Svalbard 2015: Sightseeing & Northern Lights

Part 1 was to be picked up at 10 o’clock, the earliest I’ve been out so far, by Father Christmas – actually a Norwegian called Viggo with a huge bushy beard, a fur hat and a pipe. While we waited for the other half of our group, he and the Danish man discussed the BBC, who apparently here filming again (“too much!” said Viggo), presumably a second series of The Hunt. According to Viggo, Jeremy Clarkson is here in the Svalbard Bar “too often” and “Prince Harry – Carrothead – he is here in the pub also!”

We started off with a lecture on population in the bus. 2186 people in town, 600 children (three kindergartens and a school that teaches in every language necessary). The biggest nationality here in Norwegian, then Thai, then Philippine then Swedish (“always the Swedes are there!”) and fifth is “Russian-speaking people. It was easier when it was just Soviet. Now it’s Russia, Ukraine, etc. Russian-speaking people”. The 42 nations of the Svalbard treaty, signed in the 1920s, are allowed to place citizens here, under three conditions. I forget the first but the second is that they must have a job and the third is that that job must pay enough to live on. Taxes here are just enough to for the cost of living. There are no old people here, there are no disabled people – other than the children, this is entirely populated by people of working age and ability. There is one policeman who has nothing to do because there’s no crime, so he gets bored and invents things to do (you wait until a mammoth comes out of the permafrost, then there’ll be plenty for the police to deal with…). The current governor is Kjerstin Askholt, who did not come to the window of her house to wave at the minibus. I’d thought “the governor” was just what the Svalbard administration was called but it does refer to one person. Fortitude may have been filmed in eastern Iceland but this is the real thing.

There are currently only about 250 people working in mining, 29 people working at the satellite station and 50 or so in the governor’s office. Viggo didn’t say how many people worked at the Polar Institute but he did say that about 80% of jobs in town now are in tourism.

We went past the governor’s offices and buildings, down to the church, where we heard all that’s been officially released about the history of Svalbard during WW2 and then paused at the cemetery. There have been 729 deaths in the mining industry here since John Munro Longyear set up operations in 1906 – some of them before that, when people fell off the boat on the way. A lot of them have been buried and sealed inside the mountain, some of them were blasted across the entire Longyear valley when one of the mines exploded and all in all, there are only 30 crosses in that graveyard.

Next stop was the far end of town where the mining barracks used to be. The toilet barrels, delightfully, were kept in the basement of the mess hall to stop them freezing, so it smelled lovely in there!

Our first proper stop, first time out of the bus, was on the outskirts of town. We were told the story of the bear who ate all the dogfood again and we stopped at the polar bear sign where Viggo produced his rifle and we all posed with it. It’s heavier than I expected and I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was with us playing with it, especially on ice so slippery Viggo kept having to rescue us.

Next stop was at the top of the mountain above Mine 7, at the satellite station. Mine 6 isn’t finished but they had a problem with the entrance tunnel and rather than go to the time and expense of repairing it, they just left the mine and opened a new one, so Mine 6 is dormant rather than empty, mined-out, finished and closed. They were using the radar so we couldn’t get close but we could get photos of the enormous dishes against the mid-blue sky. Dishes up here can apparently stay in constant contact with satellites around the equator whereas further south, they’d vanish every now and then around the back of the planet. I think the Americans started this project and as part of it, they funded fibre optic internet here in 1983. That’s the same year the power station was opened, to finally provide the town with running water (it’s cold. In order to keep the water liquid, you have to keep it warm, so all the pipes flow together and the warm water pipes keep everything defrosted). The airport was opened in 1975, the previous one having been a patch of frozen swamp. That’s what we were riding out snow scooters over – swamp. Before the current airport opened, the terminal consisted of a hut and the runway markings were a car parked at each end of the swamp to give the pilots something to aim for and it could only operate in winter.

Although Svalbard’s mountains sort of resemble Iceland’s, in being layered and flat-topped, there is nothing volcanic going on here (although the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates do meet out in the fjord). The mountains here are higher than the ice caps during the last Ice Age so they haven’t been flattened by glacial action, they’re just flat because they’re sandstone, they’re really old and they’ve been eroded for several billions years.

The last stop was the Global Seed Vault. Previously a Norwegian thing housed in Mine 3 until they realised they’d lose it all if the mine exploded so they started storing it inside solid stone inside the mountain. And then one neighbour asked if they could borrow a corner for their seeds and then another neighbour and then somewhere around 2008, “it was easier to rename it – the Global Seed Vault” and amongst many other things, it stores something ridiculous like 140 thousand different species of wheat.

Viggo did say one thing I was a bit suspicious of – there are a few species of bear in the world but all vegetarian except the polar bear. Is this true? I can’t picture a grizzly bear not eating meat. I can imagine it as an omnivore but would a grizzly bear really reject tasty human flesh if it caught it? Apparently polar bears are moving westwards and some of them are breeding with their grizzly cousins (having once, half a million years ago, been the same species) and creating a hybrid bear, which I’ve also seen called a superbear, which is far bigger than a polar bear and far more aggressive than a grizzly bear and eats everything. The only drawback (saving grace?) of the superbear is that it may not be able to breed. Apparently no one’s sure about this minor fact yet.

Is that everything Viggo told us? Almost certainly not but I think it’s probably a lot more than most people would remember and be able to write down at the end of the tour. I only wish I’d thought to take my notebook with me.

