I found a great place to camp, with no-one else around. It was really nice to be up in the Sierra de Ramón with awesome views of the city. And even though I was nearly 2000m above sea level, it was still a warm night. I watched the sunset, saw the city light up, and the stars coming out, and after that I slept well.
Articles tagged with "sunset"
I’d tried to climb Provincia before with three friends, but we’d set off too late in the day and only got as far as Alto del Naranjo before lack of daylight stopped further progress. A year and a bit later, I finally got around to having another go.
But again I left too late in the day, and this time it was summer. Setting off at 1.30pm was a huge tactical error, and it was compounded soon after I left Puente Ñilhue when one of my hiking poles snapped. So my hike was extremely tiring in the heat, and more difficult than it should have been with only one pole.
But after three hours I was at Alto del Naranjo. No snow on the ground this time, and the summer days were long so I still had plenty of time to get to the top. However, I didn’t have plenty of water. I’d refilled at the last opportunity, and I’d been carrying nearly 5 litres, but it was hot going and I was using up my supplies quickly. I decided to head a bit further up than Alto del Naranjo but not to go to the summit until morning when it would be cooler.
The day after the Pedra da Gavea climb, I went to Corcovado. I was tempted to climb that as well, but I kept reading about robberies on the trail and in the end I decided just to get the bus up. Tiredness from the day before may also have been a factor.
So I got the bus up, getting charged the high season fare even though I was the only passenger, because supposedly it was the school holidays. And it was pretty crowded up the top. But as the sun set and the views got better and better, it got quieter and more peaceful.
After the conference in Australia, I headed for New Zealand, to visit my friends John and Juliet who’d moved there at the same time as I’d moved to Chile in 2011. We took a drive around Auckland on the evening I arrived.
It was a nice evening with much less smog that when I’d climbed Cerro Carbón a few days ago. I decided to head up the trail again, but just to Mirador El Litre, half way up the mountain, for some evening views of the city. I cycled from my house to La Piramide and realised when I got there that I’d left my bike lock at home. So I dragged the bike up the hill a little way, vaguely hid it in some undergrowth, and hoped there were no bike thieves around.
The evening views from the mirador were pretty awesome and I stayed until it was dark. Coming down the hill was scarier than I’d anticipated – my torch suddenly lit up two red eyes on the trail ahead of me, and I approached cautiously. Then, suddenly, as I got closer, there was an loud flap and the bird I’d woken up took off, almost flying into my face.
Back at the bottom, I found my bike still where I’d left it, and cycled home.
Finally it was time for my world cup adventure to end. After a couple more days chilling out on Morro, enjoying relaxing on the beach and in the bars, I got a boat to Atracadouro, bus to Mar Grande and then one final ferry across the bay. I got a flight from Salvador to São Paulo, and from there back to the cold winter in Santiago. As we landed back in Chile, the fans on board gave another “Chi-chi-chi! Le-le-le!”. Chile had beaten Australia, and then beaten Spain to send the champions out and book their own place in the knockout stages, but for us fans, the world cup was over.
No sunspots to be seen on the sun’s surface today, but at least a turbulent atmosphere made it go crazy shapes at sunset.
Solar activity has been unusually low recently but today there were some nice sunspots visible at sunset. I didn’t use a filter for this photograph – my very slow 400mm f/5.6 lens plus the thickness of the atmosphere between me and the sun at sunset did the job well enough.
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.
We’d been to the southernmost parts of Chile, and now it was time to head north to San Pedro de Atacama. It was the fifth time I’d been here, only a few weeks after my fourth visit.
San Pedro is full of tour agencies, some good, some bad. We went on a trip to the Valle de la Luna with a bad one. And the trouble is, there are so many agencies, I can’t remember which one it was I actually booked through. Whoever it was, they had a van that was tiny and they were trying to fit too many people into it, and after our first stop it wouldn’t restart for a while.
But, at least it managed to deliver us to a good viewpoint over the desert in time to see the sun go down. San Pedro might be excessively touristy but it’s got a prime location and I don’t think I could ever get bored of seeing the desert scenery around here.
On my last night on the island, I went to Ahu Tahai to see the sun set. Tongariki is the spot for sunrise watching, and Tahai is the spot for sunset. It was a good time of year to be here – the sun set directly behind the statues if you were standing in front of them. It was another amazing sight. It had taken me a while to really feel the magic of Easter Island, but by the end of the trip I was sure I would be back.
