Category Archives: Travel

From The Small Isles To The Shiants

Islands visited
From an original map by Kelisi used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence

I have lain down in the long grass while the raven honked and flicked above me and the skuas cruised in a milk-blue sky. I have felt at times, and perhaps this is a kind of delirium, no gap between me and the place. I have absorbed it and been absorbed by it, as if I have no existence apart from it. I have been shaped by those island times, and find it difficult now to achieve any kind of distance from them. The place has entered me. It has coloured my life like a stain.

Adam Nicolson, Sea Room (2001)

 

Having visited all the large islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Boon Companion and I recently set off to sample some of its smaller delights. We were travelling aboard the Proud Seahorse, a fairly small boat (seven passengers and four crew), and going ashore in an even smaller boat—a Rigid Inflatable Boat, to be exact, of the kind familiar to us from previous trips, like the one to Wrangel Island I wrote about previously.

Proud Seahorse at anchor
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Proud Seahorse, © 2017, The Boon Companion
RIB ashore in The Shiants
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RIB ashore in the The Shiants, © 2017, The Boon Companion

Our trip took us to three of the Small Isles, to a couple of the eastern outliers of Skye, and to the Shiants between Skye and Lewis.

It also took us through seas rich in birdlife, dolphins and whales. One day, off Eigg, we found ourselves in the middle of a feeding frenzy of gannets and Manx shearwaters (the gannets folding themselves like paper darts and diving into the sea all around us), with a minke whale cruising calmly through the midst of it all.

Gannet
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Gannet, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Minke whale
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Minke whale and Manx shearwaters, © 2017, The Boon Companion

And east of Skye we attracted a little pod of common dolphins, who sported in the bow-wave for five minutes, on occasion flinging themselves into the air to flop down sideways into the water—it was impossible to think anything other than that they were having fun. The Boon Companion hung precariously over the bow, trying to capture some of these chaotic high jinks on camera, but it was a near-impossible task.

Common dolphins
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Common dolphins in action, © 2017, The Boon Companion

On Eigg, we landed beside the spiffy new ferry terminal at Glamisdale, in the south, but without enough time to walk over to the main settlement of Cleadale, let alone to fulfil my ambition of nipping up Eigg’s improbable highest point, The Sgurr. (This proved to be a recurring theme of the trip—enough time for a pleasant shore walk, but my hillwalking ambitions thwarted at every turn.) Some of our party set of to look for the infamous Massacre Cave (where MacLeods from Skye killed close to 400 MacDonalds, in revenge for the MacDonalds castrating some MacLeods, in revenge for the MacLeods raping some MacDonalds—so it went, in sixteenth-century Scotland.) We chose instead to wander in the opposite direction, exploring the old harbour area near Poll nam Partan.

Sgurr of Eigg
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The Sgurr of Eigg, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Ferry jetty, Eigg
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New ferry slipway, Eigg, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Old harbour, Eigg
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Old harbour, Eigg, © 2017, The Boon Companion

Canna was perhaps the biggest revelation of the trip—we had absolutely no idea what to expect there. We found an island of tilted basalt terraces, producing spectacular bird cliffs along the north coast and layered green farmland in the south. The beautiful harbour nestles between Canna and the smaller island of Sanday—the two islands are connected by a bridge, though you can walk (or drive!) across the beach between them at low tide. So we did what was in effect a “two churches” tour—walking from the Presbyterian church on Canna, with its odd bell tower, to the Catholic church on Sanday, with its odd bell tower. Halfway between the two, the Café Canna was doing a roaring trade from ferry passengers and yacht-folk, and behind it a golden eagle hovered on the rising air along the cliff line behind the village.

Canna bird cliffs
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Bird cliffs, Canna, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Church of Scotland, Canna
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Church of Scotland, Canna, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Roman Catholic Church Of St Edward The Confessor, Sanday
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Roman Catholic Church Of St Edward The Confessor, Sanday, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Golden Eagle, Canna
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Golden eagle, Canna, © 2017, The Boon Companion

Rum afforded a stroll along the south shore of Loch Scresort. The Harvey’s map indicated an “otter hide” near the jetty, so we walked through the woods to take a look at it. A minute after walking in the door, what should we see messing about on the rocks outside but an otter. Blimey. That was unexpected, otters not being entirely cooperative with the aspirations of people who build otter hides. From the hide we walked up to the madness that is Kinloch Castle, passing signs that seemed to indicated “otters in all directions”, a selection of interesting visitor accommodation  (including a faux gypsy caravan), and a small herd of the world’s calmest deer.

Kinloch Castle, Rum
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Kinloch Castle, Rum, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Red deer, Rum
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Red deer, Rum, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Otters in all directions, Rum
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Otters in all directions, Rum, © 2017, The Boon Companion

Raasay seems like a nice place, but not in the hammering rain. We landed at the ferry slipway, and made a slow circuit through woodland and then back along the shoreline. The rain got heavier, and the camera never came out of its waterproof bag. Which is a shame, because we were treated to the spectacle of a swimming mink, which forged resolutely across the bay towards us, and then crossed the path about three metres in front of our small group. I’m not a big fan of the American mink in the abstract, being an invasive species that works slaughter on native small mammals and birds, but it’s nevertheless always nice to see a fierce little predator going about its business.

Cover of The Scottish Islands, Third EditionWe made two landings on Rona, to the north of Raasay. The first was at the north end, at Loch a’ Bhraige, which promised an anchorage sheltered from the southerly wind. Here we found ourselves staging a landing at MoD Rona, which Hamish Haswell-Smith describes as a “deep-sea listening post” in his book The Scottish Islands. It’s actually part of the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre. We rather expected the worst when our little party was met at the jetty by two stern men in a Land Rover Defender—but they quickly assessed us as being no threat to national security, and let us amble up past their helicopter pad to the lighthouse that crowns the point.

Rona lighthouse
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Rona lighthouse, © 2017, The Boon Companion

In the afternoon we slipped into Acairseid Mhor (the Big Anchorage), which was also nicely sheltered. At the jetty we found a noticeboard, which announced that there was a landing fee, but which also featured a couple of dog-leads hanging from hooks, to be conveniently borrowed by anyone who had landed with a dog but without a lead. Disappointingly, Rona Lodge with its bunkhouse, shop and “Rona Island stamps” was closed, and appeared to be the focus of some major building works, with dumper trucks rumbling up and down the main track. So we explored the shoreline, and then walked far enough inland to find a view that didn’t have a piece of JCB machinery in it.

On the shore at Rona
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Rona shoreline, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Acairseid Mhor, Rona
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Big Anchorage, Rona, © 2017, The Boon Companion

At the Shiants (pronounced shants), we anchored overnight in the Bay of Shiant, off Mol Mor, the “big shingle beach”, which is a narrow neck of shingle that connects two of the three main islands. In the afternoon, we made a landing on the beach next to the natural archway of Toll a’ Roimh, and climbed steeply over boulders and grass to sit next to the huge puffin colony among the rocks here. Higher up the slope, the ground is divided into curiously regular ridges, each a couple of metres wide—the remains of old lazy-bed cultivation, and a sign that these islands were once inhabited by people who had to use every square metre of flat land they could find, in a generally precipitous landscape. I walked farther, to sit at the highest point of the natural archway, which put my head just about right in the middle of a puffin flyway. They whirred past madly on either side of me, and every now and then one would drop panicky little orange feet like dive brakes, to decelerate and make a swerve around my head.

Natural arch, The Shiants
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Natural arch, The Shiants, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Puffins, The Shiants
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Puffins, The Shiants, © 2017, The Boon Companion

The topography of our landing site then presented an interesting problem, as well as an opportunity. Shiants landing map

As a glance at the map shows, it’s protected by a drying reef at low tide—so our little RIB had become trapped by the receding tide in what was effectively a large tidal pool. Expect that this pool is connected to the sea through the natural arch. So we motored out through arch into the bouncy swell of the Minch, around the point, and back into the bay to our anchored ship.

Cover of Sea Room by Adam NicolsonThe following morning we went ashore on the shingle neck, and walked round to the islands’ only habitation—a bothy to which Compton Mackenzie would sometimes resort, when he owned these islands, to get a bit of peace and quiet for his writings. There, we found Adam Nicolson and his wife Sarah Raven in residence (they stay on the islands for a few days each year). Nicolson is the author of (among many other things), a memoir entitled Sea Room, in which he describes what it was like to find himself the owner of these islands, at the age of 21, when he inherited them from his father. (I quote an evocative passage from Sea Room at the head of this post.) He was kind enough, on a drizzly day, to give us a small archaeological tour of the old settlement remains above his house.

