Pauline Visits Svalbard
On a cold dark February morning I set off via Oslo to the remote outpost in the middle of the Arctic Ocean – the islands of Svalbard positioned only 650 miles south of the North Pole. The temperature on arrival was a cool -30 centigrade but I had prepared well with my merino wool thermals, ski trousers, fleece and ski jacket and was definitely toasty in this cold but very dry air.
Svalbard is a place where the sun dips behind the horizon in October and does not start to rise again until mid February – it then gets 20 minutes lighter per day until the latter end of April, from then on, it is 24 hour daylight until the end of August when the first sunset arrives and it then slowly month by month descends into darkness once again. The three seasons are known as the Northern Lights Winter, the Sun Winter and the Polar Summer. Each season is unique, and boasts widely differing experiences.
I stayed at the Funken Lodge for three nights. Dating back to the late 1940’s, the lodge was used to house administration and mining workers but since then has passed through a few hands and is now a modern, very comfortable lodge with a fine restaurant, great bar and a really wonderful friendly atmosphere. At the lower entrance you leave your shoes in a rack (a Svalbard Tradition) and wear your slippers so automatically I felt at home in this relaxed well run hotel.
The next morning I visited the Svalbard museum in the small town of Longyearbyen to learn a little of the history of these far flung islands – This is a great comprehensive museum which quickly takes you through its fascinating history. From when the islands were discovered in the 16th century, through to whaling, mining and why the Global Seed bank is here. it has a community feel to it as you also learn about the present day inhabitants and I am surprised to find out various nationalities reside here – this museum is definitely a must to understand these islands.
‘Thousands of tired, stressed, civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home, that wilderness is a necessity.’
Svalbard Wildlife Service 2003
Afterwards we headed out into the wilderness for an afternoon of dog sledging. We meet the dogs who seem way too over excited to greet us but after we help the guide to harness them and they start to pull the sledge – silence descends and you are free to sit back and enjoy the beauty of the snowy wilderness.
That evening we headed out to Camp Barents away from the lights of Longyearbyen to hopefully get a glimpse of the Northern Lights – Svalbard is one of the best places to view this and we settled in at the traditional lodge for an evening of story telling and a tasty meal. Unfortunately snow clouds had descended and we were not going to have much luck tonight with the lights, perhaps another time….
Early start the next day for the main event – a snow mobile journey to the now unused coal mine at Svea. I had never been on a snow mobile before so was looking forward to this great adventure. Our guide was a former coal miner and he took great care that we all knew what we were doing and how to control the vehicle, which I haveto admit did take me some getting use to. We set off on our journey across a frozen lake before heading up and over mountains and narrow passes before arriving at the coal mine. We dined with the coal miners and were shown around this other worldly place which felt like stepping back in time and history. After lunch, a fresh batch of snow had fallen – in fact about a foot and darkness was descending quickly – feeling rather nervous about the new found conditions, I was assured I would be fine and to just go for it. It was one of the most exhilarating and nerve wrecking days of my life, we covered a mere 150 kms, battled complete white outs where my only guide was the red light of the snow mobile in front, veered off the passage many times but always managed to get back on track without falling off. By the time we got back to base I was utterly exhausted but felt a great sense of accomplishment and was looking forward to a well earned beer in the downtown ‘Sval Bar’.
The last morning we were able to do a quick bit of shopping before saying goodbye to these islands – I have vowed to go back when the days are longer so I can truly see these beautiful islands in all their glory. They offer so much from snow mobiles, ice caves, electric fat bikes in the summer months, ski day trips, great hiking opportunities to expedition cruises in the summer months in search of polar bears, arctic foxes, basking seals and walrus and also the magnificent glacier studded coastlines.
Svalbard is a true wilderness waiting to be discovered.
Have a look at a few trips to give you a taster and contact me to put together your very own trip.