Walking the World’s Natural Wonders
This is the Introduction to a book I worked on about fifteen years ago. The best label for my role is 'contributing editor'. I wrote a good half of the accounts of the various walks and terms, and recruited others to do the rest.
15 years on, I think I'd have a bit more to say in relation to climate change and the carbon footprint of travel, but in general I think it stands up pretty well.
‘Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value.’
The world is full of inspiring places, and there is no better way to experience them than on foot. Walking is the most natural, the most primeval way of getting about. Walking takes us into a landscape, while other modes of transport detach us from it. Walking pace allows the world to unfold and reveal itself. And walking allows all the senses to engage. You can drive to the rim of the Grand Canyon, and be impressed, but to hike through it, to feel the temperature change as you descend, to see that silver thread turn into a raging river, is to gain an altogether deeper sense of its true scale and complexity.
On every continent, in every age, in vastly different ways, people have expressed their wonder at the great spectacles of nature. The great volcanoes of New Zealand’s Central Plateau were held so sacred by the local Maori that passers-by had to shield their eyes. And on Australia’s Larapinta Trail, especially with a good guide, you can get a shadowy inkling of the profound relationship between the Aboriginal people and the land.
Natural marvels inspire myths and stories everywhere. The medieval hero Roland is said to have hewn a cleft through the mountains with his sword Durandal: this startling gash in a Pyrenean ridge is still called la Breche de Roland. And legends continue to grow: Conan Doyle’s ‘Lost World’ was inspired by Roraima in Venezuela.
Wonder does not just reside in the great show-pieces. There is also something to marvel at in the curve of a sand-dune, the miniature world of a rock-pool, or a splash of green moss in the black volcanic deserts of Iceland. A journey on foot is about much more than arrival at a single destination.
If great natural wonders excite our awe, they should also strengthen our resolve to treat with respect not only the great sites but also the natural world as a whole. The overarching principle is to leave minimal trace of your presence. In this, too, walking is unbeatable, and only equalled by a few other means of transport, like canoes and cross-country skis.
While walking itself has minimal impact, getting to the starts of the walks is a different story. It’s no longer possible to ignore the fact that visiting these places involves a lot of travel, which typically means flying. How do you balance the environmental negatives of long-haul flight with the economic benefits that responsible tourism can bring, or the possibility - for example - that national park fees paid by trekkers help to sustain environments that might otherwise fall prey to deforestation?
It’s a complicated equation. Perhaps, rather than focusing solely on the ‘carbon footprint’ of a single journey, what matters is our overall impact throughout our lives. If close encounters with the world’s natural wonders provoke a greater sense of the world’s beauty, fragility and interconnectedness, there is a great deal to be gained.
For every marvellous place included in this book, there are legions more that equally inspire wonder; the marvellous South Island of New Zealand, the hauntingly beautiful islands of the Hebrides, the crystalline distances of the Altiplano. Still, every walk in this book embodies something special. In all their diversity, they have one thing in common, reminding us that the world is dynamic and ever-changing. Nature is a work in progress.
Nowhere is this clearer than in active volcanic regions, from Hawaii to Iceland and New Zealand, where ‘as old as the hills’ becomes nonsense: the hills may be younger than you are. Other walks take us back through the dizzying spans of geologic time. England’s Jurassic Coast, Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park, and the Burgess Shales of British Columbia, all bear prime significance for human understanding of the way the Earth was made, and continues to evolve.
The Burgess Shales yield fossils from the first great blossoming of life on Earth. Today’s living world - complex, often fragile and sometimes endangered - is the overriding theme of many of the walks. It might be the abundance of Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest that inspires awe, or the ability of life to thrive in apparently hostile environments, whether close to the Arctic Circle in Finland or in the dunes of the Namib Desert.
If some walks reveal the volcanic and tectonic processes that build up the earth’s crust, others are dominated by the evidence of erosion, from great river canyons like the Verdon or the Grand Canyon to the grinding glaciers of the Himalaya, Alps and Andes. The stark valleys and ridges carved by vanished glaciers are the headline story in areas like Newfoundland and Norway.
If the areas visited are diverse, the walks themselves vary widely in their level of challenge. However, all should be within the grasp of any reasonably fit person who prepares sensibly. There’s no need to carry huge loads, or to scale sheer precipices.
Some areas are covered by day-walks, but most of the walks in this book last from three to ten days. All the European walks are possible without camping, thanks to an abundance of snug mountain and wilderness refuges, supplemented by village inns. Of course, camping is an attractive alternative, allowing a deeper relationship with the environment, though in some protected areas it may be banned or restricted.
Outside Europe, camping is the norm for most trips. However, every trip in this book is covered by companies which provide fully supported trekking. This normally means that walkers only need carry a light day-sack, while everything else is transported by porters or pack-animals or - occasionally and regrettably - by motor vehicle.
The levels of challenge still vary widely; the specific chapters give greater detail, but each individual must interpret this in light of their own experience. A particular challenge, and potential risk, is posed by altitude. Several of the walks spend time above 4000m, with the highest point being the summit of Kilimanjaro at nearly 6000m, where the air pressure is only half its sea level value. While a good level of basic fitness certainly helps, there is no substitute for acclimatisation, allowing the body to adapt gradually to altitude.
In general the walks do not pose great technical difficulties; there is no need for rock- or ice-climbing skills. However, several do venture into exposed situations where a good head for heights is required. Rough edges and unpredictability are intrinsic to the natural world. It demands respect, and rewards it magnificently.