Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours: Blog https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog en-us (C) Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours [email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) Mon, 08 May 2023 10:18:00 GMT Mon, 08 May 2023 10:18:00 GMT https://purplepeakadventures.com/img/s/v-12/u110460762-o631242802-50.jpg Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours: Blog https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog 84 120 Trekking the ‘Granite Kingdom’: A Five-Day Circuit of the West Penwith Peninsula, Cornwall https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2021/6/trekking-the-granite-kingdom-a-five-day-circuit-of-the-west-penwith-peninsula-cornwall Stormy seas at Crowns engine houses, BotallackStormy seas at Crowns engine houses, BotallackHuge waves break on the rocks below the Crowns pumping and winding engine houses, Botallack Mine, Cornwall

The powder-blue sky is full of screaming gulls and cawing crows. Amid the aerial melee, two circling buzzards are mewing loudly to one another. Many metres below them, we are traversing the West Penwith peninsula in Cornwall, through an ancient, largely unchanged landscape. Isolated farmsteads are set within an intricate patchwork quilt of irregularly shaped fields enclosed by earth hedge-banks faced with granite rocks which are havens for wildlife. Those around Zennor Head were constructed 4,600 years ago, and are among the oldest manmade artefacts known to be still in use for their original purpose. Undulating across the countryside, they tumble towards cliff edges and sweep up to tracts of moorland to merge with gnarly granite tors. In the Neolithic and Bronze Age, the hills hereabouts were crowned with megalithic monuments, and in the Iron Age some were repurposed as hill forts.

Timeless footpaths worn bare by countless generations, from farmers and tinners, to saints and seiners, meander across the countryside in all directions like the threads of a giant web, linking places with exotic-sounding names of Cornish language derivation. These encapsulate the links forged between our distant ancestors and the discrete features of the landscape in which they lived, worked, and died. The continued usage of these Cornish place names forms an unbroken cultural chain that nourishes a sense of belonging.


In our oft-confusing and rapidly changing world, it’s a comfort to return to places that ‘anchor’ you. West Penwith, which has largely escaped the scourge of out of control development blighting modern Cornwall and whence some of my bloodlines spring, has always been my Shangri-la, a place little changed since my childhood. My roots run deep in this ancient land and I find solace here, especially so during a tumultuous year dominated by Covid-19 when I yearned to return to my homeland from Donegal. Now freed from the fetters of lockdown, with the sound of Atlantic rollers crashing in my ears, the salt-laden wind caressing my face, and the autumn sunshine warming my back, I’m finally ‘home’, and I feel as free as the birds circling high above me.


And did those feet...

It's mid-autumn and Martin and I are en route to Zennor from St Ives, day one of a five-day circuit of the ‘Granite Kingdom’ of West Penwith. We’ll spend the first four days trekking around 70km from St Ives to Penzance which offers some of the finest cliff walking along the entire 1,014km South West Coast Path (SWCP). The final day will take us almost 20km across country from Penzance to St Ives along St Michael's Way, an ancient route used by Irish and Welsh pilgrims who came by sea to the sheltered Hayle Estuary to avoid the perilous sea passage around Land’s End. From there they travelled overland to Marazion to take ship to France on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Opened in 2004, St Michael’s Way is the only pilgrimage route in Britain officially recognised as part of the Camino de Santiago.



Campsites and B&Bs are now closed, so by necessity we are discreetly wild camping until we reach Penzance. During the peak holiday season, this wouldn't be possible as suitable camping spots along the coastline are hard to find and the land is either in private ownership, or in the care of the National Trust which does not permit wild camping. There are numerous B&B's in West Cornwall and companies that specialise in transferring your luggage from one accommodation to another, as well as many excellent official campsites along the route, so please respect Cornwall and its communities, abide by the rules and always leave no trace.


After arriving on the train from Redruth, we set out from St Ives Railway Station, stopping on the harbour to buy a couple of Cornish pasties for supper. This old fishing town languishes in exquisite light, reflected back off the sea, sand, and granite buildings, bathing everything in a luxurious Mediterranean-white glow. In the mid-twentieth century, it became something of a Mecca for artists drawn by the primitive and elemental landscape of West Penwith, and the sublime quality of the light. The SWCP passes below The Tate St Ives, a striking building constructed to showcase the work of the St Ives School of Artists and includes pieces by Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Bernard Leach and Peter Lanyon.

St IvesSt IvesThe harbour front at St Ives, where we began our five-day trek of West Penwith
Today’s section of the route is particularly challenging, following the ins and outs of headlands and inlets, passing through remote and rugged countryside with numerous steep ascents and descents of valleys. Often it resembles a threadbare tightrope suspended between sea and land, surrounded by salt spray, wild winds and whirling gulls; sometimes it’s very muddy, or stony and indistinct, an actual scramble in places. We scurry along it like giant beetles, swaying under the weight of our heavy packs. The aqua-hued Atlantic is still unsettled by the recent passage of Storm Epsilon, and the sea is dotted with scores of white horses which rear up majestically as they gallop ashore.

South West Coastal Path between St Ives and ZennorSouth West Coastal Path between St Ives and ZennorThe aqua-hued Atlantic is still unsettled by the recent passage of Storm Epsilon

We pause at the trig point at Carn Naun to admire the view of The Carracks, home to a colony of grey seals, before dropping into a valley where a stream plunges over the cliffs as an impressive waterfall. A spectacular view over the maritime heath and grassland and of the rugged granite cliffs of the Zennor coastline ravishes the eye from Mussel Point, before the path plunges down to Wicca Pool over a series of knee-crunching boulders. We thought this was tricky, but after another wearisome ascent to Tregurthen cliffs, onetime home of novelist, D.H. Lawrence, the path descends steeply towards the rocky shoreline through an immense boulder field, which proves awkward to navigate with our large packs.

Trig point at Carn NaunTrig point at Carn NaunFine views are enjoyed from Carn Naun

We’ve walked almost 13km when we pause at the rocky tor on Zennor Head above Pendour Cove, where the Mermaid of Zennor (in the famous Cornish droll story) allegedly lured a local boy to a watery death. After trudging down more than 100 granite steps to a bridge at Carn Cobba, the light is fading and I seek out a discreet camping spot off the path, somewhat difficult along a coastline dominated by dense scrub falling steeply seaward. Local knowledge comes in handy as I make my way down a steep and indistinct path towards Veor Cove to a perfectly flat rectangular patch of grass not consumed by bracken on the cliff top. After erecting our tent, we greedily consume our pasties. Belly full and snuggled up in my sleeping bag, waves of fatigue immediately wash over me and I drift off to sleep serenaded by the steady symphony of Atlantic breakers crashing ashore, intermingled with the low, plaintive moans of seals and the squeaky cries of oystercatchers on the beach below.

Wild CampWild CampOur wild camping spot at Vear Cove near Zennor


A trail of two halves

We are woken by sparrows squabbling noisily in the nearby blackthorn bushes as the first light of dawn begins to seep like pink ink into puffs of cotton wool-cloud. It’s unseasonably warm and there is scarcely any condensation on the flysheet. Within an hour we have broken camp and are on the cliff path leading to Carnelloe headland. It looks dead, cold and bracken-brown, until the rising sun clears Zennor Hill, whereupon it immediately explodes into life, resplendent in the rich russets and golds of autumn. It promises to be another glorious day.


The first section of today’s 21km walk traverses a bucolic haven forming part of an Environmentally Sensitive Area. A narrow patchwork quilt of prehistoric field systems lies between sea and moor, protected by grants that allow farmers to work the land using traditional methods which has safeguarded the timelessness of this special landscape. The second section enters an altogether different landscape which fans of the TV blockbuster series Poldark will instantly recognise, and which forms a part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site.

South West Coast Path between Zennor and PendeenSouth West Coast Path between Zennor and PendeenThe colour of the sea is stunning along this stretch of the SWCP

The views from Carnelloe to Gurnard’s Head over Porthglaze Cove, a delightful expanse of turquoise-blue water, are magnificent. At Boswednack we encounter our first mine engine house, forlorn and fractured as an old tooth, and the history keeps coming as we pause to view Gurnard’s Head, site of the Trereen Dinas Iron Age promontory fort with the remains of 18 hut circles. There are many such ‘castles’ along our Cornish coastline. These strategic and prestigious sites were undoubtedly sacred places to our distant forbears, which existed between sea, land, and sky, where the boundaries between worlds merged. Archaeologists have speculated that they probably had a multitude of uses, including religious, ceremonial, trade and administrative functions.

Gurnard’s HeadGurnard’s HeadGurnard’s Head is the site of the Trereen Dinas Iron Age promontory fort

Above Porthmeor Cove a footbridge passes over a cellophane-clear stream where we collect some drinking water. The sun is hot on our backs as we clamber over ancient granite stiles and pass hedges fringed with pink campion, briars of salt-speckled juicy blackberries, and blackthorn bushes heavy with sloes.

Ancient StileAncient StileSqueezing through the ancient granite stiles was fun with large rucksacks! Resisting the temptation to gaze only seawards, my eyes alight on the rocky tors atop Carn Galver and Watchcroft and the twin engine houses of Carn Galver Mine dramatically nestled below.

Carn Galver Mine near ZennorCarn Galver Mine near ZennorThe extant of Carn Galver Mine as seen from the SWCP

Behind the remains of a tin dressing water mill at Bosigran, loom the craggy granite buttresses of Commando Ridge rising from the Mediterranean-blue waters of Porthmoina Cove like spine of a giant marine reptile. It acquired this name when the Marine Commando Cliff Assault Wing trained here in the 1940s and 50s, and having scaled it several years ago, we can vouch for the fact that it's one of the best ridge climbs in Britain.

Commando RidgeCommando RidgeMartin passes in front of one of Britain's best ridge climbs

The path now traverses high cliffs matted with sweet-smelling gorse and areas of boulders and bog, before it descends steeply towards the flaxen-coloured sand of Portheras Cove. Above it, the 17-metre-high white tower of Pendeen Watch rides the flank of the cliff.

Portheras CovePortheras CovePortheras Cove below the lighthouse at Pendeen Watch

Past the lighthouse the scenery changes dramatically and the level gravel trackways make walking easier. Ahead is a forest of mine chimneys surrounded by otherworldly hummocks of multi-coloured mineral-stained dumps. Worked since antiquity but now abandoned, these mines include Geevor and Levant, both museums. The path passes right through the dressing floors of the former mine, where my paternal great grandfather was the chief mining engineer.

Further along the exposed moorland of gorse and heather is the famous Botallack Mine, home to the iconic Crowns engine houses, dramatically perched right above the seething ocean on exposed rock-cut platforms. The waves are tremendous, and the sound of them booming into zawns (sea caves) at the base of the cliffs below is exhilarating. Now in the care of the National Trust, Crowns has been a tourist hotspot since the mid-1860s after a visit by the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Appearing as Wheal Grambler in the new series of Poldark will undoubtedly ensure the site's continuing appeal.

Botallack mineBotallack mineHigh seas batter the old Cornish pumoing engine at Botallack Mine, Cornwall

Salt spray gently touches my face as we head across the cliffs towards the Wheal Owles engine house, its weathered granite façade glowing honey-gold in the early evening sun. This served as Poldark’s Wheal Leisure. Deep within its labyrinthine workings lie the remains of nineteen men and a boy who lost their lives in 1893 when a team of miners accidentally blasted into the flooded workings of a neighbouring mine.  

Wheal OwlesWheal OwlesThis engine house featured in Poldark as Wheal Leisure

Once past neighbouring Wheal Edward, we pause at Kenidjack Castle to watch the sinking sun floating above the horizon like a giant Chinese lantern. Silhouetted against the burnished gold of sea and sky, the Isles of Scilly look abnormally close to shore. As we ascend Kenidjack valley, the nineteenth century chimney of Cape Cornwall Mine (purchased in 1987 for the nation by the H. J. Heinz Company) is etched in pin sharp detail against the beautiful post-sunset amber glow over sea and sky. Finally, I spot the twin-peaks of the Brisons, an islet lying just offshore, meaning it’s not far to our intended camping spot, but my legs protest bitterly as I climb the steep rocky path towards Bollowall Beacon.

Cape Cornwall from Kenidjack CastleCape Cornwall from Kenidjack CastleThe chimney of Cape Cornwall Mine is silhouetted against the burnished ocean Wood smoke from cottages several hundred metres away wafts on the wind as we descend the trail into Cot Valley, a delightful small cove littered with large, ovoid boulders which resemble a clutch of eggs laid by a sea serpent. The light on the western horizon is a chrome-orange line merging to indigo as we make a beeline for a tiny, yet level grassy cliff ledge just off the SWCP at Carn Leskys.

It’s sheltered, well away from prying eyes, and offers grandstand views towards Sennen Cove. By the time we’ve pitched the tent, darkness has fallen, the Milky Way has begun its celestial journey across the heavens and the entire sky is ablaze with stars.

Wild CampWild CampA narrow ledge at Carn Leskys with an incredible view


Round the land's end

We are woken by a noisy kestrel shrieking atop on the rocks behind our tent. Beyond the Brisons, the pre-dawn sky is candy-pink and a dewy light softens the sea and the land’s rich autumnal colours to the pastel shades of an Impressionist painting. Before we break camp, we collect some drinking water from the tiny stream flowing through Cot Valley before beginning the 20km trek to Treryn Dinas, which will take us around the tip of Cornwall and through some of the most wild and dramatic scenery yet.


Past Gribba Point the wind in our faces makes the going tough, and there are a couple of steep descents almost to sea level and a few rocky tors to scramble over before we approach Whitesand Bay. The tide is almost in as we walk across the fine golden sand, watching surfers catching the aqua-hued waves. After crossing a series of sand dunes covered in lush swathes of marram grass whipped into a frenzy in the ceaseless wind, we reach Sennen Cove where the tide is dramatically washing over the harbour breakwater. This quaint fishing village, now unfortunately blighted by holiday lets, an all too common occurence in Cornwall, is deadly quiet as we walk through it to take the steep cliff path towards an old coastguard Lookout.

The well-trodden path to Land’s End traverses wind-cropped heathland studded with lichen-encrusted boulders, passing Maen Castle and the wreck of the RMS Mülheim, which foundered en route from Ireland to Germany in 2003. Carefully descending the slippery, rocky gully, between the veils of sea spray we catch sight of the twisted mass of metal being buffeted by the raging tide.

The wreck of RMS MülheimThe wreck of RMS MülheimA descent down a very slippery and dangerous gully gave us this heartstopping view of the RMS Mülheim

It’s eerily deserted at the boarded-up First and Last shop at Land’s End where the wind is ferocious, the salt-laden air is full of whirling, shrieking seagulls, and the petrol-blue Atlantic is crashing round the Longships Lighthouse 2km offshore. Past the monstrosity of the Land's End Hotel, which has annoyingly commercialised what was once a picturesque and free-to-visit spot, the granite cliffs are truly majestic. Weathered into mysterious totem pole-like formations bristling with lichen, they appear as timeless sentries that stare off into the Atlantic.

Enys Dodnan sea arch, Lands EndEnys Dodnan sea arch, Lands EndWaves break around the base of the Enys Dodnan sea arch near Lands End, Cornwall

Keenly eyed by a couple of cawing choughs, we stop to photograph the Enys Dodnan sea arch before continuing along the muddy track. It’s precariously close to the cliff edge at Nanjizal where the surf is pounding the rocks below and the air rushes upwards carrying a jet of cold, oxegenated sea spray. What an exhilarating antidote for the Covid-19 blues!

NanjizalNanjizalWaves crash against the cliffs below the SWCP at Nanjizal

Just before the steep climb out of the valley, the path crosses the top of the beach opposite Zawn Pyg (pointed cave), an arch at the end of a tall, narrow passageway fronted by attractive aquamarine pools, which has been dubbed the 'Song of the Sea'. However, I rather suspect that instead of being a natural phenomenon eroded by wave action, it's a man made feature caused by the extraction of a narrow lode of tin bearing rock many hundreds of years ago. For a few weeks in the autumn, the setting sun casts a magnificent golden glow through this arch and zawn.

Zawn Pyg, NanjizalZawn Pyg, NanjizalThe setting sun shines through the arch at Zawn Pyg for a few weeks in the autumn

After a stretch of stunted heathland patrolled by a kestrel, we arrive at the National Coast Watch Station at Gwennap Head. Thereafter the vegetation becomes luxuriant, sporting vivid patches of wildflowers, and the air is heavy with the sharp tang of nettles and bracken as we descend the steep path to Porthgwarra, a picturesque fishing cove with a tunnel blasted through the cliffs to the beach, which also featured in Poldark.

PorthgwarraPorthgwarraAnother Poldark location, Porthgwarra is a picturesque fishing cove with a tunnel blasted through the cliffs to the beach.

Although tired, I rally as we approach The Minack, a unique open-air cliff face theatre, but by the time I have trudged down over 150 steps to the beautiful beach at Porthcurno, site of a former submarine communications cable station, my feet are in agony and I barely notice the beauty of the aquamarine sea washing its white-sand shore.

PorthcurnoPorthcurnoThe incredible white sand beach at Porthcurno

Sunset is less than an hour away but we deviate from the path to admire the Caribbean-esque beach of Pedn an Vounder, poster child for Cornwall’s most stunning beaches, before tucking our tent behind a hedge just off the SWCP at Treryn Dinas promontory fort.

Pedn-an-Vounder BeachPedn-an-Vounder BeachRated one of the finest beaches in Britain



It rained heavily in the night but I was too exhausted to notice. The wind has finally dropped, it’s overcast and the path is slick with mud as we begin the 17km trek to Penzance, a challenging section through remote wooded valleys and coves and along rugged cliff tops, before the descent to the fishing village of Mousehole. After that, it’s a level trudge along pavements and promenades through Newlyn to Penzance.


Past Cribba Head the path falls steeply towards the picture-postcard pretty fishing hamlet of Penberth Cove, another Poldark location, which features a granite cobblestone slipway atop which sits an enormous wooden capstan. A set of stepping stones cross the river here and the steep cliff path out of it is a scramble in places as we head towards St Loy.

Penberth CovePenberth CovePenberth Cove featured in the Poldark series
I can’t believe the number of spring and summer flowers still in bloom along this section of coast which has a sub-tropical climate, most noticeably the thickly wooded valley of St Loy, where exotic vegetation graces the houses’ gardens. Here we emerge from hedges of wispy tamarisk to cross the top of a bay comprised of slippery ovoid boulders dating to the early Quaternary. St LoySt LoyThe lush, sub-tropical vegetation in the picturesque wooded valley at St Loy

We are then delivered into the skeletal arms of stunted oak and sycamore, before passing onto open cliff approaching the lighthouse at Tater-Du, built in 1965.

Tater-Du LighthouseTater-Du LighthouseGorse covers the cliffs near Tater-Du Lighhouse Tater-Du LighthouseTater-Du LighthouseThe SWCP passes right above the lighthouse, built in 1965

Wraith-like strands of mist envelop the coast as we near the fishing cove of Lamorna, where a tricky decent brings us to the deserted harbour. The light is fading rapidly but the going is easier on a track crossing the cliff top where we finally glimpse St Michael’s Mount, a rocky island connected to Marazion by a tidal causeway. The sweet aroma of woodsmoke welcomes us to Mousehole as we trudge down the steep hill to its quaint harbour. Many of the old fishermen's cottages and the pubs are dark and unwelcoming, a combination of forced Covid-19 closure and the curse of second homes and holiday lets, but golden rectangles of light emanating from the windows of those that are occupied contrast with the lavender-blue of the early evening sky and twinkle in the inky water below.

Mousehole HarbourMousehole HarbourThe pretty fisherman's cottages during the blue hour at Mousehole

The lights of Penzance don’t appear to be getting any closer as we pass through the narrow streets of Newlyn. The pungent scent of fish hangs in the air in this, one of Britain’s largest fishing ports, where we pause to wolf down fish and chips which have never tasted this good! The path along Penzance's promenade seems to take forever and I’m exhausted by the time we reach our harbourside hotel, where sleep hits me like a speeding freight train after a welcome hot shower.


Journey through a land of saints and giants

The rising sun warms our chilled faces as we arrive at the mouth of the Red River opposite St Michael’s Mount, scattering a large flock of dunlin. Here we pick up the first scalloped-shell signpost for St Michael’s Way, which will take us through a land of saints and giants. The iconic Mount, a former Benedictine Priory, now a castle, is thought to be the Island of Ictis where tin was traded in prehistory. It’s Cornish name, Carrek Loes yn Coes (grey rock in the wood), recalls a time when Mount’s Bay was densely forested, before rising sea levels submerged the trees. The beach is deserted, all bar a couple of distant dog walkers and a group of intrepid middle aged ladies who are enjoying a bracing dawn dip in the tranquil sea.

Sunrise over St Michael's MountSunrise over St Michael's MountA quiet dawn breaks over St Micheal's Mount, Mount's Bay, Marazion, Cornwall

A thin band of translucent mist hovers over the Marazion Marsh RSPB reserve. The vegetation near the river is white with hoar frost, and the lowest branches of the willow trees are frosted like the velvet on a stag's antlers. Once over the Great Western Railway track, a raised boardwalk crosses a reed bed full of pools of ink-black water which form mirrors reflecting the eggshell-blue sky. We startle a heron hidden amid the whispering rushes, which rises awkwardly on sail-like wings.

Signpost for St Michael's WaySignpost for St Michael's WaySt Michael's Way, officially recognised as a pilgrimage route (Camino de Santiago) to Santiago de Compostela

The long, wet grass rasps at our gaiters as we cross several dew-soaked roadway fields abetween the busy A394 and A30, heading towards the imposing 15th-century granite tower of Ludgvan Church, allegedly founded by 6th-century Irish missionary, St Ludewon. The church is built on the site of an ancient Celtic lan, or circular enclosure, and the current churchyard follows its outline. Water from a nearby holy well was believed to cure blindness, and it was also claimed that those baptised in its waters would never be hanged.

Ludgvan ChurchLudgvan ChurchLudgvan Church, allegedly founded by 6th-century Irish missionary, St Ludewon.

Above the church door is a carved figure leaning on a staff and wearing what is claimed to be a broad-brimmed pilgrim's hat. Discovered in the wall of the rectory garden, it could also represent a monk with a spade in one hand and a cross in the other, although some have speculated that it's St Ludewon himself. What is certain, is that the pilgrims of old paused to pray here at Ludgvan and to obtain local guides prior to crossing the wooded marshlands which were infested with brigands.


It's worth looking inside the church, one of the last to hold services in the Cornish language after the imposition of the Book of Common Prayer in the English language which was fiercely resisted the length and breadth of Cornwall in the sixteenth century. Here are memorials to the great eighteenth century Rector of Ludgvan and Cornish antiquarian, William Borlase, author of the influential book Natural History of Cornwall (1758), and Humphrey Davy, President of the Royal Society, who died in 1829 and was buried in Geneva. He invented the Davy safety lamp which safeguarded the lives of generations of coal miners.


From the church, the route descends steeply amid woodland and over streams running through steep meadow-sided valleys grazed by creme-caramel coloured cattle. A ford (and footbridge) crosses the Red River, before the path traverses umpteen stiles and rough meadows to the foot of the gorse-covered Trencrom Hill (175m). 

St Michael's MountSt Michael's MountSt Michael's Mount from Trencrom Hill

It’s worth the short detour to gain the rock-strewn summit, a former Neolithic tor enclosure/Iron Age hill fort, and home of the legendary giant Trecobben. The droll stories of West Penwith tell how he and Cormoran, the giant of St Michael’s Mount, supposedly enjoyed hurling huge boulders to each other, hence so many littering the area! Sitting on one such boulder warmed by the strong autumn sun, we scoff sandwiches brought earlier in Penzance, enjoying the extensive views over the ‘Granite Kingdom’, including an unsual obelisk on Worvas Hill, our next destination.


After descending Trencrom Hill and crossing the road near Bowl Rock (an enormous granite boulder supposedly hurled by Trecobben), the route follows a series of minor roads and trackways towards the 15-metre-high granite obelisk. This Grade II* Listed structure was erected in 1782 as a mausoleum and memorial for a former mayor of St. Ives, John Knill. He prescribed a quinquennial ceremony on St. James the Apostle’s Day involving ten young dancing girls dressed in white from the families of fishermen, two widows clad in black, and a fiddler to play the 'Furry Dance', which is still performed today.

Knill Monument, Worvas HillKnill Monument, Worvas HillThe Grade II* Listed granite obelisk built by former St Ives Mayor, John Knill

After descending Worvas Hill to Carbis Bay, we leave St Michael’s Way (which continues to Lelant) and re-join the SWCP to St. Ives, which threads its way along a delightful wooded track above the turquoise waters and beautiful golden sandy beaches of Carbis Bay and St Ives. The façades of the town’s cottages are burnished bronze in the setting sun as we reach the Railway Station to catch the train back to Redruth after completing one of our most enjoyable treks.

Porthminster Beach, St IvesPorthminster Beach, St IvesCrossing the golden sands of Porthminster Beach near the Railway Station at St Ives at the end of our 5-day trek

In a year when our personal freedoms have been curtailed in ways we would once have believed impossible, contact with blue-green spaces has never been as important for our mental health and wellbeing. The benefit of the last five days of unbridled freedom during a much longed-for return home and a welcome reprieve from the doom and gloom of the pandemic, has been incalculable. I feel truly revived after communing with nature amid the grandeur and magnificence of the ancient landscapes of Cornwall’s ‘Granite Kingdom’.


We run phototours to Cornwall throughout the year. Contact us for a bespoke tour.


[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) beaches Britain camping coast footpath Cornwall Europe heritage history photography phototour SWCP trekking World Heritage Site https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2021/6/trekking-the-granite-kingdom-a-five-day-circuit-of-the-west-penwith-peninsula-cornwall Sun, 13 Jun 2021 16:51:27 GMT
58° North: An Orcadian Odyssey https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2020/6/58-north-an-orcadian-odyssey Fire in the sky at the Ring of BrodgarFire in the sky at the Ring of BrodgarThe dawn sky lights up behind the Neolithic Ring of Brodgar, Mainland, Orkney

The Orkney Islands, an archipelago anchored just several kilometres off John O’Groats in the far north of Scotland, have a total population of about 20,000. In all, there are some 70 islands, only 21 of which are inhabited, covering 974 square kilometres. These shards of emerald scattered across a silver sea, are the very epitome of a palimpsest of history. From the thriving and enigmatic Neolithic era, through the Dark Age Pictish epoch, to the Viking period and the world wars of the twentieth century, the story of Orkney has been five millennia in the making.

Although Orkney lies quite far to the north - 58° of latitude to be precise – the same as the cities of St Petersburg and Oslo, its climate is actually quite mild due to the presence of the Gulf Stream. But Orkney gets some truly brutal weather, lying in the firing line of many of the most vicious Atlantic lows. For countless days of each year, eviscerating winds rip across ageless fields enclosed by drystone dykes, and howl over the outruns and moorland for days on end, causing the few trees that develop outside of a handful of sheltered valleys to grow sideways in a Gordian knot of elongated, gnarled branches.

Huge waves batter the rugged coastline lifting curtains of sea spray that blow far inland from tempestuous seas, oft-whipped to turquoise milk by the ocean currents and ever-present wind. In winter, enormous gaggles of greylag geese and deceits of lapwings dot the fields, and the haunting cries of gulls, curlew and sandpiper drift through the raw, salt-laden air. In Orkney the sky seems huge, and there is an incomparable sense of space and oneness with nature. Its dynamic weather, ever-changing light, moody seascapes, and rich cultural landscape make it a photographer’s paradise.

Ever since working on a couple of World Heritage Site bids to UNESCO, I have been itching to visit the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ World Heritage Site. This embraces four locations on Mainland, Orkney's largest island: Skara Brae; the Ring of Brodgar; the Standing Stones of Stenness; and the chambered cairn of Maeshowe. So, following a successful Skye photo tour in late-February, we drove north to Scrabster in our Land Rover Defender camper, Olaf, to catch the mid-afternoon MV Hamnavoe ferry for the somewhat choppy 90-minute crossing to Stromness on Mainland so I could fulfil my ambition. And to do some photography of course!


Reaping the Wild Wind: Yesnaby

The first thing that struck us is how incredibly windy it was on Orkney. On arrival, we decided to check out Yesnaby which is situated on the west coast to the south of Skara Brae. It is renowned for its spectacular Old Red Sandstone coastal cliff scenery which includes sea stacks, blowholes and geos (a narrow sea inlet in the cliffs). We planned to camp there for the duration of our stay on Mainland. A narrow road brought us to a deserted parking area with a dreary abandoned concrete gun battery imparting a somewhat end-of-the-world atmosphere.

Atop the cliffs of dizzying height, huge clumps of cappuccino-coloured sea-foam were being blown upwards and sticking on our windscreen. Although it was sunny, alighting from our Land Rover was a rude awakening, for the door was almost wrenched from my hand, and the strength of the bitterly cold wind pummelling my body actually forced the breath from my lungs. The sound of crashing waves and keening seabirds filled the air. I was at once terrified and exhilarated. As it was almost impossible to catch our breath in the gusting wind, and foolhardy in the extreme to undertake any cliff walks or photography, we retreated inland to explore.

Olaf, our Land Rover DefenderOlaf, our Land Rover DefenderOur camping spot at Yesnaby, Mainland, Orkney

The wind had mercifully dropped by nightfall, and we spent a peaceful enough night in the lee of the concrete building. By first light however, another weather system was beginning to cloud the western horizon, and an ominous booming sound could be heard as a hefty swell battered the nearby cliff base. After a quick breakfast, we set out south along a well-trodden pathway across the wiry maritime grassland, hoping to catch the warm tones of early morning sunlight on Yesnaby Castle, an impressive 35 metre-high two-legged sea stack.

As we passed below the Brough of Bigging, the wind began to gust ferociously, and facing into it as we traversed the cliffs near Qui Ayre meant it was hard to remain upright. Close to a ‘peedie burn’ (small stream), it was literally shrieking through a wire fence like a thousand banshees, and was so strong that where the burn cascaded over the cliff edge, its water was being blown metres high landwards, absolutely drenching us as we passed by. By now the rising sun had been completely swallowed by cloud, and huge leaden raindrops began to fall intermittently from an angry steel-grey sky. We knew that getting a decent shot of the sea stack was a pretty hopeless quest. But as we were almost there we battled on, our cheeks stinging in the raw, salt-laden air.

Suddenly it loomed into view, rising majestically from the seething sea. On hands and knees, with my wet hair lashing my face and virtually blinding me, we inched as close as we dared to the edge of the cliff to get an unimpeded view. But keeping a tripod steady was impossible, and a burst of buckshot hail and rain immediately put paid to any photography. We beat a hasty retreat back along the cliffs to the relative warmth and comfort of our Land Rover as the storm unleashed its full fury. Such is landscape photography!

The storm raged for all of that day and the next, before finally blowing itself out towards midnight. There was a weather window forecast for around daybreak, so we decided to give Yesnaby Castle another go. We set off along the cliff path as the first light began to colour the western horizon and a few watery stars shrank from view. After the meteorological drama of the previous days, it was hard to believe that this was the same place. All felt eerily still and quiet, apart from the incessant ‘peep-peep’ of oystercatchers and the cawing of gulls, and the wet wiry grass and muddy puddles beneath our boots gleamed luridly in the growing light.

The loamy smell of wet earth was incredibly pleasing and we savoured the dramatic views of the exposed sandstone cliffs, gnarled and eroded into fantastical flags and pillars, and stopped briefly to view a tall, rectangular sea arch not far from Yesnaby Castle. This and the surrounding cliffs are formed from aeolian sandstones with extensive cross-bedding, and it’s mind-blowing to think that these solid rocks were once a series of coastal sand dunes.

In the benign conditions, we were able to carefully clamber down onto a ledge of rock almost opposite the sea stack which gave an unimpeded view of it and the nearby cliffs. From a periwinkle-blue sky, the rays of the rising sun dazzled across the sea which was the most gorgeous shade of aquamarine, above which myriad gulls put on a spectacular show of aerial acrobatics. I sat in the warm morning sunshine in blissful contentment as my shutter clicked away, capturing the retreating tide washing through and round the base of the two-legged stack, the shape of which reminded me of an old-fashioned ‘sad’ iron.

Yesnaby CastleYesnaby CastleA long exposure shot of Mainland's iconic sea stack Although we were not treated to the colourful dawn sky we had hoped for, by way of compensation the bright sunlight striking the side of the stack and cliffs brought out the rich warm tones and detail in the various sandstone layers, and the still conditions meant that we were able to obtain some good long exposure shots. By the time we had returned to Olaf, the sky had almost completely clouded over, and we did not see the sun again for approaching 48 hours.


Rocking the Neolithic

Between the very worst spells of weather, we explored The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. On the evening of our arrival, we headed for the 4,000-year old Ring of Brodgar, hoping to get some sunset shots. Its name could have been lifted straight from a Tolkien novel, and it covers an area of 8,435 square metres, with a diameter of just over 103 metres. Older than the famous Stonehenge, it’s the third largest stone circle in the British Isles and is strategically sited at the centre of a massive natural cauldron encircled by the hills of the surrounding landscape. It originally comprised 60 megaliths, 36 of which survive.

With immense excitement we walked up the slight rise to the mystical stone pillars which are enclosed by a rock-cut ditch and two entrance causeways. It’s somewhat humbling to think that they have stood defiantly in this windswept location for millennia. However, I soon discovered that rising levels of tourism have cast an unwelcome shadow over this ancient place. The increasing footfall of visitors, many disgorged from enormous cruise ships, has stripped bare the vegetation, turning the peat beneath to black, sticky mud. The interior of the ring has thus been closed to protect it, and visitors must now walk along a designated pathway outside the ditch. This made photography somewhat tricky.

Fortunately it was early-March and Orkney was still far from the madding crowds, so we had the place entirely to ourselves as dusk began to fall. My senses heightened as I heard the wind blowing through the heather and the otherworldly cry of curlews out on the moorland. I watched in wonder as a watery rainbow shimmered momentarily above the stones as a fine, high velocity mist swept across the Loch of Harray. As the rain passed over, the warm light of the sinking sun inflamed the wispy sage-green lichen sprouting from the edges of the megaliths.

The Ring of BrodgarThe Ring of BrodgarA rainbow shimers in the sky over the Ring of Brodgar, one of Britain's most important stone circles My imagination began to run riot. Suddenly the stones were transformed into sounding posts amplifying the ancient echoes that stretch out beyond this rocky archipelago across oceans of time, and deep into the cosmos. The Ring of BrodgarThe Ring of BrodgarDusk falls over the 4,000 year old stone circle on Mainland, Orkney

The urge to return once more to this sacred site was immense. Before we left Orkney we did so, and were treated to an absolutely spectacular pre-dawn sky. The elevated view of the stones silhouetted against the heavens exploding with colour from what I assume to be a grassed-over cairn on the other side of the road, was simply splendid. But the old adage, 'red sky at morning, shepherd's warning', certainly rang true later that day!

Dawn at the Ring of BrodgarDawn at the Ring of BrodgarThe amazing pre-dawn sky at the Ring of Brodgar enhanced the mystical atmosphere at one of Britain's most important Neolithic monuments

Just across the Ness of Brodgar is the equally enigmatic and even older stone circle of Stenness. Here, four megaliths up to six metres in height stand in a circle that originally held 12 stones. The focus of the interior was a huge hearth, and the monument was encircled by a large ditch and bank which has been ploughed out over thousands of years. Like the stones at Brodgar, their position suggests a connection to solar and lunar phenomena. Careful positioning of the camera (virtually at ground level) allowed the capture of an alignment of three stones which we wanted to be a nod to Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey - albeit with three ‘monoliths’! Braving high winds and squally showers, we hunkered low over our tripod shielded by a large umbrella, and our persistence paid off as we managed to eventually take a moody and dramatic long exposure shot that wasn’t blurred by camera-shake in the wind. The Pentax K1's anti-shake mechanism was certainly put through its paces on Orkney!!

MegalithicMegalithicA long exposure shot of three of the Stones of Stenness, in a nod to Arthur C. Clark!

Less than a couple of kilometres away lies Maeshowe, a grassy mound rising from a flat plain near the southeast end of the Loch of Harray. Its unassuming exterior conceals a magnificent chambered cairn which is without doubt the finest example of Stone Age craftsmanship in Orkney, and on a par with important monuments such as the passage tombs of Newgrange in Ireland and Gavrinis in Brittany. Visits are by guided tour only and can be booked at the visitor centre in Stenness village, the starting point of the tour. Unfortunately, photographing the inside of the tomb is not permitted.

Maeshowe, OrkneyMaeshowe, OrkneyThe Neolithic Maeshowe chambered cairn, Mainland Our guide ushered us through an entrance to a low passageway leading to a central chamber. The instant reprieve from the ever-present, howling wind was a relief and the silence was calming. As if on cue, we all started conversing in hushed tones, seemingly out of reverence to the place. The central chamber is constructed largely of flat slabs of stone, many of which traverse nearly the entire length of the walls. At a height of about 3 feet (0.91 m), the wall’s construction changes from the use of flat to overlapping slabs, creating a beehive-shaped vault. In each corner lie huge angled buttresses that rise to the vaulting, and three side cells are sited off the main chamber. The entrance portal to the tomb is aligned with the setting of the midwinter sun, so that the light illuminates the cairn’s interior, and the whole monument displays a remarkable degree of precision engineering. The site was excavated in 1861, and archaeologists discovered that they had been beaten to the chamber by Vikings who left their calling card in runic graffiti all over its walls.

Academics debate the original purpose of Maeshowe; was it used as a tomb, an observatory, a calendar, or for May Day ceremonies? If only those mute stones could speak, what stories they would tell! Despite the advances made by archaeologists, we still know relatively little about Neolithic culture, the function of the megalithic monuments, what language(s) were spoken, and of how society was structured.

Fortunately, the excavation of a truly remarkable site has allowed archaeologists to lift a corner of the curtain of mystery surrounding the everyday lives of the people inhabiting Orkney 50 centuries ago. A Neolithic ‘low road’ leads from Maeshowe, passing near the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar to the magnificently preserved remains of a village found beneath the dunes of the Bay of Skaill.

Partially uncovered by a mighty storm in 1850, Skara Brae is older than the Pyramids and is so well preserved that archaeologists discovered intact jewellery, tools and ritual objects, which are now on display in its dedicated visitor centre. Europe’s most complete Neolithic settlement was occupied between 3100BC and 2600BC, and consists of a ‘street’ connecting a cluster of nine houses, some subterranean, which still contain stone furniture – cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I entered a beautifully executed replica of one of the houses at the visitor centre. I could almost hear the whispering of our ancestors’ across the chasm of time, and could imagine them playing out their lives in what must have been very cosy and comfortable dwellings.

Replica House, Skara BraeReplica House, Skara BraeWe greatly enjoyed visiting the replica of one of the Skara Brae houses, a Neolithic village found beneath the dunes of the Bay of Skaill in 1850 These would have provided a welcome refuge and sanctuary from Orkney’s ever-present wind, which chilled us to the very marrow as we left the warmth of the visitor centre to wander alone amid the ruins of the actual village in its brutally exposed position above the beach at the Bay of Skaill. Indeed, we were fortunate to visit Skara Brae when we did, as the ruins were closed due to dangerously high winds soon after we left.

The village of Skara BraeThe village of Skara BraeThe extant remains of the Neolithic Village of Skara Brae, Mainland, Orkney Although these islands seem to be bleak and pretty remote today, I came to understand that in the Stone Age, Orkney was anything but peripheral, but lay at the very heart of the European Neolithic world. It's little wonder that Orkney has been dubbed 'the Egypt of the North', for its Neolithic monuments were constructed almost a millennium before the sarsen stones of Stonehenge in England were erected, and it is now believed that Orkney was the starting place for much of the megalithic culture, including styles of architecture and pottery, that developed much later in the southern British Isles. The Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe, the Ness of Brodgar ruins (which are still being excavated, and which archaeologists believe to be a temple complex), plus other nearby sites, form an immense ritual landscape which is undoubtedly among the most important in Western Europe. And that’s just for starters. There are scores of other Stone Age sites to explore throughout the archipelago. Neolithic Orkney really did rock!


Carpe Diem: A Meeting with an Old Man

Among the must-see sites on the bucket-list of virtually every traveller to Orkney, is the Old Man of Hoy, a 137-metre sea stack on the west coast of the island of Hoy. Comprised of layers of soft, sandy and pebbly sandstone, and harder flagstones of Old Red Sandstone, the Old Man rises from a plinth of basalt rock and is separated from the mainland by a 60-metre chasm strewn with debris. It’s one of the tallest sea stacks in the United Kingdom.

Our interest in this iconic rock formation was piqued from the deck of the MV Hamnavoe en route to Stromness, as it looked like a great subject for photography. On one of the rare sunny spells we had during our stay on Mainland, we watched the sun’s short journey across the southern sky, shirting the tops of the plum-hued hills of Hoy, before it slid below the Atlantic horizon to be swallowed in a bank of cloud. The forecast for the following 24 hours was looking good for photography, meaning no wind or rain to speak of, so Hoy Ahoy! We seized the moment and booked a passage on the Houton to Lyness ferry for the following morning.

The only shop on Hoy is at Longhope, opposite the only hotel, so on arrival we drove there from Lyness to stock up on basic supplies. Fresh food was in short supply, and the remainder was an odd assortment of canned, frozen and dried food. But the alcohol section hidden away behind stands of curling postcards was surprisingly good, boasting several different bottles of Orcadian whiskies and gins. We treated ourselves to Kirkjuvagr’s Arkh-Angell Storm Strength Orkney Gin, which seemed somewhat fitting after the weather we’d endured since our arrival!!

To reach the much-coveted cliff top views of the Old Man of Hoy entails a 9km-round trip from the starting point at the car park above Rackwick Bay. Leaving Longhope, we headed straight there as we wanted to try and grab some photographs at sunset. As we didn’t know the area, we wanted to give ourselves sufficient time to scout around for the best photography spots.

The Old Man is not mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga (written c.1230), and on the Blaeu map of 1600, a headland exists at the point where it now stands. The McKenzie Map of Hoy dated 1750, similarly shows a headland but no stack. But by 1819, the Old Man had been separated from the mainland. A contemporaneous sketch by artist, William Daniell (1769-1837), depicts the sea stack as a wider column than today, with a smaller top section and an arch at the base, giving it a human-like form, hence its name. Sometime in the early-nineteenth century, a storm washed away one of the ‘legs’ leaving it much as it is today, although erosion continues. By 1992 a 40-metre crack had appeared in the top of the south face, leaving a large overhanging section. The Old Man is thus probably less than 250 years old, and will undoubtedly collapse in future.

The mid-afternoon light at Rackwick Bay was excellent, but with no time to take any photographs, we struck out over the steep terrain on the northwestern side of the bay along a road serving a handful of cottages. This becomes a well-defined and well-maintained stony track which ascends diagonally across open moorland towards Rora Head. The route passes into The Old Man of Hoy RSPB Nature Reserve which offers sweeping views over Rackwick Bay and the Pentland Firth.

From there it contours around the southern base of Moor Fea (304m), and the top of the Old Man eventually looms into view. We were amazed to sight numerous mountain hares resplendent in their white winter coats as we traversed the russet moorland below Moor Fea. There wasn’t a soul in sight, and the silence was broken only by the sound of water fowl on the Loch of Stourdale, a mere spoonful of gloomy water atop the cliffs, and the more distant cries of fulmars occupying hidden cliff face ledges.

The track led straight to a grandstand view of the Old Man of Hoy from a very narrow promontory of rock jutting precariously out of the vertiginous cliff face at the Tuaks of the Boy. It’s not a spot I’d recommended to anyone who suffers from vertigo, and I felt decidedly anxious as I gingerly made my way towards the V-shaped front of the promontory.

The Old Man of HoyThe Old Man of HoyMartin setting up his camera on a very exposed promontory Fortunately there was barely a breath of wind as we carefully set up our tripods and cameras to capture some images of the iconic sea stack as the sun sank low on the southwestern horizon. We were delighted with the performance of our suite of Breakthrough Photography filters which handled the extreme conditions in Orkney excpetionally well, giving great sharpness and low flare. The strong sidelight falling on the Old Red Sandstone walls of the sea stack caused them to blush marigold and amber in the warm, golden light. Jubilate Deo, a result!

The Old Man of HoyThe Old Man of HoyThe setting sun colours the Old Red Sandstone rock of Hoy's iconic sea stack

Almost as soon as we left the promontory, with our anal nerves just about intact, to walk towards a vantage point atop the cliffs near the Geo of the Light, the wind came roaring in from absolutely nowhere and cloud began to barrel in from the northwest. The sea, which had only moments before been calm and Aegean-blue, was now wind-streaked and slate-grey. It would have been impossible to stand on the promontory in such conditions. Hunkered down on the cliff top and facing into the wind, we determined to grab some blue hour shots of the sea stack, a task that proved difficult as the tripod was dancing about on the springy heather.

The Old Man of HoyThe Old Man of HoyA blue hour shot of the Old Man from the Geo of the Light With the light fading, we strode out across boot-sucking boggy moorland annoyingly interspersed with dwarf willow, to re-join the track back to the car park, all the while keeping a keen eye on the angry battleship-grey clouds steadily filling the sky. We knew we had some excellent shots of the Old Man at sunset, making the long trek out there worthwhile, and were elated to have ‘seized the moment’, playing the weather forecast to virtual perfection. Darkness fell quickly, but as we hurried onwards in the grappling wind, our smugness dissipated as it began to lash with rain only a couple of kilometres away from the car park!

Overnight camping is permitted there, and we were looking forward to firing up our camping stove for a hot meal, then snuggling up in our sleeping bags with an Orcadian single malt to watch a film. As the forecast indicated that it was likely to be clear at dawn, we were on the spot for an early photoshoot at the bay. But yet again the weather had other ideas! Outside it was truly wild, with gusting gale force wind causing Olaf’s joints to creak and grind, and his roof box to rattle ominously, while rain and hail crashed against his aluminium bodywork. I could feel the whole vehicle rocking with each gust. We would have been lucky to get any sleep in those conditions, so as soon as we had eaten our dinner, we beat a hasty retreat to a more sheltered spot in a roadside layby further up the valley.


The Hidden Valley of Light

It wasn’t until mid-morning of the following day that the wind dropped and it finally stopped teeming with rain. As we drove down the valley towards the handful of crofters’ cottages that make up the settlement of Rackwick Bay, the sun finally broke through the seemingly impenetrable flint-grey cloud, casting thin lances of light across the sodden landscape. We began to feel hopeful that we would be able to take some photographs there before we caught the late-afternoon ferry back to Mainland after all.

Rackwick means ‘wreckage bay’, in the Old Norse language of the early Viking settlers, the name reflecting the terrible fate suffered by countless ships as they attempted to cross the Pentland Firth. After the previous night’s storm, it wasn’t hard to imagine how easily ships could founder along this treacherous coastline. However, the Orcadian poet, George Mackay Brown, put a rather different spin on this place, describing Rackwick as ‘Orkney’s last enchantment’, and ‘the hidden valley of light’. Indeed, the tonality of light is excellent there, an interaction of direct light and ever-changing reflected light, reminiscent of coastal areas in parts of Cornwall or Donegal, which are also surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, and blessed with clean air.

Our first port of call was the Burnmouth Bothy, an early-nineteenth century, single-storey, roughly rectangular-plan former crofthouse with a heather-thatched roof and adjoining lower three-bay former byre with a flagstone roof constructed off its northeast gable. It’s dramatically sited right above a beach, and dwarfed by the skyscraper-high cliffs of Craig Gate. Burnmouth was used by the BBC in 1970 for an adaptation one of McKay Brown’s stories, and was later renovated by the Hoy Trust to provide shelter and accommodation for campers and hill walkers.

Burnmouth Bothy, HoyBurnmouth Bothy, HoyThis old crofter's cottage, now a bothy for hill walkers and climbers, is dwarfed by the Cliffs of Craig Gate Facilities include sleeping platforms, table and chairs, a flush toilet, a hand basin with (non-potable) tap water, and a (rather dilapidated) wood burning stove. The place had a rather down-at-heel feel to it with its blackened roof, grimy interior, and cracked crockery. But imagine lying awake at night listening to the unforgettable sound of the North Atlantic rollers pounding the shore, which looked perilously close through one of its windows!

A window on the OceanA window on the OceanAtlantic rollers crash ashore just outside this window in the Burnmouth Bothy, Hoy

Beyond the bothy the beach, gloriously deserted, was strewn with large ovoid Old Red Sandstone boulders which provide wonderful photographic subject matter. With the weather improving by the minute, we enjoyed looking for ones which had captivating concentric bands of different colours to provide an interesting foreground feature. We discovered one that we named ‘Jupiter rock’, as it was highly reminiscent of our solar system’s gas giant. Long exposure shots of the retreating tide swirling round these boulders made for quite moody images.

Jupiter Rock, Rastwick BayJupiter Rock, Rastwick BaySome of the colourful Old Red Sandstone boulders at Rastwick Bay, Hoy

Rastwick Bay Beach BouldersRastwick Bay Beach BouldersThe retreating tide washing round some of the remarkable beach boulders, Rastwick Bay, Hoy Delicious ripples of contentment always lap over me when I’m on a beach listening to the sound of waves and seabirds, and inhaling the pungent smell of salt and seaweed deep into my lungs. Gazing out to sea I could see the sunlight glinting off the snow-crested peaks of mountains on the Scottish mainland, and we had to literally tear ourselves away from this wonderful spot to drive back to the ferry.


Another storm coming…

Back on Mainland, the weather forecast was looking dire, with yet another Atlantic low due to batter the islands with storm force winds and torrential rain in less than 48 hours. We were planning to explore some of the other islands once this storm had passed through, but an impending storm of a different kind galvanised our decision to return to the Scottish mainland, and from there to begin the long homeward journey to Donegal.

For weeks we’d been hearing about a new coronavirus that had ravaged the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province, China. But it had now started to spread beyond China’s borders. When we arrived in Orkney, isolated cases had been confirmed in Singapore and France, then it struck Italy, Spain and Iran. We were hearing alarming rumours that there had been an outbreak in Shetland, and cases were popping up down south. With an important announcement to the nation due from our Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, we knew it was time to leave, and consequently booked the ferry back to Scrabster for the following day.  

On our final night in Orkney, we explored Stromness, the archipelago’s second largest settlement (after the capital, Kirkwall). A veritable warren of houses are crammed in between the storied granite ridge of Brinkie’s Brae and the shoreline of a bay where the Vikings built a harbour they named Hamnavoe - ‘haven bay’, reflecting the fact that it was a safe anchorage, sheltered from everything but a south-easterly gale.

Although it has always been an important base for fishermen, in the latter-sixteenth century, Stromness (Old Norse, ‘Headland in the Tidal Stream’) went from being a settlement with a few thatched cottages to a thriving port. This was the fag-end of the Age of Discovery, and explorers and merchants began sailing around the North of Scotland in order to cross the Atlantic to colonies in the Americas. From about 1670 until 1891, the Hudson Bay Company used Stromness for stores and fresh water, and maintained a company recruiting office. Merchants and traders occupied the elegant three-storied terraced houses topped with triangular gable ends of crow-step design that can still be seen. These abut narrow cobbled streets criss-crossed by alleys leading down to picturesque nousts, stone built quays and waterside jetties.

The majority of extant buildings date from the period of the Napoleonic Wars, as Stromness strengthened its position as an international trading and servicing port from a safe harbour to the Americas and mainland Europe, and as a port of call for Arctic whaling ships. Shops, distilleries and taverns boomed along its thriving streets, and the late-nineteenth century herring fishing bonanza ensured a brief period of prosperity before the depression and wartime upheavals of the twentieth century.

Stromness really oozes history, from the unusual names of its alleys –Khyber Pass, Hellihole Road, Puffer’s Close – to the blue plaques that dot the façade of buildings telling the story of their onetime famous inhabitants. We much preferred it to Kirkwall, and with its historic buildings, quaint narrow streets, cafés, art galleries, boutiques and antique shops, it reminded me of an Orcadian version of the fishing port of St Ives in Cornwall, or Tinganes in the Faroese capital, Tórshavn.

Parking is kept to an absolute minimum due to the narrow streets, and as it was raining, these were deserted. This enabled us, with the aid of a large umbrella, to capture an atmospheric blue hour image looking up an empty Dundas Street with our tilt lens. With the street lights casting a warm glow over the wet cobbles, and the smell of peat and wood fires scenting the evening air, we could easily have been transported back in time a couple of centuries.

Dundas Street, StromnessDundas Street, StromnessA blue hour shot of one of the principal cobbled streets of Stromness

Between squally showers heralding the imminent arrival of the forecast storm, we managed one last roll of the dice the following day before we caught the ferry. The tide was almost fully in as we walked along the cliff top near the Point of Snusan to gain a view of the Brough of Birsay. This island is linked at low tide by a causeway, and was formerly a seat of Pictish power. We wanted to capture it surrounded by the sea, but as usual the wind was howling a gale and waves were breaking hard on the shelves of rock below, sending spray high into the atmosphere which deposited a fine film of salt all over our filters. But the light was rather good, illuminating the island's wave-lashed cliffs and the lighthouse atop it, and after countless attempts we managed to obtain a usable moody long exposure shot.

Brough of BirsayBrough of BirsayA long exposure shot of the Brough of Birsay taken on a wild day atop the cliffs near the Point of Snusan As we stood on the windy deck of the MV Hamnavoe, passing right by the Old Man of Hoy, we could not have imagined the devastation to our nations and economies, and the sad loss of life, unleashed by Covid-19. A lockdown was something out of the realms of science fiction, and it seemed utterly unimaginable that we would have to cancel our forthcoming spring and summer phototours as countries closed their borders and we were restricted to our immediate neighbourhood.

If this has taught us anything, it is that international travel, for the purposes of photography, or indeed, for any kind of tourism, should not be taken for granted. I doubt we'll be jetting off anywhere we want to anytime soon, and our photography business will understandably not return to normal for the foreseeable future, but we look forward to an eventual return to Orkney, maybe leading a group of fellow landscape photographers. I sign off in these strange and trying times with a quote that seems quite fitting after our visit there: ‘the pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails...’

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[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) Europe Neolithic Orkney photography phototour Scotland World Heritage Site https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2020/6/58-north-an-orcadian-odyssey Sat, 27 Jun 2020 21:29:59 GMT
Postcards from the Edge: Photographing the Faroe Islands https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2019/9/postcards-from-the-edge-photography-in-the-faroe-islands  

It was many moons ago when listening to the BBC Shipping Forecast in my native Cornwall, that I first heard mention of the Faroe Islands. Although I guessed that they must have been somewhere up in the North Atlantic, I’m not ashamed to admit that I knew absolutely nothing about them; after all, few people had back then. It was only after this tiny island nation of less than 50,000 souls joined UEFA in 1990 and began to play the home nations and the Republic of Ireland, that I noticed news and articles about the Faroes appearing in the mainstream media. They sounded fascinating, despite the occasional media opprobrium for their controversial whaling activity.

Located north of Scotland and midway between Iceland and Norway, this arrowhead-shaped archipelago of 18 basalt crags on the very edge of Europe were born of volcanic activity some 55 million years ago. Shrouded in mist and fog for many days of the year, they soar dramatically straight up out of the wild North Atlantic Ocean and are bedecked with a verdure resembling crumpled green velvet. Settled by Vikings during the ninth century, the Faroes were probably discovered and first inhabited in the mid-sixth century by Irish monks. Indeed, Saint Brendan the Navigator dubbed them ‘the islands of the sheep and the paradise of the birds’. Today they are a self-governing part of the Danish kingdom with their own language, parliament and currency, and are still largely undiscovered by mainstream tourism, although there are signs that this is changing...

Their often turbulent weather creates an ever-changing backdrop to pyramidal mountains, petrol-blue fjords, gnarly sea stacks and roaring waterfalls plunging down over vertiginous coastal cliffs that harbour thousands of wailing seabirds, making them a spectacular Nordic version of Hawaii. In the summer they have almost 24 hours of daylight and it never gets really dark. Sunrise and sunset seem to merge into one, creating dramatic light conditions which are enough to send photograpers into rhapsody! In winter the days are short with around five hours of daylight, and the remarkably clear air sometimes bestows the landscape with an exceptional light and luminosity. On clear nights the aurora can dance across star-strewn skies.

Mercurial, melancholy, magical, mysterious, bewitching, beguiling, wild, elemental - these words are all fitting descriptions of the Faroe Islands. From the moment you first spot their basalt peaks from the air – poking up through the cloud, their tops sometimes frosted white with snow – to the thrilling descent over Vágafjørður past skyscraper-high cliffs into the tiny airport of Vágar, you sense you're in for a true photographic extravaganza.

On the Faroes you're never far from the sea, and its influence is all pervading. The instant you leave the airport on the western island of Vágar you can smell the briny ocean in the nostril-stinging salt-laden air which is full of the cries of seabirds. Just a stone's throw away is one of the most incredible views you're likely to see anywhere in the world: the Trælanípa cliffs and Lake Sørvágsvatn. Getting there involves a 3km walk along an official trail from a car park at the end of an unmade road at Miðvágurt, a village on the outskirts of Sandavágur. Follow the 'Trælanípa/Bøsdalafossur' roadsigns from Miðvágur church. 

Since our last photo tour in March 2019, foreign tourists now have to pay a hefty fee of DKK 200 (nearly 27 euro) to hike to Trælanípa, with the amount payable by cash or credit card at the gate leading from the car park. Paying to hike and/or gain access to many places in the Faroes, with some routes stipulating that a guide is mandatory, unfortunately seems to be coming the norm, and is undoubtedly the price to be paid (pardon the pun!) for increased numbers of tourists. Please do not use the route running close to the lake shore accessed from a layby off route 11, as this has been closed.

