Secret spots: 10 places you will never visit

Cheap air travel has allowed us the opportunity to reach almost any spot on the planet within a matter of hours. But no matter how widely you travel, there are some places you are never going to get to visit. Here are 10 of them, from Daniel Smith's book, 100 Places You Will Never Visit.

Snake Island

LOCATION Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Sao Paulo State, Brazil


SECRECY OVERVIEW Access restricted: a snake-infested island off-limits to visitors.

Lying just off the coast of Brazil, the island of Ilha da Queimada Grande is populated by a unique and highly venomous species of lancehead viper. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this small island has become known as Snake Island – an ophidiophobic's vision of hell, only doughty scientists and crazed adventurers dare set foot on its ground.

Snake Island is home to a vast colony of golden lancehead pit vipers (Bothrops insularis), among the most poisonous snakes on the planet. The golden lancehead is only to be found on this one particular island, so it is understandably rather protective of its territory. Its venom is about five times as potent as that of its cousin, the fer-de-lance, which is itself responsible for more South American snakebite deaths than any other species.

Just getting to the island, which covers about 45 hectares, takes considerable determination. It is first necessary to cross a 30-kilometres stretch of choppy water from the coast of the Brazilian state of São Paulo, and there are few local sea captains willing to make the trip. Once at the island, there is no beach to speak of, and access is via a steep, rocky slope covered in hand-mincing barnacles. All of which is somewhat academic, given that the Brazilian Navy expressly forbids civilians from landing there anyway. Only accredited scientists are occasionally given special dispensation to visit.

There are at least 5000 snakes writhing around the place, with conservative estimates suggesting one for every square metre: they have even taken over a now-defunct lighthouse. Being lighthouse keeper here surely ranked high among the worst jobs in the world. Legend has it that the last keeper lived there with his family until snakes got into their cottage. As they tried to flee, they were taken out one by one by vipers dangling from the branches of overhanging trees. Myth or not, the best advice is to leave their home as it is – a secret serpentine paradise.

RAF Menwith Hill

LOCATION North Yorkshire, England



SECRECY OVERVIEW Operations classified: a US-run base purported to be part of the ECHELON surveillance system.

RAF Menwith Hill is a base belonging to the UK Ministry of Defence, but made available to the US Department of Defense, who are responsible for many elements of its running. As part of America's global defence communications network, Menwith's stated mission is to provide intelligence support for the United States, UK and their allied interests. However, some question the extent of its powers.

Built on land owned by the British War Office, RAF Menwith Hill became operational in 1960, at which time it was known as Menwith Hill Station. The nearest town is Harrogate, a well-to-do spa town whose genteel air is about as far from an atmosphere of international subterfuge as you could hope to get.

From the beginning, however, Menwith Hill was staffed by US military personnel under the remit of the US Army Security Agency. In 1966, the US National Security Agency (NSA) took over administration. Today, the base primarily serves as an NSA field station, with US staff working alongside employees of the Ministry of Defence and GCHQ (see page 104).

Menwith Hill has always been at the technological cutting edge, and in its early days was used to monitor communications coming out of the Soviet bloc. It was also an early adopter of IBM computer technology. Today, the site is home to large numbers of multi-faceted radar domes or 'radomes' (there are currently more than 30), crucial to the ability of the US and UK to intercept and monitor communications. The US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) – established in 1961 and based in Virginia, with responsibility for building and running spy satellites – also has a permanent presence on site.

Menwith Hill is widely believed to form part of the fabled ECHELON global surveillance network. ECHELON is said to be able to 'eavesdrop' on all types of modern communication, from telephone conversations to email exchanges. It is alleged that the network operates under the agreement of the governments of Britain, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. A 2001 report by the European Parliament into the alleged network concluded that Menwith Hill was its single biggest facility.

