Tromsø 2017: Saturday

My flight was at 1.30pm so I planned to head out of Tromsø about 11 or 11.30. Yes, to get to a small regional airport two miles away. However, the moment I reached the bus stop, I took it into my head that the flight was 12.30 so was a tiny bit panicked when I didn’t reach the airport until gone 11.30.

I checked in at the machine. It didn’t like me. It ordered me off to a human and it was while I was waiting for the human that I noticed the departure board showing my flight at 1.30 after all. The human asked how many luggage to check in. My ticket didn’t include hold luggage but I asked how much it would cost – as it was a very full flight, they were delighted to get a bag out of the cabin and into the hold and did so at no charge. Free of my luggage and with an unexpected free hour, I went down to the main road to see if I could figure out how to get to the sea view. Crossing that road on foot seems impossible but I saw footprints in the snow further down. I would follow them. Yeah. They led to a waist-deep snowdrift and there was no getting over the other side of that. I wasn’t sure I was even going to be able to climb out the side I’d fallen into.

There was a child sitting next to me on the plane, a child far too young for his own phone with wraparound edges, let alone his own Snapchat account. But the wifi on Norwegian is still more miss than hit and he couldn’t use it!

At Oslo, free of luggage, I bought a return ticket on the Flytoget, successfully navigated the escalator, tunnel and Indiana Jones Death Turbine onto the platform and went into Oslo, since I had six+ hours to kill.

Oslo is cold and wet and the snow is more like rain and I got lost over and over again, chased down the street by a woman demanding money (it’s ok if they’re waving a magazine), saw the underwhelming cathedral and came back on the train, deciding I’d rather kill the time in the airport than the city.

Tromsø 2017: Thursday night & Friday

It’s Saturday morning and for some insane reason, the library doesn’t open until 11am (although I can see people inside! How did they get there? Were they locked in last night?) so this latest blog is being written on my phone in my armchair.

On Thursday evening, off I went to the Kulturhuset and I got home just after two in the morning.

Therefore, I was glad I didn’t have anything planned for Friday morning. When I got up, I toddled off through the fresh snow to the library, leafed through until I found something that appealed – reindeer sledding under the Northern Lights, although the heavy snow clouds weren’t promising much in the way of Auroral activity. True, that trip was cancelled in the afternoon for lack of participants but I immediately found a similar one.

I spent the day in Tromsø, taking in the sights at the harbour, popping into tourist shops & I visited the famous Tromsø Museum. I went to Polaria last time I was here and other than the seals, that was a bit underwhelming but the Tromsø Museum is supposed to be really good. 

It’s not.

The downstairs is full of slightly moth-eaten skins and stuffed animals dating back to the days when the Arctic was a hunting ground and Tromsø a jumping-off point for expeditions to the High Arctic. In 2017, we don’t look at fifty dead stuffed seals in a museum in quite the way we did in 1850. Upstairs are galleries about explorers like Roald Amundsen (local hero, since he set off to his death from Tromsø) and Fridtjof Nansen as well as Isbjørnkongen Henry Rudimentary but it turns out I’m not all that interested in museums.

By evening, the sky was more or less clear over Tromsø and the Northern Lights forecast was reasonably promising. I went down to the harbour, got in a minibus with a Sámi reindeer herder called Ken and went off to Kvaløya.

It was about a thirty minute drive and as we drove through Kvaløya suburbs, the snow started coming down again. We reached the camp and I realised we hadn’t gone as far as I thought – from our small hill, Tromsøya loomed huge in the fjord and the orange glow from the city on the other side of the island looked like a rerun of the great fire of the 1960s.

We were put on the sledges in pairs and sat there waiting for all the reindeer to be harnessed, I spotted that the sky was clearish in front of us. And was that… did I see a green band across the sky, despite the early hour and the epic light pollution? Yes, I did. And it was purple too, and it was twinkling. It was only about for three or four minutes and I don’t think anyone else noticed except the Malaysian lady I was sharing the sledge with (“Malaysia is famous for all the wrong reasons” apparently. The only thing I can think of is the plane – does Malaysia have a bad reputation I don’t know about?). The two photos I got are good – bright green lights, plus the orange glow plus a few streetlights, plus a reindeer in the foreground that you can’t see because it’s too dark.

The Lights were gone within seconds of us setting off – and that was scary because our reindeer set off at a run and the driver leapt onto the sledge unexpectedly, straight into my feet.

It was a better run than last time – we went a bit further and these reindeer got a bit of a move on. Not actually running, but certainly not the very sedate walk I was expecting. It got cold. My feet got numb.

Afterwards, we fed the reindeer. Most of them live semi-feral with the herd in summer but they know where they’re well-off in winter. We had a sledge of reindeer moss, frozen into blocks and some of the reindeer are tame enough that they’ll eat it from your hands. They’re not delicate eaters but they’re careful not to try eating gloves.

