78 degrees north is an amazing part of the world.
Longyearbyen Part 1
Thursday the 10th of August – Fly from Oslo to Longyearbyen, via Tromso.
Not the easiest flight to book. When I’d asked the travel agent I wanted to go to Longyearbyen, she said, “Where the hell is that?” Now she knows.
If you too are wondering where it is, look on a map for the group of islands way north of Norway called Svalbard, right near the north pole.
Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen, Svalbard, Norway? What the?
Norway is the country that administers the archipelago of Svalbard, the capital of which is Longyearbyen on Spitzbergen, the largest island. Nathan and I have 4 days here before meeting up with the Aurora Expedition vessel on Monday to attempt a circumnavigation of Spitzbergen over the following 11 days.
They say in Norway, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing.” Perhaps here in Longyearbyen? We’ll see. My thermals, fleecy, beanie, down jacket and then a Gore-Tex shell should do the trick, meaning those wise Norwegians were right. If you have the clothes the weather doesn’t matter. Better still, live somewhere like Perth where clothes are rarely worn for warmth.
The weather here has meant that the foil disposable BBQs, so popular on the Norwegian mainland were not to be seen here in Longyearbyen, though the ubiquitous Brunost (brown cheese) was just as plentiful on the breakfast buffet table.
The town was founded by Mr Longyear who started coalmining operations here in 1906, making this their centenary year. Byen is Norwegian for town.
Longyearbyen is 78 degrees north and only 1300kms from the North Pole.
For a place that proclaims its wilderness credentials like Svalbard, Longyearbyen is an aberration, a blot on an otherwise pristine Arctic 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
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.”
That said, Nathan and I are only here for 4 nights.
We kind of knew this was going to be a special place when driving through the town centre on arrival, we saw wild reindeer out grazing!
Our accommodation, whilst in the new part of town, is 2km up a valley from the town centre. The upside is that we’re flanked by two mountains and not one, but two glaciers!
Bags dropped in our room, we walked the 2km from Guesthouse 102 into town. (We’ll know for next time to wear more layers. I guess the lack of warmth in the air is the price you pay to be so high in the Arctic.)
The town only has one street of shops, but they are quite spread out. Of course the tourist bureau was at the far end, closest to the fiord. We sniffed out our options for available activities over the next few days that we are here.
Passing a pub on the way back, we were sucked in.
Svalbard does not have taxes or duty, so the huge price of alcohol on the mainland of Norway does not apply here. That is of course balanced by increased transport costs, but it is much cheaper.
This pub had the largest selection of spirits, liqueurs and other treats on display that I have ever seen!
The publican showed us a menu offering every vintage of Armagnac since 1908.
1971 was a great year in the Roberts and Holmes households, so Nathan and I had a 1971 Armagnac to celebrate. We might be in Longyear, but ’71 was a great year. We toasted to 35 years of health and 19 years of friendship.
One patron left the pub staggering, did the ‘Svalbard dive’ (Longyearbyen Leap?) into the door and passed out. Nathan and I left while we could and went for some food. Options are limited and the Kroa bar and restaurant had no problem catching our eye. The pizza topped with garlic sauce was a winner, though I’m not convinced about the shredded raw cabbage on top.
Sitting quietly in Kroa we realised that in addition to the seal skins adorning the walls, all the seat covers throughout the restaurant were also made of sealskin. It seams in Norway, seal never goes out of style.
We walked ‘home’ late and really noticed how it wasn’t dark and never got that way all night.
Friday – A boat cruise.
But first…a walk into town. After taking close-up photos of an unperturbed Svalbard Reindeer grazing outside my room window, I saw birds by a small lake and crept up on them for a photo.
A large gull sat on a nearby roof and Nathan said, “It looks like the attacking variety.” Sure enough, while focused on my stalking, I was startled by a squawk by my head as the gull attacked. I dropped onto my bum in reflex and sat there laughing at the fright the gull had given me. I didn’t even spill my coffee!