While the gathering of such information to thwart terrorism or organized crime may seem attractive, many fear that other information gleaned can be too easily abused. Some have suggested it could be used for industrial espionage, while others are concerned about the implications for civil liberties. Several journalists have cited instances of American companies gaining commercial advantage over European counterparts, though none of these cases were ever conclusively proved.

Indeed, there has never been official confirmation of ECHELON's existence. Furthermore, the Ministry of Defence insists that all operations undertaken at the base are 'managed in a way that accords with the law, including the European Convention of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998'. That, however, is insufficient reassurance for many of Menwith's critics.

In 2007, the base drew further unwanted attention after the British government confirmed that it would be upgraded to provide early warning of missile attacks as part of a planned US missile defence system. Not only were peace campaigners enraged, but the scheme provoked ire from Moscow, amid claims that the system, aimed at intercepting incoming enemy missiles before they reach US or NATO airspace, breached arms control agreements. Some critics hold that the defence shield could prompt a new arms race. While Des Browne, the British Secretary of Defence at the time, insisted that there were no imminent plans for interceptor missiles to be based in Britain, opponents voiced fears that Menwith Hill could put the UK on the front line of a future war.

As the focus of so much speculation and public wrath (Menwith Hill has regularly been besieged by peace campaigners for decades), security at the base is tight. A perimeter fence is dotted with watchtowers and patrolled by guards and trained dogs, doing little to calm the righteous rage of those who consider the base to be a largely unaccountable US enclave on British soil.

In the popular imagination, this facility is filled with spies scanning our private conversations and intruding on the intimate details of our daily lives. Whether deserved or not, Menwith Hill has a reputation as the ultimate Big Brother, listening in on what everybody else is saying, but with not a lot to say for itself.

The Queen's bedroom, Buckingham Palace

LOCATION Westminster, London, England


SECRECY OVERVIEW High-security location: the private chamber of the Queen.

Buckingham Palace is the British Queen's official London residence, and one of the most iconic buildings in the world. Yet despite attracting hordes of tourists, large swathes of the labyrinthine palace remain under the highest security and off-limits to the world at large. Most private of all is the Queen's personal bedroom, once the scene of a notorious break-in.

Buckingham Palace was originally plain old Buckingham House, built as the London pad of the Duke of Buckingham in 1705. The location he chose had once been a mulberry garden where King James I had attempted to rear silkworms (unsuccessfully, as he had planted the wrong type of mulberry bush). The house took the fancy of King George III, who purchased it as a residence for his wife, Queen Charlotte. It only became a palace in the 1820s, after spendthrift monarch George IV ordered extensive renovations from the architect, John Nash.

George, though, would never live in it, and so Queen Victoria became the first monarch to take up residence when she moved in during July 1837. After the young queen married Prince Albert in 1840 and started a family, it was soon clear that the palace needed to be extended – a job that fell to the architect Edward Blore and his builder, Thomas Cubitt. Their greatest contribution was the addition of the East Wing, complete with the famous balcony from which the royals wave to their subjects at times of celebration. One such occasion marked the end of the Second World War, during which the Palace had received nine direct hits from German bombers.

Today, the Palace encompasses some 775 rooms, of which 52 are royal and guest bedrooms. When in residence (signified by the raising of the Royal Standard), the Queen and Prince Philip occupy a suite of rooms in the Palace's North Wing. By rights, this should be the single most impenetrable part of the building. But being such a famous landmark, Buckingham Palace has tempted many to test its security over the years, from naked paragliders to undercover journalists, and from paternal rights campaigners dressed as Batman to Osama bin Laden look-alikes. One man found on the grounds in 1990 even ambitiously claimed to be Prince Andrew and that he was there to visit his 'Mum'. But the most serious breach came on 9 July 1982, when the Queen found herself engaged in conversation in her bedroom for a good ten minutes with an intruder named Michael Fagan.

