I’m standing on a gravel airstrip on the north of Somerset Island, permanent population zero. During the summer months, tourists visit an amazing eco-lodge called Arctic Watch, watching thousands of Beluga whales, swimming in crystal waterfalls, and hiking in the tundra. As we waited for our charter return flight to arrive, with supplies and a new arrival of guests, the weather closed in. Keeping an eye out for polar bears, it got me thinking about other remote landing strips, and in particular airports. Pilots can land a plane on any dirt strip, but a commercial airport requires infrastructure, a yellowing bathroom, maybe a broken vending machine. Military airports need not apply. Here’s some of the world’s most remote, along with some of my own adventures discovering them.
Resolute Bay Airport, Nunavut
Airport Code: YRB
Since we’re in the North, lets start with the closest airport to my landing strip on Somerset Island, in this case, Resolute. It’s the second most northerly community in Canada, population around 240. The Inuktitut word for Resolute literally means “place without dawn.” Midnight sun in summer, Arctic night in winter, and the sun never rises either way. The airport receives regular flights from First Air as well as charter planes, and plans are afoot for the Canadian Military to expand the airport to make it a major Arctic centre for its operations. In the meantime, the community gratefully receives its supplies, and lifeline, from planes landing at its simple airport.
Perth International, Australia
Airport Code: PER
It’s the fourth busiest airport in Australia, serving the capital of Western Australia with a population of 1.75 million. So how does Perth International feature on this list of outposts? After all, it services 37 airlines flying to 77 destinations, and over a thousand flights a week! The answer is simple: Perth is arguably the most isolated city in the world, closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney (there are arguments that Honolulu is more isolated, in which case, we should add Honolulu International HNL to this list). Sure, it’s far from everything, but it also boasts sensational beaches, Australia’s wine growing region, and a wonderful quality of life.
Bahir Dar Ethiopia
Airport Code: BJR
Admittedly, Bahir Dar is not one of the world’s most remote airports, but trust me, it’s the last place on earth you’d ever want to end up. OK, I’m being a bit harsh, but I did spend 8 hours there, and you probably did not. What happened was our Ethiopian Airways flight from Addis Ababa to Lalibela stopped off in Bahir Dar as per schedule. We took off again, flew ten minutes over Lake Tana, and the pilot announced engine troubles. Not a good thing to hear, so I was somewhat relieved when we landed safely back at Bahir Dar. Four sweltering hours later, during which time I counted every cracking tile in the airport wall, the replacement plane arrived. Problem is, it had broken down too. So we waited another four hours for the replacement replacement plane. We arrived 10 hours late, nerves frazzled, but thankfully, in one piece. And that’s all we can really ask for, right?
Kulusuk Airport, Greenland
Airport Code: KUS
Another isolated northern airport, this time on the east coast of Greenland. Since everyone knows Greenland is far icier than Iceland (which services the airport), it’s rather disturbing to note the airport doesn’t have de-icing equipment. The terminal does have a duty free shop, a small cafeteria, and considering there are only 3 to 5 flights a day, a reputation for being chaos in the arrivals/departure hall. Kulusuk is the gateway to Ammassalik, a remote region that does receive a fair share of tourists chasing Arctic adventures.
Atiu, Cook Islands
Airport Code: AIU
The Cook Islands are made up of 15 islands, covering a whopping 1.8 million square kilometres of Pacific Ocean. Tourists might visit a couple inhabited islands, and the views of the turquoise lagoons are simple staggering. On Atiu, I got dirty in an ancient burial cave, joined in a local birthday party, and had a great time in a traditional bush pub, sharing homemade orange moonshine out of a coconut cup with a dozen locals. When it was time to fly back to Rarotonga, the friendliness of this tiny island (population 560) was literally on display at the airport. A sign above the waiting hut read: “Voluntary Security Check: Would passengers please hand in their AK47’s, bazookas, grenades, explosives, and nukes to the pilot on boarding the aircraft. Airport Management thanks you for your cooperation. “
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Airport, Russia
Airport Code: PKC
In the world of highly remote eco-adventures, the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka is making waves with its lunar landscape, snowcapped mountain peaks and volcanoes. Since there are no roads or rail connecting the region to the mainland, the airport is the lifeline for the region’s main town, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Seasonal flights are bringing tourists in from the USA, Japan, China and Moscow. The peninsula is also home to Russia’s largest submarine base, and while isolated, has a population of 180,000. Moscow is just a nine-hour flight away!
