See more pictures of this trip here
How it all started
We had both been fascinated with Kamchatka since first seeing a TV programme about it some ten or more years ago. But as a travel destination it had been discounted because we had wrongly assumed it was the preserve of scientists and the privileged.
However in 1999 we found a UK company that offered trips there - but only in summer - one of our busiest times. Wandering through some search results on the Internet for Kamchatka we chanced upon a site offering holidays in the winter - we fired off an e-mail asking if they could accommodate people from the UK. The reply was positive. It snowballed from there.
Lost World came back with an itinerary for us to visit in February/March 2001, and more startling it could be run just for the two of us! Through the Aeroflot website we found contact details for a company in London, IMS Travel, who handled everything for us this end: flights, a hotel in Moscow and our Visas.
Ournext challenge was our equipment for the trip. We had been told to prepare for -30°C and we stuck to this religiously. Through the Internet and a local shop we found on the Internet, specialising in trekking equipment, we bought everything we needed, including cold weather boots from the US.
We are proud to say that apart from two faxes, everything for this holiday was arranged via the Internet. Without it, all of this would not have happened.
Travelling via Moscow, and a forced overnight stop, we enjoyed a tour of the city, landing in Petropavlovsk (PK) some two days and 12 time zones after leaving London.
Our landing in PK was spectacular. The enormity of the volcanoes hit you immediately. We flew in with land on our side and then did a complete U-turn landing with the frozen Pacific Ocean in view out of our window. This was terribly exciting for us, as we had never been near frozen sea before, and certainly didn't expect it in PK.
We were met, literally at the airport gates, by Ioulia, our interpreter and cook for the holiday, and Andrei, who is a manager at Lost World. After checking in at Hotel PK Andrei and Ioulia took us on a tour of the city of PK. We went down to the "beach" and stood on the sea ice, stopped at the memorial and original canon in situ from the attack by the British and French two centuries ago, and then on to a view point above the town, near the ski resort. Our last stop was to the monument at the town outskirts commemorating the famous explorer Vitus Bering. It depicts his two ships, St Peter and St Paul, after who the town is named: Peter and Paul Town.
The snow was falling heavily the following morning when we left PK for the long drive north. We stopped after about100 kilometres at a small village called Sokoch for breakfast supplied by ladies selling hot food from their converted prams. Our driver, Gennady, welcomed the late lunch break in Milkovo, our half way stop, after driving through a blizzard most of the way.
Continuing on the long drive did not tire us and we stayed awake boosted by the ever-revealing scenery. We continued on up the narrowing and less stable road until finally we reached Esso, nearly 10 hours after leaving PK. Our flat for the night was a local resident's one-bed roomed apartment.
We were met at the apartment the following morning by our two guides - Nikolay and Konstantin. They each had a Buran (Russian snowmobile) towing a sled mounted up with gear. We squeezed our bags on and off we went into the Forest. Shortly we were on the Buran road, following the humpy, bumpy tracks, made by previous travellers, out into the wilderness. We spent about an hour travelling through the beautiful wooded valleys, following frozen streams, and enjoying seeing our first animal tracks in the snow. Our lunch stop was a reindeer corral station used in the spring. It didn't take long for the once barren hut to become really cosy, thanks to the hastily lit fire, and thaw us newcomers out. It became so warm that we had to take our coats off, together with our hats, balaclavas, masks and two layers of gloves. Thankfully our pre-holiday research had paid off and our clothing served us well.
After re-packing the sleds we were off again in search of our base for the night, and Gary had his first, of many, Buran driving lessons from Nikolay. Along the way we came across a dog on its own. Despite attempts to make it go on its way it decided to join us for most of the rest of the trip.
Our first night in the Forest was spent in a small hut, with the guides sleeping in a Yurta (Indigenous Tepee). We were greeted by Victor, a Koryak, and his family; who shared their "half-way" home with us. We tried our first raw fish in our first encounter with a Yurta, which is surprisingly comfortable - although as with everywhere we went we had to mind our heads. Later that evening while Ioulia was cooking we had a fantastic chat with Victor. Despite not speaking either's language we had a wonderful hour sharing his life with the help of a pencil and paper.
Although our fire had gone out way before morning we spent a really comfortable night in our little hut. With the morning rituals of de-icing Burans and breaking camp out of the way we set off for Victor's home. Not far out of the camp we witnessed Victor "feeding the spirits" to thank them for our safe passage across a particularly hazardous snow bridge. After a short steep climb onto a pass a stunning view met us - right across a huge frozen volcanic fresh water lake. Victor called it his lake. In winter fish could be caught through the deep ice, and in summer they were plentiful.
In mid-afternoon we reached Victor's home and met his father, Vichet, and brother, Igor, for the first time. Igor was finishing off some homemade skis for us to use. They are made of birch wood, with reindeer skin on the bases and sinew straps to bind your boots. The reindeer skin is very smooth for excellent skiing going forward, but is equally rough going backwards so you don't slip and can therefore walk straight up a hill. On returning from a walk Victor pointed out a rainbow around the sun - an Icebow - made when the sun reflects ice crystals in the air. It creates two false suns in the rainbow either side of the real one. Apparently this is a rare phenomenon; certainly we had never heard of or seen it before. Victor said that the east wind and the Icebow meant it would snow shortly - which indeed it did for the next day.
