World's greatest wildernesses -- a traveler's guide

World's greatest wildernesses -- a traveler's guide

How to travel to the Amazon, Serengeti, Antarctic and more

Few things give a sense of excitement-veering-into-fear like the moment you realize you're lost, alone and in the middle of a vast area with no cell signal. 

Thankfully, tours to these wild regions guarantee to get you out again safely. 

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1. Antarctica

AntarticaPenguins and glaciers and bergs. And plenty of ice for happy hour.
The White Continent, as the world’s most southerly landmass is known, is not just a 14-million-square-kilometer landscape of glaciers and icebergs.

It's dotted with exotic wildlife, with highlights that include the Lemaire Channel, surrounded by towering cliffs, Paradise Bay, a haven for sea mammals and seabirds, and Deception Island, home to colonies of chinstrap penguins.

The best way to see the icy continent is not on a large liner, involving long days at sea with little variation in landscape or activity, but on an expedition cruiser loaded with Zodiacs to allow closer inspection.

Kayaking and other active pursuits may also be available if weather permits. 

Access is via air to Ushuaia, Argentina.

Compagnie du Ponant runs two mega-yachts into the area from December through February with Zodiacs, polar expedition guides and wildlife experts on board. From US$6,144 for 11 days; www.ponant.com

2. Serengeti, East Africa

Serengeti "Everybody stop! Gerald dropped a contact lens."
This 30,000-square-kilometer swathe of eastern Africa is the scene of the migration of mega-herds of wildebeest and zebra. They are pursued by the highest concentration of predators on the continent, including lion, cheetah and leopard.

While there’s no shortage of luxury camps and conventional safaris, the best way to witness the migrations is to follow them in a mobile tented camp which ups sticks every day and follows the animals as they eat, drink and outwit their pursuers. 

Access is via air to Kilimanjaro. The most spectacular viewing period is The Great Migration, August through October, followed by the March calving season.

Africa Odyssey offers four nights at a mobile tented camp including four nights with full board, game drives, park fees and internal transfers from Kilimanjaro from US$2,800 per person; www.africaodyssey.com

3. Sahara, North Africa

Draa Valley, Sahara It's not all dunes and dust.
The magnificent red dunes of the 9.4-million-square-kilometer Sahara, dotted with kasbahs, date plantations and camel trails, are most safely experienced from a tent under the stars in southern Morocco. 

As well as camel treks and hikes over the dunes and ancient lake beds, kasbah and plantation tours and visits with nomad tribesmen are all available in the world's biggest hot desert and second-biggest desert after Antarctica.

Access is via air to Marrakech, then several hours by road. Spring and autumn are optimum times to visit.

Specialist Morocco provides tents in the picturesque Draa Valley region with private bush showers and meals prepared by Berber chefs. From US$75 per night per person including all meals, but not including transfers; www.saharasafaricamp.co.uk

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4. Atacama Desert, Chile

ATACAMA Laguna Santa RosaIf you're dying for a fried egg but forgot the pan, you're in the right place.
Northern Chile is home to the world's most arid desert, peppered with salt flats, hot springs and geysers.

It also boasts fertile ravines, volcanoes and indigenous villages high in the Andes.

Thanks to its incredibly clear air, it's also home to the world’s most advanced observatory.

Trekking through the colored desert and climbing volcanoes are among the more active options, but it’s also fun just to take a four-wheel drive vehicle to the base of the volcano and fry an egg on the hot ground.

Another great activity is a hike around the salt flats and volcanic lakes and into fertile oases filled with fruit orchards.

Access is via air to Calama by way of Santiago.

Five nights in a secluded cottage, including transfers from Santiago, full board and four-wheel drive with driver on 24-hour call from US$3,850; www.dehouche.com

5. Gobi Desert, Asia

Nomads in Gobi DesertThink deserts all look the same? Not this one.
Much of this region’s breathtaking natural landscape remains intact. Panoramic mountainscapes and vast plains are punctuated by ancient monasteries like Erdene Zuu, which dates from the 16th century.

But the star of the show is the vast Gobi Desert.

Highlights include the Flaming Cliffs, named for their magnificent color, and the site where dinosaur eggs were first discovered.

Visitors can also view petroglyphs, visit with local nomads and ride on camels through the Moltsog sand dunes.

Access is via air to Dalanzadgad by way of Ulaanbaatar. June and July are the best months to visit.

