Among the imposing Swiss alps near Verbier, Helen Ochyra finds the easy and hard ways to scale these incredible mountains.

I am cycling up a mountain and it feels like the easiest thing in the world. I am making my way up to La Chaux, high above Verbier in Switzerland, a place most people reach by cable car and with skis – but not today. There’s no snow on the slopes at this time of year, so the mountains around this well-known ski resort belong to the hikers and cyclists – and today they belong to me.

I am not normally one to be so quick, but today I am on an electric bike. Inside its frame is an electric motor and at the touch of a button located on the handlebars I can power this up to add propulsion to my legwork. It is ridiculously easy; I peddle with barely a hint of muscle and as I travel, through the Alpine scenery at a pace I could never have mustered alone.

122612248_0260cfc264_oDonnie Ray via Compfight cc

With so little effort to put in, there is time to relax and enjoy it. On one side, mountainous slopes reach up to jagged peaks capped with hints of white, and on the other, meadows of wildflowers and tufty grass run down to the town below.

The only trouble is how to stop. On reaching La Chaux I slow my pedalling, but the bike is keen to carry on. There is a clunk as I force a stop with my feet and I struggle to extricate myself from the frame; electric bikes weigh far more than their mountain or road counterparts and this one is some 20kg. My guide Peter tells me it sells for about 5000 Swiss francs and so I gingerly pull out its kickstand and set it on the path. It is not easy to manoeuvre when you are not on it and so I decide it is better to saddle up and carry on, heading back along the path towards Croix-de-Coeur – and lunch.

It is a couple of miles along the mountainside but I whizz along, barely noticing the climb we are making. It only registers as we reach a restaurant at more than 2000 metres and the view is spectacular. I feast on beef from the local Herens herd (a breed of cattle named after this region) but I can’t take my eyes off those mountains. Their bulk dominates the landscape, rendering us entirely obsolete and towering over Verbier like a group of disinterested nightclub bouncers looking down on frivolity with their arms folded.

285031199_f0edd47448_oOlivier Bruchez via Compfight cc

I could never have made it up here on a traditional bike. Some may call this cheating; I call it making the most of things. The mountains feel more accessible than ever before and I am seeing so much more than I would have otherwise.

The following day, I cheat again, this time taking a chair lift up from the village of La Fouly into the mountains above. I have risen several hundred metres without expending any energy whatsoever, so I’m ready for a hike. Several paths run along the ridges here but we choose the so-called “shepherd’s trail” and follow the brown signs along towards Ferret, the next village located on the river far below.

The path rises ever higher, a gravel ribbon along the mountainside, narrowing at times to barely a foot wide and running suddenly up and over precipitous ridges. We reach gorge after gorge, carved into the slopes by water of which there is little evidence. At times it is a scramble and I find myself clinging to the grass as I seek my footing on the stony path. The hairiest parts of the trail have ropes to hang onto and my whole body is involved in the workout towards Ferret. I need three points of contact at all times and speed is most definitely not the priority. I may have felt in control the bike, but it is the mountain that is in control today and it seems to sneer at yesterday’s confidence. Up here it feels like it’s me against the Alps.

9423972596_10ffc262e5_oNick Moulds via Compfight cc

Yet it’s a friendly battle. As I find my footing with more and more certainty my confidence returns and I can once again enjoy the scenery that engulfs me. Up here I am utterly insignificant. I am tiny, a speck, and I find I do not miss the bike. Without it I am more connected to the mountain and without the aid of a motor the climb is all the more satisfying.

After a couple of hours hiking I reach the path down to Ferret, which gradually widens, the scenery flattening out around me. We pass grazing sheep in grassy fields and eventually return to the river. A hike becomes a stroll and everything is easy again.

Just outside La Fouly I turn to look back at where I have come from. From here the path is barely a scratch in the mountainside. It doesn’t look like a route I can possibly have managed and the sense of achievement is huge. I feel like I have conquered the mountains – and with only a little “cheating”.

Return flights with Swiss (www.swiss.com) from London Heathrow to Geneva start at £143. Verbier Bike Club (www.bikeclubverbier.ch) provides cycling guides and tours of the area. For more information about Verbier visit www.verbier.ch.
Explore more of Switzerland with the Rough Guides Snapshot Switzerland. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

The famous poet and author of the Slovene national anthem France Prešeren once wrote this about the famous Lake Bled:

“No, Carniola has no prettier scene
Than this, resembling paradise serene.”