This location works well in the mornings when the cliffs and lake are lit by the sun from the east. Around midsummer the sun sets over the lake and mountains to the right of Vágar Airport. The image below was shot in early-July at almost 11.00pm when we were making our way back to the car park thinking that the light was done for the day. In the Faroes, you can never be certain of anything weather-wise, and we were pretty annoyed when the sky suddenly exploded with colour. Luckily, we managed to find this tiny stream which provides a strong leading line towards Lake Sørvágsvatn and the fire in the sky beyond.  The trail, which is very muddy in places, traverses open mountainside above the 6km long lake which curves its way round the base of a prominent hill. It's a fairly easy hike until the end when you have a steepish climb out onto a small headland. From here the vertiginous cliffs soar upward like the prow of an enormous ship, and plunge nearly 150m straight down into the roiling ocean. Lake Sørvágsvatn appears to be perched high above the Atlantic, floating like a mirage between sea and sky. This is actually an optical illusion as the lake is only about 30m above sea level. Trælanípa means 'slave cliff' or 'slave rock' in Faroese. This name allegedly dates from the Viking era when disobedient or unwanted slaves were hurled from these cliffs into the ocean to their certain death. 

This is a big site with oodles of possibilities for various types of images, so give yourself plenty of time. A wide angle or fish-eye lens comes in handy when trying to capture the enormity of this landscape. A zoom lens is also useful for homing in on birds; we were treated to a skein of wild geese flying overhead on our last visit. We think Trælanípa warrants a multi-frame (vertical) panorama. However, great care must be taken when photographing here, particularly in high wind and in wet or icy conditions, as there are no fences and one slip would mean that you'd undoubtedly meet the same fate as those unfortunate Viking slaves! During our last visit it was impossible to get into exactly the position we desired on account of the ferocious wind at our backs.

 At the southern end of Sørvágsvatn the water leaves the lake to enter the Atlantic over the spectacular Bøsdalafossur Falls. Climbing carefully down over the slabby basalt cliffs to a vantage point overlooking the falls and the jagged coastline marching away behind, we've been confronted with unmissable views of the Atlantic churned to milk by the fury of the wind and ocean currents. With enormous swells crashing against the cliff base with the Geitisskoradrangur sea stack, a great shark's tooth of rock looming up out of the sea spray, this spot really epitomises the Faroes, as you feel you're standing on the very edge of the world. Again, be very careful here, as you'd not survive if you slipped and fell into the ocean.

The 313 metre high Trøllkonufingur (Troll woman’s finger, or Witch's Finger) on Vágar, is a true statement in stone. Indeed, this basalt monolith soaring into the sky with the restless ocean sucking menacingly at its foot, seems to be like a giant exclamation mark which really encapsulates the epic landscapes of the Faroe Islands, and is one of the features you first see when flying into Vágar Airport. This is a good dawn location, especially if you get the sun rising over the mountains in the distance. We have not been very fortunate with dramatic light at this location so far, but even the dullest day cannot diminish the majesty and elemental nature of this feature.

The location is accessed via Sandavágur where you follow the road signs marked ‘Trøllkonufingur’. From here the road winds its way along the cliff top and terminates in a small car park. A muddy trail then takes you gently uphill for a few hundred metres. There are limited places from which to photograph the Trøllkonufingur due to the dangerous cliff edge, so it’s advisable to arrive early if you want a prime spot with an unimpeded view.

On everyone's Faroe Islands' wish list is a close-up view of the spiny-backed island of Tindhólmur, and Drangarnir, the collective name for a couple of sea stacks - the holed Stóri Drangur (Large sea stack) and pillar-like Lítli Drangur (Small sea stack) - sited near the mouth of Sørvágsfjørður on the island of Vágar. The best views of these are from a headland facing them, but you cannot visit this place independently. You must hire and pay a local guide who will walk you through his private land to the viewpoint, taking you along the safest terrain and showing you the best spots for photography. The rendezvous point is the Effo petrol station by the harbour in the village of Sørvágur where there is plenty of parking.

The hike out to the headland is a fairly tough one, with some very steep and highly exposed sections where a slip would probably be fatal, so it's not really recommended for the faint-hearted or for novice hikers, especially in inclement weather conditions. You need to be properly clad in warm, waterproof clothing and shod in hiking boots with a deep lug and firm ankle support. Allow at least five to six hours and bring a full suite of lenses to enable you to capture a variety of images. For an additional small cost, you can arrange for a local boat to come and collect you, saving you having to walk back to Sørvágur, which is highly recommended as it's a pretty thrilling experience and you get some great close-up views of the sea stacks from sea level!

This spot works best when the sun is setting and you might be treated to some interesting light on the western horizon. Our guide was happy to ensure that our group was there at the optimal time, even if the weather left a lot to be desired! There are many vantage points along the route that we took offering panoramic shots of Sørvágsfjørður, Tindhólmur and Drangarnir from an elevated point along a ridge, and also of the enormous cliffs to the southeast, where thousands of wailing sea birds fly to and from precarious ledges many hundreds of metres above the seething ocean. 

But the best and most epic vantage point is from the ledges at the base of the cliffs opposite Stóri Drangur with Tindhólmur just peeking out behind (Lítli Drangur isn't visible from here). On our visit the tide was far too rough and dangerous to risk setting up our tripods on the lowest ledge, so we selected a slightly higher one, using some converging crevices in the lichen-covered rocks as a kind of leading line pointing towards the hole in the base of Stóri Drangur. And as the light wasn't the best, we opted for a moody long exposure.

The classic fairytale view of the Faroes is probably the Múlafossur Falls located right on the western tip of Vágar on the edge of Mykinesfjørður. This great skein of water has eroded a bowl-shaped depression in the cliffs where it plunges dramatically into the seething ocean. Above the falls and dwarfed by the nearby mountains, the highest on the island, the diminutive village of Gásadalur is laid out like an architect's model.

For centuries the villagers really did live 'life on the edge'. To reach the neighbouring village of Bøur (where the fishermen had to moor their boats due to a lack of suitable anchorage in Gásadalur), entailed a strenuous walk over the steep mountains between the two. In 1940, during the British occupation of the Faroe Islands, a stairway was built from a landing site up the cliffs towards the village, but was never very successful as it lay too far above the shoreline. Unsurprisingly, the population dwindled to just 16 souls by 2002. But in 2004, this lonely village was thrown a lifeline when it was connected by tunnel and road to Bøur and beyond.

You can now drive with ease to the village where there is a designated parking area. A short walk down a gravel trackway running along the clifftops to the south brings you to the top of the concrete steps built by the British. The viewpoints here are good but rather limited, so if you want to bag the best spot, especially for the sunset, arrive early! There are doubtless excellent views of the falls to be had by taking the crumbling concrete steps down towards the old landing spot, but a 'no entry' sign has been erected. In the Faroes, someone always seems to be watching you, so if you do not want an angry local chasing you to give you a telling off, it's best (and safer) to keep out!

Situated on the north-west tip of Eysturoy is the village of Eiði, settled by Vikings in the ninth century. It's claim to fame has to be its artificial turf football pitch situated on a narrow neck of land between Niðara Vatn and the ocean. As a new football ground has been created in the village, this old pitch has been decomissioned and turned into a campsite. We stayed there in our Land Rover Defender during the 2018 Football World Cup, which was a tad bizarre! But Eiði has another surprise in store: its waterfall, fed by a small stream. In heavy rain or after snowmelt, this cascades down over some cliffs to the northeast of the old football pitch. We tend to visit later in the day when the cliffs are lit by the sun (if there is any!).

There is space to park outside the gates of the campsite. From there you head off up and over some rock shelves to the right. A short walk brings you to a rocky overhang where you will see the waterfall if the stream is in spate. We've never clambered down any lower onto the bottom shelf of rock which is slick with algae, and has always been far too dangerous in the racing tide during our visits. Our favourite image from here is a long exposure capture which smoothed out the tide and waterfall, creating a dreamy effect.

Staying with the subject of waterfalls - no tour of the Faroes would be complete without a visit to the largest waterfall in the islands: Fossá near the village of Haldórsvik on the eastern side of Streymoy. Fed by a stream that flows out of Víkarvatn high on the mountain platueau above, the falls plunge towards the sea for around 140 meters in two stages over huge shelves of rock.

It's at its most magnificent after heavy rainfall or snowmelt, but like all waterfalls it can be hard to capture due to wind and spray as we have discovered! Certainly getting the full height of the falls into frame is difficult. This location is best on a dull day, as the contrast levels between the cascading water and surrounding cliffs can be too high in bright light. Wear a raincoat as it can get quite wet in the swirling spray, and wellies, or preferably waders, to enable you to cross the river or to stand in it to capture your shots. There's limited space to park alongside the road, and this location can get busy in summer as it's a picnic spot. For this reason we have always preferred to photograph the upper falls where we haven't been disturbed by anyone.

To get up there you first need to climb up the steep bank towards the base of the cliffs to the right of the picnic area. From there, follow a faint track (which looks as if it's been made by a one-legged sheep!) which crosses the steep hillside below the cliffs towards the foot of a gully. Care must be taken here, because if you slipped you'd end up falling some distance onto the road below. A scramble up the gully, which can be mucky and slippery after wet weather, brings you to the base of the cliffs forming the upper shelf. Proceed towards the falls on a track similar to the one below.

Great curtains of water cascade over the basalt cliffs which form an impressive amphitheatre. Using a wide angle lens means you can capture a horizontal image without sacrificing the full circular sweep of the banded cliff face. When the river is in spate, the falls are simply magnificent and endless compositions are possible. If you want to capture the full height of the falls and its river valley, it's possible to get a shot from across the fjord alongside route 62 on Eysturoy by using a zoom lens.

Another of the highlights of our phototours is the hike out to the Kallur Lighthouse on Kalsoy Island in the north-east of the archipelago. Situated between the islands of Eysturoy and Kunoy, its name means ‘man island’, but locals have nick-named it ‘the flute’, on account of its long thin shape and the four road tunnels that link its four tiny settlements - Húsar, Mikladalur, Syðradalur and Trøllanes - which have a combined population of about 150.

The island is served by a mail boat (named Sam) which makes regular crossings from the port of Klaksvík on the island of Borðoy to the village of Syðradalur. From here you drive to the northernmost tiny farming community of Trøllanes to pick up the Kallur Lighthouse trailhead. This entails passing through the narrow, cold, damp tunnels, the longest of which is over 2 km long. These are all dimly lit and one lane only, and are a somewhat daunting proposition for those unused to driving in such conditions!

There is a small car park serving the village where it’s safe to leave your vehicle. There are no official trail markers, but beyond a red gate the path is easy to follow, and the famous lighthouse is soon spotted on the horizon. Hiking this path can be rough and muddy during most of the year, and although it’s not a difficult hike, fog can also engulf the area making it somewhat challenging. Once you reach the lighthouse however, it’s a different ball game altogether. To gain the coveted and epic Instagram view, you will need to progress past it onto a promontory to the north which is accessed via a badly eroded knife edge arête with death-defying drops to the seething ocean on either side. This would be a very foolhardy undertaking in high wind and rain, ice or snow, or in poor visibility. Indeed, on our last phototour the wind was so ferocious, we decided not to attempt to cross it.

The view of the lighthouse, built in 1927, dwarfed by the mighty saw-toothed Borgarin Mountain (537m) rising ominously behind it, is certainly worth the squeaky bum moment! The Faroes give the Emerald Isle a run for its money in terms of moss and grass, and the western coast of Kalsoy has dramatically steep cliffs with neon-green promontories, the angle of repose of which defy the laws of gravity and physics. The sight of matchstick figures walking out along one such ridge of another promontory to the east of the lighthouse will long linger in the mind. Although moody shots are possible here at any time of the day, in summer the sun sets roughly to the right behind you out on the promontory and can colour the cloud behind the lighthouse. Although it's our preferred time of day to shoot, this is dependent on the ferry which does not always run late in the evening, particularly in midsummer, meaning you'd have to stay on the island. Like Trælanípa, this is a big landscape, so allow plenty of time to photograph 'the light at the end of the world'! Again,our preferred option is a multi-frame (vertical) panorama.

In addition to offering face-slapping views, the northern parts of Kalsoy are also an important birding area. In summer, the towering cliffs are a critical breeding place for seabirds like Atlantic puffins, European storm petrels, and black guillemots, and their haunting and incessant cries fill the air adding to the otherworldly atmosphere. 

Before hopping on the ferry back to Klaksvík, be sure to make some time to visit the Statue of Kópakonan in the village of Mikladalur. The legend of Kópakonan, literally meaning 'the Seal Woman' or 'Selkie', is one of the best-known folktales in the Faroe Islands. Seals were believed to be former humans who voluntarily sought death in the ocean. Once a year, on Thirteenth Night, they were allowed to come ashore, shed their skins, and enjoy themselves as human beings.

However, on one such night, a Mikladalur fisherman stole the skin of a beautiful Selkie. He refused to return it, and locked it away in a chest, the key to which he kept on a chain attached to his belt. Forced to become his wife, she bore him two children. However, one day he went fishing but forgot to take the key to the chest with him. The Selkie retrieved her skin and escaped back to her old life, warning him not to follow her, or ever to harm her Selkie family. However, the men of Mikladalur went seal hunting, and without heeding the Selkie's warning, killed her husband and two of her children. In revenge she cursed the men of Mikladalur to die by drowning or falling from cliffs. 

From the small parking area in the village, take the set of concrete steps down to the old landing site. The 2.6m high bronze and stainless steel statue by Hans Pauli Olsen was erected in 2014. It's a striking work of art with a rich copper patina, dramatically sited on a rock right above the sea, and is dwarfed by the steep cliffs of the island of Kunoy opposite which look extraordinary when wreathed in sea mist or frosted with snow.

One of our favourite photography locations is the beach at the small village of Tjørnuvík, the northernmost town in Streymoy, which is tucked away at the end of a fjord and surrounded by steep, runnelled mountains. From here there is a superlative view of the iconic seastacks of Risin and Kellingir which are 71 and 68m tall respectively. Yet they are absolutely dwarfed by the skyscrapper high cliffs of Eiðiskollur

The Vikings settled here early on, and perhaps they were responsible for the legend associated with this pair of sea stacks. It goes something like this: An Icelandic wizard instructed a giant and his wife, who was a witch, to steal the Faroe Islands and bring them back to Iceland. Arriving in the north of Streymoy, they tied a rope around Eiðiskollur Mountain and began to pull the Faroes towards their home. Unfortunately for them, they were so busy they didn’t notice that the sun had risen. Caught in its rays as it broke the horizon, they were instantly turned to stone. On a more prosaic note, geologists predict that Kellingin, the sea stack situated closest to Eysturoy and the more delicate of the two, is highly likely to fall victim to a severe storm within the next few decades, so your photos might one day be historic!

Excellent views of the sea stacks can be captured from the black sand beach and also the small jetty at the sleepy harbour. This is one of the Faroes' top spots for surfing, and the waves here are often incredible, creating a dramatic foreground to the sea stacks. A small river flows down over the sandy beach which is sometimes flecked with pearlescent fragments of shells, and there are a number of algae covered cobbles towards the jetty end of the beach. All these features create excellent opportunities for capturing interesting foreground details to Risin and Kellingir. From late-February to mid-October, both cliffs at the entrance of the fjord are lit by the sunset. Around midsummer, the sun rises behind the sea stacks. There is a public parking area and toilets right above the beach. 

The vernacular buildings on the Faroes are quite extraordinary, and many make strong photographic subjects. Consisting of a stone basement, walls of tarred wooden boards (formerly constructed from driftwood) and a turf roof, they blend into the landscape and are the archetypal example of sustainable dwellings. There are many such buildings in the Faroes, but the following sites are among our favourites.

If ever there was a quintessentially Faroese village, then Saksun on the island of Streymoy is it. Here, a cluster of ancient turf-roofed buildings surrounded by dry stone walls belonging to the Dúvugarður sheep farm overlook a stunning turquoise-blue lagoon, tumbling waterfalls and huge cliffs often topped with mist moving like a slow tsunami. It resembles a scene straight from Tolkien's Middle-earth. This small settlement was once connected to the open sea, but in about 1600 a violent storm blocked the mouth of the fjord with sand, forming the lagoon below. Those living in Saksun formerly had to walk to the neighbouring village of Tjørnuvík to attend church, which entailed a steep three hour journey across the rugged, exposed mountainside. Imagine having to do that on a typical Faroese day?! In 1858 the Tjørnuvík church was disassembled and parts of it carried over the mountains to be re-erected in Saksun, the tiny church you see there today, ending the need to walk over the mountains to attend services. The old route is now a popular waymarked hiking trail.

Saksun is west-facing, and therefore works particularly well as a photographic destination at sunset. Around the middle of March and the end of September, it's possible to get the falls to the right of the village illuminated by the setting sun. But be aware that straying from the pathways and road to take images will likely land you in trouble here, as permission must be sought from the landowner who farms Dúvugarður and runs the museum, and to whom you must pay a fee for access to the in-fields, out-fields and beach. He has something of a fearsome reputation, but he is perfectly approachable and happy to explain the history of his village and the issues he has faced with increasing levels of tourism.

All land off waymarked tracks and roads is private property in the Faroes, so please use the car park, don't fly your drone, and above all remember that you don't have the right to be there. This isn't a Peter Jackson film set, but a working farm and home to a mere handful of people who can feel intimidated by hordes of tourists swarming about their homes and outfields and invading their privacy. Please note that there is no access whatsoever to the lone turf-roofed cabin overlooking the lagoon that took Instagram by storm a few years back. Its owners have forbidden all entry since the summer of 2017.

The village of Bøur on the island of Vágar dates from at least the fourteenth century, and has probably the most dramatic seaview of any village in the Faroes. Overlooking the petrol-blue waters of Sørvágsfjørður, the horizon is dominated by the picturesque spiky island of Tindhólmur, a great shark's fin of rock, which is flanked on the left by the impressive Drangarnir
sea stacks, and on the right by the island of Gáshólmur. As Bøur faces west, it works well as a sunset location. 

Just before you enter the village from Sørvágur, you pass a huddle of turf-roofed buildings on the left which now function as holiday homes. Our most recent phototour coincided with a period of repair work to these structures, so we could not get quite the image we were after due to a digger being in the way. We opted for a vertical capture accentuating the apexes of three of the houses which are echoed in the triangular-shapes of Stóri Drangur and Tindhólmur glowering on the horizon. 

At the entrance to the village, the small parking area on the left has a fantastic elevated view over the fjord with a large three-storeyed turf-roofed building making a strong photographic subject to the right. In the summer the buttercups growing out of the living roof make for great detail.

A small homestead near Gjógv, a village located on the northeast tip of the island of Eysturoy, caught my eye as it makes a strong subject for a minimalist capture. Being a fan of Cubism, I was instantly drawn to the contrast between the strong geometrical shapes of the man-made buildings - the triangular rooflines and the three squarish windows - and the random, yet seemingly repeating, patterns of deep runnels created by nature in the background. The tiny homestead surrounded by buttercup meadows seems to be dwarfed at the foot of the enormous mountainside, and the fleeting splash of light behind it greatly added to the scene.

Below is a very eyecatching cabin located near the village of Mikladalur on the island of Kalsoy, which for some reason seems to have been overlooked by landscape photographers. We dubbed it 'The Hobbit House', and we wouldn't have been the least bit surprised to see Bilbo Baggins throw open its door to us! It looks fabulous in summer framed against luminous sea mist, and against the snow-frosted slopes of Kunoy in winter.

We have already described how to capture the quintessential image of the Trøllkonufingur on Vágar, but we actually prefer the view of it as seen from across the fjord from the village of Miðvágur. One of our phototours coincided with some incredible post-dawn light over a lone turf-roofed cottage with the Trøllkonufingur in the background. The sea bird flying into frame added a touch of mystery, and even melancholy, to the scene.

Funningur Church (Funnings Kirkja) on Eysturoy is without doubt our favourite turf-roofed church in the Faroes. Inaugurated on 30 November 1847, it is one of ten surviving wooden churches in the Faroes, and is the newest of this type. It makes a strong photographic subject at any time of the day, but is particularly good at dawn in winter when the sun rises over the sea and mountains of eastern Eysturoy.

No visit to the Faroes would be complete without climbing a mountain. Most people tend to bag Slættaratindur (flat summit) Mountain in northern Eysturoy, between the villages of Eiði, Gjógv, and Funningur, which at 880 metres above sea level is the highest point in the Faroe Islands. Its summit offers extensive views over practically all of the Faroes' eighteen islands, but on our visits it's been shrouded in cloud precluding any photography. We've had far more luck climbing the nearby Middagsfjall Ridge which provides a spectacular vista over Funningsfjørður and the rugged and mountainous interior of the island of Eysturoy.

There's a small parking space on the brow of a hill on the road between Funningur and Gjógv (look out for the mast/weather station). Crossing a stile, head straight uphill handrailing a fence. At the top, the best views down into the fjord are to the right. In summer this climb, although steep, has been relatively straightforward, and we have been mightily glad for any breeze at the top.
In the winter, it has been a very different proposition. Climbing it at dawn to get the first light of day breaking over the mountains means setting off in the twilight. The last time we did this the temperature was round freezing, with a fierce wind giving a wind-chill of about -10°C. The mountains had received a dusting of snow overnight and atop the ridge the wind was absolutely eviscerating; it was almost impossible to keep the tripods steady and there was a very real danger of being blown off balance and down over the edge of the ridge. The type of shot we have taken in the summer just wasn't doable in those conditions, so cowering in the lee of a rocky outcrop, we managed to obtain just enough shelter to capture three horizontal wide angle shots to create a panorama. On the far left rise the mountains on the islands of Kalsoy and Kunoy, while the centre is dominated by the spiky Sandfelli (Oyndarfjørður) Massif rising to 754 metres. On the far right soars the pyramid-shaped Húsafjall (695 metres). Although the dawn was somewhat muted, we felt pleased that we had defeated the elements sufficiently to obtain this image!

An added bonus was the image we took of a snow-frosted Slættaratindur, cloud-free for once, as we made our descent from the ridge. The mountain road curving round the foot of this behemoth was particularly eye-catching. 

These images and their accompanying descriptions are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to photographing the Faroes. To truly experience them needs time, considerable effort, and a willingness to walk off the beaten track, as well as to the more well-known locations, all the while braving the elements which make this archipelago such an exciting and challenging landscape photography destination. Here you really do have scope to create truly unique and memorable 'Postcards from the Edge'.

If you want to visit the Faroes to 'discover the mercurial', why not join us on a future photo tour? See our 'Phototours and Workshops' page for details. Meanwhile, enjoy this film of the Faroes shot during the summer.

[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) Europe Faroe Islands location guide North Atlantic photography photography guide Phototour https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2019/9/postcards-from-the-edge-photography-in-the-faroe-islands Mon, 16 Sep 2019 12:20:26 GMT
Highlands and Islands: A Scottish Photographic Odyssey https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2019/9/highlands-and-islands-a-scottish-photographic-odyssey

Book your 2024 Skye Photo-tour here!

In February of this year, we made a long-anticipated phototour to the Scottish Highlands, a sparsely populated mountainous region which encompasses the northwest of the country and the Hebridean Islands, a diverse and enchanted archipelago that include Skye and Lewis and Harris. Overall, we could not have been more pleased with the conditions for photography, beginning with Arctic conditions that dumped considerable snow on the high ground, and several magnificently coloured dawns which will long remain seared into our memories. Our visit also coincided with Storm Erik and some other Atlantic low pressure systems, but these in no way diminished the grandeur and elemental nature of the landscapes Scotland has to offer.

Taking the Highroad to the isles of Skye, Harris and Lewis

We took our Land Rover Defender, Olaf, across on the ferry from Belfast to Cairnryan, arriving after dusk. The journey along the A82 that crosses the wilderness of Rannoch Moor with its windswept bogs and lakes was akin to crossing the Arctic, with heavy snow showers reducing visibility to just a few metres; the eyes of numerous deer picked out in the headlights of our Land Rover added an otherworldly touch! The mercury plunged to -10°C as we camped out overnight, and hovered round freezing inside Olaf, which pulled the life out of our camera batteries. Unfortunately, the next morning we discovered that we had left our camera chargers at home. In the words of the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns, 'The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft a-gley...' so we had to make an unintended detour to Oban on the Firth of Lorn to buy a couple!

En route to Skye, our main destination, we passed Buachaille Etive Mòr (the shepherd or herdsman of Etive), one of the most photographed locations in the Scottish Highlands affectionately known as The Buachaille. The name actually refers to the massif which includes a ridge and several summits, but it is the pyramidal Stob Dearg which dominates the scene at the head of Glen Etive as seen from the A82 when travelling towards Glencoe. This quintessentially Scottish scene appears in thousands of guidebooks, and on biscuit tins and postcards, making it the country’s most-loved mountain.  

There are myriad points at which to capture this iconic peak. We took an image in Glencoe on the north side of the mountain, with the diminutive Lagangarbh Hut in the foreground. The wee white-washed cottage surrounded by a stand of wind-blasted conifers on a bank above the River Coupall looked dwarfed by the mountain and lost in the enormity of the white wilderness. Fortunately we were treated to some fleeting light between snow storms when the sinking sun broke through the churning flint-grey clouds.

We also located Blackrock Cottage, an old crofters’ cottage which lies at the foot of Meall a’ Bhuiridh at the entrance to Glencoe, and now serves as accommodation for female climbers. With snow blanketing the moorland sweeping up the valley towards The Buachaille, the cottage looked as if it was in the middle of nowhere, but it’s actually right alongside the road that leads up to the Glencoe Mountain Resort, which is popular for skiing. We particularly wanted to emphasise the blood-red doors, the inviting warmth of which scream sanctuary from the surrounding cold, white wilderness. 

Just outside Fort William we visited the Wreck of the MV Dayspring also known as the 'Corpach Wreck', which was beached in a storm during 2011. We parked in the car park near Corpach Railway Station, then crossed the Caledonian Canal onto the beach to a point where a small stream flows down to Loch Eil. Here we were facing roughly south east towards Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain. This site works well at low tide which accentuates the beached fishing vessel. Zooming in slightly made the brooding hulk of snow-covered Ben Nevis, partially wreathed in mist, appear to loom ominously over the stranded boat, and keeping the cameras low to the ground obscured the buildings of Fort William off to the left of the frame. Between showers we were treated to some great side light which illuminated this highly photogenic wreck.  

The thirteenth century Eileen Donan Castle, not far from the Kyle of Lochalsh, gateway to Skye, is the former stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie. Restored in the early twentieth century, it featured in the Hollywood blockbuster Highlander (1986), and is probably one of the most photographed scenes in Scotland. It didn't disappoint! We timed our visit to coincide with the blue hour and were treated to some excellent light on the horizon as the inky-blue water in the loch rose stealthily at our feet. Its mysterious mirror-flat surface caught the dying embers of the sun and the magnificent amber reflection of the illuminated castle.

The Skye’s the Limit

Skye has become the latest playground de jour for social media users, due in no small part to the success of the US TV drama blockbuster, Outlander, a tartan-noir drama featuring the Highlands and, in particular, Skye. And with its epic scenery, dramatic weather and magical light, it’s also become increasingly popular with photographers.

Desolate, wind-blasted moors of heather dotted with sheep sweep down to moody silver lochs. Gnarled peninsulas with fearsome basalt sea cliffs defiantly jut out into the restless Atlantic Ocean, and great saw-toothed mountains, geological lairds of the island, lift their sublime craggy heads to greet oft cloudy skies. The volcanically derived landscape feels as vast and barren as Iceland’s, and its terrain is blanketed in a florescent emerald-green reminiscent of the Faroe Islands. It gets very similar weather too, sitting in the firing line of some of the worst low pressure systems to sweep in off the Atlantic. Indeed, local people call their island Eilean a’Cheo, ‘Isle of Mist’, and the Vikings named it Sky-a ‘cloud island’.

Skye’s most dramatic geological feature is undoubtedly the Trotternish Ridge escarpment, formed during a series of landslips, which runs for some 30 kilometres (nearly 19 miles) - almost the full length of the Trotternish peninsula. It contains Skye's most famous landmark - the Old Man of Storr - a 160-foot basalt pinnacle sitting amid The Storr, a name derived from the Old Norse word stórr, meaning big, tall or great. This otherworldly group of gnarly outcrops that include and surround the Old Man featured in the opening scenes of Ridley Scott’s blockbuster movie, Prometheus (2012), and nowadays seem to be on every Instagrammer’s bucket list. Unsurprisingly, it's also a favourite location for landscape photographers, particularly at dawn.

With a favourable weather forecast after some recent heavy snow, we set our alarms for 6.00 am at the hostel we were staying at in Portree. It was pitch black with a smattering of watery stars as we set out half an hour later. The mountain road glistened white with millions of ice crystals in Olaf’s headlights, but this diamond-dazzling show belied the treacherous conditions, forcing us to crawl along the slippery undulating single track road in low gear.

The deep-freezer cold of pre-dawn was something of a shock as we clambered out of our warm vehicle at the car park just off the A855 to the north of Loch Leathan, to begin the steep 2km 350 metre climb up to the Pixabay viewpoint above The Storr. This is usually a climb of around 30-40 minutes, but it was likely to be nearer an hour on account of the Arctic conditions. The zigzag track was like a glass bottle, with snow compacted into ice by the passage of countless feet, making ice-grips essential. Clouds of my breath sparkling with icy particles were momentarily trapped in the beam cast by my head torch as I breathed deeply, feeling the weight of my camera equipment.

Just past an area of clear-felled conifer plantation, we passed through a gate onto open moorland where we got the first of many dramatic views of the famous Storr cliffs, in front of which the towering spires of The Storr drifted in and out of a band of slowly swirling mist glowing faintly in the feeble pre-dawn light. Resisting the temptation to stop and set up our tripods, we pushed on through snow which was now shin deep in places, grateful for the growing light as we wove our way over and around numerous boulders and ledges of rock trying to follow the pathway buried below. We somehow managed to stray from it and made life hard for ourselves by having to clamber up a 45-degree angled slope to the saddle below the Pixabal viewpoint, which required something of a herculean effort!

At the saddle the wind was absolutely ferocious and roaring like a jet engine, forcing us to hunker low over our tripods. I could scarcely feel my fingers, my face was completely numb in the Arctic conditions, and it was impossible to speak. But the light was simply extraordinary. On the eastern horizon to the left of The Storr and the Trotternish Escarpment towering over it, the pyrotechnics of dawn began their spectacular light show, with streaks of vermillion, scarlet and pink shooting across the sky behind the smoky-grey silhouettes of a line of snow-capped mountains across the Sound of Raasay. The snow-frosted igneous shards of The Storr and the snow and waters of the sound began to glow a gorgeous shade of rose-pink in the pre-dawn light. As the sun broke the horizon, it turned the sky above the distant mountains a deep saffron-yellow. A wide-angle lens just about allowed us to capture the The Storr and the rising sun, which at this time of the year appears well to its left.

As the sun climbed higher in the sky we clambered up the icy slope to the Pixabel viewpoint. By now the sun had been swallowed by cloud, but that did not in any way diminish the majesty of the scene.

The towering pinnacles of The Storr passing in and out of churning luminescent mist resembled a monochrome etching, allowing for some interesting zoomed-in compositions. For photographers, it doesn’t get much better than this! 

On the descent we followed the track round the back of The Storr close to where the scenes for Prometheus were shot. I felt very small indeed passing beneath the eerie towering basalt pinnacles eroded into fantastical shapes by the elements. The terrain is so similar to Iceland’s that I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that there is a local legend which states that the Old Man of Storr was a giant who resided on the Trotternish Ridge. Duped into cavorting and drinking with a group of giantesses who were plotting to steal his gold, he inadvertently broke the Sabbath. God smote him so hard that he was instantly buried in the ground, leaving just a certain part of his anatomy —the ‘Old Man’ — poking upwards. We loved this spot so much that we returned there again for a dawn shot a few days later. Much of the snow had by then melted, revealing wiry, olive-green grass. From the saddle, we zoomed in more on The Storr and we were treated to yet another amazing dawn which coloured the sky with pastel hues and bathed the landscape in soft, warm light.

On overcast days devoid of good light, finding alternatives to open landscapes really pays dividends. Waterfalls are ideal, as the contrast levels between the water and surrounding landscape can be too high in bright light. Not far from the Old Man of Storr is the Bride’s Veil Waterfall. From a lay-by alongside the A855 above Loch Leathan, a very muddy track leads up the right side of the falls. We clambered up to the very top, then walked up-valley a little to a point where we could safely cross the river which was quite swollen after the rainfall from Storm Erik. We were then able to position ourselves looking towards The Trotternish Escarpment.

Various lenses and careful positioning give plenty of scope for images here. Using a long lens and a slow shutter speed blurs the water creating a gentle sense of movement. Standing further away from the falls on slightly higher ground and using a zoom lens compresses the scene making the Trotternish Escarpment and The Storr riding the horizon look much closer. Standing close to the falls and using a wide angle lens allows the focus to be on the water which flows through the frame diagonally from top to bottom.

We were able to capture a couple of compositions before the arrival of two minibuses of tourists, many brandishing mobile phones on selfie sticks. With almost 40 people traipsing about trying to get the perfect Instagram shot of themselves in the Highlands scenery, our photoshoot was brought to a premature end!

The Quiraing sounds like something lifted straight from the pages of a high fantasy novel, so it's no surprise to learn that it has appeared on the silver screen in Justin Kurzel's visceral and visually breath-taking film, Macbeth (2015). But the name is actually somewhat disappointingly prosaic, taken from the Old Norse Kví Rand, meaning ‘Round Fold’. It boasts a spectacular series of moss and grass-covered basalt rock pinnacles and spires, formed during a series of landslips on the eastern face of Meall na Suiramach, the northernmost summit of the Trotternish. Indeed, the Quiraing is still moving and is a landscape that wouldn’t look at all out of place in Iceland.

We decided to go for a dawn shoot which is the best time to photograph this location which is cast into shadows later in the day. But the morning did not appear to hold much promise weather wise, and as we arrived in the empty carpark at the highest point of the minor road linking Staffin and Uig, it lashed with rain. The angry grey cloud quickly vented its fury, and as soon as the rain stopped we headed out along a footpath leading towards Flodigarry to locate a famous lone tree much-loved by photographers. A couple of hundred metres along this muddy track which was made somewhat treacherous with patches of black ice, we spotted the gnarled, skeletal branches of a small wind-blasted rowan growing precariously out of a moss-covered bank at the top of a gully to our right. The melting snow had made the terrain tricky; the gully was full of water and the passage of countless feet had churned up the ground, turning it into a quagmire of thick, sticky mud.

Some ominous looking battleship-grey cloud overhead seemed to be threatening rain again, ruling out any possibility of a dawn shot, but we optimistically set up our cameras near the top of the gully. Below us lay a vast expanse of burnt-sienna and olive-green bog studded with two spoonfuls of gleaming mercury - Loch Leum na Luirginn and Loch Cleat - beyond which rose the pyramid-shaped Cleat and the snow-frosted peak of Bioda Buidhe, glowering in the feeble half-light of dawn.

We waited, expectantly, for the sunrise. And waited. Some fifteen minutes after the sun had supposedly risen, and just as we were about to call it a day and pack up our equipment, the leaden clouds began to part and gorgeous shades of violet and rose-pink bled across the sky like spilt inks. We released the shutters on our cameras almost continuously for several minutes! Fortune favours the patient, as is so often the case with photography. We didn’t get the 'all guns blazing down the barrel' kind of sunrise, but we were more than satisfied with our gentle, muted, and somewhat melancholy captures.

A couple of days later we returned to the Quiraing planning to walk along the track towards Flodigarry to The Table area, but the weather curtailed our plans. When the mists, monsoon-like rains and Atlantic gales roll in, the Trotternish is transformed. Storm Erik had just swept into the Western Isles, bringing higher temperatures, gale force winds and torrential rain which melted most of the snow. Cowering in the lee of an earthen bank, I watched huge curtains of rain pulsating across the landscape from an ugly grey lid of cloud sitting obstinately above the Trotternish Ridge. Large waterfalls draining the saturated moorland atop the escarpment had formed, and their efforts to cascade over the basalt cliffs were thwarted by the relentless fury of the wind, causing them to be blown upwards and backwards in seething clouds of spray.

In a small cemetery sited forlornly out in the bogland below, a grim huddle of people clad in black raincoats struggled to keep umbrellas aloft as they committed one of their own to the waterlogged ground. A more miserable day for a funeral could scarcely be imagined. Soaked through and giving up on being able to do any useful photography, we jumped in Olaf and returned to Portree. As we passed by the small cemetery, two gravediggers clad in oilskins were shovelling soil into the recent inhumation in the teeming rain. It was a pitiful sight I’ll not forget in a hurry. Life can still be tough in the Western Isles.

Near the village of Carbost, the River Brittle, fed by a number of tributaries including Allt Coir' a' Mhadaidh, begins its journey in a glacial corrie (Coire na Creiche) sited dramatically below the Black Cuillin Mountains. From here it flows towards Loch Brittle in a series of stunning waterfalls and crystal-clear rock pools known as the Fairy Pools. The vivid tropical-blue water in the pools attracts wild swimmers, but even in the summer it's deceptively cold and not for the faint-hearted! Unsurprisingly, the pools and waterfalls framed by the brooding Black Cuillins are irresistable subject matter for landscape photographers.

This location is just under 9km from Carbost on the single track road that leads to Glenbrittle, and is served by a large gravel car park on the opposite side of the road to where a trackway winds its way gently up over the exposed, wind-blasted moorland of Coire na Creiche towards the base of the Black Cuillin. It's best to wear wellies or even waders not just for crossing some of the streams which, despite the presence of stepping stones, are tricky to negotiate when in spate, but also because you can then stand and move about in the river to capture dramatic, dynamic shots. It takes about 20 minutes to arrive at the first and largest waterfall marking the start of the pools, but we decided to walk to the top waterfall first, which takes about 40 minutes, and work our way back down-stream.

This location is good at any time of the day, and in almost any weather, so we arrived in the late afternoon hoping to avoid the bus loads of tourists who have 'discovered' this area. It was a good call, because by the time we reached the highest waterfall we had the spot solely to ourselves. We clambered down the bank and waded out to a point just past the centre of the river. With our Rollei tripod fully extended and using a wide angle lens, we were able to get quite close to this semicircular waterfall with the river feeding it just visible, while a polarising filter captured the close-up detail of the silky-smooth water flowing down over the volcanic rocks. Through the rumbling mist in the background loomed the snow-frosted triangular hulk of Sgurr an Fheadain with Waterpipe Gully gouged out of its towering grey cliffs like a giant scratch. Bingo! Some shots to truly remember.

Standing shin deep in the river meant that it didn't take long for our feet to turn numb with the cold, so satisfied with our shots, we moved off down the river to a falls dubbed 'the washing machine'. Our wellies came in useful again as we positioned ourselves on a small rocky shelf in the centre of the river in front of the falls which is formed by two small channels of the the Allt Coir' a' Mhadaidh being squeezed down through a narrow cleft in the rock. Due to the recent heavy rains and snowmelt, the river was quite swollen and the falls full of water. Directly behind loomed an icy Sgurr an Fheadain, and a small stone-choked channel entering the frame diagionally from the left created an interesting leading line. Use of a polarising filter helped to bring out the detail of the cobbles in this channel, and its deep turquioise colour.

The light was by now beginning to fade as the sky turned an ominous shade of grey. There are literally umpteen photo locations along this river, and as a photographer you are really only limited by your own imagination as regards to suitable compositions. This site needs lots of time and we didn't have it, as it wasn't long before the low line of angry grey cloud heralding the arrival of Storm Erik that had clamped down over the Cuillins emitted a high-velocity burst of buckshot-rain. Cowering under our umbrella we hastened back up the track to our Land Rover

Elgol, a small settlement at the very end of the single-track B8083, provides breath-taking views across Loch Scavaig to the mouth of the Cuillin Mountains. Popular with photographers, it’s a location that works well at both dawn and dusk. There is a car park above the quay which is still a working fishing port.

From here there are a couple of options. The first, and most popular, is to cross the pebbly beach below the Primary School, past a rocky cliff outcrop called Honeycomb Rock. Beyond and to the right of it are a series of slabby jointed rocks sloping off into the sea with excellent views across the loch to the Cuillins. Endless compositions with strong leading lines and good wave motion are possible here, but the site is at its best when the tide is not fully in and more of the rocks are revealed.

The second option involves climbing up onto the hillside above the quay and striking out along the cliffs in a southerly direction. After about 10 minutes you arrive at the top of a small gully. With care you can scramble down this on a pathway of sorts onto a boulder-strewn beach. We tried both locations on separate days, and found the latter to be more to our liking.

On our first visit we camped out overnight above the shore of Loch Slapin near Torrin. Even from here, Elgol seemed quite a distance on narrow, icy mountain roads. The dawn promised to be a fine one and we were eager to get there. But en route a collection of startled eyes suddenly appeared in Olaf’s headlights and the scarily-horned hulks of Highland cattle emerged out of the predawn gloom. They were in no hurry whatsoever to move and sauntered up the road in front of us which threatened to seriously delay our arrival.

When we finally got to Elgol, the rose pink streamers of dawn were already aloft in the heavens and we had to rush like mad to find a suitable spot past Honeycomb Rock. The air was crystal-clear in the sub-zero temperature, and directly ahead of us the snow-crested Cuillins were fanned out in a great semicircle. The tide was almost fully out and sucking greedily round the slippery stone slabs and rocks at our feet and, as the sun rose, the russet-coloured lower slopes of the mountains positively glowed as if on fire. It was an unforgettable sight of a magnificent mountain range.

After Storm Erik had passed over, we returned to Elgol hoping to capture a sunset shot. This time we climbed down the gully which was wet and slippery after the recent heavy rain. However, we were denied the presence of some good strong light striking the side of the mountains, as the sun had set into a bank of grey cloud on the western horizon, heralding the arrival of yet another low pressure weather front. But the blue hour was magnificent. Standing as close to the water’s edge as we dared and right above the surf pounding the rocky shore, we focussed in on the iconic pyramidal peak of Sgurr na Stri for a long exposure shot.

Talisker Beach, Skye’s most attractive, is situated on the West Coast of Skye near the village of Carbost where the famous single malt Talisker whisky is distilled. There is limited parking in an extended lay-by at the very end of a public single track road just over 7km from Carbost. The beach is accessed via a 1.5km track which passes a private house surrounded by woods and then crosses open farmland. 

It has many features that make it an ideal spot for photography: a prominent sea stack sited below some towering grass-covered cliffs in a scene that would not look out of place in Iceland; a large waterfall plunging 'Faroese-style' for many metres over basalt cliffs (and which we figured would be impressive after the recent heavy rainfall); the River Talisker flowing across the grey volcanic sand; and hundreds of ovoid boulders which look like giant sea serpents' eggs. As with any beach, there are opportunities for capturing the washback of waves coming ashore. Our sunset visit coincided with a low tide (it had just turned and was coming in) so the sand and boulders were still exposed.

As we passed out of the shelter of the woodland and onto the open farmland, the wind instantly picked up, filling the air with a fearful and incessant banshee wail as it gusted through a nearby wire fence and metal gate. This was the tail end of Storm Erik which had battered the Western Isles for the last 36 hours.

By the time we arrived at the beach we knew it was going to be challenging photographing here, particularly capturing any long exposure shots. The tide was way out and white-topped breakers were struggling to chase each other towards the beach in the fierce onshore wind. As the waves approached the shore, they collapsed in foaming fury sending great lines of spray streaking across the sand. Cappuccino-coloured foam fringed the shoreline obscuring the ovoid boulders, and clumps of it were being lifted from the sand and blown far inland. The waterfall on the right of the beach fed by the Allt Mheididh which was in spate, was indeed thundering down over the cliffs in great columns of spray.

Although the light was good, in the gusting gale force wind it was near impossible to stand up, let alone keep our tripods steady, and the high velocity waves throwing up huge volumes of spray made it difficult to keep the camera lenses and filters dry. More than once we got a wellie full of water, reminding us of similar conditions we have experienced when photographing the beaches around Vík in southern Iceland. We resorted to hand held shots of the sunset and counted ourselves fortunate to capture a sun star exploding round the sea stack lying just offshore.

Neist Point Lighthouse sits on the very tip of the Duirinish Peninsula, the most westerly point on the Isle of Skye, and is one of the most famous lighthouses in Scotland. Its tower is 62 feet high, stands 142 feet above sea-level, and was built in 1909. It was fully automated in 1990 and its beam can be seen from up to 24 miles away. 

Its dramatic location on a headland amid enormous sea cliffs which are constantly pounded by Atlantic breakers and inhabited by hundreds of wailing seabirds is highly reminiscent of the Faroe Islands. It's no surprise to discover that it was the setting for a number of scenes in the 1996 film, Breaking The Waves, and the 2012 movie, 47 Ronin.

A car park is located at the very end of the single track road near Glendale. This location works best at sunset, when the setting sun is far off to the right, but casts some great side light onto the towering cliffs of the headland. The classic view of the lighthouse is from the top of some cliffs facing it which are just a few hundred metres north from the car park, rather than from the track leading to it which is reached via a set of very steep concrete steps. However, alternative compositions, where the towering cliffs in the foreground actually break the horizon rather than being set against the sea, are possible from a broad grassy ledge to the right of the steps below the main cliffs. 

We started out along the cliff top track, worn to a fine silty-mud by the passage of countless feet, with a gale force wind in our faces. At first the lighthouse wasn't visible, but it soon crept into view from behind a great prow of rock thrusting skyward. We picked a spot which enabled us to frame the lighthouse beyond this prow with the trackway out to it offering a strong leading line.

It soon became apparent that sunset was not to be, as battleship-grey clouds filled the sky and were busy disgorging great curtains of rain not far out to sea, and these were heading our way! The cliff tops are very exposed and offered virtually no shelter from the wind or the spray that was being blown up from the pounding surf below us. It was hard to keep the filters dry and the ferocious gusts of wind made it tricky to keep the tripod still. Nonetheless, we captured some moody blue hour shots which summon up the elemental end-of-the-world feel of this location, and those battleship-grey clouds somehow managed to miss us!!

Sligachan is situated at the junction of the roads from Portree, Dunvegan and Broadford, so it’s a location you’re bound to pass at some point. We did, repeatedly, but the weather was foul on all but one of those occasions. The hotel was built at this road junction in about 1830 as this area has long been a popular base for climbers and hill walkers looking to explore the Cuillins, Scotland’s premier mountain range. It also attracts tourists who relish one of Scotland’s quintessential views: the Red and Black Cuillin with Glen Sligachan between them, and in the foreground, the quaint and picturesque stone bridge over the River Sligachan built by Thomas Telford in the very early nineteenth century. No longer is use, this bridge is a highly photogenic spot.

If you’re not using the hotel (it now includes the Cuillin Brewery which produces a very respectable craft ale aptly named Old Bridge, brewed with water flowing down the Sligachan from the Cuillin Mountains), there is a small car park on the opposite side of the river.

There is an interesting legend with an Irish connection associated with this place. It is said that the rugged landscape of Skye was created during a titanic clash of two warriors: Scáthach of Skye and Cúchulainn of Ireland. He sailed from Ireland intending to confront Scáthach who was a woman, believing that no female should be a greater warrior than him. During the battle, Scáthachs daughter became so distressed that she ran to the River Sligachan where her weeping attracted the attention of fairies who told her that if she washed her face in the water, she would find a solution to ending the battle. Having done what they instructed, she had an epiphany and rushed home gathering nuts and herbs en route which she threw into the family hearth. The smoke from them cooking drifted up the valley, and when Scáthach and Cúchulainn smelt it, they realised how famished they were and stopped fighting. The truce was sealed when Cúchulainn was invited to eat under Scáthach’s roof.  

Legend has it that if you dip your face in the river water by the Sligachan Bridge, you will be granted eternal beauty. We didn’t try this, not because we have no need of such a thing, far from it, but because the weather was far too foul!! After almost giving up, we managed to grab a quick shot of the old stone bridge during a temporary lull in the gale force winds and rain. Fortunately there was still snow dusting the peaks of Beinn Dearg Mhor, Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach and Marsco, which were positively glowering under leaden skies. We'd like to have been able to explore up-valley to seek out dramatic compositions of the river framed by the Cuillins, but Storm Erik really rained on our parade!!


Go West! The Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis and Harris

The next stage of our Highlands and Islands odyssey was a visit to the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis and Harris, which was voted the finest island in Europe and among the top five in the world by Trip Advisor five years ago. Indeed, it is renowned for its stunning white sandy beaches, turquoise water, desolate windwept moors and jagged mountains, all of which can be magnificently moody and melacholy when glimpsed through veils of mist and rain. Occupying a location in busy sea lanes and rich fishing fields, Lewis and Harris has attracted the influence of Picts, Celts and Vikings, all of whom have left their mark on the island’s landscape and culture. It was in the capital, Stornoway, that I heard my first conversation in the haunting cadence of Scots Gaelic, an ancient tongue that somehow seemed to perfectly compliment the harsh, yet heartbreakingly beautiful landscapes and seascapes of this island.

However, the arrival of Storm Erik really upended our plans. The Little Minch has a pretty fearsome reputation among mariners, so unsurprisingly Storm Erik’s arrival meant that the CalMac ferry service from Uig to Tarbert was cancelled precisely when we had planned to travel. Fickle and unpredictable weather characterises the North Atlantic in winter and this kind of event is not unusual in the Hebrides, so it’s wise to build some wriggle room into your travel plans. We eventually managed to get away three days after we had originally planned.

Enjoying dinner washed down with Skye Black beer in the ferry's dining room, I got my first view of the Outer Hebrides cloaked in bruise-coloured clouds tinged pink in the setting sun. A thrill of anticipation ran through me. The weather forecast was looking pretty good for a dawn shoot the next morning, but with conditions due to deteriorate again later that day. On arrival, we headed for a suitable camping spot not far from the village of Callanish. Our aim was to capture some sunrise shots at one of the finest stone circles in the world.

The Callanish Stones, erected in the late-Neolithic era, were a focal point for some kind of ritual activity in the Bronze Age and form part of a much larger sacral landscape. In sub-zero temperatures we drove to the site just as the first hint of a magnificent dawn coloured the eastern horizon.

We parked at the Visitor Centre (there is additional parking much closer to the stones) and made our way over the frosted ground of a low ridge above the waters of Loch Roag towards the circle. The Callanish Stones are constructed of extremely ancient local Lewisian gneiss. The main stone complex contains around 50 stones in a cross-shaped setting. The impressive inner circle comprises 13 stones, the tallest of which is almost 5m high, and a small chambered cairn.

We joined a couple of other local photographers who were excitedly anticipating a superb dawn. One later remarked that it was the best he'd ever experienced at Callanish. Indeed, the cloud-streaked sky in the eastern horizon was erupting into the most vivid colours I’d ever seen - deep-mauve, cerise-pink, saffron-yellow and flame-orange - which formed an incredible technicolour backdrop to the silhouetted stones. As the light intensified, a 0.6 grad filter was vital to help to bring out the richness of the colour and tone down any glare.

As I stood stunned into revered silence, a spine-tingling yelping sound filled the air as a Golden eagle suddenly began to circle in lazy 8’s high over the stones. From ancient times the eagle has symbolised man's connection to the divine, a conveyor of the power and messages of the spirit world. No one knows precisely what symbolism our ancestors attached to this monument, nor what function it served, but we can let our imaginations run riot. Maybe the eagle was trying to speak to me of this across the chasm of time, but its presence certainly heightened the sense of this place being ancient and sacral. I'm not ashamed to say that I broke out in goose-bumps!

When the sun finally erupted over the horizon sending great shafts of light across the silvered ground, we abandoned our tripods to move about rapidly, grabbing hand held shots of sun stars exploding round the stones. We could scarcely believe our good fortune. Callanish had delivered beyond our wildest dreams.

After this, the weather rapidly turned inclement yet again as forecast. With another bad storm making its way north, and so as to avoid getting stranded on Lewis and Harris, we decided to cut short our visit to get a ferry back to Uig on Skye.

But not before we visited the Northton Salt Marsh, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, where the tide comes in twice a day. Salt flats have always held a fascination for me, as they mark the slightly eerie boundary between the sea and land, and the marine and terrestrial worlds. Here the fin-shaped Ceapabhal Hill (368m) rises behind an intricate maze of little channels separated by grassy banks which create incredible patterns. Endless compositions are possible here, but in order to fully explore the site it’s best to wear waders, as the water was virtually over the top of my wellies and I found myself constantly sinking into the silty mud in the channels!

It was overcast and pregnant with rain, just the conditions for the moody, melancholy long-exposure shot we were after. We chose a composition with a curving channel forming a strong leading line towards Ceapabhal Hill.

The following day the torrential rain of the morning eventually gave way to sunshine and clear blue skies. But it was still incredibly windy. We wanted to capture some totally unique seascape scenes for which Lewis and Harris are famous, but although the light was excellent, the gale force wind and the little time left to us precluded much in the way of beach photography.

By hunkering down in the lee of a small knoll just below a layby on the A859 at Seilebost, we managed to get just enough shelter to capture a long-exposure shot of Luskentyre Beach.

The last roll of the dice for us before we caught the ferry to Skye to begin our onward journey back to Cairnryan, was a stop at the dunes above Traigh Lar Beach where the flaxen-hued marram grass glowing in the strong winter sunlight caught our eye. With the milky-surf pounding the shore, and the marram grasses being whipped to a frenzy in the gale force wind, it was a miracle that we managed to get a long exposure shot here at all. It took two of us forming a human shield around a tripod to keep it steady enough! 

Although our plans on Lewis and Harris had been curtailed and disrupted by bad weather, we had no overall cause for complaint after being treated to some truly extraordinary and memorable photography conditions during our Scottish Highlands and Islands odyssey. And of course, we now have the perfect excuse to return to the Hebrides! If you want to experience the beauty and majesty of Skye, why not join us on a future winter phototour? Details are on our website.

[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) Britain Europe Glencoe Hebrides landscape photography Lewis and Harris photo tour phototour Scotland Scottish Highlands Skye travel blog winter https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2019/9/highlands-and-islands-a-scottish-photographic-odyssey Fri, 06 Sep 2019 20:30:46 GMT
A Stellar Time in the Canary Islands: An Astrophotography Tour of Tenerife and La Palma https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2019/8/A-stellar-time-in-the-Canary-Islands-an-astrophotography-tour-of-tenerife-and-la-palma  

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The Canaries, a group of seven sub-tropical volcanic islands looming up out of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Saharan West Africa, have acquired something of an unfortunate reputation for being tacky winter sun holiday destinations, with soulless hotels, cheap restaurants and seedy bars squatting above the shores of black sand beaches. But this is really selling these sun-kissed islands short, for there is so much more to the Canaries than this.

They boast some of the most magnificent scenery imaginable. Magical forests of moss-draped Canarian pines and laurel engulfed in eerie swathes of mist, abut barren and contorted lava fields populated by bizarre cacti and plants. Multi-coloured volcanic cones eroded into fantastical shapes are riven by rocky barrancos and tower above lunar-like dunescapes and deserts. Pretty pastel-hued towns and villages tumble downslope to the very edges of craggy coastlines washed by the ever-restless Atlantic. Inland are scores of secluded rustic whitewashed stone cottages with rust-red ceramic tiled roofs, perched on terraced hillsides of emerald-green malvasia vines. Five out of the seven islands (Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, La Palma, El Hierro and Gran Canaria) are wholly or partly listed as UNESCO biosphere reserves, in recognition of their remarkable landscapes and unusual flora and fauna.


Windows onto the Universe

But of even greater interest is that few places on Earth, and certainly in Europe, offer such a wonderful opportunity to view our Milky Way, the wider cosmos, and deep space objects, than the Canary Islands. And none more so than Tenerife and La Palma. Their location close to the Equator provides a perfect view of the skies over the entire Northern Hemisphere and part of the Southern Hemisphere.

Moreover, the islands are not in the firing line of the turbulent Atlantic weather systems that characterise the climate further north. The Canaries languish in the path of the northeast trade winds which conjure pillow-soft layers of thin cloud called Los Vientos Alisios. These envelop the lower slopes of the islands, but leave the tops clear. They help to block out most of the light pollution escaping from the towns and villages far below, guaranteeing perfect visibility on 90 per cent of summer nights. These islands are therefore ideal 'windows onto the universe', rivalling the well-known astronomical hotspots of Northern Chile and Hawaii.

Tenerife is dominated by the enormous cone of the Teide Volcano. With a summit 3,700m above sea level, it is the highest point in the Atlantic, the third highest volcano in the world, and Spain’s highest peak. It’s also home to the island’s solar observatory located at 2,390 metres (7,840ft) which is operated by the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias. Inaugurated in 1964, it became one of the first major international observatories, attracting numerous globally renowned astrophysicists from around the world because of the excellent unpolluted dark sky conditions.

The quality of Tenerife’s night skies has earned it the Starlight Tourism Certification. This scheme was created in 2009 supported by organisations such as UNESCO, the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) and the International Astronomical Union (IAU), with the aim of protecting our night skies and defending the right to stargaze. Mount Teide is the first UNESCO World Heritage Site certified as a Starlight Tourist Destination.

The jet-black skies of La Palma make it even better for stargazing than its bigger neighbour, and it became the the world’s first Starlight Reserve in 2012. In fact the Declaration in Defence of the Night Sky and the Right to Starlight was drafted on La Palma at the 2009 International Conference in Defence of the Quality of Night Sky and the Right to Observe Stars. Indeed, in recent years the prime location for optical telescopes has shifted from Tenerife to La Palma which now accommodates a wide array of cutting-edge international telescopes. These are built at an altitude of 2,400 meters above sea level on the rim of the Caldera de Taburiente, the eroded remains of a giant ancient shield volcano. They include the Gran Telescopio Canarias, the largest optical telescope in the world.

All of La Palma is deeply committed to astro-tourism and was one of the first places to implement the 1988 Sky Act, protecting the island’s sky from light, atmospheric and radioelectric pollution. Aircraft can't fly over the island at night, and the street lights face downwards to minimise light pollution. 


Mount Teide National Park

Mount Tiede towers over the roughly triangular island of Tenerife. It has blown its top violently several times since the islands were first settled by the Spanish in the fifteenth century, with its most recent eruption being in 1909. It forms part of the Teide National Park, which was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 and attracts more than three million visitors annually.

Progressing up the steep side of the volcano is like entering another realm. Banana plantations and vineyards progressively give way to shady moss-draped pine forests enveloped in mystical wraith-like swathes of luminescent cloud. As the tree line thins, the clouds begin to part, revealing another world. Brilliant sunshine floods a great amphitheatre defined by Las Cañadas escarpment which more closely resembles the surface of Mars. Indeed, the park has been used by NASA to test scientific equipment which will be sent to the red planet.

