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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

His Dark Materials

Why would you go to a place where the sun doesn't shine: darkness rules for 24 hours, where the temperature is around -13 centigrade and snow is everywhere.

The rational was that my mate and I wanted to see the Northern Lights and the further north you went the longer it was dark and the better the change to see the jangly stuff in the sky.

The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard was ideal. Civilisation, in the shape of the town Longyearbyen was 78 degrees north. So far into the Arctic Circle that you could smell the North Pole. An ideal resort for Northern Lights watching you'd have thought.

Last Thursday morning at 2 am we landed at Longyearbyen airport, having stopped off at Tromso to pick up a few Russians and go through passport control. The airport is functional, clean and efficient - just like the Norwegians. Although Oslo let down the whole of the Norwegian nation by losing our luggage. They found it and it went with us to 78 degrees north.

We were between planes in Oslo - 8hrs so we headed for the bright lights. The efficiency, cleanliness and sheer loveliness of Norge trains is enough to make one weep. We went from a super ultra modern airport to a super modern railway station in no time - the wi-fi didn't work, but that was not an issue.

Oslo is lovely. Well it would be if it wasn't so dark. We went to the tourist office and asked what we could see between then and having to leave to catch our plane. The answer was very little. The Norwegians are not like us. They value  a sensible work/ home balance. You're encourage to stop working at 5 pm, not to do overtime and to take holidays. This means that most of the places we'd like to have seen (the Viking Museum, the Munch gallery, Ibsen's house) would be closed by the time we got to them.

So we walked the streets, in the rain, in the dark. Think Winchester but colder. We ended up at a Thank God It's Friday restaurant. I have never been to one before. The place was humming, all young blond muscle bound guys and gals knocking back smoothies and mega burgers. I know 'cause I had one: it was sensational. But it got me thinking. If the Osloeans all finish work at 5 pm who serves the burgers, beers and baps afterwards?

We flew to Longyearbyen via the coastal town of Tromso. I'm told it lovely but by the time we arrived it was blacked out as was most of that latitude.

I got to bed at 3 pm on Thursday morning after having had a bath to wash away the near 24 hours of travel. We were up at 7:30 am for breakfast to be in time to catch the bus to take us to our snow mobile adventure.

Had I known how violent an activity snow mobiling  would be, I possible would have forgone the extremely tasty but very heavy plates of cured meats, fish and grains that equate to a full English this far north.

We had been incredibly well prepared for the sub -zero temperature we'd face at lat 78. It had all be extremely well researched. Double layered over jacket, with detachable inner lining, long johns and vests made out of Merino wool, heavy jumpers, socks knitted by gnarled ancients in the Andes as well as hats and scarves that Captain Scott would have envied...along snow boots and snow grips to put on one's snow shoes and super efficient mittens.

When we arrived at the snow mobile school, we stripped off most of the hugely researched and rather expensive kit. To be encased in something akin to an early experimental space suit for the Mercury mission of the mid '60's. We had mittens and snow boots, balaclavas and crash helmets.

The next 5 minutes was an exercise in fear as our instructor explained how immensely powerful these mechanised beasts were. They looked magnificent in their show room newness.

And so we set off. 6 bikes in complete darkness trusting our guide and trying hard to keep up. We were touching 50 kmh at times as we sped over a frozen river. We weren't told that until we were well into our journey.
We saw very little - a reindeer in the gloaming, a wonderful full moon, its rays kissing the peaks of the snow covered mountains that enclose Longyearbyen. I don't know what it was like for the others but I found the first hour hell. I had no gauge to judge the throttle so I was either stationery or into low earth orbit. However, once that was  sorted it was such exhilaration. You didn't fight the machine, you went with the leaps and bounds and swerves and roaring, spinning tracks. And by golly did you need that early 60's space suit.

Svelbard goes on as if darkness isn't a problem. The roads are constantly frozen but no one spins their car wheels, no one slips and the shops are ablaze with lights. At around 6 pm the bars fill up and everyone seems to be having a great time. On our first night we had a pizza and beer in a local bar.

The Friday saw us up latish as we weren't doing out in a snow cat until early afternoon ( such terms have an archaic resonance in the land of the midday midnight).

Again we ventured out into the gloaming, the mountains, like friendly giants (hopefully) leaning over us. We saw reindeer, darkly, the Northern Lights dimly and we stood by a "Beware Polar Bears cross here" sign ( I think that's what it said).

The evening was special. we'd booked a meal at Gruvelageret. Four courses and four wines. It's miles away up in the mountains or so it seemed: a bijoux log cabin with a fearsome reputation. Initially we were the only two there but then a large party arrived. We later learnt that it was a surprise 50 birthday party.The birthday boy was expecting a quiet meal with his wife and another couple, instead about 20 turned up.They all worked at the only operating coal mine in Svalbard. It supplies the coal fired power station that keeps the lights on in Longyearbyer. Rumours that the Norwegian government was to close down the power station and mine and lay a cable from the mainland were dismissed out of hand.