Then we stumbled down the hill and back into the bus so we could cross the road to the cabin for a bowl of Sámi soup, some hot chocolate and a lesson in Sámi culture, which included being introduced to the full gakte, including hooked fur boots and massive leather coat, and to a demonstration of the joik.

It snowed again on the way home.

This morning I mistook 7.30 for 8.30 and was packed and out and about before anything in Tromsø was up except the fjord cruise catamaran. 

I have over six hours to kill in Oslo Airport later today but there are three trains an hour that take 20 mins to get to the city centre so I’m going to have my first glimpse of the city.

Monday in Tromsø

Today it’s raining. Tromsø was already hard enough to get around but now there’s slush, there’s snow, there’s sheet ice, there’s combinations of all three. There are also patches of completely clear pavement in places, clear and dry. No idea how that’s happened.

In the summer I’d happily walk out of town to Polaria but in winter, it’s too slippery just to get around the city centre, which is why I’ve spent this morning in the library writing the weekend’s blogs while listening to some gorilla on the computer behind me grunting and snoring and eating salami and breathing like a walrus with a rope tied around its neck and I’m so glad I’ve nearly finished this blog and can leave. Not that there’s anywhere to go. It’s raining and it’s slippery and I’m definitely not walking over the big bridge to see the Arctic Cathedral again. I could desperately do with something to drink, so I’ll find somewhere for that, and then maybe I’ll go and appreciate Tromsø’s cafe culture by drinking hot chocolate somewhere with a Nice view – not that any of the views are particularly Nice when there’s a cloud hanging over the city.

After I’d stumbled down to the harbour again, muttered rude words at the ice and failed to find anywhere undercover to eat my bread and cheese, I found myself a street away from the big Spar and I knew that was close to Polaria so off I toddler on fairly ice-free streets, until that ran out and I was back to picking my way along with one hand on the nearest drainpipe. I spotted that the opposite pavement was clear so it was time to cross the road. The road itself was ok but here’s the thing. It’s ok because they pile the ice and snow and grit up next to the pavement and that little mountain did not prove easy to cross. I put a foot on it and a hand on a parked car but it was too slippery. Could I jump and hope I landed on a dry patch? I was just considering my options when a lovely Norwegian came along with his hands held out to help me over, which was lovely.

Polaria… doesn’t have much to recommend it. The Svalbard panoramic film is nice but only about ten minutes long, the cafe didn’t object to me eating my bread and cheese in there and then there was only the seal show left.

They have four seals, two large bearded seals from Svalbard called Bella and Mai Sann who are 600+kg and two harbour seals called Lyra and Loffen who are only 60-70kg. Actually, the bearded seals must be wrong, they couldn’t be ten times the size of the harbour seals. But they were pretty big. They scrambled onto the edge of the pool, they fetched toys, they jumped through a hoop, they swam around a buoy, they jumped right up to a buoy hanging from the ceiling.

I made my way up the bus stop, having dodged the Over 50s group in Polaria (they were wearing lanyards and they didn’t know that you take Yaktrax off inside! Oh, the clatter. Oh, the wear on the floor. Oh, the likelihood that one of them was going to fall over because metal studs don’t grip hard floors, didn’t your tour guide tell you that?

There was a fluddle at the bus stop. It looked surprisingly deep so I tested it with my foot. It was surprisingly deep. My foot got wet. I wasn’t sure whether the Flybuss would stop there – the timetable said yes but there was no mention on the bus stop so I jumped on local bus 42 which definitely stopped there and definitely went to the airport. Admittedly, it dropped me downstairs at the car park rather than at the terminal door but that was fine. I checked in, got randomly drug-tested at security and now I’m sitting at a gate wondering why everyone at this airport breathes so loudly.

Reindeer sledding

After the late night, there was another relatively early morning, another relatively difficult journey down to the harbour and another drive out to Whale Island. It earned its name – in daylight, we could see whales! They make a big dark circular patch, whale spots, and then suddenly a bit of whale lurches out of the water. The tails are easiest to identify. There are a lot of orcas about but these were humpbacks and we didn’t even have to go on a whale-watching trip to see them.

We went back out to the lavvu basecamp to put on warmer layers and then back five minutes up the road to the reindeer farm, inhabited by three Sami, Ula, Nils and Inga. The Sami are the native inhabitants of Lapland (which stretches across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia). There are now seventy thousand of them, of which thirty thousand are in Norway. Some of them are/were fishing people, some hunters and the rest reindeer farmers. These days only 2,500 still farm reindeer and none of them live in the lavvus anymore. This is the twenty-first century and even the Sami live in houses and drive 4x4s and snowmobiles and they’re not nomadic anymore because they’re not dependent on the grazing land because you can just buy reindeer food just like you can buy food for other farm animals.

