6 November 2011

On Top of the World

One of the great joys of travelling is simply seeing the world. Places, people, cultures, scenery, and climate can all be entirely different to what we know and are most familiar with - experiencing new things and appreciating difference can reward our efforts and enrich our view of the world - and this is why I like to travel.

I’m very lucky because I often cross the globe in unusual ways. By truck, by freight plane, sometimes even by boat. Last month I made what will possibly be the single longest journey of my life. I travelled from Tokyo in Japan, via Krasnoyarsk, Siberia in Russia, to Frankfurt, Germany. And then, after an overnight stop in Frankfurt I continued on to Mexico City, Mexico, via Chicago, USA. I flew the whole way by Freighter, not your usual airliner – just me and the flight crew. Our route took us across Russia to Europe, then out over Britain and Ireland, up to Greenland, then down through Canada, past the Hudson Bay, across the Great Lakes to Chicago, and then further down the US until we reached Mexico. Most of the way I sat in the cockpit and during the day we had amazing views of the scenery below.

The top photo is me sitting in the navigator’s seat in the cockpit of an MD-11 Cargo Freighter. These are medium-sized freighter planes with three engines, one under each wing and one as part of the tail fin. They were originally devised as replacements for the more well-known DC-10. The upper deck behind the cockpit is the main cargo hold, which is curtained off with a huge chain-link crash net. There’s a small rest area, with two seats, the galley and toilet immediately behind the cockpit. The plane changed crews at each stop-off, and for most of the way the crew consisted of a pilot and co-pilot. On one stage there were three crew, a captain and two co-pilots. They each took command of the aircraft in shifts throughout the flight.

Behind me, through the window, can be seen the bright white snowy landscape of Greenland and the clear blue vault of the Arctic sky. The subsequent two photos show the east coast and the third is the west coast. The small white dots speckling the frozen sea around the cliffs in the first picture are icebergs. The second shot shows the vast ice-sheet which covers most of the Greenland landmass. You can imagine how deep it must be by looking at the tips of the mountains which only just manage to peep through the snow and ice (this isn't cloud) in places close to the coast. The immense weight of this ice-sheet is thought to have depressed the centre of the landmass several hundred metres below sea level. The final photo shows a glacier terminating into a fjord on the west side of the coast.

Travelling by Freighter is a unique experience every time. The lack of creature comforts isn’t necessarily appealing to everyone. These aircraft can be noisy and uncomfortable. The rest area of the MD-11 smells a lot like a large canvas army tent. And you certainly have to bring your own entertainment – there’s no in-flight films or music – so be sure to pack an ipod and a book or you’ll die of boredom, especially on a night flight. If it’s day time though you can look out the window (assuming you have one – not all cargo aircraft do!). So much of the world is missed by flying on commercial airliners where the routines of the flight require the passenger to bed down and close the windows and eat at set times. I’ve spent many hours looking out of the windows of cargo planes – watching the purple sunrise over the Gobi desert, or the sun shining on the lakes and glaciers around Mount McKinley in Alaska. And my high school geography lessons paid off when on one flight the crew and I tried to spot the remnants of long extinct volcanoes around Mount Ararat on the Turkish-Iranian border.

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