After tromping through the bush around a good part of the world, ostensibly trying to save the planet as a professional treehugger, several locales have crystalized over time as savored memories of Earthlife at its fullest expression, redolent with scents, calls, colors, and movement from myriads of life forms and creating an eco-gestalt that brings sublime peace to any naturalist worth their salt. Well, I certainly have not been everywhere, or even to that many places by the standards of jet-set conservationists or Animal Planet explorers. And lots of the wildland and wildsea destinations I hear adventurous and rapturous tales told about from leechified field naturalists and global twitchers (crazed birdwatchers) over a few beers do indeed sound magical, but I stand by this is as a good, earthy list.
Campo-Maan National Park, Cameroon
This Top 10 varies a bit from the worthy and widely-recognized wild destinations held dear by TV documentary-makers and naturalists alike, likely due to my long-standing interest in bugs, cryptic critters, and thorn scrubs, but I do not think any alien-eco-tourist would be disappointed, or at least one worth their salt (if their life form contains salt…). And choosing ten of anything does not do justice to the overwhelming wealth of life and wild places on this planet, so this is more like 10 of the some of the most really, really cool wild places on Earth where a human can be (daily migrations of billions of mid-ocean sea creatures sounds spectacular but hard to really ‘see’, and, alas, the vast buffalo herds are long gone).
1. The Congolese rainforests of southwest Cameroon ― Campo Maan National Park still harbors lowland gorilla, chimpanzee, enormous troops of nomadic mandrill, forest elephants, and Africa’s largest number of termite species within its hyper-wet rainforests. The calls of furtive forest bulbuls are drowned out by raucous flights of African grey parrots and pungent fragrances of canopy orchids wafts through still morning air.
Campo-Maan National Park, Cameroon
2. Bornean rainforests ― The towering Dipterocarp forests of northern Borneo resound with the calls of Argus pheasants, 6 o’clock cicadas, and glowering clouded leopards. Rustling leaves presage agile orangutans and Bornean elephants winding their way through dense understories as hooting gibbons swing through giant tree canopies hundreds of feet above. Gliding frogs, gliding snakes, gliding squirrels, and flying lemurs compete for airspace with giant birdwing butterflies.
3. San Lucan tropical dry forest and thorn scrub that surrounds the Sierra de la Laguna in southern Baja shimmers like a sea of yellow and white butterflies at certain times of the year. Waxy-bronzed bursera trees and cactus columns intertwine with white-barked trees crowned with sprays of white, yellow, and pink flowers. One can walk from lofty pines of the peak through the forest and scrub to the sea in any direction.
San Lucan thorn scrub, southern Baja California, Mexico
4. Giant sequoia forests of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains stand alone as the most awesome forests on the planet, with redwood groves lauded in the same breath. The giant oak forests of the Talamancas, such as those still immersed in intact rainforests and festooned with epiphytes on the northern slope of Volcan Baru are similarly splendid. The giant ash forests of southern Australia are spectacular in their own right, massive eucalypts with wallabies bounding among the giant tree ferns and groves of Chilean giant alerce are similarly humbling.
5. Utupua Reefs ― The fringing reefs on the southern shore of the main bay of Utupua Island, Santa Cruz Group, Solomon Islands – the most spectacular, sun-filled, coral-mazed, rainbow-fished reef I have snorkeled over.
6. Madagascar’s southern spiny desert ― Simply stated, nothing like it in the world, except for the Boojum desert of northern Baja, Mexico is reminiscent in its convergent plant forms. You know you are someplace really different when surrounded by spiny, cephalopidian trunks bending under the springing weight of sifaka lemurs flying unharmed through the treacherous thorns. Madagascars’ eastern rainforests and western dry forests are spectacular, I must admit, but there is nothing like the spiny forest.
7. Knersvlakte ― South Africa’s Karoo has a few ancient, long-eroded plains covered in white quartz fragments. Hidden among the gravels are incredibly cryptic succulent plants that resemble stones with pale green windows and which make the knersvlakte (a local word for grinding sounds made by wagon wheels crossing these plains) blaze with color in certain years and resemble terrestrial coral reefs. Even the wind scorpions are covered in long white hairs to blend in as they race about in search of prey and cool spots.
8. Caura River, Venezuela ― A relatively intact, vast watershed of rich rainforest nestled among flat-topped tepuis plateaus and teeming with wildlife – jaguars, harpy eagles, white-lipped peccaries, giant river otters, flights of macaws, bush dogs – that is largely hunted out elsewhere. Yasuni, Manu, Suriname, Rio Negro, and many other regions also have spectacular forest, and the western foothills of the Amazon are the richest terrestrial ecosystems on the planet.
9. Duck River, Tennessee ― A true Disneyland for freshwater naturalists, sadly because a few stretches are the very last of the relatively healthy ecosystems left in southeastern North America and what remains boggles with the number of beautiful fish, mussels, crayfish, turtles, and other herps that have found refuge here and make one lament for what has been lost.
10. East African savannas and miombo ― Hard to not have these on any list, but these last echoes of the Pleistocene faunas should blow away any ecotourist or naturalist, from the drier Samburu thorn scrubs to the dense thickets of the Selous and Ruaha miombos vibrant with wildlife of every shape and form.
The runners-up list is very long, of course, with some highlights in the Seychelles, Western Ghats, Terai savannas, Himalayan conifer forests, Simpson Desert of Australia, New Guinea rainforests, New Caledonian rainforests, Cape fynbos, Socotran woodlands, remnant Sumatran and Malaysian rainforest, Arunchal Pradesh-northern Myanmar-southwestern China forests, Hawai’ian forests, Great Smokies old-growth, a number of Congo Basin forests, Baffin Island…