We were introduced to our reindeer (I need to email Trine and ask her for all their names because it’s impossible to remember and most of them had Sami names. I can remember Guttorm, the lead one, but not the others) and then we got into the sledges and off we went. It’s definitely much more sedate than dogsledding. The reindeer walked along with Nils leading Guttorm and they don’t follow each other in a line. Each reindeer walks beside the sledge in front of it so we had a one-antlered young reindeer walking beside us, pulling faces. Occasionally they’d scamper or startle but mostly it was just a walk around a nice flat circuit. I suppose this is just the way the Sami used to travel. It was a walk, not a race.

When we got back, we took photos with the reindeer, we were allowed to touch them (you have to hold their rope nice and tight so they can’t pull away from you) and they’re really soft and their noses woffle when they eat, it’s really cute. Then we went into the lavvu, which was a proper tent (although one covered in labels that suggested it definitely wasn’t homemade) and there were reindeer skins to sit on and a nice fire in the middle and Inga, in her Sami finery and non-traditional glasses, sang us a joik.

We went back outside to try lassoing a silent reindeer – a pair of antlers mounted on a tree stump. I can coil the lasso pretty well but I’d have lost all my reindeer. I tried again and again but I didn’t manage to catch so much as one tiny prong. The ropes, by the way, again, non-traditional. They’re made of rubber which doesn’t freeze, which is handy.

When we’d all been to visit the reindeer while they had their lunch, it was time for us to get back in the minibus and go for our own lunch, back to the basecamp wooden lavvu. There was hot chocolate as well as the tea and coffee and then there was bidos, vegetable soup with reindeer meat and then marshmallows again. I hadn’t realised how easy it is for people to set fire to marshmallows, I’ve had enough practice to not do it (and also it doesn’t taste nice, Rangers, what is wrong with you?)

I had another go at sledging on the hill, took photos of the place in daylight and then we went back. It was early afternoon but it was cold and wet and windy and cloudy in Tromsø, it was Sunday so everything – but everything – was closed and there was no point in doing anything except going back to bed.

Harstad to Tromsø

I was up much earlier than I would have liked to on Saturday, especially after being up at 5.20am on Friday. I packed, I declined to go and pick up some breakfast from the breakfast room (yes, open it ten minutes early specially for me, so I can look at pickled herring and black bread and decline it…) and then went down to the harbour. It was very easy to find the MS Nordlys – indeed, I could see it from my window, but finding the way to Board was harder, since she was parked behind a warehouse. I followed a taxi and that turned out to be right. Then I walked up the gangplank, since there was nothing stopping me and that turned out to be right also. There was a gleaming reception desk and I presented my piece of paper and was given in return a plastic boarding card with my name, booking number, start point and destination. Then I was pointed at the luggage room and I packed anything important or valuable and went off to explore.

I’d found the outside decks, the one on deck five that runs around the entire ship, the little sundeck on the back of deck six and then big helicopter pad on deck seven and I began to think about finding something to eat or at least to drink, since I’d finished my hard-won bottles of Ribena by now. In the search, I discovered the restaurant, discovered that it served breakfast 7.00 – 10.00 and decided to test it. You just scan your boarding card as you go in and mine flashed green and didn’t object, so I took that to mean I was allowed breakfast. I had nice crusty rolls with butter and pineapple juice – in typical hotel-fashion, the glasses were tiny so I had a second glass and also a mug of apple juice and then I borrowed a couple more rolls for later on.

We set sail while I was still eating but I got onto the deck in time to see Harstad fading into the distance. On our port side we had gleaming white Mountains, on the left an orange and gold sunrise silhouetting black jagged mountains.

I couldn’t have had a more beautiful day for the boat trip. The sky was absolutely clear, the sea was like glass and the sun slowly rose for the first couple of hours, turning the sky all sorts of interesting colours. The moon, a colossal glowing orange circle, gradually set on our port side and Mountains and fjords appeared on all sides – the Hurtigruten makes its way up Norway’s west coast but by the time it reaches the Lofoten and the Vesterålen, it’s making its way through islands and jagged bits and it’s never on the open sea, really, for the rest of the Journey all the way to the Russian border.

It did get colder somewhere around our first stop, at Finnsnes, at around eleven o’clock. I’d fetched my hat from the luggage room about ten minutes out of Harstad and at Finnsnes I fetched my gloves – very handy, the luggage room being always open. I’d noticed at reception they were selling Hurtigruten lanyards, really for hanging your boarding card on if you were travelling more than the six hours I was – the full journey, Bergen to Kirkenes to Bergen is a little over eleven days – but I found it much handier to hang my camera on than having to keep getting it out of my pocket.

