“We felt like on the moon surface”

“We felt like on the moon surface”

October 26, 2023

In July 1985, the English naturalist writer Gerald Durrell, who by that time had already written three dozen books about the living world of the planet, came to Taimyr. Here he filmed the film Darrell in Russia.

#ARCTIC. #SIBERIA. THIS IS TAIMYR. The authors and presenters – Darrell and his wife, biologist and ornithologist, Lee – were interested in the system of nature preservation in our country. The last episode, called Endless Day, was filmed in the Taimyrsky biosphere reserve and the Bikada nature reserve, where musk oxen imported from Canada and Alaska live. Memories of this journey are in the authorized biography Gerald Durrell: Journey to Adventure”, prepared by BBC writer and screenwriter Douglas Botting.

English nature writer Gerald Durrell

“…On July 8, the expedition flew to the Soviet Arctic. They crossed four time zones and found themselves in a land where the sun never sets. The Taimyr peninsula is located 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and its coastline is only a thousand miles to the North Pole. This is the world of the tundra, flat, colorless, empty. Gerald wrote: “We felt as if we were on the surface of the moon. It was impossible to determine what time it was, noon or midnight”. Here the expedition was going to visit nature reserves on the Bikada river and lake Lagada. From Hatanga, the travelers reached their destination by helicopter. Gerald watched in amazement as the landscape changed. The golden-green plain was dotted with blue spots of lakes of all sizes and shapes. In some places, eternal ice emerged from the spongy soil. It seemed that the helicopter was flying over ancient fields plowed by a long-vanished race of polar people. Despite the fact that summer was in full swing, patches of unmelted ice could be seen everywhere.

The helicopter landed among the tiny houses scattered along the Bikada river’s banks. The guests were given a small three-room house. It was very difficult to fall asleep in polar day conditions, but Lee solved this problem by wrapping a sock around her head. Everything around was miniature. To see the flowers, one had to bend almost to the ground, and the trees did not reach knee height. Lemmings were scurrying everywhere – the main food of local predators – hawks, owls and arctic foxes. The only exception among the dwarf world of the tundra was the animal for which the travelers came here – a huge, shaggy, lumbering musk ox.

The story of the musk oxs return to the icy expanses of the Soviet Arctic is very unusual. Musk oxen became extinct in the vastness of Siberia more than ten thousand years ago. In Taimyr, the last bulls died about three thousand years ago. In the early seventies, the US and Canadian governments sent sixty musk oxen to Russia as a gift. Half of the animals were sent to Wrangel Island, and the other was released on Taimyr. The bulls settled in and prospered. At the time of Darrell’s visit, there were over a hundred heads in Taimyr. Scientists wanted to increase the number of musk oxen to ten thousand. The easiest way to search for them was from a helicopter.

“Below we saw a herd of musk oxen”, Gerald wrote. “The bulls rushed in front of us, shaggy, like old carpets, with light muzzles and curved horns, like old faded sticks found on a far shelf during cleaning. They ran forward, their creamy hooves digging deep into the moss, kicking up a miniature dust devil. The helicopter landed, and the Siberian huskies, which we had prudently taken with us, went hunting. The pack rushed forward, barking desperately. And then the musk oxen performed a classic maneuver. They stood in a circle, sheltered the cubs in the center, and the adult animals threateningly put out their formidable horns. An insurmountable obstacle arose between the dogs and the cubs. If the dog ran too close, the old bull left the ring and rushed at her, bowing his head almost to the ground. After threatening the dog with an irritated grunt and threatening movements of his horns, the bull returned to the ring. Seeing those powerful animals standing shoulder to shoulder and ready to protect their offspring gave us real pleasure… Only an insanely brave predator would try to break through this ring to get to the weak cubs…”

By plane, Gerald and Lee returned to England, unable to get rid of the taste of vodka and venison. They had completed the most amazing journey of their lives. They managed to see 20 nature reserves on the most unexplored part of the land. During that time they shot almost 30 miles of film.

“The way nature conservation is organized in the Soviet Union made a deep impression on us”, Gerald wrote literally on the eve of the USSR collapse. “Here they attach such importance to this as in no other country in the world. Although all these activities are far from perfect, they are carried out to the highest standards. There are many different nature reserves in the country, in each of which we were met by very purposeful and charming people who were sincerely interested in the results of their work. That trip was very interesting and exciting”.

In the History Spot’s photo project, we talked about how coal was burned at CHPP-1 in parallel with gas right up to the mid-1980s.

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Text: Svetlana Ferapontova, Photo: Nornickel Polar Branch archive

October 26, 2023

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