Plage Blanche and the Sea Bass

South, well south of Agadir a long flat beach sits between the cliffs and the Atlantic and it is called the Plage Blanche. Its white sands push against the land and at low tide its firm sand beside the sea draws many an off road car to enjoy miles and miles of high speed “dashing about” beside the sea.

As you sit on top of the cliffs at its northern end, readying to drop down onto the pebbles that will, after a few hundred yards give way to the firm sand, a glance along the cliffs will reveal a string of ramshackle huts made up of driftwood and discarded plastic. These huts are the abode of fishermen. These fishermen spend their lives here, setting up the nets between tides to catch fish to make a meagre living along this windswept and sun scorched coast.

As the tide falls, it is not only us with our cars making our way onto the beach but also the fishermen (often in an old Land Rover Series 2) to tend their hopefully full nets. Both of us are running to a time limit of two hours before low water and up to three hours afterwards. Us to get to the mouth of the Oued Aounet El Ksab (some 70km away) and the fishermen to extricate their catch from the nets, repair any broken mesh and reset the nets. The tide is waiting, one imagines, to trap any untimely car or fisherman onto the soft white sand above the tide line.

The view from our cars is extraordinary as we dash across the sands, to our left the sand against the cliffs stretches as far as the eye can see, to our right the Atlantic crashes inexorably onto the sand and in front of us the plage blanche is covered with gulls and small waders (sanderlings and dunlins). These birds open their wings as we approach and the wind lifts them into the air over our cars to drop down onto the beach behind us. There are so many that they rise and fall like Autumn leaves on a windy day.

One of our CAUTIONS in the Impala Roadbooks here is to take care to see the nets that lay on the sand, easy to miss and quite catastrophic for the fishermen if you run over one, we never have so the caution does its job. I always keep a weather eye for a fisherman with a full bucket of fish as a fresh fish for supper has a taste that a fish only a few hours from the catch cannot have. 30km into the beach a couple of fishermen returned our wave with hands held high with a fish hanging from each hand. “Splendid” I thought so we eased our speed and came to a stop as the fisherman ran out of the surf and over to our cars.

Some twenty minutes later after much chatting and laughter (these fishermen are always happy to see new faces and talk) we were the proud owners of four sea bass for supper. We bid our farewells with a promise of a future visit and sped off to the mouth of the Oued and our campsite in the shadow of some tall dunes.

Later that evening as the sun set and with the sound of the ever present surf in our ears we enjoyed the taste of fresh, fresh fish which always seems enhanced in this natural wild environment.

Rescuing a Camel from the Oued Draa

There we were sitting in the shade of an Acacia and the silence of the desert, enjoying lunch as the sun heated the land to 42°. Imperceptibly at first, the silence was accompanied by what may have been the sound of a motor bike. After a few minutes it was definitely so as the sound drew closer.  The bike stopped at the junction where we had turned off the main track and after a minute or two began to head up towards us.

A turbaned Moroccan hove into view and he stopped his motorbike beside where we sat and began the usual greetings which always last a minute or two. He spoke no French so in sign language he attempted to tell us something and it took us a few minutes to work out what the problem was. We started at “his motorbike had a puncture” which did not seem correct as the bikes tyres looked perfectly set for the track that we are on. He did have one word which seemed to be French and it sounded something like “Chamaux”, which with the accompanying gestures indicated that a “Chamaux” need pulling. At last the penny dropped; perhaps a camel was stuck in the mud of the Oued Draa. Indeed that could be a very plausible problem as the winter rains had been and even though the temperature was in the low forties there would still be glutinous pools of mud that would suck any animal into its mire.

I used my Arabic to let him know that we would follow. We soon had our chairs and remains of lunch packed away and with his motorbike leading the way we set off back down to the track. After about a mile he turned off onto a feint track that lead towards the river and an area of tall trees which suggested water was the norm here for a least a good part of the year. As the track dropped down into the river bed we could see an area of dark mud with a camel stuck up to its belly at the far end.

I worked the Range Rover round to an area of stone and got into a position so that we could affect the rescue. You could see where the camel herder had tried to remove some of the mud to free the camel, but to no avail and we could see that he had given the Camel some branches from the nearby trees so that hunger would not be a problem. We later found out that the beast had been stuck for three days.

