Apr 14, 2012 in Chile
After my interrupted sleep I wasn’t looking forward to my first night unsupervised at the controls, but in the end it was postponed again. Early the next afternoon the decision was taken that the telescopes would not open at all that night, to avoid any possibility of water getting in. The “domes” have flat tops and any standing water could spell disaster for all the sensitive mechanics and electronics. So we went up to the control room anyway but no astronomy would be done tonight. It was a pity, because the skies after the storm were stunningly clear. With the luxury of having no observatory work to do, I went out on the platform late in the night to appreciate the view. I moved here in October, at which time the centre of the Milky Way is setting and can’t be seen very well. Now, for the first time, I got a good look at it. It’s stunningly bright and you can only see it well from the Southern Hemisphere. This is a real shame for the 90% of the world’s population who live in the Northern Hemisphere – their view of our home galaxy is completely inadequate in comparison. […]
Apr 09, 2012 in Chile
I’m at Paranal right now, undergoing my final training before they let me fly solo at the controls of the world’s premier optical observatory. My training so far has been seriously affected by weather – of the 11 nights I’ve done, five have been completely lost and most of the rest have been partly lost. Last night the telescopes were closed a couple of hours early, and tonight we didn’t open at all. The telescopes have to be closed when the humidity goes above 60%, and tonight it was nearly 100% and there were clouds right on the peak. Before the clouds came in, though, I went out to take a photo of the night sky. The moon was rising, and Orion was setting. When I took the photo, I couldn’t see the shadow the moon was casting, so I was pretty amazed when I looked at the camera screen to see the shadow of the telescopes, cast on to the clouds below.
Nov 27, 2011 in Atacama 2011
As I checked out of my hostel, they asked me if I was on my way to Bolivia. I wished I was. Sadly my direction now was south, and I caught the bus to Calama instead of heading up into the Altiplano. San Pedro is among some of the most incredible scenery in the Atacama. On my first journey here from Calama six years ago, I was blown away by the outrageous desert, and since then I had travelled this road another five times. Today it was my seventh trip along the road, and it seemed even wilder and even more incredible than before. I had the seat at the front of the bus, and I spent the whole hour and a half just staring out and enjoying the expansive views of the driest place on Earth.
Nov 26, 2011 in Atacama 2011
We headed back down from Chajnantor, exhausted by the altitude but impressed by the place. We stopped at the base camp and were shown around the antenna constructions, but I was not really concentrating very much – I had a slight headache that might have been altitude-related, or might have been because I hadn’t had any coffee for almost seven hours. So I followed the group around the facilities but didn’t really take any of it in. The next day a group of us went on a trip to see some of the salt lakes in the desert near San Pedro. We headed to Laguna Chaxa, where flamingoes paddled in the shallow waters. The scenery was breathtaking, with the salt plains, lakes, volcanoes and deep blue sky all looking otherworldly. I’d crossed the Salar de Uyuni six years ago, and it was flat, white and it tasted of salt. The Salar de Atacama was different – rumpled and dirty grey and apparently containing all sorts of things like arsenic and lithium. I didn’t try tasting it.
Nov 25, 2011 in Atacama 2011
ALMA is the cutting edge of astronomy. Currently being built on the breathless heights of the Llano de Chajnantor, 5100m above sea level in the Atacama, it will consist of 66 12-metre radio telescopes all operating together to perceive detail smaller and fainter than has ever been possible before. I was hoping that at some point during my time in Chile, I’d get a chance to visit the observatory. The chance came much sooner than expected – a trip was arranged as part of a meeting in Chile of all the fellows from ESO’s headquarters in both Germany and here. We all travelled up to the north, spending a night in San Pedro de Atacama before heading up to Chajnantor the next day. It was my third visit to San Pedro. It was strange to be back again, six years after I first arrived there half way through my epic journey around South America. The small dusty town has changed quite a lot since then, with power 24 hours, and cash machines that work. In 2005 I’d had to borrow money to get a bus to Calama to get money out. On the day of the visit, we drove from […]
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 […]
Apr 23, 2011 in Canada 2011
The most common way for me to be out and about early in the morning is if I’ve been out all night. But I was suddenly and unexpectedly five time zones west of my usual habitat so I got up at 6am and headed out into the city. The day started grey and drizzly, and I slightly regretted leaving behind London during its hottest April ever. But the clouds started to break up and the sun eventually appeared. I wandered randomly and ended up at City Hall, which looked to me like a 1960s launchpad. The sun was now hot, and I sat in the shade nearby, pondering my next move. Temperatures now seemed to be soaring, almost to the high standards that I’d left behind in London, so I decided to head out to the Toronto Islands.
Apr 22, 2011 in Canada 2011
On a Thursday evening, I was gripped by a sudden urge to travel. It happens sometimes. I checked out flight prices, but it was Easter weekend and everywhere in Europe was absurdly overpriced. I looked down a list of flight prices, scrolling to ever higher prices in search of somewhere that was even remotely both affordable and interesting. And then I spotted a flight to Canada, for a very reasonable sum, leaving the next morning. Before I even knew what I was doing, I’d gone and bought the tickets. And so only a matter of hours later I was touching down in Toronto, on a cold overcast April day. I headed into the city with no plan at all. One of the first things I caught sight of was naturally the CN Tower, once the tallest structure in the world and far higher than anything else even in this city full of skyscrapers. I went up and watched night fall over the city.
Jan 08, 2011 in Luxembourg 2011
Picturesque as it was, Luxembourg was not a great place for a solo traveller. The demographic here was pretty different to the one I inhabit, and I wandered the streets for a while seeing few signs of fun nightlife but plenty of expensive restaurants. Not wanting to spend large quantities of Euros on my evening meal, I ended up getting a crêpe from a cafe, and then spending the evening walking around the high parts of town and watching night fall.
Jan 08, 2011 in Luxembourg 2011
I went to Luxembourg on a whim. I’d kind of been there before, passing through at the age of six on the way from the UK to Switzerland. But it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea what the place was like, would not recognise a picture of the place if I saw one, and yet it was only 300 miles away and very easy to get to. So I bought some Eurostar tickets, and a couple of days later I headed off. A high speed journey took me to grey rainy Brussels in less than two hours. I got a coffee and pastry for breakfast in Midi station, then got on the much slower train to Luxembourg. The clouds cleared and the sun was shining as we passed through the snowy forests of the Ardennes. It was cloudy again when I got to Luxemboug. I can’t imagine ever getting bored of arriving in a place I’ve never been to before, especially one so close to home but so completely obscure to me. I was in a good mood as I walked out of the station and into the city. I walked randomly towards the centre, crossed a […]
Oct 23, 2010 in Tenerife 2010
As an astronomer I have travelled to the Canary Islands many times. Right from the first trip I liked them a lot. Some of the touristy bits are pretty horrible but a lot of the islands are wild and remote. A meeting about a subject I was very interested in gave me the opportunity to visit the islands once more. My flight was very early. Somehow it often seems to me that it’s a better idea to stay up all night than to get just a few hours of sleep, so I went out, got back late, packed up and then headed for Heathrow. It seemed like a good idea at the time but I was unbelievably tired by the time I got to the airport. I got to terminal 3 long before sunrise, and in my exhausted state I decided that the purple lighting and sixties architecture looked quite cool.
Sep 10, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela 2010
I have had many good times in Santiago de Compostela, so it was good to be going back again. This time I was going with a group of friends to celebrate an imminent wedding. We spent three days there, making full use of Santiago’s myriad tiny bars in the historic city centre, and spent a lot of time in cafes in the beautiful Praza da Quintana recovering from our various exertions.
Aug 24, 2010 in France 2010
I got a train to Narbonne, and then headed to Durban-Corbières, a tiny town in the hot grape fields of Languedoc-Rousillon. I spent a heavenly fortnight there with my family, relaxing in the hot sun, swimming in the pool, eating good food and enjoying a good life. I went for one moderately long cycle around the hills but otherwise did more or less nothing. My travel style is not normally like that; a holiday without uncertainty, hardship and fear is not really a holiday by my reckoning. But just every now and again it’s nice to actually relax. The view from our villa to the crumbling castle was more or less my only view of the outside world for two weeks. Two weeks of slothful living passed very quickly, and all too soon it was time to pack up and go.
Aug 21, 2010 in Microstates 2010
I wanted to have a bit of a lie down before exploring the country, but the hostel wouldn’t let me check in until 2pm. It was 7.30am and the sun was shining, so I decided to head out. I walked down the road from Schaan to Vaduz, the tiny capital of the tiny country. All was quiet. I sat down on a bench, and promptly fell asleep. I woke myself up by snoring, embarrassed then to find that the streets were now quite busy. Feeling the disapproval of the respectable citizens of Liechtenstein, I got up and staggered through the town. I found a small park full of trees, and fell asleep again in the delicious cool shade. I slept for a long time, occasionally wondering if I might get arrested for vagrancy, but enjoying my doze far too much to worry about it. Eventually I woke up and decided it was time to actually look around instead of just sleeping rough in various parts of town. It was a hot, hot, sunny day, and the little town was pretty much exactly as I’d imagined it, a street lined with expensive cafes, with a castle on the hills overlooking the […]
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.