In fact, this was not Fagan's first visit to the Palace, since he had successfully scaled the barbed-wire-topped perimeter wall several weeks earlier. On that occasion, on 7 June, he had wandered around the palace unhindered, even stopping to enjoy some wine, cheese and biscuits. When he returned in July, he shinned up a drain pipe into the Queen's private apartments. It was reported that his activities did trigger an alarm, but a palace employee assumed the alarm system was faulty. The armed police officer who should have been on guard outside her room was apparently out walking the dogs, and his replacement had not yet got to his position.

The first the Queen knew of a strange man in her bedroom was when she noticed the curtains twitch. Showing admirable calm, she proceeded to chat amicably with him as he walked across her chamber and perched on the end of her bed. After a while, he requested a cigarette but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Queen did not have a packet to hand, so she requested some be brought in. This provided her with the opportunity to raise the alarm and a footman dutifully appeared on the scene, holding Fagan until the police arrived to arrest him.

Fagan was subsequently charged with civil offences and spent several months in a high-security mental health facility. It was the first time that an intruder had made it into the private royal apartments since the reign of Queen Victoria (though during the Second World War the Queen Mother had stumbled upon an army deserter in her bathroom).

The incident brought the issue of the Queen's security under blazing scrutiny, and the level of protection surrounding her became even greater. As well as armed guards throughout the Palace – presumably now issued with clear instructions on when they can take the corgis out – there are regular police dog patrols and a permanent detachment from the Queen's Guard, instantly recognizable in their red tunics and bearskins. In 2004, Scotland Yard took over responsibility for security at royal sites from the security services. The same year, an electric fence was erected around the Palace, administering a shock strong enough to disable an intruder until they are apprehended.

Chapel of the Ark of the Covenant

LOCATION Northern Ethiopia


SECRECY OVERVIEW Access restricted: the purported home of the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark of the Covenant is described in the biblical Book of Exodus as the chest that contained the tablets of stone inscribed with the Ten Commandments which Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The Ark disappeared from Jerusalem long ago under mysterious circumstances and believers claim it came to Axum in Ethiopia during the reign of Menelik I in the mid-tenth century BC.

The Ark is of immense symbolic value, documented not only in the Bible but featuring also in Judaic and Islamic scripture. While its fate has long been argued over, Ethiopia's authorities say it has resided at Axum for centuries, and now lies in a specially built treasury next to the Church of St Mary of Zion. The treasury is kept under heavy guard and surrounded by fencing, all under the watchful eye of a High Priest who is the only man permitted to enter the chapel.

This virtuous elderly monk is given the post for life, and is expected to name

a successor on his deathbed. The Ark used to be released for a public procession once a year, but in more recent times the unstable geopolitical climate (not least Ethiopia's strained relations with neighbouring Eritrea) has seen it locked permanently in its shrine, which contains other treasures including Ethiopia's royal crowns.

The Book of Exodus tells how the Ark was built in accordance with instructions from God. Measuring a little over 1 metre long and 70 centimetres wide and high, it was constructed from acacia wood and covered with gold. Two long rods of acacia and gold were used to carry it, and two sculptures of winged cherubim surmounted on the lid were said to keep guard over it.

According to the Bible, the Ark was carried (covered in skins and cloths so that no one could set eyes on it) out of Egypt during the exodus of the Israelites. The Book of Joshua also describes its key role in the fall of Jericho. It was later said to have been captured by the Philistines (who returned it to the Israelites after being smitten with a series of plagues), while Solomon worshipped in front of it after he had his dream in which God promised him wisdom.

The royal chronicles of Ethiopia, which were written in the 13th century and undoubtedly served as propaganda for the reigning dynasty of that time, hold that the Ark came to Ethiopia with Menelik, said to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The story tells that a forgery of the Ark was left back in Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, where it was presumed destroyed after the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem in 586 BC.

