Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Svalbard Diary, Day 12: Playing hookey in Honningsvåg...

I got a little distracted, and forgot to finish the saga of our trip to the Arctic. So, here's the beginning of the end...

Overnight, we had made haste to the Norwegian coast, for some more mainstream tourism, an outing to the North Cape, which involved a bus ride. Well, not all of the passengers, as Ros and I played hookey. We've been, two years ago, and we weren't that impressed the first time. It isn't as though it's actually the most northerly point - that's about a mile away to the north-west - and "Lonely Planet" not unreasonably describes it as "the most northerly rip-off in the world". So, we went for a walk in Honningsvåg instead.

Honningsvåg is a small town which is the jumping off point for the North Cape, with a population of just over 2,000. When the Germans evacuated at the end of World War 2, they burned the entire town to the ground, with the exception of the church. Afterwards, it was proposed to abandon the town, but the citizens decided otherwise, using the church as a shared home whilst they rebuilt their community. It was quite touching.

It made for a pleasant walk, and I found a bus route that, at some point, I ought to try, from Kirkenes to Hammerfest, a mere nine and a half hours long, not that I suspect anyone rides its entire length. There were two Somali women waiting at the stop, which was slightly unexpected, but they clearly knew what they were about, as a bus arrived almost immediately. I did wonder where they might be going - there isn't an awful lot nearby - but it seemed intrusive to ask.

The Hebridean Sky was bound for Skarsvøg, so we made sure that we were back as the dock in good time. We weren't likely to miss the boat though, as the captain had shaken the opportunity to buy some souvenirs...

Ironically, en route to Skarsvøg by sea, you get excellent views of the North Cape, which we enjoyed over coffee.

At Skarsvøg, you could apparently get up close and personal with king crabs. They're huge great things, and you're doing everyone a favour by eating as many of them as possible, as they've become an enormous problem. Released into the White Sea by the Soviets as part of an economic development project for the region, the absence of their natural predators meant that they multiplied hugely, scouring the sea bed until it became something of a desert. And then they spread, along the Norwegian coast...

In Kirkenes, two years ago, we were told that king crab was so common that even local cats were fed up with it. And yes, there is money to be made in dragging them out of the ocean and exporting them, but at the cost of the marine environment.

We were rejoined by our fellow passengers, and we made sail. For we had one last adventure...

If Brexit goes badly wrong, how can the Tories survive the experience?

Let's start with the obvious caveat here, i.e. that Project Fear turns out to be Project Fact, and that the British economy splutters to, at best, a halt or, at worst, begins to go into reverse gear. For, if Brexit creates the bold new future that we were promised, the Conservatives will be in power for a while yet.

But let's say that negotiations drag on, as the dawning realisation emerges amongst the Cabinet that there will need to be some compromises, and that the apparently simple turns out to be hideously complex - the Irish question, seamless access for U.K. Goods into the European Union and vice versa, all of the "human" elements, to name but the already obvious ones.

How do the Conservatives keep the show on the road? Compromise will anger the Brexit ultras, especially if the European Court of Justice continues to have a role, or payments to the European Union continue after we formally leave. And that's just the sovereignty campaigners. Will those who voted Leave to send the foreigners home, or at least stop more from coming, tolerate tens of thousands coming to nurse our sick, serve our coffee, drive our buses or any of the vast array of tasks that European Union nationals do now, just because farmers, or universities, or publicans need them? Unlikely, I'd have thought. And as for the free traders, hoping for a newly invigorated Britain, trading our goods across the globe, be content to effectively allow the Europeans to determine our trading standards?

It is difficult to envisage how all of them will be kept happy, although it always was if you gave it much thought. The Leave campaign was always pretty clear about what it was against, whilst at the same time, unable to espouse anything else that it agreed upon.

But, if the compromises are made, and it still goes wrong, who will stand by the people whose negotiation skills led us to such a pass? The Remainers don't have any grounds to do so, and the ultras will want someone to blame - "they were betrayed" will be the narrative.

