Nov 30, 2013 in Taiwan 2013
Nov 28, 2013 in Taiwan 2013
Oct 14, 2013 in Chile 2013
Oct 05, 2012 in UK and Canada 2012
Aug 06, 2012 in Mendoza 2012
May 03, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012
The beach which had been empty during the day took on a whole different character as night fell. Thousands of gentoo penguins came in from the sea and gathered there before heading inland to their colony. All across the bay, penguins were leaping as they came in, bursting from the waves in huge groups and running up onto the sand. A full moon rose just as the sun set.
On a little map of Bleaker Island that I had, a line between the beach and the penguin colony was marked as the “gentoo highway”, which I thought sounded pretty funny. But actually it was a pretty accurate name – at rush hour on the gentoo highway there was a huge column of penguins all heading inland, waddling up the hill.
May 03, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012
I drove back to Stanley, and caught a flight to Bleaker Island. It was just me on the plane, so I sat in the front and chatted to the pilot as we flew south. A ship had run aground just outside Stanley harbour just as we took off.
There were two people on Bleaker while I was there – one permanent resident, and me. On a hot, sunny and calm day, I wandered all around the island. In absolute peace I found my way to its beach, empty in the midday sun. The sea was turquoise, the sun beat down, and Bleaker felt more like a tropical island than a windswept South Atlantic one.
Apr 29, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012
I hired a car and drove around East Falkland. I passed the downed helicopter on the Mount Kent Road again, and then headed on to Elephant Beach Farm. I stopped for a cup of coffee with Ben, the owner of the farm, and then he gave me a lift to a beach, a few miles from his farmhouse.
I’d thought that nothing would equal Saunders, but Elephant Beach Farm came close. Here there was no hut to stay in so I was camping, and once again I was the only person for miles around, just with a few hundred gentoo penguins to keep me company. As I watched them coming in from the sea, I caught a glimpse of a movement a long way out to sea. I wasn’t sure what it was, but a few minutes later I was looking in the right direction – a dolphin leapt high into the air, heading straight up, hanging in the air for a second and catching the evening sunlight, then splashing back down.
I had one major disappointment at Elephant Beach. I set up my tent, and it was fantastic to be camped in such a remote place. I’d stocked up well in Stanley and I was looking forward to cooking up some hot food, but once I’d got the stove and my soup and my pasta out, I realised there was one thing, just one little thing, that I had forgotten in Stanley. A stove is not much use if you can’t light it.
In the morning I packed up and started hiking towards the farmhouse. I stopped for a little while outside the penguin colony, sitting down a little way away from them. They noticed me, and soon they were getting very curious. I sat and watched as two groups of penguins slowly edged towards me, looking as if they were absolutely torn between fear and excitement. As I watched one group, the other would move a bit closer, and if I looked at them they would stop and the first group would start moving. Eventually I was surround by penguins, just an arms length away. They actually look pretty big if you’re sat down almost on eye-level with them, and I thought if they decided to attack me I’d surely come off second best. But they just stood and watched, giving every impression that they were just completely amazed to find something as exciting as a human on their territory and they just wanted to be close to this incredible thing. So they watched me, and I watched them. And then, to their surprise and mine, I sneezed. They fled. I picked myself up, and headed back to the farmhouse.
Apr 25, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012
I’ve never been anywhere like Saunders Island. I spent three days there, in a hut at the other end of the island from its 7 inhabitants. I was in complete isolation, with just a radio to contact the settlement if necessary. Just me and the penguins and the karakara and the dolphins and the wind and the rain.
There was a huge colony of gentoo penguins and a small bunch of king penguins. Each morning I’d walk down to the beach and watch them heading out to sea, and each evening I’d go down again and watch them coming in. Penguins coming in from the sea is something extraordinary. From a long way out they were leaping from the water. I’m not sure if they do it just for fun or to see better where the land is, but it looks like fun. Then as they got near, huge groups would surf down the insides of the waves, then make a sharp turn and leap out of the water onto the beach. Always it looked like there were just a handful about to emerge and then suddenly there would be 20 or 25 penguins bursting out of the wave, shaking themselves down and waddling off towards the colony.
I’d have happily stayed for weeks but I had a flight back to Stanley to catch. So after three days I radioed the settlement, arranged for them to come and pick me up, and headed back to Stanley. It seemed like some kind of metropolis after Saunders.
Apr 23, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012
There were two other tourists on the islands while I was there, Claudia from Germany and Lynn from Singapore. Claudia was staying in the same place as me, and we decided to share the cost of a trip to Volunteer Beach. This beach is not far away from Stanley, in terms of distance, but at this time of year it feels amazingly remote, as it requires some serious off-road driving. We got a lift there with Keith, a local with some impressive driving skills. It was an awesome journey there, over the snow-blanketed hills via road to Johnson’s Harbour, and then off road over rough terrain to get to the beach. We were the only visitors today, and probably the last until spring because the track was about to close for the winter.
