Many everyday experiences — like reading — have been altered due to the inevitable pull of the future. But when travelling, it is possible to encounter fragile environments that have resisted change and come across moments where time seems to stand still.
The Kingdom of Bhutan, known to its inhabitants as Druk Yul (Land of
the Thunder Dragon), is imagined by many outsiders to be a land frozen in a
highly traditional past. This is not true – a thoughtful programme of
modernisation began here 40 years ago. However, Bhutan’s culture is underpinned
by an ancient Buddhist mythology, emblemised by the ethereal dzongs (fort-monasteries)
of the Bumthang region. Combined with Bhutan’s extraordinary
geography, it is this that brings visitors to a standstill while they are
trekking between Himalayan peaks in the north, delving into deep central
valleys or roaming the rolling southern hills.
The mosque in the island-bound
Mali town of Djenné
seduces travellers with the mudbrick hue of its fortress-like exterior and the
large supporting cast of wooden beams that protrude through the walls into the brilliance
of the African sun. So captivating is this earthen marvel – the world’s largest
mud-brick structure – that it makes little difference to learn that the current
building only dates from 1907. It was modelled on the Grande Mosquée erected on
the same site in 1280; the original building fell into ruin in the 19th Century.
A slow trip down the
world’s second-longest river might mean unbearable monotony to some, but
glorious immersion in nature’s timelessness to others. To decide for yourself,
board one of the gaiolas (river boats) that navigate the Brazilian Amazon between the interior settlement of Manaus and the port of Belém.
These boats get very crowded, and their open-sided nature (hence the name,
which means “birdcage”) guarantees exposure to fierce Amazonian rainstorms. Just
climb into a hammock near the railing, consign the sounds of boat life to
background noise, and lose yourself in the passing of the world’s greatest
Travel to Antarctica is expensive.
Getting there by boat also involves a challenging sail across the Southern
Ocean, from bases like Hobart, Australia, and
isolated Punta Arenas, Chile. But those who
make the trip are rewarded with close-up views of stunning ice shelves,
mountainous icebergs, the wildlife of the Antarctic
Peninsula and fierce sunsets that can last for hours. Notwithstanding the
presence of other cruise ship passengers, visitors also get to experience a
glacial solitude that freezes the present.
National Park by balloon, Tanzania
Imagine being hoisted into
the sky at daybreak and sailing serenely over expansive savannah plains dotted
with wildlife, warmed by the rising sun , with only the occasional sound of a
burner to break the silence. Such is the experience you will have in Tanzania‘s epic 1.5 million–hectare Serengeti National Park if you forego the standard
on-the-ground safari and opt instead for a hot-air balloon odyssey over this
African wildlife playground. The trip is at its most dramatic in May and early
June when massive herds of wildebeest and zebras dodge predators during their
gorillas, Rwanda and Uganda
Few experiences compare to
crouching within a whisper of the greatest of the great apes and holding your breath
because nothing separates you from these amazing animals except a rather
tangled family tree. This is all thanks to the willingness of mountain gorillas
in Rwanda‘s Parc National des Volcans
and Uganda‘s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park .
You will only spend an hour in the vicinity of the gorillas once you track them
in their native jungle, but those 60 minutes will endure for a lifetime.
Mont St-Michel is a mesmerising mix of town, castle, island
and abbey. The Benedictine abbey’s striking Gothic architecture was completed
in the 16th Century and is surrounded by a village that is in turn, surrounded
by defensive ramparts and towers, all of it perched on a large granite islet in
the English Channel that is connected by a causeway to Normandy‘s
shoreline. Mont St-Michel is often rated as France‘s
most visited attraction, so its narrow streets get absolutely jammed with
pilgrims and other visitors. Some prefer to gaze at it from a distance and
meditate on the beauty of its silhouette against the surrounding bay.
with whales, Tonga
Between June and November,
humpback whales congregate in Tonga to mate and
breed. Observing the whales from the deck of a boat as they slowly frolic and
occasionally slap their flukes on the water’s surface is one thing. But
strapping on a snorkel and paddling amongst these majestic cetaceans is
something else entirely, particularly when a mother and calf are nearby. Swimming
with whales is mostly done around the Vava’u
and Ha’apai island groups.
Petra is an ancient city
that was sculpted out of sandstone cliffs in the southern deserts of Jordan to
become the capital of the Nabataeans. This staggering feat of rock-carving is
entered via the Siq, a narrow, high-walled gorge that leads directly to Petra’s
Treasury – the squeezed view of its elaborate façade from within the Siq has to
be one of the world’s most snapped photographs. Many visitors devote themselves
to the hillside tombs along Petra’s one “street”. But for some quiet reflection
and an awesome view, tackle the more than 800-step climb up to the monastery.
The name of the Tibetan capital means “Holy City”, a fitting
description for a city lodged in the Himalayas at an altitude of about 3600m
and the spiritual centre of Tibetan Buddhism. The thin air will take your
breath away, but so will the incredible spectacle of the surrounding Himalayan
peaks and the golden-roofed Jokhang Temple. And, unlike
the exiled Dalai Lama, you can also enjoy the serenity of Potala Palace. Most
beguiling, however, is the indomitable cheerfulness of the Tibetan people amid
the impositions of Chinese administration.
The article 'Experiences that make time stand still' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.