A giant’s geological sculpture garden is now laid out before your very eyes. Huge saw-toothed volcanic escarpments, buttes, gnarly spires and soaring pinnacles rise amid vast rivers of pertrified lava. In places it resembles gloopy singed cowpats; in others it's angular and crumbly like bits of burnt toast. These lava flows interspersed with flaxen-hued pumice, ink-black obsidian glinting angrily in the strong sunlight, and blood-red piconés (ash-cones), betray the chaos and upheaval which has created this landscape. It reminded me a lot of the badlands of Utah.

The barrenness is alleviated by patches of vegetation that cling stubbornly to the rust-red soil. This includes sweet-smelling yellow-white retama broom, juniper bushes, yellow flixweed and laburnum. Bu most spectacular of all is the brilliant red inflorescence of the tajinaste rojo, a species of echium endemic to this area, colloquially known as ‘tower of jewels’. These floral spires seem to explode from the ground aping the very jets of lava that created this volcanic wonderland.

Amid the rock and tangled vegetation scurries the blue-throated and specked Southern Tenerife Lizard, and kestrels and ravens soar overhead.

We time our visits to the Canaries to coincide with nights with no, or very little moonlight. Night falls quickly at this latitude. At dusk the stars begin to wink in the firmament almost immediately, and the heat of the day gradually gives way to a delicious coolness. Down jackets, gloves and a hat aren't always needed in spring and/or summer; a heavy-weight fleece suffices.

The profound sense of solitude one gets when sitting out under a canopy of brilliant stars in a still and silent night is a wonderful release from our increasingly frazzled modern lives. It's even possible to see the different colours of the stars - red, orange, yellow, blue-white - that make up the various constellations, some of which aren't visible from northern Europe. I never tire of watching in awe-struck wonder as our Milky Way arches overhead. Patience is richly rewarded and the hours simply fly by.

At night the park takes on the aura of a sci-fi film set. Most people make a beeline for the Roques de Garcia opposite the visitor centre. These rocky needles, particularly the huge crocked finger of lava called the Roque Cinchado, look incredible silhouetted against the Milky Way. A trail which takes around two hours to walk, meanders right around the base of the rocks. You can pre-select suitable areas on this trail with the aid of a night sky phone-app. 

This site is one of the busiest, so timelapse can be problematic here due to its proximity to the TF-24 road through the park, and the number of people visiting throughout the night, not all of them photographers, with blinding LED head torches.

Next to the visitor centre is a small Catholic church which has the distinction of being the highest place of Christian worship in Spain: La Ermita de Nuestra Señora de las Nieves (The Hermitage of Our Lady of the Snows). Carefully illuminated, it makes a strong foreground subject for a night shot, as the Milky Way blazes overhead.

El Zapitito de la Reina (The Queen’s Slipper), a rectangular–shaped natural arch leaning against the towering buttress-like crater walls bounding the flat expanse of the Llano de Ucana, is much less visited and makes a fabulous subject for astrophotography. Midway through the night the Milky Way soars above the arch, and a prominent butte in the background adds extra drama.

The Minas de San José (St Joseph’s Mines) an exposed, vast volcanic sandpit of buff-coloured pumice from which giant fins of lava loom, truly resembles a lunar landscape. Using a fish-eye lens enabled us to capture the complete arch of the Milky Way.

Before sundown, a long, dusty hike along the old Camino Real de Chasna to the Cañada de Diego Hernández, an ancient route used by the native Guanches to cross the island from north to south, brought us to a large lava cave with a bird’s eye view of Mount Teide. We like to pack a picnic and sit inside this old shepherd's shelter for several hours to capture timelapse of star-trails above the volcano, and the multiple pin pricks of light cast by hikers’ head torches as they descend from the Refugio de Altavista below the summit.

We usually take the ferry from Los Cristianos over to La Palma. The views are almost always memorable. I love to watch the sun sink towards the horizon in a warm, golden haze before it transforms into a lava-red ball of incandescence that is quickly swallowed by the steel-blue Atlantic. On one occasion, as the sun set, a thin band of opalescent cloud settled between the becalmed ocean and the periwinkle-blue sky, before wrapping itself round the base of the giant rose-pink cone of Teide, which soared above the water like an enormous mystic pyramid.

Caldera de Taburiente National Park

La Palma, the most north-westerly and greenest of the Canary Islands, is also one of the least populated and visited, although it has been much in the news following the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano in 2021. If you think that the Tiede National Park resembles the set of a sci-fi film, La Palma is in another league. The ancient Taburiente volcano boasts an eight-kilometre-wide cleft which isn’t a caldera at all, although it is known as such. This gigantic gash has been caused by scores of cataclysmic landslides triggered by volcanic eruptions over many centuries, and is one of the planet's largest and tallest erosion craters with a circumference of 29km and depths of up to one and a half kilometres. Its ruggedness has been mellowed somewhat over the eons by wind and rain, transforming it into a kind of fantastical ‘Lost World’, with slopes thickly blanketed by dense Canarian pine forests and criss-crossed with deep ravines of laurel rainforest.

From the rim of this enormous slumbering behemoth, great fangs of rock soar skyward: El Roque de los Muchachos (2,426m and the highest point on the island); Pico de la Cruz (2,351m); Piedra Llana (2,321m); Pico de la Fuente Nueva (2,366m); and Punta de los Roques (2,085m). From these high points the terrain plummets over vertiginous near vertical cliff faces for around 800 metres, before falling more gently to an altitude of around 430m above sea level, offering unforgettable photographic opportunities.

Far above the sea of pillow-soft cloud, which rolls in languid waves above the Atlantic, the white towers and domes of some of the most important observatories on the planet line the northwest rim of the volcano between the Pico de la Fuente Nueva and El Roque de los Muchachos. A series of trails thread their way precariously round the edge of this rim, and pass very close to the buildings, affording a bird's eye view of them silhouetted against the Atlantic.

Each evening, as the observatories open their shutters to cool the telescopes in readiness for a night of observation, the most amazing sunsets illuminate the churning cloud and sky with colours straight from a baroque-era paintbox. To the east, the  shadow of the island streams away over the cloud-covered ocean. Within these amazing structures, teams of international scientists are busy discovering the mysteries of our universe by studying planets, asteroids, comets, black holes, galaxies and our sun. The William Herschel telescope is so powerful that it could see a candle burning on the moon. 

Along with the three enormous gamma ray-detecting MAGIC telescopes with their dozens of gleaming hexagonal mirrors staring off into space like the compound eyes of giant insects, these futuristic observatories are incredibly photogenic.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, guided tours to some of the telescopes were on offer. We have visited the Gran Telescopio Canarias, the world’s largest single-aperture optical telescope housed inside a gleaming silver cupola measuring 33 metres. Construction of the telescope took seven years and cost €130 million. First light was achieved in 2007 and scientific observations began in 2009.

Inside is an enormous mirror almost 11 metres in diameter. It consists of 36 hexagonal pieces which can be moved separately from each other, and the shape of each piece can also be changed. These two types of movements compensate for changes in the observed light caused by atmospheric attenuation. The telescope is mounted in a system that moves both in altitude and in azimuth to observe any point in the sky. Seeing it up close really sets the scene for the exciting night sky observation and photography to come.

Although each of La Palma’s 14 municipalities has its own astro-viewing point complete with information boards and signs detailing constellations to look out for, the best places for astrophotography are near the summit of the island. The LP-4 road leads up the mountainside in a seemingly endless series of tight hairpin bends, passing out of the shady pine forest onto the broom-covered upper slopes of the volcano which are ablaze in spring with fragrant lemon-yellow flowers. Tall spires of flaming tajinaste rojo line the road. Close to the summit, a minor road branches off the LP-4, leading uphill towards a car park at the Roque de los Muchachos, offering incredible views down over the silver dome of the Gran Telescopio Canarias with the Atlantic Ocean forming an impressive backdrop. At dusk this road is closed to all traffic to ensure that no light pollution disturbs the science, but it is possible to walk to the Roque de los Muchachos along one of the many rim trails.

Continuing east along the LP-4, there are stunning views of the MAGIC telescopes which look otherworldly as their gleaming mirrors reflect the inverted layers of colour and light made by the sky, cloud and earth. At night, the stars twinkle in them like Swarovski crystals. The road then continues below the numerous telescopes strung out along the rim of the crater, before passing through a chaotic multi-coloured landscape of baked and scorched rust-red earth, buff-coloured ash and pumice, and petrified cliffs of steel-grey lava.

At one point it crosses a mere knife-edge of rock near the Mirador de los Andenes. At night this north-facing spot is a fantastic place to set up a tripod, as no hiking is required to get a great view of the Milky Way arching over the enormous Caldera de Taburiente, with the opalescent ever-present cloud roiling in waves 2,000 metres below at the coast.

From here, a path that heads upwards towards the crater rim can be followed for several kilometres towards the Roque de los Muchachos. Numerous north-facing spots along the way are ideal locations for capturing the full arch of the Milky Way framed over the gaping void. But in the dark, the path offers some real heart-stopping, squeaky bum moments, as it passes dangerously close to some very friable cliff edges!  Better still is the shorter, steep route up towards the Pico de la Fuente Nueva which is signposted from the LP-4. This passes close to the Isaac Newton and William Herschel Telescopes just below the summit. In spring, this area is carpeted with yellow broom flowers whose heady scent perfumes the still night air.

The peace and deep silence is broken only by the periodic quiet hum and clunk of machinery as the telescopes are realigned to face a new section of the heavens. Martin's a keen amateur astronomer, and he explains that it's possible to see up to a staggering 3,000 stars here with the naked eye. These include Polaris, the North Star, at the end of the Little Dipper; Antares, an orange star in the 'tail' of the constellation of Scorpio; the Trifid Nebula in Sagittarius (my Zodiac sign!); and the 'Heavenly Twins', Castor and Pollux in Gemini. It's even possible to see the faint smudge of Andromeda. This spiral galaxy is 2.5 million light-years from Earth, and the nearest major galaxy to our Milky Way. Mindblowing stuff!  I observe all of this with childlike glee, especially when shooting stars blaze across the jet-black sky like fireworks. Another favourite spot is the Infinity Monument, reached after a short hike up a paved pathway from the LP-4. This concrete and metal sculpture which looks vaguely phallic was erected in 1985 by the highly regarded artist, César Manrique. It symbolises the union of the Earth and the Cosmos, and commemorates the inauguration of the Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory. We have lots of fun at this spot trying to align the tip of one of the metal prongs of the monument with Polaris to capture a whirling circle of timelapse star-trails. The view from here of distant Mount Teide looming above the cloud is unforgettable.

Making Stellar Memories

The Canary Islands are a truly stellar destination in so many ways. Seeing the stars the way our ancestors did, before the Industrial Revolution, is such a privilege. On a moonless night in many parts of northern Europe, the light pollution is so bad we’re lucky to even spot the main, well-known constellations, let alone the Milky Way in all its glory. But in the Canaries, even favourites like The Plough and Cassiopeia are hard to see, not because they are hidden from view by light pollution, but because they are obscured by literally thousands of twinkly stars we never see!

Our night sky is a window onto the universe, humankind's connection to the infinite, the vast and the eternal. Surely it is every human being's right to witness this precious spectacle, to ponder our place in the far reaches of our visible universe? We think it is, and if you do too, why not join us on one of our future phototours to this remarkable archipelago of islands?

See our short film of these incredible locations and don't forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel!

[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) astrophotography Canary Islands Europe La Palma Milky Way night sky phototour Spain stargazing Starlight Reserve stars Tenerife World Heritage Site https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2019/8/A-stellar-time-in-the-Canary-Islands-an-astrophotography-tour-of-tenerife-and-la-palma Wed, 28 Aug 2019 21:35:54 GMT
Four days in a Volcanic Wilderness: Trekking the Laugavegur Trail, Iceland https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2018/11/Four-days-in-a-Volcanic-Wilderness-Trekking-the-Laugavegur-Trail-Iceland

‘In loving memory of Ido Keinan, who passed away in a blizzard, so close to the safe hut nearby, yet so far.’ These sobering words, etched onto a small stone plaque embedded in a cairn, mark the place where, in 2004, a 25-year old man perished. The memorial is situated on a bleak, wind-blasted mountainside devoid of vegetation, where glaring white layers of ice lie encrusted across stretches of volcanic ash and jet-black basalt rocks for as far as the eye can see. This is part of a volcanic highland wilderness just 160 km east of Reykjavík which is so unusual and otherworldly, it could almost be extra-terrestrial. We’re crossing this region of Iceland on a multi-day 55km trail that regularly features on lists of the finest walking routes in the world, and one that increasingly seems to be on every adventure seeker’s bucket list. But this poignant memorial is a reminder that it’s no walk in the park…


Martin and I have left our Land Rover in the public car park in Hella, the last town before heading north into the highlands, where we caught the 9.35 am bus operated by the Trex bus company (50 euro one way per adult, for a journey lasting just over two hours). Leaving the Hringvegur (Route 1, the Ring Road) is like passing into another world: one of snow-streaked rainbow-coloured hills; vast plains of black volcanic ash; valleys choked with frigid black lava streams mottled with neon-green moss; and glacier-topped volcanoes including the mighty Hekla, dubbed the ‘Gateway to Hell’. The asphalt eventually gives way to gravel ‘wash-board’ ‘F’ roads, open only to 4X4 vehicles from mid-June to mid-September. A deep river crossing heralds the entrance to the Landmannalaugar campsite.

Landmannalaugar is the northern, and more popular, starting point of the famous 4-day Laugavegur (Hot Spring Way) which runs to Þórsmörk (Thor’s Forest) in the south. Starting at the Landmannalaugar end which is at 600m above sea level, means that you experience around 500m elevation gain to the highest point (1,110m) in contrast to the 900m experienced when trekking from Þórsmörk, and the only persistent uphill section is encountered on day one. We’ve decided to camp because the mountain huts are usually booked out months in advance and to overnight in them is extremely costly (around 70-90 euro per person at summer 2018 currency conversion rates). No advance booking is required for the cheaper camping option which also provides more flexibility. The downside to camping isn’t just the extra weight we have to carry, but also the weather. We’re well aware that no one travels to the 64th parallel north in summer to get a suntan, but the weather has been truly atrocious since our arrival, even by Icelandic standards. Unfortunately for us, our five-week visit has coincided with the worst summer in living memory. It’s now the second week of August and the day before our arrival at Landmannalaugar the wind was so ferocious it shredded tents, causing Ferðafélag Íslands, the organisation that operates the huts on the Laugavegur, to close the trial. We’re hoping that the 4-day good weather window which has been forecast will prove to be accurate.

Day One: A Vision of Hades

Landmannalaugar, part of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, is located on a spit of land between the Jokulgilskvisl and Namskvisl rivers, and is hemmed in by multi-coloured rhyolite mountains streaked with snow and electric-green moss. They look as if they have been daubed with the contents of an artist’s paint pox. The campsite is situated on the very edge of the Laugahraun lava field, which was formed in an eruption in about 1477. Landmannalaugar, ‘The People’s Pools’, also hints at its volcanic derivation, for hydrothermal natural springs well up at the edge of the lava field, and the area near the campsite is wreathed in ghostly exhalations.

The place is very busy with campers and day trippers visiting a hot spring invitingly located across an expanse of swaying bog cotton. However, I note that the rocky, hard camping ground looks far less inviting, with pitches free of stones being at a premium. It’s almost midday when we arrive, and as we have a 12km hike to the next campsite at Hrafntinnusker, we forego the chance to take a dip in the hot spring. Before setting out, I make the mistake of visiting the toilet, for which I am charged an eye-watering 500kr (4 euro) which makes something of a mockery of the phrase ‘going to spend a penny’!

The trial climbs steeply through the Laugahraun lava field, a chaotic jumble of raven-black rock contorted into spikes, spires and shards, a surreal landscape that looks as if the Norse God, Thor, has laid waste to it with Mjölnir, his thunderous hammer. Sulphur-encrusted fumaroles belch forth clouds of acrid steam or hiss malevolently at the trail-side, and tiny mud pools splatter vile smelling grey sludge from the angry hot earth beneath our feet. The ghostly figures of other trekkers pass in and out of the warm white vapours which permeate the air with an odour of boiled eggs. It feels like we have entered the very realm of Hades.

As we gain height, we are rewarded with a magnificent view down into the Landmannalaugar Valley which is partially choked with a frigid river of lava around which flow the serpentine coils of a real river - the Jokulgilskvisl. The trail is initially very busy with people hiking up to Mount Brennisteinsalda and the Bláhnjúkur volcano, but the crowds soon thin as we head off in the direction of the Storihver hot springs across a barren undulating plateau the colours of umber, ochre and burnt sienna, which is covered with thick patches of dirty snow.

Great columns of steam announce our arrival at Storihver, its fumaroles at first hidden from view in the bottom of a small valley lined with moss so green it appears to be almost luminous. Hot water snarls and splutters from a deep fissure close to the trail, discharging into a river which is enveloped in dense, unpleasant-smelling sulphurous vapour. The earth groans and sighs as if in perpetual pain, and is encrusted with white and yellow mineral deposits.

A steep climb out of the valley brings us onto yet another plateau extensively covered in slushy snow. It’s on the slope of Söðull that we encounter the memorial to Ido Keinan. A pall of sadness hangs over the rocky cairn marking the place where this young man was felled in his prime by Iceland’s brutal weather. He was only 20 minutes or so from the hut at Hrafntinnusker, just down over the other side of a nearby ridge.

Hrafntinnusker, the highest point on the trial at 1,110 metres, means in Icelandic something like ‘small rocky obsidian island’, and it’s not hard to see why. The red roof of the hut contrasts vividly with the surrounding lunar-like landscape, across which tendrils of white vapour from a nearby fumarole are languidly drifting. Away in the distance, across a vast plain choked with snow, are a line of forbidding brown mountains streaked white with ice. Shards of jet-black obsidian glaring angrily in the late afternoon sunlight litter the ground, and the camping pitches are mere scrapes in the black volcanic sand. These are surrounded by horseshoe-shaped walls of obsidian rocks built to provide some shelter from the wind that constantly torments the bare mountainside. A bleaker, more surreal campsite would be hard to imagine.

We find the warden and pay the 2,000 Kr (about 15-16 euro) per person camping fee. This permits access only to the long drop toilet facilities and a tap for water, but not the kitchen inside the hut. No covered shelter is provided for campers, an unpleasant situation given the notorious weather here. No wild camping is permitted so you have to use the designated camping areas, and for the tariffs charged, the facilities along this trail fall far short of the standard we are accustomed to elsewhere in the world. We set up our tent in the most level and sheltered pitch we can find. The innocuous-looking clouds of earlier in the day have gradually massed together, filling the sky like a slowly swirling giant bruise. Just before twilight the cloud explodes, and great curtains of sleety rain sweep across the campsite. By now we are already snuggled up in our 4 season down sleeping bags and I drift off to sleep listening to the percussive pinging of icy rain on our tent, hoping for better weather tomorrow.


Day Two: Journey to Middle Earth

By the time we break camp the following morning the rain has passed over, leaving in its wake a sunny, fresh and breezy day. The baby-blue sky is billowing with fluffy white cumulus clouds and the sunlight reflecting back off the snowfield below the camp is blinding. I squint to see a group of matchstick figures moving slowly along a faint line leading towards the brown mountains in the distance.

We set out after them, heading towards the next campsite at Álftavatn which is about 12 kilometres away and at an altitude of 530m, which entails a difference in elevation of over 500m. After safely negotiating the snow field, the trail meanders over the rolling hills and snow-choked ravines below Reykjafjoll Mountain. Many of these have small rivers flowing through them. Deep deposits of snow line the chocolate-brown river banks like enormous layers of meringue, and we exercise great care when picking our way over numerous snow bridges.

A short, steep climb brings us to a plateau with extensive views over the terrain we have just traversed. The Icelandic Highlands almost defy description, and I’m drawn to the mottled, mazy patterns created by the partially melted snow on the deeply eroded interlocking spurs of the rhyolite mountains which range in colour from chalk-white and crème caramel, through umber to vermillion: a spectacular visual leitmotif framed by the blue sky dotted with flour-white clouds.

The route now undulates over numerous hills traversing geothermally altered terrain, and care has to be taken not to lose one’s footing on the steeper sections of the friable, gravelly ground. Yet more fumaroles are encountered, and a small amber-coloured stream which plunges down over a series of eye-catching waterfalls.

We are walking along the margin of the snow-covered glacier below Háskerðingur on Jökultungur Mountain when we first catch sight of the vast Álftavatn Valley below. A Tolkienesque scene now unfolds before us, a veritable vision of Middle Earth. The livid Mýrdalsjökull glacier gleaming in the glassy sunlight completely fills the horizon to the southeast. It hides an explosive secret: the fearsome active volcano, Katla. Almost straight ahead in the distance loom the smoky-blue slopes of Eyjafjallajökull, its lofty ice-crowned summit merging into pillow-soft cloud. This is one of the smaller Icelandic ice caps but one of the best-known, as it covers the caldera of the volcano which erupted violently in 2010, wreaking havoc on European air traffic. To the southwest is yet another glacial giant – Tindfjallajökull - a dormant stratovolcano. Eyjafjallajökull glowers over Lake Álftavatn, gleaming like a pewter bowl, with the much smaller Torfvatn Lake just visible behind. These are encircled by a horseshoe of pyramid-shaped volcanic formations - Stórasula, Hattafel, Illasula and Stóra-Grænafjall - which seem to be guarding them. Two rivers conveying glacial meltwater, the Grashagakvisl and the Bratthálskvisl, meander through the broad valley floor where everything is a thousand shades of glorious green and just screams life. A more unexpected contrast to the almost barren rhyolite landscape we have just traversed is hard to imagine.

The shadows of clouds trace kaleidoscopic patterns across this emerald paradise as we begin to descend a steep gravelly track that zig-zags its way down to the valley floor which is murder on the knees! The rapid descent catapults us into an entirely different environment, one where everything is carpeted with velvet moss and lush grasses on less demanding flat terrain. The route follows the riverbank of the Grashagakvisl, which we eventually have to cross. Luckily for us the water levels are low enough for us to hop across the tops of protruding boulders without getting our feet wet! Leaving the river we strike out across a flat gravelly plain towards the hut which is now visible near the lake. The camping ground is brutally exposed to any wind, and fifty campers had to be rescued here during a savage storm in July 2014.

As we approach the campsite I am elated to see the words ‘BAR’ painted onto the side of one of the wooden buildings. After checking in and paying the camping fee to the warden, we pitch our tent in a quiet grassy spot well away from other campers, then head to the bar to slake our thirst. Here we treat ourselves to a chilled Viking Classic each, but at an eyebrow-raising 1,200kr (about 10 euro) per can, we didn’t opt for a second round!! The bar serves food too, but with a bowl of soup costing 2,500kr and mains 3,500kr, we stick to our Expedition Foods freeze-dried macaroni cheese!

Álftavatn means ‘Whooper swan lake’, and although we do not spot any birds, there are other flying things here: thousands of midges. Although they are annoying, they do not bite. As sunset approaches, a wander towards the shore of the lake is rewarded by the sight of Illasula silhouetted like an ancient pyramid against the snows of Tindfjallajökull blushing rose-pink in the setting sun. The cloud stealthily encroaching across the sky from the west is set ablaze in shades of marigold-yellow, tangerine and vermillion before fading to chalky-mauve and slate-grey as we retire to the warmth of our tent.

Day Three: Sojourn in the Black Sand Desert

We open our tent flaps to be welcomed by an overcast morning with cloud rolling across the tops of the nearby mountains like a slow tsunami. Today’s route takes us to the next camping site at Emstrur some 15km away, but we must first cross the Bratthálskvisl River which is encountered about 20 minutes from the hut. When in spate this can be very fast flowing and deep, but today the bitterly cold water only reaches my mid-shins as I wade it in my plastic Crocs. My ice cold feet warm up quickly as the sun finally breaks through the cloud as we traverse the Brattháls Ridge on the way to the Hvanngil Ravine.

A steep descent brings us into this verdant valley which has a number of small wooden cabins built by shepherds who come here to gather their sheep each autumn, along with another trekkers’ hut. When it is too stormy to camp at Álftavatn, Hvanngil offers an alternative, more sheltered place to camp. We sit in a grassy alpine meadow near the hut admiring the surprising variety of flowers hereabouts, including electric-mauve patches of wild thyme. The hut abuts an old lava field and the trail passes by huge near-vertical slabs of cracked and buckled charred rock, frozen in their death throes.

We soon hear the roar of the Kaldaklofskvísl River, a seething, angry body of glacial meltwater which is crossed via a wooden bridge. Once across the bridge and near a board announcing our entry into the Katla Geopark, the trail splits in two. We follow the route marked Emstrur and Þórsmörk which runs almost parallel to the F261 highland road. Not long after, we encounter yet another river, the Blafjallakvisl, and this we have to wade. It’s at least 10 metres wide, deep, fast flowing, and ice-cold on account of it being meltwater from the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. I roll my trousers up as far above my knees as possible and wade into the inky-blue water. A group of Americans are making a right meal of things, shrieking loudly and panicking as the water rises higher up their shins. The cold immediately hits me like a sledgehammer and bites into the very marrow of my bones, causing me to move as quickly as possible. Using my walking poles to maintain balance, within minutes I'm relieved to splosh out onto the opposite bank with slightly damp trousers where the water has risen above my knees.

They soon dry in the hot sunshine as we begin to walk across one of the most bizarre landscapes on Earth. The Blafjallakvisl River marks a sharp demarcation in the landscape. Gone are the verdure-covered hills; in their place, an enormous flat desert of pumice and black sand known as Mælifellssandur. Huge tongues of gleaming white ice spill down to the desert's edge from the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap dominating the south-eastern horizon, and the faint scar of the trail snakes its way across the vast landscape towards a line of distant hills, where it is lost to sight in a shimmering heat haze.

Iceland has over 20,000 km2 of sandy deserts which are mostly situated 400–500 metres above sea level in the highland interior of the country. These have formed because the water precipitating as rain or snow infiltrates so quickly into the ground that most of it is unavailable for plant growth. I’m therefore surprised to see plants more readily associated with coastal areas - cushions of candy–pink sea thrift and clumps of shell-pink sea campion - trembling on their delicate stalks in the merest of breezes alongside the trail.

Although the terrain is flat, plodding along in the deep sand proves to be very tiring and rather monotonous, and each footfall throws up a tiny cloud of dust which begins to catch in the back of my throat. I’m mightily glad of the boiled lemon sweets I have packed which are the perfect antidote for a parched mouth! I can only imagine how brutal this exposed section of the trail would be with high winds lifting the abrasive volcanic sand, or in driving rain or sleet.

After several kilometres we arrive at the bridge over the Innri-Emstruá River, a rushing, roaring body of dirty grey-brown water careering down from the Slettjökull glacier, part of the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. The banks of the river are dotted with patches of cerise-pink fireweed, a welcome splash of colour amid the monochromatic monotony of the desert, and we stop here awhile to eat our lunch. 

The trail continues through yet more desert, passing between the neon-green moss-streaked peaks of Útigönguhöfðar and Storkonufell, after which it continues to undulate endlessly over the featureless landscape. At the top of each rise we hope to see the Emstrur campsite, which maddeningly seems to be getting no closer. Once across a river which requires no wading, large clumps of coarse grass begin to appear, and arriving on the flank of a hill named Botnar we finally spot the red roofs of the Emstrur huts.

Below us, tucked away in a ravine carved by a small stream, is a surreal fluorescent-green oasis overlooked by the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap, gleaming in the late afternoon sun. A steep descent brings us to the door of the warden’s hut. Good, level pitches at this campsite are at a premium, so it is highly recommended that you leave Álftavatn early in order to be assured of a prime spot. We find a perfect site on the stream's bank at the very end of the camp.

As sunset draws near, long, lazy shafts of sunlight fall across the landscape making the impossibly green moss glow as if it is phosphorescing. We climb to a spot above the Markarfljotsgljufur Gorge to watch the setting sun turning the wispy clouds rose-pink above the snowy crests of Tindfjallajökull. Above the campsite we pause to view Mýrdalsjökull, now glowering in the shadows. It’s hard to believe that this seemingly innocuous ice cap harbours such a destructive force of nature. This campsite, according to strategically placed information boards, sits in the very line of fire of Katla, and the volcano’s present dormancy is among the longest in recorded history…

Day Four: Thor's Green and Pleasant Wonderland

Today we break camp early in order to comfortably cover the 16km to Þórsmörk in time to catch the Trex bus back to Hella at 6.00 pm. Above the campsite the trail traverses a gravelly plateau, before winding its way steeply down to the edge of a yawning canyon. This has been cut deeply into the basalt by the roaring Fremri-Emstruá River conveying meltwater from the Entujökull glacier on the westernmost margin of the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap.

A footbridge spans this raging torrent at its narrowest point. The trail then traverses a sandy plain before climbing steeply to another plateau where a short detour brings us to a viewpoint over the junction of the Markarfljotsgljufur Gorge and that cut by the Fremri-Emstruá River.

The impressive 200m deep Markarfljótsgljúfur Gorge has been carved out of the basalt by the 100km long Markarfljót River, one of South Iceland’s largest watercourses. This mighty dirty-brown river which roars as loudly as a jet engine, rises in the mountains east of Hekla and is fed by meltwaters flowing off the Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers. It has carried millions of tons of sand and sediment towards the coast, creating the Markarfljótsaurar outwash plain which we will see later in the day.

We traipse across more desolate fields of black sand left behind by retreating glaciers, then enter the hilly area of Almenningar, and all the while Eyjafjallajökull hovers menacingly on the horizon. The landscape, heavily scored by the action of flood waters, is spread before us in tsunamis of nickel-grey ash and valleys choked with gunmetal-hued lava spewed out in past volcanic eruptions. In its molten state it oozed like black treacle across the terrain and now lies ruched like silk crepe in all directions. To our west, the strangely shaped Einhyrningur (The Unicorn) rises like a giant, horned dinosaur.

Eventually, the first signs of habitation appear in the shape of the rust-red rooftops of isolated farmsteads, bit by bit the landscape begins to green again, and we’re soon walking past thickets of dwarf willow and sweet-smelling birch. By the time we cross the small bridge over the Ljosa River, a tributary of the Markarfljót, which has carved a narrow canyon through which its waters tumble downward in a froth of white falls, we are surrounded by head high birch trees alive with birdsong.

A steep climb up to the bare crest of Kápa is rewarded with fabulous views down onto the Markarfljót River flowing in a tangle of silver channels which wriggle like serpents through its gunmetal-grey outwash plain. Descending Kápa we catch sight of the Þröngá River, and judging by the number of people dithering in groups on its broad rocky shores, we sense that this river crossing will be the most challenging.

The chalky-grey river lets out a menacing, low, grating roar as invisible cobbles are turned in its bed. It’s the deepest and fastest flowing river we have encountered and is braided into three channels separated by banks of gravel and silt. I watch as a young man with an enormous pack almost topples over in the torrent, and another man lose a sandal which is ripped from his foot by the sheer force of the flow. The water will definitely be above my knees this time, so I remove my trousers and with my heart racing, wade through it in my knickers. The cold is intense, the water swirls alarmingly round my upper thighs and the current tugs strongly at my legs as I battle my way through the deepest middle channel, relying heavily on my walking poles to steady myself.

The Þröngá River marks the beginning of the Þórsmörk Forest, one of the few birch woodlands to have escaped the axes of the first Viking settlers who were responsible for deforesting huge swathes of the Icelandic landscape. A wide pathway gently leads uphill to an intersection with signs giving directions to different huts in Þórsmörk. We are headed for the Langidalur Hut on the bank of the Krossá River which is about 30 minutes away.

As we begin the steep descent over a series of wooden steps down to the hut, the red roofs of which are now visible above the river, it has completely clouded over and is threatening rain as forecasted. The wind has also picked up ahead of the approaching weather front, and I can see spindrift being whipped off the summit of Eyjafjallajökull. Þórsmörk is an unexpected oasis of vegetation siting in the shadow of this icy giant. I can clearly see the splintered noses of blue-white glaciers tumbling down the black cliffs opposite. Indeed, the valley was choked by the ice dislodged from those glaciers during the violent eruption of 2010.

I get a heady feeling as we descend into the green and pleasant bosom of the picturesque Langidalur Valley. Perhaps it’s due to the the sweet-smelling herbage, the majestic scenery, or the fact that we have successfully taken advantage of one of the only periods of settled weather during this truly awful summer to complete the trail. It’s raining slightly as we arrive at the hut in plenty of time to celebrate over a couple of very expensive cans of Gull lager. Very soon we see the Trex bus lumbering up the dirt road on the opposite side of the valley before churning its way slowly through the rushing grey waters of the Krossá River. In two hours’ time and 80 euro poorer, we will be back in Hella.

Had the weather not deteriorated, we’d have undertaken the 25km trail over the Fimmvörðuháls Pass south to Skógar, a natural extension to the Laugavegur. But as it passes between the Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers, we decided it was not a sensible plan to sally forth on this high level route with a bad storm closing in. Later that month we learned that a honeymooning couple lost control of their vehicle in the wake of another storm while crossing the badly swollen Steinholtsá River just downstream from the Langidalur Hut. One of them was washed away in the torrent and tragically drowned. As with the untimely death of Ido Keinan on the Laugavegur, it’s another sad and sobering reminder of the savage and highly changeable nature of both the climate and the terrain across this increasingly popular remote volcanic highland wilderness, where absolutely nothing can be left to chance. 

Watch our video of this amazing trail on our YouTube channel and don't forget to hit the subscribe button!


[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) best multi-day trek in the world camping Europe Iceland trekking wilderness world's greatest treks https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2018/11/Four-days-in-a-Volcanic-Wilderness-Trekking-the-Laugavegur-Trail-Iceland Sat, 10 Nov 2018 17:34:35 GMT
Wild at Heart: A trek through Sarek National Park, Europe’s last great wilderness https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2018/10/wild-at-heart-a-trek-through-sarek-national-park-europe-s-last-great-wilderness Night is mustering in the hills and the first stars begin to wink in the purple grey firmament when a large vixen suddenly appears just a few metres from our tent. She’s totally unperturbed by our presence, eyeing me blatantly as she casually marks her territory. My blood runs cold. I’m convinced that this beast is recceing our camp, intending to return under cover of darkness while we are sound asleep to steal our rations, and will tear through our rucksacks and savage our tent in order to feast on the food we are carrying. We’re still three days away from civilisation and can’t afford to lose any of our provisions or suffer irreparable damage to vital equipment. After all, my fears are not unfounded, as we have previously suffered the ill effects of a fox’s nocturnal visit while we were wild camping …


Martin and I have returned to Northern Sweden, our third consecutive autumn visit to Laponia, a place that we now hold in great affection. This time we are trekking across the mighty Sarek National Park. Lying inside the Arctic Circle, with no roads, signed trails, wardened huts, or motorised access, Sarek was established in 1909 and covers 1.970 square kilometres. This famous park lies at the very heart of the Laponia Area, part of the homeland of the indigenous Sámi people (also known as Laplanders). Laponia was recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996, as it is the largest area in the world (and one of the last) with an ancestral way of life based on the seasonal movement of livestock in the form of semi-domesticated reindeer.

Around Sarek’s eastern edge runs Sweden’s most famous long distance trail, The Kungsleden (King’s way), while its western edge is circled by the 150 km long Padjelantaleden (Higher-land way), both of which are well-serviced with huts and mountain stations. Situated between these well-used trails, Sarek is a roughly circular expanse of genuine wilderness, one of Europe’s last; a daunting, glaciated, inaccessible region of 2,000 metre high mountains, densely vegetated trough valleys, unforgiving high-alpine plateaux and turbulent ice-cold rivers fed by glacial meltwater. The landscape feels decidedly primordial, perhaps because the last remnants of the vast Fennoscandian Ice Sheet only receded from the mountains of eastern Sarek some 9,000 years ago, just after the end of the Pleistocene epoch.

The only trails found here are those created by the migration paths formed over thousands of years by foraging reindeer herds, which the Sámi in turn followed. The routes in and out of Sarek are dictated by the enormous valleys that separate its icy massifs, providing corridors into the heart of the national park. The nearest access points are a day away from any trail head; unpredictable wild animals including enormous moose, and predators such as brown bears, wolverines, lynx, wolves and foxes are found in Sarek. Crossing the park is a serious undertaking.


Day One: The enchanted forest

The autumn air is cool with a tincture of earthiness as we leave our Land Rover Defender parked at the quayside on the shore of Lake Áhkkájávrre (an enormous reservoir) just down the road from the Svenska Turistföreningen (STF) hut at Ritsem where we have spent the night. Here we board the M/S Storlule for the forty minute crossing to the Sámi settlement of Änonjálmme (250 SEK for adult STF members which is payable by cash or card on the boat). Great cords of light from a sallow sun fall through broken flint-grey cloud, flooding the surface of the inky-blue lake which is agitated by a stiff breeze, causing the boat to gently pitch and yaw. The view ahead is dominated by Áhkká, a 2,105 metre peak dubbed the ‘The queen of Lapland’, whose glaciated crown rises regally into cloud which is just touching it.

It’s early September, the height of the short Arctic autumn, a season of silvery mists and mellow fungal fruitfulness. We both smile ear to ear as we clamber ashore at Änonjálmme, haul on our heavy packs and hit the Padjelantaleden which we will follow to the boundary of Sarek National Park. I have yearned to return to Laponia all year, and a ripple of excitement electrifies me as we take our first steps on a new Arctic adventure. For me, trekking through the primordial Swedish wilderness offers an unmissable opportunity for nature to bestow some much-needed revitalising therapy, a chance to hit the reset button. Indeed, a visit to Laponia has been described as the modern European equivalent of a restorative visit to the Pleistocene. This is a place where the ticking of clocks is disregarded and time is counted not in minutes and hours, but in the changing of the seasons. Out here I need only care for things such as the sun’s position in the sky, a crystal clear stream to slake my thirst, a level spot to lay my head for the night… 

The Padjelantaleden threads its way through mature mountain birch forest which forms part of the Stora Sjöfallet National Park, set up in 1909, and the air is rich with the fragrance of decaying leaves and loam. It’s damp too. It rained heavily earlier in the week, but even days after the rains have passed the soil remains moist, slowly releasing its heady vapours. Beneath the tree canopy the mossy ground is peppered with scarlet lingonberries, deep-purple bilberries and shaggy lichens in myriad shades of white, grey and green. The reindeer survive on the lichen in the winter, digging down through the snow to raid nature’s treasure chest. The Sámi value it too, having used it as an antibiotic for over a thousand years. For me, the birch forest has an enchanted, fairy-tale atmosphere. The whispering leaves glow golden as the light passes through them and shiver on their silver branches as autumn’s breath of death envelops them. Ahead of me a shower of golden leaves make their final pirouettes to mother earth, her loamy winter welcome mat fecund with fungi.

Around two kilometres from the jetty, we pass the STF Akka hut and make rapid progress towards the Vuojatädno River. We hear it long before we see it. This throbbing, thumping artery links lakes Akkajaure and Kutjaure and its Sámi meaning is ‘The swim river’ as reindeer can’t wade across it. A couple of bridges span the rocky channels with rushing crystalline water which roars like a jet engine as we pass overhead. A short climb brings us onto the sparsely wooded, rocky flank of Áhkká with glorious views of the Vuojatädno Valley, resplendent in its golden autumnal foliage which serves to amplify the topaz braids of its mighty river.

The mist that has been shrouding the top of Áhkká is stealthily creeping ever closer to the valley floor and eventually gives way to light refreshing rain. A herd of reindeer seem animated by it, and dance across the tundra as we pass by. Before we have time to stop and put on our waterproofs it stops, and the landscape is once again bathed in watery sunlight. The trail contours the flanks of Áhkká and its smaller neighbour, Sjnjuvjudis, passing through areas where the forest floor is teeming with conical wood ant nests and across boardwalks above wet ground full of swaying, whispering bog grasses, before dropping down towards the Sjnjuvjudisjåhkå River. From the high ground above this river valley, we have fine views towards cobalt-blue Lake Kutjaure and Treparksmöte (The Threeparks-Meet), where Sarek, Padjelanta, and Stora Sjöfallet National Parks converge. We also pass by numerous unusual depressions in the ground. These are ancient trapping pits that were camouflaged with branches and leaves and used by the Sámi who drove migrating reindeer to their deaths in them.  

A metal suspension bridge takes us over the rushing turquoise waters of the Sjnjuvjudisjåhkå River. Here we leave the Padjelantaleden and cross into Sarek National Park, following a faint track above the river bank leading upstream in a south easterly direction. By now we have walked around 15km and decide to look for a camping spot for the night. Not far from the river we find an elevated level area carpeted in pillow-soft moss which is surrounded by birch trees. Judging by the size of the recently used fire ring, it has served as a camp numerous times before. One very good reason for trekking in the Arctic in early September is the virtual absence of mosquitoes, and with our camp swiftly set up, we sit outside our tent enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon sun as it slides towards a line of smoky-blue hills riding the western horizon.

Once the sun vanishes below these hills, the mercury plummets and we work hard to coax a fire to life with wood that has been left behind on the ground by the previous camp occupants. When it finally generates enough heat, we use it to boil water, thus conserving our gas. Wanting to keep the weight in our packs down as much as possible, we are also carrying a flat pack titanium Honey stove which burns small sticks and twigs, allowing us to carry just one large canister of gas which should last us for the seven days of our trek. When the fire dies to a few glowing embers, the cold sends us shivering into our tent beneath a juniper-purple sky shimmering with stars.


Day Two: Reading reindeer routes

I am woken by a Siberian jay chattering noisily in a tree close by. On opening the tent flaps we are greeted by the sight of great shafts of soft dawn light streaming across a ground glistening with frost. Gazing out shyly from beneath a nearby birch tree is one of this year’s reindeer calves. Moments later its mother arrives and the pair slink off into the trees.

The frost has melted by the time we break camp to climb up a ridge of moraine pincered between the Sjnjuvjudisjåhkå and Sjpietjavjåhkå rivers. Sparsely wooded flat terrain offering good walking soon opens before us, and we encounter several small herds of reindeer. The track we are following has been worn by generations of cloven-hooves traversing the crowberry-carpeted alpine tundra. Crossing highlands and lowlands, through wetlands tangled with dwarf willow and leading to the best points for fording streams, many of these reindeer highways are now used by human feet. Meandering across the landscape, they make the going slightly easier, although they have a tendency to peter out without warning. Over the next few hours we become pretty adept at scanning the tundra to pick up even the faintest trail.

The track gently ascends the broad U-shaped valley bottom crossing numerous small side streams and brooks which have cut down quite deeply into the sandy ground in places, and through great patches of brackish bog and thickets of straggly dwarf willow which are tiresome to traverse. As I push my way through one dense patch of willow, I unwittingly startle two ptarmigans who, squawking loudly, cumbersomely lumber into the air with a great whirr of feathers. I don’t know who’s received the greatest fright, me or them!

The sun is warm on our backs as we progress up the valley between the Áhkká and Gisuris mountains, their now-visible glaciers clutching the crests of their summits like crooked fingers. We stop for a snack, drinking in the majesty of our surroundings while a buzzard performs lazy 8’s overhead, no doubt keeping a keen eye open for lemmings, whose droppings litter the ground hereabouts.

Mid-afternoon we encounter a conical Sámi goathi, a traditional shelter used by reindeer herders, constructed of wooden posts covered with birch bark, atop which layers of turf have been laid. This one at Kisuriskåtan, virtually invisible against the landscape until we are almost on top of it, is quite dilapidated and obviously no longer in use. But steeping inside I can easily imagine how this simple structure would have been a welcome refuge for herders taking shelter from the steady downpour of a summer storm or the biting cold of a snow-bearing Arctic wind.

Upon leaving the goathi, the trail disappears as we pick our way across boggy terrain towards the point where the Sjnjuvjudisjåhkå splits into two smaller branches: the Suottasjjåhkå and the Nijákjågåsj. Behind these rivers, the pyramidal summit of Niják rises majestically. We follow the latter river, heading upstream towards an area marked ‘Renvaktarstuga’ on the map which is just below a col leading into the next valley. We plan to camp there for the night.

A trail of a kind eventually reappears above the bank of the Nijákjågåsj, and after having walked nearly 17km and about one kilometre shy of ‘Renvaktarstuga’, we spy an ideal camping spot. Just off the trail above a sweeping bend in the river, we arrive at a sheltered, level grassy shelf half way up a knoll. A small stream of cellophane-clear water flows nearby, and from our tent we have grandstand views of the glacier-encrusted Áhkká massif.

We eventually manage to coax enough heat from the twigs we have collected around our camp to heat the water on our Honey stove for a hot meal, and as we feast on our freeze-dried food, we witness a large herd of reindeer wander down to the nearby river bank. They are still grazing there as dusk falls softly in a pall of pink and charcoal grey cloud churning above Áhkká, which slowly spreads across the sky, blotting out the watery stars.


Day Three: A river runs through it

During the night the fatigue of yesterday sloughed off my body into my cosy down sleeping bag and I awake, refreshed, to the plaintive cry of a Grey plover. Thin white cloud is spreading in from the west and mist is beginning to form atop the peaks of Áhkká, the glaciers of which are blushing a faint pink in the dawn light. By the time we break camp the sun has been reduced to a wan disc as the cloud has swallowed almost the entire sky. A few minutes from camp we have to cross a broad, unnamed stream. Fortunately the water level is low enough for it to be just fordable without having to remove our boots.

The trail we were following yesterday leads to a rectangular wooden building at the area marked ‘Renvaktarstuga’ on the map. It resembles a garden shed and was built as a reindeer herders’ shelter, but it now appears to be used as an emergency hut. A large oil drum outside is full to the brim with trash, and as we enter the dilapidated doorway we see empty gas canisters, freeze-dried food pouches, tin cans, and plastic carrier bags of rubbish stuffed under a bench. Judging by the state of much of it, it’s been there a long time. It saddens us that the Jokkmokks Mountain Safety Committee who oversee this emergency shelter, have had to leave a polite but pointed notice requesting people not to leave their rubbish behind, miles from anywhere. It seems that some trekkers have no conception of what constitutes ‘leave no trace’.

Exiting the shelter, we begin to descend the bleak, treeless and somewhat barren Ruohtesvagge Valley, skirting first around the western shore of a small lake named Ruohtesjávrásj, a spoonful of gloomy mercury-grey water sitting in the shadow of the glaciated Niják massif to the north. We then spot the interlacing network of channels forming the Smájllájåhkå, one of the main rivers in the park that runs roughly southeast into the heart of Sarek. This river drains the meltwaters of the mighty Ruohtesjiegna glaciers, huge tongues of ice flowing northeast, and we have to cross it to proceed down the valley below the Boajsátjåhkkå glacier.

We approach the river where it has split into three channels. It’s evident that we will have to wade the centre one. The fast-flowing chalky-grey water emits a low rumble as invisible cobbles are turned in the river bed. With my boots slung round my neck, my trousers rolled high above my knees and wearing a pair of plastic Crocs, I tentatively step into the soft grey mud on the shoreline and howl like a wild thing as the ice-cold water slaps hard against my shins.

Once across, not far above the bank of the braided river, we follow inconstant reindeer trials which we keep losing as we traverse boulder fields, moraine, small sandurs and patches of bog. There are numerous streams and rivers to cross, the largest of which is the Boajsájågåsj, but these are safely negotiated without the need to remove our boots. We meet a lone trekker coming up the valley, and in broken English he asks us where the path goes. Inexplicably, he does not seem to be carrying a map…

It’s now late afternoon, and we are unaware that the western sky behind us has become a giant angry bruise until the sun is suddenly swallowed in its creeping blackness. The air is pregnant with rain, and as we have almost covered our 15km target distance for today, we scout the terrain for a suitable camping spot. Almost opposite the enormous Mihkátjåhkkå glacier, part of the Sarek Massif, where one of the channels of the Mihkájåhkå River tumbles into the swiftly flowing Smájllájåhkå, we find a perfectly level grassy area and hastily erect our tent.

We are not long inside it before heavy percussive raindrops begin to drum on the nylon. The shower is intense but short. As the sun emerges from beneath a line of cloud on the western horizon, a shimmering, iridescent rainbow arches over a serrated rocky ridge leading down from the peak of Mahtutjåhkkå. As the cloud passes over, it fades away and the sinking sun sets the mountaintop aflame with intense vermillion light, a sharp line of demarcation separating it from the chalky-cold, shaded area beneath. Then, as the fire creeps slowly downward, the flames subside, the burning peak dims, and the mountain is plunged into ashen grey. Before we retire for the night, the sky clears just long enough for us to witness the Northern Lights billowing across the sky like silk streamers from the direction of The Plough, before cloud once more sweeps in from the west to spoil the celestial light show.


Day Four: The wild heart of Sarek

The morning sunshine almost blinds us as we walk the one kilometre from last night’s camp to the Mikkastugan emergency shelter at Skárjá, the very heart of Sarek. From here, in any direction, it is three days on foot to reach a road. The only emergency telephone to be found in the park is housed in this well-equipped, clean shelter, and a toilet is also provided, making it a popular camping spot.

Just past the shelter, we encounter a ‘summer bridge’ (sommarbro) which is put in each year at midsummer, and which will be removed in only a matter of days’ time. This allows us to cross the raging Smájllájåhkå which roars like a wounded beast as it is squeezed between the walls of a small canyon, descending through it in a series of seething, foaming waterfalls. The naked rock, worn to a marble smoothness, has a forget-me-knot hue and its scalloped patterns were among the phenomena that made a deep impression on Swedish geographer and geologist, Axel Hamberg, who conducted some of the first surveys of Sarek National Park.

Just past the bridge we leave Ruohtesvagge. At the confluence with the Guohperjåhkå River, the Smájllájåhkå becomes the Ráhpajåhkå, fed by ice melt from the mighty glaciers of Sarektjåkkå. These are the head waters of the Rapa River (Rapaätno) which flows down through Rapadalen, the most famous valley in Sarek. We remove our packs and sit awhile to take in the spectacular scenery at our feet. Below us is a fairy-tale scoop of olive willow and russet bog through which a number of chalky turquoise channels meander. In all directions the alpine tundra is flame with the vermillion, crimson and magenta of nature’s autumnal fire, which sweeps up to the feet of numerous ice-crowned giants. It’s so peaceful and quiet here that I can hear the beat of a Golden eagle’s wings as it flies some 50 metres above my head.

Our intended route now heads towards Beilavallda, a high alpine plateau studded with lakes. But before we reach there we have to cross two rivers, the Mahtujågåsj and the Tjågnårisjågåsj. At the former, the water level is low enough for us to be able to pick our way carefully across the tops of some exposed rocks, but the latter proves to be a much more challenging proposition. Flowing down over a series of eye-catching waterfalls from a hidden glacier, the channel is wider, the water is fast-flowing and there are a number of partially submerged rocks to wade round. I am grateful for my walking poles which help me to balance as I inch my way through the shin-deep chalky grey water, and negotiate rocks slick with algae. I’m beginning to enjoy the river crossings though, as the ice-cold water instantly revives weary feet and legs!

Just before we reach Beilavallda, we begin to bear left along faint reindeer trails contouring round the steep slopes of Sarvatjåhkkå. We encounter thickets of dwarf willow, bog and numerous pools, but the scenery towards Låddebákte, which guards the head of Rapadalen like a huge grey sentinel, more than compensates for the rough ground. Far off in the distance I spot a group of matchstick figures and pause to watch them moving slowly across the landscape in the direction of Låddebákte. They must be planning to exit the park via Rapadalen. At my feet is a tiny stream of vodka-clear water trickling downhill to join the Rapa. Instinctively dipping my cupped hands into it, I raise them, and drink. Nearby, a large bull reindeer with a magnificent set of jagged antlers, the points sharp as javelins, battles with a dwarf willow, stripping the leaves from its spindly branches.

We soon bid farewell to the views of Rapadalen, following a series of thin, inconstant reindeer trails in the direction of Bierikbakte, with its distinctive spiky summit, and Bierikjávvre, the large lake which sits below it. En route we pass above the Bielajávrátja lakes, set like turquoise jewels amid the golden swathes of autumnal grasses and shrubs, and looking back, savour the views of a gleaming glacier flowing down the northeast face of the Skårki massif at the head of Basstavágge, a valley that eventually leads to the small Sámi summer settlement of Rinim.

The reindeer trials become increasingly inconsistent as we pass above the shoreline of Bierikjávvre, and it’s time consuming and tedious having to cross large boulder fields, numerous small streams and boggy terrain. After 14km and just before we arrive at the end of the lake, we decide to make camp. We climb to a higher elevation opposite Bierikbakte for better views down onto Bierikjávvre which has something of the Mediterranean about it, bathed as it is in the glorious soft light of early evening which amplifies the colour of the turquoise water and rich autumnal hues of the surrounding vegetation. We find a grassy flat spot near a small crystal-clear stream, and it’s here that we encounter the vixen.

Disaster struck us whilst camping in the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland a few years ago, when a fox dragged a rucksack out of our tent’s porch during the night and chewed through two of its straps with surgical precision. We cannot afford any such mishaps this far from civilisation. So although we have already had dinner, we force down our remaining salami rations which, if uneaten, would be sure to attract it, and manage to burn our used dried-food pouches on the Honey stove. With our boots and rucksacks secured to the tent poles, and the remaining food rations stowed between us inside the tent, we turn in.


Day Five: A watery world

I slept fitfully last night, but fortunately we had no nocturnal visitation! Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I peer out of the tent. An iridescent silver mist shrouds the valley bottom obscuring the river and the lake, above which the icy mountaintops dazzle like jewels. Far aloft in the heavens billow the rose-pink streamers of dawn. It looks set to be a scorcher.

By the time we break camp, the sky is a brilliant baby-blue and the air is so clear that each distant peak seems close enough to touch. We make rapid progress across the flat compacted gravelly outwash plain below the Sarvatjåhkkå glaciers, heading for a col between the twin peaks of Vuojnesvárasj and Vuojnesskájdde, which allows us to avoid the wet and boggy ground near Lake Vuojnesluobbala.

As we round the small summit of Bierikvárásj, Lake Bierikjávvre fades from view but we are rewarded with amazing views of one of the glaciers flowing down from Bierikbákte, part of the Ähpar massif. As we climb higher over ground of bilberry and dwarf birch flaming in its brilliant autumn livery, the myriad turquoise channels of the braided Bierikjåhkå begin to float into view.

At the col we climb to the rocky summit of Vuojnesskájdde and pause in awe at the 360 degree face-slapping scenery of a watery world shaped by the relentless work of ice. 

Looking back up the valley, we can see for many kilometres beyond the nearby glaciated peaks, the ice still filling their cauldron-like tops, and the intricately woven turquoise braids of the Bierikjåhkå River, to the smoky-blue ice-topped mountains we had walked below yesterday morning at the very heart of Sarek. In front of us a new panorama reveals itself, one of yet more gleaming topaz lakes, river channels and pools, including the large Lake Liehtjitjávrre, behind which a solitary conical mountain soars up out of the golden alpine tundra where large herds of reindeer are grazing. This is Sluggá (1,279m), looking for all the world like Sweden’s version of Mount Errigal in Ireland's County Donegal. It’s about 12 km away as the crow flies, and tomorrow we will pass almost beneath it.  After eating our lunch, we bid farewell to the mind-blowing views of central Sarek and descend through a small rocky gully to the head of the Guhkesvagge Valley where we have to cross the Guhkesvakkjåhkå River via a permanently fixed metal suspension bridge. Before we reach this river, we encounter a tributary of the Vuojnesjågåsj running parallel to it. The chalky, racing river is carrying meltwater down to Lake Liehtjitjávrre from a glacier on Spijkka which fills the field of view to the northwest. We have to wade it, and the ice cold water is a welcome revitalisation for my tired feet and legs on this hot autumn day. 

Passing by a series of fences used for herding reindeer, the metal uprights of the suspension bridge loom into view and we hear the guttural roar of the Guhkesvakkjåhkå River which rages down the valley towards Lake Liehtjitjávrre over a series of small, foaming white rapids. The bridge marks the eastern boundary of Sarek National Park and crossing it we pass back into Stora Sjöfallets National Park.

The remainder of the day is spent following a fairly well-defined trail that exits the park at the dam on Lake Suorvajuare near Suorvvá. It threads its way across the boulder-strewn, occasionally wet and willowy higher ground above Lake Ljehtjitjávrre, then contours round the rocky slopes of Niendotjåhkkå.

After walking almost 14km, we set up camp just past an area marked Nienndo on the map. This isn’t far from the end of a series of lakes, and we select a level grassy pitch on the bank of a tributary of the Lulep Niendojågåsj. Bellies full, we lie in our open tent sipping Linie from our hipflasks as the Ähpar massif blushes rose-pink in the settling sun. As the sky darkens, the Milky Way arches triumphantly above our tent and the shimmering luminous green tendrils of the Aurora stream across the sky from the North.


Day Six: Battle through bog and boulders

On breaking camp, we have to wade through the ice-cold tributary of the Lulep Niendojågåsj, the meltwater from a glacier hidden from view. With Sluggá riding the eastern horizon, we continue towards it along the rough trail we were following yesterday. We stick to the higher ground for as long as possible to avoid the worst of the terrain which clearly displays the olive green presence of the dreaded dwarf willow in the broad boggy bowl occupied by Lake Guordesluoppal. The weather is much hazier than yesterday and the humidity is higher, not the best conditions for bushwhacking!

The distant smoky-blue snow-streaked Nieras Massif soon floats into view, but as we are heading for the high ground above Lake Pietsaure, we have to descend into wetter terrain to the south east. The firm ground almost instantly gives way to morass: a squelching, stinking mass of boot-sucking bog interspersed with straggly head-high willow that clutches maniacally at our legs and packs as we struggle to push our way through. To add insult to injury, boulders hidden amid the dense vegetation lie in wait to trap a weary ankle. In this verdant prison, the air is thick and fetid and I can feel the sweat beading on my cheeks and forehead. I’m very glad that we are wearing gaiters which prevent water from soaking our trousers and seeping into our Gore-Tex boots. We slowly thrash our way through, weaving round natural obstacles such as boulders and small lakes, until we meet the Sluggájåhkå River which has cut down deeply into the gravelly terrain. Scrambling down its friable bank, we find that the water level is low enough for us to ford it by boulder hopping, and I am hoping that once we have crossed it, the difficult terrain will begin to ease as we reach higher ground.

