Articles tagged with "plane journey"
The Hell Itch passed. By the time I got on the flight from Houston to Santiago it seemed like an insane dream. During the night, we flew over Nicaragua, and I tried to recognise places I’d been. The Milky Way was bright, and there were thunderstorms flickering on the horizon.
Three weeks in Rio went way too quickly. I was just starting to get used to the heat and humidity when it was time to head back to the proper winter in Santiago. Flying over the Andes is always amazing, and my flight brought me to the cordillera just in time for the last of the daylight to make it look breathtaking. We flew over the Paso de los Libertadores and I saw Portillo and the Laguna del Inca in amongst the snowy peaks.
The clouds came back in, and although we waited an hour longer to see if they would clear again, they didn’t, so we headed back to the camp. I got up early the next morning to see if it was worth going again, but it wasn’t, so we headed back down to the village of Endu.
In the morning I got a truck to Ulei. Normally there are two trucks, but one of them had gone off the road the previous day and was out of action. It happened that there was a large group of tourists needing to get back to the airport, so some 20 people crowded into and onto the truck. Luckily it went slowly on the rough jungle tracks, and for me clinging onto the outside, the risk of actually falling off was low.
At the airport, a BBC documentary crew was arriving on the island, so I guess Marum volcano will be appearing on British television before too long. It was strange to see a TV presenter with a very familiar face here in this wild place on the other side of the planet.
I got a flight to Ambrym, a much less visited island than Tanna. I could see even from the plane as we descended into Ulei that Ambrym was way more remote, with impenetrable jungle covering the whole of the island as far as I could see. Ulei airport was just a clearing in the jungle, and I got a truck from there to the village of Endu, about an hour away, where I could get a guide to show me the way up to Ambrym’s volcano.
It was a nice flight back. The rain had stopped and the skies were clear, and as we approached Efate Island and Port Vila, the sea was stunningly blue. Small reefs off the shore looked inviting, but I was not here for a beach holiday. I had another volcano to go to.
Early the next morning Thomas gave me a lift back across the island to the airport. I’d come here in quite a large plane but for the flight back to Vila, the plane was a tiny colourful Twin Otter with space for 10 people including two pilots.
A friend who had flown from Sydney to Santiago had made me crazy with jealousy when she’d shown me photos of Antarctica taken from the plane. I was desperate to see it for myself. When I got the chance to go to Australia for a conference, I got lucky – we flew far enough south to be over the ice, and there were clear skies too.
After two weeks, just as I was really getting over my epic jetlag, it was time to head back to the other side of the planet. Once more over Siberia, but this time at night, so I wasn’t expecting to see too much. And the flight started badly when KLM didn’t have a vegetarian meal for me. They’d done exactly the same on the way out, so I was pretty disgusted at their incompetence when they screwed up a second time. I won’t be flying with KLM again.
So I slept angrily for a few hours, then woke up somewhere south of Novaya Zemlya. I looked out the window, and I thought I could see the very first light of dawn – the whole sky to the north looked bright. But sunrise was still hours away. As I looked, I realised that it was the northern lights.
The display filled the northern horizon and got brighter. I could see green curtains and red clouds drifting around the skies. It was a long way to the north and not as bright as the epic aurorae that I’d seen from the ground in Iceland in 2010, but it was still incredible. I felt like waking up the people near me – if I’d have been sleeping while this was going on outside I’d have wanted someone to tell me. But then again they might just think I was crazy. And if they were asleep they only had themselves to blame. So I watched the show by myself.
I had 8 hours between flights in Paris. I’d been thinking of buying a cheap flight to London to go and see my friends there to fill the gap, and at the very least I thought I’d go out into the city. But I hadn’t booked any flights, and when I got through security I found a part of Charles de Gaulle airport that was filled with large, comfortable beds. I was tired, obviously, after a 14 hour flight, so I thought I would lie down for a bit. Just a little bit, and then I’d go out and explore Paris.
5 hours later I woke up, to find this bit of the airport completely deserted. I had about enough time to find my way through the labyrinths to where my next flight, to Amsterdam, would go from. Then from Amsterdam it was just another 12 hours to get to Taipei.
Back in 2001, on my way back from Australia, I’d flown over Siberia. It had been one of the most amazing flights I’d been on, with incredible views of the empty vastness covered in snow and ice. So I was looking forward to flying over it again. Flying east, it got light pretty soon after we’d left Amsterdam at midnight, and I wanted to look out of the window but I didn’t want to disturb everyone else on the plane. So I covered myself with my blanket and tried to cover the window too whenever I opened it to look out. I am not sure it worked. I think probably all the other passengers just wondered why there was a guy with a blanket on his head which was illuminated from the inside. But, whatever they thought, I liked the views.