The camel herder squelched into the mud and aided by Gerry (one of the Impala Support) they positioned a couple of ropes around the camel’s shoulders and hips to give me somewhere to attach the winch. The camel was not sure about the ropes and the herder had to keep pushing her head away as she kept trying to bite him. Carefully we pulled the camel free. It took a little time as the mud did not want to release its captive but inch by inch and with the herder making sure that the camels legs were freed we had our prize back on dry land, looking somewhat bemused it must be said.

We spent some time getting the ropes free and insuring that the camel was sitting up correctly so that when she had the strength and inclination to get up, she would be able too.

The Auberge at Lac Tislit
It’s September on the south side of The High Atlas and cold, winter has just reminded us that it is but a stone’s throw away by blasting, albeit briefly the land with a hail storm, before allowing the warmth of the African sun to bathe us in its glorious light once more.
The valleys up here have beautiful lakes that reflect the blue of the sky, a blue that is of such a colour and depth it is hard to believe it’s real. These lakes are shrouded in Berber Folklore and it is said that they were formed by the tears of two thwarted lovers. 
Overlooking one of these azure lakes (Lac Tislit) is an Auberge offering a warm calm space, shielding the traveller from the wildness of this mountainous landscape. The welcome you get as you walk up towards the doors is that typically Moroccan one of smiles and open arms. Once inside your gaze is drawn to the sight of a rather incongruous looking barrel with a thick steel chimney reaching up to the roof. As you approach its warmth hits you and it is very welcome. 
Soon after the warmth has brought cold fingers back to life the ubiquitous glass of sweet Moroccan tea is thrust into your hands, accompanied with a bowl of sweet almonds that have come from the trees growing down by the lake.
Once a brand new road with tarmac on was built to ease the passage from the historic nearby town of Imichil to the plains below the High Atlas but as is so often the case here in Africa, Mother Nature has used heavy rains and strong winds to rip it apart so the route is slowly turning back to the rough piste that once snaked its way down the mountain, keeping the Auberge with a certain mystery and remoteness that befits this part of the World.

The Auberge at Lac Tislit

It’s September on the south side of The High Atlas and cold, winter has just reminded us that it is but a stone’s throw away by blasting, albeit briefly the land with a hail storm, before allowing the warmth of the African sun to bathe us in its glorious light once more.

The valleys up here have beautiful lakes that reflect the blue of the sky, a blue that is of such a colour and depth it is hard to believe it’s real. These lakes are shrouded in Berber Folklore and it is said that they were formed by the tears of two thwarted lovers. 

Overlooking one of these azure lakes (Lac Tislit) is an Auberge offering a warm calm space, shielding the traveller from the wildness of this mountainous landscape. The welcome you get as you walk up towards the doors is that typically Moroccan one of smiles and open arms. Once inside your gaze is drawn to the sight of a rather incongruous looking barrel with a thick steel chimney reaching up to the roof. As you approach its warmth hits you and it is very welcome. 

Soon after the warmth has brought cold fingers back to life the ubiquitous glass of sweet Moroccan tea is thrust into your hands, accompanied with a bowl of sweet almonds that have come from the trees growing down by the lake.

Once a brand new road with tarmac on was built to ease the passage from the historic nearby town of Imichil to the plains below the High Atlas but as is so often the case here in Africa, Mother Nature has used heavy rains and strong winds to rip it apart so the route is slowly turning back to the rough piste that once snaked its way down the mountain, keeping the Auberge with a certain mystery and remoteness that befits this part of the World.

The Macaque’s at The Cascades 

High up in the foothills of The High Atlas the Oued El Abid flows to the waterfall ‘Cascade D’Ouzoud’ where it plummets 200ft into an idyllic valley covered in Argane and Olive trees. This river powers the mills that grind corn for that tasty Moroccan unleavened bread. Such is the importance of these falls that they have been named after the mills, Ouzoud, meaning “the act of grinding grain”. 

We often stay at the Camping Natur which has the commanding site beside the top of the falls. The next morning we walk down the steep winding path to the bottom of the Cascades. Here it is always a pleasure to enjoy an omelette sitting in the sun in one of the cafe’s set in amongst the Olive Trees. 

On the way down the warm air is full of the sound of birdsong, mostly sparrows. Very occasionally a creature shows itself, much to the surprise of many a visitor who imagines that only birds live here.

The Macaque live here; they have become so accustomed to living with the Berber’s that you can be on the receiving end of some incredible encounters. You are able to spend many privileged hours just sitting and watching them playing together. I remember one wonderful encounter between myself and the young Macaque in the picture.   He appeared in front of me, stopped, then we spent a while looking at each other without directly staring or actually catching each other’s eye. As I sat still he edged closer and closer, until eventually he reached out a finger and poked my back; then rushed off pretending that he most certainly had nothing to do with it!!