Lightfoot Travel offers four nights full board including domestic flights, tours and activities from US$2,955 per person; www.lightfoottravel.com 

6. The Kimberley, Australia

Cockburn Range, KimberleyEven loners feel a little lonely here.
This area of Australia’s northwestern outback is almost as big as Germany.

With fewer people per square kilometer than almost any other place on Earth, it offers vast wildlife sanctuaries, spectacular gorges, otherworldly rock formations and thundering waterfalls.

Highlights include The Cockburn Range, part of the El Questro Wilderness Park, shaped like a vast round fortress and rising more than 600 meters above the plains.

The Kimberley is reached via air to Broome by way of Perth. May through September is the best time to visit.

Australia Pacific Touring offers a seven-night Jeep tour of El Questro and other Kimberley highlights from US$4,100; www.aptouring.com 

7. Canyonlands National Park, United States

Canyonlands National Park Like the Grand Canyon without the annoying helicopters.
Much less-visited than the Grand Canyon, this national park in Utah offers a similarly gob-smacking view of red and purple rocks as far as the eye can see, with fewer people and none of the helicopters.

Hiking, boating, mountain biking, photography and challenging Jeep tours over giant boulders are the principal activities.

Access is via Moab, with its own phenomenal wind-sculpted formations at Arches National Park, by way of Denver. Alternatively drive from Salt Lake City. Four-wheel drives are vital to get into the heart of the wilderness; choose spring or autumn to avoid excessive heat and snow.

REI runs a seven-day hiking tour of Canyonlands and Arches from US$2,499 including most meals and transfers from Salt Lake City; www.rei.com

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8. Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, Botswana

Quad biking to Kubu, Botswana salt pansSlug hell.
So vast and empty you can actually see the curvature of the earth, the Makgadikgadi salt pans are the remnants of an extinct super lake that once covered most of Botswana.

When the lake was formed 5 million years ago, its shores were the setting for the mysterious transition from ape to man.

Today, the salt pan system, which remains is as big as Switzerland, looks like the moon covered with a dry crust for most of the year.

When the rains come the pans are covered with water and grass and become a refuge for birds and beasts, who come in their tens of thousands to feed on the nutrient-rich grass.

Access is via air to Maun via Johannesburg.

Uncharted Africa offers five nights in camp from US$5,671; www.unchartedafrica.com

9. Tierra del Fuego, South America

Penguins in Tierra del Fuego"Anyone know where the dinner party is?"
The strip of southernmost South American coast shared by Chile and Argentina is a fabulous land of virgin coves populated only by penguins, condors, dogs and the odd shepherd.

The indigenous people were killed or driven away by a 19th-century gold rush. Today, strict controls have kept the pristine coastal areas free of development.

Not a place for individual adventurers, but Australis Lines has permission to land its passengers in dinghies and take them on guided hikes through forests and glaciers. They provide briefing and expedition gear and set up a shoreside bar dispensing whiskey and hot chocolate to warm up hikers returning from the ice.

Access is via air to Punta Arenas or Ushuaia via Santiago.

From US$1,180 per person, cruise only with all meals and expeditions and unlimited drinks; www.australis.com

10. Sinai, Egypt

Sinai DesertA good place for contemplation.
Wedged between Africa and Asia, Egypt’s Sinai region offers spectacular barren landscapes and desert plains which make up the great wilderness depicted in the Bible. A memorable feature is the Colored Canyon, formed over millions of years and streaked with yellow, reds and purple minerals.

As well as hiking and climbing, Sinai offers outstanding monuments, notably St. Katherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, a place of pilgrimage, and the 4,000-year-old ruins of the pharaonic temple of Serabit el-Khadim.

Nearby are the dramatic petrified tree stumps known as the Forest of Pillars perched along clifftops at Jebel el-Tih.

Access is via air to Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt or Eilat in Israel, from where Desert EcoTours offers two-day tours of the Sinai wilderness by Jeep and camel for US$310; www.desertecotours.com

11. Amazon Basin, South America

Amazon rainforest How much life is contained in this single picture?
For all its deforestation, the Amazon rainforest is still considered one of the world’s last great jungle wildernesses.

It can only be properly explored by boats small enough to whisk passengers up narrow tributaries away from human activity into a thrilling land of colorful birds, jungle animals and rainforest plants.

Fishing for anything from piranha to peacock bass is a popular activity.

Cruises were once the only way to get close enough to the Amazon, but international air access is now easier than it used to be, via flights to Manaus. Malaria tablets, insect repellent and lightweight clothing covering legs and if possible arms are a must.

Four days including transfers from Manaus, speedboat into camp and full board from US$2,500; www.dehouche.com

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