Sunday, 17 August 2014

Svalbard August 2014

Longyearbyen, capital of the Svalbard archipelago, is the world’s northernmost town. It has been on my mind to pay a visit ever since I saw it on a map, God knows how long ago. I think most people will somehow have heard to Spitsbergen, the largest island of the group, named by a Dutch explorer, Barents, who also gave his name to the local sea. 78 degrees north, you cannot go any further as an ordinary tourist. 
 The domain of the polar bear, the walrus and the beluga whale, I failed to see any of these animals on my short 3 night trip. To see bears and walrus I would probably have needed to go on a specialised small ship cruise to the icy eastern areas, but this would have been a very expensive prospect, and maybe one day I will undertake such an adventure. My own trip was self-organised, whereby I arranged air travel from Dublin via Oslo with Scandinavian Airways. I had a choice of spending 3 or 6 nights and for expense’ sake I decided on the former. To venture outside the 2000 person centre of Longyearbyen involves the expense of an organised trip with a guide with a gun and flares because of the ever present danger of the polar bear. Accommodation is at the higher end of Scandinavian prices, so I had determined to see Svalbard on a budget, if one could ever called it so.
A couple of interesting facts about Svalbard; In the hill above the airport is located the world’s seed vault, which is housed in a building above the airport. In the case of Armageddon, hopefully the current main crops and flowers of the world can be recreated from this repository. The infamous Spanish Influenza killed more people than the traumas of WW1. Its make-up was discovered from the bodies of coal miners who died here during the epidemic and were buried the permafrost which preserves so much after death. Svalbard used to be located in the tropical latitudes and the burial of generations of rain forests has created the organic compound known to us as coal, creating a mining community founded by the American John Munro Longyear. There is no such thing as an indigenous community, and Longyearbyen is international place where English is the lingua franca, comprised mostly by Norwegians and Swedes, with Thai people forming the third most common community.
I had a choice of accommodation. I could have stayed at the Radisson Blu, which is a very nice place, but has a reputation for “tired” rooms. I could have opted for the guest house, or camp site, or the hostel-like hotel of character “Mary Ann’s Polarigg”, but I was attracted by the web pictures to "Basecamp Trappers’ Hotel", one of a collection of small rustic hotels located in places like the African bush. The cheapest option happened, for me, to be to book through Venere.
SAS offers free coffee on its flights, and I was already well caffeinated by the time I arrived in Oslo. A 6 hour wait in that airport had to be endured, complete with fire alarm and airport evacuation. I ended up going through security twice, which in Oslo thankfully only takes a couple of minutes. With Scandinavian prices for basic food options it’s not a cheap airport to kill time and I was might relieved to get on board my onward flight to Longyearbyen, leaving behind a dull and wet Oslo.
Strategically I had chosen a window seat in front of the wing at check-in the night before. For most of the way there was complete cloud between me and the sea below. Then came a break and I peeked my first glimpse of Svalbard at the top of the descent. I was truly excited and well rewarded for my midnight check-in! This has been my best ever view from an airline window, as the pilot guided us through stark treeless valleys with borders of snow-topped mountains and here and there a glacier pouring its melt-water seawards. It was midnight and the sun was bright and rising. The 737 was guided gently as possible onto the rough permafrost runway and I stepped out in my summer tee-shirt to a quite bearable 11 degrees C. This is polar tropicality! A stuffed polar bear greeted us at the luggage belt, and soon I was onboard the Flybussen coach service to nearby Longyearbyen and my lodgings, Basecamp Trappers’ Hotel.
Outside the front door to this unique hotel was the friendly resident German Shepherd dog as he stood guard by his kennel, complete with curtained window. The cheerful receptionist handed me my room key, which was attached to a dog’s bone. I made a mental note not to flash it in front of the hotel’s or any other doggy lest I lose it. My room was as tiny as one could imagine, but just perfect in character for me as a solo traveller. The cosy bathroom sported an arctic theme, and a few old books lay on the bookshelf beside window. I could see straight up the valley, and I pulled the venetian blinds to secure a couple of hours sleep. An 8.30 appointment awaited me next morning.
Breakfast was a very nice affair, with a simple choice of good quality items, including some nice cuts of ham, smoked salmon, chunks of grainy bread, fruits, and self-made waffles which are ever-popular in Norway.
A Viking-like man stepped off the blue coach and I came forward to take my place. Beside me, a stunningly beautiful and smiling 92 year old lady introduced herself and her son and daughter to me. They were from the east coast US. She said she was an O’Shiels of Irish origin. Between them, they had been everywhere in the world, including Antarctica and there was nothing they did not know, though this had to be extracted from them by careful questioning.