Jul 09, 2010 in Norway 2010
Every day of the year, eleven boats are somewhere out at sea along the coast of Norway, on an epic voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. The Hurtigruten has run since 1893 and although it has become a popular tourist voyage, it’s still used for regular passenger journeys and freight. For a long time I’d thought I would like to make a journey along the coast of Norway, and today I could sample a small part of the route. The boat that pulled into Skjervøy’s small harbour was the MS Nordstjernen, the oldest ship in the Hurtigruten fleet. I was lucky to have a trip on a boat like this. Most of the Hurtigruten ships are massive and new, and the Nordstjernen normally does summer runs to Svalbard rather than plying the normal route. But here it was, and I boarded. We chugged out of Skjervøy into a heavenly summer evening. The deck was full of people enjoying the warm sun. I watched the coast slip by slowly. Gradually it started to cloud over, and as it cooled, the deck emptied. It was just a four hour run back to Tromsø and some of the people on board were […]
Jul 09, 2010 in Norway 2010
My day in Tromsø started badly. Somehow I’d imagined there would be breakfast at the hostel, and with breakfast one normally gets coffee. But there wasn’t, and I had no supplies. I was a long way from town, and for a moment the day looked bleak. But then I found out that they sold coffee in the reception, at outrageous prices. I happily handed over a wodge of kroner, drank the mediocre brew, and then headed out into a bright warm day. I had no plans, except a vague thought that I’d like to get a boat somewhere. I walked into the city, and down to the quay, but I couldn’t find any useful-looking information about what was going where. I parted with another wodge of kroner in a Narvesen, a wonderful chain of Norwegian shops where the frugal foreign visitor can stave off malnutrition with sliced of pizza for only 15 NOK, which is half the price of a bottle of coke. And then by chance I wandered into the tourist information office, and by chance I picked up a leaflet about Skjervøy, a village to the north of Tromsø. It turned out I could travel there by bus, […]
May 31, 2010 in Paris 2010
We went to the Pompidou centre and saw some impressive modern art. It was another classic Paris thing to do that I hadn’t done before. We also, being scientists keen to communicate what we do, joined in at Paris’s first “Science Corner”, where people from various disciplines set up stands on the plaza in front of the centre, offering the public the chance to ask us anything they wanted to. Not speaking French obviously made it a bit difficult for those of us from the UK, but none the less we got plenty of interest. There were some press people there and articles later appeared in a few newspapers.
Apr 17, 2010 in Scotland 2010
The day after our hike we headed back to the mainland, sailing back across the Firth of Clyde in beautiful weather. I had a night train to catch back to London, a prospect which made me slightly nervous after my last experience. I ended up getting to the station a bit ridiculously early, which is definitely not my normal habit but I was too paranoid to take any risks. Last time I’d got a night train back to London it had been so quiet that I was the only person in the carriage I was on. This time it was very different. The volcano I’d seen erupting just a few days earlier had now gone crazy, spewing out such a vast ash cloud that huge swathes of European airspace were closed. The night train was full of volcano refugees. It was not a particularly relaxing journey, but at least I was on it this time. I got back to London at 6.45am, tired from an intense week of travel. I was supposed to be flying to Frankfurt later the same day for work, and I was pretty relieved when the epic eruption meant my flight was cancelled. I went home […]
Apr 16, 2010 in Scotland 2010
I flew from Iceland to Glasgow, slightly weirdly going via Manchester. Absurd security regulations meant that we had to leave the plane, go through security, and then reboard. The tub of skyr that I’d bought just before boarding my plane in Reykjavík could not be taken through security in Manchester, nor left on the plane, so it had to be chucked. I was in Glasgow for the National Astronomy Meeting. I had bad memories of the city, having had a very stressful time here after NAM two years earlier when my ferry from Ireland was late. I had missed the night train to London, had to stay in an unpleasant hostel and then buy a new ticket in the morning at great expense. Apart from that I’d passed through a few times before, but never stopped. I now had a week to see if the city deserved the bad image I had of it. I considered going to some talks on the first day of the conference, but I’d spent all night on an Icelandic volcano and in the end, tiredness won. Fortunately I got a bit more out of the subsequent days, presented some of my own work in […]
Apr 12, 2010 in Iceland 2010
The orange glow receded. Árni reckoned the eruption was much smaller now than when he’d last seen it a week ago, but it had been awesome to see it nonetheless. Our return journey was much slower than the outward leg. The trail had got icier, and the gale was getting stronger. We bounced around so much that I felt seasick, climbing back up to the heights of the Mýrdalsjökull. At one point, another car in the convoy got stuck, and Árni had to jump out to attach a towrope. The icy blast as he opened the door was breathtaking. It took a little while to extricate the other car, and I wondered if we would need to get out and push. I didn’t much fancy that. Luckily we got going again, and pushed on. As we descended, I started to become sure that I could see the northern lights. When we reached the edge of the glacier, we stopped to reinflate the tyres, and here there was no doubt. The wind was whipping up a fog of blown snow, but through that I could see that the sky was full of dancing green lights. We carried on down, the wind […]
Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010
From our first sighting it took us almost another hour to get to a good viewing point. The ground was so slippery it was unbelievable, but eventually we reached the crest of a hill, and there before us was the fissure. We could see three craters, one with a constantly frothing lava fountain, and two more where occasional explosions showered the ground around them with hot rocks. The seven jeeps in the convoy left their engines running, and a howling gale was blowing, and we couldn’t hear any noise from the volcano at all. It was viciously cold. I quickly trained a video camera on the volcano, and then stepped away from the jeep to take in the view. It was incredible. Words can’t describe and photos can’t possibly capture what it is like to see a volcano erupting. We stayed there for almost an hour, watching the spraying lava. While we were there, a small lava flow at the foot of the new cone suddenly began to grow dramatically. Strange blue flames flickered over the two intermittent craters. Meanwhile, the wind whipped snow into our faces, and even though I was wearing two coats, two pairs of gloves, two […]
Mar 20, 2010 in Balkans 2010
Gig time came. We headed across the river, back through the wide streets of Novi Beograd, at first just us and then later joining ever increasing crowds of people on their way to the massive arena. It was going to be awesome. We had two spare tickets. Someone at the hostel had put us in touch with someone they knew who was looking for a ticket. We’d spoken to this person, Nikola, on the phone, and he’d offered us 1000 dinar each for the tickets. Face value was 3000 so we decided we’d try to sell them at the venue and see if we got some more. When we were outside, with huge throngs of Balkan metallers swirling around, I slightly wondered if I should have taken Nikola’s offer. I’ve never managed to tout tickets successfully even in London, so trying to cut deals in Serbia was not going to be easy. In the end we sorted things out pretty quickly. There were plenty of people asking for tickets, and my only mistake was picking someone who was pretty wired and didn’t speak English. We had a haphazard negotiation, a brief tussle when he tried to take the tickets from […]
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 […]
Jan 03, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
I was sad to leave Iquique, but I took a lot of good memories with me. I didn’t have much time left now before my flight home, and I still wanted to make it up to the very top of Chile. I got a bus to Arica, the northernmost town in the country. Arica wasn’t as cool as Iquique, but I still liked it a lot. It was a lot more run-down looking, with low houses sprawling over a huge area. The hostel I stayed in was quite a way out of the centre, so I walked for many miles during my few days here. The first day I was there was a Sunday, which was a shame because it meant all the travel agents were closed, and my plan to spend three days in Parque Nacional Lauca was impossible. So instead I wandered around the city, eventually finding my way up El Morro, a huge headland which towers over the centre. I got there as the sun was setting, and climbed up it for some amazing views of the Pacific sunset. In the other direction, looking east I could see two giant snow-capped Andean peaks, so far away they […]
Dec 29, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I’d liked El Tatio the last time I was here, four years earlier. The geothermal activity was impressive and the Altiplano scenery around it was staggering. This time I didn’t like it so much. The weather was pretty bad, with thick clouds drifting over the place when we arrived. On my first trip it had been savagely cold; it wasn’t so bad this time, but the clouds really made it look much less impressive. So I walked around the geysers, thinking I should probably have gone somewhere else instead of returning here. The 4,300m altitude and a slight lack of caffeine worsened my mood. But suddenly, startlingly, just as we were leaving, the clouds dispersed. Within a couple of minutes, the Altiplano had emerged from the gloom, and the sun shone on the wisps of steam from the declining geysers, which only erupt for a couple of hours after sunrise. We drove back to San Pedro, via Machuca, where a white adobe church shines brightly under the Atacama sun, and where locals sell handicrafts and food. Last time I’d been here, we’d had a puncture and a long wait to change the tyre. I’d been suffering with the altitude and […]
Dec 28, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I’d been to San Pedro before. It’s nice enough despite being amazingly touristy. All backpackers in Chile come here at some point on their journeys, and I was no different. I wanted to see some of the desert sights here again before pushing on further north. I’d cycled in the desert last time, and I decided to do the same again now. I don’t really like riding bikes that aren’t mine, but the flat-pedalled, slightly too small machine that I hired would suffice for a few tens of miles anyway. I headed out into the desert. I cycled to the Valle de la Luna. Most people come here at sunset; I arrived in the powerful heat of midday. The advantage was that I had the place entirely to myself; the disadvantage was sunburn so bad that it was visible for weeks. But that would only affect me later. On the day, I enjoyed it. I walked down some canyons, up some rock formations, and over some sand dunes. I spent a while in the silent desert setting up my camera to take photos of me cycling by. And eventually I reached Las Tres Marias, a strange rock formation quite a […]
Dec 26, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I’d probably not have minded leaving La Serena on Boxing Day, but buses weren’t running so we had another relaxing day. At nightfall I went out onto the beach, deserted now after a busy day, and watched the sea rolling in for a while. The lights of Coquimbo shone down the coast, but I didn’t feel a great urge to go there. I wanted to head up to the far north, to places I didn’t go to on my last trip. Not feeling the La Serena vibe, I took experimental photos on the dark beach and then packed up ready to leave early the next morning.
Dec 20, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
Our run started early, in the end. A whole night was scheduled for technical work which ended up being finished early, so we were let at the NTT controls a night ahead of plan. This was a bonus, and we set to work, observing luminous stars in our galaxy and two others a few tens of thousands of light years away. I had time during the night to set up some star trail shots. The sky was stunningly clear, even if the humidity stayed just a little bit too high for conditions to be absolutely perfect. The unfamiliar southern stars were amazingly bright, and the arc of the Milky Way stretched right across the sky from horizon to horizon.
Dec 14, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
South America, to me, was hallowed ground of a kind. It was the last inhabited continent that I visited, and my first trip there was a long, epic voyage, which I’d planned for years and that will probably always be my greatest travel experience. So in a way I was wary about going back a second time. It could never match up to the times I’d had before. I was going back for work. We had some time on the telescopes of La Silla, and my presence was required as a relatively experienced observer to make sure nothing went terribly wrong. Our run was just before Christmas, so I left behind a chilly London, sat on a plane for 15 hours, and then emerged into a hot, sunny Santiago. It was fantastic to be back. I’d liked Santiago from the moment I first arrived here, on a night train from Temuco in December 2005. This time we stayed in the fantastic ESO guesthouse, in the wealthy suburb of Las Condes, and the day we arrived was the day of the 2009 presidential election. The election meant that everything was closed, and we had a look round the quiet streets of […]
Jul 14, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
As my bus rumbled in through the suburbs of the capital I spotted a sign that said the temperature was 28°C. I spent my last day in the city enjoying the incredible heat wave. I walked out to Seltjarnarnes, the tip of the peninsula that Reykjavík sits on. I wanted to go right to the end, but it’s a nesting place for thousands of very aggressive birds. I suddenly found myself in a Hitchcockian nightmare and had to beat a hasty retreat as terns and gulls started swooping at me. I could see Snæfell across the bay again. The snowy peak rose from the waters and stood out sharply against the deep blue sky. Once I was out of range of the bird attacks I looked across the bay and wondered when I was going to go there. There was not much left to do. I went to the Hallgrímskirkja and went up its tower, but it was covered in hoardings and the views were poor. I sat by the Tjörn for a while and looked back on another incredible trip. I watched the sun dip below the horizon at 11.30pm. And in the morning I packed up and left.
Jul 12, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I got a bus to Þingvellir. I’d wanted to go here last time but we hadn’t had time. I’d always thought it sounded like a pretty awesome place so I was looking forward to finally seeing it. It was a hot sunny day again, and Iceland was in a fantastic summery mood. We stopped in Laugarvatn and I bought an ice cream. At Þingvellir the bus normally stops at the Hotel Valhöll, but startlingly the Hotel Valhöll had burned down the previous night. Emergency service cordons blocked the road. We took a detour and stopped at the national park service centre. I went for a walk. The summery weather had changed a bit, and it was overcast. This was good. I’d always imagined that Þingvellir would be forbidding and atmospheric, and the hot sun didn’t really work for me. Under grey skies I liked the place a lot. I walked down huge chasms, finally reaching the site of the Alþingi. There was a sense of history. Here was where Iceland defined its nationality. Here was where the first settlers met each year to pass laws. And here was where two continents drifting apart were slowly tearing the country into two. […]
Jul 11, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I stopped a night at Geysir. We’d stayed here ten years ago, and for some reason we’d copped out and stayed in the hotel. Not in proper rooms or anything, a cheapo dorm in the loft where we were allowed to lay our sleeping bags onto wooden boards, but still I’d have preferred to be outside. So this time I camped, and it was good to be here again. It’s touristy here, very very touristy. Hundreds of people mill around during the day, and I found the sight of name-tagged travellers following guides with little flags very depressing. I amused myself by watching people fail to understand what geysers do. It was a breezy day, and every time Strokkur erupted, masses of hot steaming water would fall back onto the ground nearby, marking out a large wet streak stretching away from the geyser. To me it seemed obvious that standing there would make you get wet. It wasn’t obvious to a lot of people. I watched one guy standing right in the target zone. Strokkur erupted; he took lots of pictures; he realised he was about to get very wet; he turned and ran; he tripped and fell; he lay […]
Jul 09, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
As we drove back to Reykjavík I saw the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago off the south coast. Red Eldfell and green Helgafell looked familiar and I remembered the great times I’d had on Heimaey. I was tempted to go back but I had new places to go. I spent a night in Reykjavík, limping about with a foot injury that had suddenly flared up, and then I headed out into the interior again. I got a bus across the Kjölur route to Hveravellir. It was an Icelandic nostalgia trip at first as we passed through Hveragerði and Selfoss, and then stopped at Geysir and Gulfoss. After that, we were into new territory for me. The tarmac stopped and we were in parts of Iceland that are only accessible for three months each year. We rumbled on. It was a sunny day and it was really hot inside the bus. The landscape was desert-like. We stopped a few times on the way at points of vague interest, and every time we did I was slightly shocked to get off the bus and feel cool air. We got to Hveravellir in the early afternoon. There was not a cloud in the sky. I spoke […]
Jul 06, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
When I got up the next morning it was raining hard. I spoke to the warden at the hut, and he reckoned it would start to clear in a couple of hours. So I waited before setting off. I tried to write my journal but my hands were too cold, so I wandered along the lake as the drizzle eased off. The warden was right. After a couple of hours it was no longer raining, so I set off. The going was much easier than yesterday, and I set a furious pace again. Having started late, I found there were quite a few people on the trail in front of me. After a steep climb down to a bridge over a wild river, I found a huge dusty expanse in front of me, with five or six groups of hikers strung out across it. I like targets when I’m doing things like this, and I chased them down during the day. The trail crossed a few more rivers. They were all brutally cold but not too difficult to cross. They were quite welcome, amid the desert-like scenery. Grey dust blew about, and there was hardly any vegetation or colour to […]
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 […]
Jul 01, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
My time on Ammassalik was over. Before I’d left London I’d booked a ticket for the ferry back to Kulusuk. The helicopter ride over had been fun but I really fancied a little sea voyage off East Greenland. It was the first scheduled ferry journey of the year – the sea ice had only recently melted enough to allow easy sailing. I packed up my things and wandered down to the port under gloomy skies. The boat was supposed to leave at 9am, but there was little sign of any activity. I hung around on the dock until 9.30 and then vaguely wandered on board. I showed someone my ticket, and then watched dark shoals of large fish speeding around in the water. At 11.15, we chugged away from the dock, and set off for Kulusuk. The only passengers were me and five Danes. I stood on deck in the chilly breeze, swaying with the boat and watching icebergs drift by. The seas were mostly clear. The boat didn’t even need to avoid most of the icebergs – it was quite happy to ride over them. After a couple of hours I imagined we were not too far from Kulusuk, […]
Jun 28, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
The next day when I got up at 7am, the village was covered in a bright white fog. I was imagining that I might be forced to have a very boring day not doing much, but quite suddenly the fog disappeared, and I decided to go on a boat trip with six other people who were staying at the hostel. The plan was to circumnavigate Ammassalik island. This 70 mile trip would take us to a couple of the remote settlements in the district as well, and hopefully down Sermilik Fjord. This bit depended on the ice having broken up enough for our little boat to get through. Ably piloted by our boatman, Tobias, we set off. It was still a bit cloudy as we sailed away from Tasiilaq. Our little motor boat was pretty fast and as soon as Tobias put the power down we all had to huddle down to avoid some serious wind chill. We headed anticlockwise, and once we were in the open seas we passed some huge icebergs. The sun was beginning to come out. We sailed for a couple of hours, stopping on an island with some ancient Inuit ruins before we reached the […]
Mar 24, 2009 in Madrid 2009
I arrived back at Heathrow from the US at 9am, looping around London and flying over Wembley, UCL, the Thames Barrier, a block of flats in Rotherhithe that I used to live in, the Wheel and Parliament. But this was no homecoming. I hung around at Terminal 3 for a couple of hours and then it was time to head off again, this time to Madrid. During my three days on the other side of the Atlantic, I’d been waking up at 3 or 4 am, and definitely hadn’t got over the jetlag. Coming back so soon, I thought perhaps it would all cancel out and I’d feel fine. But I think actually it just doubled everything. I sleepily found my way out of Barajas airport and into town. I had no time to recover. I was here to learn how to process data from the Herschel satellite, and the workshop started at 9am. Not only that but it was 30 miles outside Madrid, and the bus left at 8am. Not only that but I was staying about 20 minutes walk from where the bus went. So at 7.15am I headed out into a sunny morning to find my way. […]
Mar 21, 2009 in United States 2009
After the conference I had two days to spare in southern Arizona. It was hot, sunny and dry and London seemed like a very long way away. You can’t do much in Tucson without a car, but luckily a friend had been observing at the nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory and had a motor. He’d just finished his observing run, and we headed out into the desert. Our destination was Chiricahua National Monument. 90 miles from Tucson, out of the yellow desert, a green range of hills rises, and in these hills are hundreds of stone pillars. We set off onto the trails. It was a little bit cooler in these hills than it had been back in Tucson, but still fairly punishing. Near to the car park there were quite a few people on the trails, many of whom did not look very much like hikers at all and occupied most of the width of the narrow paths. As we got further away, there were fewer and fewer people, and the wilderness was spectacular. After a few hours we reached a turnoff for ‘Inspiration Point’. I was initially not too fussed, as we’d already covered a lot of ground […]
Mar 18, 2009 in United States 2009
I’d been to the US before, but only for a matter of hours between flights to and from Latin America. I got an opportunity to go back for slightly longer, to go to a conference in Tucson. This trip would be more than just hours, but not much more – three days was my limit thanks to commitments before and after. I flew with American Airlines. I didn’t particularly want to: I’d flown back from Quito with them and suffered a 12 hour delay leaving Ecuador, which meant an 18 hour layover in Miami. I didn’t like getting delayed, and I didn’t like Miami, but at least by flying to Arizona with them now, I’d accrue enough air miles to get a free flight out of them. We left London and flew west. As we passed over Ireland and out into the Atlantic, the mist-wreathed headlands of County Kerry slipped from view. With hours to go until Chicago and nothing but ocean to see, I settled down to sleep the kind of sleep you get in the constant noise and constant light of a trans-atlantic flight.
