On the last Wednesday of every August, 130,000 kilos of over-ripe tomatoes are hurled around the alleyways of Buñol until the tiny town’s streets are ankle deep in squelching fruit. What started in the 1940s as an impromptu food fight between friends has turned into one of the most bizarre and downright infantile fiestas on earth, a world-famous summer spectacular in which thirty thousand or so finger-twitching participants try to dispose of the entire EU tomato mountain by way of a massive hour-long food fight.

Locals, young and old, spend the morning attaching protective plastic sheeting to their house fronts, draping them over the balconies and bolting closed the shutters. By midday, the town’s plaza and surrounding streets are brimming to the edges with a mass of overheated humans, and the chant of “To-ma-te, To-ma-te” begins to ring out across the town.

As the church clock chimes noon, dozens of trucks rumble into the plaza, disgorging their messy ammunition onto the dusty streets. And then all hell breaks. There are no allies, no protection, nowhere to hide; everyone – man or woman, young or old – is out for themselves. The first five minutes is tough going: the tomatoes are surprisingly hard and they actually hurt until they have been thrown a few times. Some are fired head-on at point-blank range, others sneakily aimed from behind, and the skilled lobber might get one to splat straight onto the top of your head. After what seems like an eternity, the battle dies down as the tomatoes disintegrate into an unthrowable mush. The combatants slump exhausted into a dazed ecstasy, grinning inanely at one another and basking in the glory of the battle. But the armistice is short-lived as another truck rumbles into the square to deposit its load. Battle commences once more, until the next load of ammunition is exhausted. Six trucks come and go before the final ceasefire. All in all, it only lasts about an hour, but it’s probably the most stupidly childish hour you’ll ever enjoy as an adult.

See www.latomatina.com for info on Tomatina tours and plenty of photos and videos of the event.

 

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If you’re after a spectacular panorama of the Australian Outback, there’s an alternative to scaling Uluru. Not only does Kings Canyon offer those same spellbinding vistas, but a climb here respects the wishes of the local indigenous population. Rough Guides writer Ben Lerwill strapped on his hiking boots to conquer the canyon rim. 

The morning is still cold and dark when we walk out to the vehicle. It’s central Australia’s way of telling us we shouldn’t be outside yet. But Nigel’s pick-up splutters to life and the headlight beams reveal that the outback bushland is still there, spinifex grass being tousled by the pre-dawn wind. He begins driving, and within ten minutes we’ve parked up at the foot of Kings Canyon.

The canyon rim is just a shape a few hundred feet above us, a black mass in the dim light. But I’ve been here before, more than a decade ago, and I know about the views that are up there. “The first bit of the walk’s the hardest,” says Nigel, as around us and above us the sky starts to show signs of paling. “We should start climbing.”

Kings Canyon doesn’t draw the hype and attention that it might do. Relatively few international visitors arrive in Australia with the express intention of visiting it, but it has the knack of making a marked impression on those that do. Certainly the explorer Ernest Giles, the first white man to clap eyes on the feature, was taken aback when he passed this way in 1872 and saw a mountain range looming out of the surrounding flatness. He christened the focal point of this remarkable landmark after Fieldon King, the chief sponsor of his expedition, and today what the canyon lacks in terms of a rightful apostrophe it gains through an appropriately regal title.

Naturally, even Ernest Giles was late to the party. The canyon, and the range it forms part of, now fall within the protected Watarrka National Park. It covers an area that has been of cultural importance to local Aboriginal groups for tens of thousands of years – Kings Canyon shares this importance with a potent natural attraction just three-and-a-half hours to its southwest: Uluru. For walkers, that’s broadly where similarities between the two end: climb Uluru and you’re contravening a request to keep your hiking boots to yourself, climb Kings Canyon and the journey is more about connecting than conquering.

There are five hundred rocky, uneven steps up to the shelf of the canyon. By the time Nigel and I reach the summit plateau, 270 metres up, morning has emerged in a fuzzy half-light. Within fifteen minutes, the day’s first sunlight spills over the horizon, casting the cliffs in a lambent orange and revealing the scale of the canyon itself. Sheer walls of sandstone look down onto a green creek bed far below. This early in the day, the whole cavernous scene is soundtracked only by birdsong.

