Over Antarctica

Aug 06, 2014 in Australia 2014

Over Antarctica

A view of the great white continent, seen on the way from Santiago to Sydney

Hike to Lago Grey

Apr 21, 2013 in Patagonia 2013

Hike to Lago Grey

Edinburgh

Dec 11, 2012 in UK 2012

Edinburgh

Time for a holiday

Apr 21, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012

Time for a holiday

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 going to the Falklands. “There’s nothing there, right?”, he asked. True enough, I said, but I was in the mood for getting away from it all and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. More or less my whole life these islands have been in the news every now and then, but I had no idea what they actually looked like, didn’t know anyone who’d been there, never met anyone from there.

The flight took off just as the dawn sky was beginning to brighten, and we had spectacular views of the country as the sun rose. As we got down to Patagonia the weather was amazing and the landscapes below were mindblowing. I’d been to some of those places, six years earlier, and looked down nostalgically on the Moreno Glacier and Torres del Paine.

Penitentes

Nov 25, 2011 in Atacama 2011

Penitentes

Ice climbing

Sep 25, 2011 in Chile

Ice climbing

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.

At the base of the climb, our guides briefed us. They told us that in all likelihood, the rain of the last few days would have made the upper slopes extremely icy, perhaps too icy to safely climb. We were offered the chance to back out now, because we wouldn’t get our money back if we didn’t make the summit. But we all felt lucky, and we headed into the snows.

We set a good pace up the mountain. My two worries were firstly that I was still slightly suffering from a trapped nerve in my back which made my left leg ache constantly, and secondly that I had had no coffee yet. I ignored both problems with grim determination as we ascended.

We passed some places that I recognised, and it didn’t seem to take very long before we were at the base of the summit cone. It was beginning to get treacherous, and we crossed some tricky sheets of ice. I could see that the guides were getting a bit unenthusiastic, and I wasn’t very surprised when we stopped for a break and they told us they really didn’t think we should carry on. Volcanic gases were pouring out of the mountain just a few hundred metres away from us, but it was a few hundred metres up a 45 degree slope, from which one slip would result in a very unpleasant slide over rough ice. The group consulted, and we decided to take the guides’ advice. Reluctantly we turned around.

Going down was at first much harder than going up. Re-crossing the ice sheets was extremely precarious, but luckily we soon got to the snowy slopes, on which we could take the favoured Villarrica descent method of sitting down, lifting your feet up, and sliding. Before very long we were back at the ski-lift, where the cafe had opened, and I got a life-saving coffee which helped to ease the disappointment of not making the summit.

That evening, back in Pucón, I went down to the lake. Last time, I’d seen occasional flickers of red on the summit of the mountain but this time I was amazed to see a bright red glow constantly shining from the peak. Clearly there was a lot of lava up there. I’ll be back before long to try and see it up close again.

At the volcano

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

At the volcano

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 scarves and a hat, I still felt freezing.

I climbed up a small hill and listened to some Sigur Rós on my mp3 player. The epic music made the epic view even more impressive. But all too soon it was time to head back down. Árni gave me a shout at about 10pm, and I headed back to the jeep. I slipped on some ice on the way, smacking my shin on a rock and giving myself a souvenir bruise to take home. With a last glance at the show, I reluctantly got back into the jeep, ready for the long journey back to Reykjavík.

Higher and higher

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

Higher and higher

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 way up the glacier, eventually reaching 1400m above sea level before heading down into the pass. We’d left Reykjavík at 4pm, and we’d hoped to reach the volcano by 8pm, but the journey continued. By 9pm the daylight was fading fast, and suddenly in the distance there was a vivid orange glow. Our luck was in.

Back to Kulusuk

Jul 02, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Back to Kulusuk

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 lift, and I chatted to him during the short journey. He was 47, and he’d always lived in Kulusuk. He said that the first tourists started coming here when he was still a boy. He was going out seal hunting later in the day, and told me that whale hunting would start later in the year. Apparently the whales were too far off shore at the moment but when the sea ice melted more, they’d come closer to the shore.

