Posts Tagged ‘Adventure travel’

‘Ninety degrees north – the easy way’

October 15, 2012

A century ago no one had been to the North Pole for certain. Today you can sail to 90° North as a tourist on a Russian nuclear icebreaker. Fellow of the Explorers Club Nick Smith did just that…

Nick Smith visits the North Pole

Russian nuclear icebreaker ’50 Years of Victory’ heads north from Murmansk bound for the North Pole

For more than a decade I’ve been writing about North Polar affairs, the history of the region’s exploration, its climate, ice cover and biodiversity. And although I’ve interviewed climatologists, photographers, conservationists and sea captains, the people associated with the Pole that I’ve enjoyed listening to most are those explorers who have travelled in the region on foot. These are the people who seem to instinctively understand the big picture, the people with ice in their blood. I’ve learned much about the Arctic from classic explorers such as the late great Wally Herbert, as well as from today’s most notable expedition leaders such as Pen Hadow. Over the years I’ve become fascinated by what draws human beings to this desolate frozen desert at the end of the earth. But never once did I imagine I’d get the chance to go there myself.

Prior to the 20th century no one had even seen the North Pole, much less set foot on it. We know that a little over a century ago – in 1909 – U.S. naval Commander Robert E Peary might have got there on foot with a team of dogs. He certainly believed he’d achieved his goal, but some commentators think he may have fallen short by as much as 100km. Richard Byrd may or may not have reached ninety degrees north in an aeroplane in 1926. In 1948, Russian Alexandr Kuznetsov set off under the instructions of Joseph Stalin to fly north for scientific and strategic purposes, and in so doing became the first person to undisputedly set foot on the Pole. In 1968 Ralph Plaisted reached it from Canada by combination of snow scooter and air. In 1969 Briton Wally Herbert broke new ground, and his arrival at the North Pole by dog-sledge was the crowning moment of one of the greatest ice journeys of the century.

Nick Smith visits the North Pole

Male polar bear in the aftermath of catching a ring seal

Since these landmark expeditions there have been many successful arrivals at the Pole by fixed-wing aircraft, helicopter and even parachute; by surface traverse, whether complete, one way or partial; by submarine (USS Skate was the first in 1959) or surface vessel. Of these, the first was the Soviet icebreaker Arktika, which reached the Pole on 17th August 1977. Since then there have been 65 Soviet or Russian voyages to the Pole, of which 64 have been in nuclear powered ships. Twelve other icebreakers from five other nations have made token expeditions to the top of the world, but the Russians are the experts.

The reason for this, according to Captain Dmitry Lobusov of the Russian nuclear powered icebreaker 50 Years of Victory, is simply that there is a need. Of those countries with extensive Arctic Ocean shorelines, only Russia relies on the commercial transportation of goods through the sea ice. ‘We have very vast country from west to east and there is need to carry cargo by sea and so we need an ice fleet.’ Captain Lobusov explained how the development of nuclear technology has led to icebreakers of increasing power and range, with the ability to remain at sea for long periods without refueling. In the Arctic summer, when the atomic fleet is less in demand for keeping open commercial seaways, the 50 Years of Victory – or the ‘50 лет Победы’ – becomes available to adventure tourism companies such as Quark Expeditions, who commission the ship in order to make the armchair explorer’s dream of going to the North Pole a reality.

I joined the Victory at Murmansk on the extreme northwest of Russia, on the Kola Bay. Way inside the Arctic Circle, the world’s northernmost city consists almost entirely of glum communist tenements hastily thrown up after the Second World War. After near annihilation by the Germans, who had an airbase only eight minutes away, Murmansk was designated one of only 12 ‘Hero cities’ in Russia. In 1943, Harper’s published an article about Murmansk by Dave Marlow called ‘How it Looked to a Merchant Seaman’, in which he quotes a Scots-Canadian mess-man: ‘they’ve took a beating here.’ The mosquitoes are like flying fortresses and the only dabs of colour are the buttercups and dandelions that seem to grow everywhere in Murmansk.

