I drove around the island. I didn’t have any particular plan and I ended up randomly at Ka Lae, the southernmost point of Hawaii.
Articles tagged with "sea"
I had wanted to go to Hawaii for years and years. It’s a common place for astronomers to go to, as it’s got one of the world’s best locations for observatories on top of Mauna Kea, but I’d never had a chance to go there. This year the opportunity finally came, when the IAU General Assembly was held there. Thousands of astronomers converged on Honolulu and spent a week sharing their research. I didn’t see much of the city – my time was taken up by preparing my own talks, giving my talks, and listening to other people’s talks. But I stayed in a hostel right by the beach so I went there a few times.
I spent a week in Coffs Harbour for a conference. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to see the place, as there was not a lot of free time and the venue was way out of town anyway. But we were close to the beach so I went there most days.
I headed back across the bay. The game finished too late to get any fast boats so the chunderfest wasn’t even an option. I got the slow boat back over to Bom Despacho, a beautiful journey as the sun set. From there I got a bus to Valença, on a bus so air-conditioned that I was suffering with the cold. We got to Valença after the last boat had left for Morro. I found a place to stay, and got the boat back out to the island early the next morning.
I got a bus from Natal to Salvador, and then a boat to Morro de São Paulo. The bus journey was 21 hours long, and it was fun to see a bit of Brazil as we left Rio Grande do Norte, passed through Paraíba, Pernambuco, Alagoas and Sergipe states and finally reached Bahía. In Salvador I got a taxi to the ferry terminal, and bought a ticket for a speedboat to Morro de São Paulo. I’d read that this was a notorious vomit run so I was a bit worried. I really thought I could do without being sick throughout the two hour crossing. But I’d hardly eaten anything since leaving Natal – the roadside cafes we’d stopped at hadn’t had too many vegetarian options – so I thought I at least wouldn’t have very much to throw up.
Before we left, the boat people gave us all plastic bags and tissues. This didn’t look promising. But about five minutes after leaving Salvador, I was feeling fine. The boat was already bouncing crazily across the waves, and I couldn’t see the horizon from where I was sat, but I felt fine. I thought it was a bit early to be counting my chickens, but then I looked around and saw another passenger already with his face deep in the bag, vomiting heartily. I felt bad for him, but a little bit relieved that I hadn’t been the first to go down.
Also travelling was a group of gap-year French kids. They were pretending to be having no problems, laughing and joking, but before very long one of them was looking a bit queasy, and soon they too gave in to the chundering. One by one the others quietened down, the joking stopped, the colour drained from their faces, and eventually I gave away my sick bag to the group because they’d filled all theirs.
But miraculously I was still fine. Me and a family of locals were the only ones not using the bags, but they were all looking pretty unhappy. The longer the journey went on, the finer I felt, and schadenfreude improved my mood still further, so by the time we docked at Morro de São Paulo I was feeling smug and invincible. I leapt from the boat and swaggered into the village, leaving the weaker ones to stumble shakily up the hill in my wake.
São Miguel do Gostoso is not far south of the equator, and when the night sky was clear I could see a lot of stars that I don’t see from Chile. It seemed strange to me to see the Plough to the north, familiar from my native mid-northern latitudes, and at the same time in the same sky see the Southern Cross to the south.
Ever since I moved to Chile I’d been planning to go to Brazil for the world cup in 2014. To see a world cup game was a lifelong dream. Ticket sale was via a lottery, and I entered the draw requesting the maximum seven tickets. There was a pretty good chance of getting none, but I got three, for games in Natal, Belo Horizonte and Salvador. I’d planned my request badly, though, and there was no way I’d be able to get from Natal to Belo Horizonte for the second game, so I just went to Natal and Salvador.
I flew from Santiago to São Paulo. As the plane touched down, all the Chileans on board gave a huge cheer and a good loud “Chi-chi-chi! Le-le-le!” In the arrivals hall, a flight from Bogota had just landed, and Colombian and Chilean flags and colours were everywhere. I flew on to Natal, and then made my way to São Miguel do Gostoso, an hour or so north; all the accommodation in Natal had been booked up.
I’d left behind cold wintery weather in Santiago, but here I was not far from the equator and it was incredibly hot. I spent a couple of days chilling out in the tropical heat on the beach.
I spent a week in Taiwan after the conference. I went to the Penghu archipelago, out in the straits between Taiwan and China. It sounded like it was quite off the beaten track and so I decided to go and have a look.
And off the beaten track it was. At least on the first day that I was there, I’m pretty sure I was the only foreigner on the islands. Later a German and an Indian turned up in Magong, the main city, and I felt like my territory was being invaded and my status as the outsider undermined. But at first I had the sights to myself. I wandered around Magong and ended up by a bay where waves were crashing against the shore as the sun set.
Astronomy conferences have a very standard form. Five days in length, half day on Wednesday with a tour to some nearby attraction offered in the afternoon, conference dinner on Thursday, half day on Friday with another excursion then or over the following weekend. This time the tour was to Yeliu, and from what I saw before I went, it looked like it would be pretty awesome. But actually it was mostly lame. There are some quite cool rock formations there, but it was so incredibly overrun with tourists that it was impossible to enjoy it. Paths followed a strict one way system, there were long queues to see the most famous formations, and there were wardens wandering about the place whistling at anyone who didn’t comply with the system.
