Nov 20, 2011 in Chile
One thing that I really notice here is how dry it is. The humidity is always low, my clothes dry in minutes when I take them out of the washing machine, and in the two months since I arrived, it’s only rained once in Santiago – a slightly drizzly evening in early October. London in comparison is damp and dank and I wonder how I didn’t have permanent prune skin when I lived there. Today it rained for the second time. I was in the centre of town, going up Cerro San Cristóbal and then walking around Bellavista and Recoleta, and enjoying another hot sunny day. But in the eastern suburbs there was some kind of shower. I got back to Las Condes to find that the sun was shining but the streets were wet, and clouds were roiling over the mountains. I headed back up to my apartment and watched the retreating rainclouds being lit up by the evening sun.
Nov 01, 2011 in Chile
Part of my job here in Chile is to assist in the running of the world’s premier visible light observatory, the Very Large Telescope. A couple of days ago I made my first journey here from Santiago, flying up to Antofagasta and getting a bus from there up into the savagely dry Atacama desert, to the observatory at Cerro Paranal. What a place Paranal is. I’ve been to several observatories but none have been anything like this. The residencia is an awesome piece of architecture, the scale of the operation is immense, the level of activity is impressive, and the unbelievably harsh desert is terrifyingly beautiful. I will be coming here about once a month for the next three years so perhaps I will get bored of it. But on this first visit, I’m feeling impressed.
Oct 23, 2011 in Chile
My previous attempt to see the Cajon del Maipo had been a bit half-arsed, relying on public transport and ending up in the nondescript hamlet of San Gabriel, instead of actually out in the mountains hiking. So I tried again this weekend, with a couple of other ESO people. We hired a car, and left reasonably early. Having your own wheels definitely makes a big difference, and instead of spending hours on the bus chugging through all the distant Santiago suburbs, we were in the valley in less than an hour. But we didn’t get everything right. We stopped in Baños Morales for a lengthy and tasty lunch, planning to hike to a glacier afterwards. But by the time we rolled up to the national park entrance, sated and sleepy but none the less keen to hike, we were told the trail had closed 20 minutes earlier. So we had to find something else to do. We randomly ended up spotting a large red rocky outcrop, high up in the hills above Lo Valdes, and decided to go there. It was a good hike, scrambling up some steep and precarious scree slopes. The skies threatened but only delivered a few [...]
Oct 15, 2011 in Chile
I moved into a new flat yesterday. I was perhaps a bit rash, as it was only the second place I looked at, but it was more or less the kind of thing I was looking for and I didn’t want to spend any longer than necessary in my temporary accommodation. What really persuaded me was the views from the balcony. London is not a high-rise city, and I’d almost always lived in houses while I was there. The one time I lived in a block of flats I was on the first floor. So this flat, up high on the 15th floor, was something new. And it faces east towards the mountains, so the height is worth having.
Jul 11, 2010 in Norway 2010
Hiking trails led away from the cable car station up into the hills, so I decided to walk for a while. Quite soon I was away in the quiet mountains, enjoying the immensity of the Norwegian landscape. I headed up a steep path to a ridge, which looked like the highest point around, but once I got there I could see there was another higher peak further on. The path flattened and dropped, and then rose up to Mount Fløya, 671m above sea level. The day had started out overcast but some sun had broken through the clouds. I was alone on top of the mountain, and I sat for a while, taking in the views over the wild countryside. My peace was only shattered once or twice when other hikers passed by. The only reason to come down was that I had to find my way to the airport for a flight back to Oslo. This was a very annoying business, first of all because I was extremely content up there and didn’t feel like starting my journey back to London, and secondly because it was the World Cup final, and in a moment of appalling planning, I’d booked [...]
Jul 11, 2010 in Norway 2010
I walked back to the hostel in the midnight daylight. The next day, it rained heavily all day, and I sat in a cafe watching the rain batter on the window and drinking coffee until I got tunnel vision. The next day it was nicer. I walked across the bridge from Tromsøya to the mainland, and got the cable car up the hill to Storsteinen. It was a short ride up, and it wasn’t cheap. Nothing is in Norway. But it was worth it. There weren’t too many people around, and the views over the city and the mountains were pretty incredible.
