Volcanoes, bears, military choppers and Bond-style scientists combine in Russia's dramatic far east
I should have been too weary for awe and amazement.
I’d been flying – and hanging around airports – for over 20 hours, and I’d hopped across 12 time zones. I’d dined on warm beer and limp sandwiches in Moscow: everything else was priced for Roman Abramovich. The final leg was turbulence-free, but the old Ilyushin II-86 grumbled noisily all the way. There had been no films, no music – no entertainment of any kind.
But there it was, piercing the cloud: Kamchatka.
First a craggy rock, then a patch of snow on a slope. Then, clearly, a conical form, and another. Then a jagged, broken crater. As we flew lower and came over a blue bay, the jet turned in a wide circle and there were two huge volcanoes: perfect Avachinsky (Avacha), with its tidy cone and, next door, lofty and handsome, Koryaksky.
“My wife holds the record for running up the little one,” said the man beside me. It wasn’t little, and I already knew his wife was something of a star. Professor John Eichelberger, who I later found out is arguably the most eminent vulcanologist in the US, had spent the flight showing me maps of the Pacific Rim of Fire, the chain of volcanoes running through South America, the US and into Asia.
He was based in Kamchatka, had married a Russian vulcanologist – the runner – and was happy “because every day I wake up with a view of volcanoes”.
The Kamchatka Peninsula, dangling into the Pacific on the far east of Russia, is that truly rare thing: a wilderness that deserves those much-abused epithets ‘remote’ and ‘pristine’; one that is genuinely wild. More than a quarter of its 472,000 sq km (the same as Germany, Austria and Switzerland combined) has Protected Area status.
This ensures that its 40,000 rivers and streams and hundreds of species of animals and plants – including ancient birch, larch and alder forests – have a chance of survival in a country where communism loved bulldozers even more than sickles.
But even these statistics don’t quite catch it – more than 85% of Kamchatka is forest. You can practically smell the chlorophyll from outer space. The peninsula has only one main road, which doesn’t connect it to Russia or anywhere else, but stops dead in the woods. And there is less than one person per kilometre (Canada has three), with fewer people living on the whole peninsula than in Manchester.
Like John, I had a view of volcanoes from my homestay, which was in Yelizovo, Kamchatka’s only dormitory town. It provides the commuters for the peninsula’s only city, Petropavlovsk.
Yelizovo is serene and slow-moving, and unlike Petropavlovsk – which is ringed by crumbling, grey, Soviet-style housing blocks – its wooden cabins harmonise nicely with the allotments and grazing land nearby. While I was there, one neighbour was hoeing his vegetable patch wearing only underpants in homage to the warm weather. In Kamchatka summer doesn’t last long, and much of that time is still cloudy and cold.
Beyond the trees from Yelizovo and looming in the haze lie Avacha and Koryaksky, with the hulking peak of Viljuchinsky half a circle round. But before visiting any of these I was going to go inside a volcano.
The only way to get close to many of the volcanoes and parkland areas is by helicopter. If cloud cover is low or the mist too dense you are grounded. Luckily the second day of my visit brought Californian-blue skies, so our guide, Paul, seized the opportunity and soon we were boarding a 24-seater MI8 chopper.
If the Ilyushin grumbled, this aircraft screamed. But I opened the window and let the views distract me as we headed north-east. Below, a green carpet took over from houses. Kamchatka, even when not rising cataclysmically, is always undulating and breaking into river valleys and canyons. One minute the forest was just a few metres beneath us and the next 500m away.
As the green swathe gave way to higher ranges, we spidered over a moonscape of ash-coloured cones.
We passed Karymsky, a smoking volcano – we were close enough to smell the sulphur – and Maly Semyachek, with the emerald Lake Troitskoye sitting in its crater.
Suddenly, we were landing. As the chopper sought out its wooden platform, I glimpsed a flash of fluffy brown through the open window.
It was my first bear, and it lolloped in the long grass before dashing behind a cabin to get away from the big metal monster.
But we were here to see the Uzon Caldera, a 10km-wide crater left behind by a volcano that blew its top 40,000 years ago. It took an imaginative leap to think of this grassy plain bordered by low mountains as a volcano.
However, as we walked away from the helicopter, I began to see steam and hear bubbling. Rounding a corner, a landscape of mudholes, hot streams, spouting fumaroles and mini mud volcanoes flinging up tiny eruptions appeared. The steam has created a microclimate, and ferns and small pines grew lushly round the edges of the primordial pools.
We saw bear prints in the softer areas. Alexandra, our Russian guide, explained that “the bears like to come here as the mud is good for their nails”.
Back in the helicopter we took a short hop south to the Valley of the Geysers, Kamchatka’s best-known attraction. Just weeks before my visit it had been closed to the public after a landslide caused the area’s main river to rise (see box, right). The high waters had covered many of the more dramatic geysers and stolen the very spectacle people travelled to see.
Fortunately, the park authorities had reopened the heliports. We were still able to see some very impressive hot springs, hot waterfalls and high-flying geysers that burst with clock-like regularity when the pressure inside broke through their thin muddy crust.
