"Help! I'm drowning- I can't swim!" are words I never thought I'd utter. I've always been a dab hand at aquatic pursuits, but this is no ordinary dip; I'm up to my eyes in a bubbling hot spring with a snowboard clamped to my ankles. It's all my own fault, but I'd like to survive to explain my shortcomings if one of my prostrate mates would just rescue me.
I have to go under for the third time before they can stop creasing up enough to lend a hand. It was a nice enough idea borne of high jinks- to snowboard into a hot spring. But I'm a very long way from home and this is my first time on a snowboard, first time in a hot spring- and the first time I've seen snow.
Not since I steered my sister's tricycle into a monsoon drain have I felt so utterly moronic. But in my defense, this is Kamchatka, way out the back of eastern Russia on the cusp of the International Date Line- and it can do funny things to you. Just getting there is surreal - it's nine time zones ahead of Moscow, way east of the last stop on the Trans-iberian Railway but 'only' a domestic flight. A whisker further and you're in Japan or Alaska.
It's how you get there from Moscow that I love though; bring on the Illyushin-2, (surprisingly one of the world's safest airliners) a real plane borne of an age when jets meant beefy power and bugger the noise regs. At first, the 62 looks like any other sanitised modern air capsule but closer scrutiny will reveal four monster engines hanging off the arse end. This quad nest of Russian thrusters scream at idle but open the throttles and a glorious full-looded banshee wail bloody well frightens the aircraft into the sky.
To while away the hours scudding east, I allowed Dmitri and Sergei to practice their English on me, and to administer vodka at every verbal breakthrough. Touchdown was hazy but a real gas - everyone on board cheered and clapped as the 62 skidded down the icy runway .. Russians really put the fun back into flying.
It's early April and Kamchatka's international airport at Yelizovo is nicely frozen over, and all around lie disused snowy squadrons of fighter jets, a legacy of this former military stronghold, until recently closed even to its own countrymen. Give me a tank of avgas and an afternoon ....
But I digress.. I'm here to sample wilderness, Russian style and there's stacks of it. Kamchatka is a vast fish- shaped peninsula on the Pacific 'Rim of Fire', studded with hundreds of volcanoes and steaming with more geysers and hot springs than a hundred Yellowstones.
It's still winter so the only way to get about is by chopper, or on the ground by skis, dogsled or snowmobile. There aren't many companies out here who can help you achieve this so I latched on to the best of the bunch, 'Lost World' adventures, who it seems can organise practically any kind of itinerary from one end of the peninsula to the other, from sightseeing to heliskiing.
They had to teach me the rudiments of skiing though and I pity the poor wretches - at least there weren't the usual chortling ski resort onlookers and even the bears were hibernating. I did have to eat snow once- a group of kids barrelled past me on skis, towed by their family dogs at a cracking pace. By the end of the first day I'd graduated to 'snowmoskiing' which involves clutching a tow rope behind a 'Buran' or Russian Snowmobile; essentially a souped up dodgem car on twin tank tracks. It handles like a tank and pulls like one too - rug up, hang on and go skiing cross-country without the sweat- except when the Buran gets bogged in a deep soft snowdrift. Then it's time to hear the beast's agricultural threshing at its very best.
On the second day I shared the 'Buran rope' with a young English couple; we snaked through powdery virgin snowfields bathed in winter sun, the gin- clear air affording vistas of massive cloud haloed volcano cones. On downhill runs we would slice past the bellowing Buran, sometimes startling a snowy arctic hare as we rounded a bend.
Now and then we passed by 'Dachas' - Russian holiday homes with many functions; a weekend retreat, a plot of land to grow vegetables, a place to get pissed and to court death in a 'Banya' or Russian sauna which involves lying in a 100 degree Celsius steam- saturated wooden cell while being set upon by a man with a leafy yet very fragrant birch branch. Just on the verge of respiratory collapse it's customary to race out and dive headlong into deep snow - and rest awhile. Only after repeating this process three times can you say you've done the Banya. I flaked out in the second sesh.
We stopped by our driver, Fyodor's Dacha to test the quality of his vodka, caviar, smoked salmon, Russian cheeses, fern salad, ravioli and Rabbit Stroganoff, all cooked on a glowing wood stove in the middle of the forest. Laden with this cargo, we carved deeper furrows behind the Buran on a 20 km. uphill weave through forest trails and open country, all the while reeling in those giant volcanic peaks. Fyodor obligingly towed us straight up insanely steep slopes and left us to romp and crash back down again.
Come the crispness of evening, Jack Frost started nipping at me everywhere. Fyodor reassuringly offered "If you are shaking with cold you are still alive".
We sensibly repaired to a lonely mountain cabin, where we met some indigenous Kamchatka people- the Koryak, some of who still live in caribou skin tents and hunt using ancient methods- albeit with a little help from Mr. Winchester and bendy western fishing rods. I was immediately offered a bear's penis bone but declined, citing possible repercussions at KLIA customs.
Over mugfuls of their blackcurrant tea I learned that visitors are encouraged to sleep with the womenfolk, to avoid inbreeding. I'd like to help their cause and bring in fresh blood, except the girls do have this distracting habit of smearing their bodies with fish oil and/or urine (keeps away the mosquitoes). Still, the Koryak have a good time with their Shaman rituals and magic mushroom feasts- who am I to judge? Besides, they kindly offer to take us on a dogsledding safari.
It's funny how once you get used to one form of snow locomotion, another can easily terrify. The dogs looked wild, gnashing at trees and anything within chomping distance. As I cowered in terror from my perch on the sled, our Koryak driver explained that they were 'just keen to break the sled'. Somehow, a dozen wildly howling hounds snatching me through the woods didn't seem such a great idea. When they lunged off, I was sure. The Buran was immediately relegated to sedate status.
The world raced by in freeze-frames of jagged motion, framed by my borrowed sable-fur hood. The driver yelped a seemingly random series of whoops, whistles and wails but every dog reacted instantly, pricking up their ears and snapping back into line. The downhill runs were a romp-dogs stretching full gait, sled airborne over bumps and facefuls of paw-flung snow.
After so much adrenalin it was tough to leave Kamchatka, although flying back to Moscow was tops- an 'ultimate redeye' flight that froze time at 7pm for nine hours. For ages I gazed down at mountains bathed in an endless sunset, ice floes in the Arctic Sea and frozen river beds etched with trade routes- pure magic.
Next time I go, I'll loosen the snowboard straps before taking the plunge.
Kamchatka has to be one of the world's nuttiest places. Here's the proof:
Become part of your work
Picnic in the Woods
Hunt like the locals