I am soon disappointed, as we find ourselves confronting an enormous boulder field. The blocks of rock, some the size of cars, left behind eons ago by a receding glacier are angular and covered in desiccated lichen, and many have to be clambered over which is exhausting. One slip could spell a nasty lower leg injury, or worse, and I am relieved when we eventually pass out of it into trackless boggy ground with shin-high willow and small pools. The monotony of the landscape is lifted by bog cotton, incandescent as candle flame in the glassy sunlight, and some solitary stunted birch trees resplendent in their golden autumn foliage. A few very late cloudberries offer some consolation for my ordeal, and it’s only after we climb much higher that the ground cover eventually turns into more benign mats of dwarf birch and crowberry interspersed with patches of wiry grass. Large herds of reindeer are passing through here, and we sit awhile to rest and watch them dance across the landscape. Each year both male and female reindeer shed their antlers, and I find several fine pieces to add to the collection I have attached to the back of my rucksack. We are now able to make good time as we head towards a small col harbouring a group of tiny lakes between the summits of Gähppo and Vuovres.

After having walked almost 14 km, we scout around for a camping spot and eventually find a flat area comprised of a springy mat of crowberry and dwarf birch in the lee of the high ground. It has a small stream of vodka-clear water nearby and grandstand views down over the long ribbon-shaped Lake Pietsaure. There’s plenty of sun-bleached tinder-dry juniper wood scattered nearby, and we use it as fuel to heat water on our Honey stove. It’s hard not to bruise hundreds of crowberries getting in and out of the tent, and our hands are soon stained purple with their juice!! Gradually the setting sun turns the churning cloud in the west candy-pink, and as the light rapidly fades, the lake below is plunged into mysterious obsidian darkness. The chill wind sends us scurrying into our tent, where I soon fall asleep to the sound of the wind buffeting the nylon.


Day Seven: Rainbow’s end

We wake to a cold, watery dawn which is struggling to tint the cloud above our tent pink. There’s more than a hint of the impending winter in the air as we break camp, and I sense that rain is not far off. We begin the roughly 4km trudge towards a small gully to the right of a rocky knoll named Rumok across trackless rough ground bearing all the hallmarks of glacial upheaval. The gully will take us down to the lower ground surrounding Lake Pietsaure. Every so often we have to ascend or descend banks of moraine, battle through thickets of waist-high dwarf willow and dodge deep patches of sly bog. But the views to the northeast are uplifting, and I spot a wind turbine at the dam near Suorvvá, the first sign of civilisation, which spurs us on!

After crossing two rivers, the Gådojåhkå and the Rumokjågåsj without having to remove our boots, we arrive at the top of the gully. A grand vista which might have been lifted straight from the pages of National Geographic ravishes our eyes. The flame-red cinnabar and vermilion of the alpine tundra gives way to the rich saffron-yellow of the mountain birch forest. A band of shingle lines the shore of the narrow rectangular lake which emits a silver sheen in the feeble sunlight. The beach is bisected by a narrow channel where the Avtsusjjåhkå River flows into it. On the far bank of the river, the buildings of a Sámi settlement can just be seen, beyond which tower the fortress-like steel-grey walls of Lulep Gierkav.

It begins to drizzle as we carefully descend the boulder-choked gully. At the bottom, we pick up a well-defined trail leading towards the lake. We cross two rivers that tumble down over a series of pretty waterfalls from the high ground we have just traversed, one of which requires us to wade, before reaching a group of reindeer fences by the lake. It’s not at all obvious where we should go from here, and we labour across the shingly shore towards the point where the river flows into the lake. I can clearly see the rooftops of houses. Nowadays, the Sámi only come here in the summer for a few days to mark their reindeer calves and the settlement is deserted. A boat on a rope is sometimes placed at this channel in the summer months, but it seems we are too late. The high season is over and the boat is gone. I’m somewhat galled to see a moveable bridge lying on the ground on the other side of this channel. It’s only a few metres wide, but unfortunately far too deep and fast flowing for us to wade. We have to find another way across the Avtsusjjåhkå. We now waste valuable time walking upriver looking for a safe place to cross it. The terrain turns spiteful, full of vile vegetation including willow, small pools and hidden bog, and the sky has darkened to an ominous battleship-grey to match my mood. Finally, after much searching and cursing, we find a wide braided section intersected by a series of sand banks. The channels between them are shallow enough to wade. Once across, we experience one last almighty battle with the wretched willow before we stumble onto a muddy 4x4 track leading away from the Sámi settlement near the lake.   

We follow this uphill for a few hundred metres before joining a steep rocky trail leading to the saddle between Lulep Gierkav and Tjeburisvarasj. Spread before us is a Brothers Grimm landscape of gilt-leaved birch forest and indigo-blue lakes, where kaleidoscopic patterns are being traced by huge lances of light falling from gaps in the slowly churning cloud just touching the mountaintops. We head towards the Saltoluokta Fjällstation, now visible above the shoreline of the lake, where we will overnight before catching a bus back to Ritsem. The stony track drops steeply into the fairy-tale forest where the mossy floor is carpeted with millions of jewel-like fruits: bearberries, bilberries, lingonberries and bunchberries. Fungi blooms everywhere – creamy puffballs, scarlet fly agaric, leathery cep mushrooms the size of saucers, and, on the bark of dead trees, countless species of shelf fungi.

Not long after we hit the Kungsleden, Sweden’s most famous long distance trail, I catch the faint whiff of wood smoke heralding our imminent return to civilisation. I’m emotionally conflicted, for the completion of any trek is always greeted with a mixture of elation tinged with regret. We arrive at the Saltoluokta Fjällstation to be welcomed by a magnificent rainbow etched in pin-sharp detail against a steel-grey sky. It’s a magical end to a heavenly trek across Europe’s last great wilderness. Reenergised and restored, we are now satiated. Well almost. The much-anticipated Tjers Bryggeri stout is absolute heaven too!


We stayed overnight in a double room at the STF Saltoluokta, where we enjoyed hot showers and a sumptuous three course Sámi dinner! The next day we got the mid-afternoon boat across Lake Langas to Kebnats where we caught the bus to Ritsem to be reunited with our Land Rover.

Watch the video of this incredible trek on our YouTube channel and don't forget to hit the subscribe button to follow our future adventures. Purple Peak Adventures are also on Facebook and Instagram, so please like and follow us! 

[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) Arctic autumn Europe Lapland National Park Sarek Sweden trekking wild camping wilderness World Heritage https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2018/10/wild-at-heart-a-trek-through-sarek-national-park-europe-s-last-great-wilderness Wed, 31 Oct 2018 22:34:53 GMT
Kartennow post a Dre (Postcards from Home): Photographing West Cornwall in Spring https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2018/6/kartennow-post-a-dre-postcards-from-home-photographing-west-cornwall-in-spring Golden hour at Crowns, BotallackGolden hour at Crowns, BotallackPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 28mm f/16 4 seconds ISO 100

There’s a dialect saying in Cornwall, ‘ee dusn’t knaw Cornwall that only Cornwall knaws’, which broadly means that someone who has never left Cornwall doesn’t really know the place. This might seem somewhat paradoxical, but being a Cornish exile I can vouch for this. And even more so since I took up landscape photography and returned to my homeland this May to view it through a camera lens for the first time. It was a real revelation.

The Duchy of Cornwall, a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean in the far south west of Britain, is the setting for TV series Echo Beach and Doc Martin, and has provided backdrops for scores of films including Straw Dogs, Ladies in Lavender, Hornblower and Die Another Day. It’s also been the setting for numerous TV adaptations of novels: Rosamunde Pilcher’s Coming Home and The Shell Seekers; W.J. Burley’s Wycliffe; Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and Frenchman’s Creek; and most famously Winston Graham’s PoldarkWith its rugged cliffs, golden sandy beaches and picturesque fishing villages, Cornwall has some of the best coastline in Europe, and the quality of the light here attracted many top artists in the early-twentieth century, giving rise to the famous St Ives School.

The Penwith area in the far west contains more ancient monuments and sites than almost any other place in Britain. This is one of the longest consecutively settled landscapes in the world, where Neolithic megaliths, Bronze Age field systems, Iron Age hill forts and Celtic holy wells are sited cheek by jowl with medieval farmsteads and abandoned tin and copper mines. Cornwall was at the very vanguard of the British Industrial Revolution, producing the majority of its tin and copper, and its iconic engine houses and other industrial buildings now form part of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape UNESCO World Heritage Site (hereafter referred to as the Cornish Mining WHS). With its mild climate due to the Gulf Stream, spring in Cornwall is delightful, as a dazzling display of wild flowers pepper the cliff tops, moors and valleys.

Indeed, early May in Cornwall is my favourite time of the year. The days lengthen, the winter-weary land is suddenly transformed into an artist’s palette of vivid colours, and our ancient festivals - Padstow Obby Oss and Helston Flora - announce the rebirth of the land and the promise of summer.

Although Cornwall is a narrow peninsula there is so much to photograph. Knowing how fickle the weather can be, and in order to give ourselves enough time to capture the scenes we wanted during our seventeen day stay, we decided to restrict ourselves to sites west of Truro. Luckily, we had our Land Rover Defender camper with us which allowed us to park up close to prime locations for dawn and dusk shots, as my mother would have been none too happy being woken at stupid o'clock each day as we set off well before dawn!!

We brought along a copy of Fotovue Outdoor Photography’s Photographing Cornwall and Devon (2016) by Adam Burton. It always irks me when Cornwall gets lumped in with Devon; the dreaded ‘Devonwall’ phenomenon. Quite apart from the obvious mistake on a map (p165) which incorrectly marks the Okehampton bypass the A38, rather than the A30, and the annoying description of mining ‘seams’ of tin (when it should actually be lodes), the book focusses only on coastal sites. But there is far more to Cornwall than this, and it’s my opinion that this edition could easily have been a photo guide dedicated solely to Cornwall. Nonetheless, for those who aren’t very familiar with Cornwall, Burton’s book describes most of the honeypot photography sites and is a very worthy companion.

Marked on the map below are some of the sites we shot at, which will be described individually.

Site One: Wheal Coates, St Agnes

Wheal Coates is sited just outside the charming former mining village of St Agnes. It forms a part of the Cornish Mining WHS and is in the care of the National Trust. From the Chiverton Roundabout on the A30, once in St Agnes, follow the brown heritage signposts for Chapel Porth. After about a mile take the road marked Beacon Drive. The entrance to a small and easily missed dirt car park is situated on the left just before the St Agnes Beacon Caravan and Motorhome Park.

Tin and copper mining along this rugged stretch of coastline goes back to at least medieval times, maybe earlier, and the first written record of a mine at this site was in the late-seventeenth century. The present mine opened in 1802 and finally closed in 1913, but most of the buildings on site date from the mid- to late-nineteenth century when deep lode mining commenced.

Besides an early-twentieth century calciner that roasted the tin to remove impurities such as arsenic, there are three extant Cornish engine houses which accommodated high-pressure steam engines. Two of these were for stamping and winding. But it’s the iconic Towanroath pumping engine house (built in 1872) to unwater submarine workings which is the main focus of photographers. It clings dramatically to a sloping clifftop which is carpeted in late-spring with gorse and patches of candy-pink thrift, while far below it the relentless Atlantic surf booms into hidden zawns (sea caves). It doesn’t get more quintessentially Cornish than this!

The best time of day is undoubtedly from the late afternoon onwards, when the low sun angle bathes the cliffs and the engine house in golden light. Excellent views can be had by contouring round the cliff to the left to capture a shot of the building’s cylinder doorway with Tubby’s Head in the background, or to the right to shoot its plug doorway with the coastline towards Porthtowan in the background. Equally good is a shot of the sunset over the Atlantic looking down on the engine house silhouetted in the foreground. This site is worth taking some time to explore, and a walk along the SW Coast Path towards Tubby’s Head and then using a zoom lens to compress the view towards Porthtowan can yield good results. For something entirely different, park at the nearby Chapel Porth car park and walk along the beach at low tide to get a view up the cliff face of the engine house.

Sunset over Wheal CoatesSunset over Wheal CoatesPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 28mm f/6.3 60 seconds ISO 100

Site 2: Kennall Vale, Ponsanooth

The Kennall Vale Nature Reserve near Ponsanooth ('Pons an Woodh' Cornish for ‘bridge at the stream’), is a quiet riparian setting with an explosive past! Turn off the A393 at Ponsanooth into Park Road by the Village Stores and follow this until you see the sign for Cot Hill. Parking on Cot Hill is awkward, with limited space close to the entrance to the reserve, so we parked downhill along the road where there were no visible restrictions.

From 1812 to 1910, this was the site of the Kennall Gunpowder Company which harnessed the power of the fast flowing River Kennall which falls rapidly through the valley. At its height, the works was the most successful of its kind in Cornwall and mainly supplied gunpowder for the mines and quarries in the thriving Central Mining District, but it also exported worldwide. Today the remains of a series of incorporating mills (some with in situ machinery) can still be seen, where the gunpowder was manufactured in stages and powered by waterwheels fed from a series of leats on both sides of the river. Emerald-green moss, ferns, and a dense canopy of foliage create a magical atmosphere that would not be out of place in a Tolkienesque film. The site is in the care of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and forms part of the Cornish Mining WHS.

The woods contain bluebells, but we were not that impressed with this year’s display, and the pathway behind some of the incorporating mills, one of which we particularly wanted to photograph, was closed for urgent maintenance, so we focussed on the Kennall River instead. As with any woodland setting, the green hue makes photography challenging, and getting a composition that works well is difficult. We eventually captured a long exposure shot of a small rapid lit by some soft light filtering down through the tree canopy. Autumn here would probably offer the best compositions as the woods are comprised of deciduous trees which would give some intense colour.

River KennallRiver KennallPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 37mm f/13 8 seconds ISO 100

Site 3: Portreath

From the Cornish for ‘sandy cove’, Portreath with its sandy beach and pretty offshore island called Gull Rock, is a popular surfing beach. It lies within the Cornish Mining WHS and is sited about 5 miles from Redruth. There is plenty of (metered) parking right above the beach, but to avoid paying, locals park up Tregea Hill.

Portreath was first recorded in 1485 and tin streaming in the valley was documented in 1602. In 1713 Devonian, Samuel Nott, was engaged to build the first quay on the western side of the beach. This was destroyed by storms before 1749. The harbour we see today was started in 1760 to service the expanding mining industry in the hinterland, but it was also home to a significant fishing fleet, mainly for pilchards. In the late 1770s, during the American Revolutionary War, lieutenant-colonel of the North Devon militia, landowner Francis Basset of Tehidy who owned the port, commanded local miners to fortify it, which helped counter a Franco-Spanish invasion fleet. The Outer Basin was constructed in in 1801 and by 1827 Portreath was described as Cornwall's most important port for sending the copper ore mined in the Gwennap-Redruth area to Swansea for smelting. The ships returned with Welsh coal to fire the steam engines used on the mines. The peak of this enterprise was around 1840, when some 100,000 tons of copper ore were shipped out each year. The harbour was enlarged by adding the Inner Basin in 1846, and in the 1860s New Dock was constructed. Sadly some of the historic fabric of the site was destroyed for housing in the 1970s, but the old harbour is still intact and in use.

Being a native of Redruth, I know Portreath well, my paternal grandfather was born there. As an adolescent, his first job was working on the coal ships to Swansea, but he never did find his sea legs and hated his time aboard ship. The north Cornwall coat is renowned for its lee shore (winds blowing towards the coast), making it extremely dangerous for ships to manoeuvre in stormy weather, and the narrow harbour entrance at Portreath made docking treacherous in high seas. Grandpa could be anchored offshore for days and could see the lights of his home village but his ship was unable to put into port. I have often hastened there during stormy weather to marvel at the fury of the ocean crashing against, and breaking over, the granite sea walls of the harbour.

Our visit happily coincided with such weather, and after a rainy front had passed over, we managed to get some great mid-afternoon shots of huge waves breaking over the harbour wall and the iconic Monkey House with steel grey skies behind. This circular building dates back to the heyday of mining and was used for shelter by the harbour pilots who would wave flags or lanterns to guide ships into harbour, or warn them away if conditions were too dangerous. The original structure was destroyed by a severe storm in January 2014, but has been rebuilt.

Waves crashing over the Monkey House, PortreathWaves crashing over the Monkey House, PortreathPentax K1 Tamron 70-200mm at 200mm f/14 1/200 second ISO 100

The best time to visit Portreath is undoubtedly at sundown. Good images can be shot from the beach, with Gull Rock silhouetted against the setting sun, or the wet sand reflecting the colours of sunset, but for a great shot of the sun setting over the Atlantic, take the road marked Lighthouse Hill. Just after it begins to bend to the right, pull over and take a cliff path on the left to an iconic daymark on top of North Cliff. Be very careful, as the pathway is badly eroded and perilously close to the cliff edge in places. Built in 1846 and known locally as the Pepperpot, this whitewashed tower was built as an aid to navigation for passing shipping and was also used as a coastguard lookout. Using a wide angle lens, frame your image to capture the Pepperpot with Gull Rock to the left and the setting sun on the horizon.

The Pepperpot at Sunset, Portreat, CornwallThe Pepperpot at Sunset, Portreat, CornwallPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 19mm f/14 160 seconds ISO 100

Site 4: Tehidy Woods

Tehidy (from the Cornish 'chy' meaning house and a personal name) is an historic manor in the parish of Illogan located on the north coast some two miles north of Camborne, two miles west of Redruth, and about a mile south of the harbour at Portreath. In 1983 the local authority purchased 250 acres (1.0 km2) of the parkland and estate around a former mansion. Now owned and managed by Cornwall Council as a Country Park, Tehidy boasts over 9 miles of paths and 250 acres of mature woods and ornamental lakes, together with a visitor centre, café (with toilets), and a picnic area. The car parks for Tehidy are free and located at North Cliffs, East Drive and South Drive. 

Tehidy was in the ownership of a junior branch of the Basset family from Norman times. By 1330 a substantial mansion had been constructed which was destroyed during the Cornish Rebellion of 1497 in revenge for the Basset’s loyalty to the English Crown. Over the centuries the mansion underwent several rebuilds, financed by the enormous wealth being generated by the local tin and copper mines and land rents paid by the local mining workforce. In 1915 the mansion was vacated and after 700 years of Basset ownership, the estate was sold in 1916. In 1918 the house became a hospital for tuberculosis sufferers. In 1919 it was destroyed by fire but had been completely rebuilt by 1922. The core of the historic house served as a hospital until 1988 and has now been converted into luxury apartments.

Swathes of the woodland towards North Cliffs are comprised of ancient sessile oak and beech trees. This access point into the park is much quieter than the East or South Drive car parks, and is best for spring flora. We were rewarded with carpets of indigo bluebells. The weather was fickle, with watery sunshine and intermittent rain which brought out the loamy smell of the woodland floor and the intense perfume of the bluebells. But the midges were out in force! Woodland photography is among the most challenging of all, and it can be almost impossible to find a composition with dense enough patches of bluebells interspersed with tree trunks free of cluttering branches or chaotic tangles of vegetation, and we were hoping to use one of the russet-coloured pathways as a leading line. Shooting with a zoom lens wide open can produce some stunning results. 

After wandering around for over two hours without getting the 'wow' shot we wanted, we decided to experiment with ICM. We focussed on a group of ivy covered tree trunks with a deep patch of bluebells in the foreground and moved the camera vertically. As with any woodland scene, light is everything, and a low sun angle or some mist can make a scene really pop. Next time! ICM Tehidy bluebell woodsICM Tehidy bluebell woodsPentax K1 FA 100mm f/20 1.6 seconds ISO 100

Site 5: Godrevy Lighthouse, Gwithian

Godrevy Lighthouse sits astride Godrevy Island in St Ives Bay near Gwithian. The cliffs adjacent to it are in the care of the National Trust and there is car parking close to the Godrevy beach café or further along the road. In summer, there is overflow parking in the fields close to the toilet block. Around dusk, the best time for photography, there is no charge to park here. By day it is an eyewatering £6 (to non-Trust members!!).

Standing approximately 300 metres off Godrevy Head, this iconic lighthouse marks The Stones Reef, which has been a hazard to shipping for centuries. The Stones claimed many ships, prompting calls for a lighthouse to be built, but nothing came of plans until the wreck of the iron screw steamer SS Nile during a storm in the winter of 1854. Some 40 lives were lost and consequently the lighthouse was constructed in 1858–1859. The writer, Virginia Woolf, who spent her childhood holidays at Talland House in St Ives, used Godrevy Lighthouse as the inspiration for her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse.

This is without doubt my favourite place in all of Cornwall. Throughout my adolescence, my parents kept a caravan on Gwithian Towans and I spent many happy hours on the nearby beaches. In those days the lighthouse still had a fog horn and I recall lying in my bunkbed listening to its eerie, plaintive moan. And running across the wet sand in the dead of night as the beam of light swept over the bay to where a group of old Crofty miners, just visible in the light of their storm lanterns, were fishing for mackerel off Godrevy Rocks.

Sunset is the optimal time to shoot the lighthouse and we were headed for those very same rocks which lie opposite Godrevy Island. From the top of the cliff path at the northern end of a small sandy cove, a flight of concrete steps lead down to the beach. This vantage point is best at low tide when the majority of the ledges of rock below Godrevy Point are accessible. Time is required to scout amid the rock pools, outcrops and deep channels to pick a spot that suits. We were fortunate to get a good swell hitting the rocks below us, which added drama to the scene, and the side light during the golden hour was excellent. Sunset however, was not to be, as this was obscured by a thick bank of cloud on the western horizon.

Godrevy Lighthouse, Cornwall, in the golden hourGodrevy Lighthouse, Cornwall, in the golden hourPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 68mm f/13 100 seconds ISO 100 We returned a few days later to shoot here once again, but this time we chose a more elevated position right on the tip of Godrevy Point so we could capture the sun setting behind the lighthouse. We were rewarded with a gorgeous red orb that sank slowly into a haze of sea mist directly behind the tower.

Sun setting behind Godrevy LighthouseSun setting behind Godrevy LighthousePentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 73mm f/8 8 seconds ISO 200 The red orb of the setting sun behind Godrevy LighthouseThe red orb of the setting sun behind Godrevy LighthousePentax K1 Tamron 70-200mm at 200mm f/9 1/40 seconds ISO 100

Site 6: Botallack and Wheal Owles

The village of Botallack (Cornish, Bostalek) is on the B3306 road, in a former tin and copper mining area situated between the town of St Just in Penwith and the village of Pendeen. To reach the mine pass through Botallack from either the first road on the right (if coming from St Ives), or on your left (if coming from St Just). At the first junction take the road leading towards a large farm. The road to the mine swings to the left past Botallack Manor down a gravel trackway with the sea directly ahead. Continue along this until you reach a large building on the right which was the former Mine Count House. There is parking beyond this. The site is in the care of the National Trust and forms a part of the Cornish Mining WHS.

This is undoubtedly one of the jewels in the crown (pardon the pun, you’ll see why below!!), of Cornish mining. Mining goes back many centuries here, with the suspicion of extraction in prehistory. Botallack is famous for being a submarine mine, with tunnels extending under the sea in places for half a mile. It attracted royalty, including the Prince (later King Edward VII) and Princess of Wales. In 1865 they bravely descended a new diagonal shaft accessed by a frightening trackway elevated on wooden trestles that traversed a gaping void before plunging into subterranean darkness, creating a mini-boom in tourism that caused the operators to charge visitors a guinea per person!

The mine closed in 1895 as a result of falling tin and copper prices, but has been kept alive in the public’s imagination through being a location in the 1970s blockbuster Poldark series, as well as the equally successful new series starring Aidan Turner.

Photographers are drawn to the sight of the Crowns granite-built engine houses clinging like limpets to the craggy cliffs not far above the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean. It doesn’t get much better than this! The best time of day is the golden hour when the engine houses are side lit. There are myriad viewpoints to select here, and one of our favourites is from a series of rocky ledges down the cliff slope to the south which lie immediately opposite the engine houses. Care must be taken on the approach track which crosses a razor thin spine of land with precipitous drops on both sides. Here you can either zoom in to focus on the engine houses clinging to Crown’s Rock, or frame your image to include a series of jagged rocky ledges jutting out from the cliff base against which waves break. At high tide, and especially in high seas, this can be incredibly dramatic.

On our first visit this trip, the golden hour failed to deliver the light we would have liked due to a bank of thick cloud on the western horizon. We packed up quickly and headed up the cliffs towards Wheal Owles (pronounced ‘alls’ from the Cornish for cliffs) which featured in the recent Poldark series as Wheal Leisure. From the trackway above this mine the typical Cornish-type engine house was silhouetted against a pearlescent sea and colourful sky with a thin crescent of a moon during the blue hour. Use of a wide angle lens meant that you could get close enough to Wheal Owles but also include the distinctive extant remains of nearby Wheal Edward further along the cliff top. I posed on the top of a mine burrow to give the image some scale. Martin has dubbed this shot ‘Three Cornish Ruins’. Charming!

Blue hour at Wheal OwlesBlue hour at Wheal OwlesPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 28mm f/16 0.5 seconds ISO 100 A further return to Botallack with our friend and local photographer, Ainsley Cocks, was rewarded with excellent light during the golden hour (see leading blog image above), and due to high humidity, a muted sunset of soft pastel shades captured from the cliff top looking down on the engine houses. Sunset at Botallack MineSunset at Botallack MinePentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 26mm f/10 30 seconds ISO 100

Site 7: Chûn Quoit

Penwith is a treasure trove if you’re into prehistory. I love the timeless feel of this part of my homeland which, unlike so much of Cornwall, sadly blighted by ugly new housing estates and unsympathetic fringe urban development, is unchanged since my childhood. For me this place provides an unbroken link into the distant past, where I can almost feel the presence of my ancient ancestors who roamed this land long before the arrival of the Celts or Saxons.

The quoit at Chûn (pronounced ‘choone’ from the Cornish chy woone ‘house on a downs’) is located about 2 miles inland from Pendeen. It can be seen clearly on the horizon from the B3318 road that runs from Portherras Cross at Pendeen to join the A3071 road to Penzance, and can be reached from three directions: from Keigwin near Pendeen by a public footpath; from the B3318 road, where there is a small car-parking area and a permissive path that climbs up to the hill; and from Trehyllys Farm to Chûn Castle (a nearby Iron Age hillfort).

 ‘Quoit’ is the Cornish name for a type of megalithic structure comprising a number of large stones set upright to support a massive horizontal capstone forming a small chamber. Archaeologists call such sites chambered tombs or portal dolmens and they were used for communal burials in the early Neolithic period (3500-2500 BC). Chûn Quoit is one of a small group of similar monuments restricted in distribution largely to Penwith, though there are two or three further east in Cornwall and they are also common in Wales, Ireland and Brittany.

Comparison with similar monuments elsewhere suggest that they functioned as repositories for safeguarding ancestral remains which might have been used in tribal ancestor cult ceremonies. During the Neolithic people were becoming more sedentary, farming crops and raising livestock, and their connection to their land might have been expressed by attempts to establish hereditary ‘ownership’ of a territory and to develop a communal or tribal identity. Up close, one can’t help but marvel at the engineering sophistication of the people who raised these enormous megalithic structures.

Chûn Quoit, like many other dolmens, sits atop a bleak wind-blasted heath with extensive views inland and also to the Atlantic Ocean, which perhaps reflected the local tribe’s ambition to define or control a specific territory and to bring its community into a closer relationship with it by signposting landscape features which featured in communal histories, or which enjoyed particular mythical associations. Bone does not fare well in Cornwall’s acidic soils and no human remains have been found on site.

Chûn Quoit is a good site for a sunrise or sunset shot and we made two visits there on this trip. We were hoping to capture the quoit silhouetted against the sun setting over the Atlantic, as the view of the megalith facing this direction looks best. However, grey sea mist was billowing across the heath like smoke, and the plantive cry of a buzzard was the only sound to break the unnerving silence. Wearing wellies we pushed our way through gorse and heather some distance away to obtain a shot with a zoom lens to give a sense of the quoit looming out of the mist on this desolate heath.

Chûn Quoit  in the mistChûn Quoit in the mistPentax K1 DFA Tamron 70-200mm at 200mm f/10 0.3 seconds ISO 100 We returned a few days later for a sunrise shoot. It was a cold and grey morning which didn’t deter the cuckoo whose fluty notes wafted across the heath! Although dawn was not as spectacular as we would have liked, as the sun rose through cloud, we managed to capture some fleeting colour in the sky which briefly illuminated the upright megaliths of the structure.

Chûn Quoit at dawnChûn Quoit at dawnPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 17mm f/8 30 seconds ISO 100

Site 8: Mên-an-Tol

This iconic and highly photogenic site is one of the best-known megalithic structures in Cornwall. Men-an-Tol means ‘holed stone’ in Cornish and despite having been considered a significant and popular monument from a very early date, its true purpose remains a mystery.

There is no vehicular access to the site. Limited car parking can be had at a small informal car park along the Madron to Morvah road. Crossing a stile by a farm gate brings you onto a gravel trackway. Follow this for just over half a mile until you see a signpost to the site on the right. After crossing another stile it’s a short distance to the megaliths surrounded by open heathland within an area designated as being historically and ecologically valuable, as well as being an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The Mên-an-Tol consists of four stones, the most iconic being the circular and pierced upright stone. It is thought to belong to the Bronze Age (making it around 3,500 years old), though little evidence has been found to confirm this.

The Mên-an-Tol has had many a curative and magical power attributed to it, certainly in terms of more recent folklore. The local moniker the ‘Crick Stone’ alludes to its alleged ability to aid those with back pain, and children suffering from rickets and tuberculosis were also taken here for cures. Passing through the hole was central to the healing process, with importance being attached to the direction, the number of times (commonly 3 or 9), and the point on the lunar cycle. With its obvious feminine symbolism, the holed stone was also believed to aid fertility and its powers were sought by barren women, pregnant women desirous of an easy childbirth, and farmers seeking bountiful crops. Now a popular tourist attraction, very few children born and raised in West Cornwall would not have passed through this stone in their childhood!

We arrived at the site after midnight hoping to try out some astrophotography in Cornwall’s uncharacteristically clear skies. The ground was wet with dew which amplified the sweet smell of the heath and the dizzying perfume of bluebell and gorse. We had the place entirely to ourselves and for a brief moment in time I could almost see our ancient ancestors solemnly parading across this landscape brandishing flaming torches wearing animal masks, chanting and making music with drums and horns. However, the creeping cold and the constant churring of a nightjar out on the heath soon brought me back to my senses!

Unfortunately, the short nights meant that the moon would not have set sufficiently to enable us to get enough frames to compile a panoramic capture of the Milky Way over the site before the eastern horizon began to glow in advance of the rising sun. As we beheld the ancient scene before us, the International Space Station soared overhead amid a canopy of brilliant stars, a thrilling juxtaposition of old and new.

Dawn brought a better bounty. The eastern horizon was free of cloud and we managed to capture a shot of the rising sun, star-bursting round the edge of one of the megaliths, framed by the holed stone.

Sunrise through the Mên-an-TolSunrise through the Mên-an-TolPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 31mm f/29 1/6 second ISO 100

Site 9: Lanyon Quoit

Situated on the wild, windswept heath just over the hedge on the road between Madron and Morvah, Lanyon Quoit, along with other Cornish dolmens, dates back to the Neolithic period. The site is in the care of the National Trust. There is no car park, but a couple of laybys on the road give enough space for a few cars. Hop over the stile in a Cornish hedge to gain access to the site. Be aware that cattle often graze in the vicinity of the quoit.

Some believe this site was a burial chamber enclosed by a large mound, while others argue that it was never completely covered, but rather used as a mausoleum and the imposing backdrop to ritual ceremonies, especially since it is believed that in its original form the quoit was aligned with cardinal points. Another theory is that bodies were placed on the capstone to be excarnated by carrion birds. Nearby lie a number of small stone burial chambers, known as cists, and evidence that there were a number of neighbouring barrows. Signs indeed that this was a sacral landscape for our ancestors.

Once high enough to allow a horse and rider to pass underneath, Lanyon Quoit is certainly one of Cornwall’s most recognisable and important megalithic sites. The mammoth capstone, weighing over 13 tonnes and measuring 9 feet by 17 feet, originally sat atop four upright stones until a thunderstorm in 1815 dislodged it. Attributed in part to soil removal by treasure hunters, the fall broke one of the supporting stones, hence the diminished stature achieved when the megalithic structure was re-erected by local public subscription.

This site is an excellent choice for a dawn shoot, with the spring sun rising behind the quoit towards Ding Dong Mine standing proud of the horizon. Our first attempt at a sunrise capture was a wash out, with leaden skies and persistent drizzle. This type of occurrence is particularly galling when you have to rise at way before stupid o’clock, and the days are long and punishing for landscape photographers! However, our patience and persistence was finally rewarded on another day.

I wasn’t sure at first whether the weather would yet again throw a spanner into the works, as on our arrival, thick swathes of sea mist lay over the heath like a ghostly shroud. But by degrees the eastern horizon brightened and the sky overhead turned a gorgeous shade of rose-pink. The mist instantly responded, slowly whirling dervish-like in great columns, backlit by the feeble pre-dawn light. Finally, the great orb of the rising sun stode upon the eastern horizon like a blood red troubadour serenading the break of dawn. It was a spine-chilling moment I shall cherish for many years. Such are the rewards of landscape photography.

Sunrise at Lanyon QuoitSunrise at Lanyon QuoitPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 15mm f/8 1/5 second ISO 100

Site 10: Ding Dong Mine

Ding Dong Mine is an old and extensive mining area within an extremely ancient landscape, a palimpsest of history reaching back to the early-Neolithic. Situated in the parish of Madron some two miles south of the St Just to Penzance road, mining in this area is alleged to date to prehistoric times, and local legend claims that Joseph of Arimathea visited the area with the young Jesus who addressed the miners, although there is no evidence whatsoever to support this! The mine forms part of the Cornish Mining WHS.

The easiest access to the mine is via the Madron to Morvah road (B3312). After you have passed out of Madron, take the second right, a small road marked Bossilack and continue along this until you hit a dirt track (the track hereafter might pose difficulties for cars with a low suspension). Keep to this track past Lowery Farm and a water works on the left until you reach the open heathland where you should spot the stack of the Greenburrow Engine House, also down a track to the left. There are several places to pull your vehicle safely off the track to park. The area near the Greenburrow Shaft served as our base camp for much of our stay in the Penwith area. Here we were woken well before dawn each day by a croaking pheasant, several cuckoos and a posse of very noisy chaffinches!

The earliest written record of mining here is at the beginning of the seventeenth century when a number of smaller mine setts were in production. Ding Dong was created in 1813 by combining 16 smaller mines in the area. Falling tin prices led to the closure of the mine in 1877. Today, one of the most prominent features of the mine is the Greenburrow Engine House built in 1865 to accommodate a 40-inch cylinder pumping engine.

The Greenburrow Engine House makes a great subject for astrophotography, despite some light pollution on the south eastern horizon from Marazion and Penzance. Our visit to Cornwall happily coincided with some uncharacteristically clear night skies, enabling us to experiment with the Pentax K1’s astrotracer feature. A mosaic of 18 separate frames, each of 60 seconds exposure, were stitched together to achieve a panorama of the Milky Way soaring over the engine house. Merged with this was an image of the foreground to retain sharpness, and another of the engine house illuminated by torchlight.

Milky Way over Greenburrow Engine HouseMilky Way over Greenburrow Engine HouseMosiac of frames each taken with the Pentax K1 FA 35mm f/2.2 60 seconds ISO 800 This spot is a great choice for a sunrise too. We were treated to an unbelievably colourful dawn with a sky tinted mauve and cerise pink in advance of sunrise. We managed to capture a great shot of the engine house reflected in a heart-shaped pool along the track which mirrored the unreal technicoloured sky. Racing round to the west of the engine house, we caught the sun exploding over the horizon, bathing its plug doorway and bob wall in warm light.

Predawn light at Greenburrow Engine HousePredawn light at Greenburrow Engine HousePentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 73mm f/14 5 seconds ISO 100 Greenburrow Engine House at dawnGreenburrow Engine House at dawnPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 15mm f/22 1/3 second ISO 100

Site 11: Cape Cornwall

Cape Cornwall is one of only two capes in Britain and is often dubbed the connoisseur's Land’s End. It marks the spot where the Atlantic currents split, either going south up the English Channel, or north into the Bristol Channel and Irish Sea. Bought by Heinz for the nation as part of their centenary celebrations, it was presented to the National Trust in 1987 and is part of the Cornish Mining WHS. From the town of St Just, Cape Cornwall Road leads straight to the National Trust car park at the site.

The iconic chimney atop the cape was built in 1864 to provide updraft for an engine house on the Cape Cornwall Mine which operated intermittently between 1838 and 1883, after which time it closed permanently and the engine house was demolished. The chimney was retained as a navigational aid to shipping, while the former ore dressing floors below the large white house (formerly the mine Count House) were, for a spell in the early twentieth century, converted into greenhouses and wineries.

A concrete slipway leads down to the very rocky Priest’s Cove, which has been a landing place for local fisherman for centuries. About a mile offshore lies a twin peaked island named The Brisons (French: brisant, ‘reef, breaker’; Cornish: An Gribow – ‘the reefs’), which for some strange reason locals decided looked like General Charles de Gaulle in his bath!! In 1851, the 250 ton brig New Commercial struck the ledge between the Great and Little Brisons, resulting in the death of all but two of the members despite a dramatic rescue attempt. As a result of this disaster, a lifeboat station was established in Sennen Cove in 1853, where one is still based today.

We made two visits to Cape Cornwall, one in the company of local photographer, Ainsley Cocks, who joined us for a sunset shoot. We wanted some elevation to ensure that the setting sun was not obscured by the cape, so we climbed the very steep SW coast path from Priest’s Cove towards a small car park near Ballowal Barrow. Before you arrive at the car park there are a series of crags jutting up from the sloping clifftop which provide some interesting foreground, or added elevation for your shot.

There was some cloud banked up on the western horizon, which was a feature of the weather on this trip, but it was not thick enough to totally obscure the sinking sun which bathed the cliffs with a warm golden glow, and we captured some interesting long exposure shots.

Golden hour at Cape CornwallGolden hour at Cape CornwallPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 58mm f/14 30 seconds ISO 100 Cape Cornwall sunsetCape Cornwall sunsetPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 34mm f/11 70 seconds ISO 100 On our return to Cape Cornwall, we ventured down to Priest’s Cove at low tide for sunset, and slowly and gingerly picked our way across a chaotic jumble of angular boulders slick with seaweed and algae. One slip could have resulted in damage not only to our camera equipment, but the very real risk of a broken limb! We found a ledge of rock right at the water’s edge which gave a good view of The Brisons riding the horizon. There was quite a swell, and with the tide crashing over partially submerged boulders and literally swirling round our feet, we were initially somewhat crestfallen as the western horizon was once more choked with grey cloud and hopes for a colourful sunset were fading fast. But then gaps appeared in the cloud and some lovely diffuse pastel shades appeared in the sky, making for an interesting long exposure capture.

The Brisons from Priest's Cove Cape CornwallThe Brisons from Priest's Cove Cape CornwallPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 23mm f/10 25 seconds ISO 100

Site 12: Porth Nanven

This tiny cove is located half-a-mile west of the town of St Just at the end of a lush sub-tropical glen known to locals as Cot Valley. From the town square, take the Cape Cornwall Road, then the second left into West Place and the first right onto Bosorne Road. Follow the sign for ‘Cot Valley’ along a road that gets increasingly narrow and steep with few passing places. At the end is a small car park right above the cove. Offshore lie The Brisons.

Porth Nanven has been dubbed ‘Dinosaur Egg Beach’ because of a remarkable deposit of ovoid boulders covering the beach and foreshore. These come in all sizes, from that of an ostrich’s egg to a metre or more in length. Local people once carried these away for garden ornamentation, but they now lie within a SSSI and are legally protected by the National Trust which owns the cove.

These weirdly-shaped boulders are the work of the sea 120,000 years ago. Sea levels have changed several time since then and are now much lower than they were back then, causing the ancient beach to be suspended in the cliff high above the present level. This deposit is the source of the ovoid boulders.

This quirky cove has captivated me ever since my childhood, but through the lens of a camera it is even more enchanting. Knowing that this spot has become very popular with photographers, we arrived well before sunset to scout a place to shoot. Recent storms had flung huge quantities of kelp above the high tide mark which lay metres deep and rotting, attracting swarms of flies and sand fleas. We avoided the worst of this by donning wellies, crossing over the small river bridge on the left of the car park, then walking downstream.

Where the stream meets the beach, we encountered some smooth scalloped outcrops of granite on the left with several boulders in the foreground and The Brisons riding the horizon. Although we spent some time hopping across the tops of the boulders and walking along the disused concrete sewage outflow pipe to the right of the cove seeking out other compositions, we decided this one worked best. As the tide retreated, uncovering more boulders, in the blazing hot sunshine of late afternoon we sipped a cool Mena Dhu stout (St Austell Brewery, my absolute favourite Cornish tipple!), watching choughs and swallows swooping over the clifftops, while a lone seal entertained us just offshore.

However, it soon became apparent that a thick bank of cloud lying over the Celtic Sea which had plagued our trip was going to dampen the sunset yet again. We took some long exposure images before it was swallowed in the grey gloom. A couple of other visits to this beach yielded no better results, as it was either too bright with glassy sunlight to shoot during the afternoon, or a repeat of the previous night regarding sunset.

Porth Nanven sunsetPorth Nanven sunsetPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 19mm f/16 170 seconds ISO 100

Site 13: Sennen Cove

Sennen (Cornish: Porthsenen) is a small coastal village just off the A30 two miles from Land’s End. The access road descends steeply to the pretty village with its small harbour and life boat station, founded in 1853. The large sandy beach along Whitesand Bay is very popular with surfers. Metered car parking is available above the beach, and there is another very small (metered) car park above the harbour and a large overflow car park at the top of the cliffs on the road leading down to the cove.

Sennen was once one of Cornwall’s most important seine fisheries, and is still home to a small fishing fleet. It was here in 1881 that Faraday landed the eastern end of the transatlantic cable known as the Direct American Line, the western end of which was at Sable Island, off Canada.

I’ve always loved Sennen Cove, and can vividly recall seeing the lifeboat launched in stormy weather while I and a group of colleagues were trying to make the best of a damp Cornish summer evening by having a beach barbeque!

Our two visits here couldn’t have been more contrasting weather wise and brought different challenges. Our first was during a very grey and overcast afternoon threatening rain. We decided to focus on the old harbour area and found three small fishing boats tethered at the top of a granite slipway. A large rusty iron chain made an interesting foreground feature. Using a wide angle lens we were able to get up very close to the chain and the boats and decided that this shot might actually look better in black and white.

Sennen fishing boatsSennen fishing boatsPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 18mm f/2.8 1/800 second ISO 100 We returned with Ainsley on a burning hot day with clear blue skies and not much of a swell. Hardly weather conducive to photography either! We decided to try a long exposure shot from the beach out to sea, to obtain layers of colour in the sky, deep sea, nearshore and sand. The resulting image made Sennen look positively tropical!

Whitesand Bay, SennenWhitesand Bay, SennenPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 68mm f/13 15 seconds ISO 100

Site 14: Enys Dodnan

Sited close to the very tip of Cornwall – Land’s End – the Enys Dodnan sea arch is one of the most sought after locations for photography in Cornwall. The A30 leads straight to a car park at the Land’s End ‘complex’, into which no self-respecting Cornish person would bother setting foot these days! Fortunately, the time to shoot Enys Dodnan is at sundown, by which time there is no fee to use the car park.

Take the SW coast path towards Greeb Farm, a quirky 200 year old restored Cornish farmstead, towards Carn Cheer which will take around 10-15 minutes. The section of the SW coast path from Land’s End to Lamorna is my very favourite, the views are quite simply breath-taking.

From the sloping cliffs below Carn Cheer, the small island (enys means island in Cornish) containing the arch can be clearly seen. Behind Enys Dodnan is another rocky island dubbed the Armed Knight. To the far left and over a mile offshore are a group of islets, upon the largest of which - Carn Bras – is the Longships Lighthouse. The islands and the towering cliffs are comprised of late-Carboniferous early-Permian granite, part of the Cornubian batholith. The ocean seething round the base of these gnarly cliffs and islands make them strong subjects for a classic wide angle seascape.

Anticipating that the site might attract other photographers (which it did, four more in total!), we arrived early on a warm and very calm evening, and were treated to some lovely soft light during the golden hour. The sunset was beautifully muted due to mist far out at sea, and a long exposure image catching the setting sun sinking into this created a truly mystical and magical image.

Sunset over Enys DodnanSunset over Enys DodnanPentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 53mm f/10 20 seconds ISO 200

Site 15: Pednvounder

Pedn Vounder is a tidal beach immediately to the west of the Treryn Dinas headland, below Treen Cliff, and is a popular site for nudists. The name is from the Cornish ‘pedn’ (head, end) and ‘vounder’ (lane). To access the cliffs and/or beach, park at Treen and take the footpath across roadway fields to join the SW Coast Path. Alternatively, you could park and walk from Porthcurno, but as this is usually manic during tourist season, and parking at a premium, I wouldn’t recommend it!

The great attractions here are the incredible weathered granite cliffs and golden sandy cove washed by crystal clear aqua water, scenery which could easily be mistaken for that in the Caribbean. In spring, the clifftops are peppered with flowers including Bluebells, Sheep’s-bit, Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Sea Campion and Thrift, which mingle with the yellow gorse flowers. The final stage of the descent from the coast path to the shore is steep and requires some clambering over rocks at the western end of the beach. We were joined by Ainsley for this shoot, but none of us thought it was worth venturing down to the beach on this occasion, as the tide was almost in meaning there were no photogenic water ripples; the remaining sand had been churned up by countless feet; and it was teeming with people. In my opinion, this location is best shot well out of season.

With so many people on the beach and bathing in the sea, we didn’t bother walking to the classic viewpoint of the beach from the top of the cliffs nearest Porthcurno, but opted instead for an elevated view of the cliffs towards the Treryn Dinas headland. Virtually the whole of this rugged headland was enclosed as a promontory fort in the Iron Age, protected by sheer cliffs to three sides and heavily defended on the landward side by a series of large ramparts and ditches.

We carefully scrambled up onto a rocky spire atop the towering Treen cliffs and took a long exposure wide angle shot back towards the headland bathed by the aquamarine sea. Cornwall never looked so tropical!

PednvounderPednvounderPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 15mm f/16 25 seconds ISO 100

Site 16: St Michael’s Mount

This is undoubtedly a Cornish photo location on everyone’s bucket list. Described as a fairy-tale island by the National Trust that manages the site, this small offshore island in Mount’s Bay near Marazion is accessible by a granite causeway at mid and low tide, and has an equally famous sister in Normandy: Mont-Saint-Michel, with which it enjoyed close historical links. There is plenty of (paid) parking along the seafront (at Marazion Car Park and Folly Field), but at dawn and dusk, optimal times for photography, you can get away without parking fees.

St Michael’s Mount has a rich and varied past and is steeped in myth and legend. Its Cornish language name, Karrek Loes yn Koes (grey rock in the woods), recalls a time when Mount's Bay was wooded with hazel (it is thought that this marshy landscape finally flooded around 1,700 BC). In antiquity the Mount was referred to as Ictis, and it is believed that tin was traded here with merchants from as far away as the Levant. A former priory of the Norman Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, it has been in the St Aubyn family, who still reside at the castle, since the seventeenth century. The earliest buildings at the summit date to the twelfth century, and the castle is surrounded by exotic subtropical gardens with a small village and harbour on the Marazion side.

The Mount makes a good subject for a dawn or dusk shot when it is side lit. Personally, I think dawn is best as there’s only likely to be other photographers and the odd dog walker or jogger around. Dusk can get seriously busy! Ideally the tide should be neither fully out or fully in, so that the appealing line of the granite causeway tapers off into the water. Using a wide angle lens allows you to get up quite close to the Mount when the tide is favourable, and the spot where the causeway bends slightly to the right towards it provides a strong leading line, drawing the eye in. Equally interesting are the shallow rock pools and expanse of wet sand (sometimes with good ripples) between the causeway and Chapel Rock which can reflect colourful dawn/dusk clouds and make interesting foreground features. Chapel Rock itself gives an elevated position from which to shoot the Mount.

Equally impressive shots can be taken when the tide is fully in. The concrete jetty down a narrow alley behind the post office which is used to ferry passengers across to the Mount at high tide is one location. It dog-legs to the right midway along, creating a strong leading line right towards it. This composition works well using a wide angle lens in portrait orientation. It’s also quite gratifying to shoot from the beach and use a long exposure to smooth out the surface of the water and to frame the foreground with some colourful beach pebbles.

Further along the beach, the point where the Red River passes under a small footbridge close to the road and curves across the beach towards the mount also makes for an interesting composition. The blue hour would also make a great capture, especially if the lights come on in the castle. I’ve also seen some excellent astro-shots of the Mount and causeway, with the core of the Milky Way soaring up behind it, but that would be dependent on the time of year.

During this visit we shot here twice: at dawn and late afternoon. Out dawn visit coincided with a full tide which limited the choice of compositions, and the beach to the left of the concrete jetty was crawling with other photographers. The dawn wasn’t that spectacular, with dull light and no cloud behind the Mount to add some drama to an otherwise empty sky, so we planned to return another day.

It doesn’t pay to write off a drab and overcast day, especially when the most recent weather had been wall to wall sunshine in cloudless skies! We arrived late afternoon just as the tide was retreating revealing the causeway, the granite cobbles of which were gleaming in the feeble light. With the waves literally lapping round our feet, we captured a moody long exposure shot of the causeway tapering off into the sea towards the Mount with some cloud streaked across the sky behind it for added drama.

St Michael's MountSt Michael's MountPentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 28mm f/10 15 seconds ISO 100

Site 17: Wheal Prosper

Sited dramatically above Porthcew beach and the steep cliffs of Rinsey (from the Cornish words ‘rynn’ and ‘chy’ meaning house on the point), is yet another quintessentially Cornish-type engine house. This is Wheal Prosper, but it never lived up to its name, unsuccessfully working for tin and copper from 1860-1866. There is a choked adit at the back of the beach below the engine house. To reach it you take the steep cliff path and pass through a narrow cleft in the cliff, blasted out by miners. Some three miles from Porthleven, the engine house lies on the SW coast path. At Ashton leave the A394 and take the road marked Rinsey Lane which leads to a small car park on the cliff top.

This was one of the earliest engine houses to be consolidated in Cornwall, and was used by the BBC for the filming of Poldark in the 1970s. The site has been under the stewardship of the National Trust since 1969 and lies within the Cornish Mining WHS.

Our visit coincided with some exceptionally clear night skies, and with the car park close at hand we considered this to be a great site to set up the camera and try to capture the Milky Way rising behind the engine house. We walked down the cliff path some way to obtain a view up towards the engine house and which also obscured the light pollution from nearby Helston and from shipping entering the English Channel. Yet again, past and present engineering prowess were briefly juxtaposed, as the International Space Station zipped across the sky directly over a building that housed a 30-inch cylinder pumping engine, the epitome of cutting-edge technology in the mid-Victorian period.

Site 18: Kynance Cove

Kynance Cove (Cornish: Porth Keynans, meaning ‘ravine cove’) is situated on the Lizard peninsula approximately two miles of Lizard Point, the most southerly point of Britain. Described by the BBC as ‘one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the South West’, the cove became popular in the early-Victorian era attracting many distinguished visitors, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the poet Alfred Tennyson. Kynance Cove featured in the 2015 period drama production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. It was also used as a location for the recent TV series of Poldark, and in the episode ‘The Devil's Foot’ from The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Kynance and the wider Lizard peninsula is of great geological interest due to the presence of serpentine which is easily eroded, giving rise to a number of interesting sea stacks and tiny offshore islands. Asparagus Island, the largest of these, dominates the view of Kynance Cove and gets its strange name due to the fact that the rare wild asparagus (Asparagus prostratus) grows there. The cove and the surrounding coast are owned and managed by the National Trust. It is part of the West Lizard Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is in the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s a good site throughout the year for dawn or dusk shots.

At Helston take the A3083 towards the Lizard. Just past Ruan Major follow the brown heritage signposts for Kynance Cove. Access to the site is down a gravel trackway leading to ample car parking at the National Trust car park. If arriving close to dawn or sunset (during summer months), parking should be free.

The day we visited, the place was virtually deserted on account of the weather. Visibility was poor and we had already spent a virtually fruitless day of photography in the St Just and Rinsey Head areas. Satellite images suggested that there was likely to be a bit of a break in the cloud cover round the Lizard Peninsula, so we had made our way to Kynance in the hope of a sunset.

The tide was only just on the turn when we arrived, so any hopes of a shot on the sandy beach between the mainland and Asparagus Island were out. Instead, we focussed on shooting from two viewpoints along the clifftops. A gravel trackway leads from the car park towards the cliffs where you can pick up the SW coast path. From various vantage points along this, the views towards the cove are excellent. Even on the dullest day, the azure and aquamarine colours of the water shine though. Our first spot was to the left of the cove, looking back down the coast towards Kynance Cliffs and Rill Point, with some interesting saffron-coloured lichen covered rocks in the foreground. A long exposure image worked quite well here, smoothing out the sea and lending the shot a somewhat melancholic quality. I actually prefer days like these for photography; they’re certainly preferable to clear blue skies and glassy light!

Kynance CoveKynance CovePentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 15mm f/14 120 seconds ISO 200 We then took the footpath down to the cove, where we only just managed to pick our way across the back of the boulder-strewn beach to re-join the SW coast path up the cliffs. It was steep and hard-going with all our camera equipment! Our second image was taken from a viewpoint looking back down the coast towards Lizard Point showcasing Asparagus Island, the small headland with two zawns (sea caves) and the cluster of rocks beneath the cliffs. By now the sun had set, but there was a slight pink tinge in the leaden clouds during the blue hour which made for an interesting long exposure shot.

Blue hour at Kynance CoveBlue hour at Kynance CovePentax K1 DFA 15-30mm at 15mm f/16 180 seconds ISO 200


All too soon our time in Cornwall seemed to be over, but it was a wonderful experience visiting some of my favourite spots, camera in hand, especially in the company of my great friend and Cornish photographer, Ainsley Cocks. I came to realise just how much I took Cornwall’s beauty and uniqueness for granted when I lived there. Having viewed it through a camera lens, I feel I know the place of my birth so much better now!

We hope that you have enjoyed reading about our photo tour to West Cornwall, and for those who visited our Facebook page and Instagram feed during our tour (for which many thanks), we hope that you enjoyed our regular Kartennow post a Dre (Postcards from Home)!

If you're interested in capturing some of the above scenes, then join us on our West Cornwall spring phototour. Booking information on our website! Please do leave a comment, and if you have any queries or questions, pm us, and we’ll be delighted to answer them. Meanwhile, whet your appetite for some of what our tour has to offer with our short promo:


[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) cornwall europe Photo Tour photography spring world heritage site https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2018/6/kartennow-post-a-dre-postcards-from-home-photographing-west-cornwall-in-spring Sun, 17 Jun 2018 14:59:56 GMT
The Coolest Place on Earth: Winter Photography in Southern Iceland https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2018/3/the-coolest-place-on-earth-winter-photography-in-southern-iceland Beached bergEarly morning shot of an iceberg on Breiðamerkursandur, otherwise known as the ‘Diamond Beach’. Pentax K1 DFA15-30mm at 30mm f/22 1/5 second ISO 100

Iceland, a geological wonderland of rumbling volcanoes, gushing geysers, pristine black-sand beaches, epic waterfalls, stunning mountains and picture-postcard glaciers, currently graces the pages of scores of glossy travel magazines. As the playground de jour for social media users, it’s right up there as one of the must-see destinations on every traveller’s bucket list.

This otherworldly island has served as a film location for scores of Hollywood blockbusters including Prometheus, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Interstellar, as well as popular TV shows such as Game of Thrones, Fortitude and Trapped. Little wonder that is attracting ever-growing numbers of photographers.

In early-February of 2018, we made our third winter photography tour to Iceland, taking a red-eye flight with Easy Jet from Belfast International Airport to Keflavik, the gateway to the island. With us was a client, Ainsley, enjoying his second Iceland trip with us; he has also previously joined us in the Lofoten Islands, Norway. We expected to have about 7 hours of usable daylight, with the sun rising round 10:00 am and setting at around 5:30 pm.

Day One: The Road to Höfn

At the airport we raided the Duty Free shop, as alcohol is fearfully expensive in Iceland and you can expect to pay 16 euro plus for a bottle of beer in restaurants. Driving in winter here is challenging to say the least and you really need a 4X4 to get around comfortably. We set off in a Ford Kuga for Höfn in the south east of the island, a long drive of nearly 500km which was going to take us around eight hours and we hoped to be there before dusk.

Almost immediately the Icelandic weather threw a spanner into the works. We were diverted from our intended route due to heavy snow and high winds. A red weather warning had been issued for the Reykjavik area and the southern part of the island, and more bad weather was forecast for the coming days. It pays to be flexible when deciding an itinerary here, as it is not always possible to do what you have planned.

The road diversion only added about 20 minutes to our journey time. After stopping for lunch at a roadside café, and briefly at the black sand beach at Vík í Mýrdal, where the wind was so strong it was almost impossible to open the jeep door, let alone take many images due to the sand being blown onshore, we returned to Route 1, passing through the Eldraun Lava Field.

The TrollsThe Reynisdrangar, otherwise known as the stone trolls, a group of basalt sea stacks at Vík í Mýrdal. Pentax K1 Tamron SP 70-200mm at 150mm f/32 6 seconds ISO 100 This moss-covered verdant wonderland was created in one of the most devastating eruptions in recorded history. Over a course of eight months, between 1783 and 1784, the Laki fissure and the adjoining Grímsvötn volcano poured out an estimated 14 cubic kilometres of basalt lava and clouds of poisonous gases that contaminated the soil, killing half of the island’s cattle and horses, and more than three-quarters of its sheep. The resulting famine was responsible for the death of approximately a quarter of the island’s human population and wrought climatic devastation across the Northern Hemisphere.

