KAMCHATKA 2
by Tracy & Gary Masters

see more pictures of this trip here


Why we returned

This message written to Lost World on 28 March 2001, just two weeks after our return, says it all:-

"No other holiday has had this impact on us, ever. We know the reason why. Not only do you live in such a wonderful environment, but for the first time ever we really feel we have made friends. Normally we go on tours, to very interesting and exciting places, in groups of 10 or more. So we don't mix with the "locals" or really get to know much about their culture, other than what the tour guide chooses to tell us. For some reason Russia has always been there in our heart and now we know why. You have really spoiled our plans - we had the next 20 years planned out - all these places to tick off the list - but now all we've got is Kamchatka, Kamchatka, Kamchatka - we can't think of anywhere else… "

"The Tsars Canon", Kremlin.Our first visit was in February/March when winter still held its grip on the peninsula. This second trip (14th September until 29th September 2001) is firstly to revisit our friends and secondly to experience autumn in this grand land.

Our Trip

Travelling via Moscow, and an overnight stop, we enjoyed a tour of the Kremlin, landing in Petropavlovsk (PK) some two days and 12 time zones after leaving London.

Flying over the peninsula we had been alarmed to see green forest surrounded by snow, we had not expected snow on this trip! However we didn't see land again until the landing gear went down and were making our final approach into Petropavlovsk Airport. As the IL-62 finally slowed down to a crawl we were shocked to see huge snowflakes howling across the airport - we had landed in a blizzard! In fact the earliest snow in PK since records began.

The weather, in fact, caused us problems for the next two days. We had been due to fly the following morning to the Valley of the Geysers, but for the next two days the helicopters were grounded, but with some creative thinking by Lost World our itinerary was turned around, and we went the following day to stay at the Paratunka Hot Springs Resort.

Visit farmer Sasha Yastrebov.In the evening we walked the short distance to visit Sasha, a local farmer. He gave us a very interesting talk on the native flora and served us our delicious evening meal of 6 "bush" dishes - thistle, wild onion, fern, hogweed, mushroom and fireweed; all dressed to his own recipe together with some deliciously scented rice. During our meal Sasha entertained us by playing the piano and singing with his guitar, all in the comfort of his Yurta around the fire.

The following day we returned to the city and hit the PK nightlife in the evening, partying until the early hours.

 

The weather was beautiful the following morning and we were rushed to the heliport to catch the flight to the Valley of the Geysers. The flight itself was magical in our luxurious MI-8. The peninsula was bathed in glorious sunshine and looking far in to the distance we could enjoy the panorama of towering, perfect cones of volcanoes, tundra, forests, beaches and the expanse of Pacific Ocean. Flying down into the Valley we could see all the steam rising out of this living chimney in the earth. Walking through the Valley we were surrounded by steaming earth, water appearing from nowhere running down the sides of the valley leaving scorched marks coloured reds, yellows, blues and greens. The geysers were by far the most mesmerizing sight, rising and falling, bubbling and boiling, from eruption to calm. Also captivating were the mud pots - brick red, bubbling furiously and making the rudest of noises.

Tracy sit near a geyser. Uzon Lakes.

A short 10 minute flight took us on to the Uzon Caldera. This was an unexpected treat for us, as it had not been on our original itinerary. Keeping to the well-worn trail we walked past signs of the tempestuous earth below our feet. There were small chlorine spouts coloured lime green, sulphurous ones coloured yellow and encrusted with sparkling crystals and pale blue domes surrounded by dry cracked earth. In reverse there were pools of chlorine and other chemicals with their related colours. There was a strong smell of sulphur everywhere and this time the mud pools were blue, grey or white and just as captivating as the red ones of the Valley.

The place was chemically alive, and yet only a few feet away there were Elfin Cedar trees and an abundance of autumn tundra brush covered in berries. With our guide's help we learned to identify the fruit. Our favorite were the plump, squishy blue berries that were so delicate it took all our care, with cold fingers, to get them into our mouths without leaving a trail of blue juice from mouth to hand to ground. Sweeter, but less juicy berries were the dark red, nearly black crowberries, and some lighter red barriers similar to cranberries, which were a little tarter. The lakes spread out in front of us in this haven (or hell) of planetary evolution.

This was to be our day of helicopter flights, 4 in total. Our fourth flight was on a smaller MI-2 helicopter to a settlement at Golygino Lake an hours flight south of Petropavlovsk. Here we stayed the night with Sergey who manages 100,000 acres of tundra, forest and mountain. At the last count 280 bears call this place their home and the following morning we were woken to the sight of a mother and her 3 cubs by the lakeside with a solitary male foraging for breakfast further up the valley. We explored the lake in the morning watching the colourful sockeye salmon spawning in the shallows.