I hadn’t been to Asia since going to China in 2007, so I was excited to get the chance to go back when I found out there was a conference being held in Taiwan, all about the cosmic dust I do research into.
The only problem with the whole thing was that Taipei is almost exactly on the opposite side of the planet from Santiago where I live. So, the journey was going to be long. And it was made even longer by the travel agent I have to book work trips through having a fetish for Air France. No matter where I want to go in the world, they manage to find me flights that go via Paris, and this one was the same even if it meant taking the long way around the world.
So I set off on a journey that was 2,000 miles longer than it needed to be. But, well, I like plane journeys, and the thought of 28 hours in planes is not completely horrific to me. So I boarded the 14 hour flight to Paris in a pretty good mood. We crossed the Andes which is always amazing, we saw epic thunderstorms over Brazil, and as we approached Europe in the morning, the sun lit up the vapour trail which was pouring off the wing.
The boat journey to Navarino had been amazing, and a short flight back would surely be an anti-climax. But once more in a tiny Twin Otter, our Aerovias DAP flight took us over some stunning scenery. We flew along the Beagle Channel until the border with Argentina turned north, and then we turned north too. We crossed the Darwin Range and experienced some epic turbulence on the way over. I was lucky to have a window seat on the packed little plane.
As we got further north, the scenery got less incredible, the snow line got higher and eventually we were nearing rainy Punta Arenas. As we descended over the Straits of Magellan, I saw a duck fly by not very far from the plane. Probably a duck could do quite a bit of damage to a little Twin Otter, though the Twin Otter would certainly win the fight.
Being back in Punta Arenas gave me some kind of culture shock. This was a normal place, with people and cafes and cars and noise and life. Puerto Williams was a different world and felt incredibly remote in comparison.
After our epic boat journey we slept in late the next morning. But not too late, because at 11am we had a flight to catch. And this was a flight I did not want to miss – it would take us over Cape Horn.
Even though Cape Horn is just south of Isla Navarino, it never occurred to me that we might be able to go there until a few days before we got to Puerto Williams. It just sounded too impossibly remote. I didn’t know that there was a way to get there, and if there was a way I imagined it would be ruinously expensive.
But then I discovered that Aerovias DAP fly over there from Puerto Williams, for 80,000 pesos. This was not ruinously expensive. This was pretty reasonable for a flight to the world’s most savage and terrifying cape. We didn’t hesitate.
I was incredibly excited as we boarded the plane, and nothing about the trip disappointed. The pilots warned us that even if it was calm and clear at Puerto Williams, it might be too stormy to make it to the cape and we might have to turn back half way. They told us later that they only make it there about half the time they try to get there. But today we were fortunate. We flew over the wild Dientes de Navarino, over rugged and empty Wollaston Island, and then over a strait to the legendary Cape.
We circled around a few times, lower and lower until we were pretty much at the height of the high cliffs. We could see the two little huts in which Chilean navy people spend months at a time, defending the island against Argentinian invasions. And we could see the waves crashing on the rocks. It was an incredible place to be flying over, although I couldn’t help hoping I’d get the chance to set foot on the island, or sail past it, at some point.
After the conference in Switzerland I’d gone back to Santiago, but I soon found that I had serious cravings to come back home again. It was Christmas time and I felt like being in the UK instead of in Chile, even though work commitments meant I had to leave London on Christmas Eve.
So once again I boarded a plane with a maple leaf on it and headed back to the land of my birth, via the land of Tim Hortons. I grabbed a few sickly doughnuts in between flights, and then took off from Toronto in winter darkness. I watched a stunning sunrise somewhere over the Atlantic, and then by the time I landed in London it was dark again.
ESO’s last minute flight booking antics meant that instead of a nice easy direct flight from London to Zurich, I had a horrific 6.40am flight connecting in Paris. After a last night out in London I got to a cheap hotel near Heathrow at 2am, then had to get up at 4.30am to get a bus to the airport. So I was not feeling too fantastic when I arrived in Switzerland at 11am.