Meanwhile, the city of Axum became the focal point of the Kingdom of Axum, which was a leading regional power from the mid-second century BC to the tenth century AD. To this day, huge granite obelisks, the tallest single pieces of stone quarried and raised in the ancient world, tell of just how important the area was. If the Ark really was in Ethiopia at this point, Axum would have certainly made a suitable home.

The Axumite king Ezana converted to Christianity in AD 331, and had the first Church of St Mary built some 40 years later. According to tradition, the Ark remained at Axum until the 16th century, when it was hidden after the city came under Muslim attack. It was returned in the following century, and in 1965 Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie (reputedly a descendant of Menelik) had the current treasury built to house it.

Of course, there are plenty of people who do not believe that the treasure at Axum is the real Ark at all. Alternative theories about its location abound. These include a cave in Mount Nebo in Jordan, Chartres Cathedral or the village of Rennes-le-Château in France, Temple Herdewyke in England, the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome and the Dumghe Mountains of South Africa. The Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, meanwhile, proposes that the Ark found its way to Egypt.

We will probably never know for certain whether Axum is home to the true Ark of the Covenant. What is more certain is that the contents of the treasury are considered sacred by vast numbers of people, and no one has yet provided conclusive proof that it is not the true Ark. But your chances of gaining access to the treasury to check for yourself are negligible, even if your name is Indiana Jones. The best we can hope is that one day Ethiopia's fraught political climate will have stabilized to a point where the treasure can again be released for occasional public processions.

Dulce Base

LOCATION Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, USA

NEAREST POPULATION HUB Albuquerque, New Mexico

SECRECY OVERVIEW Existence unacknowledged: believed by some to be home of an underground extraterrestrial base.

Few places have captured the imagination of conspiracy theorists more than Dulce Base. A site for which there is little concrete evidence, believers nonetheless place it at the heart of a conspiracy between the powers-that-be and alien life forms intent on carrying out despicable research on human subjects. Whether it exists or not, Dulce Base is an instructive case study of the way conspiracy theories can take hold.

Rumours of a secret base beneath a New Mexico mountain can be traced back most clearly to Paul Bennewitz, a technological entrepreneur with a side line as an investigator of unidentified flying objects. Beginning in the 1970s, Bennewitz claimed that he regularly saw strange light displays in the sky, which he believed might be linked to the Kirtland Air Force Base a little outside his native Albuquerque.

The base had something of a reputation for classified development programmes – it was, for instance, used in the

1940s as a transportation hub by Los Alamos National Laboratory staff working on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. It is also home to an Underground Munitions Storage Complex, believed to be the largest nuclear weapons storage facility in the world.

Bennewitz was not alone in claiming to have seen strange night-time light shows. Around this time, New Mexico threw up a number of other apparently unexplained phenomena, including multiple instances of cattle maiming. Bennewitz is said to have made contact with a woman who, under hypnosis, described how she and her son were kidnapped by extraterrestrials and taken to an underground lab where she witnessed cattle being mutilated. The woman also claimed to have been fitted with an implant that left her subject to mind control.

Bennewitz was taken with her story and continued to compile evidence, including apparent video footage of lights in the night sky. He also constructed a system of radio receivers, and produced tapes that he said were UFO transmissions. Sometime towards the end of 1980, he contacted the authorities at Kirtland to make them aware of what he regarded as a potential UFO threat. His claims were met with a degree of scepticism, and received only limited follow-up.

However, Bennewitz was not to be dissuaded from his suspicions. Indeed, they developed until in 1982 they drew the attention of the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO), a long-established and scientifically credible UFO-study group. William Moore, one of APRO's most senior figures, established a friendship with Bennewitz, who by now had concluded that two types of aliens had made it to Earth: good ones known as 'whites' and evil ones known as 'grays'. The grays were inhabiting a deep underground base, he told Moore, beneath Archuleta Mesa, near Dulce.