But after five days, over 400km, countless wine tastings and an ungodly amount of food, I have concluded that he was wrong. During my short time in Slovenia, I found plenty of places in this small but intoxicating country that will take more breaths away than Bled ever could. Of course I’m not saying don’t visit Lake Bled, it is indeed the fairy tale setting we see in brochures and on adverts, but venture further afield (which isn’t far at all in this compact country) and you’ll find sprawling vineyards in Ljutomer-Ormož, Slovenia’s answer to Tuscany, small cities flooded by culture and interesting art by local sculptors, a Roman legacy and more outdoor sports and adventure activities than you’ll have time for. And what’s more, in spring time, it’ll feel like you’ve got the entire country all to yourself. Here are five things to do in Slovenia in spring:

Cycling and paragliding in Logarska Dolina

Logarska Dolina, Slovenia, copyright Lottie Gross 2014Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

If there is anywhere to rival Bled’s beauty it’s here. Cutting through the Savinja Alps near the Austrian border, Logarska Dolina is one of three impressive valleys. Driving into the valley is probably the most impressive part; having navigated the tight, winding mountain roads and followed a small bright-blue river for miles, we turned into Logarska and were dumbfounded by the view that opened up before us. An expanse of green grass, bordered by tall, pine-blanketed mountains, and an enormous grey cliff face baring down on us from the southern end – and no people in sight.

Once you’re over the view (if you can ever get over it), there’s a wealth of sports and activities to keep you occupied. After a lunch of trout, caught fresh from the Soca river, and locally-picked mushrooms at the Rinka visitor centre – just a ten minute drive north of Logarska – we hopped onto an electric bike to find the waterfall at the end of the valley. We cycled along the tarmac track, which in summer is usually littered with other cyclists, walkers and cars, completely alone except for two other walkers. It was peaceful, the sun was shining, the air was fragrant with pine and the ride was easy (thanks to the electric motor in my bike, of course – I dread to think how I’d have fared without it).

See more of Lottie’s pictures:

We left the bikes at the road to continue on foot, and fifteen minutes later we stood in the refreshing spray of a 90-metre-high waterfall – just what I needed. The ride back down to the rental hut was fast and cool, and while I’d been won over by the dizzying heights of the Savinja Alps towering over me, I had heard the view from above was unrivalled: it was time for some paragliding. Somewhere along the Panoramic Road, which snakes along the side of the valley, I strapped myself to a stranger and his parachute, and together we ran off the side of the mountains to glide over trees, a small scattering of farm houses and a lone church. I decided that paragliding was most definitely the best way to see Logarska Dolina.

Drink wine in the Drava Valley

The Drava Valley is the largest of Slovenia’s wine regions, producing mainly white grapes, and in pursuit of the region’s finest tipples we visited Jeruzalem, a small village in the Ljutomer-Ormož district. On the drive south from Ptuj, this renowned wine country rose out of the flat plains into undulous green hills, covered with newly-planted grapevines. We drove past small farmhouses teetering on the top of mounds, overlooking the elegant swirling lines of the vineyards beneath like a protective mother, and eventually we found our way to the Jeruzalem Ormož winery.

After standing in the fresh, sweet, grassy-smelling air, admiring the alluring view, we retired to the cellar to drink some of the finest wine I’ve ever tasted. Now I’m no wine expert, but there was something truly special about tasting a €250, 42-year-old bottle of Pinot while standing beneath an enormous old wooden wine press.

But of course that wasn’t our first tasting of the day – we’d spent the morning in Ptuj at the Pullus wine cellar where they keep enormous barrels of the stuff, some up to ten thousand litres in capacity. After six tastings of incredibly different but equally delicious wines, we packed four of their bottles into the car and went to lunch with a light head and a large appetite.

Overindulge in Ljubljana

Ljubljana, Slovenia, copyright Lottie Gross 2014Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

With such a small country comes a tiny capital; Ljubljana is home to only ten per cent of the Slovenia’s population of two million, but by no means is it short of culture, history or a good night out.

