It’s not every day on a Ramblers holiday that your local guide carries a rifle. Well, it is every day when you are in Spitsbergen and you step outside the settlement into polar bear country. Welcome to the wild north – the Arctic. Susan Chan has recently returned from our Cruise & Walk Land of the Midnight Sun tour. Here’s her story.
We were on our way to the land of the midnight sun, our destination just 800 miles from the North Pole, all within the sovereignty of Norway. We had two stops in Spitsbergen on our cruise, at Pyramiden and Longyearbyen, at the 78o line of latitude. There we experienced 24 hours of daylight (it was around the time of the longest day), we walked in snow and on tundra, not a tree or shrub in sight. Even for seasoned travellers, this was a land of firsts.
Pyramiden is an abandoned Russian mine settlement – a ghost town. It is a bleak place, accessible only by boat or snowmobile, where coal is still very much in evidence and which once had over 1,000 inhabitants. While still part of Norway, it was founded by Sweden in 1910, sold to the Soviet Union in 1927 and closed in 1998. Its last exports of coal were to the UK. Yes, that’s right - coals to Newcastle!
Today Pyramiden is owned by a stated-owned Russian mining company which has turned Pyramiden into a tourist attraction, albeit a somewhat grim one. Russian culture is very much in evidence, with a statue of Lenin in front of the cultural palace and sports hall, and the hammer and sickle symbol seen on many surfaces.
While we were free to walk within the settlement, our armed guided walk took us outside its boundaries to walk towards Petunia Bukta (Bay), with views over the water to the Nordenskiöld Glacier. Sergei, our guide, was diligent in his attention to our safety. He was kind enough to show us the bullet he would use if we encountered a polar bear–- just so we knew the rifle was the real deal. I am not sure how I was supposed to react, so I didn’t.
Longyearbyen (pronounced Lon-gyearb-yen) is the administrative centre of Svalbard and its largest settlement, with 2,000 inhabitants. It is home of the Global Seed Vault, and mining has largely been abandoned in favour of eco-tourism and research.
Our walk began at the Kjell Henriksen Observatory and took us along a high plain to see some spectacular snow-capped peaks and glaciers. While we saw no trees or shrubs, there was a lot going on underfoot with mosses, lichens and tiny spring flowers. Our guides, who happened to be French, were accompanied by two dogs, one of whom revelled in the attention from Ramblers.
Back in the settlement, Longyearbyen had plenty to offer a visitor, with dog sledding trips, two museums and even its own brewery.
And while we never did see polar bears on our walks, we did meet one on the main avenue in town. Thankfully, this time, no rifle was required.