Friday, 21 February 2014

Descending inside Thrihnukagigur volcano in Iceland


After experiencing Iceland last during the long, cold winter months, it was nice to return at the height of summer. The hills and lava fields, dusted with snow during our last trip, were now smothered in vivid greens as we left Reykjavik for the journey towards the volcano. We stopped off often on the way, admiring a waterfall or one of the numerous rainbows arching across the sky after a brief rain shower, excited to be back in one of our favourite countries.

A few detours later, we arrived at the meeting point, the beginning of a hike to the crater's edge. The website warns that the trip is not suitable for those physically unfit, and although the hike is challenging, it is mostly a result of the uneven ground (you walk directly over the lava field) rather than any major rise in altitude.

We stumbled across the sharp lumps of rock, trying not to slip on damp moss and thankful for sturdy walking boots. Our guide kept up a fast pace, stopping only to show us a couple of lava tunnels carved into the landscape, and to point out our destination looming ahead. On arrival at the base, we were greeted by enthusiastic team members and kitted up with our harness. Most of the guides were not full-time, holding regular jobs in the city, but drawn back to this incredible place to work the very short season.

As we waited impatiently for our turn, we were introduced to the base's newest resident - a tiny arctic fox, orphaned and rescued by the staff who were supporting her whilst she learnt to fend for herself. Shy but playful, she was soon rolling around with her toys and tentatively saying hello. After the so brief glimpse we'd seen of a fox during the arctic cruise, it was completely unexpected but wonderful to have such a close encounter.

Finally called up, we hiked the short, but steep, ascent to the top of the crater, and made our way along the walkway stretched across the lip into the steel cage (a modified window-cleaning design) and down, down, down inside the magma chamber. Colours gradually revealed themselves to us - vivid reds, yellow, oranges, blues and greens from the high concentration of minerals and past heat, gently glittering in the soft light. The floor was strewn with huge boulders of lava painted with more of the same hues, and after staring up and around for a few minutes, awe-struck, we began to explore, clambering down slightly deeper.

With only a few people allowed into the huge chamber at any one time, it was quiet and calm. We stared into the mouth of further tunnels running off, and up to where we could glimpse the opening. The 'room' itself was far bigger than I'd imagined - a cathedral of colour highlighted by the somewhat harsh artificial light. But even without the scale, I'd have been impressed. Standing inside a magma chamber in an actual volcano - it seemed unbelievable.

Eventually our too-short time was up, and we were winched out once more, to another bold rainbow stretching across the sky. It was the perfect external representation of how I was feeling inside.


Tuesday, 18 February 2014

A return to the land of Ice and Fire


It doesn't even take all my fingers to count the number of countries I've visited more than once. Turkey tempted me back after the one and only package holiday I've taken left me yearning to explore more. After a red sea dominated first trip to Egypt, I returned five years later to wander amongst the grand monuments of the ancient Pharaohs. Australia was just too big for one holiday, so I headed back again after a two year gap (and still haven't seen the vast majority of the country). A chance opportunity lead me to the mountains of Switzerland earlier this summer for a second time, and with their close proximity, it's no wonder I've been to France and Germany many times.

But on the whole, there's just too much to see on this incredible planet for me to re-trace my steps very often. Every time I wistfully reminisce about a country I adored, I remember all the others on my wish list.

Occasionally, however, something comes along that I just can't say no to. Something completely unexpected, that shakes up all my carefully laid plans.

Early autumn 2012, I was doing my usual browse of travel websites when an article caught my eye. For an extremely short period of time, a group of explorers were leading tourists inside dormant Thrihnukagigur volcano, situated just outside of Reykjavik. Access to a magma chamber from the surface allowed visitors to descend deep inside and explore the colourful interior. It was something straight out of a Jules Verne book, and I was wildly jealous. Many of the participants were (not surprisingly) journalists, and their descriptions had me captivated. How had I missed the announcement of this?!

I searched the website in vain, but every ticket was sold. Worse still, the health and safety elements of the experience were still being ironed out, and it would potentially be a few years until the company could re-open for business. I expressed my disappointment to F, bookmarked the page, and moved on.

