On The Road
Wilderness Travel – The New Trend In Luxury Holidays
The joys of journeying through the back of beyond – on a sled in the Siberian lakes
Lake Baikal in Siberia, Russia. Photograph courtesy of Mr Michael Turek
The first time I stepped on to the ice of Siberia’s Lake Baikal, I felt like I was stuck inside a ping-pong ball, any shape or shadow in the landscape lost with the absent sun. In flattened light, it was like travelling in an entirely abstract world. The shore’s forest skirts were hidden by the bank of fog sitting over the water. Cold air was blowing in my face until my skin was numbed. The only sound was the patter of the huskies’ feet, and the only colour the white of a perfect Russian winter, temperatures tipping to 20 below.
If I felt like the only person who had ever stepped into this virgin whiteness, it wasn’t true. Type #Baikal into Instagram and you will find all sorts of adventurers headed this way, to kite-ski, kayak, hike and attempt circumnavigations of the largest freshwater lake on Earth. It’s a style of travel on the rise: immersive, adventuresome, into the wild. Baikal – 30 times the length of Manhattan and 12 times deeper than the English Channel – is big enough to accommodate us all but still impart that feeling of being quite alone. The feeling is magnetic, of being untethered in unmanaged backcountry. It puts the frisson of risk back into the experience of travel that somehow went from the sublime (the mountain expeditions of the Romantic period) to a packaged-up, modern adventure holiday laden with indemnity forms. Somewhere along the line, in the commercialisation of travel, we forgot what it is to feel challenged rather than pampered.
Not that wilderness travel is about flirting with unnecessary danger. The sensations of this style of travel run deeper than mere adrenaline. That first time I visited Baikal, I found it curiously calming, the rhythm of our sledge muffled by the snow. The flakes were floating rather than falling, the light so soft it somehow diffused the dangers inherent in crossing the lake in winter, when the surface, as shiny as an ice rink, might have given way at any moment. Using a sledge and dogs, I was travelling the shoreline from the little tourist town of Listvyanka, where the road runs out, to a cabin a half-day’s dog-sledge north. From here I started the traverse across the lake at one of Baikal’s narrowest points.
For this part of the journey, I used a storm-bashed hovercraft piloted by a Baikal sea-dog who could read the fissures in the ice with a nonchalance for risk that Siberians can pull off with aplomb. I’d come in March, deep enough into the winter season for the freeze to harden off, when the lake’s surface ice measures 1m thick or more. But this can change. Baikal isn’t still, like the air inside a ball; its shores are shifting. The ice isn’t a continuous flat plain; it’s a mosaic of frozen sheets that crumple up against the beaches in waves clustered into splintered ridges. Beneath the quilt of snow are broken stitches. Cracks form and reform. The freeze mutates. It is staggeringly beautiful – not just the sight, but the sound of ice and wind.
This travel has its very own gravitational pull – into the roadless wild, where at night there’s not a glow of light anywhere nearby, and where infrastructure isn’t easy, which keeps mass tourism away. Three times since I’ve returned to the lesser-visited parts of Russia’s great lake – initially drawn by one of the most ravishing books I’ve ever read (Mr Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations Of The Forest, about living in a cabin on Baikal’s edge), then to research a book I’m writing myself. But my true motivation is less literary: I can’t keep away from the magnetism of a place that is so truly, deeply untamed.
Flying over Ultima Thule, Alaska, US, much of which is accessible only by air. Photograph courtesy of Mr Arturo Polo Ena
Not that I would advocate adventure without safety nets to catch you when things go wrong. Russia covers almost a tenth of the world’s land surface. Much of the country is profoundly unpopulated. These regions also tend to be politically complex, with some of the most compelling parts – Kamchatka, the Russian Arctic, the borderlands of the Russian Altai, where Siberia butts up to Mongolia – wrapped up in red tape for foreign visitors. You need special permits, special vehicles and local guides who know the lie of the land. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my travels in this part of the world, it’s that there is always someone, somewhere, who can make it happen, who knows, like that Baikal sea-dog, where the fissures in the lake lie. Pick any hole in the map and there will be some quiet professional, and brilliant maverick, who can take you in deeper than you thought you’d ever go. Like Baikal, the difficulty of access is part of the appeal, but I’m no explorer. I’m never solo. Wherever I go, to whatever depth of wild, I rely heavily on experts on the ground.
