I loved this wide-ranging and in-depth conversation with Arita Baaijens, a Dutch biologist, explorer, photographer and the author of several books and numerous articles. She has carried out more than 25 expeditions (3-6 months at a time) with her own caravan of camels all over Egypt and the Sudan, where her knowledge of the desert – and camels – often put her male companions to shame.

In 2013, she left the desert behind to spend 101 days on horseback as she explored the Altai Mountains, a little-known region that lies on the border of Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan.


Heaven on Earth

Arita Baaijens
Arita Baaijens

“We do not believe in a heavenly paradise,” says Danil finally. “Our landscape offers everything the soul needs to develop completely.” (extract from an article by Arita Baaijens – The Search for Shambhala)

Are some places more significant – or more sacred – than others? The fact that ley lines intersect there, or the sun strikes that spot at dawn on midsummer’s day, or that mountain’s snowpeak provides life-giving water to the people below – do these things in themselves make a place holy?

Or is it due to the fact that some places are regarded as more sacred that brings pilgrims and believers to that place, and it is their reverence for it that imbues it with sacredness?

On the flipside, do places like Ypres, or Auschwitz, or a house where violent murders were committed, also have a spiritual or emotional echo, a more sinister kind of vibration?

I suspect we have all felt a little frisson in certain locations – an appreciation of their beauty, or a sense of serenity, or a shiver of horror.

The problems arise when a place that is special to some people is affected by the activities of other people who don’t hold it in the same regard.

Arita's route around the Altai
Arita’s route around the Altai

Many sacred indigenous sites have now been violated by industry. The San Francisco Mountains in Arizona have been mined for white pumice to be used in the manufacture of stone-washed jeans, and a ski resort allowed to use tainted wastewater to make artificial snow, thereby polluting the sacred waters. Even though I’m not religious, I know I would be appalled if a cathedral or a temple or a synagogue was desecrated in an analogous way. Yet to many Native Americans the San Francisco Mountains are as sacred as any holy building.

And there are indirect impacts too. In 2003 I took part in the annual pilgrimage of Qoyllur Riti in Peru, which may well soon succumb to climate change. Pilgrims traditionally spend the night on the glacier, wrestling with the spirits until dawn, but the glacier has retreated 600 feet in the last 20 years. The devout are no longer allowed to bring ice from the glacier back to their communities to provide holy water – a futile attempt to prolong the life of the shrinking glacier. When the glacier finally disappears, not only will the spirit of El Señor de Qoyllur Riti have departed, but at least as seriously, the water supply for surrounding villages will also disappear.

For a diminishing number of cultures, our entire planet was a source of wonder and mysticism. For an increasing number of cultures, nothing is sacred in the pursuit of materialism and money. As humankind treads ever more heavily on our planet, and the remote places become less remote, more travelled, where will we go to replenish our energy and feed our souls?

“Shambhala gradually came to be seen as a Buddhist Pure Land, a fabulous kingdom whose reality is visionary or spiritual as much as physical or geographic.” (Wikipedia)


Arita and friend
Arita and friend

Arita’s Advice for Young Explorers (but probably equally applicable to old explorers!)
1. Don’t believe people who tell you it cannot be done!

2. If you don’t have the money to pay for your expedition, go anyway.

3. Do it your way.

4. Learn about the local culture and learn the basics of the local language before you set off.

5. Buy a horse or camel if you travel with animals, and be your own boss

6. If you decide to work with an interpreter, TEST him or her first under trying circumstances if you can. May save you a lot of trouble.

7. Never give up.

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Show Notes

1:45 Why did Arita switch from desert to mountains?

3:40 The allure of the desert

8:40 Solitude, purification and religion

12:30 On non-existence

Arita's preferred mode of transport
Arita’s preferred mode of transport

14:30 The short guide to keeping a camel alive

17:45 What inspired the trip to the Altai Mountains?

18:45 The challenges of teamwork

21:45 A picture in words of the Altai Mountains

24:40 Does science interfere with sensing? How Arita combined the two

26:55 Experiencing nature through the eyes of the local culture, “Nature does communicate if you give it attention… if you don’t consider yourself completely separate from everything around you.”

31:00 On belief and believers

32:30 Maybe science is not the ultimate truth – on being provoked into new perspectives

34:50 Should we value nature for itself, or for its financial value to humankind? With a side note on scary dogmatic environmentalists

38:15 Kicking a chair leg away from people to make them wobble

39:40 Personal reinvention – how does Arita do it?

42:00 Staying in touch with Arita

43:40 This week’s audible.com recommendation from Producer Vic: Five Days at Memorial – please follow our affiliate link to order your FREE audiobook



Arita’s website

Expedition to Paradise (aka the Altai Mountains)

Arita’s “mood map” 

Wade Davis 



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