Over Siberia

Nov 15, 2013 in Taiwan 2013

Over Siberia

A view from a flight from Amsterdam to Taipei

Flight to Saunders Island

Apr 24, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012

Flight to Saunders Island

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of 40 pounds of sterling in Santiago before I arrived, and those 40 pounds turned out to be old bank notes that were no longer valid.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 Faklands 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.

The war

Apr 23, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012

The war

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.

Thermal shock

Apr 22, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012

Thermal shock

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.

Time for a holiday

Apr 21, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012

Time for a holiday

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.

Penitentes

Nov 25, 2011 in Atacama 2011

Penitentes

Ice climbing

Sep 25, 2011 in Chile

Ice climbing

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.

At the base of the climb, our guides briefed us. They told us that in all likelihood, the rain of the last few days would have made the upper slopes extremely icy, perhaps too icy to safely climb. We were offered the chance to back out now, because we wouldn’t get our money back if we didn’t make the summit. But we all felt lucky, and we headed into the snows.

We set a good pace up the mountain. My two worries were firstly that I was still slightly suffering from a trapped nerve in my back which made my left leg ache constantly, and secondly that I had had no coffee yet. I ignored both problems with grim determination as we ascended.

We passed some places that I recognised, and it didn’t seem to take very long before we were at the base of the summit cone. It was beginning to get treacherous, and we crossed some tricky sheets of ice. I could see that the guides were getting a bit unenthusiastic, and I wasn’t very surprised when we stopped for a break and they told us they really didn’t think we should carry on. Volcanic gases were pouring out of the mountain just a few hundred metres away from us, but it was a few hundred metres up a 45 degree slope, from which one slip would result in a very unpleasant slide over rough ice. The group consulted, and we decided to take the guides’ advice. Reluctantly we turned around.

Going down was at first much harder than going up. Re-crossing the ice sheets was extremely precarious, but luckily we soon got to the snowy slopes, on which we could take the favoured Villarrica descent method of sitting down, lifting your feet up, and sliding. Before very long we were back at the ski-lift, where the cafe had opened, and I got a life-saving coffee which helped to ease the disappointment of not making the summit.

That evening, back in Pucón, I went down to the lake. Last time, I’d seen occasional flickers of red on the summit of the mountain but this time I was amazed to see a bright red glow constantly shining from the peak. Clearly there was a lot of lava up there. I’ll be back before long to try and see it up close again.

At the volcano

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

At the volcano

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 scarves and a hat, I still felt freezing.

I climbed up a small hill and listened to some Sigur Rós on my mp3 player. The epic music made the epic view even more impressive. But all too soon it was time to head back down. Árni gave me a shout at about 10pm, and I headed back to the jeep. I slipped on some ice on the way, smacking my shin on a rock and giving myself a souvenir bruise to take home. With a last glance at the show, I reluctantly got back into the jeep, ready for the long journey back to Reykjavík.

Higher and higher

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

Higher and higher

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 way up the glacier, eventually reaching 1400m above sea level before heading down into the pass. We’d left Reykjavík at 4pm, and we’d hoped to reach the volcano by 8pm, but the journey continued. By 9pm the daylight was fading fast, and suddenly in the distance there was a vivid orange glow. Our luck was in.

Over the pass

Jul 05, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Over the pass

I cooked up some lunch on the veranda of the hut. As I ate, the clouds suddenly parted, revealing a couple of hikers heading out across a huge snowy expanse, ringed by mountains. A roar away to my right turned out to be coming from a huge steam plume jetting straight out of the ground. I finished my food, grabbed my pack and headed out.

Hiking across the snow was fairly tough going but I knew the hardest bit of the day was already behind me. I’d climbed 500 metres and now I would drop 500 metres to Álftavatn. The weather was beautiful here, and I was alone on the trail pretty much the whole way. I was in an Icelandic dream but I did not let up my pace for a second. I marched pretty much as fast as I could, somehow fearing that if I slowed down I might not make it to Þórsmörk.

Later the weather turned. I descended into a verdant gorge, and crossed my first river. It was only ankle-deep but bitingly cold, and I walked gingerly for a mile or so afterwards until my feet started to feel again. The cloud was thickening and eventually I could only see the trail and a few feet either side of it. Sometimes in the murk I could hear volcanic springs rumbling and bubbling but I couldn’t see anything. It began to rain.

Finally I reached a flat grassy plain where I could see that vehicles sometimes drove. A few minutes more walking brought me to the shores of Álftavatn. I set up camp and then walked along the shore in the midsummer gloom, listening to music. I was a third of the way to the end.