Switzerland has many awesome travel memories for me. It was the destination for my first ever overseas holiday at the age of 6; I stopped in Zurich on my way to China when I travelled from Beijing to London by train; and I’d crossed the country on my way from Liechtenstein to Monaco a couple of years ago. I crossed it again today, this time from north to south. In grey skies and drizzle I arrived in Locarno, and headed to the conference venue.
I like booking trips at the last minute. Finding yourself on a plane going somewhere you didn’t expect to go when you woke up that morning is a great feeling. So I was extremely happy that when I asked ESO if I could go to a conference in Switzerland, they didn’t actually confirm my flights until the day of departure. I’d assumed that the flights had not been booked until I got an email at 10am telling me I was flying at 5pm. So I packed up and went to the airport in a fantastic mood.
The conference was in Switzerland but I went to London first to work at UCL for a week. It was pretty awesome to be back but after the epic feeling of arriving home after a year away that I’d had in September, arriving back again in October after three weeks away really wasn’t quite the same.
The flight to Bleaker had taken about 25 minutes. The journey back was a whole different story. The planes start and finish in Stanley but they go wherever in the islands they are needed, and today there were people in West Falkland who needed to get around.
So we took off from Bleaker and headed directly away from Stanley. We stopped at Fox Bay, Port Edgar and then Shallow Harbour and at each stop a few people got off and a few people got on. They all seemed to know each other and exchanged friendly greetings, before slightly suspiciously acknowledging the outside in the back of the plane.
We finally got back to Stanley nearly three hours after leaving Bleaker. My ears were buzzing from the propeller noise and my legs were cramped, but I was pretty happy I’d had the chance to see a whole lot of West Falkland.
I spent my first few days in the Falklands in a state of destitution. There was just one bank, and it didn’t have a cash machine, so visitors arriving on a Saturday like I did would have to wait until the bank opened on the Monday before they could get any money out. Except that the Monday was a public holiday, on account of the Queen’s birthday apparently having happened. And on top of that I’d only managed to get hold of 40 pounds of sterling in Santiago before I arrived, and those 40 pounds turned out to be old bank notes that were no longer valid. My first few days in the islands required me to impose on the charitable nature of the Falkland Islanders.
The Queen’s birthday is something that we would never dream of celebrating in the UK and it certainly isn’t a public holiday. But here, before I’d arrived on the Saturday, there had been parades and ceremonies, and most things were closed on the Monday. Fortunately I was staying at Kay’s B&B, and Kay was very kind and lent me enough money to last until the bank finally opened on the Tuesday morning. I would have been in dire straits without her help.
I had booked a flight to Saunders Island for the Tuesday. Flights in the Falklands don’t follow a fixed timetable – they just go where and when people need to travel. They normally fly at 8am, but luckily today there was a second flight, which meant I had time to get to the bank and get some money, at the offensive cost of 4.5% plus a sickening £1.50 for a phone call to the UK to validate the transaction. If I had wanted Sterling instead of Falklands pounds they’d have charged me an outrageous 1% extra.
Angry but financially independent once again, I headed to the airport. The Falklands Islands Government Air Service aircraft are tiny eight-seater planes, they fly low over the rugged landscape, and our journey out to Saunders was spectacular. We stopped at Port San Carlos, Port Howard and Pebble Island on the way as we chugged over the snow-covered hills in the tiny prop-engine plane.
I arrived in Chile at the end of September 2011 and by April 2012 I still hadn’t left. The last time I spent more than six months in one country, it was 1999. So even though this six months has been spent in a foreign country, I’ve still been getting ever itchier feet. But a nightmarish situation with a herniated disc meant that for a few of those months I could barely even leave the house let alone the country.
With the back situation easing a bit, and having just completed my first solo night shift at the observatory, I decided the time was right to hit the road again. I’d long fancied a trip to the Falklands, had started actually planning it a few weeks ago, and finally a week before I wanted to go, I booked the flight.
And what a flight it was. I came down from Paranal on Thursday, had Friday to get used to daylight again and pack, and then at 4am on Saturday I headed out into the streets to grab a taxi to the airport. I had a fun ride with a friendly driver who thought it was really funny that I was going to the Falklands. “There’s nothing there, right?”, he asked. True enough, I said, but I was in the mood for getting away from it all and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. More or less my whole life these islands have been in the news every now and then, but I had no idea what they actually looked like, didn’t know anyone who’d been there, never met anyone from there.
The flight took off just as the dawn sky was beginning to brighten, and we had spectacular views of the country as the sun rose. As we got down to Patagonia the weather was amazing and the landscapes below were mindblowing. I’d been to some of those places, six years earlier, and looked down nostalgically on the Moreno Glacier and Torres del Paine.
