Day Seventy-two … Thursday, 31st May
Scotland to Spitsbergen
We were up bright and early and after breakfast it was time to pack up the car and head to Edinburgh airport. Rob kindly drew a mudmap of how to get to the nearest petrol station to the airport. We bade our fond farewells, thanking Rob and Dorothy for a brilliant time in Scotland – they’ve done so much to make it special and taken us to some amazing and truly memorable places like Handa Island, the Orkneys and the Isle of May.
Our drive to the airport was pretty straightforward, with only a moment of concern when we crossed the bridge over the Firth of Forth as a sea fog descended and reduced visibility to a few dozen metres. Once we’d come down off the bridge though, the fog thinned and eventually disappeared. We found the petrol station, fuelled up and after a slight hiccup finding the rental car return (they seem to conspire to make it as difficult as possible), got that sorted and made our way into the terminal.
We asked at check-in if we could make up our 46 kgs joint allowance with the extra bag donated by Rob and Dorothy, containing our new wellies and boots. But no go. Kerrie said well, we’ll just have to take it as carry-on. He seemed unperturbed, so that’s what we did. Andrew swapped his day shoes for walking boots to lighten the load and away we went.
Somewhat surprisingly, we got all our bags onto the flight without the slightest problem. Our flight to Oslo was uneventful, the view looking down on the snow-capped mountains as we crossed over western Norway was beautiful.
At Oslo we had to clear passport control but not our bags, thankfully, We had a seven hour wait, so Andrew changed some pounds into kroner and we wound up eating at what must be the most expensive airport bistro on the planet – lunch cost us almost £50!! That’s Norway. We did find a technology shop and were able to get two SD cards for the cameras and could pay in UK pounds, which wasn’t so bad. We whiled away our time, had to go through passport control again as Spitsbergen is not part of the Schengen group and is treated as an independent territory. In the departure lounge we overheard other passengers talking about the Aqua-Firma tour and met our tour leader Charlotte who co-owns the company. Our flight north took around three hours, heading into the light as we approached the Arctic Circle and 24-hour daylight. We arrived at Longyearbyen at 1:30am. After collecting our bags, we got on board the only bus along with most of the other passengers, in broad daylight. It took ages while the bus driver collected the fares from all fifty passengers! It felt most strange driving into town in the early hours of the morning, in broad daylight.
At the Radisson Blu, there was a queue at check-in but to their credit, it was a fast and efficient process – still, it was 3am by the time we got into our bedroom.
Day Seventy-three … Friday, 1st June
After a very good buffet breakfast and admiring the stuffed polar bear giving us a friendly wave in the foyer, we ventured outside.
Surprisingly alert after only four or five hours’ sleep, we wandered around town, which basically meant walking up and down the main shopping street. Looking like a frontier town with dirt roads and timber buildings, it felt like a remote outpost on another planet.
We decided to visit the museum, which was initially hard to spot, perhaps we were confused by the sign outside?
It was worth the hunt. The interior design and displays were excellent. It had won awards and justifiably so – a chronological narrative of Spitsbergen describing its geological origins, its natural history, its human history through dioramas, artefacts and text. Fascinating.
The only thing that took us by surprise were the arctic fox skins for sale. It jarred slightly with the overall conservation message but up here hunting is still a way of life.
Afterwards we met up with Charlotte from Aqua-Firma and most of the rest of our tour group. We found out that this comprises only half to two thirds of the passengers on board, the rest have booked through Oceanwide Expeditions. We also discovered there was an English couple on board that lives in Iden, the village where Andrew’s family lived in the 1960s and 70s.
Back outside on the main street, Kerrie was intrigued by an upmarket looking clothing and souvenir shop –featuring lots of animal skins –including seals and reindeer. Further evidence of the frontier
outpost culture here. Inside the door was a sign that said that you should hand your gun over to staff while in the shop, you wouldn’t need it as the animals were already dead!
The sobering fact behind this ‘joke’ was that polar bears do come into town and people routinely carry guns to defend themselves in the event of a polar bear attack. We also heard that in Longyearbyen, no-one locks their doors so that anyone confronted by a bear can make a dash for the nearest door and take refuge inside.
Andrew decided to head back to the warmth of the hotel and to do some final emails, as we would be off the internet for the next ten days, out of contact with the rest of the world except for emergencies. Kerrie continued to look around the town, having been tipped off by the couple from Iden that there was New Zealand made possum fur clothing designed by a guide in Svalbard in one of the shops, which was supposed to be very popular. She found the shop and the clothing – which did look really nice but was rather expensive!
Kerrie explored the rest of town, capturing the distinctive feel of Longyearbyen, former mining town, Arctic community, a place where the wilderness and wildlife rub shoulders with humans .
We both visited a small wildlife photo exhibition, with some amazing photos of polar bears and other arctic wildlife. We collected our bags from the hotel storage room and were picked up by taxi, with the rest of the passengers in our group.
We boarded the s/v Rembrandt van Rijn, the 49 metre, three-masted schooner that was to be our home for the next 10 days. We were shown to our cabin which had a lower bunk big enough for both of us – allowing us to use the upper bunk for clothing – a bonus as storage space was limited.
Our private bathroom was a reasonable size too. Later, comparing notes with our fellow passengers, we realised we had one of the biggest/best of the cabins. We unpacked what we needed for the trip and stashed the bags with the rest of our stuff in the one wardrobe.
Anchored at another wharf was a very flash looking National Geographic tour ship. But that would have been a very different experience; we had chosen to go with a small group (33 passengers), travelling more ecologically, using wind power whenever possible. As we sat down to dinner, the schooner got under way, motoring down the fjord.
After dinner, there was a major briefing on the trip. The captain welcomed us on board and introduced us to the ship’s crew as well as our two guides, Jordi and Charlotte. We were given a run through of the do’s and don’ts about life on board, health and safety instructions including how to put on a life jacket, a demonstration of how to get into a survival suit and a fire drill. We were also told the plan for tonight’s sailing and tomorrow’s landings.
As we headed out of the fjord we saw a Russian coal mining town, belching smoke into the atmosphere, an industrial blight on the landscape.
The belief is that there’s little coal and it’s not really a going concern, the Russians are exercising their right under the agreement after WW1 that while Norway be given ownership and control of Svalbard, they are not unreasonably to withhold mineral and fishing rights to other countries. This allows Russia to stake a claim and give it a strategic presence in this Arctic Archipelago.
It looked pretty bleak and grim, not a plum posting. We were happy to leave it behind and get our first glimpse of the wilderness we had come to experience.
Exiting the fjord, there was a definite swell, rolling the vessel from side to side, not intense but enough that we decided to take tablets for seas-sickness in case.
Day Seventy-four…..Saturday 2nd June
We both had a surprisingly good night’s rest, waking only once.
We had our first wake-up call, via the Tannoy system, with Jordi’s distinctive voice saying, “hello everyone, it’s 7:30, this is your morning wake-up call”; he’d then go on to describe the weather and sea conditions, the ship’s location and remind everyone that breakfast would be served in half an hour at 8am.
Getting used to the shower took a while, with surprise spurts from the shower rose spraying the bathroom/toilet floor if you turned the tap the wrong way. We got into the habit of getting up before Jordi’s wake-up call and grabbing a quick shower before everyone else did as the hot water soon ran out! Even though the rooms were heated, a cold shower is not the greatest way to start your day in the Arctic!
After breakfast we had a detailed briefing in the dining room from Jordi, our tour guide, on behaviour and code of conduct on Spitsbergen which included watching a short, animated video. Unlike the Antarctic which is governed by an international treaty, Spitsbergen is managed by Norway. So here different rules apply. The plan was two outings per day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. The routine was to be a briefing after breakfast, then the guides (Jordi and Charlotte) would scout out locations, landings and wildlife while we got ready – which meant multiple layers of warm clothing, waterproof gear, wellies and an inflatable lifejacket. Plus of course a pack with cameras, binoculars, sun screen etc.
Then we would board the zodiacs – there were two to take everyone ashore, which meant three trips, the last group waiting for their turn. Depending on the swell, getting into the zodiac was easy or decidedly tricky.
But in most cases, everyone on shore had to wait for the last group before the guided walk could begin. That’s because all walks have to be guarded, that is both guides are armed and no-one is allowed to venture out on their own or in a group that doesn’t have an armed “guard”. This is due to the threat posed by polar bears. They are carnivores, of course, and have been known to attack and kill people. So, one armed guard/guide walks at the front of the group and the second takes up the rear.
Overnight we had motored south so as to be at Recherchefjord early in the morning. This small side fjord of the large Bellsund fjord takes its name from the French ship Recherche that brought a team of French scientists here in 1838. The fjord system Bellsund, is named after the characteristic bell-shaped mountain Klokkefjfellet, located on the southern shores of its entrance.
Somewhere here the first “accidental” overwintering of Europeans in Spitsbergen happened, when in 1630 a group of eight whalers were left ashore by mistake. How must that have felt!
Our first guided walk was around a rocky plain, lying in front of the Recherchebreen glacier.
We saw two reindeer, which actually approached us – curious and largely unafraid. They were joined by a third.
Some movement in the group spooked them and they ran away, but not far and not for long. Both males and females have antlers, but the juveniles have to grow them.
We walked around to a vantage point overlooking the glacier and the lagoon partially covered in ice.
Making our way back over the moraine we came across ice shaped by nature into wonderful ice sculptures.
Worryingly, there was also a disturbing amount of plastic rubbish – some with Russian writing – hmmm.
Initially, we were surprised to find any signs of civilisation this far north but this was not an isolated incident. Sadly, there is now so much rubbish in the oceans that currents carry debris, and flotsam and jetsam off ships up to the pristine Arctic. Soon after, Kerrie picked up this plastic rubbish she saw a plastic cup in the centre of a pond which Charlotte kindly retrieved.
We also came across the skeletal remains – skull and flipper – of a seal that had met an untimely end.
And shortly afterwards, ominously, the paw prints of a polar bear. Charlotte, one of our guides said from their size, it was clearly a large animal. We saw more prints as we progressed. But no bear!
Growing in this inhospitable and rocky ground were bright clumps of purple sage, the first plant to flower in spring.
That was our first walk – we returned for lunch – hot soup and a cooked meal! Then we were summoned together by an announcement on the PA for another briefing. We were going on a second outing, to see walrus hauled up on a sandspit.
There had been 3-4 but a couple were scared off by a passing coastguard vessel. Jordi gave us clear instructions, we were going to land well downwind of the remaining walrus and walk slowly in a line towards them, stopping at intervals to check all was ok and to give them time to get used to our presence. Noise and rapid movement to be kept to a minimum.