Luckily, one of the features of Taiwanese tourism is that people go in great numbers to places that are recognised as being worth visiting, but something equally cool nearby that’s not in the guide books will be deserted. With a few other astronomers, I went for a walk out to a peninsula that had some high cliffs and some nice views over the East China Sea.
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.
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.
I finished my lap and went to the harbour for a while. There were lots of cafes near the water’s edge, overlooking all the decadent playboy’s yachts. I picked one and sat down. There was no menu and no prices, but I decided I was going to have a coffee by the harbour in Monaco regardless of expense. I was actually quite disappointed when it was only €1.70.
I bought some lunch and sat by the sea eating it. Monaco was all action, with traffic pounding around the narrow streets. I went into a Casino supermarket and bought some Monegasque chocolate and wine, and then headed back to Nice to catch the train to Narbonne. My microstates tour was over, and now the only countries in Europe that I still needed to visit were Andorra and San Marino.
Every day of the year, eleven boats are somewhere out at sea along the coast of Norway, on an epic voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. For a long time I’d thought I would like to make a journey along the coast of Norway, and today I could sample a small part of the route.
The boat that pulled into Skjervøy’s small harbour was the MS Nordstjernen, the oldest ship in the Hurtigruten fleet. I was lucky to have a trip on a boat like this. I’d seen massive and new Hurtigruten ships in Tromsø harbour, but the Nordstjernen was small, old and weatherbeaten. We chugged out of Skjervøy into a heavenly summer evening.
The deck was full of people enjoying the warm sun. I watched the coast slip by slowly. Gradually it started to cloud over, and as it cooled, the deck emptied. It was just a four hour run back to Tromsø and some of the people on board were no doubt in for a much longer haul than I was. I stayed out, listening to music and enjoying the ride.
After a couple of hours, another boat appeared on the horizon and closed rapidly. An announcement over the tannoy said that this was the MS Lofoten, another member of the Hurtigruten fleet. The crew of both boats appeared on deck, waving flags and cheering, and both boats sprayed fountains of water as they passed.
We carried on down the coast. Here and there, tiny villages dotted the shore. As we slowly approached Tromsø the signs of human habitation got more frequent, and eventually I saw the distant buildings of the city. We pulled into the harbour just before midnight.
After the meeting I went to the Isle of Arran to do a bit of hiking with another astronomer friend. We got the train to Ardrossan, and the ferry from there to Brodick. I didn’t know much about the island – we’d just picked it as somewhere easy to get to where we could do some hiking and climbing. As we pulled into the harbour at Brodick it looked like a good choice with rugged scenery.
Our target was Goat Fell. The weather had been beautiful when we arrived but was a little bit more overcast the next day. We hiked up to the 874m summit in a couple of hours, and got some fantastic views over the island. In the far distance, the ferry was pulling out of Brodick on its way to Ardrossan.
On the other side of the peak we took a route along a spectacular ridge, descended a bit and then scrambled up a very steep slope to a viewpoint on the other side of the valley. We could see some rock climbers tackling a sheer face on another nearby hill. Our aims were less extreme, and after a few hours of good hiking we descended back into the valley.
I was sad to leave Iquique, but I didn’t have much time left now before my flight home, and I still wanted to make it up to the very top of Chile. I got a bus to Arica, the northernmost town in the country.
Arica wasn’t as cool as Iquique, but I still liked it a lot. It was a lot more run-down looking, with low houses sprawling over a huge area. The hostel I stayed in was quite a way out of the centre, so I walked miles during my few days here. The first day I was there was a Sunday, which was a shame because it meant all the travel agents were closed, and my plan to spend three days in Parque Nacional Lauca was impossible. So instead I wandered around the city, eventually finding my way up El Morro, a huge headland which towers over the centre. I got there as the sun was setting, and climbed up it for some amazing views of the Pacific sunset. In the other direction, looking east I could see two giant snow-capped mountains, so far away they were only just barely visible on the horizon.
I watched the sunset and then watched the city lights come on. I was so close to Peru here that I decided I couldn’t leave without a quick look across the border.
I got a bus to Iquique. It was a great journey through the desert to Antofagasta, and then up the coast. A stunning moonrise over the Andes felt like a sign that this was a good direction to be heading in.
It was New Year’s Eve, and I had a few things to sort out. I needed to buy a flight from Arica to Santiago, if I was going to make it up there and still get back in time for my flight home; I needed a new bag because mine was falling apart; and I needed an FC Iquique football top. I had a great Spanish day and accomplished all my tasks with a minimum of misunderstanding.
I went for a walk on the beach. I kept on getting into random conversations – someone from Santiago visiting the north for the first time, and enjoying the weather, a local who told me there would be fireworks later on, and a very, very drunk guy who was more or less totally incomprehensible. The vibe was good. I sat down in the sand to watch the sun set on 2009, and then went back to the hostel for a new year party.
2010 was a good few hours old before I got up to see what it was like. I hung out in the hostel for a while, brewing Turkish coffees. Eventually I got hungry, and headed out to see what was going on in town. Almost nothing was going on – the streets were deserted and the shops were shut, but eventually I found a shop that was open, and bought some food. Then I went to the beach, which was where everyone was. I wandered through the crowds and found a small patch of sand to sit down on.