Back near the airport we all boarded MS Billefjord, a fine comfortable little ship which accommodated its small crowd very well.2 zodiac life rafts were at our disposal plus what seemed like an infinite number of life-jackets. With a German Captain and Thai crew we steamed over Isfjord to the most impressive Esmark glacier. The scenery here is absolutely stunning. All the time I was on the lookout for polar bears, walrus and whales (including the arctic beluga), yet all I saw were fulmars and puffins. I was informed that I would likely have to take a long cruise towards the icy north and west coasts to glimpse the more exotic fauna, though anything could appear anywhere here at any time. Only in 2011 was English schoolboy Horatio Chapple killed by a polar bear on a camping trip in the hills beyond Longyearbyen. There is always a risk, and anyone venturing out beyond the confines of Longyearbyen must be accompanied by a licensed guide with a suitable gun and flares to distract a bear.
One of our Thai Able-Seamen took a chunk of ice from the sea and cut it up whilst the Viking poured out decent glasses of Grants whisky into which to put it. We all delighted in the wonderful whisky with genuine polar ice. The 92 year old lady was able to sprint down the incredibly steep ship’s stairs to partake of same! As we all supped our whisky the Thai seamen barbecued whale and salmon on deck and soon we were all tucking into ample helpings of delicious meat with rice and salad.
After lunch by the glacier we set sail for the Russian coal mining town of Barentsburg across the wide fjord.  Sea was calm, wind was low, and on deck it was nothing as cold as I’ve experienced elsewhere whilst nicely clothed with good waterproof coat and light woollen jumper. Svalbard has a lot of coal mines, some exhausted and some still working today. John Munro Longyear, an American coal mining magnate, gave his name to the capital, Longyearbyen. Barentsburg is the second largest settlement with just a 500 citizens of Russian and Ukrainian origin. A flight of over 200 steps leads up from the quay to the main part of town, and climbing them was good for my muscles even if I was temporarily out of breath in my state of unfitness. A young Russian guide showed us around the rather depressing but sheltered hillside settlement, and described the hotel as having 5 star comfort. I took a look inside this establishment which also housed the post office. It did sort of remind me of a poor relation to a basic Russian hotel in which I stayed in Moscow in 1979. A statue of Lenin still stands in the centre of town as a mark of Russian heritage. I’m glad they did not tear it down because it is part of history. I peeped inside the tiny Orthodox church where a lady was praying; hence I did not take any photographs of the beautiful interior. This church was built in memory of those who perished in a Russian aircraft on its approach to Longyearbyen in 1996. The coal produced here has always been of very poor quality, but the Russians maintained a strategic position here for espionage during the Cold War and they don’t feel like going home any time soon, this time I suspect for business reasons.
Having left Barentsburg our boat voyaged past the most majestic cliffs draped in rare greenery, courtesy of the nourishing droppings of the thousands of birds that nest here. Later we passed by the airport, and soon were back at Longyearbyen. That was a trip not to be forgotten.
That evening I dined at the lovely high-ceilinged panoramic dining room of the Radisson Blu Hotel. There was the offering of a limited four course menu or an all-you-can-eat buffet. Either was an expensive affair. I decided on the buffet which, appropriate to my trip, had an Arctic theme tonight. Generally I do not like strong flavours now in the way I did as a youngster. In fact I shy well away from them. This evening I decided to be brave and try tiny bits of everything on the buffet. Besides, like all dining in Scandinavia, it cost a fair buck and I was going to get my penny’s worth out of it. There were a number of reindeer salamis and smoked and dried meats; there was smoked salmon, subtle-flavoured caviar, and the strongest of all the flavours on the buffet-the prized red king crab. I found the flavour overpowering, but I do appreciate how gourmet’s might treasure the creamy flesh. The freshest and fluffiest of breads were available, including a wonderfully thin and crispy rye wafer. The hot selection featured whale, with which I am familiar and which tastes  like a slightly oily tender beef with the slightest whiff of cod-liver oil. It’s an excellent and very healthy meat. There was venison, chicken, lamb, salmon and seal, with trimmings of lemon wedges, lingonberry sauce, mustard and other condiments. I had read about seal tasting somewhat like the taste in the throat when one has a bleeding nose, and hating the taste of blood, I sure did not fancy this idea at all. I picked out the smallest piece of bearded seal I could find, and scooped plenty of delicious saffron flavoured chicken drumsticks as an antidote which worked well. Yes. The seal tasted as described, very irony, and I swallowed it whole to hastily get rid of the taste.
