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GoannaTracks

Across Australia, or Across the World, Goanna Tracks is a collage of Off-Road adventurers undertaken by Kym & Lyn Bolton and Friends. From quad biking down the Eastern Side of Cape York, crossing the Great Sandy Desert by GPS, or more distant overseas logistical challenges, our 'holidays' have always been unusual. Generally, where the dotted line on the map ends our adventure begins.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Yakutsk-Magadan-Yakutsk via The Road of Bones or The Kolyma Highway



Friday 6th July: Leaving Yakutsk late in the afternoon, we had already refuelled and restocked the pantry at the supermarket and fresh food markets. Andrey, I think, thought he was going to starve and kept suggesting more food, he is yet to realise that we are actually organised.

Just on the northern side of town is our very first challenge, getting onto the Lena River barge. There is no system and lining up was just too simple. Semi trailers, logging trucks, trucks with farm machinery, private vehicles of all description and lots of small kombi like Uaz vans all jostled for loading. Everybody starts out at being seven or eight abreast and slowly fight towards the one lane loading ramp. At first we were too just polite and missed the earlier barge, now we must do as the locals do. One local car cost him his indicator light fighting with my bull bar, and that did not faze him as he still pushed forward grinding his right hand guard along the bull bar to finally secure one place in front of me.

The trip to date has taken us through vast native pine country dotted with swamps and small lakes. It is summer now and the Yukultian villages are enjoying the warmth. We have been told that next week all the villages will be empty as all the workers will be in the field harvesting the local grasses for winter feed. When you see the long rectangular mud barns for the domestic animals you can appreciate how hard it must be in the minus 40 and more degrees winter.

That evening, camp was beside a beautiful lake, lit the fire and enjoyed it without the mozzies. Just as we were pulling up to camp Bill’s tyre staked an old buried chisel, although quickly repaired we felt it was unbelievable.

6th July Distance: 75Kms Camp 8: Lake Camp near Village


Saturday 7th July: It is obvious that we are in the country, most of the locals wave as we drive by slowly. Their faces are weathered, again a reflection of the hostile environment, but their spirits are high. They are cattle and horse breeders, using both as meat and milk providers, and as a means of transport. The horse milk is also fermented to make an alcoholic drink of a similar strength to beer. Great importance is placed on community teamwork and high respect is held for those who have passed before them. The forbearer’s graves are ornate and hold prime position on the sides of hills overlooking the lakes, valleys and villages.

At 375 kilometres from Yakutsk we arrive at the Aldan River. We decide it is too late for evening barge crossing and camped with the thousands of mozzies on the river bank and watch the cargo ships move up and down. The rivers in Russia are big, very big; the Lena was more than a kilometre wide and the Aldan at least half that.

7th July Distance: 300Kms Camp 9: Ferry Camp Aldan River


Sunday 8th July:
Scanning back from the GPS map, it is hard to believe where we are in the world. Over 10,500kms from our home in Brisbane, on a river barge between the end of a dirt road on the South side and the small village of Kiskil on the North side of the Aldan River.

At 2000RUB(A$80) for the 2 hour, 9 Km barge trip we at first thought was expensive, but the small grey ‘Uaz’ vans, commonly referred to as a bread loaf because of their resemblance to that, were charged 1000RUB. There were 6 of them and our two trucks on the barge which seemed to operate very irregularly about every 2 hours from 6 am till 9 pm. Again we had to shuffle on the gravel river bank to retain our position, and in the end the final three Uazs that arrived late remained waiting for the next barge.

By sign language we converse with others on the barge. One of them is returning from holidays and shows us photos of his hunting and fishing expedition. He had one photograph showing himself holding two 1.25 metre Salmon fish he caught in the Aldan River just where we drove down to the barge, and another of a bear he shot ‘up country’. We think we are on an adventure, to the locals it is just a road, one young man from here was travelling further north in our direction in a 6x6 Kamaz truck for another 5 days to the oil exploration fields. He pointed to the water and indicated a height of 2 meters as being the ‘normal’ forwarding depth for the rivers ahead. Bill and I measure that on our trucks and think….. “Interesting”

We unloaded directly onto the river bank at the small village of Kiskil and then drove the 26km along a moraine gibber road west to Khandyga. Khandyga is an old town, everything is broken, and there is junk and broken machinery everywhere. The dusty roads wind past grey timbered single story buildings, and the occasional multi story old concrete block that is slowly decomposing with concrete rot. Everywhere there are huge piles of coal just dumped at random for the winter season. One can only think that in winter at least the snow must cover all the untidiness.

