The ultimate Arctic adventure! Spectacular scenery and amazing wildlife.
It seems I saved the best for last!
The last 10 days have been absolutely INCREDIBLE!
WOW! Words can't really describe what Nathan and I have just experienced, but I will try.
The expedition company Aurora Expeditions - faultless.
Landscape and wildlife - simply stunning.
Weather - unbelieveably magic!
Kayaking around icebergs - exhilarating - all 110 km of it.
My feelings? Privileged. Svalbard is absolutely one of the world's most beautiful places. I felt then and still feel now, priveleged to have seen something so wonderful, yet rarely seen. The isolation and pristine wilderness of this place is magical. Words fail me.
Unusually, the sea ice had drifted north, away from the northern tip of Svalbard allowing us to do a circumnavigation of Svalbard, not just Spitzbergen. In true 'expedition' style, Aurora threw the planned itinerary out the window and went exploring, taking us further north and then further east to places previously unvisited, because the opportunity presented itself. (My kinda company.) So, travelling in a clockwise direction, instead of coming south through the center of the archipelago, we continued east and came right around the east coast.
The 50 passengers on board were older than I expected. (Nathan and I were the 3rd and 4th youngest respectively.) Although a similar age to the Hurtigruten passengers, the similarities stopped there. These people were real travellers, not cruise ship passengers. This was an active expedition, not a passive cruise and the demographics reflect that.
List of creatures seen, in addition to birds:
polar bears (23 in total, 2 from the kayak!), walrus, ringed seals, bearded seals, Arctic fox, Svalbard reindeer, and to top it off during the last paddle yesterday, Nathan and I had 4 Beluga (white) whales just off the front of our kayak. Incredible.
Unrealistic as it had been, my wish list was complete. Mother bear and cubs were on my list too and we saw two lots.
I had big dreams and this journey has exceed even my wildest ones.
Some highlights briefly -
- Midnight sun.
- Kayaking around icebergs in front of the terminal face of glaciers.
- The food on board. (Better than the Hurtigruten, by a long shot.) Passion by the chefs goes a long way.
- Zodiac trips to shore to explore and hike on the tundra(with crew members standing guard with guns looking out for polar bears.)
- MASSIVE carving of a glacier close by - captured on camera by yours truly! We were on the ship, but the carving was so big and so close the waves from it rocked the ship.
- Not seeing ANYONE else for the 10 days away. True wilderness.
- Trapped in a glacial lagoon by a polar bear waiting in the shallows of the narrow entrance/exit and having to 'run the gauntlet' out of the lagoon with our kayak guide in his boat out first with his flare gun ready on his lap!
- The weather. Out of our control and could not have wished for better. So gratefull because it can make such a difference.
- Sipping Cointreau with glacial ice while sitting in a kayak at over 80 degrees north, less than 1000km from the north pole.
Oh! Did I mention the world's most spectacular scenery? All day every day.
If, as I have come to believe, Norway is the "World's most beautiful country", Svalbard is the gem in their crown. The last 10 days have been absolutely INCREDIBLE! I hope my photos and Nathan's videos do it some justice.
THE KAYAKING 110km of high Arctic paddling.
The boat was perfect for the expedition. Zodiacs could be launched quickly for shore trips that most passengers did, and the kayaks for the few crazy paddlers were also fairly easily launched from the back deck, onto a zodiac and then we climbed into it from the zodiac.
For Nathan and I, the kayaking was the icing on the expedition cake. Our guide was very experienced. There were 5 double kayaks, of which Nathan and I had one. We'd paddled lots in Perth, getting fit, but we had never paddled a double before. We found it easier than expected and not only did we not tip out or whack paddles, we are still friends. We wore a waterproof dry-suit underwhich we wore thermals and another layer. Despite the near-freezing temperature of the water and air, we kept warm by paddling and only got cold if we stopped for a cup of tea on the shore.
The paddling was both challenging and inspiring.
Having Arctic water spashing on your face as you crossed a icey fiord and paddled into choppy headwind reminded you you were alive! Close encounters with wildlife, yes we saw polar bears from the kayaks.
Paddle trips were 'optional' and on two occasions Nathan and I opted to join the other passengers in the zodiacs. This was because on those occassions they were doing a hike on shore up a hill that appealed, both as a chance to stretch our legs, and also to see the landscape from a different perspective to sea level. For me, it also allowed me to use my SLR camera instead of the little one in the waterproof housing that I took kayaking.
We would usually leave from, and return to, the ship waiting at anchor. Our guide used a GPS to determine exact distance covered. He also carried a flare pistol and rifle in case of trouble with polar bears.
Most of our paddles were 8-10km, but the best one was a 24km paddle on the second last day. The weather was perfect. We took lunch with us and went out for a day trip. The ship sailed passed us and disappeared out the fiord. On mirror-flat water, glaciers, icebergs and sharp mountains surrounded us and we paddled after it. At the 23 km mark, with the ship looming larger, another kayak in the group took off past us. Not to be out-done, Nathan and I and another couple raced them. We were stuffed, but as the youngest, there was no way that if there was a race, we would be anything other than first. Point proved, the hot shower and cold beer on board the ship felt well deserved.
That night on board we had a BBQ dinner and beers on the back deck of the ship with carving glaciers and mountains surrounding us and blue sky above us. Absolutely magical moments all day and our best day of many special days on board.
Our last paddle in a glacial front lagoon the following morning was a cracker too. Close encounters with an active polar bear on the shore was followed by a pod of 4 Beluga (White) whales swimming next to our kayak. We had entered the lagoon by a very narrow bit with a strong current flowing out. Hearing by radio the bear ws now waiting in the shallows for us to come out added an element of excitement. We grouped up and our guide went first with his flare piston on his lap! We followed paddling as fast as we could! We made it.
We did SO MUCH in the time on board, but that's my wrap in brief.
For a more detailed version, read on.