Whale watching is a life-changing travel experience (dreamstime)
List 28 November

Top 5 life-changing travel experiences

We asked Wanderlust’s travel luminaries which experience had changed their life, here’s what they had to say...

Life-changing travel experiences1. A voyage on a dhow

Michael Palin

There was one voyage that changed the way I looked at the world. And it was a voyage, in the good old-fashioned sense of the word. From Dubai to Bombay on a dhow boat, for Around The World In Eighty Days. It was in 1988, a time before sat nav and cell phones. As we made our way down the Gulf, through the Straits of Hormuz, and out across the Arabian Sea, we were entirely dependent on our crew of 16 Gujaratis. All our sophisticated technology was useless compared to their navigational skills handed down over hundreds of years. Only one of the crew spoke any English, but over seven days and nights, despite all the differences in culture, background and circumstances, we struck up a rapport which blossomed into a series of most unexpected friendships.

What I learnt from my voyage aboard the Al Sharma, is that sharing is a basic human instinct. That, when all is stripped away, the divisions and distinctions that are often used to keep us apart seem ridiculously unimportant.

I was a different person after that journey. My guard was down, my fear of the unknown had begun to evaporate. By the time the dhow reached Bombay I had lost that sense of Them and Us. From then on, if my travels were to mean anything, they had to be about Us. All in it together.

Life-changing travel experiences2. Meeting the locals 

Simon Reeve

A young Somali woman helped me to recognise travel as an awesome privilege. While tracking the Equator for a TV series, I dropped out of the sky to meet Fatimah and a thousand others in a refugee camp on the Kenyan/Somali border. It was a positive camp run by caring aid workers. But it was also a forgotten prison. Fatimah was 23, and had been there for most of her life. She was literate, well educated and bursting with capability and promise. While an accident of birth and my British passport allowed me to travel the world, for nearly two decades, Fatimah had been forbidden from travelling more than a few kilometres from the camp. The memory of her haunts me.

Life-changing travel experiences3. Getting to know real people 

Hilary Bradt

I think it would be in Chile in 1974, just after the coup that toppled President Allende. We crossed the border from Argentina in some trepidation. As committed Guardian readers we knew what to expect: despair and suffering. But as we walked through Santiago we were stopped more than once by Chileans anxious to tell us their side of the story – about food shortages and corruption that had preceded the coup. “Tell the people in your country that we are glad that Allende has gone!” What we learned is that the media only reports one side of a story, and that travel enables you to listen to both sides and to hear what the people who live in the country have to say. The experience in Chile hasn’t changed my politics, but it’s made me much more open-minded. Life changing indeed.

Life-changing travel experiences4. Watching whales

Mark Carwardine

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a whale. I was 21 years old and on a whale-watching trip off the coast of California. We hadn’t seen anything for nearly two hours when, suddenly, a grey whale breached next to the boat, right in front of me.

I still remember having an epiphany, as it flew through the air, that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with whales. I feel incredibly lucky, because that’s pretty much what I’ve done.

Life-changing travel experiences5. Discovering a pride of lions

Jonathan Scott

The Marsh lions of the Mara have been the focus of our family’s world since I first started watching them in early 1977. I can still remember being introduced to the pride by my mentor Joseph Rotich, or Bwana Chui as he was known to all the drivers and guides in the Mara, meaning ‘Mr Leopard!’ Joseph showed me how to look for predators, how to read the signs and listen to the call of the wild.

During that first game drive, Joseph took me to Musiara Marsh to search for lions and he soon spotted two huge pride males standing tall along the edge of the riverine forest, their golden manes blowing in the wind. In that moment, my dream of living with wildlife in the heart of Africa became a reality and [my wife] Angie and I continue to follow the Marsh lions to this day.

Angie and I met through our love of wildlife and photography: it was the Mara that shaped our meeting. We were married atop the Siria escarpment, 300m above the animal speckled plains within view of the Marsh pride’s territory in 1992. We are at our happiest when in the presence of these great predators lying among the shade of the rapidly retreating forest at the heart of the Marsh or nursing their young along the intermittent watercourse known as Bila Shaka. Bila Shaka means ‘without fail or always there’, testimony to how easy it is to find lions in the area.