A Travellerspoint blog

10: Dressed for the Arctic

overcast 3 °C


Received our first wakeup call this morning! It’s funny, the expedition leader gives us a wakeup call every morning and tells us what we the weather is, what we are going to do for the day etc. Anyway up we got for our breakfast at 7.30am in the dining room. The dining room is in a great place because you can sit in the room and all tables have a great view out the front of the boat and out to the sides, so you can at all times see the mountains, sea and wildlife around you.

After brekky we headed out onto deck to “check it all out”. I went for the back deck and found a great spot out of the wind but still with fantastic views of the landscape. I can’t get over how quiet it is here in Spitsbergen. Apart from the low rumble of the boat I can’t hear anything except my own breath! It’s amazing! Even the sea birds that fly past don’t make a noise! Incredible! The site from the back deck was just inspiring, total silence with majestic big black mountains to either side, ringed with snow! I could have almost fallen asleep out there for all of the peace!

We slowly wound our way up the Hornsberg sound. At the end of the sound we came up to an ice field and sat and just watched the landscape. Lunch was called and so we all trouped in for some yummy minestrone soup and chicken tikka. Just as we sat down for dinner we had the announcement that polar bears had been sited. We all rushed to don our clothing and rushed out to the deck to see them.. Gosh they are hard to see in a field of ice. All you could see was this dark spec on the horizon that seemed to move. If you didn’t have a good set of binoculars you couldn’t see them at all. We stayed watching the bears for a couple of hours. WE eventually had the boat close enough that you could see them with your naked eye but still it was impossible to make out features or what they were actually doing.. All you could tell was it was some big shaggy animal walking on all 4 legs!

It’s funny, but we may actually not see them any closer than what we did.. See the problem is that if we see them on the land (and we are on land) then we must leave immediately. Polar bears can move 10 times faster than humans and are carnivores so of course they will see us as lunch so will try to eat us and it will be unlikely we will be able to out run them. Our guides carry weapons and flare guns but obviously no-one wants to injure one of these amazing creatures so we may actually not see one that close.. Fingers crossed we can see them up close on the ice pack whilst we are safely on board our ship.
Polar bears mainly eat seals (although I guess they will eat any sort of meat if they are hungry enough) and the seals live under the ice flows. Apparently a polar bear can smell a seal from over a km away and under 3+m of ice! Incredible sense of smell! So they can easily smell us if we get close enough. All of the animals and plant life are protected up here. You can still get a hunting license to hunt the arctic fox and reindeer but you need to be a Norwegian citizen and you need to hold a hunting license.. There is no hunting of polar bears or walruses.

We spent hours watching the bears and eventually we moved away to go to our zodiac landing spot to see some “trees” and birds on the land. To take the zodiac is a bit of a mission in itself! I donned the following clothing:
- Singlet
- Short sleeved t-shirt
- Long sleeved thermal
- Long sleeved woolen shirt
- Wind breaker jacket
- Ski jacket
- Beenie
- Gloves
- Scarf
- Thermal pants
- Ski pants
- 2 pairs of socks
- Life jacket
- Special rubber gum boots

You feel like Michelin man himself! As the saying goes “I’m dressing for the arctic!” but in this case it is needed! Temp wasn’t too bad outside and I probably had on maybe two layers too many but better to be safe than sorry!

WE went for a wander and saw heaps of ice bergs, a trapper’s hut, some sort of mummy gull with her three grey haired babies (v cute), plenty of flying gulls (making a racket too) and heaps of Spitsbergen’s “trees”. The trees on Spitsbergen are nothing more than mosses, v small ground covers (with beautiful pink and purple flowers) and lichens. It’s quite surprising that there is actually this much vegetation.. From afar it looks v desolate, but when you get up close you can see actually quite a bit of growth. I guess without some sort of plant life none of the wildlife would be able to live up here!

The zodiacs are quite fun to ride and quite easy to get into and out of (which is pretty good considering the demographic of the ship is late 50s to mid 70s). They are basically big inflatable rubber duckies that seat about 10 or so. The ride isn’t bumpy and is nice and fast so quite exhilarating (not too cold either!)

Finished off the day with the most boring lecture about what animals, birds etc we can expect to see here on Spitsbergen.. I took almost none of it in and am only really interested in the puffins, walruses, seals and of course Polar Bears!!!

Time to head to sleep and get some much needed shut eye (I fell asleep in the boring lecture!). Tomorrow we are going to try and head around the bottom of Spitsbergen and up the LHS of the island (will depend on the ice flows as to whether we can make it or not).

