(My most recent post about the walk from Hartlepool to Easington Colliery, where there were once coal ropeways dumping mining waste directly in the sea reminded me of somewhere else I’ve seen similar equipment, though no longer operating. This was in Svalbard on holiday last year. I originally wrote most of the below post late last year intending it to be a Christmas special, but I didn’t get even the first part finished in time. My recent post reminded me about it. So here is part 1, which I’ve updated a little since then. I hope I will get time to post the others at some point!)
Over the last few years I’ve been increasingly drawn to beautiful remote and unspoilt places, particularly in the far north of the world. I’ve been to Iceland and first crossed the Arctic Circle into northern Norway when I visited Tromsø in 2017. I’m not so keen on a week lying beside a swimming pool at a hotel in the “Costa-del-Concrete” that many British people seem to favour. So in 2018 I decided for my “summer” holiday I’d like to go even further north, this time as far north as is easily possible. I planned a trip to the Svalbard archipelago where I hoped to do a bit of walking, visit the capital of Svalbard, Longyearbyen (population 2144) and visit the most northerly public town in the world, Ny-Ålesund (well at least according to Wikipedia), from which Roald Amundsen set off for the north pole.
Ny-Ålesund and Longyearbyen are located on the island of Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago. This is a group of islands in the north Arctic. It is one of the most northerly inhabited places in the world. If you are not familiar with it, here is a photo from Google Earth to show the location of Svalbard (you can see Britain near the bottom).
The archipelago is under the control of Norway and is roughly mid way between the mainland of Norway and the North Pole. It’s history is largely one of whaling, arctic exploration and coal mining. It has been populated by both the Norwegians and Russians and today there are both Norwegian and Russian settlements located there. The Norwegian settlements are now largely focused on climate and polar research and (to a lesser degree) tourism. The Russian settlements are largely focused around coal mining. I’m not sure the two are the most comfortable of bed-fellows!
I opted to go to Svalbard in the summer when it is warmer (though the key being “warmer” not “warm”!). You’ve probably heard of the midnight sun but in Svalbard in summer it’s more than just midnight sun, it’s all night sun, since the sun never sets there at all during the summer, something I had also never before experienced.
I’m quite an independent traveller but one downside of Svalbard is that exploration on your own is not at all easy. Many parts of Svalbard are a nature reserve and public access is not permitted without permission of the governor of Svalbard. It is permitted to explore part of the archipelago (known as “Area 10”) which encompasses the settlements and most of the land between them without permission from the governor. However the list of equipment you must have with you is extensive, because of the risk of Polar Bear attacks and includes:-
- A rifle
- Intimidation aids for Polar Bears, such as Flare Gun
- Emergency beacon
- Satellite phone or VHF Radio
All of this equipment (and more) is required to head out of any of the settlements. As that sort of equipment is out of the reach of most people that means as a visitor to this special place, you realistically need to book on guided tours, where guides carry all the required equipment. So that is what I did.
I had therefore booked a guided walk into the glaciers, a boat trip to Ny-Ålesund (the worlds most northerly town) and the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg. The rest of my time would be spent in Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard where I was staying. However this is not a large place (with a population of a little over 2000).
The coast is very important in Svalbard and all the settlements are located by the coast. This is because no roads link the settlements and so the only way to get about is by ski, dog sleds or ski-doo (in winter) or boat (in summer). The latter is not possible in winter, because most of the sea freezes! So the coast is tremendously important to the inhabitants of this remote place. It is also a place where the distinction between land and coast blurs. In Britain we are used to land being the hard parts and sea the wet parts at the edge. In Svalbard for much of the year the sea freezes and both the sea and land are white, so it can be hard to tell the difference!
Getting to Longyearbyen is not as tricky as I imagined. You can either fly (as I did) or book on a cruise (with Hurtigruten being the main operator). There isn’t a ferry.
Longyearbyen is around 1600 miles from the UK, so getting there would require 2 flights (or 3, as it turned out) and take most of my first day. Two airlines fly to Longyearbyen, SAS (from Oslo and Tromsø) and Norwegian (from Oslo). However both these airlines also fly out of the UK, so although you cannot fly direct, it is possible to book a through ticket to Svalbard (important so that you are protected in the even of a flight delay or re-schedule). I opted to book a ticket with SAS because whilst this was more expensive I could not work out a schedule on Norwegian that didn’t involve arriving in the early hours of the morning, something I was keen to avoid.
