The world's most worthwhile remote destinations: Eight of last remaining off-the-beaten track places

Perth is the world's remotest city, so the claim goes. Not true. If you take 500,000 inhabitants as your definition of a city, then Honolulu likely takes out top spot for being furthest from any other city on the planet. If your threshold is a million, it might be Auckland, which is a tad further from Sydney than Perth is from Adelaide.

Of course, none of these are remote in any but a geographical sense. Planes decant sun-starved Canadians and Japanese honeymooners into Honolulu; the city has a thriving Chinatown, huge beach resorts and a thrumming nightlife. That's not what we imagine by remote.

Remote is Alert in far northern Canada, well inside the Arctic Circle. It's the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world, accessible only by air-force transport, population about 60. In winter, it's permanently dark and has an average temperature of minus-32 degrees.

Remote should be way off the beaten track and off the grid. Far-flung ought to require a long journey to somewhere nobody else has heard about. Somewhere challenging to reach. Remote is the illusion that you're one of few outsiders around. There's no such sense of achievement getting to Auckland.

Can you get truly remote in today's world? Maybe not. You can't even digital detox in Pitcairn Island in the Pacific or Tristan de Cunha in the Atlantic these days, as both have internet access. Still, off-the-beaten-track destinations remain abundant if you look. Why go? To see almost untouched parts of the world. To travel in the footsteps of explorers. For the challenge and the mystique. For soul-searching, or crass bragging rights. Just because we can. - Brian Johnston

ONE ROAD IN, ONE ROAD OUT

UGAB RHINO CAMP, NAMIBIA (20.9629° S, 14.1338° E)

By Ben Groundwater

Camping at Spitzkoppe in the Namib desert of Namibia Africa SatSept28Cover - Off The Beaten Track - Ben Groundwater
Camping in Namibia
iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.

Photo: iStock

We're going to die here. My partner is convinced. I'm becoming increasingly concerned. And there's no way out. The scene is a dusty campsite, an apocalyptic wasteland with no other campers and apparently no staff.

Dust whirls in gentle eddies that meander about the clearing. We've just entered via the only road in or out, a rough, rocky 4WD track, the sort you can only take at crawling pace or risk puncturing a tyre or rolling into a ravine.

Advertisement

It's hot here. It's dry. Desert elephants roam these parched valleys. Prides of lions stalk the area. It's intimidating and it's lonely and it's a little strange that no one else is here, but the sun is dipping towards the jagged horizon and we don't have any other options, so we pull our car under a thorny acacia and begin to set up camp.

That's when someone finally appears. It's just one guy who strolls in from the group of huts outside the campsite perimeter. He smiles and welcomes us first in his native Damara language, and then in Afrikaans. Do you speak English, we ask? He spreads his hands in apology. No.

The feeling of discombobulation intensifies. Is this place safe? Why isn't anyone else here? Are there wild animals to worry about? A few words of reassurance would be nice. But the guide chatters in Afrikaans and we do our best to follow with bad Dutch before he seems to remember something exciting and motions us to follow him, taking us a few paces over to the adjacent site and pointing to the soft sand.

And there it is. Perfectly outlined and freshly made, there is the dinner-plate-sized paw print of a male lion. It can't have been made more than an hour or two ago. Great.

This is Ugab River Rhino Camp, a lonely stop on a wide detour on a road to nowhere. The Namibian seaside town of Swakopmund is about seven hours to the south. Etosha National Park is six hours north.

Both of those exotic locations feel pedestrian compared with this. One road in, one road out. And it's too late to go back. We have to set up camp. We have to spend the night, we have to light a fire and make lots of noise and try to discourage feline observers.

We're heartened, finally, by the sight of another car, driven by a local Namibian guy who invites us to drink whisky around his fire and tough the evening out together. Later, my partner and I huddle in our sleeping bags and imagine every rustle and every bump is a lion stalking its pale, shivering prey.

It's dawn when we really do hear something outside. We peer out the tent flap and spot four kids pushing a wheelbarrow over the sandy clearing, laughing, jostling, going to collect firewood. We smile. Probably safe to get up. See namibweb.com

GRAVE UNDERTAKING

TANA TORAJA, INDONESIA (3.0753° S, 119.7426° E)

By Ute Junker

Lemo (Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi, Indonesia), famous burial site with coffins placed in caves carved into the rock, guarded by balconies of dressed wooden statues, images of the dead persons (called tau tau in local language). Details, telephoto view. SatSept28Cover - Off The Beaten Track - Ute Junker
Funeral of Tana Toraja, Indonesia
iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.