There is a way out. It isn't a pleasant one, and the consequences could be bitter indeed, but it offers the ultimate opportunity to pass the buck, i.e. walk out of the negotiations without a deal and blame the evil Europeans. That would allow the Conservatives to fight a snap General Election with the Mail, the Sun and the Times waving the Union Jack and denouncing anyone who questions their actions as traitors to their country.

And yes, the impact on the economy would be awful - could the European Union sign a trade deal with the United Kingdom under such circumstances? - but it would buy the Conservatives more time in which things might turn around. Call it the Micawber strategy, if you like.

There are still those who believe that a deal can be cut, that with goodwill on both sides, rationality will produce something which both sides can present as a success. My fear is that the European Union's determination to ensure that leaving the Union is not seen as being attractive, and the seeming total incomprehension of leading Conservatives as to how Europe actually works, will lead to a point where a sensible compromise doesn't present itself.

And whilst the debate here appears solely predicated on what it good for Britain - and both Remainers and Brexiteers are guilty on that charge - the question of what is good for Estonia, or Greece, or Belgium, is completely ignored. And they've got votes... and a veto.

I have a bad feeling about this...

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Svalbard Diary, Day 11: The cruel sea...

Bjornøya, or Bear Island, is the only (small) piece of land between Norway proper and Svalbard, and it's not a hospitable place, home to a small group of researchers and nobody else. There is no harbour, no easy landing point. However, in fair weather, you can moor in a cove on the southern tip, and that what we were aiming for.

The sea was choppier than we had become used to, and Ros opted for a morning on the ship. I decided that it was time to find out just how successful my adjustment to life afloat had been.

It should be borne in mind that until this point, I had made a deal. If the sharks stayed in the water, I would stay on land, and it was an arrangement which, up until now, seemed to be mutually agreeable. Indeed, I've never seen a shark on land, unless of course you include Sid the Shark, the Sussex County Cricket mascot. And he's made of foam rubber, so he doesn't actually count.

The sea was a deep green colour as we made our way along the shore to study the admittedly impressive bird cliffs. It was cold, and the sky was a sullen grey. The swell was disconcerting, which had lead to a rather lower than usual turnout for breakfast. Frankly, I should have known better...

As we made our way past the assorted kittiwakes and guillemots, I was developing a rather uncomfortable awareness of my digestive system. It wasn't happy. Nor was I.

We continued our wobbly way along the cliff face, as feathered creatures zipped across the water and through the sky around us, and I was rather uncharitably beginning to conclude that, once you've seen ten thousand guillemots, you've seen them all. I wanted to be back on something more solid than a vulcanised rubber boat.

There was time for some quality zodiac driving though, as erosion has created a tunnel through the cliff face wide enough for a confident zodiac wrangler. Ours were all that good, and we emerged past some slightly nervous kittiwakes (and believe me, you don't want to be under nervous kittiwakes) into a small inlet.

We sped back to the Hebridean Sky, and I stepped aboard with alacrity. It was time for medication and a nap, as we waved Svalbard goodbye...

Monday, August 07, 2017

Svalbard Diary, Day 10 (still): "Did anyone order whale soup?"

We had set sail for Bjornøya, or Bear Island, an isolated piece of rock halfway between the southern tip of Spitsbergen and the North Cape of Norway, and the crew were putting on a show for the passengers. Ros and I had slipped away, but just as I was leaving, Colin, the Canadian cetacean expert, suggested that I might like to go to the viewing area on one of the upper decks.

Stopping only to pick up Ros, we made our way, binoculars in hand, and it wasn't long before we saw a telltale 'blow' in the distance. Whales! We watched alone, assuming that there would be an announcement at any moment, and we would be inundated with fellow passengers. But there was no announcement. Instead, there were more whales, everywhere we looked. Fin whales, humpback whales, plus bonus dolphins.

For fifteen minutes, we stared in wonderment, as fins cut the surface, tails cut the air. It was utterly stunning. Eventually, an announcement was made, and the laconic tones of Pam, the expedition leader, said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have whale soup out there.".

The fin whales seemed particularly relaxed, and allowed us to get so close that you could get good pictures with just an iPhone. They were everywhere.

