Atacama desert, Northern Chile
This barren, desiccated wilderness is the driest desert in the world. Yet for nearly 10,000 years people have inhabited parts of this arid land. While rain almost never falls, on the desert’s costal edge, fog from the Pacific Ocean provides a crucial water supply. Strung up on the hillside above the village of Chungungo, fine nets catch and collect vital droplets of moisture from the passing mists.
Cut off and only accessible by air or river, the jungle metropolis of Iquitos is the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road. Isolated it may be but Iquitos is far from empty: buzzing, bustling and slightly frenzied, this remote city welcomes travellers keen to explore further into the heart of the Peruvian Amazon.
Set against a rugged backdrop of jagged hilltops, Matmata appears as a multitude of craters that puncture the landscape’s soft sandstone. Much of the town’s inhabitants live in pit-dwellings and artificial caves scooped out of the earth, creating an otherworldly landscape that captured the imagination of George Lucas when he used it as a film location for Star Wars.
Ferocious waterfalls, swollen rivers and raging torrents are all part of life in the rainiest inhabited place on Earth. Here the lovingly trained roots of a species of Strangler Fig form a myriad network of majestic pathways; ancient living bridges span bloated rivers, while ingenious root ladders and suspended walkways scale sheer cliff faces.
Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria
Floating rubbish, aged boats and dilapidated shacks on stilts fill the oily, grimy waters of the Makoko slum. Already battling polluted waters, claustrophobic dwellings and rampant diseases, the inhabitants of this floating slum now face losing their homes as the Nigerian government push to eradicate this scar from Lagos’s potentially lucrative waterfront.
Minqin County, China
The relentless, drifting sands of the Tengger and Badain Jaran deserts are silently swallowing up this county in north-west China. This shrinking oasis once acted as a natural barrier to the encroaching deserts but now, with water supplies running out, the county’s farms and towns are rapidly being engulfed and forgotten.
Tristan da Cunha
With harsh winds, incessant rain and the looming threat of volcanic eruptions and extratropical cyclones, Tristan da Cunha is not your typical island paradise. Stranded between Africa and South America, the island forms part of the world’s most remote inhabited archipelago. Starkly cut off, for its inhabitants access to the mainland comes only via fishing vessels that run nine times a year.
Inuit people, Greenland
The bleak, frozen stretch of Greenland is the world’s largest island. With four-fifths of the country permanently hidden under ice, for the Inuits skilled hunting is vital for their survival. While seals, walruses, polar bears and birds are all viable targets, the true prize are narwhal whose ornate, spiraling tusks once inspired legends of unicorns.
Mount Ijen, Java, Indonesia
At the heart of Mount Ijen, clouds of toxic smoke bellow forth from the bubbling, acidic lake that lines the volcano’s crater. Here sulphur miners gathering this valuable vivid-yellow deposit conduct a daily battle with choking fumes that are concentrated enough to burn their eyes and throats, while gradually dissolving their teeth.
Gobi desert, Mongolia
A vast, fickle expanse that sways from sharp rocky outcrops to rolling sand dunes and scorching summers to icy winters. In a region characterised by irregularity, the scarcity of water is one of the few constants. With only 200mm of rainfall a year, camel herders and their livestock stalk snowstorms across the parched land in search of this vital resource.
Kombai tribe, New Guinea
Humid, stagnant and sinister, the swamps of New Guinea also harbour mosquitoes, malaria and crocodiles. Forced here by fearful mainland head-hunters, the Kombai have, quite literally, risen above these problems by creating tree houses. Sometimes reaching heights of 40 metres, these examples of high-style living provide some relief from the heat and insects, and more importantly protection from hostile tribes.
Moken people, Mergui Archipelago
Far from settled, the Moken, a semi-nomadic people known as “Sea Gypsies” spend much of their lives aboard hand-built wooden boats called kabang. Expert fishermen and divers, they are so attuned to their marine world that they can dive unaided to depths of 75 feet. Even more astonishing is their ability to constrict their pupils to gain incredibly clear underwater vision when foraging for food along the ocean floor.
Uncontacted tribe, The Amazon
Deep in the remote wilderness of the Amazon rainforest between Peru and Bolivia lives one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes. Only discovered in 2008, the pressure is now on to prove their existence, as our overcrowded world of loggers, miners and cattle ranchers encroaches ever more on their isolation and freedom.
Poised on the floodplain between the Niger and Bani rivers, every year Djenne is transformed into an island. The floods draw together the community to repair and maintain their famous mud architecture. At the centre of it all is The Great Mosque, the largest mud brick building in the world, which towers majestically over its low-rise neighbourhood.
Coober Pedy, Australia
In the seemingly limitless expanse of cracked red earth and scrubby desert known as the Outback, surface temperatures fluctuate between scorching days and freezing nights. To escape this fickle, inhospitable environment, much of the mining town of Coober Pedy has been built underground in an extensive network of cave-like dugouts that pepper the surrounding hills.
La Rinconada, Peru
Built on a glacier in the Andes at an altitude of 5,100 metres, this isolated gold-mining town is said to be the highest city in the world. But life on the roof of the world is far from heavenly. Drawn by dreams of gold, people here live amongst cascades of garbage while struggling with icy temperatures, painfully thin air and pervading sense of lawlessness (without a permanent police presence the city is, somewhat literally, above the law).
In the massive Siberian region of Yakutia stands Okmyakon, the world’s coldest permanently inhabited place. Temperatures here have been known to plummet to -96°F. It is at once both achingly cold yet magical; stand outside on a crisp day and listen for ‘the whisper of the stars’, a faint melodic rustle caused as tiny ice particles from your breath settle around you.
© Spiridon Sleptsov/Shutterstock
Centered on a collapsed volcano, the hottest inhabited place on Earth is an area of brutal beauty. Burnt orange mineral crusts, vivid yellow sulphur deposits and lime green acid lakes merge in a disorientating attack of colour. Once a small mining town, today only the local Afar people battle this intense heat to collect salt.