Around the Archipelago
Even after living in Svalbard for 12 years, the majesty of her adopted home sends a thrill up our spines. Especially when she joins a circumnavigation of these northern islands.
WORDS ANIKA PAUST
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Living in Longyearbyen is unique – comfortable, yet unlike anywhere else in the world. There is simplicity here. We only have one grocery store, so you’re never chasing sales or wondering where to buy milk. Other things, while mind-boggling at first, become normal – like watching a mother push a pram along the road with a large-calibre rifle hanging from her shoulder. Sometimes, however, you get to experience it through fresh eyes, and remember how special it is.
It’s mid-June, and I drive the five kilometres to the airport, the northernmost stop in the world for scheduled flights. Today is no ordinary day – it is the start of my summer holiday, although the 6°C showing on the dashboard means my Australian heart struggles to accept it as summer. We’ve already had two months of long evenings under the midnight sun, but the snow-capped mountains and distant glimpses of glaciers definitely confuse the issue. This time, I won’t head south to the heat, however; I am not even going to leave Svalbard. Instead, I’ll be joined by an old friend visiting from Australia, and we’ll be joining an attempted circumnavigation of the entire archipelago.
I stand in the arrivals hall, peering quizzically at the polar bear in the middle of the baggage claim. Suddenly, I hear my name called and look up to see my friend bearing down upon me, arms outstretched, an incredulous smile on her face. “You never said the flight was so scenic,” she says, almost accusingly. My mind returns to images from my last flight – the soaring mountains, the blue-white glacier tongues, the formations of snow and stone – and I smile sheepishly. “Well, you do get used to it,” I respond. We drive back to town along the main road, a bumpy strip of broken bitumen along the water of the Adventfjord. “How do you stay on the road,” my friend asks. I assume she means the quality of the road, but she gestures to the left and right: “The mountains, the fjord, it’s amazing!” The next day, we board MS Fram. Seeing the ship in the harbour is so normal to me now, but I feel my excitement grow as I board. This time, I am going with them, rather than waving others goodbye. We arrive at reception, matching ear-to-ear grins on our faces. The next hour or so goes past in a blur – finding our cabin, peering out the window at Longyearbyen, heading to the safety briefing – then, when we are sitting at our dinner table, my friend says, “Look, there’s no mobile service!” She looks slightly disconcerted about being disconnected from the world.
Facing the midnight sun
After dinner we rush to the top deck and stand against the railings, watching my familiar world disappear. Then we choose spots in the Explorer Bar, near the panoramic windows, and talk long into the night while searching for whales under the midnight sun. We wake the next morning in Kongsfjorden. I feel somewhat disoriented to see a different set of soaring mountains outside the window, but the feeling quickly passes as I am caught up in my friend’s excitement: “There are icebergs in the water!” I suggest breakfast, but in the end we compromise – we head to the restaurant with coats and cameras, so as to make the most of the morning. The air on the deck is fresh and clean, and birds vie for our attention as we try to capture the intricate ice formations in the water with our lenses. A call over the PA system pulls us out of our revery, and we hurry down the stairs to join our group for the first off-boat experience: a trip to an abandoned mining camp, where a wayward Australian once tried to mine marble from beneath the frozen tundra. The story is fascinating, and the views amazing. A cheeky polar fox runs out in front of us, and our guide tells us the story of one that was tagged and ran from Svalbard to Greenland. I ponder the sights it must have seen in the vast Arctic wilderness.
Wildlife and wilderness
The days pass filled with mountains and whales, glaciers and reindeer, and my friend asks if this is still ‘normal’. I have to admit, I am seeing new sides of my Arctic home. Towards the northernmost reaches of Spitsbergen, at around 80º north, we prepare for another landing. As we approach, I realise we are not heading to the beach. The boat driver points, and 16 eyes focus in one direction. We see, at the top of a rise, the shape of a mighty polar bear. The bear casually surveys the area, seemingly unaware of the effect it has on the spectators below, a couple of hundred metres away. The tourists marvel at the sight, and I find myself sharing the same awe as my fellow passengers as we stare at the king of the Arctic. I don’t even think to raise my camera. A crackled call comes over the radio: “Polar bear at the landing site. We will go to plan B.” As we turn away from the bear and speed back past the wall of glittering ice, birds fly around us and I find myself realising I want to know all the plan Bs, see all the places, explore my island home again and again. I’ve spent 12 years in the Arctic, and here I am, amazed again by the raw beauty of Svalbard. In a couple of months the sun will set, and the northern lights and snow will dominate the ever-changing landscape. I turn to my friend: “Any plans for your next holiday?”