Destination Earth

It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years. – Abraham Lincoln

HAVE YOU BEEN to the Mountains of the Moon? Or the Forest above the Clouds? Or the Island of Death from Behind?

I’ve not been to the Moon yet, but I intend to visit the Mountains of the Moon and the Cloud Forest soon. As for the Island of Death from Behind or Pulau Blakang Mati, the Singapore government has long since renamed it “Sentosa”, and in the process changing the mysterious island into a tacky, plasticky tourist stopover.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a weekend of fun for many Singaporeans was to take a 10-minute sampan ride from Jardine Steps to Blakang Mati, walk through the old British army compound and spend an afternoon at the grey-white beach swimming or fishing. There were hills and ravines encrusted with emerald shrubs and trees, and a winding foot path from the jetty to the dark interior haunted by seductive voices.

Those who had cars would drive out of this stuffy 600sq km island into the Malayan peninsula for an afternoon beach outing at Port Dickson or an overnight getaway in Cameron Highlands or even Penang. The more adventurous would sign up with Nam Ho or SA Travel to ride elephants in Chiang Mai or wiggle their hips with Alishan girls in Hualien.

In those days, middle-aging folks and newly-minted honeymoon couples went abroad in groups of 20-30, shepherded by a guide who took care of all details from airport check-in to booking a restaurant for mandatory Chinese meals. (“Singaporeans die-die must eat rice and tofu wherever they go,” was the operating philosophy of these guides.)

Times have changed

Today, with budget airlines and nonstop discounted promotions on travel Web sites, individuals with some cash and time, can go savour adventure places that they have once read in Henry Rider Haggard’s novels (King Solomon’s Mines) or W H Hudson’s autobiography, Far Away and Long Ago.

They go on Safari, not the sanitised one at night in Singapore’s postage-stamp Mandai forest, but in Kenya or Tanzania, where they shoot lions and hippos with digital SLRs and 500mm zoom lenses. They race camels in the sand dunes of Outer Mongolia, and swim with manta rays in the Maldives. They trek between lava fire and glaciers in Iceland, and paddle canoes on the piranha-infested Amazon River.

The choice is yours: to camp under hazy clouds at the East Coast Park (30 minutes taxi ride from your apartment flat) or go a bit farther, to sleep under the diamonded Milky Way at the Grampian forest park (five hours plane ride to Melbourne from Singapore). Camping in the Grampian is less crowded and more convenient than in the East Coast because the Grampian offers camping gear, hot showers and restaurants.

As one seasoned traveller observes, “Adventures come in all sizes; big ones and little ones, daring adventures  or passive escapes to moonlit beaches and romantic encounters in paradise.”

Defining adventure travel

Adventure travel should be defined as a trip to a destination (it doesn’t matter how far or exotic) that is completely different from your daily habitat, where you are immersed in activities that you have not done before, or that you normally would not have the opportunity to do.

So, flying off for retail therapy at Causeway Bay in Hong Kong, while exciting and expensive, doesn’t count as adventure travel. Neither is it to travel by coach up the mountains of Sichuan and then wait in a snaking queue to gape at some rainbow lake.

Begin with your imagination

And your imagination starts with the adventure books you have read. Haggard’s adventure series featuring the hero Allan Quatermain, are among the most exciting. Zulu warriors, witch doctors, and of course the mysterious, beautiful She Who Must Be Obeyed.

I don’t think King Solomon’s mines exist (despite what I see on Youtube). Meanwhile, here are some suggestions of real adrenalin-pumping places to camp out, trek or swim or sail:

The Camino or Pilgrim’s Walk in the Pyrenees mountains between Spain and France, the region where cyclists race the Tour de France. Give yourself five weeks to walk the 800km road.

The Lake District in the north of England that once inspired the English Romantic poets. Be sure to visit William Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage.

Valley of the Kings where golden Tutankhamen was buried and where a new, intact royal tomb was discovered on Feb 10, 2006, that could possibly be that of Queen Nefertiti, the most beautiful woman in history (not scheming ol’ Cleopatra).

Benares the city where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon that changed the course of human destiny. From Benares, fly to neighbouring Burma and check into one of the many Vipassana Meditation Centres for a month-long meditation and mindfulness retreat.

The Cloud Forest of Costa Rica. Go there fast, before the trees are felled and the place becomes botak.

The Bioluminescent Bay in Vieques Island, off Puerto Rico. Swim and snorkel in the magical water, and no other sapphire sea will satisfy you.

The Congo River, described in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. Unfortunately today most of its 4,380km stretch is wracked by armed conflict, and no insurance firm will sell you a policy if they know you’re heading that way.

The Mountains of the Moon, the Ruwenzori Mountains between Uganda and Congo, a seven-hour bus ride from Kampala.

Tierra Del Fuego at the bottom of the world, first explored by the intrepid Ferdinand Magellan in 1520.

Machu Pichu in Peru; but walk the Inca Trail to reach this mysterious city, not ride a coach there.