Part Two by Brian Spencer
It took us all night to sail north with the G Expedition in order to meet the polar ice flow, a weird fog shrouded bleak mass with no other humans for at least a thousand miles. Even Ursus Maritimus, (ice or polar bears) were not around, so it was decided to land on the ice and take a short stroll. Captain Nesterov edged the G Expedition deep into the ice, relying on its recently re-enforced steel bows. The ship reverberated with the sound of ice against the hull and the occasional rumble of bow thrusters.
By now we were almost as experienced at boarding the Zodiacs as members of the Special Boat Squadron and the sudden thump as we rode up on to the ice was of no consequence. To stand on the flow was a strange experience. There were no waves and below us were thousands of feet of icy cold sea water and to make matters worse, our mother ship and safety seemed to have disappeared. Fortunately it was only hidden by a mini-ice berg, but it was strange to feel out of touch with safety and comfort. For all we knew there was a bear just waiting round the next corner.
The guide in charge of each boat was armed with a huge flare pistol as the first line of defence against bear attack. If that failed there was a high-powered rifle to bring home the point that we did not welcome the immediate presence of a hungry bear. Fortunately and because the landing area was carefully checked, the use of either flare gun or rifle was never needed.
While we were out on the ice the weather changed and it became bitterly cold, but even with low-lying clouds it was strangely peaceful to experience one of the world’s remotest places. Despite this remoteness we saw a couple of seals resting on the ice, totally oblivious to our presence. A fog came down and the crackle of radios and the hissing of the ice were the only sounds. This was when we could appreciate the warmth of our parkas and more to the point, the comfort and excellent food waiting for us when we returned to the G Expedition.
Turning south we made for Ny Ålesund, another former coal mining settlement, but this time rather more attractive than Longyearbyen. Nowadays it is occupied by research stations of nations from all over the globe, but what kind of research is going on can only be assumed. The place is literally festooned with satellite dishes, all pointing directly upwards, aimed at polar orbiting satellites, collecting data worldwide.
In the early days of powered flight several attempts to fly fixed winged aircraft over the pole failed with tragic consequences. The first successful flight was when the Norwegian polar explorer Amundsen together with the Italian aviator Nobile and American associate Elsworth flew the airship Norge 1 in a seventy hour flight from Ny Ålesund, over the North Pole to Alaska. The pylon from which Norge 1 departed is still there, looking for all the world like part of an abandoned power line, together with a plaque commemorating the epic journey. All around is the semi-bog-like tundra that looks strangely like the summit ridge of Bleaklow in the Dark Peak.
Half a century of exploiting the rich coal seams in this part of the Kongsfjorden (King’s Fjord) led to the establishment of several buildings, including a railroad, a hospital and school. Originally it was home to seventy-odd miners and their families, until a tragic accident killed twenty two of their numbers in the early 1960s, when mining ceased for good. Now home to a mainly scientific community primarily studying atmospherics, 30 people live at Ny Ålesund all year round with the number rising to well over a hundred souls in summer, to say nothing of the keen adventure travellers who come to study the wildlife. There is a small museum, the most northerly post office in the world and also a large team of sledge dogs idling away time until the snows return.
In the afternoon we sailed across the fjord to Ny London (New London), the site in the 1920s of a failed attempt to quarry marble from deep within the hillside. A rather shady London businessman named Mansfield decided he could make a fortune from this scheme and persuaded others to invest considerable amounts of money. With it he built railroads, surface buildings and cranes, but unfortunately for him and his backers, the Svalbard marble had been badly weathered by the permafrost and proved worthless. The first shipment expected to be worth £20,000 crumbled into gravel when it arrived in England.
Much remains of this site of failed industry, with two houses and several industrial remnants dotting the landscape, together with the original quarry. This was just one of the free-for-all that once existed in Svalbard when the place was like another Klondike. Along with coal, lead, copper, iron, zinc and even gold have been found in marginally exploitable quantities. Oil and gas trial boreholes were drilled between 1963 and 1994, but so far no wells have been sunk.
As the captain facetiously put it, we sailed overnight into what he called ‘the Tropics of Svalbard’, in other words due south along Forlandsundet. Our final day of the voyage began under blue skies patch-worked with a multi-layered tapestry of clouds. However, winds were strong from the northwest and so the G Expedition turned to port and into the protected waters of Trygghamna and dropped anchor off the impressive peninsula of Alkhornet. A rock monolith, which is the area’s centrepiece, towers above the surrounding tundra, providing a mighty windbreak. Within its shelter, landing would not be a problem.
With the sun pounding down we made it to the shore in our faithful Zodiacs and began to explore the verdant carpet of luxurious mosses and flowering plants. Soon after landing a group of reindeer commanded our attention while they casually grazed the gentle hillside. Further on, a couple of arctic foxes emerged from their den amidst rocks on the Alkhornet plain. Such is the tameness of wildlife on Svalbard that one just looked towards us and then promptly fell asleep in the warming sun. It stayed liked that for an hour, never stirring despite the presence of human beings a mere hundred meters away. A small kit came out of the den, looked around and darted back again, repeating this teasing activity several times.
During lunch, the ship repositioned itself deep into Isfjorden and dropped anchor for the final time of the trip in the small bay of Skansbukta. This is a special area, both geologically and botanically, based on Carboniferous Limestone and Permian rocks, the main strata of central Svalbard. Here we found tiny arctic plants thriving on the sparse alkaline tundra soil: Boreal Jacob’s Ladder the dwarf arctic version of the rarity that blooms in the upper reaches of our Lathkill Dale and Dwarf Scurvy Grass, once a rich source of Vitamin C in the early days of sail. Tiny ground hugging trees like Dwarf Birch and Net-leaved Willow seem to thrive in the short growing season.
A hut, storm damaged railway lines and a mine entrance at the foot of the towering cliffs are all that remains of yet another failed mining operation, this time for gypsum in 1918. A short Zodiac cruise carried us beneath those towering cliffs to the east of the fjord helped us watch the brazen antics of Atlantic Puffins and a whole aviary of different sea birds nesting and resting on tier upon tier of cliff ledges – a perfect end to a magical trip that had taken us close to the North Pole.
With Longyearbyen having little to attract us, we opted for the first of two daily flights from the high arctic back to Oslo. Unfortunately the flight was at 07:30 and it meant an early start, but with 1271 miles over the cold waters of the Barents Sea and narrow mountainous length of Norway slipping away quickly below us, we managed to arrive back in Oslo in time for a late lunch at an outside café on the sunny Jernbanetorget Square in front of Oslo’s Central Station.