This year Ljubljana celebrates 2000 years since it became an important Roman settlement along a trade route from the Mediterranean coast. So in a bid to explore all-things-Roman and stuff our faces with great cake, we took a food tour around the city with Top Ljubljana Foods – and we came away with far more than just a full stomach. Five restaurants and eight tastings later we found ourselves towering above the city at Neboticnik (which means “skyscraper”), mapping our route on the streets below over some excellent Prekmurska Gibanica (a layered fruit cake), and admiring the snow-topped alps beckoning us from beyond.

We’d eaten seafood from the Slovenian coast in a restaurant by the fish market, sipped a rich red from the western wine regions in a famous bar, sampled a protected Carniolan sausage in a shop run by a watchmaker, eaten Bosnian barbequed meat and sipped Turkish coffee by the river. It was just a small taster of the 24 wildly different cuisines available in Slovenia and a history lesson in the city’s people and politics. We walked down the two most important streets in Roman Ljubljana, stood in squares where market traders used to be punished for cheating their customers and passed all kinds of architecture from classical houses in the old town, to the much-debated modern extension of the Opera house near Park Tivoli. Some of the buildings, simple as they were, spoke volumes about the country’s political discourse: we noted how TR3, an enormous, ugly grey tower block home to Slovenia’s banks, stood threateningly tall above the understated Parliament building.

Ljubljanica river, Ljubljana, Slovenia, copyright Lottie Gross 2014Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

Later that evening, despite the plethora of rock gigs and club nights at our disposal, we opted to enjoy a bottle of Slovenian red by the river (thanks to the city’s trusting open-bottle policy) and admire the illuminated medieval hill-top castle from below.

Taste the simple life on a tourist farm

Agriculture is a huge part of life in Slovenia; in 2005 there were over 70,000 farms across the country, producing some of the essential ingredients for their 176 traditional dishes, such as pumpkins for pumpkin seed oil and pork for dried meats. Hundreds of these estates open up their doors to tourists nowadays, giving people the opportunity to stay on working farm and experience the back-to-basic nature of agricultural life.

Firbas Tourist Farm, Slovenia, copyright Lottie Gross 2014Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

At Firbas Tourist Farm – run by Bojan and his parents – we ate only foods that were produced on their land and drank wine only from small local vineyard. As we stood, after dark, drinking a 22-year-old Pinot in his neighbour’s tiny eight-barrel cellar, we toasted with the farm boys, who’d just rocked up in a giant John Deere tractor (complete with bright lights and a booming sound system) after a hard day on the fields. They spoke little English, and my knowledge of Slovenian was too simple, but we communicated through our wine with a simple “cheers”, or “na zdravje”.

Have it all in Maribor

This small city of just 100,000 people really packs a punch. If you haven’t got time to get active in Logarska or drink wine in Jeruzalem, then spent your days in Maribor. It promises culture on par with the capital, with its jazz cafes and art exhibitions, and beauty to challenge even Bled’s picturesque landscapes. In just one day we ate a traditional Slovenian lunch of štefani pečenka (a beef meatloaf stuffed with a boiled egg), took a walking tour through the city to learn some of its history and politics, and visited the world’s oldest grapevine at 400 years old, from which grapes are harvested once a year during a festival and whose wine is given only to influential guests of the city (it’s rumoured that Pope John Paul II received two small bottles during his visit to the cellar).

World's oldest vine, Maribor, Slovenia, copyright Lottie Gross 2014Photography © Lottie Gross 2014

But the main surprise in Maribor is the city’s close connection with nature. Over the river sits Pohorje, a ski-resort-turned-adventure-playground in spring, where you can get the adrenaline going on two wheels at the Bike Park in the forest, or try your hand at the single track PohorJet which sends you hurtling down the ski slope at up to 30mph.

Just a five minute drive from central Maribor is the Drava Center, an eco-centre, built mainly from timber and chestnut wood from the surrounding forests, that offers water-based activities for children and adults along the Drava River. We spent the late afternoon watching the changeable April weather from grass-covered loungers on the Drava café balcony, sipping coffee and eating gibanica (a sweet cake made from pastry and cottage cheese), before venturing onto the waters in a canoe. The surrounding green hills made a perfect backdrop to the wonderfully blue waters around us, and for a brief moment the sun came out to warm us and I forgot we were anywhere near a major city at all.

