Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Pacific Ocean

We headed north along the coast with the Tata Strait on our left and the mountains of Sakhalin rising high above our road to the right. The scenery was stunning and we stopped to have a swim in sea. As night fell we headed to the beach once more to find a camp. Instead, after driving Roxy along the foreshore for a few kilometres I found some really soft sand which stopped her in her tracks, leaning considerably to seaward, with the tide rising.

There was a big rock not far away and it should’ve been a fairly straight forward winching exercise. However sometime between Mongolia and Sakhalin our Landy appears to have rewired herself. The winch switch now controls the spotlights on the roof rack and nothing seemed to switch on the winch. Our expert electrician, Pete, figured out a work around which involved him holding the winch wires directly onto the battery whilst they sparked slightly. We pulled her out before the tide got to her and headed to a mosquito-infested forest instead for a camp.

Sakhalin is a beautiful island, largely untouched by humans. However it is clearly Russia. The towns are mostly wooden shacks, surrounded by large piles of concrete and massive rusting industrial machines. In ones of these towns the next day we asked for directions across the island. The Russian, in army fatigues of course, shouted directions back but warned us that the track was tough with “high water levels” and that up in the mountains there was no rule of law. No challenge for Roxy and us. We enjoyed a terrific drive up winding bumpy tracks covering Roxy in a thick layer of mud.

At the town in the middle of the island we stopped for cash and fuel. However the bank connection was broken we had to wait in the bank car park for some time. We did what I think any good British expedition would do and cracked out the stove and got a brew going. The cashier looked entirely un-bemused when we turned up at her window with mugs of tea when the connection was finally re-established.

We then set off to find the exact point the 50th Parallel hit the Pacific Ocean, having been warned that the bridges were down and the going would be tough with the recent rainfall. We headed eastwards and the going was fairly similar to the Land Rover Experience in the Malvern Hills – twisty hilly tracks with plenty of mud and water. After several river crossing and not a single wrong turn we found ourselves on a misty, windswept beach approaching the line. As we pulled into camp we saw a small bear running off the beach into the woods! It was the first time any of us had seen a bear in the wild and we were pretty chuffed, especially as it was right on the 50th.

I had a quick swim in the Pacific despite the inclement weather and then we set up camp. To celebrate reaching the Pacific we cracked open a bottle of Champagne we bought in the Champagne region when we passed through it 3 months ago. After all that time in the back of a very bumpy Land Rover it was pretty eager to get out of the bottle but we managed to enjoy a mugful each (champagne flutes definitely wouldn’t have survived the journey) without spilling a drop. We had a great night with a few bottles of beer and talked about all the incidents that had occurred as we’d crossed both the European and Asian continents.

The next day I awoke first and headed down to the river that flowed into the Pacific exactly on the 50th. It turned out that it was absolutely chock full of salmon heading upriver to spawn. We rapidly fashioned fishing spears out of drift wood and stood in the freezing river trying to catch a big salmon. It wasn’t hard – there were so many of them they kept hitting into your legs – and if you couldn’t be bothered to catch one you could simply pick one up that had been recently washed up on the beach.

Whilst I filleted the 7 big salmon, up to 2 foot long each, Pete got a fire going with the damp driftwood using his excellent bush skills. And about a litre of petrol. We cooked them in a variety of methods but grilled slowly on a forked stick was my favourite.

The others went off for a drive around the muddy tracks but it took them two hours and two winchings to get off the beach. Pete managed to find a big log hidden in the grass as he did so, and added to the dents and scratches he`d put on the driver`s side in the Gobi! That night we had spiced Salmon and chaptis. MMMmmmmm!

We got up early the next day to see the sunrise over the Pacific. The colours were absolutely stunning and it was well worth pulling ourselves out of warm sleeping bags. We packed up and got off the beach, significantly quicker this time, and headed back through the mountains, with a few terrific river crossings on the way which Roxy ate up with ease.

We drove down to the south of Sakhalin to find a ferry to Japan. The drive took all day and the scenery was out of this world the whole way. Sakhalin is very much like Jurassic Park with lush mountains and bizarrely outsized vegetation, but we haven`t spotted a T-Rex yet. We camped up just outside the port of Korsakov ready to find a boat the next day.

- Spike

Playing on the iPod: “Road to Nowhere” by Talking Heads