We research the entire town looking for the only fuel station, finally finding it at the end of the road that follows the river bank. It is 12.05 and it is closed for lunch from 12 to 1pm.

Following topping up our supplies at the local ‘magazine’ and a potato and meat dish at the café we headed out of town, refuelled for the 800km run to Susiman, the next slightly major town on the other side of track that we still have conflicting reports on weather it is actually passable

Stopping later on a concrete bridge for a ‘comfort’ stop and were soon joined by a Kamaz truck that had come from the direction we were heading. Interestingly they told us that only yesterday the river at Kyubyume was 2 meters deep and showed us the line on the Kamaz’s cab door of the water height. We knew this was not good news because this is the track we must take. We did however also know from the guys from the Shatoon 4x4 club that there may be an ice bridge we could use to the left of the main track or use the forwarding that the small Uaz vans use to the south of the broken bridge. We will have to make that decision when we get there.

Before we left the Kamaz driver gave us some small trout to try for dinner, and at the last minute mentioned that some Australians were camped about 70km up the road!

We knew it had to be Herb and Jessie, John and Karris that we had met in Vladivostok and set about rendezvousing with them. They were from Sydney and I had been corresponding with Herb before we left home swapping contacts and ideas of our respective trips.

The evening was thus spent catching up on our travels and sharing a beer and a vodka or two or three with our new found Aussie friends.

8th July Distance: 249Kms Camp 10: Aussie camp

Current Position: Camped with some Aussies in the middle of Russia
Highlights: Jostling for position to get on the Lena River barge.
Crossing the Aldan River, meeting the locals and the drive.

Total Distance to Date: 3,936Kms (624 in 3 days)



Monday 9th July: Leaving the Aussie reunion camp we drove along a spectacular one way track cut into the side of the near vertical cliff. 150 meters below was the fast flowing river, along its edges, and as a surprise to us were great sheets of blue ice, remnants of the last winter.

This track was hand cut into the rock by the prisoners of the Stalin era. It is not so widely known that Stalin killed over 30million of his own people during his dictatorship. Many were shipped to far flung places in eastern Siberia to build such roads. Six months was a lifetime, if you were not dead you would wish you were. Being here one still can not comprehend the hardship of the -30 and more winters, the swamps, the rain, the ice, and the plagues of mosquitoes and sand flies. Most of the villages in the area both occupied and deserted are the remains of the gulag camps.

We climb over a mountain pass at 1300meters and continue to drive along the remnants of wide glacial valleys. The density of pine trees is less now and we are in more Tundra country. The ground is covered with moss and lichen and as you walk upon it, water squeezes out. In the distance are sharp pointed mountains with a dusting of icing sugar.

Stopping for coffee along the road and were soon joined by two Yakutians. They are forest rangers in their Russian jeep. One had a badly disfigured left eye, the reminder of an incident with a brown bear. We invited them to join us for coffee and biscuits which they greatly accepted. Soon we were presented with a small pannikin of fresh fish, which they went about salting for us. These were to be eaten raw after about two hours.

We reach the turn off to Kyubyume and Tomtor. Here the track splits, north will eventually be the new road to Magadan, as yet unfinished by 14 kilometres and a major bridge crossing yet to be constructed. East is to Magadan on the original ‘Road of Bones’.

Just after the turn off is the old broken bridge and beside it on the left is a track into the fast flowing and deep water. This was the track the Kamaz trucks have been using, very obviously not the way for us. Back up the Yakutsk road about 500 meters was a small down hill rough track used by the local small vehicles. Following that down to the river edge we found 4 Uaz vans on this side and 6 on the other. Their drivers were wading across the now very wide section of the river looking for the most appropriate line. The water was still fast but only about thigh deep. The water was freezing cold, focking painfully cold actually, because only 200 meters to the right was a huge ice shelf covering an area of at least three plus square kilometres. With hubs locked in, we crossed following the chosen line along the head of the rapids. This we repeated for all four crossings where the river had spread itself out across the river flood plain. The crossing was fortunately uneventful, but interesting driving across the rapids, around and through the marshy swamp areas, and between the large lumps of blue ice. To see ice was a real surprise to us all.

Kyubyume, on the other side was completely deserted. The houses were showing the decay of the harsh winters, and the rooves falling in from the weight of snow. Inside some places looked as if the occupants had just walked out. A beanie on the back of the chair, a pair of socks on the bed, and an old cross cut saw next to the wood pile. We found the movie theatre with racks of chairs and the old projector and film on the floor. The town was picturesque but at the same time eerie.