I first visited Chile during an epic four month journey around South America in 2005-2006. I travelled from Patagonia to the Atacama and had an incredible time. I came back in 2009 to use the telescopes at La Silla. And yesterday I arrived in Chile for the third time.
This time I’ll be here for three years and possibly more. In a little over a week I’ll start work at the European Southern Observatory, doing a job that I have coveted for years. I’m pretty excited at the incredible opportunity, and I can’t wait to get up to the finest optical telescopes in the world at Paranal.
My time here started very smoothly, being met at the airport by someone from ESO and taken to a comfortable apartment where I can stay for up to five weeks while I get myself a permanent address. The only problem was that having been dropped off, I had no idea where I was. I had the same problem when I stayed at the ESO guesthouse in 2009, and I solved the problem in the same way, by walking randomly and finding an extremely inefficient route to the nearest metro station.
Having worked out where I was, I headed into the city, to the Plaza de Armas and then to Cerro Santa Lucía. I climbed the hill and looked out over the city, slightly melancholy as I thought of everything that I had left behind, all the friends and family who were now thousands of miles away.
I came down, headed back to my apartment, and thought ahead, to some of the things I want to do while I’m in South America. These include: climbing Aconcagua and Ojos del Salado; eating a penguin; remaining a vegetarian (apart from the penguin); visiting Easter Island, the Falkland Islands and Antarctica; and learning Spanish properly.
First things first, I’m planning a trip to Pucón, to climb Volcán Villarrica if the weather permits. I’m hoping to see lots of volcanic eruptions over the next three years, and at Villarrica I’ve got a good chance of seeing some lava.
I went to the Canary Islands for a meeting. I keep on trying to go there by boat seeing as every airline I fly with there seems to be in some way appalling or incompetent. But I had no time and I was flying again.
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 not long before sunrise.
I headed to the airport at 5.30am. Only when I got there did I realise that my flight was not non-stop but would actually involve stops in Iquique and Copiapó. I knew that between Copiapó and Santiago we’d fly over La Silla, and I wanted to look out for it. We flew over central Iquique, and then it was mostly cloudy from Iquique to Copiapó as the morning fog rolled in off the Pacific.
I started dozing just after we left Copiapó, and soon fell fast asleep. Suddenly I woke, infuriated with myself because I was sure we must have passed La Silla. I looked out of the window and right below me, as clear as anything, was the observatory.
I got the bus back to the airport at 5am. I watched the Icelandic scenery in the morning sunshine, not really wanting to leave. At the airport, I checked in, and then walked outside the airport for one last look at the country. The airport car park did not seem likely to provide me with a nostalgic memory, but to my amazement, in the far distance, there again was Snæfell. My totem for this trip had shown itself once again. It was a sign, a clear and unmistakable sign that this would not be my last trip to Iceland. I was looking forward to the next one already.
In the summer of 1999 I spent a month in Iceland. It was a mindblowing time and I always had in mind the idea that I’d go back some day. Being the type of person who finds some kind of significance in the passage of round numbers of years, I always thought that 2009 was the likely time, but I was never sure if I’d just go back for a long weekend, or for another month of intense travel. In early 2009 the weekend option was looking more likely because I was planning to to spend my main summer break cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats. But then, for various reasons that plan encountered difficulties, and in a moment of curiosity I looked up flights to the north. In a moment of impulsiveness I ditched the cycling plan and booked a three week trip to Iceland instead.
I reminisced. On our last day in Reykjavík, a miserably wet September day, I’d briefly considered the possibility of a day trip to Greenland. It’s not even a two hour flight from Reykjavík to Kulusuk in East Greenland. But it would have been wildly expensive and really stupid to go somewhere like Greenland for a matter of hours. But now I looked again at the giant white island, and decided it was time to go there. In another moment of impulsiveness I booked flights from Reykjavík to Kulusuk.
My journey started at dusk one June evening. By the time my flight from Heathrow to Reykjavík took off, it was dark in London, but as we flew towards the Arctic we chased down the Sun, which rose again somewhere over the north Atlantic. Not long after this strange new dawn at 11pm, I caught sight of wild scenery far below, and we descended into Reykjavík. The Sun was low on the horizon, and shone through a misty haze to give the country a magical glow. I saw the Blue Lagoon, surrounded by lava flows, steaming gently. A bright double rainbow blazed. We landed just before midnight, and the sun set as I got off the plane.