Feb 17, 2009 in Belgium 2009
The Eurostar used to come into Waterloo Station. The terminal there cost a vast amount of money to build, and was then only used for 13 years. The new terminal is at St. Pancras, which cost an even more vast amount of money, but probably has a good chance of lasting for more than a decade and a half. Arriving at the station at night is definitely impressive.
Feb 16, 2009 in Belgium 2009
I went to Belgium for work. I don’t think there are many other reasons to go. I’d been to Brussels a few years ago, and not really found a whole lot to divert me. This time I went to Leuven, which was more interesting. But it was February, and it rained more or less constantly during my stay.
Dec 07, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008
We got the train back to Prague and got back after sunset. Near the hostel I could see the Žižkov TV Tower. It looked pretty ugly, but I imagined that the views from the top would be good, so I headed up there. It was disappointing, in the end: the viewing area was not outdoors but inside, behind panes of glass, and it was all lit up so that the views and photos were all spoiled by reflections. At the bottom, I looked back up at the tower, and noticed the spooky ‘baby’ sculptures crawling up its legs. If it looked ugly from far away, it was much more of a work of art when seen up close. I took photos as the clouds raced overhead.
Dec 06, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008
I walked up to the castle. I was liking Prague in every respect except for how everyone else was liking it at the same time as I was. The streets heaved with tour buses and camera-laden tourists, and I wished I’d come here first in my European travels, instead of last. My dad travelled here in the 1960s, and it must have felt like a different universe back then. I walked through the castle grounds, barging through hundreds of tourist photographs. Still lacking any consistent sense of what was where in this city, I headed haphazardly back towards the old town. My sense of direction failure meant I ended up crossing a busy road to get back to the river, and so finally I reached a spot where there weren’t many tourists around.
Dec 06, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008
Who really counts Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein and San Marino as proper countries? Their only purpose is to take up the bottom spots in world cup qualification groups so that no-one else ever has to finish bottom. As such, when I visited the Czech Republic, I considered that I had then been to every country in Europe. Normally when I turn up in an unfamiliar city, I can find my way about pretty quickly. For some reason in Prague I never really got my orientation sorted, and had a ridiculous time when I arrived trying to find my hostel. I got a bus into town easily enough, and walked to the station, but then it all went wrong. I went into the station so that I could follow directions from the relevant exit, only to get lost in its empty cavernous halls, and then to find that the relevant exit was locked up. I found my way back out, through a window in a deserted corridor, and set off in search again. I ended up walking for about an hour, exploring many parts of Žižkov and Karlin, before I finally managed to get to the hostel at 2am. I got up […]
Nov 09, 2008 in photography
On a wild windy night in north Wales I was trying to get my new Olympus E420 to work. The icy winds were steadily numbing my fingers, and I couldn’t get the bloody camera to take any photos of the moonlit view over to Anglesey from Caernarfon. I was on the point of pitching the camera into the sea in frustration when I worked out how to switch it to manual focus. In the brief interval between getting the camera to work and losing all sensation in my fingers, I managed to get this photo.
Oct 19, 2008 in Estonia 2008
It was just about dark when I got back into town. I headed back up Toompea again, hoping that the CD-selling giant would not be there this time so that I could enjoy the views at my leisure. Luckily he wasn’t. With clouds breaking up to reveal a deep blue sky, it was perfect photography weather.
Sep 19, 2008 in Slovakia 2008
After my travels in the Balkans, there were only a few countries left in Europe that I hadn’t been to. Slovakia was one of them, although I’d tried to come here before. In January 2007, I had a trip booked, but then there were catastrophic delays in the Stansted Express and I missed the flight. So I felt like this was unfinished business, and I was in a good mood as we landed at Bratislava airport. I got into town late. I went for a walk, and the city was quiet. I found my way down to the banks of the Danube, the great river that I’d seen for the first time only a few months earlier in Budapest. It flows right through the centre of Budapest, and feels like the artery of the city. Here it was on the outskirts of town, and felt like a backwater. A freight boat glided silently by in the darkness.
Jul 21, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I felt pretty sure I was the only traveller in Gjirokastra. I didn’t see anyone else foreign-looking, and I seemed to be the only person in the place that I stayed. I headed for the castle, and on the way got into a strange conversation with an old man. He spoke Italian, and the best I could do was reply in Spanish. But we chatted for a little while. He said he was 70 years old, and lived in one of the very highest houses in the city. He sparked up a cigarette and set off up the hill. I went on to the castle. It was supposed to be closed, but the two ticket sellers were just relaxing outside enjoying the views, and waved me in. And it was awesome. The castle was huge and crumbling and a lot of it was totally unrestored. I picked my way down corridors with walls that had fallen in, and at one point a bat flew past. It was very atmospheric. Eventually I found my way to the roof, and watched the sun set over the mountains. A warm wind was blowing down the valley, and the city looked amazing. On the […]
Jul 12, 2008 in Balkans 2008
I got a bus to Herceg Novi. As we drove out of Mostar I watched ruined buildings passing by, and thought that this town was one of the most shocking places I’d been. The rebuilt bridge and amazing Turkish quarter bustling with tourists seemed to symbolise reconciliation and progress, but when every tenth building was a still a shelled wreck how could there be progress? Southern Bosnia was stunning and mountainous. The bus route went into Croatia, and the coast road was spectacular. For much of the way the road was high up in the hills, and it was like we were flying, with breathtaking views over the Adriatic. We passed through Bosnia’s tiny coastal strip, and stopped at a shop where they seemed much keener to accept Croatian kuna than Bosnian marks. Then we went back into Croatia again, requiring more passport checks. The battered and frayed state of my passport hadn’t caused problems until now but the Croatian guard looked very unhappy. He looked at it, and me, with slight disgust. “Did you vosh it?”, he demanded. But he let me through and the journey continued. We flew over Dubrovnik; the bus there from Mostar was considerably more […]
May 24, 2008 in Berlin 2008
Berlin is probably my favourite city in Europe. I love the atmosphere of the place, heavy with history but so modern and forward-looking at the same time. This was my third trip, and the number of things that had changed since the last time were breathtaking. New buildings had gone up, old ones had come down, most dramatically the old GDR parliament building. The East Side Gallery was much more covered in graffiti than it had been, and the Dom seemed to have lost the very top of its dome. But towering above it all was the familiar sight of the Alexanderplatz TV Tower.
Apr 06, 2008 in Northern Ireland 2008
I’d really wanted to go and see the Giant’s Causeway while I was in Northern Ireland, but it was impossible to get there and back in less than about 12 hours by public transport. I had a ferry to take at 5pm, so I had to miss the causeway. I headed back across the Irish Sea. The ferry journey went quickly at first, and we had great views of the islands up the Scottish Coast. After about an hour we turned into Loch Ryan, and I presumed that we’d dock at Stranraer within a few minutes. But instead we began an unexplained tour around the loch, rotating around and around in the evening sun, within sight of the port. Eventually an announcement was made that due to tidal conditions we couldn’t dock yet, and we’d be hanging around for about half an hour. An hour later we had still not docked, and Stena had not seen fit to make any more announcements. Finally, an hour and a half late, we docked. The train to Glasgow had long since left, but Stena had organised a bus to Ayr. I had no idea where Ayr was but presumed this would be useful. […]
Apr 02, 2008 in Northern Ireland 2008
The train to Belfast looked very retro. It was busy but I got a window seat, and watched the Irish countryside pass by as night fell. It was raining heavily when I arrived in Belfast, and I set out grim-faced towards the university from the station. Luckily the rain soon stopped, and I found my way to the city centre, which was empty and quiet, and then to the hostel I was staying at, just across the road from Queens University.
Feb 23, 2008 in Budapest 2008
I walked back along the Pest embankment to the hostel I was staying at. I stopped at a cash point, where I made a major miscalculation of the exchange rate. Pressing the number 0 one too many times, I found myself carrying over three hundred pounds worth of forints. Unaccustomed to carrying this much cash, I hurried nervously back to the hostel, where I eyed my fellow travellers with suspicion and paranoia. As night fell I headed out to take night photos. As I got to the river bank, the sky was deep blue, Castle Hill was lighting up, and the city looked good.