Bay of Shiant
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At anchor in the Bay of Shiant, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Shiants bothy
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Shiants bothy, © 2017, The Boon Companion

And that was our whirlwind tour of minor Hebrides. Not nearly enough time ashore on any of them, I’d say, but compensated by time spent at sea, spotting birds and mammals and watching the scenery go by.

Sunset
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

Harris … and Lewis

Borve beach at sunset, South Harris
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

Back to South Harris again this year, still enchanted by its rugged landscape and hallucinatory beaches.

We caught the ferry from Uig in Skye again—always nice to travel through Skye’s mad scenery, even on a hazy day.

The Storr above Portree, Skye
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

This time we were staying in a rather swish self-catering place, perched on a hillside above the beach at Borve.

Rock House, Borve, South Harris
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

The weather was mixed—rain every day, but sunshine every day too, though one day we did need to wait for the hour before sunset before the sky cleared. And the wind blew hard enough to keep the midges away, though it did also seem to discourage the shorebirds—apart from ubiquitous oystercatchers, a solitary ringed plover and a pair of spectacular fishing gannets, I didn’t have much to use the binoculars on.

We spent a lot of time wandering along South Harris’s beaches, which seemed to change colour on a minute-by-minute basis.

Scarista beach, South Harris
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

But we also ventured farther north this time, into a very different landscape of sea-lochs and mountains in North Harris.

Loch Mharaig and Todun, North Harris
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

And then beyond that, into the ancient flatlands of Lewis.

Lewis flatlands and the hills of Harris
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

We were heading for the stone circles at Callanish, on the Atlantic coast of Lewis, erected almost 5000 years ago. On a chill, grey day with shafts of sunlight breaking through the clouds and sweeping across the landscape, it’s an atmospheric place.

Callanish stones
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

And then home again. It was a nice day in Skye, and we were in no hurry, so instead of following the main stream of traffic across the bridge to the mainland, we peeled southwards just after Breakish, to catch the tiny ferry that plies between Kylerhea and Glenelg. The strait here is narrow and fiercely tidal, so the ferry spends some of its time travelling sideways. After we had boarded at Kylerhea, it set off unexpectedly northwards up the coast instead of outwards into the channel. Only after it had established a couple of hundred metres of a head start did it venture out into the tide-race, to be swept dramatically southwards again on its way to Glenelg. Sea eagles fish in the channel, but none were evident during our ten-minute crossing.

Glenelg ferry
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

Glenelg, a palindromic village, lies at the mouth of Glen More, and the road runs up this fertile and pretty glen before zig-zagging out of its top end over the Bealach Ratagain to join the main road at Shiel Bridge. We stopped at the top of the pass to admire the spectacular view, and then descended (reluctantly) to join the queues of traffic wending along Glen Shiel.

Loch Duich and Five Sisters of Kintail, from Bealach Ratagain
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

Liguria

Church of St Peter, Porto Venere
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy; it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it has not the nervous vulgarity of England or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty and chooses to pass it by. But it attains to beauty’s confidence.

E.M. Forster, Where Angels Fear To Tread (1905)

 

We went to Liguria in April—that bit of the Italian coast just east of the French border, sometimes called the Italian Riviera, which traps the Ligurian Sea in its curve. When I was at school, the first syllable was pronounced to rhyme with fly, and the second vowel was like the “u” in furiouslaɪˈɡjʊərɪə. Nowadays these eccentric British pronunciations are disappearing, and it seems to have crept closer to the Italian, with the first syllable rhyming with fig, and the second vowel like the “oo” in Moorishlɪˈɡʊərɪə.

In climate, it’s a lot like the Côte d’Azur. But the landscape is very different, with steep hills and cliffs falling straight into the sea, stranding small villages in rocky clefts here and there along the exposed coastline.

Riomaggiore
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Riomaggiore, © 2017 The Boon Companion

There are interesting walking trails here—well waymarked and … well … reasonably well mapped, by Italian standards. The trails generally have three sections—the steep ascent from the village, the stroll through olive groves, and the steep descent to the next village. Many of them are nicely surfaced, and the reason for that becomes obvious, after a while—the locals drive up and down them on scooters, in tiny cars, and even in Tuk Tuk trucks. On one occasion, the Boon Companion and I were negotiating a blind corner and had to step quickly into a church doorway, to avoid a Fiat 500 which was being driven one-handed by a young woman who was talking animatedly into her smart-phone, held horizontally in front of her face. A short distance up the path she failed to make the turn at a Y-junction, and crunched head-on into a gate-post. As we watched, awe-stricken, she wrestled the Fiat into reverse gear, pulled back by a car length, and then accelerated off up the hill, her wing-mirrors clipping the hedges on either side. I could see her male front-seat passenger conducting a slow hand-clap throughout this process, and had to wonder how long that relationship was going to last (if not cut short in the meantime by a tragic motoring accident, of course).

And one day, just outside Riomaggiore, we ran into this odd object, adhering to a lamppost:

QR
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Out of curiosity I scanned the QR code, which took me to the website mentioned on the sticker, which then demanded that I allow my phone to share its location data. Since my phone has no more idea of its location than my shoes do, we reached an impasse at that point. But as we carried on up the hill, I pondered the state of outdoor navigation these days. A “You Are Here” sign that asks your phone where you are and then tells you where you are? What on earth is that about?

We started in Porto Venere, near the five coastal villages called the Cinque Terre, and then moved to Portofino.

Porto Venere from Castello Doria
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Port Venere, © 2017 The Boon Companion
Portofino harbour
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Portofino, © 2017 The Boon Companion

Both areas are well served by water buses that stop off at the various coastal towns and villages nearby, making a boat out and a walk back an appealing possibility. Some of the landing stages are surprisingly precarious in a high sea—but Italian sailors cheerfully chuck elderly Japanese ladies in inappropriate footgear on and off the boat, so all is well.

Landing at San Fruttuoso
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Landing at San Fruttuoso, © 2017 The Boon Companion
San Fruttuoso monastery
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San Fruttuoso monastery, © 2017 The Boon Companion

In Portofino, something happened that hasn’t happened to us before—we got a room upgrade. So we found ourselves installed in something like a marble aircraft hangar with soft furnishings and a view of the harbour, in which we wandered endlessly, trying to remember where we’d put our reading glasses.

Castello Brown, Portofino
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Portofino, the guidebooks say, is a place to “see and be seen”. It was certainly full of the sort of shops that sell only a single colour of linen scarf, staffed by exquisite creatures who sat tapping languidly on their mobile phones all day, and who responded with ill humour (a single, tiny vertical crease appearing between their rectangular eyebrows) if anyone actually came into the shop. The Boon Companion, of course, took to this like a duck to water, happily cutting la bella figura along the waterfront. Your correspondent meanwhile shambled in her wake, more brutta than bella.

Portofino coast
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Out in the bay beyond the harbour sat billionaire Andrey Melnichenko’s Motor Yacht A, clearly modelled on the children’s television submarine Stingray.

Motor Yacht A, Portofino
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

StingrayIt was up for sale for $300 million last year, but presumably Melnichenko is still struggling on with its limited accommodation while waiting for his even grander Sailing Yacht A to complete sea trials.

Selfie sticks were blessedly less evident than they were when I reported from Venice, but their users made up in persistence what they lacked in numbers—we sat over coffee at the harbour one day and watched a young woman spend twenty minutes finding the perfect combination of head tilt, pout, V-sign and backdrop. Twenty minutes. And they say that the internet has reduced people’s attention span.

Porto Venere by night
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

So we sipped prosecco in the spring sunshine, ate pasta, seafood and gelati, and watched the passing show. What could be better?

Green Lizard
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Madeira

Funchal downtown mosaic
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

 

We’re from Madeira, but perfectly respectable so far.

George Bernard Shaw You Never Can Tell (1899)

A couple of days in Madeira, just to remind ourselves what sunshine looks like.

Madeira seems like it should be a marvellously easy and unstressful foreign place to visit—written Portuguese is often pretty easy to puzzle out, if you’ve already encountered a few Romance languages;  much of the signage is helpfully multilingual; almost everyone seems to speak English anyway; and the place is thoroughly geared up as a tourist destination. Added to that, the Madeiran people seem to be extraordinarily laid-back, helpful and generous with their time.

Maybe that’s what makes it so popular with English people. All along the pretty promenade in Funchal, the main language to be heard was English. In the busy restaurants and cafés, English voices were all around, punctuated by the occasional low mutter of German.

