There are a fair few nations that lend themselves to being termed ‘World’s Most Addictive Wilderness”. I have not (yet) been to all of them, and in some respects I hope I never do. The idea that there is something left untouched, sacred, beyond the reach of bucket-listers and snap-happy tour groups, gives me hope the same way that glimpsing un-trampled snow gives me hope. Nature’s very own domain, and all that.
But one wilderness I am familiar with is Peru. And it is a wilderness, in the truly intrepid sense of the word. It is a wilderness which is not nearly so difficult to get into the middle of as, say, the North Pole or the Sahara, either: and automatically therefore, it becomes a wilderness of more immediate interest to many would-be visitors.
This portion of Peru is divided between two topographical zones: Andes mountains and Amazon jungle. “Amazandes” my friend in Lima once referred to the region as: coined because often it is hard to separate where mountain ends and rainforest begins, so much so that another term – ceja de la selva (eyebrow of the jungle) – is often used in Peru for that zone where the two mingle.
The Amazandes wilderness is rendered all the more enticing by the fact that it is inhabited: meaning it is possible to observe, in the communities you do come to, just how these remote landscapes impact on society out here. And this impact, I would argue, is about as strong as any impact terrain has on society anywhere in the world. Because you will find more uncontacted tribes (or unconnected societies, if you like, meaning groups which have had no or a bare minimum of contact with westernised, 21st-century life) in the Amazandes than you will find in any other part of the planet. Even where contact with the modern world has been forged, such a multitude of groups with their own strong, century-old cultural legacies continue to exist that the outsider from Europe or North America or Australia with their somewhat homogenous western values feels humbled; in the presence of something bigger or at least purer (or perhaps just curious by how on Earth anyone anywhere gets by without social media and high street brands and supermarkets).
It was my fascination with this region, of course, that got me interested in the real-life story of Anthony Knivet, the English sailor that became the protagonist in my first novel, the man who glorified “cocking up” more than anyone before or since as, driven on by misfortune after misfortune, and rash judgement after rash judgement, he endeavours to make something of himself (his fortune, his name) in South America’s jungle and mountain passes during the 16th century.
This is a chunk of the world you cannot control, or master. It controls you. You are at its mercy. In it, you are utterly cut off, sometimes, even in the best-case scenario, by days, from civilisation. That is what makes the roads (and rivers, where there are no roads) into them so alluring. There is a reason why the legend of El Dorado arose here, in this hostile otherworld. It was simply so isolated, a city entirely made of gold was impossible to entirely discount. For early explorers, it was this that made the Amazandes worth sacrificing anything for in order to explore. Not El Dorado specifically: but unfettered possibility. Thousands upon thousands of kilometres of it.
But you do not have to be Knivet, or any sort of hardened explorer, to come to the Amazandes. These last couple of months, I’ve been working with new travel start-up KimKim to give first-time visitors a taster of the region.
The idea is to reveal enough of the real wilderness to people that they have their appetite whetted for more. Here are the results: