Given the current situation in the UK (and much of the world) that means my coast walk is currently on hold for the foreseeable future. So I thought this week I’d write up another special post, day 3 of my trip to Svalbard in June 2018 where I’d visit the most northerly public town in the world, Ny-Ålesund. It is nice to revisit this at a time where we are not allowed to go on holiday (and barely even leave home).
This was the 3rd full day of my trip to Svalbard and the one I was most looking forward to (see day 1 and day 2). If all went well by the end of the day I would have visited the most northerly town in the world, Ny-Ålesund, which is 769 miles from the North Pole.
(The list of northern most settlements can be found on Wikipedia and Ny-Ålesund is the first place on the list that is still active, inhabited all year round and a public town as opposed to a military base or research station).
For the public, reaching Ny-Ålesund is not easy. There are no roads connecting the town with the rest of the Svalbard archipelago. It is around 70 miles from the “capital” of Svalbard, Longyearbyen. That means in summer it is possible to travel by boat (which is what I did), but in winter the sea is frozen so you must travel over land. However the majority of the population that live there are employed by Kings Bay a Norwegian Arctic research organisation. They have an airport that serves Ny-Ålesund (with around 4 flights per week in summer) but the flights are private and not available to the public. So it was going to be around a 3-hour boat journey from Longyearbyen to Ny-Ålesund and the same coming back. All in all the day trip was 11.5 hours.
I had breakfast at the hotel I was staying (Radisson Blu Polar Hotel), which had a good range of food especially for somewhere so remote. Due to the difficulties and amount of equipment required to travel independently the vast majority of visitors book on tours to visit places in Svalbard. That means after breakfast most guests gather in reception to wait for their respective tours to arrive. I opted to sit outside in case I missed the guide for my tour, which was due to start at 7:45am.
A few minutes later I was joined by the same Polish ladies that were on the same tour I went on the previous day. They were staying in a nearby AirBnB (I didn’t even know AirBnB operated so far north) and so had opted to be picked up from my hotel, as the nearest location. To my surprise they also had suitcases but explained that at the end of the day trip they were going straight to the airport in order to fly to Oslo, where they planned to sleep in the airport overnight for their flight back to Warsaw the following morning.
Whilst waiting I didn’t know what to be looking out for but in due course a black taxi mini-van arrived and we were met by our guide Johanna Eclancher who quickly introduced herself and explained the plan for the day. We were the last passengers to be picked up and there were 5 on the trip today (they only take a maximum of 8 people). It was only a little under a 10 minute drive to the harbour near the airport where the boat was moored.
Given the number of people on the trip it wasn’t a surprise that the boat was small.
That was one thing that had been bothering me. I’ve never actually been sea sick but I do remember feeling quite sick on a trip from Poole to Guernsey on the Condor Vitesse on a rough day, a trip of a similar length but on a much larger vessel. So I was a bit apprehensive as to how I would cope with the journey as I know smaller boats tend to be far bumpier.
My other worry (since I’m shy) was how I’d get on with the other people on the tour given we’d be spending a day together on a small boat. On a large cruise ship (not that I’ve ever been on one) I imagine you have plenty of places to avoid people you don’t get on with. On a small boat like this there is nowhere to hide! Thankfully I needn’t have worried about this aspect. The other people on the tour were lovely and any fears that I might not get on were quickly unfounded. As I came to realise, most people that come to a place like this do so for similar reasons, to experience the stunning scenery of this remote part of the earth. So we quickly found we all got on very well and had a lot in common.
The boat itself was remarkably well-equipped. We were mostly sat around a table (where Johanna had provided tea, coffee and biscuits) but there was a toilet and at least one bedroom below decks, plus cooking facilities as the boat was also used for multi-day expeditions.
As to sea-sickness, Johanna explained that the biscuits were quite dry (rich tea-like) and encouraged us to eat them explaining that sea-sickness is generally caused by movement of fluid in your stomach so eating something dry helps to absorb some of the fluid so you are less likely to feel sea sick. In any case I don’t need any encouraging to eat biscuits.
I’m afraid I can’t remember the name of the captain of the boat other than he was normally to be found driving one of the larger sight-seeing catamarans (operated by a different company) but was I think driving our boat today (possibly on what would have been his day off) and relished the chance to go further (and faster!) than he was usually able to.
We soon set off from the harbour out into Isfjorden, the Fjord on which Longyearbyen sits. As I feared the boat picked up speed rapidly and we were soon bouncing across the waves, so much so you had to hold onto the table! I was beginning to suspect I might be spending much of the journey in the toilet! The coffee flask also soon had to be secured so we didn’t all get covered in hot coffee!