Oh! I remember one more thing! In the summer, there are 92 species of bird nesting on the swamp. Viggo can recognise a parrot from a swan but he can’t identify 92 different birds and he doesn’t know their names in 42 different languages. “But I do have a favourite bird. Fried chicken! Or tandoori chicken. That’s a bird.”

We came back home for lunch. After lunch, I decided I really had to drag myself into town as I needed a little more food and I’m not at all sure what time Svalbardbutikken is open on Sundays – possibly not until the afternoon which is no good for someone who’s leaving town at 12.30.

In the afternoon, I was picked up for looking for the Northern Lights by Alex of Spitzbergen Travel, who really does seem to be the only employee of the entire company. He was the one who took me on the snow scooter on Thursday.

We paused by the polar bear sign because it’s apparently one of the most famous landmarks on the island but Alex doesn’t wave the rifle around unnecessarily (although when he produced it later on, it was wearing a bright green sock on the business end) so we didn’t get to take rifle photos. We also heard the story of the polar bear that raided the kennels for dog food again, only with a personal touch – Alex met the polar bear in question because those kennels are where he keeps his own dogs. He saw the nose marks where the bear stood on its back legs to look through the window of the hut, he saw it when it returned the next day, looking tired and lazy and overfed and he also talked to the men in the helicopter that took it away. It seems dog food doesn’t necessarily agree with polar bears and the pilot said the return flight was a very long one.

We spend an hour or so at Camp Barentsz. I’m not entire sure what the place used to be or is but it consists of a handful of wooden huts (one contains “the nicest bucket in town”) and we had a fire and some bonfire coffee – you heat the kettle over the fire, then you stick your hand in the fire, take out a burning piece of wood and stir the water with it. Alright, he had a glove on but a glove isn’t much protection against a burning log taking straight from a roaring fire. I declined the bonfire coffee and was given instead some more hot blackcurrant. I assume it was made using the same water, it didn’t really taste of burnt wood.

There was also food – healthy, doctor-recommended salted meat, flatbread and butter. The trouble was that it’s cold – the butter is rock-solid and the flatbread is so flat and crispy (exactly the same texture as poppadoms) that when you try to spread solid butter, they just crack and fall on the floor. I eventually decided the best way of dealing with it was to put a lump of butter on the flatbread and hold it over the fire until the butter was soft enough that I could slide it around with my fingers. It was tasty! I wish I’d been able to spot any in the supermarket.

We also watched a little video on Svalbard – just pictures taken year-round with a few of the Northern Lights and then Alex talked. About what people used to believe the Northern Lights are, about Norse mythology but pronounced in Norwegian, so I didn’t immediately recognise them (Thur and Udin, apparently), about Snorri Sturlasson’s opinions on them (Snorri being a famous Icelandic politician and writer who Norway are trying to steal – they call him Snorre and I have been to his house and dipped my feet in his private pool), about the Inuit belief that the lights are sparks caused by spirits playing football in the sky with a walrus skull and finally, to what they really are.

Then we diverged. The entire rest of the group spoke Norwegian so although they talked to Alex in Norwegian, he answered them mostly in English but then they drifted off into something and I just enjoyed the fire and tried to pick out a word here or there – I could recognise “Svalbard” and “thirty” and that was about it. When he switched back to English, he was talking about his dogs – there was no vet on Svalbard until two years ago. A vet would come “from the south” twice a year for rabies vaccinations and he’d deal with whatever problems he could with the 800 dogs in the two days but apart from that, if you had dogs, you had to deal with any problems yourself. One of Alex’s dogs has Alzheimer’s, which I didn’t know dogs can get (apparently it’s fairly common in dogs over about eight) and the dog has tablets which can only be got now there’s a proper local vet.

We packed away the food and flasks, the socked rifle was collected and we got back in the car to climb the same mountain as this morning, to park next to the same satellite dishes to look at the view. Looked a bit different. That noontime pale blue light was gone, it was quite cloudy apart from a patch of stars directly above us and it was freezing! Alex suggested to keep moving my toes inside my boots (I was already doing that) and if I needed it, he had a sharp knife. Thank you, Svalbardian.

The Northern Lights were not playing. Not a flicker. Not even a flicker that can only be seen by a camera. Nothing. Eventually, when we all had hypothermia, we got back in the car and descended, to stop next to Camp Barentsz for the penultimate story. There is a little field of antennae – short ones four or five feet high researching clouds made of crystals that glow and longer ones measuring meteoroids. “In winter, I like them. In summer, I think they’re quite ugly. But they’re the closest thing we have to a forest. That one on the right is going to be my Christmas tree”. Pause. “That is a good joke. I will write it down in my notebook.”

The last story was about another polar bear. A few people were camping around the next fjord and some bears were getting a bit close. They fired their flare guns and the bears would run away to the next camp, who would fire their flares and scare the bear away to the next camp etc etc and then when the bears got used to the flares, they banged saucepan lids because the bears had never heard that before and they did not like it. But one day, the camp next door failed to scare the bear off and had to evacuate to their boat and watch while the bear destroyed everything. And then it ambled into their mess tent, stayed in there for a while, presumably eating everything it could get its paws on and when it finally emerged, it had a shopping bag (from Svalbardbutikken) hanging from its mouth. This very bear, in fact:


That was the last story. We were on our way back into town, delivered back to our various warm rooms, I wrote a blog and ate some cheese and now I’m going to have a bath. Because that’s what you do here in the evening – and it was a longer evening than expected because I thought it was at least ten o’clock only to find it was half past seven.

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