In town we found a fur shop. This place sold cute little baby seal toys………made with real baby seal fur. They also had a full stuffed polar bear as well as various bear and fox skins and fur coats for sale. Wouldn’t Australian customs just love me bringing back a polar bear rug!
Our boat trip was supposed to leave at one o’clock, but then that became 2 before we finally left the wharf at 3. Dodgy little ship with even dodgier Russian crew and here we were heading north from Longyearbyen 50km up Billefjorden to the Nordenskioldbreen Glacier.
The views getting there were beautiful and would have been even more so if it hadn’t been overcast.
The glacier itself, was the first one I’ve seen actively carving into the water. The blue hues of the ancient ice breaking off the terminal face into the water. These icebergs would break up further, filling the area in front of the glacier with ice. It had a popping sound as thousand of little pieces slowly melted. Think of the sound when you add a drink to a glass of cubes, now multiply that by a thousand and you will see that it is not always quiet, even in remote places. Or listen to your bowl of rice bubbles and magnify that sound.
After our glacier experience, we travelled to nearby Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian coal mining town. Located in the fiord with views of the Nordenskioldbreen Glacier and mountains around, the setting for this town is beautiful. The town itself is not. Massive mining structures blight the otherwise pristine landscape. The dirt and grime of a heavy industrial area is everywhere.
There’s an eerie feel here, as it looks like someone blew the whistle at 5pm one afternoon and everyone downed tools and left….completely. We had a guide with us carrying a gun, in case we met a polar bear. Although in its halcyon days of the mid 1990s, Pyramiden had 5000 residents, the mine was abandoned in 2001. For an hour and a half, we explored this place in amazement at what was here and what good condition everything was in. The obligatory Lenin bust still stood in pride of place at the top of the avenue.
Back at the boat at 9pm , we were starving. We’d been told food and drinks were provided, but the late departure was just the first issue in a day of disappointment in regard to the outfit running this day cruise. It wasn’t until now that we got our first bite of anything and whilst the salmon soup was delicious, we were all so hungry there wasn’t nearly enough. Drink(s?) was a can of Fanta.
The return journey was slightly slower as we had a headwind, but again we saw Fulmars, puffins and other birds.
Saturday – Two fools at play.
We’d booked an organised glacier hike for tomorrow, but today we decided to hike out of town to the base of the glacier to some rich fossil beds we’d been told about.
Being busy at this time of year, the towns rental guns were gone, so Nathan and I decided not to bother with a gun and just go anyway. It’s close to town so there shouldn’t be any polar bears.
“Before you can be old and wise, you must be young and stupid.” Being stupid was our way of staying young. “You can’t out-run a polar bear”, I hear you say. True! But I don’t need to out-run a polar bear, just out-run Nathan and I have sabotaged his shoes.
65 million years ago, Svalbard was in the tropics. The results of this are rich coal and fossil beds.
Heading towards the glacier above the fossils, we crossed several small rivers, with difficulty. We had to really hunt for a place with suitable rocks for jumping across. Playing around in the ice and snow was especially fun for a couple of Perth boys.
As we walked upwards, old mine workings were everywhere. How they dug into the permafrost only 1 meter below the surface is uncertain. So much stuff is still just lying around. So much for pristine!
Continuing up the valley towards the glacier we got to the terminal moraine. This is a huge pile of dirt scraped and pushed there by the front of the glacier. As the glacier recedes during summer the moraine is exposed. Hoping for some leaf fossils, I was encouraged by the fact that the first piece of stone I picked up had fossils on it. We spent some time here fossicking and judging by our success and the lack of footprints not many people came to this bit, isolated between two rivers. We kept upgrading the quality of found fossils until we were happy with the size and shape. BIG was easy. There were big rocks covered in leaf fossils. Problem was I couldn’t lift them, let alone carry them in my backpack! We ended up with a couple of good ones each and continued back down oblivious to the very real polar bear danger.
(We only heard later that only in 1994 were two girls fatally attacked by a polar bear just there!)
Noon until 4pm made a very enjoyable afternoon out in the mountains.