Our hotel seemed to be entirely populated by elderly couples from the Home Counties, who operated on a toxic overdrive of disorganization, anxiety and demanding behaviour—so the public areas rang to the sound of loud peremptory instructions being issued in plummy Received Pronunciation to the heroically indulgent staff.

Funchal waterfront, with its spiffy new gardens, public statuary and promenade, is a nice place to stroll or sit, but the huge new liner pier means that one or two cruise ships disgorge into the area every day, and you can find yourself suddenly mixed up in a crowd of name-badged people, being shepherded on to a tour bus.

Funchal waterfront
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© 2017 The Boon Companion
Funchal from waterfront
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

A lot of people enjoy the plants and flowers along the shore, but I was drawn to the new erosion defences—giant interlocking concrete blocks called tetrapods, each one weighing multiple tons. I’d have paid good money to see how they put them in place.

Dolosse, Funchal
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

The main thing about Madeira is that it is mountainous. Really mountainous, everywhere. Big green mountains, often cloud-capped, push up to well over 1500m, right behind Funchal. Every road seems to be strung together from steep ascents, sudden curves, abrupt drop-offs and unexpected tunnels. The international airport is sandwiched into a thin strip of coast, with its runway poking out into the sea on stilts, as you can see in this video from an Airbus on finals:

We’d decided to avoid the coastal strip of mega-hotels and had booked into a smaller place in the Funchal hinterland, about fifteen minutes’ walk from the waterfront. The fifteen minutes proved to be on roads that could be described as “intermittently precipitous”, and which were often too narrow to provide dedicated space for pedestrians. So each trip into town turned into a game of “dodge the traffic”—leaping into doorways or between parked cars as the local drivers hurtled past. (Though it has to be said that the Madeiran pedestrians simply ignored the traffic, occasionally deigning to move their shopping bags out of the way as a car whisked past an inch from their elbow.)

Funchal street
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Madeira is the only place in the world I’ve ever become travel sick during a five-minute trip in the back of a taxi—there’s something about the extra plane of movement afforded by Madeiran roads (pitch-up and pitch-down as well as turn-left and turn-right) that plays merry hell with my vestibular system.

Another product of Madeira’s hilly terrain are the carros de cestos, the wicker toboggans that run down the hillside from the village of Monte to the outskirts of Funchal, piloted (if that’s the word) by two carrieros wearing straw boaters. Our guide assured us that these had been invented by an Englishman, but I’ve been unable to find any confirmation of that. They used to run for six kilometres over steep cobbled streets, but now the descent is a more modest two kilometres on tarmac. Here’s some action video shot by an intrepid traveller:

You’ll notice, from the road markings, parked cars and cross-streets that the carros share the tarmac with more conventional vehicles. However, there’s no truth in the rumour that carro de cesto is Portuguese for “really embarrassing way to die”.

Madeirans gave the impression of being cheerfully but constantly at war with their own island. The landslides, the flash floods in narrow ravines, the forest fires—everywhere, there are scars on the landscape and massive engineering projects designed to protect Madeira’s cluttered infrastructure.

Nun's Valley, Madeira
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

In fact, the landscape made me slightly headachy with its complicated interplay of the human and the natural—in the midst of exuberant vegetation, it seems that every horizontal surface contains a building, a garden, a plantation or a graveyard, and every slope that’s not entirely vertical is crossed by a system of poio farm terracing or one of the old levada irrigation systems. I was left anxiously wondering if there was any place on the island from which it would be possible to have a view that didn’t feature a clutter of pantile roofs and and steeply terraced fields.

Nun's Valley, Madeira
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

So that was our (very limited) encounter with Madeira. We liked the relaxed, friendly café culture, but were a little oppressed by the cluttered environment and the bus parties. And at times I got the very strong sense that I might have fallen into Dave Hutchinson’s fictional “Community”—a parallel Europe that had been entirely colonized by English people.

 

Levison Wood: Walking The Americas

Cover of Walking the AmericasI’ve found on these long expeditions that there sometimes comes a point when you grow tired of walking.

Walking the Americas recounts the story of Levison Wood’s third epic walking journey—a successor to Walking the Nile and Walking the Himalayas, and a companion volume to the Channel 4 TV series of the same name. You can find my review of Walking The Himalayas here.

The Nile was a highly specific route—following the river from source to sea; the Himalayas were more diffuse, offering Wood a range of route options, so that he could string together a series of particularly interesting locations; the “Americas” starts with broad choice in the north, and narrows down to some severely limited options in the south.

Wood walks through the historical core of the Americas—Central America. For start and finish points that allow a complete traverse of this isthmus, he chooses two events from the Spanish conquest of the region—the landing of Hernán Cortés on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in 1519, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa‘s  journey across the Isthmus of Panama at Darién in 1513, during which his party became the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean. As Wood points out, these two men are forever united by a historical inaccuracy in John Keats’s poem On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, which ends:

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Cortés never visited the Darién colony, and Keats clearly conflated his adventures with those of Balboa. (The story goes that, when informed of the error, he left it in so as to preserve the scansion of the poem. That’s poets for you, that is.) Despite the neatness of this poetic link to the geography of the region, it seems logistically more likely that Wood chose his starting point in Yucatán simply because that’s where his walking companion, the photographer Alberto Cáceres, lives. And his destination is clearly dictated by the shape of the isthmus, which has a definite southern endpoint where it joins the continent of South America just beyond the jungles of Darién. Between these two points, he walked 1,800 miles over the course of four months.

Walking the Americas route
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Levison Wood’s route through Central America (Public Domain base map)

In contrast to companions on Wood’s two previous journeys, Cáceres is able to stay with him throughout the trip, and it’s evident that he’s an invaluable asset—aimiable, upbeat and possessed of an apparently infallible ability to charm Spanish-speaking officialdom.

Wood also seems to be blessed with an easy sociability that stands him in good stead—chatting cheerfully to border guards, drug dealers, gang members, child refugees and pretty much anyone else he meets along the way. I think he describes his approach well when discussing photography, early in the book:

You need to speak to people and get them to relax. You need to spend an hour or so chatting about their life, their passions, their wants and needs, before you even get your camera out. They must trust you, and that cannot be forced. They must like you, and you can’t force that either.

Wood’s impulse to chat only betrays him once, when he and his companion are treated to lunch (in a manner that can’t be refused) by a group of men they believe to be drug dealers. He works very hard to make it clear he is simply a traveller and writer (not a police informant), and then has to work hard again to be sure they understand he is not a rich writer (so not worth kidnapping for ransom). Presumably exhausted by this gruelling process and beginning to relax slightly, he then asks brightly, “So, what do you do?”

After a tense silence that gives Wood ample time to regret his curiosity, he is told that they “grow beans and corn.”

As with previous volumes, the book is a useful companion to the television series. The memorable moments from the series are all here—diving in a cenote used for human sacrifice; walking to the rim of an active volcano; climbing Cerro Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica, to see the sunrise; walking edgily through gang territories in San Pedro Sula; and the final slog through the jungle of the Darién Gap. But there’s also much background information on the history of the area, and a lot of moments that never made it to the TV screen—a hilarous consultation with the elderly and  eccentric explorer John Blashford-Snell (during which Wood develops a sort of explorer envy because he won’t be able to take a gunboat with him into Darién); the apology he receives from the gang leaders through whose territory he passes, who say that they would have tidied up the graffiti if they’d had more warning of his arrival; the enthusiastic but seriously underequipped and ultimately ill-fated Belgian travellers who are planning to cross Darién before Wood gets there, and who have the potential to blight his carefully negotiated arrangements in that sensitive region; and a poignant visit to Puerto Escosés, the site of Scotland’s failed colony in the New World, and the focus of the seventeenth-century Darien Scheme, a financial venture that ultimately bankrupted Scotland and ended its existence as an independent nation.

And there are snakes, spiders, vampire bats, river crossings, unpleasant injuries, quicksand … and a moment when they get lost and turn up as unwelcome trespassers in someone’s garden.

What’s not to like?

Ginge Fullen: Sic Diximus

Cover of Sic Diximus, by Ginge Fullen

Within 500m I was stopped by an Army patrol. To cut a long story short, I was stopped three more times by the Army and twice by the Police in the space of the next hour. I fobbed them off each time. Two policemen followed me back to the hotel. My local guide Menpong arrived the next morning and I was glad to get out of town and heading to the mountains but I wasn’t too confident that my troubles would stop there.