Two days later bears found their way to the top of the agenda. After an epic ten-hour bus ride, heading north on that one big road, and a night in the pretty town of Esso, we took another chopper to Two Yurts Camp.
I was nervous about brown bears; I knew they were dangerous. I’d been told a photographer from Japan had been killed while trying to get too close for a shot. I’d also read the official guide to Kamchatka, which was full of ‘considered’ advice: ‘The larger the group the smaller the risk of attack.
If a bear becomes increasingly stressed and aggressive, talk to it in a low voice’. And my personal favourite: ‘If the bear continues to bite long after you assume a defensive posture, it is likely making a predatory attack. Fight back vigorously.’ A tall order against a 450kg, 3m-tall carnivore with skin like leather and 16cm-long claws.
As it turned out, the bears were too busy fishing for salmon, digesting salmon and generally smashing salmon all over the riverbank to take me on in vigorous combat. With three human guides – all named Victor – we stealthily sought out solo and sometimes pairs of bears going about their business. They were beautiful, powerful beasts, and seemed utterly at home in the setting of misty slopes and a river that teemed with their favourite fish dinner.
Heading back south, our next stop was Milkovo. Our guide at the local museum, Maria, introduced the town with the following: “Unlike the towns near the coast, inland Milkovo has a mild, continental climate. In winter the temperature can drop as low as -56°C and there are 3m of snow.” This non sequitur could only exist in the Russian Far East.
The museum housed an illuminating collection of indigenous artefacts. We learned how the native Itlemen liked to eat their fish eggs with bark and would steal food from mice when stretched; about the region’s rich maritime history; and how the Cossacks – believed to have first discovered Kamchatka in 1697 – left the bears alone because they were more interested in sable fur.
Milkovo itself is wonderfully drab, its hospital-green buildings a throwback to Soviet times. You could still make out communist propaganda fading on the walls of tower blocks. In the pouring rain all my Dostoevsky-fuelled fantasies of grimness were fulfilled. We had dinner in the town’s one canteen, and were served all four courses at the same time. The tour leader, Paul, said this was probably an attempt to show us the restaurant was modern and efficient.
Back in Petropavlovsk it was time for a lesson. At the distinguished Institute of Seismology and Vulcanology we were met by a blonde scientist in a tight suit and D&G sunglasses.
The lecture theatre was full of colourful lumps of rock and fantastic monochrome photographs of eruptions and craters. Our scientist told us about Kamchatka’s fragile mantle and assuredly Armageddon-like future, and then put on an old Soviet video of eruption-chasing boffins standing next to lava streams talking over an old-school soundtrack of manic synths. She explained that predicting an eruption involved many, many factors and heaps of data, and anyway, that wasn’t really the point of pure science but the responsibility of the emergency services. Basically, volcanoes could erupt at any time.
Our final volcanic encounter was to climb one. Avacha was our challenge: at just 2,741m, it’s not as high as many of the peninsula’s other volcanoes, but it is feisty. Avacha erupted in 1945 (seriously) and 1991 (let’s say significantly) and is one of the most active stratovolcanoes on the peninsula. With its perfect cone, colourful slopes and snowy smears, it looks, as well as acts, like the real thing.
Our next guide was Sasha, a man with a Dalí-esque moustache and a great grin. It was a beautiful dawn. Our lodge hosts gave us porridge, fresh fruit and hot coffee and soon we were out and walking – a group of 12, all smiling and full of confidence. After two hours of climbing up stepped ridges, we walked along the volcano’s long collar – a rim of black cinders and basalt rocks. The colours were extraordinary.
At a rest stop, I asked Sasha why the upper reaches of the cone were red. “The side gets hot during eruptions and afterwards most of the rock cools and goes black. But some rocks retain a gas that turns red when it has contact with oxygen,” he explained. “On top the colours are even more impressive.”
We then turned a sharp right and were face-to-slope with the cone. At this stage eight of our group decided to return to base camp. I couldn’t blame them. I’d rarely looked so directly up at a climb. This was a fearsomely steep incline and the next part of the hike was agony. Where possible we zigzagged, but the footpath was more of an S-shape, only slightly less work on the knees and calves than a full-on frontal assault. For a time I had enough energy to turn round and take in the vistas, but after an hour I was gasping for breath. The beautiful red cinder was loose – every step forward came with a half-step back.
I remembered Professor Eichelberger telling me about his wife, who ‘ran’ up the volcano in four (or was it three?) hours. I cursed. I promised myself never to do walks like this again. My left foot stepped forward then slipped the familiar slip. I trudged on.
At the top, someone – a person I will love forever – had rigged up 50m of rope to help climbers over the last, ultra-steep stretch of scree that surrounded the crater. Suddenly we were on the crater’s lip looking down into piles of black rocks spewing huge plumes of smoke. On one side the earth was bright lemon, on another green, and the red was now fiery orange.
It was stunning and unnerving; sublime and surreal. And though, again, I was sapped and weary, I could still rustle up some of that awe and amazement. All the scene needed was a snarling bear (not that I’d be able to put up a vigorous fight) and it would be complete – the perfect snapshot of a beautiful, dangerous, awesome land.The author travelled with Explore