Some people collect art, others cars or wine. I am a bagger of exotic walks. My ambition is to identify, and write a book about, the 100 best walks in the world — although I’m aware that, because of the size of the task, it may well have to be published posthumously. I love the quiet, unsynthetic joy of striding through exceptional places, with days given over to free-form rumination. It brings a soaring intensity of feeling that is rejuvenating and energizing.
In order to get definitive about the best walks, I have been musing about their essential ingredients. There are thousands of beautiful walks, so beauty can only be a starting point. It seems to me that a walk is outstanding because of its charisma, usually combined with a natural wonder or literary or historical associations. Of course, people will have their own opinions — some will shudder that Mounts Kilimanjaro and Fuji fail to make the final cut because of their painful altitude and crowding.
It’s no surprise that Nepal, Peru and America have an embarrassment of rich walks; but China is way ahead, for me, thanks in large part to the wonders of the Tibetan world. These are ten of my favorite walks — so far.
Mount Kailash, Tibet
The world’s best walk, by my reckoning. A three-day pilgrimage around this sacred mountain is accompanied by nomads in their sheepskin coats and turquoise and coral beads, some of them prostrating the entire 53km circuit. From the Bharka plain, the trail climbs a long, glaciated gorge around Kailash’s western flank, finishing with a night under the mountain’s striated northern face.
The next day labors up to the 5,600-meter (18,500ft) high pass, festooned in prayer flags; then drops past an eerie turquoise lake to meander back to the plain. Along the way you pass monasteries, stupas, prayer-flag poles and prostration points. It is a profoundly spiritual, moving place.
Three very tough days; basic camping with support team.
Torajaland, Sulawesi, Indonesia
In the remote mountains of this spice island, a remarkable culture has retained its traditions and graceful, boat-like houses and granaries. You can walk through rice terraces and villages, or take to the hills, crossing the jungle-clad ridges from valley to valley. You may join a festival or funeral amid Homeric scenes of fire and feast.
Straightforward day walks from hotels in the valleys; or tougher overnight treks, staying in old wooden houses on stilts.
Jomolhari Trek, Bhutan
The trek with everything, taking you up ancient tracks, through villages in valleys that retain their ancient Tibetan Buddhist culture, then climbing through virgin forest before emerging to summer pastures at the foot of the sacred 7,316-meter Jomolhari. The route then crosses two high passes, passing two lonely dzongs (forts) in desolate landscape, before dropping back to the delights of the valleys.
Seven demanding days; cold nights in tents, but wonderful support teams.
Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, China
Deep in the mountains of western China lies this World Heritage Site: a gorge of bright mineral lakes and weird geology, set in mixed forest beneath broken peaks. You walk beside streams gurgling, often in wide multiple strands, over calcinated beds, cataracts and waterfalls of frozen stone, passing still, little lakes that range from emerald to the palest turquoise.
Straightforward day walks; hotels outside national park.
Umfolozi Walking Safari, South Africa
There is nothing like tramping through scrub and long grass in which big beasts lurk–rhinos, elephants, lions, buffalo — to bring you close to nature. You may watch a lioness training her cubs to stalk antelope. At night, the bush is alive as you cower in your tent.
Two long days or more; simple camping with support team.
Federal Pass, Blue Mountains, Australia
The sandstone cliffs around Blackheath are justly famous, with their panoramas across forested hills that fade into a blue haze. This trail follows the ledge halfway down that winds for several vertiginous miles around the vagaries of the rockface to a cool, clear pool below the Wentworth falls. A long flight of steps cut into the living rock gets you up to the path back along the cliff top, a fine walk in its own right.
Moderate day walk; hotels in Blackheath or elsewhere.
This walk climbs from the foot of the glacial Loch Muick to a horseshoe of crags around a tarn. The ridge has views of the Cairngorms and the moorlands of the Balmoral estate. A track drops, beside waterfalls, down to the royal lodge on the shore of Loch Muick.
Strenuous day walk; hotels etc, locally.
The Lofoten Islands, Norway
This chain of granite mountain-islands was carved by the last ice age into spikes and sheer cliffs gashed by fjords. Lying well inside the Arctic Circle, this is harsh but beautiful scenery. Brightly colored fishing villages nestle in coves. You can enjoy the coastline or gasp at some of the world’s most thrilling views from the ridges.
Day walks or longer, of varying difficulty; stay in hotels or atmospheric converted fishermens’ cabins.
Route of the Volcanoes, La Palma, Canary Islands
An extraordinary trail along the volcanic central spine of this less visited island. Weird vegetation and craters (several recently active), and the Atlantic sparkling thousands of feet below.
Long day walk; hotels around the island.
Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, America
You can fall into this canyon (pictured above) before you realize you are there: sheer, water-smoothed red sandstone walls drop several hundred feet to the gravelly bottom. A trail winds down a jumbled side valley to its glory, an ancient pueblo of the Anasazi civilization perched on a high ledge in the canyon wall.
Moderate day walk; hotels in the area.