Apr 24, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012
I spent my first few days in the Falklands in a state of destitution. There is just one bank, and it doesn’t have a cash machine, so visitors arriving on a Saturday like I did have to wait until the bank opens on the Monday before they can get any money out. If they have the bad luck to arrive at a time when that Monday is a public holiday then they’re in trouble. And if they also have the bad luck to have only managed to get hold of 40 pounds of Sterling in Santiago before they arrive, and for those 40 pounds to turn out to be old bank notes that are no longer valid, then their first few days in the islands will require them to impose on the charitable nature of the Falkland Islanders. This was the situation I found myself in, on account of the Monday being the Queen’s birthday. This 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 [...]
Apr 23, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012
On the way back from Volunteer Beach we drove back past Mount Kent. The hills near Stanley were the scene of fierce fighting during the war, and even now, 30 years later, relics still remain. We made a stop at the wreckage of an Argentinian helicopter. Keith told us that in the later stages of the occupation of Stanley, when British forces were shelling the town, senior Argentinians would leave at night for safer refuges in the hills. This helicopter had been ferrying officers away from Stanley for the night when it was attacked and shot down by a British aircraft.
Apr 22, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012
For the last six months I’ve been enjoying Santiago’s incredibly stable weather. More or less every single day has seen clear blue skies and temperatures in the thirties. And when I haven’t been in Santiago I’ve been in the Atacama. Between early October and last week’s incredible downpour, the only rain I’d seen was literally a few drops which fell in January. So I knew, really, that it was going to be cold in the Falklands, way down south just a few hundred miles from Antarctica. I knew that. But I had forgotten what cold really was. I rediscovered the phenomenon as soon as the plane door opened after we’d landed at Mount Pleasant airport. By the time I got to the terminal I was shivering. I’d seen snow on the high ground from the plane as we descended, but much worse than the snow was the wind, a wild icy blast which sapped my body heat and swept it away over the hills. I suffered on the day that I arrived in Stanley, and I suffered much more the next day, when the snow had come down from the high ground all the way to sea level.
Apr 21, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012
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 [...]
Nov 25, 2011 in Chile
Near to ALMA is APEX, a single dish radio telescope built as a precursor to the main array, to establish that the site was excellent and to test the technology to be used. We drove over to APEX, and I felt a little more clear-headed. Here, we were slightly higher than ALMA and had amazing views over the plateau. Near to APEX, the last of the winter snows were melting away. In places like this, snow melts in strange ways, turning into strange formations called penitentes, serrated peaks and valleys waving across the red desert landscape. We walked among the penitentes, which were about half as high as we were. The vandalistic among us tried pushing them over; some fell very easily, others were on more solid foundations.
Sep 25, 2011 in Chile
I got a night bus to Pucón. One of the things I want to see a lot of while I’m in Chile is erupting volcanoes, and so I thought I might as well start with one of the most reliable, Villarrica. I’d been here before, in 2005, climbed to the crater rim and watched fountains of lava jetting up, so close that I could feel the heat from them. I was hoping for the same this time. It was a warm night in Santiago when I got the bus, but in the morning, 400 miles further south, it was raining heavily. I was shivering as I walked from the bus station into town, and unless conditions got dramatically better, going to be climbing any mountains. But I went to various climbing agencies, and found out that the weather for the next day was going to be perfect. So I signed up for a climb, and at 6.45am the next morning I was kitting up with a group of 12 other travellers, from Chile, Brazil, Australia, the US and Denmark. As we drove out of Pucón I caught sight of the perfect cone of the volcano, dark against the dawn light. [...]
Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010
From our first sighting it took us almost another hour to get to a good viewing point. The ground was so slippery it was unbelievable, but eventually we reached the crest of a hill, and there before us was the fissure. We could see three craters, one with a constantly frothing lava fountain, and two more where occasional explosions showered the ground around them with hot rocks. The seven jeeps in the convoy left their engines running, and a howling gale was blowing, and we couldn’t hear any noise from the volcano at all. It was viciously cold. I quickly trained a video camera on the volcano, and then stepped away from the jeep to take in the view. It was incredible. Words can’t describe and photos can’t possibly capture what it is like to see a volcano erupting. We stayed there for almost an hour, watching the spraying lava. While we were there, a small lava flow at the foot of the new cone suddenly began to grow dramatically. Strange blue flames flickered over the two intermittent craters. Meanwhile, the wind whipped snow into our faces, and even though I was wearing two coats, two pairs of gloves, two [...]
Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010
We climbed the road. Before too long there was snow on the ground around us. Árni’s GPS told us how high we were going, and before very long we were 700m above sea level. Rocky ground covered in snow eventually gave way to the glacier proper. We stopped to reduce the tyre pressure still further, and then drove onto the ice. The wisdom of driving in a convoy became clear here; sometimes a vehicle would get into some difficulties up the steeper slopes, and anyone driving alone would have been pretty miserable. The other convoy members were ready to help, but the odd slippery moment was not a big problem, and we all climbed up and up and up. It was getting dark and progress was getting slow. The problem was that there had been heavy rain up here. Snow would have been fine, but the rain had frozen and the driving conditions were far more treacherous than they had been a few days earlier. The jeep rocked wildly as we reached 1000m above sea level. Árni was a policeman by trade but had also driven jeeps in Afghanistan. His skills here were impressive and we rocked and bounced our [...]
Jul 05, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
I cooked up some lunch on the veranda of the hut. As I ate, the clouds suddenly parted, revealing a couple of hikers heading out across a huge snowy expanse, ringed by mountains. A roar away to my right turned out to be coming from a huge steam plume jetting straight out of the ground. I finished my food, grabbed my pack and headed out. Hiking across the snow was fairly tough going but I knew the hardest bit of the day was already behind me. I’d climbed 500 metres and now I would drop 500 metres to Álftavatn. The weather was beautiful here, and I was alone on the trail pretty much the whole way. I was in an Icelandic dream but I did not let up my pace for a second. I marched pretty much as fast as I could, somehow fearing that if I slowed down I might not make it to Þórsmörk. Later the weather turned. I descended into a verdant gorge, and crossed my first river. It was only ankle-deep but bitingly cold, and I walked gingerly for a mile or so afterwards until my feet started to feel again. The cloud was thickening and [...]
Jul 02, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
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 [...]
Jul 01, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
My time on Ammassalik was over. Before I’d left London I’d booked a ticket for the ferry back to Kulusuk. The helicopter ride over had been fun but I really fancied a little sea voyage off East Greenland. It was the first scheduled ferry journey of the year – the sea ice had only recently melted enough to allow easy sailing. I packed up my things and wandered down to the port under gloomy skies. The boat was supposed to leave at 9am, but there was little sign of any activity. I hung around on the dock until 9.30 and then vaguely wandered on board. I showed someone my ticket, and then watched dark shoals of large fish speeding around in the water. At 11.15, we chugged away from the dock, and set off for Kulusuk. The only passengers were me and five Danes. I stood on deck in the chilly breeze, swaying with the boat and watching icebergs drift by. The seas were mostly clear. The boat didn’t even need to avoid most of the icebergs – it was quite happy to ride over them. After a couple of hours I imagined we were not too far from Kulusuk, [...]
Jun 27, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
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.
Jun 27, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
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 [...]
Feb 28, 2009 in Grenoble 2009
Dec 03, 2006 in Finland 2006
I got back to Rovaniemi at about 10pm and picked my way slowly through the icy streets to the centre of town. The youth hostel was supposed to have a sauna so I got myself a room there. Weirdly, the hostel itself was unstaffed and I had to get keys and things from a hotel about 10 minutes walk away. That just made it an even greater disappointment when, after I’d pulled yet more muscles in avoiding falling over during the walk to the hostel, there turned out not to be a sauna. Not only that but there appeared to be no-one else in the hostel at all. So, short of things to do, I went for a walk around town. If I couldn’t have a sauna I was at least hoping I might see the northern lights, for the first time since I was in Iceland seven years ago. There were some breaks in the cloud and the moon was appearing occasionally so I thought I might have a chance. But it wasn’t to be and I couldn’t see anything that looked like even a hint of aurora. As I walked slowly back to the hostel, holding onto walls, [...]