In January 2013, I was skimming travel stories once more when a familiar name caught my eye. For a limited season only, the tour was going ahead again this year. By then we'd already booked our Arctic cruise, but having missed out once, I just couldn't let this opportunity pass me by again. With some careful juggling of finances, I excitedly booked our tickets, followed by some (thankfully) cheap flights.

A year and a half after our last visit, we were already returning to Iceland...


Thursday, 13 February 2014

Comparing Arctic and Antarctic cruises

Chinstrap penguins gaze out over the water in Antarctica
Oddly enough, despite describing our travels in great detail on this blog, I don't really talk about them to people in 'real life'. Partly because I have no desire to sound boastful, partly because I know that most people would rather not hear/sit through a five thousand photo slide show of someone else's holiday. However, on the odd occasion that travel has come up in conversation recently, it's the same question that I'm asked time and time again.

More and more people I know are seriously considering a cruise to the poles, spending many years with daydreams lodged firmly at the extremes of the Earth, fantasising about snowy landscapes, icy waters and heavily insulated wildlife. One key question crops up often: which one to choose?

Now that I have been fortunate enough to visit both ends of the Earth, it's a question that I have inevitably been pondering on - which did I prefer? There's no clear way to answer, but here's my personal (and by no means expert) thoughts on the pros and cons of each, based solely on my own, very limited, experience.

Dramatic curves in the Antarctic landscape

Maybe it's because Svalbard is still part of Europe and doesn't look that far away, but I was initially surprised that an Arctic cruise cost pretty much exactly the same as an Antarctic cruise (although considering that the same boats and crew are often used for both seasons, with voyages often being the same length, I don't know now why I was surprised). There may be minor differences, but on the whole, both cruises carry the same initial price tag.

However, If you can be flexible with time then it is possible to significantly slash the cost of an Antarctic cruise by shopping around for a last-minute deal in Ushuaia. As the 'local' area is also rich with activities and excursions, it's possible to take trips into Patagonia or around southern Argentina, seeking out a deal when one becomes available. This is less likely on Svalbard - Longyearbyen is a flight away from mainland Norway and limited in budget-friendly options.

Flights to either base are entirely dependent on home location - both internal services (Buenos Aires - Ushuaia and Oslo/Tromso - Longyearbyen) are well-priced, but the international flights will obviously depend on where you are flying in from. For us, living in Europe, flights to Norway were very cheap. Our flights to Argentina, on the other hand, were very pricey.

Winner: Neither. Both are similarly priced, that is, very expensive.

A polar bear sniffing our ship from a small ice floe

For guaranteed wildlife spotting, I'd choose Antarctica. If nothing else makes an appearance, you can be sure that penguins will fill the gap nicely. These small, waddling beauties are a pleasure to watch slipping on snow and ice, nosily pecking at your boot or shooting gracefully through the waves. There's also high chances at spotting seals and birds, and reasonable odds of seeing whales.

The odds for birds and whales are similar in the Arctic, with walruses a likely bet if the ship can reach particular beaches. The biggest draw - polar bears, are not guaranteed. However, these incredibly powerful and beautiful predators are well worth the risk.

Winner: Possibly the Arctic, by the tiniest amount. I loved spending days surrounded by penguins, but there is something about the heart-stopping moment that a bear first walks into view that I just can't forget.

Lapping waters on a clear day in Antarctica

This, I believe, reflects the main difference between the Arctic and the Antarctic. Svalbard, although geographically remote, is still part of Norway, with a permanent population (albeit relatively small) and a steady stream of visitors. The pack ice near the northernmost tip is everything you'd expect from polar waters, but the landscape elsewhere still feels Northern European.

It's difficult to describe, but there is something altogether other-worldly about the Antarctic. It may be the journey to arrive there - there's nothing particularly nice about the Drake passage, but you certainly feel as though you have crossed some sort of barrier - even a 'trial by water' if the trip is accompanied by a storm. This remoteness, coupled with the lack of a population (excluding the scientific bases) and the fact that it is its own continent, tricks you into believing you could be the first person ever stepping ashore onto a new land.

