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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

His Dark Materials

*Pictures taken by Peter Kidman

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 chance 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/life 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's 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 iced 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. Two rather roughly carved handles and your feet on the back of the runners is all the separates you from oblivion. Your passenger, foolishly,  sits on the sled.

You have only one way to stop the huskies onward rush. A large claw like device at the back of the sled 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 'ti; my lungs burst, 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 we were back at the compound 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, Longyearbyen is unusual, 24 hours of darkness is not normal and, for me, a totally magical place. My first night in my own bed and 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 she 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 while they were away - never mind a 6 hr husky ride. The German couple from Munich, 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.



Anonymous said...

David Attenborough writes: "I'm very concerned about the health of that polar bear. It is certainly due to all the hot air being generated by Donald Trump and Theresa May"

Barry Coidan said...

Dear Anon, it was great to be where any hot air froze instantly.

Amundsen said...

If only Captain Scott had had the advantages you had......

Barry Coidan said...

I know, a man ahead of his time....