Cape Kolka

Cape Kolka, Latvia

Weathered branch

Branch of dead tree on the beach

Kurzeme, Latvia

“Enchantingly desolate and hauntingly beautiful,” my guidebook said of Cape Kolka; “like a trip to the end of the earth.”

I’m a sucker for descriptions like that. If the Earth has an end, you’ll find me there, snapping pictures. I shouldered my backpack and headed down to the Riga bus station to hop the afternoon bus for the promised wasteland.

My first suspicion that the writer of the guidebook might have been laying it on a little thick came when I got off the bus in the village of Kolka. Far from the Abomination of Desolation, I found myself in a rather pretty ribbon village, low houses strung out on either side of the road. Lilacs - white, pale or deep purple - exploded from the hedgerows. Creepers twined on anything that looked like it might be suitable for twining on. Three pleasant rural churches offered salvation for the soul in varying denominations. The sun smiled down on everything.

I found myself a place to stay, dropped my pack, and wandered up the road towards the Cape. “The windswept moonscape at the waning edge of the cape … could have you dreaming for days,” the guidebook promised me. I quickened my pace in anticipation.

The sight that greeted me did not, sadly, live up to the promise. Beyond the pines, a wide ribbon of sand sloped gently down to the Baltic. Tiny wavelets, propelled by an unremitting onshore breeze, crashed minutely onto the yellow-brown shore. Far off over the blue waters, the red spike of the Kolka lighthouse stuck out of the sea. To one side, a downed forest of sun-bleached and beached tree trunks did their best to hint at the awful fury of the winter storms, but under the summer sun, everything looked benign and tranquil.

It struck me as I wandered along the apparently endless sands that Cape Kolka in midsummer looked not so much like the ends of the earth as the place where the Creator finally ran out of inspiration. “I dunno,” He must have said, “let’s have some sand here. And pine trees. Lots and lots of pine trees. They all look pretty much alike, but honestly, I’m too tired to think any more. Just stick a beach there, a forest there, some water there, and we’re done. Maybe throw in some seagulls if you like - they’ll look nicely littoral. Don’t go overboard, though.”

I walked quite a long way down the beach, hoping for something that would justify the prose in my guidebook. As I walked, I realized that things were a little more varied than I had first thought. A few silver birch stood out among the pines. The skittish gulls on the sandbars offshore were mixed in with ducks (possibly scoters). A small flotilla of swans bobbed improbably on the water, and some kind of small plover stood contemplatively on a spur of sand. A moonscape it might not be, but it wasn’t entirely without life or interest.

I may be simply hard to impress. After all, I spent large parts of my childhood in Caithness, which looks like the ends of the earth pretty much three hundred and sixty five days a year, rain or (improbable) shine. I’m guessing, however, that the writer visited Kolka in winter, when winds from the Arctic slicing down across the Baltic at ninety knots probably put a very different complexion on the place. Even under a serene and almost cloudless summer sky, I could imagine the potential.