They appeared oblivious to our presence largely because of their poor eyesight and everyone got some great shots.
The smell was appalling. We actually thought there was a dead animal around, although couldn’t see it. But that was walrus-breath!
We got surprisingly close, maybe ten to fifteen metres away. We were immediately struck by their size – they are massive, weighing up to one and a half tonnes.
We walked back in a circuit around a boggy bay …
… the arrival of spring meant the topmost layer of the permafrost was melting, making it muddy and unpredictable. It was a longish hike and quite tiring, so when Jordi said there was an option to go on to view a glacier – a further two hour walk, Kerrie and I decided we were too tired and had done enough for the day. We joined a zodiac of others returning to the Rembrandt together with a plastic bag of rubbish picked up from the nearby surroundings.
Opting out of the walk on the glacier turned out to be the right decision, as the walk was quite hard and several people got badly bogged in muddy quicksand. Poor Perry had to be hauled out using an abandoned plastic tray. Quite a trial. A source of great mirth and no real harm done – but not how we would have wanted to end our first day!
Back for a cuppa tea and biscuit, relaxed and then a hot three course dinner and early night.
During the evening, our ship repositioned across Bellsund to the bay of ice-filled Fridhorfhamna, dropping anchor at the edge of the flat and thin layers of sea ice before we went to bed.
Day Seventy-five…..Sunday 3rd June
We woke to an overcast morning and a change in plans.
As outlined by Jordi last night after dinner, the plan had been to sail out of the protected waters beyond Akselhoya island and head closer to the Northern entrance of Bellsund, where the proposed Ingeborgfjellet landing site was located.
Unfortunately, strong 15 knot Westerly winds were blowing against the strong running tidal current. That together with the shallow and narrow passage leading to the spot where we were supposed to land, produced a heavy swell and strong currents. The decision was made to change plan and so our ship returned to the calmer anchorage we had just come from and began the disembarkation process.
Our guides organised an alternative excursion, landing on the rocky shore at the edge of the fast ice that fills the inlet.
From there we made our way along the ridge of one of the lateral moraines of Fridjorfbreen to a spectacular viewpoint over the glacier. Snowflakes started falling but the walk was uphill and we soon warmed up. As with so many of our excursions the focal point (which was the glacier) was amazing but the walk to get there was so interesting and unlike anything we’d done before – trudging over a variety of rock formations and different arctic flowers in the extreme Arctic wilderness.
On the way, we heard a strange clicking and whirring sound – which came from a male ptarmigan that landed right in front of Kerrie.
This was the first one we’d seen so everyone was scrambling for their cameras and binoculars. He posed for several minutes, turning to offer his best profile to the photographers,then he was off – an almost totally white bird of beauty in this harsh landscape.
We continued up the moraine as far as it was safe to go. Even though the weather was overcast and the light dull for photography the views of the glacier were breath-taking. There are more than 2100 small and large glaciers in Svalbard, over half of the archipelago is covered by glaciers and nearly 60 % of the land area is covered by ice. Each glacier is different, shot through with crevices and fractures and, as it turns out, the glaciers on the coast are the most fast moving.
We stayed as long as we could awed by the size and power of the moving river of ice and headed back to the ship for lunch and a chance to warm up in the heated interior of the dining room and cabin.
In the afternoon it was decided to tried our luck again at Ingeborgfjelet. The tide had changed and wind died down so there was a good chance we could land. Despite the easing conditions, there was a long high swell which made boarding the zodiacs extremely tricky. Timing proved to be everything! You had to hang on tightly as, facing the ship, you stepped down the ladder and waited on the bottom rung for the zodiac to rise with the swell of the sea. When it rose to its highest point someone shouted “NOW” and you quickly stepped off the ladder and (hopefully) onto the floor of the zodiac. Others already on the boat then tried to grab you and steady you to prevent you falling over when the boat dropped. Somehow you made it to a space on the rim of the zodiac where you sat down and fiercely gripped the rope that went around the edge of the zodiac.
Once everyone was on board the waves made for a bumpy ride.
Not surprisingly, getting out onto the beach was equally demanding. Some leapt out athletically while others heaved and wallowed like seals as they manoeuvred themselves over the side of the zodiac and into the shallow water.
The goal of this excursion was to get up close to hundreds of thousands of Spitsbergen’ s couple of million breeding pairs of Little Auks.
Unlike most other seabirds that come to breed here, Little Auks rely on the abundance of plankton for survival, instead of small fish. We heard them first as their shrill calls reverberated off the mountainside. Look carefully from a distance and you could see what seemed like dark clouds of insects whirling and wheeling in the air.
We were in two groups – one lot including Kerrie was with Charlotte….
….while Andrew in the second landing was with Jordi.
He led our group up through grassy slopes and rocky paths to a vantage point where we were no more than a few metres away from the lower reaches of the Little Auks’ nesting area, ranging along the length of a rocky scree which offers opportune holes and crevices.
Provided we stayed still and didn’t make any noise, they didn’t seem to mind, much too pre-occupied with mating and nesting.
Every now and again something precipitated a mass of these tiny birds to take to the air and wheel around in vast flocks, noisily chattering. Then we saw why – not just one but two Arctic foxes were on a hunting expedition.
Working independently, they scoured the scree for unwary birds or possibly eggs, although the late Spring meant little chance of finding those yet.
They were beginning to lose their winter coats, patches of dark fur showing through, which meant they looked a trifle tatty – but still very cute with pointy noses and sharp eyes. They’re surprisingly small, about the size of a large cat or small dog, and very agile. We were totally captivated by the drama, immersed in this Arctic wilderness for more than an hour.
Thrilled by our up-close experience with Arctic wildlife, we made our way back down to the tundra flats below where reindeer were busy grazing on the fresh vegetation, fertilised by the bird-guano from the slopes above.
Safely back on board, our ship started the long journey north to reach tomorrow’s destination, in Forlandsundet.
Day Seventy-six…..Monday 4th June
After heaving in a mild swell out in the open ocean overnight we awoke to a calm placid sea, a spectacular view of snow covered peaks and glaciers on both sides of the ship and a fine day with sections of blue sky among the various cloud formations.
We were now in some narrow straits with the intention of sailing between the two islands – something that the bigger polar explorer ships can’t do. There was much more snow here and you could just imagine a polar bear strolling down the fresh slopes on the hunt for food.
We were here to see and walk to the edge of a glacier, and hopefully see ice calving or chunks of ice fall into the sea.
In one part there was a section that appeared to have been cut neatly with a knife and if it had calved it would have created a perfect ice cave.
Jordi had read about the area in a guide book but it had said there was no way to get to the shore, even by zodiac, as the waters were too shallow and rocky– a red rag to a bull to him and he was sure there was a way. However, the first zodiac of the day (not driven by Jordi) apparently broke a propeller and we could see them sitting in the zodiac on the water’s edge and Charlotte on the shore for what seemed ages.
We went in the second zodiac with Jordi driving who had actually visited the area once before and rummaged through his memory banks to eventually find the channel. Soon after the first zodiac came over and followed us.
Jordi went back to get the remaining passengers and Charlotte started walking towards the glacier with the first two zodiac groups.
Kerrie had forgotten her camera on deck which she realised soon after stepping carefully into the zodiac but Roger, our next door neighbour in cabin 11, who was coming in the next zodiac offered to bring it with him. As it transpired, this was the worst possible timing for a memory lapse!!
We didn’t get far before we saw an arctic fox on a rock and running along the shoreline, this one was totally white – no moult yet. The scenery was so beautiful and rugged and remote you needed to pinch yourself to know you were actually there – and not watching a documentary with David Attenborough suddenly appearing in the background.
With it being day three we were starting to get into a rhythm of walking, and at the same time appreciating the views. The health and safety officer Roderick (Dutch) joined us for the activity and said just a week ago the water in the bay was frozen solid and the ground was covered in snow. Today there was some ice in the bay but not much, and flowers were starting to grow on the exposed ground. Walking along the shore wasn’t difficult until we came to an ice overhang where it was melting fast and several slipped, breaking through the edge of the ice.
We were looking forward to getting up close and personal to the glacier, to hear it grinding and fracturing and perhaps witness the creation of an ice cave, when Charlotte suddenly shouted “everyone back to the boat, POLAR BEAR, move NOW!”
Jenny had been looking for birds and had seen something large and white walking on the beach on the other side of the bay, around from the glacier, not thinking for a minute it could be a polar bear. (She earned a wine for her spotting efforts back on board the boat!)
The normally relaxed and jovial Charlotte instantly became very authoritative, insisting we move fast. By this stage the third group had arrived on shore with Jordi, and were waiting as they had heard on the two-way radio that a bear had been spotted. We managed to get a shot on the Nikon but Kerrie had to wait to retrieve her camera from Roger before she could take a photo, significantly further away than where we had been before.
We were disappointed we had to curtail our excursion but we understood the danger. Charlotte said there was a very good chance the bear had smelt us and if he had decided to swim across the bay it could have been potentially a very dangerous situation. At 30kms an hour the bear could easily outrun the hapless tourists in their wellies! We had a bit of time to watch the bear through binoculars and cameras until the zodiacs arrived and noticed basking harbour seals along the ice in front of where the bear was roaming up and down. As soon as he got close, they dived into the water with a splash.
Back on board, from the safety of the deck we watched the bear walking up and down on the snow, disappear behind rocks and reappear and, at one point, toss something from its mouth. Presumably he’d been successful in his hunt.
On reflection we considered ourselves very fortunate given it was only day three and we had seen so much including a polar bear when some tours don’t see one.
Coincidentally, Jordi had heard on the ship’s radio early in the morning that a bear had appeared near the main town just the day before, and it had tried to get into the pantry or store house of the radio station via a window. As climate change continues and the ice melts more and more polar bears are likely to turn to alternative sources of food. Fortunately, our bear appeared to be a good size and not malnourished.
Our afternoon expedition was to visit a large walrus colony and over the lunch break the ship motored to the sand bank where they were having their afternoon siesta.
There were about 60 animals, all males (the females are gathered on the other side of Spitsbergen to have their pups) lying cheek by jowl on the spit, snoozing, having a scratch and scratching each other.
We moved as a group in one line closer and closer to the colony so as not to frighten them.
Given we were down wind and their poor eyesight, provided no one made a rapid movement or a noise there was a very good chance they would not take fright.
