REVIEWED: Atlas of Untamed Places
Well researched and written, this inspiring compendium of 45 of the planet’s wild places gives you an instant list of places to get off the beaten track
How do you get off the beaten track? From the wild Sundarbans in India/Bangladesh and Mexico’s Cave of Crystals to Bhutan’s Gangkhar Puensum and Herschel Island in Canada, senior staff writer for Geographical (the official magazine of the Royal Geographical Society) Chris Fitch’s Atlas of Untamed Places: An extraordinary journey through our wild world offers a feast of places to visit (45, to be exact) to avoid honeypot tourist sites and see the planet’s truly wild places. TravGear asked Fitch a few questions:
During your research for the book, where did you get the most extreme feeling of isolation?
“Meru National Park, Kenya. Isolation isn’t the most overwhelming feeling which hits you there – I’d describe it as a lush and overgrown landscape, inhabited but not by humans – however it is undoubtedly a world away from the urban and/or developed environments most of us normally inhabit. I believe I was the only external visitor in the entire park during my time there, which does give you a quite powerful sense of perspective to realise that the rest of the park is purely wild plants and animals.”
Did you pause before deciding to shine a light on some of the world’s unknown (to tourism) wild areas?
“I’d be kidding myself if I felt my book was going to make a significant impact to the conservation status of these various global places, none of which I would describe as being so substantially unknown that I’ve got a scoop of any kind by writing about them. Certainly, when deciding on those places which qualified for the book on the basis of being exceptionally remote or ‘untouched’, I did think about the ease by which tourists (or any people really) could get there, and there were several – Inaccessible Island, Gangkhar Puensum, Challenger Deep etc. – where it’s obvious that the difficulty in getting there is key to their uniqueness. Telling more people about them isn’t likely to make the challenge of getting there any easier.”
Why do you think that tourism gets concentrated while other wonders get missed?
“Obviously there are plenty of parts of the world which are literally constructed with tourists in mind, and tourists will usually obligingly turn up in those places that have been constructed especially for them. This is where plenty of the concentration comes from. Money talks, as always, so a well-planned and well-executed tourism campaign, or perhaps a high profile appearance in a successful Hollywood blockbuster, can also make a huge number of people aware of a place at roughly the same time (the adding or removing of airline routes also has a significant role here). Then there’s simply trends and ways in which places will go in and out of vogue for reasons that are difficult to put your finger on. On the other hand, there are also considerable numbers of people searching for those places that don’t have many tourists in them, those more comfortable with the new and the unknown, forever trying to stay ahead of the curve that they themselves are pulling forwards as they search for the new ‘untouched’ destination. So there can be multiple narratives underway at the same time, something the travel industry are forever trying to understand as best they can. On a side note, the Qiantang river may not be a high profile event outside of China, but it does attract plenty of people domestically when it occurs, often making national news. So it depends who exactly you classify as tourists when considering each case.”
What do you think of the ‘bucket list’ concept?
“Personally, I have no bucket list, although I can see the merit for people with more specific goals for their life than I have. In terms of travel, the idea of ‘ticking off’ parts of the world is one I would not recommend to anyone, for the simple reason that the world is not static. If the world was exactly the same throughout your life, then perhaps it would make sense to try and complete a ‘list’ that involves covering as much of the planet as possible. But every part of the world is changing all the time, at different rates and in unpredictable ways. Visiting a place one year gives no guarantee that you’ll understand it the next. So certainly I would describe ‘bucket list travel’ as a horribly flawed concept. It also encourages an ignorance about the world, where someone can drop into a capital city and announce that they’ve ‘done’ a country and never need to return again, when in fact out in the country, or perhaps even just a few miles away, there’s a completely different place that they’ve essentially written off entirely. No matter how much any of us have travelled, there will also be new surprises and unexpected changes to the world, and so none of us can ever pretend to fully understand a contemporary place based purely on past travel.”
How can over-tourism be avoided in future with so many Chinese tourists causing an explosion in tourism to honey-pot sites?
“Obviously China is having a massive impact on global tourism, along with the many Indians and Indonesians and many other nationalities whose new prosperity in recent decades has enabled them to join the jet-setters in the West. Over-tourism is of course a subjective term, and different people will have different ideas of what exactly this means, as well as different interpretations based on the different places in question. In terms of negative social environmental impacts, it’s hard to look beyond the basic role which education and cultural exchange can have on people when they travel, from whatever country they are from. Out of their bubbles, away from creature comforts, there can be few better times to make people aware of the impacts which decisions they make are having on the world around them, and the responsibilities which they therefore have. Tour companies, hotels, resorts and other people involved in tourism need to step up and accept the challenge of making their clients understand what impact their personal presence is having on a place, so that guests can return from their trips better informed about the world, and specifically about their own place within it. Guest ignorance isn’t an acceptable excuse anymore when it comes to the mess or other negative impact which mass tourism can have on a popular tourist attraction – the stakes are simply too high.”