I spent a little while every now and then in the Orion lounge at the front, to warm up or to eat my rolls and cheese or just to look at all the People sitting in their chairs in front of the big panoramic windows. Good place to see the view, maybe, but not as good as feeling the wind in your hat – and such a problem my long-tailed hat was! There’s a strong breeze around every outer door, you haul them back and then throw yourself in and the door slams behind you and that hat – the tail streams out behind me and it got caught in just about every door I tried to get through.

As we approached Tromsø, maybe half an hour out, maybe an hour, there was a lecture on the deck seven sundeck, a nice man from the expedition team, whose name I can’t remember, who told us all about the narrow sound we would pass through and about the island in the middle. You can buy it if you want, for twelve million. He didn’t specify twelve million what but it was probably kroner (£1.2m) and may or may not include a few musk oxen. There were once thirty-odd of them there but no one’s sure if any are left now. The island belongs to Tromsø university at the moment.

Under the water is a sunken ship that broached in the fast tidal current in that narrow passageway. The Freya, coming at it, made no effort not to ram it and the dying ship cracked in half, sank, and then exploded. It’s still down there.  Those tidal currents are so powerful that they considered generating power with it but since that’s a big expensive project, it never got off the ground. The nice man doing the talk thought it was still plausible, though, since it’s deep enough there that the turbines wouldn’t disturb either shipping or fish.

Once we were past all that, Tromsø itself came into view, or at least the Arctic Cathedral did. It’s very distinctive and visible quite a long way away, long before I could make out anything else, even the famous bridge which is right next to it. It’s nearly three-quarters of a mile long, 38 metres high – which is frighteningly high if you cross it on foot – and joins the city centre to the Mainland, since Tromsø itself is actually on a triangular island, 10km long by about 3-4km wide.

I’d been looking forward to going under the bridge – indeed, I’d spent some time trying to work out which way we’d go under it. When I was at the Arctic Cathedral at midnight in May 2011, I’d seen a Hurtigruten go under, cathedral on the left, town on the right and yet by my calculations, it should be the other way round – well, that boat had been southbound and we were northbound and anyway, the bridge is north of the dock. As I had at Finnsnes, I enjoyed watching the docking procedure – a huge yellow rope is tied to a small green rope with a rubber ball on the end, that ball is thrown on the dock where someone grabs it (they missed terribly at Finnsnes on the first attempt) and pulls in both ropes to tie the big ship up before throwing the ball and the green rope back on Board.

It was only mid-afternoon and I’d only briefly seen the sun creep above the horizon and already the daylight was fading. I took photos of the ship and then made my way into town. This wasn’t easy – Tromsø’s streets are icy in places. Not everywhere, there are plenty of clear patches but enough to make getting around difficult and I didn’t remember my way around all that well and got a little bit lost.

My hotel, up a very difficult bit of hill, was… well, there was nothing wrong with it. But there was also not much right with it. It was all decorated in black and white and concrete with graffiti-lettering on the doors and directions, there was nothing in the way of storage in the room and although I found the bed very nice and big, they consider these beds doubles as well as singles.

It had already been a long day and I’d had two early mornings in a row so I had a little nap before going back down to the harbour to be picked up for the Northern Lights tour. I’d paused at a supermarket on the way for food and drink and I arrived at the quay just in time to see Nordlys depart.

The Northern Lights trip was over on Kvaløya, Whale Island, Norway’s fifth largest island. We drove through the tunnels on Tromsø island, past two of the five roundabouts, across the bridge – not the big famous bridge but a pretty similar-looking one on the opposite side of the island – past the airport and the famous Airport Art (a multi-million kroner sculpture that looks like nothing more or less than an incredibly expensive version of the traditional Fish drying rack that you see all over the country. The locals are not particularly impressed), onto Whale Island and then up to the basecamp, a set of wooden lavvus, the traditional Sami dwelling, only these aren’t tents.

The Lights were already out, not particularly impressive or indeed particularly obvious to the naked eye. We were lent tripods, Christina helped people work out their settings (I already knew where mine were) and we took photos of the sky. Yes, there were lights. We went down to the beach and took photos of the lights over the sea (which I thought was a lake) and the mountains and then we retreated into the lavvu, where there was a bonfire and tea and coffee and marshmallows to toast. There were always people outside and occasionally we’d venture out to see what there was to be seen. I learned the art of the Aurora Selfie – I was using the two-second self-timer to make sure there was no camera shake when I took my long-exposure photos but when it occurred to me that I had a ten-second timer, I could take photos of myself, provided I could stand reasonably still for thirty seconds.