I’d probably not have minded leaving La Serena on Boxing Day, but buses weren’t running so we had another relaxing day. At nightfall I went out onto the beach and watched the sea for a while. The lights of Coquimbo shone down the coast, but I didn’t feel a great urge to go there. I wanted to head up to the far north, to places I didn’t go to on my last trip. Not feeling the La Serena vibe, I packed up ready to leave early the next morning.
It was time to leave La Silla. Our observing run had been very successful, and now it was time to relax for a few days. It was Christmas, and we spent a couple of days in a small cottage by the beach in La Serena.
I wasn’t sure if I liked La Serena that much. The town was OK but very quiet, and the beach was a long walk away from the centre. And although I enjoyed relaxing for a couple of days, I felt very impatient to get travelling to more interesting parts.
Christmas day was hot and sunny. We had gone to a supermarket the day before but not found very much that we could make a traditional British Christmas dinner out of, in our cottage which had no oven. So we had pancakes for breakfast and a strange potato-egg-vegetable fry up for lunch. Then we walked on the beach, which seemed very weird. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to Christmas Day not being dark and cold.
In the morning I had to rush around Tasiilaq. I needed to buy a helicopter trip back to Kulusuk, so I hurried down to the helipad. They turned out not to sell tickets there, but they told me I could get them at the bookshop. I hurried to the bookshop but it wasn’t open, and it wouldn’t open until after the last helicopter had left. So I hurried back to the Red House and used their internet connection. It cost me more than 6 pounds for 15 minutes, but I booked my ticket, then walked back down to the helipad, told the guy at the desk my reservation number, and waited for the helicopter to arrive.
In the departure lounge there was a middle-aged Inuit listening to loud tinny music on his mobile phone. His tastes were very cheesy. A young Greenlander started speaking to him and I wondered if the young guy was going to ask him to turn it down. But as they spoke, I heard the older guy say “Bluetooth”, and they started swapping tunes.
I got the helicopter back to Kulusuk. As I was walking from the airport to the village, a Greenlander offered me a lift, and I chatted to him during the short journey. He was 47, and he’d always lived in Kulusuk. He said that the first tourists started coming here when he was still a boy. He was going out seal hunting later in the day, and told me that whale hunting would start later in the year. Apparently the whales were too far off shore at the moment but when the sea ice melted more, they’d come closer to the shore.
He dropped me off in the village. I was hoping to stay in a hostel but it turned out to be full. The hostel owner, an Icelander, gave me a lift out of town to a camping area, and I set up my tent there. He warned me to look out for polar bears, and I laughed, but he was actually serious. Apparently one had been seen near the airport only a month earlier.
Not long after I set up my tent, two small children came over from a nearby house. By means of sign language, they indicated that they wanted to swap residences with me. They moved themselves into my tent and pointed me towards their house. They played for a little while, until it started raining. They left me to my small patch of grass and headed back to their nice solid dry warm wooden house.
The temperature dropped and the rain got heavier. I tried to cook some noodles in the porch of my tent, running a serious risk of setting the thing on fire. Ice formed on my gas canister, and the water never got hotter than a hot bath. “I love camping”, I said to myself as I chewed the crunchy noodles and listened to the rain battering on the canvas.
I’d bought a small map of Ammassalik Island for the staggering price of 17 pounds, and I was determined to use it. My target this day was to climb Sømandsfjeldet, a vicious-looking mountain behind town. It was only 800m high but the word was it was no easy climb.
Once again the hiking was a dream. After a short time on recognisable trails I was out in the wilderness, just keeping my eye on the mountain top and picking my way onward and upward. I soon reached some impressive heights. The going was tough, and parts of my climb were incredibly steep, but spurring me on were some awesome views. I could see Kulusuk island in the distance, looking much colder and more forbidding than Ammassalik Island, and I could see the endless expanse of sea ice stretching way out to sea.
What I could also see was a bank of cloud in the distance. I pushed on higher, but it was becoming pretty difficult to edge my way up. The clouds seemed to be coming closer, and I still had some pretty tough climbing to do before I could reach the summit. If I got caught in cloud up here, there would be a definite possibility of death. I decided to make a strategic retreat.
Once I’d recovered from my caffeine deprivation, I was in a position to appreciate just how incredible Greenland is. I went for a walk up Blomsterdalen, a valley running from the fjord up into the hills and mountains of Ammassalik Island. A few locals were out for picnics at the town end of the valley but further up there was no-one. I passed the cemetery, as bleak and haunting as all Greenlandic cemeteries are, and followed a river up to a series of frozen lakes.
On my way back into town I decided to head up into the hills. Hiking here was a dream – no trails, no people, just pure wilderness. I climbed up to a ridge and looked down over the fjord. A ribbon of clouds drifted past the bleak mountains across the water, and icebergs drifted down the fjord.
I camped just outside the town, on an ostensibly organised site that had no facilities bar one horrific toilet. I don’t mind camping in basic conditions but having no running water does make things more difficult. But I had a sheltered spot on a grassy promontory overlooking the fjord, and I was in Greenland, so I was pretty happy. I set up my tent under the cool grey skies. I was severely sleep-deprived after my late arrival in Iceland and early departure to get to here, so I lay down and slept.