Dulce is a small town in the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, close to the New Mexico-Colorado border. With a population hovering around 2,500, it is, all in all, a quiet, out-of-the-way and unassuming sort of place. Nearby stands the impressive mountain of Archuleta Mesa, with a peak of 2800 metres. According to Bennewitz, the grays had reached agreement with the White House to carry out experiments on Earth-based life forms in a specially constructed base beneath the mountain.

Over the course of the 1980s, Moore provided Bennewitz with 'evidence' to back up his suspicions, and helped him publicize his story that aliens had arrived on Earth and, with the complicity of the US government, were experimenting on humans and perfecting forms of mind control. Needless to say, Bennewitz was treated by many as simply a crank.

Then, in 1989, Moore publicly declared that he had been part of a scheme (alleged by some to be in conjunction with staff at Kirtland AFB) to supply Bennewitz with disinformation. The only motive for this plot seems to have been to assist Bennewitz in utterly discrediting himself. Bennewitz, meanwhile, suffered deteriorating mental health until his death in 2003.

So Dulce Base, for which no one has ever produced hard physical evidence, seems like nothing so much as a figment of Bennewitz's imagination. But for many, a fundamental question remains – if Bennewitz was a crank, why go to all that effort of undermining him? Had he, some wonder, stumbled upon something that may have been wholly unrelated to

extraterrestrials, but which the authorities didn't want him sniffing around? Was the misinformation really a case of misdirection, and the Dulce Base rumour a cover for something equally startling? For where better to hide a secret truth than in a great mass of incredible lies? Or, just maybe, Bennewitz was right all along…

Wildenstein Art Collection

LOCATION Stored around the world. Headquartered in Paris.


SECRECY OVERVIEW Location uncertain: said to be the most valuable private art collection in the world.

Many art collectors are more than willing to show off their prized pieces, but that is not something that could be said of the Wildenstein family. These French multi-millionaires jealously guard the precise details of a collection that has been built up over more than a century, despite their position as perhaps the most famous family in the art world.

The Wildenstein art dynasty began with Nathan Wildenstein in the 1870s. A French cloth merchant by trade, he educated himself in 18th-century painting, and took advantage of a sleeping market to earn a fortune. From his base in Paris, he had extended his empire of galleries to New York, London and Buenos Aires by the end of the 1920s. After Nathan's death, his son Georges moved the family's centre of operations to the USA in 1940.

The family has been long established as one of the leading suppliers to major galleries and museums throughout the world, but details of the Wildenstein's total holdings (and their locations) are scant. It has been speculated that the collection is split between secure locations in New York, Paris, London, Buenos Aires and Tokyo, and may include some 10,000 works.

Divorce proceedings in 1999 between Alec Wildenstein (grandson of Georges) and his wife Jocelyn (infamous for her attempts to give herself a feline appearance through plastic surgery) estimated the collection's value at $US10 billion. It is thought to include works by Giotto di Bondone, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Monet and Van Gogh.

Further sketchy details about the collection have emerged in recent years during further legal battles between family members, and in 2011 a police raid at the Wildenstein Institute in Paris reportedly uncovered many works previously listed as stolen or missing. The Wildensteins came under renewed scrutiny as a result, but it is unlikely the public will get to view their remarkable collection at any point in the near future.

The Amber Room

LOCATION Purportedly in an underground cavern on the German-Czech border


SECRECY OVERVIEW Site of historic mystery: an ornate room seized by the Nazis and later lost.

Sometimes described as the 'eighth wonder of the world', the Amber Room was constructed using 6 tonnes of amber backed with gold leaf. Once given by Prussia to Russia as a symbol of peace, it was stolen from the USSR by Nazi forces during the Second World War. In the chaos that accompanied Germany's defeat in 1945, the location of the room was lost, sparking an enduring quest to recover it.

A woman of unerringly expensive tastes, Queen Sophia Charlotte of Hanover persuaded her husband, Friedrich I of Prussia, to commission the Amber

Room for Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin. Designed in the baroque style by Andreas Schlüter, it was crafted under the supervision of a Dane, Gottfried Wolfram, between 1701 and 1709.