Winner: Antarctica. The atmosphere there is indescribably magical.

Green mosses and grass on the southern tip of Svalbard

Number and quality of landings on shore

If we assume that you are sailing on a small to medium sized ship, with enough zodiacs for all passengers to be onshore at once, then there are plenty of opportunities for landings on both cruises. When visiting Antarctica, it is important to remember that the journey across the Drake takes two days each way, during which time there is relatively little to see and no trips out on a zodiac. Local ice conditions and the time of year will determine any itinerary once you have reached the peninsula, but two landings or zodiac cruises per day are not unusual. Once ashore, there is no shortage of things to do and see. Without any threat from predators, we were able to walk around freely, hike high up snow-covered hills for spectacular viewpoints, visit penguin rookeries and sleeping seals, explore the vast quantities of bleached whale bones and pebbled beaches and even send postcards from the British post office.

The Arctic has the advantage that you begin your trip already on Svalbard, so landings can begin almost immediately upon setting off. The number of landings or cruises per day is similar, with the aim of both a morning and afternoon excursion off the ship dependent on weather, so it is likely you will spend a little more time on land here than in the Antarctic. Each landing is very different and not all involve snow and ice - much of the southern coast is green and rocky. There is scope for exploration, but only alongside armed expedition leaders and via routes that have been previously scouted, due to the polar bear risk.

Winner: For sheer number of landings, you'll get more value from an Arctic cruise. For quality, it's a tougher decision, but the Antarctic may just win with greater opportunities for a range of hikes and a more classic 'polar' landscape.

Walruses peer out from Arctic waters

Ships and companies

When it comes to choosing a ship or company to travel with, there are very similar options at both ends of the Earth. Quite often, the international companies use the same boat, following the Arctic route during the Northern Hemisphere's summer months, then travelling down to Antarctica to ply their trade there. There is a vast range of ship sizes on offer, from small expedition vessels to huge cruise liners, all reinforced or specially built to tackle the drifting sea ice. Local companies - often Norwegian or Russian in the Arctic and Argentinian in Ushuaia - are also numerous and offer decent value for money.

Winner: Neither, many companies and ships operate both routes.

Snow covered mountains on the Antarctic peninsula

Overall experience

I'm going to be completely honest here and say that Antarctica was one of the most incredible places I have ever been. I'd long dreamed of setting foot on all seven continents and our cruise allowed me to achieve what was probably my top 'bucket list' item. In fact, I had a tiny reservation before booking our Arctic cruise - would it even come close? Would I compare each day? Of course, it didn't work like that. Although there were similarities, the northern end of the Earth was distinctly different and beautiful in its own right. Antarctica may slightly tip the balance for me personally, but I'd go back to either in a heartbeat.

Milky icebergs and pale blue glaciers in the Arctic
 Chosen either an Arctic or Antarctic cruise for your next trip? Here's some posts to help prepare for the adventure:

Antarctica: Do's and Don'ts!
Packing and preparing for Antarctica
An Arctic cruise: Do's and Don'ts!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

An Arctic cruise: Do's and Don'ts!

A number of the tips and advice I could offer for planning, booking and enjoying an Arctic cruise are very similar to those for an Antarctic cruise, which I have already written about in detail here:

Antarctica: Do's and Don'ts!

For most people, these sorts of expedition trips are once-in-a-lifetime adventures, but the experience will always be coloured by the ship and the company you travel with. Research really is key. There are a couple of amendments to the advice offered in the above post - firstly, the limitations regarding numbers able to land in Antarctica do not apply for the Arctic, so ship size isn't quite as vital, although a smaller number of passengers will still ensure a more personalised experience and enable everyone on board to go out simultaneously during zodiac cruise days. We travelled on a ship of 132, which seemed a good number. Secondly, I would emphasise the usefulness of doing a little research on the wildlife before setting off, or bringing along a small reference book. The larger animals were easily identifiable, but I found it handy to have a guide nearby when the many flocks of birds passed overhead.