Next morning I had an appointment with Svalbard Husky for a Dog Wagon trip on wheels. The jeep picked me up, with a mature Dutch couple already on board. We drove inland through Adventdalen, past a compacted strip which at one time served as the airfield. When we entered their compound all 50 huskies were a-howl, with one particular girl making the most noise. We were advised that all dogs were safe to handle. They were all on long chains, each with a kennel and bowl of water. I went straight to the noisy one and was given a tremendous greeting. Likewise with all the dogs. At least I knew all had received rabies shots recently. The arctic fox is a carrier of rabies in this region and the threat has to be taken seriously. The dogs were all Alaskan Huskies, which are a mixed breed incorporating various husky breeds and all are bred for temperament and performance, and socialised with multiple humans at an early stage.
Our guide selected 12 dogs and persuaded them into the enclosed trailer with our help. The dogs didn’t mind in the least being held by the collar and persuaded to move by perfect strangers. Each and every one of them had a very tolerant nature. We drove back past Longyearbyen and upwards to a hill where a coal mining train of transport buckets begins. The jeep was parked and the 12 dogs harnessed to the wagon. We passengers were asked to help in the harnessing, and being a dog-lover I was delighted to assist.
Starting up on a height the beautiful dogs worked away enthusiastically to bring us gradually downhill towards the airport. It was wonderful sitting in a cart with 3 other people being driven by dog power, and it was at the doggies’ discretion where’re we would go. Our guide had at his disposal a brake and words of command. We came to very sharp turning point by the airport where the guide had to negotiate with the dogs for about 8 minutes as they tried several times to tow us downhill across a little ledge which would have resulted in a turnover. It was a sharp right turn and the dogs wanted to commence it a bit early. The guide shouted “left” several times, and the dogs would initially move left before moving right again. Of course he wanted them to move left AND forward a bit, but the mutts didn’t quite comprehend. 10 minutes elapsed before they “got it” and we were on our way once again. The guide made a refreshment stop for us and the dogs. We distributed one drinking bowl to each pair of huskies whilst the guide went down to a freshwater lake on a bird reserve to collect the water in a bucket. He was attacked on the head by arctic terns protecting their chicks. As the dogs took their turn to guzzle the water through mouths foaming with perspiration, we sipped coffee from a flask and enjoyed a chocolate biscuit. After a well deserved thirst quench we set off back uphill and back to the jeep where we all helped with getting the dogs back in the trailer.
In the afternoon I acquainted myself with the town, visiting the world’s northernmost shopping mall and supermarket which stocked an amazing variety of foods. Some excellent clothes shops stocked top quality arctic gear. Gun cabinets are provided for the safe keeping of weapons-a notice in one shop states that “all the polar bears in this shop are already dead”. Prices were expensive, but at least they were duty free, making them cheaper than mainland Norway. I bought myself a little silver pendant in the shape of a map of Svalbard. The only thing resembling sweets from Svalbard were boxes of Belgian chocolates in a sleeve decorated with a polar bear, which I brought back to my place of work. The local library was staff-less and featured 2 internet computers and a small shelf of books. There were coffee shops and Thai and Japanese restaurants as well as a gourmet restaurant called Huset or “The House”. A statue of a coal miner stands in the main street of the town, which is pedestrianised.
I paid a visit to the museum, which features most of the information you might want to know about Svalbard. Like most places in Longyearbyen you are asked to leave your shoes in the hall and go around in your stockinged feet.  A room is dedicated to the international aspect of the archipelago’s current population, and I learned that one Irish person is resident. Long ago there used only be a male community comprised mainly of coal miners, but now plenty of families live in Longyearbyen and a couple of schools provide education. The main floor of the museum features simulated landscapes with stuffed native animals including a polar bear specimen.
There is an Airship Museum, dedicated to the airship exploration of the North Pole, but and I was sorry not to have enough time to visit it. My flight was due to leave at 4.30am, so I had to seek an early evening repast and get sleeping in good time to wake up before 2am. I enjoyed a very tasty bar meal of fine burger and the crispiest fries I have ever tasted at the Svalbar right beside my hotel, washed down by a nice Belgian beer.
There was nobody at reception to pay my hotel bill, so I had to leave my key attached to its dog-bone on the desk. My mobile phone rang after I arrived in Oslo Airport - I didn’t have to guess they were looking for payment, but they were most pleasant about it. Had I been better organised I would have settled the bill the afternoon before. I had just settled down with a nice breakfast of bacon and eggs when the airport fire alarm sounded. I wasn’t best pleased, having paid Norwegian price for my meal, but I was asked to leave the building. Thankfully it was still in situ when the alarm was over, but it had lost its warmth.
I endured another 6 hour wait before my short connecting flight to Copenhagen. Another 2 hour wait in Copenhagen awaited me before my final flight back to Dublin. I arrived home at 7pm, full of memories.

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