Osorno is famous for looking a bit like Mount Fuji. Its perfect cone looked pretty good across Lago LLanquihue.
Articles tagged with "lake"
Volcán Calbuco had erupted in May. I’d gone to see it, but I’d been out of luck and the weather was bad for two days. I’d gone back to Santiago without seeing anything. Now I was back in Puerto Varas, and it was really upsetting to see how close the volcano was to the town. If I’d had clear skies, I’d have seen epic, epic views of the ash column surging up into the upper atmosphere.
Another short boat journey took us across Lago Frías. After that, we crossed back into Chile, and got a boat across Lago Todos los Santos. A cloudy day was turning into a sunny one as we headed towards Volcán Osorno.
I travelled on to Bariloche, where it seemed to be ultra-low season and I had a hostel to myself for three days. After Bariloche, I travelled back to Chile, going via three lakes in the Andes. The first step of the journey was across Lago Nahuel Huapi to Puerto Blest.
I got a bus from Pucón to San Martín de los Andes. I only spent one night there, and it was very quiet. I hiked to Mirador Bandurrias, for a great view over Lago Lácar.
Wanting to do an easy hike one day, I went to the Cajón del Maipo with Neil. After our adventures on El Plomo, we wanted to go somewhere where we almost certainly wouldn’t die, so we headed for the Monumento Natural El Morado. We knew the trail there closed in the early afternoon, so we made sure we were in time, only to find that the closing time had been changed to even earlier, and we’d missed it.
So we headed further up into the mountains, to the next valley, Valle de las Arenas. Confusingly, Monumento Natural El Morado contains Glaciar San Francisco, while Glaciar El Morado is in the Valle de las Arenas. We drove a long way up the valley on an incredibly rough track, then hiked up to the glacier.
It was an easy hike, and from where we parked, it was less than two hours to the top of the valley, 3200m above sea level. The path crested a small rise and we found ourselves by a chocolate brown lagoon full of icebergs from the glacier. In the mountains around us there were five or six more glaciers.
We headed to some high altitudes, and took a trip to Lagunas Miñiques and Miscanti. I’d been here a few weeks earlier, and at 4000m there had been plenty of snow. We couldn’t drive right to the lagoons, so we had a short hike over the snow to get to a place where we could see them. Today, all that snow had gone. We drove down to Laguna Miñiques, which we hadn’t even been able to hike to before, and then to Miscanti. A lone vicuña was drinking from the lake in the distance.
The conference venue was on a hilltop overlooking Lago Maggiore, but for the first couple of days there was nothing to see outside except thick fog. Just when I’d begun to doubt that there was actually a lake nearby, the fog lifted and the views came out. The air was fresh, the sun shone, the lake shimmered, and all was good in Switzerland.
Eight months ago, I’d stood outside Keflavík airport and seen the snow-capped cone of Snæfell, 70 miles away across Faxaflói. It was a clear sign, telling me that I would certainly return to Iceland. I felt that very strongly but I never expected to come back so soon. While I was in Belgrade I’d heard that a volcano had started erupting in the Fimmvörðuháls pass, close to where I’d been hiking. It was an impressive and easily accessible eruption. I couldn’t believe it had happened so soon after I was there and I felt annoyed that I wouldn’t see it. But then, the thought occurred to me that there was no reason why I shouldn’t go and see it. One Monday morning, with the eruption still going on, I decided to go back. I booked a flight for the Friday, and then spent an agonising four days hoping that the eruption wouldn’t stop, that the weather would be OK, and that I’d be able to see the eruption.
And so for the third time I got a late flight from Heathrow to Keflavík. I saw the northern lights from the plane window, the first time I’d seen them since my first trip to Iceland, and then I got a sudden, breathtaking glimpse of something red and pulsating far below. It could surely only be the volcano. By the time I’d grabbed my camera it had disappeared from view. I became furiously impatient as we slowly descended into Keflavík.
I got the usual bus into town, and felt an extreme sense of deja vu as I walked towards the city hostel. Last summer it had still been light and warm as I walked in to the city at midnight; this time the bus broke down on the way and we had to transfer to another one in a howling gale in the darkness. I got to the hostel and booked myself some transport to the volcano for the next afternoon.
The next day I walked around the city again. It was grim and rainy, and the signs didn’t look good. My trip for the afternoon was uncertain, and I couldn’t even book a trip for the Sunday. The forecast was for severe weather, and no-one was planning on making any trips. Eventually, I found one company who said they would consider doing a trip and I left them my number. I revisited a few of my favourite Reykjavík sights, and then spent the afternoon in a cafe where I ordered so many espressos that eventually they let me make my own. I was properly blazing when I heard the bad news that the trip to the volcano for the afternoon was cancelled. All my hopes were now on Sunday.
A week and a half after I got back from Belgrade, I was on the road again. My paper on Herschel results was submitted, my long month of hell was over, and I walked along to St. Pancras to get a train to Barcelona. I was going there with some friends to celebrate a 30th birthday, and it turned out to be cheaper to travel overland. So I got the Eurostar to Paris, pausing briefly at Gare du Nord. Last time, I was on my way back from Beijing, and after thousands of miles of travel across Asia with no problem, disaster had struck just 200 miles from home in a farce of missed trains and lost tickets. I held tightly on to my Barcelona ticket, crossed town to Gare d’Austerlitz and got a train to Portbou.
We crossed France during the night. In the morning we were in the far south, and I saw a full moon setting over the Pyrenees at Perpignan. Not long after that the train arrived at Portbou, where I had about 20 seconds to find the Barcelona train, otherwise I’d have to wait for two hours for the next one. I made it, jumping on board just before the doors closed. Then I slept all the way to Barcelona Sants.
I met up with my friends and went exploring. In my tired post-night train state this involved a lot of stopping and relaxing in cafes. We ended up in the Jardines de la Ciudadela, and relaxed by the lakes and fountains there for a while.
We took the road towards Bolivia. I was fine at Putre, 3,500m above sea level, but started to feel the effects of the thin air as we got higher. By the time we reached the shores of Lago Chungará at 4,500m above sea level, I was feeling pretty spaced out. I staggered along the shore, struggling to remember how to operate my camera. My head felt like it was full of cotton wool, and every step was an effort. Parinacota and Pomerape volcanoes towered over the lake, their summits more than a mile above the shores.
We went to Parinacota village, a hundred metres lower down but still the highest inhabited place in Chile. I bought some Bolivian-style popcorn and some sopaipillas, and felt a little bit better for eating. There was a brief rainshower and a few cracks of thunder, and I took shelter in the tiny church. A small table is tied to the wall here; legend has it that the table once got up and walked to a house, whose inhabitant then died. It’s been tethered ever since to prevent anything similar happening again.
