Apr 21, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012
I arrived in Chile at the end of September 2011 and by April 2012 I still hadn’t left. The last time I spent more than six months in one country, it was 1999. So even though this six months has been spent in a foreign country, I’ve still been getting ever itchier feet. But a nightmarish situation with a herniated disc meant that for a few of those months I could barely even leave the house let alone the country. With the back situation easing a bit, and having just completed my first solo night shift at the observatory, I decided the time was right to hit the road again. I’d long fancied a trip to the Falklands, had started actually planning it a few weeks ago, and finally a week before I wanted to go, I booked the flight. And what a flight it was. I came down from Paranal on Thursday, had Friday to get used to daylight again and pack, and then at 4am on Saturday I headed out into the streets to grab a taxi to the airport. I had a fun ride with a friendly driver who thought it was really funny that I was [...]
Nov 25, 2011 in Chile
Near to ALMA is APEX, a single dish radio telescope built as a precursor to the main array, to establish that the site was excellent and to test the technology to be used. We drove over to APEX, and I felt a little more clear-headed. Here, we were slightly higher than ALMA and had amazing views over the plateau. Near to APEX, the last of the winter snows were melting away. In places like this, snow melts in strange ways, turning into strange formations called penitentes, serrated peaks and valleys waving across the red desert landscape. We walked among the penitentes, which were about half as high as we were. The vandalistic among us tried pushing them over; some fell very easily, others were on more solid foundations.
Sep 25, 2011 in Chile
I got a night bus to Pucón. One of the things I want to see a lot of while I’m in Chile is erupting volcanoes, and so I thought I might as well start with one of the most reliable, Villarrica. I’d been here before, in 2005, climbed to the crater rim and watched fountains of lava jetting up, so close that I could feel the heat from them. I was hoping for the same this time. It was a warm night in Santiago when I got the bus, but in the morning, 400 miles further south, it was raining heavily. I was shivering as I walked from the bus station into town, and unless conditions got dramatically better, going to be climbing any mountains. But I went to various climbing agencies, and found out that the weather for the next day was going to be perfect. So I signed up for a climb, and at 6.45am the next morning I was kitting up with a group of 12 other travellers, from Chile, Brazil, Australia, the US and Denmark. As we drove out of Pucón I caught sight of the perfect cone of the volcano, dark against the dawn light. [...]
Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010
From our first sighting it took us almost another hour to get to a good viewing point. The ground was so slippery it was unbelievable, but eventually we reached the crest of a hill, and there before us was the fissure. We could see three craters, one with a constantly frothing lava fountain, and two more where occasional explosions showered the ground around them with hot rocks. The seven jeeps in the convoy left their engines running, and a howling gale was blowing, and we couldn’t hear any noise from the volcano at all. It was viciously cold. I quickly trained a video camera on the volcano, and then stepped away from the jeep to take in the view. It was incredible. Words can’t describe and photos can’t possibly capture what it is like to see a volcano erupting. We stayed there for almost an hour, watching the spraying lava. While we were there, a small lava flow at the foot of the new cone suddenly began to grow dramatically. Strange blue flames flickered over the two intermittent craters. Meanwhile, the wind whipped snow into our faces, and even though I was wearing two coats, two pairs of gloves, two [...]
Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010
We climbed the road. Before too long there was snow on the ground around us. Árni’s GPS told us how high we were going, and before very long we were 700m above sea level. Rocky ground covered in snow eventually gave way to the glacier proper. We stopped to reduce the tyre pressure still further, and then drove onto the ice. The wisdom of driving in a convoy became clear here; sometimes a vehicle would get into some difficulties up the steeper slopes, and anyone driving alone would have been pretty miserable. The other convoy members were ready to help, but the odd slippery moment was not a big problem, and we all climbed up and up and up. It was getting dark and progress was getting slow. The problem was that there had been heavy rain up here. Snow would have been fine, but the rain had frozen and the driving conditions were far more treacherous than they had been a few days earlier. The jeep rocked wildly as we reached 1000m above sea level. Árni was a policeman by trade but had also driven jeeps in Afghanistan. His skills here were impressive and we rocked and bounced our [...]
Jul 02, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
In the morning I had to rush around Tasiilaq. I needed to buy a helicopter trip back to Kulusuk, so I hurried down to the helipad. They turned out not to sell tickets there, but they told me I could get them at the bookshop. I hurried to the bookshop but it wasn’t open, and it wouldn’t open until after the last helicopter had left. So I hurried back to the Red House and used their internet connection. It cost me more than 6 pounds for 15 minutes, but I booked my ticket, then walked back down to the helipad, told the guy at the desk my reservation number, and waited for the helicopter to arrive. In the departure lounge there was a middle-aged Inuit listening to loud tinny music on his mobile phone. His tastes were very cheesy. A young Greenlander started speaking to him and I wondered if the young guy was going to ask him to turn it down. But as they spoke, I heard the older guy say “Bluetooth”, and they started swapping tunes. I got the helicopter back to Kulusuk. As I was walking from the airport to the village, a Greenlander offered me a [...]