Sep 14, 2007 in Eastern Europe 2007
At Bucureşti Nord station I said goodbye to Cristi, bought a strong coffee for breakfast, and then got on the first train to Braşov. The train was far nicer than the average British medium-distance train. I found a window seat on the top deck and sat back to enjoy the ride. A lot of the Romanians crossed themselves as we pulled out of the station for the three hour journey into the heart of Transylvania. We rolled through Bucharest’s northern suburbs under deep blue skies, and before long hills were rising from the plains. After an hour or so we were in the forested Bucegi mountains, where wild bears still roam. Rocky peaks towered over the train lines and although I was tired from the overnight train journey, I didn’t want to miss the scenery by sleeping. A couple of hours later we arrived in Braşov. I liked the town straight away. The air was cool and fresh, the sun was shining, and the atmosphere was friendly. I spent a day ambling around narrow streets lined with grand old buildings, and took a cable car to the top of Mount Tâmpa. The mountain towers over Braşov, and once you’re up […]
Jun 25, 2007 in La Palma 2007
Fearsomely early the next morning we headed to the port of Santa Cruz to get a boat back to Los Cristianos. The dawn views as we sped through the archipelago were pretty amazing, and sunbeams lit Los Cristianos as we approached. At the airport we found that Thomas Cook could also be added to the Canary Islands transport blacklist, as they were running an extortionate excess luggage scam. Somehow their scales suggested that we’d acquired more than ten kilos of luggage since we had left London, and we had to pay some ridiculous fee. Next time I come to La Palma I’m getting the boat from Cádiz.
Apr 26, 2007 in China 2007
In the evening I took a tram up to the Peak. At the top was one of the most horrifically commercialised places in a horrifically commercialised city – a towering arcade of shops and cafes, which it took ages to climb through to get to the viewing area. And I was not the only one to make the trip up. Hundreds of eager photographers were jostling for position as the sun set and the city began to look spectacular. Politeness was not rewarded and so after a while of trying to take photos through the sea of heads and arms, I elbowed my way to the front and took in the view for a while. Eventually I was barged aside and shoved towards the back again. Despite the crowds, the view was pretty breathtaking. The scale and energy of the city was something to behold, and the forest of skyscrapers looked incredible as it lit up. I had never had a particular sense of urgency about visiting Hong Kong and had only come here as an aside to my China trip. But now I was here, I was loving it. It was like nowhere I’d ever been before. It was […]
Apr 24, 2007 in China 2007
Hong Kong was nearly a disaster. I walked through the clean and airy Hung Hom station, found a cashpoint and realised I didn’t have my wallet with me. I searched around for a lost property office, working out what kind of a plan I might have if the wallet was lost. I was imagining a frugal few days of walking around the former colony eating a slice of bread once a day, but luckily when I found the office, they radioed the train and someone found my wallet on the floor of my compartment. I would have like Hong Kong anyway, but having seen my trip come back from the brink of disaster I was in an excellent mood as I walked out into Kowloon. I headed for Nathan Road and the legendary Chungking Mansions, an incredible rabbit warren of restaurants, shops, currency exchanges and cheap accommodation. You can’t walk into the mansions carrying a rucksack and not get hassled by hotel owners, and I allowed myself to be persuaded into a place on the third floor. For a negligible cost I got myself a spot in a tiny airless room with two stainless steel traders from Bombay and a […]
Jan 14, 2007 in Granada 2007
I went to have a look at the Alhambra, but I didn’t go in. I’d left it a bit late in the day, and anyway I tend to find historic buildings more impressive from the outside than from within. Remembering how I’d preferred Gülhane Park to the Topkapı Palace, and Jingshan Park to the Forbidden City, I checked out the massive building from the parklands surrounding it, and then headed back down into town. I went back up to the mirador de San Nicolás at sunset. I didn’t have long before my flight home, but I did have long enough to see the Alhambra lit up at dusk.
Oct 27, 2006 in La Palma 2006
During the fourth night, all was going smoothly. The air was dry, the skies were clear, and I was running as quickly through my observing programme as I could. Suddenly, after a couple of hours, the telescope control system started beeping – the humidity was higher than the telescope could take and I had to close everything down quickly. A few minutes later it had dropped right back down. I opened up again and carried on. It did this a couple more times during the night. At 5.45am I closed up and I couldn’t open again. By dawn, the mountain was in thick cloud. The visibility was about ten metres, and the NOT quickly disappeared from sight as I drove back to the Residencia.
Mar 29, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
I got up before dawn on eclipse day, and walked down to the Temple of Apollo to watch the sun rise. I listened to ‘Mute’, by Porcupine Tree – I’d done the same seven years before on a hilltop in Cornwall, and two years after that by the Zambezi in Africa. We’d decided to watch the eclipse from the end of the breakwater, and by the time we got there shortly before midday, the moon had already begun to cross the face of the Sun. At my previous two eclipse, the partial phases seemed to drag on, but here I felt like the Moon was heading across the Sun at quite a clip. Until the Sun is at least half covered, you never notice the light fading, but it ,gets quicker and quicker, and in the dying few seconds the eeriness is incredible. The sky faded to a deep, deep blue, Venus appeared brightly near the Sun, and the Sun itself shrunk to a single brilliant point, and then abruptly disappeared, leaving a hole in the sky surrounded by the glowing corona. Probably I’m getting used to seeing eclipses. In Cornwall, I genuinely thought there had been some kind of […]
Jan 21, 2006 in South America 2005
Loja seemed quite nice when we first arrived, a pleasant enough town surrounded by some fine Andean scenery. We were tired after an overnight bus ride and so spent our first day not doing very much. In hindsight this was a mistake, but we didn’t know that then. On our second day we went to Parque Nacional Podocarpus, not far outside Loja to the south. When I planned my South American travels this was not even close to being one of my most anticipated destinations but it turned out to be one of the most memorable places I visited. Our day started with a bus heading for Vilcabamba, which we got off at a road junction more or less in the middle of nowhere. We set off walking to the national park, a five mile uphill walk, hoping we might be able to hitchhike up. A couple of cars passed us leaving the park but nothing seemed to be going up. After three quarters of an hour we were beginning to resign ourselves to walking all the way when suddenly a truck appeared, carrying three park rangers. They told us to jump on the back, and we drove up to […]
Dec 22, 2005 in South America 2005
In the end, to get from Potosí to Sucre I had to get a taxi, because buses were on strike indefinitely. I was sharing it with a traveller from the US, two Bolivian women, two babies and a dog, which made for a cramped journey. After about an hour and a half of good running on smooth roads through the mountains, our driver stopped to talk to someone, and got word that there was a roadblock of striking bus drivers ahead. We took to a side road to avoid it, and before long the side road became an axle-crunching bone-jarring mess of rock and gravel. Our driver was careful but the road was appalling. We bumped violently along it, occasionally hearing horrific grinding noises and once almost getting grounded on a large boulder, but after half an hour we suddenly rejoined the main road again, and arrived in Sucre about an hour after that, slightly bruised but happy to have made it. Sucre was a great place – a striking colonial centre, a friendly vibe, nice bars and restaurants and lots to see. Having fallen in love with api in Potosí, I found another Bolivian treat here – buñuelos, a […]
Dec 18, 2005 in photography
In the desert of south-western Bolivia, 3600m above sea level, is the town of Uyuni. Outside the town, for reasons unknown, there is a vast collection of train carcasses. They rust slowly under the Altiplano sun and attract the odd traveller from town. Shortly after I took this photo, a giant dust storm swept over the cemetery, forcing me to take refuge inside the boiler of one of the trains.
