The rays of the morning sun begin to evaporate the mist that shrouds the depths of Peru’s Colca Canyon. You’ve come out in the early hours to see the condor, or Andean vulture, in action, and as the mist dissipates, you can see hundreds of others have done the same. Many cluster at the mirador or Cruz del Condor. Others perch above pre-Inca terraces embedded into walls twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Audacious visitors clamber to the rocks below to see the condor, but a short hike along the rim of the canyon allows for a viewpoint that is less precarious and just as private.

Wrapped up against the cold, you whisper excitedly and wait for the show to begin. Suddenly, a condor rises on the morning thermals, soaring like an acrobat – so close you think you could reach out and touch its giant charcoal wings. It scours the surroundings, swooping lower and then higher, then lower again, in a roller-coaster pursuit of food. Soon it is joined by another bird, and another, in a graceful airborne ballet.

Eventually, the birds abandon the audience in their hunt for sustenance, and the mirador becomes home to a less elusive species. Peruvian women, brightly dressed in multilayered skirts, squat on their haunches, hawking food, drinks and souvenirs – everything from woolly Andean hats to purses embroidered with the condor.

The panpipe sounds of “El Condor Pasa” are played so often in Peru that they become the theme tune for many trips. Simon and Garfunkel might have made the song famous with their cover version, but it’s the eponymous bird that deserves a place in your Peruvian holiday.

Most Colca Canyon trips leave from Arequipa, approximately 5hr away.

 

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There are few expeditions more disquieting than visiting Indonesia’s Komodo Island. Approaching by boat, it appears staggeringly beautiful – the archetypal tropical hideaway. But doubts about the wisdom of what you’re about to do surface as soon as you step ashore and discover that you’re sharing the beach with the local deer population: if they’re too frightened to spend much time in the interior, is it entirely wise for you to do so?

Your unease only grows at the nearby national park office, as you’re briefed about the island’s most notorious inhabitant. From the tip of a tail so mighty that one swish could knock a buffalo off its feet, to a mouth that drips with saliva so foul that most bite victims die from infected wounds rather than the injuries themselves, Komodo dragons are 150kg of pure reptilian malevolence.

They are also – on Komodo at least – quite numerous, and it doesn’t take long before you come across your first dragon, usually basking motionless on a rock or up a tree (among an adult dragon’s more unpleasant habits is a tendency to feed on the young, so adolescents often seek sanctuary in the branches).

So immobile are they during the heat of the day that the only proof that they’re still alive is an occasional flick of the tongue, usually accompanied by a globule of viscous drool that drips and hangs from the side of their mouths. Indeed, it’s this docility that encourages you – possibly against your better judgement – to edge closer, until eventually those of sufficient nerve are almost within touching distance.

And it’s only then, as you crouch nervously on your haunches and examine the loose folds of battle-scarred skin, the dark, eviscerating talons and the cold, dead eyes of this natural-born killer, that you can fully appreciate how fascinating these creatures really are, and that there is nothing, but nothing, so utterly, compellingly revolting on this planet.

Most trips to Komodo (www.komodonationalpark.org) are organized from Labuanbajo, on the coast of neighbouring Flores.

 

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Heading out on a tiger safari is one of the essential Indian experiences. Here, from the pages of Great Escapes, we present five of the best. Share your safari memories below.

Corbett Tiger Reserve

The first wildlife reserve in India, Corbett was responsible for launching the tiger conservation scheme Project Tiger, and is well-known for its varied wildlife – keeping the striped cats company are elephants, wild boars and flying foxes. The five Raj-era rest-houses within its borders make multi-day treks through the park an attractive possibility in a country where accommodation is usually on the parks’ edges. Base yourself at Camp Forktail Creek (www.campforktailcreek.com), with nine spacious safari tents and two mud huts lit by candles and paraffin lamps. From there you can head on guided walks into the forest, and if you want the full wilderness experience, stay overnight in one of the rest-houses. Back at the camp, you can head down to the river and try your luck at catching the biggest game fish in the world, the mahseer.

Corbett is located in the foothills of the Himalayas near Ramnagar, in the state of Uttaranchal, an overnight train journey from Delhi.

Khana National Park

Probably the most beautiful of all India’s parks, Kanha – a mix of deciduous forest and savannah grassland – is reputed to have provided some of the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s novel, The Jungle Book. It’s particularly rich in wildlife – tigers and gaurs are regularly spotted here – and its remoteness keeps it quieter than some other parks. You couldn’t get better guides to this majestic landscape than Nanda and Latika, the owners of the elegant Singinawa Jungle Lodge. Latika was the first woman to gain a doctorate in tiger conservation, while Nanda has made films for the BBC and National Geographic on the tiger.

Located in the centre of India in southern Madhya Pradesh, the park can be reached by rail from all over India via Jabalpur. For directions, rates and reservations see www.singinawa.in.

Panna National Park

Covered in a mix of acacia and forest, Panna is a beautiful park with an amazing variety of birds, and plentiful wildlife from crocodiles to sloth bears. Unfortunately many of its tigers haven’t fared so well in recent years, with poaching a persistent threat despite improved measures protecting tigers’ welfare. Stay at Ken River Lodge, however, and you’ve a tiger-spotting opportunity unique in all of India – night safaris, which offer the best chance of seeing these nocturnal predators hunting. Futhermore, a stay in the park could easily be combined with a visit to the famous temples of Khajuraho – only 27km away – complete with erotic stonework.

