Kamchatka (Part 1)
So where exactly is Kamchatka? It's probably one of the remotest places we've visited, located in the far eastern corner of Russia between Japan and Alaska. You may remember it as one of the destinations on Michael Palin's Full Circle.
It was certainly an adventure just getting there from the UK. The short 4 hour flight to Moscow in an Airbus was followed the next day by a marathon 9 hour flight in a Russian Ilyushin Il-96. Thankfully, this experience was more comfortable than my 1997 trip to Kathmandu on one of Aeroflot's ageing Tupolev aircraft. Aeroflot are shifting their fleet to the more modern Airbuses and their pilots were very keen point out their advantages in the bilingual Aeroflot in-flight magazine!
Many friends asked us why we were planning to spend a good portion of 2 weeks in a tent in such a remote and far away land. Kamchatka is one of the great remaining wildernesses still to be popularised and visited by mainstream tourists. The Kronotsky Biosphere is one of the largest reserves in Russia and is situated in the eastern coast of the peninsula. Kamchatka belongs to the "Ring of Fire" that contains the Pacific Ocean, as a result it has over 300 volcanoes of which 10% are still active. Our trip was to take us closer to these volcanoes as well as hopefully saying hello to a Kamchatkan brown bear or two!
The stereotypical vodka swilling Russians were in their full force at the small baggage reclaim area at Petropavlovsk airport, wafting out stale alcohol whilst jostling heavy luggage. Petropavlovsk was founded in 1740 by an expedition contingent commissioned by Tsar Peter I. The settlement with the three volcano backdrop was named Petropavlovsk ("St. Peter" and "St. Paul") after the two ships led by Vitus Bering which anchored there. Delving into the history of Petropavlovsk reveals a surprising amount of history between Russia and the Americas. Most westerners associate Russia with the cold war and the stark communist regime or with the 1986 Chernoble incident. The airport was just the beginning of our immersion into the Russian way of living. Our trekking crew proves that not all Russians drink vodka!
The Petropavlovsk Hotel was everything that you would expect from a Russian hotel outside of Moscow. Michael Palin was right - Russian curtains never stretch to the entire length of the pole! The massive cast iron radiators and spartan fittings were quaint and very retro-chic.
The start of our trek required an hour helicopter transfer from Petropavlovsk to Glukhoy Creek within the Kronotsky Biosphere about 180km north. As the trip was a lengthy 12 days - food drop-offs were a necessity. Our small group with guide, interpreter and cook in tow shared the MI-8 helicopter trip along with salmon fishing enthusiasts. The drop-off points provided a sneak preview of the terrain and some of our camp sites as the our crew deposited our rations in bear proof canisters dug a few feet into the ground.
We finally arrived at our destination and were abandoned by the bright orange MI-8 helicopter to a brief hurricane of debris and rotor noise followed the tranquil surroundings of the Kamchatka wilderness.
Our interpreter Luba, then informed us that we were to be staying in the basic private wooden cabins at this camp. This is gonna be as comfortable as it gets from now. This was going to ease us into the trip gently.
As we sit patiently for our cook to rustle up our first meal Rachel is running to her cabin. "There is a bear!" She grabs her camera and runs back towards the direction of the bear...
[Full image gallery will be uploaded once I've waded through them all!]