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Travel writers share 17 ultimate adventures to inspire your next big trip

From riding the rails through Siberia to bush camping in Queensland, our thrill-seeking writers have selected their favourite trips for you to add to your travel hitlist.

How about testing your nerve with a 100ft plunge into the To-Sua Ocean Trench on the island of Apia, Samoa? Our travel writers have rounded up 18 adventures with a difference.

Photograph by AWL Images
By Julia Buckley, Amelia Duggan, Emma Gregg, Jamie Lafferty, Ben Lerwill, Aaron Millar, Adrian Phillips & Emma Thomson
Published 4 Jul 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 17:07 BST

Seeking inspiration for your next big adventure? Then look no further. From hiking volcanic craters in Samoa and snorkelling with whale sharks on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, to an on-foot tiger safari in Nepal and learning to sail in the Canaries, our thrill-seeking travel writers have selected their favourite adventurous forays. The only thing left for you to do is to decide which unique experience should be next on your travel hitlist.

A fruit seller rows into a floating marketplace in the Mekong Delta region, Vietnam.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. Pedal along the Mekong in Vietnam & Cambodia

The sweltering banks of the Mekong River may not seem like the easiest cycling route, but bike tour specialist Grasshopper Adventures offers a series of manageable day-cycles along Southeast Asia’s best-known watery artery. Pedal for a few hours each day, then rejoin the company’s liveaboard boat as it meanders north from Vietnam into Cambodia.The tour starts in Ho Chi Minh City, bordering the mighty Mekong Delta region, close to the mouth of the world’s 10th-longest river. From here, it leads up through small villages and towns, often with the Mekong in sight, but sometimes leaving it far behind as participants cycle through dragon fruit farms and rice paddies, perhaps passing local festivals or weddings, where mutual astonishment is shared by Lycra-clad riders and revellers.

Riders will want to regularly refuel — the topography is mercifully flat, but the humidity is relentless, — and thankfully roadside fruit and juice stands are plentiful. Pedalling north, across the Cambodian border, new bikes await. Historical and cultural lessons are offered by guides along the way, and at the final stop, in Siem Reap, a day can be spent cycling around the mighty temples of Angkor. Unconquerable on foot in a day, the 72 ruins that once stood as a vast Khmer city, crowned by the temple of Angkor is surprisingly easily navigated by bike, and freewheeling around the UNESCO World Heritage Site, often described as the finest archaeological site in South East Asia, makes for a spectacular reward at the end of a week of cycling up the Mekong. grasshopperadventures.com  JL  

Thornicroft’s giraffe, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.

Photograph by Getty Images

2. Spot rare giraffes in Zambia

Africa’s giraffes are fascinating to observe, and they’re scarcer than you might think. While South African giraffes are thriving, habitat loss has caused a sharp decline in sub-species in countries to the north. If you’re keen to see such a rarity, you can do no better than the Thornicroft’s giraffe. Recent genetic research suggests the species is closely related to East Africa’s Masai giraffe — closely enough, perhaps, to interbreed. Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley National Park is home to their sole population, numbering around 600. Here, informative guides lead tours run by ethical-minded bush camps where you will spy Thornicroft’s giraffe, distinguished by its jagged spots. Look closely, and you’ll see the animals travel with an entourage: red-billed oxpeckers, plucky little birds that keep them tick free and sometimes reach right inside their ears, as if whispering a secret. bushcampcompany.com  EG

3. Find Colombia’s Lost City

It may not reach the same altitudes as its Peruvian rival, Machu Picchu, but the five-day Ciudad Perdida trek is just as challenging. Rain can make trails muddy and energise the humid jungle’s mosquitos, too. But, as the route doesn’t attract anywhere near the number of hikers that Machu Pichu does, expect rewardingly quiet moments of reflection once inside the ruins themselves. Archaeological work is ongoing at Ciudad Perdida — built around 650 years before Machu Pichu — and has already uncovered 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, all accessed via 1,200 stone steps. And, having made it all the way to the 1,200-year-old ruins, hikers return the same route, traversing mountain and rivers back to Santa Marta. gadventures.com  JL

