Walk on the Wild Side
Text and photos by Jill Thomas
After an ungodly predawn start and seven leg-numbing hours of climbing, we scrambled up to the Avachinsky volcanic crater to be greeted by a view of – nothing. A massive cloud had chosen that same hour to park itself there, leaving us with a whipping wind, barely enough visibility to see our own feet, and the overwhelming sulfurous stench of fumaroles. Who knew that the odor of rotten eggs could be at once so foul yet so tempting?
Yet, strangely, none of it mattered, for the journey to this point had been adventure enough. It was our last day in Kamchatka, home to 400,000 people and abundant wildlife. The Kamchatka Peninsula is as far eastern Russia as east can get, opening out to the Bering Sea and the Pacifi c Ocean. Its appeal is simple: unbridled wilderness. In the summer, the peninsula’s 29 active volcanoes offer walkers and climbers otherworldly vistas, while daredevil heliskiers swoosh down their slopes in the winter. Rafting, fishing, dogsledding, hunting – this place has it all.
Brown bears have free rein of the lakes and forests. The best place to see them in all their savage glory is at Lake Kurile, a crater lake and spawning ground for salmon on the southern tip of the peninsula. The area is a state-protected nature sanctuary, only accessible by helicopter with visitor numbers tightly controlled. In fact, there’s only one place to stay: in a picturesque lake side wooden guesthouse surrounded by an electric fence.
There is an elevated platform about half a mile from the lodge, strategically placed to watch bears gorging themselves on hapless salmon from a safe distance. But we had a closer encounter in store. Local warden and guide Vasily Vasilevich, resplendent in his everyday outfit of faded combats, knee-high waders and rifle slung casually across his back, took us to the tundra further inland. And there they were: in groups of two or three, mothers with cubs, leisurely grazing on the abundant buffet of berries.
Meeting a bear close-up is disconcerting. Face-on, you see your childhood teddy’s shiny black eyes and furry half-moon ears; he’s sweet and almost cuddly. Then, as he slowly turns his head, his elongated muzzle and ferocious set of teeth betray him as the bloodthirsty predator he really is, and you inadvertently shrink back. “They won’t bother with us unless they’re threatened,” Vasily Vasilevich said. And they were staggeringly tolerant of our presence, shambling around with the quiet confi dence of knowing we were guests on their turf.
On our return to the lodge, a fellow guest who had left some beer in the lake to cool was dismayed to discover that a mysterious furry and fanged visitor had developed a taste for his brew, leaving behind three mangled plastic bottles as thanks. The bear certainly had the right idea, as the capricious weather over the next couple of days left us grounded and we followed his guzzling example in the hotel bar back in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the peninsula’s tiny capital.
Like many small towns across Russia, Petropavlovsk is a strenuously unremarkable city dominated by Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks and a few basic cafes. But its squat, charmless architecture does serve as a reminder of the temptations that await. As Russia’s only volcanic zone, with frequent earth tremors, the buildings have strict height restrictions. And a relatively accessible spot to see this tectonic activity up close is Mutnovsky, a 2,300-meter-high volcano, 70 kilometers south of the capital.
Still unable to fly, we were carted in a hefty six-wheel drive to base camp. The terrain was stark, its grey and silver rock broken by huge black boulders and occasional scrub. Despite assurances from the crew that our tents were as sturdy as they came, the wind was getting more ferocious by the hour. “Either wind or rain is okay, but not both,” said Oleg, our guide for this leg of the trip. Spoken too soon. A light drizzle started up that evening, picking up pace through the night.
Although weather conditions were only marginally better the next day, Oleg deemed it safe enough to climb Mutnovsky anyway. It starts getting whiff y close to the crater, but the pulsating fumaroles and bubbling mud pots more than make up for the stench. There are pockets of rock in every imaginable color — blue, crimson, yellow, purple and an impressively rancid green. To a city dweller, meeting raw nature at such close range is both humbling and exhilarating.
We returned to base camp through rapidly deteriorating weather to find that the toilet tent and one of the kitchen tents had fallen victim to the elements, with everything else flapping askew. Yet amidst the smell of damp clothing and miserable pelting rain, there was a sense of fulfillment that night. And, of course, numerous vodka toasts.
Over the next few days, we managed to fit in a restorative soak in the thermal springs at Paratunka, a small village halfway back towards Petropavlovsk, a boat cruise of Avacha Bay back in the capital and a trip to the Valley of Geysers. The latter, despite suff ering a devastating mudslide in 2007, still retains a serious wow factor with geysers of all diff erent sizes and shapes whooshing and spurting away.
But we wanted one last adventure before we left, and decided that Avachinsky Volcano, one of the most active on the peninsula, would be it. Our guide, Sergei, collected us in his 20-year-old Subaru. Its coat of grime belied its fully pimped-out inside, with customized dials, tubes snaking everywhere and a booming audiovisual system with a 5-inch screen, which, as we were rattling through the crepuscular volcanic terrain, treated us to the best-forgotten grooves of early Rick Astley.
From base camp, Avachinsky is daunting to say the least - a flat-topped cone rising over 2,700 meters, reddish-black with a stripe of white snow. Although not technically difficult to climb, there are several slippery patches of snow and areas of unconsolidated rock that can make navigation tricky. Once you start, though, you don’t want to turn back. Windburnt, with frozen ears and throbbing legs, I finally understood that trite saying about travel being the journey rather than the destination. Kamchatka isn’t a place that you ‘do’. It’s just too untamed, too unpredictable. Rather, you take whatever is thrown your way and simply live the moment. And that’s how we wound up on Avachinsky Volcano, without the panorama we’d hoped for but as far as I was concerned, on top of the world.
Aeroflot flies daily from Sheremetyevo Airport to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, while Transaero flies from Domodedovo Airport four times a week. Flights take approximately 8.5 hours. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is nine hours ahead of Russia.
Independent travel is possible, but booking a tour with a reliable local agency is worth considering as having a set itinerary cuts down on costs and waiting time. Be warned, though, that due to the fickle weather, even in the height of summer, travel plans can and will change from day to day so you’ll need to be flexible. Most tour agencies build one or two extra days into their itinerary to accommodate this. We used Kamchatka Lost World Tours (www.travelkamchatka.ru).
If you’ve chosen not to go on a prearranged tour, you can pick up day and overnight trips once you’re there. Exploring on your own without a local guide is foolhardy and not recommended – you could get mauled by a bear or barbequed by a volcano. There are several hotels to choose from in the capital, including the adequately pleasant Hotel Petropavlovsk (address: Pr. Karla Marxa 31; tel: (41522) 50374. Outside of Petropavlovsk, you’re likely to be camping or staying in log cabins.