The light wasn’t really good enough for photography, so we pushed on, later passing a film crew shooting a scene close to a river for a forthcoming series of Game of Thrones. We arrived at our self-catering accommodation in Höfn as darkness was falling, but unfortunately cloudy skies precluded any chance of seeing the Northern Lights and we were content to stay indoors with a freeze-dried meal washed down with a stout!

Day Two: Some Days are Diamonds

As we left our accommodation in the deep-freezer chill of predawn, the eastern sky was beginning to radiate streaks of crimson light. We headed for Vestrahorn at Stokksnes, an iconic massif on the eastern side of Höfn which in recent years has attracted the attention of photographers from round the world, and even featured as a backdrop in the Bollywood film Dilwale. The smaller, three summit mountain, Brunnhorn, on the far right of the massif is affectionately named ‘Batman Mountain’ on account of its resemblance to the logo used in the Batman films.

A long causeway leads to a former British army base which is now a radar station, and to progress past the electronic barrier at the end, you have to pay a small fee as it’s on private land. If no one is at the nearby café to sell you a ticket, you can buy one using a machine situated outside. There are also toilets here and a camping area.

The vista before us was every bit as good as we expected it to be. It was a bitterly cold, yet calm morning with a virtually cloudless powder-blue sky, and the rising sun had begun to taint the snow-capped massif a pale rose-pink. The ground was hard and frozen, the wind ripples on the black sand dunes were perfectly accentuated by frost, and the dried yellow grass protruding from the sand created an otherworldly effect. It would have been the icing on the cake to have gotten some moody cloud above the mountains rather than a clear sky, but you have to work with what you get on the day.

Setting up at VestrahornA dawn photo-shoot at this iconic mountain was rewarded with good conditions. HTC mobile phone.

The biggest challenge here is how to avoid other photographers wandering into your frame, and we moved to several locations to get a suitable vista with good leading lines.

Dawn at VestrahornGood conditions greeted us on our first dawn shoot. Pentax K1 DFA15-30mm and 19mm f/16 0.8 seconds ISO 100 We were so engrossed shooting Vestrahorn that we barely noticed the incredible scene unfolding behind us: the moon setting over Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier, in a sky turned candy pink by the rising sun. We then progressed to the beach hoping to get some good reflections of the mountains in the wet sand, but the tide was too far out. Instead, as it was a calm day, we decided to fly our DJI drone. I was fully expecting not to be able to get the thing airborne, given its close proximity to a radar installation, but it took to the air and we shot some great footage.

Setting moon at dawnThe moon setting over Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier, in a sky turned candy pink by the rising sun. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 105mm f/13 1.6 seconds ISO 100 Following a brief stop in Höfn for a late breakfast, we progressed along the coast towards Breiðamerkursandur, otherwise known as the ‘Diamond Beach’. In good conditions it’s possible to see thousands of icebergs washed ashore on the black sand, hence the name. These have been calved into the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon from the nearby Breiðamerkurjökull (a part of the larger Vatnajökull), and then flowed out to sea via a narrow channel. We found the beach was mainly littered with lumps of shattered drift-ice from the lagoon which didn’t have the translucent quality, aqua colour or scalloped shapes we were looking for, and our visit also coincided with the tide coming in and a fierce offshore wind.

Taking photographs here pushes you and your kit to the absolute limit. It’s common to brave one or more of the following: sub-zero temperatures, high winds lifting abrasive volcanic sand, spindrift, sea spray and huge Atlantic breakers that can sweep you and your equipment away. One also has to be wary of standing too close to an iceberg which might smash into you and your equipment. But the rewards are fantastic. Wellies and waterproof over-trousers, or better still, a pair of waders, are essential to get up close and personal with the icebergs.

You have to place the tripod firmly in the sand to avoid the camera moving as the waves wash in and out, and the smaller the iceberg, the lower down you must get for it to be the dominant focal point in the foreground. Bracketed shots would have been pretty impossible in the high wind and furious surf we experienced. In our opinion, a very wide angle lens with 3 stop and 6 stop neutral density (ND) filters and 0.6 and 0.9 hard edged gradated density filters were required to get a decent shot here.

Splash!Icebergs in the surf at Breiðamerkursandur. Pentax K1 DFA15-30mm at 15mm f/4.5 0.5 seconds ISO 200 We spent a couple of hours trying to capture an image we were happy with, but the conditions were trying with blowing sand and bitterly cold temperatures. At least the offshore wind was blowing the spray away from the cameras! Chilled to the bone we finally retired to the small café at Jökulsárlón for a warming hot chocolate.

Jökulsárlón only appeared in the mid-1930s and now covers an area around 20 km2 due to climate change. Before 1950 the river used to run 1.5 km to the ocean, but now it is much closer, and seals swim from the sea up to the lagoon and rest on the ice floes. During our visit there weren’t that many and they were quite a distance away, making a 1,000mm lens essential to capture anything.

In recent years the lagoon has become very popular with tourists and getting good shots here is now challenging; flying drones has also been forbidden, even though the lagoon is just outside the Vatnajökull National Park Boundary. To avoid the crowds, this location is probably best captured during the white nights of the Arctic summer. Moreover, the ice will not be covered with snow, you will be able to see the black bands of volcanic sand, it will look bluer, and, as much of the surface ice will have melted, it should be possible to get some good reflections.

Sunset turned out to be a damp squib so we did not venture back onto the beach, but we did witness a very unusual sight: cloud iridescence, a diffraction phenomenon caused by small water droplets or small ice crystals individually scattering light.

After dinner in a restaurant in Höfn, we headed back to Vestrahorn to do some astrophotography. We wanted to get a few shots of the Milky Way over the massif before the moon rose too high, and of course we hoped for an aurora display. Despite getting all your ducks in a row beforehand, there are so many variables that can wreck even the best laid plans in Iceland. This is especially the case when it comes to viewing the Northern Lights, the thing every traveller and photographer wants to see. This celestial spectacle is created when the solar wind – charged particles from the Sun that brush past our planet – meets the Earth’s magnetic field and the two interact. The particles from the Sun slide along the contours of the magnetic field towards the poles and when they reach the upper atmosphere, they interact with gases. The particles can give the air molecules enough energy to release electrons, causing them to glow in a range of colours.

Catching a good aurora display is contingent on many things. Firstly, the strength of the aurora which is dependent on solar activity. This is constantly surveyed by satellite and can be fairly accurately predicted some 48 hours in advance. The stronger the solar activity, the stronger and more colourful the aurora will be. Even with clear skies, you are not guaranteed to see the Northern Lights, as it depends where the auroral oval is sited. Then of course there is the weather to consider, and we have been thwarted on more than one occasion with good activity forecast, but saw nothing due to cloudy skies.

Although the skies were clear, our visit coincided with very low aurora activity, but we managed to capture a green glow over Vestrahorn. As we were shooting, the moon rose over the Atlantic Ocean and hung there like a Chinese lantern casting a long beam of pearlescent light over the water. It felt truly magical to be standing on a deserted volcanic beach in the moonlight listing to the sound of waves relentlessly pounding the shore. In all, it hadn’t been a bad first day and back at our apartment we enjoyed a few nightcaps of Icelandic schnapps – Brennivín – chilled by lumps of 1,000 year old ice taken from Breiðamerkurjökull!

Midnight magicThe Milky Way soars into a sky tinted green by the Northern Lights over Vestrahorn near Höfn. Stack of 3 images. The image of stars was taken using the Astrotracer function. Pentax K1 DFA15-30mm at 15mm f/4.5 120 seconds ISO 400

Day Three: Whiteout!

What a difference a day makes! Outside the wind was howling and a blizzard was raging making it impossible to see more than a few metres. Another dawn photoshoot at Vestrahorn was out of the question. We returned to bed and after a late breakfast the wind had dropped enough to make it safe to venture out for some supplies at a local supermarket. We then returned to Breiðamerkursandur in the hope that there might be a further improvement in the weather. As we sat holed up in our jeep waiting for a break in the cloud, we spotted people disgorged from a nearby tour bus get swallowed by spindrift lifted in gale force winds tearing menacingly across the car park. Barely able to stand, they turned tail and staggered back on to the bus! It was not a day conducive to photography!

In fact our visit coincided with the worst February weather for years, so we spent the rest of the day driving to potential photo locations and then returned to our apartment and fired up our laptop to do some backup and processing of the images we had taken yesterday.  

Day Four: Awed by Ice

A pre-dawn start saw us leave Höfn for the journey westward to our self-catering accommodation in the tiny hamlet of Heimamenn near Skógar, which was to be our base for the next 3 days. We were still not wholly satisfied with the images we had previously taken at Breiðamerkursandur and we wanted to catch the dawn there. We expected to see other photographers at the beach, but the number of tourists swarming about surprised us. Each time we return to Iceland, the tourist numbers seem to be growing making it challenging to take images at some of the most popular sites. For this reason we decided against touring an ice cave this trip, as our last one was ruined by literally scores of loud people, most brandishing mobile phones on selfie sticks.

Dancing with waves!Dancing with waves!Taken with a HTC mobile phone. Martin attempting to photograph an iceberg on the 'Diamond Beach'. To avoid the crowds we wandered further along the beach and finally lucked out with a gleaming translucent iceberg tinged turquoise being lapped by the retreating surf. The spray kept misting up the filters, the cold was eviscerating and our fingers were frozen to the bone. Despite the fact that the sun did not make an appearance due to cloud on the horizon, and consequently there was not much colour in the golden hour, we finally managed to capture a moody shot of the aqua-cool iceberg surrounded by streaks of white foam as a wave receded over the black sand.

Feeling blueA lone iceberg washed by the suf on the famous 'Diamond Beach'. Pentax K1 DF15-30mm at 30mm f/22 1/5 second ISO 100 After refreshments at the Jökulsárlón Café, we headed west along ring road 1, stopping at Fjallsárlón. This lagoon is also fed by a glacier spilling down from Vatnajökull, and at only a tenth of the size of nearby Jökulsárlón, you can clearly see the nose of the calving glacier, get up close to beached icebergs, and it’s less busy with tourists. We feel it’s the better bet of the two for photography. A short walk from the parking area at the aptly named Frost Restaurant brought us to a viewpoint over the lagoon.

A grand vista was spread before us. Glowering beneath cloud-wreathed mountains, the frozen lake was covered by a thin dusting of sleet which created intricate ripple patterns across its surface. In the distance we could clearly see the glacier with its gnarled grey and turquoise nose displaying bands of black volcanic sand which resembled the patterns in a stick of rock. Several large icebergs that had broken away from the ice cap into the lagoon were trapped in the ice like an insect in amber.

FjallsárlónSet up and waiting for the weather to improve. Taken on a HTC mobile phone As we descended closer to the lake shore, the weather abruptly changed, the wind began to blow furiously and within minutes we were fighting our way through sleet and spindrift to the shelter of a beached iceberg. Visibility was close to zero. In Iceland, it’s wise to be patient with the weather which can give you three or four seasons in a day. Half an hour later, the squally weather front had passed over, the cloud on the mountains began to lift and some sunlight began to touch the glacier. We even managed to fly the drone! Eventually the sun slid low enough in the sky to give some interesting colour to the cloud and we managed to capture some good reflections of the mountains, glacier and icebergs in a section of the lake that was not frozen.

ReflectionsSome late afternoon light transformed the scene at Fjallsárlón. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 37mm f/10 20 seconds ISO 100 From here we progressed to Svínafellsjökull hoping to get some fire in the sky over the glacier at dusk. This was not to be as the sun was swallowed by cloud blanketing the western horizon. Nonetheless, the close-up views of the shattered nose of the turquoise glacier impregnated with stripes of black volcanic sand were incredibly impressive. We lingered around for the blue hour with the place totally to ourselves which gave us plenty of time to fly the drone, and take in the awe and majesty of this icy wonderland which was the film location for Mann’s planet in the film Interstellar.

GlaciatedBlue hour at Svínafellsjökull. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 58mm f/16 5 seconds ISO 100 As we got back in the jeep for the long drive to Heimamenn, the weather really deteriorated, with gale force winds driving clouds of spindrift across the road. Traversing Mýrdalssandur, a vast glacial outwash plain, visibility was dreadful and we were barely able to see the road. We were relieved to make it to Vík í Mýrdal where we stopped briefly for dinner. We then managed to crawl in low gear up the hill out of Vík and carefully negotiated the long, winding descent the other side past several lorries that were either stranded or struggling to climb the hill. Along the exposed coastline towards Heimamenn we could feel the gale force wind buffeting the jeep and could barely see the road in the snow and spindrift. After safely arriving at our accommodation following such a nerve-wracking journey, it was Surtur Imperial stouts all round!

Day Five: The Primeval South Coast

Yet again the weather thwarted any hope of a dawn photoshoot as another blizzard was raging outside. The proximity to the coast and the flat terrain resulted in snow drifting several feet deep and it was banked up against the door of our cabin. Like children, we couldn’t resist going outside to walk through the pristine blanket of whiteness lying snugly over the landscape! In a field opposite we spied a team of Icelandic horses silhouetted against a brooding steel-grey sky as another weather front began to sweep in from the Atlantic bringing yet more snow. This breed of horse was originally brought over by Viking settlers around 1,000 years ago, and they really are the most remarkable hardy little beasts! We managed to get a reasonable hand held shot of the agitated animals illuminated by fleeting lurid sunlight.

There's a storm coming!A team of Icelandic horse are agitated by the imminent arrival of another snow storm. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 37mm f/6.3 1/500 second ISO 100 It wasn’t until midday that the storm abated enough for a snow plough to clear Route 1 which enabled us to drive down to Skógafoss. This waterfall, one of the biggest in Iceland with a drop of 60 metres and a width of 25 metres, is undoubtedly one of the main tourist attractions in the southern region and was consequently thronged with day-trippers. The increase in visitors means it’s now forbidden to fly drones here, and we found it impossible to take any decent shots. Apart from the number of people, the spray was unfortunately being blown back down the river drenching our cameras and misting up the filters which then froze in the sub-zero temperatures. Luckily the Pentax K1 cameras we use are weatherproof and the Pentax lenses are also weather resistant, which are very useful features in an Icelandic winter.

Superlative SkógafossThronged with tourists and shrouded in freezing spray made photography here almost impossible. Taken on a HTC mobile phone. After a delicious lunch of lamb soup at the nearby Skógafoss Hotel, we made our way over to Dyrhólaey, a headland which in Icelandic means ‘the hill island with the door-hole’, on account of its sea arch. The small road up to the car park by a lighthouse where you get the best views over the sea arch was unfortunately closed to vehicles and pedestrians due to the inclement weather, so we made our way from the lower car park to the cliff top overlooking the impressive Arnardrangur (Eagle Rock), a basalt sea stack rising from the expansive black sands of a vast bay sweeping in an arc towards the iconic sea stacks of Reynisdrangar below Reynisfjara Mountain. With a slight lull in the wind, we managed to get some long-exposure shots of the stack, and a telephoto long-exposure of the Reynisdrangar.

Where eagle's dareArnardrangur (Eagle Rock), a basalt sea stack with the Reynisdrangar below Reynisfjara Mountain in the distance. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 40mm f/16 120 seconds ISO 100 Stone trollsA telephoto long-exposure shot of the Reynisdrangar from Dyrhólaey. Pentax K1 Tamron SP70-200m at 200mm f/5 2.5 seconds ISO 100

Moving location, we were fortunate to experience some good light radiating down through broken cloud over the sea stacks lying just beyond the sea arch. The largest of these is the 56 metre-high Háidrangur (High Column).

Sea Stacks off DyrhólaeyThe winter sun breaks through the cloud over Háidrangur. Pentax K1 Tamron SP 70-200mm at 87.5mm f/6.3 1/60 second ISO 100 After this we went to Vík í Mýrdal for the blue hour. This tiny community of 300 souls is the southern-most village in Iceland and lies directly south of Mýrdalsjökull, a glacier that sits above the Katla volcano. Katla has not erupted since 1918, and following the violent 2010 eruption of neighbouring Eyjafjallajökull which generated an enormous ash cloud that grounded thousands of European flights, volcanologists suspect that an eruption is overdue. This could melt enough ice to trigger a jökulhlaup (glacial outburst flood) potentially large enough to obliterate the village. Víkurkirkja (Vík Church), located high on a hill above the village, is believed to be the only building that would survive such a cataclysmic event and consequently the villagers are drilled to evacuate their homes for church at the first sign of an eruption.

We set up our tripods at a vantage point just above the picture postcard-pretty Víkurkirkja, which was built in the 1930s. Here we had excellent views of the red-roofed church in the foreground and the iconic Reynisdrangar sea stacks floating in the surf just beyond the black sand beach. Our patience was rewarded with a good long-exposure shot of the Reynisdrangar, and another of the little church as the lights that illuminate it at night came on, adding contrasting warmth to the chilled-lavender landscape. After another meal at Halldorskaffi, an excellent value restaurant with a varied menu (the Icelandic four cheese settlers’ pizza with redcurrant jelly is phenomenal after a day braving the elements!), we headed back to Skógafoss.

The trolls at duskA long-exposure shot of the Reynisdrangar from Víkurkirkja. Pentax K1 Tamron SP 70-200mm at 150mm f/32 8 seconds ISO 100 Aurora activity was forecast to be very low, and the sky was annoyingly cloudy, so we didn’t expect a celestial light show over the falls. With the place solely to ourselves, we used an LED light and a torch to illuminate the waterfall using the painting by light technique, with reasonable results despite the spray which absolutely drenched the two of us holding the lighting!

Night at SkógafossA long exposure using an LED torch to illuminate the waterfall. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 28mm f/3.5 49 seconds ISO 400

Day Six: Scenery Straight from the Sagas

We were on the road back to Skógafoss just before dawn, arriving early in the hope of getting some shots without people wandering into frame. The car park was virtually empty, but conditions still weren’t great for the long-exposure images we were after. The sun failed to break through the cloud, the spray was equally as bad as the day before and the cliffs were etched in monochrome iciness. Moreover, the ground was like a glass bottle making traction cleats/microspikes essential. A lone Chinese woman in a red cape broke the monotony of the scenery, but we did not waste any more time shooting here. A future visit will hopefully bring better luck with the conditions.

Grey dawn at SkógafossA lone woman in red breaks the monochrome monotony of the icy scene. Pentax K1 DFA15-30mm at 30mm f/3.5 6 seconds ISO 100 From here we travelled back to Vík í Mýrdal to visit the famous black sand beach which offers fine views of the Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks. These are remnants of the Reynisfjall cliffs which have been eroded away by the relentless Atlantic. In 1991, the US journal, Islands Magazine, counted Vík beach as one of the ten most beautiful non-tropical beaches on Earth.

Predictably, on arrival we discovered that the bitterly cold wind was gusting up to gale force, blowing spray far inland and lifting vast quantities of sand which blinded us. To add to the challenge, the tide was coming in, and as there is no landmass between southern Iceland and Antarctica, the Atlantic rollers can attack with full force. Great care is needed not to get a real soaking.

This primeval landscape could be lifted straight from the pages of the Icelandic Sagas, and there is indeed a local folklore story about these iconic basalt sea stacks. Legend has it that the three stacks were formerly two trolls dragging a three-masted ship towards land under cover of darkness. Unfortunately for them, the hours of darkness did not last long enough for them to drag the ship safely to shore, and at the break of dawn they were caught in the rays of the sun and instantly turned to stone! The stack nearest land is the old fogy, Landdrangur; Langsamur, the centre stack, is the trolls’ ship; and bringing up the rear is the old hag, Háidrangur.

We spent almost two hours dodging the sleety showers and ‘dancing with waves’ in the hope of getting a decent long-exposure image, or capturing the scalloped-shaped foamy patterns of surf on black sand. The wind and sinking sand militated against keeping the tripod steady enough for many long-exposure shots, and the spray continually misting up the filters didn’t help either; hand-held images were undoubtedly the best bet in such conditions.

Riding the wavesThe Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks face the brunt of yet another Atlantic weather front. Taken from the black sand beach at Vík í Mýrdal. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 68mm f/4.5 2 seconds ISO 100

After this we drove to Sólheimajökull where several tour companies offer walks on the glacier. Our intention was to shoot some drone footage of our jeep travelling along the winding road to the parking area which worked a treat in a window of calm weather between two snow storms.

We then proceeded to Gljúfrabúi at Hamragarðar. In Icelandic, Gljúfrabúi means ‘the one that lives within the canyon’, and this provides a clue. Hidden behind a cleft in the cliff-face is a 40 metre high waterfall which you can access by wading up the river running through the cleft. Less well-known than its famous neighbour, Seljalandsfoss, this little gem evokes an atmosphere straight out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, the sheer volume of water cascading down into the cave at the foot of the falls threw up clouds of fine spray which made filming inside impossible, but we grabbed some video footage outside with our DJI Osmo. From here we drove round to Seljalandsfoss which in recent years has become far too over-commercialised. You now have to pay to park here and the crowds of coach tourists, huge amounts of spray and poor light at dusk made a photoshoot nigh on impossible.

We decided to pack up and scoot back to Vík hoping to shoot a time-lapse sequence above Víkurkirkja during the blue hour. The weather looked ominous as we set up our tripods above the church and on cue, a blizzard swept in rendering the time-lapse useless. We were about to pack up and call it a day when the snow and wind abated and the conditions swiftly improved for a long-exposure shot of the church as the lights came on.

Shooting Víkurkirkja at duskCapturing the church in the blue hour after a blizzard. Pentax K1 DFA8-105mm at 28mm f/4.5 1/13 second ISO 1600 A touch of the bluesVíkurkirkja during the blue hour. Pentax K1 Tamron SP 70-200mm at 87.5mm f/11 10 seconds ISO 100 Sadly for us, it was the same story as regards the night sky: zero visibility due to cloud cover and low aurora activity. We turned in early as the following day we had a long drive back to Reykjavík.

Day Seven: Stone the Trolls!

At last our luck turned on our final day of photography. Broken cloud covered the sky as we journeyed to Reynisfjara Beach on the western side of Vík and we were hopeful of getting some good dawn light over the Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks. Here you are not only right underneath the 340m high Reynisfjall Mountain which boasts one of the most spectacular basalt column formations in Iceland, but much closer to the sea stacks which look totally different from this vantage point.

However, there is a caveat. This beach must be treated with the utmost respect for it is one of the most dangerous in Iceland. Filming here can be extremely treacherous as ‘sneaker waves’ - disproportionately large coastal waves that can sometimes appear in a wave train without warning – have washed people out to sea, resulting in several recent drownings. We watched numerous people get absolutely soaked as they stupidly ran the gauntlet of the Atlantic breakers in the incoming tide to round a small headland, beyond which is another beach and a basalt column cave.

We have prior form on this beach which has previously claimed the life of a drone and a camera, and with very high seas, this time we played it safe and were happy with the images we shot of the sun exploding over the trolls from the main beach. We also managed to fly our drone to get great views of the Reynisdrangar and the expanse of black sands towards Dyrhólaey before the weather once more closed in, driving us from the beach and back on the road towards Reykjavík.

The trolls from Reynisfjara BeachDawn over the Reynisdrangar at the black sand beach where the Atlantic rollers make photography challenging. Pentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 58mm f/11 1/6 second ISO 100 From Route 1 we spotted the church at Eyvindarhóla, consecrated in 1961, which was being virtually consumed in a snowstorm. We managed to photograph this wee place of warmth, sanctuary and refuge which was defiantly standing firm in the grip of this brutal icy Atlantic blast. It seemed to be an allegory for taking shelter against life’s storms.

Shelter from the stormThe small church at Eyvindarhóla is virtually swallowed by a blizzard. Pentax K1 Tamron SP 70-200mm at 180mm f/7.1 1/320 second ISO 400 After a brief stop at Urriðafoss on the 230 kilometre-long Þjórsá River, the most voluminous waterfall in the country on its longest river, we headed towards Brúarfoss (Bridge Falls), said to be the bluest waterfall in Iceland. Brúarfoss isn’t easy to find, as it’s hidden away amid a jumble of holiday cabins accessed by backcountry roads where the snow was metres deep and impassable even with a jeep. We managed to find a place to park and then had to break trail in a snow-storm through knee-high snow towards the sound of a river.

The falls form a part of the Brúará River, a branch of the Hvita River fed by Langjökull (the Lang Glacier). The Brúará River squeezes itself through a crevice in the volcanic rock and thousands of tiny rivulets pour down into it to emerge in a series of sky-blue rapids which look totally surreal set against the obsidian-black rock. Arriving before dusk, we were rewarded for our efforts as the snow squall suddenly ceased, the sky cleared and the setting sun gave us some interesting light, enabling us to take a few long exposure shots. Needless to say, we had the place totally to ourselves!

Dusk at BrúarfossThe unbelievably blue water of the Brúará River contrasts with the obsidian-black volcanic rock, lending these falls a surreal feel. Pentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 53mm f/4.5 4 seconds ISO 200 From here we hastened through another blizzard to the accommodation we always use in Reykjavík - the Igdlo Guesthouse - and after a shower and change of clothes, we made for the Grillmarkaðurinn restaurant where we enjoyed a sumptuous eight course Icelandic meal.


Next morning we were up at stupid o’clock to get our flight back to Belfast. The weather had certainly been extremely challenging, but that is part of the appeal of Iceland. You never quite know what to expect in a country with such an unpredictable and fickle climate, and it pays to keep a fluid itinerary. Out of many thousands of images shot, we were satisfied with a haul of a dozen or so good photos and several minutes of new drone footage. Indeed, in our experience of winter in this Atlantic island, where the quality of the light is simply extraordinary, patience and persistence are always eventually rewarded. Quite simply, Iceland in winter is the coolest place on Earth for photography!

Contact us for details of our future Iceland photo tours. Want to know what Iceland is really like in winter? Watch our thrilling short film on You Tube: 



[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) black sand beaches europe glaciers höfn icebergs ice-lagoons iceland mountains Photo Tour photography sea stacks vík volcanic landscape waterfalls winter https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2018/3/the-coolest-place-on-earth-winter-photography-in-southern-iceland Wed, 07 Mar 2018 23:15:57 GMT
'Off-Grid' in Arctic Sweden: Trekking the Dag Hammarskjöldleden https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/12/off-grid-in-arctic-sweden-trekking-the-dag-hammarskj-ldleden The Tjäktjavagge Valley SwedenThe Tjäktjavagge Valley SwedenThe vista back down the Tjäktjavagge Valley from near the top of the Tjäktja Pass

The Call of the Wild: Nikkaluokta to Kebnekaise (19 km)

Last September (2016) we visited Arctic Sweden for the first time, trekking part of the 425 kilometre Kungsleden Trail. We were so impressed by the raw beauty and tranquillity of this unspoilt region that we made a decision to return the following autumn. Twelve months later we are back in Kiruna, gateway to the Swedish Arctic, waiting for a local bus to take us to Nikkaluokta to begin a trek along the Dag Hammarskjöldleden (The Dag Hammarskjöld Way), albeit in reverse ending, rather than starting, at the small settlement of Abisko.

The bus glides past the outskirts of Kiruna, the sprawling iron ore mining town which is being moved block by block to a new location due to subsidence, and passes into the alpine tundra resplendent in its autumnal shades of russet, yellow and gold. An hour later carrying my 17 kilo backpack, I’m passing beneath the wooden structure resembling a Sámi tent just outside the small settlement of Nikkaluokta which marks the Dag Hammarskjöldleden.

The day is still and somewhat overcast and the air cool with a tincture of earthiness as we set out along the trail through scrubland and birch forest. I feel a sense of relief mingled with exhilaration to be escaping into the Swedish wilderness for the next week. Off-grid. There will be no mobile phone signal. No electricity. No Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. No traffic. No neighbours’ dogs barking at ungodly hours, young children screaming over the garden wall...

Out here in the Arctic wilderness the extraneous white noise of life – the ceaseless cacophony of banal urbanity - is filtered out. In its place, the great symphony of nature - the faint buzz of an insect’s wing, the light whoosh of feathers, the wind whispering through the grass, the roar of a distant river – brings an inner calm, a rare opportunity to readjust the vertical hold in one’s life, to take stock of what is truly important, what really matters. This trek was to be particularly cathartic for me as I had just suffered the loss of my father to cancer, and the void he had left in my life seemed too vast to contemplate. That we are trekking the Dag Hammarskjöldleden (Dag Hammarskjöld Way), a ‘pilgrimsleden’ named after a Swedish diplomat who died before his time, is somehow very fitting.

Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld (1905-1961) served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations from April 1953 until his sudden death in a plane crash in September 1961. Described by President Kennedy as 'the greatest statesman of our century', following his death a series of religious, spiritual and philosophical musings were discovered in  his New York apartment which were published posthumously as a collection named Vägmärken (Markings). Famous for quotes such as ‘the longest journey is the journey inwards’, in 2004 a 105 kilometre-long hiking trail between Abisko (where Hammarskjöld lived) and Nikkaluokta, was inaugurated to honour his memory. Along the trail which is intended to be a pilgrimage (‘a journey inwards’ perhaps?), are seven meditation sites with selected texts taken from Markings that are inscribed in stone in both Swedish and Sámi.

We are walking in the direction of a line of distant snow-covered peaks etched against a steel-grey sky which offer a stunning contrast to the rich tapestry of autumnal colours woven by the trees and shrubs – saffron-yellow, burnt-orange, cinnabar-red – which skirt the naked grey rock of the nearby hillsides. Our pace is brisk as we are en route to the shore of Lake Láddjujávri where we must arrive in time to catch the 1.30 pm boat that will take us across the lake, saving us about 6km of walking through boggy terrain. The trail which runs above the Láddjujohka River is surfaced with gravel for much of this section making walking easy and provides a great warm up for the days of trekking that lie ahead. A couple of kilometres from Nikkaluokta we encounter the first of many metal bridges that enable trekkers to safely cross the scores of ice cold rushing rivers in this region. The blue-green water framed by saffron-coloured trees is especially pleasing to the eye.

We arrive at the lake fifteen minutes or so before the boat leaves, and at a small wooden kiosk pay the 350 kroner each (35 euro) for the 20-30 minute trip. Unfortunately, being the very fag end of the season means we are to be denied the experience of a juicy ‘Lap Dånalds’ reindeer burger, the booth for which is now closed for the winter!

Lake Láddjujávri JettyLake Láddjujávri Jetty The boat cuts through the still surface of the chalky turquoise water like a knife through butter, bringing us closer to the mountains wreathed in cloud beneath leaden skies at the far end of the valley. As if on cue, the cloud lifts a little permitting views of Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain. Its name is derived from the Sámi Giebmegáisi which means ‘Cauldron Crest’. This mountain has two main peaks, of which the southern, glaciated one is highest at 2,097.5 metres above sea level (as of August 2014). The northern peak is 2,096.8 metres and free of ice. Due to the shrinkage of the glacier surrounding the southern peak, it is possible the northern peak will assume the title of the highest point in Sweden; as of summer 2016 the difference in altitude was just one foot. However, it’s the conical shape of Doulbagorni that really steals the show, resembling a hard-boiled egg with its top loped off; in the gaping glacial crater at its summit lies a yolk of pristine white snow.

Swedish mountains from Laddujavri LakeSwedish mountains from Laddujavri Lake At the far end of the lake, glacial sediment deposits have resulted in a maze of shallow channels and the boat carefully meanders its way around partially submerged sand banks colonised by dwarf willow, and up into the main river before coming to a halt at a small jetty.

The trail becomes far more rugged and stony hereafter as it weaves its way below the imposing fortress-like rock walls of Darfaloalagis and passes by the seventh and last meditation point along the Dag Hammarskjöldleden (if you were approaching from Abisko). The route then climbs gently towards the canyon cut by the Darfáljohka River which flows through the landscape like a thumping, throbbing artery.

Doulbagorni and the Darfáljohka RiverDoulbagorni and the Darfáljohka River Once past the suspension bridge over the canyon, the birch trees begin to thin out and are replaced by scrub. Here and there, patches of harebells cling on as memories of summer past, surrounded by ember-red leaves of bilberry and crowberry.

Trekking to Kebnekaise FjällstationTrekking to Kebnekaise Fjällstation

Late-afternoon, a wooden boardwalk brings us to the Kebnekaise Fjällstation, base camp for those climbing the mountain which bears its name, but which ironically cannot be seen from here. It is teeming with people, which strikes us as unusual for the time of year as there is less than a week to go before the station closes for the season.

Kebnekaise FjällstationKebnekaise Fjällstation The facilities here are excellent, with the usual well-stocked shop, climbing gear hire, sauna, bar area with an open fire, and a restaurant serving three course evening meals; craft beer aficionados will appreciate the wide range of Swedish and other beers on offer! Our buffet dinner includes a starter of reindeer soup with zingy lingonberry relish and/or cured meats, pickled herring, cheeses and a variety of salads, followed by poached salmon with seasonal root vegetables, and rounded off with a desert of raspberry and dark chocolate mousse. After a night cap in the bar in the gammalstugan (old cottage), we settle into our private two person dorm where, after the last shower we will have for a week, we sleep like logs.


In the Shadow of Behemoths: Kebnekaise to Singi (14km)

The next day does not appear to hold much promise weather-wise, and from our dorm window I can see that the nearby mountains, beribboned with snow, are partially shrouded in cloud. After a hearty breakfast, and hut chores complete, we hit the trail heading towards Singi and into the wilderness where our mobile signals soon die. Around here the birch and dwarf willow lie lower to the ground than those in the denser birch woodlands we passed through yesterday. Hunkered down to give a lower profile to the wind which in this northern corner of Europe often howls without mercy day and night, they are stunted and twisted. Eventually they thin out to nothing, and the raw beauty of the alpine tundra is laid out like an inviting blanket before us.

En route to Singi from KebnekaiseEn route to Singi from Kebnekaise We cross a metal bridge over a roaring river that leaps joyously down the hillside from a distant glacier in a series of small waterfalls. The trail leads on over great grey slabs of exposed rock, past boulders as big as houses, before entering the narrow Láddjuvággi Valley where it follows the bank of a river and becomes progressively rockier.

Waterfall near KebnekaiseWaterfall near Kebnekaise The mountains, Siŋŋičohkka, Liddubákti and Skarttoaivi with their huge, near-vertical walls of naked rock, rear upwards as if to challenge the sky itself, and from their craggy flanks waterfalls drift downwards like skeins of white silk. Passing below these 1,000 metre high rocky behemoths, I feel very small indeed.

All day the fine mist hanging in the air has threatened to give way to light rain, and finally it delivers. Cloud flows down from the mountaintops like liquid nitrogen, flooding the valley bottom with a ghostly-grey haze. Out here the sensation of soft rain on my face does not feel like an inconvenience, and I'm energised by its refreshing caress. We stop briefly to don our waterproof jackets and press on along the stony trail past pools and lakes of burnished silver, the still surfaces of which are blurred by the concentric rings of raindrops.

The ground rises gradually to the Singi Pass which provides the watershed for the valley. The rain has now stopped, the mist has dissipated somewhat and the sun is making an effort to peer through the cloud, enabling us to finally catch a glimpse of the wide Tjäktjavagge Valley. As we begin the descent towards Singi the landscape is less rugged and more undulating, and passes close to the shore of the ribbon-shaped Lake Liddubákti. Looking back, the jagged west ridge of Liddubákti now resembles an enormous pyramid, its ice-streaked slopes gleaming in the feeble autumn sunlight.

With this mountain riding the horizon, we decide to search for a place to camp in order to enjoy the view. About a kilometre above the Singi Hut we settle for a spot on a small plateau on the cushion-soft mossy tundra which has a small stream close by for water. In the broad valley bottom, I can see the wooden STF Singi Huts and several Sámi settlements which these days only hum with life at the annual round-up and marking of the reindeer calves in early summer.

Wild Camp above Singi Hut, SwedenWild Camp above Singi Hut, Sweden Sunset is a dull affair, the sun swallowed in a bank of thick grey cloud which spreads slowly across the sky with malevolent intent. There is to be no celestial light-show tonight and before long the percussive pattering of rain on canvas signals it’s time to crawl into our sleeping bags for the night.


Traipsing Through Tjäktjavagge: Singi to Sälka (12 km)

It rained on and off throughout the night and the morning dawns grey and overcast; mist is swirling in the valley below and the atmosphere is pregnant with rain. I feel somewhat reluctant to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag.

A steepish descent down off the plateau over a track of friable calcareous ground brings us to the Singi Hut. This is the point where the Dag Hammarskjöldleden meets the Kungsleden (King’s Way), a very popular 425 kilometre route running from Hemavan in the south to Abisko in the north. The hut is quite quiet with only a few days to go before it will close for the season. We hear the sound of someone chopping wood, the warden, and exchange a few words with him before availing of the toilets and hitting the trail which runs north through the broad bottom of the Tjäktjavagge Valley.

Singi HutSingi Hut As we gain height, skirting the slopes of Siŋŋičohkka, the view back down the valley towards Kaitumjaure is epic. The Tjäktjavagge River and numerous chilled-mercury lakes gleam fiercely under battleship-grey cloud which seems to bear down on the Singi Hut and the Sámi settlements which look diminutive set against the enormity of the landscape. Yet even on such a dull day the tundra is bursting with colour, and I marvel at a capillary of blood-red bilberry leaves fanned out against a steel-grey boulder mottled with pale green lichen.

Tjäktjavagge Valley and RiverTjäktjavagge Valley and River Autumnal bilberry leavesAutumnal bilberry leaves The trail sweeps round towards the emergency shelter at Kuopperjåkka above the Tjäktjavagge River which has braided into myriad channels which wriggle through the russet bog in the broad valley floor like scores of silver eels. It begins to rain lightly just as we approach the triangle-shaped wooden shelter which is equipped with a small wood burning stove, table and benches. We stop here for lunch. The rain has passed over by the time we hit the trail again, and after about a kilometre we cross the foaming, seething Guobirjohka River via a metal suspension bridge. The river, fed by meltwater from the Rabots Glacier on Kebnekaise, has carved quite a canyon here and the roar of its water as it squeezes through the narrow cleft of rock is exhilarating.

Suspension Bridge over the Guobirjohka RiverSuspension Bridge over the Guobirjohka River Cloud rests softly on the nearby mountain peaks like a cloth draped over pillows, smothering the views we would have had of the Rabots Glacier on Kebnekaise to the east. A cruel wind whistles down through the Čuhčavággi Valley to our west, sending us hurrying along towards one of the meditation points. Shortly after, we pass through a reindeer fence marking the boundary between two Sámi villages. One of the most rewarding sights in the Arctic is seeing the reindeer skipping across the open tundra. But today there is no sign of them and we trudge on, crossing a couple of new bridges over the Gaskkasjohka River which has split into two channels.

Eventually we spot the chocolate-brown huts at Sälka, built on a slight knoll above a brook flowing down from Stuor Reaiddavaggi and off the slopes of nearby Gaskkasnjunni which lies opposite Sälka Mountain, reflected in the still waters of a nearby lake fringed with orange reeds. Its glacier however, is lost in the cloud.

Sälka MountainSälka Mountain We pick a camping spot about 500 metres away from the huts close to a bend in the brook where we can source water for cooking. Again, the low cloud banishes any hope we have of seeing the northern lights, or indeed the Milky Way, and we retire to our tent before nightfall.


The High Point of the Trail: Sälka to Tjäktja (12 km)

As we break camp the sun is rising behind the mountains, bulldozing great warm avenues through the billowing clouds in a forget-me-not blue sky. The weather is hopefully about to change for the better. Sälka Hut has a small shop and we stop by for some supplies: drinking chocolate, sachets of coffee, a few extra packets of dried food and some salted liquorice (it’s impossible to visit Scandinavia without trying this!), before hitting the trial towards the Tjäktja Pass, which at 1,150 metres is the highest point along the Kungsleden.

Dawn at the Sälka HutDawn at the Sälka Hut The sun is warming our backs as we pass along a snaking boardwalk through whispering bog grass. With the improving weather, a multitude of spiders seems to have flooded the tundra. Clutching their snare strings tightly which shimmer and tremble as we pass by on the wooden boardwalk, they flee ahead of our footfall.

A pair of trekkers in the Tjäktjavagge ValleyA pair of trekkers in the Tjäktjavagge Valley The trail begins to climb gradually bringing us to a sweeping plateau studded with lakes. Great mats of lemming droppings are strewn across the bare patches of ground where we stop for lunch in the shelter of a bank of moraine, but they do not make an appearance. We watch cloud gambolling over the bald mountaintops and huge shafts of light radiating down through the breaks in the churning cloud. The pewter-grey lakes glare lividly in the autumn light. Far off in the direction of Sälka great curtains of rain are falling, an ethereal sight backlit by the sunlight.

Lakes in the Tjäktjavagge Valley, SwedenLakes in the Tjäktjavagge Valley, Sweden The trail continues to rise gently weaving its way alongside the Tjäktjavagge River which in places forms pretty deep blue lakes. As the valley narrows towards the pass, the cold air sinking down from the Tjäktjatjåkka Glacier condenses as it meets the warmer air in the valley, causing cloud to pour downslope like a fluid. A shimmering rainbow hanging in a majestic arch is reflected in the still surface of one of the lakes, adding a touch of sheer magic.

Tjäktjavagge Valley RainbowTjäktjavagge Valley Rainbow The trail now climbs steeply up to the pass. Near the top we stop at the fourth mediation spot which offers grandstand views down over the valley we have just traversed. The panorama hits me square between the eyes as if an invisible fist has punched me. My world is abruptly catapulted into wide angle, my eyeballs stretched around vast spaces. The landscape is very much like the Highlands of Scotland. The mountains share the same geology, the land has undergone the same glacial transformations and the flora and fauna bears similarities. But here in Arctic Sweden everything is amplified; the mountains are bigger, the corries still hold ice – remnants of the last glacial age - and the sense of isolation and solitude is profound. I close my eyes, stretch out my arms, and exhale. Sheer bliss.

Fourth meditation point on the Dag HammarskjöldledenFourth meditation point on the Dag Hammarskjöldleden Twenty minutes later we arrive at the Tjäktja Pass. A hut and an outhouse are perched on an exposed rocky shelf above a small pool. We go inside out of the wind to celebrate gaining the highest point on our 105 kilometre trek with a nip of Norwegian Linie from our hip-flasks.

Tjäktja Pass (1,150m) highest point on the KungsledenTjäktja Pass (1,150m) highest point on the Kungsleden The terrain on the other side of the pass is completely different: a barren lunar landscape of shattered grey rock interspersed with wiry grass, now weary and desiccated in the approach to winter. Here and there amid the chaotic tumble of glacial debris we spot Glacier crowfoot (Ranunculus glacialis), a white buttercup-like flower, quivering on delicate stalks. Long stretches of boardwalk relieve the monotony of walking over angular boulders and before long we spot the Tjäktja Huts.

Barren landscape near the Tjäktja PassBarren landscape near the Tjäktja Pass A metal suspension bridge over a small river canyon containing a spectacular waterfall brings us to the warden’s hut. We decide to camp and find a level spot some 200 metres away with grandstand views down over the Alisvággi Valley. This is the highest hut on the Kungsleden and with the sky now virtually clear, it’s decidedly chilly up here. Large crescents of dirty snow still cling to the river canyon walls below our camping spot, and as the sun slips behind the imposing sheer cliffs of Lulip Muorahisčohkka above our camp site, the wind picks up and the mercury plummets.

I flee into our tent as the first stars begin to wink in the purple firmament. Sipping a hot chocolate and nursing a Nalgene bottle of hot water to keep me warm, I lie in my sleeping bag with the tent flaps open as the Milky Way soars overhead and ethereal and eerie faint green luminous light begins to shimmer across the heavens. Billowing and swaying, stretching and undulating, the Northern Lights rise and fall in mesmerising intensity for almost two hours before, as suddenly as they had arrived, they vanish. With the sight of this celestial light show which is on every traveller’s bucket list indelibly seared onto my eyeballs, I fall fast asleep in smug contentment. Wild Camping under the Northern Lights, Kungsleden, SwedenWild Camping under the Northern Lights, Kungsleden, Sweden


Over the Mountain Moors: Tjäktja to Alesjaure (13 km)

I’m woken by the cold tent skin touching my face. The canvas is hard and heavy. As I raise myself up on my elbows I hear the tinkle of ice breaking and sliding off. I am thankful for my four season sleeping bag and down booties which shielded me from the savage cold of last night. Although the wind has subsided, our tent is thickly silvered with frost and our boots are frozen stiff in the porch as winter’s frigid fist has begun to tighten its grip across the land which is steel hard and hoary with frost. But the sun saves the day for now. It finally swans up over the ridge opposite our tent, flooding the autumn landscape with gorgeous golden light, bringing instant warmth which sends Jack Frost fleeing.

Wild Camp at Tjäktja, SwedenWild Camp at Tjäktja, Sweden As we hit the trail that descends fairly steeply at first into the Alisvággi Valley, we tread carefully to avoid areas of black ice, betrayed only by hypnotic patterns of water flowing slowly underneath. Trekking the Dag Hammarskjöldleden the opposite way around means that we avoid the harder, steeper slog up to the Tjäktja Pass from the Abisko direction which would be tough carrying a heavy pack. It also means you are not walking into the sun each day.

Tjäktja Hut, Kungsleden, SwedenTjäktja Hut, Kungsleden, Sweden After about 3 kilometres, the ground levels a little near a reindeer guard cabin sitting forlornly out in the tundra. The view up a side valley to the west which boasts a series of lakes strung out like a dazzling sapphire necklace is delightful.

Heading towards the distinctive brown hulk of Bossosváráš, we cross several shallow rivers, some without bridges or boardwalks, then peer up the lonely Bossosjohka Valley where mountains upon mountains line up in icy splendour, before coming to the large metal suspension bridge over the Bossosjohka River. The deep bellow from this milky-green river full of suspended glacial silt belies the deep canyon it has bitten down into the rocky plateau.

River crossing, Kungsleden, SwedenRiver crossing, Kungsleden, Sweden Bossosjohka Valley, Kungsleden, SwedenBossosjohka Valley, Kungsleden, Sweden

Just past this we climb up to the third mediation spot on the Dag Hammarskjöldleden, located on a rocky promontory giving sweeping views down over the braided Aliseatnu River and its extensive russet wetlands studded with scores of blue lakes. While the lower mountain slopes wear a rich cloak of tawny-brown, the grey peaks away to the northeast are each crowned with a headdress of gleaming ice. Little wonder these are known as the Abisko Alps. Far off in the distance I can see the Alesjaure Hut perched high on a rocky shelf. Trekking through the Alisvággi Valley, Kungsleden, SwedenTrekking through the Alisvággi Valley, Kungsleden, Sweden

Hereafter, the walking across flat brushwood moorland is very easy. But in the clear arctic air it can be difficult to judge distances accurately and the hut is deceptively farther away than it appears. A large metal suspension bridge over the narrow channel where the Aliseatnu River leaves the wetland delta system to flow into Lake Alisjávri eventually brings us to the pathway leading up to the hut. This is surely one of STF’s most spectacularly placed on the whole Kungsleden. Perched high on a promontory between Lake Alisjávri and the Alisvággi Valley, the views in all directions are just jaw-dropping.

Alesjaure Hut, Kungsleden, SwedenAlesjaure Hut, Kungsleden, Sweden

Looking back up through the valley, the rounded mountains on the west are not as high as those on the east – Unna Visttasčohkka, Påssutjåkka and Gaskačohkka - which line up behind each other. To the north is Lake Alisjávri, an indigo-blue ribbon of water which stretches for many kilometres, and to its northeast are the gleaming crushed diamond-dust of glaciers clutching at Njuikkostak which seem to scrape at the azure blue sky. Almost opposite the hut and hugging the shoreline beneath Visttasvárri is the Sámi settlement of Alisjávri, its windows glinting in the low sun angle of late afternoon. It’s ghostly quiet there now, but the place comes to life once a year at the annual round-up and marking of the reindeer calves in early summer.

View of Alisvággi Valley from the Alesjaure Hut, SwedenView of Alisvággi Valley from the Alesjaure Hut, Sweden Tonight we decide to stay in the hut with half a dozen other trekkers, mainly Scandinavian. We raid the well-stocked shop and our haul includes fresh eggs, salami sticks and chilled beer which are greedily consumed after days of freeze-dried food!

Across the lake, long shadows encroach over the deserted settlement of Alisjávri, and as dusk falls I spy two rough-legged buzzards in a nearby valley circling in rose-tinted columns of cloud that are slowly churning in the setting sun. After dinner we are sitting around the wood burning stove in the candlelit mess sipping hot chocolate when from a window we spy tell-tale luminous green trails streaking across the sky from the north. We rush outside to witness an amazing aurora display which flashes across the star-strewn sky and floods the surface of Lake Alisjávri with an eerie green hue. After only about 20 minutes it suddenly disappears, which is just as well as the deep-freezer cold has seeped into my very bones and I cannot feel my feet!

Northern Lights over Lake AlisjávriNorthern Lights over Lake Alisjávri


The Sound of Waves: Alesjaure to Rádujávri (8 km)

As I make my way to the toilet block, my shadow falls long across the frozen ground bathed in the soft amber glow of the newly risen sun. The air is clear, cool and refreshing and it promises to be another gorgeous day for trekking. Right now I can think of nowhere I’d rather be.

Early morning at Alesjaure Hut, Kungsleden, SwedenEarly morning at Alesjaure Hut, Kungsleden, Sweden

Having made the decision not to trek the 21km to the next hut at Abiskojaure, opting instead to wild camp somewhere near the emergency shelter at Rádujávri, we’re in no hurry to hit the trail this morning.

The first part of the route offers easy walking close to the shore of Lake Alisjávri and passes several small inviting beaches. We simply can’t resist walking along the shoreline enjoying the gratifying crunch of our boots on the smooth pebbles and the sound of the tiny crystalline waves lapping ashore.

Pebbly beach at Lake Alisjávri, Kungsleden, SwedenPebbly beach at Lake Alisjávri, Kungsleden, Sweden

A little farther on across the lake we spot the impressive Fantomen Falls, a silver tear-track on the wrinkled face of Visttasvárri. Sections of the trail hereabouts are muddy, and dwarf willow festooned with soft fluffy down as incandescent as candle flame in the strong sunlight, encroaches on sections of boardwalk. Next year’s precious seed is sent on its way in the gentlest of breezes as we brush by.  

We soon encounter the sun-bleached upright timbers of a conical Sámi lavvu constructed close to a small wooden jetty. From 1 July to 31 August, scheduled boat tours leave here for the Alesjaure Hut at a price of 350 knoner per person (35 euro), which saves trekkers six kilometres of walking. 

Frame of a Sámi lavvu at Lake AlisjávriFrame of a Sámi lavvu at Lake Alisjávri Just past here the trail takes us close to a small series of rapids, a loom of liquid silver, that form the boundary between the lakes of Alisjávri and Rádujávri. Crimson-red bearberries, deep-purple crowberries and midnight-blue bilberries pepper the shrubbery near the trail and we pause to help ourselves to nature’s bounty. A handful of stunted birch trees struggle to thrive at this altitude. Their golden leaves set against the cerulean-blue sky seem to honour the colours of the Swedish flag.

Eventually we spot the emergency shelter above Lake Rádujávri. We decide not to search for a camping spot near here, preferring a site with slightly more elevation for photography, and we leave the trail to bushwhack uphill though dwarf willow. On a shelf of rock with pillow-soft mosses and lichens, we find the perfect spot offering grandstand views down over Rádujávri. Opposite are the three peaks of Miesákčohkkas, great knuckles of grey rock thrusting skywards, with the conical peak of Kåtotjåkka gleaming pearl-white behind and the Godu Glacier just visible through the cloud.

Wild Camping above Lake Rádujávri, Kungsleden, SwedenWild Camping above Lake Rádujávri, Kungsleden, Sweden

Close by is a small crystal-clear brook of the sweetest glacial water imaginable and in our search for a level spot to pitch our tent, we discover scores of juicy pale-apricot cloudberries. With our tent erected, we raid nature’s larder enjoying the zingy, tangy berries before our freeze-dried dinner.

Cloudberries, SwedenCloudberries, Sweden

Wild Camping on the Kungsleden, Sweden, in our Terra Nova Voyager LiteWild Camping on the Kungsleden, Sweden, in our Terra Nova Voyager Lite By degrees the sun sinks in the western sky and the cloud racing up over the nearest peak of Miesákčohkkas changes from warm-apricot to pomegranate-pink as the water of Lake Rádujávri turns from inky-blue to the colour of obsidian.

Sunset over Miesákčohkkas, Kungsleden, SwedenSunset over Miesákčohkkas, Kungsleden, Sweden Sipping Linie from our hip-flasks to keep warm, we wait expectantly for another magnificent aurora display as the first pin pricks of stars begin to shimmer in the indigo sky. But patchy cloud is creeping stealthily from the west, eventually obscuring our views of the Milky Way. Tonight aurora activity is low with only a faint green smudge gracing the northern sky, and with a cruel wind blowing down from the nearby mountains, I’m happy to retire to my sleeping bag.  


A Chill Wind Blows: Rádujávri to Abiskojaure (13 km)

I reluctantly emerge from my sleeping bag this morning to find our tent yet again bespeckled with flecks of ice. Freezing fog has pooled in the valley bottom and the wind bears an icy chill, signalling its intent to carry snow. By the time we break camp, it’s sleeting. A gaggle of geese fly overhead straight as an arrow. I watch them recede from view over the nearby mountaintops heading south to warmer climes, knowing that winter’s cruel embrace is fast approaching. When the first snowfall visits this riotously colourful landscape, which is now only a matter of a few weeks away, the pyrotechnic show will cease and it will be smothered, mummified in a powdery silence.

A grey dawn over Lake Alisjávri, Kungsleden, SwedenA grey dawn over Lake Alisjávri, Kungsleden, Sweden Great columns of steel-grey mist churn above lakes of chilled mercury periodically illuminated by bright lances of sunlight as we once more join the trail where patches of sly ice lie in wait on the sections of boardwalk, and we must take care not to slip.

Cloudy morn at Lake RádujávriCloudy morn at Lake Rádujávri Passing through a section of elevated wind-blasted alpine tundra we spot a grouse feather snagged amid the stunted bilberry. We have seen very little fauna on this visit and are lamenting the lack of reindeer when, as if by magic, a herd of around a dozen makes an appearance close to the lake’s edge below us. Safely downwind from them, we watch them skipping across the tundra, moving ever closer to where we lie out of sight close to the ground. They pass by blissfully unaware of our presence until they are only some 50 metres from us. A beautiful brown and white bull reindeer with a magnificent set of antlers senses our presence, stops and stares intently at us, before bounding away briskly with a horde of females in his wake.

Reindeer, Kungsleden, SwedenReindeer, Kungsleden, Sweden Not long after our sighting, we cross the reindeer fence between the Sámi settlements of Gabna and Laevas by way of a wooden stile. The trail then traverses a bleak wind-blasted brushwood moor comprised of crowberry shrubs, dwarf birch and osiers before it begins to descend towards Lake Ábeskojávri. The birch trees resplendent in their autumn gaiety gradually reappear. Close to the second meditation spot on the Dag Hammarskjöldleden we spy the silver glint of a river in the broad valley bottom, and the mirror-like flash of Lake Ábeskojávri.

Autumn birch forests, Kungsleden, SwedenAutumn birch forests, Kungsleden, Sweden

View over Lake Ábeskojávri on the Kungsleden, SwedenView over Lake Ábeskojávri on the Kungsleden, Sweden After a steep decent to the valley floor, we cross over the seething, foaming Šiellajohka River by a metal suspension bridge and then encounter a sign delineating the Abisko National Park. Established in 1909, camping is not permitted inside the park away from specially designated areas, and crossing a wide tract of marshland via a boardwalk, we make for the Abiskojaure Hut on the shore of Lake Ábeskojávri.

Marchland in the Abisko National Park, SwedenMarchland in the Abisko National Park, Sweden We soon reach the channel where the Kamajåkka River flows into Lake Ábeskojávri, and crossing another metal suspension bridge we arrive on a small rocky knoll. It’s not immediately clear to us where the trial goes, so we follow our noses. The sweet perfume of wood smoke hangs in the air like incense emanating from a temple, guiding us to the Abiskojaure Hut where we seek out the warden.

Suspension bridge over the Kamajåkka River, Kungsleden, SwedenSuspension bridge over the Kamajåkka River, Kungsleden, Sweden Our stay coincides with the last night that this hut is open, and we share the facilities with a mere handful of very convivial trekkers from across Europe. This hut, like the previous one at Alesjaure, is well-provisioned (by helicopter) and we feast on cheese-filled tortellini, salami and beer!

There is also a sauna here, and as I’m demolishing my dinner I spy four naked Finns emerge from it, their flushed pink flesh glowing in the early evening sunshine as they gingerly run down to the lake to plunge themselves into the cold water. A chill runs down my spine at the mere thought! After lighting the wood burning stove in our dorm, I retire to my bunk bed to read. But woozy from a few cans of beer, I fall asleep almost at once.


A River Runs Through it: Abiskojaure to Abisko (14 km)

As I step outside the hut, the cold hits me like a sledgehammer and my breath is white in the still and frigid dawn air. Last night was surely the coldest yet and the faint trail leading to the lakeshore is frozen solid and white with hoar frost. There is barely a ripple on the pan flat surface of the water, above which a thin layer of translucent-white mist is slowly forming. The reflection of snow-crested Kåtotjåkka wedged between the surrounding peaks of Giron and Gárdenvárri and glowing sugar-pink in the dawn light, shimmers in the inky stillness like a mirage.

Dawn at Lake Ábeskojávri, SwedenDawn at Lake Ábeskojávri, Sweden We hit the trail through the beautiful riparian splendour of the Abisko National Park while it is still in shadow. The pale brown path that was rutted by scores of footprints in the soggy summer is now frozen and hard enough to twist an ankle. In each depression is a small frozen puddle. By the side of the path the vegetation is silvered, the ice-kissed crimson bearberries picked out against the deep cool-blueness of frosted heath. But on the opposite side of the valley the sun has made an appearance and the reflections of the birch forests glowing amber and gold shine lie like sheets of burnished brass on the inky-blue surface of the lake.