When I woke a few hours later, I knew I was in trouble. I had all the signs of imminent disastrous caffeine withdrawal – a slight shaking, a feeling of paranoia and a rapidly developing headache. Groaning slightly, I got up and stumbled into town. I’d heard there was a book shop where you could get coffee, but it was already closed for the day. So I staggered on towards the largest supermarket in town, hoping in a crazy way that they would have some kind of cafe in store. They didn’t. Luckily I found some instant coffee, and now all I needed was water. Could I find any bottled water in the whole shop? No, I couldn’t. I found apple juice, and considered what kind of brew that would make. My symptoms were severe, and I seriously contemplated this option. Then, I found some soya milk, and decided that might work better. Unable to think about anything else, I shuffled back to my campsite, staring wildly and clutching my shopping like an eccentric OAP. I lit my stove, heated up some milk, made a ghastly, stupidly strong pseudo-coffee, drank it so eagerly that it spilled down my face, then made two more in quick succession.
Sometimes I wonder if I should give up coffee.
My cravings were alleviated, but my enthusiasm for Greenland was limited by the prospect of four days camped here with no running water and no showers. I decided to see if there was space in the hostel which owned the campsite. There was, and they said they had been mistaken in letting me use the campsite because in fact it was not yet ready for use. So I packed up my camping things and headed indoors, found a kitchen, brewed lots of coffee, and felt my enthusiasm renewed.
Travelling by plane, you get whisked from one part of the world to another part so quickly that sometimes the change can be shocking. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt as stunned and disorientated as when I landed on Kulusuk Island. The plane had dropped down into a small valley, surrounded by wild mountains, and snow was everywhere. The sky was grey and the air was cool, and I was having a hard time believing I was in Greenland.
I walked out of the tiny airport building, out into the tundra. I didn’t have a map of the island, but in the distance was a group of day trippers, who I guessed would be heading for Kulusuk Village, so I followed them. A dirt road leading from the airport to the village was the only indication that people lived here; otherwise, all was deathly quiet and calm. I climbed a small hill, feeling tiny in the vast landscape, and saw the village not far away. I climbed down towards it and had a look around.
There was not a lot happening in Kulusuk. I walked to the end of the village to look out over the ice-choked seas, and didn’t see many people. Huskies were lying all around, looking very relaxed but leaping up and barking if I walked too close. I sat on a bench overlooking the sea for a while.
Soon I needed to head back to the airport, to get a helicopter to Tasiilaq. I bought some food in the Pilersuisoq shop, appreciating for the first time just how breathtakingly expensive Greenland was going to be, before hiking back out across the tundra to the airport.
I’d been in a helicopter only once before, to see Uluru from above, so I was looking forward to the trip to Tasiilaq. It didn’t disappoint. There was just me and two pilots on board the helicopter. We lurched off from Kulusuk, swept down the valley, over the village and out to sea. I bounced around in the back, taking photos left and right. A few minutes later we flew over a mountain ridge that seemed so close below us that I could have jumped out and made a safe landing, then dropped down over a fjord to land at Tasiilaq.
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 cycled to Brighton. I left really early and it took me about six hours to get there from Highgate. It was further than I’d thought – nearly 80 miles by the time I got to the beach. It was by far the furthest I’d cycled in a day. I felt great when I arrived, but when I got back to London I was feeling the miles. I had another three miles to cycle from Kings Cross back up the hill to Highgate, and for once, I really did not enjoy the climb.
By coincidence, a friend of mine was on holiday nearby, and we met up in Puerto de la Cruz, on the coast below La Orotava. Puerto de la Cruz was much more touristy than La Laguna or La Orotava had been. The weather was nicer, too, at first, and we got a meal on the main square. Here I had troubles, as I often do in Spain, as a result of being a vegetarian. As we looked at the menu, the waiter began to recommend dishes, all meaty. Wondering if they had anything good without flesh in it, I said “Soy vegetariano”. “Ah, Italiano!”, said the waiter, and brought me an Italian language menu.
As we ate, clouds were coming in. We walked down to the sea, watching legions of large dark crabs scuttling across the rocks on the foreshore. The waves rolled in off the Atlantic, and there was a mood of foreboding over Puerto de la Cruz. My friend had to drive back to the south coast of the island, so I said goodbye to her and caught a bus back to La Orotava. In the evening, rain battered down, the gutters filled with rushing streams, and the streets of La Orotava were empty.
The next day I breakfasted again on espresso and kinnie, and then headed out for a look at the south of the island. My first target was the Dingli Cliffs, and I got a ferry to Valletta and then a bus to Dingli. I walked in hot sun down to the south coast of Malta, where I found a fairly big drop into the sea, but not the 300m sheer drop that my guide book spoke about. Still, I walked east, enjoying being in the middle of the Mediterranean. And as I went east, the cliffs grew higher. Eventually they were actually almost as impressive as my guide book had said they would be. From where I was, it was a long way down to the water.
I walked down to the sea. It was grey and overcast, but out in the distance I could see blue skies, and they were gradually coming closer. I walked along the coast, around to the shores of Marsamxett Harbour. Across the water, I got my first sight of Valletta, with the skyline dominated by the vast dome of the Carmelite Church. Ferries were running back and forth across the harbour, and given that this part of Sliema was incredibly ugly, while Valletta looked beautiful, I thought I’d better head over. I got on the next ferry, and a few minutes later I was in one of the most atmospheric cities in Europe.