Posted by weary_feet 02:43 Archived in Svalbard Comments (0)

9: 80th Parallel!

sunny 5 °C
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V early start this morning as we needed to catch a 9am flight to Longyearbyen. V unexciting flight (which is always a good thing!) and touched down in Tromso at 11am.. An unusual thing then happened in Tromso. We all had to get off the flight, collect our hand luggage and go into the airport for about an hour. Inside the airport we had to pass immigration! Svalbard is a protectorate of Norway but for some reason you need to have your passport checked and stamped for entry into Svalbard! I guess it is something like Norfolk Island.. you go on an international flight to get there even though it is part of Australia! I also think that it is a tax haven so maybe that has something to do with it!

Anyway the approach into Tromso was just gorgeous, huge snowcapped mountains dominated the view from the airport.. I’m betting our drive from Tromso to Kirkenes is going to be beautiful if the scenery around Tromso airport is anything to go by!

Eventually we arrived at Spitsbergen Island in Svalbard.. Wow-ee is the only way to describe the landscape of Svalbard… Probably some of the most picturesque landscape I’ve ever seen.. Huge black mountains capped with snow. No trees, plants, animals are visible.. just some fishing boats/ ice breakers and some birds flying through the air.. V sunny and clear, not actually too cold.. Great weather for hopefully taking some great shots! Very desolate but very beautiful.

Longyearbyen itself is a small town (somewhere between a Gladstone/ Smithtown sort of size).. V small, a population of about 2000 people reside in Longyearbyen. The buildings look quite similar to those you see in tourist magazines for Alaska.. small two story sized demountable type buildings all in bright colours! Longyearbyen must have had some sort of mining as well in the past as the mountains are strung with what looks a bit like lines from a chair lift but are actually lines strung with big wooden buckets that were obviously used for hauling (or maybe still are used) some sort of mineral out of the mines and into the waiting ships.

We waited in Longyearbyen for about two hours whilst we waited for our ship to begin loading, we were then able to get on our ship and discover the MS Expedition! Our boat has about 100 other passengers and is similar to a small cruise boat. We have cabins on three decks, a dining room, lounge, outside deck and bar, small library room, computer room, sauna, gym and tiny gift shop.

Our room is a triple, meaning bunk beds on one side of the room and a single on the other. Small shower and toilet, cupboards and a port hole! After settling in (and unpacking clothes in the case of mum and dad) we went for a tour of the ship.

Meals are served three times a day in the dining room. There is only sitting so we all eat our meals together. Breakfast and lunch is buffet and dinner is a-la-carte. All food is included we only have to pay for drinks (which thankfully are in US dollars, so we are back to paying reasonable prices for our drinks.. not 12 dollars a beer!). Went for a wander about the decks.. Temp isn’t too bad, probably about 1 to 3 above zero with a bit of wind chill.. Pretty good all round..

Before dinner we all had our emergency evac training and learnt how to get into our life boats etc.. Fingers crossed we don’t actually need to use our training!

We left Longyearbyen and took off south for the southern tip of Spitsbergen looking for polar bears! Early sleep tonight (probably most nights) as tomorrow we do our orientation training and get our suits etc for going out in the zodiacs!

Posted by weary_feet 02:27 Archived in Svalbard Comments (0)

8: X- Country Roller Blading

sunny 24 °C
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Later start today with both Bookie and Conductor, We spent the day wandering the streets of Oslo just checking out the town.

Started by wandering up towards the palace (yes Norway also has some sort of Royal Family) and then back down to the waterfront for a look around and an ice-cream!

Went back to the hotel and spent the afternoon organising our accommodation and train travel within Norway when we are finished our Svalbard trip. Its interesting organising for accommodation in the one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world! (This is because when we come back we are driving from Tromso to Kirkenes—both areas are well within the Arctic Circle—and are very sparsely populated) We had to accept the mentality of “if it’s available, well take it!” because there isn’t much accommodation out there!!!

After about 5hrs of planning we finally had worked out where, when and how and took back off for the waterfront and a well deserved cold beer. Down at the water front, there was a track set up and there was some sort of cross country roller blading come cross country skiing competition on! Cross country skiing must be a big thing in Norway because there were trailers setup with photos of the top skiers etc, similar to what we would have for a major swim meet or when the Quicksilver pro or something is on!! It must have been a big thing! And geez can the top cross country skiers MOVE! They can skate/ ski faster than the motor scooter can go! Those top skiers absolutely fly! It’s actually a pretty good spectator sport! Quite exhilarating!

Early night tonight because tomorrow we are off to Spitsbergen to see Polar Bears!!!

Posted by weary_feet 02:16 Archived in Norway Comments (0)

7: Sheep Herding

overcast 17 °C
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Early start as I needed to get on the 8.30 train from Stockholm to Oslo. I had thought I would have plenty of time to get to the train station and I was lucky that I actually left early as it took to me longer than I expected to get to the station. Catching the train in Europe is really easy. The central stations are (so far) very central which means a small walk to your hotel. I like the fact you don’t have to worry about going thru security etc and can basically turn up 5min before your train is due to arrive and just hop on!

