A Travellerspoint blog

Closing blog - home safe.

Woo! Hoo! I am HOME! Over thirteen weeks ago, I was ‘heading off’. Now I’m back. Safe and well.

Being in Scandinavia for summer meant that I missed winter in Perth and so I return just in time for my third summer in a row.
Thanks to those of you who’ve read my blogs and enjoyed what I have written and told me so. I’ve had over 5000 visits to my website from you. Glad you’ve enjoyed travelling vicariously with me. This has been my diary except I get to share it with all of you. All that remains to share with you are some pictures. It is my intention to make a couple of slideshows on DVD of my favourite photographs of this adventure. With photography being the passion that it is for me, I have over 4000 pictures to sort through. A BIG task, but a fun one. Keep in touch and I will let you know when they’re ready – give me a few months.
Now that I am back, my email will return to the usual.

I wandered through 10 countries on this trip, 6 of which I had not been to before.
They were, Finland, Estonia, Russia, Sweden, Austria, England, Norway, Denmark, Thailand.
The new ones are in bold.

One of the things I love about traveling is the challenge to “normal” in our lives. What is ‘normal’ is just what we are used to. In another part of the world a different normality exists.
What we have for breakfast, etiquette and manners, the language spoken, and even which side of the road to drive on. All are up for challenge when you travel.

Here are a few highlights for you.

Most amazing day – Second last day our circumnavigation of Svalbard Arctic adventure.
Svalbard – a most beautiful place, with weather today to match. Our day began with a journey up a mirror smooth fiord full of ice to a glacier. Mountains reflected on the water as the kayakers left the ship, taking lunch with us for a full day paddle. Although challenging at times, the paddle delivered such amazing places to be we kept saying, “I can’t believe I am here, doing this.” With 23 km behind us and 1 km to go to get back to the boat, three kayaks had a sprint finish. Nathan and I won!
A cruise in the ship back up the fiord, with mountains on both sides, had us at the face of a 5 kilometre long glacier. The weather was joy as the ship sailed along the front of the glacier, giving all on deck an amazing view. A MASSIVE carving of the glacier, right nearby added some excitement as we all enjoyed a BBQ on the back deck of the ship. A few beers and a midnight sun at last ended an amazing day.

Favourite meal – Red Duck Curry at the Mango Tree in Bangkok.

Unusual foods eaten on this journey – smoked reindeer heart, smoked reindeer tongue, reindeer steak, smoked whale, whale steak, smoked seal, seal steak, fungus that made me sick, sprats/pickled herrings for breakfast.

Best blonde comment – from an Aussie on her first overseas holiday, a friend of the bride and groom in Sweden. On looking at a Swedish sign outside a shop, she turned to me and said, “It’s like another language.” Yep! It’s called Swedish.

Favourite city – Vienna, Austria. It caught me by surprise, but I love Vienna!. Staying in a great location, with a friend helped, but I think there’s a lot to like here. Grand old buildings mix fluently with new ones. The public transport is good and I found the free bike rental system to be the best of many I saw in other cities.
Much to see here and much more just a short train ride in any direction, such as the day trip I did to Bratislava, the Slovakian capital.
I enjoyed the quality art galleries almost as much as riding the bicycle around and seeing what I found. Quality restaurants and delicious beer – life’s good. And in winter they get skiing. Buggers!

The medieval city of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Tallinn with it’s ancient walls and embattlements and cobbled streets was a close second. It just doesn’t swallow and hide the tourists, like Vienna. The deluge of tourists is much more obvious in Tallinn. I loved Tallinn, just read my blog. At first glace Tallinn is very beautiful, but for any length of stay, Vienna has more to offer than Tallinn, so it gets my favourite city award.

Transport used on this holiday – plane, train, bus, tram, boat, helicopter, car, underground rail, kayak, bicycle, horse, tuk-tuk.

Most expensive country – Scandinavia as a whole, is expensive, but Norway is the worst. The price of alcohol makes all but the most wealthy or desperate stop drinking. The price of food has you thinking twice before eating. (No wonder they don’t have an obesity problem.)
I guess if Norway weren’t so expensive, more people would visit and that would take away some of its charm. There’s enough tourists for infrastructure and services, but not so many they’re everywhere you go.

Most beautiful country – Norway.
The mainland is picture postcard perfect. Imagine waterfalls into fiords, green hillsides and red houses all surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Norway is truly beautiful. I travelled the length of the Norwegian coastline on the Hurtigruten Coastal voyage and saw some amazing places. If that wasn’t enough to award the crown, my time in Svalbard, the archipelago near the North Pole, also belonging to Norway, sealed the choice. Svalbard is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

If I had to describe each country in only one word –
Finland – fun
Estonia – optimistic
Russia - interesting
Sweden - wedding
Austria - varied
England - overcast
Norway - stunning
Denmark - liberal
Thailand – crazy

Up mountains and across streams, on busses, ferries, trams and by bike and by kayak, The Wandera has been wandering and discovering what’s ‘over there’. I’ve been privileged to share my wanderings with you. I’ve had fun both wandering and writing about it. Thank you for sharing my journey with me.
Keep smiling.

The Wandera
AKA Malcolm Roberts

Posted by TheWandera 07:43 Archived in Uzbekistan Comments (0)

Bangkok, Thailand - crazy city - beautiful food.

Our last stop, so we made it a good one.

Tuesday 22nd August –Bangkok arrival.
What a hot surprise Bangkok is! I’ve just spent 13 weeks in the summer of Scandinavia and it never got this hot or humid.
Our mid afternoon arrival meant Nathan and I were out and about on the streets of Bangkok by late afternoon.

First stop a meal at a local eatery. Thai food in Thailand puts the YUM into Tom Yum Seafood soup, our first meal here. A fresh watermelon icee drink followed and we were off to an exquisitely flavoured start to our 4 days here. The purpose of our visit is to go mad on Thai food, my favourite national cuisine. I have been here before and know there’s several days of flavourful indulgence ahead of us. Wandering the length of Silom Road, browsing the street trader’s wares, what did I spot but the “Barber and Massage” parlour I’d had a foot massage at just before leaving Bangkok on my visit 2 years ago. We strolled in and before long, were reclined on a comfy chair having our feet massaged! Bliss! I almost went to sleep!

