How to be an explorer

How to be an explorer

Paddle down the Congo or meet headhunters in India. No experience required

Ever watched those TV shows about adventurers heading off into the unknown and wondered how to be an explorer just like them?

Well, exploration is no longer the preserve of a rarefied few. Organizations like the Royal Geographical Society and Explorers Connect have been set up to make exploration inclusive, open to anyone with a sense of adventure.

It’s not all about physical endurance either: below are 10 exploration-based tours to little-known parts of the world that the gentleman (or lady) adventurer in the street can join.

The catch? You need a big, jiggly piggy-bank: adventures of a lifetime don’t come cheap.

1. Journey down the Congo River

Journey down the Congo RiverIts heart may be dark, but the sunsets are sublime.
The ambitious undertaking was inspired by the travels of 19th-century explorer Henry Morton Stanley and the Joseph Conrad classic, "Heart of Darkness."

You’ll voyage 1,000 kilometers down the Congo by boat, soak up local life and delve into the interior to visit some of the last surviving pygmy tribes. Whiny types will be flung overboard and fed to the piranhas.

Travel in these parts, where little runs to plan, requires patience and stamina. Says Jonny Bealby, fearless founder of Wild Frontiers and the mastermind behind the tour: "Taking commercial adventure travel to the limit, this iconic trip -- in the footsteps of Stanley and the fictional Kurtz -- follows the Congo River on a true journey of discovery through the heart of a land where few venture and few hear much about."

Price US$9,504 for the 28-day trip, excluding international flights. Next departure September 2013; +44 (0)20 7736 3968;

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2. Paddle through remote islands in Papua New Guinea

Duke of York islandsThe Duke of York islands provide a pleasingly basic stay.
If the prospect of sweating your way up to a hissing, spitting volcano isn’t intrepid enough, this expedition also offers a rare opportunity to explore wild jungle trails and stay with the shy Bainings and Tolais tribes, known for their secret ceremonies and ritual dances.

The trip ends in the Duke of York islands -- bet you’ve not heard of those either -- where the locals still barter with shells and you can snorkel in azure waters. The trip is run on a bespoke basis and can be done year round, with no minimum numbers required.

US$11,492 per person (based on two sharing) for 14 days, including flights, pre-trip logistical set-up, personalized expedition equipment, private guiding from ex-military and survival specialists as well as local support and all meals and drinks; +44 (0)20 7426 9899;

3. Explore New Zealand's Sub-Antarctic Islands

penguins at Subantarctic Islands  Will pose for fish.
Down Under, the Outback doesn’t have the market cornered on remote, hauntingly beautiful landscapes. For starters, there’s also Macquarie: designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, it and all the Sub-Antarctic islands are known for their lush landscapes and wildlife.

Only a small number of visitors are allowed on the islands every year, and the best way to join them is via a specialist expedition cruise.

Says Kate Selly, a spokesperson for Orion Expeditions, who run the trips: "This sub-Antarctic voyage gives guests an opportunity to visit one of the planet’s most important, bio-diverse regions with volcanic and glacial geological formations and extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna. The islands are a paradise for photographers and wildlife enthusiasts."

From US$9,337 for the 12-night trip, leaving December 8, 2012; +44 (0)20 7399 7620;

4. Search for petroglyphs in Panama

panama jungle trekYou may want to be just a little more prepared than this.
Yes, Panama is home to the eponymous canal, but who’s heard of the Darien Gap? The murky tangle of forest, mountains and swampland separates Panama and Colombia, is home to an Indian tribe called the Embera, and remains untouched by roads.

The area is also the site of mysterious stone carvings dating back to 5000 BC. Bar the team of archaeologists who unearthed them, few have seen them. But you can, if you join the expedition, which is likely to last between two and three weeks.

Figure in jungle trekking, travel by dugout canoes and pack animals, dazzlingly colourful bird species and wildlife, and you’re looking at an expedition that’d tantalize Indiana Jones himself. Says Tom Bodkin, founder of Secret Compass: "This promises to be an incredible adventure into an extremely remote and fascinating part of Central America."

Provisional departure in October 2012, cost to be confirmed; +44 (0)20 3239 8038,

5. Cross Greenland

greenland explorationWarm cozy boat trip? You'll be lucky.
If you're tired of scuttling from one air-con building to the next to escape the sun or are in need of a Bigger Chill, this trek could be it.

The ability to endure discomfort and hardship comes into it -- you’ll be dragging a heavy sledge, with temperatures averaging around minus 15 C, for anywhere between 22-30 days, but no technical skills are required and the guide is skilled at gee-ing on participants of all abilities.

There are plenty of rest stops, though you do need to have a realistic idea of what to expect. Says Ian Couch, founder of Adventure Hub: "Crossing Greenland is one of the big three polar journeys. It is challenging, exciting and exposes people to the beauty and rewarding hardship of extreme cold weather travel with a feeling of stunning isolation and appreciation of the natural world."