To be honest, you could probably spend a lifetime looking for whales and seldom see so many at one time. And with the perfect viewing conditions, a calm sea, good light and a grey horizon which made spotting the whales even easier, it was bonanza time for us all. And we'd got the full set of arctic mammals...

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Svalbard Diary, Day 10: A good glacier is like a cathedral...

Heading south now, we'd left the bright lights of Longyearbyen behind us, and were heading back to Hornsund for a scheduled glacier cruise in our trusty zodiacs. Our driver for the morning was Pierre, a South African marine oceanographer, and a really fascinating character.

A glacier in Hornsund. It's a lot bigger
than it looks...
We set off in glorious sunshine and made our way through the brash ice - that's the small bits of ice - to near the foot of the glacier. The safety rule is that you keep at least three times the height of the glacier away from its base, and Pierre wasn't going to break that rule. It was simply stunning, as the light sparkled on the surface of the water, but it wasn't quiet.

You see, if you have ice floating in water, it does what your ice cubes do when you pour gin on them, it makes cracking noises. This is, we were told, caused by the air in the ice expanding, if my understanding of the explanation was correct. And, even more amazingly, that air is the air trapped in the ice when it became formed in the glacier. It could be hundreds, perhaps thousands of years old. Cool, eh?

Pierre suggested that we take a moment of private silence, almost immediately broken by one of our fellow passengers who clearly wasn't paying attention. There's always one, isn't there... But it was truly magical, and even amongst all of the amazing things we'd seen, and were yet to see, it will be something that stays with me forever.

The afternoon was taken up with a cruise around Brepollen, a fairly recently formed body of water formed after the retreat of a number of glaciers. It was pretty, and for geologists, an interesting landscape, but our reverie was disturbed by an announcement. There were beluga whales off of the starboard bow.

Beluga whales are pretty skittish, apparently, but in a fantastic piece of sailing, our Finnish captain managed to bring us parallel to the pod as it made its way along the shore in fairly shallow water, without disturbing them. There were even calves, which you could make out by their greyish colouring. We were so close that you didn't need binoculars, and the nature photographers amongst us, and there were many, got some fantastic shots.

The show went on and on, and our captain was able to keep us abreast of them for some time until, eventually, we had to take our leave, for we had many miles to travel before our next scheduled stop...

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Svalbard Diary, Day 9: "Longyearbyen, Longyearbyen, that toddlin' town..."

Tuesday dawned, grey and chilly, and it was with some trepidation that we prepared for the day's first activity, a perimeter walk. Hitherto, our walks had all been guided. A perimeter walk is as it sounds - an area of ground is marked out with little orange flags, the expedition team (all armed) patrol the boundary. We were like guillemot chicks, expelled from the nest and left to fend for ourselves.

And so we rambled around Alkhornet, studying the reindeer, avoiding the skua nest - they nest on the ground in the absence of predators, and are quite happy to attack anything that comes near. And then we saw a pair of Arctic fox, somewhat hidden amongst the rocks.

They're rather attractive creatures, with longish brown and white coats, and we were close enough to see them clearly, yet not so close as to disturb them. They were entrancing.

We were heading back towards the landing point when something landed on the ground in front of me - hard. It was a Brünnich's guillemot chick, whose first flight hadn't quite got it to the water. I shooed it off of the cliff before any harm could befall it, whilst its parents sqwalked in the sea below.

It was time to go. Civilisation beckoned...

Longyearbyen is not a one horse town, with its population of more than 1,250. Actually, there don't appear to be any horses, but there are plenty of snowmobiles. We arrived at the harbour, enthralled by the possibility of retail opportunities, having not seen a shop of any kind for a week, and even more importantly, phone reception. Trust me, if you want a digital detox, there is little to beat bobbing around in a small cruise ship  around the waters of Svalbard.

However, we had been told that the Svalbard Museum was worth a look, with some interesting exhibits, and so, restraining the urge to give the debit card an airing, Ros and I paid it a visit. It is, almost certainly, the second most northerly museum in the world, with an excellent collection of stuffed animals (if you like that sort of thing) and some interesting historical information. If you're ever in the area, I'd drop by if I were you.

