understand what Akli, our guide, was trying to show me, and then like someone focusing a pair of binoculars, I could suddenly see. The area, which had recently had its protective layer of sand blown away, was littered with Neolithic hearths. Soon I could identify flint arrowheads on my own, identify the wheel-decorated sherds of great earthenware beer-bowls and find grain-mills by the dozen. It was an awesome moment, to stand amongst the debris of our ancestors – just as they had left it – a millennia or more ago. Since their time, no human society – be they ever so rich or creative - had been able to exist on this land. A Garden of God indeed.

    Getting to the Tuareg-dominated Air mountains of northern Niger is not easy. Travel with Tim Best, who will arrange the Air France flight to the capital, a night on the town and then the bewitching 12-hour drive past Hausa villages and Fulani nomad pastures on your way north to Agades, the Tuareg city. Here Akli and his French wife, Celine, run an immaculate auberge formed out of two courtyards. Then the adventure begins, though there are creature comforts at hand. They managed to place an iced ‘Ricard’ in my hand after every sunset, though I never worked out which of their three vehicles contained this miracle bar.

    Tim Best Travel, 68 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3LQ, T 020-7591-0300, F 020-7591-0301, E info@timbesttravel.com, W www.timbestravel.com

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