Lagunas

Oct 20, 2013 in Chile 2013

Lagunas

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.

Autumn at Lago Maggiore

Nov 06, 2012 in UK and Switzerland 2012

Autumn at Lago Maggiore

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 spectacularly fresh, the sun shone, the lake shimmered, and all was good in Switzerland.

A sudden return

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

A sudden return

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.

Parc de la Ciutadella

Apr 01, 2010 in Barcelona 2010

Parc de la Ciutadella

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 as it was the first time I’d been there for eight years. 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 rumbled across France during the night. When I woke 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.

Lago Chungará

Jan 05, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009

Lago Chungará

We took the road towards Bolivia, which rose steeply into the Andes. 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. But despite this I could appreciate the spectacular scenery, with Parinacota and Pomerape volcanoes towering 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.

We descended back to sea level. Exhausted by the altitude, I slept a lot of the way. I got back to Arica late at night, and I had an early start the next morning to catch a 7am flight back to Santiago.

Last day

Jul 14, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Last day

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.

Bassisøen

Jun 30, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Bassisøen

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.

Ohrid

Jul 18, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Ohrid

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. I walked into town and found myself a place to stay. Some people I’d met in Bosnia were there, 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. Ohrid town is overflowing with churches and monasteries. I wandered the narrow streets, winding up to the castle where there were amazing views over the lake to the misty hills of Albania on the opposite shore.

Ohrid could have been addictive. If I’d had a lot more time I’d have happily spent a week here, relaxing in cafes and by the lake. But Albania was calling me, and all too soon I had to find my way into one of Europe’s most mysterious countries.

Christmas by the lake

Dec 25, 2005 in South America 2005

Christmas by the lake

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.

Breathless heights

Dec 15, 2005 in South America 2005

Breathless heights

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.