Whoosh! A scalding spurt of hot water gushes out of the soil, inches from where visitors stand. Gasps of awe and appreciation can be heard from the handful of tourists, some of whom have instinctively ducked at the sight.
The Valley of Geyers on Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula is a spectacular natural wonder and, as part of the Volcanoes of Kamchatka, has been declared a World Heritage Site.
The tip of Kamchatka Peninsula constitutes the easternmost tip of Russia, lying only a few hundred miles north of Japan. It's a part of the world so vast and remote that its climate is subarctic in the south and polar in the north. If that weren't proof enough that the region is a true wilderness, its main attraction — the Valley of Geysers — was not discovered until 1941.
The Valley, with contains approximately 90 geysers, is nestled along a 3.7 mile (6 km) long basin on the left bank of the Geysernaya River. A young stratovolcano, named Kikhpinych, feeds the river with geothermal waters.
Visiting the Valley is not without its dangers, as a rather lyrical public notice informs visitors at the entrance:
“Each person getting to the Valley of Geysers for the first time, experiences its hypnotic power. The head is spinning with surprise and amazement. But the Valley of Geysers does not forgive heedlessness, and collects an annual tribute of scalded extremities.”
The announcement continues on a more serious note: “The most dangerous spots in the Valley of Geysers are covered with grass looking harmless: You sometimes feel an irresistible temptation to step on the green meadow. It is difficult for a person unaware of the Valley's perfidy to imagine that the attractive cover often conceals burning mud, and the foot not gaining a support, will go deep down as if in butter.” Hot, liquid, butter of course — and a scenario that seems to come straight out of a James Bond movie.
Though local scientist Tatyana Ustinova made her amazing discovery in 1941, she did not publish her findings until 1955. Even then, a systematic survey of the area and its dozens of geysers was not made until almost 20 years later. More than 30 geysers were then given names and the area was promoted for local tourism from the 1980s onwards.
An automatic geyser monitoring system was installed in the 1990s, and international visitors were finally allowed access to the site in 1991. From then on, and in spite of the remoteness of the area, which can only be reached via helicopter, tourists duly started arriving in their droves. When the Valley opened to the general public, about 3,000 tourists began to visit the remarkable site each year.
Geysers are natural phenomena that can be found in only a few places. Iceland is particularly famous for them, but they can also be found in New Zealand, Yellowstone National Park in the US and El Tatio in Chile. After Yellowstone National Park, Kamchatka also has the world’s densest geyser population — not bad for the only geyser field in Eurasia.
Geysers are a rare natural occurrence because four unique geological conditions need to coincide before they can form: ample ground water, a water reservoir under the surface, fissures to press the water to the surface and hot rocks deep below it. This combination of conditions is usually found near active volcanoes, which is why geyser fields are often linked to — and situated in close proximity to — volcanic activity.
Cold surface water travels down a fissure to the hot rocks below, usually around a depth of 6,600 ft (2,000 m). In the Valley of Geysers, temperatures below the caldera ground have been measured at 482°F (250°C). The already pressurized water heats to boiling point and gushes out of the surface vent, spraying steam in the process. (The term geyser comes from Icelandic “geysa”, meaning to gush.)
The Valley of Geysers in Kamchatka hit the news in 2007 when, on June 3, a landslide dumped millions of cubic meters of mud and rock on the area and seriously damaged it. Luckily, all 25 of the people who were in the Valley during the slide could be evacuated in time. The damage to the geyser field, however, was extensive. Many geysers were lost forever, though it was soon found that the damage was not as bad as initially thought.
Vitrazh (“Stained Glass”), the main geyser field, and Velikan (“Giant”), the largest geyser, luckily were not damaged. Pervenets (“Firstborn”), Troynoy (“Triple”), Sakharny (“Sugar”), Sosed (“Neighbor”) and Uvodopada (“Near the waterfall”), known for their beauty, were covered by the slide and have tragically been lost forever. Others like Skalisty (“Rocky”) and Konus (“Cone”) were flooded by the lake. Miraculously, the destruction stopped a mere few meters before the tourist hostel, leaving it unscathed.
However, it isn't all bad news for Kamchatka's geyser fields. In the summer of 2009, two years after the mudslide and less than 9 miles (14.5 km) away from the main field, a new geyser formed. This hasn't happened since the 1960s, hence the geyser's nickname “Prikolny” — “peculiar” in Russian!
While the reasons for Prikolny’s outbreak are not quite clear, theories range from rising water levels to a pulsating hot spring.
One of the geysers – a new addition to the landscape – erupts between every 6 to 20 minutes, sometimes up to 16 ft (almost 5 m) high, and has already become a new tourist attraction. It certainly helps that Prikolny decided to spout close to a ranger station and an existing boardwalk, almost as if wanting to get as much attention as possible!
At Yellowstone National Park, the last new geyser formed in the early 20th century, making the discovery of Prikolny special indeed.
As we can see here, even bears frolic among the geysers. For fans of natural phenomena, the Valley of Geysers should be the trip of a lifetime. (As long as the entrance sign's warnings about scalded extremities are heeded, that is!)