Reassuringly, pre-trip training sessions for the group to familiarize themselves with kit and each other are included.

US$8,710, excluding international flights. Next departure is on March 30, 2012 (with similar dates planned for 2013); +44 (0)75 2500 0933;

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6. Climb South Sudan’s highest peak

South Sudan toursJoin the only group offering tours of the world's newest country.
A sure-fire way to way to earn traveler kudos is to announce that you’re embarking on a journey through the world’s newest country: South Sudan.

The trip involves a rafting expedition down the most sparsely inhabited stretch of the Nile, from the Ugandan border to Juba, camping, trekking in the rarely visited Imatong Mountains -- and a hike up to the summit of Mount Kinyeti (3,187 meters), the country’s highest peak.

For good measure, you’ll also meet the Dinka, the tallest people on the planet. If you’re happy to rough it, you’ll relish the experience. "We are currently the only company offering expeditions there, and in fact at the moment, there is no one else taking 'tourists' into South Sudan," says Tom Bodkin, of Secret Compass. 

US$4,754, for the 14-day expedition, and the next departure is February 2-14, 2013; +1 347 690 0182;

Note: Political tensions near the border with the Republic of Sudan mean many governments advise against travel to that area.

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7. Monitor polar bears in Canada’s high arctic

Canada High Arctic polar tourMore scared of us than we are of him? Doubtful.
If you’ve always dreamed of getting up close and personal with a polar bear you’re in luck, for on this expedition to Canada’s remote Bathhurst Island, you won’t just be cooing over them, you’ll be part of a project helping to count them on behalf of the Norwegian Polar Institute.

You might get lucky and spot arctic hare, arctic wolf, fox, ermine, caribou, muskox, seals and walrus too. The best bit? No experience is needed -- and how often can you say that of a polar expedition?

Camping in tents and traveling on foot, you’ll need to be resilient and flexible -- weather and sea ice conditions can be unpredictable.

Says Jim McNeill, founder of expedition organizer, Ice Warrior: "What I love about these journeys is that they are shared life-changing experiences; enormous fun, and when people are exposed to the pristine wilderness like this they return with a greater sense of personal responsibility for the planet. Brilliant all round!”

The 14-day trip costs US$7,610. Next departure is May 10-14, 2012; +44 (0)1344 883 861;

8. Trek through Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor

Afghanistan tour Wakhan CorridorOne of Asia'a last true wildernesses.
A troubled land Afghanistan may be, but all is calm in this remote, beautiful strip of land that once formed a buffer zone between the British and Russian Empires.

The one-of-a-kind month-long expedition makes it possible for intrepid souls to explore an area that is home to kindly, hospitable Wakhi herdsmen and snowy peaks. The tour kicks off in Tajikastan before a crossing at the tongue-twisting Ishkashim border.

Says Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers: "Afghanistan is one of the last true wildernesses left in Asia, and the Wakhan Corridor represents a trekkers paradise, undisturbed by the ravages of modern tourism, giving travelers a chance to see a pristine region of a fascinating country without the madding hordes."

Price, excluding international flights, is US$7,903. Next departure July 4, 2012; +44 (0)20 7736 3968;

Note: Many governments advise against travel to Afghanistan particularly in and around Kabul and Kandahar. 

9. Journey through the Columbia River Gorge

Pacific Northwest USA expeditionFarmland, forest and desert all on one trip.

You might equate America’s Pacific Northwest with rainy days and groovy-sounding coffee chains, but the states of Washington and Oregon include an incredible diversity of landscapes.

The Columbia and Snake Rivers are worth exploring, and on an expedition that impressively partners National Geographic with Lindblad Expeditions you can do just that.

You’ll be joined by naturalists, historians, a geologist and photo instructor, and navigate through a series of locks (more impressive than the Panama Canal) and farmland, forest and desertscapes. Trips on Zodiac dinghies and kayaks keep it hands-on.

US$3,990 per person based on double occupancy, for the seven-night cruise, and the next departure is on September 14, 2012; +1 212 765 7740; for more information visit Lindblad Expeditions at 

10. Meet the descendents of headhunters in Nagaland

India Nagaland.Every head alive and attached.

If you’re the outdoorsy sort but equally fascinated by cultures and customs, this journey into India’s remote north-eastern Nagaland state offers thrills aplenty.

For one thing, you’ll be staying in the village homes of the Konyak Nagas. Once the fiercest of Nagaland’s tribes, they’re known for their head-hunting history. The practice died out in the early 1900s, and despite warrior-like appearances to the contrary, the welcome -- bestowed by tribal kings, no less -- promises to be a warm one.

All this and an exploration of Arunachal Pradesh’s Nadampha National Park, the only one in South Asia where tiger and leopard have both been recorded, too.

Price, including international and domestic flights is US$5,858. Next departure is on November 17, 2012; +44 (0)1453 844 400;

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Jini Reddy is a London-based freelance journalist, writing on independent travel, personal development, wellbeing and lifestyle, for assorted newspapers, magazines and online media.

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