On another occasion a group of youngsters were playing in an olive tree, enthusiastically jumping up and down on a branch which eventually succumbed to their exuberance and fell to the ground. The group shot off looking over their shoulders, just like children who knew that an adult would chastise them soundly. Events like this make you realise that the distance between us and them is not so far at all.

The Left turn in The Cedar Forest
We pride ourselves on using routes that are often well off the beaten track and give everyone an exciting challenge to make them proud of the abilities of themselves or their Off Road Vehicle.
In the cedar forest we have such a route that snakes off uphill from the usual distinct track, clambering over small rocks and red mud or dust (depending upon whether it has rained recently), finishing up at a beautiful campsite set in a small clearing with views across the Cedar Forest for miles around. The last climb into the clearing is the hardest challenge and if you do not get the balance of power and momentum right it can take a few runs to succeed. 
As darkness falls and we are serenaded by the calls of Tawny Owls a camp fire is lit to keep us warm. Here in the forest it gets very cold so the warmth of a fire is most welcome. Our fire in this dark landscape  often does not go unnoticed and we are often joined by the locals, who stay for a while to enjoy our fires glow as they travel across the forest.
During the mornings briefing I reminded everyone that they should turn right out of the campsite to begin the roadbook. The sun was hot when the last car had left so the Impala Support Teams settled down under the shade of an enormous Cedar to enjoy a coffee and a chat, before leaving to sweep behind the group some two hours later. 
Alec and I had been sitting for about an hour when the distant sound of engines flowed in and out of the forest. A few minutes later the sound began to increase and we realised that these cars were coming up from the track that we had left last night!
“Oh” I thought “It seems like we are not the only group to enjoy this challenge Alec”  
“Seems not” was his reply.
We got up and walked to the edge of the clearing to see who it was and to our surprise we saw some of our cars that had left some time ago. They had a sheepish air about them and we discovered amongst much merriment that they had turned LEFT not RIGHT as was written in the roadbook and were trying to creep back unnoticed, a impossible task in a silent forest.
They were soon on their way following the roadbook correctly so Alec and I settled down once more to enjoy another coffee and a chat before sweeping behind the group that had turned in the right direction.

The Left turn in The Cedar Forest

We pride ourselves on using routes that are often well off the beaten track and give everyone an exciting challenge to make them proud of the abilities of themselves or their Off Road Vehicle.

In the cedar forest we have such a route that snakes off uphill from the usual distinct track, clambering over small rocks and red mud or dust (depending upon whether it has rained recently), finishing up at a beautiful campsite set in a small clearing with views across the Cedar Forest for miles around. The last climb into the clearing is the hardest challenge and if you do not get the balance of power and momentum right it can take a few runs to succeed. 

As darkness falls and we are serenaded by the calls of Tawny Owls a camp fire is lit to keep us warm. Here in the forest it gets very cold so the warmth of a fire is most welcome. Our fire in this dark landscape  often does not go unnoticed and we are often joined by the locals, who stay for a while to enjoy our fires glow as they travel across the forest.

During the mornings briefing I reminded everyone that they should turn right out of the campsite to begin the roadbook. The sun was hot when the last car had left so the Impala Support Teams settled down under the shade of an enormous Cedar to enjoy a coffee and a chat, before leaving to sweep behind the group some two hours later. 

Alec and I had been sitting for about an hour when the distant sound of engines flowed in and out of the forest. A few minutes later the sound began to increase and we realised that these cars were coming up from the track that we had left last night!

“Oh” I thought “It seems like we are not the only group to enjoy this challenge Alec”  

“Seems not” was his reply.

We got up and walked to the edge of the clearing to see who it was and to our surprise we saw some of our cars that had left some time ago. They had a sheepish air about them and we discovered amongst much merriment that they had turned LEFT not RIGHT as was written in the roadbook and were trying to creep back unnoticed, a impossible task in a silent forest.

They were soon on their way following the roadbook correctly so Alec and I settled down once more to enjoy another coffee and a chat before sweeping behind the group that had turned in the right direction.

The Bahama Gold Range Rover

This Bahama Gold Range Rover of early vintage sat unused in a barn in Leicestershire, seemingly close to the end of its days as a car to enjoy an adventure with. It had spent the last couple of outings being coaxed along a Greenlane hear Oadby by a friend of mine Nick and I remember being shown a picture of it temporally stuck in some deep ruts.