Then we went on down to Putre. The bus driver said that now we were at just 3,500m again, we could “run, jump, dance and play”. And it was true – I felt much better for the slight descent. We stopped here for some food and I chatted to some of my fellow passengers. Most were Chileans on holiday here from other parts. I spoke to one couple from Santiago, who were interested that I’d come to Chile to work. They’d heard it said many times that Chile had the best skies in the world but they said they’d always wondered if it was actually true. I assured them it was, and said they should check out the skies around La Silla or Paranal some time.
As my bus rumbled in through the suburbs of the capital I spotted a sign that said the temperature was 28°C. I spent my last day in the city enjoying the incredible heat wave. I walked out to Seltjarnarnes, the tip of the peninsula that Reykjavík sits on. I wanted to go right to the end, but it’s a nesting place for thousands of very aggressive birds. I suddenly found myself in a Hitchcockian nightmare and had to beat a hasty retreat as terns and gulls started swooping at me.
I could see Snæfell across the bay again. The snowy peak rose from the waters and stood out sharply against the deep blue sky. Once I was out of range of the bird attacks I looked across the bay and wondered when I was going to go there.
There was not much left to do. I went to the Hallgrímskirkja and went up its tower, but it was covered in hoardings and the views were poor. I sat by the Tjörn for a while and looked back on another incredible trip. I watched the sun dip below the horizon at 11.30pm. And in the morning I packed up and left.
It was my last day on Ammassalik Island, and I wanted to do a good hike. My outrageously expensive map had details of a few, and I decided to take the Bassisøen loop. It started with a long walk up the fjord, past icebergs bumping against the shore, to a valley which headed away inland.
The first half of the walk was on trails. I followed the course of a river upstream, past eerily semi-frozen lakes which somehow to me made the jagged peaks around look dramatic and threatening. At the top of one lake I passed a couple of other hikers, who were on the other side of the river. I should have realised I was on the bad side of the lake – I’d had to scramble over a huge rockfall which blocked the trail, and now I had to take a perilous leap over a powerful river to get back onto the path. It was not an easy jump and I was glad to get over unscathed.
The trail continued until two valleys met. I turned left, around a large mountain, and carried on. This next valley was quieter, colder, and snowier than the previous one, and I was back in the dreamy wilderness, with no trails and nothing to restrict where I went. I trekked along the shores of a large frozen lake, and for no good reason at all started wondering if there were any polar bears around. Apparently they’re not uncommon here in the winter but rare in summer. For a few seconds I convinced myself I’d seen something white moving about on the opposite shore of the lake, but I soon decided that was ridiculous and carried on.
Eventually I reached the end of the lake, and my trek was nearly done. I just had a couple of hours to walk back down a valley to the village. After a little while I reached a jeep track which I followed for a while. I passed a small hydroelectric station which was covered in graffiti. I was still miles from anywhere. There really can’t be very much to do in Tasiilaq when you’re growing up.
Macedonian buses were very organised compared to the others I’d been travelling on. My ticket had a seat number, which I didn’t notice until a girl evicted me. She was very helpful, pointed me to the right place, and helped me to evict the guy who was in my place. After that it was plain sailing across the rugged Balkan scenery to Lake Ohrid.
Ohrid town was roasting. Some people I’d met in Bosnia were at the hostel I went to, and it was fun to see them again. We relaxed on the balcony overlooking the lake until the air cooled enough to move, and then we went out for fun times in the town.
The next day I did some sightseeing. I wandered the narrow streets, winding up to the castle where there were views over the lake to the misty hills of Albania on the opposite shore.
On the bus to Copacabana I met Victoria, a traveller from Alaska who I’d previously met in Potosí, and her friend Amanda from Vermont. None of us had booked a place to stay, but luckily things didn’t seem too busy and we got rooms at the second place we asked at. It was overcast and cool here, and it didn’t seem very christmassy. We were going to climb Cerro Calvario, a large hill overlooking town, but it was beginning to rain so we decided to save that until later. So we spent the afternoon looking around town, buying the occasional bag of giant popcorn which is a local speciality, and relaxing.
On Christmas Day I got up at 5am to see if the weather was nice enough to make a climb of the hill worthwhile, but it was raining so I went back to bed. Eventually I got up at 9am, and we went out to a cafe with a lake view for breakfast. After a morning drinking coffees and relaxing, I went to call home. If I’d been anywhere else in Bolivia it would have been very cheap, but for some reason, all communications in Copacabana are about ten times the price they are elsewhere. I spent 122 Bolivianos on a twenty minute phone call, which was a whole day’s budget at normal times, but was still less than ten pounds. And it was great to speak to my family for the first time in more than two months. I could see the lake out of the window of the call centre, and it was very strange to think that back in the UK it was dark and cold and wintry.
After phoning home I went for a walk along the beach. Families were out on the lake in pedalos and canoes, and the public table football tables were doing great business. I don’t think I’d ever previously wondered what people do on the Altiplano for Christmas, but if I had I doubt I would have thought it would be boating and table football.
At 4pm I met up with Victoria and Amanda and we climbed Cerro Calvario. The skies were heavy, in the distance we could see rain over the lake, and a thunderstorm was raging several miles away inland. We watched the spectacular lightning until the edge of the storm reached us. As the rain got heavier we hurried back to the hostel, and then for the rest of the afternoon we played cards while the rain battered down outside.
Later, in a brief pause in the rain, we headed out for an evening meal. I had a very Andean meal of cheese and potatoes, and we had a fun evening meeting travellers from all over the world. I thought there was a hint of sadness in it all, though, that all of us had decided to spend Christmas so far away from our friends and families, and spend it instead with a bunch of travellers who in all likelihood we would never see again. As we walked back to the hostel at midnight the rain was torrential again. The hostel owners had gone to bed, and we had to bang on the door to wake them up. Luckily they didn’t seem at all angry when they let us in.
The next morning I decided to head back to La Paz – there was a cycle ride in the mountains that I wanted to do. I bought a couple of bags of giant popcorn, got on a bus and headed back south. The sun came out on the way and we had a great crossing of the Straits of Tiquina. In La Paz it was a hot afternoon. I booked myself onto a mountain biking trip for the following day, and then went out for a meal with some travellers I met in my hostel. Christmas already seemed like a distant memory.
We headed on to Laguna Colorada. We arrived in the mid-afternoon and the lake was bright red, with flamingoes dotted all across the waters. What looked like steam rising from the lake in the distance was apparently salt water whirlwinds, a common site here. We were staying here for the night, at Campamento Ende, a meteorological station on the south-western shore of the lake, and we were all now feeling the altitude. My trip to El Tatio had definitely done me some good, acclimatisation-wise, as had the trip up to Sol de Mañana and back down to here, and I went for a walk while the others rested, but I was still totally exhausted if I walked even a few metres uphill. I took a lot of photos of the lake, which was getting redder and redder due to mineral reactions in the sunlight, and the thousands of flamingoes strutting about in the shallow waters.