Every now and then one would raise its head and peer in our direction but then get used to us and go back to snoozing.
This one was obviously totally oblivious to our presence.
With tusks pointing in all directions, some up to a metre long, it was extraordinary that none of them seem to be injured – although there was the occasional face off.
Snorting, sneezing and waggling their flippers, they’re quite comical with their moustache of bristles, slobbery mouths and noses oozing drool or spittle. Ungainly on land – we watched as one rolled its cumbersome way into the water – they are lithe and agile in the water.
A few younger ones in the sea were so curious they came very close to us. Jordi stamped his feet in the water to make them even more curious and it paid off, providing us with a great experience and some very special shots.
We were there about an hour or more, but we could have stayed much longer – it was such a totally absorbing experience. To be so close to so many walrus and observe them behaving naturally in the wild was something we’ll never forget. Oh, and of course the scenery provided a spectacular backdrop. What an amazing day.
Day Seventy-seven…..Tuesday 5th June
A long haul overnight. Kerrie got up early to take advantage of the captain’s invitation to visit the bridge and take photos of Roderick who had piloted the ship (through the night but in 24 daylight) past barren islands and fjords, rugged mountains and large glaciers to the islands on the NW corner of Spitsbergen. He was in the process of handing over control to the captain and Jordi was about to make his morning announcements.
Historically, this whole area was of huge importance for the whaling industry in the 17th century, mainly belonging to Danish and Dutch whalers. By breakfast we were close to the shores of one of the islets, Dankshoya. Its name means “Danish Island” referring to the old Danish whaling station located in Kobbefjord (seal fjord), where we were heading.
Dankshoya, along with the whole archipelago is rocky and pretty barren, with just mosses and lichens and not much more in the way of vegetation. The rounded hills are clear evidence that they were completely covered by ice during the last glacial period.
The scenic inlet where we intended to anchor, usually battered by winds and swell is not commonly visited by tourists, and finding a good anchorage took a while.
But after our morning briefing by Jordi and more coffee everything was ready and we were given the OK to put on our life jackets and prepare to board the zodiacs.
We were dropped off on a sandy peninsula beside a bay where as soon as we disembarked we saw discarded fishing ropes and other debris prompting a spontaneous rubbish collection – this was becoming a daily occurrence.
Kerrie asked Charlotte if the captain would mind another bag of rubbish coming on board but she said tourist boats were obliged to pick up rubbish wherever they could in the wilderness. In fact, the Norwegian government has started a project “Clean up Svalbard” encouraging tourists to pick up rubbish anywhere they found it.
Rubbish dealt with our focus turned to a small group of Harbour seals lying on the rocks on the other side of the secluded little bay.
They appeared to be balancing precariously and uncomfortably but successfully on the rocks, some with heads and tails curved up to form a graceful bowl shape. All that blubber that keeps them warm in these freezing waters must help with more than insulation!
We knew they were Harbour seals as although their colour varied from almost black to dark grey and brown, with patterns that are often similar to Ringed seals, Harbour seals are only found on the west coast of Spitsbergen, they tend to stay in groups, and almost no other seals in the archipelago lie on rocks.
We walked to the edge of the bay slowly and quietly – just as we did with the walruses. And like their heftier cousins, the seals didn’t seem too bothered, watching us but not diving into the water for safety. We watched in silent awe at their beauty and superb adaptation to what for us is such a harsh environment.
We walked on from the sandy beach and stepped carefully over an area of banded gneiss boulders. These were ancient rocks that are around a billion years old in which the coarse mineral grains have been arranged into a banded structure.
From there we climbed up a moraine ridge, Kerrie trying hard not to face plant…
…. to where a small stone cairn with a couple of wooden posts was stuck between the rocks.
Apparently, these were the ‘postes restantes’ of the wild and remote Arctic. In earlier times, ships carrying mail from whalers or others making a living up here would leave a cache of letters to be picked up by southbound ships to take to Norway.
There was also a sad and tragic story attached to this bay. In 1922 fate brought two researchers, originally based at Kongsfjord, to this remote spot where they became marooned, and finally starved to death, testament to the inhospitable nature of this environment.
We were now on the other side of the bay to where we were initially and after hiking a short distance up the ridge we could see the seals still perched on their rocks.
It gave us a different perspective, revealing more of the patterns on their coats as the sun was shining down on them. It was a delightfully peaceful scene, spoilt only by some fellow passengers who seemed more intent on chattering incessantly instead of relishing this unique opportunity to experience wildlife and wilderness.
On our way back, Jordi spotted a patch of ground where thicker, greener moss and vegetation was growing, with a large whale bone at one end
He became quite excited and told us this was the site of an old blubber melting oven. He was surprised to find it situated here, an historic site that he recorded. Disappointingly, he had to stop midway through his explanation to remind the youngest passenger not to walk over or cross the site in order to take a photo!
Our zodiac ride back to ship included a pass under the bow for the keen photographers.
Plans for the afternoon were to sail deep into Smeerenburgfjord, about three hours away from Dankshoya. It was beautiful day and the views were stunning so we stayed on deck…
On our way we encountered a fair breeze blowing into the fjord, allowing us to set a couple of sails and, with the engines just at minimum revolutions, sail for a good couple of hours.
The head of Smeerenburgfjord is named Bjornfjord, and is home to the spectacular front of Smeerenburg glacier.
Charlotte explained that the exposed mountain we could see in the centre of the glacier is known as a nunatak (from the Innuit word nunataq). It is often a rocky element of a ridge, mountain, or peak not covered with ice or snow within (or at the edge of) an ice field or glacier. They are also known as glacial islands.
As approached the glacier we noticed we had company … The big polar explorer ship appeared to be at the very edge of the glacier offering passengers a close up view. The ship was probably five times the size of the Rembrandt but it looked like a tug boat next to the glacier.
This glacier calving front was actually divided into two bays, and the one located at the south east end offered an opportunity for a zodiac landing. The small glacier front surrounding the little harbour where the Rembrandt anchored was called Havhestbreen, and we all landed at a sandy beach next to it.
For this excursion we had to wear snow-shoes – a novel experience for us! The image it conjured up for us was of an old tennis racquet strapped to your feet – but that’s way in the past. These days they’re made of plastic (what isn’t !!) and they are both smaller and more ergonomically designed – so that your heel lifts up, rather like cross country skis and the toe end has metal teeth to give you better purchase in the ice and snow. Getting them on still wasn’t easy, given we were wearing rubber boots (wellies) and were togged up with all our cold weather gear. Also, not helped by Kerrie being given a pair of two right feet snow shoes!
However, with the help of a kind Swiss woman who’d obviously done this before, we finally got ourselves sorted and snowshod and we all headed up the ridge that would take us to a viewing point overlooking the massive glacier.
Some passengers opted not to go on the hike and to stay below – there are a few older or less fit ones and they went with Charlotte for an easier stroll along the low areas while Jordi took us uphill. It wasn’t the easiest walk and Jordi set a brisk pace – he’s not a man for lingering, unless there’s a stunning shot to be had especially of wildlife when he hauls out his super-duper long lens that weighs six kg and is about a metre long!! It does however deliver amazing images.
Although it was quite a hard slog, the scenery was beautiful – clear, clean expanses of snow draped like sheets over the rocky landscape, all pristine and not a footprint in sight other than our own.
Kerrie ended up at the rear of the line due to her passion for photography, and so regularly did a 360 degree check of her environs just in case a polar bear appeared suddenly on a rock above or on the horizon.
Along the way Jordi pointed out massive boulders sitting in the snow, looking like natural works of art.
These were erratic rocks, a term used by scientists to describe rocks and boulders carried by glaciers, often for hundreds of kilometres.
At the top of the moraine, we were rewarded for our slog uphill with fantastic panoramas, incredible alpine-glacial scenery ….
… including a mini glacier calving …
….as well as excellent views back down the bay towards our ship, the Rembrandt.
On the way back down some of us to shortcuts and slid down on our backsides – easier than walking downhill in snowshoes where it was quite steep.
We were in the zodiac driven by Jordi and assumed we would be taking the same route back as the other zodiac but Jordi was up for another challenge. He could see there was another way back to the ship which involved navigating through a channel of ice.
It was the end of the day and some of the passengers were not impressed by Jordi’s antics but we regarded it as an unexpected added adventure. Although we did have a moment of doubt when a large piece of ice got stuck in the motor.
Easily fixed and on we went.
We arrived back on board for a late dinner and the ship upped anchor and sailed north for a couple of hours to give us a head start tomorrow. We dropped anchor on the southern shores of Dankshoya to spend a quiet night, sheltered from the N-Easterly winds. On our way we passed numerous glaciers and little bays along the NE coast of Smeerenburgfjord.
Day Seventy-eight…..Wednesday 6th June
At 7am, the ship’s engine fired up and soon after we headed up on deck for the view before breakfast. First thing we noticed was the drop in temperature, it was noticeably colder with zero degrees and sub zero temperatures forecast. Also, the sky was overcast, and the winds were gusty with a northerly wind chill factor and we were to expect snow. We needed to put on as many layers as possible – seven in Andrew’s case!
Sailing in Arctic regions is not easy and the captain was keeping a close watch on his instruments and depth sounder.
We motored two hours north to the northern most point of the trip – Ytre Norskhoya, inside the NW Spitsbergen National Park. Like its near neighbour, Smeerenburg, this was a 17th century Dutch whaling station.
On our arrival we discovered we weren’t alone, another expedition cruise sailing boat was sailing nearby – we recognised it from Longyearbyen; when we boarded our ship in the Longyearbyen harbour it had been moored alongside. As it turned out both sailing ships had the same excursion planned.
Our zodiacs landed on the south side….
…Jordi gave us a quick talk, pointing out an area that had been used by Dutch whalers back in the 17th century and the remains of blubber ovens. There were places we weren’t allowed to go – both because of their historical significance but also because a group of rocks marked where 165 whalers were buried.
This was the second largest whalers’ gravesite in Spitsbergen. Archaeological research and studies of their skeletal remains have revealed the men had an incredibly harsh life and suffered greatly from inadequate woollen clothing and scurvy due to the lack of fresh food, and had also sustained many injuries.
Once more there were two excursion options, a short walk around the shore area with Charlotte and a longer one up to the top of the island with Jordi. Charlotte was to take her group tramping across snow and scree
pointing out species such as lichen, hardy tundra saxifrages and mosses that still continue to thrive in shallow soils, strong winds and snow, and to talk of what life was like for the 17th century whaler and the extremes of this environment.