Johanna introduced herself more. She is French and grew up in Paris. I believe she said she moved here as a tour guide some time after finishing university and loves it in Svalbard and has a dream to move to Ny-Ålesund. Her passion for the place (it’s history, scenery, remoteness and wildlife) certainly came across and she soon got a large map out so we could see exactly where we would be going today.
The safety rules were simple, we could go out at the back of the boat at any time, but if we were outside, we must have a life jacket on and hold tight especially if the boat was going at speed, but we would slow down at places of interest to make it easier to take photos and so on. To start with my main focus was simply holding on so as not to end up on the floor as the boat bounced about.
To my surprise though those biscuits worked too. I only had the occasional slightly sick feeling for the first 20 minutes or so but this soon subsided and I felt fine the rest of the way.
It was tempting to stay out the back, but the movement of the boat, wind and temperature meant it was uncomfortable for long – but here I am out the back.
The views however are stunning as we passed along Isfjorden, with snow-capped mountains on either side of the Fjord, often covered with cloud too.
We saw a large number of sea birds as we went and Johanna showed us which ones they were on the guide and map too. I know puffins were amongst them.
On the way out, conversation soon started to flow as we all found we had many common interests (I was surprised to find everyone on the boat had been to Iceland in the last few years, for example).
One of the other passengers, Ricard (a Spaniard) I think we all particularly warmed to. He had come here for a 2 week holiday and I think was about a week into it and in the time he had been there seemed to have managed to get talking to pretty much everyone that lived or even was staying in Longyearbyen in the Svalbar of an evening (I suspected he was to be found propping up the bar there most evenings!). He seemed the sort of person that could charm anyone!
I remember he said he worked for the Spanish Police in I think a fairly senior role. From what he told me, he was required to work a fixed number of hours each calendar month, rather than specific working hours. As such he tended to do his months work in about 2 weeks of long days, including weekends and then have the rest of the month off. Often he could combine his days off from two months to get a longer break. Most of these breaks he used to travel (extensively) and he had an impressive and stunning collection of photos (and videos) on his phone of all the places he had been to. It certainly looked a nice life-style though I imagine the police work could be rather stressful (I wondered if he was some kind of detective!).
After bouncing around in the boat for an hour or so are first point of interest was a Walrus colony. I didn’t know we would be stopping here and I’d never seen a Walrus in the wild, so this was a treat Johanna commented that Walrus were just likely men really, spending most of the day lazing about farting and belching!
Indeed their behaviour did seem to be mostly lying around but it was fascinating to see them up close, and so many of them. A number of them had clear scars from fighting, I’m not sure if with each other, or polar bears or both (I suspect each other). A few were swimming too but most were laying on the sands which oddly had a lot of logs on it. I presume these are washed up, but from where I don’t know since there aren’t any trees in Svalbard.
The Walrus did not seem bothered by our presence, more just curious. Most gave us a quick glance and carried on with their lying around!
Sadly it was soon time to move on from the Walrus colony and continue our journey. The walrus colony was at the mouth of Isfjorden and so we were now leaving the more protected waters of the Fjord and heading out into the open waters of the Arctic ocean. This made for a rather more bumpy ride!
Fortunately we soon entered the Fordlandsunde, a more sheltered bit of water between the main island of Svalbard, Spitsbergen and the island of Prins Karls Foreland.
On the way we passed by many many snow-covered mountains and hills and also got distance views of several glaciers.
As we headed further north there was noticeably more snow on the hills than further south near Longyearbyen.
In places the peaks of the mountains were now sticking out above the clouds, whilst the lower parts of the mountains were still covered with snow.
We slowed down for a look at a few glaciers and I was so keen to get closer, but we were promised a closer look on the way back.
This is such a sparsely populated area that you see very few people and very few other boats. It is not the sort of place you want to have any mechanical problems but we did pass this rather nice looking sailing boat, though it didn’t have the sails up at the time.
Soon we passed another much larger ship, this time a small cruise ships, as some cruises do operate up to Ny-Ålesund.
On the way more puffins were to be seen and soon with great excitement we were nearing the shelter of the harbour at Ny-Ålesund. Most of the other boats were of the RIB type but it was a sizeable harbour that could clearly fit some large ships too.
Next to the harbour is an a shingle beach with a wooden hut (boat house?) at the back whilst in the other direction buildings that were I suspect once mines.
Despite being such a remote place, the town is geared up for tourists and information panels were dotted about the place to give some information both about the town and the buildings there.
This is because various cruise ships dock here during the summer months. I had considered that option to get here but most of these are long trips of at least a week and I was not sure I wanted to spend so long on a boat!
Ny-Ålesund was originally, like the other settlements in Svalbard, a mining town.
Next to the harbour is another site you might not expect to find somewhere so remote – a train!