We sailed for a week via Franz Josef Land, the northernmost Russian archipelago, and landed at Cape Tegetthof, where we saw the wind-blasted remains of explorers’ huts. Then to Cape Fligley on Rudolf Island from which Kuznetsov departed on his successful flight to the Pole. We saw polar bears, kittywakes, walruses, ivory gulls and memorials to dead explorers. As we reached the higher latitudes we navigated through the last of the open water before crunching our way through the pack that got denser and denser as we approached the Pole. Were there any ice conditions that the Victory couldn’t negotiate, I asked the captain through his interpreter Irena. ‘No’ was the reply.

nick smith visits the North Pole. Nicksmithphoto

Ninety degree north. Of course there’s nothing there apart from the intersection of some imaginary lines. So you have to take your own pole with you. Photo: Nick Smith

When I set foot on the ice at the North Pole I was the 22,500th person to do so, give or take a small margin for error created by the possibility of unrecorded military expeditions reaching ninety degrees North. The Pole is, of course, an imaginary place; a point on a grid of invented geometry, that in reality is no more or less impressive than a thin membrane of ice floating on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. The ice that is here today is not the ice that was here yesterday or will be here tomorrow. There is no marker other than one you may bring yourself, and the sapphire blue pools of water that lie on the surface of the multiyear ice here are just as beautiful here as they are at 89°N.

T.S.Eliot wrote in his poem ‘Burnt Norton’ of what he called ‘the still point of the turning world’. At the earth’s ‘axle-tree’ he imagined the past and future to coalesce, a place where the spiritual and terrestrial worlds meet. And although it may be too fanciful to say that to stand at the Pole is to stand with one foot in another world, if you look directly upwards along the earth’s axis you will come to Polaris, the North Star, the so-called celestial pole. Look down and beneath your feet after a couple of metres of sea ice, there are 4,000 metres of sea. Then, after 14,000km of planet, you will reach sea level at the South Pole, after which there are then another few hundred metres of rock, followed by 2,835 metres of ice. If you have managed to maintain a straight line down through the globe you will end up almost in the middle of the geodesic dome of the Amundsen-Scott science research base at the South Pole.

The significance of the intersection of all lines of longitude depends as much on who you are and how you got there as anything else. I arrived at 11:57pm 15th July 2009 sitting in the bridge bar of the world’s largest nuclear-powered icebreaker with a glass of ice-cold Russian vodka in my hand. Something like a hundred passengers from 24 countries had gathered below me in the bright midnight sun to wander around with their global positioning systems, anxious to be the first to claim that theirs read ‘90°N’ exactly. Of course, any such claims were irrelevant because the icebreaker was only at the Pole when the Captain said so, and his GPS on the bridge was the only one that mattered.

nick smith visits the North Pole

1. The Geographic North Pole. Flags of the nations of every passenger on the icebreaker are flown in celebration, while a red rope is laid down on the ice to encircle the precise point of 90 degrees north. Photo: Nick Smith

As champagne corks popped we cheered and congratulated each other on our passive achievement, as if we’d arrived on skis after weeks of doing battle with pressure ridges, half-starved, frostbitten and with exhausted dogs. A ringed seal popped its head out of a channel of inky black water to see what the commotion was about, to find out what was breaking the rhythm of the creaking ice. There were no birds and despite the razzamatazz that goes with this extraordinary adventure tourism, it was possible to detect something of the deep primal spirituality that has lured the great explorers of the past to this pinprick of nothingness in the middle of nowhere.

Accounts by explorers who arrive on foot after weeks of man-hauling sledges over pressure ridges vary wildly on how time at the Pole is spent. Some scrape together the last of their tobacco and alcohol for an all too brief party, while others become stranded while waiting for the twin otter to get in to pick them up. Tom Avery describes how in 2005 he arrived at the Pole with 4 other humans and 16 dogs only to see an immaculately dressed woman step off a helicopter with a bottle of champagne. She was leading a small group of tourists who had flown to the Pole (presumably from an icebreaker) on a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ ultimate tourist experience, as marketed by top end adventure travel companies.

The jury will probably remain out forever on whether tourists should be allowed to travel to ecologically sensitive destinations such as the higher latitudes of the Polar Regions. But the prevailing sentiment on the 50 Years of Victory was that, provided the operator transacted its business responsibly, that the environment came first and that we didn’t cause any unnecessary stress to the wildlife, then not only did we have a right to enter this pristine world, but we would come home as ambassadors, to write articles and tell our friends exactly what it is we’re supposed to be protecting.

Nick Smith visits the North Pole

Homeward bound. Sailing ‘downhill’ back to Russia, we passed Rubini Rock, home to 60,000 pairs of breeding sea birds. Photo: Nick Smith

As we returned from the Pole the sense of anticlimax was inevitable, but on the 20th July I reminded some of my fellow travellers that we should celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing. After all, we had more in common with one of the astronauts than most of us might have suspected. In 1998 Buzz Aldrin travelled to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear icebreaker. Aldrin’s experiences were remarkably similar to mine aboard the Victory, and indeed, ‘except for comments about the cold, I never heard a negative word.’ While at sea Buzz spent much of his time skipping lectures and designing a new rocket on the ship’s stationery, and like me he kept a journal. ‘There’s something about being at the top of the world that’s exhilarating,’ said Buzz. ‘We set up a baseball diamond and played a game of softball at the North Pole, and a group of younger passengers even took an extremely brief swim. The adventure was priceless.’