He was never one to miss an opportunity to make a penny or two, and he knew of my desire, to own one of these timeless machines from Solihull. During one of our lunches at Palmersport, Nick suggested that for a small sum of money, that I should have it and use it in Morocco as an Impala Support car - I was excited at the prospect but also knew that I should look at and drive this Range Rover before parting with my hard earned cash.

The next day I drove at speed round the test track at Bruntingthorpe for half an hour or so and what fun it was. The V8 purred and the mechanical bits worked without any noise or clonks so my mind was made up - £500 later and JJF431N was mine.

I had but three months to get this Range Rover, (that had a certain “patina” of age) ready for Morocco. I parked her outside the workshop at Bruntingthorpe, which just happened to be beside the entrance to the canteen, so everyone passed by more than once a day. I spent every spare minute that I had, checking wheel bearings, hoses and welding a hole or two in the floor. I even managed to get the paint shop to freshen up this car below the waistline. Mechanically I did not do a thing.

Almost everyone who saw my pride and joy, had heard through the grapevine that I was going to wander off to Morocco and Libya with this “old car” and almost to a man, could not believe it!!

“Won’t get past the ferry, let alone to Portsmouth” they often laughed as it was said.

“You must be mad Neil” was an often followed by “only you would do such a thing?”

Well - I just smiled and do you know, this car worked without any mechanical problems for many a trip into the desert, much to everyone’s surprise but not to mine. I always knew that this Bahama Gold Range Rover would make the grade; after all it was designed to work in such environments by those skilled and proud men at Solihull.

The Flight of The Zebras, Namibia
In the wilderness of Namibia almost all of the roads are graded gravel tracks that have been hewn out of the landscape, faithfully following the contours and cambers of the ground that they were made across. This can lead to some very interesting driving that is alien to most who venture forth from the airport in Windhoek in hired Off Road Cars.
The fate of many a hired car is to find itself sliding across the loose gravel on an off camber corner with an inexperienced tourist flailing at the wheel, which inevitably results in the car sitting on its side or even roof and the forlorn sight of wheels that continue to turn long after the dust has settled, hoping for a touch of the good hard earth.
Such an unfortunate fate occurred to one of the hire cars in our group some years ago. We were on our way to Homeb and the campsite beside a sand river. Louise and I were travelling through the Gamsberg Pass in the Impala Range Rover and we came across a Toyota on its roof just after a difficult off camber bend. Swinging into action we soon assessed the health of the driver Mel and Alec (one of The Impala Support Team) and all was well although Mel was a little shaken, complaining of a pain in her neck so we laid her down and made up a neck brace with some newspaper and in that quintessentially English way made a cup of tea!
Louise and I headed off to a farm that we had spotted just off the track some 10 km earlier so that we could phone the ambulance service at Walvisbaai. We gave the GPS co-ordinate to the operator who quickly assessed that it would take eight hours to reach us. As the call was a precaution and Mel was comfortable we knew that all would be well, so we headed back to the crash site and settled in for a long wait in the stillness of the desert.
There was only one other car waiting with us as the rest of the group were well ahead, at the campsite I was sure. We sent this last car off to the campsite at Homeb to reassure everyone and to tell them to expect us in due course.
As the dust settled and the noise of the cars Land Rover’s engine faded into the distance a silence, that is unique to the bush enveloped us once more, so sat down in the shadow of a low ridge to await the ambulance and enjoy the peace of it all.
Sometime later, around dusk I seem to remember, something extraordinary happened: Without warning the absolute stillness of the bush was shattered as a herd of Zebra exploded over the ridge only feet away from us. We saw the whites of each other’s eyes as the herd seemed to turn in mid-air and gallop away. We could smell their scent, they were that close. Not a word was uttered for what seemed like an age but I am sure was only seconds and by the time Alex and I rushed up onto the ridge there was nothing to see but a rapidly dispersing dust cloud and that beautiful sound of the Zebras alarm call and the thunder of their hooves on the parched earth.
We were still sitting beside the ridge completely enthralled an hour or so later as the flashing lights of the ambulance slowly worked their way closer from the distant ridge.
Mel was soon on her way with Alec to the hospital and Louise and I drove the last forty kilometres in darkness to the campsite and a cool gin and tonic, arriving close to midnight and soon reassured the camp that all was well. We turned in tired but content and you will be pleased to hear that Mel and Alec were back with us the next day with hardly a bruise to show for their crash and with a new car.
 I can still hear and smell the Zebra to this day and that extraordinary meeting will sit high up in my mind for the rest of my life.