He dropped me off in the village. I was hoping to stay in a hostel but it turned out to be full. The hostel owner, an Icelander, gave me a lift out of town to a camping area, and I set up my tent there. He warned me to look out for polar bears, and I laughed, but he was actually serious. Apparently one had been seen near the airport only a month earlier.

Not long after I set up my tent, two small children came over from a nearby house. By means of sign language, they indicated that they wanted to swap residences with me. They moved themselves into my tent and pointed me towards their house. They played for a little while, until it started raining. They left me to my small patch of grass and headed back to their nice solid dry warm wooden house.

The temperature dropped and the rain got heavier. I tried to cook some noodles in the porch of my tent, running a serious risk of setting the thing on fire. Ice formed on my gas canister, and the water never got hotter than a hot bath. “I love camping”, I said to myself as I chewed the crunchy noodles and listened to the rain battering on the canvas.

Sømandsfjeldet

Jun 29, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Sømandsfjeldet

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 here, there would be a definite possibility of death. I decided to make a strategic retreat.

Ammassalik circumnavigation

Jun 28, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Ammassalik circumnavigation

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 village of Tiniteqilaaq. I’d thought the scenery up until now had been pretty amazing but here it blew my mind. We docked in the village, climbed a small hill and suddenly had the unbelievable Sermilik Fjord in front of us.

Blomsterdalen

Jun 27, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Blomsterdalen

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.

Exploring Tasiilaq

Jun 27, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Exploring Tasiilaq

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 any bottled water in the whole shop? No, I couldn’t. I found apple juice, and considered what kind of brew that would make. My symptoms were severe, and I seriously contemplated this option. Then, I found some soya milk, and decided that might work better. Unable to think about anything else, I shuffled back to my campsite, staring wildly and clutching my shopping like an eccentric OAP. I lit my stove, heated up some milk, made a ghastly, stupidly strong pseudo-coffee, drank it so eagerly that it spilled down my face, then made two more in quick succession.

Sometimes I wonder if I should give up coffee.

My cravings were alleviated, but my enthusiasm for Greenland was limited by the prospect of four days camped here with no running water and no showers. I decided to see if there was space in the hostel which owned the campsite. There was, and they said they had been mistaken in letting me use the campsite because in fact it was not yet ready for use. So I packed up my camping things and headed indoors, found a kitchen, brewed lots of coffee, and felt my enthusiasm renewed.

Kulusuk

Jun 26, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Kulusuk

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 didn’t see many people. Huskies were lying all around, looking very relaxed but leaping up and barking if I walked too close. I sat on a bench overlooking the sea for a while.

Soon I needed to head back to the airport, to get a helicopter to Tasiilaq. I bought some food in the Pilersuisoq shop, appreciating for the first time just how breathtakingly expensive Greenland was going to be, before hiking back out across the tundra to the airport.

I’d been in a helicopter only once before, to see Uluru from above, so I was looking forward to the trip to Tasiilaq. It didn’t disappoint. There was just me and two pilots on board the helicopter. We lurched off from Kulusuk, swept down the valley, over the village and out to sea. I bounced around in the back, taking photos left and right. A few minutes later we flew over a mountain ridge that seemed so close below us that I could have jumped out and made a safe landing, then dropped down over a fjord to land at Tasiilaq.

Arctic nostalgia tour

Jun 26, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Arctic nostalgia tour

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 Greenland for a matter of hours. But now I looked again at the giant white island, and decided it was time to go there. In another moment of impulsiveness I booked flights from Reykjavík to Kulusuk.

My journey started at dusk one June evening. By the time my flight from Heathrow to Reykjavík took off, it was dark in London, but as we flew towards the Arctic we chased down the Sun, which rose again somewhere over the north Atlantic. Not long after this strange new dawn at 11pm, I caught sight of wild scenery far below, and we descended into Reykjavík. The Sun was low on the horizon, and shone through a misty haze to give the country a magical glow. I saw the Blue Lagoon, surrounded by lava flows, steaming gently. A bright double rainbow blazed. We landed just before midnight, and the sun set as I got off the plane.