This was the first time I’ve seen penguins in the wild. Straight away we could see that not all penguins are the same, as the tall and dignified king penguins strolled out of the way of Keith’s car, while the smaller gentoo penguins scrabbled away frantically, sometimes tripping over as they ran. If we had been here in the summer there would have been magellanic and maybe rockhopper penguins as well – they’d migrated away for the winter. But we had plenty enough penguins to entertain us. We wandered around the huge colony of kings. There were lots of young ones, ugly, fluffy and brown in absurd contrast to the elegant adults.
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 01, 2011 in Chile
Part of my job here in Chile is to assist in the running of the world’s premier visible light observatory, the Very Large Telescope. A couple of days ago I made my first journey here from Santiago, flying up to Antofagasta and getting a bus from there up into the savagely dry Atacama desert, to the observatory at Cerro Paranal.
What a place Paranal is. I’ve been to several observatories but none have been anything like this. The residencia is an awesome piece of architecture, the scale of the operation is immense, the level of activity is impressive, and the unbelievably harsh desert is terrifyingly beautiful. I will be coming here about once a month for the next three years so perhaps I will get bored of it. But on this first visit, I’m feeling impressed.
Oct 23, 2011 in Chile
My previous attempt to see the Cajon del Maipo had been a bit half-arsed, relying on public transport and ending up in the nondescript hamlet of San Gabriel, instead of actually out in the mountains hiking.
So I tried again this weekend, with a couple of other ESO people. We hired a car, and left reasonably early. Having your own wheels definitely makes a big difference, and instead of spending hours on the bus chugging through all the distant Santiago suburbs, we were in the valley in less than an hour.
But we didn’t get everything right. We stopped in Baños Morales for a lengthy and tasty lunch, planning to hike to a glacier afterwards. But by the time we rolled up to the national park entrance, sated and sleepy but none the less keen to hike, we were told the trail had closed 20 minutes earlier.
So we had to find something else to do. We randomly ended up spotting a large red rocky outcrop, high up in the hills above Lo Valdes, and decided to go there. It was a good hike, scrambling up some steep and precarious scree slopes. The skies threatened but only delivered a few spots of rain. We made it to the outcrop without getting wet, and from it we got awesome views over the valley.
After we headed back down, the heavens finally did open, but we were safe in our car by then, and we drove down the valley as the sun broke through the rain clouds again.
Apr 22, 2011 in Canada 2011
Jul 09, 2010 in Norway 2010
Jul 09, 2010 in Norway 2010
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 began to drop and the lights got brighter.
We reached sea level at about 3am. I was beginning to get a tiny bit worried – my flight was leaving Keflavík at 8am and it was going to take a few more hours yet to reach Reykjavík. But if I missed my flight, then so be it. Right now I was just concerned with feeling awestruck. We stopped at Skógafoss, reinflated the tyres a bit more, and here the lights were stunning, flying overhead like curtains billowing in a colossal breeze.
We drove on, stopping in the middle of nowhere briefly to pick up some people whose car had broken down as they were trying to get to the volcano. The lights seemed brighter than I ever remembered them and at the end of a spectacular day of travelling, this was almost too much to take in. I was having a natural wonder overdose.
We headed on. The small hours grew larger, and I fell fast asleep. I woke as we approached Reykjavík, where we arrived at 5am. I had just enough time to brew a painfully strong coffee before heading back to the airport as the sun was rising. My weekend had been perilously close to turning into an appalling waste of time and money but we’d snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. I could not have been happier as I headed back to the UK. Later it turned out that just a few hours after I’d been there, the Fimmvörðuháls eruption stopped. After a day of calm, a new and much bigger eruption started a few miles away, causing massive disruption to European air travel as a huge ash cloud drifted over the continent. Much as I’d have loved to see that, my timing was pretty good. If I hadn’t left when I did I might still be there now.
Snæfell is still calling me. I’ll be going back to Iceland before too long.
Dec 28, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
Dec 26, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
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. Great chasms flanked either side of the sunken plain, across which a river flowed calmly.
The next day it was blazing sunshine again. I hiked back down the chasms but it wasn’t quite the same. I scaled a large rock face to get up onto the North American plate, and I looked across to Europe on the other side of the plains. The Öxará river fell into the gap, diverted into the plains by the early Norse to provide water for their assemblies. I relaxed in the sun until it was time to head, for the last time, back to Reykjavík.
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 face down on the ground as tonnes of hot water fell on him.
In my malicious traveller-superiority state of mind, I chuckled inwardly. The guy got up and he was perfectly ok. He walked away, dripping but nonchalant, affecting a “that’s exactly what I expected to happen and I don’t feel stupid at all” attitude. But we all knew that he did.