So I took a bus to my local station and then a National Express coach from there to Heathrow Airport terminal 2. My first flight of the day was from London to Oslo, departing at 10:20am. I had arrived with plenty of time to spare (as I needed to check in luggage). The UK was experiencing a hot summer in 2018 so I knew I was going to experience quite a contrast through the day. I checked in (I was taking checked in luggage for this trip as warm winter clothing is bulky and not possible to fit into the small hand luggage allowance). In addition it being so hot there was no way I wanted to travel to the airport in a thick winter coat!
I did hope my luggage would make it to my destination too, always a risk when flying, especially if making connections! Having checked in my luggage I was quickly through security and found a quite space to wait where I had a good view of the runway to watch the arriving and departing flights through the window.
One good thing with SAS is that they do not charge to choose a seat (I never pay for this and otherwise take my chances), so I was able to select my preferred window seat. The flight set off more or less on time and soon we were over the scenic wonder that is the Slough trading estate.
I was hoping that the view would soon improve! Thankfully it did and we were soon over a river valley, I think this is the river Colne.
Then later I think (not certain) that this is the Lee valley in Hertfordshire.
Soon we were over the coast, an area of far more interest for me as I love picking out the places I’ve walked. First it is Foulness Island, the Thames, Roach, Crouch and Blackwater esturaries (the latter being the first area of water visible).
I could also clearly make out Osea and Northey Island in the Blackwater estuary below. A little further up the Essex coast and I could see Mersea Island at the mouth of the Blackwater estuary.
Further up the coast we passed the peninsula containing Clacton and Walton-on-the-Naze.
We continued to follow the Essex coast until we reached the river Stour that forms the border between Essex and Suffolk with Felixstowe on the left side and Harwich on the right (south) side.
This was my last view of the British coast as we soon headed out to sea on the way to mainland Norway. The next land I saw was somewhere on the coast of Norway, where the weather was clearer (it had become quite hazy in the UK after weeks of hot weather).
Soon we were heading over an area of water mixed with islands, part of Oslo Fjord, I believe.
A little later and what I think is Oslo itself came into view.
A little while later and we landed at Oslo Gardermoen Airport on time. I had nearly 3 hours before my next flight. Here I had to go through the passport check to enter the domestic part of the terminal building. Always a pain for me, as the chip in my passport does not function, meaning I end up queuing for the automated gates and again for a manual check. Then I have some more bureaucracy, a text message from SAS informs me that I have to go to a certain gate to clear customs. This I do, it involves scanning my boarding pass and then walking through the “Nothing to Declare” part of the gate, where there is absolutely no one about, so it seems a waste of time.
Now it was time for lunch in the airport terminal. I decided to have a hot meal now because I wasn’t due to arrive at Longyearbyen until well into the evening and when I did what might be available to eat. I wasn’t sure how much there was at the airport, so I stopped at the first place I came to, curiously a branch of Jamie’s Italian (I assumed these were all in the UK only). I’m not a fan of this place having once (and only once) been to the Guildford branch and being unimpressed (it was very very over priced). It was near deserted and I ended up with dry luke-warm pizza that had clearly been there for some time. Once again, I was not impressed.
Having finished that I walked down to the other end of the long thin part of the terminal, only to find another Italian restaurant that was far busier and cheaper. Ah well, hindsight and all! I then headed to the gate where my flight was now shown correctly for “Tromsø and Longyearbyen”.
I still had about 2 hours before my next flight was due (at 16:20) so I suspect I was initially the only passenger. However the gate soon filled up and being a domestic flight I think most of the other passengers were Norwegian. This flight was full, or almost full. However we soon took off again for northern Norway. I had a seat near the back and overlooking where the luggage was being loaded so was pleased that I was able to see my suitcase being loaded onto the plane, confirming it too had made the connection (it was checked through in London, I can recognise it because I have written my initials on it with marker pen). Svalbard was not somewhere I’d want to arrive at without most of my clothes, as I knew it was going to be cold.
Once we had taken off, it did not take long for snow to start appearing on the tops of the hills below.
However the clear skies and sunshine didn’t last and soon the view was of nothing but clouds, a shame. It was only when we were approaching the airport at Tromsø that we descended through the clouds and I could see land again.
