Nature travel: imagination vs. reality

I have traveled a lot. I envy those travel bloggers who seem to be able to make a living traveling; but still, I have gone surprisingly many places for someone in my income bracket, and am the most-traveled member of my family.

Pretty much all of my travel is nature travel. And this has led to mixed feelings. Yes, I have seen lots of spectacular nature; but invariably, the way I imagine a place is wilder and more untouched than it turns out to be in reality. (Sometimes I like to tell people, “all the destinations I have visited were fictional destinations” – meaning that none were what I thought they would be like.) I get there, and I see how heavily the hand of man lies on the place, and I have to rethink my expectations.

So for you folks who like nature travel, how do you deal with this dissonance?


I experience this quite often too, even though I haven’t traveled much out of the US specifically for nature. The majority of my observations from the past year or so have been from small lots within the urban sprawl here that aren’t visited by anyone else (at least with the nature in mind), so often they’re pretty degraded habitats, and yet I’ve found plenty of newly recorded species for my area or generally extremely under-documented organisms. I do still go into them envisioning much more pristine environments than what turns out to be there, though. Usually I end up naturally dealing with the dissonance by having a further appreciation for what is left at a given site/park by looking more closely at the organisms there, trying to find ones that tend to go unnoticed and looking for the ecological interactions between what is there. Seeing those habitats also leaves me with a renewed initiative for seeking out and supporting conservation opportunities.


I’m fortunate in that I’ve had the opportunity to work in some properly “natural” environments, but when it comes to general travel (vacation type travel) I agree that often it’s difficult to find or be able to get to truly out of the way places in nature.

One of the ways to deal with this is to look for the places that people overlook even in the popular destinations. People have a tendency to all go to the same bits and do the same thing rather than taking the time to explore, look around, and just sit.

Often there will be some nearby corner that has almost no traffic, or there are some nice places that aren’t as “majestic” so they’re overlooked.

To get to really “natural” areas (not those tucked away corners) on a trip often takes either a lot of time or a decent amount of money (or both), making it difficult to do for the limited resources most of us have for our vacation trips. And if you’re going as part of a group, or on a tour, then you often don’t even have the option to find those little corners and have a bit of time to pursue your own observations and interest. That latter issue was one of the disappointments of an otherwise nice trip I took a few years ago to Serengeti and Ngorongoro prior to a conference in the region.


I know, it’s just like the HDTV, all of a sudden we see every wart, wrinkle and pimple on the face of the favorite celebrity.
I have seen the humble weed and golf course grasses amid the storybook villages and valleys. So I attribute it to the glitzy eye candy of online geoporn. But therein lies a surprise, since the hand - and foot of man do cause interesting species to come out, and it’s just up to the naturalist’s eye and the macro lens to capture it.

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On that note, how do you get permission to see really “wild” places (areas where it is not usually permitted to go- Eg some national parks, islands of conservation significance, etc. Is there a way to do this as a reptile or bird enthusiast, or do you have to be a conservationist of some importance?
Any Ideas?
I might try volunteering with some conservation groups…
The thing is, as a younger person, a lot of people don’t take you seriously

You might want to join a birding club or similar organisation. I haven’t been yet as I’ve joined only recently, but my local bird club sometimes has outings to reserves that are closed to the public.


when you think of untouched, do you mean like no roads, no paths, no buildings, no restrooms? if you eliminate too many man-made touches, you make it very difficult / impossible for most people to visit. so i guess there’s always going to be a paradox. do you want a cleared path so that you can access the place, or do you want to be the one who cuts the path (in which case you’re the one who has now made the place not wild), or do you just want no one to visit?

i’m aware of a few small pockets of true wilderness in my city. they exist only because folks have not been allowed to make paths, etc., which prevents most people from venturing into those areas. they’re interesting spaces, but hard to appreciate sometimes because you have to find your way through with no path, and that takes up a lot of your attention that could otherwise be used to appreciate your surroundings.


That’s a good idea, thanks for the suggestion! I’m not sure if there are any birding groups where I live, I’ll have a look.

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One travel-related hobby I engage in is exploration of abandoned buildings and places, where it is safe and legal to do so. These give an opposite perspective - just as it is nearly impossible to find a natural place untouched by human hand, there is no man-made place that can be truly untouched by nature, and all of our works will ultimately be swallowed by the elements and encroaching vegetation when we are gone.