Mataveri International Airport, Easter Island, Chile
Airport Code: IPC
Widely regarded as the world’s most remote airport, Mataveri is 3759 kilometres away from the nearest airport, in Santiago, Chile. For all its isolation, the airport does do brisk traffic, thanks to tourists arriving from Santiago, Tahiti and Lima primarily to see the famed stone heads that mysteriously guard the island. Easter Island is perhaps the world’s most remote inhabited island, so stands to reason its airport makes the list. With an asphalt runway serving 737’s, the airport was also an abort site during the space shuttle program.
St Helena Airport, British Overseas Territory
Airport Code: TBA
When construction is complete, the South Atlantic island of St Helena will boast one of the world’s most remote civilian airports, more than 2000 kilometres from the nearest landmass. The island is actually the centre of three British Overseas Territories, which are easily accessible should you happen to own a superpowered submarine. Ascension Island is only 1,300 kilometres north, while Tristan da Cunha is 2,400 kilometres south. Some 4255 people live on St Helena, with all food, equipment and supplies arriving by boat, which is expected to be retired in 2016 when the airport is complete.
It is said we should not judge a book by its cover, nor a day by its weather. Well whoever said that never spent a week in Fiji during a tropical monsoon. Bad weather blows. It kills a romantic walk on the beach, it cancels once-in-a-lifetime adventures, but worst of all, it infects you with the “if only’s”. If only it wasn’t raining, we’d go boating to those the islands. If only it wasn’t hailing, we’d be able to spend the day at the beach. And my most frequent, and personal favourite “if only it wasn’t a washed-out mudpit, this outdoor music festival might actually rock.” On a recent trip to New Zealand, bad weather cancelled four straight days of adventure, including hot air ballooning, heli-hiking, canyoning, and a scenic flight through the Siberia Valley. I will never get the chance to do them again. Kick and scream all you want about disasters with hotels and airlines, but bad weather has no customer service line. You can't blame a celestial travel agent. Fortunately, there is a way out, a pill that makes it easier to swallow.
Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, talks about perceived happiness vs. actual happiness. Scientifically, your brain cannot tell the difference between actual happiness, and when you tell yourself that you are in fact, happy. Self help gurus throughout the ages got it right when they advised that being positive has a powerful effect on our reality. Everyone knows that weather is out of our control. How we choose to deal with it is not. My own mantra is: Wherever you are, is where you’re supposed to be. I’m not to the first nut to crack that open, but the message applies particularly to travel. So many decisions, so many roads to choose, so little time to choose them in. The best bet is to make a decision, shrug off that which you have no control over, and move forward. Looking back, as the Bible so graphically illustrates, turns people into salt.
If the weather sucks, and you’re in a city, fear not. If you have time, play with your itinerary, so that day for shopping at the end moves up. Most cities have excellent museums, restaurants or pubs you’ve never heard, or wouldn’t think about visiting. Bad weather is an excuse to ask locals what they would do. I was once washed out in the Malaysian city of Khota Baru. The beaches were a no go. When life deals you rain, wear a raincoat. I explored the streets, wet as they were, and discovered hole-in-the-wall eateries serving some of the best food I’ve ever had. I remember the frustration of that day, walking around looking for salvation, and finding it in a bowl of saucy nasi kander. I wonder if I would remember a typical day on the beach as much as I remember finding that meal, and chatting with the friendly locals who served it.
Rained out on a beach is not as simple. No museums, limited shopping and restaurants. Take a breath. Travel is a go-go-go affair, but it also coincides with something we call a holiday. Relax. Recharge. Sleep in, guilt free. Read a book, take an afternoon nap. Rained in for a few days in Goa, I managed to find a little shack selling DVD’s. I watched the Godfather trilogy start to finish, read a book about Hinduism, ate at the closest fish shack. Emerging from my shell, I felt happier, wiser, and eager to connect with other travellers. Bad weather might keep you from the beach, but it has a habit of bringing people together.
Life is not a tourist brochure. It was never supposed to be one. Very often, the best moments of a journey are not planned, falling outside the lines and beyond the borders of our expectations. Wherever your journey takes you, acknowledge that each day is a gift, and can be opened up to reveal something special. Rain or shine.
Over the years, I've found myself in some dark, deep caverns. I'm not talking about the heavily trafficked tourist attractions where a red gel light illuminates some rock that may or may not look like a breastfeeding alligator. No, these are the caves where you truly get a sense of the subterranean world, too dark for a sliver of light, so quiet you can hear the blood rushing past your eardrums. Some caves have been holy, others have been wet, while others somehow host life, like glow worms, bats, and butt-ugly blind scorpion spiders. Here are some of my pics and experiences from Turkey, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Hungary and beyond.
When people talk about travelling for" the food", this is what they're referring to.
