Travel is a voyage of discovery and a constant search for that elusive ultimate sight. As the world’s natural wonders are ever-changing, so each visitor has the chance of a unique view and experience. Here we have highlighted some strong contenders in the little known, incredible sights category, as offered by members of the Association of Independent Tour Operators.
CATATUMBO LIGHTNING WITH WILDERNESS JOURNEYS
Remote trekking with your own guide across the Andes, through lush cloud forest and lonely paramo to witness the Catatumbo Lightning. This atmospheric natural phenomenon, found nowhere else on earth, has an average of over 200 flashes every minute for 10 hours every day, with no thunder. This 12-day trek from Merida in the Venezuelan Andes to Logoa Lagoon for the lightning experience, costs £1,395 pp excl. flights but includes accommodation, meals and internal flights. For details call AITO member Wilderness Journeys on 0131 625 6635 or visit www.wildernessjourneys.com.
VALLEY OF MARVELS WITH INNTRAVEL
Inntravel’s Alps to the Mediterranean walking holiday offers an unforgettable day exploring the Vallée des Merveilles (The Valley of Marvels) in the wild and mysterious Mercantour National Park, led by a registered guide. On a 4-wheel drive excursion (£59 supplement), witness the marvels of this valley with its striking lunar-style rock formations: thousands of 4,000-year-old carvings of people, animals, and symbols. Witness the dramatic rock formations of the valley and the peak of Mt. Bego (2,872m). Price of £545 pp includes 6 nights’ B&B, 4 dinners, 2 picnics, maps, notes and transfers) on a self-drive basis. Call AITO member Inntravel on 01653 617000 or visit www.inntravel.co.uk.
TURKMENISTAN’S DOOR TO HELL WITH WILD FRONTIERS
In 1971, geologists drilling for gas deposits in the KaraKum desert in Turkmenistan, uncovered a huge underground cavern which caused the ground over it to collapse. Since the cavern was filled with poisonous gas, they ignited it, hoping it would burn itself out in a couple of days. Thirty-five years later, this 70-meter wide crater continues to burn the trapped natural gas, creating an amazing fire display described by locals as the ‘Door to Hell.’ Visit Darvaza as part of the Cities of the Silk Road tour of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. 16-day tour, land only price from £2195 pp. Call AITO member Wild Frontiers on 0207 736 3968 or visit www.wildfrontiers.co.uk.
STAND ON 83-42 -THE MOST NORTHERN POINT OF LAND ON EARTH WITH DISCOVER THE WORLD
Only a handful of people have ever stepped foot on 83-42 – the northernmost permanent point of land on earth, completely surrounded by ice. It is a tiny rock, only 35m by 15m and 4m high, about 400 miles from the North Pole. It took pole position in 1998, when it was discovered with lichen growing on it. Join a few other intrepid adventurers on the “Voyage to the North Pole”. The 14-day trip takes place in July and costs £14,802 pp excl flights from UK to Helsinki. Call AITO member Discover the World on 01737 214250 or visit www.discover-the-world.co.uk.
WILPENA POUND WITH BRIDGE & WICKERS
Head Downunder to discover Wilpena Pound – a huge 50 sq mile basin contained by a girdle of mountains that rise up to over 3,000 feet. It looks impenetrable, indeed the only way into this natural amphitheatre is on foot through a narrow gorge. Staying at a cattle station, visit this, one of the great natural sites of the Flinders Ranges and watch kangaroos, wallabees, parrots, eagles, rosellas and galahs on the plains below. Price of £1,549 (excl. flights) includes 5 nights’ full board, most drinks, transfers, 4 days’ car hire. Call AITO member Bridge & Wickers on 0207 483 6555 or visit www.bridgeandwickers.co.uk.
THE DEEPEST CANYON IN THE WORLD (ALMOST) WITH SUNVIL TRAVELLER
North of Arequipa in Peru is the magnificent Colca Canyon, twice as deep as north America’s Grand Canyon, and thought to be the deepest in the world until the nearby Cotahuasi Canyon at 3,354m was found to be 163m deeper. Head for the Colca Valley from Arequipa and journey (on a private or group basis) over the altiplano which climbs to 4,800m before dropping down to the Colca Valley. The Mirador Cruz del Condor, where the canyon is 1,200m deep, is an unbeatable spot to see condors gliding. A ten-night Peru itinerary costs from £2,996 pp including return flights from Heathrow, ten nights’ accommodation, some meals, private transfers and private excursions. Call AITO member Sunvil Traveller on 020 8758 4774 or visit www.sunvil.co.uk.
JAPAN’S FIREFLY SQUID LIGHT UP JAPAN’S TOYAMA BAY WITH INSIDEJAPAN TOURS
Only 3 inches long, Japan’s firefly squid, have special organs at the end of their tentacles that light up like glow sticks on Bonfire Night. Although they normally live 1,200 feet underwater, due to unusual underwater formations in Toyama Bay, in the central Japan Sea, these squid rise to the surface and can be seen bright and gleaming in their millions. Between March and June, join a sightseeing boat departing from the Namerikawa fishing port around 3am to see the nets 1 to 2 km offshore. InsideJapan Tours has a 10-night package for £1,741 pp, including 3 day car hire and 3 nights at the beautiful Lamp No Yado on the east coast of the Noto Peninsula. Call AITO member InsideJapan Tours on 0117 314 4620 or visit www.insidejapantours.com.
