Svalbard

Sunday Express, March 11, 2012

Northern star that lit up the Frozen Planet

DUNCAN CRAIG ventures to the Arctic Circle to explore Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago that featured in the BBC’s wildly popular series

HUSKIES love to run. They will do so to exhaustion given half a chance. What they aren’t so good at is waiting patiently to be harnessed by a ham-fisted tourist with cold fingers and a limited rapport with animals.

By the time I attach the final two, the sledge looks about ready to take off, Santa style. “If you fall off don’t, whatever you do, let go,” says lead musher Robert over the canine din. “The sledge will end up in Greenland.”

I don’t want that to happen, not least because Robert carries a Magnum. Gripping the rail until my knuckles are as white as the landscape, I release the brake and we shoot out into the Arctic night.

Svalbard will be familiar to many even if its name is not. Nowhere featured more prominently in Frozen Planet, the most successful natural history series of all time. From roaming polar bear cubs to waddling walruses and foraging Arctic foxes, nearly a third of all filming took place on this isolated archipelago 1,300 miles north-east of Iceland.

Discovered in 1596 by Dutchman Willem Barentsz, it is subject to a pre-war treaty that gives Norway sovereignty but a group of signatory countries freedom of access. The result is an improbable blend of Norwegians, Thais, Ukrainians, Swedes and Russians. Turnover is high, a transient population among the permafrost. As a Norwegian businessman tells me on the flight in: “Svalbard is for everybody. We’re just looking after it.”

I arrive in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town, as it is gearing up for “Soldagen”. This is the day the sun finally inches above the gargantuan flat-topped mountains that encircle this former mining settlement after four months of Polar Night.

It is a wonderful time to visit, a sense of hibernation ending, limbs being stretched, life resuming. “Everyone has a spring in their step,” says one local. That and the complexions of snooker players.

You would never describe Longyearbyen as pretty; at 78 degrees North, function trumps form every time. “Please close your eyes for this bit,” is a common refrain from Viggo Antonsen, who runs guided tours for visitors in his well-heated minibus.

However, it is not without its charm. Pastel-hued chalets ensconced in snow; sailing boats lapped by a languid polar sea; a terracotta-timbered church with graceful spire. Even the pre-war mining infrastructure grows on you. Disappearing up the mountainsides like medieval pylons, these are protected by heritage laws, frozen in time.

Protruding from the snow with its walkway and fibre-optic panels, the ‘doomsday vault’ looks like a gateway to another world. Which, in a way, it is

At the top of a snaking mountain road on the edge of town we find the Global Seed Vault, a repository containing samples of nearly every variety of food crop on the planet. The reinforced steel entrance of this “doomsday vault” protrudes from the deep snow. With its walkway and fibre-optic panels, it looks like a gateway to another world. Which, in a way, it is.

We hop out for a quick look (you cannot go in) and are immediately joined by one of Viggo’s colleagues brandishing a high-calibre rifle. Polar bears outnumber the 2,500 inhabitants of Svalbard and while they are rarely spotted near areas of population, a weapon is mandatory outside settlements.

It is illegal to seek bears out or hunt them. It is not a mutual arrangement. Attacks on humans occasionally happen, with a British schoolboy killed during a remote camping expedition last year.

It is therefore a relief to have Martin Eriksen with us the following day as we set off on a journey into “the heart of the great alone”. Well, a boutique hotel for lunch.

If anyone can pick out the right bit of white to shoot at in a crisis it is this 30-year-old former Norwegian army sniper. Kitted out in survival suits we snake up the glacier to the south of town on skidoos, a blend of jet-ski and Harley.

By the time we reach the 2,400ft pass, heavy snow has set in. The white-out is an unsettling phenomenon, a sort of all-seeing blindness. In such conditions it is easy to see how, in their torturous race to the South Pole, Amundsen once mistook dog droppings a few feet in front of him for his arch-rival Scott’s team on the horizon.

Dropping down into the fjord, visibility improves. We weave through narrow gulleys and over vast plains dotted with stout Svalbardian reindeer. Accelerating across a frozen river a mile wide there is an exhilarating sensation of outrunning cracking ice.

Poor weather prevents us reaching the chic lodge at Isfjord Radio, a converted telecommunications station. We detour instead to a candidate for the world’s strangest town. Barentsburg is a Russian settlement as intriguing as it is desolate: 20ft-high communist murals adorn crumbling walls, ramshackle wooden houses lean at precarious angles and residents stagger along icy roads, the conditions only partly responsible for their unsteadiness.

We look up to see the spectral glow of the Northern Lights swirling across the clear night sky. Locals are on first-name terms with ‘Aurora’, though she’s a fickle friend

The antiquated coal mine here sprinkles the snow with a fine layer of soot but there are whispers that it is just a pretext for a continued Russian presence on strategically located Svalbard. A literal and metaphorical smokescreen, if you will.

Apres-skidoo is a Svalbardian institution. Back at the Spitsbergen Hotel, we gather around the fire-lit, wood-panelled library on Chesterfield sofas and warm up with a fortifying aquavit.

There is refinement in this town if you dig a little. Huset, a faintly forbidding building across the valley, was once the miners’ social club. Today it is a concert hall and fine-dining restaurant with pianist, wine cellar and an Arctic menu offering such delights as roast reindeer, venison black pudding and sea buckthorn sorbet.

“Tonight, we will be serving rainbow,” the maître d’ announces at the start in a rare linguistic slip up. Such is the wonderful air of unpredictability in this outpost, you’d hardly be surprised.

You never know who, or what, you might run into. Wandering back to the hotel one evening after one too many cognacs in the fashionably gloomy Karls-Berger Pub, we look up to see the spectral glow of the Northern Lights swirling across the clear night sky. Locals are on first-name terms with “Aurora”, though she’s a fickle friend. “Definitely a she,” one tells me, “so unpredictable.”

We also run into Jason Roberts, naturalist and producer on Frozen Planet. This dry-witted Aussie has lived in Svalbard for 20 years and grudgingly admits that no one has seen more of this archipelago. What does he love about it? “You grab your skidoo and in a minute you’re in the wilderness. Yet you’re only a six-hour flight from London,” he says. “It is the accessible Arctic.”

Our dog-sledging expedition comes on the final night. As we glide through the pristine snow, a light panting the only noise from the engine, it is truly peaceful. Marvelling at the surroundings, I begin to ease my grip.

The dogs can run to Greenland if they like, I’m staying right here.

* GETTING THERE: Discover The World (01737 214291/www.discoverthe-world.co.uk) offers a four-night package to Svalbard from £1,122pp (two sharing). Price includes return flights with SAS (0871 226 7760/www.flysas.co.uk) from Heathrow to Longyearbyen, one night in Oslo en route and three nights at the Spitsbergen Hotel. Svalbard Husky (www.svalbardhusky.no) offers dog-sledging expeditions from £120pp (four hours). Poli Arctici (www.poliarctici.com)/Svalbard Scooterutleie (www.scooterutleie.net) offer skidooing expeditions from £155pp.
Svalbard tourism: www.svalbard.net
Northern Norway: www.nordnorge.com/en
Visit Norway: 020 7389 8800/www.visitnorway.co.uk