Advertisements

Nick Smith’s feature on travelling in northern Kenya – ‘A New Take on Africa’ – as published in the Daily Telegraph 27th February 2010

March 8, 2010

A new take on Africa

Beloved by honeymooners in the Seventies, Kenya is back and it’s better than ever. But if you want to beat the crowds it’s best to head north, says Nick Smith

A herd of 36 elephants cross a river in the Samburu reserve

A herd of 36 elephants cross a river in the Samburu reserve. Photo: Nick Smith

It’s easy to get a bit blasé about Kenya. But for many of us it will have been our first brush with Big Africa, an unforgettable leap into the glamorous, romantic world of the safari. Ask anyone about Kenya and they’ve either ‘been there, done that’ or don’t intend to, because it’s no longer fashionable, having tailed off in popularity since its heyday as a honeymoon destination in the 1970s.

Back then it was all about the wildlife, chasing around the bush in safari minivans ticking off the ‘Big Five’. Then it was watching the sunset silhouetted through an acacia tree, with an unopened copy of ‘Out of Africa’ to hand, sloshing down G&Ts. But Kenya’s back with a bang and has reinvented itself, providing so much more than lions, leopards and white-gloved colonial ambience.

Today’s Kenyan safari lodge is much more of an all-round experience, with many supporting their local indigenous communities with craft and health projects. This so-called ethical approach aims to redistribute income from your visit to the people who need it most. As the droughts become more frequent and prolonged, responsible tourism of this kind has never been needed more.

My trip to Northern Kenya was arranged for me by Imagine Africa, a London-based independent specialising in off-the-beaten-track trips to less well-known parts. Managing Director Ben Morison knows Kenya well. He says that for those who’ve been there before, or think they know what it’s like, there are big surprises on offer. ‘Up North you’ll meet the Samburu tribe – if you’re lucky they might even take you for to see where they live.’ The message is, go up-country.

By ‘north’ Morison means north of the Equator, where the landscape is more rugged, with fewer humans and isolated lodges brimming with character. My adventure started with a short hop in a ‘Caravan’ light aircraft past Mount Kenya to the evocative Saruni lodge on the fringe of the Samburu Park. ‘Nowhere gives you a better sense of space than Saruni, arguably the best view in Kenya,’ says Morison.

As we drive from the bumpy earthen airstrip to Saruni lodge we pass through sweeping grassland that’s littered with giant igneous outcrops that form the dramatic skyline. With its diaphanous blue and red plumage, the aptly named superb starling is a constant companion as we spot impala, oryx and gerenuk on the plains. Late in the afternoon we encounter a herd of thirty-six elephants silently ambling up to the waterhole at the base of the kopje on which Saruni sits. In the Samburu language ‘Saruni’ means sanctuary.

When the dirt track runs out my guide selects the low-ratio gearbox and we head straight up a steep rock face and climb steadily. With its tubular steel and sailcloth construction, Saruni seems a touch modernistic for such a landscape, and yet it blends in so well it’s almost invisible. After dark we descend to the foot of the outcrop for a bush dinner where the Samburu people gather to entertain us, singing and dancing in the light of the stars and some old hurricane lanterns.

Leaving Saruni, I’m met at the airstrip by Andrew Francombe of Ol Malo lodge in his 6-seater Cessna. As we fly west along a brown muddy river he tells me that Ol Malo is about as remote as it gets. The nearest lodge is more than 20km away. ‘Down South,’ he says, ‘you can see the animals. But up north you see Africa.’

In Ol Malo – ‘the place of the greater Kudu’ in Samburu – I spend less time in a Land Rover and more walking through the bush. This is a better way to learn about the landscape, with my guides explaining the whistling thorns and baboon spiders, and pointing out tawny eagles building nests. When the sun gets too hot to go on foot you can trek by camel. But not until you’ve sampled a ‘Bush Cappuccino’ – hot, frothy milk straight from the camel, mixed with a spoonful of coffee granules.

As the sun reaches its zenith I dismount, and while my guides sit in the shade of a flat-top acacia I walk slowly up to a herd of reticulated giraffe, a rare specimen that’s not seen in the wild down south. Often thought of as the most handsome of all giraffes, its patches are rich red in colour, interspersed with a mesh of white lines from which it gets its name. Then it’s lunch by the river, and a quick dip while elegant citrus swallowtail butterflies flit in the hot breeze.

