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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 spots of rain. We made it to the outcrop without getting wet, and from it we got awesome views over the valley.
After we headed back down, the heavens finally did open, but we were safe in our car by then, and we drove down the valley as the sun broke through the rain clouds again.
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 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 and was swept away to a grim death, at least someone would know. They had found a decent place to cross, and they shouted back across the raging torrent to direct me. They also threw me a pair of flip-flops – until now I’d just crossed all the rivers barefoot. I tied everything to my pack and ploughed into the waters.
The rivers until now had been ankle-deep at worst but this one was over my knees straight away. In the middle it was up to my hips and the current was pushing me downstream. A slip would have been disastrous but luckily I made it across. I thanked the Dutch couple and gave them back their flip-flops. Then I realised I’d left one of my socks on the other side of the river.
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 eventually I could only see the trail and a few feet either side of it. Sometimes in the murk I could hear volcanic springs rumbling and bubbling but I couldn’t see anything. It began to rain.
Finally I reached a flat grassy plain where I could see that vehicles sometimes drove. A few minutes more walking brought me to the shores of Álftavatn. I set up camp and then walked along the shore in the midsummer gloom, listening to music. I was a third of the way to the end.
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 here, there would be a definite possibility of death. I decided to make a strategic retreat.
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 kitted out. There were nine of us climbing that day – me, a Swede, a German and seven Peruvians. We sorted out who was going to carry what, met our guides Roy and Angél, and then drove up to the start of our climb, a few kilometres outside Arequipa and a few hundred metres higher. The climb was to take two days, the first taking us to a campsite 4400m above sea level. I took it quite easy to get there, but found the last hundred metres or so very tiring. This was the highest I’d ever brought myself on foot, and we were still 1400m below the summit. We cooked up some dinner, and then received the shocking news that we were going to set off for the summit at midnight. Apparently, the crater was emitting a lot of volcanic gas later in the day, and it was safest to get there as soon as possible after sunrise. We set up our camp, mostly in cloud but with occasional breaks revealing the summit high above. At 6pm Johan the Swede and I tried to get some sleep, but the Peruvians had a more cavalier attitude to proceedings, drinking pisco and talking loudly until late.
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 tactical error by choosing a room in my hostel which had a balcony overlooking Calle Sagarnaga. The balcony was nice but Calle Sagarnaga does not sleep, and neither did I thanks to the continuous rumbling of traffic and noise of people throughout the night. I got a strong coffee and then went to the offices of the bike company. We drove up to La Cumbre, where clouds whipped by in a bitterly cold wind, and snow lay on the ground. Here we had a safety briefing, and we all rode around a little bit to get used to our bikes. And then, it was time to set off.
The route began on smooth, well-paved roads, which meant that we could go very fast. However, it was below freezing, and before long I couldn’t feel my fingers and my eyes were watering so much I could hardly see. Things took a turn for the worse the very first time I had to brake at all hard, when my bike started fishtailing and before I knew what was happening I was crashing down onto the tarmac. I was pretty shaken and my right shoulder had taken a hard knock, but I was OK to carry on. But now I lacked confidence in my bike, and found myself propping up the rear of the group, with even a timid Swiss girl easily able to outpace me. This was very disappointing for me.
We descended through a police checkpoint. Coroico lies in the Yungas, a region of Bolivia which produces large quantities of coca leaf. The leaf itself is used widely for chewing and brewing, as it has been for centuries, but it can also be used to produce cocaine, of course, and so movements of large amounts of coca leaf are monitored intensively. We passed through and carried on down. Soon we reached a short uphill section, which would have been a great workout as we were still only just under 4000m above sea level. I was hoping to win the informal contest, having been so slow on the downhill, but as soon as I put the power down, my entire rear derailleur collapsed into the rear wheel with a horrific crunch. It was game over for my bike.
Luckily it was not game over for my ride. The company had spares, which were in a support vehicle following us. They drove me to the top of the uphill section, past my fellow cyclists, and prepared a new bike for me. I was genuinely disappointed not to have done the uphill section, but no-one believed me when I said this. The new bike instantly felt enormously better, and when we set off again I was able to lead the pack. Soon we were at the end of the tarmac and the start of the tricky part of the road, and here we split into two groups. I decided to try the faster group, and this proved to be the right decision.