The next day there was a colossal cruise ship docked at the ferry port, and the city was suddenly full of elderly tourists puffing up the steps, and Filipino-looking crew members enjoying a few hours off their ship. I decided to go to the beach for the day. I headed out to Lanzheron Beach, which looked like a straightforward walk on the map but ended up being more adventurous than I’d expected. The map led me to what appeared to be some kind of old people’s home or health spa, and once I’d walked through the grounds of this I reached a high fence. There seemed to be no gate, and I didn’t feel like backtracking all the way to the main road, so I scaled it and jumped over. Then I had a ten minute walk through some quite thick woods until I found the beach.
Lanzheron Beach looked like it had seen better days, and this year’s season was clearly over. Most of the bars and restaurants lining the promenade were closed, and only a few people were around. I paddled in the Black Sea briefly and then slept on the sand for a while, only just managing to avoid getting horrifically sunburnt.
I liked Odesa but I felt like I’d pretty much exhausted its possibilities after two days. So I decided to head west, into what would prove to be one of the strangest places I’ve ever visited: Transdnistria.
I went to the beach. I was hugely disappointed to find that there was a street circuit in the suburb of Matosinhos which had hosted a round of the World Touring Car championship only the day before. I walked along the beach, watching the waves coming in off the north Atlantic. It was cooler now with a strong wind blowing, and sand whipped around as I walked along. Large ships were passing by off shore, on their way to and from a nearby container port.
In the evening I took a tram up to the Peak. At the top was one of the most horrifically commercialised places in a horrifically commercialised city – a towering arcade of shops and cafes, which it took ages to climb through to get to the viewing area. And I was not the only one to make the trip up. Hundreds of eager photographers were jostling for position as the sun set and the city began to look spectacular. Politeness was not rewarded and so after a while of trying to take photos through the sea of heads and arms, I elbowed my way to the front and took in the view for a while. Eventually I was barged aside and shoved towards the back again.
Despite the crowds, the view was pretty breathtaking. The forest of skyscrapers looked incredible as it lit up. I had never had a particular sense of urgency about visiting Hong Kong and had only come here as an aside to my China trip. But now I was here, I was loving it. It was like nowhere I’d ever been before. It was compact and incredibly easy to get around but there were endless things to do and see. I only had one more day left but I thought I could fill weeks.
As I tried to leave, so did everyone else, and it took me an hour to get onto a tram back down.
Hong Kong was nearly a disaster. I walked through Hung Hom station, found a cashpoint and realised I didn’t have my wallet with me. I searched around for a lost property office, working out what kind of a plan I might have if the wallet was lost. I was imagining getting around by walking, and eating a slice of bread once a day, but luckily when I found the office, they radioed the train and someone found my wallet on the floor of my compartment.
I would have like Hong Kong anyway, but having seen my trip come back from the brink of disaster I was in an excellent mood as I walked out into Kowloon. I headed for Nathan Road and the Chungking Mansions, an incredible rabbit warren of restaurants, shops, currency exchanges and cheap accommodation. You can’t walk into the mansions carrying a rucksack and not get hassled by hotel owners, and I allowed myself to be persuaded into a place on the third floor. For a negligible cost I got myself a spot in a tiny airless room with two stainless steel traders from Bombay and a traveller from Melbourne.
It was cool and humid. As evening fell I walked down to the tip of the Kowloon peninsula, for my first view of the skyline of Hong Kong Island.
I was right at the bottom of my bank balance, and I could only just afford to re-cross the Øresund to catch my flight home from Sweden. I had an afternoon to kill in Malmö, and I wandered out to Västra Hamnen, where upmarket new flats overlook the straits. New since the last time I’d been here was the Turning Torso, the new tallest building in Scandinavia, which spiralled up over the city.
I sat by the sea in the warm sun. I looked back over the past ten months, during which I’d been to South America, Bulgaria, Turkey, France and now here. It had been awesome, but I knew that there could be no more holidays for now. I was in urgent need of a job. As storm clouds gathered over the Øresund, I headed for home.
By the time we left the Aya Sofia it was sunny again. John wanted to go to a museum, but I fancied some fresh air. I wanted to go to the Prince’s Islands, in the Sea of Marmara, but it took me too long to find the right ferry terminal, and instead I randomly decided to go to Üsküdar, back in Asia and at one end of the mile-long suspension bridge which joins the continents. I walked along the shores of the Bosphorus for a while, stopping occasionally for an ice cream. The waterfront was busy, and the views over to Beyoğlu and Sultanahmet were good. After a couple of hours relaxing in this relatively laid-back part of the city, I headed back to the bustle of Sultanahmet.
It was cold and grey in Istanbul. I said goodbye to Dorna and Lauren, and walked from Sirkeci station to Sultanahmet. In the evening I met John at the hostel we were staying at, and we went out for a drink at a nearby bar. Here we spent the first of many evening puffing on shishas.
The next day was much nicer. We went to the Topkapı Palace, from which Ottoman sultans ruled over their huge empire for hundreds of years. The palace was OK, but better than the inside was the view outside over the Bosphorous to Asia. We had a strong Turkish coffee and watched ships passing through the straits while ferries crossed back and forth between the two continents.
Early the next morning I packed up, said goodbye to Dave who was travelling on for a few more weeks, and headed for the airport. The last surprise of the trip was waiting for me – my flight to Miami would be twelve hours late. I was so psyched up for going home that this was a huge disappointment. I re-arranged my connecting flight from Miami to London, checked in my backpack, and trudged out of the airport, wondering how to kill 12 hours. I ended up spending a couple of them stood at the end of the runway, outside the perimeter fence but still spectacularly, perilously close to the jets taking off and landing. Standing about twenty metres behind a large plane taking off is something I highly recommend – I don’t know what I expected but I didn’t expect to have to hold onto the fence to stop myself being blown into the road.