Some 28 kilometres further on, we turned left and down a small track to a beautiful lake. Our camp site was surrounded by the lake on three sides and behind us, a back drop of pine trees and multi coloured ground lichen. Across the lake the surrounding mountains were dusted with snow. This was a breathtaking camp spot.

It began to rain lightly, and the tarp was quickly erected above our mosquito enclosure. Vodka and orange juice was the drink of choice, followed by the raw salted fish. Andrey and I were the only ones to try, and in small quantities it was very nice.
Cooked it was even better!

As we fell asleep with the falling rain, we wondered how it would affect the river levels ahead.

9th July Distance: 172Kms Camp 11: Glacial Lake & Boat camp

Total Distance to Date: 4108Kms


Tuesday 10th July: We travelled over old bridges where they existed and around them where they had been washed away. The road is more difficult today with the light rain of last night. The scenery continues to be stunning as the wide valleys stretch up to the mountains that surround us.

We reached Tomtor at around midday. This little town boasts the lowest temperature recorded on earth at minus 71.2C. Last year they recorded minus 69.5C. It is such that this is the home of the Yakultian Santa Clause. For the last six years in January there has been a festival in Tomtor when the European, Russian and Yakultian Santa Frost men meet.

We had heard of an ice cave in Tomtor and set about finding it. It took some questioning and many ‘U’ turns to finally arrive at the ‘hotel’ behind the only fuel station about 2Kms east of Tomtor in the smaller settlement of Cudaysung. The newly finished guest house was built of local pine timbers and proudly showed pictures of the bikers Erwin McGregor and Charlie Borman in the entrance. Not to be out done we also added our name to the walls. Following lunch of cold potatoes and meat, and best ever homemade strawberry jam and real cream, we met Vlad who would lead us to these caves.

Situated on the west side of town were two of what I had first thought were deserted gold mines. These mines were tunnelled into the only hill that overlooks the town but they were not mines but the town’s refrigerator. Dug many years ago, the frozen permafrost below the ground surface provides a natural freezer in which to store the towns supplies collected in summer to be accessed during the long winter. The inside of the tunnels is a constant minus 15C, Vlad added that in winter it is actually warmer inside than outside. One of these tunnels has been converted to be the world’s only natural ice carving museum. The ice carvings depicted the Yakultian Santa Clause and other legends and animals of the Yakultian culture.

Following refuelling at the antiquated fuel pumps at Cudaysung we head out of town. About 25 km out we cross an only just standing log bridge, it has been constantly repaired but nature and the pull of the fast and mighty river is slowly winning. I think it will be lucky to last another season; my fear is that once this and the other such bridges are gone so has access to this historic road.

From here on the road becomes a track. There is now grass growing down the centre line and shows all but no maintenance, other than for rocks or logs dropped into washouts by other travellers such as ourselves.

We camp about 40km out, in the stony flood plain of a creek.

10th July Distance: 217Kms Camp 12: Fast River Bridge Camp

Wednesday 11th July: It is Wednesday, and today was Bill’s and my day. The track had deteriorated to a long 100km line of bog holes, puddles and stony flooded creek crossings. It wound up and down river valleys between the mountains and over mountain passes. We passed by more frozen rivers and large sheets of ice in the shadowed valleys.

It was only time before I got stuck in a long bottomless mud hole. To my rescue Bill drove down the right side of the hole only to be also immediately swallowed. Andrey was elated, his camera was snapping pictures much faster than Bill and I could extract our vehicles from the slop. Typically after 4000kms of travel we were just not prepared for getting stuck, and it took a little time to find winch extensions, tree protectors etc, and to get the winches working. I had previously disconnected the electrical controls for shipping and needed to relocate and reconnect the correct wires. Our winching points to the large pine trees then proved inadequate. As we winched the tree and all its root system just moved through the peat bog towards the vehicles. Strapping two trees together and one of us also holding the tree proved to be the answer. Once in order however, the TJM Ox hydraulic winch slowly pulled both trucks from the thick mud.

It was time for lunch and to talk of the experience we had all just enjoyed.

There were many more river crossings and endless lines of mud holes. Many had firm gravel bottoms but not all. It was a task recognising the difference. According to the GPS we had 400 metres to the next river. When we arrived, the river was only a trickle below the old washed out timber bridge. That seamed unusual…..

500 metres on was the answer. Following the last heavy rains the river had changed its course and had cut a new path to the east of the old river and through the road. We now had to cross a shaly loose bottomed river and the exit point was a near vertical metre cliff up to the road. To the left and right side of the road was thick swamp.

