Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Shoyna (Шо́йна), a weird Arctic hamlet invaded by 'desert' sands from the Barents Sea

Shoyna, the northernmost "desert" town, is not marked on most maps. Its sand dunes stretch for tens of kilometers along the coast of the White Sea, on the west coast of Kanin peninsula in the Russian Arctic.

Shoyna is located in the Barents Sea area, north of Arkhangelsk Region. Murmansk to the west, Arkhangelsk to the south, are the nearest large cities, where naval bases and industrial structures are strategical for the Russian State.

This region is currently under pressure, the Arctic being seen as an area for the future - navigable because of the warming, profitable because of oil, gas and coal deposits. Russia started a rush for the Arctic, concentrating much of the military/naval forces in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, and building extraction structures and heavy industry. A dispute with Finland started long ago on the limits of national water and sea bed.

The Kanin Peninsula is the western tip of the Nenets region (Nenetsia), over 300 km from its capital Naryan-Mar. The Nenets are a native nomad people with a subsistence way of life - herding reins and fishing.

Shoyna was founded in the 1930s as a fishing village, named after the Shoyna River.

The village remained a fishing community during the Soviet rule, with an impressive fishing fleet, settled on flat green land where tundra and forest converge. The abundance of fish and marine life led to prosperity, and by the 1950s some 1500 people lived in Shoyna.

A slow but inexorable sand wave was coming though, and since the 70's sand dunes enclosed the houses puting an end to fishery.

Today, the fleet is rotting on the shore, and provides playing ground for children and a photogenic end-of-the-world scenery.

The excessive fishing, trawling the seabed, destroyed the vegetation, which gave the way for wind-blown sands.

Shoyna (Шо́йна), Nenets region

Coordinates: 67° 52' N, 44° 08' E
           (150 Km north of the arctic circle)
Population: 300-400

Access to many houses is possible only through the roof ; stairs are commonly seen to help climb up to roof windows.

Better not to close the door at night. Because come morning, it may not open - if a sandstorm has struck.

Somehow people manage to resist - they even keep gardening as thet can.

Day of school awards - school is one of a few buildings kept free of sand invasion.

There are no restaurants, no hotels and only two shops, but Shoyna’s residents are known to invite travellers into their homes for authentic seafood feasts. Life is not opulent, but the gulf still abounds with fish: plaice, white salmon, truit, cod, whitefish. haddock and herring. Money comes from Norwegians across the border, who for many years have also bought up the local cloudberries.

Several berries and mushrooms grow nearby and provide an extra income for the villagers.

Fishing is now a small family business for subsistence, as is berry catching.


The newspaper from NAO arrives weekly with news from Nenetsia. 

Jobs, though, are quite enough: tractor and excavator drivers, meteorologists, wood workers and repair crews, a few state workers and employees (teachers, for instance). Many receive pensions and benefits.

No roads, no bycicles or cars - the only machines to move around are these 'sand- tractors', heavy, slow and ugly, called "truckcycles" by the locals.

Water has to be searched for each day at the only source available.

Still work and play go on in the unfriendly environment.

The worst arrives with the violent winds from the Barents Sea.

The Meteorological Station is probably the best place to work in Shoyna, as the Russians do care for their Weather Forecasting Net very much

It keeps being modernized and, of course, sand-free. This area even benefits from a wooden boardwalk over the sand.

There also was a lighthouse at Shoyna, built in 1960 as a navigational aid to mariners on the White Sea. After decades of service it was abandonned and left to ruin, but can still be visited.

No roads or railroads connect the area with the south. Transportation to the outside world is by ship or air. The 'Shoyna Airport' is a dirt runway, 650 metres long on the mud...

...the lounge a little wooden shack, the control tower, well...

It's amazing how few accidents happened, the last one in 2014 with only minor injuries, with this small Antonov biplane from the 1940s - though it was continuously built until 2001.

An-2, the "Annushka", specialized in remote areas with unpaved airstrips..

The flights are almost undescribable - the small plane shakes and vibrates and bounces and shudders harshly, there is no air conditionning so drafts inside are freezing, and the engine noise (plus wind) almost unbearable. But... it's the only fast way in and out of Shoyna !

