By Neil and Nikki
24.06.2017 - 10.07.2017 11 °C
Whet your visual appetites on some of these photos of our expedition up the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Chukotka Region of the Russian Far East! Many of these photographs were taken by a fellow intrepid traveller, Craig Smith, whose super dooper zoomy lens was a smidge better than the iphone that Nik has been using.
Zhupanova River, Kamchatka Peninsula.
“Er, bloody ‘ell”, I said to Nik, “that’ll be a volcano erupting”, as we sat in the Zodiac* cruising from our expedition ship towards the Zhupanova River for a day of bird and wildlife watching. We had set sail from Petrapavlovsk-Kamchatsky the day before with Heritage Expeditions for a two week expedition up the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, an area of the world very few non-Russians (or Russians for that matter) ever get to experience. “You don’t see that too often”. And it turns out that you don’t. Even the resident geologist on board have never actually seen a volcano erupt. It was a hell of a start to what proved to be an amazing trip.
(* For those that don’t know a Zodiac is a rubber motorised dinghy that we used to disembark from the expedition ship, both to get close to or on to the shore. More below!)
Photo of a volcano erupting in the distance, taken from the Zhupanova river (courtesy Craig Smith)
“Knock me over with a feather”, I continued, “I reckon that will be, unless I’m very much mistaken, a Stellar’s Sea Eagle”.
Zhupanova River – Steller’s Sea Eagle (Craig Smith).
OK. Busted. I wouldn’t know a Stellar’s Sea Eagle from a sparrow. But there were people much more knowledgeable about such things than myself on board, who assured me this wasn’t a sparrow. Regardless it was beautiful and allowed us to float within meters in the Zodiacs while preening itself on a tree branch before flying off.
At Verkhoturova Island
The Russian Far East is full of surprises. With more bird watching on the go at Verkoturova Island, Nik snuck off to climb a hill for the view. Half way up she encountered a red fox and they sat for 20 minutes watching each other. On the way down, Nik looked up to find the fox following her down the hill….
The Arctic Fox coming to take a look at Nikki (Craig Smith)
At the Goven Peninisula
After seeing black bears in Canada, we were really keen to see the much larger brown (or grizzly) bears in Russia. And we were not to be disappointed! Cruising up the beach at Goven Peninsula on the Zodiacs, we had this amazing encounter:
A mother brown bear with her three cubs.
The Russian Far East is stunning. And we were only on day 4. But let’s go back in time to 2009….
The original plan
It was back in about 2009 when Nik and I were on the Eurostar from London to Paris when the first seed of an idea emerged for us to travel from Cape Horn (at the bottom of South America) to the Cape of Good Hope (at the bottom of South Africa).
The original idea for our Cape to Cape world odyssey.
You’ll notice that in the original plan we would just hope across the Bering Strait from the Cape of Prince of Wales, Alaska to Uelen, Russia.
Time to go off on a tangent….
Karl Bushby and the Bering Strait:
In 1998, and English bloke called Karl Bushby decided he wanted to walk home. To Hull in England. From Ushuaia, at the bottom of Argentina. You’ll kind of appreciate from our trip that South America is, well, kind of big. But Karl took that in his stride and by around 2001 he’d arrived in Cartagena, Columbia. Now Nikki and I heeded the advice that the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama is an impenetrable jungle full of Guerrilla’s and big rivers. We took a boat across the Caribbean Sea and all was good. Karl decided to walk and swim across the Darien Gap. When Karl said he wanted to walk, he meant it.
By 2006 he’d made it to the Bering Strait and well, since he’d walked all this way, he wasn’t going to let a bit of semi frozen ocean get in the way. So, he walked and swam across the Bering Strait. Yes, really. I like people who do crazy stuff, but that really was nuts. I recommend you google “Karl Bushby – Bering Strait – Youtube”. There are four segments and it’s some of the craziest stuff I’ve ever seen.
Karl Bushby walking/ swimming across the Bering Strait.
By the way, when he arrived in Uelen, Russia he was treated as a spy and sent back to America. He’s still wrestling with the Russian authorities to get a visa to finish his walk across Russia.
Nikki and Neil and the Bering Strait:
I asked Nikki if she wanted to walk to Uelen and the response was a single raised eyebrow. I took that as a no.
But we still wanted to get close to the Bering Strait at least. The closest we could come on the time frame we had was the above mentioned expedition ship run by Heritage Expeditions that was travelling up from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy up to Anadyr.
