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Bucket List

A NEW GENERATION OF INTREPID TRAVELLER IS SET ON LEAVING THE BEATEN PATH AND EXPLORING SOME OF THE WORLD’S MOST REMOTE AND EMERGING DESTINATIONS. NICK WALTON RECOUNTS VISITS TO THE LOCALES THAT HAVE CAPTIVATED HIS SINCE CHILDHOOD.

Papua New Guinea

With a cheer from the crowd, the dragon charges drunkenly into the sunlight. Its face is the blood red of the betel nut chewers, its beard a flow of white cockatoo features, and its body a long, winding chain of feet that weave behind, stumbling blindly through the Sepik River mud. I follow at a discrete distance, as respectful as I am wary of the beast’s precarious behind. At the centre of the village the dragon comes to a halt, and we are officially welcomed to this remote corner of Papua New Guinea.

Wild and remote, Papua New Guinea is a modern day Land of the Lost. Its infrastructure is limited, its population tribal, its villages scattered up rivers, perched on mountain tops, or hidden away on pearl-like islands wreathed by coral gardens. Languages, traditions, and mythology change frequently as you traverse the ruggedly beautiful coastline or delve into the deep jungle of the highlands. Little has changed since the first missionaries arrived to find head hunting tribes, wild landscapes, and a biodiversity like nowhere else. It was, and remains, one of the world’s last frontiers. If Papua New Guinea isn’t on your bucket list, it certainly should be.

The southeast coast is one of PNG’s most beautiful and accessible destinations and travelling by expedition ship with the likes of True North or Coral Expeditions means itineraries are not dependent on weather-worn and often undependable infrastructure. Many cruises begin in Milne Bay’s largest town, Alotau, best known for its lively markets, where villagers from the provinces gather to sell produce, carvings and the most prized commodity of all, betel nuts. The bright white eyes, dark cocoa skin and tribal facial tattoos of the stallholders captivate the camera lenses of passengers and offer a tantalising first taste of this mesmerising country.

At Kitava, in the Trobriand chain, an idyllic archipelago of coral atolls once known by shocked missionaries as the Love Islands because of its unique matrilineal society, I watch school children perform ancient tribal dances, their feet kicking up the pure white sand as they writhe and wriggle. The faces of these pint-sized warriors are blackened with charcoal and brilliantly-coloured parrot feathers dance from their necks and from the tips of their crude spears.

There’s a new adventure to be had at every turn in Papua; near Lae, I board a traditional outrigger canoe, crewed by a father and son, for the journey up a shallow river that winds its way through dense jungle. The son silently dips his oar into the water with little flicks of his wrists, the feathers wrapping his biceps bursting into colour as the sunlight punctures the canopy.

In Madang there’s time to dive on an American B-25 bomber shot down by the Japanese. The warm tropical seas of Papua New Guinea have been surprisingly merciful; an inquisitive moray eel now calls the starboard wing home, and delicate lion fish frolic in the bullet hole-ridden fuselage, but the ancient bomber is still in remarkable shape, hidden from all but the most intrepid.

Kazakhstan

Another destination that should be on the bucket lists of culture and history lovers is Kazakhstan, a landscapes of endless steppes, towering mountain ranges, nomadic tribes and ancient trading cities.

A gateway between the ‘Stans’ of Central Asia and the Far East, the former capital Almaty proudly preserves its rich legacy as a vital way station on the ancient Silk Road, making it an exciting destination for travellers looking to tap into its rich heritage and eclectic culture, especially as the country prepares to hosts the 2017 World Expo. After exploring the smoke-laced confines of Almaty’s Ascension Cathedral, the world’s second tallest woode structure, I leave the faithful to their prayers, and emerge into the dazzling colours of the city’s Panfilov Park, one of city’s many green belts. In many ways Kazakhstan is also emerging into the light of a bright future. A fascinating country of contrasts and contradictions, Kazakhstan has one foot in its rich and often turbulent past and the other stepping towards new prosperity as its many natural resources are tapped, as hard currency begins to chase away the shadows of the Soviet era, and as the national carrier, Air Astana, continues to open up the country to the world beyond.