Most of the city of Tromsø is located on and island (including the airport), making it a quite spectacular airport to arrive at. The building with the white roof (a bit like a giant tent) to the right on the next photo is the Arctic Cathedral, one of the main sights in the city.
By the time we had touched down and reached the terminal buildings it was clear that the weather had changed, and not for the better – it was raining very hard.
When booking the flights I was offered the choice of either a connecting flight from Tromsø to Longyearbyen with a 35 minute connection or a through flight with a “35 minute stopover”. I opted for the latter (it was slightly cheaper) but it was clear both options would be the same flights anyway (since the flight numbers and times were the same). Having opted for the latter I was expecting to be able to stay in the warm dry plane during this stop over. Sadly, it was not to be.
The crew announced that “passengers continuing onto Longyearbyen are required to disembark for a passport check” and that we must also take our luggage with us. This was annoying, as it meant crossing the tarmac in the pouring rain. Then queuing for a passport check and then queuing in the pouring rain again to get back onto the same plane I had just left (and to the same seat, too). All in all it was a pointless bit of bureaucracy (my passport had already been checked on arrival in Oslo) which I later found out is required because whilst Svalbard is administered by Norway it is outside the Schengen travel area (of which the rest of Norway is part) so passport checks are required on departing the Schengen area.
Still that irritating delay over I was back inside the plane but we were then advised not to fasten seat belts as the aircraft was being re-fuelled for the final leg to Longyearbyen. I was getting quite excited now! Soon we were re-fuelled and ready to go and this time the flight was only around 1/3 full and I was pleased to find that I had the row to myself now and soon I was taking off again, for the 3rd time today. Goodbye rainy Tromsø, and I was wondering what was ahead.
It was around a 2 1/2 hour flight onwards to Svalbard – which gives you an idea of how far it is from the mainland of Norway.
Most of the way there the view out the window was simply sea, but soon the coast of Svalbard came into view. My first view of land so far north and it was exactly as I hoped, and looked stunning.
Mostly, the land was covered in snow, but in mid summer the lower parts are free from snow, as can be seen below.
What I’m looking at is a wilderness largely untouched by man and I wondered if people had ever stepped foot on much of the land I was seeing.
Excitement was clear in the aircraft now, with most passengers looking out of the windows and photographing the views, and many of those without access to a window seat moved to a vacant row, to enjoy the views.
The weather had clearly improved and the clear arctic air meant visibility was exceptionally good. Glaciers and frozen lakes could be seen below.
Soon a few buildings could be seen below – the first signs of civilisation since I had first spotted the archipelago.
I assume the outer edges of Longyearbyen.
The plane now began to descend more rapidly and the seat belt signs came on, though this did not stop many of the passengers (not me!) from moving from side to side to take photos of the views from either side of the plane, which did not prove popular with the flight crew who had to make several announcements that the seat belt signs was now on so you must sit down and remain in your seat!
Out over the Fjord I could see numerous snowy mountains.
Having made a loop over the Fjord, we were now very low and approaching sheer cliffs.
I was hoping soon that I might see a runway, since it appeared for now we were heading straight for these sheer cliffs!
Soon some flat land and isolated buildings came into view.
And at last, the runway itself.
And so I had arrived on what is the most northerly public airport in the world and the views were spectacular.
Welcome to “Svalbard Lufthavn Longyear” (as the signs stated).
Given this is the most northerly public airport in the world that must surely mean the plane on which I had arrived was now also briefly the most northerly Boeing 737 in the world on the ground at the time too. (Fortunately it was not one of those now-grounded new “Max” variants).
The airport terminal is small, as you might expect (there are normally only 2 or 3 public flights a day) but modern, and it did not take long for luggage to arrive and so I was soon outside the airport. By now it was around 8:40pm. It was cold, but still a couple of degrees above freezing, so like a sunny mid-winter day in the UK really.
Outside the airport, a coach was waiting to take passengers for a small fee onto their hotel. The driver soon came around to take payment for the short journey and to ask where we were staying, as the coach would drop off at all the required places. I was surprised to learn one such option was campsite. Whilst I do camp on some of my coast walks, I drew the line at camping in such a cold place!