We decided to climb Maunga Terevaka, the highest point on the island. My four friends went on horseback, but having never been on a horse in my life, and having a somewhat delicate back 10 months after having fragments of a ruptured spinal disc removed, I decided I’d walk up. So I drove to Ahu Akivi, found the start of the trail, and headed up. It was a hot sunny day but there weren’t many people around. In the end, the only people I saw on the trail were my friends coming down – they’d reached the top quite a bit before me.
The summit was amazing. The entire horizon was sea, Pacific Ocean in every direction with no other land except the bit I was on. I couldn’t imagine living on such a tiny speck of land. I felt oppressed by how small it was already and I’d only been here for 4 days.
Continuing my cautious recovery from back surgery, I went for a walk up Cerro Calán with Amy. The top is 867m above sea level but only about 50m above street level. We thought we’d walk up to the buildings of the Universidad de Chile who have their observatory there, but it was a weekend and the gate was locked. So we wandered around the hill looking for another way up to the top, and eventually found a fence we could duck under to take a path to the back of the university buildings. And from there we saw the sun setting behind the city.
Nearly three weeks after back surgery, I was ready to see something other than my flat and the Clinica Alemana for the first time since early June. My paralysed left foot meant I had to walk with a zombie shuffle and I was worried I was being overambitious, but I gave it a go, and got the metro to Baquedano. The walk from there up Pio Nono was slow and walking such a long way felt very unnatural. But I made it to the funicular, and then found the energy to walk up to the very top of the hill. I saw a beautiful sunset and felt happy to have made it.
The beach which had been empty during the day took on a whole different character as night fell. Thousands of gentoo penguins came in from the sea and gathered there before heading inland to their colony. All across the bay, penguins were leaping as they came in, bursting from the waves in huge groups and running up onto the sand. A full moon rose just as the sun set.
On a little map of Bleaker Island that I had, a line between the beach and the penguin colony was marked as the “gentoo highway”, which I thought sounded pretty funny. But actually it was a pretty accurate name – at rush hour on the gentoo highway there was a huge column of penguins all heading inland, waddling up the hill.
Cerro San Cristóbal is the highest point inside Santiago and it’s always nice to go up there and see the views of the city surround by the mountains. I went up again, late on a Sunday evening, taking the lazy route to the top on the funicular railway. The place is always crawling with cyclists, and as soon as my bike arrives from Europe I can’t wait to tackle this hill. It’s about 300m from street level to the peak, a bit more of a challenge than my cycle up Highgate Hill used to be.
I like the atmosphere at the top of San Cristóbal. You can hear the noise of the sprawling city but it feels very calm and tranquil. I sat and watched the sun set and the lights of the city come on, then headed back down to the streets.
We went to the Sveti Sava cathedral. On another beautiful spring day, the parks in front of the cathedral had a nice vibe.
Later as it got dark we headed towards the centre of the city. We passed the parliament buildings and the presidential residence, and I stopped to take a photo. As I took a long exposure, a smartly dressed guy who was walking by approached. He didn’t look happy. He demanded to see our passports. My first thought was that it was some kind of scam and I was going to walk away, but then he showed me a police badge. I showed him my passport, holding onto it carefully in case he was just trying to steal it. He asked us things in very broken English, the gist of which was that he wanted to know what we were doing. He didn’t speak very much English, and we did not speak any Serbian, so he just shouted at us a bit. He seemed bothered by the way I was taking photos, which he seemed to be saying was not legitimately touristic. Still, in the end it was just a few unpleasant minutes and then he walked off. I’d never got any vibe of ex-dictatorship on my previous visit here, but this was definitely that.
The next day we walked past the same place and noticed a prominent sign saying “No photography”.
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.
In times past, the telescope control rooms were in the telescope domes, and observers would drive out each night and spent the hours of darkness ensconced in the dome. But in recent years they’ve moved all the major telescope controls into one room. It’s conveniently close to the kitchen so getting a midnight meal is easy, but it feels strange to be so far from the actual telescope.
n our temporary office in the control room building, there was a spectacularly good coffee machine which dispensed awesome espressos at the touch of a button. The first night we were there I pressed that button 15 times, and by dawn I felt slightly unusual. In subsequent nights I kept my button presses to single figures.
The only thing I seriously didn’t like about the control room was its bizarre cuckoo clock, which chimed loudly and cheesily every hour. Somehow the intervals between the chimes seemed much shorter than an hour, and I felt like each ridiculous chime was marking the passage of an hour of my life that I wouldn’t get back. Later, we met a Swiss astronomer using the Swiss national telescope. One evening we went out to see their set up, and saw their spectacularly nice kitchen and lounge area. He claimed that the cuckoo clock was the legacy of a terrible misunderstanding when the control room was being refurbished. Someone had said it should be “like what the Swiss have got”, or something like that, but somehow this was understood as a request for Swiss touches, and hence a cuckoo clock was purchased.