Dec 16, 2005 in South America 2005
The early start was not too brutal – I slept well even in the thin air, and woke feeling fine at 5.30am. The others felt better too, and more up for a day of sightseeing than they had been yesterday. The lake, so red the previous day, was now more or less all blue. We breakfasted on mate de coca, crusty bread and scrambled flamingo eggs and left Laguna Colorada at 7am. Our first stop was a group of stones sculpted into weird and wonderful shapes by the winds of the high Altiplano. The centrepiece is the Arbol de Piedra, a stone ‘tree’ which stands on an implausibly thin base and looks as if it could be toppled with a light push. A few other vehicles were there, and a few people were trying to topple it, but all found it impossible. We spent half an hour or so scrambling over the rocks, looking around at the desert and the mountains and the wilderness, before setting off. There were no roads here, just dusty tracks which we almost seemed to glide along in the 4WD. Victor had a CD of reggaeton music, and was becoming worryingly fond of one particular […]
Dec 15, 2005 in South America 2005
We headed on to Laguna Colorada. We arrived in the mid-afternoon and the lake was bright red, with flamingoes dotted all across the waters. What looked like steam rising from the lake in the distance was apparently salt water whirlwinds, a common site here. We were staying here for the night, at Campamento Ende, a meteorological station on the south-western shore of the lake, and we were all now feeling the altitude. My trip to El Tatio had definitely done me some good, acclimatisation-wise, as had the trip up to Sol de Mañana and back down to here, and I went for a walk while the others rested, but I was still totally exhausted if I walked even a few metres uphill. I took a lot of photos of the lake, which was getting redder and redder due to mineral reactions in the sunlight, and the thousands of flamingoes strutting about in the shallow waters. Night fell not long after 6pm, and the temperature plummeted. I stood on the shores of the lake, breathing the thin cold air and watching a thunderstorm in the distance, until 9pm when the generator at Campamento Ende was shut off, and the only light […]
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 […]
Dec 12, 2005 in South America 2005
In an ideal world, after a day of cycling in the desert I’d have had a lie-in to recover. But I’d booked myself onto a trip to El Tatio, northern Chile’s most famous geyser field, and for reasons I really can’t begin to understand, these geysers only erupt for a couple of hours after sunrise. This meant that seeing them required a 4am start. My guide book said that the lights of San Pedro were off between midnight and dawn, so I thought I might see some good skies, but they’ve obviously got some better electricity since the book was published, and I waited for my minibus under a lit streetlight. The bus arrived shortly after 4, and we drove off into the night. After about half an hour we stopped to have a look at the sky, and it was absolutely stunning. It was absolutely filled with stars, and the Milky Way blazed overhead. I dozed during the rest of the journey. The air was getting thinner and colder, and even though I’d been at about 2000m above sea level for almost a week, the sudden rush to over 4,000m was quite taxing. As dawn began to break, we […]
Nov 12, 2005 in South America 2005
My next day was an easy one – a three hour walk around the west end of Lago Pehoé, over some low hills and then around the shores of the almost-as-blue Lago Nordenskiöld to Campamento Italiano, at the bottom of the Valle Francés, one of the park’s most scenic sections. I walked slowly, enjoying the scenery, and particularly liked the last section which involved crossing the wild and turbulent Río Francés on a narrow and bouncy rope bridge. I set up camp in the forest and relaxed by the river for the afternoon, enjoying the amazing views of the towering face of Paine Grande. I met my friends the Australians at the campsite and spent the evening chatting to them over a hot fire, until it was almost too dark to find my tent. I was woken several times in the night by the roar of avalanches from Paine Grande. One was so loud that it caused me slight concern about possibly flash flooding, but nothing happened so I went back to sleep. In the morning I set off up the trail to the Campamento Británico, 600m higher up in the middle of the Valle Francés. It was a steep […]
Nov 10, 2005 in South America 2005
My first day of real hiking at Torres del Paine was to take me up the left hand end of the W and back, to Glaciar Grey. Despite being among some of the wildest scenery in the world I struggled to muster up enthusiasm for the hike for a while, thick cloud and heavy drizzle encouraging me to have a relaxed breakfast first. Luckily the rain stopped, and I set off at 12.30. The first hour’s walk took me through a fairly nondescript gully, at the end of which the path climbed up to a small windswept lake. Cresting a rise a few minutes after that, I found Lago Grey, milky white and dotted with icebergs, stretching out in front of me. The path now wound its way along side the lake but high above it, and soon I got my first view of Glaciar Grey itself, basking in the sunshine and seeming to glow from within where beams of sunlight fell on it. The path took a detour inland for a while, and without the lake views the trekking was not too spectacular. Occasional glimpses of the towering face of the glacier provided encouragement though, and I pushed on. […]
Oct 24, 2005 in South America 2005
I got a bus from Cuidad del Este across the river to Foz do Iguassú in Brazil. Unfortunately, the bus didn’t stop at immigration so I found myself illegally in Brazil. I got a bus back, then walked to the immigration post on the Paraguayan side of the river, over the bridge, and into Brazil officially. If anything it was even hotter here than it had been in Paraguay, and Foz was a ghost town on a Sunday afternoon. I managed to mistakenly get off the bus in a distant suburb and walked slowly into the centre of town. First task was getting some Brazilian money. I had a couple of worrying moments, the first of which was finding that two of my three bank cards wouldn’t work in the cash machines. The third was a Cirrus card, which the bank had told me probably wouldn’t work outside Europe, but strangely it did work here. Then, on trying to leave the bank I thought I was trapped inside. Turns out the Portuguese for ‘pull’ is dangerously similar to the Spanish for ‘push’. I was glad then that most of my trip was going to be in Spanish-speaking countries. Next task […]
Dec 18, 2004 in Berlin 2004
The Rammstein gig was fantastic. Anticipation built up hugely before the start, and there was a massive roar from the crowd as five people with torches came on stage. Was this the band? No, it was just the roadies, hyping things up yet further. They wandered off stage as a bass note began to play. Then, a curtain dropped, fireworks exploded, and Rammstein appeared. It was a stunning start, and the rest of the gig was all flamethrowers, fireworks, and immense tunes. The next day we got up late. We had no particular plan in mind, and ended up going to the Dom. In the evening, it looked pretty impressive. Nearby was a Christmas market, where lots of hot food was cooking. We felt like a snack, and we found the mother of all snacks at a stand selling half-metre bratwursts. This had to be tried, and between the five of us we ordered a ridiculous two and a half metres of sausage. By about 20cm in I was feeling pretty full, and by the end I felt grotesquely stuffed. I didn’t eat again until the following evening.
Dec 15, 2004 in Berlin 2004
I’d passed through Berlin in the summer of 2002, on my way back from China. It had been hot, and amazing. Now I had to go back, because Rammstein were playing, and I had got hold of tickets. I knew what their live shows were like, and I was very excited. I had bought my flights months ago. It was freezing in Berlin when we arrived. Mist covered the city, and from the ground, the low sun was casting a shadow of the Alexanderplatz TV Tower onto the sky above. We went up the tower and saw the sunset shining through the haze. It was good to be back in Berlin.
Sep 25, 2004 in Stockholm 2004
As evening arrived I got a bus from Sergels Torg to Kaknästornet. I’d been there last time as well, enduring a howling gale at the top which probably gave a wind chill temperature of about -30°C. This time it was a cool autumn evening, and I watched the dusk fade and the city lights come on.
Dec 12, 2003 in Pisa 2003
The next day we were late leaving the house for various reasons. We hurried through Florence, getting faster and faster as we went, as we slowly realised how late we were. I really didn’t want to miss the train because if I did, I would surely miss my flight home. In the end, we made it to the station with what I thought was seconds to spare. We jumped onto the train, enjoyed about two seconds of feeling massively relieved, then realised that there was no-one else on the train, and the lights were off. I had a horrible sinking feeling. It looked like my journey home was not going to be straightforward. It turned out there was a train strike on, and there was no way I was getting to Pisa by rail. There was a bus leaving soon, but it was going via somewhere ridiculous and it would take three hours, which was definitely too long. Reluctantly we went to the taxi rank outside the station, and said “aeroporto” to the taxi man at the head of the queue. “Firenze?”, he asked. “Pisa”, we said sadly. His eyes lit up and off we drove. It was an incredibly […]
Dec 11, 2003 in Pisa 2003
Heavy winter skies were breaking up at dusk, as we walked from the tower back to the station. The town away from the Campo was much nicer, and we stopped at a great little pizza restaurant for some dinner. When we got to the Arno, the skies were velvety blue and the town looked nice.
Oct 19, 2003 in Florence 2003
My eighth holiday of 2003 was to Florence. We didn’t actually do a whole lot – it was raining most of the weekend so we barely left the flat. But we did manage to go up the campanile, as night was falling and the rain clouds were finally breaking up. I hadn’t liked Florence very much at all when we’d been here in the blazing heat of July, but now there were not nearly so many tourists, and in the rain the town had a whole different atmosphere. I began to see that it had a certain charm.
Oct 13, 2003 in photography
Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project has been by far the best installation in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. The atmosphere inside the cavernous space was amazing, with ethereal smoke drifting around, a monochrome yellow light, and people scattered across the floor looking up at their reflections high above. This photo is my favourite from the many I took there.
Jul 10, 2003 in Italy 2003
Once I’d seen most of the obvious sights in Rome, I headed for the Vatican. As I walked into St. Peter’s Square, there was nothing to indicate that I was leaving Italy and entering the smallest country in the world. Seeing the sights in this country would not take long. I wandered into the vast Basilica de San Pietro. The size of the place was stunning, and as full of tourists as it was, it still didn’t feel crowded. Sunlight shone in from the top of the dome. It felt very peaceful in there, an oasis of calm inside this hot, noisy, busy city.
Apr 10, 2003 in Dublin 2003
Only a few months after my first trip to Dublin, I had cause to go back. It was the UK’s National Astronomy Meeting, inexplicably but very popularly being held outside the UK. I turned up half way through the week, and met a lot of people from my undergraduate days who I hadn’t seen for more than two years. On a sunny afternoon when none of us had anything else to do, a few of us revisited the Guinness factory. The views from the Gravity Bar were much better on this warm spring afternoon than they had been in the grim midwinter.
Dec 29, 2002 in Sweden 2002
It was cold. Chunks of ice were floating down the river, and the canals around the city centre were frozen. Wandering through the icy streets was tiring. Helping us all to survive the conditions was the old Scandinavian standby of hot dog. Pylsur, pølse, pölse or whatever the local variant happened to be, they were always a cheap source of hot food.