But it’s not all about the animals. While at Ol Malo I visit a local manyatta or village where the semi-nomadic Samburu people set up camp. Here I see young warriors dancing in their traditional red and white costumes, hair braided and dripping with beaded necklaces, bracelets and anklets. As the sun sets, the men continue dancing and are still to be heard way into the night.

I say goodbye to my hosts at the airstrip and head back to Nairobi on the caravan, where I can’t resist visiting the farm where Karen Blixen lived almost a century ago. Here the old colonial ‘Out of Africa’ Kenya will always be a popular literary fossil. But the magic of Kenya remains, waiting to be rediscovered.

Way to go

Imagine Africa has 7-day tailor-made safaris to Northern Kenya from £2,695 per person. Includes flights, transfers, accommodation, meals and drinks and safari activities. Call 0207 622 5114, or visit www.ImagineAfrica.co.uk

Nick Smith interviews extreme photographer Gordon Wiltsie in Outdoor Photography magazine

October 15, 2009

The Call of the Wild

Dangling off a craggy cliff face in the name of work is not a daunting prospect for adventure photographer Gordon Wiltsie. Nick Smith hears his story…

After more than three decades as a professional photographer, Gordon Wiltsie is known as one of the best adventure and expedition photographers out there. Brought up among the wide-open spaces he started off as a keen mountaineer studying chemistry, before a chance meeting with Galen Rowell lead him to his true vocation. He quickly switched his academic interest to the creative fields, but before long realised that he simply wanted to be in the mountains with his camera.

After a ‘long hold-out to film’ Gordon switched to digital two years ago and says he’ll never go back. But it’s not as though he’s a newcomer to digital because he’s been scanning his old transparencies for a decade now, in order to supply them to magazines, and to build up his photographic library – Alpenimage – a famous resource for art directors on the lookout for unusual adventure images.

Gordon has ‘done a lot of work for National Geographic and Geo’ as well as broader cultural photography, and has recently won the 2008 Lowell Thomas Award for best Magazine Travel Photography for his piece in National Geographic Adventure on Russian reindeer nomads called ‘Vanishing Breed’. He has contributed to many books, and his most recent is To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Gordon Wiltsie: When I was 17 I met a guy called Galen Rowell. He wasn’t even a famous photographer at that time, but he’d had stuff printed in various magazines, and I thought: ‘wow, if this guy can do it then so can I…’ To make that kind of assumption was a bit ridiculous.

NS: What was your first camera?

GW: I got a Brownie when I was 8 and I had some ancient Kodak bellows camera from the 1920s. But finally my parents bought me a Pentax Spotmatic and I’d say that was my first real camera which I had until I accidentally backed my car over it.

NS: What formal training do you have?

GW: I started off as a political science major and then I became a chemistry major and then I wanted to go to Nepal, which was a life dream. So I changed my major to creative writing and photography. But I’d say I’m largely self-taught.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

GW: It’s important to be known for something. For a long time I was known for ski, mountain and adventure photography. Going to really wild places that no one had ever really been before was my niche. If it was cold, miserable and dangerous, editors would send me.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

GW: There are two actually. My assignment to Queen Maud Land in Antarctica was probably the best adventure because it worked so well for me as an expedition leader as well as photographer – it was my first cover story for National Geographic. The other one was a story I did of a migration in Mongolia. It was an unbelievable human story experience.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

GW: Uncertainty. Because I’m freelance my employer is me. Also, with the advent of digital photography and easy-to-use cameras the supply of photography outstrips the demand and as a result quality falls off as some magazines realise they don’t have to pay so much for photographs.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

GW: I used to always shoot film because I thought that it gave a better image in the long run. I do a lot of lecturing and I thought slide shows using real film looked better than digital. Bt the latitude you can get out of digital compared with film is astonishing.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’re learned from another photographer?

GW: I went on to assist Galen Rowell and he became a bit of a mentor. I learned a lot from him, but the most important thing was always ‘be ready with your camera set to go’. Other photographers who really inspire me are Steve McCurry, Reza, Bill Allard. They’re all trying to capture a moment in time with their own different way of seeing things.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

GW: For me it is a means of communicating a human relationship with a natural world that is beyond description in words. People sometimes call me a landscape photographer, but I’m not. I’m a people photographer.

NS: What makes a great travel photograph?

GW: Two things here: one is a travel story where there are ten different pictures that add up to something. But a single great photo needs a human element, it has to make you want to me there – or not want to be there – and it has to have some emotional component to it.

