Want to get off the beaten path? Then here are 10 places that will stump most travel agents and reward you with original experiences. But remember, these are 'no pain, no gain' destinations so you'll need to be prepared for long transit times there and back - and you won't be able to recover at a five star hotel after a day of walking up 300m sand dunes or climbing an active volcano.
To reach Concordia, the junction of the Baltoro, Godwin-Austen and Vigne Glaciers in Baltistan, northern Pakistan, you must walk for about 10 days, eventually arriving at the foot of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain. Easy ways in do not exist, and there are few places on earth where you can be buried so deep within a mountainscape. Described by the photographer Galen Rowell as the ‘throne room of the mountain gods’, Concordia is as starkly beautiful as it is remote. Its name was given by European explorers, who thought it looked like a spot in the European Alps.
Empty Quarter, Saudi Arabia
Whether you call it the Empty Quarter (Rub al-Khali) or the Abode of Silence, the largest area of sand on earth is, well, rather empty. Covering an area of the Arabian Peninsula that’s larger than France, Belgium and the Netherlands combined, it also has sand dunes as high as the Eiffel Tower, rising to more than 300m in height and stretching for hundreds of kilometres. And while the Eiffel Tower remains firmly rooted in Parisian soil, these dunes can move up to 30m a year, pushed along by strong winds.
Cape York, Australia
Australia is renowned as a place of nowheres but even to Aussies, Cape York presents a remote and forbidding frontier. The northernmost tip in the country is reached along corrugated 4WD tracks that will rattle the teeth loose from your jaw. You’ll find the cape approximately 1000km from Cairns, which means days and days of driving, including crossing creeks inhabited by estuarine crocodiles. For your reward, you’ll find a rocky headland and, well, not much else. Now the only thing left to do is to turn around and clatter your way back.
Quttinirpaaq National Park, Canada
Canada’s second-largest national park is probably also its least visited. Straddling the 80th parallel on Ellesmere Island, it reaches to North America’s northernmost point (Cape Columbia) and, for visitors, deep into their pockets – a charter flight in from the town of Resolute will set you back an immodest C$32,000. The park has no facilities, roads or even trees. What it does have are bears and bares: polar bears and beautiful, bare mountains. While here you may as well pay a visit to Grise Fiord, Canada’s most northerly town.
The earth’s northernmost point is a place so far off the human radar that somebody turned it into the mythical home of Santa Claus – after all, who’d come here to prove the story wrong. Unlike the South Pole, there is no land at the North Pole. The few adventurers who come here do so by literally walking on water across the frozen Arctic Ocean. The ice cover fluctuates between nine million sq km in summer and 16 million sq km in winter, and is rarely more than 5m in depth; a disturbing thought when compared to the 3000mthick Antarctic ice shield.
Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile
The most famous loneliest person in literary history is Robinson Crusoe. As lonely as the man is the island that bears his name, 670km off the South American coast. It was here, in 1704, that Alexander Selkirk asked to be put ashore after a dispute with his ship’s captain. He lived here alone for four years, inspiring Daniel Defoe to create Robinson Crusoe. Today, around 500 people live on the Pacific island named for its very solitude. Few others come here; visitor numbers rarely top 100 in a year.
Nevado Mismi, Peru
The Amazon is the world’s most voluminous river but it wasn’t until a few years ago that anybody could truly pinpoint its headwaters. In 2001 a GPS-laden National Geographic survey team climbed high into the Andes of southern Peru, about 700km from Lima and 3000km from the Amazon’s mouth. Here, on a rock wall on the 5597m high mountain, Nevado Mismi, they identified a dribble of water as the river’s origin. If you’re intrepid enough to want to visit Nevado Mismi, begin in Arequipa and head for the village of Tuti; the walk in is not difficult.
Olkhon Island, Russia
Travel on the Trans- Siberian Railway as it skirts Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake, and you appreciate the place’s remoteness – about 3½ days by train from Moscow, and three days from Beijing. Containing around 20% of the world’s fresh water, the lake also contains Olkhon Island near its midpoint. Around 72km long, Olkhon is Baikal’s largest island, and by some climatic quirk it’s said to get more sunny days than the Black Sea coast, even as the rest of the lake and its surrounds mope beneath heavy cloud.
Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia
Want a sense of just how big Russia really is? Then picture this: Kamchatka Peninsula, drooping off its east coast, is closer to Los Angeles than Moscow. Among Russia’s least visited areas, the 1200km-long peninsula is also perhaps its most spectacular, a hyperactive geothermal land containing more than 200 volcanoes. The surrounding lava fields were used as testing grounds for Russia’s lunar vehicles. Once, it was a six-month journey to get here; today you can fly from Moscow, though it’s still an 11-hour flight, surely the longest domestic flight on the planet.
Scotty’s Castle, USA
In the 1920s Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson was sold the ultimate snake oil – the idea that there was gold in California’s Death Valley. In the dry, scorching conditions the ailing Johnson found something more precious: improved health. So, he built a castle in the desert valley with the second-highest temperature on record. Today, the Spanish-style ranch 70km from the nearest Death Valley settlements looks like a folly, although it’s rather snug behind its sheepskin curtains and with its 1000- pipe theatre organ.
Also read our article on where to escape the daily grind of the modern world.