For more information go to Slovenia.info. Explore more of Slovenia with the Rough Guides Slovenia destination page. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

It’s not the most famous, the most active or the biggest volcano in the world, but Indonesia’s 2392m-high Mount Bromo is one of the most picturesque – in a dusty, post-apocalyptic sort of way. The still-smoking and apparently perfectly symmetrical cone rises precipitously out of a vast, windswept, sandy plain. This is the Sea of Sand, actually the floor of an ancient crater (or caldera), stretching up to 10km in diameter and with walls towering some 300m high.

Though the locals will try to persuade you to take their horse, it’s an easy enough walk to the summit, with no climbing ability required. Setting off an hour before sunrise, you follow a path across the Sea of Sand to the foot of Bromo’s vertiginous cone. A small matter of 249 concrete steps up past crowds of others with the same idea – it’s one of Java’s most popular attractions – leads to the crater rim and a view down onto the fumaroles belching noxious sulphuric fumes. But the rewards of climbing Bromo are not olfactory, but visual: if the gods of climate and cloud-cover are on your side, a flamboyant golden sunrise awaits, casting its orange glow over the vast emptiness of the sandy basin, with Java’s lush green landscape stretching to the horizon beyond.

Mount Bromo is the main attraction of East Java’s Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park. Most people stay in the nearby village of Cemoro Lawang, a 2hr bus drive from Probolinggo on Java’s north coast.

 

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The Pembrokeshire Coast Path fringes Britain’s only coastal national park, which has resisted the onslaught of the twenty-first century in all but a few hotspots such as Tenby and St David’s (and even these remain remarkably lovely). Get out and stride along part of the 186-mile trail and you’ll soon appreciate this evocative and spectacular edge of Wales.

Long golden surf beaches easily rival those of California; the clear green seas are the habitat of seals, whales, dolphins, sharks and, in summer, exotic species such as sunfish and even seahorses. Further offshore, you’ll spot islands that are home to internationally important seabird colonies. You can wander atop the highest sea cliffs in Wales, bent into dramatic folds by ancient earth movements; and in the hamlets, harbours and villages you pass through along the way, there are plenty of charming pubs and restaurants at which to refuel.

This variety is one of the best things about the coast path, which offers something for everyone – and not just in summer. The off-season can provide the thrilling spectacle of mighty Atlantic storms dashing thirty-foot waves against the sea cliffs as you fight your way along an exhilaratingly wind-lashed beach, whilst the next day the sun could be glittering in a clear blue sky with seabirds wheeling and screeching overhead. Take time out from your hike to relax and enjoy views across the Atlantic, which, other than the occasional lighthouse dotting the horizon, have remained unchanged since St Patrick sailed from Whitesands Beach to Ireland.

To walk the full length of the path takes up to two weeks and, surprisingly, involves more ascent than climbing Mount Everest, but even just a half-day outing along the trail is worth the effort and acts as a reminder that Britain boasts some of the finest coastline in the world.

For more info, go to www.pcnpa.org.uk.

 

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Stretching from the warm tropical shores of the Caribbean to the wild and windswept archipelago of Tierra del FuegoSouth America has a dizzying treasure trove of landscapes that have long seduced independent travellers seeking an unforgettable experience. Belgian photographer Pascal Mannaerts has been captivated by the continent since he discovered photography during his student years; here is a selection of his amazing pictures of BrazilBolivia, and Peru.

The Altiplano, near La Paz, Bolivia

The antiplano, near La Paz, Bolivia

Dried frogs, potions and medicinal plants in the Witches’ Market, La Paz, Bolivia

Dried frogs, potions and medicinal plants in the Witches' Market, La Paz, Bolivia 

Sur Lípez, Bolivia

Sur Lípez, Bolivia

Ancestral remains in a cave in Villamar, Bolivia

Ancestral remains in a cave in Villamar, Bolivia

Abandoned train, Uyuni, Bolivia

Abandoned train, Uyuni, Bolivia

 The streets of Copacabana, Bolivia

The streets of Copacabana, Bolivia

A woman living in the Antiplano, Bolivia

A man living in the Antiplano, Bolivia

Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Lago do Pelourinho, Salvador, Brazil

Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador, Brazil

Portrait of a man in Barreirinhas, Brazil

Portrait of a man in Barreirinhas, Brazil

Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, Brazil

Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, Brazil

The view of Rio from Sugarloaf Mountain, Brazil

View of Rio de Janeiro from Sugarloaf Mountain, Brazil

A man drumming during a street party, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A man drumming during a street party, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

An Uros woman, Lake Titicaca, Peru

An Uros woman, Lake Titcaca, Peru

Mama Peruana in traditional dress, Cusco, Peru

Mama Peruana in traditional clothing, Cusco, Peru

Children walking their llama home, Cusco, Peru

Children walking their llama home, Cusco, Peru

Bolivia is one of our top countries to visit in 2014 – find more of the top countries, cities and best-value destinations with the Rough Guide to 2014.
All photographs courtesy of Pascal Mannaerts – you can see more of his work at www.parcheminsdailleurs.com.
Explore more of Brazil, Peru and Bolivia with the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

The Banaue rice terraces were once a colourful collage of winding fields that clung onto a mountain-side in Ifugao province in the Philippines. After being almost completely abandoned by the locals, these plantations are now being revived as young farmers return to work on the paddies. While researching the new Rough Guide to the Philippines, Kiki Deere was awestruck by the sheer beauty and functionality of the Banaue rice terraces.

I follow my guide Elvis along a narrow path that snakes its way through verdant scenery. We clamber up a series of little stone steps that precariously jut out of the mountainside. “We’re heading to the viewpoint!” Elvis exclaims in excitement. I am too busy trying to balance along the stairway to avoid an unpleasant fall, and it’s not until we reach the top and I turn around that I realise what surrounds me: an awe-inspiring view of rice terraces that weave around the mountainside like a giant stairway. “If you joined these rice paddies end to end they would reach half way round the earth”, he tells me.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, these stone and mud rice terraces delicately trace the contours of the Cordillera Mountains in Northern Luzon, and have been central to the survival of the Ifugao people since pre-colonial Philippines.

Banaue rice terraces, Ifugao, PhilippinesPhotograph by Kiki Deere

This living landscape, with its intricate web of irrigation systems harvesting water from the mist-enveloped mountaintops, reflects a clear mastery in structural techniques and hydraulic engineering that have remained virtually unchanged for over two millennia. The art of maintaining the terraces was passed orally from generation to generation with traditional tribal rituals evoking spirits to protect the paddies. To this day, bulol rice deities are venerated and placed in the fields and granaries in order to bring abundant harvests and protect against malevolent spirits and catastrophe.

“When I was seven I would head to the paddies with my grandfather. He would teach me how to repair the dikes, flatten the area. I rode the buffalo which would play like a dog sometimes; run back and forth, roll down…” Elvis’s voice is filled with warmth as he recounts his childhood experiences, and I sense a twinge of nostalgia for those carefree boyhood days spent working in the fields.

“The rice that we harvest here in Ifugao is only for personal consumption but sometimes it’s not enough. On average, an Ifugao family has five children, plus the parents. That’s a total of seven mouths to feed. And we eat rice three times a day.”

The average Filipino consumes over 120kg of rice a year. Commercial rice, as it is known up in the Cordilleras, is grown in mass quantities in the lowlands with the use of fertilisers, and is exported mainly abroad.

Batad village, Banaue rice terraces, Ifugao, Philippines

“Remember that there are bad harvests, too – when the rice we grow here is not enough we end up buying commercial rice from the low lands”, Elvis goes on to tell me. It is therefore very rare that an Ifugao family has excess rice to sell.

For Ifugao farmers, the terraces are the only source of income. With a daily wage of less than US$6, increasing numbers of young Filipinos have, in recent years, migrated to urban areas and renounced fieldwork. As a result, a number of rice terraces have been abandoned and are rapidly deteriorating. The situation reached such a worrisome degree that the terraces were placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger in 2001.

But Elvis tells me the situation is now improving: “In the last few years I have seen most of the abandoned paddies being revived. I’d say over 90% are being used at the moment.”