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge from the water.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Ride the California Zephyr between Chicago & San Francisco, USA

This 2,400-mile east-west link proves that despite the US’s limited choice of rail routes, it doesn’t stint on quality. Over the course of 50 hours, the Zephyr travels through three time zones and seven states, traversing Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska before ramping up to the blockbuster landscapes of Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. You’ll cross the Mississippi, climb the Rockies and snake along the Colorado River, starting and ending in two of the country’s finest cities. A state-funded Amtrak service, the Zephyr isn’t Uncle Sam’s Orient Express, and overseas travellers are in the minority, but that’s the joy of it. There are sleeper compartments, a dining car and an observation lounge-cum-bar where you and fellow riders can share the joys of Utah’s rose-tinted, mesa-studded plains on day two, and VIP views of the Sierra Nevada on the approach to San Francisco. But just spending three days watching the great American outdoors spool past the window is a luxury in itself. amtrakvacations.co.uk  BL

5. Discover Treasure Island in Samoa

It’s no coincidence that Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, chose Samoa as the place in which to spend his final years — this is a Polynesian paradise with an edge. For the chance to spot the sperm whales and spinner dolphins that pass between Upolu and Savai’i (the two main islands), join a boat trip from Apia, the nation’s capital. Visit in June, and you might catch a fautasi race, which sees islanders compete in traditional long boats that can accommodate crews of up to 50. There are plenty of year-round activities, too, such as hiking remote trails in rainforest-filled volcanic craters, testing your nerve with a 100ft plunge into the To-Sua Ocean Trench and watching jets of water burst from the Alofaaga Blowholes. samoa.travel  AP

Hiking a forest trail on the clifftops of the Lycian Way, Turkey.

Photograph by Getty Images

6. Hike Turkey’s Lycian Way

Few hiking routes have it all — mountains, sea, forest and beach — but the Lycian Way’s pine-clad forests edge vertiginous cliffs that drop into lapis-blue waters, lapped by bay after bay of white sand. Old Roman roads and mule paths comprise this 335-mile hiking route from Ölüdeniz to Geyikbayırı in southwestern Turkey. Designed by British amateur historians Kate Clow and Terry Richardson in the 1990s, it’s named after the Lycian League, a 2,500-year-old civilisation that established one of the world’s first parliaments here, at Patara. The twisting trail passes through olive groves and rustic villages, temple-like Lycian tombs hewn into the hillsides, the remains of Pinara’s amphitheatre and azure seas. Days end at guest houses with cold beers and sunset views. cultureroutesinturkey.com  ET 

7. Hunt for fairies in Pakistan’s Hunza Valley

Deep inside a great cauldron of eight mountains, in north-eastern Pakistan, the Hunza Valley was cut off from the outside world until the completion of the Karakoram Highway in 1978. Famed for its 32 varieties of apricots, spring is the best time to visit when valley air flutters with blossoms. A three-hour hike from the village of Tato leads travellers to Fairy Meadow National Park — a 10,800ft-high alpine idyll, at the base of Nanga Parbat. The sight of the snow-dusted peaks mirrored perfectly in the clear mountain ponds is mesmerising. Take strolls across the juniper- and pine-scented plateau and keep an eye out for blue-eyed fairies. Local legend has it this area is paradise for these mystical creatures. Whether you’re a believer or not, a visit definitely contributes to Pakistan’s blossoming tourism renaissance. wildfrontierstravel.com  ET

Navigating the turquoise waters of Attabad Lake, Karakoram. 

Photograph by Getty Images

8. Conquer fiery volcanoes in Guatemala

Guatemala’s Western Highlands are home to a spectacular spine of volcanoes: 37 thrust skywards before the land tapers away to the shimmering Pacific. They loom over the colonnades and chapels of Antigua Guatemala, their peaks snagging passing clouds and encircling market towns home to communities of indigenous Maya. Local adventure outfits have sprung up in recent years, hoping to tempt travellers to explore the peaks with seasoned guides. There’s quick-to climb Chicabal, with its sacred, high-altitude lake; San Pedro, a tough half-day scramble; and Tajumulco, Central America’s loftiest summit at 13,850ft, best tackled in one gruelling day. 

