Best of the World: six places to rediscover nature for 2021 and beyond

Experience the wonders of the natural world at wildlife rehabilitation centres and rewilding projects, as well as in the unique flora and fauna of our planet’s most remote corners.

By National Geographic's global travel editors
Published 17 Nov 2020, 12:38 GMT, Updated 17 Nov 2020, 18:23 GMT
The coast of Lord Howe Island, New South Wales, Australia.

The coast of Lord Howe Island, New South Wales, Australia.

Photograph by Alamy

Rewilding the Highlands and beyond

Scotland can be wild. The kind of wild that leaves your boots muddy and your hair mussed; the kind that crowds the horizon with hills and valleys; where eagles soar, stags bellow and otters play.

For some, however, it’s not wild enough. Pine forests that were home to bears and wolves once carpeted much of the land here. Centuries of tree-felling and overgrazing have resulted in a radically different landscape. So, while we might swoon at today’s green mountains, many conservationists are keen to reshape the Highlands into what they once were. This is where rewilding comes in.

The 39sq-mile Alladale Wilderness Reserve, set in rampant glen-and-loch scenery an hour north of Inverness, is adopting this approach. Since 2003, it’s planted close to a million native trees, restored damaged peatland and reintroduced a now-thriving population of red squirrels. Owner Paul Lister is also the founder of The European Nature Trust, a charity that uses travel experiences to raise money for conservation and wildlife causes.

Alladale is also engaged in a breeding programme for rare Scottish wildcats — and it’s not stopping there. A longer-term aim is to bring back wolves, on a controlled scale, partly with a view to regulating the region’s population of tree-browsing deer. Regardless of whether the scheme goes ahead, a 2021 stay at the reserve is a howlingly good prospect.

It’s not the only rewilding project; the Scottish Beaver Trial has successfully reintroduced beavers to Knapdale, in the west of the country. Meanwhile, this summer saw the first breeding pair of golden eagles at the estate of Dundreggan, close to Loch Ness, for 40 years.

Travellers keen to immerse themselves in Scotland’s rewilding movement have other options, too. Charity Scotland: The Big Picture is running 10 rewilding-themed retreats in 2021, among them a ‘wilderness weekend’ at Alladale and trips to the Cairngorms and remote Knoydart peninsula.

From National Geographic Traveller UK

2. South Africa

Safaris for a new era

Of all Africa’s great wildlife destinations, South Africa is easily the best set up for independent travel. Anyone queasy about trying to social distance in a tour group can self-drive around the Big Five in wild havens such as Kruger and Addo Elelphant National Parks and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Online booking systems with arrival windows have been set up in the parks to reduce face-to-face contact where possible, but otherwise the freedom to explore at will remains.

Spotting rhinos from the window of a hire car is the most affordable way of doing the South African safari thing, but extra spending brings extra perks. The Samara Private Game Reserve, in the Eastern Cape, has introduced fly-camping experiences for guests travelling in groups of one to six. These start with a bush walk, before sleeping out in comfortable tents in a remote part of the 67,000-acre reserve. A guide and wildlife tracker cook dinner over the fire. Prices start at £312 per night.

Other reserves focus on closer encounters with the wildlife rather than distancing from other guests. The Shamwari Private Game Reserve, near Port Elizabeth, has reopened its wildlife rehabilitation centre. It focuses on injured and orphaned animals, with the aim of returning them to the wild rather than letting them get habituated to humans. Guests can visit the centre during their stay to learn about the conservation and rehabilitation efforts. 

The most daring new addition, however, is the Kruger Shalati. Here, a train has been parked atop a historic bridge at Skukuza Camp in Kruger National Park and turned in luxury hotel accommodation. The 13 converted carriages line up behind an overhanging pool dangling off the bridge, and wildlife can be spotted wandering down to the river below. Rates start at £420 a night.

To further whet the appetite for post-lockdown visits to South Africa, travel company andBeyond now offers private virtual safaris alongside its live-streamed game drives. The private experiences, from £155, focus on interpreting animal sightings. Ten-percent of the fee helps to fund conservation initiatives.

From National Geographic Traveller UK

The Cerrado, covering almost a quarter of Brazil's land surface, is uniquely biodiverse.

Photograph by Alamy

The closest thing to Jurassic Park

Environmental victories in the Brazilian Amazon don’t always turn out to be a good thing for its lesser known biome neighbour, the Cerrado. South America’s largest savanna, the Cerrado covers nearly a quarter of Brazil’s land surface and is wondrously biodiverse. But it is increasingly vulnerable to deforestation due to soybean farming and cattle ranching driven from the Amazon. More than 40,000 square miles have been destroyed in the past decade alone.