The Flight of The Zebras, Namibia

In the wilderness of Namibia almost all of the roads are graded gravel tracks that have been hewn out of the landscape, faithfully following the contours and cambers of the ground that they were made across. This can lead to some very interesting driving that is alien to most who venture forth from the airport in Windhoek in hired Off Road Cars.

The fate of many a hired car is to find itself sliding across the loose gravel on an off camber corner with an inexperienced tourist flailing at the wheel, which inevitably results in the car sitting on its side or even roof and the forlorn sight of wheels that continue to turn long after the dust has settled, hoping for a touch of the good hard earth.

Such an unfortunate fate occurred to one of the hire cars in our group some years ago. We were on our way to Homeb and the campsite beside a sand river. Louise and I were travelling through the Gamsberg Pass in the Impala Range Rover and we came across a Toyota on its roof just after a difficult off camber bend. Swinging into action we soon assessed the health of the driver Mel and Alec (one of The Impala Support Team) and all was well although Mel was a little shaken, complaining of a pain in her neck so we laid her down and made up a neck brace with some newspaper and in that quintessentially English way made a cup of tea!

Louise and I headed off to a farm that we had spotted just off the track some 10 km earlier so that we could phone the ambulance service at Walvisbaai. We gave the GPS co-ordinate to the operator who quickly assessed that it would take eight hours to reach us. As the call was a precaution and Mel was comfortable we knew that all would be well, so we headed back to the crash site and settled in for a long wait in the stillness of the desert.

There was only one other car waiting with us as the rest of the group were well ahead, at the campsite I was sure. We sent this last car off to the campsite at Homeb to reassure everyone and to tell them to expect us in due course.

As the dust settled and the noise of the cars Land Rover’s engine faded into the distance a silence, that is unique to the bush enveloped us once more, so sat down in the shadow of a low ridge to await the ambulance and enjoy the peace of it all.

Sometime later, around dusk I seem to remember, something extraordinary happened: Without warning the absolute stillness of the bush was shattered as a herd of Zebra exploded over the ridge only feet away from us. We saw the whites of each other’s eyes as the herd seemed to turn in mid-air and gallop away. We could smell their scent, they were that close. Not a word was uttered for what seemed like an age but I am sure was only seconds and by the time Alex and I rushed up onto the ridge there was nothing to see but a rapidly dispersing dust cloud and that beautiful sound of the Zebras alarm call and the thunder of their hooves on the parched earth.

We were still sitting beside the ridge completely enthralled an hour or so later as the flashing lights of the ambulance slowly worked their way closer from the distant ridge.

Mel was soon on her way with Alec to the hospital and Louise and I drove the last forty kilometres in darkness to the campsite and a cool gin and tonic, arriving close to midnight and soon reassured the camp that all was well. We turned in tired but content and you will be pleased to hear that Mel and Alec were back with us the next day with hardly a bruise to show for their crash and with a new car.

 I can still hear and smell the Zebra to this day and that extraordinary meeting will sit high up in my mind for the rest of my life.

Beware of the Lions: Ughab River Rhino Camp

Northwest of the Brandberg Mountains,(a granite mass left somewhat incongruously on the landscape, after the continental upheavals of the Early Cretaceous rifting, some 130 million years ago) flows a dry sand river, the Ughab. Its riverbed is a ribbon of green twisting and turning as it pushes its way between black rocks on its inexorable journey to the sea. The Ughab appears to be dry but the water runs deep beneath the sands. Every so often a waterhole rises close to the surface, reaffirming that the most important giver of life lies underneath. Each waterhole is surrounded by tall reeds and thick bush, suggesting a haven of immense proportions as you approach, but only to disappoint as a muddy “puddle” is all that you will often see. All life has to come here, because of their necessity to drink.

Namibia is a desert landscape with a sparse covering of grass so the big herbivores are few and far between. You are most likely not to see a thing and if you do it will be a single Gemsbok or a couple of Black Faced Impala. Desert Elephants roam here, short tempered, probably because of the difficulties of getting enough to eat in this sparse landscape. If you are very lucky you may even catch a glimpse of the White Rhino itself.

