Articles tagged with "island"
After a conference in Leiden, I travelled around the Netherlands for a couple of days. I wanted to go to the Frisian Islands but most of the hostels there were closed for the winter. Only one on Texel was open, and only at weekends. So I went there just for a Saturday night. There really wasn’t that much to do there.
It was a nice flight back. The rain had stopped and the skies were clear, and as we approached Efate Island and Port Vila, the sea was stunningly blue. Small reefs off the shore looked inviting, but I was not here for a beach holiday. I had another volcano to go to.
I got a bus from Magong, randomly picking the town of Wai’an as my destination. I love getting buses in places like this – nothing but Chinese characters anywhere in the bus station so it made working out the timetable a bit of a challenge. Then finding the right platform was the next challenge, and finally getting on the right bus at that platform. It all makes the simple act of getting on a bus into some kind of minor triumph, and I was in a great mood as we headed out.
It took about an hour to get to Wai’an. There was supposed to be a lighthouse nearby, which sounded like it might have good ocean views, so I went looking for it. And pretty soon I could see it, but it turned out that there was an inconvenient military base in the way. The gate was open, and possibly you can just walk through if you want to go to the lighthouse, but I didn’t think just strolling into a military base in the middle of the Taiwan Strait was very wise.
So I went to see what else was in the area. I found a sign saying “Fake gun” on the way back into town, and I thought I had to follow it. Wondering what kind of Chinglish mistranslation this was, and what I might find down the path, I was surprised when I arrived at a fake gun. It was a decoy, built by the Japanese towards the end of World War II, to try to dupe US forces into bombing this corner of occupied Penghu instead of their actual anti-aircraft guns.
I spent a week in Taiwan after the conference. I went to the Penghu archipelago, out in the straits between Taiwan and China. It sounded like it was quite off the beaten track and so I decided to go and have a look.
And off the beaten track it was. At least on the first day that I was there, I’m pretty sure I was the only foreigner on the islands. Later a German and an Indian turned up in Magong, the main city, and I felt like my territory was being invaded and my status as the outsider undermined. But at first I had the sights to myself. I wandered around Magong and ended up by a bay where waves were crashing against the shore as the sun set.
I walked down Bay Street and found my way to the ferry terminal. The boat shuttled across to the islands in a few minutes, and in hot sunshine I went walking. I didn’t get very far before I reached a small cafe, so I bought a coffee and sat on a nearby rocky beach, watching high clouds drift over Toronto. I wanted to walk out onto a small headland for a better view, but as I did, a giant Canada Goose suddenly reared up in front of me, flapped his wings and hissed. I backed off, a bit surprised. I waited until he’d calmed down and then tried again, skirting the edge of what I thought might be his territory. But he jumped up again. I thought about braving it and pushing on, but had visions of “Traveller killed in freak goose incident” headlines and decided the views from the beach were OK.
I walked over to the far shore of the islands, and it felt like a very peaceful place compared to the city. It was still early season and most things were closed, so all I could do was relax and watch the green waters of Lake Ontario churning in the wind. On a pier on the outer shore was a sign like you often find in touristy places, indicating the distances from here to various places. It was a bit sparse, though. The only places indicated were Niagara Falls and the North Pole.
I wandered through the islands back to the main ferry terminal and found that the queues for the return boats were immense. It looked like it would take hours to get on board, so I headed to a quieter ferry terminal, two miles away at the other end of the island. It was a long walk and I got there just after a ferry had left. It was an hour until the next one, and there was nothing to do but watch sunbeams over the city until the boat came in.
After the meeting, the IAC had organised a trip to the Observatorio del Teide. We headed up there in a little minibus and it was a lot like the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma in that the driver drove too fast on the winding road and I got to the top feeling like I was going to die of carsickness.
It was a calm and warm day. One of the observatory technicians was looking at the Sun through one of the telescopes so we had a look too, and saw a group of sunspots. The sun had been unusually inactive for quite a while so we were quite lucky not to see just a blank surface.
Looking around I could see a couple of other islands across the sea in the hazy distance. Apparently, ancient island legends tell of a mysterious eighth island which can sometimes be seen across the waters but never reached. I could only see real islands today.
Back in La Laguna I thought I had an easy and relaxing journey home. But an hour and a half before my flight, I realised it was going not from nearby Tenerife North airport, but Tenerife South, 50 miles away at the other end of the island. I leapt into a taxi and sped off. I picked a good driver, we made excellent time and in the end I easily made the flight. Next time I’m here, though, I’ll check my bookings a bit more carefully.
