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Category Archives: Travel Notes

Floating history.

From a tourist’s perspective Washington, D.C. is far from the most interesting city in the world. I’d even go so far as to say it’s somewhat boring.

The Washington monument, Lincoln Memorial, White House, National Air and Space Museum, and various other museums… and that, to me, seems just about it for the average tourist. So, if you’re ever stateside but don’t have loads of days to fill, I think it’s safe to pass on this place and get stuck into others, like San Francisco and New York, and then perhaps Arizona (in particular the Grand Canyon), California (especially the redwoods), and the volcanic north-west in Washington state. And if it’s July-September – why not Alaska? I could go on, of course, but the places I’ve listed I think are among the best.

But I was in D.C. this time, and in need of some touristic tidbits to tide me over for a day. It wasn’t looking promising… But then…

To my astonishment, I discovered that in Washington, D.C. there are a few discreet places which are full to the brim with treasures relating to the not-so-long but oh-so rich history of the U S of A and its empire. I visited one of them, and was bowled over by what it had to offer. It was the USS Sequoia, the former presidential yacht.

Presidential Yacht Sequoia

Read On: proudly serving the presidents…

Like sardines… ‘United’ in a can.

At first I was going to call this post something like ‘cattle wagon’. Then I had a think, and figured that’d be too malicious. Kinda like, ‘Shock, horror! The beluga caviar isn’t spread evenly here’; i.e., hardly appropriate outside my little world, really :).

Basically, this is just a bit of a whinge. One of those petty peeves we all have from time to time due to perceived poor levels of service…

So, there I was, sat on one of eight (8) seats in a row – in business class – on United Airlines’ UA988 flight from Frankfurt to Washington, and I was thinking back to a wholly different avia experience – flying from Singapore to New York on Singapore Airlines. That flight took 18 hours – non-stop (!), and there were just four seats to a row (but of course those seats were priced somewhat differently).

But on United the seats were arranged 2-4-2, to make up eight-to-a-row. What made things worse was that half the passengers in the row were faced forward, the other half – backward. I was lucky enough to be faced backwards, and, well, sitting backwards on a plane is one of the few things in this world that really irritate me. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was because they drummed it into me when younger that sitting like that on a train is somehow not right… I dunno.

United Arilines

Read on: Singapore Airlines vs United Airlines…

The Kurils: Why, where, how.

So, where on earth did the idea of a cruise, not around tourist-friendly tropical islands, but around mostly uninhabited – for a reason – polar-esque ones, come from?

It’s quite simple really…

My favorite place for an annual August ‘hard reset’ is Kamchatka: volcanos, geysers, hot springs, bears, and other similarly extreme extremities. But… well, I’ve done Kamchatka – and more than once. So something different but very similar was needed…

Now, every time I’m on Kamchatka the locals there are always saying “but on the Kurils they’re much better…”, and so on. Then kindred spirit Olga Rumyantseva had already been on the Kurils and wouldn’t stop raving about them… So my curiosity had been growing and growing for quite some years – until it reached a critical mass and it was decided, er, by moi – that the next annual August reboot trip would be to the Kurils.

After deciding where to go – about a year ago – the preparation for the Kuril trip began, only to end a year later. The ‘who’s going’ was established (mostly lovers of extreme tourism and extreme nature appreciation), the optimal route was calculated, the Kuril territory was surveyed, and the most suitable vessel for the trip was selected. Crucially, all participants were informed that this wasn’t going to be gym>beach>pina colada>spa>Cuba libre>paperback>single malt…tourism. This was wild marine-based tourism in a harsh climate on harsher islands, with neither Internet nor cell coverage.

Back to basics, back to nature.

Kuril Islands

Read on: 20 days on the Athens..

Onekotan: None better than.

I’m not sure why, but for some reason volcanos are my fave natural phenomena.

I’ve clambered up scores around the globe, and seen even more from up above in helicopters – more again from the side. The views they all provide are just breathtaking. Santorini, Mount Fuji, Gorely (before the eruption), Mutnovka, Ksudach… I’ll have to tot them all up one day.

All volcanos are unique in their own special way, and each is beautiful in its own special way, so to compare and rank them is no simple task.

However, now I know which volcano tops my list of the best of the best.

Easy: it’s the Krenitsyn volcano on the Kuril island of Onekotan. It’s also a rather exclusive volcano – just for the more discerning connoisseurs of volcanism; after all – it doesn’t even have its own Wiki page in English :).

The views it has in store are absolutely magical.

