Boats have been ferrying people up and down the River Niger since 1964 and, although these days you are likely to see more goats than people on board, there is no better way to get close to Malian life as you slip past villages clinging to the cliff side and sand dunes reaching down to the water’s edge. It takes six days to drift from Koulikoro to Gao, a total of 1300km, but the benefit of taking a boat is the time spent with locals, sharing stories and exchanging views.
In defiance of its old name, Marusthali (Land of Death), the Thar is the most densely populated of the world’s great deserts. Yet the only way to reach the more isolated settlements is by camel: riding out into the scrub, two metres off the ground, the last citadel town behind, you enter another kind of India – one of shimmering vistas, blue skies and profound stillness.
A cruise up Dubai’s historic Creek can reveal the history underneath the Vegas-style attractions of the modern city. In the past Stone, Bronze and Iron Age settlements sprang up on both sides of the river, followed by the famous mud and palm-frond huts of the early pearl divers. Now, amid the towering buildings of the oil-boom, are the low-rise sprawls with their temples, markets and teahouses. Drifting past the sights, smells and sounds you can explore real Dubai.
Flying is the quickest and cheapest way to get between the major cities of Australia, but take the train and you’ll see the wheat fields of Victoria, the dusty outback towns and kilometres of endless white-sand beaches. The Indian Pacific, from Sydney to Perth, is one of the world’s longest train journeys. It’s a three-day, 4352km trip, stopping along the way for you to spend an evening in the gold-rush town of Kalgoorlie and visit the remote outpost community of Cook on the Nullarbor Plain.
The boat journey between Luang Prabang and the Thai border passes through some of the most unspoilt passages of the Mekong River. Evidence of civilisation is scarce amid the endless jungle that lines the steep, cloud-topped hills, and you’ll probably see little more than rice paddies, small teak plantations or isolated wooden fishing villages. Certainly speedboat or bus will get you to your destination faster but travelling on the Luangsuay, a 34m river barge, is a more peaceful, leisurely way to appreciate life on the river.
As your poler guides the traditional dugout canoe through the maze of islands and rivers, lilies and reeds, he’s also watching out for crocodiles and hippos. His vigilance means you can keep your binoculars trained on the bathing elephants and herds of antelope which seek sanctuary here, away from the barren Kalahari desert. Trips with the community-run Okavango Polers’ Trust last about three days, camping on islands and ensuring you leave no trace of your visit behind.
The four-day horse-riding trip offered by Drakensberg Adventures begins with the Sani Pass in eastern Kwazulu Natal, a rubble strewn track and the highest pass in Southern Africa. Crossing the border at the top you reach The Sani Top Chalet where a sign lets you know that, at 3482m, you are sitting in the highest bar in Africa. Here the real journey begins: two days’ riding to reach Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest point south of Kilimanjaro, where you can stop for a well-earned lunch.
Build your own timber raft from a dozen ropes and logs and float down the Klarälven, Sweden’s longest river. You can take your raft out for just one afternoon, but to get the most from your DIY achievement it’s best to go on a five – or eight – day trip to fully explore the river. There are periods of intense activity (rapids and whirlpools) but most of the journey is a slow meander so you can keep an eye out for beaver and moose, and bask in the success of your handmade raft.
Take a barge down the seventeenth century Canal du Midi and drift through Languedoc. The long hours of sunshine in this part of France power the boat’s hot water and electric motor, so the only complication you face is negotiating a “ladder” of seven lock gates before the final stretch of the 75km journey to Pont Neuf in Béziers. Your seven days begins in the medieval town of Carcassonne, and there's plenty to do en route, or you could simply take it slow.
Board the Caledonian sleeper train one evening and the following morning you’ll wake up in the heart of the Scottish Highlands – a slow, subconscious teleport out of the urban grit and grind into the mountainous fresh and wild. The train leaves Euston at 9:15, reaching Crewe around midnight from where it trundles up to Scotland. It arrives mid-morning at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak, but if you wake early you can always take a peek out your window at the Central Highlands.
In 1991 Tour India launched the first tourist houseboat, converted from an old kettuvallam barge. Today the company has six boats and offer long charters that allow you to explore more remote areas: little-visited waterways and genuine, workaday villages. For an even slower journey there’s Coco Houseboats. You don’t cover as much ground, but your journey is more peaceful, with time to enjoy the passing scenery.
Just hoisting the sail of a dhow is hard work, but as soon as it catches a breeze they sail across the ocean as gracefully as any yacht. A plank of wood nailed across the hull is where you sit, while the captain tills the wooden rudder. There are organised trips, but by asking around you should be able to arrange a ride with a local fishermen.