For information on Panna National Park visit www.pannanationalpark.net.

Bandhavgarh National Park

You’ve got to be really unlucky not to spot a tiger here. One of India’s most prominent national parks, Bandhavgarh is also home to over 150 species of birds, among them purple sunbirds and golden orioles. Ancient ruins – statues, forts and man-made caves – scatter the park, making this a magnet for history-lovers and photographers. As a nature photographer himself, Satyendra Kumar Tiwari makes the ideal guide. Along with his wife Kay, he runs an intimate guesthouse in their family home – Skay’s Camp, situated in a small village on the park boundary, with just five rooms for guests. He’ll take you on two trips a day, looking for everything from big cats to butterflies.

The park is in Madhya Pradesh and can be accessed by taxi from Umaria (1hr), itself accessible by train from Delhi. Bandhavgarh National Park: www.bandhavgarh.net. For information on Skay’s Camp visit skayscamp.in

 

Pench Tiger Reserve

Another inspirational setting for Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Pench Tiger Reserve – now better known for its leopards than its tigers (although sightings are becoming more common as stocks improve) – is home to over 250 species of bird. Animals gather at the reservoir in the centre of the park to drink, and as the seasons get hotter and drier, this becomes an excellent spot to observe wildlife as the other water sources dry up. It’s also a relaxing place to go boating. The twelve villas at Baghvan lodge each have their own private viewing decks, giving you the chance for that elusive sighting all on your own.

Pench is open Nov–July. The nearest train station is Badnera, 110km from the reserve. For further info on the park see www.pench.naturesafariindia.com.

 

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Home to over 8,000 brown bears, the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania, Romania are one of Europe’s last frontiers. Greg Dickinson joined Romania’s leading wildlife guide in search of a bear.

He was now just inches away from me. Sharp, feral fangs. Thick wires of hair covering every inch of his heavy frame. And not to forget the firm, assertive handshake. These were my first observations of Dan Marin, the man who was going to lead me deep into Romania’s wilderness in search of a bear.

I met Dan in his hometown of Zărnești, a former farming village bordering the historic region of Transylvania. Here cubes of Soviet architecture overwhelm, while the couple of saloon bars create a racket on the otherwise deserted main road. Everything about Zărnești would have compelled me to board the next tin can train back to Brașov were it not for the muscular Southern Carpathian mountains that guard the horizon just ten miles beyond.

I was both intrigued and wary of these bear-infested mountains, and my fear was only exacerbated by the measly pepper spray can, apparently our only form of protection, stuffed in the side pocket of Dan’s rucksack.

“Here, eat this.” We had been walking for a few minutes when Dan stopped to tug a fistful of wilted leaves from the ground. I hesitated before shoving them into my mouth; a Wonka-esque burst of acidic berries smacked my senses. “This is sorrel. You will pay £5 for a bunch of this in England, but here it grows everywhere.” He popped a few into his own mouth, unflinching, and continued up the path. Since leaving his job at the local munitions factory in 1992, Dan has acquired an encyclopaedic understanding of these mountains, though perhaps even more impressive is that he has both taught himself fluent English and acquired a distinguished Home Counties accent.

The early stages of our route followed the trails of Europe’s last nomadic shepherds. Every summer a swarm of cattle stamps these paths flat, but today the traffic was made up of yellow-bellied toads who panicked from puddle to puddle. Dan delighted in scooping one up, showing me its elaborate colouring that would be far better suited in a Madagascan swamp. We soon discovered why they were in such a hurry.

“How long ago was it here?” I whispered as we bent over a series of bear paw prints. Recently, he told me, a few hours perhaps, and almost instantaneously my perception of the forest changed. Gaps between tree trunks became bears on their hind legs. Birds were no longer flying, they were escaping. Twig cracks and ground thumps closed in on us. The bear tracking had begun.

Our next clue was something that only Dan would have spotted.

“Do you see this yellow stuff here?” he was on his tiptoes pointing to waxy build-up on the side of a tree trunk. “This is sap. And do you see what is stuck to it?”

My eyes snapped into focus and a thin layer of hairs sprang from the tree. Sap is like catnip for bears, and once I started looking out for it almost every trunk had a membrane of hairs, as if the trees were passing through the final stages of evolution before becoming creatures of the forest themselves.

In the afternoon we went off-piste, for the first time escaping the confines of the forest and emerging in a bumpy hay meadow – an ideal vantage point to scan the surrounds. Here we sat, huddled completely still while Dan revealed his closest encounters with bears, grinning boyishly as he recalled the time he hid here for hours as a greedy male devoured a number of trees, only to creep up and taste the sap for himself after it had left.

When the sun cowered behind the snow-capped peaks and flies began to nip we left the meadow to begin our descent. This is when Dan came to an abrupt halt. Movement in the trees. But this time it was much closer. More disruptive. Heavier than before. Just metres away a blur of brown crashed through a clearing and disappeared quickly. A bear cub. I was desperate to catch another glimpse but Dan insisted we move on, as mothers get defensive when straying cubs get too close to humans. Enlivened crickets taunted us as we paced away to safety.