Apr 17, 2010 in Scotland 2010
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 I knew we’d made a good choice – the hills looked rugged and inviting. We’d also made an excellent choice by deciding to stay at the Fell View guest house, one of the most hospitable places I’ve stayed anywhere on my travels. Our target was Goat Fell. The weather had been beautiful when we arrived but was a little bit more overcast the next day. It was good walking weather. 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 circuitous route along a spectacular ridge, descended a bit and then scrambled up a very steep slope [...]
Jan 05, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
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 [...]
Jul 06, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I left Emstrur early. I had just a few hours to go to finish the job I’d started ten years before, and I was in a good mood. The trail started with a steep descent, so steep that it required a little bit of abseiling, using a handily-placed rope. A bridge crossed the Ytri-Emstruá river, and then the trail reached the point where that and the Markarfljót joined. One was dark grey and the other was light grey, and the different shades flowed side by side. I followed the course of the Markarfljót. The trail was flat, it was warm and sunny, and I made fast progress. Then the trail turned steeply upwards for a while, and the views got more and more amazing the higher I got. I reached a ridge, and far below I could see what looked like a modest river. The path dropped down towards it, and the closer I got, the more I could see how much I’d underestimated it. By the time I got to its banks I could see it was not going to be easy. I was glad to meet a couple of Dutch hikers who had just crossed. If I fell [...]
Jul 05, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I cooked up some lunch on the veranda of the hut. As I ate, the clouds suddenly parted, revealing a couple of hikers heading out across a huge snowy expanse, ringed by mountains. A roar away to my right turned out to be coming from a huge steam plume jetting straight out of the ground. I finished my food, grabbed my pack and headed out. Hiking across the snow was fairly tough going but I knew the hardest bit of the day was already behind me. I’d climbed 500 metres and now I would drop 500 metres to Álftavatn. The weather was beautiful here, and I was alone on the trail pretty much the whole way. I was in an Icelandic dream but I did not let up my pace for a second. I marched pretty much as fast as I could, somehow fearing that if I slowed down I might not make it to Þórsmörk. Later the weather turned. I descended into a verdant gorge, and crossed my first river. It was only ankle-deep but bitingly cold, and I walked gingerly for a mile or so afterwards until my feet started to feel again. The cloud was thickening and [...]
Jun 29, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I’d bought a small map of Ammassalik Island for the staggering price of 17 pounds, and I was determined to use it. My target this day was to climb Sømandsfjeldet, a vicious-looking mountain behind town. It was only 800m high but the word was it was no easy climb. Once again the hiking was a dream. After a short time on recognisable trails I was out in the wilderness, just keeping my eye on the mountain top and picking my way onward and upward. I soon reached some impressive heights. The going was tough, and parts of my climb were incredibly steep, but spurring me on were some awesome views. I could see Kulusuk island in the distance, looking much colder and more forbidding than Ammassalik Island, and I could see the endless expanse of sea ice stretching way out to sea. What I could also see was a bank of cloud in the distance. I pushed on higher, but it was becoming pretty difficult to edge my way up. The clouds seemed to be coming closer, and I still had some pretty tough climbing to do before I could reach the summit. If I got caught in cloud up [...]
Feb 28, 2009 in Grenoble 2009
Jan 25, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
I reached the Roques de García in the middle of the afternoon. All across the caldera, the scenery was desert-like, and here, 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 was a steady succession of cars and buses arriving, disgorging their contents of tourists who swarmed over the trails around the giant rock pillars, then got back into their transport and disappeared. I had seen pictures of these rocks before, but didn’t appreciate until now just how huge they were. Few pictures of them show that they are many times taller than a person. I took some photos that also failed to show their height well. Eventually it was time for the bus back down to the south of the island. I headed down and flew home. Only a few hours separated my standing on top of a giant volcano off the coast of Africa with my being back in London, getting a night bus home. Every time I go back to the Canary Islands I like them more, and already I was wondering when I’d next get the chance to visit.