A short walk takes you to the Radisson Blu hotel, the world's most northerly four star hotel, before you reach the main 'street' with its coffee shops and bars, a supermarket and wi-fi! Yes, it was time to upload the 350 pieces of mostly useless e-mail that had come in over the previous eight days...

We walked around a bit, bought crisps at the supermarket - sea salt and black pepper flavour - and wandered about a bit more. We found the most northerly ATM, the most northerly Thai restaurant, the most northerly nursery school, and weren't eaten by a polar bear, which was a good thing. I do not mock though, polar bears are known to stray into town during the winter, and guns are mandatory beyond the town limits all year round.

We could have stayed for dinner, but the free wine and the massive discrepancy between bar prices in Longyearbyen and those on the ship drove us back to the Hebridean Sky. It was an excellent choice....

Friday, August 04, 2017

Svalbard Diary, Day 8: in which your gallant correspondent develops an unexpected yearning...

It was surprisingly warm, which for anyone who had packed as if auditioning for a remake of "Scott of the Antarctic" was likely to be problematic. Me, I was dressed as if for a gentle stroll across the fields to Tesco at Stowmarket. And, of course, apart from the absence of polar bears, the conditions are pretty similar.

Our morning excursion was at Hornsund, at the south-western tip of Spitsbergen proper, in search of the auk colony. This meant hopping into the zodiacs again. I've made this sound pretty uneventful, but perhaps I ought to explain how it works.

A zodiac is a smallish inflatable vessel, which holds up to fifteen passengers and is powered by a 50 hp motor (in our case). Here, they are boarded from a platform at the rear of the vessel. We, the passengers, are required to wear waterproof jackets and trousers, plus a life jacket which should, apparently, automatically inflate if we fall into the water. You don't want to fall into the water - life expectancy is measured in minutes given the temperature of the sea. We also have waterproof boots, which are totally unstylish.

The zodiac is lashed to the marina deck by the Filipino crew, whilst we transfer one by one, holding the zodiac driver using the 'sailor's grasp', where you hold each other by the forearm - this reduces the risk of slipping, they tell me.

And then off we go, re-enacting the Normandy landings (albeit without hostile Germans, mines and underwater obstructions), as the zodiac glides onto the beach. Mostly, we make wet landings, where you exit the vessel into about six to eight inches of water - thus the need for waterproof boots. We then splash ashore for our educational stroll/hike.

As already mentioned, we were in search of auks today, and these nest in the crevices formed by jumbled rock at the bottom of cliffs. They weren't very co-operative, it must be said, but it was a pleasant enough walk nonetheless.

Whilst we were at lunch, the Hebridean Sky repositioned itself to Recherchefjord, where we were off for another stroll. Our prey, the Svalbard reindeer.

The landing point, or as I'd termed it by now, the human haulout, was by an abandoned hut, propped up with bits of wood. Because of the permafrost, you can't easily dig foundations for buildings, and the effect of constant freezing and thawing plays havoc with the integrity of walls.

We walked. The reindeer chewed in a thoughtful way, as if mentally doing sudoku puzzles in their heads. The sun shone. It was all curiously tranquil. And suddenly, I had a yearning for a bag of crisps. I hadn't seen any on the ship, and asked my fellow zodiac passengers, who confirmed the absence of potato-based snacks.

We mused over the possibility of reindeer and lichen, or kittiwake and seaweed flavours, before concluding that, like hedgehog crisps, they'd probably be a bit of a disappointment. I only had to resist the cravings for a day though. We were headed for the big city...

Svalbard Diary: This one's for you, Sabine...

In my capacity as a member of the Financial Advisory Committee of the ALDE Party, I have the great pleasure of working closely with Sabine Dechamps, Head of the Administration Unit.

And so I was intrigued to discover from our map of Svalbard that there is an area on the eastern side of Spitsbergen called Sabine Land. It is utterly unlike Sabine though, in that it is bleak and austere, covered in rather a lot of ice and totally unpopulated.

It must be nice to have somewhere named after you, even so...

Svalbard Diary, Day 7: I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a walrus...

