Ex­treme soli­tude

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Three weath­ered Chukchi cow­boys (you’d hardly call them deer-boys) skil­fully round up the rein­deer on foot, then with las­sos cut out a lame beast. A short jab to the heart and the rein­deer falls in­stantly dead. The Chukchi say a prayer to its spirit and to their an­ces­tors, and al­most as rapidly Ly­dia de­cap­i­tates and skins it. A few pas­sen­gers, prin­ci­pally veg­e­tar­i­ans, ex­press dis­may at such a rit­ual. Without crops or a cor­ner mini-mar­ket, it’s hard to imag­ine how else the herders might eat.

We reach the most northerly point of our jour­ney, Dezh­neva Bay. The weather is dry and the seas, mer­ci­fully, are mir­ror smooth. For the 19th-cen­tury whalers who hunted bow­head and sperm whales here, the ex­pe­ri­ence was rarely this be­nign.

We are of­ten on bear alert. Never run from a bear. But if you do, make sure you’re with some­one who runs slower than you,’’ ad­vises Frolov.

We scan the shore each time be­fore land­ing and then move in groups of three or more. Only later do I learn that while we were here, a group of hun­gry bears at­tacked and ate two Rus­sian men at a re­mote Kam­chatka mine.

We spot per­haps 20 brown bears out of the re­gion’s pop­u­la­tion of about 12,000. On the other hand we are over­whelmed by bird sight­ings. With a con­tin­gent of keen twitch­ers on board, and an or­nithol­o­gist guide, Alan Berger, there’s much ex­cite­ment about crested auk­lets, po­ma­rine jaegers, red phalaropes and north­ern ful­mars. Most of which are to me, as a non-twitcher, sim­ply lbjs (lit­tle brown jobs) or bwjs (big­ger white jobs).

With the ex­cep­tion of the mag­nif­i­cent Steller’s sea ea­gle, the fly­ing things I iden­tify most fre­quently are Kam­chatka’s man-eat­ing mos­qui­toes.

Head­ing fur­ther south, we reach the Ko­ryak fish­ing vil­lage of Tym­lat. Re­lated to the Inuit, Ko­ryaks (along with the Itel­men of Petropavlovsk, who we visit later) are among the few na­tives of Rus­sia’s far east to strongly main­tain their cul­ture. We spend a half day with them, many dressed in or­nate rein­deer-hide kykhlianka smocks, while they per­form shaman dances, folk plays and games for — and with — us. Their gen­eros­ity warms our hearts. Lunch is a feast of fresh sal­mon, in­clud­ing jars of plump, golden roe the size of cod liver oil cap­sules. More drum­ming, danc­ing and sack-races fol­low. We are the only for­eign­ers to have vis­ited Tym­lat this sum­mer and will prob­a­bly be the last. As we de­part, one woman calls, When you come back, please bring more tooth­brushes for the kids.’’

We head off­shore to the Com­man­der Is­lands, named for com­man­der Vi­tus Ber­ing, the 18th-cen­tury Dan­ishRus­sian ex­plorer who charted this re­gion. On a slope of tree­less tun­dra on Ber­ing Is­land, we find his grave and those of 14 of his ship­wrecked crew. Stranded here for nine months dur­ing the ex­pe­di­tion of 1741, one sur­vivor, nat­u­ral­ist Ge­org Steller, de­scribed their or­deal thus:

Hard­ship, bare­ness, cold, sog­gi­ness, weak­ness, im­pa­tience, dis­ease and de­spair were our everyday guests.’’

Our cruise, clearly, has not been like theirs. My most vivid mo­ments come dur­ing a morn­ing’s sea-kayak­ing ex­cur­sion at Severo Za­padni Cape. We’re pad­dling on a mir­ror sea where the milky sky and ocean re­peat each other, the vi­sion punc­tu­ated only by the bright colours

Mother ship: For­mer Rus­sian sur­vey ves­sel Ma­rina Sve­taeva, home to 100 dur­ing the two-week ex­pe­di­tion

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of our kayaks and life­jack­ets and, more spec­tac­u­larly, by a dozen seal pups romp­ing around us, al­ter­nately cu­ri­ous and cau­tious as they track our progress.

To­wards the end of our voy­age, we trek to a tidal hot spring (gum­boots and swim­suits be­ing very Kam­chatka chic). It’s an odd sen­sa­tion, with the wa­ter on one side of my body near boil­ing and, on the other, a chilly 8C. Ever a land of ex­tremes. John Borth­wick was a guest of Aurora Ex­pe­di­tions. Fly from Aus­tralian ports to Seoul then to Vladi­vos­tok, Rus­sia, and on to Petropavlovsk, Kam­chatka. Aurora Ex­pe­di­tions of­fers three Rus­sian Far East voy­ages in 2009. Prices for two-week voy­ages start at $US5490 ($7896) a per­son and in­clude ac­com­mo­da­tion, meals, port taxes, shore ex­cur­sions and ex­pert lec­tures; air fares not in­cluded and sea kayak­ing is a sep­a­rate op­tion. More: (02) 9252 1033; www.au­ro­ra­ex­pe­di­tions.com.au.

Wild menagerie: Well-in­su­lated sea ot­ters

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