Lions we have never seen at the Rhino Camp, not even the remnants of their spoor weathered by time. This is because a small pride will roam over a territory of 400sq miles in order to have enough prey animals. We do see the spoor of the solitary Leopard as this land suits them well.

 At a bend in the river, a gap in the hills has allowed Namibia’s Save the Rhino Trust to make a bush camp and it is here where we stop for a while and put our tents up in amongst the Acacia Trees. Around each camping place are reed shelters with a sign attached warning of Elephants and Lions, shelters that do not look Lion proof to say the least!!. Mind you we do not concern ourselves too much as there is a protocol, a system of listening and looking, never expecting that the Lion will not appear and no one is allowed to wander off, just in case. This landscape holds a certain excitement, and an anticipation of a chance meeting with the wildlife with the knowledge that you cannot just walk free, as in England and this makes you appreciate being alive I think.

Russia The Kola 2013 Part 6

The next few days of our journey across the forests are the reason why we come all this way to Russia. The track from Monchegorsk to Verkhnetulomsky starts five kilometres to the north of the City of Monchegorsk; it is 150km long and very, very challenging.

The beginning of the track seems easy enough as it disappears into the forest. The only obstacle is a mound of earth that we cross to get onto it, then the rocks begin. Easy at first and then over the next few days they become more numerous and bigger; concentration is important so as not to get stuck on them. Every so often the track drops into a small valley to cross a stream or a river providing us with an extra challenge of slippery rocks in the bog. We worked our way through the forest in brilliant sunshine, with magnificent views of the lake to our left that kept us company all the way to Kivorsk. Towards the end of the first day I had to don my waders and guide the cars through the water avoiding a drop off the rocks into a deep pool.

Our night’s camp was on the track set in amongst the trees with a view of a small lake and a field of boulders dumped by the last ice age glaciers. I walked to the river that we had crossed earlier to filter some water. I stood there immersed in the utter stillness of the forest with the beautiful music of the river bubbling its way down to the lake. Later as we sat beside a warm log fire and chatted about the days challenges and the ones to come tomorrow, a harvesters moon sat above the trees to the east.

Day two on “The Track” was going to be the most challenging as there were deeper bogs with larger rocks to cross. I set off with the view of getting to the lake for lunch! On the way we had to winch a couple of times as the Impala Range Rover forged a route across the forest and through the bogs. Right on cue we popped out into sunshine and space beside the lake in time for lunch.

In hot sunshine we enjoyed lunch and the view across the lakes blue waters before heading off into the lake. Yes, INTO the lake because the track beside it is impassable for a few hundred meters. It is imperative not to stray to far out into the lake itself because it plummets to great depths very quickly; so with Steve sat on the bonnet to guide me we set off to find the “Impala Log Road”.

The Impala Log Road is now an infamous track we laid down a number of years ago in order to cross a bog. It consists of over 100 trees that the ‘crew’ felled and laid them out across the bog thus creating a way across without sinking into the mire. The Russians even sent a message via Frank from Kola Travel to thank me and the crew for laying this road.

We crossed the log road with ease although I had to just winch for a few feet as my wheels broke through some rotten wood at the beginning of the track. There was now only two kilometres of very challenging track which we passed with a winch or two for Rob’s Toyota before emerging onto the main track from Olenegorsk to Kutskol, which looked like a motorway after two days in the forest and bogs.

Ahead there was still challenges: river crossings where the bridges had long since succumbed to the ravages of time and winters and also some very challenging rock sections which everyone drove well so that by 17:00 we had arrived at the spot where I had wanted to camp on some land fifty feet or so above the lake.

Some rain had passed through during the afternoon but by the time we camped things had settled down so the evening was bright but a little cold so the camp fire was very welcome. I fancy that mosquitoes were going to become even less of a problem as the nights got colder. In fact we had seen very few because of the hot summer. The sun had dried up so many pools so that there was nowhere for the insects to breed so their numbers were very low.

The chat around the camp fire was relaxed and there was an air of achieving something exceptional, which is exactly what everyone had done over the last two days.

Just as we turned in the rain started to fall. We had been watching some ominous black clouds running up the valley on the other side of the lake for an hour or two and expected it to wander over to us in due course.

During the night the wind blew but our camp in amongst the trees remained relatively calm and by morning the rain had stopped although a cold NW wind that was whipping up white horses on the lake necessitated a blazing camp fire to keep us warm. The track would get progressively quicker today and our goal was to camp somewhere between Kutskol and the last two river crossings which are big ones all set for the finale on the penultimate day in Russia.