I’ve written about Ginge Fullen, and my involvement in his Africa’s Highest Challenge expedition, in my post about his previous book, Finding Bikku Bitti. That one described the gruelling conclusion of Africa’s Highest Challenge, when Ginge managed to climb Bikku Bitti, the highest point in Libya—having already spent five years climbing the highest point in every other African country. Conquering Bikku Bitti took three separate Sahara expeditions, during the second of which Ginge almost died.

This book is an altogether more sedate affair, describing his quest to climb the highest point in Bangladesh. Like Bikku Bitti, it required three separate attempts—but this time because there was so much disagreement about where the highest point in Bangladesh actually was.

I not only get a mention in Sic Diximus, my name’s on the cover, along with that of Ginge’s local guide, Menpong. That’s typical of Ginge’s generosity—I’ve mentioned before that he tends to downplay his own achievements while punctiliously acknowledging the contributions of those around him. But I certainly don’t deserve to appear as an author on this one—the adventure is Ginge’s, the story is Ginge’s, the words are Ginge’s, and the (often beautiful) photographs are Ginge’s.

Cover of World Tops and BottomsMy involvement started back in 1996, when I was compiling a set of tables called World Tops and Bottoms for Dave Hewitt’s TACit Press, listing the highest and lowest points of every country and dependency in the world. There were various “problem countries”, and Bangladesh was one of those—no-one seemed to be entirely sure what the highest mountain in Bangladesh was, where it was, or how high it was. One frequently mentioned name was Keokradong, but that name was associated with at least three different hills in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and with a variety of altitudes from 927m to 1230m. Another was Reng Tlāng, on the border between Bangladesh and India, with quoted heights from 957m to 1003m. I couldn’t lay my hands on any useful national mapping, so checked the 1:500,000 Tactical Pilotage Chart of the area—which showed absolute nothing over 1000m in eastern Bangladesh, except for an unnamed point of 3454ft (1053m) on the border with Myanmar, far from Reng Tlāng and any of the Keokradongs. That point therefore found its way into World Tops and Bottoms— rather dubiously associated with the name “Mowdok”, which seemed more likely to be the name of the whole border range, rather than the specific highest point.

Now we roll forward to 2005, when Ginge was interested in knocking off the highest point in Bangladesh. By that time, a Survey of Bangladesh photogrammetric survey of the region in 2003 had brought up a new name, or rather several new names for one new hill—Tazing Dong, Tajingdong or Bijoy had been announced (with some fanfare in the Bangladeshi press) as Bangladesh’s real highest point, with a height of 987m. (This was almost immediately inflated to over 1000m in popular accounts—Banglapedia briefly topped out at 1280m.) By this time I was in contact with Jonathan de Ferranti, another mountain data-cruncher, who had given me a copy of an early version of the data from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), and who had checked the Russian 1:200,000 military topographic maps of the area. We were still seeing no ground over 1000m anywhere in eastern Bangladesh except for the 1053m point marked on the Tactical Pilotage Chart, which corresponded to a spot height of 1052m on the Russian topo map and a highest cell of 1049m in the SRTM dataset. It all looked pretty solid, but no-one seemed to be seeing it but us.

Saka Haphong: TPC, Russian topo, SRTM
Click to enlarge

Got all that? Good. So, at this point, enter Ginge, who just wanted to climb the right mountain. The folks at Guinness World Records were telling him he needed to climb Keokradong *. The Survey of Bangladesh (and surely they should know) were telling him he needed to go up Tazing Dong. And two increasingly irritated cartophiles in Scotland were telling him needed to hop over to the Myanmar border to climb something without a discernible name.

Being Ginge, he climbed all three. And that’s what this book is about—Ginge sitting down for tea with Aung Shwe Prue Chowdhury, Rajah of the Chittagong Hill Tracts; Ginge blagging his way past a military checkpoint and browbeating a Bangladeshi general into giving him a lift; Ginge pitching up at the Survey of Bangladesh head office to tell them they’ve got it all wrong; Ginge betting the army major who conducted the photogrammetric survey that he’d missed a higher mountain … and Ginge nearly dying again, but this time from a dodgy chicken curry.

Climbing Keokradong turned out to be relatively easy—the other two summits required machete work on the way up, and to clear enough space on the summit for a good GPS reading. I’m probably not giving too much away if I tell you that the 1053m point on the Myanmar border turned out to be the highest. For a while after Ginge established “ground truth”, it even seemed as if he might get the chance to name the mountain. We gleefully came up with Sic Diximus, as close as we could get to “We told you so!” in Latin. (The translation came courtesy of my brother-in-law George, who is freakishly still able to speak Latin more than four decades after studying it at school.)

But it wasn’t to be. Unsurprisingly, the Tripura people who live in the remote valley below the mountain did have a name for it—Saka Haphong, meaning “Peak of the East”. And, in true Bangladeshi style, there’s at least one other name, too—topographic maps prepared in British India in the 1930s and 1940s label it as Mowdok Taung.

Since Ginge blazed the way in 2006, the way to Saka Haphong has turned into a popular trekking route, and the summit area is now kept clear by the feet of frequent visitors. Here’s a video impression of what the area looks like nowadays:

It’s a remarkable story. As with his previous book, it’s copiously illustrated with photographs clearly printed on good quality paper. You can have a look at the first few pages (which include a photography of yours truly) on the Blurb site at blurb.co.uk and blurb.com.


* This sort of out-of-date advice was a recurring theme with Guinness during Africa’s Highest Challenge—their alleged experts seemed just to be pulling up the CIA World Factbook on their computers, rather than looking at, you know, a map or anything. I’m sure (well, I hope) the CIA World Factbook is just chock-full of actual facts when it comes to important geopolitical matters. But among people who are interested in the highest points of countries (and yes, actually, there are several of us) it is wearily referred to as the CIA World “Fact” Book.

Côte d’Azur (November 2016)

So, back to the Côte d’Azur for one last blink of sunshine and warmth, before the long dreary descent into Scottish winter. Not much to add, really, to my previous report from the same area in the spring of this year.

We stayed in Juan-les-Pins for a few days, a location that (for those of a certain age) irresistibly brings back the 1969 Peter Sarstedt song, Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?

That was back in the day when the Côte d’Azur was an impossibly exotic location. But during our visit Juan-les-Pins seemed quiet and lazy, a little superannuated, distinctly unfashionable and well beyond its peak season. So we fitted right in.

We stayed in a hotel that used to be a villa owned by the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda. So we did our best to act like Scott and Zelda as we strolled Juan-les-Pins’s beach front—except without the affairs, arguments, attention-seeking behaviour and the final descent into alcoholism and madness, obviously. We largely succeeded.

Hotel Belles Rives, Juan-les-Pins
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Scott & Zelda’s place © The Boon Companion, 2016
Kite surfers, Juan-les-Pins
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Kite surfers © The Boon Companion, 2016
Waterfront, Juan-les-Pins
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Another bleak November day © The Boon Companion, 2016

Then on to Cap Ferrat. We were handily located at the neck of the peninsula, roughly equidistant from Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. So it was an easy stroll almost every day for a baguette or a salad for lunch, and then a local restaurant for dinner. (Isn’t it nice when the humblest pizza place also does a decent glass of champagne?)

Cap Ferrat and Rade de Villefranche-sur-Mer
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Cap Ferrat © The Boon Companion, 2016
Harbour at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
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Harbour at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat © The Boon Companion, 2016
Mackerel sky over Beaulieu-sur-Mer
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Mackerel sky over Beaulieu © The Boon Companion, 2016
Ephrussi Gardens, Cap Ferrat
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Ephrussi Gardens, Cap Ferrat © The Boon Companion, 2016

And the weather was unseasonably fine—shirtsleeves almost every day for two hardy Scots, and only one day of rain. I was pleased to see that French men are still wearing their sweaters tied around their necks by the sleeves, just the way Charles Aznavour was doing it in the 1960s. It’s good to see that an otherwise stylish nation is still keeping one deeply naff sartorial trope alive.

British Airways managed to wreck the relaxed ambience by cancelling our flight home and sending us an urgent text message to say that we had to get to the airport pronto if we weren’t to miss their alternate routing. So we were tumbled back into Scottish darkness, drizzle and single-figure temperatures feeling slightly frazzled, with a vague impression that it might all have been a dream.