It was incredible to be back in Iceland, but for now I was just in transit. At 6am the next morning I headed out to the tiny city airport to get a flight to Greenland. As we flew away from Iceland, I saw Snæfell’s perfect snow covered dome, blazing under a cloudless sky, and it seemed that hardly had I lost sight of that than we were flying over the ice-choked seas off the coast of Greenland. We landed in Kulusuk, and I got off the plane into a different universe.
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 over Ireland.
Astronomers often need to go to La Palma, because it’s the nearest world class observatory to the UK. This was my fourth trip, but for once it was not to use the telescope. There was a conference being held and I was going to give a talk.
I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get to La Palma. I now boycott Iberia, who provide the most convenient flights but who charge for food and drinks and apparently find it difficult to imagine that there’d be more than one vegetarian on board. For this trip I decided to fly to Tenerife with someone called Globespan Airlines, and get a boat from there to La Palma. My flight was delayed six hours and now Globespan Airlines are also on the list of airlines I’ll never fly with if I can possibly help it, but the boat was a fantastic journey. The sun was setting as we left the port of Los Cristianos in southern Tenerife. We watched the sun set and the moon rise, with Tenerife receding behind us, La Palma approaching, and the smaller islands of La Gomera and El Hierro to the left. I stood on deck listening to Hand Across the Ocean by the Mission and it was a great soundtrack.
It was a cool, foggy morning on 18 October 2005 as I left Ealing for the airport. I’d been packing until 4am, and then left the house at 4.30am, so I had a hard time at Heathrow stopping myself from falling asleep and missing my flight. I managed it though, and flew west. I was flying to Buenos Aires via New York, and I arrived at JFK airport in the early afternoon, a little bit refreshed after sleeping all the way across the Atlantic.
I found my way to Howard Beach subway station and took the long ride to Manhattan. It was a beautiful sunny autumn day as I emerged at 34th St and Penn station to find the Empire State Building right ahead, and I decided to go up. The queues were not bad, but made worse by the harassment from over-enthusiastic audio-guide sellers, falsely claiming that there were no information panels at the top to try and flog their gear.
I brushed them aside, looked deliberately angry on the cheesy photo they insisted on taking of every group going up to superimpose onto a fake view and sell at an exorbitant price, and got into the lift. A short climb up some stairs at the top, and there I was, high above New York in the afternoon sunshine. London seemed a long time ago, and South America still a long way away.
I enjoyed the views, and the assault of noise coming up from the streets far below. I was tempted to stay up there for sunset, but my onward flight was at 10pm and I thought that missing it would not be good, so I came down at about 6pm, had a quick wander past some of the famous streets of Manhattan, grabbed a huge portion of cheap greasy pizza, and headed back to the airport for my flight to Argentina.
As it turned out, I didn’t even get to the Faroes that evening. We flew to Aberdeen, where we had a scheduled stop to pick up passengers, but the stop turned out to be longer than planned. Apparently the weather in the Faroes was too bad to land, and we were waiting to see if it would improve. After about three hours, the crew decided it was worth a shot, and we flew north. The Faroes are only an hour’s flight from Aberdeen, and we were soon circling over them, but all I could see below was an ocean of cloud. We circled for an hour, waiting for a window in the weather so we could land, but eventually it became clear it was not to be, and we headed back south. So in the end, after a day of drama and chaos, unbelievably, I found myself spending the night in Aberdeen.
Fortunately, the next day saw better weather, and I finally arrived in the Faroe Islands just before midday. I got a bus from the airport on Vágar island to Tórshavn, amazed to have actually made it, and stunned by the dramatic scenery, made gloomy and ominous by dirty grey clouds and persistent rain. From Tórshavn I travelled on to the Faroese transport hub of Oyrabakki and then to the village of Gjógv, on the northeastern coast of Eysturoy. I arrived at about 9pm, to find the few scattered houses almost invisible in fog. I went for a walk down to the sea shore and out onto the rocks, enjoying the strange atmosphere of a bright foggy arctic summer evening.
My plan here had been to climb Slættaratindur, the Faroes’ highest mountain, if the weather was good enough. But the next day still saw dense cloud clinging to the mountains, and the advice of the campsite owner was that climbing into the clouds would be a very bad idea. So I contented myself with a hike around the cliffs near the town instead, past nesting puffins and some good views over the straits to other islands in the archipelago.