There was no choice but to do some serious road works to improve to ramp angle out of the fast flowing creek. The water in the creek was cold from the melting ice. I mean seriously cold. One crossing carrying the shovel, etc and you stand on the other side and your feet are in so much pain, you can only stand there and blaspheme until the pain subsides. The Aussies began to experience the life on a gulag gang. Slowly cutting away at the compacted stony road base was hard work. Bill was on the shovel, Lyn was using a tyre iron to break the surface, and I used our shovel/pick to chip away at the rocky ledge.

It took an hour before we were prepared for our first attempt. We connected a 30 metre winch extension to Bill’s truck in case he needed a return pull. Both the Isuzu and the Canter have limited slip differentials in the rear, with that, and our experience over many years of competition driving, the bank was scaled successfully by both trucks.

It was not long after this we called travelling quits for the day and found a beautiful spot below a bridge in the stony creek bed. Near by we explored the old grave site and some derelict buildings. The passing rain shower left us with a rainbow over our camp site and as usual we shared the experiences of the day over a few Vodkas and orange juice. Joining us were the billions of mosquitoes hungry to get into our eating tent.

I have to add a few words for our arch enemy those mosquitoes. We considered them to be in plague proportions yet Andrey assures us that this is less than usual. In bad times you can not tell the colour of someone’s back because of the grey colour of mosquitoes. The pyrethrin treatment we did of some of our clothes achieved nothing. Our best defence was the spray on RID (50% det) plus long sleaves, trousers and netting over our heads. Again the mozzie tent was the best protection.

The worst part of the day was that personal moment each morning when you had to wander off into the bush. The mosquitoes would then attack every vulnerable part of the body presented to them.

11th July Distance: 109Kms Camp 13: Rainbow River Camp

Position: 150Kms east of Tomtor
Highlights: Tomtor and its ice caves.
The road of puddles, bogged, road works – in all some great days of 4x4ing

Total Distance to Date: 4,434Kms (326 in 2 days)


Thursday 12th July: The track continued with numerous mud holes, slippages on hill sides, and wash outs where the water had undermined the road. Slowly this track is disappearing, the bridges are falling apart, and on the side of hills, erosion is washing the track into the valleys below. We feel very fortunate to have successfully travelled the track this time. How much longer will it last – may be a season or two at best.

Our last final big river crossing is to be the Arkadela River. We had seen this river crossing viewing down from Goggle Earth, with its long washed out bridge. To not successfully cross this river would mean a return to the start of the track some 800Kms back. For the last few days his topic has not been for discussion, we all want to feel confident of completing the crossing to Magadan.

A couple of 6x6 Kamaz trucks pass us heading out to some secret gold field. Via broken English and Russian they mentioned something about fast flowing water and not to drive where they had gone through. Our apprehension grows

With the arrival at the river, the first thing we notice is the bridge has been further washed away from photos we had seen on Google. No longer was it a line of pylons supporting some of the bridge. Only the western part remained, the most recent flood had cleared the eastern side of the bridge completely and that was lying some 200 metres down stream.

The floods of the last few days had also left fresh wet mud in abundance, and the water was still running a silty colour. The depth at the rapids did not look too bad; certainly it was much better than we had anticipated. A walk across the fast flowing section confirmed it was knee deep for 100 meters, then thigh deep for 30 meters before reaching the stony island; it was then only a still water pond before the muddy track through the timber line back to the original road on the other side.

It was decided that we had to have lunch only after the river crossing. Fortunately we did not go hungry, and both vehicles crossed the river without incident. We had successfully completed the Road of Bones.

20Kms up the road we came to the ‘T’ junction: Right and East to Magadan at about 650Kms and to the left the new as yet uncompleted road North and West back to Yakutsk.

Before continuing, we had been told of a deserted town we must visit. Kardikchun had a population of 20,000 people when in the hight of winter in 1992 the towns heating plant broke down and could not be repaired. All the inhabitants were evacuated. This was the time of perestroika and the coal mining company did not have the funds to repair the heater hence the town just ceased to exist.

It was very uneasy driving past vast sets of 6 story apartment buildings, the gymnasium, and the schools. The town cultural centre with the now not so proud statue of Lenin’s head was at the centre of the town square. To the right was the empty cinema still with the last bill board for the movie showing and the scattered chairs, and on the left, a deserted educational facility. Surrounding the concrete jungle that made up of the main part of town was the deserted shanty town with their dark grey scrap timber houses, vehicle boxes, and all important glass houses. Everywhere there was junk, overturned vehicles, broken machinery, furniture, etc. Obviously the town had been robbed of anything of value, and was continuing to be so. As we were leaving we saw a truck load of scrap steel on the back of a very old 6x6 truck and trailer. This was bound for China who is hungry for scrap steel.