By the time it was finished, Sophia Charlotte had been dead for four years, and Friedrich would die, too, in 1713. He was succeeded by his son, Friedrich Wilhelm I. Keen to consolidate good relations with Peter the Great of Russia, Friedrich Wilhelm made him a gift of the room in 1716. It was packed into 18 large crates and sent to St Petersburg, where it was installed in the Winter Palace. In 1755 the Tsarina Elizabeth had it moved once more, this time to the Catherine Palace in Tsarkoye Selo (now part of Pushkin, a suburb of St Petersburg).

An Italian designer called Bartolemeo Francesco Rastrelli oversaw a redesign for this new space, importing yet more amber from Berlin for the job. After subsequent renovations, the room covered 55 square metres and is estimated to have been worth something approaching $US150 million in today's money.

The room remained at Tsarkoye Selo until 1941, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, sending 3 million German troops into what was now the Soviet Union. Among the many crimes committed at this time, looting of art treasures was widespread. Officials at the Catherine Palace hurriedly set about dismantling the Amber Room to put into safe storage, but as they began their work, they found the antique amber crumbled. They decided instead to cover the room in conventional wallpaper, in the hope that the Germans would fail to realize what lay behind it, but the plan was an utter failure.

Within 36 hours of the arrival of German troops at the Palace, they had taken the room apart and stored it in 27 boxes that were soon transferred to Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) on the Baltic coast. Here, it was put back together again in the city's castle museum. When the tide of the war turned against Germany after 1943, the museum director was charged with once again disassembling the room and moving it to a safe place. However, in 1944 Königsberg was bombed by British forces and much of the city, including its museum, burned. The fate of the Amber Room is unknown.

Over the subsequent years, theories have abounded. Some believe that it perished in the fires or was destroyed by a direct hit. Others say it was burnt by Russian soldiers who captured the city in 1945, while another theory suggests that the room was dismantled and put to sea on a German ship that was then torpedoed and sunk. It has even been suggested (though not very credibly) that after his suicide Hitler's body was not burned in Berlin, but was buried in this legendary room.

But for many, the paths lead inextricably to the town of Deutschneudorf, near the border of Saxony and the Czech Republic. In 1997, a single panel from the original room was found during a raid by German police. It belonged to the family of a soldier who was allegedly present when the room was dismantled during the war. In 2008, a team of excavators claimed that they had found a man-made chamber 20 metres below ground near Deutschneudorf and that, after conducting electromagnetic tests on the site, they were convinced it contained some 2 tonnes of Nazi gold. The mayor of Deutschneudorf, Heinz-Peter Haustein, said that the area is home to a vast network of underground storage rooms from the period, and that he was '90 per cent sure' that the Amber Room lies somewhere within the complex. Indeed, the area is honeycombed by old silver, tin and copper mines, so there is no shortage of hiding places. But to date, the Amber Room's location remains a mystery.

In the meantime, a reconstruction of the room may now be seen at Tsarskoye Selo in the Catherine Palace. It opened in 2003, having taken 24 years to complete. Much of the US$11 million funding for the project was donated by German companies – perhaps one day it will be possible to compare it with the original.

North Sentinel Island

LOCATION Andaman Islands, Bay of Bengal

NEAREST POPULATION HUB Port Blair, Great Andaman

SECRECY OVERVIEW Access restricted: a remote island whose people reject contact with the outside world.

North Sentinel Island, which covers only 72 square kilometres, has an indigenous population of somewhere between 50 and 400 Sentinelese, a dark-skinned and short-statured people and one of the last groups on earth to have resisted contact with the modern world. Jealously protective of their isolation, any attempt by outsiders to land on the island is likely to result in a hail of arrows.