We set off in a howling gale onto a very technical series of rock crossings before plunging into some deep mud which had rocks conveniently placed by nature to catch you out if your concentration wavered. As the day progressed the sun came out and the wind dropped, it seemed in conjunction with an improvement in the track. The rocks became less and the challenges changed into river crossings that got wider and wider.

At the end of the lakes sits the village of Kutskol and just before here we began to see the tracks of bears- one set was of a mother and her cub whilst the other set were large, suggesting a male. As the sun came out more strongly we came across five Grouse just sitting in the sun. They let us get very close, close enough to take some good pictures before one of them could not take the suspense anymore and started heading back into the forest, with the others following soon afterwards.

As we arrived at Kutskol a Russian came over to us and indicated, by making a roaring sign and holding his hands claw like above his head, that the bear and cub had not long passed this way (the ubiquitous demonstration of a bear). We heading off expectantly but alas we did not see them. The noise of the cars would keep them ahead of us and our chance would come probably tomorrow morning if we went for a walk around dawn.

Just after one of the river crossings we made camp on some flat land between the river and the forest. Chainsaw in hand we all headed off into the woods to fell a dead tree for the evening’s fire. Later while we were sat around the fire chatting twenty or so Pink Feet Geese flew over our heads and I did wonder if they would also be in the sky in Norfolk much later in the year. Over to the north of us a pair of cranes called as they do before they settle down for the night.

As we slept a gentle rain fell from the sky, always very conducive to sleep. In the morning I was woken by the sound of a Greater Spotted Woodpecker thumping away at an old pine in search of breakfast. I arose and stood outside to watch him at work. He was very happy to let me just stand observing for ten minutes or so before he flew off into the forest.

The last day on this track was a mix of fast sand tracks, some rock crawling and three long deep river crossings. These crossings are a grand finale to this adventure and are often approached with some trepidation but Steve and I know them well so could guide everyone past the hidden rocks that can snare the unwary. Once or twice in the past we have had cars stuck on rocks for an hour or so and had to use high-lift jacks as well as winches to carefully extricate them from the river. Today we had no such problems as both Rob and Kevin drove extremely well and each challenge was achieved with a practiced ease and a little aplomb.

Our goal was to get to a magnificent campsite set in amongst pine trees, a lichen covered forest floor with a small lake in the middle of the valley. On the way is a series of checkpoints and I was surprised when I slowed down for the first only to see that it was only a derelict barrack from four years ago.

It was 19:00 before we settled into the campsite. The wind that had blown strongly all day was not at all evident in this sheltered valley so we sat a little further away from the fire this evening.

Tomorrow was going to be a late start as we only had 30km or so to get to the border posts.

One of the memories that most people take away with them is the utter stillness of the forest that is the norm up here above the Arctic Circle. It gets entrenched in one’s mind; everything is very, very quiet and relaxed. This last morning in Russia was one of those so everyone woke up and walked and talked gently so as not to disturb the stillness of it all.

Eventually we set off to the first checkpoint to be greeted warmly and saluted by the young guard; he checked our passports and let us through to the customs post. A few minutes later we arrived at a very friendly customs post where the guards and officials were more interested in our cars and where we had been than in slowing our progress through. Before we knew it we were away and driving towards Finland with a cheery wave and a smile from the Russian team at Lotta.

Getting back into Finland is a little surreal; the roads are very smooth, the parking places clean and the houses painted with gardens of mown grass and flowers. It was such a contrast to the villages that we had seen in Russia. It always takes a while to accept the normality of Europe once more and Russia seems a very different culture and time from what we know. But what an adventure it is and I was already looking forward to returning next year to the utter wilderness of the Russian Forest and The Kola.

Russia The Kola 2013 Part 5

When you sleep in a building the dawn’s light wakes you later than it would through the canvas of the tent so by the time we stirred the day was already warm and bright. After a leisurely breakfast we set off for another day’s adventure.

Today the tracks were an exercise for the ultimate track to come. We were presented with drops into rivers and had to clear trees from tracks that had not been used since our last foray 5 years ago, also some of the wooden bridges were a little shabby to say the least. Rob, Isabella, Kevin and Sue were a little astonished when Steve and I told them that the rickety bridge in the picture was the best that they would cross on this adventure. We even had to use our winch on one sand climb where the track had been washed away after the spring melt.