FLAMING CLIFFS OF THE GOBI DESERT IN MONGOLIA WITH SCOTT DUNN
The 3,000-mile Gobi Desert is most famous as the place where the first nest of dinosaur eggs and other fossils were found, as well as for the flaming, glowing orange colour of its rocks. Discover the mysteries of the Gobi desert and its wildlife from the beautiful Three Camel Lodge, in the Gurvansaik National Park. ‘From China to Mongolia’ tour includes 2 nights in the Gobi Desert. £3,789 pp for 7 nights including flights. Call AITO member Scott Dunn on 0208 682 5460 (ref2342) or visit www.scottdunn.co.uk.
ICHUN FALLS, VENEZUELA WITH EXPLORE
We’ve heard of Angel Falls – but few have heard of, let alone seen, Venezuela’s remarkable fizzing and foaming Ichun Falls. Thanks to the tannin from local plants, the Paragua River turns into a thick white carpet as it drops 250 metres into the lake below. You can only visit the Falls, if guided by the Shirian Indians, a native tribe living on the Paragua’s remote upper reaches, who let Explore groups stay with them. Don’t worry – Angel Falls features on this amazing Shirian Tribal Lands 16-day Venezuela adventure, costing £2,179 with flights, £1,545 without. Call AITO member Explore on 0844 499 0901 or visit www.explore.co.uk.
FISH RIVER CANYON IN NAMIBIA WITH EXPERT AFRICA
Offering a Mars-like landscape, the majestic Fish River Canyon in Namibia is the world’s second largest canyon. The vast rocky landscape breaks up into a series of spectacular cliffs that tower over Fish River as it meanders between boulders over half a kilometre below. The landscape is desolate, dusty and rock-strewn, the wildlife includes rare black eagles and mountain zebra, and the sulphurous Ai-Ais Hot Springs await at the bottom. A seven-night package to Namibia, including a guided five-day hike into the canyon, starts from £2,455 pp with flights (two sharing). Call AITO member Expert Africa on 020 8232 9777 or visit www.expertafrica.com.
MADAGASCAR’S AVENUE OF THE BAOBABS WITH NATURETREK
The Avenue of the Baobabs in Madagascar is a collection of 100-foot high, 40-foot wide Boabab trees indigenous and limited to the African flatlands. The trees can live between 1,000 and 2,000 years. Also visit Madagascar’s astounding Tsingy de Bemaraha, a forest of dense spiky limestone formations that have formed over thousands of years and look like a giant hairbrush from above. The wonderful park also features wetlands, mangrove forests, and a valley full of local wildlife. Cost for the 16-day Madagascar’s Forests and Wetlands tour is £3,995 between 11 -26 October. Call AITO member Naturetrek on 01962 733051 or visit www.naturetrek.co.uk.
EUROPE’S BIGGEST SAND DUNE WITH VFB HOLIDAYS
The 100-metre high Le Dune du Pilat, at Arcachon, 55 kms south of Bordeaux , is a stunning sight. Europe’s largest sand dune, it is apparently edging 7m inland a year. The best time to visit is in the evening when dolphins and porpoises can be seen frolicking in the warm waters offshore. Stay in a modern 2-bedroom villa with enclosed garden at Lugos on the edge of the Forêt des Landes, within easy reach of the coast at Arcachon, the sand dune and the Sanguinet Lake, as well as Bordeaux’ famous vineyards. A week’s stay costs from £480 per property (just £120 pp based on the max. of 4 sharing). VFB Holidays can also book competitively priced ferry crossings and flights. Call AITO member VFB Holidays on 01452 716840 or visit www.vfbholidays.co.uk and search for property code WOE33.
CHITRAKOOT WATERFALLS WITH TRANDINDUS
Some 50 kms from the city of Jagdalpur in central India are the crescent moon-shaped Chitrakoot waterfalls which, although smaller, are often compared with the Niagara Falls for their shape. The River Indravati plummets down from the Vindhya mountain ranges to form what are the tallest (at 100’) and broadest waterfalls in India. Best seen between July and October, the waterfalls and surrounding areas are spectacular in their beauty. A 16-day Tribals of Orissa trip inc 2-day extension in Chhattisgarh costs from £3,264 pp sharing, including mostly full board accommodation (3 nights B&B and 1 night room only), return international flights London-Kolkata, all internal travel, all scheduled sightseeing and a local tour escort. Call AITO member TransIndus on 020 8566 2729 or visit www.transindus.com.
MOUNT LIVINGSTONIA , MALAWI WITH OASIS OVERLAND
For an authentic African experience it’s hard to beat Mount Livingstonia. This stunning mountain rises 1,000m above Lake Malawi and a 3 hour walk brings you to the top where you have incredible views over the famous lake. On the way is a 60m waterfall with a cave behind it where villagers used to hide from slave traders. Visit Mount Livingstonia as part of the Apes & Lakes (38 Days – Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi) Nairobi to Lilongwe overland trip costing from £740 pp not including flights. Call AITO member Oasis Overland on 01963 363400 or visit www.oasisoverland.co.uk.
And one we love but can’t use due to FCO advice – THE RICHAT STRUCTURE
The Richat Structure is an incredible and unknown circular feature in the Mauritanian Sahara. It has attracted attention since the earliest space missions because it forms a conspicuous bull’s–eye shape in the otherwise rather featureless expanse of the desert. The structure, which has a diameter of almost 30 miles, has become a landmark for space crews. AITO members don’t go to Mauritania at the moment due to FCO advice, but if they did, this would be top of our list (www.aito.com).
For details of all 140 AITO specialist tour operators – and special offers and news – visit www.aito.com.