MMmm! Did someone say “Beer”? We stopped at some tables outside. What a price difference! Beers are only $1.50 here for 640 ml 6.4% alc instead of $13 for 400ml 5% alc in Norway.

My favourite dish is Thai Red Duck Curry and the best Thai Red Duck Curry in the world is served at a restaurant nearby.
The Mango Tree was still there and so too is their Red Duck Curry. Nathan and I had one each. Served in a carved out pineapple, with bits of pineapple in it too, with Jasmine Rice on the side, this dish is divine.

Wednesday – Day of wandering, by foot and riverboat.
After a great buffet breakfast to start the day. Nathan and I began our wanderings by catching the sky train, from the nearby station to the central pier on the River Praya. From there we jumped on a passenger riverboat north near to the Grand Palace. The short walk there was an interesting mix of vendors and we sampled many items of food as we grazed our way along the kerbside offerings of things as varied as chicken skewers to sweet little pancake bites.
On entering the palace grounds, I was once again in awe of the massive tile mosaic covered structures, the statues and the temples that make up the palace. During our visit a tropical downpour struck and it poured, and it poured, for about 30 minutes. The place suffered a mini flash flood and impatient people started wading around. We waited and eventually the rain stopped and as the waters drained quickly away, we continued wandering the grounds of the Grand Palace.

From the palace instead of returning south by boat, we instead continued heading north as far as the boat went. It wasn’t long before we were the only foreigners on board. From the palace the journey to the northernmost pier took a very pleasant hour as riverfront Bangkok was on show for us.
On arriving, we went wandering the streets, as the Wandera likes doing. (This journey is like ‘tramming’, only I used a riverboat. Same principle – catch something to the end point and wander around.) In a place not frequented by tourists, it was a great opportunity to see what the Thais sold to the locals. Mostly similar stuff to down town.
I found some soaps that made interesting claims. One bar claimed using it on your breasts would make them grow bigger and had pictures on the box to ‘prove’ it. The other claimed using their soap on your body would make you slimmer, and again had the pictures on the box to ‘prove’ it.
Poor women. What if they DID work and you mixed them up in the shower so not only do you get fatter, but your boobs shrink?

On visiting a bakery there, we decided that whilst the Thai make many great foods, baking is not their forte.

We timed it perfectly jumping on an express boat ferry just as it was leaving. This meant the 90 minute trip north only took 60 minutes heading back south along the River Praya.

Skytrain to Silom Road markets. An aroma oil massage beckoned and we thought why not. An hour of relaxation later we continued our wandering of the night market area.
What an assault on the senses Bangkok is! Amazing things to see, the noise of traffic and busy people, the flavours of the food, and the smells, both unpleasant ones jumping at you from stormwater drains, to the aromas of another street stall.
Can I find room in my tummy for this treat?
I like this city a lot. Sure it’s crazy, and I wouldn’t want to live here, but it is a fun place to visit. Again I wished I had two tummies, as the food is Delicious. (With a capital D!)
Tonight we sampled a restaurant on Silom Road, beginning with a memorable Green Mango Salad. Heavenly mains followed and satisfied, we called it a night.

Thursday – the ‘hidden’ Bangkok.
It’s nice being on holidays that your first plan today was to be across town for 1pm.
Yes! I know that a tuk-tuk ride is a must-do Bangkok experience, but as you sit there in the back of a three-wheel 250 CC motorbike, the noise and traffic fumes mingling with the chain smoke of the driver you really aren’t convinced. Why cross town?
We were going bike riding in Bangkok!
For those of you who know how crazy Bangkok’s traffic is, this idea is not as silly as it sounds. An afternoon with ABC – Amazing Bangkok Cycle Tours will take you to places in Bangkok you would never have dreamed existed, let alone find them. I did a tour with them in 2004 and it was a highlight of my Bangkok visit. Today did not disappoint.
With just six clients and two guides, our afternoon cycle began with a visit to a garden glove factory. Fancy a day’s work in a hot building for $6? Thought not.
Sometimes when travelling, I get a real sense of how lucky I am and we are in Australia. This was one of those times.
Narrow lanes and convoluted pathways through slums full of happy people led us to the 24/7 fresh produce markets. Not sure of their name, but they run every day and night selling all manner of produce. Fantastic fresh fruit was purchased and sampled. On seeing the poultry vendor, selling chicken pieces, whole plucked chickens and live chooks made me glad chickens aren’t smart enough to put 2 and 2 together and see what’s coming. We cycled through the markets, our noses assaulted by an array of smells, both good and bad. Sight and sound play a part, but in markets, the smells are amazing.
A visit to a Buddhist monastery provided a loo stop before we crossed the river by ‘long tail’ boat, bikes and all. On the other side, there’s not a high rise to be found. Instead the swampy land is dotted with poor housing connected by a labyrinth of concrete walkways. Just one metre wide these pathways were perched several metres above what varied between mud and clay, and putrid water. Neither appealed so we concentrated on staying on the path. The places here that ABC tours take you are the Bangkok I’d never visit if they didn’t take me. The pathways really are like a maze – with no answer sheet. The solitude of green plants and no traffic noise is beautiful, especially knowing manic Bangkok is so close, just over the river.
Before we knew it, we were chugging back across the Chao Praya to the Bangkok we’d been able to leave behind.
We didn’t need to catch a tuk-tuk and the traffic is mad now with peak hour. We decided to catch the skytrain back the Dusit Thani Hotel. This hotel and location are perfect. We’ve treated ourselves to a 5-star finish to the holiday. The room and beds are huge and comfortable. The service? I feel awkward when there’s a bloke waiting in the lobby, no matter what time of night it is, to push the ‘up’ button on the lift. Yikes! I’m happy to do that!