As interesting as that sounded we chose the longer walk, wanting to experience as much as we could of this unique wilderness. First stop was by the remains of another artifact related to Spitsbergen history, a fox trap.
Jordi described how the island’s whole history had been based on whaling and hunting until recently when research and tourism took over.
Fox hunting had been an important source of income for the early trappers and hunters in the island due to the high prices paid for their winter fur.
We then headed up. The ascent wasn’t too tough although it was steep in parts, but mostly slow and steady through a mixed terrain of rocks, moss, frozen snow and some ice.
The view looking west and northwest was stunning, we could see the other group in the foreground and the ship anchored way below.
The view north over the Arctic sea towards the North Pole, some 1000-1200 kms away, was perhaps not as picturesque but marked a turning point. This was as far north as we would go.
From here it was open water for as far as we could see; normally at this time of year, this would have been covered in sea ice which did not bode well for polar bears this northern summer as they hunt for seals on the sea ice.
There wasn’t a great deal of wildlife to be seen, some barnacle geese, Glaucous Seagulls, a pair of Great Skua and, once we’d climbed high enough and crossed over to where steep cliffs overlooked the Arctic sea, we could see nesting colonies of Black Guillemots and Little Auks.
There were also supposed to be puffins but it was too early for them to be building their nests, since they nest in burrows and the ground was still too hard, although Kerrie saw one or two fly past.
We also noticed what appeared to be logs scattered on the ground, which was odd as there are no trees in Svalbard. It turns out they probably came from Siberia brought on the ocean currents.
After watching the little Auks a while, Jordi headed up over the windswept island ridge, to the top of the 150m high Ytre Norskoya following an old
whalers path that led to the island’s peak.
From there it was possible for the whalers and people living at the station to check the ice, sea and presence of whales on the waters north of Spitsbergen. In case the situation and the hunt was good, they would give a signal to the fleet far below on the sheltered south side of the island to go for it.
We circled around the ridges, passing first a large cross on the skyline in amongst the craggy boulders and then two rock cairns.
Jordi set a cracking pace but at various times we paused to take photos of the dramatic summit and the view of the clouds and snow showers that swept the waters northwards over Ytre Norskoya and the north coast of Spitsbergen. It was quite awe-inspiring to see signs of human occupation in such a forbidding, remote place. What hard lives they would have had.
The path wound its way over the summit, including past a cliff edge where we saw a pair of birds precariously nesting on the rocky edge.
On the way back down there were a few tricky spots and the occasional slip and fall (Kerrie scraped her hand on the ice) but it wasn’t too bad and there was another opportunity to test the quality of Kerrie’s very expensive water proof trousers.
We were back at the zodiac pick up point at around 12:30. We managed to get on the second zodiac as the weather had turned quite nasty and was hailing snow grit, tiny pellets of ice which stung your face – apparently the German word is “graupel”, which we thought very apt. Back on board, it was time for lunch – a warming bowl of lentil soup followed by chilli con carne with savoury rice. Hearty and excellent!
After lunch, the crew upped anchor and we started the journey south. With northerly winds, they set the sails.
We spent much of the rest of the day catching up on our blog – desperately needed! There were breaks when we went up on deck to get some fresh air and on one of these Andrew spotted some dolphins, as did a couple of others.
Andrew had his camera and quickly grabbed some shots over the side. An announcement was made over the PA and soon everyone was up on deck enjoying the antics of the dolphins.
Charlotte identified them as White Beaked Dolphins, more normally seen around Greenland. There looked to be six to a dozen of them, racing up alongside, diving under the ship and riding the bow wave, leaping out occasionally. They really seemed to be there for the fun of it. It was as if one had spotted the ship and said to the others, hey come on over and let’s play. A wonderful moment.
The north and northwesterly winds that had been blowing all morning continued in the afternoon so the captain called for crew and passengers to set almost all the sails on our way to the next large fiord Krossfjord.
We spent the rest of the day sailing along parallel with the coastline, maybe eight kms off shore. At one point the captain called for even more sails to be set. Not only was it a great way to travel but it saved a lot in fuel costs. There were stunning views of glaciers, snow-covered-mountains and a magnificent vista up and down northern Spitsbergen, a real sense of wilderness and isolation.
Even though the waves were travelling in the same direction as the ship, during dinner there was quite a bit of rocking and rolling so Kerrie took off up on deck to avoid the queasy feeling, a few others soon joined her.
The views kept on coming and after dinner we stayed on deck to soak them up, get some fresh air and chatted with the couple who live in Iden.
This was their first cruise and they were very happy – so much so, they’re considering an Antarctic cruise with Aqua-Firma, who seem to get a lot of return passengers on their varied trips which says a lot about their tours, how they are managed and their friendly and professional manner.
Day Seventy-nine…..Thursday 7th June
Overnight the boat motored down from the NW coast of Spitsbergen to the large Krossfjord (about 30kms long and five kms wide), so called because the English whaler, Joseph Poole erected a cross at the entrance in 1610. Krossfjord was known by the early Russian sailors and hunters, the Pomors, together with the early whalers. The Duke Albert I of Monaco visited the area during one of his expeditions, leaving behind charts, maps and names for various places, including the landing site for this morning: Fourteenth of July bay and glacier named in honour of France’s Independence day.
We dropped anchor in one of the side bays next to the July 14th glacier, around 2am. We knew the time because the boat shuddered during the maneouvre and the sound of the anchor and chain dropping was very noisy – our cabin was in the centre of the boat so we felt for those who had cabins at the rear.
We nodded back off to the sound of the quiet hum of the generator, waking before Jordi’s wake up call and morning announcements at 7.30am. On the way down to wait for breakfast we passed Jordi and Charlotte at their work stations Jordi writing up the blog and Charlotte doing not sure what… waking up maybe.
Jordi said there was another sailing boat anchored nearby in the same bay, the Noorderlicht, which we have seen on several occasions during the trip and is also operated by OceanWide Expeditions. It was a smaller vessel with only about twenty passengers on board and he said they would be visiting the same spot so warned if we crossed paths on shore not to go with the wrong group ha ha (Jordi’s joke).
Breakfast was always much anticipated, and as it was self-service there was always a crowd waiting to be at the head of the queue. The “speciality” on offer this morning was mini pancakes as well as the regular trays of fruit and yoghurt.
At the morning briefing following breakfast it was announced the routine would be different today in that Charlotte would be taking the longer hike but at a slower pace and with more stops, while Jordi would take the shorter and easier hike along the shoreline. Apparently, there had been some complaints that Jordi had been setting a cracking pace and not waiting for slower passengers or those wanting to take photos.
Up on deck it was almost balmy with a temperature of about 2 to 3 degrees centigrade and a clear blue sky. Kerrie managed to get on the second zodiac riding across placid waters, avoiding the ice flows to arrive at the shore underneath a mountain. Andrew followed in the third.
It was now day seven and the routines were finally embedded in our daily ritual. Put on the life jacket in your room, before going on deck, move the magnetic name marker on the board from on board to off the ship, and line up for the zodiac, stepping backwards down the ladder, step on the rim first and then step down into the zodiac. Step two is to hang on to the rope on the zodiac, do not stand except if the driver says you can and exit backwards out of the zodiac into the shallow water and walk up on the shore. Step three: deposit the life jacket in the bag on shore.
The enjoyment of the zodiac journey depended on the weather and sea conditions. This morning the conditions were calm and it was safe to risk taking photos of the floating ice without fear of dropping the camera or getting it wet.
Waiting for the third zodiac to arrive Jordi and Charlotte made sure they were in agreement about the morning routine and that no
polar bears had arrived in the meantime.
Here comes number three … with Andrew on board.
Isn’t that the wrong way to get out of the zodiac, Andrew? Oh, never mind …. Our main goal for the morning was to walk as one group to the face of the 14th July glacier front at the end of the fjord for a fantastic view of its icy surfaces and hopefully witness ice calving into the sea, but first we couldn’t help pausing to admire more of nature’s wonders….
Floating near the shore were extraordinary ice sculptures, they were actually debris calved from the glacier and shaped by the water into what was a very good likeness of a bird’s nest, a swan, not sure what and a dragon.
The walk to the glacier head was uneventful and easily accomplished by everyone …
Not so the return journey but we are getting ahead of ourselves…
As the glacier’s name had a connection with French history we deferred to the two French women on the tour to say something to mark our visit but they didn’t want to, saying they could not understand why Albert of Monaco had named the glacier July 14 in 1906 when Monaco is only a principality of France. However, the two widowed sisters had a good sense of humour and said if they had known about it they would have brought a flag to plant. In fact, there was a good reason for the connection – Duke Albert 1st of Monaco had a keen interest in oceanography and he charted the fjord during his summer expeditions to Krossfjord in 1906/7.
It was now time for the two groups to form and go their separate ways- Jordi headed off along the shore and we followed Charlotte who made the mistake of walking slightly above the shoreline and straight across a muddy bog. Kerrie sank into the quagmire and it was touch and go whether she was going to manage to extricate her feet and her boots from the cement-like clutches of the mud.
Andrew came to her aid and after a few tense moments, a few angry words and much effort she managed to find a rock on which to plant one boot, heave herself up, and extricate the other boot out of the mud. A quick dash down to the water to rinse off as much of the thick layer of mud from her trousers and boots as she could before following Charlotte who was by now heading up the steep lateral moraine and slopes.
It was quite hard work as it was hiking on a mixture of rocks, stones, scree and dirt.
Up and up we clambered, the other group now appeared as ants on the shoreline below.
Then Charlotte changed direction from diagonally up to horizontally…
At last Charlotte decided it was not safe to go any further and we each found a rock or group of rocks to perch on and enjoy the view of the glacier from above.
The glacier was magnificent, worth the effort of the climb. The crevasses on the surface were awe inspiring and rather terrifying, definitely not safe for walking on, and the ice formations were so varied in shape, height and texture, a testament to the powerful forces of nature pushing the glacier down to the sea.
Time for a snack and what do you eat when admiring a glacier …. Glacier Mints, of course!
… and as those who had taken a mint were now relatively quiet sucking or chewing on the mints Charlotte asked for a minute of absolute silence from everyone; that included no coughing, sneezing or taking of photos. The reason being was that only in wilderness as remote as this high Arctic environment can you experience the authentic sounds of nature.
Almost immediately the cries of the birds on the cliffs above and the ice cracking in the glacier seemed louder than ever, you could feel and smell the fresh cool air and your mind focused on the beautiful vista of the fjord, the snow-capped mountains, the two sailing ships and the glacier beside you.