Christina produced some red plastic discs and some of us climbed up the hill to sledge back down – that was good fun, although the shrieks were misinterpreted inside the lavvu as “there are Lights!” when actually they were just “this is fun!”. It’s hard work climbing the hill – in fact, it’s just hard work getting around because the snow is pretty deep and it’s coated in a layer of ice. If you’re careful, you can walk on it but it doesn’t take much to fall in and I was always falling in.

But the Lights came out properly at last, bright enough to see clearly with the naked eye and they twinkled. Not for long, just long enough to take two or three photos before fading back to the very slightly visible whitish glow. They look much more impressive on camera than they did in real life, I assure you.

When we’d taken all our photos and the lights had faded away, we got back in the bus for our long drive home, interrupted twice. Once by a wild reindeer crossing the road and once because the lights were looking good again. Of course, by then the tripods had been handed back so I couldn’t take any photos of them but yes, they were looking ok.

It was half past one by the time I got home and it had been a very long day.

Heathrow to Harstad

The flight from Heathrow to Evenes was largely uneventful, give or take the woman in front of me – at the back of the plane no less! – who brought two babies with her and drove out the passenger who’d been quietly sitting in her rightful seat next to the window so that the car seat could go there – the car seat that the baby did not spent most of the flight in.

(By the way, if there are weird typos in here, it’s because this Norwegian Library computer is set on putting Capitals where I don’t want them and auto-corrects in ways that just can’t be undone)

When I got to Oslo, I discovered two things. One was that it was really cold and snowy – I don’t know why I never expect it to be snowy there when it always is. It was also so cold that you have to breathe through your nose because air that cold hitting the back of your throat hurts. The second thing I discovered was that the way to transfer from international flight to domestic one is to go through passport control, exit through customs and then re-enter the airport through security. Not anticipating this, I’d bought two lovely bottles of Ribena at Heathrow and I wasn’t going to surrender them without a fight. I thought about just drinking them both in the airport before going through security and then decided I just could’t do that. So I checked in my bag – which I had the right to do, but since I had to travel home on hand luggage only, I’d thought I might as well travel out on hand luggage only. But I checked it in. I wandered Oslo airport, drooled over the smell of pizza and then got on my plane. And also enjoyed The Ballet of the Thirteen Snow Ploughs – thirteen snow ploughs running endlessly around the airport in a long line,
one after the other, all flashing lights and waves of shredded snow.
Considering the distance from plane to terminal is about fifty yards, it took a ridiculous amount of time for the baggage to arrive. The plane had already been late leaving Oslo (“due to absence of crew”) and I didn’t particularly enjoy hanging around at the airport for half an hour for the bag I shouldn’t have checked in in the first place. The plane had been reloaded and had probably left again by the time our luggage arrived.

When I went outside, there was a bus waiting next to a sign that said Harstad but I wasn’t going to fall for this again. Too many times have I got on the wrong bus. I went round the front of it and checked that it had Harstad on the front of the bus too. It did so I boarded, paid 230kr for the journey – that was quite the shock, since I’d been expecting 70ish, but it only comes to about £18 which I suppose isn’t so bad for a journey across the Westerålen of nearly an hour. I arrived at the central bus station, having been expecting at least two hotel drop-offs on the way, neither of them any good for me. I’d planned to go to the bus station anyway but I was lost and confused because what I was seeing didn’t really match my map. So I asked the bus driver, who added further confusion by pointing towards the harbour and saying “that way. Just walk. Quicker than walking.” Did he mean it was quicker to walk? Did he mean that the bus was quicker? Who knew? I set off into the polar night – it was about half past seven and pretty dark and I very soon spotted the Thon Hotel. I know from experience that Thon hotels are always very happy to give you directions, often with a map, but by the time I reached it, I could see my destination.

Harstad is odd. I have never been anywhere in Norway where it feels so small and quiet and yet has so many people stumbling out of bars at relatively early hours. It doesn’t feel threatening exactly but it gives it more of a big city feel than anywhere I’ve been in Fenno-Scandia. Everything was closed, there was no bread anywhere, so I went home, had a bath and went to bed.

Svalbard 2015: the last blog

I am sitting in the lounge of the hotel, next to a very hot radiator and wishing the Norwegians on the other side of the room weren’t there so I could be.

The trouble is that it’s Sunday. Longyearbyen is a ghost town on Sundays. Everything is closed, I’ve seen no more than about three people out and about, there’s a snowstorm, big fat fluffy flakes everywhere, the sky is greyish, yellowish and even the Svalbar, where I thought I could shelter from the storm, doesn’t open until 12.

The other trouble is that you have to check out of your room by 11 and the bus comes at about 12.30 and there is nothing to do in the meantime. You can’t go in the bar, you can’t wander the shops, you can’t even enjoy the scenery.