Jun 29, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I’d bought a small map of Ammassalik Island for the staggering price of 17 pounds, and I was determined to use it. My target this day was to climb Sømandsfjeldet, a vicious-looking mountain behind town. It was only 800m high but the word was it was no easy climb. Once again the hiking was a dream. After a short time on recognisable trails I was out in the wilderness, just keeping my eye on the mountain top and picking my way onward and upward. I soon reached some impressive heights. The going was tough, and parts of my climb were incredibly steep, but spurring me on were some awesome views. I could see Kulusuk island in the distance, looking much colder and more forbidding than Ammassalik Island, and I could see the endless expanse of sea ice stretching way out to sea. What I could also see was a bank of cloud in the distance. I pushed on higher, but it was becoming pretty difficult to edge my way up. The clouds seemed to be coming closer, and I still had some pretty tough climbing to do before I could reach the summit. If I got caught in cloud up [...]
Jun 28, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
The next day when I got up at 7am, the village was covered in a bright white fog. I was imagining that I might be forced to have a very boring day not doing much, but quite suddenly the fog disappeared, and I decided to go on a boat trip with six other people who were staying at the hostel. The plan was to circumnavigate Ammassalik island. This 70 mile trip would take us to a couple of the remote settlements in the district as well, and hopefully down Sermilik Fjord. This bit depended on the ice having broken up enough for our little boat to get through. Ably piloted by our boatman, Tobias, we set off. It was still a bit cloudy as we sailed away from Tasiilaq. Our little motor boat was pretty fast and as soon as Tobias put the power down we all had to huddle down to avoid some serious wind chill. We headed anticlockwise, and once we were in the open seas we passed some huge icebergs. The sun was beginning to come out. We sailed for a couple of hours, stopping on an island with some ancient Inuit ruins before we reached the [...]
Jun 27, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
Once I’d recovered from my caffeine deprivation, I was in a position to appreciate just how incredible Greenland is. I went for a walk up Blomsterdalen, a valley running from the fjord up into the hills and mountains of Ammassalik Island. A few locals were out for picnics at the town end of the valley but further up there was no-one. I passed the cemetery, as bleak and haunting as all Greenlandic cemeteries are, and followed a river up to a series of frozen lakes. On my way back into town I decided to head up into the hills. Hiking here was a dream – no trails, no people, just pure wilderness. I climbed up to a ridge and looked down over the fjord. A ribbon of clouds drifted past the bleak mountains across the water, and icebergs drifted down the fjord.
Jun 27, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I camped just outside the town, on an ostensibly organised site that had no facilities bar one horrific toilet. I don’t mind camping in basic conditions but having no running water does make things more difficult. But I had a sheltered spot on a grassy promontory overlooking the fjord, and I was in Greenland, so I was pretty happy. I set up my tent under the cool grey skies. I was severely sleep-deprived after my late arrival in Iceland and early departure to get to here, so I lay down and slept. When I woke a few hours later, I knew I was in trouble. I had all the signs of imminent disastrous caffeine withdrawal – a slight shaking, a feeling of paranoia and a rapidly developing headache. Groaning slightly, I got up and stumbled into town. I’d heard there was a book shop where you could get coffee, but it was already closed for the day. So I staggered on towards the largest supermarket in town, hoping in a crazy way that they would have some kind of cafe in store. They didn’t. Luckily I found some instant coffee, and now all I needed was water. Could I find [...]
Jun 26, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
Travelling by plane, you get whisked from one part of the world to another part so quickly that sometimes the change can be shocking. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt as stunned and disorientated as when I landed on Kulusuk Island. The plane had dropped down into a small valley, surrounded by wild mountains, and snow was everywhere. The sky was grey and the air was cool, and I was having a hard time believing I was in Greenland. I walked out of the tiny airport building, out into the tundra. I didn’t have a map of the island, but in the distance was a group of day trippers, who I guessed would be heading for Kulusuk Village, so I followed them. A dirt road leading from the airport to the village was the only indication that people lived here; otherwise, all was deathly quiet and calm. I climbed a small hill, feeling tiny in the vast landscape, and saw the village not far away. I climbed down towards it and had a look around. There was not a lot happening in Kulusuk. I walked to the end of the village to look out over the ice-choked seas, and [...]
Jun 26, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
In the summer of 1999 I spent a month in Iceland. It was a mindblowing time and I always had in mind the idea that I’d go back some day. Being the type of person who finds some kind of significance in the passage of round numbers of years, I always thought that 2009 was the likely time, but I was never sure if I’d just go back for a long weekend, or for another month of intense travel. In early 2009 the weekend option was looking more likely because I was planning to to spend my main summer break cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats. But then, for various reasons that plan encountered difficulties, and in a moment of curiosity I looked up flights to the north. In a moment of impulsiveness I ditched the cycling plan and booked a three week trip to Iceland instead. I reminisced. On our last day in Reykjavík, a miserably wet September day, I’d briefly considered the possibility of a day trip to Greenland. It’s not even a two hour flight from Reykjavík to Kulusuk in East Greenland. But it would have been wildly expensive and really stupid to go somewhere like [...]