I suppose that I don’t imagine it wilder than it is. I also focus on the small things mostly. I’m pleasantly surprised when I find things in the backyard, urban parks, or backcountry. Sure, I’m disappointed when I find uncaring human impacts. But I’m usually more surprised when I don’t find them. Even if I’m searching for specific target organisms, once I’m there, I fall into my usual pattern of seeing what’s there.

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A lot of the places to observe nature are not really the kind that you would find lots of tourists going to. Kind of depends on what you’re looking for. A lot of my favorite nature observations were places that were decidedly off the beaten path, though in areas famous for nature in general.
Some places like the Galapagos are pretty much impossible. But by doing ethical independent exploration it will at least feel somewhat independent.
A bigger contradiction I have is with people caring about the environment tending to have a bigger impact in the form of air travel. And often our sharing of our finds only encourages more people to want to fly to see them. Now, many of us then get involved in conservation in various ways but it does make me wonder. That’s my bigger concern with travel blogging


A bigger contradiction I have is with people caring about the environment tending to have a bigger impact in the form of air travel.

It probably depends on the context - if you are travelling to, say, a tropical island, or something similar where you just want to look at landscapes and scenery, I might agree.

However, at least here in South Africa, much of our areas that had been dedicated to conservation depend on tourists (including international) for their ability to sustain/support themselves, and the wider community, in general. When tourists disappear, as we saw with COVID-19, that crucial support ends and people are unable to sustain their livelihood. In such cases, there have been properties that were nature reserves which have now been changed to livestock farming, because they have to pay the bills.

That, for me, is far more damaging to the conservation of nature and biodiversity, especially when it comes to ecologically important species such as large predators, than any air travel could, even in the long term.


I also have been fortunate enough to work in amazing places of the world. My observations from South America and northern and southern Africa are all more or less work-related, meaning I was involved in “nature work” in the country and/or lived in the counry for a while and of course then also explored my surroundings.

When doing some scientific work in Namibia I traveled with two fellow scientists and whenever possible we also squeezed in some sight seeing on the way. We discovered that we had somewhat different approaches to nature travel. While I was happy to just see the prominent sites one can easily research online or in travel guides, my companions where often annoyed by the “touristy” places and tried to aim for of-the-track-experiences. While I totally get that sentiment and I usually also love the to explore lesser known (but public) tracks, I apreciate that “touristy” sites put natural (or hisorical) wonders on display for the broad public and at the same time make it possible to protect “real wilderness” from human impact. I do not have to roam around on unexplored dunes of the namib with all it´s fragile lifeforms when e.g. Sossusvlei does just the same for me. Open up few, well managed parts of nature for the world to see (so important!) to justify keeping the remains of real wilderness untouched. If everybody would be able to get the “total wilderness experience” there would soon not be too much wilderness left. I believe that some wilderness is meant to be untouched by people, except for maybe some well designed scientific approaches.

That beeing said, my fondest nature memories are of places many people ignore or find boring, even in city environments.


@simono that’s an interesting perspective, one i hadn’t considered before, thanks. Similar to comments by @earthknight and @josephsee7 being willing to go off trail is one way to find places that are seldom-visited even in popular locations. Sometimes i think we follow paths w no real regard as to whether they’re taking us to where we desire to go. We have a designated but small wilderness area nearby that can get receive quite a few backpackers and day-hikers on weekends, especially holiday weekends. But in the wilderness are a number of small lakes, some quite nice, that are not accessed by the formal trail network. At those, even if just a mile off a trail, you can find isolation.


I wonder if you would enjoy visiting Bhutan at the base of the Himalayas someday? It is a government priority to preserve and protect the environment. Even the cities are small, quaint (to my eye), and charming. The people are friendly.

One thing potentially challenging is there was no solo travel in Bhutan when I went some years ago. I went with the World Wildlife Fund. Bhutan used to require visitors travel with guides and drivers; and it’s likely they still do. This was to conserve the cultural identity and natural resources of the country (I think they did not want to become another Nepal). There was a daily fee (see Costs below), but it was part of my tour price and included guide, driver, accommodations, and food. The tours were available at different prices levels. When I went, the roads were mostly pretty rough, so having a driver was not a luxury so much as a practical necessity.