Jan 25, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
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.
Jan 25, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
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. Once we were up at high altitude the scenery was impressive, and we drove 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 and 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 [...]
Jul 23, 2008 in Balkans 2008
On the last day of my trip, we went for a drive in the mountains. We headed out towards Metsovo, to the Pindus National Park. We had wanted to go hiking, but it turned out the national park office was closed this week and we couldn’t get any information about the trails. So we decided to just drive up interesting trails, and found ourselves going through some seriously remote forest. Eventually we reached a clearing where a lone shepherd was tending his flock. The track after here became impassable, so we turned around and headed back. We took another road into a different part of the forest. We wound up in another clearing near a river, where we stopped and hiked downstream a bit. There was no-one else around and the woods were calm and peaceful, except for the distant bark of sheepdogs. It was getting late and we had to head off. Back where the car was parked, some shepherds were working and their dogs were pretty aggressive. They chased the car, barking furiously as we drove, and followed us for quite a while. Eventually we shook them off. Then, we rounded a corner and saw a large animal [...]
Jul 13, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I had a choice when I got to Podgorica – head into the mountains of Montenegro, or move on to Kosovo. I had a brief look outside the bus station, and immediately decided to wait one hour here for the bus to Žabljak, rather than wait six hours for the bus to Priština. It was a good decision. The journey into the hinterlands of Montenegro was amazing. Before very long we were in rugged and remote scenery, wild mountains with waterfalls and streams, all covered in lush green forests. Between tiny settlements where people got on and off, there was little sign of human habitation. We arrived in Žabljak just after sunset. I wondered if it would turn out to have been a bad idea to arrive in a popular mountain town late on a weekend evening in the summer, but I found a room easily enough, in a house owned by a woman called Dragana. In the morning I went for a walk to Crno Jezero, Black Lake. It was not far out of town and it was a nice walk through the forest. The lake was quiet, and impressive, with towering rocky peaks and dense forest around it. [...]
Sep 17, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
Braşov had an addictively laid-back vibe, and I spent another couple of days there doing nothing much at all but enjoying the fresh mountain air and sunshine. Eventually it was time to move on – I wanted to see a bit of Bucharest before flying back home – so I got a train to Sinaia, another mountain town on the line to Bucharest. I wanted to go up its famous cable car, which takes you up to an altitude of some 2200m, high in the Bucegi Mountains, but I’d picked the wrong day – it’s closed on Mondays. I had to content myself with a short walk into the hills and a look at Peleş Castle, which was massively more impressive than Bran Castle. Then I walked back to the station and got the train to Bucharest. The sun was setting and I had a great journey under blazing red skies. I got to Bucharest late in the evening, jumped on the metro and headed for a hostel.
Jun 23, 2007 in La Palma 2007
From Tazacorte we headed inland, planning just to head back to Santa Cruz. But we passed a sign to ‘La Cumbrecita’ and thought we’d investigate. The road led us through the forests in the centre of the island, and eventually became a single-track dirt road. We were not sure if we would be coming to anything worth seeing, but La Cumbrecita turned out to be pretty awesome. When we reached a small car park at the end of the road, we found ourselves on the south side of the caldera, with a spectacular view across to the northern side. Mist was pooling in the caldera, and clouds were flowing over its walls, evaporating as they tumbled down.
Jan 09, 2006 in South America 2005
I arrived in Arequipa just after dawn on a beautiful day. Confronting me as I arrived, soaring into the deep blue sky with a dusting of snow on top, was what I had come here to climb – El Misti. My South America plans had always involved climbing at least one big mountain, and El Misti is one of the easiest ways to do that – it’s a popular climb from Arequipa, and it doesn’t get at all technical. The main thing that stops people getting to the top is the fact that it’s 5822 metres tall – just over 19,000 feet. But I’d been acclimatising to altitude for more than a month, and it was time to put that to good use. I got down to business quickly, booking a guided trip to climb the mountain the next day, and then shopping for energy food. The extremely friendly owner of the Sillar Negro hostel where I was staying was a keen climber himself, and when I told him I was doing the climb, he came out with me to recommend good food to buy. At 8am the following morning I was at the offices of the climbing company, getting [...]