Quick relax, shower then out for dinner. Tonight we chose a restaurant very close, a place that was more up-market and funky than most. This place would not have been out of place in any western city, yet it wasn’t expensive. Another couple of Thai meals shared and these two travellers knew why they’d come to Bangkok. Now where did I put that other tummy?
Time to explore some bars on Patpong Road. Oops! The first bar was full of dirty old men and had girls wearing numbers swinging on poles. Not what we wanted, we skulled our beer and ran!
The next bar was the famous Elvis bar, not sure of its name. Elvis had been on earlier in the evening, but we got….wait for it…..Tom Jones. Unless that was the real Elvis, this probably wasn’t Tom Jones either. I wonder if that means the $3 CDs, DVDs and games being sold up and down the street aren’t the real thing either? This bar was fun and a nice mix of people.

Friday – our last day in Bangkok and the last day of my holiday.
Recovery began with an al-a-carte breakfast of Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, a favourite. Returning to bed we slept until 1, then went for a swim in the hotel pool. The afternoon had us returning to the local restaurant we’d had the soup at the first the first arvo for another Tom Yum, extra yum, before we did some shopping. A foot massage sent us to Blissland and was a great end to our time here.
We have the room booked tonight so we didn’t have to check out earlier.
Beers and remaining mangosteens (fruit) were consumed as we showered, changed, then packed a holiday’s worth of stuff into our bags for our flight to Perth.
Our car met us at 8:30 as planned, and we said good-bye to Bangkok as we took of just prior to midnight..
A short overnight flight and I will be home to Perth, the greatest city on Earth.

Posted by TheWandera 07:21 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Copenhagen - the jewel of Scandinavian cities

Fantastic weather in a beautiful city.

Denmark completes the suite of Scandinavian countries to complete my Scandinavian Sojourn.
Denmark is country number 9 on this holiday, and the 49th different country I have ever been to. (Bangkok will be the 10th and final on my holiday, but I have been there before, so I will stay on 49 total.)

Landing in Copenhagen, we caught the train to the city centre.
'twas funny. Walking out of central station in Copenhagen at 11pm, immediately across the road was Tivoli amusement park, lit up for the night with different rides going. We were walking the short distance to the hotel thinking there’s a strange feeling in Copenhagen - this place is very, well, dark. Of course it was! They get a night time! My first in over a month!
Due to the poor weather in the high Arctic, even during mid summer, true midnight sun is actually quite rare, but 24 hour light is not, just like our walk ‘home’ last night.
Our walk to the hotel was one of awe as we looked around and saw a sky that was dark with stars in it. (It’s amazing how quickly we become used to something, even something like 24 hour light. I only used my eye mask for the first few days of the trip, then the all-night light no longer woke me.)

Checking into our hotel began what was to be a Fawlty Towers hotel experience. It began with the clerk, after taking my voucher for our stay, said nothing and pushed what felt like 47,000 keys before telling us they’d made a mistake with the dates, did we mind an upgrade as they had no more of the twin we’d booked. We didn’t mind until we discovered it only had a double bed instead of twin. After asking us if we’d mind if it was only for one night and us saying “Yes!” we mind, he gave us a single room each, until tomorrow. The Fawlty Towers bungles of the First Hotel in Copenhagen are many, but I will spare you the details, suffice to say it was so frequent and blatant that it became a comedic talking point. First Hotel = last choice.

Saturday the 19th August – our long weekend in Copenhagen begins.
What better way to begin our time in this city than to go wandering, as I am wont to do. We began by walking down Storget mall, the “world’s longest pedestrian mall”, apparently. (Who checks these claims? I was conned earlier in the trip with the Hurtigruten’s claim to the “World’s most beautiful voyage.” For the Norwegian coastline cruise, only to find that title belonged to Aurora’s trip around Spitzbergen.)
The mall was alive with shoppers and buskers and with the sun shining, the world was a pleasant place, or at least central Copenhagen was.
We stopped at times to admire various musicians, excelling at their instruments.
The main square had a flea market, but I don’t care to buy fleas. Also in the main square were 100 large wildlife photographs, all absolutely magical.
Walking in the sunshine under a blue sky down canals lined with bars, led us to a bridge to Christianshavn. Lunchtime now and a bakery beckoned. A crusty tuna ciabatta and a fresh strawberry tart were enjoyed with our legs dangling over a nearby canal. Memorable meal.

We continued our wandering and ended up in Christiania, an ‘alternative’ community living in the middle of Copenhagen. In 1971 they moved into the empty army barracks and haven’t moved out. They resist the rule of law and have their own leaders. Signs reading “No hard drugs.” are displayed, but pot and hash are openly sold and smoked.
A plethora of vendors and stalls supply not only smoking paraphernalia, but also the usual shite to sell to the many tourists who, like us, wander through thinking “What the?” It sure attracts its fair share of fruitloops and wasteoids. Christiania is a place of paradox – a place where saving forests and being green are promoted as a way of life, but the place they live is quite disgusting and filthy. Starting in their own backyard might be better before tackling the world. The lake in the middle of their oasis from the outside world is full of rubbish and such a horrible green that no one would swim in it. On a visual note, the colourful murals and other paintings adorning otherwise drab buildings such as sheds and toilets added an appreciated burst of colour.
Christiania is car free and after stopping at an outside bar for a beer to take it all in, we continued wandering, deeper into the enclave of Christiania and its 900 residents. Following the lake, we passed many people out and about enjoying not only the weather, but the park-like feel of this place.
We didn’t realise how far we’d walked today until we turned to head back to our hotel. Hmm! Many kilometres. We stopped in Storget to watch a break dancing troupe put on a show and put on a show they did! These 4 guys put on displays of technique and strength and moves that beat what MTV show. Awesome! Nathan got it all on video, then gave them a large Kroner note when the hat was passed around.
Passing through the closest square to our hotel, a free concert was in full swing.
Copenhagen is a refreshing change from the rest of Scandinavia. There’s a much more Continental and liberal approach to alcohol, but with the feeling of ‘design’, ever present in Scandinavia. Copenhagen has a great feel to it. We were enjoying it a lot.