After that entertainment, I walked a couple of miles from the airport to the nearest Trolé stop, and headed back into the city. I found an internet cafe, sent messages to my family telling them I’d be 24 hours later than planned, wasted time looking around shops and generally wishing I was already on the way home. In the evening I headed back to the airport, bought a ridiculously strong coffee and a delicious greasy churro, before getting my Ecuadorean exit stamp, boarding the plane and heading off into the night. We landed in Miami at about midnight, and then I had 18 hours to kill until my plane to London. American Airlines didn’t remotely offer to accommodate anyone so I won’t be flying with them again in a hurry. I spent a few uncomfortable hours dozing on a bench, then got a bus to the city centre. I sat in a park overlooking Biscayne Bay and pondered.
Finally, it was time to go. I left Miami, caught the flight to London, and on a cold February morning I found myself at Heathrow, unemployed and homeless. This had been the trip of a lifetime, but it was great to be back.
After another day of recovery in Arequipa, sleeping and eating and doing nothing else at all, I got an overnight bus to Lima. In the capital I was going to meet my friend Dave, who had decided that being an artist in northern Spain was lucrative enough for him to afford a holiday. He was going to be travelling in Peru and Ecuador for six weeks, and we planned to travel north from Lima to Quito, from where I’d fly home and Dave would head off into the jungle.
During the night ride to Lima, I saw some spectacular coastal scenery. It was the first time I’d been at sea level for 35 days, and the air seemed thick and soupy. There is twice as much oxygen at sea level as there is at 5800m, and I could really feel it. In the morning we were near Ica, in the desert, and it was hotter than anywhere I’d been since San Pedro in the Atacama. We got to Lima just after midday, and although I’d heard many horror stories about fake taxis robbing tired travellers on arrival, I found a legit taxi and managed to get to a hostel in Barranco, which proved to be a very wealthy suburb. In the evening I walked down to the beach. I was warned by a friendly local to take care of my belongings and watch out for groups of young people, but I had no problems. I watched a beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean, and thought that Lima looked like a pretty impressive city, perched on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the sea.
The following night we went out clubbing. Barranco has a legendary street in which every building is a club, and we worked our way along it. Some were good, some were poor, but it was all great fun. When we left the final club, it was getting light, and we decided not to bother sleeping but stayed up until breakfast was served at 8.45am. It was a blazing hot sunny day, and it had been a good night out in Lima.
During the day we went into the centre of Lima, which was palpably dodgier than Barranco. Soon after we arrived some old man tried to give me an old Sol coin, in what I was sure must be some kind of scam although I couldn’t see how. He pressed the coin into the palm of my hand and then walked off. A few seconds later a passing child asked what it was, and I gave it to him rather than hold on to it. We were right outside a cafe, and as we went in, the owner told us to watch out for scammers on this particular street. But other than that we had no problems and we spent a couple of hours looking around.
Having skipped a night’s sleep, it would have been good to be staying one more night in Lima, but foolishly we’d booked an overnight bus to Chiclayo in the north. We got a ride to the bus terminal with a very friendly taxi driver, who told us to watch out for women spiking our drinks in bars, and described lots of traditional Peruvian food that we had to try while we were here. The bus terminal was more like an airport, with check-in desks and waiting lounges, and in our sleep-deprived states it took us a while to work everything out. We boarded the bus just in time, and shortly after it left at 9pm, I fell deeply asleep.
Before I headed towards northern Chile I spent a day in Valparaíso. On a blazing hot morning I got the bus there from Santiago and spent a fantastic day wandering around its colourful streets. I’ve rarely been to a city so atmospheric as this one, and I felt that the air was somehow heavy with history. The city sprawls over cliffs which rise incredibly steeply from the ocean, so steeply in fact that roads are often impossible and the only way to ascend is via clanking miniature funicular railways a hundred years old that feel like they might crash back down to sea level at any moment as they laboriously climb to the heights. I wound my way from one end of the city to the other, alternately ascending and descending. Up high it was quiet and serene; down low it was loud and active and a little bit hostile.
Back in Buenos Aires I headed back to Sandanzas. The next major move was to head south to Patagonia, but before that I wanted to go to Uruguay.
So, early the next morning I walked up from San Telmo to the port of Buenos Aires, and tried to work out the incredibly complicated system for buying tickets. After much confusion it turned out I had to ask to buy a ticket at one desk, then go and buy it at another desk, then take my ticket and check in at a third desk, before going on to immigration at a fourth desk. The Argentine official stamped my passport, then passed it over to a Uruguayan official sitting next to him who put a Uruguayan stamp in it – possibly the narrowest border I’ve crossed. The formalities done with, I boarded the enormous ferry which crosses the Río de la Plata to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay.
It was a beautiful day and the two-and-a-half hour journey was pleasant. I was looking forward to visiting a country about which more or less all I knew was that their football team had been notoriously violent in the 1986 World Cup.