Dec 27, 2005 in South America 2005
In the middle of the Salar de Uyuni, I’d met a traveller from Manchester who said that by far the most exciting thing he’d done in South America was cycling from La Paz to Coroico. I like mountain biking a lot, and this ride, which would actually involve mountains, sounded like a lot of fun. So when I arrived in La Paz on Boxing Day my first priority was to book onto a tour. The ride doesn’t actually start in La Paz, which is a mere 3600 metres above sea level. It starts at La Cumbre, a pass high, high in the Andes at 4700m above sea level. Coroico is 64km away horizontally, and three and a half kilometres vertically. It’s downhill all the way, but the catch is that the road is just a narrow ledge cut into breathtakingly steep mountainsides. Sadly, it’s a road with a reputation for tragedy – buses and trucks fall with horrible frequency into the valley, and it is frequently described as the most dangerous road in the world. So I was slightly nervous when I got up at 6am to get ready for the tour. I was also extremely tired, having made a [...]
Dec 15, 2005 in South America 2005
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 [...]
Nov 20, 2005 in South America 2005
From El Calafate I got a bus to El Chaltén, a great journey around the shores of Lago Argentino, stopping at a remote estancia for a coffee, then along the shores of the other big lake of the region, Lago Viedma. Heavy clouds and fading light made the glaciers bearing down into the lake look very threatening. We arrived in El Chaltén in lashing rain and high winds at about 10.30pm, and the word was that bad weather was expected for the next few days. But the next day dawned bright and clear, and I bought myself some provisions and set off for a two day hike, to Campamento Poincenot near the base of one of South America’s most famous mountains, Cerro Fitz Roy. The walking was excellent, with the path quickly rising up to some fabulous views back down over El Chaltén. After an hour or so, Cerro Fitz Roy came into view, soaring into the sky in the same astonishing way as the Torres del Paine. The path went through some woods for a while, and on this section I found a huge woodpecker hammering away at the trees. He was unconcerned as I took photos of him [...]
Nov 16, 2002 in Salzburg 2002
After a restorative sleep on the bench, I headed for the fortress. I’d only just escaped from The Sound Of Music, but I couldn’t escape from Mozart. He was everywhere. Half the buildings and streets seemed to be named after him, and statues of him watched me as I walked through the town. Up at the fortress, I decided not to part with any money to actually look around. The views over town were good enough for me, so I sat up on the fortress walls, looking out over Austria. South of town the Alps rose dramatically from the plains, their peaks shrouded in mist.
Dec 04, 2001 in Australia 2001
I got an overnight bus from Melbourne to Sydney. It was almost entirely full but there was one single spare seat on the bus. It was the seat next to me, and I was very happy about that. It meant I got a less bad night’s sleep than I would have done, and I wasn’t quite incoherent with tiredness when we arrived in Sydney at 6.30am. I got straight on a train to Katoomba. It was a beautiful day in the Blue Mountains. Katoomba is one of the most popular spots in the region, but it was not too busy as I walked down to Echo Point. I walked from the point along the edge of the Jamison Valley for a few hours, to Katoomba Falls and beyond. The hazy blue valley looked vast and impenetrable. I only had a few days left in Australia before I had to head back to London, work and winter, but it was so peaceful here that such thoughts were very far from my mind. After the bus journey I was tired. I headed back to Katoomba, and had a power nap at the hostel I was staying at. It had been a beautiful [...]
Jul 20, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
Progress was quite slow on the way down: it seemed much harder to see the red marks in many places. Whenever I had to stop and look around for the next mark I was startled by the absolute stillness and quiet all around. But I made it to the bottom with (I thought) plenty of time to get back to Chambe, and walked quickly to where I had left Stern. There was no sign of him or anyone else, and I shouted his name a couple of times, but heard no reply. I thought perhaps he’d moved down the path to somewhere with more shelter, and walked on, occasionally shouting, but never hearing any reply. After a while I decided he must have abandoned me, and I began walking as fast as I could for the hut. For a while I thought I was making good progress, and though I sometimes didn’t know if I was on the right path or not, I kept coming to familiar places. I walked on, and I could see Chambe peak getting closer and closer. The sun set, but I thought I was near enough to make it back to the hut in the [...]
