We go on the trail of the last undiscovered places on the planet.
Pico da Neblina, Brazil
A jagged 2,995-metre behemoth, Pica da Neblina is the highest mountain in the whole of Brazil – not the sort of geographical feature you’re likely to lose down the back of the sofa. Nevertheless, its existence was unknown until the 1950s thanks to two factors. Firstly, it sits in one of South America’s most remote corners: the Guiana Highlands on the Brazil–Venezuela border, a region where uncontacted tribes outnumber tourists. Secondly, it is almost always obscured by thick cloud. Indeed, “neblina” is Spanish for “fog”.
The mountain’s millennia of anonymity were ended when (according to popular belief) a pilot spotted it on an extremely rare clear day. The first ascent of it came in 1965.
To explore the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, you’ll need to first reach Manaus, a remarkable city of more than two million souls plonked in the middle of the jungle. From here the most popular options for wildlife watching are cruises on small but smart riverboats up the Rio Negro, or trips further upriver to Tefé to stay at the Uakari Floating Lodge. Across the border, Iquitos is the main base for excursions into the Peruvian Amazon.
The Verdon Gorge, France
Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon, a 15-mile gorge that sinks to depths of 700 metres, was almost completely unknown, beyond Provence at least, until the beginning of the 20th century.
In 1905, speleology guru Édouard-Alfred Martel was commissioned to lead the first proper survey of the region with a view to taming the river and using it to irrigate the fields of the Var and provide drinking water for Toulon and Marseille. The following year his findings, in which he declared it the “new jewel in the rich crown of la belle France” were published in a popular magazine, triggered the first trickle of tourists (a trickle which, thanks to the construction of roads along the north and south rims in 1947 and 1973, eventually become a deluge).
“The discovery of the Verdon Gorges was [a] revelation of the nation’s ignorance of itself,” explains Graham Robb, author of The Discovery of France. “Until 1906, the most spectacular geographical feature in France might as well have existed in a different dimension; yet, all around the rim of the canyon [Martel] had found farm animals drinking at pools, ‘ruins whose history is unknown’, and, in the canyon itself, wreckage washed down by the torrent – planks of wood from mills and cabins, and even ‘a footbridge from who knows where’.”
The village of Lorgues is a fine base for exploring Verdon. For more tips, see our expert guide.
Mount Mabu, Mozambique
Mozambique has grown in popularity as a beach destination, and its 1,430 miles of coastline are dotted with an increasing number of modern luxury resorts. Its interior, however, remains remarkably unexplored, and until the launch of Google Earth in 2001 nobody - bar a few local villagers - knew a thing about the region surrounding Mount Mabu in the north of the country. The digital tool brought it to the attention of scientists at Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, and the first full-scale expedition to the area found a remarkable pocket of biodiversity; a “lost” yet enormous rainforest surrounded by savannah. Several new species were uncovered, including a tropical mistletoe, a pygmy chameleon, a bush viper and a butterfly. “People say there is nothing left to be discovered,” Julian Bayliss, a conservation biologist for Kew Gardens, told The Guardian in 2013. “But there are new species to be discovered. Lost worlds to be found.”
Indeed, soon after the Mount Mabu expedition, Bayliss identified another mountain in Mozambique, also using Google Earth, as a place of significant scientific interest: Mount Lico. An expedition there in 2018 found more new species, although the team were surprised to find evidence of human visitors in the form of ancient pots, ceremonially placed near the source of a stream.
These candy-coloured peaks, known as the Rainbow Mountains, are just as hard to reach, with four or five days of hiking required for most fit people. And that’s if you don’t get lost. Even experienced guides have reported difficulty locating the site to the east of Cusco, which can be visited on the 43-mile Ausangate trek.
It’s a relatively new addition to Peru’s tourist trail. That’s because until recently Vinicunca was unknown; climate change revealed it to the world. Santos Machacca, a mountain guide based in Cusco, told the New York Times last year: “We have asked the elders that live in Pitumarca [a nearby town] and they said that the mountain was under the snow,” Mr. Machacca said in a recent interview. “Global warming has caused the ice to melt, and a colourful mountain appeared from under it.”
A subsequent surge in popularity - some 1,000 hikers arrive at the site each day in high season - has now led to fears for the future of Vinicunca.
Xianren Bridge, China
The world’s longest natural arch, with a span of 138 metres, was also unknown before the arrival of Google Earth. Xianren Bridge was discovered by Jay Wilbur while browsing the tool in 2009. It crosses China’s Buliu River, in northern Guangxi Province, and is surrounded by forests and other limestone rock formations. The nearest town is more than 20 miles away and reaching it necessitates a three-hour rafting trip.
Despite its vastness - twice the size of Australia - Antarctica remained unseen until 1820 and untouched until 1895. Belief in a vast “Terra Australis”, a giant continent in the far south of the globe to “balance” Europe, Asia and Africa, had persisted for centuries, and Cook came within 75 miles of it in 1773 before being forced to retreat.
Nevertheless, in 1815 the explorer Matthew Flinders was so convinced of its non-existence that he handed the moniker to what was then known as New Holland. Justifying the title of his book A Voyage to Terra Australis, he wrote: “There is no probability, that any other detached body of land, of nearly equal extent, will ever be found in a more southern latitude.” He would be proven wrong five years later when the Fimbul ice shelf was sighted by Russian ships. It would be another 75 years before the first confirmed landing, at Cape Adair, by a Norwegian-Swedish whaling ship.