Later in the evening, the place was empty. I went up to Strokkur at midnight and listened to the subterranean bumps and rumbles and watched some eruptions. I chatted to an Icelander there, who kept on predicting that the next eruption would be huge. “It always does a big one after three small eruptions”, he told me. “Um.. maybe after four small eruptions”, he claimed. The Icelander told me that his father had set up a ski-resort in the Kerlingarfjöll, a group of wild mountains near Hveravellir. We could see them in the distance from here. My guide book from 1997 mentioned the place but it had now closed down due to insufficient snow in the summer.
In the morning I walked up the hill. The views over the countryside seemed different to what I remembered ten years ago, somehow, but it was only when I compared photographs later on that I realised that the plains were now dotted with summer houses. There had not been a single one ten years before. Saplings had grown into trees, the hotel had expanded, paths had been built. I hate the changes that tourism forces on places, hypocritically imagining that somehow I’m not part of the reason for them.
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 to the guy in the small shop as I bought a coffee, and he said it had been like this for a week and didn’t look like it would change any time soon. I almost couldn’t believe him. In my Icelandic experience, stable weather for seven hours was almost unheard of, let alone seven days.
But he was right. It stayed awesome the whole time I was at Hveravellir. After the daytime visitors had gone, there were just a handful of campers left. I went to explore the hot springs. In the strangeness of an Arctic midnight, the twilight sky never faded to darkness and the landscape looked surreal. A full moon peeked above the horizon. The geysers here were all constantly bubbling. A mud geyser spurted intermittently, and I spent ages trying to photograph it before I finally caught an eruption.
I kind of fancied doing a long hike from here. I could have spent two or three days hiking to Hvítárvatn. But the strenuous bits of my trip were behind me, I only had a few days left, and I decided to relax a little bit. So I saw what I could at Hveravellir, relaxed in the sunshine of the arctic desert, and then headed back towards Reykjavík.
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 be seen. The skies matched the ground, a uniform slate grey as far as I could see.
Later on it got less forbidding. A vivid green mountain came into view, looking to me like it could be the crazy home of some Norse god. On this part of the trek I could easily see why Icelandic folk tales have it that every other rock in the highlands is home to a spirit or goblin of some sort.
Eventually I crested a rise and found the Emstrur hut beneath me. I was two thirds of the way to the end.
Jul 05, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I cooked up some lunch on the veranda of the hut. As I ate, the clouds suddenly parted, revealing a couple of hikers heading out across a huge snowy expanse, ringed by mountains. A roar away to my right turned out to be coming from a huge steam plume jetting straight out of the ground. I finished my food, grabbed my pack and headed out.
Hiking across the snow was fairly tough going but I knew the hardest bit of the day was already behind me. I’d climbed 500 metres and now I would drop 500 metres to Álftavatn. The weather was beautiful here, and I was alone on the trail pretty much the whole way. I was in an Icelandic dream but I did not let up my pace for a second. I marched pretty much as fast as I could, somehow fearing that if I slowed down I might not make it to Þórsmörk.
Later the weather turned. I descended into a verdant gorge, and crossed my first river. It was only ankle-deep but bitingly cold, and I walked gingerly for a mile or so afterwards until my feet started to feel again. The cloud was thickening and eventually I could only see the trail and a few feet either side of it. Sometimes in the murk I could hear volcanic springs rumbling and bubbling but I couldn’t see anything. It began to rain.
Finally I reached a flat grassy plain where I could see that vehicles sometimes drove. A few minutes more walking brought me to the shores of Álftavatn. I set up camp and then walked along the shore in the midsummer gloom, listening to music. I was a third of the way to the end.
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, and I started to think about what I would do there for two days. Suddenly, a crew member asked to see my ticket again. He looked a bit worried and I wondered why. I soon found out. The boat was not two hours late but two days late. Its weekly run took it all around the settlements of Ammassalik district, and today it was not actually going to Kulusuk, but to Sermiligaaq, the most remote village on the schedule. My journey was not nearly over – it had barely begun.
I sometimes have crazy dreams about accidentally getting boats or trains to completely the wrong place. This was the first time it had ever happened to me. I felt a slight sense of panic for about 10 seconds, and then realised that this was in no way a bad thing. I would have to spend another 90 pounds on a helicopter back to Kulusuk in the morning, but on the plus side I was in for a 12 hour round trip up the savage coast of East Greenland, to a remote village that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone to. The crew and the Danes couldn’t understand why I was smiling so much.
We sailed up Ammassalik Fjord. It was nothing like as ice-choked as Sermilik Fjord. It was a dull grey day and the seas and mountains looked gloomy. I lost track of time as we gently rolled along, rising and falling with the swell. I chatted to the Danes, who had travelled a lot in Nordic parts, and I chatted to one of the crew who could speak English. A couple of the other crew had simply said “Kulusuk!” and laughed as I passed them on the deck. It was all meant in a good spirit.