The rim walk is a 6km undertaking; although some refer to the initial climb as Heartbreak Hill, it’s really not that bad. And while the whole experience is largely about the grandstand panoramas, it’s the close-at-hand details along the route that underline the majesty of Kings Canyon’s hushed, age-old presence. The ancient marine fossils embedded into the sandstone. The hulking, beehive-like domes standing as improbable remnants of rock erosion. The shaded cliff-top chasm known as the “Garden of Eden”, full of streams and lush cycads.

It’s a walk that in many ways can last as long as you’d like it to. If you linger at the more stupefying lookouts, stopping to consider the feet that have walked these red buttresses and crags in times gone by, it can take a pleasant three to four hours.

When Nigel and I finish – and to complete the rim walk you have to make a reluctant descent from the plateau and return to the real world – the full heat of the day is pounding down on the outback.

Unseen across the plains somewhere, Uluru is being hit by the same sun. A day later I’m there. There’s nowhere, and nothing, like Uluru. When you’re close enough to see it, it’s like a drug – it keeps drawing you in. Before sunset, at the base of one of its faces, I watch a park ranger shutting a barrier, closing off the walking track to the top. Someone berates him, saying that a few climbers are still up there. He shrugs. “If they can walk up that,” he gestures, “then they can get over the barrier.”

A large board next to us is headed “PLEASE DON’T CLIMB”. I ask the ranger how many people go up Uluru these days. “It’s still more than 25 percent of total visitors,” he tells me. I’m surprised, and must look it. “Yeah,” he continues. “But it’s a certain type of person, you know? What gets me is that if you really want to walk on something, you’ve got Kata Tjuta 25 minutes away and Kings Canyon not far off. Beautiful, both of them. Why on Earth would you feel the need to climb Uluru too?”

Photographs courtesy of Kings Canyon Resort (www.kingscanyonresort.com.au). The resort has accommodation ranging from camping to deluxe spa rooms. 

Britz (www.britz.com.au) offers campervan hire from 11 locations across Australia with a choice of 9 vehicle types, ranging from 2- to 6-berths and including 3 types of 4WD. Prices start from A$54/day for a 2-berth based on a 7-day hire. Book 120 days in advance for a 5% discount.

You can explore more of the Australian Outback with the Rough Guide to AustraliaBook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

If the skies are clear on your first day in Cape Town, drop everything and head straight for Table Mountain. It’s an ecological marvel, and a powerful icon for the entire African continent. What’s more, the views from the top are unmissable – as long as the celebrated “tablecloth” of cloud stays away.

For Capetonians, Table Mountain is a backdrop and an anchor, both physically and spiritually. Close to the South African coast, it was one of the beacons that Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates fixed upon during their incarceration on Robben Island, just offshore.

The mountain’s famous plateau is part of a short upland chain that stretches from Signal Hill, just west of the city centre, to Cape Point, where a lighthouse marks the meeting of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. The obvious, and most popular, route to the top is to take the aerial cableway – a sizeable cable car that, thrillingly, gently rotates on the ascent. But if you’d rather work a little harder, you can tackle one of the hiking trails that snake their way up the cliffs.

Visit in the South African spring or summer and the fynbos vegetation, unique to the Cape, will be in full bloom. You’ll see plenty of pretty daisies and heathers in the tussocky wilderness, while proteas, sundews and watsonias add splashes of red, white and pink. Botanists have identified over 1470 plant species on the mountain – there’s more floral diversity here than in the entire United Kingdom. The wildlife scores top marks for entertainment value, too. Stars of the show are the dassies, placid creatures that look a bit like monster guinea pigs and are more than happy to pose for photos.

And then there’s that view. You may only be a thousand metres up, but gaze out over the city to the ocean beyond and you’ll feel on top of the world.

To make the most of the mountain, book a place on one of Hoerikwaggo Trails’ guided hikes (www.hoerikwaggotrails.com).

 

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Stretching north to south for 4270km and only 64km wide at its narrowest point, this land of ice and fire, periodically shaken by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, is one of the most geographically diverse on earth.

Most travellers fly into the capital of Santiago, roughly in the middle of the country, and head either towards the fjords, forests and mountains of the south, or the beaches, stargazing observatories and deserts of the north. To help structure your trip, here is our first-timer’s guide for things to do in Chile (see our map of these top sights here).

Around Santiago

The mountains around Santiago and Chillán, further south, in the foothills of the Andes, are prime skiing spots. Just an hour from the capital, you can ride the funiculars up the many hills of the historic port city of Valparaíso, or visit the excellent wineries of the Maipo and Casablanca valleys.