As we drove along flocks of Snow Buntings, Yellow Wagtails and Siskin’s flew like autumn leaves in front of the car and over lunch a gyrfalcon shot passed, causing panic to the small bird population.

Tonight would be our last camp beside the sea, on the opposite side of the Estuary to our first camp. The nights were cool so a fire was started early so that it would be well established before the cool of the evening. Kevin made a bespoke pan boiling system using a variety of sticks held by logs and successfully cooked tea for Sue. We then cooked the salmon on a stick set above the fire and it was as delicious as the one that we had had the night before.

Just as we were finishing our salmon I happened to mention that the last time that I had camped in this spot a Russian turned up with his Lada slightly the worse for wear. Minutes later a family, in their Lada turned up as if on cue and we enjoyed an entertaining few hours (until past midnight) with them conversing in broken English and sign language. The father, Roman, even went out into the bay for a paddle in my canoe. His daughters gave me some beads and a flower that still adorns the Impala Range Rover to this day.

The family stayed until we had all turned in and then roared passed with a loud pip of the horn. We could hear their car slipping and sliding back along the track for a while before the silence of the night returned.

Our journey away from the sea inland to Oktyabrsky was as bright as the days before and we had one more wild camp before two nights in the Yolki Palki Lodge. There are two ways to get there: The lower road (the winter road) that is frozen during the northern winter and therefore easy to drive, but during the summer becomes a very difficult track of mud. To the west is the summer route, but you need to know firstly where it is and secondly which of the myriad of turnings you need to take so as not to end up back in the mud. The first 25km or so is the same route and while we were on this part we met a Swiss team travelling through Russia and they spoke of impassable mud ahead on the track, warning us that it would be very difficult and to take care. I talked for a while and gave them some routes down by the White Sea so that they would not miss out on some great off roading.

I have the summer route so we set off with the knowledge that we would enjoy an incredible journey across the high ground. The track runs between lakes of clear water and forests of pine, larch and birch that are growing far enough apart to allow the soft carpet of lichen and blue, red and blackberries to grow, (all are edible). Along the way is the occasional rickety bridge and rock tracks that are fine tuning the skills needed for the last adventure between Monchegorsk and Verkhnetulomsky.

Our campsite was reached by 1830 and was set high up amongst trees with views across the immeasurable forest. We pitched our tents on soft Lichen in the company of the mosquitoes, but within an hour or so they had been sent back into the trees by the cooler evening wind so we enjoyed the camp fire insect free. One insect of note that we have seen in abundance was the humble Bumble Bee. I have never seen so many here; they were everywhere, a good sign of a happy nature.

I am always first up in the morning, anytime between 0500 and 0700 so always get the fire going so that when everyone else stirs and leave their tents to see what the weather has in store for the day there is always the welcoming sight of a log fire - a quintessential part of a forest adventure I think.

Coffee is next on the agenda for me and Steve, my support. This is the second time that Steve Pitt has supported in Russia so he now knows it well and enjoys it immensely.

Today the rain is falling gently and we have but 60km to go on sand tracks and with a couple of river crossings to get to the Yolki Palki for the rest day tomorrow.

As we broke camp the rain stopped and the temperature started to rise again. The route passed through two villages, one deserted because after the forest had been harvested in the communist times the government moved people back to the towns and left the villages to rot. Some of the houses are still lived in but if Putin made the decision then they could be bulldozed away and the inhabitants would have to move to towns like Kivorsk or Kandalaksha.

The first long river crossing was tackled successfully, another piece of experience for the ultimate test. The rocks in the tracks also became more numerous, often fiendishly placed to trap the unwary: another training session for Rob and Kevin which they passed with flying colours. There were also a lot of Russian’s on the tracks, because today was Sunday and everyone heads out into the wilderness to fish and picnic.

By late afternoon we had arrived at Yolki Palki and Frank welcomed us with a Russian beer and his usual superb hospitality. The lodge is in the village of Oktyabrsky, which is another one of the logging villages that is inhabited although the people should be in the flats in Kivorsk. It appears that after the logging finished the inhabitants did not want to spend all their time in the city so the village has become a place to go at the weekend.

After eight days it was good to have the time to wash some clothes and get oneself clean in the sauna before enjoying a fantastic dinner of traditional Russian food. Sleeping inside a building after twelve nights under canvas seemed a little airless, but I did sleep well enough as the bed was very comfortable and it was very quiet outside as the village of Oktyabrsky was still deep in the forest.