Photo: iStock

We have driven eight hours to attend a funeral that we didn't even know was occurring. Across bumpy roads, through low-lying rice paddies and up jungle-covered mountains draped with ribbons of mist, we have come with one specific hope: to see the dead.

Not many travellers make the long trek to Sulawesi's remote highlands; those that do are drawn by the intriguing culture of the Toraja people, in which death rites play a big part. Burials are often elaborate, with some bodies buried in caves while others are interred in wooden coffins then hung from cliffs.

Yet others are buried inside the cliffs themselves, in holes chiselled into the rock face by men standing on rickety ladders. Some of these burial cliffs have an added layer of decoration – the so-called death balconies. These feature effigies of the recently departed, carefully carved figures dressed in their best outfits. Family members occasionally drop by with changes of clothing.

Grave viewing is a large part of a visit to Tana Toraja but what most travellers are hoping for is to be invited to attend a funeral. Toraja funerals last for days and involve not just hundreds of guests, but also the sacrifice of large numbers of buffalo (the meat is distributed among the attendees). The entire village takes part, helping to build the large wooden pavilions that provide shelter during the day and sleeping spaces at night.

On this trip, our luck is in. Not long after we arrive at Tana Toraja, my guide confirms that a funeral is taking place, and we are welcome to attend. Invitations, I gather, are not difficult to come by: a large funeral is the ultimate status symbol among the Toraja. Nonetheless, I feel like a gate-crasher as we arrive at the event, worried that my presence turns this event from a community celebration to a voyeuristic spectacle.

That's not the way it plays out. When we head to one of the pavilions, the other guests cheerfully make room for us. A glass of tea is proffered, introductions are made and soon we are deep into the usual conversations about kids today, and whether law or medicine is a better career choice for your offspring. Quips and barbs are traded, and there are smiles galore – a cheerful celebration of life against a backdrop of death. See backyardtravel.com

FISH SOUP AND REINDEER STEW

YAMAL PENINSULA, SIBERIA

70.0000° N, 70.0000° E

By Catherine Marshall

The Nenets reindeer herders have set up camp far above the Arctic Circle, and it will take days for us to reach them. Two nights by train from St Petersburg to Salekhard, the only city to sit directly on the 66th parallel; two days by swamp buggy and Cold War-era tank along a trail that swiftly degrades from tar to dirt to sodden, unmarked tundra.

This is a godforsaken place, a thick finger of land that extends 700 kilometres northwards from the Siberian mainland and protrudes into the Kara Sea. Known as the Yamal Nenets Autonomous-Okrug, it's at once both hauntingly beautiful and achingly bleak; devoid of life except for the steely rivers carving channels through it, the cloud berries casting tiny bursts of orange light, and the bones of once-living reindeers scattered like clues to the vast herds roaming its expanse.

For centuries the Nenets have herded these creatures. They're one of the world's last remaining nomadic people, following the herds' ancient migratory routes northwards when the rivers start to thaw, drifting southwards when the cold sets in.

In summer their reindeer-pulled sleds are weighted down with canvas tents and wood stoves, televisions and satellite dishes; in winter the journey is eased with skidoos. They cover about 1200 kilometres each year.

Our own journey, though bone-jarring, is comparatively easy. We stop along the way to gaze down on the unfurling, waterlogged country, to breathe its crystalline air; we repair the rattletrap tank's slipped tread and eat meals of cured fish and chunks of lard and hard-as-rock preserved bread. We press on until finally the tips of the Nenets' chums (tents) emerge like peace flags on the horizon.

It's summer and the sun lingers low all night long, bathing the campsite in ethereal light. We sleep on reindeer skins laid out inside the chums, and listen to the castanet clicking of the reindeers' dewclaws. In the morning, we wash in the icy stream and eat fish soup and reindeer stew. So isolated is this little campsite nothing, it seems, can touch it.

Except, perhaps, greed, for the peninsula is undergirded by the world's largest gas reserve, and mining activity is threatening migratory routes and the Nenets' way of life. Who knows, then, what roads might crisscross this tundra in years to come? For now, it's a remote and ever-changing place, one that's every bit as inaccessible as the people who inhabit it. See intrepidtravel.com

SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR

CIENFUEGOS CUBA (22.1600° N, 80.4438° W)

By Guy Wilkinson

An old american car of the 50s in Cienfuegos, Cuba SatSept28Cover - Off The Beaten Track - Guy Wilkinson
iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.