Red Admiral
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A Red Admiral deciding whether it’s time to hibernate yet © The Boon Companion, 2016

 

Russian Far East: Part 3 – Chukchi Peninsula

In my first post about this trip, I described how we got to the Siberian port of Anadyr. In my second post, I described our stay at Wrangel Island, in the Russian Arctic. This post is about what we did between Anadyr and Wrangel (and between Wrangel and Anadyr), as we sailed along the coast of the Chukchi Peninsula.

Chukchi Peninsula map
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The Chukchi Peninsula, showing places mentioned in the text
(based on a public domain map – original source)

I’m going for a set of themes again:

WHALES

We saw whales blowing in the distance almost every day we were at sea—mainly grey whales, occasional humpbacks, and a couple of rare bowheads.

Our first close encounter took place between Itygran Island and the outlying bird cliffs of Nuneangan Island. (Itygran is also spelled Ittygran, Yttigran and Yttygran—one of the hazards of transliterating between the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.) We were in small boats, returning to the ship, when we found ourselves in the middle of a group of feeding grey whales. With the engine turned off, we bobbed in the gentle swell for twenty minutes or so, as these big creatures surfaced, breathed and dived all around us.

Grey whale tail, Itygran Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Grey whale back, Itygran Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

The textbooks say that grey whales don’t breach (leap almost entirely out of the water) like humpbacks. Our grey whales hadn’t read the textbooks, though.

Grey whale breaching at Itygran Island (1)
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Grey whale breaching at Itygran Island (2)
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Grey whale breaching at Itygran Island (3)
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

Later, as we sailed past the remote town of Uelen, on the north coast of Cape Dezhnev, the ship moved into an area where greys were feeding. For a while, there wasn’t a direction you could look in without seeing the haze from two or three blows hovering above the water, or the fluke of a whale rising smoothly into the air as it dived deep.

Grey whales off Uelen, Cape Dezhnev
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Grey whale tail and blow, Uelen, Cape Dezhnev
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
WALRUS

Huge walrus haul-outs used to be common on Wrangel, but the walrus seem to have shifted their activities to the Siberian coast in recent years. Our best walrus encounter was along the cliffs of Kolyuchin Island, where they lay heaped on the sharp rocks in large numbers. They’re curious creatures, and once they’d caught sight of the boats, several came out to take a look at us.

Walrus haul-out, Kolyuchin Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Walrus in the water, Kolyuchin Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
SMALL MAMMALS

On Itygran Island, we found ourselves a vantage point between a scree slope and some ground squirrel burrows on the open tundra, and settled down to wait. The ground squirrels never put in an appearance, but after we’d sat quietly for a while, a pika came out and started to go about its frantic autumnal business of laying in food for the winter. These little fellows have quite the most remarkable alarm call, shrieking out a high-pitched yelp that sounds as if it comes from something ten times their size.

Pika, Preobrazheniya Bay
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

We saw ground squirrels on several occasions later, but they’re maddening creatures to photograph—standing at attention in plain view for minutes on end, and then legging it as soon as a camera lens is rotated towards them.

I also came close to treading on numerous tundra voles at Cape Dezhnev. They’re also impossibly fleet for photography, but they create characteristic runways in the surface vegetation to show that they’re around. Here’s a runway at Belyaka Spit.

Tundra Vole runway, Belyaka Spit
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
LANDSCAPE

The landscape is stunning. Farther south than Wrangel there was correspondingly more vegetation, and the ground was awash in autumn colours.

Autumn, Preobrazheniya Bay
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Preobrazheniya Bay © The Boon Companion, 2016
Preobrazheniya Bay
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Preobrazheniya Bay © The Boon Companion, 2016
Itygran Island
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Itygran Island © The Boon Companion, 2016
Autumn, Itygran Island
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Itygran Island © The Boon Companion, 2016
Gil'mimyl huts
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Gil’mimyl © The Boon Companion, 2016
Gil'mimyl
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Gil’mimyl © The Boon Companion, 2016
Vehicle track to Gil'mimyl hot springs
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Gil’mimyl © The Boon Companion, 2016
Belyaka Spit
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Belyaka Spit © The Boon Companion, 2016
Radar reflector on Belyaka Spit
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Radar reflector, Belyaka Spit © The Boon Companion, 2016
AURORA

We had clear skies most nights, and were close enough to the equinox that it got properly dark. There were good auroral displays for six nights in succession, one of the best being as we sailed up Kolyuchin Inlet, with the sea so calm that the ship was an (almost) steady platform for photography.

Moon over Kolyuchin Inlet
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Aurora over Kolyuchin Inlet (1)
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Aurora over Kolyuchin Inlet (2)
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Aurora over Kolyuchin Inlet (3)
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
HERALD ISLAND

From Wrangel, we sailed 70 kilometres eastwards to Herald Island. Herald is not much more than a ridge of rock rising from the sea, surrounded by steep cliffs and lumpy scree slopes along its whole nine-kilometre length.

Herald Island cliffs
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Orographic cloud, Herald Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Herald Island at sunset
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© The Oikofuge, 2016

There’s a small beach at its southeast end, from which I’m pretty sure you could access the spine of the island with just a bit of scrambling. At the northwest end, there’s a shore-line boulder-field on which four of the Karluk castaways found their way ashore from the pack ice in 1914, only to die under mysterious circumstances, their camp still full of food, their guns still provided with ammunition. So remote and inaccessible is this place, their bodies weren’t discovered for a decade. (I previously wrote about the Karluk shipwreck when I reported on our stay at Wrangel Island.)

Approaching Herald Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Among ice floes, Herald Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

We cruised in boats through sea ice to the south end of the island, and counted polar bears. At one point, there were more than thirty bears visible from our position just off the coast—clambering the scree, walking the ridge, snoozing on patches of snow. Herald is a great denning site for overwintering bears, but at this time of year they’ve got nothing much to do except wait for the sea-ice and the seals to return.

Polar bear on snow, Herald Island
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This bear is sleeping at an old den site © The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar bears on scree, Herald Island
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A family of bears retreat up the scree © The Boon Companion, 2016

And we went ashore on the scrap of beach. There’s not much reason to land on Herald (unless you’re shipwrecked, of course). We landed because it’s something not many people get to do (far fewer people have set foot on Herald than on the summit of Everest) and also because it was freezing cold sitting in a boat under Herald’s cap of cloud and in the shadow of its cliffs, so it was nice to have a chance to jog around a bit to warm up.

Ashore on Herald Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
THE DIOMEDES

The Diomede Islands sit in the Bering Strait between the easternmost point of the Russian mainland (Cape Dezhnev) and the westernmost point of the American mainland (Cape Prince of Wales). They’re about forty kilometres from both mainlands, and less than four kilometres apart. But they’re separated not just by an international border, but the Date Line as well—those meagre four kilometres bring not just a change of government, but a shift of four time zones and a change of date too, so that anyone who made the crossing would need to shift their watch by twenty hours.

Approaching Big Diomede
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Approaching Big Diomede © The Oikofuge, 2016
Little Diomede and Big Diomede
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Little Diomede and Big Diomede © The Oikofuge, 2016

Not many make the crossing, though. The Soviets relocated the Yupik residents of Big Diomede to the mainland, set up a Border Guard post at the north end of the island, and closed the border—disrupting what had until then been a trans-Bering Inuit community. On Little Diomede, a tiny community remains in the village of Diomede, with 200 inhabitants.

Alaska and Little Diomede from Big Diomede
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Alaska beyond Little Diomede © The Boon Companion, 2016
Cape Dezhnev from Big Diomede
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Cape Dezhnev from Big Diomede © The Oikofuge, 2016

We weren’t permitted to land on Big Diomede (which the Russians call Ratmanov), or to cross the border to Little Diomede. We were permitted to cruise the boats along the north coast of the island, so long as we didn’t move out of sight of a Border Guard standing on an observation platform next to the station. Like anywhere in Russia, we weren’t allowed to take a photograph of the government buildings of the station (though you can find them easily enough on Google Earth). But we did give a yell and a wave to the little group of (presumably off-duty) men who came out to take a look at us, and got a yell and a wave back.

Every now and then, of course, as we dipped in and out of various inlets along the bird cliffs, we did move out of sight of the guard. We framed elaborate (and entirely theoretical) plans of how we could get someone ashore in those moments, replacing them with an inflatable dummy in the boat to keep the head-count correct. We weren’t sure what the point of that would be, but we’d all read too many Cold War spy thrillers not to consider it desirable as an end in itself. Thwarted on the espionage front, I contented myself with leaning out of the boat and slapping a Big Diomede rock in passing. Next best thing to a landing, really.