The following day, due to the increasing cold and snow, we left on our expedition at about midday. At the family fishing base our guides erected the fishing trap for us, which is used in the short summer across the adjacent river. Further on, on the frozen river road, we saw the most magnificent eagle take flight, about 20 metres in front of us. We followed it for about 0.5 kilometre until it perched on top of a tree. Konstantin told us that it was a male white-shouldered Steller Sea Eagle and would easily have a wingspan of 2 metres. On our return later in the day we stopped at the eagle take-off sight to photograph his feet and wing marks in the snow.
That night we enjoyed a Banya complete with birch branches, and the welcome relief of removing our warm clothing for the first time in days.
The sun came out for us the following morning to go in search of wild horses. Victor lent us traditional Reindeer coats to wear, which his mother had made. Our guide was Victor's son, Mikhail, with whom we found two horses who looked in excellent condition - even too fat in our opinion.
Later that morning we returned via a fishing expedition on Victor's lake to our first night's stop. That evening we went with Konstantin and our new Reindeer herder friend, Ignat, to break trail for the journey to the Tabun (Reindeer Camp) the following day. The work was hard in the desperate cold. On the plateau we witnessed the setting sun over Ichinsky volcano.
The night was intensely cold, so much so that the men in the Yurta were found, in morning, digging a huge hole in the snow with no other reason that to warm themselves up. Due to the cold we didn't leave for the Tabun until 1pm. Breaking trail had worked as the track the Buran's had left had frozen solid overnight, giving the traction needed to climb the steep ascent onto the plateau. Despite an unplanned Buran breakdown we arrived at the Tabun late afternoon. Four more reindeer herders greeted us and welcomed us with tea and pan-fried bread. The group are all ethnic, two are Even, one Koryak, one half Even and half Chukchy and the other we think was part Russian. Their camp consisted of their large Yurta and tent that four of us slept in.
The following day we set off in search of reindeer at about 11am. It was once again bitterly cold and also overcast. Towards the plateau, where the reindeer graze we met Alexei who was travelling on skis. He was shaking with cold. He had been out since 7am that morning tending to the herd, and told us that a lynx had taken two reindeer in the night. After reaching a saddle between two plateaus we saw the herd emerge in a sea of darkness on the edge of a distant plateau. After the herders guided them down the precarious, avalanche prone slopes we spent a couple of hours, witnessing their ancient art of lassoing, before the herd were sent off onto an adjacent plateau.
Despite a very windy night, we woke to calm and glorious sunshine. At about midday we set off for our return to Esso. Crossing one of the plateaus the reality of snow blindness was truly upon us. The plateau merged into everything around and so flat that you didn't know if you were 100 metres from the edge or 1 metre. Stopping for a rest and to take in the incredible views we could clearly see Kluchevskoy and Ichinsky and all the mountains in between and beyond. To be standing on this virgin snow with only a trail of Buran tracks behind us really made us think of the explorers of old who had first come upon this land. Druzhok, our dog, welcomed our stops and starts. He never complained or tired - a true animal of the wilderness. At one point we ground to a halt at a set of fresh wolf tracks, no more than a few hours old. The Burans are the only thing to use to get around this country at any sense of speed, but they certainly deprive you of wildlife sightings.
Further on we climbed up the pass leading to the valley Esso is situated in. At the top the view was stunning, we could see why they call this area "Little Switzerland". Once in the town Konstantin took Druzhok to find his master. Our little friend had run 52 kilometres this day.
Our day "of rest" in Esso started with a trip to the local museum. The museum site is a tribute to the curator, Alexander, and his comprehensive archive of the indigenous people. Our second trip was to the hot springs for a swim. We enjoyed a "steaming" dip in an indoor pool of water at 47°C being fed straight from the thermal springs. Back in Esso we went straight to a concert at the Cultural Centre. It was a wonderful display of indigenous dancing, singing and music.
Our last morning in Esso was relaxed and we stayed on to see the next party leave on their dogsledding trip, taking a similar route to ourselves in the forest. Leaving Ioulia to escort the next trip we were joined by Kseniya who accompanied us on our way to PK with Gennady At the junction of the Esso road with the main road north we stopped to witness the rare site of Kluchevskoy and its neighbouring volcanoes clear of cloud. We felt they were smoking away just for us. After another wonderful meal in Milkovo we arrived in PK at about 11pm.
Before leaving for the airport the following morning Andrei took us to some shops for some quickly purchased souvenirs. Needless to say the 30 kilometre journey to the airport went too quickly as we tried to cling on to the images of this wonderful land. Time literally stood still as we enjoyed another excellent Aeroflot flight over the frozen wastelands of Siberia, arriving in Moscow for an afternoon tour of the Tretyakov gallery and an overnight stop before returning to London.
We have enjoyed nearly daily e-mails from Lost World since our return and were pleased to be able to send them some photos to put on their web site.
It goes without saying that this holiday exceeded all our expectations, in not only enabling us to visit a remarkably unique environment and culture, to survive the extremes of weather, but most of all to have made friends. True friends who, although they are 12 time zones away, are forever with us thanks to the miracle of the Internet.