The almost perfectly round caldera is colossal – stretching seven (7) kilometers across. Inside the caldera there’s a correspondingly capacious lake, out of which peeps the cone of a new volcano (height 1324m). The volcano’s surrounded by the sea on all sides; the lake’s at a height of around 400 meters above sea level, and its depth is about 200 meters. That’s the basic run-down of this fantastical phenomenon of nature.

Kuril islands, Krenitsyn volcano

Read on: The view from up above is also impressive…

Kuril KLimate.

To get to see real tundra it turns out you don’t need to go to the Far North (or far south – say, to Tierra del Fuego); for something very similar to tundra conditions can be found in perfectly moderate latitudes. For example, on the Kurils.

Kuril islands

Here on the Kurils Mother Nature must have been having an off-day when putting the finishing touches to their climate. On one side of the island there’s the cold Pacific Ocean; on the other – the bitterly freezing Sea of Okhotsk. If the wind blows from the south it can be warm and humid; if from the north – a Siberian chill can take over. So it gets a bit muddled. But generally in winter here it’s always very cold – with snow up to the waist; while in summer it’s just so-so cold – but always humid, plus foggy, plus drizzly, plus rainy.

Read on:

Gobsmacked on Kunashir.

Besides cha-cha, on Kunashir island there’s still plenty to check out…

…Ludicrous lava columns on the coast, the fantastic fumaroles of Mendeleyeva volcano, and the magnificent mud baths in Golovnina’s caldera, for example. Bathing in a 30°С muddy lake didn’t quite do it for me, but the volcanism of Mendeleyeva – especially the lava columns there – now that was something else. Quite simply gobsmackingly unforgettable.

Kuril islands

Read on: Basalt columns on Kunashir – breathtaking!…

Tya-tya-cha.

Kunashir‘s Tyatya is one of the most beautiful volcanos in the world, without a doubt. So if Atsonupuri was the Aston Martin of volcanos, I guess that must make Tyatya the Rolls Royce.

Kuril Islands, Tyatya volcano

Read on: Almost perfect conical form…

Shikotan – the Kuril New Zealand.

If you’ve ever been to New Zealand, and then one day you were to wake up on Shikotan island (er, without knowing how you got there, or why were you asleep for so long, etc., etc.), you’d probably think you’ve been teleported to NZ. They’re just so similar!

Non-volcanic gently rolling grassy landscapes, nano-bamboo, picturesque and seemingly carefully positioned trees. All neatly trimmed, colored, and – you’d think – Photoshopped, and sparkling under the inevitable Kuril rain. If sheep and sun were added – it’d be the carbon copy of NZ – somewhere around the center of the North Island.

Kuril Islands - Shikotan

Read on: Only the hobbits’ cubbyholes are missing…

Atsonupuri: The Aston Martin of volcanos

The Kurils are all volcanic. On the 56 islands that make up the archipelago there are a total of 68 volcanos, 36 of which are still smoking.

There are small volcanoes up to two kilometers high, right down to mere volcanic ‘pimples’. Throughout our expedition we clambered up and across seven of them, in doing so totting up around six km on the y-axis and about a hundred on the x. The smoldering seven we conquered were as follows: EbekoKrenitsinaUshishirZavaritskovoAtsonupuriTyatya, and Mendeleyeva.

Fortunately almost all the climbs are light and non-mountaineering-esque; sometimes they’re long and tedious, but nevertheless never too tough. It’s a matter of just taking it easy and slowly, getting the lungs working at full capacity, getting a bit of a sweat on too, and before you know it in two or three or four hours you’re at the top. And then it all becomes worth it – the beauty, the bewilderment, and the pure bliss. 360-degree awesomeness – outwards, and also inwards – into the caldera or crater. Then it’s clickity-clack on the Leica, then back down to the bottom again. That was the routine most of the time. Apart from Atsonupuri on the island of Iturup

Atsonupuri volcano

Atsonupuri volcano

Read on: I knew it would be hard, but not torture!…

The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Many of you will know that the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42. But no one – NO ONE! – including Douglas Adams, the one who came up with the Ultimate Question and its answer, knows why it’s 42, and not 17, 41 or 43. I didn’t know earlier either. Now I do. And you won’t believe it…

Now, I didn’t go looking for the answer to this eternal question. It was the other way round – the answer found me: In a hot river on the island of Iturup!

So, the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is this: ’42′. That’s the temperature of the water in this magical river.

The ultimate question

Read on: what a place!…