Nasi Kander - Malaysia
Nasi Kander is a northern Malaysian dish that combines a variety of elements – meat, rice, vegetables – and smothers it with various types of sweet-spicy curry sauces. Served in buffet-type street stalls, the result is a gift to
your taste buds. Eggplant, beef, chicken, squid, peppers, and okra are all flooded with flavour, soaked up by coconut rice and scooped with the right hand.
Ceviche - Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica
You can get ceviche around the world, but not the way they make it here. Raw fish, shrimp and calamari are drowned in limejuice, herbs and spices. The acidity of the lime cooks the fish, creating a mouthwatering delicacy that is served in the finest restaurants, all the way to roadside shacks. In Peru, it is often served with giant corn, and people sometimes order the leftover juice on its own, called Tiger Juice. In Ecuador, and other parts of the continent, ceviche is served with crackers. My favourite ceviche of all time is served out of a big tub in a tiny ice-cream store in Santa Theresa, Costa Rica.
Borscht - Russia
I struggled with the food in the Russia, easily reaching my limit of boiled meat and potato. One thing I never got tired of however was the borscht – a soup made of beetroot, with meats, dill and sour cream. Considering how bland Russian cuisine can be, the complexity of taste in well-prepared borscht is staggering. Sweet, sour, tangy, and always ready to warm you up on a cold day. My favourite borscht was served in Irkutsk, Siberia, where a vegetarian friend and I ordered borscht without the mystery meat, and it still knocked our socks off.
Biltong - South Africa
The easiest way to describe biltong is to compare it to beef jerky, but that’s like comparing a Prius to a Porsche. South Africans have been making biltong for hundreds of years, spicing, salting and hanging strips of raw meat until it dries out, but not too much. No sugar, no preservatives, no neat wafer thin slices. Biltong is served in chunks, sometimes wet (rarer) and sometimes dry (tough). It can be salty, spicy, fatty or lean. Choosing the right piece is part of the fun. It makes the perfect accompaniment to any sports game or road trip.
Farofa - Brazil
If you visit a Brazilian churrascaria, where a never-ending stream of meat is served until you’re ready to explode, you might notice a bowl on the table of something that looks like breadcrumbs. Brazilians eat it with everything – meat, fish, stews, roasts. It’s not breadcrumbs, but rather manioc flour, fried with butter. Somehow it adds something to the dish – more substance, certainly, but also a way to carry the taste a few yards further. It took me a while to get used to it, but these days, when the BBQ is firing, there’s always a bowl of farofa on my dinner table.
Ika Mata - Cook Islands
Cook Islanders have created their own little slice of culinary heaven, using a resource that surrounds them in abundance - fish and coconuts. Similar to ceviche, raw fish is marinated in limejuice and spices, with the addition of coconut milk. It’s not quite as tangy as ceviche, but just as fresh. The coconut milk softens the spices and also tenderizes the fish. It goes down smooth on a hot island day, a rich treat available just about everywhere you go on the islands.
Awaze Tibs and Injera - Ethiopia
Awaze tibs is a lamb or beef stew, cooked with onions, peppers and spiced with awazare, also known as berbere. Berbere, which features in many Ethiopian dishes, is a ground spice made of garlic, chili, ginger, basil, pepper, and fenugreek. The stew is slow cooked and served with injera, a spongy pancake-like flat bread made with teff flour, the taste almost sour. Using your hands, you scoop up the meat and sauce with the injera, creating a perfect blend of flavour.
Pide - Turkey
Kebab shops around the world now serve pide and for good reason. A thin oval bread is covered with ground lamb, and seasoned with tomato paste, red peppers, garlic and spices. It might be topped with eggs, fresh mint, and lemon juice. The pide is baked much like a pizza until the crust is crispy, and cut into strips. It’s so good it’s hard to order only one. Meat, bread and tasty vegetables in every bite.
Roo Burgers - Australia
It’s sometimes difficult for tourists to understand, but kangaroos can be quite a problem for Australians. They breed like rabbits, destroy the countryside, and are often referred to as pests. No surprise then that kangaroo features on the menu, meat that has become increasingly popular in recent years. It tastes gamey, kind of like venison with a touch of rabbit mixed in there as well. Much like ostrich meat, kangaroo meat is healthy and lean. If only they didn’t look so damn cute.
Photo: Renee S
Meat Pies - New Zealand
In New Zealand, every garage station, bakery or corner store sells savory meat pies. They’re cheap, they’re tasty, and they come in surprising varieties: Tandoori Chicken, Bacon and Egg, Thai Beef. With flaky crusts and thick filling, pies are a sense of pride across New Zealand. There are various competitions for the Best Pie, and intense customer loyalty for bakeries and brands. All for under a fiver.
Photos: Robbi Baba
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.