Saturday, August 28, 2010

The weather improved

The weather finally improved a bit. I borrowed a bike and attempted to ride to the pacific ocean (maybe 12km), but ultimately failed, primarily due to my own incompetence. I saw a road on a map (old trick) and followed it, though it was rather muddy. I saw a barking dog on a chain (no problem), who was then joined by about 7 unleashed dogs who did not like me much at all. I decided to ride another way. I rode around the bottom of the bay until I had a great view of the southern part of the city and a bunch of sunken and semi-sunken ships, as well as Vilyuchinsky volcano, and saw the road curve in a huge arc below me down to the turn-off to the road which would go (via another route) to the ocean. Remembering that I had to ride back (and my knee wasn't real good for walking, though riding was okay), I decided to stop at the top, next to a small army base, and take lots of photos. Fortunately my clothes are now worse than my Russian, so I'm the definition of harmless. Also, Putin left the day before, so probably all the security personnel are still unconscious! I rode back, cooked a hearty dinner of some packaged something boiled or whatever (my memory is not clear - it was not an overwhelmingly amazing dinner), went through the usual routine of exchanging text messages with the travel agent, uploading photos, reading about Australian politics, and sleeping.

The next day I got up early, got a lift to the hotel, waited around for a few hours, got a lift to the heliport. There there were a number of mammoth MI-8 Russian helis sitting on the tarmac, but due to the delays from weather, they were all pretty booked out. I realised at that point that the group I had booked through didn't exactly have priority, and in the end I took a helicopter to Kurilskoye Ozero instead. The preflight safety talk was rapid, in Russian, and can be summarized thus 'the exit is the door you came in through, and you can open the window to take photos'. Which was pretty cool. Soon enough the jet spooled up (best noise in the world) and, incredibly, 7 tonnes of Russian aluminium and steel became airborn and rapidly zoomed south through a series of narrow wooded valleys and past literally hundreds of volcanoes! At some point we popped through a hole in the cloud and then were in sun, the tops of the tallest peaks poking up through the sea of white below. The lake appeared on the horizon and with a shudder and a clatter, the helicopter began to descend, flying low over an island (disturbing hundreds of birds), and landing next to the lodge. Our guides were two interesting local girls with reasonable English, and we soon stumped off down a path accompanied by a ranger with a flare and a big gun to the bear observation platform. Sadly, no bears appeared here that day, so after a rather mediocre lunch (that was rather heavy on packaging) we flew to the lake's (current) outlet to try our luck at the salmon counting station there. Salmon, I hear you ask? Kurilskoye Lake is the world's largest salmon spawning ground. The lake formed 8400 years ago with a rather large volcanic explosion, and is actually much deeper than the surrounding ocean. Once deeper still, the ancient outflow to the pacific was blocked by the formation of a number of new volcanoes around the crater rim (now well over 2000m high!), and a new outlet to the sea of Okhost formed, causing the lake level to drop more than 40m. 

At the salmon counting station we walked through the camp to a bridge built across the river with a net designed to direct the salmon through narrow gates where they can be counted every hour or so. Salmon waiting for the opening scudded back and forth creating a serious surface disturbance. By far the most excitement, however, was a dozen Kamchatka bears swimming in the river catching the salmon and carefully eating the salmon eggs, then other parts before discarding the head. The bear uses the back of its non dominant arm as a platform to hold the unlucky fish on! Of the bears, 4 of them were cubs of various ages, and the bears quite frequently swum, splashed, stood up, fought, and basically did everything else their contract required of them. I melted a set of batteries taking photos, but was probably the least photo-ey person there. Half our group were middle-aged Korean tourists, all of whom had cameras which were either obscenely enormous or absolutely minuscule. Mine has got to the point where I have to squeeze the bottom if I want the zoom to work, etc etc! After a while we had to vacate so the counters could do their counting, so we reboarded the helicopter, watching the pilots go through some intricate choreography involving flicking switches, and then feel the five bladed rotor's collective thump into position and once again we were airborne. These helicopters can easily carry a (small) car, so if I can somehow raise the $25000/day running costs, I might move into one permanently! Also they're kinda loud...

We flew to the base of a nearby volcano where there was a lake that steamed with water at 43C. The clouds had lifted to the point where nearby volcanoes were visible to about half way up, creating the impression that we were surrounded by steeply sloping columns covered in trees or tundra. Soon, however, we had to get moving again as the weather was not improving. As we flew back towards Gorely volcano (which has recently become much more angry) the clouds parted and the impossible landscape of twisting gorges, glaciers, pinnacles, layers of ash and ejecta, and the superposition of maybe 40 generations of volcanic activity was illuminated by streaks of light which seemed to rotate in real time as we cruised by at 260km/h. Too soon we circled the heliport and made a rolling landing on the short airstrip. Russian helicopters are built with wheels rather than skids. We eventually drove back to the hotel where I ordered a 3 course meal, then ate the other tour groups 3 course meal as well (they had spare). Back to the flat and sleep.