Jul 19, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
The big day started early: I got up at 5am to pack up my supplies for the climb. I was ready to go at 6.15am, but Stern reckoned my bag was too bulky for the climb and I repacked my stuff in his much smaller bag. At 6.45am we left, into a bright and sunny morning. From the start the scenery was impressive, through dense woodland then onto exposed ridges with broad views, across grassland and past rocky peaks. I thought we were going rather slowly, though, and after an hour it became clear why. Stern suddenly disappeared into the bushes, leaving me standing bewildered on the path. After some time he returned and said he felt ill. ‘My stomach has opened!’ he said. He decided he was not going to be able to make it to the peak. I was gutted to think I might not be able to get to the peak, but Stern decided he would be OK to walk across the plateau to the base of the climb. From here he reckoned I’d be able to find my way to the peak OK. After about half an hour’s more walking, he said he’d stop here and [...]
Jul 18, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
The following morning I got up at 6.30am, intending to travel to Blantyre, some 500 miles away to the south. There were two ways to go about this – inland via Mzuzu along a fast road, or along the coast, slower but more scenic. I decided to go the coast way, and found a bus heading that way. There were just two problems. First was that this was a country bus, and therefore stopped about every two minutes to pick people up and drop them off, making the journey painfully slow. Second was that the coast road had been washed away some time before about two hours south of Nkhata Bay, and the bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere by the remnants of a bridge. There was a makeshift footbridge over the river, and on the other side there were pick-ups waiting to ferry people to Dwanga, the nearest town on the other side, from where we could get onward buses. From Dwangwa I got a bus to Salima, and from there I got straight on a bus for Balaka. This leg was right up there in the most absurdly overcrowded journeys I’ve ever made, and once [...]
Oct 21, 2000 in Central America 2000
We had been told that the temperature at the summit was usually around -5°C just before dawn, and we could well believe it as we emerged from the tent at 5.30am to find an awesome view before us. Pre-dawn colours dusted the sky, towns and villages glowed far beneath us, and a mighty plume of steam rose gently from Volcán Santiaguito. A continuous jet-engine roar could be heard from the volcano. Our friends with the fire came over to make sure we were up, and we watched with them as the stars were engulfed by the rising blue of the sky. It was a perfectly clear and still morning. The effort of carrying all our camping equipment up here had been rewarded. We could see Guatemala’s chain of volcanoes stretching away 100km in either direction: as far as Mexico to the west, and to Fuego and Acatenango in the east. Between us and these two were the volcanoes around Atitlán. It was only a week since we had been at the top of San Pedro, and I still felt like I owned it as I looked back at it from here. It was a truly beautiful moment when over this [...]
Oct 20, 2000 in Central America 2000
Volcán Santamaria stands 3772m tall, just south of Xela. It had never been known to erupt before 1902, but in that year it underwent the third-largest eruption of the 20th century. The cataclysmic explosion ripped away the southern flank of the volcano, leaving a huge gash in the side of the mountain. After 20 years of calm, new eruptions began in this gash, forming a new volcano, Santiguito, which has been erupting ever since. Santamaria is a popular climb among visitors to Xela, and every morning a minibus took climbers to the start of the trail for 5.30am. Along with 7 other travellers, we got this bus, and so before the sun rose we were already making our way up the lower slopes of the volcano. Me and Moh were the only ones planning to stay at the top, and so we were carrying much more weight than everyone else. For the first hour or so, on the gentle lower slopes, we kept up with the group OK, but as the path got steeper and the forest thicker there was no way we could keep up, and so the fast guys disappeared into the undergrowth. We knew that at the [...]
Oct 14, 2000 in Central America 2000
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 [...]