    • Costs
  • The Bhutanese government has set a non negotiable minimum daily tariff. The daily tariff includes all of your accommodation, food, land transport within Bhutan, services of guides and porters, supply of pack animals on treks and cultural programs as appropriate. Read more…

I would argue the current ecotourism model, depending on far flung tourists, is unfortunately the best of a difficult situation. Ideally, such places could be sustained via local tourism, but due to various reasons this is not currently the case. As we have seen in the case of last year, even severe limitations on air travel contributed fairly minorly to emissions. It’s clear deep systemic change will be needed to confront climate change, and maybe ecotourism is an appropriate “bridge” for certain instances in the meantime. I’m assuming these South African reserves are replete with charismatic megafauna that people love and can readily observe. That’s not the case of most ecosystems of high conservation value.
Ecotourism is only viable in certain situations(a particular charismatic species or site) so most biodiversity must be conserved in other ways. The vast tracts of land needed to support biodiversity are of little interest to ecotourism. For example, orangutan watching in Borneo is nearly all centered around populations of rehabiliated animals that depend on humans to feed them, and/or populations in severely fragmented and degraded habitat. Healthy populations are not necessary for the success of ecotourism, nor are they preferable. Only an adventurous few would fancy days of wandering around in a swamp with a minimal chance of sightings, compared to fish in a barrel of habituated animals in settings that look to most quite natural. Even in the case of tourism in a large biodiverse park only a tiny fraction of the parks footprint is used during ecotours, with most tourists seeing the same few populations of animals close to road access, for example.
A potential effect ecotourism can have is a reclaiming/re emphasis of local pride in biodiversity, which could result in political pressure to designate/maintain and area much larger than needed to sustain ecotourism. We’ve seen many countries make large reserves in the recent years and we will see about the future trends.

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Well, what I do is I take out a satellite map, look for areas that are either untouched or appear to have been abandoned for a very long time, I choose the ones that look the most interesting to me, and then I try to figure out which ones I can find a way to get to without getting into any trouble. I stay away from places that anyone else visits. It’s a lot of fun! I save the tourist spots for when I’m doing environmental outreach with people who feel that they need those facilities. So, I get plenty of that in my day-to-day and to really relax, I like to be far away from people. I also tag along with researchers when they could use an extra pair of hands. That’s always a lot of fun, even more so than exploring on my own.

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A lot of the posts here seem to hover around an idea, and it is a complicated idea: what is nature? What is wilderness? And obviously there is not a single definition to those things. e I

This has been a contentious issue for me in the past, because I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and have lived in the Rocky Mountains, so most of my life I have been around natural areas, and have at least had access to wilderness areas. And this has caused disagreements in the past because the type of natural and wilderness area here are a step beyond what is possible in say, the Eastern half of the US or most of Western Europe. I mean, there are a few exceptions, like the north of Maine, but in general, what it means to be in a natural or wilderness area is quite different for me. And sometimes I sound like I am bragging, which I guess I am, but it also is a real difference.

For me, “wilderness area” means there are no human structures or roads. From a naturalist perspective, this means a couple of things: usually an absence of invasive plants that grow on disturbed ground, such as along roads. It also means the presence of mammals and birds that are shy around people. And also the presence of climax forests and apex predators. Elements of those things can be possible without a wilderness area (puma and bear can enjoy being around people), but there is nothing quite like an unbroken forest.

So that is the context for how I view the question. I live in a city in Oregon right now, and basically with a short bicycle ride, I can get into “soft” natural areas, as in areas with few people and no structures, but they are still places with roads. They are still fragmented enough and close enough to population centers that even if I can see megafauna (mule deer), it isn’t a wilderness. But when I was in Montana, there were literally places 4 or 5 miles from my home where I could reach a trailhead where it would be 30 or 40 miles of forest before I hit a forest service road. And I would say those areas never disappointed me!

So that is the first answer to the question.

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Volunteering mostly, don’t know worldwide, but we got in expeditions in truly wild areas where only 1-3 workers and groups of scientists can visit, we were counting Eider nests, you can search a forum topic with jobs for volunteers, it had some choice.


I know a person who’s travelling a lot, he shown recently how he researched Google maps and they show virgin forest, when he came there it was all cut down, sometimes they’re not new enough to show that. It’s very sad what is happening with our planet.