It was such a delightful and rewarding experience that the one minute easily stretched to three or four minutes before Charlotte broke the silence and said it was time to head back.
But not before a quick photo shoot first ….
The way back down to the shore was easier and quicker and so there was time before lunch for a quick detour cruise to the northern cliffs to see small colonies of Brünnich’s Guillemots nesting on precarious shelves on the rocks …
… and the odd puffin – here in the Arctic they nest in the crevices in the rocks.
After lunch the captain heaved anchor and motored deeper into Krossfjord.
In about an hour we reached the tip of the steep and mountainous peninsula Kong Haakons Halvoya (pictured to the right) which divides the head of Krossfjord into two branches – Mollerhamna is east of the mountains and Lilliehookbrenn (centre of the picture) is to the west.
The tip of the peninsular is named Cadiopynten and is home to large Kittiwake and Brünnich’s Guillemot colonies as well as a few vertically challenged reindeer. Even with strong headwinds, the Captain managed to steer the ship close to the vertical cliffs so we could enjoy the area for a while before heading up the western branch.
We continued on to the Lilliehookbrenn glacier which has an eleven km wide, semi-circular front making it the second biggest glacier in Spitsbergen.
Motoring at a slower speed, our ship cruised parallel to the 11 kilometre long, semi-circular glacier front for two hours or more.
This glacier system has suffered massive ice loss as shown by the Dukes of Monaco. Albert the first of Monaco photographed the glacier in 1906 and his great-grandson Duke Albert the second did the same in 2006. An estimated 40% of the total volume of ice in the glacier has been lost within a century. Going by the first Duke’s sea charts we should have been inside the glacier. Despite this reduction in ice, it was still absolutely spectacular. Apparently, ten larger and an even greater number of smaller tributary glaciers feed into this glacial system.
We witnessed two small carvings …
…but we were there mainly to marvel at its size, beauty and the fantastical shapes of the ice. The ice caves and blue ice could be seen from about half a kilometre. Amazing.
We took lots of photos and Charlotte kindly offered her services as ship photographer so all the couples could have a special shot of them seated with the glacier behind them. Much laughter over getting the photos right, working out how to operate the ‘flashy thing’.
The wind was coming off the glacier so for the rest of the afternoon the engines were turned off and the boat went under sail for the journey south. Kerrie worked on the blog while Andrew continued reading the Orkneyinga Saga until dinner. After dinner, Jordi gave us a briefing on what’s happening tomorrow including a visit to the northernmost permanent community in the world – Ny Alesund – and Charlotte did a slide presentation telling the extraordinary story of Amundsen’s attempt to fly over the North Pole in an airship.
Day Eighty…..Friday 8th June
Our penultimate day on the trip. We awoke to “fresh” weather, actually a biting cold wind of 20 + knots and lively seas . We had shifted from our overnight berth on the north shore of Blomstrandhalvoya and were now anchored off the coast of Ossian Sarsfjellat in Kongsfjord. The scenery all around us was spectacular with breath-taking glaciers, mountains and cliffs.
However, the seas were rough and the captain was concerned the landing could be difficult.
Jordi, Charlotte, and two crew did a test run and returned recommending the expedition go ahead but warned some intrepid expeditioner may get a little wet in the process!
This morning for the first time there were four zodiac trips to the landing place with three crew on board for each one, but it was hard enough just getting into the zodiac. The swell of the sea meant that at times the zodiac was at the same height of the bottom step of the ladder but at others three to four feet below. So, you had to wait on the bottom step until you heard a crew member shout “now”, signally the zodiac was high up on the crest of the wave, step back onto the rim of the boat at which point a crew member guided you to a space on the zodiac rim.
The trip was a bouncy ride with frequent sea sprays coming on board followed by a very tricky landing on the shore – you had to wait for the wave to retreat before making a quick exit. Some weren’t quick enough!
We all went in one group, led by Jordi with Charlotte at the rear, aiming to walk up a hill to a cliff edge where we could watch nesting guillemots.
Along the way we saw a barnacle goose ..
… and on the first crest a pair of reindeer sitting in a heart shaped patch of snow, seemingly unconcerned by the attention and flurry of cameras, and probably using the snow to cool down. They looked so appealing, their soft fur and velvet antlers made you want to run up and pat them.
The steady trudge continued with stops for photos along the way.
We were towards the rear and right beside Matthew when he saw a ptarmigan a few metres away searching for food. It still had most of its winter coat on apart from its head so it was an interesting mix of seasons.
We reached the cliff edge but the winds coming off the sea and funneling up the cliffs were gusting at 30 knots – too strong for any photography or serious birdwatching. We looked down on the edge against the fast wind and took a little time observing the birds clinging to the cliffs.
It was decided to head back via a circuitous route with stunning views up and down the fjord, a vivid blue iceberg in the distance.
The views were indeed stunning. Raw, untamed wilderness at its best.
Time for a quick photo to prove we were here…
… and the views kept coming.
With such a great backdrop Charlotte asked if we would mind taking a photo of her that she could use on her website before continuing on our journey. Of course!
On our way down we passed more reindeer and above flew a ptarmigan. Pairs of Snow bunting flitted from rock to rock singing their song. We also walked right past where a reindeer had shed some of its winter coat.
Our return zodiac journey was a bit different. The seas were still rough so the zodiacs came in stern-to for rapid embarkation. It was another bumpy and wet ride to the ship and another challenging climb up the ladder synchronizing wave height with bottom rung.
Once inside our cabins we had a chance to change into warm dry clothes an take advantage of the heating.
During lunch we sailed to Ny Alesund, which started life as a coal-mining ‘town’ in the early 20th century, although coal had first been discovered in the 1600s by an Englishman. After several serious mining accidents resulting in the deaths of a significant number of miners, the last and most tragic killing 21 miners in 1962, the mine was closed by the Norwegian government.
Since the 1960s it’s been converted into a scientific research station housing up to 180 scientists from around the world, mostly studying the environment and climate change.
Our boat docked at the town wharf and we wandered around what felt like a ghost town, barely any people to be seen nor any activity. Presumably, everyone was inside working or out doing research! Below is the view looking down the main street followed by a view back the other way.
There is a small museum, some old buildings dating to early last century, including the post office. Many passengers took the opportunity to buy a post card and post it here, the northern-most post office in the world.
We wandered up the main street, taking a photo of the former post office on our way to a large bust honouring the Norwegian polar explorer for his contribution to the Arctic Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile airship expedition.
Having grown up hearing Amundsen only ever referred to as the man who beat Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole and thereby depriving Scott of the glory that should have gone to the “British” explorer, this statue was a reminder that Amundsen was a man of many firsts, a hero, of exceptional ability and in a class of his own. However, he had a reputation for not having a happy disposition according to Charlotte. She said in all her years of giving talks about Amundsen she had never seen a photograph or sculpture in which he was smiling. This was no exception.
We kept walking along what seemed to be the “main road” until we reached the outer limits and could go no further – it was polar bear territory.
We could see the mast/tower standing a little way out of town which had been used to tether the airship Amundsen used to fly over the North Pole to Alaska in 1926. We were keen to see it but not keen to meet a polar bear. So, we retraced our steps and wandered down more empty roads
noting the presence of Chinese, Indian and Korean research buildings and other weather board buildings, some of which were of historic significance. We did pass the odd person walking, riding or in a car, but their reaction to us was as if we didn’t exist. They made no eye contact and were definitely not interested in making conversation.
In our strolling around we noticed there was still a surprising amount of historic mining infrastructure which made for some interesting shots.
By now it was almost time for the community’s only shop to open for half an hour – just for the passengers of the Rembrandt. At 3:30pm. Andrew wandered in but Kerrie decided to have a quick whizz around the museum in the building opposite. By the time she got to the shop the entrance was a sea of gumboots and hiking shoes. She threw her pair of boots in the pile and went inside.
We hadn’t expected to find much but it was stocked with quite a good range of souvenirs and practical items – including more of the Arctic Edge hats and wrist warmers designed in Svalbard by a nature guide and made in New Zealand with merino wool, possum fur and silk. Rather expensive however at NZ$100 each. We did make a few useful purchases as small presents.
The shop shut so Andrew went around the museum which he described as very well set out, charting the history of the town with insights into the coal mining, the lives of people who lived here last century and those here now as part of the science community. It was interesting how many people had chosen and relished life in this remote location, escaping the hustle and bustle of urban living, enjoying the solitude, the simple life, and the wilderness, making a difference with their contribution to knowledge about climate change and weather patterns as well as the effects on wildlife. Upstairs was an exhibition devoted to the dramatic story of Amundsen’s flight over the North Pole and the subsequent tragedy that befell a follow-up expedition by the Italians and Amundsen himself. In the meantime Kerrie had wandered slowly back in the direction of the boat and watched the birds scavenge for food near the harbour and some of the locals going about their business, including one wearing just a shirt!
Jordi and Charlotte had arranged to take whoever was interested over to the airship mast but the weather was now bitterly cold and we felt Charlotte’s talk last night was very comprehensive. When Andrew finally emerged from the museum we watched the group walk bunched together for safety across the plain as we headed back to the ship.
We had made the right decision as when we arrived back at the ship there was an exciting announcement.
Roderick, the Health and Safety officer shouted that there were beluga whales cruising the harbour. We raced out and indeed there they were, large white shapes gracefully porpoising their way through the water in singles, twos and threes. Some were in pairs, a white with a smaller, darker grey companion. Roderick commented that the darker ones were juveniles, they become lighter as they get older.
The pod stretched out along the bay. Jordi, now returned with the group that had gone to visit the airship mast, estimated the number at fifity or or more swimming and feeding in the shallows, some with dark grey calves
by their side. Belugas can reach up to 4m long and being white are
easy to see against the dark seas. The pod was spread out wide but we caught glimpses of twos and threes from a distance with low blows of spray, the spout from their blowholes as beacons until they passed by our moored ship.
We were clearly fortunate as locals raced down on bicycles to watch them, so not a common sight! We watched through our binoculars and took photos for quite some time, joined by more of the passengers as they returned from their outing. It turned out there were two, maybe three pods in the harbour – what a special moment!
The good news was the coffee machine was now fixed so it was hot drinks for some, alcoholic drinks for others before dinner served by DJ at the bar.
Dinner was the one meal that was served by a waiter and DJ did it all on his own carrying six plates at once and never dropping one, even in rough seas. Kerrie was determined to capture the feat on camera.
At last it was time to leave and we cruised to our anchorage point for the night.