Photo: iStock

When I'm handed the keys to our rental car, it's a far cry from the classic 1957 Plymouth or Chevrolet Bel Air I'd pictured; more like a toy Matchbox car, barely large enough to accommodate my wife and I, our friend and three backpacks. But beggars can't be choosers, so casting romantic ideals aside, I fire up the engine and we sputter south, out of Havana, spumes of black clouds belching from the exhaust.

In spite of warnings to the contrary, travelling Cuba independently immediately feels like a good move. The road, cracked and potholed, stretches before us beneath a sheet of cumulus clouds sprawling to the horizon like God's laundry. We pass tractors driven by men in straw cowboy hats, horse and carts, sugar plantations and classic old Chevys stuffed full of families who wave animatedly as we trundle past in our comedy car.

It's only about 250 kilometres from Cuba's capital to the town of Cienfuegos but the drive takes nearly all day. It's Saturday afternoon when we roll in and immediately, I'm taken by the place.

Settled by French immigrants in the 1800s and dubbed the "Pearl of the South", Cienfuegos oozes French élan and Caribbean spirit. With worn classical architecture and a palm-fringed waterfront promenade, it has an unmistakable air of faded grandeur and distinct absence of tourist kitsch.

Beneath a slate grey sky, we wander the streets still slick from recent rains.

The bars are packed with men watching baseball, barber shops are heaving, a man on a battered motorcycle weaves past a guy on horseback, kids play football in the streets outside homes with peeling pastel paint jobs. This is the Cuba I came to see.

Further eschewing the package tour approach, we stay at a Casa Particular – essentially the Cuban equivalent of a family-run B&B – rather than a hotel. Our host, Lorayne Sanchez, is an ebullient woman with a radiant smile and an impressive Afro. We spend four nights at her home, our daily explorations largely guided by her invaluable insider knowledge.

On our final night Sanchez offers to cook so we head to the market and buy fresh lobster, vegetables and a flagon of rum. The stay ends with an unforgettable meal around her kitchen table trading stories through a haze of Havana Club. As a parting gift, Sanchez's son, dubbed "the Pope", gives me a Cuban cigar to enjoy at the next town.

Cienfuegos doesn't always top many travellers' Cuba travel itineraries but for me, it was the highlight.

BOUND FOR BOUNTY BAY

PITCAIRN ISLAND (24.3768° S, 128.3242° W)

By Craig Tansley

Sailing away from PItcairn Island, the final stop for the Bounty Mutineers. SatSept28Cover - Off The Beaten Track - Craig Tansley
Pitcairn Island
iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.

Photo: iStock

When I wake with the dawn, the sea's the least violent it's been since we started this voyage 30-or-so hours ago. We've fought our way east directly into five-metre swells that have forced most passengers into their beds.

But now, we're close, and there's some respite from the full might of the Pacific. On the horizon, I can see it now: a tiny plum-pudding-shaped island with none of the coconut trees you associate with the South Pacific. "It's tiny … you don't understand just how bloody small it is," the ship's watch leader tells me.

For this is Pitcairn Island, a five-square-kilometre outcrop barely four kilometres long, that's 6000 kilometres from the nearest continent, and is home to fewer than 45 people. It's one of the world's most isolated islands: no plane or helicopter has ever landed here, nor has any ship ever moored on it.

The island was only discovered when mutineers led by Fletcher Christian (Hollywood's biggest stars have portrayed him, from Marlon Brando to Errol Flynn) took a nine-month voyage from Tahiti to find the remotest island of the Pacific to hide forever after setting their captain (William Bligh) adrift and stealing his ship, HMS Bounty.

As we get closer, the mutineers' descendants come out to us in longboats as we anchor in the island's lee. There's no gaps in the reef here, instead, I'm taken to the side of the ship and held tight as the sea lurches all round me. As the ship rises with the swell, I'm passed by my wrists into the longboat, then the ocean drops out below me like I'm on a roller coaster.

And now I'm in the boat with them all, this mythical lot; and we're motoring to shore. The island's official website warns responsibility is "not accepted for any death by accident during the process of landing or departing". But these are expert seamen, and we wait patiently till a rolling swell passes us by, then follow closely as it breaks across the reef and into Bounty Bay.

There are few greater adventures left on earth than simply arriving here, a place that's admittedly had its fair share of scandal and controversy; for more people will summit Everest successfully in a year than make it onto Pitcairn Island.