Northern Chile and the Atacama Desert

North of Santiago, the arid Elqui Valley is the place to sample pisco (Chilean brandy) and gaze at the stars through powerful telescopes at the Cerro Mamalluca observatory – one of the most unforgettable things to do in Chile.

The Humboldt Current that keeps Chilean waters frigid provides an ideal environment for penguins at its namesake coastal reserve just off the mainland north of La Serena, and even further north, the teal-coloured waters of Bahía Inglesa could fool you into thinking that you’re in the Mediterranean.

The Nevado Tres Cruces National Park, reachable from the mining town of Copiapó, boasts Chile’s highest peak, Ojos del Salado (6893m) and the electric blue of high-altitude lagoons – Verde and Santa Rosa attract flocks of flamingos and roaming herds of guanacos and vicuñas.

The adobe village of San Pedro de Atacama, at the heart of Chile’s vast northern desert, is the jumping-off spot for sand-boarding down dunes and visiting the otherworldly crimson landscapes of the Valley of the Moon, the Atacama salt flat, aquamarine high-altitude lagoons, and the El Tatio geysers with natural hot springs. Atacama’s clear skies also make the desert an ideal location for the world’s most powerful telescopes.

Heading north from there, seaside Iquique is one of South America’s top paragliding destinations; you run off the giant sand dune that backs the city.

From Iquique, the scenic route to the border town of Arica takes you past the Giant of Atacama petroglyph, the picture-perfect adobe church of Isluga, the vast dirty-white Surire salt flat – home to three flamingo species – and through the elevated Lauca National Park – all green meadows, snow-tipped volcanoes and peacefully grazing alpacas and vicuñas. Arica’s biggest attraction, the ancient Chinchorro mummies – some of the world’s oldest examples of artificially mummified remains – are found in a museum in the nearby Azapa valley.

The Lake District & Chiloe

Heading south of Santiago, you see the smoking snow-tipped cap of the Villarica volcano long before you arrive in Pucón – the Lake District’s activity centre for hiking, biking, rafting, horse-riding and the challenge of the all-day volcano climb. More technical climbs await on the volacnoes in Puerto Varas, further south – a supremely picturesque spot on the shores of Lago Llanquíhue.

The Río Petrohué attracts rafters and kayakers, and the Lake District’s flat, deserted roads, snaking around a profusion of crystalline lakes and waterfalls, is a paradise for cyclists.

A short ferry hop across the channel from Puerto Montt takes you to South America’s second largest island: fog-shrouded Chiloé. Its biggest draws are the tiny villages, each sporting a unique wooden church; two wild national parks – Parque Nacional Chiloé and Pargué Tantauco – and birdwatching while kayaking at dawn in the sunken forest of Chepu Valley; or else checking out Magellanic and Humboldt penguins off the Puñihuil coast.

Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego

South of the Lake District, northern Patagonia is a lush, untamed mass of forest, rivers, fjords and mountains, bisected by the infamous Carretera Austral (Southern Highway). At its north end is Pumalín Park, a virgin protected area; the southern half is good for hiking, whereas the north is only reachable by private boat. South of the park is Chaitén, a town half-destroyed by the volcanic eruption in 2008; from here a road leads east to Futaleufú, South America’s most challenging white-water rafting destination.

The potholed dirt-and-gravel Carretera Austral is Chile’s biggest driving challenge. The road cuts through spectacular mountainous landscape before terminating by the glacial waters of the vast Lake O’Higgins, passing the unique boardwalk village of Caleta Tortel along the way. From Villa O’Higgins, the end of the line, there is a spectacular hike to Argentina’s El Chaltén that involves two river crossings.

Southern Patagonia – a land of vaqueros, mountains and huge swathes of scrubland, dotted with roaming guanacos and ñandú (ostriches), has two main towns: historic Punta Arenas, and the smaller Puerto Natales – gateway town to the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park. Natales is where hikers and climbers gather before and after their assault on the distinctive bell-shaped mountains, rock towers, glacial lakes and backcountry trails of Chile’s most popular natural attraction.

