As a journalist, it’s easy to get desensitised to the really good things. We get to drive awesome cars and visit amazing places on a regular basis which means it all simply becomes the new normal. But when an invitation from Porsche to visit Kamchatka fell into my lap, it brought back all the excitement that first got me into this business. Of course I was going to go. Anything else would just have to reschedule.
Having watched a number of videos on Kamchatka and its pristine wilderness, I was surprised (almost disappointed actually) to find that the airport was actually a fairly normal one. Well, I say normal, their single baggage delivery belt was a little out of the ordinary in that it was housed in what was essentially a large tent. But other than that it was typical small airport stuff, and the road from there to Petropavlovsk was surprisingly good as well. Certainly better than most roads around Moscow, which admittedly isn’t a super high bar to clear. As I got there a day ahead of the rest of my group, I checked into a lovely local hotel and tried to sleep off the jet lag. Frequent traveler or not, zipping nine time zones to the East is no picknick.
The next day, I rejoined the group back at the airport where our cars were waiting. It was slightly surreal seeing a lineup of brand new (and sparkling clean) Porsche Cayennes in this part of the world. Especially because pretty much every other car on the road was an older Japanese or Korean car with the steering wheel on the wrong side. But Porsche had been bringing in journalists for a couple of weeks already, so the locals had grown pretty accustomed to seeing them. Everyone we encountered already knew about it anyway, which probably wasn’t surprising as this corner of Russia is perpetually stuck in something of a slow news day — compared to where we were from anyway — so this fleet of Porsches arriving must’ve been the talk of the town.
The short drive to camp was, again, a lot comfier than expected. Gorgeous scenery, even more really good roads and, obviously, the fact that I was driving a Cayenne S was the cherry on top. It wouldn’t be very long though until I found out how they’d managed to have these roads in such good shape — there just aren’t very many of them. If you ventured a bit too far away from Petropavlovsk in a direction that wasn’t too popular you would soon run out of paved road altogether. Oh well, at least these cars have about a million different modes for driving on non-solid surfaces. The sheer effort and amount of planning that went into getting all these cars shipped here from Moscow must have been mind boggling by the way, but then what better place to demonstrate the Cayenne’s versatility. On the other hand, the fact that there are so few roads in Kamchatka also meant that a lot of the time we weren’t actually driving them. Pretty much all of the stuff that you really wanted to see around here, from volcanoes to bears chasing salmon and everything in between, required alternative transport in the form of massive Mi-8 helicopters.
Now, as far as my favourite modes of transport go, helicopters are pretty far down the list. Probably somewhere in between riding a camel and ice skates. I’d certainly have much preferred the Cayenne to the loud and shaky chopper of a type which made imagining yourself on the way to a battelefield in Afganistan a little too easy. But this was Kamchatka and before long you’d realize that its natural treasures were worth both the risk and the slight discomfort of getting there by gigantic mechanical dragonfly. As a firm believer in the fact that the Earth is in fact roughly spherical, I don’t enjoy using the term “end of the earth” but that’s pretty much where you felt like you were much of the time. I suppose it is sort of the end of Russia, which was especially clear when you opened up your favourite map app and zoomed it way out.
Also, completely unlike Moscow, in Kamchatka there is in fact a non-zero chance of being eaten by a bear. Now, I actually live rather too close to Moscow Zoo to claim there’s no chance of it at home, but that’s not the point. When I go outside and make a left turn towards the Coffeemania, I don’t really need a guide with a large rifle and bear spray is what I’m saying. In Kamchatka though, armed chaperones are a good idea. Especially when you’re flying two dozen journalists into bear territory uninvited, it makes marketing sense to ensure that no less than all of them make it back alive and without any body parts missing. That being said, the danger wasn’t really all that palpable as we watched a mother bear and her cub (cuteeee) cross a shallow river right in front of us, and they seemingly could not care less about our presence. But it was the end of the season for the salmon runs so the bears were all so completely stuffed with fish that they couldn’t even think of eating anything more. No room even for some desserts fresh from Moscow.
Watching scenes like this made being in Kamchatka feel like you were inside one of those nature channels on TV. There’s stuff going on everywhere that you’ve seen before just not with your own eyes. Bright red coloured salmon completing the final stage of their life cycle in a river so tiny and shallow that you can wade through it without getting your ankles wet, for example. Or seeing thousands of birds nesting on a particularly vertical rock in the middle of the sea while eating freshly cooked crab that was still alive in a bucket when we came on board a few hours earlier. It would’ve been even better if my stomach had not been queasy at that point from bouncing up and down the waves in the not very large boat.