Under snow, in the Arctic winter, things get... better !

Snow allows for snowmobile transport, much more comfortable in small trips.

Even dogsleds are welcome !

Main sources:

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Antipodes Islands - hostile and barren, the first land to see New Year.

For a change, I'm describing today a very southernly, sub-antarctic island, where just a few ever layed their feet - the small Antipodes Island, with some even smaller islets around, all belonging to New Zealand.

At the beginning of every New Year, the Antipodes Islands are the first piece of land to see the change, although nobody, or at most one or two scientists got to experience it. They shelter in a small hut in the main island's northwest coast, at Hut Cove.

The volcanic islands of the Antipodes Island group lie 860 km to the southeast of New Zealand. The uninhabited group consists of the main Island, Bollons Island to the north, and several other islets and rocks. All are inhospitable volcanic territory in subantarctic waters.

The terrain on main Antipodes island has been infested with a mouse plague, introduced in the 20th century (*); efforts are taking place to erradicate them.

The main Antipodes Island is a harborless series of steep basalt cliffs covering five miles by three miles. Two permanent huts allow for a small crew to watch for the nature reserve, make biometric tests and monitoring results.

Antipodes Island
Coordinates: 49° 40′ S, 178° 46′ E
Area (main island) : 22 km2
Maximum elevation:  402 m

The island group is a World Heritage nature reserve and there is no general public access.

Occasionally the small sheltering space has to be increased for a scientific team.

Helicopter is the only practicable transport. A small hangar was installed above the hut camp.

The highest point on the islands is Mount Galloway (402 m), which is also a recently active volcano, although an exact eruption date is unknown.

Mount Galloway.

The rounded summmit was first reached in 1903; it's mostly clear ground, matted with Poa Litorosa grass and Pleurophyllum (a flowering megaherb).

The island's top is covered by wind-swept tussock grass.

Covering the island’s inland, there is a mixture of grasses, herbs, shrubs, and ferns. The dense ferns and tussock grasses deserve particular mention because they make impossible the simple act of walking in a straight line.

Coastal red-tussock makes up the rugged landscape of Antipodes Island.

In spite of its moderate latitude, there are no trees here. The problem is not the ice or cold - annual mean above 5ºC -, it's the wind, same as happens in the Kerguelen Islands: westerly gales blow all the time quite strong, and cold fronts bring terrible storms. No tree would survive time enough to grow.

The northwest coast, looking to Orde Lees and Winward Islands.

Bolloms Island seen from Antipodes.
[photo K. Walker]

Frightening basalt stacks.

One of the most spectacular sites is the narrow straight between the main Island and Leeward Island:

Storm near Hut Cove, with Bolloms Island in the far.

Scenic basalt cliffs give evidence of the volcanic past; below, a bird colony nesting slope, at Anchorage Bay.


The Antipodes Islands were discovered in 1800 by Captain Henry Waterhouse of H.M.S. Reliance. Soon, since 1804, sealing vessels arrived to the Antipodes, and though the sealing grounds were jealously guarded at the time, in a few years a sealing boom on the islands almost extinguished the fur seal species. By the 1830s seals were all but wiped out and sealing in the Antipodes came to an end. Only since the 1950s the population started recovering, there are a few thousands presently.

Since 1998, the NZSAI (New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands) are inscribed in Uneco's World Heritage list. The islands truly belong to birds, lush vegetation and some occasional adventurers in rubber boats...

The real star of the archipel is its unique Parakeet, the green-only endemic species:

'Cyanoramphus unicolor' is endemic to these uninhabited and protected islands. A treasure.

The red-crowned parakeet, 'Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae', is also commonly found here as in all New Zealand islands, namely Stewart Island.

Well, it was not easy getting all this documentation about such a remote, small, ignored territory in the antipode coordinates. I bet most of you had never heard or read about it. That's my 'mission' here at Ultima Thule - finding arctic or antarctic "neverlands" where I'll never go, and probably neither will you. The last places of mistery and adventure on Earth.

Antipodes from above. Lee and Windword left, Bolloms up right, facing the Cove, and Leeward at right.

(*) probably from a wrecked Spanish ship