Bird cliffs, Big Diomede
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Plotting our way ashore © The Boon Companion, 2016
CULTURE

On Itygran Island we visited Whalebone Alley, a 600-year-old site in which whale bones are arrayed in a linear pattern extending for over half a kilometre along the shore, with ribs and jaw bones set up on end in the tundra. It’s clearly a ritual site of some kind, but no-one seems very sure of its significance.

Whalebone Alley, Itygran Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Professor Khromov, Whalebone Alley, Itygran Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Whalebone Alley, Itygran Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

At Cape Dezhnev, we walked through the atmospheric ruins of Naukan, an abandoned Yupik settlement. People lived here for centuries, on a tilted plateau perched above a gravel beach looking out on the chilly Bering Sea where they hunted for sea mammals. But the Naukan people were forcibly relocated by the Soviets in 1958, who pronounced their village “uninhabitable”, in the teeth of the evidence to the contrary. In the museum in Lavrentiya, we met a Yupik woman who had lived in Naukan as a small child, and still missed it.

Ruined Yupik village of Naukan, Cape Dezhnev
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Cape Dezhnev lighthouse
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Cape Dezhnev lighthouse above Naukan © The Boon Companion, 2016

In Lavrentiya, we found ourselves being photographed by the locals almost as much as we were photographing them, which was an interesting experience. In Lavrentiya, too, I heard unmistakable sounds from overhead, and stopped in the middle of the street to gaze up at a skein of migrating sandhill cranes passed overhead on their way to spend the winter somewhere near Mexico. Have a listen to their flight calls:

(Recording by Paul Marvin, downloaded from xeno-canto, used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 licence)

Isn’t that an atmospheric sound?

Downtown Lavrentiya
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Downtown Lavrentiya © The Boon Companion, 2016
Chukchi-Yupik dance, Lavrentiya
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Chukchi-Yupik dance performance, Lavrentiya © The Boon Companion, 2016
Children & puppy, Lavrentiya
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
AND FINALLY …

The flight home from Keflavik to Glasgow had one more holiday treat to offer. The flight path slants across the Hebrides of Scotland, and for the first time we had clear weather.

The show started when I caught sight of the Flannan Islands (location of a famous mystery disappearance) from my seat on the left of the plane. Craning to look ahead, I could see the whole of Lewis laid out ahead of me. Then we flew past Harris, looking down on Luskentyre Beach and Scarista Beach, where we’d walked earlier this year, then down the west coast of Skye, over Rum and Eigg, and then between Ardnamurchan and the Isle of Mull.

Skye Cuillin
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The Skye Cuillin © The Boon Companion, 2016
Island of Rum
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Rum © The Boon Companion, 2016

The cloud eventually close below us as we passed Ben Cruachan. Show over, and back to rainy Glasgow.

Russian Far East: Part 2 – Wrangel Island

Dragi Bay, Wrangel Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

[T]he most desolate looking place I have ever seen, or ever wish to see again.

Ernest Chafe, The Voyage of theKarluk” (unpublished manuscript)*

 

So. My previous post ended with our rather hectic embarkation on the good ship Professor Khromov, moored off the Siberian port of Anadyr.

Professor Khromov
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The Khromov at anchor © The Boon Companion, 2016
Bows of the Professor Khromov
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It’s behind you! The bow of the Khromov from a small boat © The Boon Companion, 2016

The Khromov is an Akademik Shuleykin Class ice-strengthened ship. She was built in 1983 in Finland, as a polar research vessel for the USSR. Along with several of her sister ships, she was sold off in the early 1990s during the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and converted for tourism. She is owned and operated (sometimes under the name Spirit of Enderby) by a New Zealand company, Heritage Expeditions.

Aboard her, we were heading to Wrangel Island, north of the Chukchi Peninsula:

Wrangel Island
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Location of Wrangel Island (public domain map – original source)

This sort of trip is called expedition cruising. Exactly where you end up depends on the weather, and the sea and ice conditions encountered. Just the process of getting ashore is something of an adventure, often involving a wet beach landing from a Rigid Inflatable Boat.

Boarding RIBs from the Khromov
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Getting into the boats © The Boon Companion, 2016
Zodiac approaching Wrangel Island
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Going ashore © The Boon Companion, 2016
Landing on Wrangel Island
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Landing © The Boon Companion, 2016

If the surf is a little higher, then sometimes a stern landing is required (the bow of the RIB floats high and prevents waves breaking into the boat).

Zodiac stern landing
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Stern landing © The Boon Companion, 2016

Or sometimes you can just cruise around somewhere that would otherwise be inaccessible:

Zodiac cruising bird cliffs
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Zodiac in a cave
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

Getting to Wrangel involved sailing around the Chukchi Peninsula and through the Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea. What we did and saw during that time (and during the return journey) is the topic for my next post. Here, I’m going to concentrate on the six days we spent circumnavigating Wrangel itself. As you’ll see from the pictures above, we were blessed with freakishly good weather—there was stable high pressure in the Chukchi Sea almost throughout our time there, and the only problem we had was the occasional sea fog, and a little light snow on the last day.

Wrangel Island obscured by sea fog
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Wrangel from the north, with sea fog preventing a landing © The Oikofuge, 2016

Wrangel is a big place—125 kilometres from west to east, with rolling central hills that rise to 1000 metres. The coast alternates between cliffs and lagoon-trapping sand-spits. It was inhabited at one time by the ancestors of the modern Inuit (whose settlement dates, 4000 years ago, corresponds suspiciously with the extinction of Wrangel’s dwarf mammoths, the last survivors of that breed). But even the Inuit withdrew from this remote spot, and by the nineteenth century, when Russian explorers were expressing an interest in the north Siberian coastline, Wrangel was no more than a working hypothesis for the Chukchi and Yupik people on the mainland—an explanation for where migratory birds and reindeer were heading, when they travelled northwards across the sea ice.

Wrangel Island Tactical Pilotage Chart
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Wrangel Island, showing places mentioned in the text
(Detail from Tactical Pilotage Chart C-8A, Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection)

The island was claimed by America in 1881, by Russia in 1911, and sorta-kinda by Canada in 1921, during a doomed colonization attempt. In 1926, Russia set up semi-permanent camp there—two villages, Ushakovskoye and Zvëzdnyy, were established on the south coast, with Yupik and Chukchi people being translocated from the mainland to live there. But the island became a Federal Nature Reserve in 1976, and the population dwindled to a group of wardens and visiting scientists. And it might have stayed like that, but it has since developed an unfortunate geopolitical importance. It’s situated at the east end of the Northeast Passage along Russia’s Arctic coast, and as that route has become increasingly navigable (because of the retreating pack ice), the Russian navy has become increasingly interested in maintaining a presence there. In 2014, they started constructing a naval base on the site of Ushakovskoye. The National Park wardens are based in a couple of buildings at Zvëzdnyy.

So here, in no particular order, are the broad themes of our visit to Wrangel:

LANDSCAPE

There’s a beautiful simplicity to a tundra landscape (albeit an appearance that’s belied if you get down on your hands and knees and examine the complicated plant community). We got to see it in its autumn colours and never got tired of wandering through it.

Wrangel Island hills from above Mammoth River valley
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Hills above the Mammoth River © The Boon Companion, 2016
Krasin Bay, Wrangel Island
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Lagoon to west of Krasin Bay © The Boon Companion, 2016
Reindeer horn on tundra, Wrangel Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Kittiwakes on Saltwater Lake Kmo, Wrangel Island
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Kittiwakes on Saltwater Lake Kmo © The Boon Companion, 2016
Saltwater Lake Kmo, Wrangel Island
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Lake Kmo (the white edge is made of drifting bird feathers) © The Boon Companion, 2016
Ptichiy Bazar cliffs from Lake Kmo, Wrangel Island
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Ptichiy Bazar cliffs from Lake Kmo © The Boon Companion, 2016
Cape Litke, Wrangel Island
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Cape Litke © The Boon Companion, 2016
Orographic cloud at Dream Head, Wrangel Island
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Orographic cloud at Dream Head © The Boon Companion, 2016
HISTORY

The ranger station at Zvëzdnyy (on a site known to American whalers by the splendidly evocative name of Doubtful Harbour) stands amid the remains of the shortlived community there. It’s a bleakly picturesque place, all the more so when a sea fog rolls in. The rangers have been slowly clearing the remains of human occupation from the hinterland, so the decaying buildings are surrounded by a sea of rusting oil drums and discarded machinery parts. Some day, perhaps, this stuff will be moved off the island entirely. Apparently there’s a functioning drum crusher on the building site at Ushakovskoye—so there’s a possibility that the new military invasion might actually benefit the rest of the island.