(Actually this wasn’t such a surprise to me because it was pictured on the website when I booked the trip, so I knew it was there!) It doesn’t operate any more but was used when the mines were active to transport the coal to the harbour. Now it’s idle, but still left in place.
The buildings of Ny-Ålesund are quite similar in many ways to those you find on the main land of Norway, mostly made of wood and often painted in the mustard and maroon colours that seem to be most popular for wooden buildings in Norway (and indeed Scandinavia in general).
Having reached the harbour we were given a brief safety briefing. First to turn your mobile phone onto flight mode (as the signals can interfere with the research equipment). Secondly we must stick to the roads and not trample on the ground as the flower that grow in the Arctic tundra are very fragile and rare. The most important rule was not to leave the town at all due to the risk of polar bears (it is a legal requirement to have a gun and various other equipment before leaving any of the settlements). This last point was particular important as we were told that a polar bear had been in the town that very morning (it is quite rare they come into the towns), but had since disappeared.
The town is not large. More a village really and the residents are almost entirely scientists with the rest running the shops, boats, hotel and other transport links that are required to keep the town functioning.
Like the other settlements in Svalbard the houses are built raised off the ground partly because the ground is frozen just below the surface and partly because this is actually warmer than being on the icy ground.
Though mining and research have been the main industries here some of the buildings we passed were known as the London houses. They were built in 1911 and 1912 on the other side of the Fjord, in a separate settlement where a marble quarry was established. Unfortunately it was not successful since the marble was damaged by the constantly freezing and melting ice and so quickly crumbled once mined. The houses were then moved here after this venture failed and used as family houses by the miners.
The town also has a small museum. Though it looked closed we were told we could simply walk in and look around because it was never locked!
The town also boasts the most northerly post office in the world – and here it is.
I am told you can send post cards here and have them stamped Ny-Ålesund but it was closed when we were here (though you could do the same in the shop, nearby).
There is also a hotel in the town (Nordpol Hotellet), or North Pole hotel in English though I believe it is private and only for workers of the Kings Bay company to use. A shame as I would have liked to spend the night here if possible.
Near the back of the town where the main research buildings, with quite a lot of activity visible alongside the supporting facilities, such as the canteen. There were buildings for most of the countries that had a research base here (which includes the United Kingdom).
This one is the Chinese base.
What the town is most famous for though is Roald Amundsen and there is a large bust of him in the town square.
He was the first man to reach the South Pole (in 1911) and he reached the North Pole in 1926 on the airship Norge N1 that was launched from Ny-Ålesund.
And here I am standing next to him.
We had been walked to this point by our tour guide. After this we were left to wander about independently and told when to return to the boat.
The shop was also soon to open so we were able to look in there later, too. I am not sure how often the seats outside are used!
Thankfully too the weather had brightened up and there was some sunshine for a time.
So here are a few of my photos of the town.
It was a very interesting place to wander about, though I was careful not to go beyond the town limits where signs warned of the dangers of polar bears.
This building is the former telegraph station, in use to the 1960s I believe.
This house was the very house lived in by Roald Amundsen for the duration of his time in Ny-Ålesund for his expeditions to the north pole.
Sadly only a short visit I only had time for a quick look in the museum.
I also had time for a look in the shop. Mostly it sold food, medicines, clothes, cleaning materials and so on, but a fair part was also given over to souvenirs, where I was able to purchase a copy of the map Johanna had let us lock at on the boat on the way here.
Just as were walking back to the boat lots of other tourists were just arriving aboard that cruise ship we had seen earlier. It was nice we had been able to explore in a small group before far more people arrived.
Back at the harbour the captain of the boat had been preparing lunch for us (which was included), as the boat had a small hob that could be folded away when not in use. However we were told before we could eat it, we all had to fill out a disclaimer that we were all supposed to have signed before setting off! It was the usual stuff about being here at your own risk, that we might not make it if the weather was poor, follow the instructions of the crew etc! I guess they get in trouble if the right paper work is not collected even though it seemed a bit pointless to ask us to sign all that now we were about to leave!
Anyway lunch was a sort of broth with some bread and really nice and also nice and warming after being out in the cold!
Just as we were preparing to depart another boat moored alongside. I didn’t initially recognise the flag but the polish ladies soon did since it was flying the flag of Poland. They commented how the Polish really do get everywhere!
Johanna had also met up and introduced us to a friend of hers who lived in Ny-Ålesund and was I believe due to join the company as a tour guide in a few days time. Johanna made it clear she would love more than almost anything to live in Ny-Ålesund and explained that in winter Longyearbyen is in a valley so is dark and cold for much of the year whilst Ny-Ålesund is more open and so gets more sunshine.