After almost six hours we reached Sermiligaaq. It was a slice of Greenland life that I was incredibly happy to have had this chance to see. The tiny ragged village was the first sign of human life that there had been in all the miles of fjord since Tasiilaq. It seemed unbelievable that people could live here. The arrival of the boat was quite an event – our main mission here was to deliver supplies. The Danes and I left the boat crew to their work. We had an hour to kill before heading back and I wandered around the village. The only activity was at the dock – everywhere else was deserted. In the cold drizzle it didn’t look like a very inviting place.
The boat finished its delivery, and we headed back. I watched Sermiligaaq recede into the forbidding mountains, and we sailed back into the endlessness. It was 5pm, and it was getting colder. I spent most of the return journey indoors, sheltering from icy winds. I’d brought no food with me, naturally, having expected to be on Kulusuk by lunchtime. But the Danes took pity on me, sharing biscuits and sandwiches, and the crew even offered me a share of their cooked dinner. It was very kind but I had to refuse on the grounds of vegetarianism. I probably offended them greatly. I felt bad.
Eventually, at 11pm, we chugged back into Kong Oskars Havn, and the familiar sights of Tasiilaq drifted back into view. The heavy cloud made the Greenlandic evening almost feel like it might turn into a night. I got off the boat and walked unsteadily back up to the Red House, where luckily they had room to put me up again. That night, and for days after, I felt the rocking of the boat as I lay in bed, and I saw icebergs and mountains and stern grey seas when I closed my eyes.
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 village of Tiniteqilaaq. I’d thought the scenery up until now had been pretty amazing but here it blew my mind. We docked in the village, climbed a small hill and suddenly had the unbelievable Sermilik Fjord in front of us.
Mar 18, 2009 in United States 2009
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.
Apr 06, 2008 in Northern Ireland 2008
Mar 29, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
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 the park. The scenery which had seemed OK while walking looked spectacular from the back of the truck with the wind whistling by, and after half an hour of chugging up the track with stunning views over the green rugged mountains we were grinning like fools.
In the highlands of Ecuador in mid-January the rainy season is very much under way. Under threatening skies, we set off for a bit of hiking, which began with a gentle ascent up through the forest from about 2500m to over 3000m above sea level. We walked through the dripping cool humid jungle, photographing strange plants and misty views. As we got higher, the mist became fog and the air became cooler, and by the time we reached the tree line the fog had become cloud and it began to rain. We were now pretty exposed, and the hike became a bit of an expedition as the rain began to lash down. The trail took us along a narrow ridge, and the visibility was so low that the ridge looked to us like a sort of elevated walkway in the clouds.
After a lengthy trek, we reached a turn-off in the trail that would lead us back off the ridge and into the forest. As we got there, the cloud seemed to be thinning, and in just a few minutes the rain had stopped and it looked like the sun might come out. The cloud was lifting, and far below we could see the hut at the start of the trail, and the road in the valley. As a few sunbeams broke through the cloud, we got astonishing views of the rugged green Andes, vivid and bright beneath still-heavy clouds.
The day was wearing on, and we headed back down the trail to the hut. We’d taken a stove and some food with us, but the weather had been so vile on the trail that we hadn’t been able to use it, so we were starving. As the sun neared the horizon we cooked up some soup and pasta and restored ourselves. The park rangers had gone back down to the park entrance, so it looked like we were going to be walking the five miles back down to the main road, and by the time we had eaten it was almost dark. Luckily we had torches, and we had a great walk down the track, with some good views of the lights of towns and villages in the valley. We got to the road at eight o’clock and jumped on a bus heading back to Loja.
After a great day in the national park, we were ready to get back on the road. But we’d made a huge tactical error by dropping some clothes off at a launderette before we went hiking. We didn’t make it back in time to collect them, and the next day the launderette was closed. It was a Sunday, and in a pious mountain town where there’s not a huge amount to do during the rest of the week, Sunday is a very slow day indeed. Every shop and almost every cafe was closed, except for one that was over-priced and unfriendly. Luckily, the town museum, situated in the old town gates, was open, and we spent as long as we could there, enjoying a small art exhibition and some views of the town from the clock tower. I was beginning to feel slightly claustrophobic in Loja, and was reminded of a similar experience in a town by the Zambezi called Lukulu, which had also been much easier to arrive at than to leave.