There are a couple of Arctic-specific tips that I would also like to add. The first is related to budget. Like the rest of Norway, Longyearbyen is a very expensive place to stay. Unlike the rest of Norway, accommodation options are extremely limited, so finding any sort of bargain is pretty much out of the question. We booked our nights months in advance and still paid a small fortune for a twin room with a shared bathroom.

Also, although it is difficult, try not to arrive with wildlife expectations. Whilst ship crews work extremely hard and tirelessly to deliver a polar bear, travelling off-route and searching twenty-four hours a day, there's no guarantees. It's a similar story for whales, seals and the elusive Arctic fox. However, this isn't a reason to shy away from the trip. Even if the 'big ones' do not put in an appearance (and chances are they will), the birds were spectacular, the icebergs mesmerising and the landscape eerily beautiful.

Finally, there's the overall cost of a trip. Arctic cruises are not cheap - averaging out at around $5000 - $6000 per person. The price will very much be dependent on boat size, company and length of expedition, with less opportunity for grabbing a last minute deal (although they may still be possible with certain companies). My advice would be to book early and try to wrangle an early-bird discount - even 5% off can make a huge difference. Decide on your priorities and put in some research - would you like a large team of experts/lecturers? If you speak a second language, are you happy to be flexible with the language spoken on board? What amenities do you expect to find on the ship? Take a look at photos on a company's website - particularly at cabins and communal areas where you will be spending the majority of your time. Length of trip is an important consideration - time restrictions may decide this for you, but if there is flexibility, it may be worth sacrificing that extra bit of comfort for a longer journey where the ship has the time to go off-course in search of wildlife yet still achieve all its aims. But remember, whatever option you choose, a cruise like this will always be incredible and eternally memorable. In my mind, every penny spent was more than worth it...

Want to discover more about my experiences on an Arctic cruise? Find the relevant posts here:

Arriving in Longyearbyen and the start of an Arctic cruise
Wildlife of the Arctic: whales, seals and walruses
A polar bear frenzy in the Arctic
Zodiac cruises, Russian settlements and a second polar plunge
The Arctic landscape: A photo-blog


Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Arctic landscape: A photo-blog

The landscapes we encountered during our cruise around the Svalbard archipelago were varied, dramatic and fascinating, just like the history of this region. We travelled along the pack ice, high into the Arctic circle, thick sheets drifting past and groaning as they brushed our boat. We anchored next to huge glaciers, watching vast chunks break off and smash into the water. As we returned south, moss covered the craggy shores and reindeer munched high up green hills. Some days, the skies were clear and the sun shone, on others the rain fell and the sky remained a thunderous grey.

Every day in the Arctic is different and the landscape reflects this diversity. Here's a few pictures from each day of our trip.

Eroding glaciers create caves where the cliff of ice meets the water 

Scores of walruses flop on top of each other along this soft sand beach
A pastel sunset contrasts with steel-hued waves on our return from a landing

Each landing reveals a completely different landscape - this time craggy rocks

Huge blue icebergs catch the light during a zodiac cruise 

Thousands of birds call to each other from their nests, creating a wall of sound...

Yet from a distance, you'd hardly know they were there

As we turned south, green moss was our first clue that the flora was becoming more abundant

Stories of the past everywhere - in this case, a bleached whale vertebra

When the sun was shining on a clear, blue day, you would hardly believe we were in the Arctic

Old mining and hunting settlements, abandoned and battered of the elements, reveal the human history of the region

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Zodiac cruises, Russian settlements and a second polar plunge


Alongside a number of landings, including a fantastic glacier hike one windy morning, we also had the opportunity to go on a few zodiac cruises. These had been a highlight during our Antarctic cruise, where I had developed a love of icebergs, and I was looking forward to spending more time bobbing up and down on the sturdy inflatables.