I was intoxicated with adrenalin after our encounter, and as we retreated back to Zărnești I realised I was no longer afraid of the bears that roam these mountains. For the man who plodded in front of me, quietly whistling to the birds, is not a visitor but rather a resident of the Carpathians. I now understood that his bottle of pepper spray was purely a gesture – he has never needed to use it and most likely never will. Dan respects the natural order of these forests as a matter of instinct, and perhaps it is his carnivorous teeth and hairy physique fooling them into thinking he’s a long lost cousin, but the bears certainly seem to have accepted him as a fellow beast of the wild.

If you want to explore more of Romania, buy the Rough Guide to Romania. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance.

As Quebec’s Arctic north begins to open its doors to tourists, Phoebe Smith voyages to Nunavik to discover Inuit life and woodland caribou in Canada’s greatest wilderness…

“There, a caribou – do you see it?” asked Suzie as I trained my eyes on the green thicket on the opposite riverbank. As hard as I tried I couldn’t see the deer for the trees. This was not a good start to my wildlife-watching trip to Nunavik.

I was in the depths of the Torngat Mountains somewhere on the border between the national park of the same name, and the adjacent Parc national Kuururjuaq in Québec. Made up of gargantuan fjords and glaciated valleys, and a smattering of peaks so tall and serrated you’d think they’d been borrowed from the Himalaya, between them the two parks span the length of the Labrador Peninsula.

But these are not your normal national parks. There are no roads, no designated campsites, no signposted trails or “you are here” maps – these parks offers true immersion in the outdoors. Even the nearest visitor centre is 100km away back in the community of Kangiqsualujjuaq.

And I hadn’t even begun my journey there; I had started in the gateway to this whole region – Kuujjuaq – accessed by a two-hour flight from Montréal. Up until now, other than a handful of intrepid Canadian tourists, the only visitors here have been temporary construction or oil workers, but all that is about to change: the government have begun investing money in tourism.

Photo: Neil S Price

On arrival I met Allan, an Inuit man who had lived here since birth. “Most kids leave when they finish high school,” he explained as he drove me around his hometown, pointing out the power plant (the whole community is run on generators), one of two general stores (where you can buy anything from a loaf of bread to a Skidoo snowmobile or a three piece suite) and the collection of traditional tents where teens like to stay with their friends in the summer to experience how their ancestors used to live. “They like to go to college in Montréal or Québec to experience life away from Nunavik,” he said. “But most of them come back. The town is growing all the time – things are changing.”

Kuujjuaq is changing. There are now two hotels in town. Originally built to house the temporary workers from “down south”, the demand is such that they are now adding a second storey to one and updating the furnishings and décor, hoping to entice tourists.

Later that evening excitement was brewing in the one restaurant in town as word got around that overseas visitors were here. The owner of the general store came over to say hello and the waitress took it as an opportunity to try out her English (in schools here they are taught Inuktitut first, then can choose between French and English). While fish was the main thing on the menu, the elusive caribou also featured. Having seen the animal so readily available to eat in the town, the live variety was something I was desperate to see.

The visitor centre, a 45min flight away at Kangiqsualujjuaq, offered a promising start. There was an impressive exhibition of animals I might see in Parc national Kuururjuaq, from wolves to polar bears, and golden eagles to (hopefully) caribou.

Here I met Suzie Morgan, an Inuit elder who used to live out in the heart of the Torngats. She grew up there with her family and explained how every year they would follow the Koroc River from east to west with the seasons. On the Labrador Sea they would feast on seals – eating their meat, using blubber for cooking oil and the fur to craft waterproof boots to keep their feet dry. When the seals migrated they would head inland, stalking the caribou herds as they moved through the forests, sometimes meeting other Inuit families as they went, moving constantly.

Photo: Neil S Price

Now Suzie lives in town and has a house with electric, heating and satellite TV, but she agreed to accompany me on the flight into Torngat to see her old stomping ground. As we bounced on the thermals above the peaks she gestured down to a bend in the river. It looked like any of the others we passed, but for her it marked the spot where all the Inuit families used to meet up once a year for a celebration.

We descended towards a dense forest. Within seconds we were landing amongst the undergrowth and came to a stop in the middle of nowhere. Here Suzie lead us down to the river where she remembered her father heading into the mountains to hunt caribou – before she spotted one herself and pointed it out to me – which I still couldn’t see.

She proceeded to open a basket containing a frozen Arctic char and sliced it, offering it out to us. I asked her if it was hard living out here.

“But there is everything you need,” she replied, gesturing to the plants that surrounded her. “From food to eat, to water to drink, materials for clothes and medicine if you get sick, nature provides it all for us. You just need to know what you’re looking at.”

And, as I listened to more of her tales, I stared over at the river once more. In between the thick woodland I began to make out the shape of a caribou. It’s white fur giving it away. The longer I looked the more began to emerge. One by one they cautiously stomped through the bushes. A place that at first seemed to offer nothing but a lonely wilderness was now, slowly, revealing itself to be full of life.  I couldn’t help but smile – this was only the beginning.

