Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Circumnavigating Spitsbergen - Longyearbyen (Throwback post)

Longyearbyen, Svalbard
With plans to be in the UK for a while, to sort out the new flat, we felt that we would need at least a short break away to keep us going. And as the sale of our old flat had given our budget a boost, we decided to treat ourselves to a trip to the Arctic.

We have loved the opportunities that we have had to see wildlife in its natural habitat, so the aim of this trip was to try to see polar bears. We opted for a visit to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, up in the Arctic Circle, about half way between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

The Dutchman, Willem Barentsz made the official discovery of Spitsbergen - the name that he gave to it - in 1596, but it is likely that Russians and Scandinavians may both have been here much earlier, fishing and hunting here. The name Svalbard, which is Norse for cold shores, originated some centuries earlier, but may actually /have referred to Jan Mayen, or even Greenland, rather than here.

Coal mine, Longyearbyen, Svalbard
Many nationalities established settlements, for fishing and hunting, and later for coal mining and Arctic exploration, with a number of North Pole expeditions setting off from here. In 1920, the Svalbard Treaty was signed, giving full sovereignty to Norway, but all forty countries that agreed the treaty retained rights to undertake commercial activities. When the treaty came into force in 1925, Norway changed the name of the group of islands to Svalbard, and retained the name Spitsbergen for the main island.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard
These days, mining activity is much reduced, and it is only the Norwegians and Russians that still have operations. The Russians still like to flex their muscle though, and on the flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen, we all had to disembark at the Tromso stop-off point so that the Russian authorities could check the passports of everyone coming onto the island.

Aside from Longyearbyen, there are a few small settlements, but most of the 2,600 or so population, live here.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard
Now we've visited a few small and remote communities, including the Falkland Islands, which is even more isolated than here, and that was somewhere that we could imagine living for  while at least, but we couldn't imagine living here at all. I can't quite put my finger on why. It wasn't about the months of freezing, twenty-four hour darkness, or about the remoteness, although neither of those particularly appeal. It was more about the feel of the place.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard
Longyearbyen is named after John Munroe Longyear, who owned Arctic Coal, the company that settled here to mine the fuel. It started as, and until relatively recently remained, a mining community, and that shows. To me, it felt like somewhere that people are stationed, rather than somewhere they chose to make their home. Of course there are schools, shops and places to go out, but it didn't feel it could be 'home'.

That polar bears are a feature of Longyearbyen, is evident from the moment you arrive, as there is a large one standing on the luggage carousel - though obviously this one is dead and stuffed.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard
There are a number of these stuffed bears around the town, which I have to admit I had slightly mixed feeling about.

But it is not the dead ones that they have to worry about. Whilst it is pretty unusual for a bear to come right into town, they do roam around the outskirts. People going outside of the settlement areas are actually legally required to have some method of scaring, and protecting themselves from, polar bears, and are advised to carry a firearm with them. In town, many of the shops have a gun cabinet, where they leave the gun while in town.

Our old mining accommodation, Longyearbyen, Svalbard
For the couple of nights before our ship sailed, we stayed in hostel type accommodation in the old mining accommodation. Being a little further out was interesting, and meant that we had a chance to spot some wildlife early on - not a polar bear (probably just as well), but an arctic fox. For such a short stay, we didn't bother to self cater, so wandered down to the Spitsbergen Hotel to take advantage of the free waffles in the afternoon, and for dinner. After the trip, we splashed out on the Radisson, but that wasn't as cosy as the Spitsbergen, and there weren't any free waffles.
Svalbard Museum, Longyearbyen, Svalbard

The Svalbard Museum isn't bad as an introduction to the history and wildlife of the islands, and there are a few sightseeing bits that you can do if you like, such as the church, or perhaps a trip out to the Global Seed Vault, where they safeguard samples of around 4000 plants that are regarded as vital to our survival in the event of a global disaster.

Sled dogs, Longyearbyen, Svalbard
We were tempted to take a ride on a dog sled, but there wasn't really time for that, so instead we just took a wander down to the dog sled place, and watched the very sleepy dogs. The walk there and back took us along the shoreline, so we made sure to collect one of the long plastic sticks that was available at the start.

We felt a little foolish walking along with it - or at least I did, especially when Nic kept pretending it was a light-saber - but it is definitely worth carrying, as even though we kept to the path, the skuas that nest along here get very protective of their young, and tend to attack the heads of those walking along. Just to clarify, the stick isn't to hit the birds, just to hold above your head so that they can't swoop in and attack your head.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard
We did rather like some of the small details here though. It isn't often that the you see parking areas dedicated to snowmobiles, or that each car parking space has its own powersocket, so that you can plug your car in to keep it just warm enough to stop it from freezing up so much that it won't start.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Dog sleds, Longyearbyen, Svalbard
Svalbard Museum, Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Longyearbyen, Svalbard

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