there are places on earth that have yet to be discovered

Benedict Allen ventured into the uncharted forests of West Papua to find the Obini tribe: Benedict Allen

“The problem is you were born 100 years too late!” is a familiar refrain for those of us who used to consider ourselves the last of the “classic” explorers. We are talking about those in the example of Mary Kingsley and Dr. Livingstone, who told us entire landscapes anew.

And yes, it is true that such old-fashioned immersive travelers like this do indeed seem to be disappearing. Freya Stark and Wilfred Thesiger are no longer with us, Ranulph Fiennes has pretty much stuck to polar trekking for years (and whatever you say about polar trekkers, these days they’re athletes rather than explorers). Yes, John Blashford-Snell is still out there, now well into his eighties, searching in some bush, but apart from me… well, in terms of going off-grid for months on end, that’s about it. There are those who have adventures – inspiring perhaps, but not discovering much beyond what lies within themselves – and a few seasoned people like Rosie Stancer and Pen Hadow who usefully assist hydrologists, psychologists, arachnologists and other technologists.

But take heart, those of Generation Z who still have it in them to embrace danger and hardship, because – in our haste to assume, in the age of Google Maps, that the surface of our planet has already been mapped – we I am overlooking entire parts.

I recently found myself in one of these. Long before that, as a brash 24-year-old, I had gone alone to West Papua and came across an isolated band in the unmapped forests called the Obini. The Obini decided not to kill me and instead introduced me to a world completely undocumented by my kind. And now, on my return after forty years, I wanted to know what had happened to these people who had shown so much kindness.

The problem is that, like all these places, they have remained remote for a reason – and it’s not just the leeches and death adders. Last February, a New Zealand bush pilot, Phillip Mehrtens, was kidnapped by a rebel movement not far away – he is still being held as I write this – and it was rumored that the rebels were looking for a second foreigner to kidnap. Out there, looking for the Obini, I would be the perfect target.

There was one chance, I decided. I could rent a small plane and approach from the other side of the freedom fighters, a remote airstrip called Yaniruma. To reduce the risk of alerting them, I would have to travel at high speed. Moreover, I needed help from the Korowai, a traditional community who did not expect my arrival because they had no radio contact. It also didn’t seem likely that the Korowai would be terribly enthusiastic about spending two weeks jogging in an area that was completely unknown to them.

Benedict wanted to revisit a tribe he met in West Papua and first met decades agoBenedict wanted to revisit a tribe he met in West Papua and first met decades ago

Benedict wanted to revisit a tribe he met in West Papua and first met decades ago: Benedict Allen

The pilot hurriedly dropped me off at the runway and suddenly disappeared, leaving me there in the heat and humidity, along with my overstuffed belongings and my chain-smoking translator, Shadrach. The Korowai gathered around them.

Fortunately, they turned out to be a hospitable couple. That is, until Shadrach stopped handing out his cigarettes and instead took pictures of the Obini, who was invariably shown with a bow and arrow in hand. “These people are fighters?” someone asked as he backed away. “As we once were?”

I could understand his point. One only had to look at the older houses of the Korowai, built high into the trees as a defense strategy. Apparently you ascended via a carved pole that could be hacked away at the first sign of an attack.

Benedict observes the older houses of the Korowai, which were built high in the trees as a defensive strategyBenedict observes the older houses of the Korowai, which were built high in the trees as a defensive strategy

Benedict observes the older houses of the Korowai, which were built high in the trees as a defense strategy – Benedict Allen

But now a young man named Oich-e spoke up. “You’re too old, weak and too tall,” he said with commendable honesty. “Unfortunately, without our help, you will die soon.”

Together with four friends, Oich-e led us into the trees, and as we trotted along I reflected on the generosity of such native people; how it was only by relying on them and traveling in a spirit of vulnerability (unlike some of my Victorian ancestors) that I had survived over the years.

Time and again we came to Korowai settlements and were offered fruits, fish and sago to sustain us. And then I pulled out my photos of the Obini – and there were looks of utter horror, but not a glimmer of recognition. It wasn’t until our tenth day of travel, relying on the forest knowledge of the Korowai and my own experience navigating endless bush with a compass, that we came across a guy named Jakob. He noticed that the clay used to decorate the intimidating Obini war shields had a redder hue. This clay would be found another five days to the west. We got closer.

Benedict gains the trust of remote people by traveling in a spirit of vulnerabilityBenedict gains the trust of remote people by traveling in a spirit of vulnerability

Benedict wins the trust of remote people by traveling in a spirit of vulnerability – Benedict Allen

But we were tired now – stung by bees, torn by thorns. And I was long ago limited to eating raw sago grubs, which are large and wriggly and not a personal favorite. Moreover, the bridges that Oich-e helpfully constructed over various creeks have not once proven sufficient for someone of my height – I am 6 feet 4 inches – or even for my competence.

Still, we continued. Until one day, very suddenly, we all sat down on the forest floor. Somehow, without saying a word, we knew it was over.

My search was unsuccessful. But in my search for the elusive Obini, I had traversed an immense forest and come away with something perhaps better: a realization of how much there was yet to discover here. I was 64 years old, but there was still plenty to discover.

The great undiscovered places of the planet

There are so many destinations that are unencumbered by our notions of ‘civilization’. What follows are not holiday destinations. Telegraph readers must always adhere to the FCO advice, which for them essentially means ‘don’t go’.

The gigantic sinkholes of the Guiana Shield


Some of them have not even been reached, let alone explored, due to the dense forest and confusing rock outcrops that obscure them from view. Even once you’ve found your way, you’ll need to be handy with a rope to descend the dizzying sides of your goal. I once climbed Mount Roraima, one of the many isolated, misty “Lost World” plateaus that also characterize the region – and even then, in 1983, I thought this beautiful landscape would remain “lost” for a long time. And so it has been proven.

Hindenburg wall

Papua New Guinea

Not so much a ‘wall’, but a vast karst area of ​​cliffs, ravines and caves. The region, first visited by outsiders 100 years ago (a patrol officer named Leo Austen finally reached the southern edge in 1922), is in the heart of New Guinea’s central mountains. As forbidding as the wall is, earthquakes and heavy rainfall result in frequent landslides, further thwarting the aspirations of natives and foreigners alike. To this day, this refuge remains a treasure trove of barely explored habitats.

Kabobo Massif

Eastern Congo

Like much of the region, the massif has remained inaccessible to outsiders for years due to conflict. The 60-mile-long Kabobo Mountains are located in the easternmost part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. An additional protection against visitors is the proximity of an international border (with Tanzania), but also the almost 600 kilometer long Lake Tanganyika, which protects the eastern flank of the Kabobo. The result is a long stretch of mountain forest that is one of Africa’s biological hotspots.

Gangkhar Puensum mountain and surroundings

Bhutan-China border area

The mountain itself has the highest unclimbed peak in the world and, like most major peaks in Bhutan, is considered sacred – and off-limits. But it is not just spiritual considerations that have kept the headwaters unexplored. Bhutan’s nearly 500-kilometre-long northern border is shared with, and in parts disputed by, China, so there is still a very long, wide ribbon of not only forbidden peaks, but also pristine glacial valleys to be explored.

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