Explore more of Canada with the Rough Guide to Canada.
Book hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

This competition is now closed.

Congratulations to our GVI trip winner Kirsty McCarlie, who chose Venezuela as her top destination for 2014. Kirsty is hoping to travel to Costa Rica with GVI to complete her placement conserving jaguars next year. 

Have you ever wanted to give back to the world, to develop and conserve some of the most fragile but exciting environments that surround us? Now’s your chance. We’ve teamed up with Global Vision International to offer you an incredible prize for the first of our monthly competitions.

With over 150 volunteer projects and 3,500 volunteers in 60 countries each year, GVI offers the opportunity for you to make an impact on a variety of communities. All of their programs are sustainable as long-running projects, meaning they can make the biggest positive impact possible on the local community. This month, one lucky winner will get to choose a place on one of the following two-week conservation programmes by Global Vision International:

Jaguar conservation in Costa Rica

Assist in the protection of endangered Jaguars, whilst living and working in the heart of Costa Rica’s Tortuguero rainforest. You will help search for signs of jaguars and their prey by setting up remote cameras and surveying a 16-mile stretch of a turtle nesting beach. Through this unique and active training you will have the opportunity to understand the rainforest and the variety of wildlife that depend on its future. More info >

Tracking dolphins in Kenya

Assist with valuable dolphin research in the stunning Kisite-Mpunguti marine protected area in Kenya’s Indian Ocean. From the GVI boat you will collect information on dolphin location, behaviour and population to continue the successful dolphin conservation effort in this area of Kenya. More info >

Marine expedition in Thailand

Assist in coastal and marine conservation as a member of this international team in the beautifully dramatic Phang Nga, Thailand. Alongside hands-on conservation activities, you will become immersed in the culture through various community initiatives to promote environmental education and in the delivering of English programmes. More info >

How to enter

For your chance to win, all you have to do is log in or sign up to the Rough Guides Community and write your answer to the question, “Where is your must-see destination for 2014?”, posted here.

Note: flights, visas and transfers are not included. See the full Terms & Conditions here.

GVI is a social enterprise supporting critical conservation and community development projects around the world. GVI provides the opportunity for individuals aged 15+ to get involved in these projects either as volunteers, interns, students or responsible tourists and make a difference from the ground up. From sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica to teaching sports in Kerala, GVI runs over 100 projects in 13 countries.

Kenya is the safari capital of East Africa. Elephants, buffalo and wildebeest roam across vast plains, flamingos in their thousands wade in lake shallows, lions doze on sun-baked savannahs and herds of hippos graze by river banks. Yet in the scramble to see the country’s wildlife, local culture often gets overlooked and tribal people have been marginalized from the financial benefits of their land’s natural riches. Happily, there is now a new breed of lodges where the local tribes manage the camp, train as guides and receive a share of the profits, which go towards environmental and wildlife conservation. Below are some of these progressive lodges where local guides will take you on some of the best safaris in Africa.

Lewa Safari Camp

Chances are you’ll tick off the Big Five while on safari in the 250-square-kilometre Lewa Conservancy in the foothills of Mount Kenya. Primarily a sanctuary for endangered animals, Lewa is home to all the big game, including about ten percent of Kenya’s black rhinos (about 45), twenty percent of its white rhinos (about 35) and 25 percent of the world’s Grévy’s zebras (about 500). As well as the usual game drives, there are bush walks and camel-trekking safaris led by local Maasai. All profits from Lewa Safari Camp go to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (www.lewa.org), which funds education and medical clinics in the communities adjacent to the conservancy.

The camp is closed in April and November. Lewa is approximately five hours’ drive from Nairobi. For directions and more information about the camp see www.lewasafaricamp.com.

Amboseli Porini Camp

Come to Amboseli Porini for some of the best birdwatching in Africa, to see elephants, lions, leopards, wildebeest and giraffes, and for spectacular views of Mount Kilimanjaro. The camp is in the Selenkay Conservation Area, a 60-square-kilometre private game reserve bordering the northern boundary of Amboseli National Park. It is co-owned by the local Maasai and Gamewatcher Safaris – a Nairobi-based travel company which organizes Maasai-guided walks as well as day and night safaris into the conservancy and the national park. Track game with the Maasai and you’ll learn a trick or two from the people who have lived here for centuries.

Gamewatcher Safaris also operates Maasai-guided safaris at Porini Rhino Camp in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Mara Porini Camp in the Ol Kinyei Conservancy and Porini Lion Camp in the Olare Orok Conservancy. For prices and reservations at each camp see www.porini.com.

Eagle View

Superbly positioned for a close view of the migration of wildebeest and zebra along the northern plains of the Maasai Mara, Basecamp’s Eagle View far off the beaten track. Set on an escarpment in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy – one of the most remote and undeveloped parts of the Mara – there are nine tented suites overlooking the Koiyaki river. The lodge offers day and night drives, and even walking safaris with the local Maasais. The game here is as good as anywhere else in the park – with all those wildebeest running around there are lots of predators about.

Fly from Nairobi to Siana (www.airkenya.com), from where you will be collected by arrangement. The wildebeest migration is from mid-June to the end of October. Wilderness Journeys runs safaris based at Koiyaki Wilderness Camp; for prices and bookings see www.wildernessjourneys.com,

Il N’gwesi and Tassia Lodges

Both these luxury lodges lie among the wild scrubland and ancient migratory routes of northern Kenya. Il N’gwesi is on a rocky outcrop by the Ngare Ndare River on the edge of the dramatic Mukogodo Hills. There are six double thatched bandas and an infinity pool with wonderful views of the Samburu Game Reserve and the Mathews Range. Tassia Lodge is perched on the edge of a rocky bluff, looking out over the Northern Frontier District towards Samburu, Shaba and the Lolokwe Mountain. The lodge has six rooms (including a children’s bunkhouse which sleeps six) and is a four-hour walk or a morning’s game drive from Il N’gwesi.

Both Tassia and Il N’gwesi are owned and run by local Maasai, who lead guided safaris and birdwatching tours in the Ngare Ndare River Valley – where you’ll have a good chance of seeing elephants, buffalo, lions, wild dogs, hyenas, cheetahs and leopards. This is community-owned pastoral land, so while you’re out on safari expect to come across herders and their cattle – and the real Africa.

For more information about the camp see www.lewa.org/visit-lewa/community-lodges. You can book both camps through Nairobi-based travel company Let’s Go Safaris (www.uniglobeletsgotravel.com).

 

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Rough Guides writer Heidi Fuller-Love embarks on a luxury cruise to meet big lizards, a giant tortoise and other magical wildlife of the Galápagos Islands.

Ever since reading The Voyage of the Beagle when I was at school, I dreamt of visiting The Galápagos islands. Contrary to popular belief, Charles Darwin’s trip in the HMS Beagle was quite short – spanning  just over a month from 15th September to 20th October of 1835 – and yet the discoveries he made during this epic trip were to affect travellers for centuries to come.

There are plenty of ways to experience the Galápagos islands: you can hike it, bike it, or stay in a well-situated sleepery like Finch Bay eco hotel and go out on day trips. After doing my research, however, I decided that the best way to experience these 19 Unesco World Heritage islands, formed by volcanic activity, was on a private cruise.

A thousand kilometres from the Ecuadorian coast – and a lot further from anywhere else – this legendary archipelago is pretty difficult to reach, but it’s that isolated situation that has allowed such a huge variety of endemic species, from giant land iguanas to gargantuan tortoises, to breed in peace.

First I fly to Quito in Ecuador, where I spend one blissful night at the recently renovated Casa Gangotena hotel right in the centre of this historic city. Next I take the long ride out to Quito’s brand new airport and fly the three-hour trip to San Cristóbal, one of the oldest islands in the Galápagos chain.

Upon arrival I am set upon by sniffer dogs who check that I’m not carrying food, plants or anything else that might alter the archipelago’s fragile eco system, and then I’m free to hop on a bright-painted bus that takes me through narrow streets to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the island’s sleepy capital.

As soon as I leave the bus I’m struck by the unfazed fauna. All around me there are sea lions, yawning on wooden benches or scratching their backs in the middle of the road, whilst hordes of pelicans sun themselves outside cafes and frigatebirds soar overhead. Down at the quay a dinghy waits to carry me over choppy waters to Yacht La Pinta, the five year old, 48 passenger vessel that will be my home for the next four days.

A far cry from my visions of a cramped room with one tiny porthole, my carpeted deluxe cabin is sumptuous. There’s a large double bed, a table and comfy chairs, a floor-to-ceiling window and showers with lashings of hot water.

Back up on deck I’m decorated with a sweet-scented jasmine flower lei and led to meet the rest of the group, who are chatting with the guides employed to lead us to discover the unparalleled natural wonders of this volcanic archipelago.

Sometime during the night our yacht silently slips anchor and sails to the tip of San Cristobal. Sitting up in bed the following morning I feel like I’m hallucinating as I watch the sun rise peachily pink over Kicker Rock, the sea-lion-shaped pair of lava cones that feature on all the postcards.

An hour later I’m slipping and sliding across the rubber seat of our panga as we head out over choppy waters to Punta Pitt. Before leaving we are given a lecture about the island’s delicate ecosystem, which can be affected by the slightest alterations: a big problem over recent years has been introduced species, like rats and cats, that run riot and prey on local fauna. Before disembarking on this chunk of volcanic rock, where Darwin first landed on September 15th 1835, we are sternly warned not to leave anything behind, nor take anything away – not even a shell or a feather.

It’s so hot that my camera lens steams up and I have to wait until we reach the top of this 730 metre-high structure to take photos. As we puff up along the narrow, lava-strewn path we pass blue- and red- footed boobies squatting in the tangle of bushes either side. They are so close they could peck our knees and yet they are totally undisturbed by our presence.

Right at the top of the rock we find the nest of a rare Nazca Booby lying on the barren ground, where a single white chick, like a kitten-sized ball of cotton wool, sits alone. As we watch the parents swoop in to feed their squawking offspring, Santiago our guide explains that the first chick will push any other chicks out of the nest, where they will be left to die or be pecked to death. I am beginning to see why Charles Darwin first spawned his theory of evolution by natural selection during his visit to the Galápagos Islands.

