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Land Rover Journey of Discovery - Into Chernobyl

MON 26 MARCH 2012

The Journey of Discovery expedition team is one of the first western groups to take a tour right up to the infamous nuclear plant and through the ghost town of Pripyat.

In the early hours of April 26, 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl powerplant exploded and the world’s worst ever nuclear disaster unfolded. Now, 26 years later, that may be a distant memory for many, but not for those who were there that fateful day.

Valeriy Zabayaka was one of the plant workers who became a ‘liquidator’, one of thousands tasked with the awful job of clearing the radioactive disaster zone. Tall, broad and strapping with a heavy moustache and a handshake that could crush granite he’s every inch the iconic Soviet hero. While his eyes don’t believe the horrors he has seen, his words tell a different story.

“When I heard about the explosion no one told us the radiation level was life-threatening. This was the time of the former Soviet Union and the authorities were hiding the information about the danger from us.

“The level of radiation where I worked was already very dangerous. I was in a group of 20 and only six of us are still alive. My health is damaged.”

When asked whether he had a choice in becoming a liquidator, he claims he did. Given his time again however, he admits he may have chosen differently.

“I was young and Pripyat city in Chernobyl was like the motherland to me. Today, maybe I would make a different decision, but back then there was only one. When I left after liquidating though, people I knew well looked at me like a stranger.”

The team from Land Rover’s Journey of Discovery met Zabayaka during their trip inside the exclusion zone that surrounds the plant, which is still leaking radiation today. After his sobering testimony, they drove on towards his beloved Pripyat.

Before the disaster it was a bustling city of 50,000 just three kilometres from reactor number four.

Here, living standards were a world above anything the average Soviet citizen could dream of. Facilities and amenities abounded, shops were well stocked even with almost impossible to buy Western goods – outside of Moscow’s shops for the elite, for example, Pripyat was the only place in the Soviet Union where Chanel perfume was available.

Wages were over double the national average and life was good. Work was plentiful, and with plans to ultimately build 12 reactors at the plant, it stood as a glittering testament to Soviet technological expertise and all that was great there.

The explosion changed everything.

Today Pripyat is deserted. A desolate, crumbling ghost town of a place that was left in a hurry by a population who only thought they were leaving for a few days. It lies derelict in its entirety in the shadow of the reactor, testament to all the dreams that were crushed and lives that were lost from that fateful day.

Ascending the hotel's steps to the top floor is like walking into the set of a horror movie, except the horror is very real. Our guide joked "The lift is out of order because we didn’t pay last month's electricity bill". It’s a fact that this place is deeply contaminated, but it’s hard to keep this in mind because this radioactive contamination is invisible, an insidious influence that remains beyond our sight.

As such, looking from the hotel’s once grand roof terrace, the ghost town image disappears. From a distance the buildings below still look slightly rundown, but the overall impression is little different from other poor towns in rural Russia. Even the lack of cars is almost the same in such places.

The team’s final stop is next to the reactor itself, which now sits under a makeshift cover of concrete, steel, lead and metal sheeting.

Here a guide explains how plans are in place for a better cover, or sarcophagus, to be built to help bring this dreadful chapter in history to some sort of a close. The trouble is, this is the same story that has been coming from here for over ten years – all that seems to change is the deadline which keeps extending, seemingly inexorably, into the future.
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About the Journey of Discovery
To celebrate the millionth Discovery and to showcase the vehicle’s unique versatility and breadth of capability, Land Rover’s Journey of Discovery will cover 8,000 miles in 50 days from its birthplace in Birmingham, UK to one of its fastest growing markets, Beijing in China. It aims to raise £1 million for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The journey will pass through 13 countries - UK, France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China – focusing on interesting stories en-route to provide engaging video, image and written content. This will include joining avalanche teams in the Alps, driving through a Cold War submarine city and even joining a trip into the heart of Chernobyl.

About the Fundraising Project
The Journey of Discovery expedition aims to raise £1,000,000 (GBP) for Land Rover's Global Humanitarian Partner, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The money will be used to support a much needed water sanitation project in Uganda (

This is in addition to the three-year global initiative “Reaching Vulnerable People Around the World”.  This initiative, launched in 2010, provides additional support for IFRC programmes in over 15 countries worldwide.

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