Dec 02, 2006 in Finland 2006
I found my way from the train station to the bus station. It was only a short walk but a thick layer of ice covered the streets and I slid wildly along, probably causing much amusement for the few Finns who were out and about. They seemed to have no trouble keeping their balance and leaving the streets icy seemed to me like a cruel way to spot outsiders. It took me a while to work out the bus timetables at the station – I thought I’d cracked it but a couple of buses that should have turned up didn’t. The mystery was solved when I found out the Finnish words for ‘arrivals’ and ‘departures’. I got the right timetable, found a bus going to Kemijärvi, bought a snack and headed north. It was 1.30pm, and the sun had just set. The small but comfortable bus rolled out of Rovaniemi and headed north. Snow was beginning to fall and before long we’d left the city behind and were in thick forest. The ‘official’ home of Santa Claus is a major tourist attraction here, and his home lies right on the Arctic Circle, so there was no mistaking the moment we [...]
Feb 07, 2005 in Latvia and Lithuania 2005
After a long walk in the forest it was time to head back to Riga for my flight home. I got the cable car back across the valley, and enjoyed the fantastic winter scenery. The train back to Riga took almost two hours but only cost 70p. Latvian trains were cheap, but also battered, and an icy gale howled down the carriage, freezing one side of me while the other was roasted by the primitive heating system. Back in Riga, I began to feel just a tiny bit bored of feeling seriously cold all the time, and spent some time in warm cafes and record shops. Despite the cold I was still sad to leave, because back in London there would be rain and the horrible cold humidity that plagues us. I was sadder still when my flight, far from arriving at Stansted just in time for me to get the last train home, was diverted to Luton because of fog. The airport was chaos, and it took almost an hour for them to find steps to get us off the plane. I ended up getting home at 5am, shattered, but at least pleased that it was 25C warmer in [...]
Feb 07, 2005 in Latvia and Lithuania 2005
On my last day in Latvia I got an early morning train to Sigulda, and walked to the Gauja River valley. I’d heard good things about this place, and I was not disappointed. I got a cable car from one side of the valley to the other, swooping over the frozen river, and arrived at the ruins of Krimuldas castle on the other side. On a bluff upstream stood Turaidas castle. I walked around the ruins and into the forest. I was the only person there, and whenever I stopped, the silence was total. I felt much more intrepid than I actually was being as I hiked through the knee-deep snow.
Feb 06, 2005 in Latvia and Lithuania 2005
Not far from Riga is the site of the Salaspils concentration camp. Here, 100,000 people were killed during the Second World War. I can scarcely take in the fact that such a huge number of people died in one place, and it’s almost unbearable to think that was only a tiny part of what went on. I got the train to Dārziņi, the nearest station to the site. It cost me just a few pence for the short journey, and I almost got more value for money when I nearly missed Dārziņi station. The stations on the line out of Riga were just halts in the forest, and I didn’t realise we were even at a station when the train announcer said “Dārziņi”. I jumped up but didn’t make it to the door in time. At the next stop I got off, and was relieved to find that they had been announcing the stop we were going to and not the one we were at. I headed off into the silent forest, and found the path to Salaspils. At the site, there is a small museum from which you can look over the fields which are all that remain. Several [...]
Feb 06, 2005 in Latvia and Lithuania 2005
On my journey to Vilnius, the skies had been grey, and when we stopped at a small roadside cafe just inside Lithuania, snow was falling. On the way back, the skies were blue, and the endless expanse of snow shone brightly under the wintry sun. We stopped at the same cafe, and this time I had Lithuanian currency and so I could eat, which was nice. As I walked back to the bus I slipped on some ice and skated along for a metre or two, arms flailing, but luckily I held it together and survived without falling and only feeling slightly ridiculous.