Over the following days we slip into a rhythm: up early to visit iconic landmarks like the twin Gemelos sinkholes or the stunning coral beach of Cerro Brujo. Afternoons are spent photographing brilliant turquoise-and-red rock iguanas and gregarious Hood mockingbirds at Punta Suarez, or weaving between noisy bull sea lions on the sheer-white coral-sand beaches of Gardner Bay.

On our last morning we are taken to an isolated rock in a panga (boat), where we snorkel with a large colony of sea lions.  Far from being frightened of us, the sea lions seem to enjoy the game. They dart up to us, then dive beneath us popping up on the other side, or take cheeky nips at our flippers. Several times when I dive down deep a sea lion dives with me, rubbing his belly against mine as we rise to the surface together.

On our final afternoon we visit the Charles Darwin research station on Santa Cruz island, where some 200 scientist from around the world work together on a captive breeding programme for giant tortoises.

Giant tortoises are a potent emblem for Ecuadorians and when Lonesome George, the world’s rarest creature, died in 2012 there was a day of national mourning – one local café even hung a sign that read, “Today we have witnessed extinction”.

Lonesome George’s empty pen is decorated with flowers and a plaque is dedicated to his memory. Next door to the pen I see my first Galápagos tortoise. On TV they look sizeable enough, but up close, with their pitted shells the size of a baby’s bathtub and long necks that allow them to fossick easily in the trees above, they are almost intimidating.

Seeing these living legends is like meeting a Tyrannosaurus Rex up close, and it sums up the magical sensation of visiting this fascinating collection of islands, which has hardly changed since the dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Need to know

Boats from mainland Ecuador are not allowed to take tourists to the islands, so the only way to reach them is by plane from Quito. The Galápagos Islands are a protected National Park and there is a $100 entrance fee to be paid in cash upon arrival. There are also plenty of rules that must be strictly adhered to:

  • Do not touch, feed, disturb or chase any animal.
  • Do not move plants, rocks, shells or any natural objects.
  • Do not take food onto the islands.
  • Make sure you’re not carrying soil or seeds from one island to another on your clothes or shoes.
  • Never throw litter overboard or on the islands.
  • Do not buy souvenirs made of plant or animal products from the islands.
  • Declare any organic products in your possession to the quarantine services on arrival.
  • Plants, fresh flowers and live animals may not be brought to the islands.

Find out more about the Galápagos Islands on the Rough Guides destination page, or buy the Rough Guide to Ecuador.

Exploring the less popular west coast of Australia, which houses the stunning 260km Ningaloo Reef, Rough Guides writer Helen Ochyra has a close encounter with the ocean’s biggest fish.

I am being pulled through the water by the hand, bubbles rushing past me on both sides, the only noise my own breathing. With every kick of my flippers I am more and more exhausted, those breaths coming faster and shallower, the tug on my arm more and more persistent. I am just about to give up, spit out my snorkel and put my head above water when – there it is. The ocean’s biggest fish swimming right alongside me. A whale shark, some seven metres long and almost within touching distance.

This is what we have all come to see – not just our group of 10 (the maximum number of swimmers allowed in the water with the whale shark at any one time), but pretty much every single person currently staying in Exmouth on Australia’s west coast. The months between April and July are whale shark season here and sightings of this vast creature are almost guaranteed in the waters of Ningaloo Marine Park just offshore.

There may be plenty of them out there, but our tour operator, Ocean Eco Adventures, is taking no chances, sending up their very own spotter plane to track down the whale sharks and make sure our boat heads to the right areas – and gets there ahead of the other operators.

Within Australian waters whale sharks are protected by the Wildlife Conservation Act. Just one boat at a time is allowed within the so-called “exclusive contact zone”, an area of 250 metres radius around the whale shark, and so if we arrive second we have missed our chance. Fortunately, the plane and our boat are in constant contact, the boat moving around Ningaloo according to the plane’s whale shark sightings, and so we can find whale sharks away from other boats.

We also have several snorkel guides to get us all into position – and they don’t waste any time. We are in and out of the water continuously, leaping in from the back of the boat as soon as a whale shark comes into view. We have just seconds to strap on our mask and snorkel, waddle in our flippers to the platform and dive in. “Faces in the water,” they yell out, and we’re off, those of us not quite keeping pace pulled along by the hand.

For me, keeping pace is proving tricky; the whale shark may appear to be moving sedately, but it cuts through the water with speed, propelled by a graceful but powerful flick of the tail. I swim frantically alongside, examining its checkerboard of large pale spots – a unique fingerprint that reaches all of the way along its back – and its shark-like fins as they move through the water.

As I watch, mesmerised, it gradually begins to dawn on me that I am keeping pace at last. I am mimicking its swimming style, legs kicking more slowly but with more power, arms folded behind my back rather than flailing in front of me. I get into a rhythm and calm descends.