I stopped a night at Geysir. We’d stayed here ten years ago, and for some reason we’d copped out and stayed in the hotel. Not in proper rooms or anything, a cheapo dorm in the loft where we were allowed to lay our sleeping bags onto wooden boards, but still I’d have preferred to be outside. So this time I camped, and it was good to be here again.
It’s touristy here, very very touristy. Hundreds of people mill around during the day, and I found the sight of name-tagged travellers following guides with little flags very depressing. I amused myself by watching people fail to understand what geysers do. It was a breezy day, and every time Strokkur erupted, masses of hot steaming water would fall back onto the ground nearby, marking out a large wet streak stretching away from the geyser. To me it seemed obvious that standing there would make you get wet. It wasn’t obvious to a lot of people. I watched one guy standing right in the target zone. Strokkur erupted; he took lots of pictures; he realised he was about to get very wet; he turned and ran; he tripped and fell; he lay face down on the ground as tonnes of hot water fell on him.
In my malicious traveller-superiority state of mind, I chuckled inwardly. The guy got up and he was perfectly ok. He walked away, dripping but nonchalant, affecting a “that’s exactly what I expected to happen and I don’t feel stupid at all” attitude. But we all knew that he did.
Later in the evening, the place was empty. I went up to Strokkur at midnight and listened to the subterranean bumps and rumbles and watched some eruptions. I chatted to an Icelander there, who kept on predicting that the next eruption would be huge. “It always does a big one after three small eruptions”, he told me. “Um.. maybe after four small eruptions”, he claimed. The Icelander told me that his father had set up a ski-resort in the Kerlingarfjöll, a group of wild mountains near Hveravellir. We could see them in the distance from here. My guide book from 1997 mentioned the place but it had now closed down due to insufficient snow in the summer.
In the morning I walked up the hill. The views over the countryside seemed different to what I remembered ten years ago, somehow, but it was only when I compared photographs later on that I realised that the plains were now dotted with summer houses. There had not been a single one ten years before. Saplings had grown into trees, the hotel had expanded, paths had been built. I hate the changes that tourism forces on places, hypocritically imagining that somehow I’m not part of the reason for them.
As we drove back to Reykjavík I saw the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago off the south coast. Red Eldfell and green Helgafell looked familiar and I remembered the great times I’d had on Heimaey. I was tempted to go back but I had new places to go. I spent a night in Reykjavík, limping about with a foot injury that had suddenly flared up, and then I headed out into the interior again.
I got a bus across the Kjölur route to Hveravellir. It was an Icelandic nostalgia trip at first as we passed through Hveragerði and Selfoss, and then stopped at Geysir and Gulfoss. After that, we were into new territory for me. The tarmac stopped and we were in parts of Iceland that are only accessible for three months each year. We rumbled on. It was a sunny day and it was really hot inside the bus. The landscape was desert-like. We stopped a few times on the way at points of vague interest, and every time we did I was slightly shocked to get off the bus and feel cool air.
We got to Hveravellir in the early afternoon. There was not a cloud in the sky. I spoke to the guy in the small shop as I bought a coffee, and he said it had been like this for a week and didn’t look like it would change any time soon. I almost couldn’t believe him. In my Icelandic experience, stable weather for seven hours was almost unheard of, let alone seven days.
But he was right. It stayed awesome the whole time I was at Hveravellir. After the daytime visitors had gone, there were just a handful of campers left. I went to explore the hot springs. In the strangeness of an Arctic midnight, the twilight sky never faded to darkness and the landscape looked surreal. A full moon peeked above the horizon. The geysers here were all constantly bubbling. A mud geyser spurted intermittently, and I spent ages trying to photograph it before I finally caught an eruption.
I kind of fancied doing a long hike from here. I could have spent two or three days hiking to Hvítárvatn. But the strenuous bits of my trip were behind me, I only had a few days left, and I decided to relax a little bit. So I saw what I could at Hveravellir, relaxed in the sunshine of the arctic desert, and then headed back towards Reykjavík.