Doubtful Harbour, Wrangel Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Ranger vehicle, Doubtful Harbour, Wrangel Island
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Rangers’ tundra vehicle © The Boon Companion, 2016
Abandoned Building 2, Doubtful Harbour, Wrangel Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Abandoned Building 1, Doubtful Harbour, Wrangel Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear repellent window frame, Doubtful Harbour, Wrangel Island
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Polar Bear repellent window frame © The Boon Companion, 2016

There’s also the story of the Karluk survivors to think about. An ill-conceived Arctic expedition ended in 1914 with their ship, the Karluk, crushed in the pack ice. Crew and scientists trekked across the ice to take a sort of refuge on Wrangel Island. Their captain, Bob Bartlett, set off on foot across the sea ice to the Siberian mainland, supported by an Inuit hunter named Kataktovik. While Bartlett and Kataktovik completed an epic thousand-kilometre trek to summon a rescue party, the remaining personnel quarrelled their way through the Arctic summer, gradually falling victim to malnutrition before Bartlett’s rescue ship arrived at the eleventh hour.

Cover of "Karluk"Several of the survivors published accounts of the experience (including Ernest Chafe, whose opinion of Wrangel Island introduces this post). Jennifer Niven drew together all these narratives (and some unpublished diaries) to produce her book, The Ice Master (2000), which tells the story in detail. But I took William Laird McKinlay’s Karluk with me to read on this trip. McKinlay was one of the Karluk survivors, who eventually published his own account of the disaster in 1976, when he was in his eighties. The opening sentence of the summary on the back cover of my edition pretty much says it all:

High above the Arctic Circle, two men lie huddled in a blizzard-blown tent, with the decaying corpse of a comrade they haven’t had the heart to drag outside for the foxes to eat.

That image becomes all the more compelling when you’ve stood on the site of one of the bleak Karluk camps:

Dragi Bay 1, Wrangel Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Dragi Bay 2, Wrangel Island
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Can you see the polar bear? © The Boon Companion, 2016
Cape Waring, Wrangel Island
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Cape Waring © The Boon Companion, 2016

These photos are of the Dragi Bay camp site, on the east of the island. In the survivor accounts it’s always referred to as the “Cape Waring” camp—a reference to the rocky promontory on the south side of the bay. There were also camps at Icy Spit (one of the long gravel spits that run along the northeast coast), at Skeleton Island (at the mouth of the Klark River) and at Rodger’s Harbour in the south, where Ushakovskoye would later be built. The split camps were conceived as a way of maintaining adequate hunting—small groups, widely scattered, would put less of a load on the scant resources of the island—but they quickly turned into a way of keeping men apart who had grown to hate each other.

There’s a Karluk memorial on the Dragi Bay site:

Karluk memorial, Dragi Bay, Wrangel Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

The name of the ship is misspelled, and the date is wrong—this camp wasn’t established until June 1914. But I’m rather charmed by the notion of the ship being “squashed” rather than “crushed”. It sounds like it might, just possibly, have sprung back into shape again once the ice pressure had relented.

ANIMALS

Wrangel has the highest density of polar bear den sites anywhere in the world. Polar bears are everywhere—on the tundra, up the mountains, on the beach, on the scree slopes, in the water and on the sea ice. And although we’ve seen plenty of polar bears, we’d never seen them en masse in the way we did at Wrangel. Watching the social behaviour of what we’d come to imagine to be solitary creatures was fascinating.

Polar Bear 1
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear 2
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear 3
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear 4
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear 5
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Click to enlarge© The Boon Companion, 2016
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear 8
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar Bear Tracks
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

Another fascinating thing was the difference in “polar bear management style” between the Russian Arctic and other parts of the Arctic we’ve visited. In Svalbard and Greenland, the “correct” behaviour is to carry a gun but to retreat early and avoid confrontation. On Wrangel, the rules are exactly the opposite—no guns, never retreat (you’ll trigger hunting behaviour) and if necessary make a vigorous movement towards the bear to frighten it away. It’s guidance based on the long experience of Nikita Ovsyanikov, a polar bear researcher who has spent a lot of time on Wrangel. Here he is, in action:

The other big land mammals we got to see on Wrangel were musk oxen. Picture, if you will, one steely Russian warden walking slowly towards a little group of musk oxen, who are watching his every move. Behind him follows a little huddle of brightly coloured and overexcited photographers. Every now and then the guide stops; the photographers bunch up and click their shutters; the oxen swing their heads a little and then settle down again; the guide advances again; the process repeats. And then, finally, the musk oxen decide they’ve had enough and walk away from us. Show over.

Musk Oxen
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

This tilted slab of rock at Dream Head was just the right height for a musk ox to scratch against:

Musk Ox scratching post, Dream Head, Wrangel Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

And here’s the close-up to prove it:

Close-up of Musk Ox scratching post, Dream Head, Wrangel Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
BIRDS

We were too late in the season for many birds, unfortunately. We did see a solitary snow goose, which seemed to be scanning the horizon anxiously, wondering where its thousands of buddies had disappeared to. Both species of Pacific puffin were still around in large numbers, and just as charming as their Atlantic cousin.  (Few experiences can match that of sitting under a towering bird cliff with hundreds of puffins coming and going overhead, like bees from a giant beehive.) Kittiwakes were noisily omnipresent. There were lots of phalaropes, too, scooting around madly on the water like little wind-up toys, but difficult to identify precisely (for me, at least) in their drab eclipse plumage. And flocks of snow buntings swirled around us everywhere as we walked. Rarer sightings include snowy owls, long-tailed ducks and peregrine falcons.

Kittiwake
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Kittiwake © The Boon Companion, 2016
Horned Puffin
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Horned Puffin © The Boon Companion, 2016
Horned Puffins
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Horned Puffins © The Boon Companion, 2016
Tufted Puffin
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Tufted Puffin © The Boon Companion, 2016
Phalarope
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Phalarope © The Boon Companion, 2016
Common Guillemots
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Common Guillemots © The Boon Companion, 2016
AND FINALLY …

Wrangel happens to straddle the 180º meridian, exactly opposite the Prime Meridian, which runs through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England. Unlike the Prime Meridian, there aren’t many places you can go to stand on the Antimeridian, because it runs mainly through ocean. It crosses land at Wrangel, the Chukchi Peninsula immediately to the south, and then just three Fijian islands before it reaches Antarctica. On Wrangel, there’s a handy bilingual marker on the beach at Krasin Bay, although it’s in slightly the wrong position:

180 meridian marker, Krasin Bay, Wrangel Island
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Note the whale vertebra decoration © The Boon Companion, 2016

And that’s it for now. The next (and final) installment will be about the rest of our journey, from Anadyr to Wrangel, and from Wrangel back to Anadyr. More animals! More landscapes! Some geophysics! And a bit of culture!


* The phrase doesn’t appear in Chafe’s published memoir, The Voyage Of The “Karluk,” And Its Tragic Ending (The Geographical Journal 1918, pp 307-16). Jennifer Niven quotes it in The Ice Master, from unpublished material held by the Maritime Museum of British Columbia.

Russian Far East: Part 1 – Getting There

So—there’s been a bit of negative feedback on the Travel section of this blog, from those who know us. Apparently everything so far has been a little bit tame by the standard that people have come to expect from our previous travel destinations.

The Chukchi Peninsula
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The Chukchi Peninsula (public domain map – original source)

So this one should redress the balance a little. We’ve just returned from the Chukchi Peninsula, in the extreme east of Siberia—so far east it’s west, in fact; it protrudes east of 180º longitude, forcing the International Date Line to make a bend around it so that it can pass cleanly through the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska. Why we went there is the subject for a later post—just getting there is enough of a story for this one.

We were travelling to join a ship at the Siberian port of Anadyr, a town of about 15,000 people on the Bering Sea. Anadyr lies just south of the Arctic Circle, at 64º44´N, and just west of 180º longitude, at 177º31´E. That puts it almost precisely on the opposite meridian from our home town, Dundee—the shortest line from Dundee to Anadyr goes almost straight over the north pole, passing just a few kilometres from the pole itself.