The next day we got up early, finally collected our laundry, jumped in a taxi and headed for the bus station and more exciting places than Loja. But what a disaster doing laundry in Loja was turning out to be – as we arrived at the bus station there was a lively picket line across the entrance, and it was clear that no buses were leaving. “Ah! I forgot!”, said the despicable taxi driver. “There’s a bus strike today!”. Unfortunately there were no other taxi drivers around and we didn’t feel like walking for three miles so we were forced to get the man to drive us back into town. Here we received the shattering news that there was an indefinite bus strike on, but the word was that ‘indefinite’ in this case would probably mean ‘until some time tomorrow’. We fervently hoped that this was right.
The next morning we were up before dawn in our eagerness to get the hell out of Loja. As soon as it opened we asked at the tourist information office and almost wept with relief when they told us the strike was indeed over. We made great haste for the bus station, only to find that in a brief show of solidarity with the drivers, the ticket sellers had had a quick walkout. Luckily they came back before too long, and just after midday we found ourselves on a bus heading north to Cuenca. I now had only five days left to see the rest of Ecuador but happy that I would at least not have to spend them in Loja.
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 track as we ploughed through the thick sand. It was beginning to drive us slightly mad, but would become the almost constant soundtrack to our Altiplano journey.
We stopped at Villa Alota for lunch. It was a strange place, just a few dozen houses in the middle of nowhere and more or less deserted. Victor left us eating lunch while he gave someone a lift somewhere, which took an hour or so, and then for reasons we couldn’t work out he drained all the fuel from the car into a large tub, before refilling it. Then we had a pretty boring afternoon of driving through the desert to the village of Chuvica, which sits right on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar looked strange in the evening light as we arrived, glistening in the sun and stretching away as far as the eye could see.
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 was coming from the moon. I went to bed exhausted by the altitude and slightly dreading the 6am start we were apparently planning for the morning.
Dec 15, 2005 in South America 2005
Over the previous month I’d travelled from the ice-bound fjords of Patagonia more than two thousand miles away, all the way to here. From northern Scotland to Timbuktu is about the same distance. Chile had been an amazing place but I had less than two months left until I needed to be in Quito so I had to move on. Sprawling across thousands of square miles of southern Bolivia between San Pedro and the nearest Bolivian town of Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, and I hooked up with Sebastian from Germany and Pia and Signe from Denmark to cross it. We would travel across in a 4WD driven by Victor from Bolivia.
The Bolivian border is only thirty miles from San Pedro but it’s more than 2 kilometres higher, and the rapid ascent was a bit risky from the point of view of altitude sickness. My trip to El Tatio had been good for acclimatisation, though, and I felt OK as we waited in the thin air to get our passports stamped. Near by, an old bus was decaying into the desert sands. It seemed a strange place to have a border, and I wondered just how boring it must get here on a slow day, with absolutely nothing here but the border itself – no town, no shops, no scenery.
Our first stop was Laguna Blanca, just a short distance from the border. It’s a deep green mineral lake, which sits at the base of Volcán Licancabur. San Pedro was just on the other side of the mountain, hardly any distance at all, but it felt like we were in a different world, here in the thin air and harsh terrain. I walked down to the chalky muddy shores of the lake to take some photographs before we drove on to Laguna Verde, a little bit higher up and further on. Here we found hot springs, and we took a warm bath in the hot Altiplano sunshine. I made a huge tactical error in not putting on more sun cream – somehow, although I’ve spent a lifetime getting sunburnt even in the Arctic, I thought I would not get burnt in the midday sun 4,000m above sea level in the tropics. Within twenty minutes my shoulders were a terrifying red, and I knew I was in for an uncomfortable few days.
It was a great place for a dip, though, in fantastically warm water and surrounding by vast wild high-altitude desert and a horizon dotted with volcanoes. None of us were yet feeling the effects of the altitude and the mood was good as we headed yet higher, to Sol de Mañana, 5,000m above sea level and apparently the highest geothermal area in the world. A few roaring holes in the ground were spattering mud, and steam was rising from everywhere. At this altitude there is barely half the amount of oxygen you get at sea level, and I was beginning to feel a bit spaced out. I tried to take some video footage of the mud geysers, but didn’t even notice until later that I was taking stills by mistake. I was glad that our destination for the day was 700m lower than here.
Nov 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 trail, but very quickly it was high enough for the views to be amazing. Paine Grande loomed to the left, and occasional icefalls sent rumbles down the valley. Far below I could see some people hiking along to the glacier that feeds the Río Francés. The weather was perfect, with not a cloud in the sky.
Higher up, the trail levelled out and went through some forest. The trekking was not so fun without the views, but eventually I reached the campamento, and then walked a few minutes further on to a rocky outcrop above the trees. From here there were views up to the Cuernos del Paine, which seemed very close by, and down over Lagos Pehoé, Nordenskiöld and Toro far below. I’d brought my stove and sat on the rocks cooking up soup, listening to music and enjoying the spectacular location.