I headed back across the Irish Sea. The ferry journey went quickly at first, and we had great views of the islands up the Scottish Coast. After about an hour we turned into Loch Ryan, and I presumed that we’d dock at Stranraer within a few minutes. But instead we began an unexplained tour around the loch, rotating around and around in the evening sun, within sight of the port. Eventually an announcement was made that due to tidal conditions we couldn’t dock yet, and we’d be hanging around for about half an hour. An hour later we had still not docked, and Stena had not seen fit to make any more announcements. Finally, an hour and a half late, we docked.
The train to Glasgow had long since left, but Stena had organised a bus to Ayr. I had no idea where Ayr was but presumed this would be useful. At Ayr I got a train to Glasgow, and now it was looking pretty touch and go as to whether I would get to Glasgow in time for the sleeper train to London. We got to Glasgow Central with about a minute to spare, and I sprinted around the station looking for the right platform. When I got there, the train was still there, but the doors had just been locked. A conductor was standing by the back of the train, and I asked him if I couldn’t get on. He said the doors could not be unlocked now they were closed. I stood there in disbelief as the train began to pull away.
I was furious with Stena. Tidal conditions? You’d think they’d know these things in advance. And not keeping passengers informed is just incredibly stupid. No way am I travelling with Stena again. Angrily I walked to a nearby hostel and booked in for a night. Then I had to pay a hundred pounds the next morning to get a new train ticket back to London. Possibly the worst thing about this journey was that all my friends had told me that it was crazy not to fly. I knew I could expect no sympathy, only intense mockery, when I finally made it back.
We went to a club at Tibidabo in the evening, and stayed there until it started to get light. We watched the sun rise from the roof of Sam’s apartment block, then set off in search of the classic Spanish way to end a great night out – churros con chocolate. But maybe it’s just not a Catalan thing, because we couldn’t find any. Disappointed, I went back to my hostel and slept. I got brutally awoken after a couple of hours, having already missed the checkout time.
We went to the beach in the afternoon. Having already had one attempted pickpocketing, and knowing the reputation of the beaches, I stayed paranoid and alert despite my tiredness. We managed to catch the sun for a few hours and not lose any of our possessions.
In the evening I headed for home. I got the bus to Girona, arriving there just as the sun was setting. I could barely walk by now, I was so tired. Barcelona had been a fun trip.
The next night was also lost. I spent a miserable twelve hours in the telescope control room, thinking how ridiculous it was that I’d travelled two thousand miles just to sit in a small room on top of a mountain in thick cloud and do nothing. But on the third night, as I drove up to the telescope, the cloud level was dropping and there was an incredible sunset. As I got to the lip of the caldera, I could see towns lighting up far below. It was wildly windy and the car was rocking but before long it was calm enough to open the dome, and I started actually observing.
After two and a half years out of astronomy, I returned to the field in September 2006. Shortly after that, I got an opportunity to go observing again, and my third trip to La Palma was fantastic. When I left astronomy, I didn’t know whether I would ever try to get back into it, and I thought that in all likelihood my two trips to La Palma would be my lot.
On both of those two trips, the taxi to the mountain top had been a nightmare. This time, I was observing at a telescope which didn’t have cars on the mountain top for the observer’s use, so I needed to drive myself up. This was massively more fun than getting the taxi, and I was laughing like a fool as I swept around the hairpins. If I’d had a passenger, they would have been chundering within seconds.
At the top, conditions were perfect. The humidity was so low that I got violent electric shocks off everything I touched, the skies were deep blue, and the stars shone brightly. Unfortunately I was not observing until the next night. I watched the sun set over a sea of clouds, then stayed up until the small hours preparing my observations and getting into the night routine.
I stocked up on more cakes from the cafe across the road before leaving Calama to go to San Pedro de Atacama. The bus journey took us through some forbidding Atacama scenery, rocky canyons and exposed plains and barely a speck of green in sight, and it seemed amazing to me that people could make a journey like this, through some of the harshest terrain in the world, by bus. My fellow passengers were mostly locals and I looked around at them, feeling some kind of envy that they lived in this remarkable place.
I arrived in San Pedro in the early afternoon, and the sun beat down on the low whitewashed buildings which glared fiercely. I found a hostel and checked in, and wandered around the tiny village, quickly exploring more or less all of it. It was clearly a town that lived off tourism, but it didn’t seem as in-your-face about it as El Calafate or Pucón had been. El Calafate seemed to be built with wealthy visitors in mind, while Pucón was a middle-class Chilean sort of place, but San Pedro was definitely about backpackers. It made for a sociable time but I never much like places where local culture has been overwhelmed by outsiders. It’s the central problem of travel really – I want to visit amazing places and see spectacular things, but I don’t really want anyone else to.
