Grab those boots, the ones that were made for walking, as we’re taking you on a trip round the world’s best hiking spots. From Estonian bogs to Ethiopian highlands, these are some of the most memorable walking trips we’ve ever experienced.
Bog walking in Estonia
Estonia is said by its locals to have a fifth season – the flood season. Nowhere is this truer than in Soomaa National Park (pictured above), situated in the southwest of the country between Viljandi and Pärnu. Soomaa, whose name means “land of bogs”, is a vast complex of swampy marshes and wet alluvial forests that provides a home to bears, wolves and elk as well as nests for spotted eagles and black storks. Tour operator Karuskose offers two of the best means to explore the bogs: either by canoe or by wearing bog-shoes, which allow walkers to wade through the water without getting stuck.
Towards the end of the Communist era almost no-one came to this park; now visitor numbers are finally growing. Karuskose – run by local environmentalist Alvir Ruukel – has played a large part in this boom, as it offers a host of unusual experiences, from nocturnal canoe safaris to kicksledding along frozen rivers. Whatever the activity, Alvir ensures that visitors leave with a deeper understanding of this sodden ecosystem.
For details of all activities and tours offered by Karuskose, as well as accommodation, dining options, location and booking see http://www.soomaa.com.
Hiking in Retezat National Park, Romania
Retezat in Romanian means “cut off”, and the hikes between the peaks of this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the southwestern corner of Transylvania are about as far from civilization as you can get. Much of the park is covered by some of Europe’s last remaining ancient forest, a wilderness where you’re more likely to see bear or wolf tracks than hear a plane fly overhead. The park’s beauty is perhaps best captured in the name the locals give it – “the land with blue eyes” – after the hundred alpine lakes that reflect the dramatic mountain scenery.
A good base for hiking routes is the award-winning Dora Mountain House, a timber lodge perched on a hill near Răuşor, 30km from Haţeg. It has a nearby ski piste and can arrange mountain guides on request, plus it’s a welcoming place to return to at the end of a long day’s trek or ski.
Information on the park, sample excursions and how to get there is at http://www.panparks.org.
Trekking in the Ethiopian Highlands
After a day of trekking across stony fields worked with ox-drawn ploughs, you get the feeling that the scenery in this part of northern Ethiopia hasn’t changed for centuries. Mountains trail off into the horizon and below there’s a patchwork of fields dotted with thatched dwellings. A small troop of baboons feed among the cliffs while birds of prey soar in the thermals. Watching the pale sunset with your English-speaking local guides feels like a privileged way to experience the hospitality and beauty of the ancient Ethiopian Highlands.
The emphasis on trips organized by TESFA (Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives) – an NGO in Addis Ababa – is on seeing village life and experiencing the ancient culture of the Amhara people. TESFA first ran trips to the remote parish of Mequat Mariam, though it has since developed itineraries to other villages as well as treks to the Abuna Yoseph mountain. TESFA arranges a walking route between the villages according to your schedule and fitness (some routes are suitable for children), which is very much a no-frills experience: you may be invited to drink beer with village elders, or invited into a home for a coffee ceremony.
Each community has built a village camp, sleeping up to six in traditional thatched huts called tukuls, which are clean and simply furnished with comfortable mattresses and heavy blankets. Local food or simple Western dishes is served in the dining tukul or outside in the sunshine. Much of the income from TESFA’s trips goes directly to the villagers, who then decide collectively how to spend it, which in many cases means supplementing their incomes as subsistence farmers.
For directions, prices, itineraries and reservations see http://www.community-tourism-ethiopia.com.
River trekking in the Mujib nature reserve, Jordan
Desert and drought define much of the wild areas of the Middle East, but there are nonetheless pockets of fertile, wildlife-rich areas if you know where to look. One particularly biodiverse region is the Mujib Nature Reserve in the west of Jordan, where the waters that flow from the highlands to the Dead Sea provide ideal conditions for river trekking in the wet season.
The only place to stay in the reserve is at the fifteen-room “Chalet Village” on the shores of the Dead Sea’s Madash peninsula. The chalets are a short walk to the visitor centre and the entrance to the stunning Mujib canyon, where you can hike through deep gorges of red sandstone lined with palm trees. The “Siq Trail” (2hr) follows the main gorge of the Mujib River to a waterfall where you can swim in a large pool, while the more challenging “Malaqi Trail” (6–8hr) takes you up into the surrounding mountains, where you can picnic by natural pools and then follow the river trail on an exhilarating trek down the Mujib gorge (wearing buoyancy aids and sometimes holding onto ropes), before abseiling down a 20m waterfall and returning to camp.
Walking through the mountains of Lebanon
The Lebanon Mountain Trail, launched in 2007, is the country’s first long-distance hiking route. Running from Qbaiyat in the north to Marjaayoun in the south along the Mount Lebanon range, it makes use of ancient trade routes and rural tracks to connect national parks and nature reserves with 75 villages at altitudes of 1000–1800m. The 440km circuit is divided into 26 sections, each walkable in a day.
Intended to bring additional income to neglected mountain areas, while safeguarding Lebanon’s environmental and cultural heritage, the trail has united religious and political groups – previously in conflict during the Lebanese civil war – towards a common national project. While it was the brainchild of Lebanese-American expatriates, it was only through the co-operation of local families, community groups and Lebanese NGOs that it was able to happen.
Along the way you might stop at historic Ehden, home to some of Lebanon’s oldest churches (one dating to 749 AD) and spectacular natural springs; Hasroun, in the Qadisha Valley, which boasts lush orchards and gardens, stone houses with red-tiled roofs and traditional coffeehouses; and Niha on the peak of Niha Mountain, with a medieval fort, an important religious site for the Druze community called Nabi Ayoub Shrine, and dense forests of pine, cypress and oak.
For a map of the trail and information on transport, tour operators and guides, plus accommodation, villages and facilities on the route see http://www.lebanontrail.org.
Trekking in northern Yunnan, China
The village of Wenhai, on the shores of the lake in Yunnan that shares its name, hasn’t changed much since Marco Polo visited seven centuries ago. Dark wooden Naxi houses, their tiled roofs warped with age, line its cobbled streets. Women in loose-sleeved gowns and bright waistcoats laugh together in doorways, and husks of corn hang drying from racks, ready to be ground for flour.
Keen for tourists to visit but not wanting to lose the village’s soul, the villagers have established several homestays, spending a portion of the income these generate on projects such as micro-hydroelectricity and improved health services.
Some of the best trekking in China can be found in this region that stretches between Wenhai Lake and the thirteen peaks of the Jade Mountains. The slopes that surround the lake are covered with the rhododendrons or azaleas for which the area is most famous. Snow leopards, red pandas and black bears also live here, but they are all pretty elusive. Unmissable, however, are the tens of thousands of migratory birds such as whooper swan and black stork that flock to the lake each year.
For details of treks, accommodation options and how to get there see http://www.northwestyunnan.com.
Eco-hiking round The Bay of Fires, Tasmania
The Bay of Fires Walk is eco-hiking for softies. Say goodbye to those trail boots and say hello to your trainers: this is wilderness without the wild. Sure, you’ll still have to shoulder a rucksack for two days. But that’s a small price to pay for an access-all-areas pass – only Bay of Fires Walkers get to camp in these remote areas – to the coastline of the Mount William National Park on Tasmania’s northeastern tip.
And what a coastline. The Bay of Fires has wow factor even in a nation that knows a thing or two about world-class beaches. Broken only by sculptural headlands splashed by orange lichen – evidence of the air’s exceptional purity – its quartzite sands are a dazzlingly white silky powder. The sea is an implausibly tropical turquoise. There’s even something insouciant about the way the surf crumps lazily onto the shore.
Kilometre after kilometre of pristine sandy nothingness stretches beyond the start at Boulder Point, in the north of the national park. The goal of the 23km walk is the Bay of Fires Lodge, a glass-lined solar-powered outpost of eco-chic buried into a hilltop 20km from its nearest neighbours. During nearly two days here, your reward for a hard day of swimming in private bays, dipping a paddle into the Anson River or just gazing at an ocean which seems to lap your window is a hot shower plus cuisine that would not disgrace a top Sydney restaurant. Wilderness has never been so aspirational.
The four-day Bay of Fires Walk (http://www.bayoffireswalk.com.au) runs twice a month from October to April.
Let us know your own favourite walking trips below.