Kamchatka – for nature lovers, globetrotters and photographers, the name sounds like music to their ears. For these people, the Russian peninsula is at the top of their dream destinations. As one of the last truly wild landscapes on earth, Kamchatka is right up there with Patagonia or Iceland as a must-see destination for photographers, but the great thing about it is that it’s much quieter and less populated than other places. You don’t have to compete with dozens of other photographers for the best locations to take pictures. Kamchatka has been on my wish list for a long time.
Outposts between the worlds
For the Central European, Kamchatka is pretty much on the other side of the world. A good 9,000 kilometers, twelve hours of flight and eleven time zones separate the Russian peninsula from Germany. Kamchatka lies in the Far East, in the furthest outpost of Eurasia, situated between the Bering Sea, the North Pacific and the Okhotsk Sea. Japan not too far south and towards the east it borders Alaska. During the Cold War, Kamchatka was the easternmost tip of the Iron Curtain. This location was far east enough for the USSR to eavesdrop on the USA during the cold war, so the peninsula was a restricted military area for over 50 years. Only a few selected citizens of the USSR were allowed to enter the area with a special permit. The Kamchatka Peninsula has only been accessible to visitors since 1991 and tourism is still in its infancy.
Where loneliness is not just an advertising slogan
Like most visitors, we reach the peninsula via Elisovo Airport near Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, the largest city in Kamchatka with about 180,000 inhabitants. The capital is picturesquely situated on Avatcha Bay, one of the world’s largest natural harbors. Less idyllic is the city itself: huge dilapidated, prefabricated housing units and any number of Lenin statues let you feel the breath of the Soviet era quite clearly, radiating a somewhat morbid charm. But we are not here to explore the city. On the horizon, the huge, snow-covered mountain silhouettes of Avachinsksy and Koryaksky remind us of the true purpose of our journey.
Our destination is the archaic volcanic landscape of Kamchatka, still a largely intact, genuine wilderness. The approximately 900-mile long East Siberian peninsula is a good five percent larger than all of Germany – about the size of California in the US – but with only about 400,000 inhabitants spread over the area, with most of them living in the island capital. As a result, you don’t meet many people on the way, but you do encounter a lot of loneliness, nature and wildlife.
Adventure Mode Turned On
The suitable vehicle for wilderness adventures is an old Russian KAMAZ truck. It is a converted military transporter with 6 wheels and all-wheel drive, which is just right for the difficult terrain of Kamchatka. It will be our living room for the next two weeks. “Namaste” is at the front of the truck, maybe because our driver, Andrej, is a kind of local hero. He is regarded as one of the most experienced drivers on the island and will master even the most crazy routes in the next few days with our motorized 6WD monster.
Taiga and Tundra
Infinite vastness. We can see for ourselves on the very first day of the tour that this is not just an advertising platitude from the travel catalog. For more than 400 miles, we bump over straight, seemingly endless corrugated iron tracks through the Taiga, the typical landscape of Siberia, which can also be found in Alaska or Northern Norway. Taiga (тайга) in Russian means “impenetrable, swampy forest”. The scenery lives up to its name. For hours the lovely, but unchanging picture rushes past us: birch, Swiss stone pine, birch, Swiss stone pine. The green monotony has an almost hypnotic effect on me. There are no people as far as the eye can see. Only every few hours does a small village emerge from seemingly nowhere. Every now and then, the trip is interrupted because tree trunks or dense vegetation block the road. When we get off the bus and sink into the muddy ground, we are greeted by a host of bloodthirsty mosquitoes who feel very much at home here, as does the brown bear – the landmark of Kamchatka. But we don’t get to see him today. Not yet.
After ten hours of driving, the forest suddenly becomes thinner, the vegetation more and more sparse, the view more open. We have reached the tundra. At some point we arrive at a rapid, ash-grey stream. We feel a bit queasy when Andrej maneuvers our truck through the raging floods and the whole vehicle vibrates and gurgles threateningly, as if it would burst into millions of individual parts. After we’ve overcome this barrier, it’s only a steep uphill climb from here.
Landed on Another Planet
When we finally arrive at the top of the plateau, we feel like we are on another planet. It is no coincidence that the lunar landscape up here was used by the Russian cosmonauts as a training ground for their space missions. Pitch black volcanic sand as far as the eye can see, in between seemingly unreal neon green moss formations. Above us dark clouds, from which fiery glowing mountain peaks emerge here and there. Accompanied by hurricane gusts and fine rain we set up our base camp. Before we set up, we have to be careful not to let the wind rip the tent sheets out of our hands. The hurricane has one good thing; it drives away the dark clouds in the evening, so that nothing stands in the way of our first shooting. That’s good, because up here we find a true paradise for landscape photography.