I hired a bike in San Pedro, and spent a day exploring the surrounding desert. Fortunately I got a sensible machine, far more realistic a proposition than the contraption I’d hired in Puerto Madryn and definitely up to the task of cycling in the driest place on the planet. I started by heading north to the Pukará de Quitor, a hilltop fort which was the site of a last stand during the Spanish conquest. The views from here over the desert showed what an anomaly San Pedro is, with trees and vegetation in an otherwise unremitting sea of light brown.
Further north, I spent a while in the Quebrada del Diablo, a twisting narrow canyon that cuts deep into the hills. I don’t know how far I went down it – I started by cycling but before too long the floor of the canyon was too rough to make that worthwhile, so I left the bike and went on by foot. It was an amazing place – just hot sand, orange rocks and blue skies, and if I stood still and held my breath the silence was total. It was obvious that water had rushed violently through here at some point, but extremely hard to believe that could ever happen in the arid heat of the middle of the day.
After the Quebrada, I headed a little bit further down the road to what was allegedly the Inca ruins of Catarpe. But either I didn’t go to the right place, or Catarpe is really rubbish – there seemed to be nothing at all to see except a stone wall which could have been built yesterday. It was now far too hot to realistically explore any more, so I headed back to San Pedro for lunch. I’d taken plenty of water and drunk pints and pints, but still I’d almost lost my voice thanks to the extreme dryness. I found a shop selling ice cream in San Pedro and decided that for health reasons I should buy some. One portion left me feeling only partially restored, but a second had me feeling like doing more cycling, and as the afternoon heat gradually receded, I set out for the Valle de la Luna, an area of rock formations 17km south of San Pedro, to catch the sunset there.
This was far less fun than the morning’s cycling had been. Earlier, there hadn’t been even a breath to disturb the hot stillness, but now in the late afternoon a wind had sprung up from the west, and it was getting stronger by the second. Although it was much cooler than it had been, the wind was hot, and it felt like I was cycling into a hairdryer as I slowly pedalled down the tarmac toward the valley. The scenery was stunning, barren beyond belief and with towering volcanoes fringing the horizon, but I was beginning to get angry with the wind. After a few kilometres the tarmac stopped and I was on a sandy track, with the wind still blowing right at me, and every time I stopped for a second to catch my breath, the wind seemed to drop to nothing, only to start up again when I pushed off. At times I even struggled to cycle downhill. I cycled on in a furious rage, cursing the desert and the wind and thinking I could have been sat on an air-conditioned tour bus which would have cost me less than my bike hire had.
But eventually the valley appeared, and as soon as I wasn’t cycling any more I enjoyed the cycling I’d just done. The valley looked alive in the blazing evening light, and I scrambled up the sides to get stunning views over the surroundings, with Volcán Licancábur standing solemnly over everything. After the Sun had set the light quickly began to fade, and I set off for the return cycle. This was massively more fun, and with the wind behind me it took me barely half an hour to get back to San Pedro. By the end of the journey it was almost dark except for the light of the full moon, and I felt pretty pleased with 50 kilometres of cycling in the world’s driest desert.
The train to Santiago was incredibly uncomfortable. I’d been tight and bought the cheapest ticket, which was for a non-reclining seat. It seemed to be designed so there was no realistic way of lying down or doing anything but sitting bolt upright, so I didn’t manage to get a huge amount of sleep. I quite liked the restaurant car though, where my ongoing efforts to become a vegetarian were again spectacularly thwarted. There was an extensive menu, and I asked for various likely things which proved to be unavailable, before the server said to me “Look, in fact all we have is steak, and you can have a large one or a small one”. I ordered the small one, which when it came was spilling off the sides of the plate.
Having failed to sleep, I was in a bit of a daze when we arrived at Santiago’s Estación Central at 7am the next morning. I liked Santiago straight away when I found a cafe on the station serving real, delicious coffee and good cakes as well. Suitably caffeinated, I set off to work out the metro system, get into some accommodation and then explore.
I walked to Cerro San Cristóbal, an Andean foothill rising high over the city to its north. A funicular railway runs to the top and I headed up there, staying to watch the sun set. It was a beautiful warm evening, and I found it difficult to get my northern hemisphere head around the fact that it was early December.
I spent two more days in Santiago, and I didn’t really do very much. The next day was a Sunday, and the centre of town was tranquil and quiet. There was a market along the pedestrianised streets, where I found some english-language paperbacks. I had long since read all the books I’d brought with me at least twice so I was glad to find something new to read, even if the least trashy book I could find was by Michael Crichton. And on the Monday I managed to buy a whole Saturday Guardian, for not so much more than it would have cost in the UK.