I may have mentioned my enthusiasm for walrus(es) already. Indeed, when I grow up, I want to be a walrus. There were more walrus in our future, as we headed for Cape Lee and the known walrus haulout there.

Into the zodiac again, and off we went. "Walrus off of our bow!", someone shouted. The walrus bobbed below the surface... We scanned the water. And then, it reappeared... eight feet away, so close you could count its whiskers. I was enthralled. Our guide wasn't so keen. Apparently, walrus are known, in their enthusiasm, to puncture zodiacs with their tusks, and Colin wasn't taking any chances. We sped away...

The good news was that there were six walrus asleep on the shore, next to some huts built by an ill-fated Dutch expedition. The scientists had concluded that being armed was unnecessary, which was fine until a polar bear turned up, caught one of the scientists in the open, and mauled him to death.

The walrus were still asleep when we got to them, and we were able to get very close, before setting off down the beach towards the carcass of a dead polar bear. It clearly hadn't been dead that long, although what had actually killed it wasn't obvious.

Next, we walked across a slope in search of reindeer, and found an excellent male example. Svalbard reindeer have relatively short legs by reindeer standards, but given the lack of predators, they don't need to be that quick. This one didn't seem to have a care in the world.

Onwards and upwards we went, until suddenly a wide valley opened up below us, with more reindeer. It was truly majestic. But we had to get back, as the ship was due to sail on, and we set off back to the landing place.

Everybody else was off looking at reindeer, but I only had eyes for the walrus, and so I persuaded one of the security team to accompany me back to them. You must have security on Svalbard, armed security, at all times. Polar bears can appear out of the water, or from behind rocks, when you least expect them, and so before the passengers are allowed ashore, the area is scanned and a perimeter established.

But Chris and I went back to the walrus and stood watching them in quiet admiration. Their life is a simple one - eat, sleep, eat some more. Their blubber is so thick that even if a polar bear catches one, it can just drag itself, and the bear, down the beach and into the sea and safety. Yes, the bear can swim, but it can't really dive. Me, a man with a rifle, and half a dozen enormous walrus. It brings a tear to the eye just thinking about it...

In the afternoon, we were out on a zodiac cruise when the word went round that a polar bear had been spotted on the sea ice in front of the glacier at X. Eight zodiacs edged cautiously through the brash ice - small lumps of floating ice no larger than a small car - bringing us closer and closer to the bear.

Eventually, it slipped off of the ice floe and swam a little way further back before hauling itself onto another floe which seemed to suit it better. We continued to edge forward so that everyone could get a really good look at a healthy polar bear in its natural environment of the sea ice. It was truly incredible.

You think of the Arctic as bleak, silent. And it is, sort of. But as you glide through the brash ice, you are accompanied by a persistent cracking sound as the ice breaks around you. And the ice itself comes in a range of types. I pulled an ice dagger out of the water, the ice absolutely clear and the perfect murder weapon, leaving no trace as it melted. Luckily, I was in a benevolent mood, merely holding it so that fellow passengers could photograph it...

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Svalbard Diary, Day 6: The ice shelf and the kittiwake

We awoke to a rather gloomy picture, with temperatures below freezing and a stiff breeze from the north. However, we were passing the rarely seen ice shelf on the southern shore of Nordtauslandt, the second largest of Svalbard's islands. It's rarely seen because the pack ice seldom allows access, and even if you can get there, impenetrable fog often obscures the view.

Mile upon mile of ice cliffs, facing south, represents an impassable barrier. It was time to turn south.

We were heading for an area known as Kittiwake Canyon, where a crease in the hillside has created a perfect nesting sight for, yes, you guessed it, kittiwakes. Now I must admit that seabirds have not traditionally been a core fascination here at "Liberal Bureaucracy", but there is something curiously relaxing about a bunch of nesting birds, scattered across a cliff face. And the kittiwake seem pretty relaxed about us too, allowing us to get surprisingly close to them.

Apparently, kittiwake chicks have an innate sense of where the cliff ledge ends and the sheer drops starts, and early scientific researchers tested this in a way which seems astonishingly cruel nowadays. Different gull chicks were placed in kittiwake nests and inevitably fell to the deaths, demonstrating just how unique kittiwake are. Not a piece of knowledge with tremendous potential for application elsewhere, I'd have thought, but what do I know?...