I wondered at the value of transporting this steel all the way to China. But Andrey reminded us. “That when the steel is stolen, the petrol is stolen and perhaps using a stolen truck there is profit.”

On the drive onto Susiman, strangely enough both drivers felt completely exhausted. It was a combination of the tension of the previous days driving and the fact that we had completed the most challenge part of our journey.

This night we camped on a side road just outside that gold mining town, but not before we managed to bog both vehicles on the way into our selected camp site. We really did not need to be snatching, and double line winching now. It was around 10pm before we finally enjoyed that Vodka and some much needed sleep.

12th July Distance: 218Kms Camp 14: Winching Camp


Friday 13th July: This was the day to explore Jack London Lake, we had heard of this picturesque lake nestled amongst pine clad mountains and thought what a great place to camp. It was not to be. Only 150 meters after the turn off the old timber bridge had been washed away and the wild torrent below was no place to cross. There is neither money nor infrastructure to rebuild or replace the bridge. Looking at what remains one can see the build up of debris on the up stream side of the bridge that just moved the entire structure down river. Exit that plan.

Andrey needed to take some photos of the vehicles for his Russian and European magazines hence we called an early day to wash the trucks and then set up camp beside a nice stony river. The trucks are all shiny and pose as stars for the photographic shoot. We catch up on some washing, the log, back up computers, and generally unwind.

Cheers…again.

13th July Distance: 240Kms Camp 15: Truck Detail Camp


Saturday 14th July: Ahead of us is the relatively easy 400Kms dirt road drive to Magadan. The road follows river valleys all the way to the coast. We cross the mighty Kolyma River and can not help but notice the rape of all the river valleys for gold. There is no reafforestation or even a hint of returning the river country back to original. It is just a grab for money and move on.

Arriving around 7pm, Magadan is a big grey concrete town of 200,000 people. Surrounded by snow capped rolling hills and settled between two bays it is picturesque. We checked into Hotel Okean (Ocean), and were met by Sergey one of the local 4x4 club members. We all adjourned for a very late dinner.

14th July Distance: 427Kms Camp 16: Hotel Ocean Magadan


Sunday 15th July: Sunday was a lazy and touristy day. The Mask of Sorrow on the primary hill overlooking the town commemorates the 1932-1954 era of the Gulags. After seeing so many gulag camps, the hand built bridges, the road, and experienced only a touch of the conditions it was very moving. Likewise a section in the local museum highlighted the harsh conditions. Interesting was the road construction, pine trees are cut down and laid diagonally across the peatbog, covered then with moss, and then rocks. Thus the road is built; the trees having such a very high oil content they do not rot and last for many years.

We could see as we travelled the above log formation where it had been exposed by erosion.

What was to be an early night, finished up not so. We decided to have dinner at the hotel, going down to the restaurant at about 8pm, only to discover that it was closed until midnight that was when the strip show started. We begin to think that the hotel we are in has a second agenda. We were lucky; the cook offered to prepare us dinner and once ordered it unfortunately took another hour. Finally we retired at 10pm.

15th July Distance: 23Kms Camp 17: Hotel Ocean Magadan

Highlights: We cross the final river frontier of the Road of Bones.
Deserted Towns and arrival Magadan

Total Distance to Date: 5,319Kms (885 in 3 days)


Monday 16th July: We now needed to prepare the vehicles for our return to Yakutsk, and do some restocking. Bill needed new shocks on the Isuzu, hence the day started to achieve this. Sergey knew of a mate who had a workshop, and by mid-morning measurements were taken and confirmed that a pair of rear Landcruiser shocks would fit. During this process a friend of the workshop’s owner arrived and immediately invited us to go out on his boat. We accepted not really knowing what, where, or for how long for etc, but we took the invitation as a wonderful gesture.

With all repairs completed we following the lead vehicle and arrived at the wharf and within moments a Hino crane was lifting the shallow ‘v’ bottomed speed boat into the water about 5 meters below the wharf. The tide was out hence it was quite a climb for all 13 invited people down the ladder, then crossing two other moored boats on to his boat. At this stage we thought we were just going for a run around the bay. After of 15 minutes of high speed running through the swell we stopped and started to pull up crab pots. Each of these 1 meter diameter crab pots contained an average of 7 Red King Crabs. Some also had Halibut (also called Flounder or Sole) fish.