Across the stormy Magellan Strait, and south of Tierra del Fuego – South America’s largest island and Chile’s southernmost settlement – is Navarino Island. Tiny Puerto Williams, a remarkably warm and hospitable community of king crab fishermen, nestles at the foot of the bare Dientes de Navarino mountain circuit. This is the continent’s most challenging multi-day hike, and the best place to organise yachting adventures to the ships’ graveyard of Cape Horn.Flying here gives you unparalleled views of the jagged southern Andes, while the a weekly ferry to Punta Arenas provides a close-up look at the most pristine of Chile’s fjords, where you’re likely to spot dolphins, penguins and the occasional whale.

The island territories

The country’s most far-flung territories include Easter Island, far out in the Pacific Ocean, home to a now extinct civilisation and the world-famous moai (stone statues). Closer to home is the Juan Fernández archipelago consisting of tiny islands; the main one, Robinson Crusoe Island, is famous for the castaway who inspired the eponymous novel. Inhabited by a couple dozen lobster-fishing families, it boasts incredible topography and endemic wildlife species such as the firecrown hummingbird.

Getting around

Getting around Chile, from the far north down to the Lake District, is straightforward. There are two major bus companies: Tur Bus and Pullman, both of which run fleets of comfortable buses. You can choose between cama (bed), semi-cama (reclining seats) and regular seats. Fairly frequent minibuses ply the Carretera Austral, connecting the main town of Coyhaique with Chaiten and Futaleufú up north and as far south as Villa O’Higgins.

To reach Patagonia, you either have to take a bus via Argentina from either Pucón or Futaleufú, take the scenic four-day Navimag ferry cruise south through the fjords, or fly.

Travel in the Lake District, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego may also involve ferries. LAN and Sky Airline cover all major cities in Chile between them, flight-wise, though to reach Robinson Crusoe Island you’ll need to hop in a tiny six-seater Cessna from Santiago.

During the colder months, bus, plane and ferry services in the south are greatly reduced, whereas transport in the northern half of the country is generally unaffected. Inaccessible by public transport, the national parks of northern Chile are easiest done as part of an organised tour.

If you want to explore more of this small but exciting country, buy the Rough Guide to Chile. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. You can see the author’s photographs of her trip in Chile here.

With 30,000km of marked trails, Norway is the true home of cross-country skiing, the original and most effective means of getting yourself across snowbound winter landscapes. And it’s easier and less daunting to learn than the more popular downhill variety (well, more popular outside Scandinavia – here, everyone is a cross-country skier from the age of 2).

As your skills develop, you’ll soon want to take on more challenging hills (both up and down) and to test yourself a little more – there are different techniques for using cross-country skis on the flat, downhill and uphill.

And once you’ve mastered the basics, a truly beautiful winter world will open up. Popular ski resorts such as Voss, to the east of Bergen, offer a plethora of cross-country tracks, which snake their way under snow-shrouded forests and round lowland hills, while the Peer Gynt Ski Region, north of Lillehammer, has over 600km of marked trails winding through pine-scented forests, alongside frozen lakes and over huge whaleback mountains.

It may sound blindingly obvious, but try to go in the depths of winter, for in this season the low angle of the midwinter sun creates beautiful pastel shades of lilac, mauve and purple on the deep, expansive folds of hard-packed powder, especially at the start and end of the day.

Ski trails are graded for difficulty and length so you won’t bite off more than you can chew, and you’ll usually find various ski hütte (huts) along the way, where you can stop for a warming loganberry juice. As your skills develop, you may even want to take on a multiday tour, staying overnight at cosy mountain lodges and discovering the high country of Scandinavia in marvellously traditional fashion.

Most cross-country ski areas offer lessons and have skis and boots available for hire. For more information on Voss, see www.visitvoss.no.

 

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The brakes grind then release and you’re off, squeaking and squealing down a roller-coaster-like track for what might just be the train ride of your life. This is the Flåmsbana, a shiny, pine-green pleasure train that plunges nearly a kilometre in a mere fifty minutes. The unforgettable ride takes you from the heady frozen heights of the Norwegian mountains in Myrdal right down to the edge of the icy-blue waters of the Aurlandsfjord in the picturesque village of Flåm.

On the train, the old-fashioned carriage interior is wood-panelled and fitted with wide, high-backed benches which transport you back to the 1920s when the train was first built; it took over four years to lay the 20km track which spirals and zigzags down around hairpin bends and through twenty hand-dug tunnels during the course of its short journey. As you might imagine the views are spectacular; to accommodate this, enormous, over-sized windows were fitted to ensure you don’t miss a thing, regardless of where you happen to be seated.