Svalbard Diary, Day 5: Dances with walrus

The temperature had dropped to zero, albeit that zero is rather mild for that latitude, and we were heading for Nordauslandt (which, I'm told, is the size of Wales, as a surprisingly large number of places seem to be) in search of walrus, or walruses, or walri. Me, I was hoping for many walrus. Many, many walrus...

The morning activity was a walk, starting at a camp on the shore, before heading up the various levels of former beaches before at the crest of the slope, we encountered four Svalbard reindeer, two male, one female and a calf. They didn't seem terribly bothered about us, given that they have no natural predators - the biggest shore-based carnivores are arctic foxes. Indeed, the two males grazed towards us unconcerned.

It was a pleasant stroll, making up for the lack of exercise the day before. And that's important given the number of meals I'm eating each day...

But the day's highlight was to be the walrus. We boarded our zodiac and made our way to the designated landing spot before heading to the place where the walrus had been spotted. Stealthily, or as stealthily as a bunch of old people in wellington boots can be on a shingle beach, we crept up on the pile of walrus in single file, before stopping just fifty or so feet away. The walrus studiously ignored us, as we're no threat to them. Given that even polar bears offer little threat to an adult walrus, this shouldn't have come as much of a surprise.

The walrus didn't do much. That suited me just fine, as it made them easier to film. But sadly, we had to leave only too soon. After all, it would have been a pity to miss afternoon tea...

But the day wasn't over. One of the finest sea bird colonies to be found anywhere is Alkefjellet, home to 60,000 breeding pairs of Brunnich's guillemots and, higher up the cliff, a similar number of kittiwake. Interestingly, nobody seems to know who Brunnich was, which is a bit of a shame. Usually, they are seen from the zodiacs, but our captain took advantage of the remarkably calm sea conditions to cruise so close that we could study them from the club lounge on the ship.

It's tough work, studying the wildlife...

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Svalbard Diary, Day 4: Adrift on the edge of the pack ice with only a light snack for sustenance

Above 80 degrees North, you begin to run out of geography. Or, more accurately, land. We're north of Spitsbergen, cruising slowly along the edge of the pack ice in the hope of spotting seals and polar bears. They're out there, somewhere...

Occasionally, there is an announcement over the public address system, "there's a group of harp seals off the port side at 10.30", and people grab their binoculars to seek a better view. But most of the day is spent either preparing to eat, actually eating, or digesting what you just ate. I have a nasty feeling that I'm going to be the size of a house by the end of this trip.

The day starts with breakfast between 7.30 and 9, with lunch served between 12.30 and 2. Afternoon tea is served from 4, with pre-dinner canapés available before dinner at 7.30. Of course, you can grab a cookie or two between meals if you feel the need. My suspicion is that anti-social fellow passengers are fed to the polar bears, once suitably fattened up...

The food is pretty good, and well-presented if perhaps not quite "haute cuisine". Unlike a lot of cruises, there is nowhere to pick up supplies on this trip, so if it wasn't loaded at Tromsø or Longyearbyen, it isn't available. But the menus are varied, the wine free-flowing, and they do cater for dietary requirements to a surprising extent.

My sense is that it's a bit like being on the floating equivalent of a country house hotel, somewhere up in the Scottish Highlands, where the mist has descended and there's nowhere much to go. It's very congenial though...

Svalbard Diary, Day 3: Encountering the luckiest polar bear in the world...

It's an increasingly tough life as a polar bear. Climate change has caused a reduction in the amount of sea ice upon which they rely as a platform for catching seals, their staple diet. And sometimes, in high summer, they're forced to make a choice - rely on the sea ice as it retreats northwards, or stay on land and hope to be able to scavenge enough to keep body and soul together.

We were supposed to be heading out on the zodiacs to making a landing near a walrus haulout, but the tide had turned unexpectedly, and the last boat was diverted in the opposite direction, where a whale had recently washed ashore. Bad news for the whale, but the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket for a nearby polar bear, who we found on the scene. Off we went, and we were able to get incredibly close, close enough to watch it rip a huge chunk out of the carcass and get a good feed.

