WHERE THE HELL? Mali, 558 miles northeast of Bamako. WHAT IN THE WORLD? For the last thousand years Timbuktu has been the Sahara's central exchange hub, a tiny mud-and-rock-walled city linking nomadic workers from the Taoudenni salt mines up north and crop farmers from the lush Niger River valley to the west. Although not as isolated (Air Mali now serves the city) or deadly (the desert's legendary bandits have been kept outside the city limits) as it was 50 years ago, Timbuktu's parched and perpetually sandblasted location has sealed its reputation as one of the planet's most sequestered cities. To reach it, rent a pinasse, a thatch-roofed wooden boat with an outboard engine, at Mopti, the Niger River's largest shoreline market. A 100-mile float past traditional mud villages with neither bridges nor electricity will take you within a four-mile jeep ride of Timbuktu. After visiting the 700-year-old Djinquereber mosque and bustling bazaar, hike several days north along the Bandiaghara Escarpment, where the Dogon, West Africans who have resisted both Islam and Christianity, still roam the desert on camelback. ACCESS: Contact Journeys International ($2,295; 800-255-8735; www.journeys-intl.com), which offers a trip to Timbuktu including 14 days of hiking, camping, and pinasse boating. RISKS: Bandits. "U.S. citizens visiting or residing in Mali are urged to avoid all non-essential road travel in the region surrounding Timbuktu," warns the U.S. Department of State Web site. "Robbers seem particularly interested in stealing vehicles." ESSENTIAL: A traditional Saharan turban. Sandstorms in and around Timbuktu are legendary.
WHERE THE HELL? Southwestern Uganda, 175 miles west of Kampala. WHAT IN THE WORLD? Closed for the past three years because of nearby rebel skirmishes, the Uganda Wildlife Authority announced plans to reopen the Ruwenzori National Park's trekking trails this year. Encompassing the headwaters of the Nile river, the eternally mist-covered 16,000-foot Mountains of the Moon, and lush lowlands choked with prehistoric-looking red-hot pokers (Kniphofia), 20-foot lobelias, and 30-foot heathers, the region would have served well as the setting for Jurrasic Park. Exploration into the verdant interior is best done on foot, hiking the rugged Ibanda Trail, which skirts 15,889-foot Mount Baker and 16,763-foot Mount Stanley, two glacier-lined peaks offering mountaineers unique African alternatives to the tourist highway on Kilimanjaro. After winding through dark bogs and waterfall-lined valleys, you'll top out on a 14,000-foot alpine ridge where deep snow can crush your preconceived notions of the African equatorial climate. ACCESS: Fly into Entebbe and drive eight hours west to Kasese, your last outpost to pick up supplies. Continue three hours north to the Ibanda trailhead at park headquarters in Nyakalengija. RISKS: The gorillas won't harm you; the guerrillas might. ESSENTIAL: Warm clothes. It's Africa, but Africa at a nippy 14,000 feet.
WHERE THE HELL? Congo Basin, 500 miles east of Cameroon's capital, Yaoundé. WHAT IN THE WORLD? BaAka pygmies have been able to thrive in the thickest parts of the Congo Basin, and the result is an advantageous biological adaptation: They're able to see better than most humans in the rainforest's misty dark. Thank goodness. Without the pygmies' guide services you'd likely drop 15 links on the food chain inside what is the largest contiguous jungle in Africa, home to tree leopards, elusive gorillas, rainforest elephants, and more venomous snakes than you'd care to know about. On Wilderness Travels' 16-day jungle trek, the BaAka will teach you to set traps, track blue duikers (mini antelope) and forest pigs, and gather medicinal plants like cough-curing mebeke during a bushwhack from Yaoundé. You'll cross the impossible-to-patrol border into the Central African Republic's Bayanga regionan area where The World Wildlife Fund is working to form the largest rainforest national park in Africa. ACCESS: Get in touch with Berkeley-based Wilderness Travel ($3,500; 800-368-2794; www.wildernesstravel.com), which launches its first Congo Basin trip in October 2002. RISKS: Poisonous snakes such as gabon and rhinoceros vipers, black and green mambas, cobras. ESSENTIAL: Night-vision goggles (to help you avoid stepping on a gabon).