As it runs all year, the train is a lifeline in the winter months for fjord inhabitants who were previously cut off by the long frozen winters. But for the best views, stick to late spring and summer when the ice and snow-melt create majestic,
crashing waterfalls (don’t miss the close-range view of Kjosfossen) that seem to leap and spring from every crevice in the sheer, verdant cliffs.

The Flåmsbana offers an experience that’s at the same time glamorous, hair-raising and magical. The dizzy inclines and thunderous soundtrack of crashing waterfalls will give even the most seasoned rider a shiver of excitement, and if you can’t help but conjure up images of runaway trains, just remember there are five independent sets of brakes – a necessary precaution and a very reassuring feature.

To get to the Flåmsbana take the train from Bergen to Myrdal (via Voss). You can buy your ticket all the way through to Flåm at the Bergen train station, which means you’ll be able to jump right on the train when you arrive in Myrdal. Visit www.flaamsbana.no for more.

 

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In search of some adrenaline-filled activity in Central Asia, Rough Guides writer Kiki Deere makes a somewhat brave attempt at skiing in Kyrgyzstan.

A short stout man with oriental features hands me a timeworn snowboard that is clearly too short for my height. It just about reaches my chest. I know I can’t be too picky at this little Kyrgyz ski resort – this may be the only board there is. I am delighted there is even a ski rental shop, let alone a snowboard up for grabs.

“Razmer?” I am asked. He is after my shoe size. “39”, I mutter in clumsy Russian. A gruff attendant shoves a pair of lacy boots at my feet, in true Soviet fashion. Both are in pretty good shape – at least compared to the chipped board that casually rests against the wall, its unwaxed base screaming out for some motherly love.

I am at Karakol Ski Base in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic with beautiful mountainous scenery bordering China. The country’s main attraction is Lake Issyk Kul, a glittering expanse of water that is the world’s second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea, surrounded by majestic alpine scenery.

During the USSR, the lake became a popular holiday resort and saw the construction of sanatoriums and country houses along its shores. On the lake’s eastern tip lies Karakol, a pleasant little town with pastel coloured wooden buildings. A twenty-minute drive from here is the Karakol Ski Camp, built during the Soviet Union as a training area for the country’s Olympic team.

As I wriggle my toes into my new footgear, I notice my friend has squeezed into a pair of squeaky boots that have already lent him a slight limp. A pair of vintage skis rests against his shoulder – the type I haven’t seen since I started skiing in the 80s. Now, it seems, is the time to really test our true skiing and snowboarding skills.

We trudge towards the chairlift, skis on shoulders and board tucked under arm, at times gently sinking in puddles of water that dot the semi melted dirt track. Spring has arrived, and a warm gentle sun gives the surrounding mountains a creamy hue. In this part of the world, awe-inspiring peaks reach heights of over 7000m, nearly twice the size of Mont Blanc. The Alps seem relatively insignificant by comparison.

Among the squelching sound of our boots I look up to see a rusty sign reading “Les Menuires, Slalom Olympique 1992”. Dazed and confused, I wonder if I am hallucinating in a moment of alpine excitement as I recollect a series of much-cherished childhood holidays in the French Alps. It soon transpires that I am not daydreaming at all – the sign is very much there, clumsily nailed above a Kygryz man who is kitted out in waterproof trousers and a woolly jumper, a large spade in hand. Intrigued at the sight of two Westerners, he unabashedly stares at us as we plod along. I soon learn the French have donated, or maybe sold, their now obsolete skiing infrastructure to this landlocked Central Asian country. I can’t help but think this may well be the same lift that I had once sat on as a young child, thousands of miles away, in a crowded European resort. Here, only a couple of fellow skiers are discernible in the distance.

Boards and skis firmly on, we glide forward to our first Kyrgyz chairlift ride. A red two-seater metal chair flings towards us at full speed, hitting us right in the knees and knocking us back into our seats. We are lifted off the ground and soon marvel at the surrounding scenery, trying to ignore the soreness that already rests in our weakened legs. Lake Issyk Kul majestically spreads below us, its waters lapping the shores that lie at the foot of the imposing Tien Shan mountain range.