With more than 300 volcanoes – 30 of which are still active – Kamchatka is also known as the “land of fire and ice.” In fact, it is the most volcanic area on the Eurasian continent – truly a heavenly hell. And we are right in the middle of it, in the Kljutschewskoi Nature Park. Since 1996 this volcanic region, together with other protected areas of Kamchatka, has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The star is the eponymous Kljutschewskoi, the highest volcano in Eurasia at almost 16,000 feet.
It is not only one of the largest, but also one of the most active volcanoes in the world. On average, it erupts every few years. But at the moment it takes a break and we camp directly at the edge of its wide flanks. After we don’t even get to see it due to the thick wafts of fog wrapped around it, we’re greeted one morning with a mass of clouds above it. We have also targeted many other of Kljutschewskoi’s 11 volcanic siblings, like the Tolbatschik or the Kamen.
The whole area is estimated to be only 5000 years old, so geologically, it is still in childhood and therefore active. Every few years there are eruptions, where lava flows and earthquakes constantly reshape the bizarre landscape. Nature destroys and creates: new life and an infinite variety of opportunities for we landscape photographers.
We see scorched earth and dead forests, marvel at countless volcanic chimneys shining in the most incredible colors. We experience majestic views of snow-capped volcanic cones that look painted with their perfect triangular shape. They are framed by the gently undulating, lush green tundra mountains.
We have a tete-a-tete with the Siberian underworld, because Kamchatka also has a lot to offer photographically below the surface. On the one hand there are bizarre shaped lava caves, which were formed by liquid magma during the last eruptions. Another underground attraction includes the blue, shimmering, dripping ice caves under the glaciated volcanoes. Both are ideal spots to give our photos a special touch with a little light painting.
We also meet animal life wherever we go. The omnipresent squirrels delight us again and again with their cheeky antics. Here and there a marmot whistles from its hole in the ground. And, finally, we meet the landmark of Kamchatka – the Siberian brown bear comes into close contact with us several times, luckily always at a suitable distance.
Mutnowski and Gorely
After a few days we travel to another region in the south of Kamchatka. Again we travel hundreds of miles through the endless taiga. But it is worth it, because a trekking tour into the interior of the volcano Mutnowski is one of the highlights for many Kamchatka travelers. This area is volcanically very active – it hisses and smokes everywhere. The bumpy trail continues over block lava flows and snow fields to the foot of the 2323 mile high volcano.
We enter the interior of the crater via a crevice in the crater wall. From the openings in the glacier huge columns of water vapor rise into the subarctic sky. And even deeper, into this world shaped by fire and ice, the path leads us into the fumarole fields, to colorful acid pools with poisonous green sulphur deposits and bubbling mud volcanoes. The trekking ends at the rearmost crater lake, where turquoise-hued sulphuric acid water is framed by multi-coloured walls and into which a glacier slopes. On the other side, we climb ropes up to dizzying heights and look directly into the steaming crater. At sunset we visit a canyon in which a 650 foot high waterfall rushes into the depth.
After a rather short night, we climb the Gorely volcano, which is only separated by a valley on the other side. At 2 o’clock in the morning the alarm clock screams into the lonely night. It is pitch-dark, foggy, terribly cold and I stagger with exhaustion. Not exactly the best conditions to tackle the steep hike of nearly 3000 feet to the crater. The path is very steep. A good three hours and thousands of feet of altitude later, we arrive just in time at daybreak at the top of the volcano crater. But oh, woe, everything is foggy. Less than ten minutes later, the fog clears and the sun rises as a glowing fireball, framed by a huge purple halo ring. For the next 30 minutes, the light changes color almost every second, leaving the clouds literally burning and immersing the primeval mountain landscape in new moods again and again. For a few seconds, the fog lifts repeatedly to reveal views of the highest volcanic cones. Finally, the first rays of the sun touch the ground and the light of the golden hour conjures up new photographic views. What a farewell to this bizarre, beautiful island of fire and ice.
David Köster is Datacolor Friends with Vision photographer and uses a calibrated monitor to post-process his images. He is using a SpyderX Elite.