To immerse yourself in the elemental nature of the land, pitch a tent on Acatenango — a forested peak pinned between the volcanoes of Agua (‘Water’) and Fuego (‘Fire’) — and watch fiery-red volleys of rocks and ash streak the star-studded night sky. viaventure.com  AD

9. Snorkel with whale sharks in Mexico

Becoming a citizen scientist adds depth and purpose to a snorkelling adventure. Spend a week on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, with wildlife operator Aqua-Firma, and you can head out to sea on day expeditions with whale shark researchers, marine biologists and camera operators whose job it is to study the world’s biggest fish.The team operates in July, the busiest month for sightings, when aerial surveys count up to 200 whale sharks near the research boat, many surrounded by remora fish. As well as collecting whale shark data, the team is trying to determine if the local giant manta rays are a new species. Most whale shark encounters are in clear water where, by free-diving down, you can marvel at these gentle giants looming overhead, blocking out the light. aqua-firma.com  EG

Divers swimming with a whale shark, near Cancún, Mexico.

Photograph by Getty Images

10. Go overland through Hungary’s Great Plain

This was once a place of bandits and outcasts, where cowboys roamed and legends were made. The Great Hungarian Plain is at the heart of the country’s cultural identity: goulash was popularised here, cooked by herders in cauldrons hung over open fires, and the flat grasslands and big skies have inspired countless landscape artists. Route 33 offers a thrilling road trip through the area, with various options for breaks along the way. Stop off at Lake Tisza for a spot of kayaking and a bowl of local fish soup, or head to Hortobágy National Park for impressive birdlife and mesmerising cowboy shows, with csikós (herders) performing breathtaking acts of skill on horseback. hnp.hu/en  AP

11. Sail a tall ship through the Canaries

Off the west coast of Africa lie the Canary Islands, which have a rich history as a seafarers’ stopover. Board a tall ship in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to embark on an Atlantic sailing adventure, learning how to navigate, set the rigging and unfurl sails. The Santa Maria Manuela, a four-masted gaff schooner, spends a week cruising around Santa Cruz de Tenerife, La Gomera and El Hierro before heading back to Las Palmas. Keep your eyes peeled: the nutrient-rich waters between the islands are great place to spot cetaceans. Short-finned pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins often leap through the waves, while migratory species such as spotted, striped and rough-toothed dolphins sometimes appear. sailtraininginternational.org  EG

12. Go bush camping in Queensland

An hour-and-a-half drive from Brisbane brings you to the Scenic Rim, an arc of mountains where you’ll find a 5,000-acre private nature reserve offering luxurious, safari-style camping. No private cars are allowed at Spicers Canopy — you’ll be picked up at the gate in a four-wheel-drive — and there are no computers or TVs on site. This is an opportunity to commune with nature, exploring grasslands, eucalyptus forests, creeks and mountain trails. Treks along the Scenic Rim Trail range from two days to a full week, with local guides teaching you bushcraft secrets en route: learn which plants to eat, how to locate honey and the best way to catch yabbies. spicersretreats.com  AP

Spicers’ Eco Cabins, set on the edge of the rainforest in Main Range National Park is used exclusively for those hiking the five-day Scenic Rim Trail, Australia.

Photograph by Spicers Timber Getters Eco Camp

13. Ride Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway

Only in Russia can you board a train that’s timetabled to take around a week to reach its final destination. Covering 5,772 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok, the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway is the world’s longest continuous passenger route.While there’s something inherently thrilling about crossing a continent by train, you don’t choose the Trans-Siberian Railway for its speed — it typically trundles along at around 50 mph — or its views, which are mostly of vast, open landscapes and birch forests. This is a cultural adventure, taking in remote towns such as Perm and Irkutsk while sleeping in what amounts to a mobile guesthouse.