Night fell not long after 6pm, and the temperature plummeted. I stood on the shores of the lake, breathing the thin cold air and watching a thunderstorm in the distance, until 9pm when the generator at Campamento Ende was shut off, and the only light was coming from the moon. I went to bed exhausted by the altitude and slightly dreading the 6am start we were apparently planning for the morning.
Over the previous month I’d travelled from the ice-bound fjords of Patagonia more than two thousand miles away, all the way to here. From northern Scotland to Timbuktu is about the same distance. Chile had been an amazing place but I had less than two months left until I needed to be in Quito so I had to move on. Sprawling across thousands of square miles of southern Bolivia between San Pedro and the nearest Bolivian town of Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, and I hooked up with Sebastian from Germany and Pia and Signe from Denmark to cross it. We would travel across in a 4WD driven by Victor from Bolivia.
The Bolivian border is only thirty miles from San Pedro but it’s more than 2 kilometres higher, and the rapid ascent was a bit risky from the point of view of altitude sickness. My trip to El Tatio had been good for acclimatisation, though, and I felt OK as we waited in the thin air to get our passports stamped. Near by, an old bus was decaying into the desert sands. It seemed a strange place to have a border, and I wondered just how boring it must get here on a slow day, with absolutely nothing here but the border itself – no town, no shops, no scenery.
Our first stop was Laguna Blanca, just a short distance from the border. It’s a deep green mineral lake, which sits at the base of Volcán Licancabur. San Pedro was just on the other side of the mountain, hardly any distance at all, but it felt like we were in a different world, here in the thin air and harsh terrain. I walked down to the chalky muddy shores of the lake to take some photographs before we drove on to Laguna Verde, a little bit higher up and further on. Here we found hot springs, and we took a warm bath in the hot Altiplano sunshine. I made a huge tactical error in not putting on more sun cream – somehow, although I’ve spent a lifetime getting sunburnt even in the Arctic, I thought I would not get burnt in the midday sun 4,000m above sea level in the tropics. Within twenty minutes my shoulders were a terrifying red, and I knew I was in for an uncomfortable few days.
It was a great place for a dip, though, in fantastically warm water and surrounding by vast wild high-altitude desert and a horizon dotted with volcanoes. None of us were yet feeling the effects of the altitude and the mood was good as we headed yet higher, to Sol de Mañana, 5,000m above sea level and apparently the highest geothermal area in the world. A few roaring holes in the ground were spattering mud, and steam was rising from everywhere. At this altitude there is barely half the amount of oxygen you get at sea level, and I was beginning to feel a bit spaced out. I tried to take some video footage of the mud geysers, but didn’t even notice until later that I was taking stills by mistake. I was glad that our destination for the day was 700m lower than here.
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 disappeared 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 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.
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 ate a carbohydrate-laden dinner and drank some restorative coffees. 7 hours of hiking had been a good start to my week on the W.
Back at the hostel, there was an American in my room who fancied checking out a club, so we went to the Berns Hotel for a night out. The music was good, I met fun people, and all was good, until at 2am a fight kicked off near where I was sitting, and left someone unconscious on the floor. I decided to head home at that point.
I went for a long walk the next day, from my hostel in Gamla Stan up Drottninggaten to a small park, then back down towards the harbour. I walked around Nybroviken, and across a bridge to Djurgården. It was starting to rain as I reached Skansen, and I got a boat back across the harbour to Gamla Stan. With rain now falling heavily, I spent the rest of my time in Stockholm in a cafe on Vesterlånggatan.
I went to Italy because my girlfriend was in Perugia for a month, and my cousin lived near Milan. I had a week to spare and decided to do a small tour of the mainland.
The tour started in Lombardia. I stayed with my cousin in Varese, and we visited Como. I’d flown over the lake on my way into Milan, and it had looked pretty amazing from the air. We got the funicular railway up to Brunate, and walked along a trail high over the lake.
With some people we’d met in a club the previous night, we went to Christiania, a self-declared independent state which has occupied a former military barracks since 1971. We wandered in to the free state and onto its main street, Pusher Street, where lots of small stands sold weed.
We spent a long time in Christiania. It was a hot summer day, and it was a nice place to be. What I didn’t appreciate for a while was that I was getting sunburnt, but by the time we left, I was turning very red, and already feeling the pain. Somehow I hadn’t really thought it would even be possible to get sunburnt so far north.
Just a week after my last visit to Charleroi, I was back in grim South Belgium. This time I was on my way to the Netherlands, to run my first half-marathon. I thought I might as well do one somewhere reasonably flat so I was doing the CPC Loop in Den Haag. I got a train to Brussels, had an hour before the train to Den Haag and went back to one of my favourite cafes from the previous weekend for a quick coffee.
The next day in Den Haag I walked into town from where I was staying, and had a look around. The start of the race was at Malieveld, and hours before the start there were already plenty of people jogging around and warming up. It was overcast and quite chilly – not good waiting around weather, but pretty much ideal for running.
The start time approached, and I headed for the line. The CPC Loop is a huge event, with thousands of runners, and I found myself about three quarters of the way back down the field. The hooter went, and off we would have gone if there wasn’t a huge bottleneck for us all to file slowly through. Ten minutes after the start, I crossed the line, and five minutes after that I was able to start running.
We headed out into the suburbs of Den Haag. There were a few spectators on the early part of the route, but soon it was just the runners and the road. The sound of pounding feet on tarmac was all I could hear. The clouds were slowly breaking up, and with the sun coming out I was looking forward to the first water point at 5km. I reached it about 25 minutes after I’d started running.
The course then took a turn towards the coast. The second 5km went reasonably quickly, and I was there in just over an hour. I wanted to finish in under two hours, so given my 15 minute delay at the start it looked like I might possibly be on for it. But I was starting to get a pain in my foot which was not ideal.
We reached the beach at Scheveningen with sun shining through a sea mist. By now, my foot was hurting a lot and I was having to slow down. I reached the 15km mark after about 1h40m, and by 16km I had to stop running for a bit. But once I’d stopped, I couldn’t really get going again, and the last 5km were a painful mix of short runs and long walks. I reached the finish in 2h20 minutes.
I trudged back to my hostel, and earned the hatred of all my roommates by spending about an hour in the shower. My foot pain had been caused by my trainers rubbing on the joint of my big toe, which had never happened before so I don’t know why it happened then. Once I’d managed to peel my sock off, I found less skin and more blood than is normally ideal. I thought it was probably time for a new pair of trainers when I got home.