After a couple of hours there I headed back down the trail. As the sun was setting at 9pm or so, I was relaxing in my tent when there was a tremendous roar. I walked out to the river to see what was happening, and lots of other campers were emerging from the woods as well. The whole face of Paine Grande was obscured by a cloud of snow, and there must have been a huge avalanche from right near the top. As the cloud cleared it revealed rivers of snow pouring down the mountain which lasted for several minutes. I waited to see if there would be any more avalanches but that seemed to be the evening’s show over. In the morning I packed up and headed east, towards the Torres del Paine themselves.
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. I bumped into two Australians I’d met the previous day, when they’d given me some wildly inaccurate information about how far I was from the campsite. We chatted briefly but I made sure not to ask them how far it was to the glacier.
As it turned out, we actually weren’t very far from it at all. At about 4 pm I reached a sign to a viewpoint, and a few minutes later I reached it. A chilling wind was blowing off the glacier and I couldn’t stay there long, but the views were pretty incredible. Though I was high above the level of the lake, I was a good way below the level of the top of the glacier.
After a while scrambling over the rocks at the viewpoint, I headed back down the trail and down another path to a mountain hut on the lake shore. I cooked up some dinner there, and as I ate I heard two enormous booms from the glacier, which must have been icebergs calving off it. As I found later at the Moreno Glacier, icebergs inevitably calve just after you’ve left, or just as you’ve turned to look at something else.
I left for the trek back to Lago Pehoé, and though I didn’t see any calving, the glacier looked incredible in the late afternoon hazy sunshine. Back at the camp, I enjoyed a hot shower, a carbohydrate-laden dinner and some restorative coffees. 7 hours of hiking had been a good start to my week on the W.
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 was buy an ice cream, avoid the hotel touts in town (they were about the only people out and about), and find a taxi to get to my hostel, out of town on the road to Iguazú Falls. It took a while for me first to find a taxi driver and then to wake him from his Sunday afternoon sleep, and by the time I got to the hostel it was too late to go to the Falls. Luckily the hostel was probably the nicest I’ve stayed in anywhere in the world, with a swimming pool, bar, restaurant and internet access so I chilled out there for the evening.
In the morning I got a bus to Iguazú Falls. It’s one of the world’s most famous waterfalls, an enormously broad expanse of water falling 80 metres in hundreds of individual cascades. It’s also one of the most visited places in South America, and I really didn’t like the overwhelming weight of tourists. The crush was so great that I found myself often waiting many minutes to get close enough to a viewpoint to actually see the falls. And the overcast weather meant the falls didn’t look that great anyway.
But, as the day wore on, the clouds broke up and the falls began to look better. Despite the swarms, I began to like them a bit more, and when the sun came out properly I took a cheesy little train ride to a distant part of the falls where you walk for about half a mile over boardwalks above the river to get to a viewpoint right on the very edge of the falls, as they thunder into a semicircular gorge called the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). Here I decided the falls actually were pretty amazing. I’d never stood on the lip of such a huge waterfall before, and the waves of soaking spray deterred some of the tourists as well. I was seriously impressed and spent a while there trying to take pictures in the scant few seconds where the spray seemed to die down a bit.
Eventually I felt that I’d seen everything I could at the falls, and headed back to the hostel. The following morning I had planned to go to the other side of the falls, but an apocalyptic thunderstorm had started during the night, and carried on until the afternoon. I probably should have gone out anyway because hanging round at the hostel was extremely boring. At 4pm I got a bus to Puerto Iguazú back in Argentina, and got an overnight bus back to Buenos Aires.
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 13, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
After a couple of days back at work it was the weekend again, and time for me to set out exploring once more. My first target was the Summer Palace, one of China’s most impressive imperial treasures. It’s only a couple of miles from the university, but I thought I would get a cab as the temperatures were nearing 40°C, and I thought I might die of dehydration if I walked. But in the end, there was only one cab by the East Gate of the university, and he wouldn’t take me. With my Mandarin still not even reaching appallingly basic, I couldn’t even begin to understand why. I decided to brave the heat and walk it.
I didn’t actually look around the Palace itself: I didn’t fancy being indoors on such a hot day. So I just spent a few hours walking around Kunming Lake, and over the famous 17-arch bridge to a small island. I frequently passed stalls selling ice cream, and I frequently gave them business. I spent quite a while sat on the island, enjoying being in the middle of a tranquil lake, surrounded by the Western Hills.
Apr 20, 2002 in Norway 2002
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 depends for many supplies on an infrequent truck from Lusaka. The truck normally comes every three weeks, but Lukulu was outside the eclipse path while Lusaka was inside, and the truck driver had decided to see the eclipse and leave Lukulu to survive without soft drinks for another week. There was no Coke to be had, and we drank the last two bottles of Fanta in town.