7 July 2005 turned out to be a bad day to go to the Faroe Islands. My plan had been to go into work for the morning before heading to Stansted for my 3.30pm flight, but at ten to nine, as I was approaching Kings Cross on the Victoria Line, three bombs exploded on various parts of the tube, and London was thrown into chaos.
I was no more than a few hundred metres from the bomb which exploded on a Piccadilly Line train near Kings Cross, though I didn’t know it. The first hint that something was wrong was the announcement that we wouldn’t be stopping at Kings Cross, because of a power failure there, and we headed straight through the now-empty station. We stopped as normal at Euston, but at the next stop, Warren Street, we didn’t move for a long time, and then it was announced that there were serious power failures in north London, and that the Victoria Line was being suspended. Carrying a substantial rucksack, I joined the exodus of stoic commuters and headed up to street level. I thought I would walk to Goodge Street and pick up the tube again there on a different line, but found that was closed as well. Tottenham Court Road, a few hundred metres further, was also closed, and it definitely seemed that the tube was having massive problems. But at this stage, the only information I had was that it was power failures.
I walked on south, and the streets and buses were filled with erstwhile tube travellers. Piccadilly Circus was closed, and I walked on to Trafalgar Square, by now suspecting that I’d be walking all the way to work. Still I had no idea that terrorist attacks had taken place, but the city had a slightly surreal atmosphere as millions of people had their morning routines disrupted and struggled to find another way to work. Under humid grey skies I hurried on, mainly concerned that I would be fearsomely late for work.
As I walked down Whitehall, a weird day got weirder when I bumped into someone I’d known at University. He was talking to another university friend, who was just telling him that there were reports of a bomb on a bus at Tavistock Square. We exchanged news of other friends and then I walked on. Eventually I reached Marsham Street where I worked, and it was only now that I found out the full story, that four separate bombs had gone off almost simultaneously across London. I was one of the latest people in to work, and my appearance caused some relief from my colleagues, who were keeping a track of whether anyone who should be there wasn’t.
I only stayed in the office for an hour or so, as I was anticipating difficulty getting to Stansted Airport. I bought some travel insurance on line and then left, against the advice of the security guard who was of the opinion that staying indoors would be prudent. He was certain I wouldn’t make my flight, but at the time I was reasonably confident. He wished me luck and I walked along to Victoria Station. Before I’d left Marsham Street the word had been that buses from Victoria were running as normal, but the station was rammed with people and nothing appeared to be moving. I got talking to a Spanish girl who was also trying to get to Stansted, and later another Spaniard and two Italians. The Italians didn’t speak any English but needed to get to Stansted for their flight home. After a long wait for information it was announced that no buses would be coming into or out of London.
The five of us decided we would try to get a taxi. By now I was resigning myself to missing my flight, and thinking about how I could rearrange my plans. I imagined taxis would be extremely thin on the ground at a time like this, but to my amazement an empty cab appeared just as we stepped outside Victoria Bus Station. The driver had apparently just turned down a fare to Dover, but was happy to try and get us to Stansted. We headed south of the river at first, to avoid road closures, and at first the going was slow. Heavy clouds had been brewing all morning, and now the heavens opened. The rain battered down on our windows, and it seemed totally appropriate. As we headed across London Bridge and into the City I caught sight of some bewildered-looking tourists, and felt sorry for them. I imagined that anyone who didn’t speak English would be thrown into much more confusion than the rest of us.
Little by little we progressed through London, and apart from in the very centre the traffic was not as bad as I’d feared. Eventually we got onto the motorway, and as we did so the rain stopped and sunshine broke tentatively through. It suddenly looked like I would get to the airport after all, albeit facing an almighty cab fare at the end of it. The meter broke its century long before Stansted, and the final tally was £126.40. I wondered how often the average cabby got a fare like that.
We split the bill five ways, and wished each other luck. I found the check-in for Atlantic Airways and said “Is it still possible to check in for the Faroes?”. I had about thirty seconds left before check-in closed, but the attendant was unflustered. “Sure”, he said. “Anything’s possible”. I was on my way to Torshavn.
As it turned out, I didn’t even get to the Faroes that evening. We flew to Aberdeen, where we had a scheduled stop to pick up passengers, but the stop turned out to be longer than planned. Apparently the weather in the Faroes was too bad to land, and we were waiting to see if it would improve. After about three hours, the crew decided it was worth a shot, and we flew north. The Faroes are only an hour’s flight from Aberdeen, and we were soon circling over them, but all I could see below was an ocean of cloud. We circled for an hour, waiting for a window in the weather so we could land, but eventually it became clear it was not to be, and we headed back south. So in the end, after a day of drama and chaos, unbelievably, I found myself spending the night in Aberdeen. I got to the Faroes in the end the following morning.
