December 19, 2009
The world's best national parks
Sixty years ago Britain followed America's example and created its first national parks. Simon Barnes reveals his favourites
A national park is like the Tardis: bigger than the space it occupies. This is true of all the 113,000 national parks across the world, parks that occupy 12.9 per cent of the Earth's landmass, that cover a larger area than all the croplands of the world and that are 18 times larger than the combined urban landscapes of the entire planet.
A national park is not just a space. It is a space that is guaranteed by the highest competent authority of the country in which it lies. A national park is irrefutable, immutable, irrevocable. It's almost as if God had taken direct control.
This is the 60th anniversary of national parks in this country. The Act of Parliament that made them possible was passed in 1949, and Lewis Silkin, the Minister for Town and Country Planning, said that it was "the most exciting act of the postwar parliament". A big statement: and within two years, big things were happening.
The Peak District became a national park in 1951 and was the first. It was followed the same year by the Lake District, Snowdonia and Dartmoor — quintessential British wilderness: dramatic, rugged, imposing. They are part of the meaning of Britain: without them, Britain would be unthinkable. That is what national park means: something immense, and not merely in acreage.
We now have more than 4,000 miles of traffic-free cycle routes - so it's about time you tried one
There are now ten national parks in England, three in Wales and three in Scotland. The most recent was designated this year, as the South Downs National Park rose like Venus from a sea of bureaucratic impediment and financial obstructionism.
You probably thought that it was a national park all along. It has always felt that way. Now, its proud new designation makes it as safe as a piece of paper can. A national park is something that a government, that a nation, dare not destroy.
Britain, so proud of its pioneering in so many walks of life — railways, poetry, football — was rather behind the pace when it came to national parks. In 1832 Andrew Jackson, the President of the United States, set aside four pieces of land around Hot Springs in Arkansas. The world's first official and undeniable national park was established in the US in 1872: Yellowstone.
Where Yogi Bear led the way, Britain was to follow three generations later; mind you, you can argue that this is where the American record on conservation peaked. The notion of protecting substantial areas of land at the highest possible level of secular power has subsequently been followed all over the world.
I seem to have spent an awful lot of my life in national parks. It is there that you are most likely to get something increasingly hard to find: a feeling of immensity. The parks are perhaps the only places left where human beings can feel humble: they are worth preserving for that reason alone.
In a national park it is easy to come to terms with the fundamental truth of life: that humans are one species of animal among many. We are not alone. We are simply an aspect of biodiversity, one more part of the natural order.
Shall I tell you about the time I walked straight into a huge black-maned lion in the South Luangwa National Park, about the snarl that almost liquefied my gut, about the eyes that riveted me to the ground? It was then that I felt an ancient survival mechanism cut in. I didn't run. I stood unmoving, and looked the lion in the face, not from choice, certainly not from courage, but because every muscle had locked. And after a lifetime pause, the lion backed down.
This atavistic reaction saved me. If I had run, the lion would have pursued me as a cat pursues a mouse. As it was, the lion, displeased and sleepy, was content to slouch away to a spot where he wouldn't be disturbed.
But I knew something profound in that moment, because I wasn't just in a situation of danger. I was in a situation of edibility. How bizarre it is: we think that there is something unnatural about a maneater, that a creature that eats humans is somehow violating the natural order. It does the exact opposite. The edibility of humans confirms the natural order.
Humans have been eaten for millennia: to be in a position in which it is possible to become a meal yourself is the most powerful way of being reminded of that simple fact. This moment — brought about by my own illegal and unsupervised activity, I should emphasise — told me all I needed to know about the human's traditional place in the natural economy of the soil.
We have created our national parks out of loss. There would be no need to list them and protect them with hoops of paper steel if we hadn't destroyed so many other vast and wonderful places. Our understanding of the value and importance of wild places come directly from destruction.
The Romantic movement walked hand in hand with industrialisation. The more we destroyed, the more we loved what was left. William Wordsworth said that the Lake District was "a sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy".
Wordsworth's own country woke up to that notion more than a century later. In the 20th century, demand for access to the vast and special place was growing. There was a mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932 that showed the strength of feeling. After the Second World War it was inevitable that even a nation as obsessed with property and privacy as our own would have to come to terms with the need for special places held in common.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists and defines the notion of the national park: a minimum of 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres), an ecosystem not materially affected by humans and protected by the highest possible authority. This was summed up by Achim Steiner, the UN Under-Secretary-General: "Protected areas are not a luxury and their value lies outside the economy."
There are many flaws in the concept of national park. It is easy to make what is called a paper park: one that looks good on the map but has no meaning on the ground, no staff to maintain and protect it and to stop humans from encroaching on and destroying it. There are problems of poaching for meat, for ivory, for rhino horn. There are problems with invasive species, illegal logging, every kind of abuse.
But the national parks exist, and their destruction would shame any government and any nation that permitted it. The national park is a way in which a nation holds itself to ransom and says: we stand by this piece of land, this piece of wilderness. National parks have their problems, but they exist on the right side of a line drawn in the sand. It's the rest of the world we need to worry about. And once we have destroyed that, how much longer can the national parks stand firm?
National parks: my personal top ten
1 South Luangwa, Zambia I left a piece of my heart there years ago, and have to go back every now and then to find it. I have walked with lion and elephant, watched leopards hunt and drunk beer with carmine bee-eaters.
2 Kaziranga, India One of the wonders of the world, washed by the Bramaputra river. A few weeks ago I was there gazing at a vista of 250 hog deer, 42 buffalo and 11 Asian one-horned rhinos.
3 Gal Oya, Sri Lanka The place that really opened my eyes to the wild world: a boat ride across a dramatic drowned landscape with a million water birds and distant elephant.
4 Coto Doñana, Spain Step out of modern Europe into an impossible ancientness, a place jumping with fallow deer, wild boar and flamingo. Also home to the world's most endangered big cat, the Iberian lynx.
5 Serengeti, Tanzania I was there once for the great migration: as staggering a sight as the planet has to offer. Wildebeest milled round a waterhole like passengers at a Tube station, and practised immense military manoeuvres on the open plain.
6 Corbett, India A place of dramatic and plunging landscapes where you expect to meet Mowgli at every step — and where I encountered Shere Khan: a tiger, thrillingly seen from an elephant's back.
7 Taman Negara, Malaysia This was my first experience of rainforest: the classic cathedral forest of distant canopy filled with mysterious sounds and the glorious gloom of the paths between the buttressed trees.
8 Kafue, Zambia Up on the Busanaga Plain, a nightly stand-off between antelope and lion, and a certainty that some of the antelope would die. A fraught and terrible place.
9 Lvysoke Tatry, Slovakia Europe untamed: an atavistic landscape, a trip cut short when I fell off one of the mountains, but before that the tracking and the encounter with bear.
10 Lake District, UK A revelation of drama: an instant feeling of specialness, of privilege. You enter such a place and you can believe that there are limits to the human will for destruction.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org