Sunday – bike riding day.
We rented a couple of bikes from our hotel and the Fawlty fiasco continued. Nathan was given a girls bike to hire, much to his disgust. (I was not allowed to take any pictures of him on it!) We began by retracing our steps from yesterday, just his time by bicycle. Again we were reminded how far we wandered on foot yesterday. We took our Bao board and had a couple of games at an outdoor bar in Christiania. The people here make for the most amazing session of people-watching imaginable. Jumping back onto our bikes, we explored some more, taking random turns on Copenhagen streets and seeing where we got. Lots of fun.
Cycling in Copenhagen is such a pleasure. They have cycle lanes everywhere through the city centre and because they make it easy for cyclists, many people get out and ride. Funny to think that countries such as Australia and the US with obesity problems credit the fit people here with having “thin genes”. How about some more cycle paths and less cars? If you build the paths, cyclists will follow and so will better health and fitness. Copenhagen was such a cyclist-friendly city that our choice of bicycle transport today was a goodie. We covered many kilometres yesterday on foot. Today we travelled many more by bicycle.

Later in the afternoon we went to Tivoli amusement park and wandered past the rides and associated stalls, stopping for an early dinner of gnocchi at an Italian restaurant with in the park.
The late evening included beer at an al fresco bar by the wharf. The weather was beautiful and for our last night in this beautiful city, it was a perfect night to be out and about downtown Copenhagen.

Monday – our last day in Copenhagen.
After breakfast I relaxed in my room whilst Nathan’s trekked across town on his rental bike to buy his wife a Louis Vuitton handbag. He didn’t like it when I pointed out what his trip back must have looked like. Imagine the sight of Nathan riding up the mall on a girls bike with a Louis Vuitton handbag under his arm!

Cycling together again, we went and visited a butchers shop we’d found on Sat when it was closed. As the owner of a retail butcher shop, Nathan was keen to see both the range and quality of what was on offer here and once again on this trip, we were reminded of the high quality of ALL the produce we get at home all the time.

A bit more random cycling around Copenhagen had us passing a billboard with the F-word included in the text. Now that’s a first! I said this is a liberal place.
I couldn’t imagine a ‘social experiment’ like Christiania being allowed to exist anywhere else. Alcohol is legally sold to 15 year olds and street drinking is not only legal, it’s popular!

Our flight to Bangkok only leaves this evening, so we returned to the hotel after lunch, showered, packed and checked out at 2pm. We relaxed in the hotel lobby before heading out on the bikes again, or at least that’s what we thought we’d do. The skies opened and it poured, and poured. We felt quite snug peering through the glass out into the street full of rain, beer in hand thinking, “We could have been out in that.” Bao board and beers to the rescue!
Because of the weather, we didn't end up doing the planned canal tour or visit the 'Little Mermaid' statue. Obligatory apparently, but we didn't get in trouble at the airport on leaving for not doing it. I have left something to do whenever I get there again, which I will.
We both loved Copenhagen a lot and I certainly felt I’d inadvertently left the best Scandinavian city until last! Guess I will just have to come back.

Posted by TheWandera 07:51 Archived in Denmark Tagged women Comments (0)

Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen, Svalbard, Norway

Longyearbyen Part 2 - Another day in this crazy town!

Thursday the 17th of August – Departure day from the Polar Pioneer, ending our circumnavigation of Svalbard.

Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen, Svalbard, Norway?
Norway is the country that administers the archipelago of Svalbard, the capital of which is Longyearbyen on Spitzbergen, the largest island. Hope it’s all clear now.

11 days after we set out to explore Svalbard, we were back. At 9 o’clock, after an early breakfast, we were ferried to shore as our last ride on the Zodiacs.
After farewells to the crew, we jumped onto a waiting bus to be given an official ‘tour’ of Longyearbyen, beginning with the dog kennels outside of town. The kennels attract polar bears, both because of the tasty dogs and because of the dog food seal meat to found there. We watched a team of huskies pull a quad bike, their exercise in the ‘off’ season when the ground is not covered by snow and sleds are not needed. Most of the year they are hard-working and busy.
Before heading into town, we stopped for a cup of tea and a snack. I thought the samples of smoked seal on crispbread with sour cream tasted quite unpleasant.
Returning to the bus under the watchful eye of a group of wild Svalbard Reindeer grazing nearby we went to town, literally.
Next stop was the museum. The visit with the group was too short, but went back later.
Most people are flying out this arvo, and the bus is their shuttle to the airport. Nathan have another day here to relax.
The art gallery was next. Having been there on our first visit to Longyearbyen. We said our good-byes to everyone there and walked our bags the two hundred metres to Guesthouse 102. No sign of anyone, so we left our bags and ran back to the gallery to join them for a lift the 2km back into the town centre. After lunch in a local café, and checking emails now that we’re back to “civilization”, we returned to the museum for a proper look at our leisure. It is a really great museum with a wide variety of exhibits so that there’d be something for everyone. They also have giant polar bear, shot nearby just 2 years ago!
The 2km walk back to our accommodation gave us plenty of time for reflection as we savoured our remaining time here in the high Arctic. Longyearbyen is 78 degrees north and only 1300kms from the North Pole.

After checking in and relaxing with a drink or two, we rugged up for the walk into town. (This could well be the last time we get to wear such warm clothing as down jackets. Made with feathers, they are so warm it is rarely cold enough anywhere outside the poles to wear them.)

When you’re on a good thing….. We returned to Kroa, the restaurant/bar with the seal skin seat covers for another of their pizzas. A couple of Grolsh to compliment topped it off.
Our uphill walk home was fun. The 24 hour light is unsettling at times, as without a watch, you can never tell what time it is. We stopped in the playground and went on the swings. Full daylight, but midnight.

Longyearbyen snippets.
For a place that proclaims its wilderness credentials like Svalbard, Longyearbyen is an aberration, a blot on an otherwise pristine landscape. The town of 1500 mostly coalminers, is a scar up the valley.
Mining relics blighting the scenery and skyline are ‘preserved’ for posterity as historical.
It’s a strange town with a frontier feel. People walk around with guns slung over their shoulders and the bars have gory hunting pictures on the walls. Due to the very real risk of polar bears, stepping out of the town without a gun, or someone with one, is foolhardy (see Longyearbyen blog Part 1)
I say, “Any year in Longyearbyen is a long year.”Norwegians LOVE their summer houses. I was surprised to see them here in Longyearbyen, given their short summer. On enquiring, I was told, “Would YOU want to live here all the time?”
Another fact about Longyearbyen is that no one is born here and very few people die here and even fewer buried here. Residents go the Norwegian mainland to give birth. As for deaths, you need to work here to live here and in Norway you must stop working at 67, so there is no one over 66 resident in town. It makes for an interesting mix of people and families, but with no grandparents. Even if someone in Longyearbyen does die, the family on the mainland usually repatriate the body.
Interesting and unique place. Again I say, “Any year in Longyearbyen is a long year.”

