Charting the Last Wild Places on the Planet

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What's left to discover on a planet that's fully mapped and downloadable to your smartphone? Plenty, says Alastair Bonnett, a professor of social geography at England's Newcastle University. In his thought-provoking new book, Unruly Places, Bonnett transforms the modern globe we think we know into a truly strange place full of phantom islands and "darkly car­nival" no-man's-lands. "The whole idea of exploration needs to be reinvented," says Bonnett. "Travel's been made so easy, it's lost its glamour. We want to feel a sense of wonder – and that happens in the most unlikely places."

In the book, Bonnett catalogs 47 noteworthy locales ranging from the far-flung – like North Sentinel Island, in the Andaman Chain, where locals have successfully repelled outsiders for 60,000 years – to those formed by waves of discovery over millennia: In Turkey, the elaborate underground cities of Cappadocia have been inhabited on and off for thousands of years. Perhaps nothing disturbs our sense of place more than abandoned communities, and Bonnett highlights some of the eeriest.


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In the 1950s, North Korea built Kijong-dong, or "Peace Village," in the DMZ to lure would-be defectors across the border toward grand avenues and apartment blocks seeming to glow with the warm light of a happy citizenry. Except no one lives there, or ever has (the lights are turned on and off by automatic timers). Pripyat was a thriving community of 45,000 in Ukraine when a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant released deadly amounts of radiation, forcing a hasty evacuation. Scientists say the city won't be safe for humans for another 900 years; in our absence, a new – and highly toxic – wilderness is taking root, roamed by wolves, bear, and elk.

A book about geography may seem quaint in the age of Google Earth, but Unruly Places is a timely call to rethink our relationship to the map. In the wake of global warming's superstorms and rising sea levels, geography is rapidly changing for the first time in historical memory. "When I was in school, there were two maps," says Bonnett, "political and physical. The political map changed a lot; we expect it to. But the physical map – geography – never changed. Now that one needs continuous updating." Shrinking coastlines and shifting islands not only endanger the people living there, they create a new kind of political conflict: In 1970, a cyclone revealed a rocky island in the Bay of Bengal; both India and Bangladesh claimed it. As military tensions rose and diplomatic measures failed, the island started sinking again, finally disappearing beneath the waves by 2010. "There's talk of the map being a thing of the past," says Bonnett, "but the map's not going away – it's just been made more complicated."

[Alastair Bonnett's Unruly Places, $16]

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