Day Eighty-one…..Saturday 9th June
Our last full day … we awoke to a panoramic view but overcast weather. The cloud cover was low and the light was very dull and almost monochrome. However, the seas were calm and the Isfjorden was a millpond (which was good for the zodiacs but not good for sailing). When Jordi gave his morning 7.30am wake up briefing over the PA system he said we were right next to a sheer rocky mountain which was home to thousands of sea birds. Kerrie was up on deck at the time and could see snow covered mountains and in the foreground a huge expanse of water but where was the mountain? It only took a half turn to her right and there was the impressive peak of Alkhornet – named for its resemblance to the shape of a horn. Gosh, where did that come from? Alcids (guillemots and auks) together with Glaucous gulls and Kittiwakes nest on is sheer cliffs.
After breakfast there was our last morning briefing and then Jordi and Charlotte went ashore first. We followed, landing next to the 80’s cabin or governor’s shack built by Sysselmannen (the highest respresentative of the Norwegian government in Svalbard), in a strategically situated point facing the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg, on the southern shores of Isfjord – the Nords like to keep an eye on them!
As before, we separated into two groups. We chose to do the longer hike with Jordi, up the glacial moraines and through the snow, to a high vantage point to see the birds nesting. Jordi said a week ago he had taken a group on the same hike but they had had to do it in snow shoes. Today we could traverse the rocky slopes and the exposed moss and grass on foot, although there were slightly more treacherous sections where we had to cross patches of snow (often sinking down to your knees – Kerrie had to help Andrew out at one point) and boggy tundra.
There were kittiwakes flying overhead with moss in their beaks which, we discovered later, they were picking up beside a stream on the plain below, then riding the thermals near the cliff to give them height before heading off to their nests.
On the way up, we passed a ptarmigan preening itself in a patch of grass, and later another one perched on a rock.
Along the hillside we came across Pink Footed geese, Great Skuas sat in the middle of the tundra and reindeer were all around.
Jordi told us this area was always good for reindeer as there was plenty of vegetation at the base of the cliffs where seabird guano fertilised the soil. Apparently a solitary fox was scouting for birds and eggs but we couldn’t see it.
The birds flying around the cliff were hard to see clearly without binoculars, they appeared as swirling clouds like moths near a light, circling and riding the wind as it hit the massive rock face. You could just make out clusters of guillemots and kittiwakes clinging to rock ledges, in what seemed utterly impossible perches.
How they can possibly mate and nest here, raising their young seems a miracle.
However, Nature (aka evolution) has given them a helping hand. They produce pear shaped eggs which swivel when knocked so they won’t roll off the narrow ledge to their destruction.
There could have been some eggs now although even with binoculars and a camera zoom it was too far away to see and probably too soon for the chicks to have hatched.
When it is time for the chicks to fledge Dad is the one who waits for them below and calls for them to jump off the rocky shelf to the ground, from where they have to run to the cliff edge and then jump into the water and find Dad. It’s a perilous leap into the unknown. They cannot yet fly and they must freefall to the land or the water (if they’re lucky and their nests are above the sea) or, as in this case to the rocky ground below and make a run for it – having to avoid predators such as skuas and arctic foxes. Again, we were here too soon for all that drama.
On our return journey Jordi pointed to a rock formation and said a few seasons ago he saw a polar bear with two cubs resting on a giant boulder near the cliffs, and the birds having to run the gauntlet of their teeth and claws. But fortunately, they weren’t there today. We did pass some other interesting rock formations and the first signs of summer …
…and more reindeer grazing …
… including what appeared to be a family.
They didn’t seem too bothered by us, except if we got too near.
A ptarmigan was also nearby, perched on the rock (far left in the photograph below) until it decided we had got too close.
There were other signs this area was popular with reindeer apart from the reindeer themselves and that was passing big clumps of reindeer hair at regular intervals on the way down and finding reindeer poo on the snow – their warm poo melted the snow and created neat craters.
The descent was always quicker, particularly when you could slide down some of the way…
We wended our way back towards the governor’s hut and the pickup point, finding signs of Spring in the harshest of environments.
It transpired the other group had reached pretty much the same vantage point we had, just a bit later, and we wondered if we’d needed to take “the high road” rather than the “low road”. No matter. Happy with our final excursion, we rode back on the zodiacs for one last time.
During lunch DJ, the ship’s purser, told us about a questionnaire that had been deposited in our cabins during the morning excursion and which they’d like us to fill in (for Ocean Expeditions) – the classic “how did we do?” Oh, and there was the expectation of a tip of ten euros per day per person – which sounded rather a lot to us, given what we’d paid for the trip.
We headed below to do the survey, discuss the size of the tip (gulp) and how that fitted into our budget, and to pack, as we would be docking in Longyearbyen tonight and disembarking immediately after breakfast in the morning.
At the same time, we had taken off our life jackets and changed out of our expedition gear for what we had assumed would be the last time. Once we had packed we headed back up on deck where many of the passengers were milling around enjoying the views.
We chatted with Matthew and Christian Dryden, always interesting as Matthew had been in charge of UK’s Ebola response team and was an expert on contagious diseases and Christian, an occupational therapist, had accompanied him on a lot of his trips for work, including six weeks in the Falklands.
During lunchtime we had motored to Borebukta and Nansen Breen where the bay still held lots of fast ice from winter. There were numerous seals laying on top of it and then an Arctic fox was spotted sprinting across the vast fast ice extension.
When the fox had disappeared, Conradus, from Switzerland took out a miniature toy plastic polar bear, and started taking photos of it. Apparently, it was his travel mascot which he took everywhere with him on his travels and posted the photos on his Facebook page as a joke.
Of course, Kerrie could not resist the temptation to ham it up and mock up a polar bear confrontation shot.
Once the excitement and hilarity had faded of what was assumed to be last sighting of a polar bear on this trip (although a fake one), Kerrie went down to the dining area to catch up on some blogging while Andrew started his new book, Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore” before disappearing down to their cabin for an afternoon snooze. However, his nap was short-lived owing to the announcement on the PA that something, possibly a polar bear, was on a band of sea ice several kilometres away and the captain, guides and crew were discussing the possibility of taking the zodiacs out one more time to look at it. Jordi had commandeered one of the zodiacs and raced across the bay to take a closer look. He came back saying he was fairly certain it was a polar bear but there was a two km stretch of very shallow water before the ice and he couldn’t take the zodiac across it.
We both went up on deck and had a look through the binoculars, and the small blob was indeed a polar bear but it was not moving very much; perhaps it was napping. Since we’d packed away much of our cold weather gear and our wellies, and it was bitterly cold, we both agreed we couldn’t face the palaver of going on yet another zodiac excursion and decided to stay behind.
Almost everyone went in the zodiacs, including Perry and Maureen who were on the cautious side, and Charlotte appeared shocked when we declined to go. We wondered, were we missing a great opportunity?However, it turned out the zodiacs hadn’t been able to get very close because of the shallow water and the sea ice and the photos were very much at the long end of the lens. The polar bear was sleeping, it had barely moved at all, raising its head once and one paw, but that was it – which Kerrie had seen through the telescope on the deck anyway. So, in the end we didn’t feel we’d missed much.
That night there were farewell drinks and several speeches by the captain honouring the crew, the guides and the passengers, as well as by Jordi, Charlotte and, on behalf of the passengers, by Matthew.
It was all very heart-warming. After dinner, people exchanged photos, downloaded the PDF of the trip log compiled by Jordi and Charlotte and bade farewell to those leaving early in the morning before breakfast. Sadly, that included Perry and Maureen who were catching a very early morning flight to Oslo and then on to England.
The only discordant note of the evening came when DJ asked that we all be out of our cabins before breakfast, which meant you couldn’t use the bathroom anymore, and to strip our beds. STRIP THE BEDS!!!! This was apparently to help the crew as they had a quick change-over to prepare for the next cruise, leaving that evening. We were not terribly impressed as Saturday was one of the days counted in the itinerary.
It was such a shame, as up to then we couldn’t fault the trip. We were very happy with the itinerary, we had seen so much wildlife, historical places, amazing Arctic wilderness and our stay on the boat was everything we had hoped for. Even the food was quite good! However, to be fair to Aqua-Firma, this wasn’t anything to do with them, the ship is owned by a Dutch company and they were in charge of the sailing schedule and they hire the crew who free-lance from cruise to cruise.
Day Eighty-two…..Sunday 10th June
It felt very strange to hear the sounds of a working wharf right through the night and to know you were effectively back in civilisation. Our view from the boat was of the mountains across the bay and of holiday or weekender huts which could only be accessed by water. We thought it seemed odd to have holiday houses so near to the town and a short boat ride away, but more of a concern was the fact that we heard they were often broken into and raided by polar bears searching for food.
The focus of the crew was now on getting us out of the cabins, breakfasted and off the boat in order to prepare for the incoming passengers.
Although getting to breakfast was difficult as there was now a mountain of bags and packs blocking access. We had insisted on having the use of the bathroom after breakfast so we weren’t very popular but we did strip the sheets off the bed. Things were getting busy above as well as below deck for our ship was actually moored to another ship which was in turn moored to another ship which was tethered to the wharf itself. Apparently, the wharf was chokka when we arrived last night.
The captain decided to relocate the ship to a now vacant section of the wharf further along, which would make it easier to get us and all our baggage ashore. Instead of having to navigate passage across three boat decks we could disembark directly onto the wharf.
That meant an extra half hour on the boat but Kerrie in the meantime had disembarked before the ship manoeuvre to take photos of the boat tied up and be dock side when the other passengers disembarked. Oh well no matter, it meant she was in the prime position to take photos of the boat moving …
… as well as a farewell wave.
Some of the crew were moving on including DJ and his replacement was quick to give a hand moving the packs and bags which included one of our’s.
Finally the passengers starting disembarking!
A bus arrived to take the remaining passengers into town. We all climbed on board, stowing luggage in the respective holds – those staying in town for the day and those leaving for the airport immediately. Since our flight didn’t leave till early afternoon, we left our bags on the bus. We had four hours to kill and not a lot to do. Turns out it was Sunday (you lose sight of these things on board a ship – not to mention after 12 weeks travelling), so nothing was open. It was bitterly cold, around 1 degree Celsius. Hunched and bored, we walked up the main street – passing others in similar mode and found the tourism information office which opened at 10am.