Autumn morning at Lake Ábeskojávri, SwedenAutumn morning at Lake Ábeskojávri, Sweden

Frozen berries in a Swedish autumnFrozen berries in a Swedish autumn The sun eventually erupts over the shoulder of nearby Giron and we immediately feel the warmth of its rays. After several kilometres the lake ends and we follow the deep blue Abiskojåkka River through glorious birch forests interspersed with scattered stands of pine. Ahead of me, a single golden leaf pirouettes down an invisible spiral of breeze as if making its final dance to the soft loamy bosom of Mother Earth rendered damp by last night’s melted frost. I scent the coming winter in the air.

Abiskojåkka River, Abisko National Park, SwedenAbiskojåkka River, Abisko National Park, Sweden A rest area with a toilet and lean-to is soon encountered near the outwash plain of the Nissonjohka River which has left an enormous cone of melt-water debris. A new metal suspension bridge takes us over one of the now virtually dry main channels of this river.  

Soon after we encounter the junction of the Abiskojåkka with the Kårsajåkka, and the river instantly assumes a bolder persona, throbbing and pulsating through the forest with a strident roar. The first, or in our case, final, mediation point on the Dag Hammarskjöldleden is dramatically sited on a small knoll of dolomite marble which was quarried nearby in the early twentieth century.

Confluence of the  junction of the Abiskojåkka and Kårsajåkka RiversConfluence of the junction of the Abiskojåkka and Kårsajåkka Rivers The pièce de résistance along this section of the trail must surely be the stunning canyon carved by the Abiskojåkka River. Warm bands of honey-coloured rock contrast with the aquamarine body of rushing water as it funnels its way between the narrow cliffs of the canyon with a deafening roar. We sit glued to the spot for ages, drinking in the majesty of the scene.

Abisko GorgeAbisko Gorge But all too soon we are walking towards the wooden entrance portal that marks the beginning (or end) of both the Kunglsleden and the Dag Hammarskjöldleden. As always, the completion of a trek is greeted with a mixture of elation tinged with regret. Elation at having successfully completed what you had set out to achieve; regret that such a wonderful, life affirming experience has come to an end.

Entrance/Exit point of the Kungsleden, Abisko, SwedenEntrance/Exit point of the Kungsleden, Abisko, Sweden To get to the Abisko Fjällstation we must cross the E10, an arterial route between Sweden and Norway. As we approach the road, the sound of an oncoming vehicle assaults my ears. The Volvo estate is the first car we have seen or heard for over a week, and I am stunned by the amount of noise it makes as it thunders its way past us on the highway. The insidious white noise of modern life begins to creep back in. I can’t say I’m impressed.

It was Scottish-American naturalist and author, John Muir, who stated, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity…”. This holds as true today as it did when he uttered those words well over a century ago. If you don’t believe me, go and walk the Dag Hammarskjöldleden and find out…

Watch the video of our trek in HD on Vimeo:



We flew to Kiruna with SAS via Stockholm from Dublin and used the highly efficient local buses to get from Kiruna to Nikkaluokta and from Abisko back to Kiruna. We stayed at the STF Kiruna Hostel which is a ten minute walk from the town centre. As STF members, we received a discount at all STF huts.

We carried a 2-person Terra Nova Voyager Lite tent with ground sheet, 4 season Rab sleeping bags, Thermarest sleeping mats, small light-weight stools, stove and camping gas (and a back-up titanium Honey wood-burning stove), Light my Fire kit, kettle, titanium spoons and mugs, water bladders, small lamp, head-torches, personal hygiene items, loo roll and trowel, first aid kit, Expedition Foods freeze dried meals x12, snack bars, sachets of coffee/drinking chocolate, a hip-flask of spirit (each!!!), plus woollen base layers for sleeping in, down booties, spare underwear/socks/clothing, waterproof trousers and jacket, two pairs of gloves and hat, in 65 and 70 litre Osprey Packs.

A map, compass, camera equipment and batteries were carried separately, as was a GPS and DeLorme Satellite communicator in case of emergency. Our packs weighed roughly 17 and 22 kilos respectively. The huts at Kebnekaise, Sälke, Alesjaure and Abiskojaure have shops where supplies can be replenished.

[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) arctic dag hammarskjöldleden europe sweden trekking wild camping wilderness https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/12/off-grid-in-arctic-sweden-trekking-the-dag-hammarskj-ldleden Fri, 15 Dec 2017 19:12:35 GMT
Trekking in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia: Sojourn in Svaneti https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/11/trekking-in-the-caucasus-mountains-of-georgia-sojourn-in-svaneti Adishi GlacierAdishi GlacierIncredible views down over the Adishi Glacier make the climb worthwhile We begin our final trek in Svaneti in the north west of Georgia, famous for its medieval stone towers which each stand sentinel over a cluster of balconied houses enclosed by defensive walls. The Svans are an ethnic subgroup of the Georgians and have their own unwritten language. Alluvial gold was once won from the mountain streams around Mestia by using sheepskins, giving rise to the ‘Golden Fleece’ legend. In the past the Svaneti region had something of a reputation for lawlessness; people were unused to outsiders and with numerous brigands roaming about, trekkers were sometimes robbed. But all that changed during the investment of the Saakashvili years, the region has opened up, and homestays have sprung up in even the remotest villages to cater to passing tourists. We are headed for Ushguli over 60km away from Mestia, the commercial hub of the region, and will be stopping at rural homestays en route, so we are carrying lighter packs for this multi-day trek.

We arrive in Mestia after a highly memorable journey from Tbilisi to Zugdidi by sleeper train which dates from the Soviet era. The temperature in Tbilisi was in the low-40s and incredibly humid, so it was hotter than Hades to begin with, but perishingly cold in the hour before the dawn and no blankets were provided, just a thin paper sheet! Our private carriage had long couch seats upholstered in claret velvet, and the narrow corridor was patrolled by a colossal uniformed lady with her hair scraped back in a bun. It was like something out of a Cold War spy thriller and at any moment I expected the door to our carriage to fly open and James Bond to be standing there holding a pistol! The three-hour journey from Zugdidi seemed far longer than it was in a cramped, breathless and very uncomfortable marshrutka which sped along the bendy mountain roads in the mother of all thunderstorms.

Sleeper train from Tbilisi to ZugdidiSleeper train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi Mestia is a curious blend of old and new, with all the tell-tale signs of recent development in its architecturally ‘innovative’ new buildings, some of which have been funded by the EU. This has arguably started to erode its distinctiveness and its main street has begun to resemble any other honeypot Alpine ski resort with its trendy après ski bars and expensive clothes shops, although the back streets where animals roam freely retain their authenticity. However, unbridled development throughout Svaneti could end up killing the goose that laid the golden egg, as the region has been inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage Site List because it is an exceptional example of mountain scenery with medieval-type villages and tower-houses and this is what draws many tourists.

MestiaMestia The morning is muggy after the thunderstorms of yesterday and a feeble sun picks at a slit in the ashen cloud rumbling about the valley as we head out of town. The steepish climb over the first pass traverses a mixture of meadows with knee-high wild flowers and wooded glens with impressive views down over the braided Mestiachala River and soaring peaks of the surrounding mountains gripped firmly by clutching fingers of glacial ice.

Mestia to Chvabiani trailMestia to Chvabiani trail After climbing some 500 metres we are greeted by the sight of another long valley dotted with tiny villages which sweeps up to the jagged snow crested peaks of the High Caucasus. The milky-grey Mulkhara River runs through it. We head for Chvabiani, one of the farthest of these settlements.

The Mulkhara River valleyThe Mulkhara River valley The trail weaves its way past villages bristling with tall towers, some of which show signs of imminent collapse. We pass right through Zhamushi where many of the old houses with wooden balconies are virtually falling down and some are mere shells. Bees buzz round scores of hives, pigs roam through the narrow village lanes, chickens scatter in all directions, and cows low in the flower-strewn meadows. It’s idyllic, but farming here is hard work for there is little mechanisation, and we spot a man and woman busy building a hayrick with pitchforks, while others are hoeing vegetable plots enclosed by wooden palisade fences.

Village in the Mulkhara ValleyVillage in the Mulkhara Valley It’s late afternoon and threatening rain when we finally cross the roaring Mulkhura River via a rickety wooden bridge and walk up a stone-walled muddy lane to Chvabiani where we are staying at Maia’s Guesthouse. Her son greets us warmly in passable English and we are led into a gated compound which includes a double-storied house with a large wooden balcony. A crumbling tower stands in a nearby field beneath which cows are contentedly grazing. Maia, a big hearted woman with a broad smile and a pair of mischievous brown eyes, brings us cold beers and in faltering Russian we manage to communicate. She informs us that dinner will be served in an adjoining building at seven. I warm to her at once.

Bridge over the Mulkhara RiverBridge over the Mulkhara River

After queueing for the only shower (there’s a family of four and two other couples staying here), we head for the dining room. Maia is in ebullient mood and immediately seizes on me to help her make kubdari (bread stuffed with meat, onion and Georgian spices), the signature dish of Svaneti. I’m soon handling the dough like a pro and she’s very impressed. The kitchen is filled with giggles as an assortment of her young grandchildren arrive to see me helping her.

Dinner is scrumptious and plentiful, made from home grown grains and vegetables and includes a herb-based soup, home-produced cheese, salads and my kubdari! Maia’s son arrives with some homemade cha-cha, the local firewater, which is something like grappa. This is a special variety, flavoured with honey from their own beehives. Never one to refuse such wonderful hospitality, with a hearty ‘Zazdarovje’ I knock back a small glass of the amber liquid. Maia fills it immediately with a wicked grin, and I imbibe once more to her squeals of laughter. I then point to an empty glass and suggest that she has one too. Arms linked, we knock back our glasses with great merriment. ‘Another’? No, Maia has other plans for me, as she leads me from the house by the arm across the darkening yard towards a cattle shed. She fetches a small stool and motions me to sit down. I then realise that I’m about to milk a cow for the first time in my life!

Drinking cha-chaDrinking cha-cha The docile animal is brought forward and taking an udder in each hand, Maia shows me what to do. Jets of milk shoot forth immediately into a bucket as she rapidly and rhythmically pulls on them. She makes it look easy, but it most certainly isn’t and all my efforts are virtually in vain as I manage just a dribble in the bottom of the bucket much to Maia’s amusement! I leave her to it, and slope off to bed, head full of cha-cha…

Milking my first cow at Maia's Guesthouse in ChvabianiMilking my first cow at Maia's Guesthouse in Chvabiani It rained heavily in the night and the morning dawns cool and grey and the nearby mountains are snuggled under a thick duvet of white cloud. After a hearty breakfast of porridge, bread, cheese, honey, fruit and salad, we bid a fond farewell to Maia and her son and begin the ascent out of the village for the 13 km trek to the next village, Adishi.

Chvabiani Village in the Mulkhara ValleyChvabiani Village in the Mulkhara Valley The trail that climbs steeply for over 700 metres through forest up to a dirt road servicing the new Tetnuldi Ski Resort isn’t well-marked and we stray off it more than once into slippery deeply runneled ground and dense thickets of rhododendron. Soft rain patters on our jackets and a million tiny raindrops shine like jewels on the horse-heal (Elecampane) growing in the meadows in the forest clearings. My left leg begins to give me some discomfort due to a suspected trapped nerve and I’m glad when we hit the dirt road just down from the ski station which is still being constructed.

Caucasian mountain sunflowersCaucasian mountain sunflowers By the time we climb a further 200 metres to reach the meandering trail that will take us from the road down to Adishi, the sun has made an appearance bathing the wet landscape in brilliant light. The rich meadow pasture all around us is a dazzling, buzzing insect carpet full of white ox-eye daisies, candy-pink snakeweed, scented lemon lilies, pink pyrethrum, mauve geraniums, flame-orange marigolds, speedwell blue forget-me-nots and saffron horse-heal.

The Tviberi and Dzinali GlaciersThe Tviberi and Dzinali Glaciers

Pink pyrethrumPink pyrethrum You don’t really see Adhisi, a remote village which is virtually cut off by snow for around six months of the year, until you are almost on top of it. Perched on a sloping hillside above the Adishchala River, I count around ten towers sprouting from amid the red corrugated roofs of nougat-coloured stone houses. It looks picture postcard perfect set against the backdrop of cloud draped mountains with a watery rainbow shimmering overhead.

AdishiAdishiThe remote mountain village of Adishi is cut off by snow for around six months in winter We find Elizabeth’s Guesthouse at the bottom end of the village, a large, somewhat ramshackle but characterful two-storied blue painted wooden house, the front of which is dominated by scores of small windows. Many guesthouses seem to be run and named after their female proprietors, for in Georgian society women have always had the role of both breadwinner and housewife. Elizabeth, our very affable hostess who speaks some English, shows us up an incredibly steep and rickety staircase to a room with bare floorboards on the second floor containing a large, sagging double bed, two single metal bedsteads and an enormous ancient-looking wardrobe. There are even made up single beds on the wide landing outside our room and the place is packed to the rafters with at least a dozen other trekkers.

Elizabeth's GuesthouseElizabeth's Guesthouse Downstairs on the veranda where the dinner table is being set, a small black lamb is skipping about and seems to enjoy being the centre of attention among several other trekkers. However, it soon disgraces itself by peeing all over the floor! None of the Georgians bats an eyelid, but one or two Europeans look on aghast! These village folk are used to living cheek by jowl with their livestock and they aren’t very fussy about hygiene. With only one shower in our part of the building we have to wait to wash as seems to be the norm in these homestays.

Dinner here is excellent consisting of a hearty soup containing huge pieces of tender chicken, followed by bread, mixed salads and potato fritters with herbs, washed down with cold Georgian beer. It’s dark when we retire to our room. From our window we spy the mere sliver of a moon soar from behind the nearby hills, and after the noise from neighbouring rooms abates, we drift soundly off to sleep.

I’m awoken by the loud lowing of a cow. The unsettled weather of yesterday has passed over, there isn’t a cloud in the unbelievably blue sky and it promises to be a scorcher. In one corner of the yard outside is the very rustic-looking kitchen where Elizabeth's aunt and grandmother wearing ankle socks, aprons and headscarves are busy cooking over a wood fire, the smoke of which perfumes the still morning air. Breakfast is delicious and I demolish a great doorstop of cheesy khachapuri (the best by far of those we have sampled), fried potatoes, homemade cheese and yoghurt and a tasty salad with herbs, washed down with a homemade fruit kompot.

The 20km trail to the next village, Iprali, begins near Elizabeth's house and runs up the valley parallel to the river. To walk through Adishi’s narrow maze of streets where pigs, cows and chickens roam freely amid a jumble of dilapidated houses with wonky wooden verandas is like stepping back to medieval times.

AdishiAdishi As we walk along the valley, the views back towards Adhisi are magnificent, while ahead, the dazzling snow-capped summits of some of Svaneti’s most significant summits fill our field of vision: Mount Shkhara, Georgia’s highest mountain, over 5,000 metres high; Ushba, dubbed the Matterhorn of the Caucasus because of its distinctive spire-shaped double summit; the pyramid-shaped Mount Tetnuldi. We can see the beginning of the route up the ridge that we have to pass over to reach the neighbouring valley, but first we must cross the Adishchala River.

Adishi villageAdishi villageSurrounded by the high Caucasus the Svan village of Adishi has around a dozen medieval towers and is a great place to overnight

View towards the Adishi GlacierView towards the Adishi Glacier Elizabeth told us to look out for her brother who has a horse on which he will convey us across the river for a couple of euro. He soon hails us as we approach the rushing milky grey river which is coming straight off the Adhisi Glacier, a huge wall of sloping ice which dominates the end of the valley. With my backpack and walking poles safely stowed on the saddle, I mount the horse and Elizabeth’s brother hops on behind.

Adishchala RiverAdishchala River The horse wades slowly into the swiftly flowing torrent, carefully negotiating the river cobbles that lie below. I’m glad that we didn’t have to wade this river as the water is freezing, fast flowing, and at waist height in its deepest section.

River Crossing Georgian styleRiver Crossing Georgian styleCrossing the Adishchala River on horseback Both safely across, we begin the 500 metre climb up to the Chkhunderi Pass (2655m). It’s viciously steep in places, gruelling in the heat and humidity, and the horseflies are pestilential. But the bird’s eye view of the Adishi Glacier with its rushing waterfall and the peaks of the Caucasian Mountain chain are absolutely stunning.  I am aghast at the mountains’ raw physicality. Serrated fins of rock thrust up from gleaming glaciers and great fingers of ice like arthritic hands claw their way to the verdant valley bottoms.

Beginning of the steep climb out of the Adishi ValleyBeginning of the steep climb out of the Adishi Valley

Near the top of the trail leading up from the Adishchala RiverNear the top of the trail leading up from the Adishchala River Adishchala River and Adishi  ValleyAdishchala River and Adishi Valley

After a short rest we begin the very steep descent towards Iprali. My left leg is now incredibly sore and I find the gradient punishing as we plough on downwards through glorious flower-strewn alpine meadows to the Khaldechala River.

View over the Svaneti RangeView over the Svaneti Range Lilium szovitsianum (Lily)Lilium szovitsianum (Lily) Suddenly, a huge slab of snow and ice detaches itself from the Zaresho-Khalde Glacier and tumbles at great speed down the mountain in clouds of ghastly white before crashing into the valley below. The sound, a gut-churning rumble, reaches us shortly after the event and the silence that follows is spine chilling.

Avalanche off the Zaresho-Khalde GlacierAvalanche off the Zaresho-Khalde Glacier Although the terrain is benign, a grassy pathway for most of the way, I’m making a real meal of it and the thought of hobbling on to Iprali is unthinkable. So it’s a relief to spot the Khalde Guesthouse, literally the only un-abandoned house in a crumbling old village, which is run by one of Elizabeth’s cousins and has a reputation for selling good cold beer! Fortunately, the old lady who runs it, clad in a black headscarf and long black dress, has a room for us. Her kindly husband whose face is the colour of tanned leather, lights a wood burning stove to heat up some hot water for us to take a much-needed shower.

The beer taken on the patio outside tastes divine and I enjoy resting in the cool evening air as the sun slips down behind the nearby mountains. As dusk falls, we eat dinner with a few other trekkers – Austrian, French, Bulgarian and Russian - who are excellent company. The food is good too - the usual fare of soup, khachapuri, a variety of salads, fried potatoes and homemade cheese, and we sit around talking until quite late, toasting trekking in Georgia over numerous glasses of cha-cha.

Khalde GuesthouseKhalde Guesthouse Next morning, I’m sipping Turkish coffee at the breakfast table worrying about whether or not I can make it the 15km or so to Ushguli with my sore leg, when a delivery man pulls up outside. Half an hour later we are driving down the dusty dirt road to the valley bottom in his battered old jeep en route to Ushguli.

For a small fee he has dropped us right outside the Guesthouse Kachari, a large white wooden building at the top of the village surrounded by fields with a spacious garden in front and the monastery of Lamria with its distinctive tower on a nearby hill behind it. Our double room is very basic but spotlessly clean and typically there is one bathroom shared between several other guests.

Ushguli, located at an altitude of 2,100 metres, is a community of four villages (Zhibiani, Chvibiani, Chazhashi and Murqmeli) located at the confluence of the Enguri and Shavtskala Rivers. Mount Shkhara, Georgia’s highest peak, towers over these attractive settlements with their iconic towers, home to some 70 families who live in the highest continuously inhabited villages in Europe. The area is snow-covered for six months of the year, and the road to Mestia is often impassable; the area’s remoteness has helped to save it from the unwanton development that is beginning to blight Mestia. The authenticity of the villages are the reason they are an integral part of part of the Upper Svaneti UNESCO World Heritage Site and they are an increasingly popular day trip from Mestia.

UshgaliUshgali Our guesthouse lies at the top of Zhibiani, a maze of narrow winding streets running between honey-coloured stone houses with crooked verandas sporting ornate wood carvings. The houses, some of which are still pretty dilapidated, are built right above the Enguri River which flows from the enormous glaciers at the foot of Mount Shkhara.

The pace of life is slower here; old men sit chatting outside their homes; oxen and pigs wander along the muddy unpaved streets; an old woman is washing dishes in a tin bath in her garden and men are digging potatoes and making hay in small fields surrounded by wooden palisade fences. The smell of wood smoke perfumes the air, there are beehives in the gardens and piles of wood chopped ready for winter. It feels timeless and idyllic. But signs of development are creeping in here too, with the building of several enormous new guesthouses which resemble Swiss chalets and which stick out like sore thumbs.

Old men in UshgaliOld men in Ushgali There isn’t an awful lot to see or do in Ushguli and one day here gives ample time to visit a very interesting new museum which is spread over three floors of a renovated defensive tower. We’re more interested in visiting the inside of one of these iconic Svan towers than in the displays of icons and other religious paraphernalia displayed inside. Nearby is Queen Tamari’s Castle, a ruined medieval fortress and there is also a small privately run ethnographic museum displaying everyday artefacts from the region. Evening falls softy over the mountains above the village turning their peaks vermillion and blood red as we feast on a superb home-cooked dinner in the garden in front of our guesthouse.

Lamria Monastery UshguliLamria Monastery UshguliSunset over the Caucasus Mountains from Ushguli

Next day after an enormous breakfast, we walk down to the old bridge between Chvibiani and Chazhashi where marshrutkas leave for Mestia. There are over two dozen people - locals and tourists - haggling with several drivers over the fare. Amid the crowd a rather precocious young boy on horseback is barking orders at everyone in broken English and Svan. For a good price we, along with half a dozen other trekkers, manage to procure a lift from a lovely old local couple in their aged Mitsubishi Delica van, which has incensed the boy and the drivers who have missed a fare!

The 60km journey back to Mestia is along a truly horrendous unmade road that weaves its way through the Enguri Gorge with its fast flowing river. There’s no air conditioning in the van, it’s hot and stuffy so the windows are fully down and the interior is filled with clouds of choking talcum powder-fine dust thrown up from the road. Potholed and washed out in sections this road has claimed many lives judging by the number of alcohol bottles left in certain places where people have stopped to pay their respects to those who have met an untimely end. Our driver is sober, careful and obviously values his old vehicle, so there is no death-defying overtaking on blind corners! We eventually hit a new concreted section of the road which is being improved all the way to Ushguli. Doubtless this will be welcomed by local people as it will facilitate more tourism. But one can’t help but feel that this will not be wholly beneficial judging by the creeping commercialism in this popular tourist area.

Back in Mestia we sip a gorgeous glass of Saperavi wine on the small balcony of the Hotel Old House. As the sun sinks lower in the sky turning the distinctive peak of Mount Tetnuldi salmon-pink, we muse on our trek through the Svaneti region which surely ranks among the best we have undertaken anywhere. In a world of sanitised travel, this trek was an unforgettable Technicolor extravaganza of genuine experience where it was possible to truly interact with local people. And the landscape, with not a trace of barbed wire anywhere, was unspoiled, pristine and uplifting. It will be some time before the sight and sound of an avalanche, the deafening chorus of insects such as we never hear any more in Western Europe, and the settling sun turning the peak of Georgia’s highest mountain blood-red, fade from my memory.



We took the first class sleeper train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi which you can book online beforehand (about 12 euro each way per person). From Zugdidi we caught a marshrutka from outside the railway station for a few euro each. From Ushguli we shared a lift (along with several other trekkers) to Mestia with a local couple for about 2.50 euro each, but marshrutkas run from the bridge in the morning and late afternoon. At Mestia we caught a mid-afternoon marshrutka back to Zugdidi Railway Station in time for the sleeper train to Tbilisi. There isn't much in the way of food or services at this station which is like something out of the Soviet era. There is a bag drop if you want to venture downtown.

All accommodation (hotels and home stays) were reserved online using Booking.com before our departure. Be prepared to pay between 90-100 lari (30-33 euro) per night for two people including meals at homestays, more for hotels. Don't expect too much, as the standard is not similar to what people are accustomed to in most parts of Europe.

We ate mostly at Cafe Laila in Mestia which serves a variety of Svan dishes. The food and service is so-so, but its has a good vibe, is very popular with trekkers and features live Georgian bands.

The Svaneti area is covered by the GeoLand Trekking Map 9 (1:500000 scale) available for purchase at the GeoLand office shop in Tbilisi and online from Standfords (£9.99). In addition, excellent map sheets showing day hikes and sections of a number of trails from Mestia produced by the Svaneti Tourism Centre Union can be obtained at the Svaneti Tourism Centre in Mestia. We found the estimated distances to be slightly out on some of these though.

Do pack insect repellent. The horse-flies are horrendous and will bite through thin clothing!

Read our other blogs about hikes and tours around Stepantsminda and our multi-day wild camping trek across the Chaukhi Massif. Watch the video of our treks in Georgia at:

[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) best treks caucasus mountains europe georgia highest village in europe homestays mestia svaneti trekking ushguli world heritage site https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/11/trekking-in-the-caucasus-mountains-of-georgia-sojourn-in-svaneti Mon, 20 Nov 2017 18:06:19 GMT
Trekking in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia: Journey across the Chaukhi Massif https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/11/trekking-in-the-caucasus-mountains-of-georgia-journey-across-the-chaukhi-massif  

My eighteen kilo rucksack feels like a dead weight as I heave it onto my back in the remote village of Djuta (Juta) which is at an elevation over 2,000 metres at the end of a long dirt road that winds its way up the Sno Valley. This is an outpost of one branch of the Kevsur people who migrated here from further east and is built at the junction of two valleys. One of the valleys heads in a north easterly direction towards Chechnya, a restless republic in the Russian Federation, which current geopolitics means is strictly off limits. The other heads south east up into the Chaukhi Massif. We’ve been dropped here by minivan from Stepantsminda and are about to undertake a multi-day trek up this valley and across the Chaukhi Pass (3,338 metres) to the village of Korsha in the province of Khevsureti on the other side of the mountains.

Before the off we tarry awhile at the Juta Guest House, where we indulge in a tar-black Turkish coffee so strong and thick that you could almost stand your teaspoon upright in it. This new and obviously expensive place to stay is built right above the bank of the roaring turquoise waters of the Jutistskali River. Its smart new façade and manicured gardens seem curiously out of place with the rest of the village of rustic wooden houses surrounded by overgrown country gardens containing giant hayricks, all threaded together by muddy streets where pigs and cows roam freely. From the sunny terrace, I spy a man in a nearby garden intently tending to a score of beehives, while another riding a horse disappears up the pathway leading out of the village. We take the same trail some 15 minutes later.

Beekeeper in JuttaBeekeeper in Jutta It’s only mid-morning and yet the hot sun is beating down relentlessly as we make our way at what seems like snail’s pace up the steep zig-zag path which elevates us to the lush alpine meadows of the treeless valley. The weather has been rather unsettled in the region over the past few days and the road to the village of Shatili near the Chechen border has been washed away in severe thunderstorms and flooding, making travel there impossible. But today the neon-blue sky is threaded with silvery cloud and a carnival of scents is borne on the slightest of breezes. We soon spot a line of coloured Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the breeze near some buildings which we discover is Zeta Camping, and beyond this the large double-storied wooden chalet of the 5th Season Guesthouse. Loud techo music blares from within which rather spoils the ambiance of the magnificent alpine meadow scenery and we are glad to leave behind it, and the collection of tents of noisy backpackers dotted nearby, which look like the spilled contents of a packet of M&Ms.

The pathway continues to gently climb on the left side of the Chaukhistskali River which wriggles its way through the bottom of the malachite-green valley misty with a dazzling display of summer flowers, their satin-soft petals landing pads for a bewildering variety of droning, buzzing insects. At the valley’s head the tips of the snow-streaked mountains soar heavenwards like a row of thorns scratching at a now misty sky. A man leading a couple of tourists perched awkwardly on horses clatter by us en route to the village of Roshka just over the Chaukhi Pass. It’s possible to take many single or multiday horseback trips in these mountains and with the weight of my pack, I almost wish I was in a saddle!

Near the valley’s end we encounter a vodka-clear stream leaping and bounding its way down the hillside from some distant glacier. One look at the eggshell-smooth boulders slick with algae around which the water is swirling at quite a speed, and it’s evident that we cannot jump it safely with our heavy packs. Donning a pair of plastic Crocs we wade into its crystal depths, the cold water biting into the very marrow of our shin bones.

Not far above this stream is a climbers’ hut where we plan to stop for a snack and we make a beeline up the rising ground towards it. A cool-aqua coloured lake floats into view as we crest a bank of moraine and perched on its shoreline is the makeshift hut of plywood with a red tin roof. It feels good to drop our heavy packs and sit down to feast on homemade cake washed down with a cool Coca Cola. The table is furnished with a large glass jar brim full of periwinkle-blue forget-me-nots. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many. Close by a group of teenage Georgians are busy picking wildflowers, not something that tourists should ever be encouraged to emulate.

Climbers' hut near JuttaClimbers' hut near JuttaThe Chaukhi Massif looms over the makeshift climbers' hut It’s early afternoon by the time we hit the trail again and the sun, high over our heads, is a malevolent medallion pinned to the parchment-coloured cloud that is menacing some of the nearby mountain tops. The atmosphere is heavy and oppressive and the humidity tremendous, making the going tough. A duo of brown cows look solemnly at us as we wheeze past, a cloud of dreaded horse-flies bringing up the rear.

Caucasian Mountain cattleCaucasian Mountain cattle Past several enormous rocks used for bouldering we follow the right bank of a small river heading steeply straight up into the ribs of the slate-grey Chaukhi Massif which dominates our field of vision like a giant Baroque pipe organ. The pathway is indistinct and the terrain densely vegetated in places and quite rough underfoot.

Late afternoon we arrive at a point just below a large corrie where the trail climbs very steeply up to the Chaukhi Pass. We are right opposite the imposing organesque monoliths of the Chaukhi Massif which are highly reminiscent of the Dolomites in the Italian Alps. The near-vertical cliffs of this rock climber’s paradise look higher than they actually are (3,842 metres), and up this close and personal, I feel very small indeed. With grandstand views down towards the valley we have just traversed and of the massif which might be transformed into something truly photogenic at dawn or dusk, we immediately set up our tent on a grassy promontory.

Wild  camp beneath the Chaukhi MassifWild camp beneath the Chaukhi MassifThese mountains are called Georgia's Dolomites for good reason

Like a pair of eagles in a remote and lofty eyrie we are the masters of all we survey. Nearby a small stream trickling down a tiny gully delivers crystal clear and ice-cold drinking water and the ground is peppered with pretty wildflowers – blue gentian, mauve asters, mustard yellow doronicum, white ox-eye daises, and violet harebells. On a sheltered bank near the stream I spot the leaves of the dwarf Rhododendron Caucasium. Luckily at this altitude a few creamy white blooms still lift their faces to the sky long after those at lower altitudes have withered.

Rhododendron CaucasiumRhododendron Caucasium

The shadows slowly lengthen and sipping whiskey from our hip flasks, we watch the bruised-blue and sea-silver sky chasing the grass and rock into shadow at the coming of dusk as the cloud above the Chaukhi Massif blushes peach and the rock fades rapidly to chalky-mauve then cold-steel. Stars begin to wink in the firmament, the temperature quickly plummets and we retire to the warmth of our sleeping bags.

Next morning I awake to the glorious sight of the sun creeping over the tops of the snow-streaked mountains. In the valley below, huge columns of mist are slowly churning and dissipating into an azure-blue sky. It promises to be another scorcher.

Morning breaks over the Chaukhi MountainsMorning breaks over the Chaukhi Mountains Breaking camp, a steep climb up a shaly rock face brings us into a huge corrie still dappled with large patches of dirty snow. This area is only passable from mid-June onwards for the few short months of summer. Two routes are available to us, one to our left which sweeps up an arm of the corrie, and directly ahead, a zig-zag path which goes straight up a steep scree slope to the corrie rim. Both lead to the Chaukhi Pass. We choose the latter and after crossing several shin-deep snow patches, the wiry grass gives way to loose scree as we begin the brutal climb. My laboured breathing and pounding heart belies the altitude and the exertion of carrying a very heavy pack in temperatures far higher than we had expected. When I pause, which is often, I feel the blood thumping through the veins in my neck.

Approaching the top of the ridge near the Chaukhi PassApproaching the top of the ridge near the Chaukhi Pass After what seems like an eternity we reach a notch in the ridgeline. The rock is razor-thin here and care must be taken not to slip and tumble into oblivion through the cotton-white cloud which is billowing up the ridge face in a stiffening breeze. We sit panting in stupefied ecstasy as the breeze cools our sweaty faces. Like the view through a kaleidoscope, the picture instantly changes when the cloud parts to reveal tantalising flashes of blue glaciers, jewel-coloured lakes, the snow-covered peaks of the Great Caucasus, and endless waves of hills that look as if they have been draped in crumpled green velvet. To the north east are the troubled Russian Federation republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia, who few in the West had ever heard of prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and where deadly post-communist conflicts sadly simmer on. To the south east is Khevsureti, where we are headed, famed for its poetry and horsemanship.

Our objective is to find a place to camp beside one of the three Abudelauri Lakes which lie over 900 metres below us, accessed via a long grassy ridge which sweeps down from the Chaukhi Pass. To get to the pass involves an airy scramble along the knife-edge arête between two corries carved by long-vanished glaciers which have bitten deep into the rock. Cornices of snow cling like limpets to the shattered rock in several places, and a head for heights is desirable as we are forced more than once to put hands on rocks to steady ourselves in some very exposed sections.

Chauhki PassChauhki PassComing down off the ridge towards the Chaukhi Pass

We eventually descend about 30 metres from the ridge to arrive at the broad saddle which marks the Chaukhi Pass. From here we endure an excruciatingly steep descent of over 900 metres, which zig-zags over loose scree, then stubbly grass which gives way to lush thigh-high vegetation interspersed with rhododendron, the branches of which lie in wait to trap a weary ankle. I am mightily glad of my walking poles which prevent me from slipping.

Descent from the Chaukhi PassDescent from the Chaukhi Pass

Descent towards the Blue Lake from the Chaukhi PassDescent towards the Blue Lake from the Chaukhi Pass We’re delighted to find a flat and sheltered spot by some rhododendron bushes above an aquamarine pool, aptly named the Blue Lake, which peeks out alluringly from a mass of contorted limestone. With the tent erected, I sit outside to eat my freeze-dried meal of macaroni cheese where I am serenaded in the warm evening air by the fluty notes of a Great Rosefinch which is perched on a nearby boulder. As the sun slides down behind the Chaukhi Massif, the peaks of which from here resemble a spiny dragon’s back, their outline is etched for several utterly mesmerising moments on the cloud almost touching their tops.

The cold of night falls like a sledgehammer as the Milky Way soars over the crest of the nearby mountains, and warmed by several good slugs of whiskey, I snuggle up inside my sleeping bag.

I wake to shy, slanting sunbeams playing across the limestone cliffs of the nearby mountains that appear to be bearing down on our tiny tent. So picturesque and comfortable is our camping spot that we decide not to break camp, but instead to spend another night here which gives us time to explore the Chaukhi Glacier some 8km up-valley.

Wild Camp at the Blue LakeWild Camp at the Blue Lake Traversing banks of loose moraine and then following a tumbling ice-cold river which lower down is abruptly swallowed by the ground to vanish into some unseen cave system, our exertions are rewarded by the sight of an enormous amphitheatre of barren shattered rock with its crooked finger of ice.

The Chaukhi GlacierThe Chaukhi GlacierApproaching the Chaukhi Glacier and White Lake

We have entered a roughshod Arcadia of limestone, with colossal blades of grey rock clawing at the sky above the teardrop-silver lake below the Chaukhi Glacier. Known as the White Lake, it's chock full of sediment - ground down rock from the glacier. The tranquility and solitude are immense; the only sounds are the occasional groan and creak of the glacier as it continues its inexorable downward journey, the musical cadence of the nearby river, and the chirping of birds and insects.

Chaukhi Glacier and the White LakeChaukhi Glacier and the White Lake The next morning is rather overcast, with low cloud touching the tops of the nearby mountains. It’s much cooler and this might account for the sudden activity amongst the nearby rocks. I spot a flash of brown as something darts across the top of a boulder only to disappear down a hole. My heart misses a beat as I think I’ve spotted a rat, but a little head suddenly pokes out from a gap beneath a neighbouring rock and two beady black eyes stare straight at me. It’s a stoat! In fact there are four of them and our departure is delayed by watching their antics as they circle our camp, with one emboldened individual approaching to within a few feet to inspect my rucksack!

StoatStoatSeveral of these small rodents visited our wild camp by the Blue Lake

We pause for one long, last lingering look at the Blue Lake as we climb away from our wild camping spot to begin the 8km gentle descent towards the small village of Roshka. Almost immediately we encounter the big brother of the Blue Lake. The hue of copper patina, unsurprisingly it’s named the Green Lake! Soft rain is falling as we follow the track down through the delightful Abdelauri River valley, but this soon abates and sunshine once more floods the landscape. Butterflies and bees dance between dog rose and blackberry bushes and brown cows with clanking bells wander in the lush meadow pastures strewn with a dazzling display of wildflowers. The croaking of crickets rises above the endless background drone of countless insects. The only thing marring this bucolic paradise is the presence of horse-flies that never miss an opportunity to feast on skin not slathered with insect repellent!

Blue LakeBlue LakeA last lingering look at the Blue Lake, the prefect spot for a wild camp

We soon spot the rust-red roofs of a cluster of small wooden houses that form the tiny village of Roshka which lies just below the confluence of the Abdelauri and another river. A huge glacial erratic nestled in the centre of the village sports a Georgian flag. Just above the village a new road is being cut through the pristine mountainside to connect an old village that was virtually abandoned during Soviet times. It leaves an ugly brown scar in the velvety verdure. Progress comes at a price.

There are a couple of guesthouses in Roshka, but we decide to make camp above the village in a meadow near a tall stand of sorrel which gives some protection from grazing cattle. From here, the hills towards Chechnya look like pillows of soft green velvet and we can see the tiny honey-coloured houses in the village of Gudani on the opposite side of the valley. We amble down to the village to source some water and find this at a fountain that has been erected in the memory of a young man whose face graces the exterior plaque with ornate Georgian inscription. The natural spring water pouring forth from its metal spout is glacier-cold and refreshing. As dusk creeps over the sky from the eastern horizon, the cattle are driven from the high pastures down towards the village by men and boys on horseback who return our waves with cheery smiles.

Next morning we are driven from our tent by the fierce heat of the rising sun. We hit the trail early and at the village search for a track that will take us down to the road leading to Shatili. No sooner than we begin to follow its sinuous route along the edge of the valley, the path is choked with giant hogweed. The bane of every trekker in the Caucasus, this weed which grows higher than a man, is not something we wish to encounter. It looks attractive with its enormous umbrella-like white flowers which is why it was introduced to Ireland and other places in the nineteenth century by plant collectors and landscape garden enthusiasts. However beguiling it might look it is necessary to give it a wide berth, for brushing against any part of it with naked skin is likely to cause an allergic reaction. Its sap contains toxic chemicals which react in sunlight causing painful blistering within 48 hours. We therefore err on the side of caution and take the much longer dusty dirt track down to the Shatili road.

RoshkaRoshka After several kilometres of monotonous walking during which time only one old saloon car which has lost most of its paint and a man on horseback pass us, the road begins to descend steeply through forest in a series of zig-zags. Just before we hit the Shatili road, I almost step on a Caucasian viper which is curled up alongside the track. It’s apparently rather rare, so I'm privileged to see it even if it does make my skin crawl!

Crossing a small bridge on the road from RoshkaCrossing a small bridge on the road from Roshka The Shatili road is unpaved and not much busier than the road down from Roshka probably due to the fact that recent flash floods have rendered it impassable near Shatili. This is something of a blessing as its surface is like talcum powder. The road follows the bank of the roaring Aragvi River which has carved a deep gorge. The midday sun is burning as we pound along the dusty track sending tiny lizards scattering in all directions, and we are relieved when the sun slips down behind the nearby mountain ridge plunging some of the gorge into shadow. After several kilometres a jeep honks its horn and pulls up. A jovial Georgian man asks us where we’re going and it happens he is related to the family with whom we are staying in Korsha where he owns the grocery store. That’s the way of things in these mountain villages, where everyone seems to be related to everyone else! He kindly offers us a lift which we readily accept and in no time we are walking up the driveway of the Korsha Guesthouse, an attractive two-storied wooden building surrounded by lush gardens and beehives.

Korsha GuesthouseKorsha Guesthouse We are shown to our pretty basic room by a lovely lady named Marina who speaks passable English. The guesthouse is a delight, its rustic flagstone dining room furnished with hand-carved wooden furniture, and decorated with local costumes, mounted hunting trophies, bear skins and the stunning artwork of Shota, Marina's husband. The cold beer purchased at the store nearby tastes divine as we toast trekking over 40 km on the small balcony overlooking the gardens where Marina is busy digging up vegetables and picking herbs for our dinner. Georgia is the land of milk and honey, where orchards burst forth with fruit, and every house has its own beehives, livestock, vines and carefully tended vegetable patch, for people still have an attachment to the land - their food is all home-grown and prepared. And divine it tastes, after eating dried food for the last few days! We demolish plates of khinkali, herb soup, crisp salad and cheesy khachapuri washed down with Shota's homemade wine.

Dining room of the Korsha GuesthouseDining room of the Korsha Guesthouse After a sound night’s sleep, we are up early to catch the morning bus to Tbilisi which costs the grand total of six lari each. The route from Korsha to the main highway to Tbilisi is not tarmacked, and as our old and very battered bus painted with the Georgian flag bumps along and swings round corners, it contributes to the clouds of white dust that settle on everything in sight. Inside, we are the only Europeans crammed in like sardines among old men, black clad women with headscarves and several enormous digger tyres. There are no seat belts and the fact that the road is bumpy, the driver something of a maniac, and the rear suspension is shot, makes Martin feel decidedly queasy. He is hugely relieved when we hit the main highway to Tbilisi where we make a beeline for the sulphur baths to revitalise our aching muscles!

Soaking in a private bath with ice cold beers, we reflect on an absolutely first class trekking and wild camping experience where we were totally free to commune with nature in wide open spaces unfettered by barbed wire fences, along rugged trails where we seldom encountered another soul during this, the peak season for trekking.  



We arranged to be dropped off at Jutta Village by the Mountain Freaks tour company in Stepantsminda for less than 10 euro each. In Khorsa we were accommodated at the Korsha Guesthouse which cost around 15 euro each per night, with the option of dinner which was extra. Our stay was arranged by telephone by a kind waitress named Nino who works at the Cafe 5047m in Stepantsminda.

From Korsha we caught the local bus to Tbilisi which cost 2 euro each and took a couple of hours.

The Chaukhi Massif area is covered by the GeoLand Trekking Map 3 (1:500000 scale) available for purchase at the GeoLand office shop in Tbilisi and online from Standfords (£9.99).

Camping gas can be purchased at the GeoLand office shop in Tbilisi. Do pack insect repellent. The horse-flies are horrendous and will bite through thin clothing!

Read our next blog about trekking in Svaneti and watch our film of our trekking trip to Georgia:

[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) best treks blue lake caucasus mountains chaukhi massif chaukhi pass europe georgia jutta khorsa roshka trekking white lake wild camping https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/11/trekking-in-the-caucasus-mountains-of-georgia-journey-across-the-chaukhi-massif Mon, 20 Nov 2017 01:51:28 GMT
Trekking in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia: Tbilisi and the Sights around Stepantsminda https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/11/trekking-in-the-caucasus-mountains-of-georgia-part-one-tbilisi-and-kazbegi Mount KazbegMount KazbegThe Gergeti Church looks diminutive silhouetted against the enormous mountain at sunrise

Georgia on my Mind

‘I’ve been drinking all day!’ exclaimed the chain-smoking taxi driver sticking his head out of the window to draw deeply on his third cigarette, ‘You know, Georgia is the land and home of the best wine in the world!’ We soon discovered that there was no reason to doubt this, but also that this inebriated taxi man who had collected us at Tbilisi Airport in the dead of night was not alone in speeding with wild abandon along the roads and tracks of this country…

Situated in the mighty Caucasus Mountains on a narrow bridge of land between the Black and Caspian Seas and occupying a unique geopolitical space betwixt Europe and Asia, not quite east or west, a visit to this conundrum of a country had been on my mind for thirty-odd years. Back in the late-80s working on a kibbutz in Israel, I had listened wide-eyed to tall stories told to me by Georgian Jews of remote mountain villages with enigmatic stone towers and rustic houses with ornate wooden balconies that were surrounded by picture-perfect alpine meadows in summer and cut off for months in deep-freezer winters. A place where boozy banquets went on for days, gun-totting bandits on horseback terrorised neighbourhoods, and few outsiders dared set foot. Add to this that Georgia is the land of the fabled ‘golden fleece’ that supposedly saw Jason and his Argonauts gallantly sally forth across the Black Sea in their quest to find it, my heart was firmly set on one day travelling to this out-of-the-ordinary country.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia’s subsequent independence in 1991, and the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003 which set it firmly on a pro-Western footing, made a visit there seem finally possible. Despite simmering post-communist civil conflicts that included secessionist wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in 2008 I was busy drawing up plans to finally visit, only to be thwarted by the unexpected outbreak of the Russo-Georgian War.

Those plans languished on the back-burner for the best part of a decade before the post-Soviet anarchy and mayhem subsided sufficiently for Martin and I to decide that the time was ripe to finally book tickets to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, where we now find ourselves one early-July night hurting through the streets in a death-wish taxi!

Tbilisi is our base for the start and finish of our treks in the northeast and northwest of the country. Because of its location on the crossroads between Europe and Asia and its proximity to lucrative east-west trade routes – it was a trading post along the Silk Road – this city has been a point of contention between various global powers for centuries. Its diverse history is reflected in its eclectic architecture: a mix of medieval, classical, Middle Eastern, Art Nouveau, Stalinist and Modernist structures.

Today, this city with its leafy Paris-style boulevards, is in the throes of a renaissance having undergone a rapid transformation in the wake of the Rose Revolution. Many old buildings have been swept away to be replaced by the sparkling Modernist architecture favoured by Georgia’s former president, Mikheil Saakashvili. This includes the tubular steel Rike Park Concert Hall and Exhibition Centre, which gleams above the bank of the Mtkvari River, and the Bridge of Peace spanning it, amusingly dubbed the ‘Always Ultra’ due to its shape! It hasn’t yet cast off its era as a former republic of the Soviet Union which is reflected in buildings such as the post-constructivist eighteen-storey Bank of Georgia headquarters.

Mtkvari River and the Bridge of Peace, TbilisiMtkvari River and the Bridge of Peace, TbilisiThis new bridge has been nicknamed the 'Always Ultra' because of its shape! But scratch the surface and you will soon discover a palimpsest of ancient architecture. The predominantly brick-built old city of Tbilisi – Abanotubani - topped by the imposing Narikala Fortress, contains a warren of narrow cobbled streets lined with attractive Azeri teahouses. The city’s name means ‘warm location’ due to its hot sulphur springs, which prompted the construction of Persian bathhouses with facades of ornate coloured tiles which are still in use, and a visit to one is a must after a tiring trek.

Persian bathhouses in historic TbilisiPersian bathhouses in historic TbilisiTbilisi means ‘warm location’ due to its hot sulphur springs, which prompted the construction of Persian bathhouses which are still in use

The city is cosmopolitan and always has been: an Orthodox church, a mosque and a synagogue stand cheek by jowl in one road, and you can savour the flavours of many parts of the world in the wonderful Georgian cuisine served in attractive street-side restaurants, bars and cafes. As our taxi driver pointed out, Georgia prides itself on being the oldest known location of cultivated vines, and in recent years it has resurrected the 8,000-year-old kvevri method of production which involves storing wine, often underground, in clay vessels. Georgian wines are gaining increased attention from international connoisseurs and the Saperavi grape quickly becomes a firm favourite of ours. There are no shortage of shops in Tbilisi to purchase a bottle, and it is a delight to discover that tasting before you buy seems to be compulsory!

Azeri teahouses TbilisiAzeri teahouses TbilisiOne of the characterful streets in the historic part of Tbilisi and a great place for an ice cold beer on a hot and humid day

The juxtaposition between old and new in this happening city with its avant-guard heart makes for breath-taking vistas, and none more spectacular than that at sunset from the terrace of the Funicular Complex atop Mount Mtatsminda.

Tbilisi from Mount MtatsmindaTbilisi from Mount MtatsmindaOne of the finest views of the city is from the restaurant complex atop Mount Mtatsminda at dusk

Go-Gergeti: The Lightning Lada

After a day exploring and sightseeing in Tbilisi, we depart for the north-eastern Kazbegi region by private taxi through the outskirts of the city with its hot, fumy air, beyond the brooding Soviet-era apartment blocks lined up like rows of rotten teeth, towards the Caucasus Mountains. The aged Toyota taxi doesn’t have one panel that hasn’t been remodelled and the journey is another hair-raising experience, as the somewhat laconic driver with a mouthful of golden teeth breaks every conceivable road rule in the book. The seat belts are broken and my anal nerve almost fails on several occasions as, fag in mouth, he overtakes heavily laden trucks on blind corners, regularly speeds along at over 80km per hour on bumpy uneven roads, and dodges cattle and sheep which roam at will throughout the country. Georgia is dominated by massive mountain ranges with a limited road network that can make an inch on the map equal to two hours in a car. The road clings to the spiralling hillside as we climb higher into the jagged teeth of the mountains past the Gudauri Ski Resort after which it really deteriorates; the potholes could quite easily swallow one of the sheep wandering by the roadside!

I am relieved when we finally arrive at the Anano Guesthouse, our accommodation in Stepantsminda, 157 kilometres to the north of Tbilisi. Built on the Georgian Military Highway, an arterial route connecting Vladikavaz in North Ossetia (Russian Federation) with Tbilisi, it’s a small town of ancient stone and wooden houses in various states of dilapidation cheek by jowl with brand new three storey villas built by ‘new money’, the fruits of international tourism. Straddling the banks of the Terek River at an elevation of 1,740 metres above sea level, the village is named after a Georgian Orthodox monk named Stephan who constructed a hermitage here. During Soviet times it was known as Kazbegi, and is still informally referred to by this name. Hemmed in by enormous, jagged snow-capped mountains on all sides, Stepantsminda is one of the fastest growing tourist hubs for trekking and climbing due to its proximity to Mount Kazbek (5,337m) a dormant stratovolcano which lies immediately to the west of it.

StepantsmindaStepantsmindaFormerly known as Kazbegi, this town is an important hub for climbing and trekking

The main tourist attraction is the fourteenth century Gergeti Trinity Church (Tsminda Sameba in Georgian) which sits above Stepantsminda and the neighbouring village of Gergeti on the right bank of the river Chkheri at an elevation of 2,170 metres. Christianity arrived in Georgia early – its people were converted in the fourth century and have clung on to their faith fiercely ever since. This holy Christian site is dwarfed by the enormous conical hulk of Mount Kazbek in whose shadow it sits and has become something of a symbol for modern Georgia, overshadowed as it is by its larger neighbours, Russia, Iran and Turkey. The history of Georgia is all about invasions, yet this resilient little country has somehow defiantly survived with its own language, alphabet and Christian culture.

We have a bird’s eye view of this famous church from the balcony of our guesthouse and at dawn it cuts a truly formidable figure silhouetted against the snows of Mount Kazbek blushing rose pink in the rising sun. A late-afternoon visit is promptly arranged with our host, Georgi, who will drive us there to avoid a steep 430 metre climb. His battered white Lada looks as if it was driven hard all the way from where it was manufactured in Togliatti, Russia, thirty odd years ago and seems barely large enough to contain the three of us. One glance at Martin suggests he is thinking the same as me: ‘how on earth is this old vehicle going to make it up to the church?!’

Our concern is soon set aside as we begin to power our way up the dusty, deeply rutted, unmade track, for this Lada is a souped-up 4X4 which passes a labouring convoy of brand new Polish-registered Toyota Land Cruisers with ease! ‘This car can go like a mouse,’ says Georgi laughing, ‘in between the holes!’ Fancying himself to be Georgia’s very own Lewis Hamilton, he prides himself on passing every other vehicle in a cloud of dust, while we politely endure Georgia’s version of the ‘African massage’; every bone in my body is jarred by the constant pitching and rolling, and by the time we emerge from the wooded track onto the broad grassy hillside below the church, we are coated in a thin film of red dust!

Gia's LadaGia's LadaNever laugh at an old Lada again. This car went where new Toyota Land Crusiers feared to drive!

The Gergeti Trinity Church is the only cross-cupola church in Khevi province and it cuts an imposing sight perched atop a grassy knoll. During incursions by Tbilisi Persians in the eighteenth century, precious relics from Mtskheta, including Saint Nino’s Cross, were brought here for safekeeping and it is perceived as something of a national treasure by Georgians who were banned from holding services in it during Soviet times. As we make our way up the steep cobbled pathway to the church and its separate bell tower, I can feel the effects of the altitude in my slightly laboured breathing.

The Gergeti Trinity ChurchThe Gergeti Trinity ChurchThe Gergeti Trinity Church (Tsminda Sameba) sits above Stepantsminda at an elevation of 2,170 metres.

We enter the church compound through the dark interior of the bell tower. In order to visit the church, women must cover their heads and be wearing a skirt; men must not be clad in shorts, so garments are provided. No photography is permitted inside. I enter though the ancient wooden doorway with its carved stone surround. Thin lances of light are cast down into the dark interior from the cupola creating an eerie half-light, and as my eyes adjust to the gloom I can see the opulent gold leaf of the numerous icons set ablaze by scores of flickering candles. In a corner, a bearded Orthodox monk is quietly reading a prayer book and the smell of burning beeswax hangs heavily in the air.

Outside we sit on the sun warmed slabs of the church terrace with its jaw-dropping view over Stepantsminda which is laid out like an architect’s model far below. Huge pillows of soft white cloud drift languidly over the face of the enormous snow-streaked mountains opposite and chords of watery sunlight trace intricate patterns across their runnelled face. This is our first real look at the mighty Caucasus Mountains. According to Greek mythology, as a punishment for teaching mankind how to make fire, the Titan Prometheus was chained to a mountainside in these mountains for all eternity. Being a land renowned for its myth and legend, Georgian folklore has its own version of the Prometheus story in the shape of the dragon-slayer, Amirani, who challenged God to a contest. God threw a staff into the ground which grew roots so deep that Arimani was unable to pull it out. As a punishment for his foolishness he was imprisoned in a cave 4,000 meters high on the icy slopes of Mount Kazbek, the huge mountain that glowers over this little church. This story somehow doesn’t seem too fantastical in such a fairy-tale environment.

All too soon we are being driven at breakneck speed down the mountainside in Georgi’s Lada, and by the time we miraculously arrive in one piece in the town square, a rather large glass of Saperavi wine is needed to calm the nerves!


Travertines in the Truso

Dust catches in the back of my throat as a beat up old van passes by on the powder dry unmade track leading deep into the remote Truso Valley. As the dust settles, above the road I can see a derelict square tower tapering skywards like a broken tooth. The vehicle which has just passed by the virtually abandoned old settlement of Kvemo Okrokana must be one of the shepherds who use the pastures to graze their sheep and cattle in this valley in the summer months, for few people inhabit the old villages hereabouts anymore. The Soviets finally achieved what even the formidable Persian army had failed to do for centuries: destroy and disperse the mountain people. In the 1940s and 1950s they were forcibly moved to lower valleys where they could be controlled and few have since returned.

We have been dropped at this semi-deserted settlement by minibus from Stepantsminda to undertake a 22 km return walk up this valley. It is a beautiful summer’s morning and the sunlight is dancing off the chalky grey water of the Tergi River which roars below us in the narrow Kasari Canyon. The deep green interlocking spurs of the mountains appear to soar for miles above us and the trackside is fringed with brightly coloured meadow flowers which nod in the gentle breeze.

Kvemo OkrokanaKvemo OkrokanaThe virtually abandoned village at the start of the Truso Valley trek

After several kilometres we come to a makeshift bridge which crosses over a small tributary of the river. Coming down the track towards us is a large flock of sheep being driven by a man who is leading a white horse and brandishing an enormous stick which he uses to good effect to keep the flock in order. Their bells clank loudly over the roar of the river as they hurry by. However, one animal becomes detached from the flock and misses the bridge. Faced with the rushing torrent it bleats forlornly on the bank of the tributary, reluctant to take the plunge. A man in a car who is bringing up the rear hops out and grabs hold of the terrified animal; he smiles at us as he throws it into the river. Thankfully the sheep emerges unscathed the other side and runs off to join the rest of the flock. Life is hard for both man and beast in these mountain communities!

Shepherd in TrusoShepherd in TrusoThe Truso Valley is used in the summer for grazing sheep and cattle A little further on the canyon ends abruptly and opens out into a broad boulder-strewn meadow. The road sweeps round to the right below a line of white and tan outcrops which are travertine formations. These sinter deposits are a reminder that the Caucasus Mountains are still geologically active and the presence of hot springs here in this valley and also in Tbilisi, hint at the volcanic forces still at work deep below the Earth’s crust. The water issues forth from mineral springs and flows like syrup down over sheets of pearly white rock shimmering in the sunlight, creating intricate lace-like patterns. Tiny concentric pools contain spherical pebbles named rock pearls, and in places the travertine takes on a visually striking ruddy hue due to the presence of iron carbonate. Upslope from the travertine outcrop we encounter an ornate stone cross bristling with orange lichen, which apparently marks a grave, and on the other side of the river can see the Abano Mineral Lake staring at us like a ghoulish aqua eye rimmed with blood red veins.

Rock pearls and travertine formationsRock pearls and travertine formationsTravertine formations in the Truso Valley, Kazbegi,Georgia An army truck rumbles by on the track and the Georgian soldiers inside wave cheerily at us. This is a reminder that the border with the disputed region of South Ossetia is not that far away, and as we continue along the track the full majesty of the Truso Valley is revealed. In the distance lie the jagged snowy ridges of the High Caucasus along the South Ossetian border. The Tergi River occupies the broad valley bottom and has braided into a maze of chalky turquoise channels. Handsome brown cows graze contentedly in the lush meadows dotted with a mind-blowing variety of colourful flowers. This is a wild land once inhabited by fierce tribes who engaged in blood feuds with their neighbours, hence the medieval watchtowers that were built for defence which dominate the skyline above the all-but-abandoned villages. At the head of the valley are two monasteries, one occupied by monks, the other by nuns, and beyond this, the ruins of the Zakagori fortress perched atop a grassy knoll above the Georgian border post. The scene is picture postcard perfect.