We spent one afternoon driving alongside steep cliffs, listening to the overwhelming calls of thousands of birds perched above us. The chicks were big enough to finally leave the nests, and nervous fathers swam alongside us, coaxing their offspring into the water. Every few minutes, one chick would become brave, plummeting down from the cliff before landing with a splash. It was touching to see them locate their dads and swim away, and devastating when nearby birds of prey swooped down and caught a baby before it found the protection of its father. The cries of the adults as they searched in vain for their little ones were absolutely heartbreaking, and all those in our zodiac found ourselves calling out encouragement and guidance to chicks as they hit the water, despite knowing that it would have no effect whatsoever...

Another day, we embarked on an iceberg cruise, drifting past huge crystal blue bergs and watching water gushing as one flipped over completely just metres away from us. We peered down into the water at the vast roots of each iceberg, spotting tiny jellyfish riding the waves.

The water, of course, was incredibly cold, hovering somewhere around two degrees Celsius at its maximum along the shorelines. This didn't stop the captain from announcing the traditional 'polar plunge', however, and during one of our last landings, those of us stupid enough to brave the cold stripped down to our swimwear and dove in. As F and I had already experienced a plunge in the Antarctic, we were not planning to miss the opportunity to repeat the experience at the opposite side of the world, and were eager to join in, although a minute in the icy water reminded me what a shock to the system it was (the shot of whiskey as we dried off on the rocks helped somewhat with the pain, however).

After our time exploring the bleak but beautiful landscape and the cold waters of the Arctic, completely void of any other humans during our time on the boat, it was almost a shock to step off the ship at our final landing and be greeted by smiling faces. It had been a foul morning, the rain lashing hard as we approached Longyearbyen once more. But before we returned to the town, we were making a stop at a bizarre destination - the small town of Barentsburg, a mining settlement governed by Russia. Still extracting small amounts of coal to this day, the town is steeped in the past, with a bust of Lenin welcoming visitors upon entry. Cyrillic decoration and murals of workers indicated that we could have been in Russia itself, and it was a fascinating finish to the trip that reminded us of the fragile political balance that modern Svalbard reflects. Our local guide showed us around the main buildings before leaving us to explore the museum, and we were finally treated to a musical show, complete with traditional Russian songs and dance. It was entirely unexpected, yet strangely wonderful.


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A polar bear frenzy in the Arctic


 I think anyone would be lying if they said they weren't going on an Arctic cruise in the hope of seeing polar bears. These powerful yet cuddly-looking animals are the basis on which many cruise companies sell their trips, and were the main topic of excited conversation amongst our fellow passengers as we all boarded the ship on day one. Our expedition leader was spot on when he noted during his introduction speech that he could wax lyrical about the flora of the Svalbard archipelago, talk about its history or even point out seals swimming through waves, but passengers tend not to become truly excited about these things until after they spot their first bear. In fact, he went on, he always hopes that a bear will show up in the first day or two, for the simple reason that the whole boat is on edge until that moment when the first elusive white fur ball is spotted. Despite not making promises, the pressure on the crew to deliver is high.

Our first bear - so far away. We had no idea what was coming...
It's a very different feeling to being on an Antarctic cruise. There, the main wildlife draw, penguins, are pretty much guaranteed. With an Arctic cruise, there are no such promises. On our departure day, we had some time to kill in the early afternoon before being allowed to board. We settled ourselves in a cafe for lunch and couldn't help but overhear the discussions of the table next to ours - a group who had just disembarked that morning from the very ship we were booked on. They were sharing experiences, recalling particular moments and wistfully looking back over their past few days. Of course, the conversation soon turned to bears, and they were discussing how fortunate they'd felt at seeing a bear towards the end of their trip. F and I just hoped we'd be that lucky. "One bear", I murmured as we left. "That's all I want - just the chance to see one".

I got my wish on day two of our trip. Bursting with enthusiasm, it seemed that every single passenger was out on deck day and night, peering out. As we drifted towards land in the afternoon, the tannoy announced a spot - a polar bear far in the distance. We got as close as possible, thrilled as the white blob in front finally became recognisable. It was still a long way away, but I pulled out my zoom lens and took close to fifty pictures, just in case this was my only chance.