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 unpleasant journey, watching the numbers on the meter climb higher and higher. I made it to the check-in with barely a minute to spare, but I was a horribly large number of euros poorer.
The flight home was a slight consolation. A couple of times before when flying into and out of Pisa, I’d noticed a small island off the Tuscan coast. On this flight, I got a great view of it, basking in the orange evening light, with the hills of central Tuscany rising out of the mist in the background.
Although I’d got up at 4am, I met some fun people in the hostel bar and checked out Salzburg’s nightlife. In the end I fell into the classic tourist trap of an Irish bar, but it was quite a fun night. After I’d been up for 23 hours I decided to crash. Just four hours later I had to get up to head out for my flight home.
It was a sunny June day. I left my house at 6am and walked to Bounds Green station, slightly unable to believe that I wouldn’t be back until almost September. I rumbled under London on my 33-stop journey to Heathrow Airport, and from there I flew to Zürich.
I had four hours to kill in Zürich before my flight to Beijing, and I got a train from the airport into the city. I wandered randomly down what looked like a main street, until I found a coffee shop. With half-remembered German from years ago I bought myself an espresso, and then a caramel iced coffee. I didn’t have time to do much more than that, so after a quick wander down to the river I headed back to the airport for my next flight.
For reasons that were never clear to me, I was upgraded to business class for the Beijing flight. I thought this would be awesome and imagined being fed fondue and chocolates by beautiful Swiss stewardesses all the way to China, but in the end it wasn’t so great. I didn’t have a lot of legroom, the stewardesses treated me as if they knew I hadn’t paid for the place I was in, and there weren’t even personal TV screens. But as the sun set over Europe, we flew over Poland, Belarus and Russia, reaching Moscow in the late evening. I looked down on the city and could see the Moskva River snaking through it. I was looking forward to coming back this way, eight kilometres below my present level.
I slept, hoping to wake up in time to see Mongolia in the morning. But it was cloudy across north-east Asia and Mongolia was hidden from view. When we landed in Beijing the skies were leaden and the humidity was astonishing. I was met at the airport by Yong, another student of Xiaowei’s who I’d met in Australia a few months previously, and we got a taxi to PKU. As rain began to fall, I felt very excited to be in China.
When I got back from Africa I had the biggest sense of culture shock I’ve ever experienced. I walked around London, bewildered by the buildings, the noise, the lack of friendly conversation, and the pace of life. But I’d barely even unpacked my bags when I found out I’d be hitting the road again within days. My PhD supervisor had applied for time on the Isaac Newton Telescope in the Canary Islands, and he’d been successful, so a week after I’d stepped off the plane from Lilongwe, I stepped onto a plane to Madrid.
My last journey had finished very eventfully, and this one carried on in a similar vein. The flight to Madrid was delayed, and I missed my connection to La Palma as a result. I saw this as an opportunity. I’d never been to Spain before, so I jumped at the chance to see a bit of the capital before heading out to the islands. I got myself booked onto a flight out the next day, and then set out to explore.
I bought a Spanish-language guide book to Madrid. I’d learnt some Spanish in Central America so I was looking forward to practising. I headed for the centre of town and spent the afternoon looking around Madrid, enjoying the 35°C August heat.
We had an inauspicious start to the trip. I’d arranged to meet Moh, who I would be travelling with, outside Smith’s on Victoria station, but unfortunately there are two Smith’s on Victoria station and we spent ages waiting for each other. Then we somehow managed to miss two Gatwick trains, for which there was no excuse. We made it to Gatwick in time for the flight, though, and had an untraumatic journey across the Atlantic and down the East coast of North America. Weather delayed us landing in Houston, but with just a little bit of panic and fast running, we made it onto the flight from there to San José, Costa Rica.
I was a bit nervous as we flew south. Far below I could see towns in what must have been Mexico lighting up as darkness fell, and I could hardly begin to imagine what travelling in Central America might be like. My efforts at learning Spanish had not got beyond the appallingly basic, I didn’t really know if we’d got enough money with us, and I had no idea if the place would be crawling with tourists or if I wouldn’t see another foreigner for the next six weeks.
