Adventures on the Arctic (part 1)
Nothing prepares you for the 24 hour daylight – especially when living in the UK. So it was incredible to find that, despite arriving close to midnight in the Norwegian capital of Oslo for the start of my Arctic adventure, there was still plenty of dusky sunlight on the streets of this amazingly neat and tidy city.
My neighbour on the short flight from London was returning home to Oslo and when I told him that I was heading to Svalbard he grinned and said, ‘Ah, you are going to Svalbard! It‘s like nowhere else that you’ve ever been before’. If I was excited enough before, this comment had me almost jumping out of my seat in anticipation. The more he was telling me stories about the five times he visited the remote Arctic Archipelago the more I just wanted to be there.... But before, I had a few stops on the way.
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At information desk they tell me the shuttle bus is just coming to take me to my hotel located a few minutes from the airport, very convenient for a short stopover. Got to my room, the bed was enormous and inviting. I fell asleep instantly.
In the morning, I had an amazing Scandinavian breakfast: spread of herring, rye bread, hard cheeses and strong coffee. It felt more a stopover hotel for business than a holiday makers but the service was fantastic. I realised there was also a steam sauna but I had little time for indulgence; the shuttle bus was already waiting in the entrance door to take me to airport.
I was about to fly to one of the most northerly remote inhabited places on earth! It is hardly surprising that there are few direct flights. Usually I don’t like taking more than one flight to get anywhere, but with Norwegian and Scandinavian levels of service and with Svalbard as the end goal, the slow progress to the far north is only making me more excited about this most curious and extreme destination.
I arrive in Longyearbyen and its cloudy and misty, looks like it has been raining a little. I just can’t believe I am in one of the most remote towns in the planet: Longyearbyen, the capital of the Svalbard Archipelago!! It’s a super tiny airport and there is a huge stuffed polar bear watching over the spinning tray of popping bags. I jump on the airport bus that takes me to the hotel. As I am waiting in the bus I see there is a sign outside the airport marking 3043Km distance from London, 2046km from Oslo (and 1309km to the North Pole!). A slow progress to come here but I definitely think it was worth it. Certainly, I would have spent probably another day - or two even- in Longyeabyen.
Svalbard is a land where the wild and the modern meet. Someone tells me that it’s home to a seed bank that has a sample of every single plant and herb in the world and also home to a lot of Russian warehouses (this is because the islands are jointly owned by Norway and Russia). This is a surreal place where nothing is quite what it first appears. Even Norwegian regard the archipelago of Svalbard a bit of a mystery. Norwegians more often come for the winter season as there are really fun winter/snow activities around.
Longyearbyen is actually a name that you would think was perfectly chosen for the place: long days, long year… but no, it comes from its founder Mr John Monroe Longyear. The American came in 1906 with a group of other 50 miners to settle his business and so it was called after him, Longyear-byen (byen means “city”). Longyearbyen is the capital of “Svalbard”, which is the Norwegian word for “Spitsbergen”, meaning “cold cost”. On the map, if you see Spitsbergen this refers to just a small part of the whole Svalbard archipelago. Along the way, the mist suddenly goes away and the sky clears off. We head downtown and there are a few stops to drop off passengers on different hotels: The Radisson blue, The Svalbard Lodge, Basecamp, Spitsbergen hotel (the very few in town).
After 20 minutes driving around I check in at my hotel on the second building of the ‘Spitsbergen Guesthouse’. On the way through the town centre the driver tells me that in 2004 and also in 2010 there have been some encounters with Polar Bears appearing in town. Although cute they are very dangerous and I am really looking forward to see this incredible animal, one of the largest land hunters in the world. There are very strict rules in town and in the whole archipelago about polar bears. Everyone living in the island has to undertake shooting training and firearm handling (everyone, even students who come for short terms). There are more than 3000 thousands Polar bears in Svalbard and the naturalist on board says that “you can see polar bears at anytime and anywhere”.
The Spitsbergen Guesthouse was built around 1939 for the miners working in the now inactive mine “B2”, only to be destroyed in the Second World War when Longyearbyen was set on fire. Approximately ten years later, the buildings were re-built for the same purpose when coal mining was the main sector for Longyeabyen. Now the sector still operates but tourism and research are also important activities and source of income.
I also spent some time with Bjorn (in Norwegian meaning “bear”) a guide and student living in Longyeabyen. We talked about how life is the islands, in the town, the Russians, the polar bears, the seasons in Svalbard and how summer is compared to winter times. He talks so passionately about Svalbard that I believe him when he says he would never leave this place. He also was telling me that with 1500 people living in Longyeabyen, 2500 in total in the whole archipelago of Svalbard there are more than 3000 polar bears around. They are everywhere. Longyearbyen is the only town in Svalbard that allows -and a very restricted and limited area of the town- to walk freely without having to carry a riffle.
The Russians live just 60km from Longyearbyen in Barentsburg and also in the ghost town of Pyramiden. Bjorn mentioned that the Russian community is open up more to tourism and that their community represent not even the 4th in terms of population in Svalbard. After Norwegians, there are Swedish, and then there is a BIG Thai community even more so than the Russians. There is one school in the town, three kindergartens and one university where geology, geophysics, biology and all arctic related studies are taught. More than 50% of students are international. And it’s heaven not only for Norwegians but for students as it’s a tax free zone, alcohol is almost given away.
In the morning, I take the airport bus to the airport to meet my fellow Arctic adventurers and the expedition cruise representatives. They take our bags to take it to the ship and we head on another direction to a little sightseeing tour to explore the colourful town and around the valley. A good start for the expedition is the Longyearbyen museum, a very good introduction to the life in the Island, the history, on wildlife, what is to see and not to miss. We had the chance to photograph some of the stunning landscape too. I realise we are 40 in the group from Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, the USA, the UK, Sweden and Argentina. I am not the only one; there is an Argentinian who has come straight from Ushuaia to cook for us.
We take the zodiac from the harbour and embark on the Polar Pioneer cruise. A very warm welcome from the expedition staff and we are greeted by all the team who direct us to our cabins. There is the expedition leader Christian from Switzerland, the naturalist, the Bird expert, the hotel/room manager, the kayaking leader and the cooks, plus the captain and approximately 10 to 12 Russian staff. Very friendly they show us around and give us time to settle in.
A little briefing, staff introductions and safety tutorial is all it takes to start circumnavigating the waters of the archipelago. The anchor is lifted at exact 7pm and we cruise down to Isfjorden first, then making our way north along the western coast of Spitsbergen. The next morning after breakfast, more briefing and safety tutorials. With our sub-zero waterproof jacket on, we embark on our first zodiac expedition.
We go along in between thousands of little icebergs dotted on the water with the backdrop of the amazing glacier. On my zodiac was the Bird-watching specialist Andrew who was kind to educate us on Arctic birds that were flying around. In the afternoon, due to weather conditions the expedition leader re-scheduled our first landing for a trip to another glacier where we spotted a solitary bearded seal sunbathing on a stone of ice. The landscape is stunning; the cruise opens water towards the glacier formation in between the mountains and the fjords, the sun shines vividly creating scenery and an experience that my camera couldn’t ever or even capture.
… Only 3 days, so much has happened already that it feels like a week since I left London. To follow, more on the life on board, circumnavigation and hopefully, the moment that I am eagerly looking for, an encounter with this unpredictable and cute silky white polar bear …
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