We followed the river back towards Brodick. The walk in the valley was not as interesting as the hiking in the fells had been, but the scenery was still impressive. The interior of the island was impressively wild, with no significant signs of human habitation to be seen. It always surprises me, a world traveller but an insular London resident, that there are places like this in the UK. I should go to them more often.
After the meeting I went to the Isle of Arran to do a bit of hiking with another astronomer friend. We got the train to Ardrossan, and the ferry from there to Brodick. I didn’t know much about the island – we’d just picked it as somewhere easy to get to where we could do some hiking and climbing. As we pulled into the harbour at Brodick it looked like a good choice with rugged scenery.
Our target was Goat Fell. The weather had been beautiful when we arrived but was a little bit more overcast the next day. We hiked up to the 874m summit in a couple of hours, and got some fantastic views over the island. In the far distance, the ferry was pulling out of Brodick on its way to Ardrossan.
On the other side of the peak we took a route along a spectacular ridge, descended a bit and then scrambled up a very steep slope to a viewpoint on the other side of the valley. We could see some rock climbers tackling a sheer face on another nearby hill. Our aims were less extreme, and after a few hours of good hiking we descended back into the valley.
I reached the Roques de García in the middle of the afternoon. A small church amongst the yellow sands made it look like the set of a Western. The walk across had been quite quiet, but here there were busloads of tourists. I wandered around the huge rocks trying to avoid the crowds.
Eventually it was time for the bus back down to the south of the island. I headed down and flew home. Just a few hours after standing on top of a giant volcano off the coast of Africa, I was back in London, getting a night bus home.
I headed back down. I had some time before the bus down was coming, so I decided to walk from the cable car station to the Roques de Garcia, a lava formation a couple of miles away. It was January, I was a couple of thousand metres above sea level, but still it was hot walking weather in the midday sun. The walk wasn’t too exciting but the views back up to the peak of the volcano were impressive. The cone had an obvious bulge on one side, and I could see why geologists think it might collapse next time there’s an eruption here.
But the next day, the storm had passed, and the day dawned clear and fresh. My target was Teide: the highest point in the Atlantic, a mountain I’d flown over a few times, and many times seen from the top of La Palma 90 miles away. It’s claimed that it’s one of the most visited national parks in the world, but I found that hard to believe as I got on the one bus a day that goes over the island to the mountain.
In the warm January sunshine we chugged up the road to high altitude, and across a desert-like plain to get to the cable car station. I wanted to go to the top of the mountain; at 3,718m above sea level it was higher than anywhere I’d been since coming down from El Misti three years earlier. But I wasn’t planning to climb it. Time was limited so I took the easy route, getting the phenomenally expensive cable car to the summit area. I would have liked to go to the very top, but the bureaucracy involved in getting the necessary permit defeated me, and it turned out in any case that the trails were all closed due to ice.
So I was limited to the upper cable car station only. I breathed the cool thin air, and looked out over the caldera. Far below, a convoy of Hell’s Angels was going along the road.
By coincidence, a friend of mine was on holiday nearby, and we met up in Puerto de la Cruz, on the coast below La Orotava. Puerto de la Cruz was much more touristy than La Laguna or La Orotava had been. The weather was nicer, too, at first, and we got a meal on the main square. Here I had troubles, as I often do in Spain, as a result of being a vegetarian. As we looked at the menu, the waiter began to recommend dishes, all meaty. Wondering if they had anything good without flesh in it, I said “Soy vegetariano”. “Ah, Italiano!”, said the waiter, and brought me an Italian language menu.
As we ate, clouds were coming in. We walked down to the sea, watching legions of large dark crabs scuttling across the rocks on the foreshore. The waves rolled in off the Atlantic, and there was a mood of foreboding over Puerto de la Cruz. My friend had to drive back to the south coast of the island, so I said goodbye to her and caught a bus back to La Orotava. In the evening, rain battered down, the gutters filled with rushing streams, and the streets of La Orotava were empty.
On another grey misty morning in La Laguna, I walked to the bus station to go to warmer parts. I headed for La Orotava, on the west side of the island. The bus didn’t take long, and as we headed down the motorway the weather got a bit better. La Orotava is a hilly town, and the place I was staying was at the top of a very steep road. Once I’d recovered, I headed back down to have a look around. The views over the town to the sea were nicer than the views of La Laguna in the drizzle had been.