Feb 09, 2003 in Balkans 2003
In the morning I headed back to Trieste. I got a train to Opcina, and as we sped through the Slovenian countryside, the grey skies were gradually breaking up. The change in climate between the mountains and the coast was striking, and as we descended there was less and less snow on the ground, and the air was getting warmer and warmer. At the Italian border it was a bright sunny day. I got a bus from Opcina to Trieste, and then bought a ticket for the airport bus. I waited at the station for a long time, before someone came to tell us the bus had been cancelled. There were five other people waiting for the bus, and after we’d been refunded for our tickets, we headed for the station to get a train to Monfalcone. We were all on cheap Ryanair weekends, and we still had plenty of time before our flight. But at the station, confusion set in. We needed to get the train at 12.15pm, and by the time we’d all got our tickets it was 12.14pm. We rushed onto the platform, and there was a train there which half the group jumped on. But this [...]
Feb 08, 2003 in Balkans 2003
We got to Ljubljana at four. Srečko pointed me in the right direction to walk into town, and then headed off for the radio studios. The streets were virtually empty and the city felt like a ghost town. Apparently the citizens of Ljubljana tend to head en masse for the ski slopes each weekend in winter, leaving the city in the hands of the old, the infirm, and the travellers who don’t carry skis. I walked randomly, eventually finding my way to the foot of Castle Hill just as night was falling. A path spiralled up the hill, and I walked slowly up. It required an extreme sense of balance, and ideally more grippy shoes than I was wearing, to make any progress on the thick ice which covered the paving stones. I stopped half way up to look out over the snowy roofs, and could see the dark silhouette of distant mountains on the skyline. By the time I got to the top it was dark. I headed into the castle, and bought a ticket to visit the clock tower. A short climb up a narrow staircase led me out onto the roof, and I was the only person [...]
Feb 08, 2003 in Balkans 2003
In the afternoon I got a train to Ljubljana. I shared a compartment with a Croat called Srečko, who was a journalist on his way to do an interview in Ljubljana. He said his German was better than his English, but my German wasn’t up to a conversation so we spoke in English. About half an hour out of Zagreb we arrived at the Slovenian border, and Srečko said that even now, eleven years after independence, he was still surprised by how close the border was to the capital. For most of the journey to Ljubljana we were rumbling along in the valley of the Sava River. Out in the countryside there was thick snow, and the green river was hemmed in by steep forested mountains. It all looked pretty stunning, especially when new snow began to fall. Srečko said he often travelled this way, but never got bored of the scenery.
Feb 08, 2003 in Balkans 2003
I walked up to the upper town. The Lotrščak Tower sits on a hill overlooking the city, and I walked up to it, only to find that it was closed. But even from the bottom there were good views over the city. The skyline was a mix of grand old Austro-Hungarian and grim boxy Soviet. Under wintry grey skies it all looked not exactly picturesque, but somehow atmospheric.
Feb 08, 2003 in Balkans 2003
It was a tiring journey. I had a compartment all to myself, but sleep was limited as we crossed two international borders. We spent a few hours in Slovenia, and I looked out at Ljubljana to see it covered with snow. Then before daybreak we entered Croatia, and at 5.04am we pulled into Zagreb. It was cold and pitch black, so I found a corner of the station near a heater and slept for a couple of hours. Then at 7am I headed out into the city to explore. I walked through the quiet streets to the centre. There was snow on the ground, and a temperature display at Trg Jelačića said it was -3°C. Slowly the city began to get busier. By 9am there were people around, markets were trading, and things were livelier, but it still seemed very quiet. I took refuge from the cold in a cafe near Jelačića, where I got a burek for breakfast. Bureks are the favoured snack throughout the Balkans, and I quickly became a fan. Greasy, hot, cheesy and doughy, it was perfect winter food. With that and a coffee to fortify me, I carried on exploring.