It was the rainy season, and this part of the road was pretty rutted and muddy. Occasionally waterfalls fell right onto it. But the ride was becoming extremely good fun, as we twisted and turned through breathtaking mountain scenery, all the while with dizzy drops just a few feet to our left. We stopped fairly frequently for snack breaks and equipment tuning – brakes needed constant checking, as the consequence of a failure didn’t bear thinking about. The lower we got, the thicker the air got and the faster we went. I had my own personal favourite moment of the tour on this muddy section when the guide overtook a bus just before a bend. I decided to follow, passing the bus at speed on the outside, just a few inches from the edge of the road, with my shoulder still killing me from my earlier tumble.
As we got lower, the temperature rose and it became humid. We were now in the coca, coffee and banana-growing regions and the air smelt earthy and fertile. The road was dusty now, but having spent the last two weeks more than 3000m above sea level, I could breathe through my nose and still cycle as hard as I could. I was amazed at how acclimatised I was, and understood why athletes train so much at altitude. Now I was really hitting my stride, and the guide and I led the pack by a long way.
Eventually we saw Coroico on the hillside ahead of us. I was disappointed; I would have been happy with hours more cycling. But our cycle was to end at a small lodge in the jungle, at the end of an extremely steep trail. This was a final flourish which I enjoyed hugely, even though I set off far too enthusiastically and took my second fall of the day. I jumped back on and raced through the tree with my enthusiasm undimmed, and got to the end with bleeding elbows, a shoulder I could hardly move, and a huge grin on my face.
At the lodge, there were hot showers, and a huge amount of food. We had a fantastic couple of hours there, refuelling, and it was good to finally have a chance to talk to the people I’d cycled with: during the ride, everyone was pretty focussed on the road ahead. It was strange to find myself in hot jungle, when only hours before I’d been on a windswept pass high in the mountains.
And then it was time to head back to La Paz. This proved to be more frightening than the cycle down, because the weather had deteriorated and we had to negotiate the road in thick fog and heavy rain, as night was falling. We went much too fast for my liking, but we got back to the top unscathed. I was in an incredibly good mood. The guy from Manchester was right – this had been one of the most exciting things I’d done in South America.
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 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.
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 from just a couple of feet away.
I wanted to get up before dawn the next day to see the Sun light up Cerro Fitz Roy. My alarm didn’t go off, and when I woke up at 5.45am the granite tower was already blazing red in the dawn light. I grabbed my camera and coat and rushed out to a nearby viewpoint. Luckily I hadn’t missed the most spectacular light, but I had forgotten to grab my gloves. It was well below freezing, and very soon I couldn’t feel my fingers. As the Sun rose slowly higher, the light on the towers gradually got less spectacular, but the air got fractionally warmer and before too long I regained the use of my hands.
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 last of the daylight. As the stars were coming out I was still optimistic. In a fit of well-preparedness I had actually brought a torch along with me, though I had thought I couldn’t possible need it, so I picked my way on by torchlight.
Somewhere along the way I managed to take a wrong turn. It was amazingly difficult to follow the path by torchlight, and at one place where the path split I took the wrong branch. This became clear when the path stopped in the middle of the forest. It was pitch black now, and my mood changed instantly from optimistic to grave concern. I thought about the options, which really came down to blindly walking about in the dark in the hope that I’d find the hut, or stopping where I was for the night. In the end I decided it would be better to stay still than wander hopelessly, and I decided to see what kind of shelter I could rig up. I found two large rocks with a narrow gap between them, and decided to make something of that. For an hour or so I ripped branches and leaves off the nearby trees, to sleep on and under, and then I spent some time photographing the stunningly clear skies. If I was going to have to spend a night out in the middle of absolutely nowhere I could at least get some good night photographs out of it. I’d run out of water now, and all I had to eat was about eight small chunks of chocolate. I ate four of them now, and saved the rest until the morning. Then I spent a while blowing my whistle and flashing my torch in case anyone was looking for me, but to no avail. After an hour or so I decided to try and get some sleep. I tried not to think about the possibility of leopards and hyenas being around.
