In pristine lands far from the beaten track, age-old ways of life survive, says Stuart Watkins.
Last summer my children, tiring of the usual diet of Mediterranean villas and Tuscan pools, demanded to go somewhere more exciting,” says William Dalrymple in the FT. They settled on a trip to the Karakoram mountains in Pakistan, near the Afghan border. That fitted the bill.
From Islamabad airport, the family made their way up into the “green and bucolic” hillsides of the Swat Valley, passing an endless gauntlet of police and army check-posts guarding against Taliban incursions. (The British Foreign Office and US Department of State advise against travelling to the region. Check carefully before travelling yourself.)
On the plus side, this meant Dalrymple and his family had “some of the most stunning mountain landscapes and some of the world’s most intriguing archaeological remains” all to themselves on their way to visit the Kalash tribes. The tribes were the inspiration for Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, and were once common in the region, but are now reduced to a few strongholds. From there they preserve a religion and cosmology that “may already have been old” when the Rig Veda was being written.
The Wild Frontiers travel agency arranges jeeps, a cook and a “beautifully carved wooden village house” as a base on the roadless trip from Chitral fort into the Kalash valley. From their base, the party one night headed up the mountain in the moonlight, through a forest of holly, oaks and walnuts, towards the sound of the beat of drums and the cries of dancers.
The party stumbled into the middle of a harvest festival, with “drummers thumping away energetically”, and more than 200 dancers celebrating in embroidered black dresses edged in cowrie shells and hung with bead necklaces. Gaggles of boys would look on and occasionally launch themselves into the dance.
A 16-day private tour from Islmabad to Chitral costs from £2,685 per person (WildFrontiersTravel.com)
A warm welcome in rural India
Chhattisgarh state in east-central India is “a land of elusive leopards, tigers and animist beliefs” far from the chaos of India’s cities, says Kate Eshelby in The Guardian. On arrival, Eshelby was greeted with flower garlands and ushered into a simple and intimate retreat, a good base for visiting the Gond and Baiga tribes who live nearby.
The countryside is dotted with villages of the Deer Horn Muria (part of the Gond tribe), “where life has changed little for centuries”. In one village, Eshelby sees a traditional dance by boys on stilts, dressed in fuchsia and orange, with hand-painted wooden deer headdresses. On most days there’s a market in one of the villages, a “colourful and vibrant affair” where you can buy bangles and exotic vegetables. “Deep-fried jalebi and other sweets are sold alongside silkworm cocoons, turmeric roots, pyramids of jaggery and mountain herbs.”
Eight nights for a family of four costs £2,750 (HolidaysInRuralIndia.com)
A cruise to Papua New Guinea
Explorer Benedict Allen does Papua New Guinea the hard way, says Michael Kerr in The Daily Telegraph. He just hacks his way into the country of rainforest-covered mountain ranges, limestone canyons and endless swamps embracing giant rivers. But the soft way to visit is on a cruise. Near the coast, the tribes are now accustomed to greeting the vessels of companies such as Coral Expeditions, an Australian company which has been organising cruises round the islands for a decade.
There is a pattern to your days at sea. You raise your cabin blinds in the morning to see densely forested volcanic islands. Then you go ashore to be met by people in traditional dress and offering words of welcome, and watch a performance of songs and dance. Then you are taken on a tour of the villages. On one trip into the mangrove swamps on a flotilla of canoes, the party was ambushed by three spear-wielding warriors demanding to know whether they were dealing with friend or foe. On being assured of the party’s good intentions, the leader posed for photographs, his “menace slightly diminished when he revealed that his name was Brian”.
Book through Discover-The-World.co.uk. From £7,240 for 12 nights, excluding flights.