The Land of Fire and Ice

Will Bolsover

08 Sep 2017

London to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatka

A long time coming and the first sight I get of this vast wilderness is of a volcanic peak peering above the thick cloud cover as we come into land at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatka (PK), the stronghold and capital of the Kamchatka Peninsula. A 4hr flight from London to Moscow, an airport hotel overnight, and an onward 8hr flight across the vast Russian tundra brings us to the Russian Far East and one of the last remaining tracts of unexplored wilderness left in the world today. With a population of only 330,000 the Kamchatka peninsula is home to huge grizzly bears, vast salmon runs, gigantic moose, wolves and whales

We have come in the summer months, but this remains a cold unforgiving land dominated by a stealth like stubbornness born of isolation and secrecy.

We are welcomed by a relentless wall of water that continues for the next 36hrs and puts our plans to shame as we hunker down in our B&B and wait for it to subside, unable to access the surrounding volcanic peaks in such bleak conditions. Kamchatka has made itself known and we wait.

Battling the elements

Things are looking up! At least we think they are…our plans however are soon quashed by less rain but 65kmh+ winds meaning our expected hike up to Avachinsky volcano is put on hold. Instead, we opt for 4x4 exploration up to Gorely and Mutnovsky volcanos.

The plan is to trek them but again the wind sweeps in, the rain comes horizontally in strong gusts across the volcanic caldera and even Igor our guide – who is part of the local search and rescue team – decides it is not looking too welcoming. 

We are not deterred in our exploration and crack on by 4x4. Down across the volcanic caldera of Gorely, across the volcanic soil nearly getting bogged down along the way, up across snowy ice sheets, through steep watery gulleys, up boulder strewn river beds, exploring every inch that is available to us. This vast arena of wilderness atop these mountains lies hidden to those who daren’t take on the elements, yet for those that do, vast plains of volcanic ash, shrouded volcanic peaks engulfed in cloud, gushing meltwater rivers tumbling down the mountain, and hidden mountain huts warming other explorer souls, make themselves known to us as we push on through.

Whilst not the day we had planned for, the weather at least permits us an attempt at lifting the wintry veil on this vast landscape and as we begin our descent back towards PK, the shrouded Viluchinsky (volcano) teases us with her midriff leaving us in the hope that tomorrow will be another day.

Kamchatka Peninsula

And the clouds have lifted! We wake surrounded by volcanoes reaching into the distance. Snow capped mountains towering over the waking houses, the sun slowly creeping over the horizon. Kamchatka.

Today is volcano day. We make our way by car a short distance to the heliport where we register and sit in anticipation for what is to come. Due to the remoteness of Kamchatka most areas are accessed by helicopter. Big 20 seater Mi-8 helicopters. There is only one road on the Kamchatka peninsular of approximately 800kms in length. Whilst this road affords some access, there is no road into the peninsular itself, access is purely by sea or air.

930 and we are called with our fellow Russian travellers to board our machine for the day. Long bench seats reach along either side of the interior of our Mi-8 with access to porthole-esque windows looking out over the passing views below. Our 1hr 15min flight circles volcano after volcano, smoking calderas, turquoise blue volcanic lakes, 'screw-ridden' perfect cones - when we talk of the land of fire and ice we think of hobbit-like landscapes.

Believe me this is better; although I do find my mind wondering along the lines of orc armies, secret rings and pointy hatted wizards.

Our flight brings us to the Valley of the Geysers, a lush green valley strewn with bubbling mud holes, steaming hillsides and spouting Geysers.

Accessed by well constructed boardwalks we wander through this volcanic landscape being talked through the history and natural environment by Kiril our local guide who twins as heli-ski guide in the winter and rock god in his local band at night.
Back to our aerial transport for a 7min hop to Uzon caldera a vast collapsed volcano cone with steaming lakes, bubbling mid holes and sharp clawed paw prints from local ursine inhabitants. An hrs walk brings us through this beautiful landscape of turquoise waters all set to he backdrop of snow filled gulleys and towering volcanic peaks.
  

