Fifty years ago, the Starship Enterprise set out ‘to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before’, igniting a sense of adventure every traveller recognises, whether they're a Trekkie or not.
In tribute to Captain Kirk and co, here’s our pick of the world's final frontiers – although you might want to daydream about some of them from the safety of your armchair rather than boldly go...
Darién Gap, between Colombia and Panama
There’s something disheartening about the fact that you can reach most of Latin America on one road; lucky then that the Pan-American Highway never managed to penetrate the jungles separating Panama and Colombia. There are two ways to bridge the void: the hard way, hiking and hopping along the rainforest-cloaked eastern coast by leaky boat, or the so-risky-as-to-be-insane-way, dodging narcotraffickers, guerrillas and anti-drugs agents in the dense jungles of the interior. For our money, the hard, coastal way should be challenging and rewarding enough.
Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands
With photos of mushroom clouds billowing over the palms etched into the popular psyche, Bikini Atoll probably isn’t the first tropical island paradise that leaps to mind. But over 60 years after the nuclear tests that put Bikini on the map, travellers are once again washing up on its shores. Well, close to its shores to be precise; the islands are only open to visitors on liveaboard dive safaris, visiting some of the most untouched reefs in the Pacific and the wrecks of the fleet of empty warships blown up in the Bikini tests.
Boma National Park, South Sudan
Despite being one of the most dangerous countries in the world, South Sudan offers something that will make you the envy of travellers around the globe – a visa stamp so far enjoyed by just a handful of human beings. Tourist destinations in the world’s newest country are still described as ‘potential tourist destinations’, an indication of how far off the map you have travelled. When the country is more settled, perhaps you’ll be the one who makes the rumoured tourist sights – dramatic mountains, astonishing tribal encounters, amazing natural parks with teeming wildlife, and one of Africa’s great wildlife migrations – into a reality.
Yali and Korowai Country, West Papua, Indonesia
In the impenetrable rainforests of West Papua, formerly Irian Jaya, there are said to be people who have never encountered anyone from the outside world. Boats and planes will ferry you as far as the coast of this jungle wilderness, but with the almost total absence of roads, from there on you are on your own. There’s plenty of paperwork and money required to charter river boats and planes to reach the remote country inhabited by the Yali and Korowai people, but here you can get a taste of what life was like for the first explorers, when maps were to be drawn not followed.
Rub’ al-Khali, Saudi Arabia
Nothing compares to the true emptiness of Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter. The Rub’ al-Khali is actually only the second-largest sand desert in the world, but this rolling sea of sand makes other deserts look like rush hour on the metro. Crossing requires a minimum of 40 days, even by camel, and with the difficulty of getting a visa for Saudi Arabia, most of the few dozen travellers who have attempted it since 1950 have opted for the side route from Oman to the United Arab Emirates.
What’s this? A well-known tourist hotspot on a list of final frontiers? Well, in this case, the final frontier is way, way down in the abyss. The intercontinental trench that plunges off the coast of Dahab has become the place to set a scuba diving record, with the current medal held by Egyptian Ahmed Gabr, who reached a staggering 332.35m in September 2014. What you encounter down there is anyone’s guess, but you can’t encounter it for long. The journey down takes a quarter of an hour; returning to the surface takes nearly 15 hours. Bring a (waterproof) book is our advice.
Nepal’s newest climbing peaks
As a gesture of respect for local beliefs, the summit of Machhapuchhre is never claimed by mountaineers, but in 2014 Nepal opened up 104 new climbing peaks for the very first time. Predictably, the mountains named for Edmund Hillary (7681m) and Tenzing Norgay (7916m) grabbed most of the attention, leaving 102 peaks for people looking for their very own first ascent. Unlike on Everest, there are no ice doctors here to lay out fixed ropes and ladders across chasms, but lower climbing fees put these Himalayan monsters within reach of ordinary climbers who come for the love of rock, ice and adventure.
North Hamgyong Province, North Korea
As the world’s most infamous state, and official nemesis of Team America, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might seem an unlikely holiday destination, but a trickle of travellers still brave unbelievable amounts of red tape to visit one of the last true Communist regimes. Trips to the capital, Pyongyang, are almost mainstream, despite an army of resident minders who ensure you only see ‘approved’ sights. More exciting are trips into North Korea’s unseen northeast, where you can be one of the handful of tourists to experience the sights of Chongjin, the secretive ‘City of Iron’, and the eerily empty beach resorts around Mt Chilbo.
Chernobyl wasn’t always a travel frontier; it took the catastrophic events of 26 April 1986 to drive every human being from the 2600 sq km Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation. As radiation levels have dropped, groups have started exploring the abandoned cities around the Chernobyl nuclear plant – and with a name like ‘Zone of Alienation’, how could you resist? Today, you can get within 200m of the concrete sarcophagus encasing Reactor 4 – but no closer because of residual radiation – and wander (carefully) through apocalyptic abandoned cities, now taken over by deer, wolves, boar and wild horses.
Space, the final… well you know the rest
Fifty years after the first episode of Star Trek and space remains the final frontier… but it’s getting closer. Despite the tragic crash of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise, dozens of companies are spending millions to turn space tourism to a reality. Space Adventures (spaceadventures.com) is the first company to successfully transport its clients outside earth’s atmosphere, with seven civilian astronauts since 2001, but others are close behind. The only drawback is the price tag – an estimated US$20-40 million per passenger, though Virgin Galactic (virgingalactic.com) hopes to undercut the market with fares of just US$250,000.