I’d passed through Tenerife a couple of times on my way to and from La Palma, and I’d seen the peak of Teide from 90 miles away at the Roque. I finally got to stay on the island when there was a scientific meeting there that I needed to attend. I made my way to La Laguna, in the north of the island, and spent three days there. Most of the time it was misty and cold. It had been 23°C in the south but La Laguna was uphill and inland.
We drove up to the Roque de los Muchachos. It seemed strange to come up here and not check in at the Residencia. We walked out onto the rocky ridge which juts out into the caldera, and I took the same photos I take every time I’m up there. I think I’ve photographed every possible view, but it wouldn’t seem right to leave without some new versions of them.
We headed back down the road to Santa Cruz. We’d both been victims of the legendary Lionel, who drove astronomers to the top for many years, knew the roads far too well and raced around forest curves in a way guaranteed to induce extreme car sickness. One time after a ride to the top, I felt sick for five days. So I drove down at a sedate pace and got to the bottom feeling great.
We drove north. Our plans were vague but involved following the coast road around the north end of the island, so we were quite surprised when the road swung far inland. We presumed we were still on the main road so we carried on, but it got narrower and narrower, and higher and higher. When we started to pass through tunnels which were just hewn from the bare rock, we decided we must have taken a wrong turning somewhere.
We guessed that if we carried on, we’d get back to the main road. After an hour or so we began descending again, and eventually we did reach the right road. As we rounded a turn to look south, we could suddenly see the Isaac Newton Telescope perched on the mountain top high above us. We decided to head up there.
As we ate lunch in San Andrés, the sun came out, and the clouds quickly disappeared to leave behind a blazing hot day. We headed on to Los Tilos, which is claimed to be a rainforest. I don’t think it is, really, but it was still pretty otherworldly, and very different from the rest of the island. We hiked up a trail to Los Brecitos, and in the heat of the afternoon it was a pretty tough hike.
We kicked off the second day of our island tour with a drive up the east coast to San Andrés. Heavy skies threatened, but it stayed dry. San Andrés has a lot of colonial architecture, and is also amazingly full of lizards. They were everywhere, and whenever I stopped to look around I could see ten or fifteen of them.
We drove up the west coast of the island. It feels pretty remote out that way. We stopped for a fantastic coffee in an empty bar in the desolate hamlet of San Nicolás, then drove on to Tazacorte. The island is dominated by the vast Caldera de Taburiente, a giant crater whose walls rise two kilometres above its centre, and Tazacorte is perfectly situated for amazing views into the crater.
Tazacorte’s main claim to fame is that it was the last port of call for some of the conquistadores who were on their way to colonise Latin America. Today it betrays no hint that it would ever be worthwhile for any ship to call in. While observing on the mountain top on previous trips I’d seen the lights of Tazacorte shining far below, but from here I couldn’t spot the telescopes on the crater rim.
A week of conference passed largely uneventfully, except that I was ambushed by an astronomer who didn’t like the results I’d presented in my talk. We had a chat in which he outlined his objections, which I mostly disagreed with, but which was nevertheless useful, because it meant that when I wrote the paper I could make sure we covered the points he raised, and avoid a referee asking the same things.
Along with Nick, another UCL astronomer, I was staying on the island for the weekend after the conference. We hired a car early on the Saturday morning and headed south, with the plan of driving around the whole island over the two days. Our first stop was the volcanoes at the southern end of the island. On my last visit to the island eight months previously I’d driven from Santa Cruz to the volcanic end in thick mist and heavy rain. This time, the weather was much better. So much so, in fact, that I got horribly sunburnt within about twenty minutes of arriving at Volcán San Antonio.
In the evening I took a tram up to the Peak. At the top was one of the most horrifically commercialised places in a horrifically commercialised city – a towering arcade of shops and cafes, which it took ages to climb through to get to the viewing area. And I was not the only one to make the trip up. Hundreds of eager photographers were jostling for position as the sun set and the city began to look spectacular. Politeness was not rewarded and so after a while of trying to take photos through the sea of heads and arms, I elbowed my way to the front and took in the view for a while. Eventually I was barged aside and shoved towards the back again.