Jan 01, 2003 in Sweden 2002
We saw in 2003 in Sturecompagniet. It was a pretty awesome club, if a little bit more pretentious than my normal sort of place. But at some point in the small hours they played some ABBA, and everyone forgot just how cool they were trying to appear and went crazy for them. For some kind of licensing reason, many Swedish bars had casinos in them. Sturecompagniet was one, and when we finally decided to leave at about 4am, Dan was at the poker table. “You coming?” we asked. “I’m just going to win back what I’ve spent”, he said, and we left him to it. I wondered if we would ever see him again, but luckily he appeared back at the hostel the next morning. It was only -6°C on new year’s day, and it felt warm. With all the soon-to-be-destroyed hope and optimism that a new year brings, we headed back to Västerås to fly home. It was a very long journey to an airport that markets itself as serving Stockholm, but at least the two hour bus journey took us through some amazing winter scenery. People were complaining about the cold when we got back to London. The [...]
Dec 31, 2002 in Sweden 2002
It was new year’s eve. During the day we headed through Gamla Stan to Södermalm, and went up Katarinahiss. This strange structure juts out from the hills of Södermalm and allows the lazy to avoid walking up from sea level to the moderate heights. The views of the city from the top were pretty awesome. I finished a film while we were there, and changing it required me to take off my gloves for a few seconds. The pain of the cold was stunning, and as I hurried to get the new film in I could feel my fingers becoming unresponsive. Luckily I did the job, closed up the camera and got my gloves back on before I got frostbite.
Dec 29, 2002 in Sweden 2002
We tried to go out on our first night in Sweden, but we came up against the breathtakingly severe licensing laws. We were all 25 or over, but not all of us could prove it – Dan had left his passport at the hostel. All the decent-looking places were out of bounds to us, and we ended up in a fairly rubbish bar, that did at least play some ABBA which was quite amusing. I woke up at 8am the next day, and it was pitch black. When daylight finally arrived we went to look around the city, which was covered with snow. We walked up to Skansen Kronan, a fort on a hill, and endured the icy wind to take in views of the city. We had a bet running: whoever slipped over first would buy a round of drinks. This was no small penalty here in Scandinavia. On the way down from Skansen Kronan, Dan had a major moment, but after a few seconds of flailing he recovered his balance. We were all buying our own drinks, for now.
Dec 28, 2002 in Sweden 2002
My trip to Norway earlier in the year had been a fantastic one. Hoping to replicate the experience, I decided to go to Sweden for New Year. If the trip involved even a fraction of the nightlife, scenery, atmosphere and sleep deprivation that the Norway trip had, it would be a good one. John and Dan were feeling wealthy and flew with SAS to Stockholm. Eldrik and I were feeling not wealthy and we flew with Ryanair to Västerås. We were all converging on Gothenburg. We landed in darkness to find Västerås covered in snow, as we’d hoped it would be. We got a train to Gothenburg, and it was a fantastic journey through the wintry night.
Apr 20, 2002 in Norway 2002
The journey from Myrdal took us back to Oslo across the spectacular icy wasteland of the Hardangervidda plateau. In the night, on the train to Bergen, I’d looked out and seen huge expanses of snow, and the daytime crossing was awesome. Occasionally in the middle of nowhere we’d spot a couple of cross-country skiers. I listened to “The Sun Always Shines On TV” by A-Ha for some good Norwegian accompaniment. One thing I particularly enjoyed about this bit of the journey was that as we sped along 1200m above sea level, we were passing through an area that starred in “The Empire Strikes Back” as the ice planet Hoth. Everyone knows that “The Empire Strikes Back” is the best of the Star Wars trilogy (and let’s not even speak of the ‘second’ trilogy…), so I enjoyed seeing where some of it had been filmed. We got back to Oslo at about 10pm, and made our way to Haraldsheim hostel. We found ourselves sharing a room with an American traveller called Brian, and our arrival woke him up. He’d clearly had a massive Friday night out; he asked us the time, and when we said it was 11, he thought it [...]