Next morning - Time to go!
Carrying our bags, we walked from our accommodation into town for the last time.
We met the Aurora expedition leader, Henrik and his partner Sue in town. They too were leaving on the same afternoon flight, so we shared a cab to the airport. We shared the plane with them to Oslo, where we changed to Copenhagen, their destination too.
Ah! Copenhagen. That is for the next blog!

Posted by TheWandera 07:03 Archived in Norway Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

High Arctic Adventure - Circumnavigation of Svalbard

The 'official' text from the daily 'Spitzbergen News' as published on board the Polar Pioneer.

Dear family friends and blog readers. I have cheated a little for the following 10 days. Each day on board, we would wake at about 7:15 to hear the expedition leader Henrik saying "Good morning good people." on the speakers in each cabin. Tucked by the door was that days 'Spitzbergen News' giving us some times for that days activities and a brief overview of the previous days happenings. Breakfast would be followed by a kayak trip in the morning and after lunch we would move to another place for another kayak. Busy days.
I have used Sue's text for the following days on board the ship, so it is not written from the perspective of a paddler, but should give you an idea of where we went, what we saw, and what we did. (Not only did I not have a computer, we were actually quite busy doing things most of the time.)So, here is a wrap of my Circumnavigation of Spitzbergen with Aurora Expeditions on the Polar Pioneer. August 7-17th. (7th we boarded in the evening, so first 'day' is the 8th of August. Day 10, the 17th, we woke up and left the ship after breakfast.)
The credit for the following text belongs to Sue Werner, the assistant expedition leader.

First day of 10 on the ship -
Last night we sailed north with the rolling Gulf Stream along the western edge of Spitsbergen. Not long after breakfast we saw our first Polar bear quite a distance away. Henrik and Alan then briefed us on "how to avoid being eaten by a polar bear" and "how to enjoy our interaction with the Arctic flora & fauna", whilst causing minimum disturbance: Polar Pioneer nudged her way into Magdalene Fjord where we found some relief from the rocking sea. We marveled at the glacier’s dramatic jagged ice cliffs and sweeping moraine, some of us saw a carving from the glacier as we approached. Heading out of Magdalene Fjord, Henrik gave us a Zodiac briefing: Then our ceremonial distribution of gumboots was held down in the lecture room as we sailed further north - all before lunch.
Early in the afternoon the ship anchored off the two most northwesterly islands of Svalbard, Amsterdamoya and Danskoya. It was an interesting afternoon and where the kayakers had their first taste of arctic paddling.
The landing was the site of the Old Dutch whaling station of Smeerenburg, a featureless sandy beach devoid of any vegetation. It must have been a pretty grim place to work some 400 years ago, and difficult now to imagine several hundred men going about their daily business – ships anchored in the bay, smelling whale carcasses hauled up on the beach, a cobbled street, the noise of a blacksmiths hammer; a place where men could earn a lot of money and think of an easy life at home -- one day.
We took a nice walk across the stone sorted tundra covered in mosses. 8 to 9 reindeer grazed filling their bellies with vegetation before the winter sets in. On our walk back to the Zodiacs along the foreshore, we discovered large Polar bear footprints in the sand, they looked reasonably fresh!
Our late afternoon adventure was at a place called Bjornfjorden (bear fjord) it was a bit windy but this didn't stop us intrepid expeditioner's as we clambered down the gangway and into the Zodiacs. Smeerenburg glacier was a fare distance from the ship, well worth the wet and wild ride. Small bits would break off the glacier and lots of birds feeding. Then just as it was time to head back to the ship a Beluga whale appeared from know where!! It was close enough to see its wrinkled skin what an exciting experience. Meanwhile three other Zodiacs saw a Polar bear awake from a snooze, he sat up and sniffed the air giving us all a good look at his powerful physique. Getting back on board Polar Pioneer took some technical maneuvers, which we all managed very well.
Back on board for a welcome, warming, hot shower. Then drinks with the captain in the bar.
Today we will explore Woodfjorden, all eyes on the bridge to look out for those polar bears!

Day 2
We woke to a beautiful morning yesterday. The sun was trying to push through the clouds as we anchored in Bockfjorden. Soon after breakfast we found ourselves ashore in a new environment. We hoped to find some interesting geological features and we were not disappointed. To the east, the red sandstones of Devonian age form steep majestic hills. These rocks in some areas contain early plant fossils and the remains of many primitive - armour plated fish. On the eastern side of the valley, a fault zone separates the younger (400m.y.) red sandstones from much older protaozaic rocks (2000m.y.). This north – south fault zone has been active for perhaps 300m.y. and about 150,000 years ago several volcanos erupted along this zone of crusted weakness, sending lava and volcanic ash over a large area of land, prior to the most recent period of glaciation. The thermal springs on the hillside lie along this fault zone and they dictate that the area is still an active volcanic and seismic zone. We took a very enjoyable walk where wild flowers grew amongst the boulders and there were a few tricky sections to cross which required style and grace. The kayakers had a lovely paddle and saw a fox chase some geese into the water.
Back to the Zodiacs to cross Bockfjorden. We walked on undulating terrain and discovered tundra rich in vegetation and autumn colours. Henrik showed us the workings of a fox trap, before heading back to Polar Pioneer for a well deserved lunch.
Into Liefdefjorden during lunch, then we were treated to a close view of Monaco Glacier at the end of the fjord. This is a huge glacier: 5 km wide and 38 km long. A bear was spotted sleeping on the tundra as we cruised towards the marbled ice wall. One Zodiac had to do a quick replacement, all passengers successfully transferred Zodiacs. Engines were switched off to enjoy the snap, crackle and pop of the ice and the sounds of the glacier’s movements. Now and again chunks of ice would calve off and crash, making a dramatic sound into the aquamarine water. Kittiwakes, Fulmar and Glaucous gulls were fishing by the thousands. An Ivory gull flew by while a couple of bearded seals hauled out onto small pieces of ice, we quietly approached them to get good views of their elegant whiskers. It was a wonderful afternoon cruise and to finish off with a big bang!!
Back to the ship, for a hot toddy and a delicious evening meal. Then we sat back and enjoyed the video documentary “Frozen Hearts”. A film about Roald Amundsen. Onwards to 80 degrees and Moffen Island, a walrus sanctuary on a donut shaped spit. A few walrus where seen from 300m as unfortunately we are not allowed to go any closer as the midnight sun shone from behind the clouds. Signed off at 2230 good night good people!!!