For a while I was not too uncomfortable, squeezed into that little space between the rocks. I had a jumper and a coat, and the leaves and branches seemed to have some kind of insulating effect. As the night wore on, though, it got colder and colder, and for who knows how long I was awake, shivering, and only occasionally sleeping for very short moments. Animal noises in the forest frequently made me jump up and look around. The stars slowly turned across the sky, and I watched their progress. When Mars set I knew the dawn could not be too far away, and sure enough the sky began to lighten. I’ve never been so relieved to see the dawn. By the time the sun actually rose I had packed up my stuff, tried to get all the undergrowth out of my clothes, and set off walking back up the path. It was my last day in Malawi, I was currently lost on a mountain and I needed to be in Lilongwe by the evening, so I didn’t want to hang around.
After about twenty minutes I came to a small stream, from which I tried to fill up my water bottle. It was a tiny stream and probably not the best drinking water, but I was very thirsty, and a couple of sips made me feel an awful lot better. I ate my last chocolate and walked on. Briefly I wondered what would happen if I didn’t find anyone or get found that day; I didn’t want to think about another night out in the open. But after only about another 10 minutes, I heard a shout from behind me and turned to see Stern coming over a small rise. He’d abandoned me on the mountain and not sent anyone else to meet me, and he clearly had not been out looking for me when I failed to make it back to the hut, and really I think I should have had a proper go at him. But I was so relieved to see someone that I shook his hand. He said he had waited where I left him for a long while, but left before the sun set, because he ‘didn’t want to be alone on the mountain at night’. Neither did I, pal, neither did I.
We were about an hour’s walk from the hut, and I saw now what a stupid mistake I’d made. I’d had to climb over quite a large fallen tree to take the wrong path, and in the darkness I’d not seen the right path leading off unobstructed to the left. My feet were aching terribly, I was extremely hungry and thirsty, and I was pretty cold as well, so to say I was pleased when I saw the hut again is an understatement. When I arrived I found that all the people staying at the hut that night had heard there was someone lost on the mountain, and had all been very worried. They all showered me with sympathy, and gave me fruit, soup, tea, coffee, porridge and bread. I was overwhelmed with it all and I really thought I might cry. I restored myself with all the hot food and drinks I was offered, and drank the most satisfying water I’ve ever tasted.
Gradually everyone left for their hikes, and eventually I was the last one in the hut. I spent a while tending to my battered feet (when I took my boots off, they were actually steaming) before wearily setting off, still with a three hour hike to do to get down the mountain. I don’t really know how I made it but I did, and I felt another flood of relief when I got back to the Forestry Station. I got the best cold Coke I’ve ever tasted at a bottle shop, then started to make my way back to Blantyre. I got a truck to Chitakali, then a bus to Limbe, on which I fell absolutely fast asleep. I woke to find myself slumped embarrassingly against the woman next to me. Then it was just a quick minibus to Blantyre. Back at Doogle’s, where I was staying, I had a more refreshing hot shower than I’ve ever had before.
Then I walked into town to buy a bus ticket to Lilongwe and some food. I spent lavishly on the bus but when I saw it I couldn’t have been more pleased. I think it was the most comfortable bus I’ve been on anywhere in the world. In my wrecked state I took a taxi from Doogle’s to the bus depot, got on board and fell asleep. I slept right through until Lilongwe four hours later, and got a cab to a hostel, where in a hopelessly vague arrangement me and John had said we’d probably try and end up at. As I paid the taxi driver I heard a familiar voice behind me and remarkably enough it turned out we had both made it there. There was one bed spare at the hostel and once again greatly relieved I checked in.
And that was all the adventure over, really. I spent the evening explaining my wild and dishevelled appearance to John and Jessica, who I had met on Likoma Island and was now here, and raging at John because he’d flown here from Mzuzu, before passing out. In the morning we made our way to the airport for the weekly flight back to London. Ten hours later we arrived at Gatwick and headed off into the night.
