Place To Be

In 2017 I worked on an exciting new title for Lonely Planet called The Place To Be – taking a slightly different approach to travel, inspired by emotions.

Whether it’s joy, tranquillity, adrenaline or serenity you’re looking for, this sumptuous coffee table book is packed full of great ideas for places to find them. I worked on the chapters for ‘Alone’ and ‘Fulfilled’, covering everywhere from Antarctica to the Australian Outback, and pretty much every continent inbetween.

I’ve posted a taster of my chapters below, but for the full lowdown, you’ll have to buy the book – it’s on sale now at the Lonely Planet website and all decent bookshops.

Extracts from The Place To Be

The Place to Be Alone

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

So wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1854 in his classic tome on backwoods living, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods. It’s a book that elevates the experience of being alone to a semi-existential state, and a century and a half later, in a world of social media and information overload, it’s a book that seems more prescient than ever. In the book, Thoreau abandons his comfortable city life for a rustic cabin in the Massachusetts woods, and in so doing, learns the benefits of self-sufficiency and self-reliance: the simple pleasures of chopping firewood, foraging for food and sitting in silent, solitary contemplation of nature.

But the thought of solitude – let alone the prospect of travelling solo – is something that many people still find deeply daunting. And there’s no doubt that it has its challenges. There’s no-one there to watch that early-morning sunrise with, or discuss the day’s adventures over a late-night beer, or lend you some spare cash when you just can’t quite scrape enough together to buy that must-have Moroccan rug in a Marrakesh souk.

But, as Thoreau himself realised, solitariness has its own subtle pleasures. Your days are your own. You’re a free bird. Light as air. A lone ranger. There’s no negotiating over your next destination, no waiting around for anyone else’s luggage, no-one to ask permission of or answer to. You can pick a point on a map, and just go. There’s a sense of freedom to travelling on your own that, by definition, can’t be matched when you’re travelling with others – as Alastair Humphreys, a professional adventurer and serial solo traveller, and the bestselling author of a series of travel books including Microadventures and Great Adventures, explains.

“Being alone is a really important part of my journeys,” he says. “It forces me to be resilient and flexible. There can be no coasting, letting somebody else make the decisions, work out the route and find somewhere safe to sleep. And there are no ties, constraints or compromises. I can do what I want, go where I want, be who I want. I love this kick, the rush and buzz of joy and freedom. Just being in motion for the sheer heck of it. This is the unbeatable intensity of solitude that keeps me hooked on travelling alone.”

And there can be few places that bring the intensity of solitude into sharper focus than Antarctica. Vast, white and impossibly empty, this icy expanse has bewitched generations of adventurers and explorers, and if you truly want to know what it might feel like to be the last person left on earth, there’s nowhere to match it. “The end of the axis upon which this great round ball turns,” (as the explorer Ernest Shackleton referred to it), Antarctica covers 14 million square kilometres of frozen ocean, and is perhaps the last place in the world which can be called wild in the purest sense of the word. Apart from a few scientific stations dotted across the ice-sheets, it’s one of the few areas of earth that humans have never properly colonised. It offers a vision of a world without people – and perhaps that’s why it continues to exert such an irresistible hold on our collective imaginations. In practice, unless you’re mounting your own trans-polar expedition, it’s hard to experience quite the same level of aloneness felt by Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen et al, but even on an organised cruise, you’ll feel a long, long, long way from home – especially as your boat chugs south, civilisation recedes towards the northern horizon, and you chart a course for the great white unknown. Most ships depart from the Argentinian port of Ushuaia, and explore the area of northwest finger of land known as the Antarctic Peninsula, although occasionally, some boats are also able to explore even more remote regions around the Weddell Sea and Ross Sea.

Antarctica isn’t the only place where human footprints are hard to find, however. There might be seven billion of us on the planet now, but pockets of wilderness remain if you know where to look. Take The Empty Quarter, for example.

Covering 650,000 km2, an area roughly the size of France, and spanning the borders of four countries – Oman, the UAE, Yemen and Saudi Arabia – the Empty Quarter (or the Rub al Khali, as it’s properly known) encompasses the largest swathe of sand dunes anywhere on earth. On a map, it’s a big, blank splash of yellow that takes up most of the Arabian peninsula, unmarked by any defining features. But it’s only when you step foot on the dunes that you realise how profoundly empty this place is. Apart from a handful of Bedouin tribesmen who have clung on their nomadic lifestyle, no-one lives in the Empty Quarter these days – so when you set up camp, you can be pretty certain that you’re probably the only human soul for several hundred square miles around. The explorer Wilfred Thesiger had a lifelong fascination for the place, and with its palette of fiery colours and blazing night skies, it’s not hard to understand why. “No one can live this life and emerge unchanged…” Thesiger wrote. “For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”