More descendants gather around me now – there's no hotels, instead I'll be staying with a local family – so I'm taken by quad bike into the heart of their private universe, past townships named for their famous ancestors, where the graves are of those we've already met, thanks to Hollywood. See visitpitcairn.pn

OF PRAYER FLAGS AND POTHOLES

SIKKIM, INDIA (27.5330° N, 88.5122° E)

By Brian Johnston

Tsangmo Lake in Sikkim, India. SatSept28Cover - Off The Beaten Track - Brian Johnston
iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.
SIKKIM, INDIA

Photo: iStock

For several days I shuttle between the District Magistrate's Office and Foreigners' Registration Office in Darjeeling, where somnolent clerks hunker amid mouldering piles of manila folders and leather-bound books. Dickensian forms are filled in, my passport details penned into giant ledgers, my request to visit Sikkim finally stamped with a flourish.

Permit secured, I head into a tiny Himalayan pocket of India wedged between Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. The roadside is lush with banana and bamboo, and trickles with streams and waterfalls. Cars lurch and swerve around potholes. "Nine miles sinking area. If you trust us, you can test it now," challenges a road sign. It takes four hours to navigate the hundred kilometres to Sikkim's state capital.

I know the journey is worth it when Gangtok arrives in a shine of golden temple spires set against a snowy mountain backdrop. The Dashain festival is under way, and processions of silk-shimmering Hindus are banging clappers in streets decorated with chrysanthemums.

Gangtok is a cheerful town of charming people. Monks in red robes mingle with Tibetans draped in orange beads. Terraced hillsides plunge, prayer flags flutter, monasteries are teak-dark and gleam with metal Buddhas and gem-studded statues. In shadowy corners women hunker as they turn prayer wheels, their faces illuminated by flickering butter lamps.

I spend a lot of time in monasteries in Sikkim.

Many monks speak good English yet are still curious about foreigners in this out-of-the-way place. At Rumtek Monastery I'm invited into a dormitory and given tea and shortbread from a battered biscuit tin. The monks watch Discovery Channel and have mobile phones tucked into the folds of their robes.

Gangtok is surrounded by rice terraces and forest draped in orchids and rhododendrons. Higher still is Kanchenjunga, the world's third-tallest mountain, veiled in windblown snow. I travel 40 kilometres east to Tsongmo Lake near the Chinese border. The road swings around hairpins, sloshes through streams, bumps over tumbled stones. Soldiers outside army encampments watch with bored brown eyes as we drive past.

A hanging valley cups a deep, small lake. The slopes are covered in azaleas. Yak owners assail Bengali tourists, who are soon shrieking atop the hairy flanks of these lumbering monsters. Women lift the edges of their saris at approaching piles of steaming yak dung. I hike away, and within minutes there's just me and the wind, and stupendous snowy views to infinity. See sikkimtourism.gov.in

BUMPS, BARRAS AND BOABS

THE KIMBERLEY (17.3492° S, 125.9152° E)

By KATRINA LOBLEY

SatSept28Cover - Off The Beaten Track - text KATRINA LOBLEY
Image supplied via journalist for use in Traveller.
Kimberley Coastal Camp

Journeying into obscurity must, by definition, include a few bumps along the way. I'm being rattled not by potholes but by thermals rising from the central Kimberley's Mitchell Plateau. "Ready for a roller-coaster ride?" asks the pilot of our six-seater plane that's scooting along the aerial highway – a network of bush airstrips stretching across Australia's vast north-west from Broome to Kununurra.

Her question is rhetorical because, like it or not, we're bucking our way down over rare Livistona fan palms onto the red-dirt airstrip that, despite being in the middle of nowhere, is buzzing harder than blowflies at a picnic.

During the dry season, pilots here spend their days scooping up cruise-ship passengers for day trips to the multi-tiered Mitchell Falls, taking people to flight connections at either end of the highway or dropping guests at remote lodgings such as Kimberley Coastal Camp, 15 minutes away by helicopter on the edge of Admiralty Gulf.

The 16-guest camp revolves around tropical sport-fishing, with the notoriously hard-to-hook barramundi being the Holy Grail. Even if you don't manage to land the elusive fish, you'll reel in others such as threadfin salmon, giant trevally, mangrove jack, golden snapper and Spanish mackerel from these rich waters.

And if you hook a mulloway, you'll discover first-hand how they pull like a freight train. Fishing trips revolve around the see-sawing tides – the Kimberley is home to the world's largest tropical tides. Mangrove-fringed creeks, uninhabited islands, estuaries and reefs are all a short boat ride away.