Past an outcrop of very red travertine the whiff of sulphur assaults our nostrils and we encounter a small rusty coloured stream with highly acidic water that is issuing from a pipe as a small geyser. We then enter the village of Ketrisi which occupies the ground above a sweeping bend in the river. The houses are in various stages of dilapidation, and most are unroofed with their timber trusses poking skywards like the exposed ribcages of dead things. Only one or two families live here now and their scruffily clad children eye us suspiciously as we walk past. A lone dog with its head down begins to shadow us as we pass by one of the houses which makes me feel decidedly uneasy, and I am relieved when an old woman clad in a headscarf and long apron who is working in a nearby field calls it off. She returns our thanks with a wave and a smile. Across the river we can see several blue tarpaulin tents below a pretty well-preserved tower in the middle of another abandoned village. A horseman is riding slowly along the river bank towards some cattle and we surmise that these are probably the temporary shelters for the shepherds who come here in the summer months.

Ketrisi VillageKetrisi VillageThe nearby abandoned village of Ketrisi in the Truso Valley

Once past the village the river turns sharply to the right and the nun’s monastery and ruined fortress dramatically float into view. Higher upslope above the track is the monk’s monastery with its mauve roof which harmonises with the colour of the round headed rampion that pepper the fields in front of it.

Truso Valley near South OssetiaTruso Valley near South OssetiaThe Tergi River and the Nun's Monastery in the Truso Valley The nun’s monastery is a little further on, tucked away behind a rustic stone hedge, and consists of an abandoned tower, a small church and an accommodation block built of stone with wooden balconies, a terracotta roof and a small courtyard. A large bell hangs from one of the balconies and a collection of crosses are sited in the overgrown grounds of the church which has been recently rebuilt having been destroyed during Soviet times. A nun clad head to toe in black is sweeping off the steps leading into the main building while another is leaning out of a window gazing towards the mountains. I imagine how challenging it must be for these women in the depth of winter when up to two metres of snow might lie in this valley and few people venture to visit. The solitude must be immense, but at least they are not entirely cut off from the outside world or without amenities, for several solar panels and a satellite dish are clearly visible .

Nun's MonasteryNun's MonasteryThe Nun's Monastery at the far end of the Truso Valley

We walk further along the deeply rutted dusty track towards the border post to take some images of the Zakagori fortress and unable to proceed further due to the political situation, we return the way that we came. We arrive back at Kvemo Okrokana an hour and a half later and are collected by minibus for the 45 minute journey back to Stepantsminda. Having worked up an appetite and a thirst, we dine on kharcho, khachapuri and khinkali, washed down with a bottle of fine Saperavi wine, and begin to plan the next leg of our trip, a multi-day trek involving wild camping across the Chaukhi Massif...

Zakagori FortressZakagori FortressThe abandoned fortress near the South Ossetain border. Hiking any further is not possible without a permit


To get to Stepantsminda from Tbilisi, it is possible to hire a pre-arranged private taxi at a cost of about 70 euro which is very expensive by Georgian standards, or to use a marshrutka (a kind of minibus taxi) which leave the Didube bus station roughly every hour and cost around 3 euro. Private car drivers will ask around for people going to Stepantsminda, at a fare of around 7 euro per person, and will leave when their car is full (usually 6 people). 

We used local tour company Mountain Freaks based in Stepantsminda for our day trip to the Truso Valley which cost about 10 euro each. It is possible to hire a taxi from Stepantsminda to take you there and collect you/or wait, but you need to be prepared to haggle hard to get a fair price.

Do pack insect repellent. The horse-flies in the Truso Valley are troublesome and will bite through thin clothing!

The Stepantsminda area including the Truso Valley is covered by the GeoLand Trekking Map 4 (1:500000 scale) available for purchase at the GeoLand office shop in Tbilisi and online from Standfords (£9.99).

We stayed at the Abano Guesthouse (listed on Booking.com) in a comfortable double en suite room; breakfast was an optional extra at 3 euro each. The cost was about 19 euro per night and the trip up to the Gergeti Church an additional 7 euro. Local restaurants we ate at include Cafe 5047m and Cafe Khevi.

Read the next blog of our wild camping trek across the Chaukhi Massif and watch the film of our visit to Georgia which features some of the places mentioned in this blog:


[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) caucasus mountains europe georgia gergeti trinity church hiking kazbegi sightseeing stepantsminda tbilisi truso valley https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/11/trekking-in-the-caucasus-mountains-of-georgia-part-one-tbilisi-and-kazbegi Mon, 20 Nov 2017 00:17:30 GMT
‘The Chess Set of the Gods’: Trekking in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/4/-the-chess-set-of-the-gods-trekking-in-the-simien-mountains-of-ethiopia The Simien Mountain Escarpment, EthiopiaThe Simien Mountain Escarpment, EthiopiaThe Greek poet, Homer, described the Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia as 'The Chess Set of the Gods'. This incredible landscape is formed from an ancient super-volcano which has been heavily eroded in its northern half by millions of years of rain and wind, leaving the dramatic escarpment and spellbinding buttes and mesas of today


Day One: Africa’s ‘Grand Canyon’

I catch my breath as I peer over the edge of the terrifying precipice upon which I am standing that plunges vertically downwards for over a kilometre. To the north wave upon wave of sienna-brown peaks, pinnacles and spires are illuminated by great shafts of light radiating down from a bank of broken flint-grey cloud, before fading to sepia to be swallowed in a glassy haze. The rainy season ended some six months ago, the crops of sorghum, barley and sesame in the terraced fields far below have been harvested and the baked brown earth is bare and fallow leaving everything dusty and tinder-dry. An enormous grey curtain of rain slowly pulsates across this magnificent landscape which bears a striking resemblance to Arizona’s Grand Canyon. I suddenly realise I am not alone as I spot a solitary male baboon sitting silently atop the escarpment, staring, like me, towards the distant horizon. It eyes me knowingly before a cry from one of its kind is the signal for it to bound away to rejoin its troop.

Martin and I are in the Simien Mountains having just travelled from the dusty, dirty, ramshackle market town of Debark. Geared up for Easter which is just a week away, it resembles a scene from Biblical times and is teeming with turbaned men dressed in flowing white robes, brandishing wooden sticks driving heavily-laden donkeys, cattle, sheep and goats. Colourfully dressed women with goods balanced atop their heads, many with children ensconced in a cotton sling across their backs, line the busy streets of this gateway settlement to the Simien Mountains National Park which is situated in Ethiopia’s remote, northern hinterland: the North Gondar Zone of the Amhara region. Here we have registered at the park headquarters and our guide, Michael, has paid our permit fee for an eight-day trek which will see us cover almost 100 km. We have been joined by an elderly Amhara man with a lean and whipcord appearance whose spontaneous smile is infectious. Noursein is to be our compulsory armed scout and brandishes a battered Kalashnikov rifle which must be as old as he is.

Established in 1969, this park was one of the first sites to be made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. The spellbinding landscape of fertile valleys, Afroalpine grasslands and heathlands, is broken into towering plateaux, sharp precipices and deep valleys by a multitude of rushing rivers and tumbling waterfalls which have eaten away at the basalts and tuffs in the northern half of what was once one of Africa’s ancient super-volcanoes. Marvelling at the majesty of the towering spires, volcanic pinnacles, gaping gorges, gullies and vast rock formations, the Greek poet, Homer, fancifully imagined these to be ‘the chess set of the Gods’. Standing on the very edge of the vast escarpment that extends eastwards for some 35 kilometres, I can see why.

Simien Mountains National ParkSimien Mountains National ParkThe buttes and mesas form part of an eroded super-volcano. The escarpment plunges down around one kilometre creating an epic landscape

The Simien Mountains remain devoid of sealed roads, and there only a few unsealed routes that can take vehicular traffic, but they are criss-crossed by a multitude of footpaths linking remote Amhara villages. We will be using some of these ancient trails over the next week. This mountain wilderness is home to several critically endangered endemic species including the grass-eating Gelada baboon which I have just spotted, the enormous horned Walia ibex (a nimble shaggy-coated wild mountain goat), and the shy, russet-coated Ethiopian wolf which is considered to be the rarest canid species in the world.

Our cook Tigabu, an ebullient man nicknamed ‘Mr Fantastic’, and his assistant, Wondem, have gone on ahead by minibus to Sankaber to set up our first camp, leaving us to walk along a well-trodden trail that meanders along the edge of the vast escarpment for some five and a half kilometres. Although the pace is modest, I can feel the effects of altitude as we make our way along the undulating trail, for we are already well over 3,000 metres above sea level and many of the peaks in this range are over 4,000 metres high, including Ethiopia’s highest point, Ras Dashen, which soars to 4,620 metres.

We soon encounter a large troop of Gelada baboons busily foraging for grass roots and tubers in a thyme-scented meadow. They are herbivores and obtaining sufficient calories from grass, herbs and seeds takes a lot of work, so geladas spend most of their days rooting around on their buttocks. The males have striking lion-like manes and a large patch of crimson skin shaped like a fish tail on their chest which has lent them the name, 'bleeding heart monkeys'. The air is filled with squeaks and honks, and shrieks that resemble squabbling crows.

Male gelada baboon, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaMale gelada baboon, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe gelada baboon is found only in Ethiopia. The males have striking lion-like manes and a large patch of crimson skin shaped like a fish tail on their chest


These extremely vocal primates do not appear to be at all concerned by our presence and we are able to get quite close to them and to observe their communal antics which include avid grooming! As dusk falls the gelada will retire to their sleeping cliffs, the narrow rocky ledges of the escarpment, where they will try to stay safe from leopards, hyenas and feral dogs. Overhead a lone lammergeyer soars on the thermals. Its haunting cry fills the air.

We arrive at Sankaber camp before sunset. We are the sole occupants and our cooks have commandeered a tulkul, a circular hut with a conical tin roof. A fire has been lit in the hearth at the centre of the hut which casts a thick column of choking blue smoke up into the roof. The firewood is eucalyptus which was introduced to Ethiopia from Australia in the late nineteenth century by Emperor Menelik who needed a readily available building material for his new city, Addis Ababa. The rapidly growing eucalyptus is now ubiquitous throughout Ethiopia, and is much used in building construction and as a fuel, even though it is responsible for negative environmental impacts due to it being a thirsty plant.

Sankaber CampSankaber CampThe round buildings, called tulkuls, are used by the cooks to prepare meals

Camp fire in a tukul at Sankaber, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaCamp fire in a tukul at Sankaber, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaWondem, our assistant cook, tends to the eucalyptus wood fire. Eucalyptus was introduced to Ethiopia from Australia in the late nineteenth century by Emperor Menelik and is now much used as a fuel and for construction purposes

After a hearty vegetarian meal washed down with spicy thyme tea, we retire to our tent under the watchful eye of our scout, Noursein. Away from the fire it is decidedly chilly and he is sitting outside the tulkul wrapped in just a cotton shawl. Later we discover that he has gone to sleep under a nearby bush with just a thin sheet of plastic sacking wrapped round himself; we wonder at his hardiness.


Day Two: Escarpment Exertions

I am woken by the loud braying of a mule. The muleteers must have arrived. Outside the tulkul several men are deep in conversation with Michael and a park ranger. Only one team will get the job of conveying our bag and the camping and cooking equipment for the next week. Competition is fierce. Yared, a slightly built man with high cheek bones and sunken cheeks is to be our head muleteer, assisted by a jovial young man named Miretu. They have two mules that comfortably convey our equipment.

The sky is cobalt blue and cloud free and we take breakfast next to our tent, eyed all the while by a couple of brazen thick-billed ravens, while a group of klipspringer are quietly grazing at the edge of camp. Today’s walk to Geech Camp is around 13 km and initially follows the edge of the escarpment eastwards promising panoramic views.

The thick-billed raven (Corvus crassirostris), Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaThe thick-billed raven (Corvus crassirostris), Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaThis corvid is endemic to the Horn of Africa. Its habitat includes mountains and plateaus between elevations of 1500 to 3400 metres

The trail passes through thickets of giant heather (Erica Arborea) which are heavily garlanded with wispy strands of greyish-green old man’s beard lichens. The ground is flecked with pale pink and aromatic wild thyme flowers, while amid the gnarled boughs of the giant heather, yellow St John’s wort flowers, delicate white sweet smelling jasmine flowers and pale pink Abyssinian roses bloom. Leaving the escarpment we descend steeply into a pocket of forest in the Kaba Valley which offers a welcome respite from the heat which is steadily rising. A scramble over a narrow, precipitous rocky ridge brings us to a scenic viewpoint where the Jinbar River plunges some 500 metres into the terrifyingly deep Geech Abyss. A thin, silver curtain of water is just visible in the black crease of rock leading from the river valley. This waterfall would be a truly impressive sight in the rainy season when the Jinbar is in spate.   

Jinbar Waterfall, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaJinbar Waterfall, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe Jinbar River plunges over 500 metres in to the Geech Abyss in the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

We now undertake a lung busting climb up a trail towards the unsealed road that runs from Sankaber to Chenek. The path weaves it way between African olive trees that trap the humidity making the going tough. Once on the road, the sun beats down with unrestrained brutality and the passing trucks and buses send up clouds of choking dust. I am relieved when we finally leave the dusty road to descend steeply towards the Jinbar River where we will stop for lunch. The route takes us down through a maze of small dusty fields where the barley has been cropped and where we encounter numerous children herding livestock who pester us for empty plastic water bottles which they can reuse to carry water to school. View from the Escarpment, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaView from the Escarpment, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaShort break to admire the view before the descent to the Jinbar River

Above the rocky river bed we manage to find a few spindly trees that cast just enough shade to sit under. Even in the shadows the heat still lingers and we derive no cooling benefit from the close proximity to the sluggishly flowing river with its brackish water. The terrain now changes as we begin our ascent out of the valley towards Geech Camp. The baked earth with its friable, multicoloured bands is clearly derived from volcanic deposits which reflect the heat. Just below Geech Camp was a Muslim village, betrayed now only by broken down stone-walled field systems amid partially felled plantations of eucalyptus. It is eerily quiet as we pass through what was once a thriving settlement. Population increase, deforestation, overgrazing and severe soil erosion led to the whole settlement being recently relocated to Debarq to help protect the National Park which was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger by UNESCO in 1996. After protracted consultation the villagers reluctantly left, but before they departed they burned their tulkuls to the ground.

Jinbar RiverJinbar RiverWe derive no cooling benefit from the close proximity to the sluggishly flowing river with its brackish water

Mid-afternoon we arrive at Geech Campsite which is situated on a high windswept plateau of shivering yellow grasses studded with giant lobelia plants. There are only a couple of other campers here and the place is all but deserted. The cloud has banked up steadily during the day and the atmosphere is pregnant with rain. We only just make our group’s tulkul before the heavens open and great curtains of rain pulsate across the undulating plateau finally banishing the heat and humidity. I watch as huge raindrops are greedily swallowed by the parched earth which gives off a loamy fragrance. The rain is as refreshing as the Dashen beer which I am sipping!

The rainstorm quickly blows itself out and I wander off to a nearby long drop. On my way back to camp I spot a sleek fox-like animal moving swiftly across the plateau. It passes quite close by and seems to be as invigorated by the recent shower of rain as me. It’s an Ethiopian wolf and I call out excitedly to Martin who sees it too. Unfortunately, neither of us manages to get a photo of this rare creature which we are privileged to see, as there are currently only about 40 individuals in the park. We were planning to walk up to the nearby viewpoint of Kedadit to see the sun set from the escarpment, but a persistent thick bank of grey cloud on the western horizon scuppers this idea and we content ourselves instead with another beer!

A local chicken has been procured for our dinner tonight, but my excitement at having meat (which is at a premium on this trek and not just because the Christians are observing Lent), soon subsides. The flesh of this bird is rubbery and tough as hemp, and I struggle to eat even a small portion! Moreover, the eucalyptus wood is smeeching and a layer of acrid blue smoke hangs like a veil across the interior of the tulkul making our eyes smart, so we beat a hasty retreat to our tent. The cloud is now clearing and through the gaps we spy a sky teeming with stars. The warmth of the day is rapidly seeping from the earth as the mercury plummets and the rising moon bathes the shimmering grasses in a pearly luminescence. Moonlight over Geech Campsite, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaMoonlight over Geech Campsite, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaThe Milky Way can just be seen in the moonlit skies over Geech Campsite


Day Three: The Roof of Africa

The sun is hot on our backs as we breakfast by our tent. It’s going to be another scorcher. Our journey today takes us 20km to Chennek Camp which is at an elevation of 3,600 metres, the same as Geech, but the terrain between the two involves steep descents and ascents which make this day challenging. First we must climb around 300 metres to the rocky promontory, Imet-Gogo (3,926 metres). We set off across a wide tract of Afroalpine moorland beneath a cobalt-blue sky flecked with flour-white cloud. Trails that look as if they have been made by a one legged goat meander amid the knee high grass and the terrain is dotted with giant lobelia which lift their shaggy green heads high above the ground on palm-like trunks. The scenery is magnificent and quintessentially African.

Giant Lobelia, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaGiant Lobelia, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaThe Afroalpine moorland above Geech Camp

As the heat has not yet risen enough to create the disorienting haze that later in the day will obscure from sight the distant landforms, atop Imet-Gogo we have superb 360 degree views of the deeply incised valleys separated by razor thin ridges of rock, the enormous cliffs of the escarpment and the iconic buttes and mesas rearing up from the lowland plains where we will end our trek. From this high point we spot Egyptian vultures and lammergeyers soaring on the thermals and two black kites tumbling like fighter jets locked into a dog-fight. A steep descent following the plunging edge of the escarpment into the Jinbahir Valley offers incredible views up to Imet-Gogo, perched fortress-like above sky-scrapper high walls of rock.

The Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThis panorama was taken from the escarpment near Imet-Gogo and shows the massively eroded northern section of the ancient super-volcano

Lunch is to be taken atop the 4,070 metre Inatye Peak which entails a steep 600 metre climb out of the Jinbahir Valley. The cloud is beginning to boil up from the east and I am sweating profusely as we battle the altitude following the well-worn trail through stands of giant heather which instantly trap the humidity. I observe that Michael and Noursein barely seem to have broken a sweat. Their brown skin has only the faintest hint of moistness, resembling polished stone. Without warning we are suddenly pelted with small hail stones as gunmetal-grey clouds pass overhead, bringing a welcome drop in the temperature. Eventually the vegetation thins, the terrain becomes bare and rocky with scrubby grass interspersed with patches of snow-white helichrysum and the odd lobelia. Here we spot giant mole rats darting amid the rocks. The main food of the Ethiopian wolf, they flee into holes as we approach.

The descent from Imet-Gogo, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaThe descent from Imet-Gogo, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaA steep descent to the Jinbahir Valley is followed by a steep 600 metre climb to reach the 4,070 metre Inatye Peak which can be seen centre top

View down through a gorge, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaView down through a gorge, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaA gorge lined with giant lobelia plunges down from the escarpment plateau en route to Inatye Peak

After what seems like an eternity we reach Inatye Peak, our lunch spot, a rocky crown protruding high above the near-vertical cliffs of the escarpment. Inatye means something like Mamma Mia in Amharic, and peering over the vertiginous edge it's not hard to see why. Below, the contorted and eroded landscape of fantastical chess-set shapes stretching away into the hazy horizon brood under a sky of slowly churning cloud. A feeble sun picks at a slit in the ashen cloud which is disgorging huge veils of rain that sweep dramatically across the landscape. We are standing on the very roof of Africa.

Rain over the Simien Mountains, EthiopiaRain over the Simien Mountains, EthiopiaRain sweeps across the buttes and mesas visible from Inatye Peak (4,070 metres)

A loud crack of thunder suddenly rends the air breaking the spell. The wind begins to gust as a storm approaches from the east and we sense it’s time to beat a hasty retreat. The air is cooler now and we descend rapidly across the afroalpine heathland as large leaden raindrops begin to fall. Just as quickly as it arrived, the shower departs, sunlight once more floods the landscape amplifying the golden hues of the grasses, and we enjoy the steep descent towards Chennek Camp along a truly scenic trail which threads its way precariously along the top of the plunging cliffs of the escarpment.

Giant heather, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaGiant heather, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe descent to Chennek Camp passes through stands of giant heather draped with old men's beard lichen

We arrive at the virtually deserted camp in the late afternoon and are instantly regaled with Dashen beer and popcorn. A large troop of Gelada baboons passing close to our tulkul entertain us with their grooming and foraging antics and we enjoy the spectacle of the setting sun turning the sky above the dramatic cliffs of the escarpment shades of apricot, violet and mauve. As soon as it gets dark in Africa people tend to go to bed, and Noursein has already staked his bush for the night close to our tent as we leave the warmth of the tulkul’s fire. It’s much cooler tonight as the sky is crystal clear and crammed full of stars. We marvel at the brilliance of the Milky Way that arches majestically above a ridge leading to Ras Bwahit which we will be climbing tomorrow.

Chennek Camp, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaChennek Camp, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe escarpment we had just traversed as seen from Chennek Camp


Day Four: Bagging Ras Bwahit

It’s not yet 9.00 am and I’m already sweating profusely and sucking hard on my water bladder as we slowly inch our way up what has to be one of Africa’s highest roads which passes close to Chennek camp. Unsealed, it zig-zags its way upwards to a pass just below the shoulder of Ras Bwahit and is busy with traffic. We spot several trucks crammed full of people which bear the name ‘Obama’. Michael explains that these were brought into service at the time Barak Obama first took office and are named Obama Trucks in honour of the first African-American president. Great plumes of fine dust thrown up by the slow moving vehicles combine with choking blue diesel fumes which make me gag. The atmosphere is thick and hazy, the heat is reflected back off the parched roadway and each searing breath I take feels like I’m inhaling molten lava. I’m relieved when we leave the road to climb up towards the edge of the escarpment.

Obama truck, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaObama truck, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaA truck travelling on one of Africa's highest roads is named after Barak Obama who became America's first ever African-American president the same year this truck entered service

Almost immediately we happen upon a group of Walia ibex not far above the precipitous drop. A male with a pair of majestic backward curved horns, chocolate brown coat and a long Billy-goat beard standing amid the shivering yellow grass cuts a formidable figure. Close by are several smaller females with less impressive horns and lighter coloured coats. Some are grazing, but others lie in the long grass and are quite hard to spot. This wild mountain goat is found only in the northern mountains of Ethiopia and is on the IUCN’s endangered list. There are thought to be only about 500 individuals in the Simien Mountains National Park, so we are immensely privileged to have seen this group of about eight.

Living on the edge!Living on the edge!A group of Walia ibex graze close to the escarpment edge above Chennek Camp

The trail takes us along the edge of the escarpment with incredible views down over the farmland far below. From up here the burnt-sienna and golden yellow-coloured terraced field systems dotted with small farms look like an enormous and intricate jigsaw puzzle. On the road below we spot our muleteers rounding a hairpin bend and we wave to them and shout words of encouragement. They are making for the village of Arkazye where we will camp tonight.

Muleteers, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaMuleteers, Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaOur muleteers, Yared and Miretu making for Arkazye Village

But first we have a date with the summit of Ras Bwahit, 4,437 metres above sea level, making it the third highest mountain in Ethiopia and the 14th highest peak in Africa. Back on the unmade road, we are slowly slogging our way upward battling the heat and altitude. At least the trucks are barely moving much faster than us!

One of Africa's highest roads in the Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaOne of Africa's highest roads in the Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaOne of Africa's highest roads threading its way upward above the Simien Escarpment as seen from the slope of Mount Bwahit

Leaving the road we strike out across the silver-hued terrain which is covered in helichrysum flowers which ape the surrounding rocks. The giant lobelia, not so giant anymore, eventually vanish as the route gets progressively rocky and steeper, and near the top we are forced to place our hands on the rock. We are moving a little faster now as the sun is obscured behind a bank of cloud and there is a refreshing stiff breeze. Combined with the natural fall in temperature due to the altitude, this makes climbing much more comfortable for us and I am somewhat surprised when Michael announces that we have reached the summit which is crowned with a rocky cairn.

As we pose for the obligatory summit pictures, Noursein hands me his aged Kalashnikov rifle to hold which is a somewhat surreal moment! Martin produces a 500 ml bottle of Tullamore Dew purchased duty free in Dubai which we have been quaffing each night and which contains just enough whiskey to toast our summit success! The views up here are magnificent. Below, Africa’s highest road switchbacks its way up the escarpment above the yawning void cut down some one kilometre by numerous ravines draining into the Tekeze River. The awe-inspiring ‘chess set of the Gods' is laid out beneath brooding gunmetal grey skies. Atop Mount Bwahit we are standing on the western rim of the enormous ancient super-volcano, the eastern counterpart of which is Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest mountain. As the crow files Ras Dashen is only about 20 km away from the summit of Bwahit, but an incredibly deep gorge containing the Meshaha river lies between.

Atop the summit of Ras Bhwait (4,437 metres), Simien Mountains, EthiopiaAtop the summit of Ras Bhwait (4,437 metres), Simien Mountains, EthiopiaOur guide, Michael (holding the Kalashnikov), and our scout, Noursein, celebrate our summitting Ras Bhwait

Rainstorm over the Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaRainstorm over the Simien Mountains National Park, EthiopiaAfrica’s highest road switchbacks its way up the escarpment above the yawning void cut down some one kilometre by numerous ravines draining into the Takkazzi River

Our Ethiopian friends are feeling decidedly chilly and reluctantly we bid farewell to the summit, but only after buying a few painted ceramic birds from a hawker who has made his way to the mountain top to sell his wares. We have been well and truly overcharged for these, but I took pity on the poor ragged fellow with bad teeth who now proves his usefulness by showing us a route he uses to quickly descend to his village, Arkazye, where we are camping tonight.

Descent from Ras Bhwait, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaDescent from Ras Bhwait, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe long descent from the rock strewn northern slope of Ras Bhwait to the village of Arkazye was gruelling

We descend through a field of loose rock and boulders. Michael, who has drained the last vestiges from the plastic whiskey bottle which is now residing in Noursein’s jacket pocket (it’s a useful receptacle for water for his pre-prayer ablutions!) instructs us to take care not to fall. He stumbles twice, but we’re in our element - it’s just like hillwalking in Ireland! The route threads its way steeply down through a small gorge and then traverses the eastern side of a great fin of rock. Distances are farther than they look and progress is slow due to the roughness of the terrain - the dusty trail is comprised of loose, jagged rock. We pass another herd of grazing Walia ibex and lower down, numerous Christian villagers on their way to a shrine sited somewhere in the mountains. The rocky terrain eventually evens out, field systems begin to appear, then the odd thatched tulkul surrounded by yellow hay ricks and tall, conical piles of dried dung pats. Ragged, dirty children, many barefooted, stare at us. Some smile and shyly return our waves, while others rush forward eager to greet the ferenji (white foreigners) and to parrot the few English words they have learnt at school. Their tiny hands outstretched in greeting are ingrained with dirt and grime and rough as sandpaper.

Tulkul near Arkazye, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaTulkul near Arkazye, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThatched tulkul surrounded by yellow hay ricks and tall, conical piles of dried dung pats above the farming village of Arkazye

Eventually Arkazye Village comes into view, and a steep climb down brings us to rows of rectangular huts constructed of wooden stakes and daub with galvanised roofs. Our tents are erected on a flat, dung strewn area right above the dirty river that runs below the houses upslope. Our arrival attracts quite a crowd of children who take up position to stare at us just metres from where we are seated enjoying a cool beer. I find their presence quite unnerving and they are eventually dispersed by Noursein who senses our unease.

The village of Arkazye, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe village of Arkazye, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThis settlement of 1,000 people rely on subsistence farming and raising livestock

Arkazye Villagers, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaArkazye Villagers, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaOur arrival in the village attracted many curious onlookers. Many were hoping that the ferenji would be able to give them some pills

A young man, the only other white person in the village of about 1,000 people, leaves a game of volley ball that is going on nearby and comes across to greet us. A medical graduate from Oxford, he is one week into his month’s stay as the guest doctor of a charity running the clinic here and is clearly delighted to see us. He paints a grim picture of life in this settlement which has no electricity and no running water, where most people are infested with parasites and typhoid fever is currently doing the rounds. ‘They have no concept of the faecal-oral route of disease transmission’ he says, shrugging his shoulders as a young boy drops his trousers to relieve himself on the bank of the nearby river. ‘I hope you have had your typhoid fever jabs and have plenty of sanitising hand gel with you!’ We learn that the communal toilet is so disgusting that the villagers practice open defecation, and the doctor kindly offers us the use of his ‘pit in the ground’ at the clinic.

Just as dusk is falling we are ushered into a nearby hut which has chickens running about inside. A candle stub is burning dimly in one corner where a woman is hunched over a small fire which is lit on the dirt floor. We are seated on a low bench covered in goatskins. East Africa is the home of coffee and the woman is going to perform Ethiopia’s famous coffee ceremony for us. She takes up handfuls of green beans and washes them thoroughly. She then places the beans into a cast iron pan and roasts them gently over the fire. Her face, illuminated by the light of the fire, is etched in concentration as she moves them briskly about the pan. They soon begin to let out a rich aroma which blends pleasantly with the frankincense which is burning in a small charcoal brazier. The coffee beans, now emitting a thin blue smoke, are wafted beneath our noses for us to savour the smell before they are placed into a deep wooden mortar. The woman then proceeds to pound the roasted beans with an iron tipped pestle before tipping the coarse powder into a ceramic pot called a jebena. Adding water, she places this atop the glowing embers of the fire.

The Coffee Ceremony, Arquzye Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe Coffee Ceremony, Arquzye Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe green beans which have been thoroughly washed, have now been placed in a pan to be roasted over the fire

As we are waiting for the coffee to brew, a large platter of injera with shiro is served. Injera is the national dish in Ethiopia and resembles a grey-coloured crepe, but with a much spongier texture. Made primarily of teff and/or barley flour mixed with water, it has a slightly sour taste as a result of the batter being left to ferment for several days. Small heaps of various dishes are placed upon the injera which is always consumed communally, with each diner using only their right hand to tear off strips of the doughy pancake to scoop up portions of food. Shiro, a spicy dish made from minced onions and garlic mixed with ground chickpeas and berbere (Ethiopian spices) is a favourite during Lent which is being religiously observed in this Christian village. We, however, are quietly told by Michael not to eat the injera or drink the coffee, as previous clients have become sick after doing so due to the poor hygiene here. The coffee is finally ready and the woman dramatically pours it from the jabena from a height of about one foot into a collection of small handleless cups lined up on a tray without stopping until each cup is full. The coffee is rich and intense, and I can’t resist a tiny sip. Dinner complete and washed down with a rather good bottle of Ethiopian red wine to toast our summit success, we head back to our tent where Noursein, who has prepared his bed close by, has ensured that the curious onlookers of earlier have been banished and we enjoy a sound night’s sleep.


Day Five: Back to School!

The crowds are back! I’m greeted by shouts of ‘Allo Ferenji’ as I emerge from the tent. Scores of snot-smeared ragged children too young to attend school are joined by numerous old people who are sitting quietly in the dust just feet from our tent. Michael tells us that the elderly villagers are hoping that the ferenji will be able to give them some pills to relieve their pain. I look on in despair. I have no idea what afflictions these people are suffering, but an ibuprofen pill is unlikely to bring them much respite. The children have now edged closer and are staring at us as we attempt to eat our breakfast and then to perform our ablutions. Tired of being ignored, one of them throws a small stone which lands on our breakfast table. Feigning anger, Noursein runs over to them brandishing his Kalashnikov and they flee.

The village is slowly stirring to life; smoke emanates from each hut and hovers in a thin blue layer over the rooftops. People make their way uphill to tend their fields and young men drive their livestock up into the high pastures for grazing. The sun commands a clear blue sky - it’s going to be another incredibly hot day. I can’t say I’m sorry to be leaving this village, as being constantly stared at and pestered by children has been quite an intimidating experience and the risk of contracting a helminth here is very real.

Camping at Arkazye Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaCamping at Arkazye Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaBlue wood smoke hangs like a veil over the roof tops of Arkazye as the village stirs to life

Today we have a much shorter distance to travel which is welcome news after the rigours of yesterday. The route out of the village is along a valley of afroalpine grassland dotted with giant lobelia which is heavily eroded due to overgrazing. Atop a ridge above the village we stop to admire the view of Ras Bwahit and the length of the escarpment towards Sankaber close to where we started our trek five days ago. Laid out below us is hectare upon hectare of rolling farmland dotted with thatched tulkul, each ploughed plot of crumbling earth hugging the next in an unbroken sea of agriculture. It is an idyllic scene that does not hint at the hardship endured by the farmers who live literally hand to mouth in the Simiens where rising population levels, chronic overgrazing and soil erosion has caused environmental degradation that now threatens livelihoods.

The Simien Mountain Escarpment, EthiopiaThe Simien Mountain Escarpment, EthiopiaMount Bwahit (far left) and the length of the escarpment towards Sankaber close to where we started our trek five days ago

Farms in the Simien Mountains, EthiopiaFarms in the Simien Mountains, EthiopiaHectare upon hectare of rolling farmland is dotted with thatched tulkul, each ploughed plot of crumbling earth hugging the next in an unbroken sea of agriculture. This idyllic scene does not hint at the hardship endured by the farmers who live literally hand to mouth

We eventually approach a compound on a hillside surrounded by a wooden palisade containing several rectangular buildings with galvanised roofs. The Ethiopian national flag and that of the Amhara region flutter on flagpoles over the buildings. Scores of children are running about inside the compound which we discover is the primary school of Sona Village. Inevitably we are mobbed as we enter the compound where our tents have been erected close to the ramshackle accommodation used by the teachers. Noursein, who seems to command the respect of everyone he meets, keeps them at a reasonable distance as we sit down to enjoy a beer. One by one the children depart for their homes as the school day is now over, and peace of a kind eventually descends over the compound.

Sona Village Primary School, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaSona Village Primary School, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe compound housing the Sona Village Primary School that local children attend until the age of 14

Sona Village Primary School pupils, EthiopiaSona Village Primary School pupils, EthiopiaA group of curious schoolchildren greet us on arrival at the primary school

Sona Village Primary School, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaSona Village Primary School, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThe school office

Sona Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaSona Village, Simien Mountains, EthiopiaThatched tulkul close to the school in Sona Village

Or cook, Mr Fantastic, has set up shop in one of the schoolrooms and we wander over to take a look inside. Like most buildings in Ethiopia, the walls are made of eucalyptus stakes and mud, the earthen floor is uneven and the roof is galvanised. Slits let in just enough light to see the grubby handwritten chart of the Ge’ez alphabet, some mathematical tables and the attendance register for the morning and afternoon sessions nailed to the wall. The pupils of this school, which number over 300, sit on rickety wooden benches that aren’t half a foot wide. There isn’t any comfort in this wretched schoolroom at all; how a child can learn anything in such an environment is beyond me.

Classroom at the Sona Village Primary SchoolClassroom at the Sona Village Primary SchoolInterior of one of the classrooms which is basic to say the least

By late afternoon the sky is once more dark and angry and we are reclining in our tent when the heavens open. This time the swirling battleship-grey clouds spit out hailstones along with buckshot rain. Within minutes the surrounding ground is white and rivulets of water run in all directions, including into our tent which has holes in the groundsheet! After half an hour the storm has passed over leaving the eastern slope of Ras Bwahit frosted white. The sun once more floods the landscape and the ground in the compound steams and emits a loamy odour. As dusk approaches we stroll half a kilometre to a vantage point over the sepia and smoky grey pinnacles and spires of the lowlands to watch the sun set in an apricot haze. Inevitably, we attract a posy of squealing children from the nearby farms who are eager to have their photo taken.

Ras Bhwait from Sona VillageRas Bhwait from Sona VillageThe hailstorm turned the northern slope of Ras Bhwait white

Sunset over the Simien Mountains from Sona VillageSunset over the Simien Mountains from Sona VillageThe smoky grey pinnacles and peaks of the Simien Mountains just after the sun has set as seen from Sona Village

Chicken is on the menu tonight and is far more edible than that of a few nights ago. Inside the schoolroom, warmed by a roaring eucalyptus fire, it is warm and cosy. But the cold hits us like a sledgehammer as we return to our tent. The stars are incredible, the best yet, the Milky Way etched in pin sharp clarity above Ras Bwahit. However, the biting cold causes me to quickly seek the warmth and comfort of my four season sleeping bag.

Milky Way over the Simien MountainsMilky Way over the Simien MountainsThe Milky Way is etched in pin sharp clarity above Ras Bhwait as seen on a bitterly cold night from Sona Village


Day Six: Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink!

Last night was bitterly cold and I am grateful for the warmth of the morning sun on my shoulders as we begin the gruelling 1,600 metre descent to Mekarebiya Village in the lowlands. Noursein does not seem to be himself this morning, he is not moving as steadily as usual, and he carries his rifle as if it is a dead weight across his shoulders. After a few kilometres he slows before announcing that he does not feel well and asks for some water. Pressed by us all, he says the bitter cold of last night has affected his chest which is causing him pain. I immediately give him two painkillers and we make him rest while they take effect. I have grown immensely fond of this kind Muslim man with his ready smile and wicked sense of humour who has spent every minute of this trek looking out for us and our belongings. I feel guilty that because of us, a 61 year old grandfather lay down last night in the open in sub-zero temperatures with just a thin sheet of plastic sacking to cover him. I am relieved when he rallies and announces with a broad smile that the mountain lion is ready to roar once more!

The farmland gradually peters out until we are standing at the top of a deep river valley with thickly forested slopes. Through the blue haze I can see the serpentine coils of a river far below. On its bank under the shade of a large fig tree we will stop for lunch. The zig-zag trail is brutally steep and rough underfoot, comprised of loose, angular rocks, and the heat is tremendous causing us to flee into any available patch of shade at regular intervals. Tiny rivulets of sweat trickle down from my brow and sting my eyes. My hair is stiff with sweat and dust. Yared and Miretu, our muleteers, pass by us in a cloud of dust, spurred on by words of encouragement from Michael and Noursein. Even the mules seem to be weary from the oppressive heat.

Simien Mountain EscarpmentSimien Mountain EscarpmentThe farmland eventually peters out until we are standing at the top of a deep river valley below the imposing Simien Escarpment

The steep trail from Sona Village to MekarebyaThe steep trail from Sona Village to MekarebyaTo reach our camp at Makarebya meant a gruelling 1,600 metre descent from Sona Village with the mercury soaring to the mid-30s

After what seems like an eternity, we spot the beautiful green boughs of the fig tree where we will stop for lunch. I’m relieved as I have almost drained the two litres of water from my bladder. We pick our way carefully across the river with its turbid waters and make for the welcome shade of this venerable old tree that must have stood on the sandy river bank for over a century. People from the nearby farms are busy washing their clothes in the river and local women have spread a variety of ceramic pots and basketry on the ground in the hope of making a sale to passing ferenji. I look about for a water vendor. Everywhere we have been we have encountered some enterprising soul selling mineral water, Coke, Fanta or beer. But not here, and at a time when obtaining water is critical. We still have two hours to walk until we reach our camping ground; I’m out of water, Martin’s bladder is almost empty, Michael has a mere dribble in his half litre bottle and the temperature has soared into the mid-30s. One look at the human faeces scattered about the river bank tells me that the water here is totally undrinkable and our Steripen is on the mule!

On the trail from Sona Village to MekarebyaOn the trail from Sona Village to MekarebyaHere we are with our trusty scout, Noursein, the lion of the Simiens!

Basket sellers near MakarebyaBasket sellers near MakarebyaThere were plenty of baskets for sale by the river, but not one bottle of water!

Michael assured us that we would be able to buy water here, which is why we didn’t carry an extra bottle each. We come up with a solution: Michael must go on ahead to get someone to meet us half way with water. He scoots off at once and we set out slowly along the trail that wends its way above the river under the watchful eye of Noursein, who ensures that we make regular stops in the shade. Eventually we see our assistant cook, Wondem, and Miretu the muleteer, running along the trail with several bottles of water. To say we are pleased to see them is an understatement! I eagerly gulp down almost half a litre in one go. So far we have managed to maintain proper hydration and haven’t suffered any ill effects of the altitude or the heat. No matter how much water you drink in this climate, the thirst continues to gnaw at you until the sun slips below the horizon and the sky explodes in welcome shades of scarlet and tangerine which usher in the sweet relief of cooler night air.

On the trail near MakarebyaOn the trail near MakarebyaWondem and Miretu come to the rescue with bottles of water. The park rangers also put in an appearance!

Having slaked our thirst, we set off towards the camp only to be met by a rescue party of six park rangers bearing AK-47s! Told there was an emergency, they seem surprised that there are no casualties, but we had enough experience to ensure that this did not occur. Everyone looks relieved when we finally arrive at our camp in Mekarebiya Village, and we treat our team to cold drinks after what has been a very eventful day! Yared is particularly delighted as I offer him a second Walia beer, and prostrates himself on the ground. He’s quite a character! Hemmed in on all sides by jagged spires and peaks, dotted with red hot pokers and fringed with tall palm trees, the camp setting is very scenic and we enjoy our beers as we watch a young man plough a nearby field with a team of oxen as the sun sinks lower in the western sky. It's a scene that could have been lifted from the pages of a children's Bible. We turn in immediately after dinner as we have to be up at 4.00 am to make an early start to avoid the heat as we traverse the lowlands en route to our final camp.

Mekarebiya CampMekarebiya CampFringed with tall palm trees and hemmed in on all sides by jagged spires and peaks, our camp setting is very scenic

Ploughing with oxen, MekarebyaPloughing with oxen, MekarebyaThere is little mechanisation in any of the farming communities of the Simien Mountains where animal and manual labour persist


Day Seven: Letting the Chat out of the Bag…

Never before have I breakfasted under such an impressive starry sky. The moon has set and the Milky Way arches overhead in a blaze of brilliance across a deep purple sky. It’s pitch black and the air is cool as we set off for a very steep descent over a badly eroded trail to a dried up riverbed which we follow up a valley for several kilometres. Walking over and around the river cobbles and through patches of deep sand is tedious. The eastern sky is brightening and there is now enough light to see a group of vervet monkeys cavorting in a large fig tree overhanging the river bed. Just before we begin our ascent into a neighbouring valley we pass a group of people splashing about in a series of shallow pools. They are catching small fish which they will sell at tomorrow’s market.

Dawn en route to MulitDawn en route to MulitThe sun has risen but the dried up river valley we are walking up is thankfully still in the shade

Catching fishCatching fishThese people are busy catching small fish before it gets too hot. They will sell them at tomorrow's market

By now the sun has risen but the valley we are walking up is still in the shade and the trail is busy with people, who like us, have risen early to beat the heat. Suddenly a large party of men run by us bearing an animal hide stretcher. A woman is being rushed to the hospital in Addi Arkay. She has recently given birth, but has post delivery complications. Her eyes are rolling to the back of her head and the poor soul looks delirious. With no vehicular access and no helicopter service from her village, her journey to the hospital will be a long and uncomfortable one. I hope that she arrives there in time for treatment.

The sun that was a throbbing orange orb only an hour ago, casting its warming rays upon the night-chilled soil, has now become an angry incandescent inferno which radiates its relentless heat down onto us as we begin a gruelling climb of over 400 metres up a rough zig-zag pathway to a wooded plateau. The scenery is magnificent and we marvel at a tall pinnacle of rock called God’s Finger (Ye’Ab Idj) which comes into view as we approach the top of the trail. This spectacular landform is a volcanic plug. Near the top of the trail we spot Hamadryas baboons, who are aggressively grunting and shrieking at each other, and a black and white Colobus monkey swinging through the undergrowth. Nearby basalt outcrops glowing golden in the early afternoon sun rise from the surrounding valley, sculpted into crooked spires and monumental buttes by centuries of wind and rain.

Before God's FingerBefore God's FingerThe reward for a lung busting climb of 400 metres in temperatures soaring into the mid-30s is this view of the iconic 'Ye’Ab Idj' a volcanic plug

It’s now the hottest time of the day and we stop at a café in the palm fringed village of Haweza. The proprietors are a Muslim family so there’s no beer to be had, but we are regaled with bottles of soft drinks. Our hosts, who are distantly related to Noursein, are very kind and friendly, and the lady performs the coffee ceremony for us and gives us a free meal of injera and wat (stew).

Cafe in Haweza VillageCafe in Haweza VillageNoursein tucks into injera and wat

Grinding roasted coffee beans, Haweza VillageGrinding roasted coffee beans, Haweza VillageOur hosts' daughter grinds the roasted coffee beans in a wooden mortar

Coffee Ceremony, Haweza VillageCoffee Ceremony, Haweza VillageOur hostess pours coffee for us




























We stay with them for several hours and greatly enjoy their company. The woman asks us how many children we have, and throws back her head and laughs when we tell her three between us. ‘That is why you are rich and I am poor,’ she says, ‘I have ten children!’ She might be financially poor compared to us, but she and her family are rich in many other ways. I doubt she has ever sat down to eat alone in her life. A large mat is placed upon the floor so Noursein and his relative can perform their afternoon prayers and a small bag of green leaves is then produced. They are going to chew chat, a flowering shrub native to the Horn of Africa.

Afternoon prayers in HawezaAfternoon prayers in HawezaOur Muslim host performing his afternoon prayers

Chat leaves contain a monoamine alkaloid called cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant that causes mild euphoria. As the chat begins to take effect on Noursein and his relative, an ancient MP3 player is produced and devotional music soon fills the room. Several generations of the family sit around chanting and clapping and I can’t help but smile as I see Noursein drinking Fanta orange mixed with water from the Tullamore Dew whiskey bottle! Everyone looks so happy and contented, and I will long remember the beautiful smile on Noursein’s face as he catches my eye. The chat session ends with copious prayers for our safe return home which are met with a chorus of Amens. I am slightly sad when we say our goodbyes to this lovely family and hit the trial for the short walk to the village of Mulit where we will spend our last night.

The chat's out of the bag!The chat's out of the bag!Chat leaves contain a monoamine alkaloid called cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant that causes mild euphoria

Chat time in Hawaza VillageChat time in Hawaza VillageNoursein, an observant Muslim, drinking Fanta orange mixed with water from our discarded Tullamore Dew whiskey bottle!

Scenery near MulitScenery near MulitThe road between Haweza and Mulit is very scenic

Our tents are erected inside a small walled compound under the shade of an African olive tree. Long horned cattle and goats roam the interior and a huge pile of golden sorghum stalks has been stowed in a tree which is reached by a ladder. A plastic cup stuck on the end of a stick at the main gate advertises the fact that tella, home-brewed beer is sold here. Our muleteer, Yared, has taken up residence on a wooden bench outside the beer house along with several local men, and jovially raises a cow horn cup and implores me to join him. I opt for a bottle of St George’s beer instead!

Mulit CampMulit CampOur final campsite was a compound in Mulit Village which contained a beer shop where tella is brewed

The lady who runs the beer house is preparing coffee and injera and we are invited to join her. A couple of chickens scatter as I enter the beer house with its earthen floor. A calf is tied up next to one of two large conical ceramic tanks containing the fermenting liquor. The tella is usually made from teff and sorghum, but in some regions, barley, wheat or maize are used instead, and spices may also be added. Dried and ground gesho leaves are used for fermentation. Due to the addition of bread and use of a fermentation vessel which has been smoked over dried olive wood or Abyssinian rose wood, tella may have a smoky flavour. The alcohol content of unfiltered tella is usually around 2–4 percent volume with the filtered variety being stronger. We decline a cup of tella, opting instead for the coffee which is rich and delicious and we take three cups as is the custom of the country.

The Mulit beer shopThe Mulit beer shopOne of two large conical ceramic tanks containing the fermenting liquor. Tella is usually made from teff and sorghum

Mr Fantastic provides a true feast for our final night, a huge platter of injera with a variety of delicious dishes piled on top which we devour with gusto. Michael tells me that at Haweza he bought a bag of chat leaves for me to try. I take a few of the green leaves and place them into my mouth and chew on them before adding more, all the while working the mass to one cheek with my tongue and sucking out the juice. It’s not unlike chewing coca leaves which we did in South America; indeed, chat has a similar tannin-like taste. Eventually I spit out the wad of green gunk and drink plenty of water. The effect of the chat comes on gently but slowly intensifies. I find it to be stimulating like coffee, but slightly more pleasurable and the conversation with Michael flows readily as we drain the remains of the second bottle of Tullamore Dew! We turn in early as we plan to rise early to catch the dawn. Perhaps it is the effects of the chat keeping me from sleeping soundly, but I am woken in the small hours by animated conversation emanating from the direction of the beer house. It sounds remarkably like Yared…

A starry night in Mulit VillageA starry night in Mulit VillageThe incredible buttes that we had seen in the distance from Sankaber a week ago are now just a stone's throw away


Day Eight: Market Day

Martin has already left the tent when I wake up. I join him just outside the compound walls where there is a fantastic view to the east over landforms that really resemble Homer’s ‘chess set of the Gods’ behind which the sun will rise. We wait patiently as the eastern sky turns crimson, pulsating and radiating streaks of fire, before the glowing white orb of the sun erupts dramatically between two iconic buttes.

Dawn from Mulit VillageDawn from Mulit VillageThe eastern sky turns crimson, pulsating and radiating streaks of fire

Dawn over the Simien Mountains at Mulit VillageDawn over the Simien Mountains at Mulit VillageThe glowing orb of the sun erupts behind 'the chess set of the Gods'

Breakfasting back in the compound I spy Yared walking across to his mule, Chai. I wave at him, but I get no response. Red-eyed and unusually silent, it’s obvious that he’s nursing a bad hangover! We set off along a well-worn and typically rugged track that zig-zags its way steeply down to the town of Addi Arkay, the end point of our trek. It seems everyone else is on the move too, and the walk reminds me of a scene from The Life of Brian! Today is Easter Saturday and there is a big market in the town where people are hoping to get good prices for their wares. Men, women and children hurry by driving goats and heavily laden donkeys. Most are carrying all manner of goods: eucalyptus poles, huge wicker baskets, hessian sacks, bundles of leaves and grasses, and live chickens tied by their feet and hung upside down. Lent is broken across Ethiopia by consuming one of the nation’s most famous dishes, Doro Wat (spicy chicken stew), and these chickens are destined for the pot. In the human flotsam sweeping by are our muleteers. I catch Noursein’s eye and we share a laugh as Yared passes us still wearing the glazed look of someone who is suffering the day after the night before!

En route to marketEn route to marketPeople from Mulit and Haweza hurry by on their way to the Easter Saturday market in Addi Arkay, the end point of our trek

En route to Addi ArkayEn route to Addi ArkayThe lady who runs the beer shop makes her way to the market with two of her daughters

Children off the Addi Arkay MarketChildren off the Addi Arkay MarketChildren grow up quickly in the Simien Mountains and these young entrepreneurs are hoping for good prices for their produce which includes a live chicken!

Yared and NourseinYared and NourseinYared and Noursein are from the Amhara tribe, one is a Christian and one a Muslim, and both are unforgettable characters!

Addi Arkay, shimmering in the heat haze on a plain below, doesn’t appear to be getting any closer and like all the tracks in Ethiopia this one is dusty, brutally steep in places and full of broken loose rock. Local people however make light of this, and as I trudge heavily downwards like a cart horse in my leather walking boots, they spring over the rocks like gazelles in their flimsy plastic shoes, every one a Mo Farah in the making! I marvel at their agility and endurance.

Addi ArkayAddi ArkayAddi Arkay, shimmering in the heat haze on a plain below, doesn’t appear to be getting any closer!

As we enter the outskirts of Addi Arkay we are mobbed by small children shouting 'Allo Ferenji' and trying to shake our hands which are clasping our walking poles firmly. Everyone is imploring us to buy trinkets. Noursein to the rescue again! Eventually we reach the sanctuary of a small café where our group convenes and we order cold drinks for everyone. Martin stands to make a speech thanking our team for all their help and hard work in taking care of us for the past eight days. We then present them with tips before we board a minibus that will take us to Axum to begin a week’s exploration that will end with a visit to the world famous stone churches of Lalibela. As we pull away, I spot Yared among the throng of people on the pavement and wave vigorously at him. Wearing a look of utter dejection, he seems to be in another world! I laugh when Michael says that Yared is convinced he has been swindled out of some money by one of the other team members. The price one pays for drinking too much tella!

Arrival at Addi ArkayArrival at Addi ArkayAfter a week, it was a real relief to finally leave the rough, dusty trails for a tarmac road in the market town of Addi Arkay!

Drinks all round!Drinks all round!L-R: Michael, the guide; Miretu, muleteer; Wondem, assistant cook; Noursein, scout; Yared, muleteer; Tigabu aka 'Mr Fantastic', the cook, and Gimbe, our guide for Axum and Lalibela

This has been by far the most challenging multi-day trek we have ever undertaken due to the climate, the altitude, the brutally steep ascents and descents, and the unrelentingly rugged trails. Yet walking amid the breathtaking scenery of ‘the chess set of the Gods’ through vibrant farming communities where life is little changed since Biblical times has been a rewarding, eye-opening experience. For this is a country far removed from the barren, famine-ravaged, poverty-stricken nation oft portrayed in the western media. Quite simply, Ethiopia is one of the most friendly, welcoming, culturally fascinating and inspiring countries we have had the pleasure of visiting.

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[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) africa ethiopia Simien Mountains simien mountains national park trekking world heritage site https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/4/-the-chess-set-of-the-gods-trekking-in-the-simien-mountains-of-ethiopia Tue, 25 Apr 2017 10:27:02 GMT
The Kingdom of Cod: Winter in Norway’s Lofoten Islands https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/2/the-kingdom-of-cod-winter-in-norway-s-lofoten-islands Hamnøy, Moskenes after sunsetHamnøy, Moskenes after sunsetBlue hour at the fishing village of Hamnøy on Moskenes island in Lofoten The coccyx-shaped Lofoten archipelago defiantly juts out into the frigid waters of the Norwegian Sea. Situated north of the Arctic Circle, winter in this chain of mountainous islands rising straight out of the roiling ocean like an impenetrable wall of rock is utterly spellbinding, an otherworldly wonderland of frosted glass etched against constantly changing skies that range from steel-grey to candy-pink.

Comprised of a multitude of various sized islands, according to Norse legend the Lofoten archipelago was created by the hammer-wielding god Thor, who flung fistfuls of rocks into the sea. The population of 24,500 is concentrated on four main islands running from Austvågøy in the north through Vestvågøy and Flakstadøya to Moskenesøya in the south. The E10 highway now links these four islands via a series of bridges and sea tunnels.

We fly into Kiruna in neighbouring Sweden where a 4X4 vehicle hire is half the price of that in Norway, and where we are able to avail of much cheaper provisions for our week’s self-catering stay in Lofoten. A six hour drive brings us to our first accommodation at Lyngværet in Austvågøy, a cosy and beautifully furnished wooden cabin above the island’s rocky shoreline. After a three night stay we drive south to Moskenesøya and the fishing village of Å (pronounced ‘aw’ which means ‘rivulet’ in Old Norse), a cluster of rust-red and ochre-yellow houses overlooked by a formidable range of snow-frosted mountains, a film-maker’s dream. Here we settle into a rustically furnished traditional fisherman’s cabin jutting right out over the cellophane-clear water in the harbour. The harbour at  ÅThe harbour at ÅThe rorbuer and Fishing Museum on the harbour at Å

Everywhere the raw salt-laden air is pungent with the unmistakable stench of fish which constantly assaults the nostrils. Lofoten is the world’s largest cod fishery. For centuries fishermen from near and far have converged on these islands in midwinter, chasing great shoals of skrei (Arctic cod in their prime) that have migrated south from the Barents Sea to spawn. Cod has long been the lifeblood of this archipelago, and the ubiquitous rust-red rorbuer - wooden huts on spindly stilts projecting over the sea and connected by wooden walkways that were once the temporary homes of the migrant fishermen - are among the islands' most characteristic sights. Formerly painted with a mixture of fish blood and cod-liver oil and sporting grass roofs, many, including those we stayed in, have now been converted into tourist accommodation. For the fishing industry has witnessed a drastic decline from its zenith at the turn of the twentieth century. In those days something like 25,000 fishermen would descend on the Lofotens from late-January for the three month cod-fishing season.

However, despite this decline, the islanders remain firmly wedded to the fishing industry and as ubiquitous as the rorbuer are the enormous wooden drying frames (hjell) that seem to occupy every windswept rock. These are used to produce stockfish, cod that have been decapitated, gutted, split along the spine and hung over poles by their tails to dry in the salty Arctic air from February to May, when cold weather conditions protect the fish from insects and prevents uncontrolled bacterial growth. After this, it is removed from the hjell to be matured for another two to three months indoors in a dry and airy environment until it is around a fifth of its original weight. Losing none of its nutritional value in the drying process, the Lent-friendly stockfish is much-prized, particularly in the Catholic countries of southern Europe, and also in Nigeria where demand has risen sharply and in 2014 eclipsed exports to Italy.

Cod heads drying in the cool, dry, Arctic air of LofotenCod heads drying in the cool, dry, Arctic air of LofotenRacks of fish heads drying near Myrland

A more macabre sight are the racks of severed cod heads bound for the West African market. Their mouths wide open as if gasping for their last breath reveal grisly rows of razor sharp teeth but no tongues - these are a local delicacy and have been cut out. Strung together in snow-dusted bundles, their swim-bladders hang down like limp balloons from beneath blackened gills, while overhead cawing crows and wailing seagulls wheel in the wind, awaiting their chance to swoop down to peck out their glazed and lifeless eyes.