Sep 27, 2000 in Central America 2000
Ometepe was certainly fascinating just in terms of its recent history. But it’s also a very beautiful place. Though their tops were invariably covered in cloud while we were on the island, the two volcanoes make for a great setting. The larger of the two, the active Volcán Concepción, looms right behind Altagracia, while the smaller, Maderas, can be seen far away to the south-west. Early on our second day, we set out to see what we could do about climbing Volcán Concepción. We set out along the road south from Altagracia, looking, as our guidebook told us to, for a cemetary on the right after a mile and a half, past which ran a trail up the volcano. We walked for a good three miles before deciding we’d gone too far, and headed back. Fortunately our Spanish (well, mine at least – Moh was still trying to master the phrase for ‘I don’t speak Spanish’) was up to asking for directions, and we found the path. It was about 7am, but already I was dripping with sweat. We headed up the path, first crossing some plantations, before getting out of the cultivated land and into the forest. We climbed [...]
Sep 24, 2000 in Central America 2000
The next morning, we set out to explore the mountain. Rincón de la Vieja is at the centre of a region of great geothermal activity, and the evidence for subterranean heat is everywhere. A well-trodden trail winds past many geothermal features, and we set out along it. Before long we were temporarily out of the forest, and all around could see steam rising from the ground. It was quite a sight, and we set off in search of what was steaming. Over the next three hours or so, we passed hot pools of water, gently simmering and glooping pools of mud, warm streams, and a steaming hole in the ground which was rumbling and groaning ominously. We also saw a fearsomely boiling pool of mud known as Volcancito. It was quite a sight, and we couldn’t help but wonder just how far below us the magma here was. After seeing all that we could on the trail, we returned to our tents and had a magnificent pasta, tomato and tuna meal, before breaking camp. We had arranged to be picked up at the park’s other ranger station, 8km away, and we had four hours to do it in. We wanted [...]
Sep 20, 2000 in Central America 2000
We had met two Germans, Colom and Sylvia, down by the falls. Colom had a pickup truck, and when we saw that the volcano was visible, he said he would drive out towards it after nightfall, and invited us along. We gladly accepted. When darkness fell, a distinct orange glow could be seen over the volcano, and when Colom called around with his truck, we leapt keenly aboard. It was a spectacular drive out along the road past the volcano, with the wind in our hair, fireflies flashing around, and the volcano glowing high in the sky. However, as we watched, the clouds began to lower, and the volcano disappeared from view. Soon it was pelting down with rain. We sat inside the cab of the pickup until it had eased off, and then drove on. It was not long before the top of the volcano emerged again, and we decided to stop and watch it. All the rivers which run off the volcano are heated by the magma, and several places along the road here channel streams into pools. We stopped at one of these and sat in the thermal waters, watching the truly awesome sight of the volcano [...]
Sep 17, 2000 in Central America 2000
We had intended to depart for San Jose early the next day, but Jose said there was a great fruit market in Alajuela, so we went to that. It was a vibrant, colourful affair, with a beer tent and live music, and we had a great time buying lots of weird tropical fruits. I got horrifically sunburnt for the first time on the trip, but it had been a fun day so I didn’t mind. Eventually at about 4pm we left for San José. This meant we arrived just after dark, and it was raining. This is not really a sensible time to arrive in a big bustling Latin American capital, and it wasn’t long before we attracted unwanted attention. ‘Where you going?’ said a shifty looking character. ‘We’re looking for the Tica Linda hostel’ we said. He strode off purposefully, beckoning to us to follow him. Having no better plan, we did just that. He introduced himself as Patrick Fernandez, and said he hoped we’d enjoy Costa Rica. Friendly enough, but when he began walking down very dodgy looking streets, we began to worry. Then he walked into a dark unlit park, and we began to really worry. We [...]
Sep 15, 2000 in Central America 2000
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 [...]
