They say the journey is often more important than the destination. Well, these five trips are definitely as memorable as their endings.
Journeying over the roof of the world, India-Tibet
The 485km route from Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Leh in Ladakh is the great epic among Indian road journeys. With an overnight stop at altitude under a makeshift parachute tent en route, it takes two days to cover, carrying you from the foothills of the Himalayas to the margins of the Tibetan Plateau. Weather conditions can be fickle – blizzards descend even in mid-summer – and facilities along the way are rough and ready, to say the least. But the privations pale into insignificance against the astonishing scenery.
The first, and most formidable, of the obstacles to be crossed is Rohtang La, “Pile of Bones Pass”. Straddling one of the most sudden and extreme climatic transitions on the planet, Rohtang overlooks lush green cedar woods and alpine meadows on one side, and on the other a forbidding wall of chocolate- and sand-coloured scree, capped by ice peaks trailing plumes of spindrift.
You cross lofty Tanglang La late on the second afternoon, reaching the first Ladakhi villages soon after. Swathed in kidney-shaped terraces of ripening barley, each is surveyed by its own fairy-tale Buddhist monastery, with spinning prayer wheels and golden finials gleaming from the rooftops in sunlight of an almost unearthly clarity.
The Manali–Leh highway is only open between late June and mid-September, although buses tend to run as long as the passes remain free of snow.
Trans-Sahara by motorbike, Algeria-Niger
© Martine WALLENBORN/Shutterstock
Riding across Africa, two stages stand out: the clammy, bug-ridden byways of the Congo Basin – where “infrastructure” is just a good score in Scrabble – and the Sahara. The latter’s appeal is uncomplicated: the stark purity of landforms stirred by dawn winds; the simplicity of your daily mission – survival; and the brief serenity of hushed, starlit evenings. It’s just you, your bike and the desert.
Disembarking at Algiers is chaos, but muddle through and by nightfall you’ll emerge in the ravines of the Atlas, where the desert unrolls before you. By Ghardaia things are warming up and near El Meniaa breathtaking dunes begin spilling over the road. Some days the road is washed away, submerged in sand or lost in a dust storm, but you soldier on. You pass through the Arak Gorge, a portal to the white sands and granite domes of the haunting Immidir plateau. Within days the volcanic peaks of the Hoggar rise and you roll into Tamanrasset.
It’s time to focus on the final leg – four days across the long-dreaded piste to Agadez. Those first few moments riding the loaded machine on the sands will be a shock but you must be assertive, gunning the throttle across soft patches, resting where you can. The Niger border is a crossroads: monochrome sobriety meets the colourful exuberance of sub-Saharan Africa. Brightly clothed women mix with mysterious nomads and, for you, an ice-cold beer in the shabby Hotel Sahara washes away the desert dust.
The best time to cross the desert is between November and March.
Across the Great Karoo, South Africa
Take on the 1400km drive between Cape Town and Johannesburg and you’ll discover there’s an awful lot of nothing in South Africa’s interior. This immense semi-desert is called the Great Karoo, meaning “place of thirst”, and it stretches from the southwestern Cape Mountains northeast to the Orange River. The name is apt: summer heat is fierce here, the winter cold biting, rain is elusive and the soil all but barren.
You can – as most do – speed along the straight, featureless N1 highway at a steady 120 km/h. Alternatively, you could stop off for a while: the total emptiness is quite awe-inspiring. Sitting in the shade of their verandas, locals will tell you that after a few days, or maybe weeks, you’ll come to relish the crispness of the air, the orange and ochre colours of the rocks on the flat-topped hills at sunset and the tenacious succulents and desert flowers that defy the heat and drought. There are few places on Earth where you can see so much sky; at night, there are so many stars that even the familiar constellations get lost in the crowded galaxies. The water-starved Karoo is
called Great for a reason.
It takes about 12hr to drive between Cape Town and Jo’burg on the N1: the tiny towns of Richmond and Hanover are roughly halfway. See www.northerncape.org.za for more.
Driving the Icefields Parkway, Alberta
“This wondertrail will be world renowned”, predicted a 1920s surveyor when Highway 93 North – now better known as the Icefields Parkway – was only a fanciful idea. And sure enough, when it opened twenty years later, the 230km road between Lake Louise and Jasper immediately became one of the world’s ultimate drives.
It still is. The highway snakes through the cornucopia of snowcapped peaks that crown the Continental Divide, running right down the heart of the Rockies. Between the peaks lies an almost overwhelming combination of natural splendour: immense glaciers, blue-green iridescent lakes, foaming waterfalls, wildflower meadows, forests and wildlife from elk and moose to black and grizzly bears.
You could drive the whole highway in about four hours, but to do so would be to miss out on the many trails and viewpoints along the way. Several points along the route outstrip any superlatives. Bow Pass, at 2070m the road’s highest point, is spectacular not only for the views but the delicate subalpine ecosystem that ekes out its existence at these windy, snowy heights. Far bleaker is the 325-square-kilometre Columbia Icefield itself – one of the largest accumulations of ice south of the Arctic Circle. Its rock-strewn moonscape has remained virtually unchanged since the last ice age, and at its edge you can watch 200-year-old snow slowly melting.
Tours with Brewster Vacations (www.brewster.ca) include a ride on an Ice Explorer on the Columbia Icefield and a night’s stay in a Jasper hotel.
Riding by bus to Dêgê, China
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Bored with western Sichuan’s pandas, pristine blue lakes, raw mountain scenery and Tibetan monasteries? Well then, for what is likely to prove one of the most adrenaline-packed eight hours of your life, ride the public bus from Ganzi to Dêgê. You start 3500 metres up in a river valley at the foot of the Que’er Shan range, the bus packed to capacity with raucous crowds of Tibetans. The road heads ever upwards, crossing a wide pass festooned with bright prayer flags at the head of the valley, at which point the Tibetans all cheer and hurl handfuls of paper prayers out the windows like clouds of confetti. Beyond is the halfway town of Manigange, where the passengers get out and (despite their Buddhist leanings) consume vast quantities of meat dumplings and butter tea.
Back into the bus, the journey continues past brown glaciers and boulders carved in Tibetan script with “Om Mani Padme Hum”, and the valley reaches a rounded conclusion beneath some particularly wicked-looking, spiky, snow-bound peaks. Unfortunately, the road goes on, winding back on itself as it climbs up… and up… and up. The Tibetans are no longer so boisterous; several are blatantly chanting prayers, thumbing rosaries with their eyes screwed up tight.
Up among the peaks now, the bus is suddenly exposed to the wind as the road wobbles through the narrow, 5050-metre-high pass and around a corner so tight that at night you’d be over the edge before you even knew that there was a corner to turn. On the far side, the road slaloms down a virtually vertical rockface to the valley far below, and then, after all that excitement, your heart rate can settle on the unadventurous final stretch to Dêgê, just an hour away.
Buses (8hr) run daily from Ganzi to Dêgê.
Have you experienced a truly epic journey during your travels? Whether it's a bus ride to remember or a hellish river cruise, let us know below.
Top image © Elizaveta Parfenova/Shutterstock