Severed cod heads drying on racksSevered cod heads drying on racksThese cod heads will be exported to West Africa where there is s huge demand

The Lofoten archipelago is also the centre of the country’s whaling industry. Norway is one of just three nations, along with Japan and Iceland, that continue to hunt whales against the tide of public opinion. Setting aside the opprobrium of those who wish to see whaling banned, we dine out at the upmarket Paleo Arctic restaurant in Svolvær which draws inspiration from a time when we lived as hunters and gatherers. Here we feast upon smoked fin whale with a soft poached egg, organic sour cream and Norwegian crisp bread. This is followed by a succulent grilled fillet of wild reindeer with mushrooms, mountain cranberry, pickled raisins and seasonal root vegetables, rounded off with a divinely spiced panna cotta and washed down with a hearty Rioja. The food didn’t stick in my croup, but the bill most certainly did!

The weather at this latitude is mercurial and unpredictable and can change in an instance; our mid-February photography trip unhappily coincides with a period of bitterly cold unsettled weather. For days on end a cruel Arctic wind howls through the narrow streets of the fiskevær (fishing villages) and lifts great columns of whirling spindrift that tear malevolently across the frigid landscape. The mercury plummets to sub-zero temperatures draining every last vestige of warmth from our bodies, the blinding spindrift blasts our faces which sting with the eviscerating cold and our fingers are too numb and frozen to operate a camera. On such days a shot of Linie, the famous Norwegian aquavit matured at sea in oak sherry casks, is a very welcome antidote against the deep-freezer climate.

A wild winter's day in LofotenA wild winter's day in LofotenThe sun momentarily breaks through the churning cloud highlighting the spin-drift blowing across the landscape

The grey-green sea seethes, the pounding surf slams onto ice encrusted shorelines and waves lash against the stilted rorbuer that are somehow anchored firmly enough to shelves of rock to resist the relentless onslaught of the ocean. As I watch a brightly lit fishing boat making for shore near Reine at dusk, I think of the fishermen of yore heading back through storm-tossed waters to land their catch, drawn ashore by the welcoming warm glow of candlelight from the windows of these rorbuer in the fiskevær dotting the coast. Many did not make it, and every fishing community has its share of tragic stories of men pitched to a watery grave by the merciless sea.

EventideEventideAnother snow storm sweeps in from the Arctic Ocean towards Reine Indeed, American novelist Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, A Descent into the Maelström, tells the story of a man who survived his ship being drawn into and swallowed by the Moskstraumen, a system of tidal eddies and whirlpools between Lofoten Point on Moskenesøya and the islet of Mosken. The words of William Whiting’s hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save, could have been written for the folk of Lofoten who, for centuries cut off from the mainland and surrounded by the sea, were forced by necessity to place their fate in the hands of the elements:

‘Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!’

For hours at a time heavy falls of snow blow by the windows of our hut in a horizontal blur. The thick flakes quickly bank up against the door and gather in the corners of the window frames, shrouding the surrounding landscape in an even blanket of pillow-soft whiteness. There is something mesmerising and deeply relaxing about watching the falling snow from the comfort of a cabin warmed by a wood burning stove, and time appears to stand still. The lacerating and whining winds eventually blow themselves out, leaving a profound but temporary stillness until the next weather front sweeps in. The great cloak of whey-white snow seems to muffle most sound save the constant shrieking of the seabirds. As we sally forth into this white wonderland, the crunch and squeal of the freshly fallen powdery flakes beneath my boots is deeply gratifying and the creation of pristine boot prints seems to bring out the inner child in me!

Between these squally weather fronts the sun appears fleetingly, at times a match-head blazing white hot and amber, splitting the flint-grey sky into patches of speedwell-blue interrupted by billowing cloud in shades of pale-apricot, smoke-yellow and chalky-mauve; minutes later it is a wan disc floating in an immense misty greyness like a Chinese lantern. And all the while the monochrome landscape exudes a pearly-grey opalescence and seems to gleam with surreal lucidity against these extraordinary kaleidoscopic skies.

Reine, Lofoten, NorwayReine, Lofoten, NorwayOne of Norway's best known fiskevær: Reine in Lofoten

In the feeble sunlight the reflections of the rorbuer and the mountains appear to float and shimmer with a mirage-like quality in the becalmed waters of numerous inlets; the snow glitters in the low sun angle as if it was pulverised diamond dust and glistening icicles drip like candle wax from the eaves of the huts.

Derelict farmhouse near YttersandDerelict farmhouse near YttersandA derelict snow and ice-encrusted farmhouse near Yttersand

The blackened naked boughs of the birch groan under the weight of their newly acquired white finery, while conifers look as if they have been lifted straight from the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy story. Then there are truly enchanting evenings when the sky is tinged with a candy pink blush which announces the settling sun.

Ramberg BeachRamberg BeachA winter's day at dusk on Ramberg Beach

Haukland Beach, LofotenHaukland Beach, LofotenA wild, winter's day on Haukland Beach

Even on the dullest day, the near-shore has an aquamarine hue which fades into bottle-green which then gives way to the petrol-blue yonder of the deep sea speckled with white horses, all of which serve to enhance the deep gold of picture-postcard perfect sandy beaches. In the blue hour, the chilled lavender landscape contrasts with the warm amber rectangles of light emanating from the windows of the rorbuer, and the settlements hemmed in between mountain and sea resemble a string of fairy lights which are reflected in the inky-blue water. 

Blue hour at SakrisøyBlue hour at SakrisøyThe warmth emanating from the lit windows of the Sakrisøy Rorbuer contrasts with the lavender-blue chill of the surrounding landscape

These brief interludes between the storms are rewarded with dramatic views of mountains of the kind only young children draw – spiky, sky-piercing, majestic - and attract scores of other photographers all jostling for space, as eager as we are to commit these breathtaking vistas to film. Unfortunately, the constantly cloudy skies mean that we are not treated to the celestial light show of the Aurora Borealis which is undoubtedly the main draw to this northern region in winter for many photographers.

Rorbuer near ReineRorbuer near ReineTraditional fishermen's huts (rorbuer) near Reine

Our stay in Lofoten has been a mere prelude, the place has permeated my very soul. As we drive away from our final photo stop in the heritage-listed Nusfjord fishing village, we are already imagining an autumn return, when the mountains will have cast off their snowy apparel opening up a whole new world of walking, trekking and photo opportunities amid the unparalleled beauty and splendour of this, The Kingdom of Cod.

[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) å arctic europe lofoten norway nusfjord Photo Tour Photography reine stockfish https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2017/2/the-kingdom-of-cod-winter-in-norway-s-lofoten-islands Sun, 26 Feb 2017 15:07:24 GMT
An Autumn Trek in Arctic Sweden: The Kungsleden Trail from Saltoluokta to Kvikkjokk https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2016/9/an-autumn-trek-in-arctic-sweden-the-kungsleden-trail-from-saltoluokta-to-kvikkjokk The Aurora Borealis over Arctic SwedenThe Aurora Borealis over Arctic SwedenWe finally got lucky with the weather and were treated to a spectacular celestial display










An Autumn Trek in Arctic Sweden: The Kungsleden Trail from Saltoluokta to Kvikkjokk

In the far reaches of Northern Europe there is a land of cold rushing rivers, vast forests and snow-capped mountains. A wild and timeless land where huge herds of reindeer roam and the Northern Lights electrify star-studded skies. This land is called Sápmi, ancient homeland of the People of the Sun and Wind, the indigenous Sámi Nation, who are also known as Laplanders. We are planning to trek along part of the Kungsleden (King’s) Trail in Sweden’s Arctic. This runs from Abisko in the north to Hemavan in the south, crossing 425 km of Europe’s last remaining wilderness, including the Laponia

World Heritage Site, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996. The middle section we are going to to traverse, from Saltoluokta to Kvikkjokk is about 85 km, and includes three lake crossings which should take us around five days. We have chosen early-September for three main reasons: firstly, the colours of the Arctic autumn are fantastic; secondly, the route will be less crowded with other trekkers; thirdly and most importantly, there will be few, if any, mosquitoes and midges which plague the Arctic summer, as we discovered to our cost last year in Greenland!


Getting to our start point: the Saltoluokta Fjällstation

We begin our journey in Kiruna, a sprawling mining settlement cheek by jowl with the iron ore workings that gave rise to it. There are regular SAS flights from here to Stockholm and daily connecting flights to Dublin. The Svenska Turistföreningen’s (Swedish Tourist Board or STF) Malmfältens Folkhögskola on the outskirts of town offers excellent double rooms in small, self contained units, with the option of a hearty buffet breakfast. It’s a good idea to become STF members while here (about 45 euro for a family per annum), as you will get a decent discount on your stay, and also at other mountain stations, huts, hostels and on boats operated by the STF, which we plan to use during our trek.

This is a different kind of trip for us, as we will be totally dependent on public transport and have travelled here with the bare minimum needed, contained in our rucksacks and a small bag each. We have left these small bags containing our travelling clothes at the hostel. Everything we need for the next five days, including food, tent, sleeping bags and mats, stove, cooking utensils, spare clothing, and a fair amount of photography equipment, are in our rucksacks which are pretty heavy. We board an early morning bus to Gällivare which departs from Kiruna Bus Station opposite the Town Hall. The bus doubles as a post van, which, with typical Scandinavian efficiency, leaves bang on time. We have a couple of hours to wait at Gällivare for the next bus that will take us to the quay at Kebnats where we will catch the STF boat to Saltoloukta, the start point of our Kungsleden trek. We make ourselves comfortable inside the nearby railway station listening to the deep rumble of the cars of iron ore pellets from the nearby mines passing by.

Again, the bus leaves smack on time and our journey takes us through open, sparsely populated countryside of rolling forests which is flooded with golden autumnal light and studded with deep blue lakes. As we draw closer to Kebnats, hills and mountains float into view, some still snow streaked. The STF ferry has just arrived as our bus sweeps into the unmade car park, and is disgorging its passengers which are mostly smiling, grungy backpackers who look like they’re having the time of their lives.

I notice that the boat is flying an eye-catching yet unfamiliar flag of red, green, yellow and blue vertical stripes, intersected by a circle which is half red and half blue. I guess correctly that this is the flag of the Sámi nation, Europe’s only recognised indigenous minority. I later learn that the vertical colour stripes are commonly used on gáktis - the traditional Sámi dress - and the circular motif is inspired by the sun/moon symbol which appeared on the Sámi shamans’ ancient drums. The blue half represents the moon and the red half, the sun. During the course of our stay we will learn much more about the fascinating life of the Sámi people as we pass through part of Sápmi, which stretches across areas of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia.

We walk up the sun-bleached wooden decking to the boat and clamber aboard (SKF members get a discount). There’s only a handful of other passengers heading to Saltoluokta as it’s the fag-end of the season and many of the mountain stations and huts will close within the next week or fortnight. As the boat glides across the inky blue lake, from the sun-drenched bow we feast our eyes on the majesty of the surrounding valley sweeping up to snow-dappled mountains. The wind blowing over the surface of the lake lifts the water into little white crested waves. I zip my jacket all the way up to my chin as there’s a definite autumnal chill in the air. Indeed, the snow glistening on the nearby mountaintops is a reminder that winter never quite released its icy grip on the uplands this far north.

About ten minutes later we are disembarking at the wooden jetty at Saltoluokta and begin the short walk up a wooded track leading to the STF Saltoluokta Fjällstation. Yellow birch leaves are strewn on the path like confetti after a wedding, and the ground nearby is flecked with blood red lingonberries, deep purple bilberries and scarlet fly agaric mushrooms. The air is pleasantly pregnant with the heady, musty smell of the woodland, and a great wave of excitement for our forthcoming adventure washes over me. Sunset at SaltoluoktaSunset at SaltoluoktaSunset over the lake below the STF Saltoluokta Mountain Station

The STF Saltoluokta Fjällstation nestled amid the woods of a small Sámi settlement is unlike any mountain hut I’ve ever stayed at. An historic wooden building dating from the early twentieth century, it’s more like a high end lodge offering fine dining, comfortable accommodation, a sauna, laundry facilities and an incredibly well-stocked shop selling a wide range of useful items. After settling into our comfy two-bed dorm, we take lunch in the elegant Scandinavian inspired dining room with its rustic wooden tables and chairs. The food is distinctively Sámi and we ravenously demolish bowls of sorrel soup with boiled eggs and rye bread.

Dinner is a very grand affair indeed. With candles twinkling on the wooden tables bathed in the dying rays of the autumn sun streaming in through its windows, the atmosphere in this historic building is enchanting. Each course is announced by the chef with a dramatic flourish and is a veritable feast. We leisurely polish off plates of crisp seasonal salad; deep bowls of rich reindeer soup with a dressing of magenta lingonberries and hunks of freshly baked rye bread; lightly smoked Arctic char with roasted root vegetables, and a creamy white chocolate mousse with a red berry coulis, followed by strong coffee. After dinner we sip fiery local schnapps next to a roaring fire, which rounds off a truly memorable evening. I can only imagine the sheer pleasure of arriving at this magnificent mountain station after trekking the Kungsleden for days on end to find a clean and comfortable bed, a hot shower, and gourmet food and drink! Belly full and feeling comfortably numb from the schnapps, I fall asleep at once and sleep like a log.


Hitting the trail: Saltoluokta to Sitojaure, 20km

After a hearty breakfast and having completed our house-keeping duties as all guests are expected to do in STF accommodation, we hit the well-signposted Kungsleden Trail which leads up through the birch woods past the back of our dormitory. The day does not seem to hold much promise weather-wise, but the overcast skies fail to dampen our spirits as we climb steadily out of the woods to gain a vast and barren plateau across the alpine tundra which offers good walking. The landscape is moody and brooding; the lakes shine like burnished steel, low cloud skirts the top of Sjäksjo mountain and the cinnabar-red bilberry leaves seem to set the ground ablaze. In places where the ground is boggy or rocky, we encounter wooden boardwalks, some of which are in a poor state of repair. The bridges over leaping vodka-clear streams are worse, and some are quite dangerous. I traverse them with great trepidation, as one slip could lead to a lower leg injury, or an unwelcome dunk in ice cold water!

The Kungsleden Trail near SaltoluoktaThe Kungsleden Trail near SaltoluoktaThe Kungsleden Trail crossing the alpine tundra between Saltoluokta and Sitojaure

Patches of Arctic bog cotton which have refused to give up the ghost of summer past, trail their wind-ravaged ragged heads in the russet bog, and the spindly branches of dwarf willow have encroached on the boardwalk in places and snatch at our ankles like demonic fingers as we pass. After a few hours walking we see a triangular building looming in the distance, the emergency shelter at Autsutjvagge above the river valley of the same name, where we stop for lunch. We share the space with a trio of elderly Swedes who are hiking to Saltoluokta from Sitojaure.

Shelter at Autsutjvagge on the Kungsleden TrailShelter at Autsutjvagge on the Kungsleden TrailA strategically placed emergency shelter about halfway between Saltoluokta and Sitojaure provides a perfect lunch stop

Refreshed, we push on towards Sitojaure. The wind has picked up and squally showers pulsate in great curtains across the barren alpine tundra. Small groups of reindeer seem etched in monochrome, lost in the enormity of the great undulating plateau. We trudge along for miles across this great windswept wilderness, our packs feeling heavier with every step, before beginning a steady descent back into woodland surrounding Lake Sitojaure. Walking into the wind all day has been tiring and we are both quite wet from the persistent light rain, so we’re mightily glad to see the STF hut loom into view amid a stand of birch trees above the lake’s edge. We announce our arrival and the warden, a very jovial, chatty middle aged female, immediately offers us a cosy two bed dorm for the night which Martin eagerly accepts!

The STF hut on Sitojaure LakeThe STF hut on Sitojaure LakeThe warden's hut at the STF Hut at Sitojaure

There is no shop at this hut, so he takes a 15 minute walk to a nearby Sámi homestead which sells beer, dried fish and reindeer meat. Anna, the lady who runs this informal 'shop', will be taking us the 4 km across the lake by boat tomorrow as there is no STF service here. Because she and her family are herding reindeer, regular boat transfers across the lake have now stopped, meaning it’s necessary to pre-arrange transfers or you will be rowing yourself, not something to be relished in ageing, poorly maintained boats. We have instructions not to be late!

The hut, which we have to ourselves, has an excellent drying room and as paying guests we are free to use the gas rings in the kitchen, meaning you could get away with just carrying a small wood burning stove for camping nights (we brought along our titanium Honey stove). In guttering candlelight and warmed by the heat of a birch wood fire, I greedily wolf down a packet of freeze-dried curry. Darkness falls like a shroud over the silvery lake and it’s monastery silent as I wander across to the toilet block. Overhead, a few watery stars are struggling to put on a performance, and I hope for better weather tomorrow.


Sitojaure to Aktse, 14 km

The morning dawns deadly still and only the peaks of the nearest mountaintops are poking out above a dense layer of white mist which lies many metres thick above the lake. It has barely a ripple on it as we hurry along the rough and muddy track leading to the small jetty by Anna’s blue weatherboard homestead amid the trees. She is hopping about impatiently waiting our arrival and we can see she’s not best pleased that we are about 5 minutes late! As we power our way across the lake, she warms to us as we ask her questions about her family’s way of life as reindeer herders. Round faced with glasses, she’s quite a character, very chatty and amiable, and drives the motor boat round submerged obstacles like a racing car! She has to be tough up here in the Arctic, where women must shoulder all manner of chores. Her family have about 4,000 head of reindeer (I cheekily asked her this, which is about the same as her asking me how much money I have in the bank!), and in the autumn they are rounded up to select those for sale. This is an arduous task undertaken on foot with the aid of a lasso. The people of her commune own upwards of 15,000 reindeer, and each family knows their animals by special cuts made on their ears. She and her family will spend until late-November by the lake, then they will move down to Jokkmukk for the winter, returning to the lake again in spring. Her children have a Swiss au pair who helps with the family chores and takes her eldest son to and from school in Tjåhke.

Anna drops us at the jetty on the other side of the lake where a party of four trekkers plead with her to take them across to Sitojaure. She hesitates, then agrees, as the prospect of earning 800 krona (just over 80 euro) to add to the 400 we have just paid her, is too temping even for a busy reindeer herder! We set off up the gently rising terrain through a birch forest interspersed with mountain ash for around 3 km before emerging into the rugged alpine tundra. By now we have entered the cloud that has filled the whole valley and the views of the mountains of Sarek National Park remain hidden from us. The ground gets progressively steeper and we catch fleeting glimpses of herds of reindeer moving about in the grey mist. Gaining the top of a plateau at about 950 m high, we pause for lunch. Every so often the cloud lifts and thins, revealing a watery sun that casts thin lances of light onto the vast expanse of forest below. These beams trace kaleidoscopic patterns in dazzling autumnal shades from vermilion through flame-orange to canary-yellow.

Autumn colours in Arctic SwedenAutumn colours in Arctic SwedenSitojaure Lake and surrounding landscape bedecked in autumnal finery

With the mist billowing like smoke around us, we cross the plateau passing great herds of reindeer that dance across the landscape out of our way. Along the way we encounter a homemade sign for Anna’s boat service – the only spot where it’s possible to get a mobile phone signal to book your boat ride to Sitojaure! I certainly wouldn’t fancy rowing the 4 km across the lake in an ageing wooden boat! Moreover, if there is only one boat there, you have to row back again towing another to replace the one you have taken, and then return to Sitojaure, which would probably near kill anyone not used to rowing 12 km! We have our mobile phones as well as a satellite phone with us for any emergency calls, and we are also carrying a DeLorme InReach satellite device which we can use to send an emergency distress signal, and to check the daily weather forecast.

Reindeer in Arctic SwedenReindeer in Arctic SwedenReindeer along the Kungsleden Trail which passes through one of Europe's last great wilderness areas

We learn to our disappointment that the weather for tomorrow is absolutely vile, so we ditch our plans to climb to the summit of Skierfe (1179m) where we had planned to camp out overnight. Skierfe has spectacular views of Rapadalen (Rapa Valley) with its braided river which leads into Sarek National Park. Suppressing our disappointment, we begin to descend steeply from the plateau towards the Aktse hut, past rutting reindeer. As we emerge from the cloud, we are greeted by a stunning panorama of chalky turquoise lakes set amid vast expanses of golden birch forest studded with the emerald-green spikes of conifer. Flowing from Rapadalen is a tangle of gleaming little rivers wriggling their way through olive green and russet bog that sweeps majestically up to the imposing battleship-grey walls of Tjahkelij mountain, atop which a line of white cloud is moving like a slow tsunami. I catch my breath. Even on a dull and overcast day, this landscape literally oozes magic.

RapadalenRapadalenThe Rapa valley is over 35km long and is the largest within the Sarek National Park

The descent to the hut through the forest is very steep over slippery rocks and I’m glad to see a thin column of blue wood smoke rising from the warden’s hut. We pay the 100 krona camping fee which gives us access to the drying room, kitchen and communal areas, and select a sheltered level spot that has grandstand views down into Rapadalen. Being one of the main entry points into Sarek, this hut is far busier than the last and only offers 5 bed dorms, so I’m glad we have our tent. We wander over to the warden’s hut to ask about the boat to cross Lake Laitaure tomorrow and are told the STF one leaves at 9.00 am and will cost 100 krona. There is a shop here, but being late in the season, it has sold out of things like crisps, beer and chocolate bars! I notice that someone has collected a large bag of fine looking mushrooms for their dinner, permissible under the law of Allemansrätten (the everyman’s right), which gives people the right to walk, cycle, ride, ski, and camp on any non-private property, or land that is not restricted in any way, and to forage for mushrooms, berries and wood for a camp fire.

Dusk arrives and by degrees the camp falls silent, the glowing shapes of the other trekkers’ tents fade and we clamber into our sleeping bags. Inside the tent, I manage to dispatch the few resilient midges who obviously haven’t yet cottoned on that it’s autumn, along with one of only two mosquitoes I saw during the trek. We have insect repellent with us, and have taken the precaution of treating all our trekking clothes with Permethrin, but one pesky midge still managed to take a chunk out of one of my little fingers!


Akste to Pårte, 21km

I poke my head out of the tent to see a cloud inversion in Rapadalen. The autumn trees are aflame with colour against the background of cotton-soft whiteness. Only the grey top of Tjahkelij mountain is clear, rising from the cloud like the great prow of a sinking battleship, but even this is soon enveloped. The air is pregnant with rain as a low front stealthily approaches.

Rapadalen from the Aktse STF HutRapadalen from the Aktse STF HutA cloud inversion just after dawn in Rapadalen leaves Tjahkelij Mountain poking out above the pillow-soft whiteness

We set off down through the campsite toward the lake where we will catch the boat at 9.00 am. We come to a fork in the track with a wooden signpost that points out two different routes to the lake and the boats, which we find confusing. We decide to take the more well-trodden pathway through a meadow past a Sámi hut and along a board walk through a flat boggy area. It’s gone nine when we arrive at a jetty to find the place deserted and a motor boat still moored at the end of it. Wraith-like fingers of mist hover above the lake’s mercury-grey surface and the little waves lapping at the shore only serve to heighten my unease. Expletives fill the air as the awful realisation sinks in that we might be at the wrong jetty! Miss the boat and we’ll either have to row the 3 km across the lake, or be stuck here another day. Moreover, the forecast for tomorrow is for very high winds, meaning it’s unlikely the boats will be able to operate. We could be delayed another day and will not get back to Kiruna in time for our flight to Stockholm. With my anxiety rising, I leave Martin unsuccessfully trying to get through to another boat operator on our satellite phone, and begin to march back to the fork in the track to make for the other jetty.

The STF jetty at Lake LaitaureThe STF jetty at Lake LaitaureA, still grey and misty morning at Lake Laitaure where we caught a motor boat the 3km across the lake

I am thundering along the boardwalk when I meet the STF warden who apologies for being late. To say I am relieved to see him is an understatement! Minutes later we are donning life-jackets and heading out across the misty lake. At the other side we see a white flag flying which means that there are people ready to make the journey across to Akste. As we disembark, two middle-aged female trekkers take our place on the boat. Today will be a long one, the first section passing through dense forests with few views which leads onto another alpine tundra plateau. Rain is forecast by late-morning and we want to cover as many kilometres as we can while it’s still dry.

Boardwalk on the Kungsleden TrailBoardwalk on the Kungsleden TrailMany of the boardwalk sections are in dire need of repair on the Kungsleden Trail

We pass through a gateway in a deer fence and begin a long climb up through mixed forest. We cross bridges where ice cold streams foam and dance over small rapids, and others where deep, dark and mysterious rivers flow silently through the russet bog. Although the day is overcast and damp, curiously the colour of everything seems to be amplified: the deep cushions of dewy sphagnum moss give off a viridescent sheen; the fallen yellow birch leaves littering the pathway are like tiny specks of mottled sunlight; the claret-red leaves of bilberry resemble millions of drops of spilled wine; the crimson foliage of the mountain ash sets the forest canopy ablaze. Rain-pearled berries, the fruits of the forest, shine with surreal lucidity, each droplet a dazzling jewel, and the gleaming leathery white flecked scarlet fly agaric mushrooms look as if they have been lifted straight from the pages of a fairy story. The forest air is loamy, pregnant with the sweet odour of decay.

Arctic Sweden in AutumnArctic Sweden in AutumnA fast flowing river glides between the autumnal foliage in Arctic Sweden

Fly agaric mushroomsFly agaric mushroomsThe forest floor is enlivened with the colours of fungi and berries in the Arctic autumn

Having covered around 5 km, it begins to rain and the remainder of the day is spent in full waterproofs. As we emerge from the forest onto the alpine tundra plateau the visibility is down to around 20 metres. The eerie forms of reindeer shift in and out of the mist as we plod along, heads bent forward against the rain. The terrain offers good walking and at least we have the wind at our backs. After several kilometres we drop down into a wooded glade, startling several reindeer who melt away into the mist close to the distinctive triangular form of an emergency shelter. It’s a relief to get inside, dump our heavy packs and get out of our wet waterproofs. We decide to fire up our stove for a hot lunch, having on previous days just eaten a high calorie flapjack to save time. I’m feeling cold and clammy and a slug of Talisker whiskey, brought earlier in the year on our visit to Skye, immediately raises my spirits! After a spicy chicken korma washed down with hot ginger tea, we’re ready for the off.

The rain is falling steadily from a graphite-grey sky as we climb out of the glade and battle our way over an exposed stretch of the route which takes us across a huge metal bridge spanning a small gorge through which a fast flowing river is roaring. The metal frame of the bridge looming up suddenly in the mist looks like something from a sci-fi film. Typically, the wind has changed direction and is now lashing us side on with horizontal buckshot rain as we weave our way through a boulder field, picking our way carefully over and around the slippery angular rocks.

Bridge on the Kungsleden TrailBridge on the Kungsleden TrailThis metal suspension bridge looked like something from a Sci-Fi movie as it loomed out of the mist

Boulder field crossing in heavy rainBoulder field crossing in heavy rainThe section of the Kungsleden Trail between Akste and Pårte crosses an exposed boulder field. Not a good place to be caught in horizontal buckshot rain!

After what seems like an eternity, we begin to drop steeply off the plateau back into dense forest. The pathway is rocky, muddy, waterlogged and horrid, progress seems interminably slow, and I begin to count down the number of kilometres left until we reach the Pårte Hut. Finally we emerge from the forest which has mutated into a malevolent, dank and shadowy twilight world where leaden raindrops fall with percussive regularity on the hood of my Gore-Tex jacket. We now enter a stretch of bogland at the head of Lake Sjábttjakjávrre, one final unwelcome obstacle! The wooden boards soon peter out, rotted and drowned in the brackish water, and it’s safer to walk on the bog than attempt to cross them.

It’s sheer unbridled joy to see the soft welcoming glow of a candle illuminating the window of the warden’s hut. So far we are the only guests, and we commandeer a dorm to ourselves, just before a couple of Swedish men arrive from Kvikkjokk soaked to the gussets to claim the other. We rally round helping each other; I light candles in the communal area and the wood burning stove in the drying room, Martin tackles the one in the kitchen and the Swedes fetch water and boil it to make hot drinks for everyone. It’s a relief to don dry clothing and climb into a warm and welcoming bunk, where I sleep like a baby.


Pårte to Stuor Dáhtá, 5 km

Sunlight creeping in under the window blind casts a line of golden light on the wooden floorboards of our dorm. I peek out behind the blind to see a shower of gilded leaves fluttering past the window like confetti. The wind is high, sending the nearby birch trees into a frenzy, tearing the golden leaves from their silver boughs and scattering them in all directions. In the not too distant future, these trees will stand on the bank of the ice-covered lake, naked in the frozen air, bereft of their autumnal gaiety.

STF Pårte HutSTF Pårte HutThere is no sight as good as that of the warm and welcoming glow of a lit candle in a hut window as night falls in the Arctic forest What a difference a day makes! There isn’t a cloud in the cerulean-blue sky, and after the gift of a sound night’s sleep I’m feeling good! All of our clothes and our boots have dried out overnight, and, since we did not climb Skierfe as planned and have a spare day, we’re in no rush to get to Kvikkjokk, taking a leisurely breakfast of porridge and numerous mugs of coffee. Our Swedish hut-mates are in no rush either and we enjoy chatting to them and the hut warden, a young willowy woman, who with her partner, has just one more week to spend at Pårte before their 5 weeks of duty as wardens is complete, and the hut closes for the season. Our hut chores complete, we set off mid-morning towards Kvikkjokk past the lake. The wind creates a swell that makes the reeds fringing its shore sway and back and forth as if in a trance.

We’re less than half an hour away from the hut when Martin, who is a couple of metres in front of me, suddenly slips on one of the partially rotted boardwalks and keels sideways into a pool of brackish water. Weighed down by his 25 kilo pack, like a floundering beetle he finds it difficult to right himself and crawl back up onto the boardwalk! The warden bemoaned the fact that this section of the trail is particularly badly maintained and in need of repair, and poor Martin is now soaked down one side and has a sodden boot!

Indeed, the route deteriorates further, becoming rockier and most of the small bridges over rushing streams are rickety and broken down. We pass a small lake where the reflections of the autumn trees shine like burnished bronze in its indigo-blue still and shallow sheltered reaches, and then pass through a deer fence onto a broad russet-coloured plain. In the distance we spy the snow streaked mountains of Vállevárre. We soon encounter Stuor Dáhtá, a large inky-blue lake surrounded by dense green and yellow forest overlooked by Tjoallta, a rocky knoll. The wind has agitated the surface of the water into a series of white-crested waves that crash onto boulders ringing the shoreline in showers of spray. With a day to spare, we immediately decide to find a camping spot to spend the night.

Wild camping at Stuor Dáhtá on the Kungsleden TrailWild camping at Stuor Dáhtá on the Kungsleden TrailOur wild camp at Stuor Dáhtá

We select a perfectly level site just above the lake, and judging by the size of the fire ring, it has served as a camp for numerous other people. We pitch the tent and begin to forage for some wind-dried wood for our evening campfire. Everything on the ground is absolutely sodden from yesterday’s rain, and we range far and wide to select various sized dead pieces that have caught in tree branches. We then sit in the warm autumn sun listening to the crash of the waves on the rocky shore, taking in the majesty of the surroundings. Set against the deep blue of the lake, the autumn leaves of the fireweed look remarkably like flames leaping into the air. Much altered in appearance from its summer incarnation, I can finally see why this plant has got its name. The nearby shrubs are peppered with the red and purple of bilberry, lingonberry and juniper, and the low afternoon sun causes the forest leaves to burn with a golden and flame-orange intensity.

Fireweed growing beside Stuor DáhtáFireweed growing beside Stuor DáhtáIn autumn it is clear how this plant acquired its name

By early evening the wind has fallen just as the weather forecast predicted, and tonight will be dry and clear. Martin checks for Northern Lights activity and we are delighted to learn that the auroral oval should be over the Swedish Arctic. The sun is setting over the lake in a line of burnished gold, the sky gradually darkens and one by one the stars peep out of the firmament. Sunset over Stuor DáhtáSunset over Stuor DáhtáImproving weather meant we enjoyed a sunset over Stuor Dáhtá from our wild camp

Before it gets totally dark, I gather up a handful of birch bark shavings and use my fire-steel to ignite these and a cotton wool pad smeared with Vaseline. Orange flames lick up through the pen-sized twigs and larger pieces of wood that let out a low hiss as the remaining moisture is driven from them. After some gentle coaxing due to the dampness of the wood, we finally have a campfire warm enough to sit around. An after dinner drink of whiskey is enjoyed before the fire dies down and the chill stealthily emanating from the lake drives us into our tent.

Campfire beside a lake in Arctic SwedenCampfire beside a lake in Arctic SwedenWe enjoy whiskey and hot ginger tea beside a roaring campfire at Stuor Dáhtá

Martin goes out at around 11.00 pm to check for Northern Lights activity. We’re in luck! I poke my head out of the tent to see the thin vapour-like tendrils of light playing in the sky over the hill behind. Martin sets up the camera to capture our illuminated tent set against this shimmering ethereal backdrop for a time-lapse sequence. The results are fantastic. We have committed to film a sight that will forever remain seared into our memory.


Stuor Dáhtá to Kvikkjokk, 11 km

A grey dawn breaks. The lake is still and mirror-flat. The mountains with their piebald snow patches and the broken cloudy sky are reflected in its mercury-cool surface which is disturbed every so often by the faint concentric circles of raindrops. We break camp, walking roughly opposite the direction of the risen sun along a rugged track that weaves its way along the lakeside until it climbs steeply into a forest strewn with carpets of gold and crimson leaves. The track meanders its way up and down over small hills and crosses several streams via rustic wooden bridges and across boggy boardwalks.

Stuor Dáhtá at dawnStuor Dáhtá at dawnThe snow streaked mountains of Vállevárre beyond the mirror still Stuor Dáhtá

The cloud gradually breaks up and blue sky peeks from between flour-white cloud. A Siberian jay seems as uplifted by the weather’s change in mood as we do, and puts on quite a performance in the tree canopy. We pass though many greenish glades of conifer and birch where the shrubs are laden with berries and the sun beams shining through the moisture laden air look misty and enchanted. 

The Kungsleden Trail towards KvikkjokkThe Kungsleden Trail towards KvikkjokkThis section of the trail becomes progressively stony and rough underfoot as it begins to descend towards Kvikkjokk making progress tedious

After a fork in the track which leads into Sarek National Park, the path begins a gradual descent toward Kvikkjokk and gets progressively rougher and stonier. We reach the Kvikkjokk Mountain Station in the early afternoon and have time to check out the rapids on the Gamajåhkå River which provide a spectacular backdrop to the hut which is perched high on the bank above. The roaring, foaming white rapids look as if they’ve been lifted straight from the pages of National Geographic.

The rapids on the Gamajåhkå RiverThe rapids on the Gamajåhkå RiverThese picturesque rapids are right beneath the STF Kvikkjokk Mountain Station

The mountain station serves hot snacks to order, craft beers and offers an a la carte evening menu in the restaurant. We chose the traditional and truly delicious Sámi dish of souvas as a starter (salted and lightly smoked reindeer meat which is thinly sliced and served with a creamy horseradish sauce on toast) followed by elk (moose) patties with root vegetables. A hot shower and comfortable beds make for a pleasant night’s sleep.



The following day we are up at stupid o’clock to catch the 5:30 am bus to Jokkmokk which leaves opposite the church. The morning is vault-still and pitch-black as we board the bus. By degrees the sky begins to lighten and we are treated to one of the most magnificent dawns I have ever experienced. For ages the sky seems to be literally on fire, glowing crimson-red, through magenta to rose-pink and mauve before the sun erupts above the horizon bathing everything in soft golden light. The bus suddenly slows and I am fortunate to spot a wolverine fleeing into the dark forest nearby. At Jokkmukk we visit the Ájtte museum which is devoted to the history, culture and heritage of the Sámi nation. The museum is excellent and is worth a few hours of anyone’s time and certainly helped to put into context all we had learned about the Sámi on our passage along the Kungsleden. After a hearty lunch, we catch onward busses to Gällivare and Kiruna. We spend our last night back at the STF accommodation in Kiruna before our early afternoon flight to Stockholm.

As I sit on the plane back to Dublin, I reflect on our trip. We have traversed windswept rocky plateaus lashed by buckshot rain; glided over mirror-still lakes in little motor boats; stood over crystal-clear rushing rivers; stumbled upon silent valleys filled with cotton-soft cloud, and walked through sun-drenched forests of birch ablaze with the colours of autumn. The landscape is utterly beguiling, I have totally fallen under its spell and, like an addict, I know that I simply must return again to this place where the sun, rain and wind reign supreme and it feels simply good to be alive. Above all, I appreciate that to wander through this majestic landscape is to understand, as the Sámi people do, that the Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth.



[email protected] (Purple Peak Adventures Photography & Photo Tours) arctic europe kungsleden trail lapland sweden trekking wilderness world heritage site https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2016/9/an-autumn-trek-in-arctic-sweden-the-kungsleden-trail-from-saltoluokta-to-kvikkjokk Fri, 30 Sep 2016 19:33:00 GMT
‘España Verde’: Spain’s Green and Pleasant Wonderland https://purplepeakadventures.com/blog/2016/7/-espa-a-verde-spain-s-green-and-pleasant-wonderland Sunset over the Picos de EuropaSunset over the Picos de EuropaFrom a spot above the tiny village of Asiego, the entire Macizo Central is laid before us in a stunning panorama


The cliffs of craggy limestone tower over our convertible as we power our way up through a deep gorge carved by the Cares River that is taking us into the heart of the Picos de Europa National Park, a 647 square kilometre wonderland that straddles Asturias, Cantabria and Castile and León. This does not feel like Spain, that parched and arid land so beloved of British tourists who head to the southern costas to soak up the Mediterranean sun in their droves each summer, for everything here is green. A thousand different shades of green...

Lush vegetation blankets this part of northern Spain. Its golden sandy beaches and craggy cliffs are pounded by the surf rolling in from the cool Atlantic Ocean and forests of chestnut, hazel, holm and sessile oaks, birch and beech, sweep up towards the towering limestone monoliths, spires and peaks that crown the Picos de Europa National Park. Many of these are twice as high as anything in Britain or Ireland. Above the forests, dazzling displays of flora await discovery in lush alpine meadows threaded together by ancient mule paths and transhumance routes, used for driving cattle to summer pastures.

Here crème caramel coloured cows graze and small shepherds’ huts with red ceramic roof tiles dot the landscape. The area is home to vultures, wolves, wildcats, chamois, wild boar and Cantabrian brown bears. Foodies will be sent into salivating raptures, for this region is famed for its variety of cheeses and its cider brewed from indigenous crab-apples; its gastronomy ranges from wholesome home cooked fare served in rustic siderias, to avant-garde Michelin starred restaurants. Culture vultures will delight in visiting ancient settlements with pre-Romanesque architecture recognised by UNESCO as of World Heritage, in a part of Christian Spain never conquered by the Moors.  

Shepherds' hutsShepherds' hutsThe route to the Naranjo de Bulnes passes above these huts on leaving the Refugio de la Terenosa

It’s early July and everything feels inexplicably fresh here, for the proximity to the Atlantic creates a temperate climate more akin to that of the British Isles. Summers are mild and numerous days see cloud and mist creep over the tops of the dramatic limestone peaks like a slow tsunami. This region has long been known to wealthy madrileños who head north from the dusty arid plains of the south to holiday homes here, where they are ensured a welcome respite from the searing summer heat. But foreign travellers have yet to discover the Picos de Europa in large numbers.


Europe’s Patagonia

We base ourselves at the small settlement of Arenas de Cabrales. This lies at the foot of a winding road that weaves its way deep into the Macizo Central, the middle of three massifs that comprise the Picos which form part of the Cantabrian Mountain range. The alpine scenery is face-slappingly good. To visit one of the park's most famous viewpoints, we drive to the top of a series of hairpin bends which peter out at Camarmeña, a cluster of small stone houses with rust red ceramic tiled roofs and a tiny church clinging like limpets to the side of a mountain. In front of us, and crowning the top of a smoky blue triangle of land wedged between the steep sides of the Bulnes Gorge, is Europe’s version of Patagonia.

Naranjo de Bulnes (Picu Urriellu) from CamarmeñaNaranjo de Bulnes (Picu Urriellu) from CamarmeñaNaranjo means ‘orange tree’ in Spanish. The mountain is named this because it turns orange at sunset

Known as Picu Urriellu in Asturian, the 2,519 metre high Naranjo de Bulnes, a towering chimney of grey white Palaeozoic limestone soaring above its spiky neighbours, is on every Spanish rock climber’s wish list. Thin veils of cloud in the valley below churn slowly in the early evening heat and the weakening rays of the sun bathe the mountain in a honey coloured glow. Naranjo means ‘orange tree’ in Spanish, the mountain so named as it turns this colour at sunset. A further scenic viewpoint just down the road in Póo de Cabrales offers yet another jaw-dropping opportunity to gaze upon this climber's dreamscape. From a spot above the tiny village of Asiego, the entire Macizo Central is laid before us in a stunning panorama, and we gaze in wonderment as the setting sun turns the peaks apricot, then pink through to chalky mauve, and a creamy half moon floats heavenward.


Whatever the Weather

There are days when we awake to a strange luminescent grey cloud that envelops everything down in the valleys making it feel decidedly cool and clammy. This is quite normal in the Picos and we are advised to head up into the mountains. As we climb the narrow winding road above the Rio Duje en route to the mountain village of Sotres, the churning cloud thins, becomes almost translucent and the watery disc of the sun shimmers through it. The cloud suddenly melts away, the fortress-like cliffs of the Peña de Maín float into view and the smoky blue peaks of Los Urrieles still streaked with snow, soar into an impossibly blue sky.

In the dead of the night, we escape the ethereal mist shrouding Arenas de Cabrales to return to a favourite spot above Sotres, where we are treated to a moonless sky literally stuffed full of stars. The Milky Way arches majestically overhead, and the spiky peaks of the Macizo Central etched against the purple heavens are bathed in silvery starlight.

Milky Way magicMilky Way magicThe the spiky peaks of the Macizo Central are etched against the night sky

By day the sun is hot on our backs as we wander along old shepherds’ tracks that criss-cross the mountains, stopping to admire the astonishing variety of flora in every colour imaginable. The silence is broken only by the constant chorus of insects and the melodic clanging of bells that are tied around the necks of cattle, sheep and horses that use the high alpine pastures for summer grazing. The hillsides are dotted with clusters of small stone built red tiled huts, many now gaunt empty shells, which once served as the summer homes of shepherds. Transhumance is still practised in the mountains and some farming methods abandoned elsewhere cling on here. One afternoon we pass an elderly man with a weather-beaten face who has a scythe slung across his shoulder. He is heading out to mow a meadow in a scene straight out of the middle ages. However, as elsewhere, modernity is creeping in and the old ways are vanishing. Down in the valleys, we see numerous square granaries typical of the region. Named hórreos they are built of wood with red tiled pyramid hipped roofs and are raised several feet off the ground by a series of four stone pillars capped with staddle stones to prevent vermin from getting in. These are now disused and many are sadly falling into dilapidation.

It goes without saying that such a lush green land does not flourish without a healthy rainfall, and we experience days when thick grey cloud rolls in from the Atlantic and the mountaintops don’t reveal themselves at all. Rainwater pours in tiny rivulets off the roof tiles of the small cottages in the high mountain villages of Tresviso and Sotres and mist blows forlornly along their narrow cobbled streets. The weather front eventually moves away, the clouds lift and the mood of the mountains changes instantly. But there is something utterly beguiling about the way the cloud boils and rumbles through the mountain passes on rainy days; everything is wet and dazzles with a lurid light, and the air is heavy with the scent of wood smoke.

A wet day in TresvisoA wet day in TresvisoRainwater pours in tiny rivulets off the roof tiles of the small cottages in this high mountain village and mist blows forlornly along its narrow cobbled streets


Glorious Gastronomy

On such days, the region’s signature dish, fabada, a rich stew of broad beans, black pudding, cured pork shoulder and sausage, provides warming hearty comfort to offset the damp and chilly atmosphere. The Peña Castil is an eatery in the mountain village of Sotres where a 3 course menu del dia will set you back just 12 euro. This tiny place, which doubles as a hotel rural, oozes rustic charm with its dark wooden furnishings and rustic earthenware crockery, and it’s packed to the rafters with gregarious Spanish tourists. A rich earthy fabada is followed by slow cooked, unbelievably tender and fragrantly seasoned wild boar stew, and topped off with a desert of creamy junket drizzled with local honey. This very memorable meal is washed down with a rather fine Rioja.

There are no shortage of excellent tapas bars and restaurants to sample yet more local dishes, including fabes con amasueles, a hearty stew of broad beans simmered with a pinch of saffron and fresh clams. We also enjoy ox hot pot, braised kid goat, roasted roe deer delicately flavoured with aromatic wild mountain herbs, and cachopo. This resembles a schnitzel and is made of three kinds of meat sandwiched between two types of local cheese which is dipped in egg, breadcrumbed, and then fried in olive oil until golden brown. It certainly packs a terrific calorific punch and I never succeed in clearing my plate! Spain's a country not really renowned for its cheese, so with over 40 types produced from cow's, sheep's and goat's milk, or even a combination of all three, Asturias has been dubbed el pais de los quesos (the land of cheeses). Several have been granted Denomination of Origin status including the piquant cabrales, a pungent blue variety that is aged in caves close to where we are staying.

With a love of fine dining, we push the boat out and take lunch at the 2* Michelin restaurant, Casa Marcial in Arriondas, whose chef, Nacho Manzano, has acquired quite a reputation for serving fine contemporary cocina asturiana. We plonk for the menú tradicional: eight courses of taste and visual sensation, washed down with a fine white Rioja. The hors-d'œuvre include a feather light corn soufflé and crispy seaweed drizzled with lemon mayonnaise served on a lichen covered branch. These are followed by delights such as fabada, smoked sardine and onions, limpets and seaweeds in cider cream, and red mullet cooked in salt on a hot rock at our table. We round off a exquisite meal with the most famous of all Asturian deserts: a dreamy rice pudding.

Lunch at Casa Marcial in ArriondasLunch at Casa Marcial in ArriondasInventively presented hors-d'œuvre

Asturias is not a wine producing region: here cider reigns supreme. Even the smallest village seems to have a bar selling sidra, while the larger towns have siderias, establishments specially devoted to this local beverage, so you cannot fail to try it while here. It comes in a wine-sized bottle and consuming it is something of a ritual performed with much aplomb in the siderias. In the pretty town of Cangas de Onís, I watch as a waiter uncorks a bottle, then with a dramatic flourish holds it aloft over his head and pours the amber coloured liquid escanciada into a narrow glass in his hand. It’s a skill he has obviously honed and he hardly spills a drop. The ritual of ‘throwing’ the sidra not only aerates it, but enhances its bouquet. He hands the glass containing a couple of inches of liquid to Martin with the instruction to gulp it down in one. Any dregs are thrown out of the glass and onto the floor. Martin enjoys the refreshing taste, but not being much of a fan of apples, I find it to be astringently dry and the sour taste isn’t to my liking.


Getting Around

A network of mountain roads, the major routes paved and well maintained, now run between many of the mountain villages which are also connected by a plethora of ancient transhumance trails, making multi day treks imminently doable. A network of dirt roads take you deeper into the mountains and are handy for trekkers walking to the remoter trailheads created by ancient shepherds. The dirt tracks are a legacy of the significant lead and zinc mining industry in the Picos and were originally used to transport ore by teams of oxen. The industry dates back to Roman times and only ceased in the latter decades of the twentieth century. High in the mountains are the visible remains of several abandoned mines, including the Mazarrasa, Evangelista and Providence. The former of the three is sited in the Vegas de Andara area at a height of around 1,800 metres and the refugio there is actually a former mine building. Nearby is an open socavón (access tunnel) named the Canal de los Vacas (the cows’ channel) a name that should come as no surprise in cattle country such as this! A rail emerges from its dark interior upon which a battered rusting wagon is abandoned.

The refugio’s caretaker shows us several mineral specimens he’s collected from the area which include galena, blende (famed for its translucency), fluorite and cinnabar. We head off to a valley above the refugio that once harboured a large lake, the bed of which was accidentally holed by a mining company which has virtually drained it. Betrayed now by a marshy discoloured patch, the cliffs above it are pock marked with open socavóns and early lode back workings, while above its former shore is evidence of nineteenth century dressing activities and most interesting of all, a number of dark, dank troglodyte dwellings which may or may not predate the mining activities. Working here would have been quite challenging, especially in winter, and local lore has it that some of the miners actually slept in the galleries to keep warm. The whole place is wreathed in veils of white mist during our visit and I find the atmosphere to be rather unnerving.

Maintaining access to some of the remoter mountain villages with dwindling populations is a struggle, but the village of Bulnes, virtually hanging off the hillside at the top of a subsidiary branch of the main Cares Gorge, has found a solution. Connected since 2001 by a funicular railway that runs for some 2 km up through the mountain, this remarkable feat of engineering ensures that the 30 odd permanent inhabitants of this picturesque mountain village, formerly reachable only on foot or mule, remains accessible all year round. The journey takes around 7 minutes and is free to inhabitants, while visitors must pay over 22 euro return to use it.

Bulnes BajoBulnes BajoThe pretty mountain village has been connected since 2001 by a funicular railway that runs for some 2 km up through the mountain

On the southern side of the central massif, and 23 km west of the charming market town of Potes, Fuente De’s main attraction is its cable-car, which in less than five minutes whisks you up to 1,800 metres. Get there early as waiting times to ascend and descend are long. Here the mattoral characterised by brilliant swathes of bright yellow broom (Echinospartum horridum) and occasional bursts of purple heather, makes way for a maze of limestone pavement that harbours an astounding variety of alpine and Mediterranean flowers. This in turn gives way to a lunar landscape of broken, shattered rock sweeping up to jagged snow streaked peaks of grey limestone glaring luridly in the bright sunshine. Griffon vultures whirl on the thermals above them, eyed nervously by alpine choughs that frequent the refugio near the cable car station. Far below in a blue haze, the rich green pastures of Cantabria stretch out into infinity.


Garganta de Cares

Cares Gorge WalkCares Gorge WalkThe Garganta de Cares (the Throat of the Cares) is one of the most popular walking routes (the GR-202) within the Picos de Europa We breakfast on the sunny terrace of a small hotel built right above the Cares River in Puente Poncebos. This is the starting point for the trek up the Garganta de Cares (the Throat of the Cares), one of the most popular walking routes (the GR-202) within the Picos de Europa. The route up the gorge ends at Posada de Valdeón in León, but we plan to go only as far as the village of Caín and then walk back, making it a round trip of over 26 km. The Cares River has sliced and scoured its way through the limestone of the heart of the Picos range, splitting it into its central and western massifs, creating a chasm well over a kilometre deep in places. The river has been partially diverted to generate hydroelectricity and the route follows a water channel chiselled into the hillside, a real feat of engineering. The narrow track we will follow is the old access way servicing the channel and it is literally hewn out of the vertiginous cliff face and tunnelled through solid rock. It’s certainly no place for those who suffer from vertigo, and care must be taken at all times as there is no fencing to prevent what would certainly be a fatal fall if one were to slip.

The track climbs steeply from Poncebos taking us high above the gorge, which at this point is still quite wide. The river lies coiled far below like a silvery serpent. It’s an airless morning and the heat is already radiating off the bare limestone. After a couple of kilometres and a 300 metre plus climb, we reach the highest point on the route. The imposing fortress-like walls of the Murallon de Amuesa lie opposite and ahead we can see the dusty track wending its way down through the gorge like a thin thread, disappearing around a bend where the gorge turns to run south-north.

Now descending, we pass a large wind sculpted pillar of rock which we name the árbol de piedra for it reminds us of a petrified tree. The gorge begins to narrow; from far below comes the muffled roar of the river fed by a foaming cascade gushing from a cave in the limestone. The heat is tremendous and we’re glad of the number of tunnels which don’t just offer shade, but also cool down the air that passes though them. Peering up, I see verdant gullies soaring upwards towards snow capped mountain peaks glistening in the summer sun, above which the dark shapes of several griffon vultures slowly circle on the thermals. In the lower reaches of the gorge where sunlight seldom reaches, a whole microclimate of large ferns and cool cushions of moss drape the rocky walls.

Cares Gorge WalkCares Gorge WalkOne of many tunnels carved through the limestone cliffs

The approach to Caín is spectacular. The gorge, now a mere slit, is crossed twice by suspension bridges, the route then passes through a series of dark dripping galleries before descending right alongside the river where we stop to splash our sunburnt faces with cool clear water. The tiny village of Caín, hemmed in by towering mountains, has a range of tapas bars offering a reasonable menu del dia and the all important cold beer!

After a leisurely lunch of zingy gazpacho, veal escalope with cabrales cheese sauce, salad and fries, rounded off with an ice cream, we begin the long trek back to Poncebos. By now some of the route lies in the shade and the cooler temperature has brought out several feral goats with enormous horns who lie indolently across the dusty track and are in no hurry to move as we pass by! We arrive back at Poncebos in the early evening. This is by no means an easy walk in the summer heat and you need to allow at least 7 hours to hike to Caín and back. And be sure to add a few extra hours for stupefied gazing!


The Orange Tree of Bulnes

We save ourselves at least an hour's climb by taking the funicular railway from Poncebos to Bulnes. A picture postcard village of two halves - Alto and Bajo - the cobbled streets and tapas bars of the latter hug the bank of the small river that rushes down towards the Cares Gorge. On a stiflingly hot day, we pass through the lower half of the village and begin the very steep ascent up an old paved transhumance trail towards the rich pastures of Vega de las Cuerres. At first, beech woods obscure the mountain views and the rough track is fringed with waist high ferns. But higher up the vegetation thins and we catch sight of deep green pastures blanketing the plunging slopes below the massif which is crowned by the iconic Bulnes de Naranjo. We have arrived at the majadas, where handsome brown cows graze amid the ruins of ancient shepherds’ huts.

Majadas en route to Collado PandébanoMajadas en route to Collado PandébanoHandsome brown cows graze amid the ruins of ancient shepherds’ huts.

Never mind the amazing views, this is a flower spotter's paradise, and every few feet I find myself stopping to admire the breathtaking colourful assemblages of flora in the small stone walled meadows that border the track. I spot include kidney vetch, ox eye daisies, bloody crane’s-bill, pale flax, meadow buttercups, musk-mallow, greater yellow-rattle, white asphodel, maiden pink, rock cinquefoil, round-headed rampion, as well as the prickly lilac-flowered ‘thistle’ Carduncellus mitissimus, several species of orchid and the beautiful purple English iris. The chorus of insects is deafening and I note several species of butterfly and moth feeding on the nectar of these wild flowers. Higher up we encounter ling heather which lends a delightful mauve blush to the thousand shades of green.

Burnet moth on Carduncellus mitissimusBurnet moth on Carduncellus mitissimusThe flower meadows of this region harbour an incredible variety of flora and insects

Near the top of the Collado (Col of) Pandébano we pass right through a herd of docile cows and their calves, their bells clanking loudly as they graze contentedly on the lush grass. If we continued on, we’d reach Sotres, but we branch off towards the Refugio de la Terenosa nestled amid several old shepherds’ huts where we plan to stay the night. The refugio is run by a whippet-thin bearded man who speaks no English. He runs a very tight ship and the place is spotless. He does not want our mucky boots to dirt the floor he was vigorously sweeping as we arrive, and we are ushered outside to a sunny terrace where he brings us tapas of crispy bread, cabrales cheese and stewed kid goat, plus the all important cold beer to quench our raging thirst!

Refugio de la TerenosaRefugio de la TerenosaComfortable lodging, good food and cold beer can be had at this well-kept mountain refuge

We watch in silence as white cloud gathers and slowly churns in the valley below and the clear sky above the nearby mountain tops turns warm apricot as the sun sinks lower. A couple of mules laden with rubbish from the refugio we will climb to tomorrow clatter up to the hut, the muleteer stopping for a quick beer before heading down to Sotres. As night falls, it turns chilly quite quickly and we retire to the equally spotless dormitory where we sleep like logs.

The morning is cool and crisp, there’s not a cloud in the sky and no mist in the valley. We make a reasonably early start to avoid the crowds, but also because the air temperature is still cool and part of the trail is in the shade. From the refugio, the path climbs a long, gentle slope to a distinctive cleft in a ridge. The delicate aromas of wild thyme and dianthus periodically fill the air and we spot many alpine plants including harebells, alpine aster, rock rose, mountain avens and alpine toadflax. Behind the peaks of the Peña del Maín, the Atlantic Ocean finally floats into view and one realises why these mountains got their name: they were the first land seen by sailors returning to Europe from the New World.

A number of wild goats are blocking the path through the cleft in the ridge and I’m momentarily distracted by them so don’t instantly see the view that makes all walkers stop and grab their cameras. I gaze in awe at the trail threading its way round the edge of a huge couloir above which piles of barren limestone sweep up to a dragon’s back of limestone peaks, chief of which is the iconic chimney of rock, the Naranjo de Bulnes. The path rises steadily upward in what becomes a tough ascent up a series of zig-zags. The air is hot, dry and thin, and the dust kicked up by the passage of our feet lodges in the back of my parched throat.

The Naranjo de BulnesThe Naranjo de BulnesThe path threads its way along the top of a rocky couloir

Eventually the trail levels out and the Refugio de la Vega de Urriellu looms into view. It looks somewhat lost and diminutive below the towering majesty of the Naranjo de Bulnes, in which shadow it sits. The scenery is stark but awe-inspiring with piebald patches of snow still clinging stubbornly to the flanks of the jagged mountains and craggy ridges all around. The only sound is the bleat of sheep and the constant clanking of their bells. We find a spot to pitch our tent which is permissible above 1,600 metres between the hours of sunset and sunrise. Patches of deep blue gentian dot the wiry grass, I’m elated to spot the scarlet and grey flash of a wallcreeper and we spend the afternoon walking in the immediate vicinity while watching a number of rock climbers attempting to scale the sheer face of Picu Urriellu.

Gentian flowersGentian flowersThe ground near our camping spot at the Refugio de la Vega de Urriellu was covered with these pretty flowers

After a hearty dinner at the refugio, we retire to our tent to set up our photography equipment and wait for the mountain to do its magic. A herd of rebecos (chamoix) suddenly become visible against a large patch of snow and we watch as these graceful and agile little animals dance their way across a shelf of rock behind the refugio

Fortunately, the ‘Naranjo’ lives up to its name. We are treated to a marvellous light show as the dark shadows o