So I sit next to my radiator and look at the storm raging on.

When I’d sat there long enough, I collected my luggage and went down to the bus stop. Well, I say “bus stop”. The place where the bus stopped when I arrived on Tuesday. I waited and I got cold and a little bit concerned that no one else was there and eventually I went into the Basecamp Hotel where I lurked by the door in the warmth and read their information board which had, amongst other things, the bus timetable.

I waited outside again and soon I was joined by a couple from southern Norway. Well, if there were other people then this must be the right place and time.

Sure enough, the bus turned up. We were all quite cold – we’d packed all the warm clothes that we wouldn’t be needing on the plane but waiting for the bus in a snowstorm wasn’t very warm. At least, the actual snowstorm had passed and the sky had cleared for twenty minutes or so but even then, there was a wind and the snow is so light and powdery that the slightest breeze blows it around and makes it look and feel like an epic storm.

The last thing I saw as we were leaving Longyearbyen was a pair of reindeer who’d wandered into town and were quite happily occupying themselves in the road next to the Radisson.

We drove the mile and a half to the airport, jumped out into pristine new-laid snow and then checked in. My luggage is to go straight to London, no need to worry about collecting it at Tromso. I wasn’t planning to collect it in Tromso, it’s the same plane but I was a bit worried about having to collect it in Oslo where I only have just over an hour to change planes and they have the worst security process in the world, or at least in any European airport I’ve ever been in – so slow! Such queue!

My bag and I made it through security here at Longyearbyen with no problem and there’s a little kiosk on the other side, along with proper tables and chairs. The trouble is, the only drinks I can recognise and make sense of in the kiosk are cold and fizzy and now I’m sitting in an airport with very painful hiccups.

18:28, Oslo Airport Gate 50

Of course, the problem with Svalbard being non-Schengen is you get the opposite on the Svalbard-Tromso-Oslo flight to what you had on the way up. I arrived on, basically, an international flight which meant we started with passport control and this I’d kind of anticipated – hadn’t expected a teeny-tiny room with two very small doors meant to force a planeload of people (from Svalbard. Nowhere else. I refuse to believe Tromso has any other “international” flights) into a bottleneck, leaving most of the people outside in the snow for a while. But there’s worse. Once you’re through passport control, you find yourself at a baggage carousel and there are only two ways out of that room – Nothing To Declare or Something To Declare and of course, once you take one of those routes, you find yourself in the departure hall and have to go back through security to get to your domestic gate, which is an appalling way of managing it and one that, mercifully, Oslo doesn’t mess around with. I initially assumed I was the one who’d done something stupid, that I’d missed a door somewhere, that I shouldn’t have wandered out of the security zone, until I realised there were a few of my fellow Svalbard passengers in the queue, some with their luggage because they were not continuing to Oslo but to somewhere else and therefore needed their luggage on a different plane. But I’d spotted a departure board as I left the luggage carousel which had a flight to Oslo at the top next to the fatal words “gate closing”. And now here I was in a queue to get through infamously slow Norwegian security! But there were other people from my flight and I picked the man behind him and asked if I was in the right place. I was. This ridiculous way is just the way things work at Tromso and it turned out that flight with the gate closing was not mine. In fact, I had time to grab a drink before I re-boarded the very same plane (Tora Viking) that I’d just alighted.

Oslo is much more sensible. Once you’re in, you’re in. There’s a gate separating domestic and international and at the far end of the international, there’s a passport gate separating non-Schengen. So give or take the fact that I turned right instead of left when I stepped into the domestic wing and ended up at the far end instead of in the middle, getting to my plane was much easier here than in Tromso. And now I’m eating the bread that I bought yesterday and the cheese that’s been sitting on my windowsill-fridge and using the free internet. Nearly home.

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.

Svalbard 2015: Longyearbyen

I didn’t have any adventures planned for today.

I got up at a relatively leisurely pace and went into town. Nothing in Longyearbyen opens until 11, so I wandered down the hill towards the Polar Institute and watched the sky behind the mountains to the south east. No, the sun doesn’t rise but yes, the sky does change colour and by the time I was going home for lunch, it was quite an astonishing pale blue – almost a sunrise. The path down the hill is tricky to get down, a bit icy and slippery until you get a quarter of the way down and realise that while you’ve been clinging to the edge, the middle is pure gravel and about as slippery as sandpaper. Coming back up is much easier.

I stopped in the shopping centre. There was a shop inside selling jewellery that I wanted to look at and very quickly established it wasn’t to my taste (I’ve not quite got the hang of currency conversion but I suspect it wasn’t to my taste in pennies either) but they did have some wonderful badges for my camp blanket and that was the one and only important souvenir I desperately wanted. As Svalbard doesn’t have a flag (it’s sufficiently not-Norway to not be part of Schengen but it is sufficiently part of Norway to use their flag. That doesn’t entirely make sense) I had no idea what kind of blanket badge I could get but a badge I indeed have.