It was incredible to be back in Iceland, but for now I was just in transit. At 6am the next morning I headed out to the tiny city airport to get a flight to Greenland. As we flew away from Iceland, I saw Snæfell’s perfect snow covered dome, blazing under a cloudless sky, and it seemed that hardly had I lost sight of that than we were flying over the ice-choked seas off the coast of Greenland. We landed in Kulusuk, and I got off the plane into a different universe.

Moreno Glacier

Nov 18, 2005 in South America 2005

Moreno Glacier

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 my irritation on a spectacularly annoying man who was wearing inappropriately smart shoes and awful clothes, and telling everyone what an adventurous traveller he was when this was clearly just about the most daring thing he’d ever done. By the end of the day I really detested him.

When we got to the glacier we were shepherded along a short trail which took us down to the shores of the lake, and then to a view of the glacier. Even though I was trapped in tour hell I was still impressed at the vast towering cliff of ice, and the jumbled mess of icebergs in front of it. And thankfully, at this point the guides buggered off and said ‘be back at the bus in three hours’. Happy to be away from smart shoes man and the others, I had a look around the glacier.

It surprised me. I’d seen glaciers close up in Iceland, but they were nothing like as huge at the snout as this one, which pours off the South Patagonian Icefield and is one of the few advancing glaciers in the world. Most startling was the noise, an almost constant soundtrack of creaking and grinding. Clearly, something was going to fall off soon, and I was almost certain I’d be looking in the wrong direction when it did. And so it was, a couple of times, until I finally saw a huge lump of ice fall off just as I looked at a particularly precarious piece of glacier. An icy wind was blowing off the glacier, and it was raining occasionally, but later on the sun tried to break through. The weather over the icecap seemed to be improving, and the views of sunlight on the ice in the distance while we were still in gloom were pretty impressive. Not long before I had to get the bus back to El Calafate, two condors slowly glided down the glacier from over the icecap.

I had a day to kill before the next bus to El Chaltén, my next destination. I lazed around in cafes and caught up on e-mails from home, and also met an Irish air traffic controller. She was interesting as I’d never met an air traffic controller before, but also worrying because her sense of direction was so bad that she wore a compass on her wrist. “But as soon as I sit down at the controls, I know exactly where everything is”, she claimed, but I think I might avoid flying into Shannon for now.

Glaciar Gray

Nov 10, 2005 in South America 2005

Glaciar Gray

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. I bumped into two Australians I’d met the previous day, when they’d given me some wildly inaccurate information about how far I was from the campsite. We chatted briefly but I made sure not to ask them how far it was to the glacier.

As it turned out, we actually weren’t very far from it at all. At about 4 pm I reached a sign to a viewpoint, and a few minutes later I reached it. A chilling wind was blowing off the glacier and I couldn’t stay there long, but the views were pretty incredible. Though I was high above the level of the lake, I was a good way below the level of the top of the glacier.

After a while scrambling over the rocks at the viewpoint, I headed back down the trail and down another path to a mountain hut on the lake shore. I cooked up some dinner there, and as I ate I heard two enormous booms from the glacier, which must have been icebergs calving off it. As I found later at the Moreno Glacier, icebergs inevitably calve just after you’ve left, or just as you’ve turned to look at something else.

I left for the trek back to Lago Pehoé, and though I didn’t see any calving, the glacier looked incredible in the late afternoon hazy sunshine. Back at the camp, I enjoyed a hot shower, a carbohydrate-laden dinner and some restorative coffees. 7 hours of hiking had been a good start to my week on the W.

Gauja

Feb 07, 2005 in Latvia and Lithuania 2005

Gauja

Katarinahiss

Dec 31, 2002 in Sweden 2002

Katarinahiss

Stockholm

Dec 30, 2002 in Sweden 2002

Stockholm

Canals

Dec 29, 2002 in Sweden 2002

Canals