I was excited to be in Russia. Getting a visa had been the most difficult thing about my trip: I’d got my Mongolian one with the greatest of ease at 10am one sunny Monday morning in June, and so I thought I’d try and get the Russian one the same day. I walked through Hyde Park to Bayswater Road, and quickly found the queue. Equally quickly I realised it was going nowhere, and I decided to come back earlier the next day. I did that, but it was beginning to look like getting a visa would be more difficult than I’d expected, because I queued for two hours, until the consulate closed, and didn’t even get into the building.
The next day was Russian Independence Day and the consulate was closed. The day after that I went into battle for the third time, arriving at the embassy at 8.15am. At 9am the doors opened and the queue moved forward, but it stopped before I got in the building. Three hours later, the queue hadn’t moved and I was still visa-less. It looked like some serious early starting would be required and so my fourth queue experience began at 6.15am, after I’d got the first tube of the day from Bounds Green into town. This time at 9am I actually got into the building, and I felt like a visa was within my grasp. But again I was denied. The queue moved interminably slowly and I got nowhere near the front. When the shutters came down at midday, a scuffle broke out at the front with someone who needed a visa urgently banging on the glass and demanding to see the consul.
I spent the weekend wondering whether to entirely rethink my plans. It seemed almost totally impossible to get hold of a Russian visa without paying wads of cash to agencies to do it for you. I’d already spent almost twelve hours in the queue and now the only option seemed to be to sleep on the pavement outside.
In the end I decided to do that. Late one warm evening early in my second week of trying to get a visa, I packed up my sleeping bag, thermos and a bag of sandwiches and headed for Kensington for my first experience of sleeping rough. I reached the gate, and to my relief I was the first person there. I bedded down outside, and thought that these were ridiculous lengths to go to. But I was in too deep and I couldn’t pull out of the battle. It was visa or death for me now.
At 2am another visa-seeker arrived, in disbelief that he was not the first in the queue. About half an hour later another person arrived, and people continued to join in ones and twos throughout the night. At 3am it began to rain heavily, and soon there was lightning and thunder. I crawled inside my sleeping bag.
By 6am it had stopped thundering, and an influx of people from the first tubes had started arriving. There were still three hours to wait until the doors would open, and my morale was slipping. I held on, though, and got into the building at 9am. If anyone had tried to push in front of me now, I would have killed them with my bare hands. I went to the window and handed over my forms, pulling twigs from my damp hair and brushing dirt off myself. Half an hour later, my forms had been processed, my passport was taken, and I was told I’d have a visa by the following day. As I staggered away, a security officer was shouting at the queue, saying that they were too noisy and that no more visas would be given out until there was total silence. I left the quietening embassy behind and went home to sleep.
Having gone through all that, I thought that Russia had better be good. And it was, here in the far east. When I got up we were in forests, but soon we reached the shores of Lake Baikal. It looked stunning under big blue skies, with misty mountains visible on the opposite shore. The waves virtually lapped at the tracks at times. We spent a few hours rolling along by the lake before reaching Irkutsk in the mid-afternoon.
In the evening I played cards in the restaurant car. Among the players this evening was a small Mongolian boy, whose parents were traders, travelling back and forth on the train, buying Russian things to sell in China and vice versa. This boy clearly had a lot of time on his hands to perfect the art of Shithead, and he won frequently.
My final day in China dawned amazingly cool and fresh. I had lots to finish so I was up and about early, and my first task was to take some photos of the campus. I headed out at 6am, and spent a couple of hours walking around, enjoying Chinese park life. A couple of times I’d been across here early enough to see all the communal activities that take place in Chinese parks early in the morning. What I liked best was the ranks of people practising their taiji moves. There were also people practising plays, speaking English to each other, jogging, and all sorts of other things. It seemed like a very friendly atmosphere, and I was sad to be leaving this.
In the evening, I went out for a meal with Xiaowei, some other professors in the department, and a few of the students. We went to a place near the campus that did Peking Duck, and although I’d largely lost my sense of taste due to a head injury two years previously, I could taste enough to find it absolutely delicious. In the usual Chinese way, a constant stream of food was brought out, which twice as many people would have had difficulty finishing. Tasty dish after tasty dish arrived at the table, and I was bloated and waddling by the time we left.
I said goodbye to everyone, went for a last walk around the campus lake, and then headed back to my apartment on Chengfu Lu to pack up. I’d had a fantastic six weeks in Beijing, but now I was looking forward to a long journey home.
After a couple of days back at work it was the weekend again, and time for me to set out exploring once more. My first target was the Summer Palace, one of China’s most impressive imperial treasures. It’s only a couple of miles from the university, but I thought I would get a cab as the temperatures were nearing 40°C, and I thought I might die of dehydration if I walked. But in the end, there was only one cab by the East Gate of the university, and he wouldn’t take me. With my Mandarin still not even reaching appallingly basic, I couldn’t even begin to understand why. I decided to brave the heat and walk it.
I didn’t actually look around the Palace itself: I didn’t fancy being indoors on such a hot day. So I just spent a few hours walking around Kunming Lake, and over the famous 17-arch bridge to a small island. I frequently passed stalls selling ice cream, and I frequently gave them business. I spent quite a while sat on the island, enjoying being in the middle of a tranquil lake, surrounded by the Western Hills.
But we had made it to shore, and we spent a little while standing around and chatting before we set off to look for accommodation, and we found ourselves as so often the source of amusement for the local kids. We left the beach for what proved to be a long walk to where we stayed, and soon discovered an endearing Likoma habit: the kids, on seeing white people, would shout ‘HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!’ repeatedly and at the top of their voice, even if they were standing only inches away from us. Then as soon as we had passed them they’d shout ‘GOODBYE! GOODBYE! GOODBYE!’ with undimmed enthusiasm until we had disappeared over the horizon. We had many of these enjoyable encounters along the way.
We walked to the main settlement on the island, which contains a huge stone cathedral. It looked wildly incongruous among the thatched huts and baobab trees, and really quite impressive. It was built by Scottish missionaries, whose presence was really the reason these islands just off the coast of Mozambique ended up in Malawi’s hands. We wandered around it for a little while before setting off on our trek once more.
This final leg was most impressive. Baobab trees are an instantly recognisable symbol of Southern Africa, with their massive trunk and tiny branches. Especially now in the middle of winter, they were an arresting sight. These islands are known for their large numbers of baobab, and I’d seen a few on Chizumulu, but here there were lots, with almost no other vegetation around except for grass. Under the deep blue skies it was a remarkable sight. We crossed this field and found on the other side the steep walk down to the beach where we were going to stay.
Here, more relaxation was the order of the day. There really was nothing to do except make occasional forays up the steep hill to look around the island. I had to spend two days here before the steamer arrived for the return leg to the mainland, and saw quite a lot of Likoma island. I took possibly too many photos of the remarkable field of baobab trees. I plucked up enough courage to brave the crocodiles and go for a swim in the lake. I saw stunning sunsets every night. After three days I was ready to move on, and on the morning the boat was supposed to be coming I (and almost everyone else there) packed up my bags and hiked up the hill to head for the dock.
The boat was supposed to be leaving at 10am, but was seen still crossing the straits at 9.30am. I knew that the unloading and loading was going to be a protracted procedure: when we arrived at Chizumulu at 3am four days previously, the boat had not left for Likoma until 9am. So I visited the market near the dock, bought some deep-fried doughballs and peanut butter, and settled in for a long wait. I slept for a while, then had a drink at the fantastic ‘Hot Coconut Bar’, then had a long conversation with a beggar, who left me an address and a demand for size 9 shoes.
The boat is in dock for a long time mainly because there’s no proper harbour on either of the islands. The boat has to wait out in the deep water while its lifeboat is used to ferry people, livestock, sacks of maize and everything else between boat and shore. It took about 10 return journeys just to get the people on board, which made me wonder how useful the lifeboat would actually be in an emergency. Eventually everything was on board except the last boatful of people, so we got in the lifeboat and motored across to the MV Nkhwazi.
Once we were on board we had a little bit more waiting around before finally, at 4.30pm, some six and a half hours late, we set off for Nkhata Bay. For the first hour and a half we were in the choppy seas between Likoma and Chizumulu, and even in the relative comfort of ‘first class’ at the back of the boat things were quite lively. I dreaded to think what it was like for those at the front. At 6pm we docked at Chizumulu, but because the boat had only come from there that morning there was not a lot of stuff to transfer between boat and shore. We were there for a couple of hours, during which time the sun set and the stars came out, and then we were off to Nkhata Bay.
The lake was calm away from the islands and the run back to the mainland was again a good one. I slept for much of the way, waking to find the strings of fishing boat lights approaching, and shortly after we arrived at Nkhata Bay. It was 1.30am but thankfully I found a place to stay that was open.
It was a half hour walk to the bay the boat was going from. When we arrived we found a ramshackle looking vessel, from which copious amounts of water were being bailed. Huge buckets were filled with water and poured over the side. But it was the only means of getting between the islands so along with three other travellers and two locals I jumped in. The boat was not a huge thing and once we were out of the sheltered cove the swell moved us up and down a quite unpleasant amount. Rapidly I began to feel that it was just a matter of time before I threw up, and for half an hour I concentrated intently on the mast and breathed deeply. Then suddenly proceedings were livened up when the sail ripped. The skipper gave it a weary glance and decided it didn’t look to bad, so we carried on. All the way buckets and buckets of water were being bailed out, and if I hadn’t felt so ill I think I’d have been quite worried.
But the next hour passed uneventfully – the boat stayed intact and I held on to my stomach contents. I was very glad to be approaching a beach on Likoma Island, firstly because I thought I wouldn’t last much longer, and secondly because the mast at this point snapped in two. We were close enough to coast the rest of the way onto the beach, but as I got off I couldn’t help but wonder what would have become of us if that had happened out at sea.
So early the next morning we were outside by the motor, working out how the jack worked and pulling spare tyres around. It had rained in the night, although this was the dry season, and the car was parked on grass, so there was a slight problem with the jack sinking into the ground. But between us and a local man and his son who came out to help, we got the tyre back on. We jumped in the car, Tom said ‘OK, let’s go!’, turned the ignition key and nothing happened. With a smile frozen on his face he tried again, and still nothing happened. Not even a splutter. We rolled the motor down to Tukuyu’s main street and found a mechanic, who said an engine part or two needed replacing. He said it would take twenty minutes, and about an hour and a half later the work was all done and we were off.
It was a pretty short drive down to the Malawian border at Songwe. I was pleased to see that the scenery across the border looked much the same as the scenery on the Tanzanian side. The border crossing was uneventful and we drove on the other side to Chitimba, on the northern shores of Lake Malawi, and stopped at a campsite. There was a bar here, and a pool table, but in contrast to the perfect flat green baize we had found in Zambezi, this was the worst pool table in the southern hemisphere if not the world, so lumpy that slow shots would meander hopelessly and almost never hit the target, while fast shots would simply fly off the table. We challenged some other travellers to a game and after several hours when we finally finished, we vowed never to go near that table again.
The following day was my 23rd birthday. A year previously, after a terrible mishap, I’d found myself in hospital with a fractured skull, so this time I was overjoyed to emerge from my tent and find myself by the beautiful Lake Malawi, safe and well. Tom and I decided that morning to climb up the Rift Valley escarpment to the town of Khondowe up on the top, famous for the Livingstonia Mission. I’d climbed up the escarpment four days earlier by Lake Tanganyika, but this time it was a longer, tougher climb. We could have walked up a switchback road which had fairly gentle gradients, but we decided to take the short cuts, which basically meant scrambling up a 45 degree slope for three hours. We hired a local guide and set off. There were some stunning views on the way, and the climb ended at Manchewe Falls, 45m high. From the lip of the falls, the view down to the lake was marvellous.
There was a small shop just up the road from Manchewe which sold warm coke and biscuits and got a lot of business from people hiking up. We bought some food and drink and walked another hour to get to Livingstonia.
Livingstonia was a strange place. It was much cooler up here, and overcast. There were not many people about, and it felt like a different country compared to the valley far below. We looked around and had a chat to someone who turned out to be someone important at the mission, before trying to get some food at the Stone House, one of the original buildings of the mission. We asked what they had, and they told us they had chicken, rice and beans. We said we’d have a plate of that each, and off they went. We sat and drank some cold Fanta, looking forward to a meal after the climb. After about 10 minutes, someone came out and said that unfortunately they actually didn’t have any chicken. We said never mind, we’d just have rice and beans. We waited for about another ten minutes, and someone came out again and said that actually there were no beans either. Needing sustenance, we requested the rice, but after another few minutes word came through that in fact there wasn’t any rice either.
Now the situation was urgent. The campsite served food, but only until 4pm, and it was already 3.15pm. So we set off down the hill at a blistering pace, running and leaping down precarious slopes in a way that wasn’t good for the knees. Our bare-footed guide was much the fastest mover of the three of us, and I occasionally looked forlornly at the hiking boots I’d spent lavishly on. Our best efforts were not enough and we arrived at Chitimba, tired and ravenous, at 4.15pm, facing a long wait until we could get dinner at 7pm. Luck was on our side, though, because the barman took pity on us and rustled us up a big fat cheeseburger each, for which I am still profoundly grateful.
In the evening I sat on a rock at the edge of the bay and watched the village fishermen bringing in the day’s catch as the sun set. It was a timeless scene, with an amazing amount of activity and commotion considering the tranquillity of the day. As I sat on the rocks, locals who weren’t occupied with the fishing came over and chatted, wondering what I was doing in their part of the world. After the catch had been brought in and night had fallen I went and ate dinner with the builders. They insisted that I share their food, and so I had a good meal of nshima with tiny little fresh fish called capenta and some dried fish with an extremely strong flavour called bamba. We talked for a while before I turned in.