For lunch, you might end up on a sandy beach where your catch is cooked over an open fire. Back at the camp's kitchen, where uninvited guests might include an olive python, quolls and hermit crabs, a chef transforms the day's catch into mouth-watering meals that are eaten in the open-air communal hub that shades a floor of white sand and tiny shells.

The hub's minimalist architecture – a steeply pitched corrugated-iron roof with no gutters (because when torrential rain unleashes on these parts, they're pointless) – is repeated in the guest gazebos, located past a kidney-shaped plunge pool, fire pit and boab trees.

You might have come for the extraordinary fishing and the remote luxury but the camp comes with another angle. A short trek into the bush reveals rich repositories of Indigenous rock art, including Gwion Gwion (formerly Bradshaw) paintings and Wandjina art depicting spirit ancestors. I tell you: camp life will have you hooked. See kimberleycoastalcamp.com.au

CROONING WITH THE CANARIES OF THE SEA

HUDSON BAY, CANADA (59.7121° N, 85.2539° W)

By Nina Karnikowski

Two beluga whales play together. SatSept28Cover - Off The Beaten Track - Nina Karnikowski
Belugas in the Arctic
iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.

Photo: iStock

I have just been kissed by a beluga whale. I'm lying on a foam mat with my face submerged in the icy waters of Manitoba's Hudson Bay in the Canadian subarctic, clad in three layers of clothing and an insulated drysuit, surrounded by hundreds of these small white whales.

I had been well aware that this AquaGliding experience, the headliner of my Travel Marvel Arctic summer adventure here at the very top of the world, would get me up close with the belugas. After all, Hudson Bay is where the world's highest concentration of whales can be found each summer when 60,000 belugas congregate here to breed, feed and socialise. Still, I was not expecting smooches.

I jerk my head out of the water and pull off my full-face snorkel, squinting in the Arctic evening sunshine. The rational part of my brain recognises these creatures as playful and gentle, but still, I can't help but be intimidated by both their sheer volume and their proximity, and am suddenly acutely aware of just how far away from the rest of the world we are right now.

There are no paved roads leading into Churchill, the remote town of just 800 residents where we're staying on dry land. If anything were to happen to me, trains or planes would be my only way out.

"You're fine!" yells our guide, as if sensing my fear from the Zodiac towing the mat I'm lying on. "Just keep singing." Yes, singing. It had been suggested that I sing to these so-called "canaries of the sea", and although I felt ridiculous doing it at first, it had an extraordinary effect.

As I sang they swam closer, turning their necks as most other whale species are unable to do and peering inquisitively into my eyes. And so, I remind myself that there is absolutely nowhere else on earth I can have this experience, submerge my head and begin singing the theme song from The Little Mermaid.

Again the whales gather by the dozen, as curious about me as I am about them. The song they sing back is almost mystical, a haunting series of clicks and whistles and the perfect accompaniment to the sight of their alabaster bodies vanishing into the depths like majestic ghosts.

I had arrived in Churchill filled with anticipation about meeting that other iconic white creature, the polar bear, and seeing them has indeed been extraordinary. However, coming face-to-face with hundreds of belugas has made me fall in love with our planet in a whole new way – and I know this evening will be the one that stays with me long after I return home. See travelmarvel.com.au

FIVE REMOTE DESTINATIONS NO LONGER QUITE OFF THE GRID

ALBANIA

The overlooked step-sister of the Mediterranean has worked hard for a decade to attract tourists, with numbers increasing an average 12 per cent yearly. More than 5 million now visit, although a fraction of the 30 million who hit neighbouring Greece. See albania.al

BHUTAN

A total of 274,097 tourists visited this Himalayan kingdom in 2018. Yet although numbers are strictly controlled, they've grown year on year. Two decades ago, only 7158 visitors explored Bhutan's mountainous delights. See bhutan.travel

SVALBARD

These Norway-administered Arctic islands have seen tourism grow 20 per cent annually over the past decade. Some 70 cruise ships now visit yearly, with tourist numbers topping 72,000 – quite a feat for one of the world's remotest places. See visitsvalbard.com

RWANDA

Since this East African nation's 1994 genocide, a steady trickle of eco-adventurers has come to see mountain gorillas, and more recently to venture around a larger tourist circuit. Rwanda is now widely touted as the next hot destination. See visitrwanda.com

GREENLAND

With the media's focusing on global warming and melting icecaps, Greenland tourism has boomed. Still, the world's largest island isn't likely to become overcrowded any time soon, with only 70,000 visitors making landfall. See visitgreenland.com

Comments