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 wait for me to come back. He said the way ahead was mostly obvious but that if I couldn’t see the path ahead I shouldn’t try and go on. We agreed that he’d either wait for me here, or go back to the hut and get someone else to meet me so I could find my way back to the hut. I set off, and after the slow pace we’d been making I was keen to get on, so I walked fast. In twenty minutes I was at the base of the climb, where I met two Spanish hikers who had already been defeated by Sapitwa, and were looking pretty shattered. After a chat to them I set off, undaunted. Pretty soon I was on the mountain proper, climbing very steeply over barren rock. Worryingly there was quite a lot of cloud rolling up over the edge of the plateau and I though I might not get a view from the top.
For an hour or so I walked on up, at about 45 degrees, following the red paint marks which showed the route. Occasionally I’d need to look around a bit to find the next mark but I was making fast progress. Quite soon I’d reached the top of the first steep bit, after which it was a more gentle climb for a while. Things began to get quite challenging further on, though, with the occasional very steep scramble, and some dense vegetation to push through. At one point I simply could not find the way ahead, and I was on the point of giving up in frustration, when I heard some voices from up ahead. Two climbers and a guide who’d made it to the peak and were on their way down appeared, and showed me the way ahead. With renewed enthusiasm I set off again, apparently with just an hour to go.
The climb got ever more tortuous, and quite often I’d find that a hard 10 minute scramble had left me only about 50 metres from where I had been. About half an hour on, on a relatively flat bit, I found some pockets of ice, and I chipped off some chunks to put in my water bottle. I ate some as well, which was very refreshing. Then it was onwards and upwards again, and now things were getting silly. There were several places where I had to squeeze myself through tiny gaps to make progress, and other places where I had to scramble up some very narrow ridges. My hiking pole had been great on the lower slopes but was really just a hindrance here, so I left it on the path and went on, picking it up later on the way down.
Then I got to the most absurdly narrow gap I’d yet come to, and here I again though about giving up. I had no idea how much further I had to go, and I was beginning to think I might be running short of time. In the end I decided to push through and see if I could see the summit from the other side. So I did that, and to my delight I found that I was only about 20 metres below the summit. I was so pleased I hadn’t given up that I ran the rest of the way.
Sapitwa! Highest point in all of Central Africa! And I had it to myself. The clouds that had threatened earlier had gone away and I had stunning views all over the plateau and of the surrounding countryside. I felt great, and I was so pleased with myself I shouted and sang a bit. The feeling of solitude was amazing: there was no-one as high as me for at least a thousand miles in every direction. I took a roll and a half of film of the amazing views, and then reluctantly set off back down the mountain.
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 I’d squeezed myself, my backpack and my day pack into my seat, I could only move my forearms. I spent the journey trying to eat fruit without dropping it and trying to manoevre my walkman into place so I could listen to some music. I managed it, and even had time to listen to a couple of tunes before we arrived in Balaka. Once more my luck held, and I waited in the layby at Balaka for no more than a couple of minutes before I found a minibus going to Blantyre. The driver said he’d drop me off right at the door of where I was going to stay, and at 8.30pm after eleven hours on the road, five journeys and a total cost of about 7 pounds, I arrived in Blantyre.
Sadly I’d chosen to stay in a place next to the bus station, and at about 5am the next morning, the insanely loud tannoy began blaring out the day’s arrivals and departures. My intention in this part of the country was to go hiking on Mount Mulanje, Malawi’s highest mountain, topping out at 3002m, so I set off into town to gather some information. Blantyre was really a very pleasant city, with all the facilities a traveller needs. I managed to catch up on my e-mail, did some food shopping in the well-stocked supermarkets, bought a guidebook to Mount Mulanje, bought and sent some postcards, spent a while drinking real, real coffee in a nice little cafe, and generally enjoyed the ambience. I spent the evening relaxing and reading about the mountain, in preparation for the three day hike I planned.