Not that Kazakhstan is a stranger to visitors, both voluntary and otherwise. From the days of the Silk Road to Stalin’s forced relocations, Kazakhstan has offered welcomed respite to people from across Asia and Europe, from ethnic Russians and Chinese, to Ukrainians, Uyghurs, Bulgars and Tatars, and Almaty’s diversity is best seen at places like the Green Markets, a fascinating food emporium at the heart of the city, where the vital ingredients of many regional dishes can be sourced direct from the producers. Astana, a city which was renamed and thrust from town to capital status in 1997, couldn’t be more different; mirage-like, there is the shimmer of new commercial towers and apartment blocks; wide, proud boulevards planned by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa that stretch towards the horizon; and grand palaces and monuments, including the Norman Foster-designed pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and yurt-shaped Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center (home to an indoor beach). The Central Concert hall, one of the largest in the world, is designed to resemble a dombra, a traditional Kazakh instrument. Everything is shrouded by the hesitant silence of a newly minted park.

From the top of the Bayterek, an observation tower at the city’s centre themed on the mythological Tree of Life, the seemingly endless steppes gallop towards the horizon. Home to nomadic communities, Kazakhstan’s little visited wilderness is ripe for tourism development but is rarely visited by outsiders, the country is only just beginning to explore a tourism policy that unveils this fascinating destination in all its glory.

Antarctica

Antarctica had been on my bucket list since I was a child, when story books telling of an ice-encrusted landscape populated by friendly penguins captivated me. But it’s a destination that lingers, and many ‘ice junkies’ will confess it stays on the bucket list long after the first visit.

Antarctica is a destination that is capturing an everincreasing number of travellers’ imaginations, but its remoteness, harsh environment, and a strictly enforced limit on the number of tourists allowed to visit ensure it remains out of reach of most. The few cruise companies that are allowed to land passengers on the continent are regulated by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which monitors the number of travellers allowed on the ice at any one time, and what they do when they arrive. Companies like Australia’s Aurora Expeditions have the edge. Not only do they have a long history taking adventurous souls to the Arctic and Antarctic, usually aboard the stout former Russian spy ship the Polar Pioneer, but they are also innovating along the way, introducing kayaking expeditions, specialist photography cruises, and opportunities to snorkel and dive below the ice, and to even camp above it.

After years of daydreaming, I finally venture to the deep south on a 12-day journey that began, like many expeditions to Antarctica and South Georgia, in the Argentine city of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Having braved the dreaded Drake Passage, where 40 knot winds whipped up towering swells, my fellow passengers and I are eager to step onto Antarctica proper, and our first landing is at tiny desolate Aitcho Island, where hundreds of gentoo penguins nesting on pebble mounds watch us struggle up a shallow ridge through thick snow. The island takes its name from the acronym HO, for Hydrographic Office, and was once a popular stop for the sealing ships which first charted these waters.

Each day spent in Antarctic features one or two excursions, in places such as the Hydrurga Rocks – two small, snow and ice covered rocky islands in the Palmer Archipelago named after the leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) often spied there – and Graham Land’s narrow Neko Harbour, known for its towering icebergs. After charging and crushing our way through the ice of the Lemaire Channel, we tour fields of towering, translucent icebergs in the ship’s fleet of French military-grade zodiacs, watching for crab-eating seals resting on the ice or the odd inquisitive minke whale.

All excursions are led by highly experienced ice junkies: photographers, biologists and naturalists who have devoted their lives to studying and exploring the frozen corners of the world. Now they introduce these same landscapes to a generation of intrepid travellers willing to test extremes to cross the White Continent off their personal bucket lists.

Rajasthan

They say you haven’t been to India until you’ve been to Rajasthan, and I would have to agree. One of the most colourful corners of this vibrant country, Rajasthan boasts a rich history laced with ancient kingdoms, desert tribes and mythology. There are many ways to explore Rajasthan but one of the best – and certainly most luxurious – is on the acclaimed Maharaja’s Express, recently named the world’s best train journey for the fifth year in a row. The train’s seven-day Indian Panorama journey captures the beauty of Rajasthan to perfection, with daily guided tours and plenty of behind-the-scenes access.

At each station the train arrives to great fanfare, guests disembarking from the gleaming gold and maroon train to blasts of trumpets and a cacophony of colour. Dancers and musicians in shimmering blue and gold costumes twirl and sway to the music, guiding passengers towards a line of waiting coaches, the musical troop following on their heels.

