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Kamchatka, Russia

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Dermott Brereton went about as far from home as he could possibly be. So vast is Russia, the 1250km-long Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's far east had him closer to Los Angeles than to Moscow.

The peninsula hangs from Siberia and is greater in area than Germany, Austria and Belgium combined. It lies between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk. The 10,500m-deep Kuril-Kamchatka Trench runs immediately offshore along the Pacific coast.

Kamchatka is one of Russia's most spectacular regions. It's known as the land of fire and ice with four mountain ridges (Sredinny, Valaginsky, Ganalsky and Kumroch) stretching from north to south, giving the appearance of a giant fish, and more than 160 volcanoes, 29 of them active. It has hot springs, long ski seasons, rewarding fishing, bears in their natural habitat and a great variety of fauna and flora.

The Kamchatka Peninsula, Commander Islands and Karaginsky Island make up the Kamchatka Krai. Most of the more than 400,000 inhabitants are Russians, but there are around 13,000 Koryaks, an indigenous north-east Asian people.

Russia opened up to tourism when the Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago. Visitors were kept away from the peninsula for another year as it was a strategic military hold of the old Soviet Union. It now has two national parks, 17 state wildlife areas, five nature parks and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The main attractions are volcanic calderas, stone sculpture "parks", lakes in craters and geysers, all in pristine condition.

Summer lasts from mid-June to mid-September. Even then, night temperatures can drop significantly. Winter is long with February temperatures averaging -16°C in the centre and north and -11°C in the east but an absolute minimum can range between -49°C and -60°C.

There are no roads and the only way in is by plane. Visitors land in the tongue-twisting regional capital Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky where the tourism dollar is eagerly anticipated.

River expedition
If you'd like to catch your own fish, there are plenty of opportunities to do that. In one of the planet's least-populated places with around one person for every square kilometre, the food chain is alive and well.

Dermott joined one of Heritage Expeditions' local guides and his dog Rem for a two-day raft trip down the Bystraya River, the second longest on the peninsula and one of the most accessible. It winds past unspoilt landscapes, mineral springs and scenic views of mountains and volcanoes.

The river flows in a valley through the Sredinny and Gannalsky mountain ranges then passes over the Sredinny to the western Kamchatka lowland, where many islands cut the river into channels.

There are plenty of places for you to dangle a line, either from the riverbank or a raft. You will come across some manageable rapids and chances are you will see brown bears seeking dinner.

As Kamchatka is the birthplace of a quarter of wild Pacific salmon, you both should eat well. There are around 12,000 brown bears in the area and they don't like dogs, so Rem made everyone feel safe and comfortable. One bark and the bears flee.

Dermott was happy to know there was no roughing it on his trip. An accompanying cook serves up Russian favourites such as borsch and dishes from other cuisines, accompanied by vodka if you choose.

The further you go the closer you are to a world as it was 300 years ago when it was discovered by Russian Cossacks. Trees haven't been touched by an axe and poaching is almost non-existent.

Mutnovsky Volcano
Seventy kilometres south-west of the capital and made up of four craters overlapping each other, a visit to Mutnovsky Volcano is a must-do. You can take a helicopter flight around the top and actually land inside. The other choice is to hike to the summit. Not the tallest of mountains, a visit to the 2300m-high Mutnovsky can be done in a day.

It has thermal isolations and fumaroles and the sulphur smell is very strong, but despite that, Dermott thought the "moonscape" was one of the most incredible things he has ever seen.

Kamchatka in Russia's east.

Heritage Travel Services has an eight-day Ring of Fire tour departing Kamchatka. It includes all accommodation, most meals, transfers, a marine tour, rafting, helicopter ride, sightseeing and visits to volcanoes for $4970 per person twin share.

For further information
Heritage Travel Services
Ph: 1800 143 585

Australian citizens must have a valid passport and visa. Visitors must carry ID at all times while in Russia. A photocopy of your passport and visa will suffice. An immigrant card will be issued on arrival.

Visitors staying for longer than three days must register with local police. If staying in a hotel it will be arranged there. Those travelling on a tourist visa must hold vouchers from hotel or travel agency. Exit permits are required on departure. They are issued with your visa or can be obtained at hotels not less than two days prior to departure. Passports must be valid for period of intended stay.

220V at 50Hz using round two-pin plugs.

Time zone:
Russia has 11 times zones ranging from GMT +2 in the east to GMT +12 in the west.

The Russian ruble.

International dialling code:

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