About 15 years ago, I went on a brief trip to the Arctic island of Spitsbergen (Svalbard) with my friend, David Willis. Recently, watching the TV series Fortitude, I was reminded of our visit to that extraordinary place at the edge of the world.
Fortitude, although filmed in Iceland, is set in Svalbard. Only the name has been changed. Everything else (the Norwegian governor, the coal mining and research settlements, the Russian settlement nearby, the nightclub, the “more polar bears than humans”, the legal requirement to carry a rifle for defence against bears) is immediately recognisable to anyone who has been there.
All my life, I have been fascinated by the far north, so when I discovered that there were scheduled flights from Oslo to Longyearbyen, I leapt at the opportunity. David agreed to join me on this crazy adventure. In advance of the trip I read everything I could find about Svalbard (including terrifying stories of visitors and students who, having ignored the warnings to carry a rifle, were eaten by bears).
We were there at night. It was December, and the sun would not rise until February. It remained pitch dark the entire time we were there; even at midday there was not a trace of light in the southern sky. So the photos on this page were taken in the dark.
It’s hard to get used to the polar night. Walking around in the dark, I kept thinking “I wonder what these mountains, this valley, will look like in the daylight tomorrow morning”, forgetting that there would be no daylight, no morning.
We chose not to carry rifles while walking around in and near the settlement. This resulted in a constant state of low-level terror as we stumbled around the snowy landscape in the dark. There are lots of small reindeer in Svalbard. They have short legs and white bottoms. In the dark, a reindeer looks much like a polar bear. (In the dark, to a sufficiently nervous tourist, a pile of snow or rocks looks like a polar bear.)
The aurora borealis was a huge highlight of the trip. Playing high overhead all the time, curtains of green light moving through the sky, lending an air of magic and unreality to the scene. When I saw it, I just lay down on the snow on the hillside, staring up at it.
The nightclub in Longyear town is called Huset (the house). Huset is in the “suburb” of Nybyen, 2 kilometres up the Longyear valley, at the other end of the only road on the island. If you want to go to any of the other settlements, you have to go by snow machine, by dogsled, by boat, by air or on foot.
On our first “night” we were sitting in the hotel bar, and at a certain point everyone around us started chanting “huset, huset“. Then a bus arrived and everyone piled in, so David and I did too. On the bus, they kept chanting “huset, huset” and we were amazed that they seemed so excited about it, given that it’s essentially the only nightlife on the island. But many of the miners spend the week in Sveagruva, only coming back to Longyear town at the weekend to let their hair down.
Huset was a bit wild – there are far more men than women; there’s a bit of a “tough guy” frontier culture and the drink is cheap (at least by comparison with Norway). But it was good fun and we stayed out of trouble.
We hadn’t brought any winter clothes – no coat, no hat – when we got on the bus to the nightclub. In fact, dressed for the warmth of the hotel bar, we weren’t even wearing jumpers when we followed everyone into the bus. When we emerged from the nightclub, there we were in our shirtsleeves. We couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity of this; standing there in our shirtsleeves at 78° north in the middle of December, in the middle of the icy wilderness, in the middle of the polar night. We walked back to the hotel, drunk and happy, fortunate that the conditions were unseasonably warm.
There are many adventurous things to do on Svalbard. You can go on guided day-long or multi-day trips by snow machine or by boat to see amazing things, both man-made (abandoned settlements) and natural (bird cliffs and glaciers). These activities are quite expensive, however, and may not be available in December when it’s dark and the sea is frozen. We signed up for one activity; a visit to one of the coal mines. This coal mine is rather special, because it’s the location of the Global Seed Vault, a secure “gene bank” where seeds are stored as a backup in case of catastrophe. I found a small piece of hard coal and kept it as a souvenir.
I hope I will one day have the opportunity to go back to Svalbard, to experience once again this utterly special place. Maybe in spring next time!