Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Last days in Kamchatka

The day before yesterday I was awoken at 7:53am by a frantic text message 'wake up, be at the hotel as soon as possible' - presumably there was some chance a helicopter would fly before 3pm (or not at all!). Within 15 minutes I was at the bus stop, and soon enough found myself at the hotel (on the other side of town), where I handed over a frightful amount of money, signed some paperwork, and then headed for the airport.
This time there were about 22 people, mostly Russians, taking the helicopter to the hopelessly remote 'valley of the geysers', the second largest geyser field in the world (after Yellowstone). The only other way of getting there is walking, and it takes about 2 weeks. Our guide gave us the safety chat, and insisted we wear set-belts, probably to prevent everyone changing sides to look at stuff as we zoomed past. The helicopter went through its 5 minute preflight warmup, then the engines strained to life and we leapt from the ground as daintily as a frightened elephant.
The flight took us north past the home volcanoes Koryaksky and Avacha (at that moment being climbed by about 1500 people as part of a volcano festival), Jeponova, and into the Kronotsky Nature Reserve. At this point large, steep, angry looking cone appeared on the horizon - Karimsky Volcano, so active it is a perfect cone within an older caldera, smoke and ash billowing from the top. Not far away the volcano Maly Semyachik with a large lake in the crater. Once deep blue, the lake is now a white colour, and has always been acidic. Soon we banked to the left and entered a steep-sided canyon with vegetation reminiscent of the cliffs in the Altai.
The upper parts of the valley are filled with steam, and we landed quite close to the central building and ranger lodge. Here we could see the results of the landslide that occured in the winter of 2007, apparently without being noticed by anyone until after enormous boulders had stopped about half a metre from the lodge. The landslide also blocked the valley, forming a lake and drowning about a third of the geysers.
Discovered in 1941, the geyser field is caused as water seeps down fault lines to hot magma about 1700m beneath the surface (associated with a nearby volcano). This water then bubbles to the surface, forming an intermittent spring, as well as many mud pots, hot pools, and other cool stuff. The plumbing of a geyser can be modelled as a very long vertical straw. Due to the geometry, heat flow by convection (or radiation) is essentially negligible, and so heat is transported by conduction, as well as phase changes. Under intense pressure, steam can form. Bubbles rise through the system until their heat is absorbed by colder water above and the bubbles collapse. I have no idea what the mean distance they travel is, but I suspect not far. Heat continues to be transported upwards, as well as outwards through surrounding rocks, and bubbles form and absorb in a manner analogous to a binary counter. When the counter overflows, so does the geyser, discharging a good quantity of water and resetting the system. It is for this reason that some geysers erupt with very regular periods. Another cool thing is that you can make a geyser erupt by pouring in soap - it affects the viscosity and surface tension of the geyser, releasing the pressure which is building up!
While we were there we saw many geysers erupt, including 'grot' (ie 'cave'), which apparently only erupts every few years, and discharged thousands of litres of boiling water about 10m into the air. We also took the opportunity to check out many other steaming holes in the ground, pools of boiling mud, and other awesome stuff.
Next we flew in the helicopter to the Uzon caldera, not far away, which are the remnants of a volcano that was most active about 300,000 years ago. The magma chamber emptied and the ground collapsed, forming a large ring of hills about 11km in diameter. In the middle are a series of hot lakes which contain sodium, potassium, sulfer, and aluminium (amongst other minerals). Apparently bears like one of the lakes in particular as the water helps to treat their paws, which can get itchy in summer. We saw enough bear tracks in the area that it seemed likely.
Next we flew back over the ranges (sadly without a view of Krashennikov or Kronotsky volcanoes, or the more distant Kluchevskoi group) to the Jeponova river, which was full of salmon in retirement after their spawning activities. We ate a lovely lunch of different varieties of salmon fish, bread, tea, juice, etc. I skimmed some stones and flew a kite. As we were leaving, two other helicopters landed - it was pretty awesome. Above the river (on which some people do rafting fishing trips) was the volcano towering into the clouds.
Too soon we had to fly back, arriving at Yelizovo heliport, receiving certificates to mark the occasion (I don't know why...), and of course waiting almost an hour for the airport transfer shuttle. Lost World Tours (the group through whom the agents I booked through booked, who in turn booked through the heli tours group, who leased helicopters from the airport...) seems to struggle a bit with timing...
I headed back to the flat, arriving exactly in time with Nina, Denis' mother, who was making a surprise visit and helping the electricity people check the meter. We managed to communicate what time my flight was leaving the following day, and make arrangements to hand over the key.
I walked to Tanya and the Australians (Kent and Olya)'s place with a bag full of Russian sweets, we ate dinner and had a 3 hour comedy session, in which we realised the potential of the Russian word for 'shield'. The other highlight was comparing idiom in which the word kitten (or kotyonok) is used. In English 'she was so happy, she was having kittens' seemed to be the most common. In Russian, the equivalent phrase was 'my boss was so happy, he must have run over a kitten'.
As I walked back I noticed fog building up near the coast, and the next morning, the entire city was again shrouded. I had been lucky to get the three day window in which I helicoptered and climbed Mutnovsky! With the traffic stopped I wasn't tempted to go shopping, so instead backed my bag and cleaned the flat to within an inch of it's life, and ate all the leftover food. Mmmm.
At 3pm Alexsei, Denis' father, arrived. We had tea, I unplugged the electronics, and then he insisted on driving me to the airport. He also insisted that my Russian, which is good enough for most things, was utterly incomprehensible when I said I was happy to take the bus!
Airports are boring, but after about 4 hours, I had cleared security (I beeped lots, so was waved through), and boarded the plane. The flight out, in the evening, was one long sunset, but the definite highlight was just after taking off, we punched through the fog, and instantly every volcano in southern kamchatka was visible, including Gorely, which was still erupting. =D. Only Avacha bay was filled with fog, which spilt through passes of mountains ringing the bay and into surrounding valleys. Some time later an airliner passed us going in the other direction at quite close range - but it only took 3 seconds. We were really moving.
The airbus made a hard landing in Vladivostok, and I had arrived. Kamchatka was 12 crazy crazy days of volcanoes, in a land that, being at the edge of the world, was never quite finished. I think I will certainly return, though timing is everything!
In the meantime I've uploaded photos from Kamchatka except for the flight out, so enjoy!

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