Svalbard 1999
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Where is Svalbard?

Our first glimpse of Spitzbergen's peaks - 17KB I expect that your first reaction might be - Svalbard, where's that? Well, perhaps you have heard of Spitzbergen, actually the largest of this group of islands way up beyond the Arctic Circle above Norway - about half way between the northernmost tip of Norway and the North Pole. It's only because the warm currents of a branch of the Gulf Stream that runs past Iceland and up to Svalbard that visits there are possible for non-Arctic-explorer types such as ourselves. Being so far north of the Arctic Circle means that in the summer there is perpetual daylight, and of course perpetual night in the winter. In summer there are various touring possibilities with various degrees of ‘adventure’ - hiking, trekking and camping are all possible - even snowmobile tours, ski expeditions and mountaineering. David's choice (no surprise!) was for the comforts of a hotel in Longyearbyen combined with a boat-based journey along Spitzbergen’s west coast.  Magdalene Fjord - 29KB
Magdalene Fjord - 32KB Magdalene Fjord - 37KB

[Please click on any thumbnail image for a larger version]

Getting to Svalbard

As you can't get a plane from Edinburgh direct to Svalbard, we were tempted to make it a longer Norwegian holiday, and decided to stop over in Tromsø and Oslo on either side of joining our tour group in Svalbard. Staying in Tromsø provides time to become accustomed to the 24 hours of daylight, and the town’s museums are an excellent introduction to the history of polar exploration and the ecology of the arctic regions.

Our Time on Svalbard

We spent five nights on Svalbard, which may not seem very long but bear in mind that we were frequently up till way past midnight and sometimes rising at 05:00 the next day! At least one excursion started at 23:00 (11pm). In fact our flight to Svalbard from Tromsø departed at midnight and landed at 01:30, so that started us off in the right timeframe.

After a night and breakfast in the Svalbard Polar Hotel, we assembled for an introductory briefing - what to do in the event of polar bears etc. - and a short time to look round the main town of Longyearbyen before setting off in our boat - the MS Brand - to visit the former Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg. This was a fascinating look at what had been, until very recently, a completely isolated and self-sustaining community. Indeed, they still raise animals and crops indoors with heat produced from the surplus coal that is still mined. However, recent economic difficulties mean that this colony is having to confront changes. Barentsburg - 28KB Barentsburg greenhouses - 56KB

Life On Board

Depositing the trekking group with provisions at their base camp and collecting their predecessors provided us with new travelling companions on the boat, and also opportunities to participate in a couple of their more demanding walks (which Cecilia appreciated). Our itinerary on the MS Brand was not fixed, for apart from the sheltered and dependable landing places at the trekkers’ campsites, what we did depended on the exact weather and sea conditions that prevailed at the time.  But what an advantage the smaller MS Brand had on the large cruise ships we sighted, for we were able to approach the shore where larger vessels cannot.  As often as possible we landed in the sturdy Zodiac dinghies and made various excursions lasting up to several hours, but always secure in the knowledge that lunch or dinner would be ready waiting for us on our return! 

A Zodiac returning to the MS Brand  - 16KB Cecilia - 64KB Loading a Zodiac onto the MS Brand - 27KB Buffet lunch on board - 48KB
Our guides Merete & Martin - 27KB Merete at the Blomstrandhalvoya campsite - 30KB Svalbard Polar Travel’s experienced and capable guides increasingly impressed us with their organisational skills, for the teamwork between the group leaders and with the ships captain and crew was very evident - as was our guides’ ability to be at the same time both efficient and friendly.


Our Furthest North!

We were able to sail north of the 80 degree latitude line - in glorious sunshine - celebrated by champagne and a comparison of GPS receivers.  It really makes you appreciate the effect of the Gulf Stream, because on the flight back to the north of Norway there was still extensive pack ice to be seen along the east coast of Svalbard. However, conditions became too rough for us to reach Moffen island, where we had hoped to see walruses, and so, in the brightness of the arctic summer night we turned southwards, and, for Cecilia (an enthusiast for all things Swedish) the highlight of the voyage.  For she woke to find our ship had anchored in a bay at the island Danskøya where the Swedish explorer Andreé had set out in 1897 on his ill-fated balloon attempt to reach the North Pole.  The remains of hydrogen-generating equipment and other paraphernalia of the expedition still litter the beach; such places are treated as historical monuments from where even a humble nail may not be removed. Raudfjord, Trapper's Cabin - 41KB Raudfjord, cross marking grave near trapper's cabin - 46KB

Birds and Glaciers

Later that day we marvelled at just how close the MS Brand was able to approach the towering cliffs, birds jostling along every ledge and cranny, and the spectacular icy cliffs of the glacier fronts as icebergs separated and floated past us down fjord.  The magical tinkling sounds as air escapes from melting ice accompanied the more familiar clicks of cameras.  "This place just eats film", remarked a fellow passenger.
Lilliehook Glacier - 28KB Curved front of a glacier - 32KB Iceberg - 24KB


The MS Brand sailed on to Svalbard’s northernmost settlement, Ny Ålesund, now primarily a research station.  To us that evening it looked strangely like a colder version of a wild west township, with some wooden buildings along a dusty main street.  Everything here seems to be "the world’s most northerly…" (post office, café, hotel etc.) and in the café-pub Cecilia impressed our party by being recognised by one of the locals! (a former Edinburgh geology graduate - great PhD project!). The world's most northerly Post Office - 24KB Nobile's airship mooring mast - 23KB


On our return to Longyearbyen we had time on our own to walk the entire extent of the colourful houses of this 1500-strong community.  All the services - water supply, drains, sewers etc. - have to be contained in lagged box constructions above ground because of the permafrost.  We continued on to such fascinating areas as the little hillside cemetery where some workers from 1919 were buried - recently exhumed to obtain cultures of the influenza epidemic which killed them - and visited the excellent museum which brought past and present into focus.  As mining gives way to increasing tourism, there are sure to be changes - July 1999 will doubtless be remembered for the slab laying, as Longyearbyen’s main street became a "pedestrian precinct"!   But in Svalbard nature is sure to remain in charge. Exposed service pipelines on Lonyearbyen - 40KB

So how to sum up our visit?  We won’t call it "the holiday of a lifetime" - for we hope to return.  Meanwhile, just to have been there is a privilege.

Copyright © David Taylor, Edinburgh   Last modified: 2015 Jan 18 at 09:32