Tonight we walked to The Husset for dinner. Husset means ‘house’ in Norwegian. This place is famous for local delicacies and did not disappoint. When in Svalbard…I ordered seal casserole and Nathan had a slab of marinated whale meat. Nathan’s rare whale steak was much nicer than the overcooked whale I’d eaten on Lofoten, though I did like the smoked whale I tried in Bergen. My seal pot featured the blackest darkest meat I have ever seen. Very strong in flavour and quite tough, there was a noticeable taste of seafood right at the end, just as you finished chewing each piece of meat. Not surprising given seals eat fish!
Sunday – organised hike with gun-carrying guides.
Knowing what we do now about the bloody polar bears, we were happy to be doing todays hike with Spitzbergen Wildlife Services.
Our accommodation is at the top of town and for once the location was to our advantage as all 12 hikers met out the front of Guesthouse 102 right next to the car park full of snowmobiles parked up until snow returns.
Christine and Marline were our gun-toting guides, and after sharing around flasks and giving everyone a pair of crampons and an ice pick, we headed off.
As we walked towards the glacier on the left, the weather got better…and better. This was the first blue sky we’d seen since arriving and what a difference it made. The air temp might have been sub 10 degrees, but with the effort of hiking, I soon found myself wearing only a t-shirt. We skirted the left glacier to the right ad climbed to the top of, the divider between the two glaciers. At 550m Mt Sarkofagen afforded amazing views of Longyearbyen and the surrounding valleys. We cracked the flasks and enjoyed tea and biscuits as we savoured the surrounds. The weather remained perfect and I took many photographs today. We hiked down the other side to the top of the glacier that Nathan and I had been to the base of yesterday. Here we tied our crampons to our boots. (Crampons are metal ‘teeth’ that go under your boot and grip ice like you would not believe.) After dividing into two groups and roping ourselves together, with ice pick in hand we hiked carefully down the glacier. It was amazing to see streams of water on top of the ice of the glacier and even more amazing to see the convoluted forms it took as the water snaked its ways downwards, even disappearing down into the ice sometimes.
At the bottom, crampons removed, we stopped to fossick for fossils. This is a spot that many people visit and it was easy to see the lack of quality intact fossils in ground that had been picked over, as opposed to yesterday.
Heading back we had a couple of rivers to cross. The first done at a spot we’d found yesterday. Some of us then crossed via a thin pole that we’d also found. Many weren’t happy to trust their balance and headed upstream looking for a place to cross. With the sun having blasted the ice and snow all day, the rivers were rising rapidly with the thaw. Safe on the other side, myself and one guide fetched a ladder to bring to the others. Even as they crossed the ladder over the river one at a time the river kept rising and by the time the guide crossed last, the ladder was nearly underwater.
After a shower and relaxing over a couple of games of Bao board, we walked into town in the evening. What a change of weather! It is all overcast windy and cold. Time to rug up!
Stopped at the Kroa bar for a beer – Gotta love sealskin seat covers.
The SAS Radisson at the bottom end of town was our destination and our objective was to enjoy their buffet dinner. That we did. In addition to the usual fare, on the unusual platter I found slices of smoked reindeer heart and reindeer tongue. I’d had reindeer steak a couple of times in Norway, but never this. It was delicious! (Don[t think that one would be too popular if I served it at work!)
Weather still awful, so we caught a cab home.
Monday – meet the Polar Pioneer.
Although not until later, this was our objective today. We had a lazy morning and checked out as late as wee could. Walking into town for the last time, we stopped at Galleri Svalbard. The 10 minute video presentation of Svalbard was amazing, but I didn’t have the same enthusiasm for the art for sale on display. I did however, purchase the beautiful 2007 calendar, published by the Longyearbyen Camera Club.
We spent some time in town, buying duty-free grog to take on board the boat and catching up on internet on one of the few terminals here in Longyearbyen.
We cabbed it to the pier and met our ship the Polar Pioneer. The staff were SO helpful with our stuff on arrival that I knew this was going to be a great trip.
Read on for what happened.