Next stop was Svalbardbuttiken – the supermarket-vínbúð-department store-junk shop. I had run out of anything to drink and was getting low on bread, plus my face was starting to freeze. But the trouble with leaving -9 outside and wandering around a heated supermarket for a while, while still wearing the outdoors clothes is that you reach a point where you just overheat and that came as I was waiting to be served, when I could have yelled “forget them, serve me before I die of heatstroke!” (I didn’t. I am good. Sweaty, but quiet). I found the real drinks, hiding away right at the back, next to the baby food, nowhere near the fridges full of cans and juice and 800 types of milk. I knew there was some kind of blackcurrant syrup somewhere on the island because I was given some yesterday out on the snow scooters and told that they drink a lot of it but I hadn’t spotted it before.

The last stop, after I’d paused on the road behind the shop to behold the really light blue sky, was one of the outdoors shops. The majority of Longyearbyen’s shops sell the sort of warm clothes you need to survive this climate and since I already have those clothes, I haven’t been in them thus far. I don’t really know why I did today but as I prowled and contemplated buying a Svalbard woolly hat, I spied water bottles and flasks, an entire rack of them, all stamped with a little map of Svalbard and I couldn’t resist. It’s come in handy for drinking that blackcurrant syrup, although I was getting on fine with the mugs provided in the room when I was drinking the apple and mango juice.

Actually, the last last stop I made was the tourist information centre next door, and finally I found one of these mythical places where you take your shoes off when you come in. I acquired a map of the town at long last and a glimpse of the airport bus timetable. When you look more closely at the map, you see that Longyearbyen is highlighted in pale pink and you don’t think much of it at first – emphasis that here is the only town on the archipelago but no, the pink is to show this is a polar bear-safe zone, this is where you don’t need to carry a rifle. Incidentally, because it’s dark, you can see right into any window where the lights are on inside and I have observed stuffed polar bears in a lot of windows. They’re protected now and although you can shoot them in self-defence, it’ll still result in an enquiry by the governor but I suspect in less careful times, they’d kill them and then find themselves with a huge body to deal with – the answer seeming to be “just stuff it and give it to someone”. I don’t know. I’m guessing, based on what I’ve spotted.

In the afternoon, I ambled up to the swimming pool (followed the “main road” rather than the footpath through town and decided that’s not the best way to do it – no visible pavement under the snow and I’m not wearing anything reflective. All the kids here wear hi-viz vests and all the adults wear either reflective sashes, armbands, or my favourite, the blue flashing LED armbands) only to find that the pool doesn’t open until 5. At least, I was fairly sure of that. I was certain that reception wasn’t open and I attempted to interpret the Norwegian sign up next to it. But my Norwegian isn’t even as good as my Icelandic and the two languages don’t look as closely related as they’re said to be. I like to think I would have been able to understand much better if it had been in Icelandic. I came home and I didn’t do very much until quarter to five.

The pool was open and the Shower Ordeal is alive and well here too. The pool is upstairs, which is weird, and a third of it is a five-metre deep diving pool. I’m not a huge fan of swimming over deep water, even if it’s only in an indoor swimming pool, even though I know two metres, five metres, makes no difference, so I stuck to the shallow end and played in the water like a child. There were quite a lot of people there – not “quite a lot” like at home, but quite a lot considering there are only 2000 people on this archipelago. 20 or so people in the pool means 1% of everyone. Imagine 65,000 people in one swimming pool at home.

On the way back, the five or ten minute walk back through the town, across the bridge, daydreaming about what would happen if a polar bear strolled across the street, my hair froze. Of course it did. It had been -9 at lunchtime. I have no idea what it would be by evening but probably colder and I had wet hair which I had deliberately not put inside my hat because it would get my hat wet. It froze! It went solid and I could bend it as if it was made of pipecleaners! It didn’t freeze so badly that it just snapped off but frozen hair!

Of course, after that, there was only one thing left to do with the last of a very cold dark evening. I had a bath.

Tomorrow I’m doing the local sightseeing tour in the morning (the Global Seedbank, the mines etc) and in the afternoon, I’m going looking for the Northern Lights. The website hasn’t mentioned snow scooters so I’m assuming a bus of some kind. I’ve definitely had my fill of snow scooters. It was cloudy for the first couple of days but the cloud has lifted today and I’ve seen stars and actual blue-ish sky so that’s promising for seeing the lights.

Svalbard 2015: snow scooters

I’ve always called these things snowmobiles but apparently on Svalbard they’re snow scooters.