Sep 16, 1999 in Iceland 1999
And that, to all intents and purposes, was the end of our journey. We didn’t do much else of interest, spending our final day in Iceland wandering around Reykjavík. We got the cheapest souvenirs we could find (a pack of cards), bought a newspaper at horrific expense, took a trip up the spire of the Hallgrímskirkja, and went to see the Volcano Show. This is a two-hour film containing footage of all the eruptions in Iceland since 1947, and it was very impressive. We had seen all the volcanoes in the film, so we felt that we had done well in our four weeks here. The final morning was a sad occasion. I didn’t want to leave and I was consumed by premature nostalgia as we left the youth hostel on an overcast, grey morning, and took a bus to the BSÍ terminal. From there we went to the Blue Lagoon, a pool of effluent from a geothermal power station which you can swim in, and relaxed for three hours. This was a fine way to end our time in Iceland, and we certainly felt that we deserved a rest. It had been a long, at times arduous, but extremely [...]
Sep 02, 1999 in Iceland 1999
We left the next morning for Kirkjubæjarklaustur. We hadn’t planned to go there originally, but we had heard great things about a place called Landmannalaugar from a Dutch guy at Mývatn, who said that he had been watching the Aurorae Borealis from geothermal hot pools. Also from Landmannalaugar, you can do a three day walk to þórsmörk through some of the most incredible scenery in Iceland. The whole area is volcanically active, and so we decided that we would give it a go. So from Skaftafell, we went to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, to provision ourselves. Landmannalaugar is, like Askja, well beyond the reach of civilization. A warden lives in the mountain hut there from May to September, but it is otherwise uninhabited. We spent a terrifying amount of money on 5 days’ food, and then spent the rest of the day at Kirkjubæjarklaustur relaxing, and preparing for the approaching ordeal. The next day, the weather was Miserable. The north Atlantic was blowing horizontally across Iceland, and, for once, the temperature had dropped below its usual 10° . We got the bus at 9am, and hoped for better in the interior. This was laughably optimistic. We stopped for an hour on the way [...]
Feb 23, 1999 in OHP 1999
The 12 of us travelling to Provence met early one February morning at Waterloo station to get the Eurostar to Lille. I’d never been through the Channel Tunnel before, and was somehow surprised that it only took twenty minutes to go through. On the other side, it was a short journey to Lille, where we then got a TGV to Avignon. This was a magnificent journey through the wintry snow-covered countryside of central France. Our enjoyment was enhanced by the consumption of numerous cheap cans of beer in the fantastically retro buffet carriage. At Avignon we were met by observatory staff and driven up to the observatory. We had a day to kill before our observing run started, and we spent it exploring the observatory, which is up on a hillside with some great views of the surrounding countryside. The air was fresh, the skies were clear, and things looked good.
Aug 03, 1998 in Australia 1998
Kata Tjuta is a collection of giant red rocks about 20 miles from Uluru. The tallest rocks are taller than Uluru but Kata Tjuta is far less well know. I hadn’t heard of it before we arrived in Yulara. We headed out there to have a look around, and did an excellent walk through the rocks. We passed through the Valley of the Winds, and the six of us were the only people in sight in the vastness of the landscape. I felt like we were walking on the surface of Mars. Although it was winter, and bitterly cold at night, temperatures were high enough in the day for us to feel pretty exhausted by the end of our circuit. We’d only taken two small bottles of water, and signs at the start of the trail made it clear that in summer, that would have been a lethal error.
Jul 31, 1998 in Australia 1998
We went out to a viewing point near the rock one evening at sunset. It was extremely touristy, and there were people nearby drinking champagne, which I thought was a bit over the top. But the sunset was more impressive than I thought it would be, with the rock turning some remarkable colours as the shadow of the Earth crept up on it.
Jul 30, 1998 in Australia 1998
We didn’t even know helicopter flights were an option here before we arrived, but when we found out we could do them, we didn’t hesitate. It was a spectacular fifteen minutes – we flew high over the rock, and it was the best possible way to appreciate what an astonishing place we were in. Everything was flat, red and barren, and the only things in the whole landscape that stood out were Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
Jul 29, 1998 in Australia 1998
We spent a few days in Adelaide staying with relatives. I had a terrifyingly close encounter with a huntsman spider while we were there, which left me on edge for days afterwards. A day out touring South Australian vineyards helped me to relax again, as did wandering along the shores of the Southern Ocean at Hallett Cove, watching porpoises swimming just off shore. After that, we set off on another epic journey, this time by bus to Yulara, a couple of miles from Uluru. “Don’t worry if you feel a sudden huge thump in the middle of the night”, said the driver as we pulled out of Glendambo at nightfall. “That’ll just be us hitting a kangaroo”. We passed through the Woomera Prohibited Area during the night, and at 6am we found ourselves in Yulara. It was freezing cold, and frost glittered in the morning sun. Later that day, we walked out to a viewpoint near the town. All around was flat, the horizon never-ending, except for the solitary form of the famous bright red rock. It’s such a famous object that it’s almost hard to believe it’s actually real, but there it was.
Feb 01, 1998 in Sicily 1998
On our final day we went for another lengthy hike, and we got some great views along the way. We were heading for a scenic viewpoint but sadly by the time we got there, the clouds had as well. We were just facing up to the long walk home in the clouds when some friendly locals arrived in a tiny mini. They offered us a lift back down, and the three of us squeezed into the back. It felt like the bottom of the car was going to scrape along the road, but we made it back down without damage. In the evening, the clouds cleared and once again we could see the bright red glow of lava fountains at the summit. We had to leave at 4.30am to get our flight home, so we stayed up all night, watching the distant explosions. We saw the mountain from the plane window as we took off from Catania. We hadn’t made it to the top, but we’d seen it erupting, and we thought that was a pretty good result.
Jan 31, 1998 in Sicily 1998
Early on the third day we took a taxi to the Rifugio Sapienza. It was a great ride, up beyond the snowline, with our taxi driver playing Enya tapes at high volume. On the way we saw steam billowing from the summit and had high hopes of getting close to the action. From the Rifugio we got a cable car up to Montagnola, 2,500m above sea level. Four years after we were there, both the Rifugio Sapienza and the Montagnola cable car station were destroyed by lava flows. As we rolled up towards Montagnola, clouds were rolling in. They arrived about the same time as we did, obscuring the summit completely. We spoke to some guides about going up to the craters, and they said we should wait until the clouds cleared. Wait we did, but sadly in vain. We had a few strong espressos and hung around up there until about 3pm. It was still cloudy, so we headed back down and got the evening bus to Catania. In an epic downpour we descended back to sea level, and got a taxi back to Zafferana. A misunderstanding over the fare saw us arguing furiously with the taxi driver as [...]
Jan 30, 1998 in Sicily 1998
From Zafferana a road winds up through vineyards and past houses towards the Rifugio Sapienza. The next day we set out for a good long walk along the road, refusing to be deterred by the thick clouds which descended as we hiked. If we’d have been sensible, we probably would have realised that January up a mountain is likely to mean unstable weather. We hiked up past old lava flows. In 1792 and 1992, flows had almost reached Zafferana, stopping just short both times. In 1992 the army had dropped concrete blocks from helicopters to try and divert the flows. The 1792 lava was covered in moss and almost looked like just another part of the mountain. The 1992 lava was still bare. We walked to a place with a view over eastern Sicily. The weather cleared up briefly, but only towards the coast. The mountain was still totally hidden. We walked on, but the clouds came in again and it was getting dark. By torchlight, we headed back down to Zafferana.
Jan 29, 1998 in Sicily 1998
A photo of Mt. Etna erupting on the front page of the paper was the cue for this trip. I saw the photo in the morning, and by the afternoon I’d booked my flight to Catania, at the foot of the mountain and persuaded two friends to come with me. We were young and naive and it’s amazing we even got to the airport given the extreme lack of planning. We didn’t even have a guidebook, but somehow this didn’t deter us at all. Our flight was at 7am. Having slept at Heathrow to make our early check-in we were not exactly fizzing with energy on our first day. We we hardly conscious as we flew over the Alps, but I was awake and slightly nervous as we descended over Sicily. We banked heavily and looked right down onto Etna’s summit, which was steaming gently in the bright morning sun. We walked out of tiny Catania airport to see Mt. Etna itself soaring into the sky, and took a bus that was going towards it. We found our way to a village called Zafferana, at 800m above sea level on the eastern flank of the mountain, and booked into a [...]