But then the whale shark alters course. Its tail swings through the water away from me and I realise that this can mean only one thing – it is turning towards me. Suddenly I find myself facing the largest mouth I have ever seen. Because the whale shark is a filter feeder it has a mouth more than a metre wide to capture as much water – and therefore as much plankton – as possible. If it opened its jaws I feel certain it could swallow me whole.

I also feel certain that I should get out of its way. This may be a gentle giant but it is still, well, a giant. And so, once again I am all flailing arms and kicking feet. Seven metres of whale shark heads straight for me – and straight past me. I am so close I could reach out and touch it but this is, of course, against the rules, so I simply watch, dumbstruck, as it swoops past me and on with its journey.

Nobody knows where they are heading, or why they migrate past here every year, but one thing is for sure – swimming with them is truly incredible.

Explore Australia with the Rough Guide to Australia. Ocean Eco Adventures offer day trips to swim with the whale sharks from $395. For more information visit westernaustralia.com.

Book hostels for your trip to Australia here, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Britain is home to an almost endless number of world-class rambling routes. We’ve narrowed down the choice to eight of our favourite spots for a brisk walk or a challenging hike, but do add your own favourite picks below.

Epping Forest

One of the last remaining vestiges of the ancient woodland that once blanketed England, Epping appears in local annals from at least the twelfth century. Rambling along sandy, dappled paths on foot, galloping on horseback through meadows of waist-high grass, or splashing cross-country through muddy puddles on a dirt bike, it seems impossible that you are not, in fact, deep in the countryside, but only thirty-five minutes away from the city.

Though exploring by bike or on horseback gives you a sense of the sheer scale of the forest, the greatest pleasure is in meandering through Epping’s 50,000 veteran trees, twisted by pollarding into living sculptures, which rise in spring from a sea of pristine bluebells. A popular route begins at Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, now somewhat marooned by the side of a busy road in Chingford. From here it’s a delightful stroll across lush meadows where longhorn cattle graze and rare butterflies flutter by, down to Connaught Water, one of many wetland areas in the forest, thronged with reeds, water lilies and royal ferns.

Malham Cove

The soaring, curving grey-white amphitheatre walls of Malham Cove soon hove into view as you approach across the green Yorkshire fields. A 260-foot-high waterfall without the water, formed fifty thousand years ago when the outflow from a melting glacier poured over the lip of a high limestone cliff, it’s a truly grand sight, on a different scale from the surrounding dales.

It’s an easy walk from Malham village – you can push a stroller all the way to the foot of the cove – but there’s work to be done if you want to unlock Malham Cove’s real secrets, which lie on top of the cliff, up the breath-sapping steps to the side. From here, the views down the dale are magnificent, while underfoot is an extraordinary limestone pavement fractured into broad slabs (known as clints) and deep fissures (grykes).

To complete the circuit you can descend back to Malham via Gordale Scar, a deep ravine that requires strong nerves and a head for heights – the last part is nothing less than a hands-and-feet scramble down a waterfall. If you find yourself praying to the moorland spirits, you can thank them for your safe descent in nearby Janet’s Foss, a mossy, wooded dell rich with the scent of wild garlic, where dippers and wagtails flit over the pool of a charming waterfall.

Malham National Park Centre (www.yorkshiredales.org.uk) has maps and route guides for local walks.

The Peak District

Wedged between Sheffield, Manchester and Derby, it’s no surprise that the Peak District is Britain’s most visited national park. The park divides into two areas: the brooding Dark Peak in the north and the gentler White Peak in the south, each named on account of their different geologies.

These two geologies produce very different yet equally enticing landscapes, both of which can be easily explored in a weekend. Higher and wilder, the Dark Peak is formed of tracts of wind-whipped moorland interspersed with “edges”, outcrops of the underlying millstone grit that create dramatic escarpments such as Stanage Edge. Although modest in height they still offer panoramic views across seemingly endless miles of heather and grass. There’s little human habitation here – this barren landscape is the lonely home only to sheep, grouse, rabbits and hares.

See www.visitpeakdistrict.com for more information.

Offa’s Dyke Path, Wales

Sitting on a gravel beach trying to put hiking socks over cold, wet feet might not seem like an auspicious finish to one of Britain’s oldest long-distance trails, but this is the classic finale to Offa’s Dyke Path. Purists wade at least ankle deep into the Irish Sea at the path’s northern terminus, Prestatyn on the north Welsh coast – a repeat of the performance twelve days or so earlier at Sedbury Cliffs, near Chepstow on the Severn Estuary, where (minus blisters) they began. In between, hikers negotiate 177 miles of some of the finest and most varied landscape that the Welsh Marches has to offer, from gentle green valleys to wild moors and ancient woodland by way of historic towns and hidden hamlets.

The path is named after Offa’s Dyke, a massive earthwork (ditch and rampart) up to twenty feet high and sixty feet wide built in the eighth century by Offa, King of Mercia, to separate his territory from rival kingdoms – whether to keep out the Welsh or to keep out the English, opinion divides. The path broadly follows the course of the rampart, though while it was being developed in the 1960s the route planners made a few judicious improvements: rather than follow the dyke through Wrexham and other industrially marred areas they diverted it through the Wye Valley, over the Black Mountain in Brecon Beacons National Park and along the Clwydian Range with its long views over north Wales to Snowdonia. The result is one of Britain’s finest national trails – never too crowded and never monotonous.

