Arctic odyssey: Spitsbergen and Longyearbyen

By Chrissie Goldrick 7 November 2013
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AG picture editor Chrissie Goldrick shares her experiences on the the AG Society expedition to the Arctic.

AG picture editor Chrissie Goldrick shares her experiences on the AG Society expedition to the Arctic. 

WHEN YOU SPEND DAYS travelling to a destination, the rhythm of it can take over your senses – security inspections, boarding gates, safety demonstrations, take-offs, landings – it can lull you into a state of quiet compliance and your final objective can begin to slip your tired mind.

So it was for me when the plane took off from a rainy Trömso in northern Norway and bumped out into the Barents Sea, on the fifth and final leg of a journey to the Arctic that had begun in Sydney three days earlier. The cloud was turning from gunmetal grey to white when the odd black mountain peak started to poke tantalisingly through. The breaking cloud cover revealed a stunning landscape of velvety charcoal-coloured pointed peaks striped with channels of pure white snow. It shook me from my travel torpor into a state of excitement.

This is Svalbard, or more specifically the island of Spitsbergen (meaning pointed mountains), named after the geological characteristics of the largest landmass in the Svalbard archipelago and we were landing at its chief settlement, Longyearbyen.

There was a wait before our ship, Aurora Expedition’s Polar Pioneer, would be ready to board, having just disgorged its last load of Arctic adventurers back to the airport. Our group spent the next three hours touring Longyearbyen. The little settlement looks somehow odd.

Environments that spend most of the year blanketed in snow can appear like they have been caught unexpectedly naked when the last of the snow has melted. It’s a moonscape dotted with prefabricated-style timber buildings in earthy colours raised off the ground, giving it a kind of temporary feel. Skidoos or snowmobiles have been abandoned in favour of cars for the few snow-free months from April to September.

Cottongrass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri) flowers bloom in the Adventdalen Valley (Photo: Chrissie Goldrick)

The town is situated at the end of a broad, steep-sided valley, Adventdalen, with remnants of early 20th century coal-mining efforts dotted high on the scree slopes and occasionally within the town itself. Its population of 2000 swells at this time of the year with hundreds of tourists arriving daily during the summer to join the cruise ships that ply the archipelago hoping for encounters with polar bears, walruses, and whales.

No time to take in the finer detail but it’s immediately apparent that Svalbard’s history is a matter of natural resource exploitation – the rich marine bounty of whales and seals, the pelts of polar bears and Arctic foxes, and coal.

Its proximity to the North Pole has seen expeditions and attempts of its navigation by every possible means: ship, aeroplane, dirigibles of all shapes, submarine exploration. South Pole conqueror Roald Amundsen perished while flying from Trömso to Longyearbyen to rescue an expedition party reported missing while exploring by airship in 1928. It was strategically placed to serve as a base for German communications and weather watching during World War II after Norway came under German occupation.

Today, Svalbard remains on the frontier. It’s a long way north, even if the opening of the airport in 1975 and the addition of the new terminal in 2007 has made getting there faster, cheaper and more comfortable. There are now daily flights from Oslo and Tromso in the summer months bringing in hundreds of tourists arriving to join ships of all types, drawn by Svalbard’s pristine environment and rich wildlife.

Read other blogs in this series


AG Society Arctic expedition 2011
Aurora Expeditions