The ferry arrived at about 11am, and after I’d changed some Brazilian reals into Uruguayan pesos I headed to the old town. Colonia was like another world after the hectic noise of Buenos Aires, with quiet cobbled streets and hardly anyone around. I wandered around the old walls of the town, stopping occasionally to take photos of the views out to sea. A storm was brewing over the Río de la Plata and a large bank of thick dark cloud was slowly creeping over the blue skies, but for the moment it was hot in Colonia. A few groups of people strolled by, but for the most part I seemed to be the only person doing anything active in town. After seeing everything I could at ground level I climbed the lighthouse, the highest building in town. While I was up there a cold wind starting blowing in off the sea, and I decided it was time to head indoors.
I went to a restaurant on the square, and got a Uruguayan standard for lunch – the chivito. It literally means little goat, and in terms of size it wasn’t that inaccurately named. It was an enormous fat slice of juicy steak, with eggs, salad, cheese and chips, and after I’d eaten it I felt like I was in danger of slipping into a coma as all my bodily resources were taken up by digestion.
Luckily I survived, but as I emerged from the restaurant the heavens were just starting to open. I found a cafe and had a coffee for an hour, after which there was only an hour before the evening ferry back to Argentina. The rain had stopped, and the evening sun was lighting the breaking clouds in amazing shades of red.
The journey back was a great one. It started with the sun slowly setting, with the skyscrapers of Buenos Aires silhouetted on the horizon, as we sailed away from Colonia. As the journey went on, the stars came out, and the Southern Cross shone brightly in front of us. All around us, up and down the shores of the river, I could see lighthouses flickering. I stood on deck in the warm evening air and watched the lights of Buenos Aires slowly get closer. We docked at about 10pm, and I walked back to San Telmo.
I headed down to the southernmost island of Suðuroy, where the weather is supposed to be nicer than up north. The weather was atrocious during my bus journey from Leirvík back to Tórshavn so I was hoping it would be true. In wild wind and rain I thought the ferry journey there might be a bit of a vomit run, but the M/F Smyril was a big ship and the run past Sandoy, Skúvoy and the wild islands of Lítla Dímun and Stóra Dímun was smooth.
I got off the ferry and onto a bus to Øravík. Øravík is a tiny settlement, but with great views over the wild north Atlantic, and a campsite and tiny hostel. I set up my tent in gale-force winds and driving rain, and then cooked dinner in the empty hostel building.
From Øravík I got a bus to Famjín on the other side of the island, and walked back across the island over a high windy pass in the mountains. I asked the driver what time the bus was going back to Øravík, in case the weather got too bad for walking and I wanted to pick it up somewhere along the road. He asked me what time I needed it. I liked that. I said I was going to walk over the pass, and he said he’d look out for me on the way.
I saw the bus pass by on the road as I was approaching the top of the island. The weather was OK so I gave him a wave and he carried on towards Øravík. The views were spectacular but so was the wind whistling through the gaps between the hills. I headed down towards the village.
The weather became typically north Atlantic in the evening, and all I could do was sit inside the hostel, listening to the rain battering against the windows. The next day I was up at 5am to catch the 7am ferry back to Tórshavn.
The Norwegians were going to get a boat from Hvannasund on the island of Viðoy, out past the island of Svinoy to the eastern-most island of Fugloy. I’d thought about doing that, and so I joined them for the trip. We drove from Klaksvík to Hvannasund, with a little look around some of the north-eastern islands on the way.
At Hvannasund we got on the boat. The passengers looked to be about half locals and half travellers just out for the ride. For a mere 30 kronur, we could all spend a few hours chugging along through the islands, amongst some amazing north Atlantic scenery. The sun shone, the weather was calm and warm, and puffins dotted the waters.
I watched the islands drift by. We stopped at Hattarvík, and I considered getting off and walking over the island to Kirkja, where the boat was going to call on its way back. But I wasn’t sure how long the walk would take, and getting stranded on Fugloy would be pretty inconvenient. So I stayed on the boat for the return journey.
We stopped at Kirkja, and then at Svínoy. The incredible weather was slowly giving way to clouds as we chugged back to Hvannasund.
I thought about staying another day to see if the weather improved, but with only a week here I decided to head on to other places. The campsite owner was driving to Eiði on the other side of the island to pick someone up, and offered me a lift. We had a good drive over the bleak highlands, stopping briefly to help two teenagers who had driven their car off the road, and then again to catch some fine views of Risin og Kellingin, two sea stacks which according to Norse legend were broken from the mainland by a troll who was attempting to drag the Faroes towards Iceland.
In Eiði I had a couple of hours to wait before the bus to Tórshavn came. The sun came out and the temperature was almost 15C. It was too much for the locals – there were not many people about at all but I had a brief chat with one old gent who was mopping his brow and saying “So hot… so hot…” The bus eventually came, and after a twenty minute stop in Oyrabakki during which I bought an ice cream and sat in the sunshine, we headed back to the capital.
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.
We went to a club on the Saturday night, and got back to the hostel at about 3am. In the hostel there was a sauna, available from 6am until 8am, and me and Moh decided to get up early to take advantage. It was a good way to return to consciousness.
We got a ferry across the harbour to Suomenlinna, a fortress on one of the many islands. Before Finland was a part of Russia, it was a part of Sweden, and the fortress is still known as Sveaborg (Swedish fortress) in Swedish and Suomenlinna (Finnish fortress) in Finnish. It was grey but not too cold, and we sat outside watching boats coming and going for a while. Looking back to the skyline of the city, it was surprising to see so many Russian-influenced buildings. Apparently during the Cold War, Helsinki was often used in films that required a Russian-looking backdrop.