Sadly our time at Ny-Ålesund was at an end and so after lunch was packed away we set off. We quickly picked up speed and as we were heading away we could talk to Johannas’ friend via the ships radio before we were out of range. It was nice to hear the sound of another person in this remote area!
The sea ice is at it’s thickest around March time and still retreating in June. Ny-Ålesund is 78 degrees and 55 minutes north. However the sea ice had retreated enough that our captain decided to take us a little further north. So he took us above the line of 79 degrees north. I was able to photograph it on my trusty old Garmin GPS (it’s a bit blurry because the boat was bouncing around so much).
I also photographed it on the ships own GPS.
As our captain commented this is seriously north and very few people will ever make it so far north.
Sadly we had to head back to Longyearbyen so it was soon time to turn south again and head back. Still now the weather had improved and we had some sunshine for the journey back.
(Note the bird flying just above the sea, too).
On the way back we passed closer to some of the glaciers, that stretched right down to the waters edge.
Soon we were taken right up close to one and it was such a beautiful site. The ice, especially at the lowest level is very blue in colour. This is because a glacier is formed when snow falls on the land. It doesn’t melt completely before the next winter, so more snow falls on top of it. So the ice gets gradually thicker and thicker and the ice at the lowest level is under such extreme pressure that most of the air is forced out of it, causing the blue colour. The pressure also causes it to melt slightly so the ice at the bottom, under the most pressure starts to turn to liquid and so causes the glacier to move, which it does with such force it tears way the rock underneath it (eventually leading to the formation of Fjords).
Here we could hear it creaking and occasionally small pieces would break off as the edge of the glacier reached the sea. Small chunks of ice were floating in the water and indeed the sea was slightly icy around the end of the glacier.
Photos don’t really do it justice, you can’t really appreciate the size and scale of it from the photos. We headed slowly along the edge of the glacier, so we could take it all in.
Sadly it was soon time to move on and so we headed back out into the sea for our journey back to Longyearbyen.
As we headed back to Longyearbyen a mist descended and our captain therefore had to reduce speed as it’s not safe to travel at high speed in such conditions.
This caused the two Polish ladies a bit of concern as they needed to get back to Longyearbyen on time in order to catch their flight home.
Of course out here there is minimal communication. Our captain did have a sort of CB-radio to talk to other ships, but there aren’t many of those. He went through it and it was nice to hear a few other human voices in such a remote location (even if most of them weren’t speaking in English so I had no idea what was being said). He also had another radio which I asked about and it turns out this is just a normal FM radio like you would find in a car but as he pointed out it’s pointless out here because there aren’t any radio stations to tune it to!
Johanna needed to call a taxi to get us all back from the harbour anyway so it was agreed we’d go to the airport first so they had a chance of catching their flight, however Johanna could not call for a taxi until we were nearly back to Longyearbyen, because there is no mobile signal out at sea.
Fortunately the mist soon cleared and we were able to pick up speed again, so we were not badly delayed. Soon we were heading back along Isfjorden and towards Longyearbyen. When we were in range of land Johanna was soon able to get a phone signal and call the various taxi companies. It took some time for one to be available and even then we were told there would be a wait (though in practice not much of one).
As we approached the harbour at Longyearbyen our captain spotted the catamaran he usually drives, also heading back to Longyearbyen. The race was on! He made a point of going close and overtaking, waving madly at his friend driving the boat, determined to get us back to harbour first (which indeed he did). He was certainly enjoying being able to drive a faster boat than he usually did. I’m not so sure Ricard, who was in the toilet at this point, enjoyed it quite so much as we were all thrown about a bit at such speeds. The captain of course gets a sort of “bouncy” chair with suspension, but us passengers are not so lucky!
Soon we were back in the harbour and now had the challenge of finding a parking spot! The captain did a good job of “parallel parking” the boat in a tight spot between two much larger boats and our taxi arrived within 5 minutes.
In the end the two Polish ladies arrived at the airport 55 minutes before their flight. With hand luggage only and at such a small airport I’m sure they would have caught it no problem and I was impressed they had managed to pack so much into their short time here!
The taxi then drove us back into the town and dropped us off at our various hotels.
All in all it had been a fantastic and very memorable day. It is not every day after all you get to visit the most northerly town in the world! I was so glad I had been able to do it and the weather conditions had been favourable for us to make it there and back with no problem. I was also very pleased that our tour guide was really lovely as was the captain and that I also got on really well with the other people on the tour.
Several companies operated trips to Ny-Ålesund from Longyearbyen, details below. Be aware that it’s not cheap (I used most of my work bonus for this trip!):-
- Spitesbergen Guide Service. (This is the company I used). Departures on Wednesdays.
- Better Moments. Departures on Thursday and Sunday.
- Hurtigruten – For a longer cruise that visits Ny-Alesund.
Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link.