Maps showing the Russian Far East, the Bering Strait and Alaska, and the route taken by the Expedition Ship to Anadyr.
So we booked it.
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy (PK) is 3,147 km’s from Anchorage, Alaska, the final stop on our trip through the Americas. Nice. A 3.5 hour flight. Yeah? Nah. There are no flights from Anchorage to PK (as Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy is called). To get to PK we had to fly via Anchorage, Seattle, Beijing and Khabarovsk. It was 14,510 km’s. And took 4 days (including a days lay over in Beijing).
By the way, when leaving Anadyr our original plan was to fly to Irkutsk on the Trans-Siberian railway, or Vladivostok and then continue to head west. Well, you can fly to those locations from Anadyr, but only via Moscow! Yes really. So, seeing as the only flight from Anadyr is to Moscow we decided to take it. It is kind of cool because it is the longest domestic airline flight in the world. 6,200 km’s and crossing 9 time zones.
However, before describing the amazing trip on the expedition ship, I thought I might mention the joy that is getting a Russian visa as an Australian.
The <insert your curse word of choice here> Russian Visas:
It’s just as well that we really wanted to go to Russia, because it’s been stupidly, ridiculously hard to get a visa. And for us, having to apply from overseas while already underway on our trip, I reckon it wouldn’t have been possible without our amazing agent Marie in Melbourne.
Hurdle #1 (July 2016):
Let’s start by saying that you have to apply for permission just to apply for a Russian visa. The permission is communicated via Telex. I didn’t know Telex still existed!
Then the Russian regulations state that you have to apply for the visa in your home country and you can’t apply longer that 90 days before you’re due to enter the country. But 90 days before we landed in Russia we were in South America.
“Aha!”, said Marie “you leave one of your passports with us”.
For me that’s ok, because I have dual UK and Australian citizenship. But what about Nik?
“You need to get a Concurrent Australian Passport”, said Marie.
“A what?”, said Nikki.
“You’re allowed to get a second Australian passport if you have a good reason”, said Marie.
“What about the Russian Visa Application forms?”, asked Nik.
“You can fill them out overseas, and then Express Post them to me. I’ll do the liaison with the Russian Embassy and then send your second passport, with the visa, out to you”.
So, Nikki got together a pile of documents about 4 inches thick and surprisingly quickly, got her concurrent Australian passport.
Hurdle #2 (March 2017):
So, in Rio de Janeiro we got our photos taken (because, for the Russian Visa, the photo can’t be more than 3 months old…), filled in the online form, got the pdf printed out, and sent it via express post to Marie in Melbourne. We were in one of the most amazing cities in the world (Rio) but had to spend a day and AU$150 to get the documentation sent off to Marie. But we finally did it and sent it (Whatever you do, don’t ask Nikki about Brazilian post offices!!)
Then 3 weeks later, we had just got off the boat in Leticia in the middle of the Amazon, when we got an email from Marie saying our applications had been rejected because the form had the wrong date on them and the photos were not good enough.
“Gosh!”, I said. “How very inconvenient!”. Or something along those lines.
Hurdle #3 (Early April 2017):
So, in Leticia, Colombia, in the middle of the Amazon, we got our photos done again. Against a white background. With the photos being 35 mm wide and 45 mm long. With our heads taking up 30 mm of the width. And not smiling. All of this being explained in Spanish.
Then we filled out the forms again, and asked our hostel in Bogota to print them off for us so we could post them before getting on the boat to Panama. Piece of cake. Yeah? Nah.
Did you know that the Russian form has to be printed out on A4 paper? And that A4 paper is 210 mm wide and 297 mm long? Sounds reasonable and straightforward? Well it turns out that Colombia doesn’t use A4 paper. At all. Anywhere. They use paper that is 216 mm wide and 279 mm long, i.e. shorter and wider. Who knew?
So, on our last day in the fabulous city of Bogota, Colombia, and in Spanish, I had to explain to a newsagent that we needed to print out the documents on A3 paper, but with the font at A4 size and then send it off to Marie (who could then cut the A3 to A4). The expansion percentage in the printer took some time to get right, but eventually we found that 91% was the correct expansion percentage.
Then the print shop ran out of A3 paper…..
So, we found another shop. And went through the whole process again. It only took three hours to print two copies!
Fortunately, the printer shop was also a DHL agent so we arranged to DHL the application to Australia. And after having to walk back to the hostel for our passports and the staff making 9 errors that required them to start the process over again each time, we had sent our applications off in a record time of 5 hours! Yay!