Once safely at the top, we take another moment to soak in the wonderful views and when the photo session is complete, we set our minds to descend. From up here we can see there are only another dozen people enjoying the resort to themselves, yet it is not glaringly obvious where the slope commences. We soon make out a couple of black poles with glitters of phosphorescent orange protruding from the mountainside. And so we bomb it down this little Kyrgyz slope, unable to distinguish between piste and off-piste, as our outdated ski gear does its job, much to our delight.

Need to know

As Kyrgyzstan doesn’t exactly fall on a well-travelled path, it’s difficult to know where to start. The best way to start your Kyrgyz skiing adventure is to land in the capital Bishkek, and hire a car and driver to take you the six hour, 250km journey to Karakol. A basic understanding of spoken Russian is essential, as almost no one speaks English in Kyrgyzstan and cyrillic is illegible if you’ve not studied it, but if you’re stuck, the locals are generally very hospitable, incredibly welcoming and always willing to help.

As I walk my shoes stick to the icy ground. It’s refreshing at first – almost comforting to be so cosy inside my huge thermal jacket, and feel the contrast of the crisp air biting at my cheeks. I am standing in the ­minus-25-degree conditions of the South Pole, and I feel like I’m ready for a long and gruelling trek. Except I’m not in the South Pole, and I’m certainly not getting ready for any kind of polar expedition.

I’m in the centre of London, kitted out in some of the top thermal gear you can buy, standing in a cargo container that has been designed to simulate the harsh temperatures of the Antarctic. A few more minutes and that refreshment wears off, the cold runs through my blood and reaches my bones. My limbs begin to ache – I knew I should’ve come dressed in a little more than these ridiculously thin dolly shoes.

“This is effectively warm weather,” our guide Yolanda tells us, “it can get as low as minus 60 degrees in Antarctica, and then there’s the wind too.” Luckily, our time is up and we head back out into what now feels like a wet, humid summer’s afternoon – even though it’s 9am on a chilly English September morning.

This isn’t some bizarre social experiment to see what happens when you try to freeze a small group of journalists, but instead, it’s the Willis Resilience training facility that 19-year-old adventurer Parker Liautaud has been using to prepare for his next incredibly ambitious expedition: an attempt to become the youngest and fastest person to ski the 640km from the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole.

Photograph courtesy of Lottie Gross © September 2013

Later this year, Parker and his teammate Doug Stoup will be spending both Christmas and New Year on the coldest, windiest and driest continent on Earth.

I stand, my shoes soaking in the real – albeit melting – snow under London’s Tower Bridge, asking Parker why he is prepared to undertake such an arduous and relentless journey. The answer adds a serious message to these lighthearted affairs, as this week an IPCC climate report says scientists are 95% certain that humans have been the dominant cause of global warming since the 1950s.

Parker is a known global climate campaigner and, as quoted on the Willis Resilience website, says this: “I don’t believe the solution is to encourage people to live with less or turn off their lights. The reality is that the world has never accepted a step back and never will.”

This is why Parker’s trek is more than a world record attempt, as he will contribute data to three important scientific research programs along the way. Collecting snow samples from coast-to-pole, Parker hopes to provide a valuable contribution to current studies on climate change, in order to help further our understanding of the implications it has on the future of our planet. He will also be testing a lightweight weather station for the first time in Antarctica.

The pair plan to arrive at the Pole by December 25th, which Parker says “would be the best Christmas present in the history of the world for me.”

They take no luxuries in their backpacks as they’re attempting a speed record, and wouldn’t want to be slowed down by that pesky bar of Cadbury’s fruit and nut. There is certainly nothing luxurious about the Antarctic freeze-dried breakfast I’m served later that morning, which tastes like something resembling sawdust with a slight hint of sugar.

The cold, the wind and the 45 days of solitude sound like a recipe for misery to me, so when I ask what plans they have for Christmas, I’m pleasantly surprised: “If we make it [to the Pole] on Christmas day, we’ll celebrate with a powdered chocolate mousse.” These boys know how to party.

“And even though it’s very cold it’s an absolutely spectacular environment – we’re going to be passing through the Transantarctic mountains, it’s going to be amazing.”

He’s not all confident and self-assured though, as he tells me how this new experience comes with some worry. “I’ve never done a very long expedition like this before and it’s important to respect that it’s a completely new place, and to make sure I’m hyper-vigilant, and I’m always very aware of the risks and the potential to face challenged that aren’t expected.

