Why are we here? It's a question that has perplexed most people at some point, and despite the best efforts of science, philosophy and religions, there's never been a convincing answer. I like to think that, as Carl Sagan said, we are a way for the universe to know itself.
For me, answering the evangelical-like call of the cosmos – ‘Can I get a witness?' – is about exploring the planet, experiencing as many of its apparent miracles and wonders as possible, and colouring in my mental map of the globe. But if days are numbered and you can't possibly travel everywhere, what are the top priorities? From the magic of the northern lights to the majesty of Mount Kilimanjaro, here are the seven epic places I most want to go to before I "go".
My Bucket List
Journey to the centre of the earth – Ecuador and the Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands have long held a deep fascination for me as the place where Darwin had his Eureka moment; an isolated Eden full of quirky species that exist nowhere else. A strange mix of inhabitants – sea iguanas, penguins, blue-footed boobies, sea lions and giant tortoises – has been created by the unique meeting of warm and cold ocean currents on a super-heated volcanic archipelago. It's ironic that it took Darwin to visit a place this other-worldly to understand the evolution of life on our planet.
To get to the remote Galapagos you have to go through Ecuador, named for its position on the earth's equator, and that's an exciting destination in itself. Lush forests reaching into the clouds, fire and ice in the snow-capped Avenue of the Volcanoes and wildlife-haunted Amazon valleys are just some the natural treasures I hope to experience. But the crowning glory of my trip will be a foray to the stunning San Rafael waterfall in the Sumaco Biosphere Reserve, 30km from the north-eastern city of Tena. Situated at the point where the Andean and Amazon regions meet, it first captured my imagination when it appeared on the front cover of Lonely Planet's Beautiful World book, and it seems to neatly represent nature at its most spectacular.
Tropical immersion – Bora Bora
For a front-row seat at the manta ray ballet, some say Bora Bora is the best place to stay! The beautiful South Pacific island made it into the top 100 travel experiences in a Wanderlust magazine reader survey that I oversaw back in 2011, and, as a scuba diving enthusiast, it's definitely on my bucket-list. Though I have been lucky enough to see sharks, turtles and other species of ray in the wild, I have always wanted to see a graceful manta ray gliding through the water.
Apparently, Bora Bora's crystal-clear lagoon is a favourite feeding ground for the creatures and offers an almost guaranteed chance of swimming with them. There's much to be marvelled at above the waves too, as this pristine paradise was described by American novelist, James Michener, as ‘the most beautiful island in the world'.
Tempted by temples – Burma
There's something about South-east Asia that I find endlessly enchanting and enticing – its mystical tiered temples, steamy jungle landscapes, misty lakes and tropical beaches. But it's also well-trammelled, with man-made marvels like Angkor Wat in Cambodia overrun with visitors. Sometimes you want to go somewhere abit more off the beaten track and Burma has retained an enigmatic air due to its relative isolation up until a few years ago.
Since the release of political prisoner Aung Sang Suu Kyi, it has become a coveted destination for intrepid types. Not long ago, a friend of mine set off to Burma as an extension to our Indonesia trip while I reluctantly flew back to work. She returned with blissful accounts of an authentic and warm experience in an ancient and beautiful destination and I've wanted to go there ever since.
Sky lights – The Arctic Circle
How better to experience the magic and mystery of the universe than witnessing nature's very own light show? The Aurora Borealis – the undulating, rippling blue-green and violet curtain that illuminates far northern skies in winter – must be one of earth's most awe-inspiring sights and a classic bucket-list experience. Though it's technically possible to see them at any point very far north, the lights are famously elusive. The solar winds that create the phenomenon are difficult to predict and you need a clear dark night for the lights to be visible, so many venture in search of them to no avail.
I know I need to pick my time and spot carefully, heading to the Arctic Circle, beyond 70 degrees north, choosing a place free of light pollution and away from the cloudy coastal fronts. My original plan was to head to Tromso at the tip of Norway where Joanna Lumley saw a bewilderingly beautiful display during her Land of the Northern Lights documentary. But according to the Aurora Service (www.aurora-service.eu), the region surrounding the village of Utsioki in Finland could be one of the best places to see the lights as it's cheaper than the more popular Nordic destinations but enjoys roughly the same latitude. You have to get away from the village for the best chance of seeing the lights though, because it's so cold in winter that the heat from the houses apparently forms a vapour cloud above it that blocks out the night sky!
Sunshine socialist state – Cuba
For a while now, I've longed to step through the looking glass into a world apart from global capitalism, without the endless adverts and relentless consumer-driven culture that I find so stultifying. Sometimes you encounter these places unexpectedly, but Cuba is special. Its people made an active choice to go their own way, share their wealth and step out from underneath the shadow of America. It may have worked too, had it not been so severely punished economically for doing so. But Cubans are clearly a resourceful bunch – something epitomised by the famous recycled classic cars that plough Havana's Malecon. A culture of sharing, inclusivity and joie d'vivre is all-the-more admirable among people who have very little, and I would like to experience it for myself.
Where possible, I'll stay in Cuban homestays, known as "casa particulares", to get to know the locals. I want to learn slinky salsa in Santiago de Cuba, considered the centre of Afro-Cuban culture on the island. I want to immerse myself in live music in Havana, catching a performance of Los Van Van or Buena Vista Social Club if I'm lucky, and stroll the atmospheric colonial streets of the old quarter. I'll also make time to visit Hemingway's former home and enjoy my favourite cocktail – a mojito – in his old haunt of Bodeguita del Medio. Though Cuba's cayes are not distinctly Cuban, the temptation of a pristine tropical beach would put somewhere like Cayo Levisa, off the north-west coast, on my itinerary too.
Of monks and mountains – Bhutan
Evocative names have always piqued my interest, and Asia has some of the best – Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Sun Moon Lake – all conjure up images of magical epic landscapes. And so it was that Tiger's Nest Monastery first drew my attention to Bhutan. Seeing the image of the impossibly-situated Buddhist monastery clinging to a precipitous mountainside above the scenic Paro valley, I'm determined to make the pilgrimage there one day. Maybe it's abit childish, but by the same token, the country's spiritual heartland of Bumthang sounds much less appealing! This is a case where the place obviously belies the name though, and a good reminder not to judge a book by its title.
The Roof of Africa – Tanzania
Surely it's a trip of a lifetime – trekking to the top of the world's highest freestanding peak to watch the sun rise on the ‘Roof of Africa' before taking a spectacular safari to see some of the world's most captivating creatures in the wild. Travelling to Tanzania offers the chance to combine both experiences – climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and then taking a trip through Ngorongoro Crater, Tarengire National Park and the legendary Serengeti to get up close to lions, leopards, zebras, elephants and wildebeest.
Journey of enlightenment
To travel to new vistas is to be like a child, seeing things for the first time, attempting to make sense of an unknown world. In that way, I find every new place exciting, so I've never really tried to prioritise destinations. Indeed, some of my best experiences have been totally unexpected. That said, it's been quite an eye-opener to create my own travel must-do list.
How quickly I toss aside cities in favour of natural spectacles, for instance, or the fact I am drawn to historic places and have much less interest in the modern. I think my ultimate travel experience would be to see the earth from space, but I had to leave that off the list if I'm going to have any realistic chance of completing my goals! While the journeys themselves might engender some kind of self-discovery, the simple act of creating a travel bucket-list might bring some enlightenment in itself.