For this trip I had decided to push the boat out a little. There are around half a dozen places to stay in Longyearbyen. I had opted for the most luxurious, the Radisson Blu Polar hotel (which was not cheap at a little over £100 a night, though at least with breakfast). In such a cold and remote place I thought some comfort would be welcome. It was also my favoured choice because it is also listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as (yes you probably guessed), the most northerly hotel in the World!
It was only a short bus journey past the port to my hotel (the photo below taken from the window of the moving bus).
I think my hotel was the third stop. I could already see that the hotel would be quite different.
It was in 2 wings, I think one part had the luxurious “suites” whilst the standard rooms were in the main building.
I did find that odd, meaning those in the more expensive rooms would have to go outside in to get to the dining room for breakfast. Outside it was clear things here were a bit different with a sign for “Dog Parking” outside and a stuffed polar bear visible inside through the windows!
The buildings I later found out where actually built for the athletes of the 1994 Winter Olympic Games which were held in Lillehammer in Norway. After the games ended, some of the buildings were moved here to create this hotel.
My hotel room was on one of the lower floors and was very nice. Another surprise was that a local custom in Svalbard is that you remove your shoes when entering a building, so most buildings have a rack for shoes in the entrance. I left my walking boots here but opted to take off my trainers and keep them in my suitcase in my room instead. Fortunately there were (very effective) blackout curtains so it was still possible to make it almost completely dark in the room, even though it would not be getting dark outside.
Rather than just stay in my room I decided to explore the town a bit on my first evening (especially as the weather was so good today). First I headed back down to the banks of the Fjord, Adventfjorden which is a small bay that is part of the much larger Isfjorden. I headed down the small hill from the hotel and past some slightly industrial buildings along a track to the Fjord ahead.
Looking back I had a view of the town.
The buildings are very much mostly of the functional design rather than pretty. My hotel is the grey building near the top right.
Having almost reached the fjord edge I found myself being almost dive-bombed by some angry birds. I was later told what there were and warned to be careful of them in this area by a tour guide, but I didn’t know that at the time! (I should point out I was not trespassing and walking along a track used by cars).
Now I headed back up the hill to explore the town centre (though remember, the population is a little over 2000, so it is small).
Just by the Fjord is the main University buildings.
What a view they have!
Next I passed what I think was some sort of Government building which also included the library.
Then the main shopping centre.
It was closed at this time of night but I was quite surprised by what there was. As well as some tourist shops there was a cafe, convenience store, bank, post office and clothing shops, amongst others. Nearby was also a larger CoOp supermarket.
Further up the road there were several large clothes shops (such as this one, showing the location as 78 degrees north!).
There were numerous sport and ski shops and also an art gallery.
Having reached the edge of the town centre, this was the view along the main street further north, towards the mountains at the end of the valley.
The houses came in a variety of styles, but mostly in the “functional” rather than pretty category.
There are cars here too as you see (even a Ford Cortina has survived) because whilst there are not roads between towns there are in the towns.
Some are quite modern.
Another thing you might notice is that most of the buildings are raised off the ground. This is because much of the ground is perma-frost and it is actually warmer to have the buildings not touching the ground, and also helps to keep easy access in the winter when there can be deep snow.
Some of the houses are very colourful.
Another thing I noticed is areas of gravel where it felt a bit “unfinished”, as you can see below.
I later found out these cover over pipes. The scrubby grass and soil is very thin and it is hard perma-frost a short distance down. This makes it too hard to bury pipes fully and so they end up partly above ground and covered with gravel like this. How they stop them freezing, I’m not sure!
In some places you might see the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”. Here it was a statue of “The Unknown Miner”, reflecting the towns history as a coal mining town.
There were also a few bars and restaurants (including the amusingly titled “Svalbar” which was where most of the life was to be found in the evenings). By this time it was gone 10pm, and it did seem odd to still be out in bright sunshine!
I now headed back to my hotel. Before going to bed I was curious and so got out my now ageing and battered Garmin GPS (that has been with me on most of my coast walks) to confirm my location.
As you can hopefully see through the rather scratched display (a small vertical line of which no longer displays!) that it confirms my location north of 78 degrees north. Normally it also shows me the time of sunrise and sunset, so I wondered what would happen here.
Well of course “Sunset –:–” because the sun doesn’t actually set for a couple of months!
So it was time to go to bed, as I had a guided walk in the mountains and glaciers planned for the next morning. I spelt well (as in fact I did every night here).