But thankfully, I’d booked our first night’s accommodation. This was the only thing I was not worrying about as we landed in San Jose at a quarter past eight on September 14th. However, there was soon another item on the ‘To Worry About’ list – Moh’s baggage did not appear. On enquiry it turned out it had been sent to San José, California, but they said they’d have it by the next day.
So we gathered what belongings we had and walked out of the airport. The air outside felt like it had just been let out of an oven, and a scrum of taxi drivers fell upon us as soon as we appeared. We waved them aside, though, because José, whose B&B we were going to stay at, was standing there holding a sign which said ‘Welcome to Costa Rica, Roger’.
We got to José’s, in a town called Alajuela, at about 10pm, and met Warren, a crazy American from Nevada. But we had been up for nearly 24 hours and were in no mood for small talk, so we made our excuses and slept.
Day 23, Monday September 13th, was an amazing day. After recovering from the aurora-watching of the day before, we headed over to the airport to hire a plane over Surtsey.
Surtsey is one of the better known bits of Iceland. It wasn’t there before 1963, but in October of that year, a fishing boat saw plumes of black smoke pouring from the sea. Thinking it was a boat on fire, the crew hurried to the source of the smoke, only to find that it was a new volcano, exploding from beneath the sea. Film crews soon arrived from all over the world, and the birth of the new island was captured on film. It grew rapidly, and soon reached 100m above sea level. During the early months of the eruption, the sea had easy access to the erupting lava, and violent explosion hurled large rock up to five miles from the craters. As the land grew, however, the sea was eventually blocked out, and the eruption became much calmer. Lava flows ran out over the loose piles of volcanic debris, putting a hard cap on the island, and making it a permanent fixture on world maps. The eruption gradually waned during 1965 and 1966, and in 1967, when the island was 1300 metres wide and 174 metres high, the eruption finally ended.
These days, access to Surtsey is restricted to scientists, who are researching how life begins to gain a foothold on new land. To see the island, we had to fly over it, and this we did. We walked back out to the airport, this time entering from the conventional direction, and ordered our plane. Within twenty minutes, we were taking off in a small, 5-seater light plane.
We headed out towards Surtsey, over Storhöfði, the windy southern peninsula of Heimaey. The turbulence was impressive here, with the plane rocking alarmingly. We flew then over the rest of the Westman islands. Strung out between Heimaey and Surtsey, these small rocky affairs are home only to millions of birds, and the occasional puffin hunter.
Having passed these by, after about 15 minutes we were at Surtsey. The experience was indescribable. We had the most incredible view of the island that it is possible to have, seeing wonderfully the craters and lava flows, and comprehending the unbelievable energy behind the formation of this island. We made several flybys, some high and some low, before heading back up to the mainland via a steep banking turn over Eldfell. When we were landed we all agreed that the flight had been one of the highlights of the trip.
To celebrate our great day, we had another meal out that evening, spending some £55 on a modest pizza. In the mood we were in, we could have a lot more quite easily. On the way home, we took part in another Vestmannaeyjar tradition: every year towards the end of the summer, the baby puffins that nest around the island leave their nests and head out to sea. Some of them, though, are unfortunate enough to accidentally head towards the town. They flap about hopelessly on the roads, at the mercy of cats and cars. The children of Heimaey run around with cardboard boxes, capturing the hapless birds, feeding them and keeping them warm overnight, before casting them into the sea in the morning.
On our way home, we encountered a baby puffin, who was tripping over his wings in his haste to get away. We caught him, took him back to the campsite, and fed him John’s can of tuna, before putting him in a waste paper basket for the night. He seemed quite happy, and after he had eaten another lot of tuna in the morning, we took him to the coast, and cast him into the stormy North Atlantic.
We didn’t even know helicopter flights were an option here before we arrived, but when we found out we could do them, we didn’t hesitate. It was a spectacular ride – we flew high over the rock, and it was the best possible way to appreciate what an astonishing place we were in. Everything was flat, red and barren, and the only things in the whole landscape that stood out were Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
A photo of Mt. Etna erupting on the front page of the paper was the cue for this trip. I saw the photo in the morning, and by the afternoon I’d booked my flight to Catania, at the foot of the mountain and persuaded two friends to come with me. We were young and naive and it’s amazing we even got to the airport given our extreme lack of planning. We didn’t even have a guidebook, but somehow this didn’t deter us at all. We started the trip with a flight to Catania via Milan which took us over the Alps.