So early the next morning I headed for Mount Mulanje. A quick bus journey to Limbe got me in the right places for buses to Mulanje town, and before too long I was on my way. I slept for a while along the way, and when I woke I had my first view of the mountain, rising dramatically, blue in the distance, from the endless flat tea-growing fields. I slept for a while more, then woke again to find us right next to the mountain. It’s more of a plateau than a mountain, and it rises almost sheer from the flat surroundings to about 2000m. Much of the top is gently rolling hills, but there are about 20 peaks, the highest of which, Sapitwa, was my target. From Mulanje town I got a truck to Likhubula, the starting point for the climb. At the forestry station I found a guide, called Stern, and at 11am we set off for Chambe hut, on the plateau.
It was quite a hike. For two hours it was relentlessly steep, and very hot. The views on the way kept me going, though, and we made a good pace. With just a couple of short breaks, we made it to the edge of the plateau in just under two hours. From there it was a gentle walk to Chambe hut, about an hour away. The hut was in a beautiful place, facing the dramatic Chambe peak, surrounded by woodland, and with a stream running in front of it. There was a fire inside, very welcome because it was much cooler up here than it had been at ground level. When I arrived I was the only person there, but as the day wore on more hikers arrived, and we socialised as the sun set and the stars came out. It was a magnificently clear night, and we were all looking forward to the hikes we had planned for the next day. After a fantastic instant pasta meal (these things are always more tasty in the wilderness) I turned in, ready to climb the next day
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 awesome scene the sun appeared, and we basked in its rays as the temperature very slowly began to rise. To make the moment perfect, Volcán Fuego chose that moment to erupt a small cloud of ash.
But the best moment was still to come. I walked round to the west side of the summit, and was amazed to see the perfectly straight-sided shadow of the volcano stretching away to the horizon. This was beautiful in itself, but then I climbed onto the very peak of the volcano to get a better view. To my astonishment I could then see my own shadow stretching away into the distance as well. It was an amazing moment, and looking back, probably ranks as the outstanding memory of the trip.
After this incredible sunrise, we walked over to the south side of the volcano to look down on Volcán Santiaguito. It was incredible to look down on, and hear, this erupting volcano while 100km away we could see another volcano erupting at the same time. We sat there silently for a long time, gazing at the view which stretched away before us to the Pacific. At 9.30am, though, the peace was shattered when a group of climbers arrived at the top. They were out of luck, getting just a few minutes of the view we had been enjoying for hours before the clouds rolled in below us. We had seen what we came to see, and so after we had eaten a breakfast of Rice Krispies in hot milk, we broke camp and reluctantly set off down the mountain.
As on the way up, we took it slowly, and after almost three hours we were at the bottom of the steep section. Here we rested for a while, and had a chat with a farmer who was on his way to his fields. He was very friendly, and talked to us for quite a while, asking us where we were from, what England was like, what the weather was like, whether there were farmers like him in England, what tools the farmers used, and what the word for ‘Machete’ was in English. We shook hands heartily as he headed off to work. After another hour’s walk, we were back at the road, from where we got a bus back to town.
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 pace we were going we would be unlikely to get a view when we reached the top, but we also knew that we were staying the night and would get the view in the morning. So we just took our time and didn’t push too hard.
The air had seemed thin when we climbed Volcán San Pedro, but here it really began to have an effect. As we climbed to well over 3000m, we found that we needed to stop for rests ever more frequently, and after four hours or so, we were only progressing short distances at a time. At about 10am we were overtaken by a group of young Guatemalans, who told us we were about an hour and a half below the summit. We pressed on, and at 11.30am we met our group coming down. They told us it was another half hour to the top, and with renewed energy we pressed on to the top. I arrived just after midday, with Moh following a quarter of an hour later. The Guatemalans who had passed us earlier were there, and gave us each a round of applause. We were relieved to have made it to the summit: after six hours, we began to believe it didn’t exist.
As expected, it was cloudy, so we couldn’t really tell we were on top of a huge mountain. As well as the young Guatemalans, we were sharing the summit with some Mayan worshippers, who were chanting and praying. We chatted to the Guatemalans, who turned out to be students at the university of Quetzaltenango, and they shared their biscuits with us. They were a lively bunch, and the summit was very quiet after they headed down at about 2pm. We set up our camp in a sheltered spot, and made ourselves feel at home. Despite the long hard climb we felt exhilarated. It was cold and cloudy but we were camping at 3,772m (12,572ft) in Guatemala, so all was well and we were happy.