For more information consult the National Trail website (www.nationaltrail.co.uk/offasdyke).

Britain’s most dangerous walk, Morecambe Bay

Backed by the Lakeland fells and famed for its spectacular sunsets, Morecambe Bay may look dramatically beautiful, but with its shifting sands and fast-moving tides this vast expanse of tidal mud flats is one of the most dangerous stretches of coast in Britain.

To attempt to ford this treacherous terrain by yourself would be sheer folly. There are quicksands, hidden channels and swirling currents, and when the tide roars in, its speed is said to be faster than any horse can gallop – as testified by the countless stories of disappearances over the years. Once upon a time, monks from Cartmel Priory conducted travellers safely across the bay. But following a petition in the 1530s, the sands were deemed so dangerous that an official guide was appointed by royal command. Step forward Cedric Robinson, 25th Queen’s Guide to the Sands.

For almost half a century, Cedric has earned his keep by his intimate knowledge of the ever-changing terrain; he claims he can read the sands in the way that others read newspapers. He plants laurel branches to mark the route – when rain and fog descend it’s the only way to trace a path back to safety. Once a fortnight between May and September, Cedric takes groups out at low tide on the eight-mile walk. It’s an exhilarating hike in the strangest, most ethereal of landscapes. Cedric leads the way, followed by a tractor and trailer and up to 150 hikers, many of whom attempt the walk for charity.

Numbers are limited, so you should register in advance on 015395/32165. The schedule is at www.grange-over-sands.com.

The Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury

The Garden of England is a tourist-board cliché, but one that does perfectly describe the lush country explored on the Pilgrim’s Way. The landscape is domesticated but beautiful, with rolling vistas, apple and pear orchards and the odd scattering of tile-hung or half-timbered cottages. And you are following in some very ancient footsteps: this was an Iron Age trading route, acquiring its pilgrimage status only after the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170. The original Pilgrim’s Way was an amalgam of country roads and paths leading from Winchester and serving pilgrims from south and west England and continental Europe (via Southampton). At Harbledown, just outside Canterbury, this route merged with Watling Street, the route for the main body of pilgrims from London and the north.

This abundant countryside is especially appealing in April or in late summer and early autumn. You can make a selective two-day pilgrimage yourself, exploring a particularly bucolic stretch of the route, and arriving at the pilgrims’ goal – magnificent Canterbury Cathedral. The walk begins at Charing in Kent, leading through woods and farmland to Boughton Lees, home to the Flying Horse pub which has been serving pilgrims for hundreds of years. From here you continue to idyllic Chilham where you can stay overnight at the friendly Woolpack Inn before hiking across fields and through dense woodland to Canterbury.

The Chilham to Canterbury stretch of the Pilgrim’s Way follows the North Downs Way (www.nationaltrail.co.uk/northdowns).

The Pennine Way

The Pennine Way begins at the village of Edale in the Peak District and meanders 270 miles north to Kirk Yetholm beneath the Cheviots, a mile across the Scottish border. Along its course, it leads through some of England’s most beautiful and least crowded countryside. In the early stages, it passes the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution – today, stone slabs from the derelict mills and factories have been recycled into winding causeways over the once notorious moorland peat bogs. This is Brontë country, too, grim on a dank, misty day but bleakly inspiring when the cloud lifts.

The mires subside to become the rolling green pastures and dry-stone walls of the Yorkshire Dales that rise up to striking peaks like the 2278ft-high Pen-y-ghent – the “Mountain of the Winds”. The limestone Dales in turn become the wilder northern Pennines, where no one forgets stumbling onto the astounding glaciated abyss of High Cup Nick. The Way’s final phase begins with an invigorating stage along Hadrian’s Wall before ending with the calf-wrenching climax over the Cheviots.

See www.nationaltrail.co.uk/pennineway for more information.

The Pembrokeshire coast

In Welsh, Pen-fro, which was anglicized to create Pembrokeshire, means “land’s end”. While the coast at Wales’s southern tip bears a passing resemblance to Cornwall, it is nowhere near as famous – indeed, the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path may be the best long-distance walk in Britain that no one knows. For now.

The trail follows the shoreline of Britain’s only coastal national park. Most walkers set aside a fortnight to complete the 186-mile route from Poppit Sands at St Dogmaels near Cardigan to Amroth by the seaside resort of Tenby, passing west to east from solitary cliffs to family-holiday favourites. Tracks are good throughout, campsites are abundant, and you’ll never be more than two days’ walk from fresh supplies.

For Bear Grylls-style bush-bashing head to the Highlands. For the rest of us, however, the sheer variety of scenery makes the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path a superb tramp, especially in the bloom of late spring. Most of the way you cling to the clifftops, teetering along fabulous coastlines around Fishguard, St David’s Head and Marloes, and occasionally dipping down to one of the 58 beaches en route, where low-tide crossings at Dale and Sandy Haven keep things interesting.

The path is managed by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (www.pcnpa.org.uk); see also www.visitpembrokeshire.com.

Where are your top walks or hiking spots in Britain? Let us know below.

 

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