The dormitory-like platzkart (third-class) carriages offer the best opportunities to mingle, perhaps by sharing meals of homemade black bread, cured meat, smoked fish and blueberry waffles bought from vendors on the platforms. trains.realrussia.co.uk/transsib  EG

14. Join the Wacky Races along Central Asia’s Silk road Route

Since its launch in 2012, the route of the Central Asia Rally has changed many times, but now offers an approximate Silk Road adventure in reverse. The 4,000-mile car rally kicks off in Astrakhan, Russia, with participants taking two weeks to travel east through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan before finishing in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Second-hand cars are typically used, and for many it’s a one-way journey, with old bangers sold off at markets in Kyrgyzstan. For those unsure of what to drive, the Travel Scientists, who pioneered the race, can make arrangements in Astrakhan. centralasiarally.com  JL

A carpet weaver makes a traditional silk carpet in Itchan Kala, Uzbekistan.

Photograph by Getty Images

15. Pick your way through ‘The Teeth’ in Chile

One of Patagonia’s great treks begins just outside of Puerto Williams, rising steeply through a pine forest before reaching a high pass where Ushuaia and the Magellan Strait, and its cruise ships to Antarctica, are visible. Dientes de Navarino (‘dientes’ means ‘teeth’ in Spanish) is the southernmost trekking route for the White Continent. Typically taking four days, it requires good levels of fitness and a basic knowledge of wild camping. Porters and guides are recommended, given the challenging terrain, lack of signage and unpredictable weather. The serrated mountains that give the route its name stretch skywards above lakes and waterfalls; the route cuts through the peaks, before heading over the Virginia Pass. The final, dramatic descent passes a sapphire lake en route back to Puerto Williams. chilenativo.travel  JL

16. Safari on foot in tiger country, Nepal

Since 2010, conservation efforts in Nepal have led to the country becoming the first in the world to double its tiger population, which now totals around 450. This has doubled the chance of seeing one of the world’s largest cats in the wild — an even more exciting prospect when exploring jungles on foot, as part of a guide-led tour. Around 350 miles west of Kathmandu, Bardiya National Park is one of Nepal’s tiger strongholds. With abundant fresh water, an ample number of deer, and little in the way of human development, the cats thrive here. Nature drives and walks are offered every day from lodges such as the excellent Tiger Tops Karnali Lodge, where sightings of Asian elephants and endangered one-horned rhinos are common, even if the naturally elusive feline predators remain far from a guaranteed encounter. tigertops.com  JL

The greatest treasure of Kwa'Zulu Natal state, in South Africa, is its enigmatic living culture: over 10 million Zulu call it home.

Photograph by Getty Images

17. Explore South Africa’s Zulu heartland

Encompassing the dramatic, dragon-spine peaks of the Drakensberg, and grasslands rolling out to meet the Indian Ocean, the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal offers wilderness in excess. It’s the perfect adventure playground; hike the ’Berg — tackling the multi-day Giant’s Cup Trail, or sheer-sided Cathedral Peak — or spot rhinos in Africa’s oldest reserve, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. 

But the greatest treasure of this land is its enigmatic living culture. Over 10 million Zulu live across the state, proudly preserving ancient traditions that had been cultivated during the 19th century when legendary warrior Shaka Zulu built an empire across Southern Africa. 

Arrive in Durban and meet guide Thoko Jilli, of Wisdom Tours, who eschews the oft-staged cultural dances and buffets of local lodges in favour of tours into the undulating, emerald region known as the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Just an hour from the city, experience daily life in a rural hamlet with which Thoko has close ties. 

Here, you can break bread with local women in a rondavel (a thatched building shaped like a drum); hear poetry in the sonorous isiZulu language; and learn about spirituality, exploring sacred stone Shembe circles and meeting with a sangoma (ancestral healer) or inyanga (medicine man). 

Or try custom-built tours that dive into Durban’s warren-like Markets of Warwick, home to beadworkers; stalls selling local dishes like bunny chow (meat curry in a bun) or roasted cow head; and vendors touting charms and traditional cures. Or make for the atmospheric Anglo-Zulu War battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift in the state’s north. wisdomtours.co.za  marketsofwarwick.co.za  AD

Compiled by Sarah Barrell

Published in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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