Day 3 -
Henrik's sunny wake-up call roused us to a day of brilliant sunshine and further adventures. Overnight we had sailed south into Hinlopenstretet and now we were anchored near one of the wildlife gems of Svalbard - the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet. Alkefjellet is a series of dolerite towers, over 100 m high, like ancient castle ruins built by mighty Norsemen, guarded by hanging glaciers. In most places the black dolerite is sandwiched between white limestone deposits - a geologists' delight. Tens of thousands of Brunnich's Guillemots nest here, along with a few Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Fulmars and Glaucous Gulls. Simon and the kayakers got an early start and were soon dwarfed by the towering cliffs. The rest of us followed in Zodiacs and spent several wonderful hours experiencing the sights, sounds (and smells!) of the place. As we drifted slowly underneath the cliffs, some of us also experienced the excretory blessings coming from on high. On these precarious narrow ledges the throngs of Guillemots raise their families - a single chick each year - if they are lucky. The gulls, foxes, and occasional polar bears live off the unlucky ones - the eggs and chicks which fall. The surviving chicks leave the colony when only a third grown. The original base-jumpers, they flutter to the sea accompanied by their father, and complete their chick-hood out at sea, fed by the attendant parent. We were lucky to see several of these chicks with their dads, swimming among the other guillemots near the cliffs.

After lunch, at we all had the opportunity to work off some of the benefits of the delicious meals we've been enjoying. Henrik and Don led the more energetic of us up the hills above the lovely Faksevagen bay to a high lookout to view the Gullfakse Glacier. This group saw more than 15 reindeer, including a weird cross-species tussle between a reindeer and an Arctic Skua. At first the skua chased the reindeer across the tundra, but finally the deer turned, and rising on its hind legs, chased off the skua with its fore-legs. Meanwhile the lowland group was experiencing something equally enthralling - a female Svalbard Ptarmigan trying to distract an Arctic Fox. For over 20 minutes the fox zig-zagged about the tundra slopes, evidently looking for the ptarmigan's hidden chicks, all the while being harassed by the female ptarmigan. Eventually the fox trotted off to seek easier prey. On our homeward walk we did our part to "Clean up Svalbard", bringing bags of plastic rubbish from the beach back to the ship. A group photo on the foredeck preceded dinner. Lively conversation over another excellent dinner and a movie ended this brilliant day.

Day 4 -
Polar Pioneer had steamed on through the night and by breakfast time yesterday morning we were off Phippsoya, the northerly most island of the Svalbard Archipelago.
It was a calm, overcast morning with a light rain as we headed out in our trusty Zodiacs. We cruised around the corner to find two small groups of walrus hauled out on the beach. We made a slow approach in the Zodiacs to shore. Henrik checked out the site for fuzzy critters before we all came ashore. Quietly we crept towards a group of about fifteen walrus. It was like watching the Light Horse Brigade going into battle. A line of very keen expeditioners all armed with cameras and binoculars creeping ever so slowly towards the lying, snoozing, snorting and scratching walrus huddled together. They appeared to be aware of our presence but showed little concern.
Back to the Zodiacs to see what else we could find, it was still raining but that didn't stop us. Behold a bear on the horizon near that cairn of stones. He stood there looking at us then with a blink of an eye he sat down for a nap.
Cruising along we ran into half-dozen or more walruses in the water. They came over to inspect our boats, rearing out of the water so we could see their tusks and short whiskers that looked like scrubbing brushes and are used for finding their seafood prey. Over yonder a large group of about 100 walrus lay on the sandy beach. As we approached we could smell the aroma. It was our lucky day, not just walrus but another four bears!!! Eureka!! One of the bears looked to be a male, once he saw us coming he started to move quickly, we then noticed he was not alone. A female bear and her 2 cubs were also in the area. She was just as quick to lead her cubs away from the male bear, as male bears will kill a cub if they have the opportunity. The sky darkened, the rain got heavier and the mist rolled in, it was not a good time to take photo's this was a moment to remember and enjoy.
It was a quick return to the ship for a well-deserved lunch shortly after Alan gave a lecture on "Seals and Walrus" followed by a bit of retail therapy.
In the afternoon we cruised into Rijpfjorden; this was new terrain for Aurora Expeditions. Captain Nikolay skillfully maneuvered Polar Pioneer into unknown waters, finally coming to anchor near the end of the fjord. Henrik gave a 15-minute Zodiac call and we were off again!!
We landed at Haudegen in Wordiebukta near an old German weather station. An old boat made of oak and copperplates sat up from the beach; it was in amazingly good condition. The weather station was a sorry sight, it was very rundown and old wooden boxes littered the marshy ground. A family of pink-footed geese had taken up residence; unfortunately they had a dinner appointment and had to leave in a flurry. On the rocky cliffs behind the hut the hooting call of a ptarmigan was heard. We could see about 5 chicks with a parent scaling the wall. Not bad little rock climbers at all!!
The evening was only getting better. The rain had stopped and the sun was casting magical light over Rijpfjorden. The Kayakers toasted with a Cointreau in front of a great iceberg as they had their 80° North paddle while the rest of us stretched our legs on the richly lichen covered stone tundra.