The Brazilian Campaign for the Defence of the Cerrado (‘No savanna, no water, no life’) is sounding the alarm about the pressing need to save this endangered wonderland. Several of South America’s major rivers — including São Francisco, Paraná-Paraguay and Tocantins-Araguaia — begin here, and 5 percent of the planet’s plants and animals are found here.

The Cerrado’s dizzying variety of life includes more than 10,000 species of plants (nearly half of which exist nowhere else) and Jurassic Park–size creatures: boar-like tapirs that can top 650 pounds; rare giant armadillos weighing up to 110 pounds; and giant anteaters, threatened with extinction in Brazil, that can weigh more than a hundred pounds. Equally outsized is a giant palm tree called buriti, nesting site for some of the 850-plus bird species and a main food source for many other wild things that call the Cerrado home.

From National Geographic Traveler US

4. Lord Howe Island, Australia

A last paradise in the Tasman Sea

Being off the path to anywhere helped Lord Howe, a tiny island in the Tasman Sea, stay human-free until the 18th century. Today, only 400 visitors (slightly more than the permanent population) are permitted at any one time, helping protect one of the Earth’s most isolated ecosystems in what locals call “the last paradise.”

While less than seven miles long and just over a mile at its widest, Lord Howe is the largest in an eponymous World Heritage-listed chain of islands, remnants of an underwater volcano that erupted millions of years ago. Surrounding the island is Lord Howe Island Marine Park, home to the southernmost coral reefs on the planet, over 500 fish species, and a who’s who of protected and threatened marine species, including the whale shark, great white shark and hawksbill turtle.

The island’s Protecting Paradise Program takes a holistic approach to biosecurity, enlisting the help of community volunteers and technology to remove destructive invasive species and protect endemic ones like the critically endangered Lord Howe Island Phasmid, or ‘walking sausage’, a big-as-your-hand stick insect thought to be extinct until 2001.

From National Geographic Traveler US

5. Isle Royale, Michigan, USA

Wolves and moose roam this lesser-known US National Park

Nature runs wild on Michigan’s Isle Royale, a best-kept secret of a national park in the northwestern corner of Lake Superior. The 45-mile-long wilderness island is only 18 miles from the shores of northeastern Minnesota, yet can seem edge-of-nowhere remote.

Along with causing numerous shipwrecks in the late 1800s to early 1900s, the hazardous waters surrounding Isle Royale shaped the island’s unique ecosystem. The park has only 18 mammal species (compared to more than 40 on the mainland), many of them descendants of the hardy animals who were able to swim here in summer or cross the frozen lake in winter.

Since 1958, scientists have been observing Isle Royale’s wolves and moose, in the world’s longest predator-prey study. When only a single wolf pair remained in 2018, a multi-year relocation plan began to restore the population.

Moose sightings are frequent. Less seen are humans. The isolation and solitude mainly beckon seasoned backpackers, kayakers and canoeists who arrive equipped to navigate Isle Royale’s roadless backcountry and inland lake paddling route, Chain of Lakes.

From National Geographic Traveler US

The Aurora Borealis over the Great Slave Lake Ice Road, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada.

Photograph by Getty Images

Where the northern lights shine 240 nights a year

The story of Yellowknife, capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, reads like an adventure novel. Sitting at the edge of the Arctic, on the banks of the Great Slave Lake, and surrounded by wild taiga, the city of 20,000 came into being when gold was discovered in the area back in the 1930s.

Gold mining was the main industry in Yellowknife for decades, and when the last of the local gold mines was closed in 2004, the city was already busy mining diamonds: in 1991, geologists found one of the richest diamond deposits on Earth here.

The Dene people have stewarded and travelled this land for thousands of years. Today, in the face of global challenges like Covid-19, climate change and environmental degradation, the Dene find freedom in the land, says Catherine Lafferty, a Yellowknives Dene Nation author whose latest book, Ndè-Tı-Yat’a (Land-Water-Sky), is the first penned under her Dene name, Katłıà.

“Going out on the land is one way to find peace and solace, to reconnect and to heal,” says Lafferty, who was raised in Yellowknife and writes about Indigenous injustices in northern Canada. “The land helps us to remember what is important. It is there that we can find happiness in the simplicities of nature’s gifts.”

Future visitors to Yellowknife can experience some of these gifts during nights lit by the Aurora Borealis shimmering over the boreal forests and countless small lakes outside the city.

From National Geographic Traveler Czechia

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