No man's land?
A friendly Oslo resident told me a very Norwegian joke on the three-hour flight from the capital city to the tiny airport at the former mining community of Longyearbyen. "I met a guy from Svalbard recently. He said, 'I reckon there are about six people in the world currently living further north than me. They're my neighbours on the opposite side of the road.' " This hilarious anecdote does, however, rather neatly sum up the reality of just how far north the communities on the islands are located. If you were to travel the distance of Lands End to John O'Groats farther north again, you'd bump into the pole itself.
Svalbard holidays: the facts
Now let's get the facts out of the way. Svalbard (meaning "cold shores" in old Norse) is an archipelago that sits between the 71st and 80th parallel, or about half way between the top of mainland Norway and the North Pole. There are around 2,000 permanent human residents and 3,000 permanent polar bear residents. Darkness covers the area completely for 84 days a year and the sun shines for 24 hours, 99 days every summer. Despite the latitude, temperatures can occasionally reach a relatively balmy 20C in mid-summer, but hover permanently at around -16C in January. The relatively mild climate for this part of the world is thanks to the warm north Atlantic current, which also allows for rich sea life around the shores of the islands. The teeming sea life ensures that the food chain that starts with plankton and ends at large fluffy white bears thrives despite the seeming in-hospitality of the place.
Ah yes…those pesky, lovable, fluffy, ferocious and enormous teddy bears. There's a curious feeling of ubiquity about the massive predators. Even the local beer has a ring pull in the silhouette shape of the bears. However, they're pretty good at keeping themselves to themselves most of the time. They almost never venture into human settlements. However, it is forbidden to walk anywhere beyond the limits of the town without a high-calibre rifle to protect against (extremely rare and isolated) attacks on humans. Locals love telling tall tales about encounters, but it turns out us skinny humans are not good eating for the fat-loving bears. Just make sure you stay off the whale blubber diet before heading up.
There are some fantastic trips to be experienced up in the arctic wilds of Svalbard. Husky dog sledding is fabulous fun and the dogs are SO friendly. Ask very nicely and we might even be able to arrange a visit to a newly born litter of husky puppies: incredibly cute! Snowmobiling, speedboat rides out to see calving glaciers, serious trekking, ski touring, climbing and even champagne tastings are all on the agenda here.
The gentle clanking of fishing boats' bells, wind whistling through gaps in buildings, empty streets and the chilly temperature on arrival in Longyearbyen reminded me very much of the charming little city at the other end of the world - Ushuaia in Argentina. The lack of trees, the vertiginous landscape and snowy peaks recalled a high alpine pass dunked into the sea.
Like no other place on Earth...
There is an air of the primeval here and of the triumph of life over adversity. Early settlers here certainly had their odds of survival stacked against them. Successive waves of whalers, prospectors, miners, and latterly, research scientists, explorers and curious tourists have all been drawn by the unexpected yet undeniable diversity of riches that are found here. I feel incredibly privileged to have witnessed a place like no other on Earth that is being so well looked-after to ensure that it remains that way for generations of visitors to come.