Despite the crowds, the view was pretty breathtaking. The forest of skyscrapers looked incredible as it lit up. I had never had a particular sense of urgency about visiting Hong Kong and had only come here as an aside to my China trip. But now I was here, I was loving it. It was like nowhere I’d ever been before. It was compact and incredibly easy to get around but there were endless things to do and see. I only had one more day left but I thought I could fill weeks.
As I tried to leave, so did everyone else, and it took me an hour to get onto a tram back down.
I had a weekend to spare after my observing run, and I had thought I might drive around the island. But I hadn’t got to Santa Cruz until late on the Saturday afternoon, so that just left Sunday. I set off south and thought I would see how far I got.
It was sunny when I left Santa Cruz, and for the first twenty minutes the drive was great. But then suddenly I was in thick cloud and more or less zero visibility. I had to drive at about 15 miles an hour for a lot of the way to Fuencaliente at the south end of the island.
I parked up near Volcán San Antonio, one of the two recently active volcanoes at this end of the island. For half an hour I could do nothing but sit in the car as the rain lashed down. It stopped, eventually, and I rushed out to do a quick walk around the crater. Then I drove on to the other volcano, Teneguía, and climbed over scenery that emerged from the ground in 1971. Through brief breaks in the cloud, I looked up the west coast of La Palma.
Driving down the mountain was much less fun than driving up it had been. There was thick cloud most of the way down, and when I got to Santa Cruz it was raining. It kept on raining for the whole of the evening, and I decided that La Palma in October was not as nice as La Palma in August had been.
During the fourth night, all was going smoothly. The air was dry, the skies were clear, and I was running as quickly through my observing programme as I could. Suddenly, after a couple of hours, the telescope control system started beeping – the humidity was higher than the telescope could take and I had to close everything down quickly. A few minutes later it had dropped right back down. I opened up again and carried on.
It did this a couple more times during the night. At 5.45am I closed up and I couldn’t open again. By dawn, the mountain was in thick cloud. The visibility was about ten metres, and the NOT quickly disappeared from sight as I drove back to the Residencia.
The next night was also lost. I spent a miserable twelve hours in the telescope control room, thinking how ridiculous it was that I’d travelled two thousand miles just to sit in a small room on top of a mountain in thick cloud and do nothing. But on the third night, as I drove up to the telescope, the cloud level was dropping and there was an incredible sunset. As I got to the lip of the caldera, I could see towns lighting up far below. It was wildly windy and the car was rocking but before long it was calm enough to open the dome, and I started actually observing.
The next day when I rolled up the shutters in my room, I was a bit shocked to see that the perfect conditions had gone, and rain was whipping past my window. Conditions stayed appalling throughout the day. At 4pm I was supposed to meet my support astronomer at the Nordic Optical Telescope, so I could learn how to use it. I set off, but the rain was utterly torrential, and after a few minutes of driving at walking pace and not being able to see beyond the end of the bonnet, I turned back.
The first night looked like being completely lost, but I decided to stay up until dawn anyway. A few people on other telescopes also optimistically stayed up; most went to bed. I kept an eye on the weather station data from within the comfort of the Residencia.
At 5am there was drama. Conditions were suddenly dramatically improving, and observers were hurrying to their cars to get to the telescope. I stayed where I was: the NOT is the highest telescope on the island, and its weather sensors were still telling me it was too humid and too windy to open the dome. About twenty minutes later everyone who had rushed out was forlornly heading back anyway. It had just been a very temporary reprieve, and the monsoon was back.
After two and a half years out of astronomy, I returned to the field in September 2006. Shortly after that, I got an opportunity to go observing again, and my third trip to La Palma was fantastic. When I left astronomy, I didn’t know whether I would ever try to get back into it, and I thought that in all likelihood my two trips to La Palma would be my lot.
On both of those two trips, the taxi to the mountain top had been a nightmare. This time, I was observing at a telescope which didn’t have cars on the mountain top for the observer’s use, so I needed to drive myself up. This was massively more fun than getting the taxi, and I was laughing like a fool as I swept around the hairpins. If I’d had a passenger, they would have been chundering within seconds.
At the top, conditions were perfect. The humidity was so low that I got violent electric shocks off everything I touched, the skies were deep blue, and the stars shone brightly. Unfortunately I was not observing until the next night. I watched the sun set over a sea of clouds, then stayed up until the small hours preparing my observations and getting into the night routine.