We rested in the tent listening to the Mayan people singing for a couple of hours, emerging to watch the daylight fade at about 5.30pm. By this time, the worshippers had gone, and we were sharing the summit with six Guatemalans who had arrived during the afternoon. They had built a camp fire, and called us over to join them. As we stood around the fire, the clouds momentarily parted to reveal a livid red sun sinking beneath the horizon, the city lights twinkling far below us and a huge column of steam rising from the unseen cone of Santiaguito. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and we became soaked with dew as we stood around the camp fire. We chatted to the Guatemalans for a while, but soon there came a pause in the conversation when our Spanish could take us no further.
After a few seconds silence, one of the Guatemalans asked us if we liked football. We said yes, and the conversation started again. ‘Manchester United!’ said one. ‘Tottenham Hotspur’, I rejoined. ‘David Beckham’ said another. I risked ‘Watford FC’, but to no great surprise they’d never heard of the mighty hornets. We exchanged a few more player and teams names, before we left the fire to go and cook dinner.
When you’re camping in the wilderness in Central America, simple foods become culinary experiences, and we had a spectacular ravioli con carne from a packet, followed by potato soup. We bedded down for the night at about 7pm.
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 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.
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 for about an hour and a half, occasionally getting a good view over the island, but mostly being in thick jungle. Unfortunately we hadn’t been able to buy any food, and having not eaten breakfast we were forced by hunger to turn back at about 8.30am. We were back in town by 10am, and ate a hearty breakfast.
We were staying at the Hotel Castillo, mentioned in all the guidebooks as being a great place to stay. We had good rooms for only £3 a night. The reason the hotel was so recommended was that the family who run it were said to be exceptionally accommodating, sharing their wealth of knowledge about the island with anyone who asked them. Sadly the legendary Señor Castillo, who had lived on the island for eighty-odd years, was not around when we were staying, but instead there was a friendly guy called Neftali, who worked on a banana plantation during the day, but came to the hotel most evenings to chat to the guests, practising his English and sharing his knowledge of the island. We spent a long while that evening chatting to him about the island and Nicaragua in general.
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 to stop at some hot springs on the way, so we thought we’d leave plenty of time.
It was pretty hard going, though, with the first four kilometres being almost entirely uphill. Moh at one point complained that his legs weren’t working, and promptly fell over. However, we were making very reasonable time. With about an hour and a half left before our driver was to pick us up, we arrived at the trail which led to the springs. A quick kilometre and we were there, and it was truly wonderful. Hot water emerges from beneath some rocks, and flows into a cool stream, and where they mix is pure heaven. I sat with my feet in the cool water and the rest of me in the hot, and relaxed.
But all too soon we had to be on our way, and we set off renewed for the final 3km. We set a blistering pace, and arrived at the ranger station at the same time as our lift, although Moh was looking somewhat the worse for wear. ‘Bue…nos…di…as’, he said to our driver, wheezing terribly. ‘You look terrible’ replied our scrupulously honest driver. We had a great run back to Liberia in the fading light of day, and on arrival back at our hospedaje, we drank about a gallon of water each and I had the best shower ever.
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 erupting.
Eventually we had to leave. We stopped at a café by the roadside for a bite to eat and watched the volcano from there, but now we were round the other side from the eruptions, and all we could see was the glow. It had been an amazing sight, and we hoped we would see it again.
The next day, we planned to hike back along the road, and make our way to a viewpoint we had seen signposted the day before. We were going to watch the eruptions from there as the sun set. We bought food and drink and were all set to go, when suddenly Moh was afflicted by what they call Montezuma’s Revenge in these parts. We had to give the walk a miss, but later on when it was dark, the eruptions could be seen again, so we went for a walk around town, and took some photos.
