'What’s the best moment of your life?' Ask a traveller that question and you’ll quickly find yourself immersed in colourful stories of hallowed hikes, eye-opening wildlife encounters or first-time strolls through the streets of a now-favourite city; few simple questions spark more enriching anecdotes while offering such insights into a person’s character.
In testament to this enlightening enquiry (and the remarkable tales it reaps), here are four stories from travellers recounting their most memorable travel moments, taken from our new title Best Moment of your Life – an anthology of 100 profound, moving and unforgettable travel experiences from around the world.
Ian MacEacheran found a new lease of life on the Mont Blanc massif © Nando Machado / Shutterstock
Finding life on the tour du Mont Blanc, France, Italy and Switzerland – Ian MacEacheran
‘I just need to catch my breath,’ I said, as I flopped by the trailside, inhaling a deep lungful of pine-scented air.
Ahead, Mont Blanc and the jawbone ridges of the Grand Jorasses and the Aiguille du Midi posed for a family portrait, while behind me dramatic contours, cols and glittering lakes accented just how far I had come.
It was an extraordinary panorama, creating a funfair-like, heart-in-mouth excitement, and the blood rushed to my head with dizzying effect. I was above the clouds, but my scuffed hiking boots were still firmly on the ground.
These were mountains that punched straight to the viscera. I was a 72-year-old bomb-in-boots, tired and recovering from a life-threatening stroke, and yet I was one last corkscrew descent away from circumnavigating the Mont Blanc massif. The endorphin-rush of completing such a life-affirming journey crackled through my veins like a shockwave.
Touring Europe’s highest peak had been a lifelong dream, a hut-to-hut exercise in splendour, but also one of companionship with my 36-year-old son. Together, we had hiked 170km (106 miles) and ascended 10,000m (33,000ft) in three countries, achieving something we thought impossible in my twilight years – the giddy feeling would last for days.
After one last breath, it was time to come down. I could sense the raw exhilaration that lay over the horizon, but I lingered on the trail. This was a feeling I wanted to savour for a moment longer, to capture a little of the mountain’s soul to take home with me.
The take away: journey’s end should have represented a validation: I was a grandaddy, on one last adventure with the grandaddy of the Alps. But besides the excitement, the peek-a-boo panoramas, and afternoon beer stops on the back of farmers’ wagons, it was also a beginning. A chance – and reminder – to live again.
Duff Battye was left humbled hearing Nelson Mandela's first speech after leaving prison © ALEXANDER JOE / Getty Images
Witnessing Mandela’s first free speech, South Africa – Duff Battye
Aged just 19, I was travelling in Cape Town when an announcement the world had been waiting for was released: Nelson Mandela would finally be freed. Although everyone I’d met advised me against it, I knew I had to witness his first speech.
Walking towards City Hall, the noise was the first thing I encountered – it was emanating from the estimated 250,000-strong crowd in the Grand Parade. I then saw the cordon of armoured riot police trying to stop the flow of people. Somehow I managed to jostle through and join the sea of bodies.
Despite being a pasty-faced Yorkshireman, and the fact I couldn’t see any other white faces in the crowd besides a BBC camera crew, I was never scared. In fact, I felt something I’d not experienced before (nor since) – an energy that pulsed and tingled through my entire body.
Everything was so raw and in focus: the smell of sweat and alcohol; the vivid black, green and yellow colours of the ANC everywhere; the hypnotic chanting in a language I didn’t understand; and the hugs I received from everyone.
When Mandela arrived the explosion of noise actually took my breath away.
Although I was bathing in the joy of the situation, I couldn’t actually see much through the heaving crowd. That was until I was beckoned by a young South African man to join him perched atop some traffic lights. After a warm embrace, we watched Mandela speak, and the crowd party, until the light began to fade.
The take away: looking back, to witness such a pivotal moment in the life of this great man and in the history of South Africa was both humbling and awe inspiring. It also taught me to trust my instincts, and embrace where they take me – on that day it was magic.
Standing face-to-face with mountain gorillas is the moment that sticks with Jane Powell © Eric Reitsma / 500px
An enlightening encounter with mountain gorillas, Rwanda – Jane Powell
Just when I thought my heart couldn’t beat any faster, I cautiously left the forest’s grasp and descended into the clearing where a dozen mountain gorillas had been spotted. The intense feelings of anticipation were rapidly replaced by excitement when my eyes caught sight of the first gorilla, a young male basking in the warmth of a brilliant shaft of light.
This sighting was followed in short order by another, a hulking 200kg (480lb) silverback standing just 7m (23ft) away. I was absolutely overwhelmed by his size, his stature and his thoughtful gaze.
He continued to look on as a youngster, not yet a year old, stumbled out of the undergrowth and approached me. Not far behind were a couple of inquisitive females.
Over the remainder of our hour (the maximum time allowed), I watched the tiny youngster frolic about, beat his chest and sing in delight, all from the distance of several metres. The females took turns grooming, dining on wild celery and studying the happiest human on the planet.
During this time the minutest details of their faces, human-like hands and enchanting eyes were permanently engraved into my psyche.
My ecstatic smile and uncontainable, childlike giggles halted abruptly when I heard my guide say three small words: ‘Time is up.’ Just as I was about to plead for a few seconds more, a bolt of lightning struck nearby and the shockwave sent the gorillas scattering into the jungle’s depths. A fittingly dramatic end to an encounter that I’ll never forget.
The take away: besides indelible recollections of the excitement and energy pulsing through my body during the encounter, what I carry with me today from my hour with the gorillas is the sheer captivation I felt. I wasn’t just looking into the eyes of an animal, but rather those of a relative.
Feeling the snow fall in New York's Central Park was a cathartic moment for Tasmin Waby © EarthScape ImageGraphy / Shutterstock
Central Park stroll in the snow, USA – Tasmin Waby
It was the mid-1990s, and despite the 1987 film Wall Street painting the city as a playground for capitalism’s winners, New York was still very much a mecca for aspiring actors, writers and musicians living in studio apartments and freezing warehouse conversions. It was a little bit gritty, everyone talked very loudly and the subway didn’t feel very safe to this 21-year-old kid from Melbourne (blame the 1990 thriller Jacob’s Ladder).
Before I left home, oodles of older people (my parents’ friends and my friends’ parents) all told me the same thing: ‘Whatever you do, don’t walk through Central Park at night.’ But one evening after dark I found myself on the wrong side of the park, and being young, stupid and rather reckless, I decided to cut through it anyway.
When I got to the middle I stopped for a moment to look around me. I did a slow 360-degree turn and took it all in: the park was completely white with fresh snow, the only other tracks were a squirrel’s dancing around a tree and the apartment windows above were lit up like fairy lights.
And then, in the stillness, the snow started to silently fall from the sky and wet my cheeks. It was a moment of pure beauty and elation. I was in New York. It was magical. And the world seemed full of possibility.
The take away: sometimes it pays to ignore the wisdom of your elders. Flouting such advice resulted in this magical moment and, as luck has probably been on my side most of my life, it has since led to others. And lastly, beauty can be found wherever you look for it.
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