By then Nikki was a tad, er, sad. She said things like:
“Bother! Here was I <****> hoping that we would get to spend all of our last <****> day in Bogota seeing Bogota instead of sorting the <****> Russian Visas!!!!!!!!!”. She was kind of like the volcano at the start of this blog.
Hurdle #4 (Early May 2017):
We were in Central America when we heard that the visas had been granted! Hurrah! But would they actually arrive safely in our hands in the Americas?? We arranged to courier them to Nik’s aunt who lives in California. By this stage we had paid for the Russian cruise in full, so if the visas didn’t turn up…..
It was a nervous 7 days waiting for the passports and visas to arrive, but finally, only 9 months after the process started, they arrived in Ukiah, ready for pick up on our way through the USA!
I’ve just attended the presentation on the hassle that Heritage Expeditions goes through to get the approvals/licences/permits for the expedition up the Russian Far East. It put the hassle we’d gone through getting the Russian Visa’s in perspective….
Expedition Ship from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy to Anadyr
So, although we couldn’t go through the Bering Strait, it was good that we managed to connect with this bloke, Vitus Bering.
Vitus Bering – 1681 – 1741
Bering was initially engaged by Peter the Great, who by the way was 6 foot 8 inches tall, to carry out an expedition to the waters off the Russian Far East. He carried out two trips, both starting from PK. On these trips, he discovered the Bering Strait, Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and the Commander Islands. Alas, in 1741, he was shipwrecked on the Commander Islands and died in December 1741. But he did get an island named after himself. And a sea. And a strait.
The Bering Memorial, Bering Island (Neil Cooke)
We also started our expedition from PK. The trip up the coast of Kamchatka and Chukotka to Anadyr, was 14 days. From 54 Degrees latitude to 64 degrees 45 minutes north.
I think the best way to describe our fabulous trip is via photos.
Sketch showing our trip up the Kamchatka Peninsula to Anadyr in the Chukotka Region of the Russian Far East.
The city of PK is in a stunning setting at the south of the Kamchatka Peninsula. In winter the city gets 10’s of meters of snow.
View of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, Kamchatka Peninsula, Russian Far East (Nikki Dolling)
Starting again at the Zhupanova River:
The erupting volcano at the Zhupanova River (Craig Smith).
And that sparrow that looks remarkably like a Steller’s Sea Eagle:
Pictures of the Steller’s Sea Eagle, Zhupanova River, Kamchatka Peninsula, Russian Far East (Craig Smith)
From the Zhupanova River on the way to the Commander Islands we saw a lot of whales including the critically endangered Northern Pacific Right Whale.
I saw a critically endangered Northern Pacific Right Whale between PK and the Commander Islands (this is a photo from the Web). Note the dual blow holes that produce a “v” shaped “blow” that allows you to recognise the whale from its “blow” only.
Orca Whale (photo actually taken between Meinypin’glo and Pika River) (by Craig Smith)
We stopped at a number of settlements during the expedition both on the Commander Islands and the mainland. The harsh reality of life in the Russian Far East was evident both in terms of the buildings and infrastructure, and how hard everyone was working in the summer months to do repairs and collect food for the winter.
Abandoned House – Bering Island, Commander Islands, Kamchatka Peninsula (Nikki Dolling)
The smaller of the Commander Islands, Medny, is home to seal and sea lion colonies, as well as the beautiful arctic fox, which we were lucky enough to encounter.
Seal Colony on Commander Island with an Arctic Fox (Craig Smith)
The Arctic Fox (Heritage Expeditions team).
Our Ship in Commander Bay (Heritage Expedition Team)
Bad night photo of the view back towards the Kamchatka Peninsula, one of the only ones we have! (Nikki Dolling).
View of the Medny Island, Commander Islands, Kamchatka Peninsula (Nikki Dolling)
One of the rare Orchids in the Russian Far East (Nikki Dolling)
Looking out onto Karaginskiy Island (Heritage Expedition Team)
On Karaginskiy Island we saw, much to Nikki’s delight, Puffins! They really are a rather special bird, especially when they are trying to take off from the water. They usually give up and just sit there looking adorable.
A horned puffin (Craig Smith)
A tufted puffin (Craig Smith)
Puffins that actually managed to get off the water (Craig Smith)
And here is Nikki’s red arctic fox that we encountered on our wander up the hills on Karaginskiy Island (Craig Smith).