In her guide to visiting Antarctica, Joanna Symons writes: “This frozen continent at the end of the Earth has never been permanently occupied by man. Accessible only from November to March, it has no towns or villages, no habitation bar the odd research station or expedition hut; just grand, icy, unpredictable wilderness. Even if you’re travelling there on a cruise ship, as most people do, the solitude and the emptiness will envelop you and bring you down to scale.
“Not that solitude is the first thing that comes to mind when you’re standing in the middle of a penguin colony on an Antarctic shoreline. When I visited, in early February, there were thousands of birds packed tightly on every rock, both shy gentoo penguins and the bolder adélies, which seemed happy for us to wander among them, cameras clicking furiously at the grey fluff-ball chicks tapping their parents’ beaks to be fed.”
New Zealand can lay claim to being the last major landmass settled by humans. It wasn’t until around 1300 that the first Polynesians set foot on the islands and developed the unique Māori culture. By comparison, the earliest evidence of humans in Australia is at least 65,000 years old.
How did it go unnoticed for so long? The exact route of the first migration to Australia is widely debated, but it seems likely that the continent was reached by island-hopping on rafts across a strait that was far shallower than the Timor Sea, for example, is today. The 1,000-mile stretch across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand was another matter. That the seafaring Polynesians discovered Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Easter Island and the Cook Islands, among others, before finding vast New Zealand, may well be down to unfavourable prevailing winds and ocean currents.
In a twist of irony, the first European to see New Zealand, the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, was unable to locate Australia on his 1642 voyage.
£4499pp 21 nights £215 per night Check availability Provided by Riviera Travel
The most recently discovered bit of New Zealand may well be Stewart Island. Europeans knew nothing of it until 1770. Writing for Telegraph Travel, David Whitley explained: “New Zealand’s often forgotten third island is cast adrift of the South Island’s bottom end, at the mercy of the roaring forties and its howling winds.
“Attempts at human settlement have broadly failed. Maori have only ever lived on Stewart Island sporadically, while European whalers, sealers, farmers and saw-millers have seen their industries die out pretty quickly. The current population is officially 381, and it has never really crept much higher than that. This has left the vast bulk of the island in almost pristine condition. The National Park covers 85 per cent of the landmass, and aside from a few tremendously squelchy tracks lacing through it, there aren’t many signs of human interference.”
Like New Zealand, Madagascar was only colonised by human settlers relatively recently - perhaps as late as 500AD - which means it has a wealth of endemic plant and animals species that have survived. Its most unexplored corner is Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, a labyrinth of limestone that covers a sizeable chunk of the island’s western half. It is utterly impassable, a maze of crooked canyons, caves, tunnels and spires, so its animal inhabitants - including Madagascar’s famous lemurs - go largely undisturbed. The unique geology also means there are endemic species that have evolved to embrace life among the karst skyscrapers.
G Adventures offers an eight-day Baobab & Tsingy Explorer tour, taking in the national park and more otherworldly attractions. From £599 per person (flights extra).
Cape Melville, Australia
The giant granite boulders and dense rainforest of this peninsula, on Australia’s northeastern tip, make it utterly impenetrable. So much so that in 2013 the only way a team of scientists and filmmakers could reach its uplands was by helicopter. The expense was worth it. They discovered three new species - a gecko, a skink and a frog - and were generally amazed by what they described as a “lost world”.
“We think in Australia that we know what’s out there pretty well,” said Conrad Hoskin of James Cook University, who led the expedition, at the time. “But to be able to walk into a new mountain range and find several new animals immediately shows that there must be very many more out there. If anything's likely to harbour something amazing, it would be there.”
Reaching the region involves a long drive from Cairns to Cape Melville National Park. A 4x4 vehicle is a must. The park has several campsites; its official website lists walking routes and safety advice.
Hang Son Doong, Vietnam
Many miles of underground caverns are yet to be explored. Indeed, the subterranean record books are being rewritten on an almost annual basis and some of the biggest caves on the planet were only discovered relatively recently.
Krubera Cave, in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia in Georgia, is the deepest known cave and one of only two deeper than 2,000 metres. Of its eight miles of tunnels, the furthest from the surface (2,191 metres down) was discovered in 2007. It is no place for ordinary travellers.
But Hang Son Doong in Vietnam, the largest known cave passage in the world by volume, which was found in 1990 and only fully explored in the last few years, can be seen by tourists. Only 1,000 visitors are allowed into the caves each year, with each tour taking four days and three nights, and costing £2,245. Those that sign up are rewarded with the chance to experience a cave so big it has its own weather system. At its tallest point the cave can accommodate a 40-storey skyscraper, while at its widest point there’s room to fly a Boeing 747. Oxalis Adventure Tours is the only company authorised to lead tours into these extraordinary caves. Visit oxalis.com.vn for more information.
Machu Picchu, Peru
This 550-year-old Inca citadel wasn’t discovered by Hiram Bingham. But its rediscovery in 1911, after 350 years of abandonment, is certainly worth including here.
Of the site, our Latin America expert Chris Moss writes: “Half a million visitors per year can’t be wrong: Machu Picchu, Peru’s most famous, most photogenic, most fabled Inca citadel is a wonder to behold. Even a lifetime of being exposed to pictures of it in school textbooks, holiday brochures, Instagram and newspapers, doesn’t quite prepare you for a proper eyeful of the stepped terraces, stone walls, mysterious temples and mist-shrouded Andean peaks.
“It is high: 7,973ft above sea level. It is large: the ruins are the size of a village, and combined with adjoining forest and wilderness park, the “historical sanctuary”, as Unesco describes it, covers more than 116 square miles. It is also mysterious: we know its functions were partly residential and partly religious, but we are still guessing about its cosmic positioning and its academic importance to the Incas.”