I spent a few days in La Paz recovering from my ride. The weather was pretty miserable, with frequent heavy thunderstorms. I took refuge from one in a cafe, where I met an extremely drunk Bolivian businessman who turned out to have gone to the same university in London as I had. But conversation was difficult – half the time I was not sure whether he was speaking english or spanish.
As the end of December neared, I had less than five weeks left before my flight home, and I still had two countries left to see. So I headed north again, back to Lake Titicaca. It was quite strange to arrive at Copacabana again – I normally try to avoid backtracking while travelling. But I wasn’t staying here this time – I jumped straight on a boat to Isla del Sol. It was a sunny day, for once, and the boat journey across the lake was a lot of fun.
Isla del Sol is, according to Inca legend, where the world began. The Sun formed right here, and the Inca people followed. Ancient Inca sights dot the island, and it has an atmosphere of mystery about it. Getting off the boat, I met Lisa and Ryan, who I’d previously met 2000 miles further south at Chile Chico on the shores of Lago General Carrera, the second-largest lake in South America after the one we were now standing on an island in the middle of. They were heading back from the island to the mainland. After saying goodbye to them, a young boy convinced me to stay in his parents’ hostel, and we set off up the hill to the village of Yumani, on top of the island. Despite my acclimatisation I was still destroyed by the time we reached the top of the spectacular Inca staircase that leads from the shore to Yumani, and the barefooted child was perplexed every time I asked him to wait a few seconds.
The island proved to be far quieter than I had expected it to be, and my new year was a quiet one. After recovering from my exertions I went for a walk along the spine of the island, and then as night fell I watched some thunderstorms brewing. When I went out for my evening meal, everywhere was almost empty, apart from one restaurant in which I met a French couple, who apparently recognised me from San Pedro. We seemed to be the only people out, and I got the feeling they’d had an argument, because they were definitely not in a jovial mood. After a meal in which there were many awkward pauses in the conversation, they left, and I went to a nearby bar. But that was empty as well, so I walked back along the dark track to the place I was staying.
The thunderstorms were now spectacular, and I watched them from my balcony. Midnight came and went with a couple of small firecrackers let off nearby but no great celebration. Great flashes of forked lightning lit up the clouds, and as it began to rain I decided to head for bed. It was 12.15am, and the new year had begun.
The next day I did more walking around the island. I wrote some postcards while sat on the very peak of the island, just under 4000m above sea level. It was a grey day, but warm enough that it didn’t feel like it could be January. I tried to think of some worthy new years resolutions but my main aspiration was to spend as much of the year as possible travelling.
During the afternoon I got a boat back to Copacabana, which strangely was incredibly busy. I had extreme trouble finding a room for the night, with everywhere being completely full. I had one insulting offer of a filthy mattress in a store room, another more friendly offer of a sofa if I couldn’t find anywhere else, and then finally after some negotiation I got a triple room to myself, for which I paid the price of a double room. Much relieved, I slept well, and in the morning I got up early to go to Peru.
The next day I hiked up into the mountains outside Ushuaia, to see the Martial Glacier. I had my first real experience of how quickly Patagonian weather can change – twenty minutes after I set out in bright sunshine, I was struggling through a blizzard. Twenty minutes later it was sunny again. A few miles up the switchback road I reached the bottom of the trail, and set out into the forest. Half an hour up, there was a small cafe at a ski-lift station, and I stopped for a coffee as the blizzard briefly returned. Then, I climbed up to a viewpoint, where there were stunning views of the Beagle Channel and Isla Navarino, under bright sun.
Heavy cloud was soon approaching rapidly, and I left the viewpoint for a quick look at the ‘glacier’. I am actually not sure whether I saw it or not – there just seemed to be a lot of snow at the top of the trail, and nothing that looked particularly glacier-like. Everyone I spoke to later who had been there agreed it was pretty rubbish, but it was still worth the trek up there for the views back down to Ushuaia and beyond.
For the next two days I was laid low with a heavy cold, probably the result of my miscalculation in not taking a hat or scarf out with me up to the Martial Glacier. I stayed in the warm hostel quite a lot, but did walk around Ushuaia. It seemed really pleasant and friendly, and my only moment of worry came when there was an anti-Bush demonstration to mark a visit by the US president to Argentina. I very much agreed with the sentiments of the demonstrators, but there were people handing out Argentine flags and I was wearing gloves with Union Jacks on them. In this part of Argentina there are signs by the road declaring that the Falkland Islands belong to Argentina so I thought I’d better hurry on by and not look too British.