On Saturday, after another hearty breakfast, this time of smoked salmon, smoked mackerel, pate and local (well Norwegian) cheeses, fruit infused ice water and coffee we went dog sledding.

I don't know what I expected but it was more than I could have wished for. Once again we abandoned our expensive outer garments and climbed into early Soyuz era space suits, even bigger boots, mittens and balaclavas. Lights were strapped to our heads and we were led out to meet the dogs.

200 extremely excited huskies is a sight to behold. Each has their own kennel,except they prefer to sleep out outdoors in the snow.  We were in twos with each team having six huskies. The idea was that each of us would in turn take the reins and drive the sled while the other added ballast. Tethering the dogs was a job. The front two, usually the more intelligent of the six were hitched up first. One of us would hold onto them, taking the opportunity to stroke their deep fur and have one's face licked. The next middle two, usually younger or less well behaved were hitched up and the back two, really stupid dogs brought up the rear.

Sledding is extremely straight forward. Once the sled is released from it moorings its full steam ahead. Huskies have no words for "slow", "moderation", "let's take it nice and gently."It's all up, up and away. The "driver"sits at the back of the sled holding on for dear life onto two rather roughly carved handles, your feet sit on the back of the runners. Your passenger, foolishly,  sits on the sled.

You have only one way to stop the huskies onward rush. A large claw like device which you expertly stamp on so that it digs into the snow and slows the buggers down. Calibrating the degree of effort required to slow and then stop the sled and six roaring dogs was my most scary experience since being best man at my friend's wedding.

We'd hammer along nicely, especially going down hill when my dogs were intent on catching the sled ahead.  We'd then come to a grinding halt as one of the pack ahead had decided to fight amongst themselves. We'd get going again and as the blackness was picked out by my touch light we'd hit a snow drift. The dogs would disappear in the snow, I would dismount and start pushing as my passenger fell off the sled to be lost in a mass of soft snow. Losing his weight and mine, since I was off the sled pushing meant the dogs had little weight to pull and off they went. I was hanging on for dear life as my passenger struggled to jump aboard. This happened a few times.

Husky packs passing in the opposite direction were a great distraction to our team of six. Finding your sled at 180 degrees to the direction you were intending to go was disconcerting, but a sharp yank on the lead dog's chain set the team off in the right direction again.

Two hours later were back to be  greeted by the howling of the dogs. There was just time for a cup of coffee, a chat with your fellow adventurers and a visit to the husky pups....

A couple of hours sleep and we finished off the day in the hotel restaurant with a very pleasant meal.

It had ended all too soon. It was Sunday and we were flying back. In no time we were at the Terminal 2 Piccadilly Line station waiting for the train to King's Cross and Finsbury Park where I changed to the Victoria Line and after a short walk from Walthamstow station I back in the world I left 5 days ago at 6 am in the morning.

I haven't been abroad for 14 years, Longyearbyer is unusual, 24 hours of darkness is not normal..and it is, for me, a totally magical place. My first night in my own bed all I dreamt about was Svalbard. It has deeply affected me.

A word about the people we met. Everyone was lovely. The trips were conducted by 20 year olds from all over the place. The husky guy was from Bolton, and our delightful waitress at Gruvelageret was from the Ukraine. Two years ago came for a holiday and stayed. Our rooms were cleaned by Thais, the shopkeepers were from Sweden and New York.

Our fellow travellers were equally far ranging.
A smashing Jewish couple - in their 70's: married but deliberately living apart. She in Golders Green, he in Oxford. A couple from Doncaster who had the energy levels of 30 somethings but were grand parents - they were concerned that they hadn't been to the gym - never mind a 6 hr husky ride. The German couple from Hamburg, so engaging. They flew with us to Tromso on the way back but then were to go to a concert at the Ice Cathedral there and then a cruise ship to Bergen before a plane home to Germany. The Southern Railway driver who kinda hoped that the storm forecast for the Monday would mean he'd be stranded and could spend a few more days in this icy dreamland.


Monday, 2 January 2017

"It's the Final Countdown"

Not having flown or been abroad for nearly 20 years is hitting home. I and my mate are off to Longyearbyen ( I love that word) in just over a week. He, as a seasoned traveller, is currently in Spain and will segway from arriving at Heathrow to departing from Heathrow in less than 24 hours without missing a heartbeat. So organised is he that in his second bedroom already packed is his extreme clime suitcase and he has a small, but extremely functional backpack to take his essentials as cabin luggage.

I received an itinerary the other day detailing the impact of our travel agent using her initiative.