Nov 18, 2005 in South America 2005
From Torres del Paine, I headed back into Argentina, getting my second set of Chile exit stamps and fourth lot of Argentina entry stamps. I got a bus past a series of minefields – legacy of long-running border disputes between these two countries – then along the shores of vivid blue Lago Argentino, to El Calafate. After the wilderness of Las Torres, this was quite a dramatic return to easy travelling. El Calafate is one of the major tourist towns of Patagonia, and it is well supplied with cafes, bookshops, hotels and tour operators. And I was here for the same reason everyone else was – to see the Moreno Glacier. For independent travellers the options seemed limited. The only buses that went to the Glacier came with a guide, and so reluctantly I booked a place on a tour and hoped it wouldn’t be too cheesy. I was well out of luck though – the journey to the glacier was an exercise in herding the punters from sight to sight, with guides telling people to get off the bus and photograph whatever they were pointing at, and then thirty seconds later rushing everyone to get back on. I focussed [...]
Nov 10, 2005 in South America 2005
My first day of real hiking at Torres del Paine was to take me up the left hand end of the W and back, to Glaciar Grey. Despite being among some of the wildest scenery in the world I struggled to muster up enthusiasm for the hike for a while, thick cloud and heavy drizzle encouraging me to have a relaxed breakfast first. Luckily the rain stopped, and I set off at 12.30. The first hour’s walk took me through a fairly nondescript gully, at the end of which the path climbed up to a small windswept lake. Cresting a rise a few minutes after that, I found Lago Grey, milky white and dotted with icebergs, stretching out in front of me. The path now wound its way along side the lake but high above it, and soon I got my first view of Glaciar Grey itself, basking in the sunshine and seeming to glow from within where beams of sunlight fell on it. The path took a detour inland for a while, and without the lake views the trekking was not too spectacular. Occasional glimpses of the towering face of the glacier provided encouragement though, and I pushed on. [...]
Feb 07, 2005 in Latvia and Lithuania 2005
After a long walk in the forest it was time to head back to Riga for my flight home. I got the cable car back across the valley, and enjoyed the fantastic winter scenery. The train back to Riga took almost two hours but only cost 70p. Latvian trains were cheap, but also battered, and an icy gale howled down the carriage, freezing one side of me while the other was roasted by the primitive heating system. Back in Riga, I began to feel just a tiny bit bored of feeling seriously cold all the time, and spent some time in warm cafes and record shops. Despite the cold I was still sad to leave, because back in London there would be rain and the horrible cold humidity that plagues us. I was sadder still when my flight, far from arriving at Stansted just in time for me to get the last train home, was diverted to Luton because of fog. The airport was chaos, and it took almost an hour for them to find steps to get us off the plane. I ended up getting home at 5am, shattered, but at least pleased that it was 25C warmer in [...]
Dec 31, 2002 in Sweden 2002
It was new year’s eve. During the day we headed through Gamla Stan to Södermalm, and went up Katarinahiss. This strange structure juts out from the hills of Södermalm and allows the lazy to avoid walking up from sea level to the moderate heights. The views of the city from the top were pretty awesome. I finished a film while we were there, and changing it required me to take off my gloves for a few seconds. The pain of the cold was stunning, and as I hurried to get the new film in I could feel my fingers becoming unresponsive. Luckily I did the job, closed up the camera and got my gloves back on before I got frostbite.
Dec 30, 2002 in Sweden 2002
We thought that Gothenburg had been pretty cold, but Stockholm was chillier still. The skies were clear, the ground was covered in snow, the lake was frozen solid and all looked beautiful, but -15°C was punishing. We went to Kaknästornet, the TV tower on the outskirts of the city which was the tallest building in Scandinavia at the time. At the top, a howling gale was blowing, and the wind chill must have been tremendous. We discovered that if you dropped some water it froze within a couple of seconds. By wearing two pairs of gloves, three coats and two scarves, I felt reasonably content despite the cold. Ground level was a bit tamer, but finally the inevitable happened and someone slipped over as we walked to the bus stop. Dan was the unlucky victim, and in the evening we found an excellent bar for him to pay his forfeit in.
Dec 29, 2002 in Sweden 2002
It was cold. Chunks of ice were floating down the river, and the canals around the city centre were frozen. Wandering through the icy streets was tiring. Helping us all to survive the conditions was the old Scandinavian standby of hot dog. Pylsur, pølse, pölse or whatever the local variant happened to be, they were always a cheap source of hot food.