Once I’d recovered from my illness, I visited Tierra del Fuego National Park. I was lucky here – the weather was great and it stayed great all day. I walked for a couple of hours along the shores of Lago Roca, reaching the border with Chile. There’s a marker that says ‘don’t go beyond here’ but nothing to stop you entering Chile illegally except a vague suspicion that there could be soldiers in the woods. It really emphasises how ridiculously arbitrary national borders are, and I put a foot across before walking back.
I really liked Ushuaia, and Tierra del Fuego, and I would happily have spent much longer there. But my time was not unlimited, and having reached the very bottom of South America, I had just under three months to make it to the Equator. It somehow seemed improbable that I would be able to get there at all from this far flung corner of the continent. There was, though, still much to see in Patagonia, and I bought a bus ticket to Puerto Natales back in Chile, from where I was going to visit one of Patagonia’s legendary sights – the Torres del Paine. The bus left at 5.30am the next morning.
The journey to Río Gallegos was great. It seemed amazing to be getting a bus such a long way through such wild country. After a brief stop in Trelew the endless featureless plains began and few signs of human influence could be seen. Occasional decaying car bodies by the roadside indicated what a bad place this would be to get a puncture. The only major negative was that The Motorcycle Diaries came on the bus TV, and it would have been perfect viewing, but inexplicably they turned it off after a few seconds and put on a film so dire it makes me cringe to think of it.
But the film aside, all was good. I read Ernest Shackleton’s Heart of the Antarctic, watched the bleak scenery go by, and as night fell I watched the sky fill with stars. In the morning things looked a bit colder and a bit harsher than they had the night before, and at 8.15am we arrived at Río Gallegos under heavy grey skies. I bought a ticket for the bus to Ushuaia, and left for the southern-most city in the world a few minutes later.
A strip of Chile lies between Río Gallegos and Ushuaia, and it wasn’t long until we reached the border. I accidentally broke the law here by having cheese sandwiches with me – Chile strictly prohibits ingress of dairy products, and garish notices threatened enormous fines. I’d forgotten I had the sandwiches until I was safely through, which was lucky – I’m sure I’d have given myself away had I known I was being a cheese mule. Soon we reached Punta Delgado on the Straits of Magellan, where we took a ferry to Tierra del Fuego. The deep green waters of the straits were filled with small black-and-white dolphins, which followed us across, leaping from the waves.
Half an hour later we were on Tierra del Fuego – the wild end of a wild region. We drove on to Río Grande, where we had to get off the bus for a while. The wait there was enlivened when two alsations stole a Frenchman’s waterproof coat and ran off with it. And then it was the final leg to Ushuaia, which took us from the flat plains of eastern Tierra del Fuego into the mountainous western half. The change was abrupt – suddenly the horizon was full of Andean peaks. The grey skies got thicker and gloomier, and as we approached the mountains rain was hammering down. We arrived at Ushuaia at about 8.30pm, and in fading daylight and heavy rain I walked to the youth hostel.
From Suðuroy I headed back to Tórshavn, where I spent my last evening in the Faroes. There had just been a whale kill in the islands, and a Norwegian girl in the hostel I was staying at had got hold of a bagful. There’s a lot of international condemnation of Faroese whaling these days but I can’t say I have a problem with it. It’s entirely sustainable, and I just can’t see any particular moral difference between killing cows for food and killing whales for food. I don’t eat meat and I think it would be nice if no animals were killed for food, but if people want to eat animal flesh, then surely the most important thing is that it’s sustainable. North atlantic cod virtually disappeared because of overfishing but the number of whales the Faroese take is a tiny fraction of the population. So if whale meat is as sustainable as cow meat, why shouldn’t they eat it?
I headed down to the southernmost island of Suðuroy, where the weather is supposed to be nicer than up north. The weather was atrocious during my bus journey from Leirvík back to Tórshavn so I was hoping it would be true. In wild wind and rain I thought the ferry journey there might be a bit of a vomit run, but the M/F Smyril was a big ship and the run past Sandoy, Skúvoy and the wild islands of Lítla Dímun and Stóra Dímun was smooth.
I got off the ferry and onto a bus to Øravík. Øravík is a tiny settlement, but with great views over the wild north Atlantic, and a campsite and tiny hostel. I set up my tent in gale-force winds and driving rain, and then cooked dinner in the empty hostel building.