Initially we were booked to fly from Heathrow to Oslo on the 17:30 flight. I thought an immensely sensible time to begin a trip to the Arctic. We'd hang around Oslo for an hour and fly to Slavbard. Except because of the delays at Heathrow the week before Christmas due to freezing fog our agent decided that the one hour change over at Oslo was too tight. A minor hiccough and we could miss the connection to the Northern Lights and spend a day in Oslo and lose a day in Spitsbergen, So she has booked us on the 10:20 fight from Heathrow! That means, as there is only one flight a day to our destination, we spent over 8 hours in Oslo Airport and it environs.

8 hours is the very minimum number of hours I need to sleep any night. I will be spending that number of hours waiting for a connection to get to an airport we'll land at 02:00 the next day! I am not happy. Given the inefficiencies of our transport service, the fear of terrorist attacks and the sheer delight companies appear to get from inconveniencing their fare paying customers, I will be up at 5  in the morning on the day of our departure. Ah well, it's an introduction to 24 hour darkness.

When we log on/book in, or whatever we have to do at Heathrow's Terminal 2 it's all frightfully automated. No nice smiley Scandinavian beauties checking in your luggage - just a ticket machine. My experience of aforementioned pieces of technology is not good. I spent an increasingly panicking half hour at Paddington a while back trying to "validate" my on line booking with one of those automated ticket thingys. Only after many failed attempts did I discover that the machines had been permanently taken off line.

I've been reading all the helpful security information provided by Heathrow Airport. It's difficult to disentangle the potentially life saving info from all the pop up ads for Pizza Express and Duty Free, but I suppose they have to make a profit.

We can take 23 kgm of luggage carried in the hold. That means standing on a bathroom scale and balancing the full suitcase to make sure that one doesn't exceed that limit. You can take 8kgm as cabin stow, except surprisingly such hand held items as guns, ammo and explosives are not allowed. Colourless liquid is suspect, so any perfumes or other toiletries have to be less than 100cc, in a transparent container and in a transparent bag. How do the Beckhams cope?

I need to buy a tiny rucksack for my smalls - you're advised to take a spare change of underwear stowed away should the pilot perform an anal sphincter muscle relaxing manoeuvre at some stage during the flight. I will have my ruff, beanie hat ( made by Peruvian ladies in the Andes) and mittens in my hand luggage so that I don't freeze to death on landing at Slavberg Airport.

Oh, I have to buy foreign currency. I'm not sure what they spend in the Arctic Circle, but I'm sure £ sterling will be acceptable as will my credit card: as long as they don't freeze my account!

As we approach D Day, I'm getting increasingly anxious. I realise I haven't flown since 1994! Images of planes in flames crashing into the sides of mountains, plunging into the depths and overshooting the runway fill my dreams. Just my luck the in flight movie will be 80's themed "Airplane".

Who said the Scandinavians didn't have a sense of humour.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Bye, Bye Miss American Pie

I find myself caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,  the Symplegades or less poetically between 2016 and 2017. It is simply this: I wish 2016 to be over, but that brings on with a horrible certainty - 2017.

I'm not sure any of us has got used to this past year, with its death and destruction, the slaughter of the innocents and the democratic deficiency in so many places. Yet the past is past, in a sense it's over, it's sunk costs. The future is full of potential.Except that potential is Donald Trump.

I don't know if this year has the record deaths of celebs. It may or may not be so. That's not important. It seems to me that the death of so many 60's and 70's children  marks the end of a dream/delusion  that we kids of the Swinging Sixties  held onto for far too long. Against all the evidence. 

2016 is when, the Children of the Revolution surrendered. Those of us who wore a flower in our hair, talked 'bout My Generation and sat on the Dock of the Bay have had to confront our mortality. We can't all be the Rolling Stones, forever singing for the Last Time. 

2016 is our Permian extinction. Except it's still 5 minutes to midnight. Who else is going the way of  George Michael, Prince, Bowie, Gregg Lake and Rick Parfitt et al. Just when we thought death had been cheated Carrie Fisher is snatched. So I want 2016 to be consigned to history. Except....

I'm not that confident of 2017. Is it a coincidence that next year will be the 50th anniversary of "Sargent Pepper's"? I don't want to make too much about Trump: all we can hope for is that he's not as crazy as he tweets. I fear that America will implode; but frankly it's been threatening to do so for a few years now. Will 2017 be when the American Dream bites its own arse?

As for the rest of us, who knows? After the Permian extinction there was the Cambrian Explosion. Let's hope having wiped the log jam of the Hippie Generation, we find new Eco-niches creating weird and wonderful things. Not the treat of mass unemployment through the application of AI to all jobs, manual and professional.  Fulfilment through enforced leisure!

I suppose we'll muddle through sub optimally. More people will starve than should, more wars will be fought that aught to be, and more people will do better than their fellows.

Frankly I'm beginning to feel threatened with extinction. I'm thinking that getting to 69 is chancing it. It won't require a cosmic collision or the Deccan Traps to wipe me out. Just the ending of a fantasy that began 60 years ago...."Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.."