That was great, but it only improved when we arrived back at the wharf and a fire was lit in an old 44 gallon drum to cook the crabs. Wow, and did they taste fantastic.

We were planning to leave early in the afternoon, but this delay was well worth it. We are all very impressed with the hospitality of the Russian people. It was a perfect end to our Magadan visit.

Our original plan was to return to Yakutsk by a different route and the new upper road. Enquiries in Magadan over the last few days confirmed it was unfinished by 14 kilometres, and the ferry over the last river was only transporting passengers not vehicles. We had no choice but to re-track out steps across the original Road of Bones.

Saying farewell to Andrey, who will fly back to Moscow tomorrow, we leave Magadan around 7.30pm and camped that night in a disused quarry about 130kms out of town. We found that by camping away from the main road, not only did we avoid the noise of passing traffic, we also felt hidden from the over friendly locals who would just drop in for chat and a drink or two.

16th July Distance: 125Kms

Camp18: First night without Andrey Camp (with apologies to Andrey)


Tuesday 17th July: Today was a day of driving towards Susuman and our turn off back on to the original Road of Bones. We followed those river valleys that had been raped for their gold. The river and surrounding country looks like a 400 kilometre long gravel quarry.

All along the roads in this area we see small monuments. These grave stones normally have a steering wheel atop and a picture of the deceased. We learn that some are vehicle accidents but most are because at this spot the driver has frozen to death during a winter breakdown. It is a harsh reality of the severe winters.

Camp was by – guess what – a disused gold mine, but around us purple and yellow wild flowers cover the ground. The sky a mixture of blue and white, the background of mountains drizzled with snow surrounds the horizon.

17th July Distance: 475Kms Camp 19: Gold Mine Camp

Position: 35Kms south of Susuman, Road of Bones rerun.
Highlights: Red King Crab Fishing,

Total Distance to Date: 5,919Kms (600 in 2 days)

Wednesday 18th July: From a driving challenge point of view the return drive was uneventful. The country was still spectacular, just a different perspective looking west instead of east. The drive is more relaxed this time, as we are mentally prepared with the knowledge of the road ahead.

The first river crossing at the Arkadela River was easy as the water had dropped more than 300mm. Climbing up onto the old bridge we looked down into the mud below and saw the tracks of two bears wandering in and out of the old bridge pylons. They were fresh, this was their environment, and we were a quest only too happy to feel their presence.

Travelling back on the old road many of the puddles of the week before had dried up. Suddenly a moose appeared in front of Bill’s truck and started to strut along in front. Excited CB radio calls went back and forth between the trucks discussing this giant animal. He was a proud creature and wore his full head of antlers to prove it. Finally he moved off the road into the thick bush along the river and was gone. We were all so impressed by his presence and excited that we were too preoccupied to take a photograph until it was too late.

Camping in a creek bed, we enjoyed a wonderful meal of venison we had purchased earlier in Magadan. It was the same creek that on our inward trip we had to cut away the bank to exit. It had been a long day of 200Kms and we retired early.

What seemed like the early hours of the morning we were awaken from a deep sleep by knocking on the camper door and the yelling of
“Mozna – Machina” (May I – Vehicle) and indicating that they required help.
The sun was still up, and actually ‘only’ 11pm. The two locals signed languaged to us that they were three kilometres further down the track and obviously needed a tow.

To the rescue: With the two young men in the back of our camper, Bill and I headed off down the track to find a Uaz van firmly stuck in the centre of an expansive and deep mud hole. The roof rack was packed high with personal effects and inside I could see at least 4 faces peering out through the glass windows. It took only one pull from the Canter to have the vehicle on dry land. Needless to say they were most appreciative. Dusk was fast approaching and the mosquitoes were in a feeding frenzy. The family continued down the track and we returned to finish our nights sleep.

18th July Distance: 210Kms Camp 20: Deer Meat & Uaz Rescue Camp


Thursday 19th July: The next morning, some 15 kilometres down the track, we found the Uaz parked on the road beside a big mud hole. A small tent was slung between the vehicle and a low tree. Around the area were tools, jacks, and every conceivable removable item from the vehicle. All 6 members of the family were fast asleep. Obviously they had spent a long night but managed to successfully extract the vehicle from the sloppy mud. I imagine that since the vehicle was unpacked they decided to call it a night and camp right there on the track. They had in fact, found the exact hole Bill and I had been stuck in a week earlier. It was 9.30am and now it was our turn to disturb their sleep.