The bear, his appetite clearly sated, decided that a nap was called for, so we set off back to the walrus. My love of walrus knows no bounds, so I was perfectly happy. And we were in time to find a group of them in the shallows, wallowing around. Graceful is not a word often associated with walrus, even in the water, but they are attractive in a whiskery sort of way, and I got some good pictures before we had to return to the ship.

The afternoon was spent on a nature ramble at Rautfjord. The flora of Svalbard is not dramatic - the height of the trees can be measured in millimetres, and lichen are big here. Well, I say "big", but I suspect that you know what I mean. Clinging to every little opportunity, every slightly sheltered spot, life is somehow sustained.

The expedition team includes a range of expertise, birds, mammals, geology, and there is much useful information imparted. I now know about hairy lousewort, and purple saxifrage, and could, at a pinch, identify a Svalbard poppy. Delicate, yes, but surprisingly pretty. And the reindeer need to eat something, I suppose...

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Svalbard Diary, Day 2: To be honest, I probably wouldn't start from here...

Ålesund is a charming town on the Norwegian coast, famous for its Jugendstil architecture. Ny-Ålesund is not going to win many architectural awards, and there's not much to do unless you're a research scientist, but it is the site of Svalbard's only railway and, more notably, the jumping off point for a number of insane acts of polar exploration.

It was thought that the easiest way to reach the North Pole was to fly, and the absence of aeroplanes didn't restrain the first attempts. In 1896, Auguste Andree and two companions inflated their hydrogen-filled balloon and set off, never to be seen again. At least, they weren't seen again until 1930, when the remains of a camp were found on the remote island of Kvitøya. Amongst the items found were their camera and some film, which was still able to be developed, and their diary, which told of an epic journey after the balloon crashed.

Americans, Norwegians and Italians came (and failed), but eventually success was achieved. Admittedly, there is still some argument about who was actually first, but now that people have driven there, it's probably not such an epic proposition.

Ny-Ålesund has the world's most northerly post office, and is possibly the world's most northerly permanently settled community. It also has a surprisingly good gift shop, and we bought the mandatory Christmas bauble, two mugs and a pair of fridge magnets.

Back aboard the Hebridean Sky, we were off to the Fourteenth of July Glacier, named by a Prince Albert of Monaco in honour of France. There is no shortage of glaciers here in Svalbard - Spitsbergen is 60% ice cap - but it was nice to get one in early.

The day ended at our anchorage for the night, Lilliehöökbreen. The next day, we were really heading north...

Svalbard Diary, Day 1: 'Twas on the Monday morning, just as the sun was rising...

Dawn broke, somewhere near Stansted Airport. It was fearfully early, not a time of day I am familiar with, but the flight was scheduled for a 7 a.m. departure, and there really wasn't an option of taking a later one and having a lie-in.

And so, I hauled myself somewhat unenthusiastically out of bed, into (and out of) the shower and into some clothes. Thanks to Ros's enthusiasm for being early, we took a gentle stroll around the hotel to ease my daily quest for my ten thousand steps, before boarding the coach to the Inflite Corporate Jet Terminal, tucked away on the far side of Stansted Airport.

On arrival, it was clear that there was a problem. The absence of an aircraft should have been a giveaway, really. Apparently, a part was needed, and we weren't going anywhere until it was found and fitted. What this meant was that our scheduled afternoon explore of Longyearbyen, Svalbard's capital, was likely to be lost, and with it the walking opportunity I had been counting on. There was no choice but to walk laps of the rather small lounge. Lots of laps...

But we did eventually set off on the four hour flight. It is slightly hard to credit that, in such a short time, you can be somewhere so remote, but that's the wonder of modern flight, I guess.

Longyearbyen Airport is not a thing of beauty. Interestingly though, there is no customs or immigration check - you collect your luggage from the carousel and go. We were bussed to the ship and welcomed aboard with a glass of something sparkling and vaguely grape flavoured. It was going to be alright...