There looked to be no vehicles leaving. Our alternative plan, should things become desperate, was to get a boat 70 miles downstream to Mongu, but on investigation, it turned out this would involve three days in small rickety wooden canoes, and only just enough space for a boatman, a passenger and a backpack. Our desperation was not yet severe enough, but for some other travellers it was. Roger and Robert, who we’d met in Zambezi, had already been this way and had already got fed up of Lukulu. We met them here, trying to get out, and the last time we saw them they said they were going to get the boat. We have no idea if they’re still alive or not.
Our first day in Lukulu ended with the usual fabulous Zambezi sunset and a feeling of hope that we might be able to move on the next day. We hadn’t considered, though, that the next day was Sunday, and though we were up very early, it quickly became clear that nothing was going to take us anywhere before Monday. After several hours waiting by the roadside hoping in vain for a lift, we went for a long walk through the surrounding area. I was feeling trapped and claustrophobic and sceptical that Lukulu could be in any way interesting, but I was actually wrong. In one of the villages we walked through, we noticed a couple of tiny yellow birds in wooden cages, and once we’d got talking to one of the village men we asked about the birds. He told in fascinating detail how they catch the birds – the first with a trap involving rubber cut from trees, and subsequent ones using the first as a lure. Once they’ve been caught, apparently, they never fly away.
But then Lukulu closed in on me again. We wanted to get some food, and we wanted to eat somewhere other than where we were staying. The unshakeable Oliver decided he would come with us on our search, and after brief conversations in Lozi between Oliver and the proprietors, each place we visited would turn out either not to have any food, or to be unwilling or unable to prepare it. In the end, the only place that bring itself to cook us some food was (surprise!) Oliver’s brother’s place. We resigned ourselves to eating there again, and requested nshima with anything, anything except fish, of which I was extremely bored. Oliver said he’d see what he could do, and after a while returned with a couple of plates of nshima and two bowls containing…aargh.
Feb 24, 2001 in OHP 2001
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 was probably an exaggeration but they were definitely not well known. But I got struck down with a nasty illness the next day, and I could not go to Mixco Viejo. I was forced to spend my penultimate day in Guatemala in bed recovering.
I was pretty much recovered by the next day, our last in Guatemala. We spent the day buying some final souvenirs – coffee, an evil saint effigy, and a Che Guevara T-shirt for me – and getting everything in order for our trip home. In the evening we met up with Mike and Aasta, and also Will and Chad, also veterans of the San Pedro climb, and had a night out on the town to celebrate the end of our journey. We couldn’t have a very large one, though, because we had to get up at 4.30am to catch our flight. We went back to our hostel at midnight and packed, and though our backpacks were insanely huge and heavy, we didn’t mind too much – we were nearly home.
In the morning we made our way to the airport and had a safe and uneventful flight home. I was sad to be leaving, as we’d had an incredible time. In an unexpected development, my Mum, Dad, auntie, brother and sister came to meet me at Gatwick. It was a wonderful end to a fantastic trip.
Oct 21, 2000 in Central America 2000
We had been told that the temperature at the summit was usually around -5°C just before dawn, and we could well believe it as we emerged from the tent at 5.30am to find an awesome view before us. Pre-dawn colours dusted the sky, towns and villages glowed far beneath us, and a mighty plume of steam rose gently from Volcán Santiaguito. A continuous jet-engine roar could be heard from the volcano. Our friends with the fire came over to make sure we were up, and we watched with them as the stars were engulfed by the rising blue of the sky. It was a perfectly clear and still morning. The effort of carrying all our camping equipment up here had been rewarded.
We could see Guatemala’s chain of volcanoes stretching away 100km in either direction: as far as Mexico to the west, and to Fuego and Acatenango in the east. Between us and these two were the volcanoes around Atitlán. It was only a week since we had been at the top of San Pedro, and I still felt like I owned it as I looked back at it from here. It was a truly beautiful moment when over this awesome scene the sun appeared, and we basked in its rays as the temperature very slowly began to rise. To make the moment perfect, Volcán Fuego chose that moment to erupt a small cloud of ash.
But the best moment was still to come. I walked round to the west side of the summit, and was amazed to see the perfectly straight-sided shadow of the volcano stretching away to the horizon. This was beautiful in itself, but then I climbed onto the very peak of the volcano to get a better view. To my astonishment I could then see my own shadow stretching away into the distance as well. It was an amazing moment, and looking back, probably ranks as the outstanding memory of the trip.
After this incredible sunrise, we walked over to the south side of the volcano to look down on Volcán Santiaguito. It was incredible to look down on, and hear, this erupting volcano while 100km away we could see another volcano erupting at the same time. We sat there silently for a long time, gazing at the view which stretched away before us to the Pacific. At 9.30am, though, the peace was shattered when a group of climbers arrived at the top. They were out of luck, getting just a few minutes of the view we had been enjoying for hours before the clouds rolled in below us. We had seen what we came to see, and so after we had eaten a breakfast of Rice Krispies in hot milk, we broke camp and reluctantly set off down the mountain.