Day 5 -
. During the night we had made our way down the east coast of Nordaustlandet to Storoya, an island mostly covered in ice. A thick sea mist had descended and few of us could even see the island let alone guess in which direction it lay. Nonetheless we were soon motoring along the edge of it in the Zodiacs keeping a sharp lookout for bears, which often get marooned by retreating summer ice in such places. Sadly the poor conditions made it difficult to see anything and we returned to the ship cold and disappointed. A few walrus were seen by the kayakers.
Before lunch Dave enlightened us on the history of Svalbard, which is fascinating. It is sobering to think that 150 years before European settlement in Australia, people were slaughtering walrus and whales in Svalbard. In the afternoon it was Alan's turn and his talk was about Polar Bears, which to a lot of people epitomize the Arctic. The photos of bears on ice last year where today there is none brought home the reality of global warming.
We had a long journey down the Erik Eriksenstreten between Nordaustlandet and Kong Karls Land which is a reserve in the true sense of the word: not only are you forbidden to land there, you are not even allowed to fly over the islands. The reprieve gave us time to regroup and play bridge and scrabble.
In the late afternoon after traveling down the east side of the impressive Austfonna Icecap - the 3rd largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland - we arrived at Isispynten. This promontory was named by the 1924 Oxford University Arctic Expedition after the river Isis that flows through Oxford. The similarity to the word icy did not escape us as we sped past the frozen ice cliffs. Segments of the glacier had calved off the main icecap and become grounded revealing details of these fascinating structures frozen in time. The kayakers had a cold but enjoyable paddle interrupted by chocolate breaks. Henrik eventually found a place to go ashore and after a short pitch of ice climbing we were on a fairly flat summit. The view along the ivory cliffs towards a sun that didn't set was memorable. 10 nations were represented on that endless mound of ice but for a moment we were as one. As the midnight sun drew nigh we set a course for Freemansundet between Barentsoya and Edgeoya.

Day 6 -
Overnight we cruised south towards Barentsoya. By breakfast we had entered the waters of Freemansundet, which separates the islands of Barrentsoya and Edgeoya. It was a beautiful day; the sun was shining brightly with hardly a breath of wind. A bear was sighted way off on the hillside. He was a good distance away so the landing took place as planned.
There was a strong current running alongside the ship, the kayakers decided to abandon their morning paddle and joined us as we ventured forth in the Zodiacs to explore the beautiful fertile plains of Sundneset. The spongy ground was rich with bright green mosses, a variety of delicate and colourful flowers, particularly the yellow marsh (bog) saxifrage, various mushrooms and a number of small tarns with Long tailed ducks, Barnacle geese and Red throated divers. We explored the beautiful terrain on foot, marveling at the contrast between the colourful soft ground and the barren, rocky terrain of further north. Reindeer antlers and a mixture of bones lay decaying in the tundra. We looked over several Alpine lakes. The song of snow buntings aroused our attention, as small groups danced around the rocks. It is easy to understand how trappers chose this beautiful location to build a small hut.
A wonderful Antipasto platter awaited us back on board for lunch as Polar Pioneer repositioned. A short distance from Sundneset for the afternoon landing was Doleritneset on Edgeoya. No sign of polar bears! But there where some walrus around. We landed by some old wooden huts, one of them dating back to 1899, it had been built for the Swedish/Russian Arc of the Meridian Expedition. Walrus bones littered the whole area where there had been the scene of mass slaughter of these seemingly docile creatures during the early whaling days. In 1606 Stephen Bennet of the Muskovy Co ship “Grace” described the scene. They had now become so expert at sea morse [walrus] hunting that in six hours they killed six to seven hundred beasts, out of which 22 tons of oil were made and three hogsheads filled with tusks.
Just over the ridge a small group of walrus lay basking on the sandy beach. They were quite timid and nervous so we approached slowly not to scare them into the water. It was nice to just sit and watch them in the afternoon sun. We noticed that one of the larger walrus only had one tusk and it seemed to have some kind of tracking device attached to it. Meanwhile the kayakers enjoyed their paddle along the rocky shore past some walrus who, looked at them from the water as they paddled by.
Splitting into two groups we went for a lovely walk over easy going ground past a lake where lots of purple sandpipers frolicked around the edge, large jaw bones of the rare bowhead whale lay in the same position as whence it came. Henrik's brisk walkers went up onto a small lookout point to take in the beautiful surroundings of Rosenbergdalen and saw several reindeer. While Alan and co explored the nooks and crannies between the boulders finding a lush haven for some new wild flower we haven't seen like the Arctic Dandelion. It was time to make an orderly retreat to the beach after a great day in the Arctic wilderness. It was then back to the warm comforts of our Polar Pioneer and Tilly's happy cocktail hour.
After a great dinner and Don's well-attended talk on his South Georgia crossing, everyone was off to their beds for a well-earned snooze.

Day 7 -
After quietly riding at anchor overnight we were already in position for our first landing of the day. It was a fine morning as the zodiacs rode into what is one of the finest natural harbours in Svalbard. The early whalers had established a base on the low headland of what is now known as Habenichtbukta. As the whales depleted in numbers so the men pulled out. By the mid 18th century the site was once more occupied, this time by Russian hunters, the Pomors, who journeyed from the White Sea in their small sailing boats each year to over winter and hunt polar bears and arctic fox for their valuable white coats. We looked over some fifteen building remains; it had been quite a large settlement. The nearby freshwater lake abounded with bird life and the rich mossy ground was home to a variety of flowers.
Back to the ship and Alan gave a talk on the bird life of Svalbard before lunch. Time then to get in a few ZZ's whilst on passage for our afternoons outing on the small island of Bolscheoya to the south of Edgeoya.
As Polar Pioneer moved slowly across the shallow waters to the anchorage several walrus were startled, it's probably not very often that they are disturbed at their feeding grounds by such a large monster looming down on them. We were soon ashore and again seeing such a variety of wild life, terns with chicks, little auks, red-throated divers and a number of puffins. On one of the beaches we saw more remnants of the old whaling days, some graffiti on a whalebone with the date 1859 engraved, together with a couple of sailors graves. Whilst walking over to get a closer look at the puffins nesting beyond a small tarn, Amanda (Tilly), who was taking a zodiac ride around the island, informed us of a polar bear. It wasn't long before it was sighted again and it was time for us to make an orderly retreat back to the boats. As the bear, a skinny looking female with a tagged collar moved forward, we retraced our steps. Once on the water we were able to skirt around the coast and see her at a close, safe distance. Stranded on the small island that she is, with very little food, she made rather a sad sight. And it's a long time yet before the sea will freeze and with it the chance of a proper feed.
We left the island and made back to the ship for the long overnight passage around the southern tip of Spitsbergen and the balmy Gulf Stream side of the west coast.