While I was in Chile, political activity was intensifying in advance of upcoming presidential elections, and Santiago was humming with demonstrations, leafleting, campaign stands and speeches. Having failed to stand up for the late Salvador Allende against Carlito in Chaitén, I was pleased to find a Communist Party campaign stand doing vibrant business in Santiago. I bought a Communist Party mug, made a small donation, and felt that my conscience had been assuaged slightly. But it took another blow when I got into a lengthy conversation with a dapper old gent in the Plaza de Armas, who was if anything more pro-Pinochet than Carlito had been. “Just another few years of the dictatorship would really have sorted this country out”, he said. His view was that socialism had failed here because the people hadn’t really believed in it, and that most people were relieved when the military took over. But he was without any doubt from the wealthy classes, and I wondered if the majority of people really had been relieved when the air force bombed the presidential palace and Allende died in the ruins.
I’d passed through Berlin in the summer of 2002, on my way back from China. It had been hot, and amazing. Now I had to go back, because Rammstein were playing, and I had got hold of tickets. Four of us were going to the gig, and another friend was coming just for the trip to Berlin.
It was freezing when we arrived. Mist covered the city, and from the ground, the low sun was casting a shadow of the Alexanderplatz TV Tower onto the sky above. We went up the tower and saw the sunset shining through the haze.
By the end of my time in Dublin, I was looking forward to going home. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the city, more that I was just indifferent to it. Even a nice sunset on my last evening didn’t win me over, and I flew home feeling done with Dublin.
I got to Paris at 9am. I got a metro to République, remembered from my trip two years earlier which exit to take, and walked along Boulevard Jules Ferry to the youth hostel I’d stayed in before. The atmosphere of cosy familiarity was abruptly shattered when they turned out to be full. There was an accommodation office next door, but it wasn’t open yet, so I bought some food from a nearby shop and sat by the Canal Saint-Martin having breakfast. When they opened, they found me a space in a hostel nearby.
Sometimes when I go back to a place I’ve been before, I find myself going to exactly the same places, somehow unable to find new things to do. And so it was here. I walked to the Île de la Cité, saw Notre Dame, then walked to Montmartre. Two years ago when I was here it had been grey, rainy and empty. Now it was a hot day and very busy. In the narrow streets below the hill, some small children were ineptly busking. They had accordions, which they obviously had no idea how to play, and they squeezed and pressed buttons randomly. I was disgusted at how stupid they must think tourists would be, if they thought they’d make money this way, and then even more disgusted when I saw someone giving them some change.
As I looked over Paris, my heart wasn’t in the travelling any more. Paris was too familiar and too close to home, and I felt like I shouldn’t have stopped. I’d been here just two years earlier, so it seemed silly to interrupt my journey virtually on my doorstep to see places I already knew. In slight frustration, I planned an early start the next day to get back home.
In the evening I sat on a rock at the edge of the bay and watched the village fishermen bringing in the day’s catch as the sun set. It was a timeless scene, with an amazing amount of activity and commotion considering the tranquillity of the day. As I sat on the rocks, locals who weren’t occupied with the fishing came over and chatted, wondering what I was doing in their part of the world. After the catch had been brought in and night had fallen I went and ate dinner with the builders. They insisted that I share their food, and so I had a good meal of nshima with tiny little fresh fish called capenta and some dried fish with an extremely strong flavour called bamba. We talked for a while before I turned in.
I got out of the Despot B&B as quickly as I could the next morning and headed north. After their four day weekend it seemed that everyone was easing back into things gently, and though I got on a bus to Mpulungu straight away, the Zambian hour and a half lasted three hours and included a trip to the shops. But wow, what a journey once we were underway. It was a fairly nondescript run to Mbala, with the usual Zambian scenery, but after Mbala we left the high plateau which makes up almost all of Zambia and dropped down into the East African Rift Valley to Mpulungu. Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s second biggest lake, was glittering beneath us in the hot sun, and it was extremely beautiful. And it was hot down there, steamy and sweaty. Up on the plateau it had been very chilly at night and in the mornings, and got to the high twenties at best by the mid afternoon, but down here in the valley it must have been well into the thirties. I wandered around trying to find where I could get a boat out onto the lake from, and a very friendly guy wandered around with me and helped me to find the next boat leaving. He dropped me off at the beach where it was going from and left me with a friendly wave and a warning that all those around me were criminals.
