The world's worst nuclear disaster
In the early hours of April 26, 1986, the world experienced its worst ever nuclear disaster. A safety test at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine went badly wrong, and the resulting explosion sent an estimated nine tonnes of radioactive material into the air that's the equivalent of 90 Hiroshima atomic bombings.
The surrounding areas were badly contaminated, hundreds of thousands of people contracted terminal illnesses, both as a result of the initial explosion and in a bid to clear up the mess, and a whole region was evacuated.
Barring a few workers monitoring the site, and the odd hardy soul that has returned to their village illegally, no-one enters the 30km-radius exclusion zone around the plant.
Apart from, of course, the daytrippers.
Into the exclusion zone
Sergei, our guide, reads out an awfully long disclaimer. The State Department is not responsible for "any deterioration of my health" or "contamination of my equipment". Gulp.
We're in the town of Chernobyl itself, which is inside the 30km zone, but outside the extra-dicey 10km zone. It has been reduced to a few shacks including what's colloquially known as the 'Chernobyl Sheraton' for those who absolutely have to stay overnight. On the way, we've passed abandoned villages that are slowly being overgrown by trees, grass and weeds.
The trees are new growth the original ones died out within two weeks of the accident, and are buried under clay. The pines have red trunks a mark of the radiation and they're part of the continuing problem. Their roots reach down to the water table, and pass the contamination into the silt of the Dnipro River.
Further along, we pass more villages. These have been buried under the soil in an attempt to reduce the risk. Every house makes a little hillock, and most have a sign indicating radioactivity on them.
The power plant
Eventually we get to the plant itself, and it's a far bigger complex than many would imagine. There were four working reactors at Chernobyl, with two more under construction and four more planned at the time of the disaster.
Reactors five and six are still half-built. They're surrounded by cranes, some of which still carry their load. There were more pressing things to worry about than getting them out.
We're given precise instructions on what we're allowed to take pictures of an army type joins the bus by this point so it's impossible to convey the armada of electricity pylons around the site. This place provided power to Russia and the Czech Republic at one point.
Perhaps the oddest thing is the large cooling lake, however. It is full of fish, including some giant catfish that look like sea monsters from a B-grade movie. This is not because of some radioactive mutation, but because they've no predators or competition in the area. Understandably, not many fishermen are interested in reeling them in.
Apparently, this is a story repeated around the region. Because there is virtually no human life, animals are thriving in rapidly growing natural habitats wolves, deer and boar populations have shot up.
And then comes the scariest site. Reactor number four. The one where it all went a bit tits-up. Apparently 92 percent of the nasty gloop is still in there, and the 'sarcophagus' surrounding it looks less than sturdy.
After the accident, helicopters poured tonnes of water, lead and sand in to cool things down, and then the reactor was cased in cement. Frankly, it looks as though they just stuck a few concrete blocks around the side and ran away as soon as possible. And now those blocks are crumbling. As Sergei says, no-one really knows what it's like inside. A bit of roof collapsing could lead to critical mass and then ... well, it's best not thinking about.
You can get within 100m of the reactor, and it's altogether terrifying. Especially with the Geiger counter going mental.
The ghost town
Before heading back to Chernobyl for a three-course lunch (no joke), there's a haunting tour around Prypyat. This was the town built to service the plant, and it was regarded as a model Soviet city great facilities, young population, smart look.
Its 45,000 inhabitants were evacuated after the disaster, and have never returned. Prypyat itself remains in 1986. We look around a derelict hotel, fairground, swimming pool and school. The latter is spooky. Old footballs are still in the gym, library books are spilled over the floors amongst upturned tables, and a piano is stripped bare in the music room.
Is it safe?
In a word, no. Chernobyl will not be 'safe' for a very long time. In terms of doing the daytrip though, exposure to radiation is minimal as long as you obey safety instructions, don't eat apples from the trees or take home uranium-laced 'souvenir' stones.
As a rough measure, you would need to spend four or five days in the exclusion zone to get the same dosage of radiation as you would from an X-ray.
Getting to Chernobyl
SoloEast Travel runs day tours from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Prices start at US$130.
Scandinavian Airlines (T: 1300 727 707) offers flights to Kiev from Australia via Bangkok and Copenhagen from $2219 including tax.
To get a good overview of the Chernobyl disaster and its consequences, visit Chernobyl.info, or go to the sobering Chernobyl Museum in Kiev beforehand ...
Be sure to check out our photo gallery of a Chernobyl holiday by clicking here: