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Some of the most remote areas of the world can now be explored without having to rough it. Lisa Grainger grabs her passport for a whirlwind tour
Flying over eastern Indonesia, on the border of Papua New Guinea, it is almost inconceivable that this group of islands is home to one of the most densely populated nations on earth. Islands below are thick with trees. Natural bays are empty of boats or any trace of human habitation. Of the population of 240 million people in Indonesia, there is no sign.
But then, increasingly, that is the appeal of going to parts of the world such as this. It is here that urban dwellers can truly escape, forget city stresses and reconnect with the riches of the
natural world, from the great oceans flickering with multi-coloured marine creatures to forests canopied
with blinding stars.
Even a few decades ago, West Papua, on the easternmost fringes of Indonesia, was an almost impossible place to get to. But so beautiful are its clear waters, so compelling its birdlife and so fascinating its islands (from the colonial Banda Islands to the dragon-infested Komodos) that four friends got together to build a boat that would allow them to traverse this almost unreal world – in considerable style.
Initially, their 34-metre wooden phinisi, Tiger Blue, was for their use only. However, this year they opened it up to small groups, to allow them, too, to explore the richest marine waters anywhere on Earth: in Raja Ampat, where scenes are almost fantastical in their beauty. Pinnacles of underwater islands jut out of the water like the giant back-scales of a prehistoric monster. Mists hang over thick forests in the morning, the eerie sounds of exotic birds and apes echoing in the heavy silence. Turtles glide up to the surface. Whales erupt from the sea, water spurting from their backs like great mythical giants. And all the while, guests lie on deck, soaking in sun, feasting on seafood, sipping exotic cocktails by the light of lamps, or taking tenders to unspoilt beaches, to snorkel, to swim and to explore the untouched reefs glistening with exotic fish. Because the boat can be taken by a single group only, it is up to them to decide where they are going and what they want to do, whether it is bird-watching or beach-combing, swimming with manta rays (a whopping five metres wide) or barbecuing on desert islands.
Trips like this increasingly appeal to sophisticated guests, says Oliver von Holzing of Brown + Hudson, which offers what it calls ‘exquisitely crafted, truly bespoke travel’, because they are a world away from their everyday worries. ‘People want some comforts, but often what they want most of all is to feel that they are really living, really experiencing the best of life,’ he says. Which explains why so many of his clients also want to go to Jack’s Camp, started by the legendary crocodile hunter Jack Bousfield in the 1960s as a base from which to explore the white, salted Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana’s Kalahari desert. The camp is not what many urban luxury-lovers might consider luxurious. Rooms are canvas tents. There is very little big safari action, other than an occasional desert lion. The food is delicious – but unfussy.
But what Jack’s does offer, like Tiger Blue, is access. Access to deserts where previous generations of European settlers succumbed to thirst, malaria or sunstroke on their long wagon treks north. Access to a camp where today one can fly in on a little six-seater plane in the morning, and by noon be sipping G&Ts on Persian rugs, indulging in warm breads, French cheese and salad for lunch, and sleeping on Edwardian-style four-posters beneath dazzlingly starry skies. Access to such experiences as riding four-wheeled quad-bikes out into the lunar landscape to watch the sun set over 2,500 square miles of private flat desert, to sit with families of habituated meercats, to pick up Stone Age tools last used hundreds of thousands of years ago, and now strewn on the desert floor. And access to one of the world’s most extraordinary wildernesses.
Because wildernesses such as this are becoming increasingly popular with high-flying city-dwellers, many are equipped with luxuries that previous generations of explorers could never have dreamt of. At Singita Grumeti Reserves in Tanzania, for instance, one can sleep in designer linen, bathe in a rose-petal-strewn bath, feast on eggs Benedict and then head out into the bush, with private guide, to spot the Big Five. There are even air-conditioned horse stables, and guests can use the animals to explore the 350,000 acres of private reserve, moving between Singita’s four lodges or camps at night (the colonial Sabora, the tented Sasakwa, the contemporary Faru Faru, or the Explore private mobile camp) and enjoy treats such as gourmet camp dinners delivered into wild bush, in which the only sounds are roaring lions and the only light the fire, stars and moon.
For those who prefer snowy scenery to the dusty plains of Africa, there are both luxury yachts and camps that offer refuge within remote icy wildernesses. American Safari Cruises’ luxury cruises up the Alaskan coast allow guests not only to sail right into the spectacular Glacier Bay, spotting mountain goats, sea lions and grizzly bears en route, but to kayak right up to some of the continent’s most majestic glaciers, to watch house-sized pieces of ice thunder off into the freezing seas (while indulging in such treats as soft down beds, glass-fronted saunas, and hot buttered rum cocktails delivered as packs of hunting whales swim by).
For adventurers who prefer land-based activities, the Explora Hotel Salto Chico in the Torres del Paine National Park in the southern tip of Chilean Patagonia delivers a perfect mix of luxury and wilderness. As its manager, Rosario Villagra, says: ‘We provide you with everything you need, but pare back inessentials so you can focus on what’s important: experiencing the magnificent world outside. Then we warm you up and feed you well when you’re back.’ And the world outside is magnificent. Tolkienesque mountains reflected in mirror-still lakes, grasslands across which you can gallop with gauchos, glaciers you can climb – or ski – and over half-a-million acres of national park to explore and forget everyday worries.
And there really is nothing like a big, empty space to rest one’s mind. Ralph Bousfield, of Jack’s Camp, says he has seen several tough men moved to tears, having been touched deeply by the desert and the headspace it offers. As he says: ‘Roses and Champagne can do marvels for one’s spirits, but it takes a little more to get to the soul.’
This feature was published in the summer 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.