We wanted to get the guidebook on Spitsbergen (the ‘bible’) by Rolf Stange that we’d seen on board the boat and after initially thinking they only had the previous edition as that was what was displayed, found the most recent, 2018 edition hidden behind. Hoorah! Andrew chatted with the guy manning the office and talked about what prompts people to live here – Nature and peace and quiet, away from the hustle and bustle of city life seem to be the key factors. He had a cabin out in the wilds built by his father. When asked what he did there – his answer was to watch Nature, the wildlife, chop driftwood and read. They had been “visited” by polar bears which upended the snowmobile and ate the seat and, in their absence, had broken into the cabin in search of food. Didn’t sound so relaxing to us!
In search of coffee and warmth – none of the town cafes were open – we went to the Radisson Blu, where we’d stayed on our first night, and asked if we could sit in the restaurant – yes, no problems. We bought a coffee and croissant, worked on the blog and used the free wifi until it was time to catch our bus to the airport. We walked into town to the pick-up point, bade our farewells to Charlotte, Jordi and other passengers who were staying a night or two. Andrew went into an outdoor clothing store while waiting for the bus and was told more about the guy who started up the designer hats etc, made in NZ with merino and possum fur. His company is called Arctic Edge and it’s proving highly successful.
At the airport, Kerrie snaffled a spot in the queue to go through customs only to discover our flight had been delayed. We saw people looking out the window with their binoculars. There were blue whales in the fjord which Kerrie managed to see through our binoculars! Fantastic, surfacing about every five minutes until her view was blocked by the buses arriving to transport the arriving passengers into the town centre five kms away, the distinctive driver who had driven us into town was sitting in the driver’s seat. Turning back to the seating area there were some familiar faces from our expedition but the time for chatting was over. We had a bite to eat and waited for our aircraft to arrive from Norway. Kerrie watched the inbound passengers disembark and walk across the tarmac, amazed at how many wore very light summer clothing. Their faces showed they were feeling the cold and the excitement of arriving in this frontier town.
Finally, we boarded and took off. Our first stop was Trömso, Norway’s gateway to the Arctic, where we had to change planes. From the air and arriving in summer it looked a quiet, beautiful city with a pretty harbour, hard to imagine it in winter. After disembarking, we found we were locked out of the terminal building – the sliding doors didn’t open – and had to wait on the tarmac for ten minutes for someone to open the door so we could get our bags and re-check in – as Svalbard is non-Schengen! We reboarded the same aircraft and took off, our route taking us over Norway’s interior and its stunning panoramic pine forests and lakes, arriving in Oslo early evening. Our first task was to buy ourselves tickets on the express train to the city centre. An extremely helpful transport official helped us get the tickets (senior returns which proved much cheaper) and pointed us in the direction of the platform. Great train, great service, – we were in town within 20-30 minutes (the airport is 50kms out of town) and decided to walk to our hotel as it was supposed to be close. It was – except we were now lugging six bags between us and even though it was downhill, we were feeling pretty knackered by the time we found the hotel, Thon Cecil, and checked in. We grabbed a piece of fruit and tea bags from the reception area and collapsed.
Day Eighty-three…..Monday 11th June
We had both visited Oslo together many years ago but we couldn’t remember much except there was a Viking museum and the cost of everything was very expensive. This time, the one thing Kerrie really wanted to see was the Edvard Munch painting “The Scream” and some of his other paintings but today was Monday and the Edvard Munch museum was shut on Mondays. So, with brochures in hand we ventured down to the first-floor inner courtyard where the buffet breakfast was served (which we had seen from our inner courtyard bedroom window) to discuss alternative plans. To our delight the breakfast buffet was fantastic! The options were so many and healthy, we voted this the best breakfast buffet of the trip so far! As we ate our way through three breakfasts – because we couldn’t choose, and Miss Piggy Kerrie ate so much she suffered the next morning but that’s another story – we went through our various options and decided to visit some museums via ferry, a recommendation from fellow passengers on the Rembrandt.
It was an easy walk down to the wharves which were opposite the Town Hall and beside a large pedestrian only square. There was a tourist hut on the wharf and we bought return tickets just in time for a departure. The wooden ferry was about the same size as a small river passenger boat and the journey around Oslo harbour reminded us of Sydney Harbour back in the 1970s without all the high rise and crowds. The ferry pilot and his first mate looked like they were on summer holiday jobs from school they looked so young. The pilot gave a bit of a commentary on the way making a few jokes so it was a fun ride.
We had decided on two museums – the first housed Viking Ships and was the one we remembered from our visit years ago. By co-incidence, the couple from Iden on the Rembrandt expedition were on the same ferry. They’d been to the museums before but thought they were so good they were doing them again.
The museum was a signposted walk from the ferry stop along residential streets to the Viking ship museum – Oslo was experiencing one of its hottest summers so together with the attractive timber houses and great gardens it just kept reminding us of Sydney! The museum housed four burial ships from the Oslo fjord region, dating to between 820-910 AD. Three are amazingly well preserved.
Archaeological studies showed the ships were former sea-faring vessels, dragged ashore and buried beneath mounds of earth.
One of the burial ships was for two, obviously high-born women and revealed the presence of provisions, materials and animals for the afterlife in Valhalla.
A short, animated film in surround vision portrayed how the burial would have taken place.
Other artefacts featured in the museum were elaborately carved sleighs, a carriage and carved heads, tools etc.
The museum was a reminder of how advanced the Vikings were in ship-building and exploration. Well worth the visit. We walked to the other museum we’d decided to visit, the Fram museum about fifteen minutes away beside the harbour, recommended by the Dutch/Swiss couple on the Rembrandt.
The Fram museum was named after a Norwegian ship that made three extraordinary polar trips and it housed the actual ship in a huge room, displayed in such a way as to allow visitors to walk through its compartments – amazing.
The first expedition mounted by Fridtjof Nansen set out to prove his theory that pack ice moved in a circular motion around the pole and that it was possible to design a ship that could withstand the immense pressures of being stuck in the ice. In 1893 they sailed the Fram to the New Siberian Islands off the north east coast of Russia and spent the next three years trapped in the ice, drifting westwards. Not only did the specially commissioned and designed ship resist being crushed by the ice, but it did indeed drift as Nansen predicted across the Arctic ocean, winding up hundreds of miles away in Franz Joseph Land and finally emerged from the ice off the north coast of West Svalbard on August 13th 1896. This extraordinary venture added immeasurably to scientific knowledge about the Arctic.
In 1898 the Fram was ready for its next mission – to survey northern Greenland and to explore and survey the unknown north-eastern coast. This took four years and was equally successful.
The Fram’s third and most famous task was as the expedition vessel for Roald Amundsen’s successful attempt to be the first human to reach the South Pole. The Fram carried the expedition team and 97 dogs when they set off for Antarctica in 1910 and brought the team back in 1912.
The message that came through from the extensive display in the museum quite clearly was that Amundsen was highly experienced and incredibly well prepared for the attempt on the South Pole, having already made the first ever voyage through the North West passage and met and spent time with Inuit people, gaining invaluable knowledge of how to survive in polar climates. Scott by comparison was an amateur – and maintained class divisions on his expedition which Amundsen did not. Amundsen’s team all ate together and bunked close by each other while the British team constructed a wall of boxes and packing cases to separate officers from crew.
The Fram museum also housed the Gjøa, a smaller ship – the one used by Amundsen for his successful attempt to find and sail through the North West passage, an expedition that took three years from 1903-1906. Altogether, the museum was marvellous, stimulating and incredibly informative about polar expeditions – and a tribute to the immense and often undervalued contribution that Norway has made to polar exploration and scientific knowledge.
There was a huge range of books about Arctic exploration but with our weight and space restrictions we decided on a copy of Amundsen’s diaries plus we also bought a beautiful glass polar bear as a reminder of our trip.
The only downside to this museum was the air temperature inside the building, which was like a sauna and absolutely stifling. Our ferry stop was just behind the museum.
We had to wait for the next ferry but we didn’t mind as the wharf reminded us of our days catching ferries in Sydney, the outlook was easy on the eye and a family of Barnacle geese went past, suggesting the harbour was probably quite healthy.
As we were first to arrive at the wharf we were first to board.
But only one of us was first to disembark!
We walked back to the hotel for a rest but with only one day in Oslo and having the advantage of long hours of daylight, we headed out by tram to visit Vigeland sculpture park, Oslo’s most visited tourist attraction.
More than 200 bronze, granite and cast iron sculptures by Gustav Vigeland (1869–1943) make up the Vigeland installation (Vigelandsanlegget). Set along a boulevard in Oslo’s Frogner Park, part of the former historic Frogner Manor, the installation covers an area of more than thirty hectares (or eighty acres). Three of the more famous sculptures are The Monolith (Monolitten), The Wheel of Life (Livshjulet), and The Angry Boy (Sinnataggen).
Vigeland was also responsible for the design and architectural layout of
Oslo’s Vigeland Park – the largest sculpture park in the world by a single artist. Two hundred and twelve sculptures are spread over an 850-metre axis from the entrance to the park’s centrepiece, The Monolith.
The sculptures consist of naked human figures, in a variety of poses and situations – from the pastoral to the downright surreal – exploring the human form and human life, at its purest.
The dominant motifs of the sculptures are the relationships between man and woman, adults and children, and the various stages of the “human condition”. Most of the statues depict people engaging in various typically human pursuits, such as running, wrestling, dancing, hugging, holding hands and so on. However, Vigeland occasionally included some statues that are more abstract, including one statue, which shows an adult male, fighting off a horde of babies “Man Attacked by Babies.”
The Monolith is the grand showpiece of Vigeland’s project, situated on a plateau raised high above the surrounding park. As the name suggests, the sculpture is carved out of one enormous piece of granite 46 feet tall, and depicts 121 figures climbing in and around each other, all fighting their way to the top. The sculpture symbolises man’s desire to become closer with the spiritual and divine. It portrays a feeling of togetherness as the human figures embrace one another as they aspire toward salvation.
Construction of the massive monument began in 1924 when Gustav Vigeland himself modelled it out of clay in his studio in Frogner. It took three stone carvers 14 years to transfer the figures from clay to the rock.
Dotted around The Monolith are various figures, each one representing a different stage of life — from the loving couple in Sitting Man and Woman to Heap of Dead Bodies.
The sculpture park was built between 1939 and 1949, but sadly the artist Gustav Vigeland did not live to see the park’s completion, dying in 1943.
We were there for about two hours in the late afternoon and early evening but the park is open twenty four hours a day and free so it is a wonderful open space for residents of Oslo. We passed one group doing an exercise routine near the monolith and thought what an inspirational place to meet. The size of the installation was beyond belief, we didn’t see everything and would certainly come back then next time we are in Norway.