Goven Peninsula was particularly special and is the location that the expedition has previously had the most encounters with brown bears, hence the nickname of ‘Bear Gully’. We were offered an opportunity to spend 3 hours on the mainland bear spotting at this particularly scenic place. Although we were not lucky that night to see any when we were on land, we had amazing encounters along the beach from the Zodiac…
Three very healthy looking cubs with their mother on the beach (Craig Smith)
We encountered a couple of families wandering the beach in search of food (Craig Smith)
And the agility of the bears was quite amazing as they scampered up and down the cliff faces, playing together (Craig Smith).
We spent an afternoon at Tintikun Lagoon spotting bears and birds. For the more adventurous there was the chance to take a dip in some hot (read tepid!) springs. We just admired the scenery instead.
Tintikun Lagoon, Kamchatka Peninsula (Nikki Dolling)
Bear hanging out near the lagoon (or, in Nikki’s view, “Bear prowling the foreshore working out how to get to you and eat your face…..”)
Lavrova Bay was particularly atmospheric, with the wrecks of some unfortunate ships and an old herring station abandoned in the 1970’s.
A whaling boat which sank 15-20 years ago and abandoned in the Bay (Craig Smith).
Another wreck which had come apart since the last time the expedition went through Lavrova Bay, with the stern washed ashore 100m away (Nikki Dolling).
A rare shot of a Sea Otter floating on his back in Lavrova Bay. We saw lots of otters but they are rather camera shy and would duck away from sight immediately (Craig Smith).
Old Herring Station used from 1960 until due to overfishing the Herring numbers collapsed in 1975 (Craig Smith).
Bear Prints (Heritage Expedition Team).
The glasslike waters at Blukta Glublokaya gave us a welcome respite from the rough seas that had kept us awake for a few nights, as well as a beautiful Zodiac ride in the Bay. As well as otters, seals and amazing bird life, we visited the lonely and isolated cemetery on a bluff for sailors who have died while in this area.
(Heritage Expedition Team)
Pika River Walrus
Much of our wildlife viewing and all of our disembarkations were done via Zodiac. The second half of the trip was with a moderate swell which made getting on to and off of the boats from the gangplank very tricky and dangerous at times. We would often be standing up the top or circling on the Zodiacs below waiting for the right moment to jump across! Despite some nervous moments, the worst incident merely involved very wet feet (and pants – the wave went up to the hips!)
Nikki and Neil travelling by Zodiac (Craig Smith)
One of the focus areas of the trip was support for the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper bird task force. The Spoon Billed Sandpiper is a critically endangered species with a population now estimated at less than 200 pairs worldwide. There is a taskforce that is working on ensuring its survival. The Sandpiper nests only in the Russian Far East, despite migrating to China, Bangladesh and India at other times of the year. With no protection in these other countries and being very site specific for mating, their numbers are decreasing everywhere except the breeding colony at Meynypil’glo. We spent the last few days of the trip scouting different locations for the Sandpiper and were lucky enough to see some nesting.
The critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Meynypil’glo (Heritage Expedition Team).
Two male Spoon-Billed Sandpipers disagreeing about nesting arrangements (Craig Smith)
As Chris, one of the guides pointed out, more tourists have been to the top of Everest in the past year than have seen the breeding ground of the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper….
Indigenous Chukotka Community
We saw a great presentation by the young people in community at Meynypil’glo. They performed dances, songs and cultural displays in their native language and specific to their village. They only get to perform 2 or 3 times per year and they clearly loved to share their culture with us.
Young people from Meynypil’glo dressed in native Chutoka costume for the cultural show (Nikki Dolling)
Our literary partner on the expedition has been this:
It’s the story by James Raffan who circled the world at, or close to the Arctic Circle to meet with indigenous communities and discuss the effect of climate change, and other factors, on them and their culture.
One of the most interesting take outs from the book was that the issues affecting the indigenous communities on the Arctic Circle are not dissimilar to the issues faced by our own indigenous communities in Australia. One of the biggest learnings from Raffan’s book, however was that the issue of fate control was raised continually by the communities he visited going around the Arctic circle; whether they be in Norway, Finland, Canada, Alaska, or Russia.
He found that communities must be in control of their own destiny to help ensure the health of the community. One of the key ways to help this is for land tenure to be with the original custodians of the land. This is happening significantly in Canada and Alaska and, while the situation is not perfect by any means, it is better I believe than Australia.
Certainly made me think…..