Grandad, Grandma, Mum, Dad, a little girl and her older brother all managed to squeeze into the van. The piles of gear went in side and on the roof as well. It was hard to believe that so much gear fitted into such a small space. The family were also going to Tomtor, hence it was appropriate that we would chaperone them for most of the way through the muddy sections. When we stopped for quick lunch, they decided to start cooking soup, it smelt good, but after saying our goodbyes we moved on.

Just on the western side of Tomtor we found a track that lead to the top of the hill overlooking the town. The view from the top offered a commanding panorama of not only the town but the two valleys to the East and to the South. Those valleys were lush with green only broken by the occasional blue lake that dotted the valley.

On our eastern crossing we noticed a large sheet of ice in the river below us and now decided to investigate. A disused track leads us down to the river and we cautiously cross the wide river onto the ice sheet. In the shadow of the mountain the ice has resisted the summer melting and offers for us Australians an unusual playground.

Camped on top of a hill, after calling it quits at 6pm, we cooked a leg of pork and vegies, we had previously purchased in Magadan, in the camp oven. The aroma of the cooking filled the still air as we watched the stars and pondered life.

The Vodka this evening was cooled by ice we had chipped from the frozen river we had driven by earlier in the day!

19th July Distance: 216Kms Camp 21: Roast Pork Camp

Position: 60Kms West of Tomtor
Highlights: Return drive of Road of Bones.
Bear foot prints in the mud.
Uaz rescue mission.

Total Distance to Date: 6,345Kms (426 in 2 days)


Friday 20th July: Some 10 days ago we were given brief instructions of an old Gulag camp complete with watch tower and fences in a beautiful mountainous region. It was a side trip off the Kolyma Highway that would take us 130Kms in to the Verkhoyansky Mountains and up beside the Tompo River. My adventure spirit kicked in. It sounded just too good to resist.

The turn off was 100Kms from Handiga and marked Tompo on the maps.

A great camping spot was on top of a hill just past the turn off where there was a commanding views over the valley and a small headstone to a past fatality. Well after settling down for the evening, a jeep with two men and a woman arrive around 2.45am into our “so we thought” deserted camp site. They were laughing and talking and a lot of ‘machina’ (vehicle) in the conversation. They stayed about an hour, then left, only to return an hour later. More laughing, smoking, and drinking and eventually again they left. Not really sure what it was all about, maybe paying respects to the headstone, maybe they just wanted a chat. But for us it was a bit of an un-nerving night.

20th July Distance: 340Kms Camp 22: Monument & Visitors Camp


Saturday 21st July: The road was reasonably well travelled but most of the bridges were undriveable or non existent necessitating the usual bypass through the rocky fast flowing river.

At the Kuranah River we met a family out on their annual holidays. The young lady was an English teacher from Moscow and she and her son had returned home for their annual summer holidays with her father, who lives in Handiga. She further enlightened us about the area and the fact that Tompo was, in the Soviet Era, a beautiful holiday resort that boasted a thriving deer breading industry.

The River Kuranah was wide and with a reasonably strong current, we tend to put down the local built Russian 4X4 Nivas but in this case the vehicle battled all these roads and the rivers as well.

Finally reaching the Menkjule River we said farewell to the family as they headed down river in an aluminium boat for their fishing holiday. The bridge here had been under repair for the last 2 years, and we were told that in 8 hours we could use it. That was just as well because the Menkjule is very big and runs with a fast flowing current from the recent heavy rains. Beside the river we killed time by catching up on the washing, tinkering with the vehicles and even tried some uneventful fishing. Tinkering was mainly with Bill’s hydraulic winch and power steering line. The movement of the cab over the past weeks had found a place to cut through the line causing loss of fluid and hence power steering. With years of 4x4 experiences up our sleaves we decided to disconnect the winch and recircuit the fluid directly to the steering box, enabling a short term fix.

Finally at 8.30pm we felt privileged to cross the 400meter long wooden structure. We had eaten earlier so it was decided to drive into the evening and perhaps see some wildlife. The sun was still high, and Lyn was still wearing her sunglasses at 10.30pm. Recently there had been some very heavy rains and the track was constantly running with water, beside the road were the peat bog swamps – wet perhaps a little more than usual. Although we saw no bears or deer, the road was great driving, perhaps even more challenging than the Road of Bones. The washouts were up to 2 metres deep and had to be crossed by makeshift log bridges, the rivers as usual fast flowing, some deep, but fortunately all with stony bottoms. We camped around 11.30pm high on a lookout overlooking the Tompo River and enjoyed a Vodka nightcap, to the sound of running water and the buzzing of those ever-present mosquitoes.