Much later, I learned a painful lesson from the photo here. Someone asked me if they could publish it in a book. I was very excited by this and agreed. Sadly, the person concerned never paid me as promised, and also lost the slide. So, all I have now is the poor-quality highly compressed JPEG from a budget scanner that you see above. Ah well – I’ll just have to go back to Arenal some time.
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 made it out the other side unscathed, though, and saw a sign saying ‘Hotel Rialto’. We sent Patrick on his way and checked in. Only much later did we realise that ‘Tica Linda’ means ‘pretty Costa Rican’, and we could then guess where Patrick might have been leading us.
We managed to avoid any further dodgy situations that evening, and after a very noisy night at the Hotel Rialto, which had paper-thin walls, we got a bus the next morning to Volcán Irazú. At 3432m, it is the highest active volcano in Costa Rica, and like Poás, is a well-developed tourist attraction. However, unlike Poás, we found that the summit was cloaked in thick cloud when we got there. We walked to the edge of the crater, but we could see nothing, so we went and ate a rice and beans breakfast in the food shack near the top. However, about an hour later, things were brightening a bit, and we walked back to the crater edge. The cloud was thinning rapidly, and suddenly we could see green far below, and a few moments later the view was clear.
Irazú erupted last in 1965, but has been quiet since then. It is less lunar than Poás, and the lake is green, but otherwise it’s much the same – a rather safe, touristy, and unadventurous destination. Impressive, but we were eager to get on to more remote areas, so the next day, we got a bus over the mountainous spine of Costa Rica to Volcán Arenal.
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 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.
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 rewarding trip, and we felt very proud that we had seen all that we set out to see.
A quick, but expensive, taxi ride took us to Keflavík International Airport, where we bought some duty-free Brennivín, the Icelandic national drink, and then got on the plane home. On arrival at Heathrow, we bought ourselves a pint of bitter and a cigar each, and then we went our separate ways, into a dark but warm London evening.
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 at the volcanic fissure Eldgjá, which means fire chasm. About 20 minutes walk away from the road at Eldgjá is Ofærufoss, an impressive waterfall, which we walked to. We were all absolutely soaked, in spite of waterproofs, by the time we got back.
Another two hour’s drive took us to Landmannalaugar, where, briefly, sun had broken out. We were to learn over the next two days that the weather taunts you viciously at Landmannalaugar, by being sunny when you wake up, and in five minute spurts during the day, but raining as soon as you decide to do anything. We walked to the mountain hut, saw that the weather was going to get worse, and decided that camping was all well and good, but a mountain hut would be heavenly. So we booked in, sorted ourselves out, and then set off to find the geothermal pool.
Just behind the hut at Landmannalaugar is a huge lava flow from an eruption a few hundred years ago. It’s still pretty hot inside, as shown by the hot streams which flow out from underneath. They mix with a cold stream in a natural pool about 200m from the hut, forming the most perfect hot bath imaginable. On a day like the day we went, with weather precluding much else, everyone who’s staying at the hut goes to the pool. We took our bottles of whisky and some chocolate, and stayed in for about 4 hours. We would certainly have stayed in for a lot longer, if we didn’t know that the later we got out, the more horrific it would be. Finally, as night fell and our supplies of whisky and chocolate ran low, we braved the icy air and got out.
We spent a pleasant evening in the kitchen of the hut, swapping anecdotes with the other travellers there, and being amused by the warden, who was quite a character. We suspected that he’d been sipping the Svartidauð* when he began singing Icelandic folk tunes to us.
The next day was to be the day we set off into the real wilderness. We spent the morning getting advice from various people. About 20 people had set off on the hike the previous day, and about half had turned back. One of them was telling us that it would be very difficult without crampons and hiking poles, while other people were telling us it was easy, and we should go right away. The warden said that he thought it would be OK, but to expect some bad weather up high (on the first day, the walk takes you over a pass at 1200m). With a little trepidation, we set off.
* Svartidauð – Nickname for Brennivín, the Icelandic spirit. Brennivín means ‘Burning Wine’, while Svartidauð means ‘Black Death’. It’s an acquired taste.
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.
Jan 30, 1998 in Sicily 1998