We caught the tram back, found a place to have dinner in the cinema precinct and headed back to our room to pack for our early morning start the next day.
Day Eighty-four…..Tuesday 12th June
Oslo to Soest
Flight to Dusseldorf early this morning so up at 5am – argh! Grabbed our pre-booked take-away breakfast from reception on the way out and took our booked cab to the railway station – not far, but too far to walk with six bags and an incline. Even at this hour the sun was high and there was a bit of warmth in the air, it was going to be another gorgeous hot day in Oslo (as it transpired Oslo had one of the hottest summers on record). At the station the hardest part was finding the right platform but we had time to spare and easily caught the 6:34 express train to the airport. We were amazed at how many commuters got off our train at this hour before we boarded. When we arrived at the airport we agreed we wanted to sit down and relax and not eat our breakfast in a hurry so we decided to go through security first – this was a BIG mistake as when we were quite advanced in the queue to go through security we realised that our our juice and food would be confiscated on the way through. So, to the amusement of other passengers gulped down our juice and threw out the muesli and the yoghurt. Apparently, yoghurt counts as a fluid! Andrew was very grumpy indeed!!
The ramifications of Kerrie’s healthy indulgence at the breakfast buffet yesterday materialised this morning and she spent most of time waiting for the flight suffering from an overdose of nuts and roughage (Andrew always complains she doesn’t eat enough fruit, this time she overdid it!) Thank goodness Oslo international airport had excellent public conveniences!
The good news was for some unknown reason we were seated in the very first row so had fantastic views for most of the journey as well as receiving a complimentary breakfast. The route was south over Oslo and the Skagerrak Strait running between the southeast coast of Norway, the southwest coast of Sweden, and the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. The flat Danish countryside soon gave way to the industrial heart of Germany – the Ruhr valley – where giant chimneys, sprawling factories and industrial complexes replaced the green fields and were hard on the eyes after spending weeks in remote parts of Scotland and the Arctic.
We had to get a bus to the plane, because it was on the small side, but fortunately not full so we were able to stow our bags. It appeared to be mostly full of men commuting to Germany for business, Kerrie noticed one man in his thirties or maybe forties who spent the entire journey playing games on his computer and watching a TV show – a few years ago he would have read a newspaper, a news magazine or a book!
We had arranged to meet our old friend Peter at Car Park 11 which, unfortunately, was at the other end of Dusseldorf airport (which was very large) to where we had emerged from Customs. After much muttering and grumbling, heaving and struggling to carry our two bags plus a backpack each, a man walking towards Kerrie suddenly turned and called out her name and there was Peter.
Peter and Andrew met at Cranleigh School in England in the 1960’s. In 1978 Peter founded the educational theatre company “White Horse Theatre” in Somerset, in south-west England, and in 1985 the English actor, author, director and musician moved his company base to a village near Soest in Germany where he developed and expanded English language theatre for German schools. Today White Horse Theatre has nine theatre groups that tour around Germany as well as regularly performing in China, Japan, France, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Peter had driven one of the Whitehorse Theatre vans to meet us so there was no shortage of space for us and our luggage. It was an hour and a half drive to Soest (sounds like toast) much of which was through an industrial area, and then a 3kms drive through the countryside to the headquarters of Whitehorse Theatre, and where Peter and his wife Anna lived. We caught up with Anna in their kitchen then Peter drove us around to their nearby farm where a massive project was underway to convert the big brick farm outbuildings into rehearsal rooms, storage rooms, set design rooms etc.
Back in Peter and Anna’s kitchen we sat down to a cooked lunch Anna had prepared – which was excellent. Anna’s thinking now was that it’s best to have your main meal at lunchtime and a light supper – better for digestion and sleeping – also turns out they have pretty much given up alcohol as well. Their regular routine is to have a 20 minute snooze after lunch so after our very early morning start we were more than happy to wander back and have a snooze ourselves in our two bedroom flat – usually used by directors who come to work for White Horse.
Peter had devised an “activities programme with options” for the few days we were to spend with them, including going to a once a year local festival in Soest that evening, featuring marching bands and local officials who dressed up and paid to be village “king”, culminating in a ritual involving a witch’s ducking stool at the village pond. However, when we arrived in Soest there was plenty of bunting but it was ominously quiet – it turned out the event was on the following Tuesday.
We had planned to have tea and cake at the Papyon café overlooking the village pond anyway (where the ducking stool was already in place) so we sat outside and enjoyed a coffee and a slice of German cake each.
It was very hard to choose which one to have as they all looked so good – and we kept swapping between a rhubarb strudel and a raspberry yoghurt cake with fresh raspberries in a jelly icing!
It was a wonderful opportunity to chat, relax and catch up on Peter and Anna’s news. In fact we were there so long the waiting staff asked us several times if we wanted anything more to eat and drink.
The town of Soest dates back to Neolithic times 4,000 years ago but grew rapidly in the 11th and 12th centuries, making it one of the biggest towns in Westphalia with more than 10,000 citizens. The industrialisation of the Ruhr area did not reach Soest, so it remained a small town retaining its charming historic character. It did suffer from bombing in the second World War but there was not widespread damage.
Today, it’s famous for its churches and buildings with over 600 listed. We had entered through “Osthofentor”, the last of the town’s former ten gates and nearby, Peter pointed out the moats and the ramparts where you could walk on the old wall around the city.
He said it tended to be more popular with German tourists because of its history and character as well as its 700 year history of staging fun fairs that took over the whole town in summer.
Peter and Anna took the opportunity to take us on a walk through the old historic part including the market square (where we found a bank to get euros) and past the church where they were married.
Anna had grown up in Soest so knew her way around the narrow winding streets and alleyways which Peter said confused him every time.
Near the café Anna pointed out an underground stream that had recently been uncovered and was a feature running through the town.
Back at the White Horse Theatre base and where Peter and Anna live, we had a wonderful supper of German cheeses and fruit before wandering back to our flat.
Day Eighty-five…..Wednesday 13th June
A delightfully slow start to the day, having numerous cups of tea in bed before Kerrie make good use of the company laundry facilities, including the dryer, tucked away in an end room in the huge farm building opposite currently being worked on by various tradesmen to become rehearsal rooms, wardrobe, sewing room, storage and other associated purpose built facilities.
We walked around the corner to Peter and Anna’s for breakfast at about 10.30 finding Peter in his book-lined office situated at the front of the White Horse Theatre building near the road with its own entrance.
It was a big wonderful characterful room and we sensed this was both the creative heart and the administrative centre of the theatre company and, with so many Folio and classical fiction books, it was also a place to escape the day to day operations of the company.
Back out in the driveway and on our way to the main entrance of the former farmhouse buildings we couldn’t help but notice the archetypal wooden carvings at each corner of the barn doors – nice touch …
… and upon entering we couldn’t help but be impressed by a montage of photographs of Peter’s acting career just inside the main front door. Wow!
The door to their private apartment was unlocked and on the circuitous way to their kitchen we passed their son Julian and the engineer who designed and built a massive new heating system (powered by a Mitsubishi car engine), engrossed in trying to eliminate the gremlins plaguing the contraption installed near their back door. Peter appeared in the kitchen soon after but Anna was tied up on one of her many projects, the big ones were project managing the White Horse Theatre renovations and the construction of a swimming pool and redesign of their backyard simultaneously!!!!! It’s enough to make you stressed just thinking about it. Her day had begun at 7.45am when the builders arrived so she had had her breakfast hours before.
Peter and Anna had planned for the four of us to have a day cycling but the weather was dull and rainy, so we put it off to tomorrow and brought forward the lunch – our thank you to Peter and Anna. We had time to spare so Peter took us on a tour of the current White Horse Theatre building where we met some of the administrative staff ….
… and saw all the various rehearsal, costume-making, technical, prop-making areas, metal workshop, woodworking workshop, etc.
Here, Peter is actually sitting on the lid of a coffin! One of the many props used in his productions.
It was a major enterprise and we were stunned at the size but it had outgrown even these substantial premises.
Many of the workshops and rehearsal rooms were either going to be moved or expanded into the buildings currently being renovated at their nearby farm where we were staying and where we found Anna.
Peter and Anna guided us through the buildings, introduced us to the various tradesmen and talked about their vision for the company.
We were both amazed and impressed with the scale of the business, much, much bigger than either of us had ever imagined. We discovered this year was the 40th anniversary of the founding of White Horse Theatre so Kerrie decided to interview Peter and see if she could write a story or press release to help publicise the company and its success in the media.
It was now time for our thankyou lunch so Peter drove us in their electric car, a Nissan Leaf to Soest where we had a reservation at Hotel Pilgrimhaus, the longest-standing accommodation in Soest.
It was built in 1304 and boasted over 700 years of tradition and warm hospitality. The food was great, three courses one of which was a complimentary watercress soup.
After our afternoon nap and obviously refreshed by the expressions on these two faces ….
….we walked off the lunch by doing a two hour circuit behind their village which started and ended walking between fields of barley, oats and wheat but also went along country roads and paths through native and plantation forests. At several places Peter and Anna pointed out the many trees that had come down in a recent tornado that swept through the area. Two very young fawns suddenly appeared in one patch of broken branches and trees but ran into the forest on our approach. On the way back near some wind turbines we reached the highest point of our walk where we had a panoramic view over the plains towards Soest, with its seven medieval and renaissance church spires clearly visible on the skyline.
After supper, we retired for a well-earned night’s sleep.
Day Eighty-six…..Thursday 14th June
We awoke to an almost cloud-free blue sky, sunshine and the pungent odour of a nearby pig farm. (We had suspected there was a pig farm nearby but this morning confirmed it!)
Our bike trip was on but the start time had to be pushed back when Anna realised she had an optometrist’s appointment at 9am for an hour and one of their cars needed to be picked up from a garage where it had been in for repairs. Andrew volunteered to be a taxi driver, using their tiny Mercedes smart car – very nifty ! – as Anna was unable to drive after her eye examination so by the time everyone was sorted, jobs done and Andrew, Anna and Peter were back with two hired electric bikes, it was getting on for 12 noon. (Kerrie used the time to sit in the kitchen and finish reading Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury”, even if half of it is true, it is a truly terrifying account of what is going on in the White House).
As we gathered in the forecourt the bell at the top of the building next door started ringing for some unknown reason.
When the four of us finally set off on our electric bikes from White Horse Theatre headquarters we rode along back country roads first…