Gordon’s FIVE golden rules

1 Use the simplest lightest gear

2 Be prepared and ready for action

3 Simplify things – home in on what is important

4 Patience is important – wait for the shot

5 Build trust rust is important in cultural photography

Gordon’s gear:

Cameras: Nikon FM-2, Nikon D200

Lenses: Nikkor 12-24mm f/4, 35-70mm f/2.8, 80-200mm f/2.8, 400mm

Accessories: remote switch, monopod, polarising filter, split ND filter, flash

***

To the Ends of the Earth: Adventures of an Expedition Photographer by Gordon Wiltsie is available on Amazon

Nick Smith’s recent Daily Telegraph article on traveling through Iran (full text)

May 14, 2009

Priceless Persia

Modern Iran can provide a desert adventure with a real difference. Nick Smith spent a fortnight driving across old Persia, soaking up the ruins, mosques and bazaars

My first encounter with Iran was reading Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, a classic that for many still defines the romance of Persia. Byron travelled to that most famous of ruined desert cities – Persepolis – and described in minute architectural detail the splendours of Iran’s great mosques in Esfahan and Yazd. Oxiana has proved so enduringly popular that Iran has become an imperative for the adventurous traveller. Anyone wishing to sample the splendours that await should pay a visit to the British Museum’s current exhibition Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran.

As a destination Iran can match the grand scale archaeology of ancient Egypt or Jordan, the souks and bazaars of Morocco or Tunisia, or the deserts of northern Africa. And yet, unlike these tried and tested destinations, Iran is blissfully free of package tourists. You will often find that you have archaeological sites all to yourself. Sadly too many people are put off travelling through this exquisite country because of concerns over safety.

My tour of Iran started before I even got to Heathrow. As I packed I listened to Radio 4’s Excess Baggage where John McCarthy discussed Iran with Amelia Stewart of Simoon Travel, a specialist in the region. We’ve all got the wrong idea, said Amelia. These days Iran is safe for everyone. Even women? Especially women. It’s always a good idea to check the Foreign Office ‘travel advisories’ before going anywhere further afield than Spain, but there’s hardly ever any need for special caution when it comes to Iran.

By pure coincidence Amelia was to be my guide for my fortnight in Iran. We met at Tehran before flying south to Shiraz to begin our winding journey across the high salt deserts of old Persia. This ancient Iranian capital city, despite its name, no longer exports fruity red wines, but is now famous for its serene rose gardens, the imposing architecture of the Regent’s Mosque and for being home to the tombs of the great Persian poets Hafiz and Sa’di. Most tours of Iran start in Shiraz because of its proximity to Persepolis, the ruined summer capital of Darius the Great. The bas-reliefs of the procession of the tributary nations on the stairway of the Apandana are a glorious reminder of the achievements of the ancient world.

After Persepolis my tour moved to the tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam, one of the most important Achaemenian and Sasanian sites in the country. Four immense royal tombs have been hewn out of a sheer cliff face in a feat of civil engineering to rival the Pyramids at Giza. Opposite lies the Cube of Zoroaster, thought by archaeologists to be another royal tomb or fire temple. We visited more Zoroastrian sites in Yazd where a sacred flame has burned uninterrupted for 1,500 years. Just outside today’s modern city are the gruesome Towers of Silence where bodies of the dead were, until the 1970s, left exposed to the sky to be picked clean by vultures and crows.

Threading our way through the great mountainous expanse of the Dasht-e Lut desert we stopped for the night at a restored Silk Road caravanserai at Zeinoddin. Here we drank cups of tea sweetened with saffron sugar before experiencing Iranian cuisine in all its glory. A local dish called fesenjan, a type of bitter stew made with pomegranates and walnuts, is served with rice and slices of watermelon, dates, cherries, peaches and dried apples. It’s all washed down with doogh, a refreshing mint flavoured yoghurt drink.

All roads it seems lead to Isfahan, one of the great cities of the Islamic world and the capital of the founding father of modern Iran, Shah ‘Abbas. Isfahan’s Royal Square boasts the two most glorious mosques in Iran – those of Shaykh Lutfallah and Masjid-i Shah – as well as the magnificent Ali Qapu palace. For the souvenir hunter the labyrinthine bazaar sell carpets, silverware and antiques. Horse-drawn carriages take tourists on trips around the city, while side roads dotted with comfortable teahouses drift down to the river where herons and egrets fish at sunset by Isfahan’s famous bridges.

Travelling in the Islamic world requires some knowledge of the basic etiquette, but you might be surprised by how liberal day-to-day Iran can be. Iran – or Persia as you will end up calling it – is relaxed to the point of being laid back, and the people are the friendliest you will meet anywhere. Complete strangers will ply you with tea and invitations to their houses. The only thing a Westerner could ever possibly feel uncomfortable about is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the generosity of the local people.