I got out of the Despot B&B as quickly as I could the next morning and headed north. After their four day weekend it seemed that everyone was easing back into things gently, and though I got on a bus to Mpulungu straight away, the Zambian hour and a half lasted three hours and included a trip to the shops. But wow, what a journey once we were underway. It was a fairly nondescript run to Mbala, with the usual Zambian scenery, but after Mbala we left the high plateau which makes up almost all of Zambia and dropped down into the East African Rift Valley to Mpulungu. Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s second biggest lake, was glittering beneath us in the hot sun, and it was extremely beautiful. And it was hot down there, steamy and sweaty. Up on the plateau it had been very chilly at night and in the mornings, and got to the high twenties at best by the mid afternoon, but down here in the valley it must have been well into the thirties. I wandered around trying to find where I could get a boat out onto the lake from, and a very friendly guy wandered around with me and helped me to find the next boat leaving. He dropped me off at the beach where it was going from and left me with a friendly wave and a warning that all those around me were criminals.
And so I set about negotiating a fare. I wanted to go to a place called Mishembe Bay, right next to the border with Tanzania, and after a few attempts to get me to pay hundreds of pounds for a three hour boat journey, I settled on an agreeable fare with the owner of a boat. We left within half an hour of when he’d said we would, and it was a fantastic journey across the lake in the late evening sun. I was trying to believe that this lake is the longest in the world, stretching from down here in the south all the way up to Burundi at the northern end, squeezed between Tanzania and the Congo on its way. It’s also one of the deepest lakes in the world, and the majority of the fish living in it are of species found nowhere else.
The journey continued as the sun set. As we stopped at successive villages along the shore the boat gradually emptied, until by the time we got about three-quarters of the way to Mishembe Bay, I was one of only two passengers left on the boat. The boat’s owner had got out a little while before, leaving his brother to drive on, but his brother at this point told us he’d run out of fuel and couldn’t go on. A long and detailed argument followed, and he told me that he’d known from the start he didn’t have enough fuel to go all the way along to Mishembe, but hadn’t told me because I was dealing with his brother. After about half an hour he decided the solution was to get some guys from the village to get me to Mishembe in a canoe. It was a wildly unstable craft, and it was now night, but thankfully there was a full moon so we could see where we were going.
After half an hour or so, we got to the village just before Mishembe Bay, and they told me it was just a short walk on to there. Luckily the other remaining passenger said he’d show me the way – it turned out to be nearly half an hour’s walk. And now I discovered that where my guidebook had said there was accommodation here, what it meant to say was that accommodation was being built here. It wasn’t finished, but I had my tent and the builders who were living there were very friendly and sorted me out with some hot coals and water to cook with. They helped me to set up my tent and then I sat with them on the beach talking and eating dinner until it got late.
And so long before dawn on October 14th 2000, we set out for Volcán San Pedro. We climbed in the enjoyable company of our group of 11, which consisted of me and Moh, Ashley from Australia, Mike and Aasta from Alaska, Will and Chad from Oregon, Greg from the UK, Steve from Canada, Julie from France and Julie from Germany. An almost full moon lit our way until the sun began to make its presence felt, and we reached the end of the road just as the sun rose from behind the hills across the lake. After pausing to appreciate the view, we headed into the forest and began the climb in earnest. The going was reasonable at first, but it was not long before the relentless uphill began to get tiring. Our guide, Clemente, was enthusiastic, though, and kept us all going. After about an hour, though, Julie from France dropped out, and Mike from Alaska chivalrously accompanied her back down to the village.
The rest of us carried on up. After another half-hour, self-confessed old fat guy Steve from Canada dropped out, and the eleven were now eight. Now it was down to the hard core, and we continued doggedly. The path got ever steeper and slipperier as we climbed, and the air was getting noticeably thinner. After about three hours, Julie from Germany tried to give up, but Clemente said we had ‘only’ an hour’s climb to go, and persuaded her to carry on. At 9.25am, after four hours of climbing, we emerged from the forest to find ourselves at the 3020m summit.
The view from here was almost unbelievable. The sun was shining brightly, and far below us we could see boats beginning to ply the waters between the villages around the lake. Many months before, I had discovered the music of the Afro Celt Sound System, and as I planned this trip and read about Lago de Atitlán, I had a sort of vision of myself on top of a mountain looking down on the lake, listening to a song called ‘Dark Moon, High Tide’. I had carried my walkman and the Afro Celts tape all the way from London to here without listening to it, preserving it for this moment. I listened to the awesomely atmospheric music and felt like I was tripping.
Too soon it was time to rejoin the real world and leave the summit. We picked ourselves up and began the long descent back to the village. The 45° descent down the slippery path was, as I wrote in my journal, ‘a total knee-fuck’, and we all fell over at one time or another. I got a long and bloody cut to the arm when I tried to save myself from a fall by unwisely grabbing hold of a thorny tree. After a hard three hours, we were back in the village.
We were exhausted. We spent the rest of that day, and the next as well, relaxing in the hammocks at the hotel, occasionally buying a loaf of banana bread from the Mayan children who came to sell it at the hotel, and generally waiting until we could walk normally again.
When we woke, though, we found it was really not a nice day. We decided not to climb that day, but we didn’t want to hang around in Antigua any longer. We decided to leave for our next destination, and hope to return to Antigua with a couple of days to spare at the end of the trip to have another crack at Acatenango.
So we headed for our next point of call, Lago de Atitlán. Many thousands of years ago, a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in the Guatemalan highlands left behind a crater hundreds of meters deep and several miles across. Over hundreds of years, the crater filled up with water, forming the beautiful Lago de Atitlán. Renewed volcanic activity then began, and over time three new volcanoes formed around the lake shore. Today it is one of the most famous places in Central America, and we had been looking forward to it.
Having been in Guatemala nearly a week, we decided to brave the bus system for this journey, and we were glad we did. The buses were not crowded, they were driven safely, and the atmosphere good as we chatted to locals. The only bad point was that each time we needed to change buses, the bus touts were so keen for our business that they would tell us that their bus was going where we wanted to go, even if it was actually going in the opposite direction.
But it was worth the wait. Our first sight of the deep blue waters of the lake surrounded by towering volcanoes was breathtaking, and we had a long and incredible descent in the bus from the hills to the lake shore. We arrived in the lakeside town of Panajachel at about 3pm. Panajachel is probably Guatemala’s most touristy town, so we made a rapid exit, jumping on a boat across the lake to the town of San Pedro la Laguna.
Every afternoon a wind known as the Xocomil rises to churn up the normally placid surface of the lake into large swells, so our boat ride was bouncy , and occasionally I wondered how strong the hull was, but we made it to the other side OK. As soon as we got off the boat, we were engulfed by people offering to guide us if we wanted to climb Volcán San Pedro, which looms behind the village. This was the main reason we had come here, so we shopped around for a good rate. The more people in the group, the cheaper the cost, so we decided to try and recruit some other people for the climb.
We checked into a hotel right on the lake shore, with hammocks on the balconies and hot showers, all for £1.50 a night. We were surprised when Ashley, who we’d met in Nicaragua, emerged from a room near ours. Having been with us when we were defeated by Volcán Masaya, Ashley didn’t hesitate to join us on our quest for the top. There were several other travellers staying at the hotel, and within half an hour, we’d managed to assemble a group of 11 people. We negotiated a rate for a guide, and arranged to leave at 5am the next day.
We decided then to abandon all hope of climbing up Volcán Masaya and move on instead. Our next destination was Nicaragua’s other old city, León, and to get there we needed to get a bus to Managua, make our way across Managua, and get another bus across the outside. We had heard horror stories about Managua from many different people, and were not too keen to see what it had to offer. I was guarding my pack with extreme paranoia as we got off the bus at Managua’s central market. As we expected, there were plenty of taxis about, so we got a taxi across the city. It was a sunny and hot day, and the city didn’t actually look that horrible. It seemed a bit concrete and soulless, but then vast swathes of it were levelled by a huge earthquake in 1972.
We made it to the Mercado Bóer bus stop without being robbed or assaulted, and, still guarding our belongings fiercely, we boarded the bus to León. We had a great run up there as the sun set behind the chain of volcanoes which form a spine along Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, arriving just after the sun set.
In the morning we headed for León Viejo (Old León). León was originally founded on the shores of Lago Managua, in the shadow of Volcán Momotombo, and for the next 86 years was the capital of the colonial district of Nicaragua (part of what was then called the Captaincy General of Guatemala). In 1610, however, it was destroyed by an eruption of Momotombo, and the city was moved to its present location. The ruins of the original city can still be seen, and it was to here that we headed.
After a typical Nicaraguan bus journey involving crowds of people selling goods ranging from soft drinks and snacks to disposable razors and hair clips, and a bone-shaking run down some very badly maintained roads, we arrived at the village of Puerto Momotombo. It was quite a surreal place, with just a few houses, and no roads to speak of, just dusty tracks. There were very few locals about, and it felt like we were the first outsiders to visit the place in years. We walked down to the shores of Lago de Managua to have a look around.
It was a strange place down there. The black sand beach was covered in straggly plants, and there were a few stumps of long-dead trees on the shore and in the lake. Across the water, the towering red cone of Momotombo was steaming gently, and in the distance we could see a village woman washing clothes in the lake water. The only noise was the buzzing of the insects. We sat for a while, appreciating the tranquillity and solitude, before heading back up the track to the village, and looking for the ruins.
Where there are no roads, no signs and no people, it is quite hard to find what you want to see. We searched for some time for León Viejo, before finding someone, asking the way, and discovering that we were right outside the gate. For the entry fee of about 75p, we got a guided tour of the site, which was great. I’d only been learning Spanish for a few weeks but I felt like I understood a decent amount of what we were being told. The ruins were not really much to look at – just the foundations of a few large buildings, the rest completely obliterated. But the history was fascinating, and it was incredible to imagine that this was one of the earliest settlements in the New World.
What made the place really impressive was the views. From a small hill in the middle of the unfortunate city, there was a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. This north western corner of Nicaragua is dominated by the Cordillera de los Maribios, a range of volcanoes which frequently erupt (there had been at least six eruptions in the five years before we were there), and from the hill, we could see six volcanoes, three of which were steaming. This formed the stunning backdrop to the forested plains and Lago de Managua.
We signed a guest book on the way out. The entry above ours was from almost a month before.
The next day dawned fine, and, with an Australian traveller called Ashley who was staying at the same hotel as us, we got an early bus out to Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya. However, our luck was not in and by the time we got there it was once again hammering down with rain. We nonetheless decided we would give the volcano a go, but the park ranger told us the path was closed, both because of the weather, and because large amounts of poisonous gas were being given off by the volcano. We were forced to leave it for another day.
We decided to visit the nearby town of Masaya, and got a bus to the outskirts of town, and walked towards the centre. The rain was still ludicrously heavy, and the roads were flooded. Progress was slow, as we had to find safe places to cross the roads. Drains in Nicaragua often did not have grilles on them, so stepping off the pavement into fast-flowing muddy water was quite a serious risk. However, we made it safely to Masaya’s Mercado Central about an hour later, and had a look around. While we were in there the rain finally stopped, so we walked to the end of town, to look over the tranquil Laguna Masaya to Volcán Masaya itself. The sun once again forced its way out, and mist began to rise from the lake. The volcano could be seen steaming away, and we were determined that we would make it to the top.
We thought we were in luck the next day when we found that it was bright sunshine. The papers said that a Red Alert hurricane warning had been declared, but we decided to give Masaya one last try. It stayed fine as we approached the entrance to the Parque Nacional, and we had great views of the steaming cone. But once again the trail was closed. Apparently the heavy rains had percolated through to the hot rocks below, and the result was that the volcano was emitting large quantities of highly acidic gas. So again we were denied.
Day 2, mission 1. Most of the population of Costa Rica live in a fertile valley in the central highlands called the Meseta Central. About 1500m above sea level, it is ringed by towering volcanoes. Some of them are active, and one of these is Volcán Poás. It stands 2704m tall in the middle of Parque Nacional Volcán Poas, and it last erupted in 1994, destroying what park facilities existed at the time. Since then, though, the number of tourists visiting Costa Rica every year has quadrupled to more than a million. Volcán Poás is a prime attraction, so they have rebuilt everything and put a paved road right to the very top.
We went to the bus stop in Alajuela early in the morning, and got the bus to the crater. Our first sight of Costa Rica in the daylight was impressive – the fertile farmlands of the Meseta Central with dramatic cloud-capped peaks rising behind. After an increasingly bumpy two hour bus ride, we were at the top. A short walk led us to the edge of the crater, and far below was Poás’ amazingly turquoise crater lake, surrounded by a barren lunar landscape. The lake was steaming gently, confirming that the volcano has not shut up yet.
After we had taken all the photos we could, we walked through the cloudforest (it’s like a rainforest only at high altitude) to Poás’ other crater, called Laguna del Botos. This one has not erupted for thousands of years, and is a beautiful green colour. Lush forest surrounds it, and it would have felt very remote, but for the families with their picnic lunches sitting around. The name comes from the Botos indians, who inhabited this area before the Spanish arrived.