And so I set about negotiating a fare. I wanted to go to a place called Mishembe Bay, right next to the border with Tanzania, and after a few attempts to get me to pay hundreds of pounds for a three hour boat journey, I settled on an agreeable fare with the owner of a boat. We left within half an hour of when he’d said we would, and it was a fantastic journey across the lake in the late evening sun. I was trying to believe that this lake is the longest in the world, stretching from down here in the south all the way up to Burundi at the northern end, squeezed between Tanzania and the Congo on its way. It’s also one of the deepest lakes in the world, and the majority of the fish living in it are of species found nowhere else.
The journey continued as the sun set. As we stopped at successive villages along the shore the boat gradually emptied, until by the time we got about three-quarters of the way to Mishembe Bay, I was one of only two passengers left on the boat. The boat’s owner had got out a little while before, leaving his brother to drive on, but his brother at this point told us he’d run out of fuel and couldn’t go on. A long and detailed argument followed, and he told me that he’d known from the start he didn’t have enough fuel to go all the way along to Mishembe, but hadn’t told me because I was dealing with his brother. After about half an hour he decided the solution was to get some guys from the village to get me to Mishembe in a canoe. It was a wildly unstable craft, and it was now night, but thankfully there was a full moon so we could see where we were going.
After half an hour or so, we got to the village just before Mishembe Bay, and they told me it was just a short walk on to there. Luckily the other remaining passenger said he’d show me the way – it turned out to be nearly half an hour’s walk. And now I discovered that where my guidebook had said there was accommodation here, what it meant to say was that accommodation was being built here. It wasn’t finished, but I had my tent and the builders who were living there were very friendly and sorted me out with some hot coals and water to cook with. They helped me to set up my tent and then I sat with them on the beach talking and eating dinner until it got late.
Lukulu was pleasant enough at first, though still far enough off the beaten path that we attracted a lot of attention. Oliver, the hotel owner’s brother, spent most of his time in our room, asking us about our backgrounds and sharing his with us. But Lukulu is just a dusty town at the end of a dusty road and we were keen to get on the way. We had thought that there’d be less transport north of Lukulu than south of it, and we’d come from the north with no trouble at all, so we were keen to get on the way. Oliver seemed to think we’d be able to get a lift the next day, and said he’d come with us in search of vehicles.
So we went for a wander around town the next day. We lacked the sense of urgency that we were to acquire over the next couple of days, and so we walked through the grounds of the Sancta Maria mission, overlooking the river, much broader here than before. We stopped off at a bar for a coke, or at least tried to. Lukulu is at the end of a very, very bad road, and depends for many supplies on an infrequent truck from Lusaka. The truck normally comes every three weeks, but Lukulu was outside the eclipse path while Lusaka was inside, and the truck driver had decided to see the eclipse and leave Lukulu to survive without soft drinks for another week. There was no Coke to be had, and we drank the last two bottles of Fanta in town.
There looked to be no vehicles leaving. Our alternative plan, should things become desperate, was to get a boat 70 miles downstream to Mongu, but on investigation, it turned out this would involve three days in small rickety wooden canoes, and only just enough space for a boatman, a passenger and a backpack. Our desperation was not yet severe enough, but for some other travellers it was. Roger and Robert, who we’d met in Zambezi, had already been this way and had already got fed up of Lukulu. We met them here, trying to get out, and the last time we saw them they said they were going to get the boat. We have no idea if they’re still alive or not.
Our first day in Lukulu ended with the usual fabulous Zambezi sunset and a feeling of hope that we might be able to move on the next day. We hadn’t considered, though, that the next day was Sunday, and though we were up very early, it quickly became clear that nothing was going to take us anywhere before Monday. After several hours waiting by the roadside hoping in vain for a lift, we went for a long walk through the surrounding area. I was feeling trapped and claustrophobic and sceptical that Lukulu could be in any way interesting, but I was actually wrong. In one of the villages we walked through, we noticed a couple of tiny yellow birds in wooden cages, and once we’d got talking to one of the village men we asked about the birds. He told in fascinating detail how they catch the birds – the first with a trap involving rubber cut from trees, and subsequent ones using the first as a lure. Once they’ve been caught, apparently, they never fly away.
But then Lukulu closed in on me again. We wanted to get some food, and we wanted to eat somewhere other than where we were staying. The unshakeable Oliver decided he would come with us on our search, and after brief conversations in Lozi between Oliver and the proprietors, each place we visited would turn out either not to have any food, or to be unwilling or unable to prepare it. In the end, the only place that bring itself to cook us some food was (surprise!) Oliver’s brother’s place. We resigned ourselves to eating there again, and requested nshima with anything, anything except fish, of which I was extremely bored. Oliver said he’d see what he could do, and after a while returned with a couple of plates of nshima and two bowls containing…aargh.