Day 8 -
It was back to the Gulf Stream side of Spitsbergen and wow, what a day we had. During the night we had rounded Sorkappoya (the south cape), then turned north for Hornsund, which we entered around breakfast time. The ship steamed east and stopped by Samarinbreen. The sun was shining brightly on the jagged peaks of the surrounding mountains.
We went for an amazing Zodiac cruise in search of the illusive polar bear, which was sighted by some, while the kayakers headed out for a long days paddle! We then headed across the waters to the glacier front. A few beautiful blue icebergs scattered the water as we sat in silence amidst the brash ice and listened to the rumblings inside the bowels of the glacier.
A timid ringed seal popped up near the Zodiac to enchant us. A mixture of birds were sighted as we cruised along the glacial front - black guillemots, kittiwakes, glaucous gulls and fulmars. We sat quietly, taking in the gentle, relaxing ambience of it all and watched small pieces calve from the ice wall. It was a spectacular morning. Back on board, to enjoy a nice warm hot chocolate before we set off again.
Just before noon the Polar Pioneer headed towards the spectacular cliffs of Sophiabogen that towered over Burgebukta. We had a nice time ashore. Beneath the cliffs were lots of nesting kittiwakes buzzing around like one gigantic beehive. Their constant chatter broke the silence. An old trappers hut on the beach was surrounded by the clutter of many expeditions and residents before. Some of us scaled the high peaks where the barnacle geese grazed and the kittiwakes lived. A young Arctic fox played around the large boulders with onlookers only metres away, he gave us a great show and didn’t seem to mind our presence. The slopes were filled with the last wildflowers of summer. It was hard to drag ourselves away from this Arctic environment.
Then it was onwards to Brepollen, the bay at the end of Hornsund into which numerous glaciers flow. In the evening twilight, on the bow, in front of the Hornbreen Glacier we were treated to close up views from the bow as Captain Nikolay moved the ship to within 200 metres of the snout of the glacier - a position that on a 1976 chart was well over a mile inside the ice front. Possibly a bit of global warming? A huge crack and a bang was heard as a big piece plummeted in. The gulls and fulmars peered at us from above as the ship turned, the light on the jagged glacier front only got better. The grand finale ended with a whole face of the glacier front crumbling into the sea sending out a monstrous wave which Polar Pioneer surfed away on and the Captain voice over the PA "Passengers beware".
Dinner was a surprise from our trusty chefs, Tina and Judd, who put on a BBQ banquet on the stern deck. The fine food and mulled wine warmed the hearts on this tranquil summers evening. What away to finish off another great day, “Truly awesome!”
Overnight we have travelled north into Bellsund. Time to do a little more exploring.

Day 9 -
Another beautiful morning for our first outing in Recherchefjord. The kayakers went for their final paddle and the rest of us Zodiac-ed into a large tidal lake trapped by an old terminal moraine of the Recherche Glacier. It was a maze of stranded bergy bits, all sitting on the shallow sea floor. Several ringed seals were seen in the water. Suddenly, Don reported a large Polar Bear near the entrance to the lagoon. The bear had a dirty grey-brown coat, probably from swimming in the murky glacier run-off. For the next half-our the bear wandered about on the moraine while we jockeyed our Zodiacs around to get better views. Eventually we all got good looks at him before he swam across the lagoon entrance and wandered off down the shore. But more excitement - the kayakers had spotted a pod of Beluga Whales within the lagoon. We positioned ourselves near the shore, moving slowly to avoid disturbing the whales and we were rewarded by excellent views as they surged about in the muddy water searching for fish. Two pure white adult Belugas were accompanied by two grey juveniles. The bear had been reported lying in the shallows of the lagoon entrance and so the Zodiacs accompanied the kayakers as they traversed back into the open sea.
Over lunch the ship re-positioned to Bourbonhamna. As we approached our intended landing site we spotted the carcass of a whale on the shore. And bears! One feeding at the whale carcass, another two snoozing on the slopes and then a female with two cubs emerged from behind a ridge and wandered up the slope. Six bears in clear view - all looking plump and well fed. As the anchor rattled down we hastily put on our warm gear and headed for the Zodiacs. A few minutes later we were drifting slowly closer to the whale carcass where one bear was still feeding, tearing bits of blubber off the whale. The bear ignored us but eventually lumbered off, hauling itself up the shoreline cliff and up the green slopes. We then motored in to inspect the whale - it was a Sperm Whale, and judging by the state of the carcass (and the aroma!) it had been dead for a while. It was sad to see this magnificent creature lying distorted and rotting on a beach. But it was not going to waste and, apart from the bears, dozens of gulls and fulmars were also feeding.
We then landed at Bamsebu, the site of a Norwegian Beluga-whaling base active until about 60 years ago. Dave described how the hunters netted and killed the whales, and Alan used the whale skeletons to explain some of the biology of the whales. Family groups of Belugas were spotted by the hunters from the sheltered lookout higher, up the hillside. A quick launch of their motorized clinker-built boats would be followed by the slaughter, and the many piles of hundred of old bones told of years of this activity. The log cabin, well fortified against polar bears, now serves as a weekend retreat for people from Longyearbyen.
Back on board after a hot shower and some packing, we all gathered in the bar for a recap of our amazing journey. Time to look back and realise how much we have done in the past 10 days. This was followed by our final get together - drinks with the captain. Tina and Judd put on a magnificent feast. They have done an amazing job keeping us well fed. Captain Nikolay took a final ship cruise past the coal-mining town of Barentsburg. It’s a Russian mining centre with a population of 1000 - 1200, which extracts about 250,000 tons of coal annually.
Our journey is drawing towards its end now, as we close in on Longyearbyen. We all came together from near and far; we have banded together; now leave as one. We have all endured amazing experiences in so many different ways, holding all the memories close to our hearts. We’d like to say a very special thank you to our excellent crew for an absolutely wonderful voyage.

Posted by TheWandera 06:40 Archived in Norway Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

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