One of the most popular destinations in Rajasthan is Jaipur, a key component of the popular Golden Triangle tourist route, and a captivating first stop on this intriguing whirlwind tour of the north. The Pink City takes its name from the extensive use of red and pink sandstone in its ornate palaces and residences, including the sprawling Amber Fort, which dominates the horizon from its lofty positon atop a rocky peak.

On guided tours guests explore the fort’s four courtyards, each ringed by exquisite Mogul and Rajput architecture in pale yellow. Ancient fortifications cling to the surrounding mountain slopes like scales as they lead up to the Jaigarh Fort, built atop Cheel ka Teela, the Hill of Eagles, to protect the royal residence below. From the ramparts above the Amber Palace’s Diwan-e-Khas, the Hall of Private Audience, children peak through the stone latticing, while women in vibrant red and yellow saris sweep the courtyards and water the verdant gardens below.

Not to be outdone, neighbouring Jodhpur, The Blue City, is another captivating Rajasthani destination. I first visited Jodhpur for the royal polo, a sport that was created in Rajasthan and which is enjoying a renaissance under the patronage of the city’s Maharaja. In Jodhpur the legacy of the Maharajas continues at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, one of the world’s largest private residences. Built between 1928 and 1943 as a replacement for the towering Mehrangarh

Fort, Umaid Bhawan is the last of the great palaces of India, and remains home to the Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Marwar-Jodhpur. Today part of the palace is a sumptuous hotel,offering well-heeled guests the chance to live like a king.

As the light drains from the sky, I arrive at the imposing Mehrangarh Fort, which towers over the ancient city. Torch light flickers against the weathered stone ramparts as I make my way through the fort’s seven gates and along its battlements, the lights of Jodhpur twinkling far below. The emptiness of the distant desert is as alluring and enthralling as it must have been when the British first forged their love affair with this strange and intoxicating corner of India.

Northwest Passage

In nautical terms the Northwest Passage has a rich history of exploration and tragedy. Searched for by countless expeditions, the hypothesized shortcut between Europe and Asia remained a mystery until Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen discovered a navigable route in 1906. Ironically it wasn’t Amundsen’s name that became associated with the Northwest Passage but that of Sir John Franklin, whose illfated 1845 expedition disappeared without a trace, until now.

The Northwest Passage had always fascinated me; as had Franklin’s expedition – how could two state-of-the-art ships (for the time) simply disappear? The route through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago is locked with ice almost year round but climate change has opened the window of summer thaw to allow specialist companies like OneOcean the opportunity to explore this desolately beautiful landscape. This August I joined them, departing the tiny Arctic settlement of Cambridge Bay for Iqaluit on the southern coast of Baffin Island aboard the stout Russian research vessel the Akademik Ioffe.

This is expeditionary cruising at its best; there is a rich nautical heritage in the Canadian Arctic that stretches as far back as the Vikings. During regular onboard lectures, presented by resident guides and naturalists, we learn of the Inuit traditions, of the Franklin Expedition and of its many attempted rescues, and of the discovery, 170 years later, of the HMS Erebus in a modern day search in which the Akademik Ioffe played a crucial role.

The ship is the ideal base from which to explore this ultimate bucket list locale. With an ice-strengthened hull and a fleet of military-grade zodiacs, the ship is designed for polar navigation and offers the perfect balance of creature comforts and adventure, complete with an open bridge, a welcoming Russian crew and accommodation for just 96
passengers.

Days in the Arctic are governed by the weather, which moves in extremes even in the heart of summer. We have the opportunity to land at Beechey Island, where the Franklin Expedition wintered before disappearing, and track polar bears hunting for beached beluga whales in the shallows of Cunningham Inlet. The ship is dwarfed by the towering glaciers of Gibbs Fjord and the rocky cliffs of Sunshine Fjord on the eastern coast of Baffin Island, where we encounter towering icebergs that have drifted south from Greenland. In Dundas Harbour we spy the preserved Royal Canadian Mounted Police camp where brave recruits would stay for two years at a time, and in Isabella Fjord, a protected marine reserve, we watch pods of endangered bowhead whales breach as snow gently falls across the water. There’s also a chance to see the modern face of the Northwest Passage when we visit remote communities like Pond Inlet and charming Pangnirtung, where local cultural groups keep the Inuit traditions alive with vibrant performances and tales of life high above the Arctic Circle.

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