Sand-skiing in the dunes, Qatar
Launching yourself down the slopes under a scorching desert sun is possible in Qatar, a small Gulf country midway between Kuwait and Dubai – but forget about snow machines and fake icicles. Here, the ski slopes are all natural. Jaded ski bums looking for a new thrill should take a 4WD trip to Khor al-Adaid – known as Qatar’s Inland Sea. This is a saltwater inlet from the blue waters of the Gulf which penetrates far into the desert interior and is surrounded on all sides by monumental formations of giant, silvery sand dunes.
These are almost all crescent-shaped barchan dunes. Both points of the crescent face downwind; between them is a steep slip face of loose sand, while the back of the dune, facing into the breeze, is a shallow, hard slope of wind-packed grains. This formation lends itself particularly well to sand-skiing or, perhaps more commonly, sand-boarding, both of which are almost identical to their more familiar snow-based cousins – without the woolly hats but with a softer landing for novices.
Khor al-Adaid lies 75km south of Doha, the Qatari capital. No roads run even close. The only way to get here is in a 4WD vehicle organized by any of several tour companies based in Doha: try www.gulf-adventures.com or www.nettoursdubai.com.
Ice climbing in the Cordillera Real, Bolivia
You’re halfway up a sheer ice wall in the high Andes, with crampons on your feet, an ice axe in each hand and your stomach quavering somewhere around knee level, when you sense that there are some things humans were not meant to do. Yet if you don’t mind the odd moment of panic, the Cordillera Real, strung across Bolivia between the barren Altiplano and the Amazon basin, is a wonderful place to begin mountaineering. For one thing, it’s substantially cheaper than Europe or North America. More importantly, this harsh landscape, with its thin air, intimidating peaks and snow-covered ridges, is an unforgettable one, a world away from hectic La Paz and another planet from the one most of us live on.
The Cordillera Real is a few hours’ drive from La Paz – guides and equipment can be organized here or in Sorata.
Skiing beside volcanic vents, Russia
An average ski run in Kamchatka is not like that of your regular ski resort; it’s not unusual to get in more than 10,000m of “vertical” in a single day. You’re pumped full of adrenalin before you even start, thanks to the half-hour ride to your first run in a huge, ramshackle Russian-built MI-8 helicopter.
Your guide will head down an enormous, open powder-field running 180m or more down the flanks of a volcano and you’re then free to follow, with almost infinite space in which to lay down your own tracks. You may pass beside hissing volcanic vents (the most recent eruptions in Kamchatka occurred in 2010) or alongside glinting blue glaciers or just bliss out on endless turns in shin-deep fluff. You may even end up on a Pacific beach where you can take a frigid skinny dip. And then you’ll clamber back into the helicopter to do it all over again – and again, and again.
For packages, check out www.eaheliskiing.com.
Finding perfect powder in Kashmir, India
The subject of a long-standing bitter territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, Kashmir was once dubbed “the most dangerous place on Earth” and talk of the region still largely remains focused on its politics, obscuring the fact that Kashmir, with its verdant valleys and towering mountains, makes the Alps look like a cheap film set.
It’s on those mountains that perhaps its biggest secrets can be found, and the biggest joys for thrill seekers. The Himalayas jut into Kashmir from Nepal, boasting light, dry powder in absurd quantities. Kashmir, or rather the small ski town of Gulmarg, seems set to explode onto the ski resort radar. Opened in 2005, its gondola is, at just shy of 4000m, the third highest in the world, and the powdery terrain that spreads out before it is limitless and untracked.
Topping it off are some very unresort-like qualities: you’ll ride a pony back to a hot shower and a warm bed; if it’s chicken for dinner you can pick one from the yard. The secret won’t keep for long.
From Srinagar it’s a 2hr, 200km taxi ride to Gulmarg. Dec–April is the best time to visit, although check the security situation with your foreign office.
Off-roading to Khor al-Adaid, Qatar
In southern Qatar, the roads simply stop, swallowed by fuming waves of sand. Every weekend, countless Qatari 4WD enthusiasts make the pilgrimage to the desert to push their vehicles to the limit and find solitude in a shifting world of shimmering heat and rolling dunes.
Tour drivers whisk tourists out of Doha, Qatar’s main city, down to the desert for a day of adventure. After an hour’s drive south on a pot-holed freeway, huge sand dunes looms on the horizon marking the end of the road. Loud hip-hop and techno blares from an assembled entourage of expensive cars, Qatar’s modern day equivalent of the camel – gone are their plodding steeds of yesteryear, exchanged for faster, gruntier and air-conditioned contemporaries that are thirstier and also tend to roll more often.