Alaska is another place which can rightly claim the title of true wilderness. Covering more than 1.7 square kilometres, it’s the largest of the fifty United States, and also the least populous, with a population density that’s a fifth of Montana’s, a thirtieth of Oregon’s and almost a hundredth of New Jersey’s. That makes it a paradise for solitary types, and if you like your skies big and your landscapes empty, then The Last Frontier has no equal. Surprisingly, however, some of the more popular areas, such as the spectacular national parks of Denali and Wrangell St-Elias, can feel busy (at least relatively speaking). So if it’s proper alone time you’re after, then it’s the Far North you want: from the town of Fairbanks, the epic Dalton Highway unfurls into empty wilderness for some 666km, and it’s quite easy to drive the whole day without ever passing another soul.

The Place to be… Fulfilled

“I can’t get no, I can’t get no, I can’t get no satisfaction,” crooned a snake-hipped, big-lipped young firebrand by the name of Michael Philip Jagger back in 1965 – and if we’re honest with ourselves – if we’re really honest – surely we’d all have to admit that we’ve all had that feeling at least once or twice in our lives.

It’s that niggling doubt that sneaks up on you late at night. The midnight melancholia. The spectre of self-doubt. The dread of drifting. The back-of-the-brain suspicion that perhaps you’re wasting your days, frittering away the limited span of time you’ve been allotted on this earth doing something which you don’t enjoy, maybe in a place you don’t like living, slogging away in pursuit of a goal which, ultimately, turns out not to really matter all that much after all.

It’s one of the big questions; maybe the biggest of all. The conundrum of contentment. Of how to feel satisfied in a world that sometimes seems to be doing its darnedest to make us feel dissatisfied with our lot, envious of others and uneasy about the general direction in which we’re headed.

Now, some might say that this is very much a First World problem, and they’d be right. When compared to issues such as global warming, poverty, world hunger, and finding out what horrors lie beneath Donald Trump’s bouffon, the question of how to feel satisfied seems like a trifling concern.

But in truth, along with love, health and happiness, fulfilment is surely one of the big goals we’re all aiming for. In fact, some might say it’s the biggest all: because fundamentally, if you don’t feel fulfilled, content and at ease with your inner self, then all those other life goals suddenly become that little bit harder to achieve. “Life finds its purpose, and fulfilment is the expansion of happiness,” in the words of the Beatles’ spiritual guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Or to put it another way: find your raison d’être and everything else just seems to slot into place.

Unfortunately, the question of how to go about finding your true calling is an altogether harder proposition. So, following some more of the Maharishi’s sage advice, perhaps the first step is not to look outwards, but inwards…

Unsurprisingly, Nepal makes an appropriate place to begin your mindfulness journey. At the Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, monks hold regular day courses cover basic meditation practices while exploring some of the core tenets of Buddhism, such as the four noble truths and the concepts of dharma and samsara. You get to live and practise alongside the monks, and learn mindfulness techniques from the masters.

Another discipline that helps encourage inner peace is the practice of yoga, and

there are few better places to learn the basic postures or refine your peacock pose than at an Indian ashram. There are hundreds of places to choose from, all exploring different styles and practices. Which you choose is completely a matter of taste. You could go for a formal school like Kaivalyadhama Ashram, founded in 1917 in the old hill station of Lonavala, which emphasises classical technique, following the form of ashtanga yoga developed by Patanjali, widely considered the father of traditional yoga. Alternatively, you could opt for a more modern-style school such as Purple Valley in Assagao, Goa, where you can sip on detox juices and wander the tropical gardens when you’re not busy practising your poses. Either way, the key is immersion: to get the most out of a yoga retreat, you need to commit – and that means ditching the phone, avoiding emails and Instagram for a while, and focusing completely on the here and now.

Sometimes, even just visiting a temple and spending some quiet time there can be enough to open your eyes to a higher state of being and an appreciation of just how lucky you are to be here at all. One of the best places to experience that transcendental temple feeling is Bagan, Burma’s greatest sacred site, a vast complex of more than two thousand temples covering 40 square miles. Built from mud and brick between the 11th and 13th centuries, they open a window onto a lost world where the everyday and the divine were inextricably intertwined. Many of the temples are covered with ancient frescoes, or harbour antique Buddha statues carved by long-forgotten craftsmen. Monks pad around the dusty temple courtyards. And watching the sun rise over the Irrawaddy River as hot-air balloons take off in the dawn light is an experience that’s absolutely impossible to forget: deeply fulfilling, and who knows, perhaps even life-changing.