After this brief return to Gullfoss, we headed back to Selfoss, from where we went to Hella. This small town, apart from being the inspiration behind a million bad puns, is also the nearest town to Mt. Hekla, Iceland’s most famous volcano. During the middle ages, it was, in popular legend, the entrance to hell. The skies were supposed to be filled with vultures and ravens, and the wailing souls of the fallen could apparently be heard all around.
Presumably, less people go to hell these days, as the only sound we could hear from the campsite at Hella was that of the road, and large black birds were conspicuous by their absence. We set up camp in a beautiful location by a river, and thoroughly appreciated the excellent facilities that we had only paid three hundred kroner each for. After cooking dinner in real pots and pans for the first and only time on the trip, we enjoyed a truly magnificent sunset, and a fine night’s sleep.
Early the next morning, we awoke to find a day of pleasant sunshine, and walked a mile or two out of the village to find a good view of mount Hekla. Clouds in that direction did not obscure the summit, as the usually do, and so we could see the entrance to Mediæval hell. It was impressive to look at this volcano which has caused such immense devastation over the centuries. Unbeknown to us, deep beneath the earth Hekla was stirring again. Six months after we were there, it erupted for the first time since 1991, showering ash over much of central Iceland, and sending lava flows down its flanks. A few months after that, the area around Hella was hit by two powerful earthquakes in a week, destroying 20 houses.
It was all quiet when we were there, though, so having seen the volcano, there was little else to do in Hella but pack up and wait for the bus. Sadly, another slight cock-up on the bus timetable front meant that we got to the bus station about a quarter of an hour after the bus left. We were quite keen to get back on the way, and the thought of a completely pointless night in Hella was soul-destroying. We walked to the tourist office, thinking desperately of ways out of here. Our next destination was Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago south of the mainland. We asked about the possibilities of flying there. It was possible, said the woman in the tourist office, but you’d need a car to get to the airstrip. We asked about a taxi to Reykjavík. She said it would cost about 10,000 kroner. We asked, desperately, if there was any way of leaving Hella before the morning. “Yes,” she said, “the þórsmörk bus passes by at five”. Almost weeping with relief, we rushed back to the bus stop, just in time to catch the last bus of the day, which, mysteriously, did not appear on any timetable.
We returned to Mývatn for a day, filling our time with a walk around the east side of the lake. We passed the eerie fissure Grjotagjá, which is filled with very hot water. It’s in an underground cavern, and thin shafts of sunlight from above show the steam rising from the surface of the pool. It used to be a good temperature for swimming, but soon after the most recent eruptions at Krafla began, it heated up to over 60° C.
From Grjotagjá, we walked to Hverfjall, another big crater, this one made entirely of loose gravely rock. It takes a good amount of exertion to climb up the slope as it gives way beneath you. It certainly brings home the meaning of ‘one step up, two steps down’. The crater has no lake inside, instead exhibiting a large central mound. Although you are prohibited from walking down into the crater, the mound in the middle is covered in ridiculous graffiti, of the “Colchester boys woz ere, 5/4/95” variety.
After the exertion of climbing this slagheap of a crater, and facing fearsome winds at the top, this was something of a letdown. But not to be deterred, we walked round the rim and down the other side, and on through Dimmuborgir, an amazing lava formation. Several thousand years ago, a huge lava lake formed here. After cooling down for some time, and partially solidifying, an ancient lava flow that had been damming it gave way, allowing the liquid left to pour out. Left behind were many hundreds of towers of contorted lava. Natural arches and caves abound, and many fascinating trails can be followed.
We wandered through Dimmuborgir for a while, then walked back to our campsite by the lake shore. Here we saw a quite fabulous sunset, which bathed the hills and houses in a gorgeous orange glow. The sun sank beneath the opposite shore of the lake leaving behind a burning sky, which was mirrored in the rippling waters of Mývatn. However, the feelings of deep humanity this inspired in us were quickly dispersed by the arrival of the midges, and we repaired to the tents in a hurry, ready for an early rise the next day.
We went out to a viewing point near the rock one evening at sunset. It was extremely touristy, and there were people nearby drinking champagne, which I thought was a bit over the top. But the sunset was more impressive than I thought it would be, with the rock turning some vivid colours as the shadow of the Earth crept up on it.