But, of course, there are no direct flights. The choice is between going west-about or east-about. Heading east requires a trip south from Scotland to some large European city (London, Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels), to pick up a flight to Moscow and then a connection to Anadyr. Going west takes you to Keflavik in Iceland, on to Anchorage and then Nome in Alaska, and then by charter flight to Anadyr. Because the western route avoids a southerly excursion, it turns out to be slightly shorter. It has other things to commend it, too—the comforts of Icelandair contrasted with those of a Russian budget airline; the fact that the journey could be broken for a few days in Alaska, to acclimatize to an initial nine-time-zone transition, before heading on to Anadyr; and the fact we’d get to see the legendary gold-rush town of Nome, which isn’t really on the way to many other places.

Two routes from Scotland to Anadyr
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Google Earth chart, Scotland-Anadyr

So west it was. After a short hop from Glasgow to Iceland, we decided to overnight in the little port of Keflavik, right next to the airport, instead of travelling back and forth to Reykjavik. Keflavik airport has certainly come a long way since we were first there in the early 1980s, when it was essentially a large NATO military airfield, cluttered with AWACS planes, at the side of which huddled a sort of glorified shed that housed the civil terminal. Luggage was offloaded on to a single roller ramp, and if you weren’t quick enough to grab your suitcase it would shoot off the end and fall on the floor. Nowadays there’s a big, shiny, sprawling terminal building named after Leif Erikson.

Keflavik is a pretty little place, with a small boat harbour, a few small comfortable hotels and pleasant restaurants, and the usual Icelandic selection of interesting public sculpture. Being there on a bright late-summer day certainly helped, too.

Small boat harbour, Keflavik
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Waterfront statues, Keflavik
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Public sculpture, Keflavik
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

The following afternoon, we flew across Greenland and Arctic Canada to Anchorage. There was the usual delay finding a taxi at the North Terminal—they mostly sit outside the South Terminal, and the occasional influx of international passengers at the North seems to catch them on the hop every single time.

A couple of days in Anchorage let us do our favourite stuff—wander along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail as far as Westchester Lagoon, to watch the ducks and kingfishers; pay Captain Cook a visit at Resolution Park and look out for beluga whales in the Knik Arm (no luck, again); and eat at the Snow Goose Restaurant (which has morphed into the 49th State Brewing Company since our last visit).

Captain Cook statue, Anchorage
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Captain Cook statue, Anchorage © The Boon Companion, 2016

Then on to Nome (population 4,000), in an Alaska Airlines plane that had no seats forward of row 18—just a blank bulkhead with cargo space beyond. The Alaska terminal in Nome was reminiscent of 1980s Keflavik—a large shed in which luggage thudded on to a sloping rack after having been pushed through a sort of glorified catflap from the outside world. The car-park was unsurfaced, the taxi was a dusty old people-mover, and the driver steered with one hand while sipping from a coffee mug held in the other. On a hill behind the town languish the remains of the Anvil Mountain White Alice Communications System, a Cold-War era Distant Early Warning installation.

Front Street, Nome
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Rush hour in Nome © The Boon Companion, 2016
Bering Street, Nome
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

You can’t get to Nome by road—its road network peters out in the wilderness of the Seward Peninsula. You fly in, or you arrive by ship, or (in the winter) you come in by dog sled. The Iditarod Trail sled dog race ends here, 1000 miles from its starting point in Anchorage. The dog teams sweep in off the sea ice, and then along Front Street to the finishing line.

End of Iditarod, Nome
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Finishing line of the Iditarod, Nome © The Boon Companion, 2016
Iditarod ceremonial start, Anchorage
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Ceremonial start point of the Iditarod, 4th Avenue, Anchorage © The Boon Companion, 2016
Iditarod route
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A handy mural in Anchorage showing the Iditarod route © The Boon Companion, 2016

Apart from the Iditarod, Nome is famous for its 1899 gold rush, when gold was discovered mingled with the sand on its Bering Sea beaches. The town is still cluttered with gold-rush memories—the local newspaper is the Nome Nugget, there are statues of gold panners dotted around the town,  and old dredge buckets have been repurposed as flower pots in the public spaces.

Gold Rush memorial, Anvil City Square, Nome
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Anvil City Square, Nome © The Boon Companion, 2016

After a day in Nome, we presented ourselves at the Bering Air terminal for our flight to Anadyr. All our fellow passengers were bound for the same ship we were joining. We were weighed along with our luggage, and then we sat about in the hangar telling travel stories while we waited for news that the runway in Anadyr was clear of fog. When the news came, we piled into a nineteen-seater twin-engine Beechcraft 1900, and set off. Two hours later we touched down in Anadyr, and wound our watches forward by twenty hours—there can’t be many two-hour flights in the world that shift you by four time zones and take you across the Date Line.

I took an hour to get into Russia. Travel into Chukotka requires not just a visa but an invitation from a Russian organization—we had a piece of text in Cyrillic to show the border guards, but that precipitated a Great Vanishing from the passport control area while they went off to check that it was all true. Then our luggage was weighed (I have no idea why) and we walked out into Anadyr.

Or rather, we didn’t. Anadyr stands on the west side of the estuary of the Anadyr River, and the airport is on the east side. In the summer, a ferry crosses the estuary; in the winter, an ice road; and in spring and autumn, when the ice is thawing or freezing, the airport is just plain tricky to get to. Like Nome, Anadyr’s road system peters out in the back country—you can’t drive there from the rest of Russia.

Our Russian minders drove us down to the ferry, in a vehicle with a dashboard video screen that was blasting out music videos. We joined the alarming crowds on the ferry deck, and twenty minutes later we walked off in Anadyr. Our luggage had disappeared in a truck, but we were given to understand that our ship was not ready to receive us, so we were going to take a walking tour of Anadyr to keep us occupied for a couple of hours.

There may well be enough to see and do in Anadyr to distract a visitor for two hours, but our guide, Alexei, didn’t seem to know about it. We visited a very beautiful wooden church, the Trinity Cathedral, that stands on high ground above the estuary, and a huge statue of St Nicholas issuing a blessing to the Anadyr waterfront. Above the docks, there’s a lonely and atmospheric memorial to Anadyr’s First Revolutionary Committee—a larger-than-life sculpture of a little huddle of men with Chukchi faces, standing together anxiously but defiantly, as if they were about to be shot for their deeply held beliefs. Which is exactly what happened to them.

Trinity Cathedral, Anadyr
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Trinity Cathedral, Anadyr © The Boon Companion, 2016
St Nicholas statue, Anadyr
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St Nicolas statue, Anadyr © The Boon Companion, 2016
First Revkom Memorial, Anadyr
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First Revkom Memorial, Anadyr © The Boon Companion, 2016

But otherwise we mainly marched up and down streets of brightly painted flat blocks, being intermittently knifed on the street corners by the Siberian wind. (There seems to be a general rule that, the farther north the town, the more brightly painted will be its buildings. Drab little Nome is an unfortunate exception.)

Flat blocks, Anadyr
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Flat blocks, Anadyr © The Oikofuge, 2016

Finally, Alexei announced that everything was now ready for us to be ferried to our ship, the Professor Khromov, which was at anchor in the estuary. We were led to a shingle beach, and introduced to the good ship Neva—something that appeared to be the hellish offspring of an assault landing craft and a car ferry.

Neva Barge 1
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Neva Barge 2
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© The Oikofuge, 2016

Thirteen of us piled inauspiciously into its capacious open hold, and we set off. Once out of the shelter of the harbour, we ran into a choppy sea and biting wind, forcing us to cling to the rails and lean against the chilly metal walls to keep our balance. After quarter of an hour, we came alongside the Khromov. With the choppy sea conditions, there was—ahem—a bit of mutual movement between the two vessels. They pitched up and down relative to each other by more than a metre, and once they were drawn together by ropes the occasional roll brought them into contact with a clanging impact that set the Neva ringing like a gong, and took chunks of paintwork out of the Khromov’s sides. The Khromov tried to create a bit of a calm lee using its side thrusters, but to no avail. After a couple of attempts to come together safely, punctuated by multiple mutual impacts, the Neva turned around and headed back towards the shore.

We staggered out (with some relief) on to the Anadyr shingle, to be met by a fleet of taxis that whisked us off to the reception area of a local hotel. What now? Well, the same thing again, as it turned out. We’d sat and speculated for no more than ten minutes before Alexei returned and announced that “we” (not including him, by the way) were all going to try it again. (He said this as if it was a Good Thing.)

As it turned out, it all made sense. An onshore wind and ebbing tide had created the chop in the estuary, and with the tide now slack the sea conditions were hugely better for our rendezvous. The Neva tied alongside the Khromov with minimal mutual movement this time, and we simply climbed a ladder and stepped across on to the deck of the Khromov.

We had arrived. The adventure could now begin. More on that in another post.