It wasn't.

Over the next couple of days, we saw a few more bears, still too far away to make out in any real detail. One afternoon, our expedition leader called us into the lounge. We were sailing at the end of the season, and the ice was retreating fast. Our chances of more polar bear encounters were reducing, and they needed to make a decision. We could continue our planned route around the archipelago, or we could head much further north along the pack ice. They'd scanned the route, and the presence of a couple of boats was optimistic. Which direction should we take?

Naturally, the pack ice won out, and we moved ever higher into the Arctic circle, ice sheets floating around us. We reached what became known affectionately as 'The Ice Blob', a dense section of the pack ice, and there experienced the frenzy. There were polar bears everywhere. First ten, then twenty came into view over the next couple of days. One female was so interested in our boat that she carefully crossed the ice over the space of a couple of hours, until she stood right next to us, merely metres below where F and I stood. Another lay lazily on an iceberg, his half-finished meal picked over by birds below. Others still leapt the gaps between ice sheets to come closer to us, noses high at our unfamiliar scent. It was incredible and absolutely magical. We stood for hours, fingers and toes numb, astounded by our luck.

Eventually we were forced to leave the pack ice in order to fulfil our hope of circumnavigating the archipelago, but the sightings didn't stop there. Day after day we saw more bears - in fact, they eventually became a bit of a nuisance for our expedition crew, who needed to cancel a couple of landings and find alternatives when we encountered a bear on the shore during reccies. On one such occasion, a couple of members of the team waited a little off-shore in a zodiac, hoping that the bear would leave if we waited it out so that we could land. For an hour or more we all stood on deck, watching, when suddenly the bear, spotting some birds, ran across the beach at a speed I didn't think could be possible for its size. The zodiac reluctantly returned to the ship, and we all now truly understood its caution.

The final highlight came towards the end of our trip, when we saw two bears swimming in the water, and one catching and devouring a bird at the base of a cliff. It was an amazing finale to what had been a combination of luck and the skill of our crew - around thirty bears in total, some very much in the distance, others just metres away. Watching them was a privilege, and one I will never forget.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Wildlife of the Arctic: whales, seals and walruses

 Whilst I was excited to see the landscape of the Arctic, walk the shores and spot huge glaciers, I was mostly anticipating the possibility of seeing the diverse wildlife.

Nothing was every guaranteed, but the omens seemed positive when we spotted a blue whale early on our second day. The sighting was announced over the tannoy just after breakfast, and I couldn't rush out of our cabin quick enough - this was the whale I'd hardly dared hope we'd see. We dashed onto deck just as it breached the surface, sending tufts of water high into the air with a loud sigh before disappearing beneath and re-emerging a great distance away less than a minute later, demonstrating just how huge it was. It stuck close to our ship for fifteen or so minutes, once giving us a glimpse of its beautiful tail, before moving away and out of sight.

Our whale encounters were not quite over though - the following day we were sat in zodiacs gazing up at a glacier when our driver pointed out a pod of belugas leaping through the waves. They were quite a distance away, and I would never have picked them out myself, their white bodies looking exactly like small blocks of ice. I tried my best to photograph them, but even with the zoom lens they are barely recognisable unless you know what you are looking at.

One afternoon we landed on a gorgeous beach, the skies a vivid blue, to be greeted by a mass of mottled brown - walruses lounging in the sun. Some slept, occasionally whacking each other with powerful tails, whilst others swam in the water, playfully tackling each other with sharp tusks and loud grunting, sometimes coming very close to check us out as we tried to keep our distance.

Although almost demonic in appearance, with small, sharp eyes, gaping mouths and powerful bodies, they had a strange sort of charm, and I enjoyed our hour spent watching them. As we moved to a new area the following day, seals played in the water not far from the boat, their small, smooth bodies and gentle faces a complete contrast to the walruses.

But what of the main draw of the Arctic, those cute but deadly mammals, polar bears? Stayed tuned for my next post and our desperate desire to catch a glimpse...