“As for the cold, it’s about having the right equipment really, and avoiding frostbite and hypothermia: making sure that no skin is exposed at any time while we’re outside, ensuring we’re not sweating, and having the right number of layers on etc.”

He has been well trained, with three expeditions to the North Pole already under his belt, and has the valuable support of some major sponsors – including (perhaps a little disconcertingly) that of the company who insured the Titanic before its first and final voyage.

The expedition begins on December 3rd 2013 and will be documented and broadcast live on the Willis Resilience website, so the public can watch Parker’s progress as he attempts to set two new world  records and takes his own literal steps toward saving the planet.

Need to know: how you can ski to the South Pole

Polar exploration and guiding company Polar Explorers run treks to both the North and South Poles. Ranging from the hardcore full 60-day expeditions – for which you will need excellent health and a CV of expeditions behind you – to the all-ages “last hurdle” treks, there are a variety of options for all levels of explorer.

Most full expeditions to the South Pole begin at the Union Glacier Base Camp for preparation, then a flight to the Hercules Inlet, from which the South Pole sits over 1000km away. Throughout the trek you pass over wind blasted snow, blue ice, and softer snow terrain and will navigate around numerous nunataks (exposed mountaintops poking from beneath the snow). From the Hercules Inlet, you ascend over 4000m to the South Pole over 50-odd days – skiing, camping and walking across the Antarctic.

The recent opening of a £2m, state-of-the-art mountain bike centre has cemented the Welsh Valleys’ burgeoning reputation as an adventure sports hub. Rough Guides writer Shafik Meghji went downhill fast as he braved the Welsh mountain bike trails.

As I approached Melted Welly, a winding trail down the 491-metre-high Gethin Mountain, my biggest concern was not my own safety, but that of my bike, hired for the day and worth a cool £2,400. Although only an intermediate trail, Melted Welly’s sharp turns, precipitous descents and loose, uneven surfaces looked certain to provide ample opportunities for broken frames, dislocated handlebars and bruised saddles, particularly for a novice mountain biker like myself.

Yet as soon as I set off any lingering concerns swiftly vanished in the sheer exhilaration – and occasional moments of terror – of the ride, which snaked through forests, rocky sections and even a tunnel. There are also stunning views across the countryside of South Wales, though it was only when I reached the end of the trail unscathed that I was really able to appreciate them.

Located just outside Merthyr Tydfil in the Welsh Valleys, a 30-minute drive from Cardiff, BikePark Wales (one-day pass £5, one-day pass with uplift £30) is the UK’s first full-scale mountain biking centre. It is best thought of as ski resort, but for mountain bikes: instead of snow-covered pistes there are 23 downhill trails – each with idiosyncratic names like Melted Welly, Coal not Dole and Pork Belly – tailored for everyone from beginners to pros. They were designed by Welsh downhill mountain bike champion Rowan Sorrell and are maintained by the UK’s only full-time mountain bike trail crew.

A fleet of minibuses provide uplift, transporting you and your bike up to the top of Gethin Mountain where the trails begin – though some hardcore bikers prefer to reach the summit under their own steam.

BikePark Wales, which opened in late August, adds to the Welsh Valleys’ burgeoning reputation as an adventure sport and outdoor activity hub, something that is providing a much-needed boost to the region after years of economic decline. There are several other top class mountain bike trails in the Welsh Valleys, including Afan Forest Park and Cwmcarn Forest.

The region is also a hotspot for climbing and caving, and the Rock Summit Centre, built on the site of the former Trelewis drift mine near the town of Treharris, is a great place to get a taste of both activities. Home to the largest climbing wall in Wales and a world class man-made caving facility, the centre also offers kayaking and canoeing on the nearby Taff Bargoed lakes, an area that when the mines closed in the late 1980s was deemed too polluted for the public to enter.

Since then a major regeneration project has taken place, and the Taff Bargoed Valley is something of an idyll: as well as canoeists and kayakers, the two crystal-clear lakes here are popular with anglers hoping to catch rainbow or brown trout, and all manner of birdlife (77 different species have been spotted in the valley).

The Welsh Valleys are not just for adrenalin junkies, however, and Bryngarw House and Country Park, just outside the town of Bridgend, is the perfect place to indulge your inner Ray Mears, with fascinating bushcraft courses that teach you everything from making a fire to building a shelter.