North Sentinel lies to the west of the southern tip of South Andaman Island and is one of 572 islands in an 800-kilometre arc. Here, the Sentinelese live as hunter-gatherers and do not seem to have developed any forms of agriculture. Their diet includes fruits, nuts, tubers, fish, wild pigs, honey and the eggs of seagulls and turtles. Their language is significantly different to any of the other tongues spoken in the island group, leading academics to conclude that they have avoided contact even with relatively near neighbours for several millennia. The island lacks any natural harbours and is surrounded by uncharted coral reefs that have largely kept out visitors as well as keeping in the Sentinelese, whose own rudimentary boats are suited only to calm lagoons.

In 1880, Maurice Portman, an administrator in the British Raj, led the first known expedition to North Sentinel. After a few days of exploration, Portman and his team captured six natives (two adults and four children), whom they took back to Port Blair, the administrative capital of the Andamans. However, the enterprise ended in disaster when the adults died from illness. The orphaned children were dispatched home loaded with presents – scant compensation for their loss.

Tentative attempts from the 1960s to make contact with the Sentinelese met with limited success. Incidents such as the one in 1974 when a visiting documentary crew was attacked and the director suffered an arrow to the thigh were not uncommon. After many years of regular landings and gift offerings, the first recorded friendly contact was made in 1991.

However, similar schemes with other native peoples of the islands (including the Great Andamanese and the Jarawa) had ended disastrously when those populations were decimated by exposure to common but unfamiliar diseases. Under pressure from groups arguing that the Sentinelese should not be forced into contact, the government gave up on its contact programme in 1996.

The Tomb of Genghis Khan

LOCATION Assumed to be in the Khentii Province of eastern Mongolia


SECRECY OVERVIEW Location uncertain: last resting place of the legendary Mongol leader.

Given the name Temujin at birth, Genghis Khan went on to unite disparate nomadic tribes to establish the Mongol Empire, winning himself a reputation as one of history's most feared warriors in the process. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried in the utmost secrecy: the location of his tomb remains one of history's enduring conundrums, despite numerous attempts to find it.

Temujin was in his mid-40s by the time he became leader of the Mongols in the early 13th century. During his reign, he laid the foundations for a vast empire that would eventually stretch from China to Hungary, taking a title, Genghis Khan, that struck fear into the hearts of both subjects and rivals. But he was more than a bloodthirsty tyrant, introducing a written language system and doing much to bring the cultures of East and West together.

He died in 1227, aged around 65. The exact cause of his death is disputed, with explanations ranging from a riding accident to illness to sexual misadventure. Regardless, it was his wish to be buried in secret in accordance with tribal custom, his resting place to remain unmarked. To this end, extraordinary and infamous precautions were undertaken. Legend has it that members of his funeral escort slaughtered any person unfortunate enough to stray across their path. The slaves who built the tomb were murdered once it was completed so that they could not divulge its location, and the soldiers who killed them were in turn dispatched. It is said that the ground was then trampled by horses, planted with trees and even had a river diverted over it to hide the tomb entrance.

Debate rages as to the location of the emperor's body. Many believe that it is probably in Mongolia's Khentii Province, perhaps close to the sacred Burkhan Kaldun mountain where Temujin was born. In 2004, an archaeological team claimed to have found his long-lost palace in this region, which many experts assume would have been close to his final resting place. In another recent project, Dr Albert Yu-Min Lin of the University of California at San Diego has attempted to harness the power of an army of internet enthusiasts, to analyze satellite images of Khentii.

Yet the grave remains elusive and that is no doubt what Genghis Khan would want. According to Mongolian tradition, as long as his tomb is left undisturbed his soul will be kept protected.

Woomera Prohibited Area

LOCATION Woomera, Australia

NEAREST POPULATION HUB Adelaide, South Australia

SECRECY OVERVIEW Operations classified: the world's largest land-based weapons testing area.