Ksudach Volcano crater lake.
Bathing in hot springs.

In the afternoon we took to the air again for a short hop over the mountain into the Ksudach Volcano. Here we camped for the next four nights (one extra due to bad weather) in the caldera of this live volcano. The water around the pumice shore was almost too hot to touch, but very welcome first thing in the morning with cold hands. The four of us shared the lake with bears and mountain sheep, and suffered together a typhoon that nearly destroyed our main tent, forcing evacuation into the surrounding woods.

Our trusty MI-2 returned in the fifth day to take us to Mutnovsky Volcano. On the way we made a 45 minute stop to swim in the hot running water of the Khodutka River. It still amazes us that the earth can create a fast running river with a temperature of +42°C! It was so hot we only lasted 15 minutes in the water.

Little did we know how glad we would be of this inner heat when the helicopter dropped us at Mutnovsky. The wind was biting and by the following morning a blizzard was raging. However on arrival we had braved the winds to explore the ice flows on the rivers and the surrounding barren, treeless wilderness. By late evening the camp had become a small settlement of nearly 50 multinational trekkers; Australians, Germans, South Africans and us two Brits.

With the blizzard raging the following morning, our window of opportunity to climb Mutnovsky was closed and a hasty escape to another nearby hot springs resort was arranged. This turned out to be an oasis of peace and tranquillity, buried deep in a lush, steaming valley where we enjoyed yet another bath and our first visit to a gold mine, if not a closed one. Thankfully some environmental concerns are listened to in this wonderful land, and such a dangerous enterprise was closed down 10 years ago to protect the salmon spawning river below its entrance.

Climbing Gorely Volcano.Glorious weather had returned the following morning enabling our first volcano climb to Gorely. With the aid of our enormous 6WD truck we skirted the dry lake at its base and leaving it behind spent over 5 hours on the volcano. Initially the route was an easy gradient, but very rocky. Within about half an hour the snow started merging with the rocks and in about another 30 minutes the lethal ice fields appeared. The gradient was now steeper and it was difficult to walk on the slippery mountainside. The going was tough but the rewards great. After about 3 hours we reached the edge of the right hand crater. There was a huge drop down to a frozen crater lake below. After enjoying our summit picnic of an apple, some sweets and cold coffee we descended to the truck in half the time it took us to ascend.

Our drive back to PK in the truck was an adventure in itself. Leaving the track to Gorely, the main (dirt) road snaked up the "Pass" and snaked even more dramatically down the other side until we reached the most beautiful Paratunka Valley beyond. If there was an image to cherish of the Kamchatkan Autumn, this was it - mile after mile of stunning birch in the most glorious golden colours.

It had been a truly memorable day. Climbing Gorely, in the most glorious sunshine, we had seen the dramatic fumaroles of Mutnovsky in the distance soaring steam some 50 metres into the sky, and all around us were snowcapped volcanoes of varying sizes.

The gang at VatchkazhetsAlthough scheduled to leave the following day, we decided to stay another two to make up for the days we had lost to the bad weather. Our holiday finished with a day trip to Vatchkazhets Volcano by our favorite truck. Although the weather wasn't really with us again, we didn't care and enjoyed a long walk, superb meal around the campfire, the autumn colours and the guaranteed exciting ride in the cab of the truck.

Leaving on the Aeroflot flight the following morning, passing the autumnal trees lining the runway, we passed through the cloud and off towards Moscow. Unlike February we couldn't say a long farewell crossing the peninsula, as we couldn't see it. However after about 2 hours, over the mainland, we could see ground clearly with the waterlogged land of Siberia, the brown of the autumn tundra, a few towns and villages in the middle of no where and the odd patch of cultivated land.

See more pictures of this trip here

This trip was so typically Kamchatka: the unpredictable weather, the unimaginable scenery, the scare and rare wildlife, the abundance of autumn colours and fruit, the warmest of hospitality, and the unexpected adventure and excitement.

We are forever in debt to our guide Nikolay Kropachev whose expertise was tested to the full, our wonderful cook and interpreter Ioulia Denikeeva who kept our stomachs full and spirits high, Andrei our truck driver who rescued us on Mutnovsky and by no means least Andrei Stepanchuk without whom none of this would have been possible.


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