In Alaska, in Wrangell-St Elias National Park, that access is afforded by a family of fearless bush pilots who flit about above some 13.2 million acres of bear country in tiny little Super Cubs. With their fat wheels, these lightweight planes are the ultimate flying machines. They can land anywhere, from glaciers to river valleys, making you feel as free as a bird. The Claus family, descended from Alaskan homesteaders, are the keys to the kingdom. From their lodge, where no road goes, they fly you into the back of beyond – with tents, a dog to scare off the bears and a feast of home-cooked breads, wild berries and sockeye salmon – to pitch camp on a mountain top overlooking giant landscapes of calving ice. This is what makes the Claus family’s Ultima Thule experience so seductive: it’s close to anti-tourism, or at least anti the overly managed version so many of us have come to expect. There are no set itineraries. The pilot-guides’ knowledge of this vast territory and its fast-changing weather systems means that while very little planning is possible, it’s also not necessary. It is freedom in a giant’s land, where icefields extend for some 127 miles, forests are pockmarked with turquoise lakes bluer than the sky, and rivers snake and curl, unravelling through the landscape until they tip into the Pacific undisturbed.
In Kamchatka, on the other side of the Bering Strait to Alaska, you need an Mi-8 helicopter, which takes you deep into the Sredinny Range, a spine of ice caps and lava plateaus, which runs down the centre of Kamchatka in a line of some 2,500 volcanic cones gathering ink-blue clouds. There is no road dissecting these mountains, joining one side of the Kamchatka peninsula to the other, which means to get in deep, you need all the help you can get. The man to call: Mr Igor Sesterov, who works for the mountain rescue team in Kamchatka and operates Jeep and camping treks into the volcanic heartland.
These experts and their tools – hovercrafts on Baikal, Super Cubs in Alaska, Mi-8 helicopters in Kamchatka – are the shortcuts for time-poor, cash-rich adventure-seekers. On an assignment for The Economist’s 1843 in 2016, I was astounded by how easy it was to get to the South Pole: for $50,000, anyone could fly in on a Soviet-designed Ilyushin IL-76 cargo plane, switch to a Douglas DC-3 and, within a few hours of arriving on the continent, be quaffing champagne at 90 degrees south in -60°C. In the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia – the polar opposite of Antarctica, for the Danakil is one of the hottest places on Earth – I travelled with pilot-guide Mr Ben Simpson, whose Kenya-based helicopter safari company, Tropic Air, always faces high demand from travellers wanting to stray off the map, not just here but in the wildlands of the Sahara. His latest safari hotspot is the Ennedi desert in Chad, where the Sahara’s million-year-old rock stacks test even the world’s top climbers.
Travelling across Lake Baikal in Siberia, Russia, by hovercraft. Photograph courtesy of Mr Michael Turek
“We started our travel company in 1999 offering relatively simple east African safaris,” says Mr Will Jones, one of the specialist tour operators with a penchant for the Danakil wilds. I’ve travelled with Mr Jones on multiple occasions as a journalist, as he checks out new territory, from northern Kenya, to a sacred forest reverberating with the pant-hoots of chimpanzees in western Tanzania. If there’s no lodge to speak of, he pitches a tent by suspending it from a tree; if there’s no road, he pulls in the helicopters; if he needs a man to keep you safe in the Congo Basin, Mr Jones is the only fixer who can pull Mr Roland Purcell – a world-class safari guide, polyglot and primatologist, a pilot and pioneer who used to live on the shores of Lake Tanganyika – back into Africa. Before returning to Ireland in 2006, Mr Purcell looked after Mr Bill Gates and family on their forays through Africa. Working with Mr Jones, Mr Purcell now leads a couple of Great Ape Escape trips a year into African forests, where you encounter the biggest, rarest apes on the planet – up close and raw.
“The demand is pushing us all the time, to think ahead and make it happen in places where there’s nothing by way of conventional tourism,” says Mr Jones, whose client list runs from Mr Ralph Lauren to Ms Katy Perry. “We need to pull rabbits out of hats, in zones that feel overwhelming on paper but are worth every step of due diligence, to offer something that pushes over the boundaries of organised travel into the elevated experiences of true wilderness. Most of all, these trips need to inspire the game-changers to give something back to the most fragile places on the planet.”
Mr Jones speaks from the heart. In July, working in the Republic of the Congo, wading through a river up to our chests, he turned round to me and said, with a beaming smile: “This is why we do what we do, for moments like this.” In the far distance, a forest elephant – their numbers fast diminishing under the continent’s scourge of poaching – and up close, a butterfly on the wing. I was wet through, itching with insect bites, beleaguered by the heat, but none of that mattered. The untamed, the hard-to-get-to, the presence of animals in greater densities than man… To my mind, such places deliver among the most humanising experiences we still, just about, have left to us. For as long as these pockets of wilderness remain, they remind us what it feels like to be vulnerable – and of the pulse of being alive.