If you haven’t been on a serious trip to any of these…well, what ON EARTH have you been up to?
Where: At 2.5 million square miles and touching on nine countries, this is the granddaddy of all the world’s jungles. Bisected by the largest river on earth and networked by more than 1,100 others, water-borne transport – from cruisers, to cargo boats, to dugouts – is the only way to cover any distance in the Amazon basin. The two usual points of access by air are Manaus in Brazil (halfway up the Amazon) and Iquitos in Peru, 1,200 miles nearer the great river’s headwaters.
When: Dry season is from April to October. The Amazon itself is navigable to ocean-going liners for 2,300 miles inland but travel (and camping) on the backwaters can be difficult during the rains.
Highlights: Almost half the bird species in the world can be found in the Amazon basin – along with 218 species of mosquito. Camping under trees in which howler monkeys are roaring (the sound carries for three miles) is a unique, and hauntingly primeval, experience. Three other good reasons to choose to travel in the Amazon are pink dolphins, no leeches and the bataua palm, the seeds of which can be crushed to make tasty chocolate milk.
2/ New Guinea
Where: Lying at the eastern extreme of Indonesia and to the north of Australia, the world’s largest jungle island is divided into Indonesian West Papua and Papua New Guinea (PNG). The highest mountains in the eastern hemisphere after the Himalayas support every sort of terrain, from tropical rainforest to cool mountain-forest, cloud-forest, sub-alpine forest, active volcanoes and even permanent snow fields. These highlands are best accessed by domestic flight from Port Moresby, PNG’s capital (perhaps the only capital in the world that does not have a land connection to any other major town) or from Manokwari on the Indonesian side.
When: Dry season is between May and November. Travel in The Wet is, at best, extremely difficult.
Highlights: 36 species of birds of paradise; tree kangaroos; marsupial cats and mice (honest) and what Isabella Tree described (in Islands in the Clouds) as “the last unknown civilisation on earth”.
Where: The world’s second-largest jungle island: comprising two-thirds Indonesian Kalimantan and the top third split between the East Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, and the tiny sultanate of Brunei. Kalimantan contains the only unexplored land left in Borneo but Sarawak and Sabah offer better tourist infrastructure and easier access to the interior. Oil-rich Brunei – without the need to rely on logging – has managed to keep its own interior surprisingly unspoilt.
When: The heaviest of the rain falls in December and January, but in July and August inland waterways can become un-navigable. Heavy logging (especially in Sarawak and more accessible areas of Kalimantan) have severely affected the seasons but rice planting is usually around October and harvesting from February to March. These are good times to visit the various festivals… but a bad time to try to hire guides because rural Dayaks will all be busy partying.
Highlights: The evening serenade of a family of gibbons and a flight of sacred hornbills flapping up an emerald valley are reason enough in themselves for a Borneo jungle expedition. The thing that people remember most about a trip to the interior is the unforgettable experience of Dayak hospitality and vitality; the thing that they try to forget is the hangover that comes from all that rancid palm-sap wine.
4/ Central America
Where: An intercontinental land bridge of unsurpassed diversity – where northern pumas and southern jaguars stalk white-tailed deer and white-lipped peccaries in the same forests. Central America is made up of seven countries; the main destinations for travellers are Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama, but Nicaragua and Honduras also have much to attract the intrepid explorer.
When: As a generalization, the driest months are from December to April.
Highlights: The whole land bridge is flecked with spectacular volcanoes and fringed with either golden beaches (Pacific) or turquoise reefs (Caribbean). Towards the north, the haunting towers of Mayan pyramids, many still shrouded in vegetation, are still invested with an awesome power. Waking on top of one of these ancient pyramids and looking down on toucans and parrots as they flap across the canopy is the Central American jungle experience par excellence.
Where: The world’s fourth-largest island now covered by the original rainforest only on its eastern ridges and at a few remote spots in the north and west that were never cleared in the rush for rice. Still, the wildlife (80% of which cannot be found anywhere else on earth) must qualify Madagascar’s eastern hills as one of the world’s unique jungle experiences.
When: Dry season is from April to December. Because of the steepness of the eastern forests, there are no navigable rivers inland from the coast and travel (difficult at best) is almost impossible in the rainy season.
Highlights: The thrill of lying in your tent while nocturnal brown lemurs pad around outside, grunting inquisitively, and being woken by the air raid-like siren cries of huge Indris – looking like seven-year-old children, dressed in panda suits – is a balm to the unavoidable bruises of Malagasy travel. Picking up the astoundingly tame wild snakes is also a luxury that you can enjoy only here – knowing categorically that there are no poisonous snakes in Madagascar. The island has been known, however, as the “land of the man-eating tree” and there is an unfortunate proliferation of harmful vegetation: from painfully poisonous grass-seeds to the agonising agy tree, which is capable of stinging without even touching you.
6/ Equatorial Africa
Where: This is land that Joseph Conrad wrote about in Heart of Darkness. The Congo – the world’s second-largest river, by volume – cuts a swathe through Democratic Republic of the Congo (formally Zaire) and halfway across Africa. Although only a small country (103,347 sq miles), experts say that as much as 82% of Gabon is still covered by rainforest and that it may become the jungle-bashers’ “secret spot” of this decade.
When: Rain is common for much of the year, with June to September being driest.
Highlights: One of the largest populations of forest elephants and 20 species of primates (the gorilla was first discovered in Gabon) are the stars of the show. Bateke Plateau has spectacular forest galleries, and gorges spanned by evocative liana bridges (the stuff of real African exploration). Around N’Dende and Sette-Cama experienced guides can be hired to explore the coastal rainforests or the highlands respectively.
7/ Australia – “The Top End” & “The Tip”
Where: This might be considered something of a tame jungle… if you disregard such beasties as tiger snakes, salt water crocs, scorpions, and treacherous spiders that wait in ambush under “dunny-seats”. Kakadu National Park – in Australia’s Northern Territory (aka “The Top End”) comprises a large area of monsoon forest, tropical woodland, billabongs and sandstone plateaus. Cape York Peninsula, on “The Tip” of Queensland, is one of the wildest and least populated parts of Australia and shares many of its inhabitants only with New Guinea (just 150km to the north).
When: Many tropical areas of Australia’s north are only accessible by road in “The Dry” – from April to September. This is also the best time for wildlife viewing, though the spectacular electric storms in “The Wet” (December to March) attract their own enthusiasts.
Highlights: Croc spotting from a boat (preferably a big boat) on Yellow Water Billabong and trekking to the ancient Aboriginal paintings on Nourlangie Rock in Kakadu NP – and catching sight of the rare black wallaroo (revered as the Aboriginal god Barkk) on the way – are experiences that compare with anything that even the world’s most remote rainforests can offer. A bush-camping expedition in Iron Range NP (Queensland), boasting Australia’s largest lowland rainforest and some of its most fascinating wildlife would also be a fantastic introduction to “jungle travel”.
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