The aim of the sessions, says ranger Dan Lock, is less about learning survival skills – “If you get lost in the wild these days, you just pull out your mobile phone” – and more about gaining a deeper understanding of the natural world. Although it’s not as adrenaline-pumping as speeding down Gethin Mountain or scaling a climbing wall, learning to light your own fire using nothing more than a knife, a flint and some freshly cut sticks is an equally satisfying experience.

For more information on the Valleys, visit www.thevalleys.co.uk or follow @LoveTheValleys on Twitter. Shafik Meghji blogs at www.unmappedroutes.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @ShafikMeghji.

Explore more of Wales with the Rough Guide to Wales

As autumn looms in the north and spring is blossoming in the south, October is a beautiful month around the world. From the last of that European sunshine, to the wacky festivities of Halloween in the USA, here are the best places to visit in October.

Watch nature’s giants, Península Valdés, Argentina

Every year, between mid-June and mid-December, majestic southern right whales come to breed in the waters surrounding Península Valdés in northeastern Patagonia. Weighing up to 50 tonnes and measuring up to 18m in length, these cetaceans were once a favoured target for whalers – they were the “right” whales to harpoon because they are slow, float when killed and yield lots of oil – but are now protected from the moment they enter Argentine waters. October is an ideal time to spot them, as well as elephant seals, penguins and orcas (killer whales).

Get some late summer sun, Crete, Greece

While autumn may be setting in across Europe, it is still possible to catch some late summer sun if you head south. Crete has the longest summers in Greece, and you can still swim in the sea and lounge on the beach well into October. If you’re feeling a bit more energetic then October is also a great time to hike through Crete’s dramatic Samariá Gorge – the arduous but rewarding 16km route takes you past pine forests, abandoned villages, and sheer rock faces.

Party hard, Ibiza, Spain

The start of October heralds the end of Ibiza’s elongated summer season and as the hedonists prepare to head home, the clubs like to sign off in style. Highlights of Ibiza’s epic closing parties can be spent with the top resident DJs at the world famous Pacha, with its five rooms of various musical mayhem, and the converted airport hangar club DC10, where 1500 revellers can dance the night (and following morning) away.

Go white-water rafting, Nepal

Nepal is one of the best places in the world to go white-water rafting, with an array of options from easy half-day trips for first-timers to epic, week-long adventures to challenge even expert paddlers. The peak rafting (and kayaking) season is from mid-October to November, when the rapids are exciting but more manageable than during the monsoon. Two highlights are the Bhote Koshi, the steepest and hardest of the country’s raftable rivers, and the Upper Kali Gandaki descent, an exciting route that can easily be added on to a trek in the Annapurna region.

Browse and buy leading art, London, UK

The annual October Frieze Art Festival (one-day tickets from £32) in London is the UK’s leading contemporary art fair. Visitors can view – and, if their budgets allow, buy – works by over 1,000 leading artists from around the world. The event, which also features debates, lectures, film screenings and musical performances, coincides with Frieze Masters, a linked event that showcases artworks made before the turn of the year 2000.

See Desierto florido, Chile

Most of the time the semi-desert plains between the town of Vallenar and the city of Copiapó in northern Chile are covered by little more than cacti, sparse patches of shrubs and little else. However, every four to five years or so a transformation takes place and the landscape is briefly covered by an immense carpet of multi-coloured flowers. The phenomenon, known as the desierto florido (“flowering desert”), varies greatly in intensity and is nigh on impossible to predict: it generally takes place from early September to late October in years when there has been an unusually high level of rainfall during the winter.

Dress up for Halloween, USA

Halloween isn’t just for kids. The biggest event in New York is in Greenwich Village, with a parade involving tens of thousands of participants in wildly imaginative costumes, plus puppets, circus performers, artists, dancers, and music from around the world. As you might expect, New Orleans also celebrates Halloween with some style – expect raucous parades, ghost tours, huge street parties, costume competitions, and a late, late night.

Celebrate Durga Puja, Kolkata, India

Known elsewhere in India as Dussehra, Durga Puja is the most important festival of the year for Bengali Hindus, and nowhere is it more spectacularly celebrated than Kolkata. It marks the slaying of the buffalo demon Mahisasura by the ten-armed goddess Durga, symbolising more generally the victory of good over evil. The festival climaxes at the end of the fortnight, with thousands of lavish papier-mâché Durga idols parading through the city’s streets before being immersed in the Hooghly River.

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