It had been a beautiful morning, with plenty of sunshine. I’d never been to the tropics before and It had seemed strange to see the sun directly overhead, but now it began to cloud over. We were to learn over the next few weeks that it does this without fail during the rainy season in these parts. By the time we had walked back to the park museum building it was hammering down. We bought a coffee and waited around. The rain didn’t stop, though, and eventually we had to brave it and go and catch our bus. This done we enjoyed the run down. The rain was heavier than I’d ever seen before, and raging torrents were forming by the roadside. Lightening was striking incredibly close by, and the thunder was so awesomely loud it was scary.
We made it back to Alajuela safely, though, and spent the evening waiting for Moh’s backpack to be delivered. Warren was there as well, waiting for a fried chicken that he had ordered to arrive, and as we all waited, we found out what Warren was doing in Costa Rica. It turned out that he had driven down from Nevada. He was about 65 and retired, but somehow he had got himself employed to drive a car containing seven Chihuahuas from Nevada to Costa Rica (what for, we never discovered). Despite knowing no Spanish at all, except for ‘No Espanol’ and ‘Shervaza’, which was his poor attempt at saying cerveza (beer), Warren had done OK, driving through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, crossing the borders without trouble.
It began to go wrong for him when he entered Nicaragua. The Chihuahuas had been getting their documents stamped all the way down, but somehow one was overlooked at the Nicaraguan border. Unaware of this, Warren drove on, but when he got to Costa Rica, the border guards naturally asked where he’d got the other Chihuahua from, and when he couldn’t answer, they impounded his car. In the confusion, Warren didn’t get his passport stamped. He had made his way to Alajuela and was trying to get in touch with the owner of the Chihuahuas, who had not yet paid him, and seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. So Warren was now illegally resident in Costa Rica, with no money and no car. Despite this, he was quite a cheerful fellow, but he was also a complete lunatic. Just as he began to talk about his wolf spirit guide, Moh’s backpack thankfully arrived.
We returned to Mývatn for a day, filling our time with a walk around the east side of the lake. We passed the eerie fissure Grjotagjá, which is filled with very hot water. It’s in an underground cavern, and thin shafts of sunlight from above show the steam rising from the surface of the pool. It used to be a good temperature for swimming, but soon after the most recent eruptions at Krafla began, it heated up to over 60° C.
From Grjotagjá, we walked to Hverfjall, another big crater, this one made entirely of loose gravely rock. It takes a good amount of exertion to climb up the slope as it gives way beneath you. It certainly brings home the meaning of ‘one step up, two steps down’. The crater has no lake inside, instead exhibiting a large central mound. Although you are prohibited from walking down into the crater, the mound in the middle is covered in ridiculous graffiti, of the “Colchester boys woz ere, 5/4/95” variety.
After the exertion of climbing this slagheap of a crater, and facing fearsome winds at the top, this was something of a letdown. But not to be deterred, we walked round the rim and down the other side, and on through Dimmuborgir, an amazing lava formation. Several thousand years ago, a huge lava lake formed here. After cooling down for some time, and partially solidifying, an ancient lava flow that had been damming it gave way, allowing the liquid left to pour out. Left behind were many hundreds of towers of contorted lava. Natural arches and caves abound, and many fascinating trails can be followed.
We wandered through Dimmuborgir for a while, then walked back to our campsite by the lake shore. Here we saw a quite fabulous sunset, which bathed the hills and houses in a gorgeous orange glow. The sun sank beneath the opposite shore of the lake leaving behind a burning sky, which was mirrored in the rippling waters of Mývatn. However, the feelings of deep humanity this inspired in us were quickly dispersed by the arrival of the midges, and we repaired to the tents in a hurry, ready for an early rise the next day.
On day 5 we went to Askja. It must be said here and now that Askja is fearsomely remote. Deep in the interior of Iceland, temperatures average below freezing for 8 months of the year, and what is laughably called the road (it’s a track scraped into the dust) is passable for only 3 months a year. We caught the penultimate tour of the year down there, and made sure that we had packed all our warm clothes. In fact, though, the weather was quite nice. The sun shone brightly, and when we stopped for lunch near Mt. Herðubreið, we had lunch in the sun on a picnic table outside the mountain hut there. After another stop at the side of the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum (the same river which plunges over Dettifoss), we got to Askja at about 2pm.
The first thing to do was explore the caldera. A caldera is formed when a volcano has a huge eruption, and the magma chamber underneath is emptied. The mountain above then crashes into the ground, leaving a huge crater. Askja did this in 1875, expelling enough volcanic material with enough force for some of it to land in Scotland. The volcano collapsed in on itself, leaving a 50 square kilometre crater. The former flanks of the volcano now form a ring of mountains known as the Dyngjufjoll.
The deepest part of the crater is filled with Iceland’s deepest lake, Öskjuvatn. On the day we went, the placidly shimmering reflections of the snow-capped mountains in the still waters of the lake made it hard to believe the destruction behind the beauty. A swim would be tempting but for the near-freezing temperature of the water, and also the fact that two German researchers once disappeared without a trace while out on the lake in a small boat.
More inviting is the lake inside Viti, an explosion crater formed during the most recent eruptions at Askja, in 1961. Not to be confused with the Viti at Krafla, this Viti contains a hot, opaquely blue lake, apparently ideal for swimming. However, you have to negotiate a steep and slippery slope down into the depths of the crater, and even at the top, the smell of sulphur is overwhelming. Even though there were completely naked Swiss girls in there, we gave it a miss.
The weather stayed nice for the first two days at Askja. This brought out the midges, but the magnificent desolation of the beautiful wastelands more than made up for that. A spectacular canyon cut deep in the mountain just behind where we camped, and a hill nearby afforded a stunning view all the way to the volcano Snæfell 40 miles to the east, and Herðubreið 30 miles to the north. Lava from 1961 snaked across the plains, and several ancient craters could be seen. The land for miles around was covered in light, fluffy pumice stones from the 1875 explosion. I took one large piece as a souvenir but it crumbled into dust long before it got anywhere near leaving Iceland.
We spent two days hiking about in the wild mountains, and the place left a profound impression on us. Here, we were as far from civilization as we had ever been. The nearest town, the nearest shops, the nearest help, were a gruelling 6 hour journey in a 4WD vehicle away. Within fifty miles of us, there were probably no more than a few hundred people. Within fifty miles of London, you’d find perhaps 20 million people.
On the second evening, though, the weather took a turn for the worse. Rain fell as the sun went down, getting heavier as the night went on. By one in the morning, half an inch of water had found its way into one of our two tents. By the time the bus passed by at 4pm on the third day, we were not distraught at the prospect of leaving. We passed by Herðubreið, by now enwreathed in cloud, and thanked the Norse gods for the good weather we’d had.