Adventure loves company

Intrepid travellers know the value of numbers in emerging destinations, writes Rachael Oakes-Ash.

To some, group tours are the antithesis of travel. With tour leaders keeping everyone to a timetable and designated buses taking the group from location to location, they can be seen as stifling freedom and spontaneity.

In some destinations, however, a group tour means the difference between an off-the-beaten-track experience and no experience at all. You can't just prance up a hill in the turbulent regions of Uganda to say "hi" to a mountain gorilla, for example; to experience this life-enhancing moment you must join a group tour.

Some of the world's most amazing destinations are the hardest to get to and difficult to navigate once you're there. Geographical, cultural, political and gender barriers can make the trip of a lifetime an exercise in frustration.

If you wanted to experience St Petersburg during Russia's communist times, you were more likely to gain a visa on a group tour than going alone.

The Kingdom of Bhutan strictly maintains its intrepid reputation by limiting the number of tourist visas available each year. Group travel in Bhutan may simply be the only way to get to the country once these visas have been allocated. Similarly, youth hostels, five-star accommodation or even a tourist office just don't exist in Antarctica. And a well-equipped, group cruise tour with expedition and medical professionals reduces the physical risks in exploring an extreme continent.

Emerging regions tend to lack good accommodation and tourist infrastructure. Unless you understand the exact moment to offer a "gift" before it becomes a bribe, you may find yourself in a holding cell searching for consulate support. Group tour operators take care of all the details for you. They understand the local customs, speak the language and know what parts of a country are safe. They've done all the work so you can just enjoy the ride.

Intrepid travellers often fear the loss of cultural exploration in group tours but not all tours are about mammoth parties, homogenised buffet dining and sharing rooms. The trick is to get in on the ground floor of group travel in emerging regions when the masses have yet to tread the same path. You'll be travelling with other like-minded individuals, who understand the difference between tourist and traveller.

The Levant, or Eastern Mediterranean regions, alongside parts of Eurasia and Northern Africa are emerging from behind their cultural curtain. The Iranian desert and its Bedouin people, the azure waters of Syria, the history of Damascus and the UNESCO World Heritage ancient ruins of Libya are enough to draw travellers looking for a unique adventure.

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But for many solo travellers, the idea of navigating these once war-torn areas, especially as a female, is daunting. There are a number of small group tour operators now working in these regions with multi-day tours from intrepid to comfort standards.

Syria

Where Bordered by Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and the Mediterranean, Syria steeped in religious and cultural history dating back to 3000BC. The territory has been claimed by the Persians, then the Romans before the Islamic Empire and in more recent centuries, the French and the British. Syria gained independence in the mid-20th century and has experienced various stages of instability since.

Why not solo The country's history and trading culture lures the adventurous but the instability means it's safer to go as a group.

What to see The people of Syria are generous to a fault and welcome travellers into their fold. You'll be guaranteed a life-changing and enlightening sojourn in a country that blends the modern and the old.

It would be a sacrilege to visit Syria and not spend time in the ancient city of Damascus which has been named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The equally ancient town of Palmyra is also UNESCO-blessed and the country's biggest drawcard.

Expect ruins throughout the country that reveal a bygone world, crusader-style castles and Arabic souqs that weave their way through lanes and streets revealing a plethora of retail therapy opportunities.

Who goes Most group tour operators combine Syria with neighbouring Jordan or Lebanon. Peregrine Adventures and Intrepid Travel both run multi-day, two-country tours. World Expeditions has an eight-day, stand-alone Syria tour from $US1690 ($2405).

Libya

Where This Northern African nation is neighboured by Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia, with the Mediterranean Sea to the north. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Phoenicians have all occupied this territory at some time in history, leaving behind archaeological ruins worth visiting.

Why not solo Libya has no democracy and no political parties and the media is censored by the government. Freedom of speech is not encouraged and, as such, group tours offer a way to navigate travel without offence.

What to see Libya has a dramatic landscape of beaches, desert, mountains, multi-coloured lakes, prehistoric rock art and Bedouin towns.

Oasis cities provide exotic respite in the Sahara desert which makes up almost 90 per cent of the country. It's a mesmerising country whose capital, Tripoli, sits on the coast, blending western influence with Muslim culture. The land is arid and boasts the hottest destination in the world, if that's your thing. Otherwise stick to the oasis cities or the coast.

Who goes The Imaginative Traveller has a 15-day tour in Libya from $3670, including ancient sites, salt lakes, urban experience and more. See www.imaginative-traveller.com.au.

Iran

Where Once known as Persia, Iran is located between the Middle East, Europe and Asia. This makes for an exotic travel destination influenced by many cultures dating back to 4000BC. The country is bordered by Turkey, Armenia, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, the Caspian Sea, Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. It is filled with mountainous regions.

Why not solo For women wanting to navigate this country, it is a case of "safety in numbers". Not that Iran is unsafe; the restrictive Islamic gender issues are more confronting to the liberal female traveller and the chance of harassment is seriously reduced if females travel in a group.

What to do Iran has a rich history of art, architecture and design, from calligraphy and sculpture to intricate painted miniatures and impressive mosaics. Photographers will salivate over the urban creations on offer. Seventy per cent of the 70-million strong population reside in urban regions, making for a vibrant city and town culture throughout the land.

Expect a blend of ultra-modern architecture with Moorish influence to ancient mosques and UNESCO sites. The city of Esfahan is a shrine to Islamic architecture and arched river bridges. The city square is a World Heritage site while the mountainous regions hold ancient caves to explore, including the Chehel Khaneh filled with dug-out crypts.

Who goes G.A.P Adventures Worldwide has a 14-day Discover Persia tour from the city to the mountains and the desert from $1739. See gapadventures.com.

The Sun-Herald

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