As on the way up, we took it slowly, and after almost three hours we were at the bottom of the steep section. Here we rested for a while, and had a chat with a farmer who was on his way to his fields. He was very friendly, and talked to us for quite a while, asking us where we were from, what England was like, what the weather was like, whether there were farmers like him in England, what tools the farmers used, and what the word for ‘Machete’ was in English. We shook hands heartily as he headed off to work. After another hour’s walk, we were back at the road, from where we got a bus back to town.
Sep 16, 1999 in Iceland 1999
And that, to all intents and purposes, was the end of our journey. We didn’t do much else of interest, spending our final day in Iceland wandering around Reykjavík. We got the cheapest souvenirs we could find (a pack of cards), bought a newspaper at horrific expense, took a trip up the spire of the Hallgrímskirkja, and went to see the Volcano Show. This is a two-hour film containing footage of all the eruptions in Iceland since 1947, and it was very impressive. We had seen all the volcanoes in the film, so we felt that we had done well in our four weeks here.
The final morning was a sad occasion. I didn’t want to leave and I was consumed by premature nostalgia as we left the youth hostel on an overcast, grey morning, and took a bus to the BSÍ terminal. From there we went to the Blue Lagoon, a pool of effluent from a geothermal power station which you can swim in, and relaxed for three hours. This was a fine way to end our time in Iceland, and we certainly felt that we deserved a rest. It had been a long, at times arduous, but extremely rewarding trip, and we felt very proud that we had seen all that we set out to see.
A quick, but expensive, taxi ride took us to Keflavík International Airport, where we bought some duty-free Brennivín, the Icelandic national drink, and then got on the plane home. On arrival at Heathrow, we bought ourselves a pint of bitter and a cigar each, and then we went our separate ways, into a dark but warm London evening.
Sep 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 20 minutes, and appreciated the fine view over the island. It was a sunny day, and the brightly coloured roofs of the town contrasted strikingly with the greenery on the rest of the island. Eldfell steamed calmly nearby, and the string of small islands to the south-west stood black against the glistening sea. After a rapid scramble down the slopes, we went back to the campsite.
And that evening, in perfect clear skies, the aurorae were magnificent. For the first time, they covered the whole of the sky, in shimmering green curtains. They streamed across the sky, rapidly appearing and disappearing, and mingling with the green sweeps were flickering blobs of red. Some of the photographs show purple bits as well. It was quite literally breathtaking, and we were utterly captivated until three in the morning.
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 in that direction did not obscure the summit, as the usually do, and so we could see the entrance to Mediæval hell. It was impressive to look at this volcano which has caused such immense devastation over the centuries. Unbeknown to us, deep beneath the earth Hekla was stirring again. Six months after we were there, it erupted for the first time since 1991, showering ash over much of central Iceland, and sending lava flows down its flanks. A few months after that, the area around Hella was hit by two powerful earthquakes in a week, destroying 20 houses.
It was all quiet when we were there, though, so having seen the volcano, there was little else to do in Hella but pack up and wait for the bus. Sadly, another slight cock-up on the bus timetable front meant that we got to the bus station about a quarter of an hour after the bus left. We were quite keen to get back on the way, and the thought of a completely pointless night in Hella was soul-destroying. We walked to the tourist office, thinking desperately of ways out of here. Our next destination was Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago south of the mainland. We asked about the possibilities of flying there. It was possible, said the woman in the tourist office, but you’d need a car to get to the airstrip. We asked about a taxi to Reykjavík. She said it would cost about 10,000 kroner. We asked, desperately, if there was any way of leaving Hella before the morning. “Yes,” she said, “the þórsmörk bus passes by at five”. Almost weeping with relief, we rushed back to the bus stop, just in time to catch the last bus of the day, which, mysteriously, did not appear on any timetable.
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 the rim and down the other side, and on through Dimmuborgir, an amazing lava formation. Several thousand years ago, a huge lava lake formed here. After cooling down for some time, and partially solidifying, an ancient lava flow that had been damming it gave way, allowing the liquid left to pour out. Left behind were many hundreds of towers of contorted lava. Natural arches and caves abound, and many fascinating trails can be followed.
We wandered through Dimmuborgir for a while, then walked back to our campsite by the lake shore. Here we saw a quite fabulous sunset, which bathed the hills and houses in a gorgeous orange glow. The sun sank beneath the opposite shore of the lake leaving behind a burning sky, which was mirrored in the rippling waters of Mývatn. However, the feelings of deep humanity this inspired in us were quickly dispersed by the arrival of the midges, and we repaired to the tents in a hurry, ready for an early rise the next day.