Aug 23, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I got to Paris at 9am. I got a metro to République, remembered from my trip two years earlier which exit to take, and walked along Boulevard Jules Ferry to the youth hostel I’d stayed in before. The atmosphere of cosy familiarity was abruptly shattered when they turned out to be full. There was an accommodation office next door, but it wasn’t open yet, so I bought some food from a nearby shop and sat by the Canal Saint-Martin having breakfast. When they opened, they found me a space in a hostel nearby. Sometimes when I go back to a place I’ve been before, I find myself going to exactly the same places, somehow unable to find new things to do. And so it was here. I walked to the Île de la Cité, saw Notre Dame, then walked to Montmartre. Two years ago when I was here it had been grey, rainy and empty. Now it was a hot day and very busy. In the narrow streets below the hill, some small children were ineptly busking. They had accordions, which they obviously had no idea how to play, and they squeezed and pressed buttons randomly. I was disgusted at […]
Aug 19, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I didn’t really do much in Warsaw. I’d walked miles and miles every day in Moscow, but I couldn’t muster up the same enthusiasm here. The city was like a small village in comparison to Moscow, and once I’d walked around the old town, I felt like I’d seen it all. So I just relaxed, sitting in the Saski gardens reading, and having the odd ice cream on Nowy Swiat when I felt like walking there. One thing that was great about Poland was that I was totally literate again. The 20 or so characters I’d managed to learn in China hadn’t generally been of much use, and most of the time the written language left me completely baffled. In Russia, I could read cyrillic script, albeit slowly. But here I was back in the world of latin script. Not that this meant I understood a word of Polish, but at least I understood the letters. All the c’s, z’s and y’s were like old friends. My major sightseeing expedition was to the Palace of Culture and Science. This building, in the classic Stalinist style, is the tallest in Poland and dominates the skyline. I liked it because it was […]
Aug 16, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
On my last day in Moscow, I invested 3 roubles and 50 kopeks – about seven pence – in a trip on the metro. It’s famously grand, and I’d already travelled on it a lot, but today my mission was to take photographs. I travelled around the brown line, which has the most lavishly decorated stations. Each one felt like a museum, with Socialist Realist murals covering the walls, chandeliers to light the corridors and a well-kept feel. In all the tearing down of statues that accompanied the fall of communism, it seemed like some kind of oversight that all these stations were left with all their communist regalia. Besides being impressively decorated, the metro was also much more frequent and seemed to be more reliable than the London underground. I never had to wait more than two minutes for a train, even late at night, and never had a breakdown. My favourite station was Kievskaya, which had the most impressive murals and grandest atmosphere.
Apr 20, 2002 in Norway 2002
The journey from Myrdal took us back to Oslo across the spectacular icy wasteland of the Hardangervidda plateau. In the night, on the train to Bergen, I’d looked out and seen huge expanses of snow, and the daytime crossing was awesome. Occasionally in the middle of nowhere we’d spot a couple of cross-country skiers. I listened to “The Sun Always Shines On TV” by A-Ha for some good Norwegian accompaniment. One thing I particularly enjoyed about this bit of the journey was that as we sped along 1200m above sea level, we were passing through an area that starred in “The Empire Strikes Back” as the ice planet Hoth. Everyone knows that “The Empire Strikes Back” is the best of the Star Wars trilogy (and let’s not even speak of the ‘second’ trilogy…), so I enjoyed seeing where some of it had been filmed. We got back to Oslo at about 10pm, and made our way to Haraldsheim hostel. We found ourselves sharing a room with an American traveller called Brian, and our arrival woke him up. He’d clearly had a massive Friday night out; he asked us the time, and when we said it was 11, he thought it […]
Dec 05, 2001 in Australia 2001
I had one more day in Sydney. It rained heavily for most of it so I didn’t do very much. I got the ferry to Manly, and walked on the beach for a while. On the way back, the waters of the harbour were choppy, and me and another guy who were standing on the bow got completely soaked when we hit a large wave and spray crashed down over the decks. Back at Circular Quay, I walked along the shores of the harbour to Macquarie Point. It was getting dark, and the views of the bridge and the opera house were looking good. It was my last night in Australia, and I wondered when I would be back. Opportunities to visit the other side of the world don’t come around too often, and after two visits in three years, I feared it might be a while before I could return.
Dec 02, 2001 in Australia 2001
On the final morning, we all felt like the best was behind us. We made a couple of stops, but they were nothing like as spectacular as yesterday’s, and the weather wasn’t so good either. We were all glad we’d done the trip starting in Adelaide – starting in Melbourne you’d have the best scenery on the first day and then two anticlimactic days to follow. I felt sad the tour was over, but most of us stayed in the same hostel in Melbourne so it was not goodbye just yet. I liked Melbourne a lot more than I thought I would, even though the weather here was similar to what you’d expect in London in November. There were lots of things happening – we saw a great photography exhibition at the Arts Centre, and took shelter from the rain at a cafe where there was live music. It seemed that you didn’t have to look to hard to find interesting things to do here. We went to the Rialto Towers one evening. In the daytime, under grey skies and in constant drizzle, Melbourne was no beauty, but at night from above, it looked pretty impressive.
Nov 30, 2001 in Australia 2001
The second day of the trip was fairly unremarkable. We stopped at some interesting places, but I felt that it was all just a prelude to the road we would travel on the next day. Probably the best things about the second day was that it finished in Port Fairy, where we had a great night out in a pub in the town, and where in the morning I went for a dawn run along the beach and around the marina, where colourful boats bobbed about in the quiet morning sunshine. The third day was what we were all looking forward to, and it didn’t disappoint. As the day went on, the scenery just got more and more spectacular. We made stops at the Bay of Islands, the Bay of Martyrs, London Bridge, the Grotto, Loch Ard Gorge and the Razorbacks, and visiting even a single one of them would have been impressive. I burned up film, and was amazed that places like this existed. The turquoise sea crashing against the wild yellow rocks looked otherworldly. In the evening we stopped at Apollo Bay. It was our last night, and it turned into a very late night. At the start […]
Nov 17, 2001 in Australia 2001
Three years after my first trip to Australia, I had an opportunity to return, for a conference in Canberra. It was a few months after the September 11 attacks, and my flights were quiet. I travelled via Japan, spending six hours in Osaka airport’s vast terminal building before getting on an almost empty flight to Sydney. It was good to be back in this amazing city. I’d left London on a cold November day, but here it was 30°C. In a jetlagged haze I wandered around the harbour, and ambled into the Royal Botanical Gardens. I sat down in the sunshine and before I knew what was happening I was waking up and a couple of hours had passed. I got up and blearily wandered back down Pitt Street to where I was staying. The next day it was raining heavily. I ran through the downpour to Central Station and got a bus to Canberra. All my Australian friends in London had told me that a week in Canberra was a week in hell. Soon I would find out if they were telling the truth or not.
Aug 06, 2001 in La Palma 2001
At the end of our final night’s observing, the sea of clouds around the islands was blazing orange in the dawn light. It marked the end of a successful run, with only a couple of hours lost due to clouds. I grabbed a couple of hours sleep before our taxi arrived to take us back to sea level, and luckily this meant I was so tired I almost didn’t notice how carsick I felt as we twisted and turned back down. The journey home was uneventful but long. We flew to Tenerife, then to Barcelona, then to London, and so we spent all day in airports. By the time we got back I felt pretty shattered. I didn’t know where I’d be travelling next, I hoped it would be somewhere exciting but I also hoped I’d get to stay at home for more than a week before I was off again.
Jul 09, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
So early the next morning we were outside by the motor, working out how the jack worked and pulling spare tyres around. It had rained in the night, although this was the dry season, and the car was parked on grass, so there was a slight problem with the jack sinking into the ground. But between us and a local man and his son who came out to help, we got the tyre back on. We jumped in the car, Tom said ‘OK, let’s go!’, turned the ignition key and nothing happened. With a smile frozen on his face he tried again, and still nothing happened. Not even a splutter. We rolled the motor down to Tukuyu’s main street and found a mechanic, who said an engine part or two needed replacing. He said it would take twenty minutes, and about an hour and a half later the work was all done and we were off. It was a pretty short drive down to the Malawian border at Songwe. I was pleased to see that the scenery across the border looked much the same as the scenery on the Tanzanian side. The border crossing was uneventful and we drove on […]
Jul 05, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
In the evening I sat on a rock at the edge of the bay and watched the village fishermen bringing in the day’s catch as the sun set. It was a timeless scene, with an amazing amount of activity and commotion considering the tranquillity of the day. As I sat on the rocks, locals who weren’t occupied with the fishing came over and chatted, wondering what I was doing in their part of the world. After the catch had been brought in and night had fallen I went and ate dinner with the builders. They insisted that I share their food, and so I had a good meal of nshima with tiny little fresh fish called capenta and some dried fish with an extremely strong flavour called bamba. We talked for a while before I turned in.