From Øravík I got a bus to Famjín on the other side of the island, and walked back across the island over a high windy pass in the mountains. I asked the driver what time the bus was going back to Øravík, in case the weather got too bad for walking and I wanted to pick it up somewhere along the road. He asked me what time I needed it. I liked that. I said I was going to walk over the pass, and he said he’d look out for me on the way.
I saw the bus pass by on the road as I was approaching the top of the island. The weather was OK so I gave him a wave and he carried on towards Øravík. The views were spectacular but so was the wind whistling through the gaps between the hills. I headed down towards the village.
The weather became typically north Atlantic in the evening, and all I could do was sit inside the hostel, listening to the rain battering against the windows. The next day I was up at 5am to catch the 7am ferry back to Tórshavn.
I headed over to Borðoy and the Faroes’ second-largest town, Klaksvík. The journey involved getting the ferry from Leirvík to Klaksvík, which has been described as ‘one of the loveliest half-hour ferry rides anywhere’, and it was pretty impressive. A new road tunnel replaced the ferry route a few months after I was there.
In Klaksvík I camped about a mile out of town. After I’d set up camp I walked into town to get some fuel for my stove. After I’d walked back out, I realised I didn’t have a lighter, so I walked back in again. After I’d walked four miles and was ravenously hungry, I found that the fuel pump on my stove had stopped working. Luckily, another traveller, Doug from Alaska had just arrived at the campground and lent me his stove. It was my 27th birthday.
After a misty day, 11pm saw the sun come out. It was surreal for it to be so bright, so late at night. Throughout my time in the Faroes, it never got dark, and I hardly slept.
While I was in Klaksvík I met two Norwegians who were driving around the place and invited me to join them. We drove to a few of the other nearby islands the next day. In these parts the villages were tiny, and in some cases they’ve been abandoned.
I thought about staying another day to see if the weather improved, but with only a week here I decided to head on to other places. The campsite owner was driving to Eiði on the other side of the island to pick someone up, and offered me a lift. We had a good drive over the bleak highlands, stopping briefly to help two teenagers who had driven their car off the road, and then again to catch some fine views of Risin og Kellingin, two sea stacks which according to Norse legend were broken from the mainland by a troll who was attempting to drag the Faroes towards Iceland.
In Eiði I had a couple of hours to wait before the bus to Tórshavn came. The sun came out and the temperature was almost 15C. It was too much for the locals – there were not many people about at all but I had a brief chat with one old gent who was mopping his brow and saying “So hot… so hot…” The bus eventually came, and after a twenty minute stop in Oyrabakki during which I bought an ice cream and sat in the sunshine, we headed back to the capital.
As it turned out, I didn’t even get to the Faroes that evening. We flew to Aberdeen, where we had a scheduled stop to pick up passengers, but the stop turned out to be longer than planned. Apparently the weather in the Faroes was too bad to land, and we were waiting to see if it would improve. After about three hours, the crew decided it was worth a shot, and we flew north. The Faroes are only an hour’s flight from Aberdeen, and we were soon circling over them, but all I could see below was an ocean of cloud. We circled for an hour, waiting for a window in the weather so we could land, but eventually it became clear it was not to be, and we headed back south. So in the end, after a day of drama and chaos, unbelievably, I found myself spending the night in Aberdeen.
Fortunately, the next day saw better weather, and I finally arrived in the Faroe Islands just before midday. I got a bus from the airport on Vágar island to Tórshavn, amazed to have actually made it, and stunned by the dramatic scenery, made gloomy and ominous by dirty grey clouds and persistent rain. From Tórshavn I travelled on to the Faroese transport hub of Oyrabakki and then to the village of Gjógv, on the northeastern coast of Eysturoy. I arrived at about 9pm, to find the few scattered houses almost invisible in fog. I went for a walk down to the sea shore and out onto the rocks, enjoying the strange atmosphere of a bright foggy arctic summer evening.
My plan here had been to climb Slættaratindur, the Faroes’ highest mountain, if the weather was good enough. But the next day still saw dense cloud clinging to the mountains, and the advice of the campsite owner was that climbing into the clouds would be a very bad idea. So I contented myself with a hike around the cliffs near the town instead, past nesting puffins and some good views over the straits to other islands in the archipelago.
The next day we were late leaving the house for various reasons. We hurried through Florence, getting faster and faster as we went, as we slowly realised how late we were. I really didn’t want to miss the train because if I did, I would surely miss my flight home. In the end, we made it to the station with what I thought was seconds to spare. We jumped onto the train, enjoyed about two seconds of feeling massively relieved, then realised that there was no-one else on the train, and the lights were off.
