Kiwi photographer finds haunting beauty in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Entering the abandoned city of Pripyat, emptied of its tens of thousands of citizens after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Kiwi Ben Kepka felt as though he'd landed on the set of an apocalyptical horror movie.
"All you could hear was the crunching of the snow and ice under your feet and the old steel loading bay doors slamming in the wind," he said.
"The feeling of desolation that hits you in this moment is something that I could never have prepared for."
Kepka, an engineer, photographer and filmmaker from Napier, and three friends travelled to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone shortly after Ukraine made it easier for foreigners to visit the country. Foreign visitors can now get short-term visas for stays of up to 90 days.
Their tour took them from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to the town of Chernobyl, about 30 kilometres from the scene of the worst nuclear accident in history; Pripyat, less than 10km from the power plant; and Reactor No 4, the site that exploded, sending at least 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima into the atmosphere. While much of the fallout was deposited close to Chernobyl - in parts of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus - traces have been found in nearly every country in the northern hemisphere.
From the moment Kepka passed the first barrier into the exclusion zone, a 30km radius around the Chernobyl nuclear plant guarded by armed police, he said it was hard to keep his mouth shut.
"It's like nothing that exists in New Zealand or anywhere else I have seen on this planet," he said.
Interested in humans' interaction with their environment, Kepka was struck by the way nature seemed to be reclaiming the city whose residents had abandoned it 30 years earlier.
While the grim Soviet architecture, still scrawled with communist propaganda, was immediately confronting, it was the details - the tiny reminders that people had once led ordinary, even happy, lives there - that really enthralled him.
A gas mask half buried in the snow, open books on the desks of a classroom strewn with papers and debris, and mud-caked dolls the evacuated children would have been forced to leave behind contributed to the sense that he was witnessing "the final stages of that human interaction lifecycle".
"It was a stark reminder that no matter what we do to this earth, in the end nature takes over," he said.
A kindergarten filled with child-sized beds covered with half-stuffed toys and an empty swimming pool in a dilapidated community centre - its broken ladder leading to a pile of smashed tiles - presented particularly poignant reminders that people had once been happy there.
Kepka was startled by the extent of the looting over the years, saying that even copper in the walls has been ripped out to sell for scrap metal.
Constant screams from the geiger meter, a handheld device that measures radiation levels, left no doubt that the environmental effects of the disaster are still considerable. Debate continues over how many will eventually die as a result of the long-term effects of the disaster.
That said, Kepka's personal research had told him that spending a day in the exclusion zone is equivalent to about half a chest x-ray in terms of radiation exposure.
Reactor No 4 was covered in a large sarcophagus (radiation shield) after the explosion, which was recently replaced.
"We learned that this is the largest man-made moveable structure on the planet," Kepka said.
"It was constructed away from the reactor and then, using train tracks, was pushed over the top of the failing sarcophagus to ensure that no one was exposed to high levels of radiation."
Radioactive particles which stuck to dust molecules in the air were a major concern after the accident, which prompted a massive clean-up mission. Helicopters released a foam which absorbed the radioactive particles and allowed them to settle on the ground and be washed away.
The top 150 millimetres of topsoil was removed, meaning "cleaned areas" are now relatively safe to walk around, Kepka explained.
WITNESSING A LEGACY
For Kepka, it really was the trip of a lifetime.
"I have heard a lot about the communist architecture and the legacy that it had left on this area of the world, but until I could see it with my own eyes it was really hard to envisage."
That Ukraine is still off the radar for most tourists is a double-edged sword, in his view.
"It means that some people will really help you, show you places and take you under their wing. But on the flip side, some people just don't want to know you."
Kepka found that locals were generally very friendly, once they "played the Kiwi card", particularly in Kiev and the seaside resort of Odessa, where most of the younger people speak English. Very few people still live in the town of Chernobyl, however, while Pripyat is completely deserted.
Kepka and his friends spent Christmas in Kiev, where they were lucky enough to meet locals willing to act as tour guides and show off the architecture and wartime statues unique to the area. From there, they took an overnight train to Odessa which, again reminding him he was half a world away from his former Hawke's Bay stomping ground, presented them with -20 degree celsius temperatures.
"The Black Sea was freezing so we packed up our togs and headed into town. Here, we met more local people who took us on tours of the Christmas markets and restaurants and we dabbled in the nightlife. You can really live a five-star lifestyle on a one-star budget."
They stayed in a mixture of hostels (to meet people) and apartments (to relax), all of which Kepka said were "really cheap". Their penthouse apartment in Odessa with sea views, for example, cost them a grand total of NZ$40 a night.
Kepka explained that you need a government-sanctioned guide to take you around the exclusion zone and he recommends you book in advance. His group opted for a private tour with Solo East Travel which, at NZ$160 a person, is a lot of money in Ukraine, but he believes it was well worth it.