As the price of a sack of rice (50kg) now stands at US$45, a four-fold increase from the mid 1990s, the paddies are slowly being tended for again, with youngsters returning to their home province to work with their families.

Batad village, Banaue rice terraces, Ifugao, PhilippinesPhotograph by Kiki Deere

In the last decade, programmes have been put in place by the local government to conserve this living natural landscape, and in 2012 the terraces were successfully removed from the Danger List. Yet, the area continues to face new challenges. Climate change and powerful earthquakes have caused dams to move, thereby re-routing water systems and affecting the hydraulic system of the terraces. The Ifugao must overcome these challenges in order for the terraces to function as a balanced whole, with sustainable tourism proving to be one of the answers.

An elderly lady stoops in a field, a scarlet shawl wrapped around her head to protect her from the sun’s scorching rays. In the neighbouring terrace, a lean fellow stands knee deep in a viscous layer of mud, his coarse hands tightly wrapped around a wooden shovel. He is levelling the field for the upcoming planting season. This time of year – November and December – is commonly referred to as “mirror time” after the paddies’ glassy appearance as they lie covered in a layer of water.

Other months bring an array of different colours: “Planting time is in the middle of January, until about the middle of February. Then the rice needs a bit of time to stabilise. Around April the terraces are at their greenest, in June and July, during harvest time, they become yellow, and in August they are golden with ripe grain, and then brown.”

I try to picture the terraces in their different stages, morphing into a rainbow of hues throughout the year, and remember how much these 70-degree slopes have shaped the lives of the people around them. I look across the mountainside to a small hamlet that comfortably nestles within the terraces, a tapestry of harmony between humankind and nature that is truly a sight to behold.

If you want to explore more of the Philippines, you can buy the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget now. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Sacred sites are easily accessible in Sri Lanka; you can barely move a step without tripping over giant Buddha statues, temples and rock paintings. But the most rewarding of all requires a night-time expedition to a pilgrim’s mountain.

At 2243m, Adam’s Peak is far from the highest place on the island, but as the holiest it draws thousands of pilgrims each year, all of whom pant their way up 4800 stone steps to worship at the indentation in the rock at the top. Most of the pilgrims are Buddhists, who believe it is the footprint of the Buddha. However, this is an all-purpose religious peak: Muslims attribute the footprint to Adam, Hindus to Shiva and Christians to St Thomas. In fact, pilgrimages here pre-date all the religions and have been taking place for thousands of years.

It’s a 7km path from Dalhousie up through the cloudforest where leopards are said to prowl. Rock steps and handrails guide pilgrims up the steepest sections although none of it is especially scary. From May to November you may well have the mountain to yourself, and the averagely fit take around four hours for the climb. In the pilgrimage season from December to April, when the weather is also at its best, the path is illuminated by a necklace of lights and endless tea stalls offer refreshment along the way.

At the top offer a prayer in the tiny temple around the footprint, ogle the sunrise and then head across to the opposite side of the summit to take in a remarkable phenomenon – if you are lucky. The ethereal sight of The Shadow of the Peak occurs when the rising sun casts the perfectly triangular shadow of the mountain onto the clouds below for a few short minutes. It’s a magical view to carry in your mind through the pain of the next few hours, when knees and thighs howl in protest throughout the descent, and during the next couple of days – when your gait becomes an inelegant waddle.

Dalhousie is 30km southwest of Hatton, which is on the main rail line from Colombo and Kandy.

 

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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, Australia

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.

Kings Canyon, Australia

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.

Kings Canyon, Australia aerial

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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The country’s traditional attractions – Warsaw’s lively old town and Kraków’s gorgeous squares – are worthwhile stops, but it’s easy to forget that there is another Poland, a genuine wilderness of high (and often snowbound) peaks, populated by lynx and bears. The Tatras Mountains are as beautiful as any national park in Europe, and their numerous trails – from vertiginous ridge-walks to forested rambles – are enormously popular with the locals, who troop here in their thousands in summer. The hamlet of Kuźnice, just south of the resort of Zakopane, has a cable car that climbs to almost 2000m above sea level (it feels a lot higher); from here, the very heart of the Tatras, marked trails for walkers of all abilities pick their way among the pinnacles.

Zakopane is around 3hr by train or bus from Kraków.

 

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