Jun 24, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
Lukulu was pleasant enough at first, though still far enough off the beaten path that we attracted a lot of attention. Oliver, the hotel owner’s brother, spent most of his time in our room, asking us about our backgrounds and sharing his with us. But Lukulu is just a dusty town at the end of a dusty road and we were keen to get on the way. We had thought that there’d be less transport north of Lukulu than south of it, and we’d come from the north with no trouble at all, so we were keen to get on the way. Oliver seemed to think we’d be able to get a lift the next day, and said he’d come with us in search of vehicles. So we went for a wander around town the next day. We lacked the sense of urgency that we were to acquire over the next couple of days, and so we walked through the grounds of the Sancta Maria mission, overlooking the river, much broader here than before. We stopped off at a bar for a coke, or at least tried to. Lukulu is at the end of a very, very bad road, and […]
Feb 24, 2001 in OHP 2001
On the wall in the 80cm telescope control room was a photo taken of the dome while it was being rotated. It looked really cool, and I wanted to have a go at reproducing it. I got my chance towards the end of our run when clouds started gathering as night fell, and it was clear we wouldn’t be observing. I climbed up onto the roof of the control room, and Didier set the dome rotating. I opened the shutter and let the dome spin right around a few times, and the shot worked out nicely. Later it cleared up a little bit. At the time we were in Provence, the space station Mir was approaching the end of its life, while the International Space Station had recently been put in orbit. During our visit, both space stations were visible in the early evening. On this particular evening, both would be crossing the sky within a minute of each other, passing through the constellation of Orion as seen from OHP. This would pretty much be a once in a lifetime photo opportunity if I could get it – the two space stations, one new and one decrepit, passing through a […]
Feb 21, 2001 in OHP 2001
We finished observing each night as twilight began to light the sky. It always seemed like an incredibly long time from then until sunrise, and most mornings I didn’t stay up. After a long winter’s night at a telescope, only the most spectacular sunrise seems worth staying up for. But one morning, we got one. The sky was on fire, and a few of us went out to a small hill in the observatory grounds. In the silence of the alpine dawn we watched the coming of the day.
Feb 20, 2001 in OHP 2001
After a couple of nights, the students were well into the routine and there was not so much for me to do. I had time to go out and watch the sky once the observations were under way. A bitingly cold mistral was blowing, the cold wind bringing clear skies but bad seeing. Our stars were badly smeared out by the turbulent atmosphere, which made the observations a bit more difficult but not impossible. I went up to see what was happening at the 1.52m telescope. This one was much easier to use, being mostly automated. The telescope would slew pretty much to where you wanted it, and all that was required was a bit of fine-tuning with some plastic dials on a control panel that looked like something out of Blake’s 7. After I’d checked out their latest observations, I went up onto the roof, and saw three bright meteors blazing by. In 1999, I’d forgotten to bring a cable release, and I’d also forgotten to bring gloves. Keen to get a star trail photo, I’d held the camera shutter down myself for 40 minutes, which nearly gave me frostbite. This time I’d learned my lesson. Back at the […]
Oct 25, 2000 in Central America 2000
The day I got back we had nothing in particular planned. Mike and Aasta, with whom we had climbed Volcán San Pedro, were in town, and me, Moh, Mike and Mark, a Canadian who we’d met, decided to go for a bike ride. Having hired bikes, we set off down dusty roads, through small villages, past fields and towards the volcanoes. It was mostly downhill, and we cycled for miles before stopping for a drink in a spot with a fabulous view. The clouds had lifted, and we could see the tops of all three volcanoes, with Fuego steaming copiously. Just as we began the uphill run from here back to Antigua, though, my chain snapped. I had no option but to get the bus back to town with my bike going on the roof. The others got back sweating and exhausted some hours later. We had met a local called Gustavo while we were in Antigua. He was an anthropologist, and knew many remote Mayan sites well. He had offered to take us to Mixco Viejo, some ruins a couple of hours drive from Antigua, to which he said we would most likely be the first British visitors. That […]
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 […]
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 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 15, 1999 in Iceland 1999
After the beautiful day we had had for the Surtsey flight, the weather got rapidly worse, and the next day it was violently windy, and rain was moving horizontally across the island. There was nothing to do but pack up our things, and get ready to leave the next day. This we did, although we had to struggle with our packs against violent winds to get to the ferry on time. The journey home promised to live up to its reputation as a vomit run, and as we left the harbour, the boat was rolling and pitching in a big way. However, it calmed down after half an hour, and we all survived intact. Once back on the mainland, we headed back to Reykjavík.
Sep 12, 1999 in Iceland 1999
The next day, we went to the airport, two miles out of town, to find out about flying over Surtsey, the famous volcanic island fifteen miles to the south-west of Heimaey. We followed what appeared to be the right road, a rough track leading over a hill, but when we got over to the other side, we found ourselves on the runway. This clearly not being desirable, we went into the terminal through the arrivals door, and found out what we needed to. This done, we went for a walk by the southern end of the 1973 fissure. The eruption from this part of the fissure stopped after a few days, so there are only some very low lava hills, which we climbed up. Once again, we had the disconcerting knowledge that what we were climbing on was not much older than we were. After a little while spent looking around here, we decided to climb Helgafell. This is an ancient volcano, about 5000 years old, which is very close to Eldfell, and is a virtual twin of it. Its slopes, though, are covered in grass, which makes it a lot easier to climb. We reached the top in about […]
Sep 08, 1999 in Iceland 1999
After this brief return to Gullfoss, we headed back to Selfoss, from where we went to Hella. This small town, apart from being the inspiration behind a million bad puns, is also the nearest town to Mt. Hekla, Iceland’s most famous volcano. During the middle ages, it was, in popular legend, the entrance to hell. The skies were supposed to be filled with vultures and ravens, and the wailing souls of the fallen could apparently be heard all around. Presumably, less people go to hell these days, as the only sound we could hear from the campsite at Hella was that of the road, and large black birds were conspicuous by their absence. We set up camp in a beautiful location by a river, and thoroughly appreciated the excellent facilities that we had only paid three hundred kroner each for. After cooking dinner in real pots and pans for the first and only time on the trip, we enjoyed a truly magnificent sunset, and a fine night’s sleep. Early the next morning, we awoke to find a day of pleasant sunshine, and walked a mile or two out of the village to find a good view of mount Hekla. Clouds […]
Sep 06, 1999 in Iceland 1999
We spent our second day at Geysir exploring the multitude of other mini-geysers and hot springs in the area. Several tiny geysers erupt constantly, throwing hot water about a foot into the air. A lot of springs just bubble impressively. All around, steam rises into the air. Most of the tourists just watch a Strokkur eruption or two before leaving, and so a short walk off the beaten path leaves the crowds far behind. Beyond Strokkur, a large hill rises over the valley, and we climbed this. From here, Strokkur looked very impressive, surrounded by acres of land from which steam was rising. On the hill, hidden from the path by some bushes, is Haihver, meaning High Spring, which is probably only seen by about 30 people a year. We sat down in the sun by the spring, in a large patch of clover, appreciating the scene. Further on up, a view disc points out all the impressive sights around, including the Langjökull icecap, Iceland’s second largest, and, on a very clear day, Mt. Hekla far off to the south-east. On our final morning at Geysir, we watched Strokkur again for a while, and then got the bus back up […]
Aug 29, 1999 in Iceland 1999
We returned to Mývatn for a day, filling our time with a walk around the east side of the lake. We passed the eerie fissure Grjotagjá, which is filled with very hot water. It’s in an underground cavern, and thin shafts of sunlight from above show the steam rising from the surface of the pool. It used to be a good temperature for swimming, but soon after the most recent eruptions at Krafla began, it heated up to over 60° C. From Grjotagjá, we walked to Hverfjall, another big crater, this one made entirely of loose gravely rock. It takes a good amount of exertion to climb up the slope as it gives way beneath you. It certainly brings home the meaning of ‘one step up, two steps down’. The crater has no lake inside, instead exhibiting a large central mound. Although you are prohibited from walking down into the crater, the mound in the middle is covered in ridiculous graffiti, of the “Colchester boys woz ere, 5/4/95″ variety. After the exertion of climbing this slagheap of a crater, and facing fearsome winds at the top, this was something of a letdown. But not to be deterred, we walked round […]
Aug 24, 1999 in Iceland 1999
Day four, mission two. Krafla volcano is not really a volcano at all, although there is a hill with that name in the area. What in fact happens at Krafla is that the ground is pulled from both sides by continental drift. Every 200 years or so, it suddenly gives way about 10 times over a decade or two. Each time it does, vast fissures open up, sometimes over 20 miles long, and lava spurts out along the entire length of them. The last lot of eruptions at Krafla occurred between 1975 and 1984, but geologists believe that the eruptive series is not over. The ground has swollen upwards by about half a metre since the last eruption, indicating a very full magma chamber, two miles beneath the surface. Fearlessly, we set off into the heart of it all. We first walked around the 320m wide explosion crater known as ‘Viti’, meaning Hell. A lake of very blue water fills the bottom, and it would be very tempting to go swimming, if the sides of the crater weren’t so steep and loose. We had fun starting several mini-landslides by kicking a small stone over the edge. By the side of […]
Aug 08, 1998 in Australia 1998
One evening we went up the Sydney Tower. I thought it would be impressive, but it turned out to be spectacular. We went up late in the afternoon, and not long after we got to the top night began to fall, and the lights of the city came on. The sight was truly amazing.
Aug 01, 1998 in Australia 1998
The darkness of the skies over Uluru was incredible. Even from the cities, the Milky Way was impressively bright, but out here in the desert it looked like it was painted on the sky. I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing – from the northern hemisphere we can only ever see the outer parts of our galaxy, but from the south, you can look right towards the centre, and our views completely pale in comparison. I walked a little way out into the desert outside Yulara to try to photograph the river of stars. I didn’t spend too long out there in the end – it was getting very cold very quickly, and I was still traumatised by my close encounter with a huntsman spider in Adelaide. I could hear a lot of noises of things moving about in the spinifex. When I thought I heard something running across the ground near my feet, I hurriedly packed up and headed back to Yulara.
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 […]