Our next hop is to our bathing spot for the day. A thermal spring of about 40 degrees, soaking our bones in the mercuric waters and then dining on salmon amidst lush sedge grasses and surrounded by ridge line after ridge line of volcanic wall.

Our final flight brings us back to PK following an intense day of never ending landscapes. Kamchatka may have been slow to let us in but now we are well and truly captivated.

Kuril lake and a steaming volcanic caldera

A return to the heli-port for the hotly anticipated Kuril Lake flight. This time we have shorter flight but no less dramatic; volcanoes glide by beneath us as we approach 'Apocalypse Now' style to the vast freshwater lake of Kuril. With the highest sockeye salmon population in the world, Kuril is home to a vast array of bears that we spot from our heli prowling the shores as we approach our landing site.

 

Whilst our excursions at Kuril last only for a few hours, the potential here - and in the nearby vicinity - is huge. Big brown bears plough the local streams and rivers for salmon during the spawning season, feasting themselves on fresh meat and caviar before retiring to the hills for their winter slumber.

 

Our short excursion is rich awarded with a beautiful sighting of a mum and her 3 cubs as they play on the lake shore, gnawing at salmon carcasses and splashing in a lakeside waterfall.


As their mum sniffs the air, we notice a big male bear slowly approaching from the south and with lumbering urgency the mum and cubs disappear through the green treeline and into the dense forest beyond.

Continuing on we board our chopper and hop onwards to a steaming volcanic caldera where the waters within our reach are burning hot, yet only centimetres further out they dissipate into a chilly coolness. As I look around it dawns on me the sheer scale of what we are doing; a volcanic wilderness all to ourselves, our heli perched on the steaming lakeshore, no one in sight, no tourist comforts to hand, Kamchatka at its best.

Our day draws to an end as we soak our bones in another thermal pit stop. As we float back to PK on what has become our accepted form of transport, my mind turns to the next stop, the next adventure and what Kamchatka is going to offer up now...

My final few days are spent exploring further north, towards the farthest reaches of the limited road of Kamchatka. Long drawn out expanses are dotted with vast volcanoes towering into view. Our first night is spent in the picturesque village of Esso, with only a few thousand inhabitants, Esso is surrounded by tree covered hills which are dwarfed in the distance by vast volcanoes. A thermal pool provides the centre of the village where locals (and the few tourists there are) converge for their morning or evening swim in the volcanic waters. Our night is spent in a local homestay, cosy and warm providing comfort following a long day on the road.

The next morning we wake for a wander round the village and bump into our friend Nikolai who we have met the evening before. Nikolai must be 70+ and is one of the last remaining true hunters of the north; hunting sable…and I am sure the odd bear, he regales us all morning as we sit on his porch and he treats us to hot coffee, fresh bread and caviar. It is these small intimate encounters that make for travel, these insights into the real world that you are just a passing interruption of, that frame your opinion and offer a glimpse into the hardships, the routine, the romance and the adventure of this remote land.

Our following day is volcano centric. We climb and climb and climb in our 4x4 up through the swampy forests (getting stuck along the way), across the solid lava flows, up higher as volcanoes surround us popping in and out of the clouds, until we reach the top, the ever circling caldera of volcanic ash. We continue onwards surrounded by our moon-like landscape, not sure where to look or what to photograph as scene after scene of ashen beauty reveals itself to us in this never ending hidden world. Our aim for the day was the dead forest which we reach on the lip of the caldera; a once wooded landscape appears frozen in time with leafless trees dotting the horizon; this alpine forest was destroyed in one of the last lava flows in 1975 and now remains as a memorial to this beautiful yet unforgiving landscape.

Our return seems easier, as we roll downhill back towards the treeline and the road more solid. Whilst helicopters and bears you would think would steal the day, for me it is this surreal landscape that sticks in my mind. Noone travels here, no one talks about it, no one really cares about it. It is a seemingly forgotten corner of the world that holds an unparalleled beauty and wilderness that I can only hope remains this way.

 Follow Will on Instagram @willbolsover for more images, video and insights into this trip and other pioneering travel adventures with Natural World Safaris.

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Comments

Lorna NWS

7/9/2017 11:57 AM

Fantastic blog so far Will, can't wait to hear about the rest of the trip!

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