We had visited Norway many times, including the North Cape, but this trip by small cruise ship took us onward to Spitzbergen - not a place to be in winter! Even in mid-summer the ground is held in the grip of permafrost. The ground is covered in small, stunted plants only. Stopping first at Longyearbyen a small coal mining community (with little noticeable activity), there was quite a lot of activity by arctic foxes, some elk and plenty of arctic terns which bombarded those who approached, unwittingly, their nest sites. A few men, hatless, took the brunt of their sharp beaks!
(There is, apparently, a Russian coal mining settlement, very active, not very far away, but there is no road to it. (Just as well!) This exists by international agreement with Norway. It supplies coal, and is itself supplied by sea only. (A pretty grim looking place as seen from the sea.)
We moved on to Ny Alesund to the north. A very small place with one post office doing a roaring trade with tourist goods and special postage stamps. (And a very jovial postmaster who liked to be photographed.) This township is populated in summer principally by international scientists, living in separate housing blocks, by nationality, who carry out observations etc. until the first signs of snow, when the bulk of them fly back home (there is a small air strip). They leave behind a small core of perhaps 6 of their scientists to survive the harsh winter.
Perhaps at this point I should mention that there are polar bears about almost everywhere, and in summer there are virtually no seals about so the bears are starving. One cannot go out of the townships without being armed, or with someone who is. Take heed!
The jewel of our visit proved to be Magdalena Bay aided by perfect weather. The sunlight is incredibly bright and visibility crystal clear. We were at 82 degrees North with nothing between us and the arctic ice field. We went ashore onto a sand spit which projected into the Bay when a bar was set up. (The most northerly bar on earth!) Every few minutes we could hear ear-splitting cracks as the two glaciers, which flow into the Bay, 'calved'. An amazing sound. Finally, just as the last passengers were about to return from the sand spit, a polar bear appeared from nowhere, sniffing the breeze, and advancing rapidly. (We were clearly on his menu - or so he thought!) At about 100m range, our armed rangers fired off flares but this had no effect. The bear continued to advance, so two live rounds were fired near the bear and he got the message finally, trundled down the beach and plunged into the Bay.
What an experience that was to bring our visit to Spitzbergen to a dramatic close. (One cannot but wonder if the whole episode was arranged by the local tourist board!)
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