That’s what I did today. Body clock completely confused by the neverending darkness, I didn’t wake up until 9.20 this morning and still wasn’t entirely awake by the time Alex picked me up to take me for a ride on the scooters.

We were given special padded boots, overalls, balaclavas, helmets and finally big mittens (no real need to take your own big warm clothes; if you’re doing anything outside, they’ll provide it all) and we were shown how to use the scooters, on a huge one they’d somehow got not just inside the building but upstairs. At least, I thought it was huge, but Alex said these are the small ones. It’s bigger than the one I drove in Iceland, I’m sure.

We had a scooter each – none of this business of two people to a scooter, one drives out and one drives back. We all drove all the way. We had to cross the road twice but that was ok – very little traffic in Longyearbyen – and then off we went across a knobbly rocky field while I made “I don’t like it!” noises as we bumped and skidded and the engines kangarooed because they weren’t warmed up yet. The handlebars had heating and we could fiddle with that if we wanted but there was really no need -if the gloves could protect us from the snowstorm, they could protect us from chilly rubber handles.

We stopped not far away from town -Alex had spotted a small herd of wild reindeer nibbling on the sparse grass, reindeer who felt it was worth taking the chance that we might kill them over using their energy supplies to run away from the food. We kept our distance – didn’t want to scare them away from the food but we got quite close considering they’re wild reindeer living on an island where everything from the climate to the environment to the wildlife is trying to kill them. Unlike Jakob yesterday, Alex has seen polar bears and this is the area they tend to be seen in, but he thought it was unlikely there would be any. The population of bears on Svalbard has tripled in the last few years, research says they’re very well-fed around here and they’re venturing into human areas more and more often. They’re often followed by Arctic foxes, so if you see little fox footprints, there might well be a bear nearby. The foxes like to eat the bears’ leftovers and there are apparently lots of foxes – about five separate populations. There’s the one that hangs out by the sea with the bears, the one that follows the reindeer, the urban ones that no one is confessing to feeding and I forget the other two – all Arctic foxes but using five different strategies to get food.

Stop two was at the Iron Beds. Every local guide has their own story about why there are two iron bed frames abandoned in the middle of the valley. Alex’s version, which he claims to be the boring truth, is that they were renovating a hut further up the valley and bringing stuff back on the dog sled when they discovered that the river was higher than usual so they simply abandoned everything in their quest to get home without drowning. The Iron Beds are now a landmark and they’re also a race – when the snow comes, who can be the first person to get out to them?

Our last stop was next to a pingo, a sort of bubble of a mountain formed over thousands of years when an air bubble trapped in the ice gets forced up and out by ice expansion. I have no idea how this work. I know the pingo was the bed of the river but how could the ice bubble be underneath the ground? We stopped for coffee or hot blackcurrant (much less dehydrating than coffee and much more sugary – very popular in winter with the snow scooterers) and I tried to take some photos of the scenery. It’s hard because you can see plenty. Yes, it’s dark but the snow is very white and your eyes adapt to the tiniest bit of light from the sky but the camera’s not seeing it at all. I was glad the scooters had headlights but you can get off and amble around with no lights whatsoever and it’s fine. It’s dark. That doesn’t mean it’s pitch black, even miles from civilisation. We were supposedly travelling about 35km. I assume that’s half there, half back but I’ll find out how far I was from town when I get home to a computer that can cope with my GPS tracker. I guess we must have been about ten miles from home, which is actually quite a long way to ride even on a big chunky snow scooter. It does get easier and less scary after a while – it gets smoother if you can get some speed up and it’s a lot easier when it’s flat and smooth. We drove in convoy with me in the middle because I happened to jump on scooter number two back in town.

Having made a few stops on the way out, we drove the entire way back in one go. My hand kept getting cramp from holding the throttle and if the wind went the wrong way, it went under my visor and froze my face but other than that, no, it actually wasn’t particularly cold driving along at 30-35kph.

At least, that’s what I thought. Until I got home and discovered that everything other than hands, feet and face was stone cold and needed to be put on the heated bathroom floor for a couple of hours to defrost. All the same, I had begun to wonder if Svalbard is better in summer when it’s all covered in sunshine and wild flowers and I’ve concluded that it’s not. You can’t go dogsledding, you can’t ride snow scooters and you can’t… well, I don’t know what else there is to do. I don’t think there’s much skiing or snowboarding here, not least because you’re risking polar bears if you leave town (although they’re making the polar bears sound less of a problem than they sounded when I was doing the reading before I came here). I suppose kayaking on the fjords opens up in summer, boat trips etc.

No idea what my plans are for tomorrow. I’d like to go looking for the Northern Lights before I leave but it’s been so cloudy it hasn’t been possible. Of course, clouds mean lovely fluffy snowflakes falling from the sky and that’s very nice too,