The Stansted Express is run by geniuses of the highest calibre. They had decided that the May bank holiday weekend was the perfect time to cancel all the trains to do some maintenance work. Catching an early flight to Malmö required me to arrive at Stansted the night before and sleep on the floor. So I was not in a great mood when we arrived in Sweden. It was raining heavily.
Luckily the sun broke through the rain. We headed into town, wandering randomly and stopping for coffees and hot dogs on the way. We ended up at Västra Hamnen, where grey skies made the Öresund look threatening. The bridge to Denmark looked pretty impressive, and we were looking forward to heading into a new country the next day.
I’d travelled from China to Paris without a hitch, and I imagined that Paris to London would be the easiest part of the journey. Sadly I was mistaken. I headed to Gare du Nord at about midday and found that there was a train to Calais leaving in a few minutes. So I bought a ticket and headed to the platform. But the train was a Eurostar train, and you have to check in twenty minutes before departure. They had sold me the ticket too late to make the cut, and so I missed my first train back home.
I went back to the ticket desk and explained the situation. Luckily they could change my ticket without charge, but unluckily they said there was not another train to Calais until 5pm. I really didn’t want to spend another four hours in Paris and felt annoyed that I wasn’t already half way to Calais. As I walked away with my second ticket, I found a timetable which said there was a train at 3pm to Calais, so I queued again and asked. It turned out that all the standard class seats were full on the 3pm train, but as I was a student I could get a first class seat for only one euro more. Fantastic, I thought – I’ll travel back in comfort. I gladly exchanged my second ticket and a euro for my third ticket, and felt happy again to be nearly home.
With an hour to kill, I went to a cafe on the station and got some lunch and a coffee. I couldn’t wait to get back home now. At quarter to three I picked up my bags, started walking towards the platform, reached into my pocket to get my ticket, and found that it wasn’t there.
Shocked, I hurried back to the cafe, thinking I might have left it on the table. But it wasn’t there. I looked around and saw no sign of it. I walked back and forth between the cafe and where I realised I’d lost it. It was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t believe it – had it been stolen? Had I just lost it? To this day I’ve got no idea what happened to it. Now I was furious, and once I’d given it up for lost I rushed to the ticket offices. But the queues were far too long for me to have a hope of reaching the front before the train left. I went to some automatic ticket machines, but for some reason none of them would accept my bank card. 3pm came, and I could only watch in despair as a train with an empty first class seat on it rolled out of the station.
Dejectedly I joined the queue for the ticket offices, and bought my fourth Paris-Calais ticket of the day, for the 5pm train I’d wanted to avoid. If all had gone to plan I’d have been on the train from Dover to London by 5pm. In the end, I reached Calais with only minutes to spare before the last ferry of the day.
As we crossed the channel I looked at the lights of France receding, and the lights of England approaching. The last time I’d seen the sea was at Qinhuangdao almost two months previously, and now I was on the other side of the Eurasian landmass. Night was falling as we pulled out of Calais, and we got to Dover in darkness. I hurried off the ferry to the train station, and got the last train to Charing Cross. I finally got back home at 1am, staggered at what a farce the last step had been, happy to be home, and slightly unable to believe that I’d just travelled a third of the way around the world by train.
In my second week in China, the department was organising a three day trip to Qinhuangdao, 200 miles from Beijing on the coast of the Yellow Sea. It was partly a mini-conference and partly just a holiday, and as well as most of the department from PKU there were also some people from Shanghai Astrophysical Observatory. We left Beijing at 7am on the Monday morning, and had a pleasant four hour journey through fields and mountains to the sea.
We arrived at about midday, and the first priority was lunch. The emphasis was on sea food and I had all sorts of things I hadn’t tried before, like jelly fish. After lunch I went to the beach to play football with the other students, having an extraordinarily strenuous game in 40°C heat. After twenty minutes of getting burnt from all directions – sun above, sand cooking our feet below – we decided today wasn’t the day for football, and just relaxed on the beach instead.
On the Tuesday we had three hours of talks in the morning. Most of them were given in Chinese, so I didn’t take a whole lot away from them. I gave a talk but spoke much too quickly and so many of my audience probably didn’t take a whole lot away from mine either. After that fair exchange, the work part of the trip was over, and we headed back to the beach for more games of football in the stunning heat. Later in the evening I went for a walk with a few of the students to a nearby night market, and then we sat on the beach and relaxed under the stars until late. It was my 24th birthday.
The next day we went on an excursion to Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the sea. It was staggeringly full of tourists, so that it was quite difficult to move around, so I found the end of the wall more impressive in concept than reality. I hoped one day I’d visit the other end at Jiayuguan, over a thousand miles inland from here.
On the way back to Beijing, I was dozing in the bus when I became aware that we’d developed a vibration. A regular, rapid thudding had started, and it was gradually getting worse. After half an hour or so it was becoming intolerable, and then suddenly, the tyre right below where I was sitting exploded. We careered along the motorway and slid to a halt. Luckily all the passengers were intact, and the only damage was to the bus. The head of the department made some calls, and we waited on the hard shoulder. About an hour later, a minibus arrived, and ferried us to a nearby service station. We got some dinner there, and then about an hour after that, another bus arrived to take us back to Beijing. We got back safely at midnight, seven hours after we’d left the coast.