21st July Distance 119Kms Camp 23: Mountain Top after New Bridge Camp


Sunday 22nd July: Today’s driving continued over more rivers and some very recently cut logs, bridging the large erosion gullies. For these we definitely needed Bill or me to guide our respective trucks over to avoid dropping into the 5 metre chasm. Finally the road wound out of the valleys and up into the high tundra mountain country. The creeks had gone, but the adrenalin was now tickled by the precipitous drop offs beside the track cut into the mountain peaks. We reached the 850metre Elchan Pass at 159kms. The surrounding view was impressive both by its remoteness and by the ring of lichen covered rocky mountains around us. On top of the pass was an old statue of an Elk and Deer surrounding it and the small table and chairs were the gifts to the gods that previous travellers had offered. Cigarette lighters, CDs, broken bits of cars, coins, toys, vodka bottles, in fact everything imaginable, and to top the pile from us an Australian Koala! In my mind I wounder if this will bring a smile to other travellers as they pass this place?

For some, the rush of adrenalin had been too much, and it was unfortunately decided to turn around only 20kms from our destination of the Gulag Camp and the old Soviet Holiday Resort. At some time in the future, I would be pleased to hear from other travellers who may reach this site, and to satisfy my curiosity as to what it is like.

We returned without incident to camp beside one of rocky rivers running with blue melt water. It was also a pleasant evening with surprisingly no mosquitoes.

22nd July Distance: 149Kms Camp 24: Stony River Camp


Monday 23rd July: Arriving at Kriskil and the Aldan River at 1pm we learn that the barge will not leave until 9pm that evening. It would seem that there is no real timetable. Kriskil is a very small farming community, and we chat to the two workers repairing the school building; they think we are from National Geographic and it is too difficult explaining otherwise. We eventually find and visit the local shop for ice cream if only just to fill in time, there is no ice cream so we decide on some bread. There is no bread but are encouraged to wait for the bread van to arrive. The Uaz bread van pulls in and he unloads about a 100 loaves. We walk away with 2 loaves of bread, four small cakes, and a large tomato juice all for 120RUB(A$4.80) The rest of the afternoon is washed away under a tarp watching the river go by.

The Aldan is 2 metres higher than before and is carrying all that water that washed out those roads up towards the old Gulag Camp. The GPS tells us that we are travelling at 25KPH down river and the trip only takes half an hour, much less than the hour and a half on the way up.

Reaching the other side it is an about an hours drive to our camp in yet another disused quarry. Tonight the sky is fiery red, red oranges and pinks. We don’t seem to see sunsets just twilights, but tonight is an exception.

23rd July Distance: 167Kms Camp 25: Sandy Gravel Pit after Ferry Camp


Tuesday 23rd July: The country is so green at the moment, lots of grazing horses and cattle. We take time to explore one of the long stables made out of pine logs and covered with soil and grass. About 100 metres long, 10 metres wide and 3 metres high, it is in here that all the animals are kept, fed, and milked during those long winter months. The community is out hand cutting the native grasses, and that is stored in huge haystacks to be use as winter fodder.

Stopping at the roadside café called ‘Smile’ we are at a total loss (as usual) what to order from the Cyrillic Russian menu, so we just pointed to 2 x somethings on the hand written page. The first something was two fried donut things with mince inside, the second something was two very sweet caramel and sugary cakes. These we shared between the four of us. Eating was always a bit of a surprise. Our best idea was to normally walk around the café and see what others are eating, then indicate to the matron “Che-ti-re” (four) and point to the meal on the plate in front of the gentleman. This normally brings a smile or two and lots of shatter around the café. But this way, we at least eat well.

Our drive continued uneventfully over the rough roads to the Lena River, and we again sit pleasantly idle on the vehicular ferry awaiting moving on to Yakutsk. The forty-five minute crossing cost 406RUB(A$16.50) per vehicle.

Checking into the Hotel Lena (2650RUB-A$102 incl breakfast) we arranged for secure accommodation for our trucks at the rear of the hotel. Tomorrow we plan to reprovision for our travel south towards Lake Baikal, repair Bills winch hydraulic line, and change the oil in the two trucks.

We have been noticing that many of the locals had black and broken teeth. The reason we learnt is from drinking hot tea or coffee when the temperature is negative in winter. Apparently the huge variation in temperature causes the teeth to crack, and or die.

24th July Distance: 390Kms Camp26: Hotel Lena Yakutsk

Position: Return to Yakutsk
Highlights: Looking for an old Gulag Camp.
Great 4x4ing.
Spectacular mountain scenery.

Total Distance to Date: 7510Kms (608 in 5 days)


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