I had a horrible sinking feeling. It looked like my journey home was not going to be straightforward. It turned out there was a train strike on, and there was no way I was getting to Pisa by rail. There was a bus leaving soon, but it was going via somewhere ridiculous and it would take three hours, which was definitely too long. Reluctantly we went to the taxi rank outside the station, and said “aeroporto” to the taxi man at the head of the queue. “Firenze?”, he asked. “Pisa”, we said sadly. His eyes lit up and off we drove.
It was an incredibly unpleasant journey, watching the numbers on the meter climb higher and higher. I made it to the check-in with barely a minute to spare, but I was a horribly large number of euros poorer.
The flight home was a slight consolation. A couple of times before when flying into and out of Pisa, I’d noticed a small island off the Tuscan coast. On this flight, I got a great view of it, basking in the orange evening light, with the hills of central Tuscany rising out of the mist in the background.
After my second night at the telescope, I drove up to the top of the mountain in the early morning sun. Like last time, the views were incredible and there was no-one else up there but me. To the north was a sea of clouds; to the south, I could see the chain of volcanic cones which runs down the spine of La Palma. In the distance I could see Tenerife, almost a hundred miles away but quite clear.
After that I headed home. I spent one night at sea level in Santa Cruz, and I had a little bit of time to look around. I wandered the cobbled streets, feeling a bit like I was jetlagged after two nights at the telescope. During my first trip I was still recovering from my African travels, and what with missing the flight on the way to La Palma, and then feeling wrecked by five nights of observing, I hadn’t really noticed what a beautiful island La Palma is. Now I could see that it was rugged and wild, but I didn’t have time to go and explore. I decided that if I ever got another chance to come back here, I’d see much more of the island than just Santa Cruz and the mountain top.
My two nights of observing went well. The skies stayed completely clear, there were no technical hitches, and I had time to observe something I hadn’t even planned to, which turned out to be only the fourth known star of a certain type in our entire galaxy of 200 billion stars.
I was doing some long exposures of my objects, so I had time to get out and appreciate the night sky. Mars was at the time closer to the Earth than it had been for tens of thousands of years, and it shone brightly and redly.
The first time I’d been to La Palma, I didn’t know too much about it until I was on the plane to Madrid. My boss had done all the hard work while I was off getting lost on African mountains. Two years later, the situation was very different: I was now the Principal Investigator on a proposal, and so it was much more under my own steam that I returned to the Canary Islands.
By coincidence, I was observing on exactly the same dates I’d observed on in 2001. Then, the moon had been full, and Saharan dust had clogged the air. This time, there was no Kalima, and it was new moon, so the skies were properly dark. But just like last time, the taxi to the mountain top made me horribly car sick. I spent my first night on the mountain top recovering from that.
At the end of our final night’s observing, the sea of clouds around the islands was blazing orange in the dawn light. It marked the end of a successful run, with only a couple of hours lost due to clouds. I grabbed a couple of hours sleep before our taxi arrived to take us back to sea level, and luckily this meant I was so tired I almost didn’t notice how carsick I felt as we twisted and turned back down.
The journey home was uneventful but long. We flew to Tenerife, then to Barcelona, then to London, and so we spent all day in airports. By the time we got back I felt pretty shattered. I didn’t know where I’d be travelling next, I hoped it would be somewhere exciting but I also hoped I’d get to stay at home for more than a week before I was off again.
We were observing at full moon. Observing with no moon in the sky is normally preferable, but for our purposes it didn’t matter too much. It meant that I didn’t really see the sky particularly well, but it also made the landscape look interesting and weird at night. Our observations consisted of a never-ending succession of half-hour exposures, so I had plenty of time to go outside and set up night shots.
The end of a night’s observing is always weird. You normally feel pretty tired, and after you’ve packed up in the control room you’re ready to crash. But then you walk outside and it’s a bright sunny day, and suddenly you’re not tired at all any more. It was pretty disorientating to then go back to the residencia, pull down the light-tight shutters and try to go to sleep.
After our second night’s observing, I decided to go up to the very top of the mountain to appreciate the views. The Kalima was blowing hard, and dust and gravel were whipping about. In the distance I could see Tenerife, poking up out of the sea of clouds that covered everything. I was the only person on the mountain top.