Today I woke up, again, absurdly early (maybe 5:40am), and took a cab across town to the hotel where I was met by our tour guide for today. A four hour drive in a Mitsubishi Delica (a 4wd people mover) took us via the museum of natural disasters (an extensive rocky/ashy plain) to the base of Mutnovsky volcano. The path winds inwards towards the caldera up a steep-sided slot canyon, revealing bit by bit what you came for! The path largely was composed of a thin layer of mud over glacial ice that filled the base of the gorge (even in summer). Quite frequently one is surprised to find a glacier hiding beneath layers of exposed moraine, even quite far from a mountain or apparent source.

Mutnovsky is composed of three large craters. The first, largest, and oldest is cut by a deep river valley, and the opposite face is covered in a tumbling glacier, with enormous rocks perched above, vanishing in and out of mist composed part of cloud, part of boiling brimstone. The smell was... sublime. We left the glacier and climbed to a lookout, surrounded by fumaroles spewing out steam at temperatures between 150 and 300C, some sulfur subliming to form insane and quickly changing formations of bright yellow and almost green. With our sleeves over our mouth and nose we walked through a wall of steam (two distinct smells, one of sulfur, one like burning matches) into the more remote parts of the caldera. The stream flowed swiftly to our left, dotted with geysers and chunks of ice amidst a mozaic of rocks of all different colours. Above us the opposite side stretched steeply to the exposed edge of an ancient glacier with one particularly large rock teetering on top. The second caldera was filled by a glacier than nearly did a figure of 8 to reach it. The opposite wall was steep sided with several large water falls, the glacier was riven with crevasses that stretched lengthways, and periodically the area was filled with the sound of falling rocks as the volcano continued its rather fast journey to flatness. Volcanoes tend to erode very quickly as they are composed of unconsolidated rock (mostly). At this point the sun came out, and the glacier glittered white, while water pools in the bottom of the crater glowed deep blue. We risked a short walk on a precarious mud/dirt track to the third, and most active crater. This crater had a major eruption in 1970 and a smaller one in 1993, but today was largely obscured by huge clouds of sulfur crystals blown upwards by rising heat. In short spaces we saw the bottom - a deep hole filled with fumaroles and mud!

We turned around and made our way down to the floor of the second crater, walking on the glacier. I of course skimmed a few rocks on the lake between the ice, and then we headed back down the valley. As we emerged from the other end of the canyon, we had a terrific view across the plateau towards Gorely volcano. Composed of 11 major craters (from 3 intersecting volcanoes) the central one was continuing to blow large amounts of steam from its newly formed vent. Volcanoes in Kamchatka are more than capable of dumping cubic kilometres of dirt into the stratosphere, so it remains to be seen if Gorely's activity will continue to intensify, however at its current state it could (hypothetically) be approached with little danger. We drove down the slope to a rocky promontory, from which we had an excellent view of a waterfall. The canyon continues down the mountain, and beyond the end of the glacier, drops about 30 or 40 metres into a very deep canyon surrounded by steep rocky scree slopes - falls are not infrequent, according to our guide. The canyon cut the side of the slope, revealing many layers (each about 4 metres deep) of the volcanoes eruptive history; ash ejection followed by lava flow, and vice versa.

Back in the car and the drivers took a 'short cut' across a field of substantial boulders to the main road (built to service the geo-thermal power plant nearby), from where a 3 hour drive returned us to the hotel. This time I opted for pancakes only and headed back to the main road to catch a bus south to my flat before they stopped for the night. After about 5 minutes waiting, who should drive by but two people I met from the tour (and with whom I posed in front of Vilyuchinsky volcano in a handstand), who offered me a lift all the way to CRV, a drive of about 20 or 30 minutes. Thankyou!

Once here I had a quick shower, and contended once more with a towel which exceeds the size of the bathroom in every dimension. When using it many hands are required to keep the corners from the bath, floor, sink, and toilet bowl!

Tomorrow, with any luck, I will take another helicopter (at this rate I have spent about as much in 3 days as I did in the previous 3 months - which was kinda the point of hitchhiking!) to the valley of the Geysers, Karimsky, Maly-Semyachik, Kronotsky, Krashennikov, and Uzon volcanoes, etc etc.

In the meantime I uploaded photos from Magadan and Khabarovsk - now all that is required are photos of Kamchatka (of which there are a few) and photos of Vladivostok, which I haven't taken yet.

Heli to lake
Magadan photos

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