The active volcanoes, meanwhile, were best viewed from the air by helicopter. Circling these smoking giants was visually stunning but the experience did come with a rather penetrating sulphur smell. Nothing’s perfect, I suppose. At least anyone suffering from a bout of flatulence would’ve been happy to go completely unnoticed. We also made a stop in a caldera, a low lying volcanic area full of boiling blubber and yet more sulphur before heading to a high altitude lake inside a crater of a dormant volcano where the air was deliciously crisp. This ancient crater was without doubt one of the most beautiful and stunning places I’ve visited, and also one of the quietest. There was only the wind, some distant chatter of enthusiastic colleages, and the odd Mi-8 helicopter circling around. To someone who now considers himself pretty much a Moscovite, that’s still pretty quiet.
But at the end of every day, you can’t change what you are and I’m a car guy. So I was usually happiest getting back into a Cayenne to rack up the miles while looking out the window. That’s not to say that driving on unpaved roads doesn’t get to you after a while. We once had a drive several hours long on a dusty potholed road so remote that even the satnav had no idea where we were going. Things had started off nice enough by being helicoptered onto a beach which consisted entirely of black volcanic sand — like what would happen if you took a picture of a regular white sandy beach and then completely flipped the colours to their opposite in Photoshop. But the drive back from there was pretty brutal, to the point that I felt a little sorry for the cars who had been doing this terrible road over and over again. They took it all in their stride of course, with the air suspension raised and the dampers in a soft setting they did not miss a beat and allowed me to carry quite a lot of speed over the bumps and through corners. Which went well until there was a police officer mid corner somewhere, but fortunately he was only interested in whether I was smuggling any dead fish in the trunk. I wasn’t, so four seconds and two presses of a button later we were back under way.
This was also actually the first time that I got to drive the new Cayenne Coupe. Unsurprisingly, when driving you can’t really tell much difference with the regular Cayenne which is already at the sporty end of the SUV universe. The Coupe is, at the extremes, a little more agile but there’s no doubt that most people who buy this variant will be doing so for the way it looks. I’ve gone on and on about how ludicrous a “coupe” SUV is, especially when it has four doors, but if this kind of car appeals to you then I think Porsche have done the best job of all thus far. The shape of most SUVs just doesn’t work with a slimmer, sloping rear end but somehow Porsche have pulled this off pretty well. Which I suppose can be considered as some kind of redemption for how the Cayenne looked when it was first launched over a decade ago. It wasn’t exactly the prettiest thing on sale back in the day, remember?
I’ve still not changed my mind regarding the engines though. The 440 horsepower 2.9 litre V6 turbo is sweet as can be and really quiet. It’s also more than powerful enough even in a car this large and heavy to blow away almost any other car you see on the road. There’s nothing wrong with the Cayenne Turbo — I do like a good V8 engine and there’s no such thing as too much horsepower — but I just don’t see it as a necessary or even useful improvement over the S version. Of course, when you have a dozen journalists and only two of the cars have the Turbo engine, everyone wants to be in that one. Comradery and professionalism go right out the window at this point by the way, as it’s every man and woman for themselves in this game of musical chairs. I’ve sometimes seen people run out of an airport to drive the model with the biggest engine. But as a general rule of thumb I don’t usually run unless something’s on fire, hence people who work in the more cutthroat world of blogging generally beat me to the big engines. So I’m happy that the Cayenne S is as great as it is.
I’m not even sure whether it’s my increasing age or the increasing amounts of time that I’ve spent behind the wheel of a Porsche SUV in a professional capacity, but I am coming round to them more and more. Of course they’re not 911s, but we couldn’t have driven up the side of a volcano in one of those. Even in less challenging conditions, the Cayenne gives you the soothing feeling of being able to take on pretty much whatever lies ahead. And because it’s a Porsche there’s at least a thin layer of playfulness on top of the car’s useful capabilities, ample power and sublime interior. A trip to Kamchatka is an adventure that you want to share with a good friend and, without minimizing great times I had my flesh and blood colleagues, the Cayenne would have been really missed had it not been there. Perhaps, in the future, Porsche’s engineers will find a way to make it fly. If we could avoid those pesky helicopters next time around things would be perfect.