Established in 1947, the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) is most famous as a huge missile testing range, but has enjoyed several different lives, including as a rocket-launch site, a spy hub and a detention centre. Covering an area larger than England, its desert location has helped keep unwanted visitors away from numerous highly classified projects.

Situated several hundred kilometres northwest of Adelaide, the Woomera Prohibited Area is home to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Woomera Test Range, and is strictly off-limits to the public. It covers 127,000 square kilometres, down from a historic high of 270,000 square kilometres in 1972.

The WPA began as a joint initiative between the Australian and British governments. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the UK was keen to develop a cutting-edge rocket-testing programme, but lacked the space to do so. A collaboration with the Australian government that provided an opportunity to share knowledge and expenses suited all sides.

Woomera was chosen as it offered a huge swathe of land largely devoid of human habitation. A mixture of desert and scrubland, temperatures regularly exceed 35°C and can go far higher. As such, the area was never conducive to mass human colonization. However, it was ideal for weapons-testing, boasting as it does mostly cloud-free skies all year round and little electromagnetic interference. The name Woomera itself derives from an Aboriginal word for a spear-throwing device.

The Joint Project, as it was known, began missile testing in earnest in 1949. This phase included nine major atomic-bomb trials that led to the nuclear contamination of an area in excess of 3,000 square kilometres (1,150 sq miles). Section 400, as this area has been designated, remains strictly off-bounds on safety grounds. Environmentalists have claimed that clean-up attempts were flawed, and many Aboriginal people who were present in the region at the time of the tests allege that they are still suffering harmful effects.

A town, also called Woomera, was established to support life at the WPA in 1947 – at the peak of the Joint Project, it had a population of over 7000. For much of its life, Woomera has been a closed town, accessible only to authorized inhabitants. Since 1982, it has been open to the public, but remains under the control of the Australian Department of Defence. None of Woomera's properties are privately owned: they are leased from the government and anyone considered undesirable can be asked to move on.

The Joint Project came to a halt in 1980. By then the WPA was also being used for rocket testing, playing an important role in assorted classified space programmes during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1969, Australia had entered into a separate agreement with the US to construct the Nurrungar Joint Tracking Facility within the WPA. Nurrungar's three golfball-like radomes contained huge antennae dishes and were maintained under intense security, behind razor-wire fences and complete with bullet-proof security rooms.

The reason for this heightened level of protection was that Nurrungar lay at the centre of a space-based surveillance programme, and was key to providing early warning of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile attacks on the US. As such, it was considered a high-priority target for the Soviet Union, a fact that did not play well with an Australian public unwilling to invite the Cold War into its backyard. Some protesters claimed that Nurrungar was also used to pinpoint targets during the 1973 US bombing of Cambodia.

By the time Nurrungar closed in 1999, the futures of the WPA and the town of Woomera were uncertain. The resident population was down to a few hundred, where once it had been several thousand. For a while, it looked like the construction of a migrant detention centre would come to its rescue, but that too proved something of a poisoned chalice. In a four-year lifespan, the centre attracted many column-inches of negative publicity for holding up to 1500 illegal immigrants in a prison camp-style setting. Inmates rioted on several occasions and some even sewed their lips together in protest at the conditions.

But in recent years, the WPA has rebounded and has never been busier in its role as the largest on-land missile testing site in the world. Buoyed by hundreds of millions of dollars of state investment since the turn of the century, its client list now includes governments and space agencies from around the world, providing bookings well into the 2020s. Although the Test Range remains at the core of the WPA, other parts of the territory are being opened up to potentially lucrative mining (there are thought to be significant quantities of gold, iron ore, opals and uranium).

Anyone finding themselves in the WPA ought to keep their eyes open though. As Roger Henwood, manager of the Woomera Range, noted in 2006: 'You find a whole lot of things sticking out of the ground that supposedly never got launched.'

This is an extract from Daniel Smith's 100 Places You Will Never Visit, published by Quercus. Available in stores now. $29.99

Photos: Places you will never visit