There are numerous tour companies in Qatar offering 4WD trips into the desert; Arabian Adventures (www.arabianadventuresqatar.com) is well established and drivers often speak English.
Bungee jumping the Bhote Koshi, Nepal
The worst part is the wait. Standing on a footbridge spanning a spectacular Himalayan gorge, it’s impossible not to glance down at the churning Bhote Koshi River, which races down from the nearby Tibetan border. Every so often a cheer – or a scream – sounds, as someone plummets towards the water on the end of a disconcertingly thin rubber rope.
Operated by The Last Resort, a tented camp and adventure sports centre, this 160m bungee jump is one of the highest in the world – to put it into context, the Statue of Liberty only measures 93m from its base to the tip of the flame. The mountains ahead appear briefly in your line of vision, before vanishing as you plunge down at what feels like an impossible speed and, for a few terrifying, exhilarating moments, you feel as though you’re flying.
The Last Resort is a 3hr drive from Kathmandu. For more information, visit www.thelastresort.com.np.
Heli-biking Ben Cruachan, New Zealand
Ben Cruachan, a 2000m peak tucked behind the Remarkables, the mountain range that flanks the picturesque resort of Queenstown, is a favourite of many backcountry mountain bikers. It’s no surprise why: it offers 1600 metres of pure downhill adrenalin. And that’s after the rush of flying up to the top.
The trail follows a rough 4WD road down the ridgeline from the summit. Littered with loose shale, it demands both balance and patience to navigate. After a few kilometres the route veers left onto a vertiginious single track snaking 6km down a steep valley. The upper reaches of the track are fast and fun; further down, shallow streams cut across the trail and you need to concentrate hard to avoid flying over the handlebars when your tyres come to an abrupt halt in a muddy bog.
Heli-biking trips up Ben Cruachan are run by Vertigo Bikes (www.vertigobikes.co.nz) in Queenstown.
Canyoneering in Karijini, Australia
Canyoneering through Karijini National Park is an Indiana Jones-style adventure through a rarely seen world of towering red rock canyons, trickling waterfalls and hidden pools. Be prepared for half a day of walking then crawling, wading then swimming, climbing along ledges and up waterfalls and jumping into freezing pools. The trails are graded by how extreme the terrain gets. Classes 1–3 can be handled by most but 4–6 are where the excitement lies and should be tackled with a qualified guide.
One of the best is the “Class 4” Knox Gorge. Descending the steep track into the ravine you’ve little idea of what waits ahead. Paths and ledges peter out and you’re forced to swim across a couple of pools until the walls narrow suddenly into a shoulder-wide slot that never sees sunlight. You enter the chasm, bridging over jammed boulders, deafened and disoriented by water running through your legs until it seems there is no way ahead. There is, but to continue you must hurtle blindly down the “do-or-die” Knox Slide into an unseen plunge pool below. Later, pumped with adrenalin and teeth chattering from the icy water, you look up to see tourists pointing and staring at you from a viewpoint, wondering how on Earth you got down there.
West Oz Active (www.westozactive.com.au) offers a range of tours into remote parts of Karijini.
Taking the plunge with A.J. Hackett, New Zealand
Ever since speed skiers and general daredevils AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch invented commercial bungee jumping, New Zealand has been its home, and Queenstown its capital. So if you’re going to bungee what better place than here? And if it’s the classic experience you’re after, then the original Kawarau Suspension Bridge is your spot. At 43m it’s only a modest jump by modern standards, but you’re guaranteed an audience to will you on and then celebrate your achievement. So are you going solo or double? Dunking or dry? Shirt on or shirt off?
AJ Hackett Bungy (www.ajhackett.com) operate three bungee sites around Queenstown.
Ski from the sky in the Rockies, British Columbia
Heliskiing got its start in the Rocky Mountains of BC, and this is still one of the best places on Earth to take part in this terrifically expensive, fairly dangerous and undeniably thrilling activity. It’s a pristine mountain wonderland filled with open bowls and endless tree runs, all coated in a layer of light and powdery snow. Accessing these stashes by helicopter, with its odd mix of mobility and avian fragility, only intensifies the feeling of exploration and isolation. From the air, you’ll eagerly envision making your signature squiggles and carve lines in the untouched powder fields. And once the helicopter recedes into the distance, leaving you alone atop the mountain, you’ll feel every inch the pioneer.
Contact CMH Heli-Skiing (403/762 7100 or 1-800/661-0252, www.cmhski.com).