Journey to Zafferana
Long walk in filthy weather
Cable car to Montagnola
Observatory by day
The 12 of us travelling to Provence met early one February morning at Waterloo station to get the Eurostar to Lille. I’d never been through the Channel Tunnel before, and was somehow surprised that it only took twenty minutes to go through.
On the other side, it was a short journey to Lille, where we then got a TGV to Avignon. This was a magnificent journey through the wintry snow-covered countryside of central France. Our enjoyment was enhanced by the consumption of numerous cheap cans of beer in the fantastically retro buffet carriage.
At Avignon we were met by observatory staff and driven up to the observatory. We had a day to kill before our observing run started, and we spent it exploring the observatory, which is up on a hillside with some great views of the surrounding countryside. The air was fresh, the skies were clear, and things looked good.
Observatory by night
For the first couple of nights of observing, we were pretty busy learning how to use the telescopes. We struggled bit on the 80cm telescope, to the amused disgust of Didier the technician. “What do you call ze school for ze little people?” he asked, as we struggled with the setting circles. We did a lot better on the largely automated 1.52m telescope. Once we’d got the hang of things and could set long exposures going, I had time to get out under the awesome skies and take some photos.
At the end of our 12-hour endurance sessions at the telescope, the pre-dawn skies usually looked stunning. A couple of times I actually managed to stay awake to see the sun come up. One morning, all the surrounding valleys were filled with fog, which looked like a giant reservoir of milk flowing over the countryside.
Gorges du Verdon
We didn’t spend the entire time on the observatory site – the group hired a car, and on one of our days off, three of us went to see the Gorges du Verdon, allegedly the second biggest canyon in the world. It was a long drive to get there but the scenery was increasingly impressive. We entered the canyon at its lower end, and drove slowly along, appreciating some stunning views and also occasionally experiencing some stunningly strong winds blowing down the valley.
Further up the canyon we walked a little way up to a couple of view points. It started to snow briefly but luckily not for long, and we enjoyed standing right on the edge of heart-stopping precipices to look down on the tiny Verdon river far below. After that we drove back downstream, stopping again at the windiest point because it had the best views of the turqoise river. At the end of the valley, the river broadened, the wind dropped completely, and the Verdon carried on placidly towards the Durance, then the Rhône, then the Mediterranean Sea.
We were all sad when the field trip came to an end. We’d had good fun, done some good work, and become so addicted to the fabulous OHP coffee that some of us would not sleep properly for weeks. On the way down we’d had a brilliant journey from Lille to Avignon, getting enjoyably merry on cheap cans of beer in the restaurant car of the TGV and watching the French countryside race by. We tried the same thing on the way back but somehow it wasn’t as much fun.
On August 21st, 1999, three intrepid young explorers began a journey that would take them through some of Europe’s wildest and remotest areas. Aided generously by the University of London Convocation Trust, University College London and the Friends of UCL, they spent a month exploring and photographing the volcanoes, geysers and waterfalls of Iceland. Here you can find a detailed account of the expedition, and a few of the many photographs taken by the expedition members.
About the trip
The leader of the group: he took charge of the planning, the grant applications, the day-to-day movements on the trip, the post-trip reports, and this remarkable website. Only slightly egotistical. He won the Explorer’s Beard contest by a considerable margin.
George tried hard to usurp Wesson’s expeditional throne, claiming that he was the better mapreader. The sight of George wandering the streets of Heimaey with a map of Landmannalaugar in his map pocket did not inspire confidence in this claim. George came a distant second in the Explorer’s Beard contest.
John was, on numerous occasions, the pacifying voice in the fearsome arguments that occurred regularly throughout the trip. Thanks to, or perhaps in spite of, John’s interventions, no blows were exchanged. John’s most admirable act of the trip was to donate by proxy a can of tuna to a baby puffin. He dropped out on day 3 of the Explorer’s Beard Contest.
First and foremost, we would like to thank the University of London Convocation Trust, University College London and the Friends of UCL. Without their very generous support, this expedition could not have taken place. The expedition members remain extremely grateful.
We are also grateful to those who helped us in the planning of the trip: the Lonely Planet Guide, the Icelandic Tourist Board, STA Travel, BSÍ, Icelandair, Omega Travel, and many many others.
Finally, all the friendly people we met along the way: everyone who sold us hot dogs, which kept morale up during some trying times; the folk at BSÍ for providing a shelter from some nasty weather; the warden at Landmannalaugar, for throwing us out of his mountain hut with a sense of humour; Anthony the baby puffin, for eating John’s tuna; and our cheap plastic bottles of bad whiskey – great friends in times of great hardship.