I arrived and went down to my platform. After about 30min a train arrived that shouldn’t have (according to the platform guide) and I found out we were supposed to change trains to another platform but without any English loudspeaker it was quite difficult to work out what was going on.. Luckily there were a few non-swedish people on the platform who were all milling around looking like sheep and just like a flock of sheep we were all herded over to our new platform.

Once aboard the train was really quite luxurious… A definite cut above the old “Trans Siberian”. Assuming this train is indicative all other trains in Europe you know how I’m going to be travelling around! Each seat was good bit wider than your average economy sized seat on an aeroplane and there were power points at each seat to plug in your laptop! Pure luxury!

The countryside of Sweden was very luscious and green. Every vista seemed to be green pastures with many fir tree forests and plenty of lakes! Water everywhere!

Arrived into Oslo at around 3pm and spent the arvo wandering the streets familiarising myself with the town. Oslo is a really lovely town. Old buildings like Stockholm but mixed with many new buildings and wide leafy boulevards. Good mixture of the old and the new. Ended up down at the waterfront chowing down on fish soup with crusty bread and butter washing it all down with a “helognia piva” (cold beer)! Pure heaven! Pure heaven until you get to the cheque.. $40 but for fish soup and beer! Norway is EXY!!

Picked up Bookie and Conductor from the rail way station at 9pm, checked them in and then went hunting some dinner for them both. $80 later bookie and conductor were fed on a shared pizza and cold beer… Holy dooley she’s expensive here in Norway! Oh well, you have to suffer these things if you want to come and visit.

Posted by weary_feet 02:13 Archived in Norway Comments (0)

6: Three Crowns

semi-overcast 12 °C
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I spent my final day in Stockholm visiting the House of Nobility and the Stockholm Palace.

The House of Nobility was only open for a very short window today so had to make that my first stop this morning. The ‘House’ was built in the mid 1600s as a place for the Swedish nobility to meet for the running of the country (back when it wasn’t a fledged democracy and the nobles ran the country). Based on the number of coup’s that have occurred in the Swedish history I’m sure it was also used to bitch about the Royal family and of course the peasants! Basically, it is one big room that is dedicated as the meeting room for the nobles. Today there are only about 700 noble families remaining in Sweden (of the 2500 represented in the ‘House’) and they have no official power except as citizens of Sweden. They still meet once every three years to discuss something! (I couldn’t quite work out why they still meet, maybe it’s like one big family reunion??)

I found Nanna’s ancestor’s coat of arms on the wall “David Af Sandeberg” who was awarded his knight hood in the late 1700s.. For those who aren’t related to the family, Nanna tells me that her cousin is still the head of the house and apparently lives somewhere in Stockholm..

After finding Nanna’s ancestor (and looking amongst 2500 coat of arms isn’t that easy!) I walked around the corner to the Stockholm Palace. The Stockholm Palace is still the official residence of the King and Queen of Sweden although both don’t actually live in the palace! The palace is used mainly as a tourist attraction (museum) and occasionally official ceremonies are held in the palace for VIP guests or major events in Sweden.

The palace must be one of the oldest in Europe. The original foundations were laid in 980 AD, with the current structure being built in the late 1600s (the original palace burnt down in a huge fire in the late 1600s). The palace is quite interesting to visit as you can see the crown jewels of the Swedish Royal Family as well as the palace itself and another museum in the vaults of the palace shows you the original foundations of the old palace! Really interesting!

I guess the part I enjoyed the most was the ‘Tre Kronor’ museum; the Three Crowns.. The 3 crowns is the official symbol of Sweden and dates well back to before the palace was built. The 3 crowns represent the holy trinity, and I guess therefore showing the divine right of the kings to rule over the country. The Tre Kronor museum is the part of the palace where you can see the old foundations. It is a large vaulted network of room’s deep underground from the palace. Over the past two hundred years many archeological digs have occurred under the palace and the Tre Kronor is the result. The old walls of the palace were over 5m thick and look to me to be made of any sort of rocks they could find tightly fitted together with some sort of mortar. Definitely not defined bricks, rocks put together! When you get up close and take a look it’s amazing how they made them fit together and to think that the whole palace was made like this is just incredible (the palace is at least a whole office block wide and long—it’s huge!)

The palace burnt down in the late 1600s as most of the inside and roof etc was made of wood. It’s quite a funny story as to why the palace burnt down. Back then the palace had a large workforce dedicated to keeping fires at bay. I guess with the amount of internal fires, candles etc the chance of fire was quite high so a large workforce was employed for the sole duty of making sure that any fire that starts is immediately put out. Therefore each few rooms had its two fire wardens whose sole job was to patrol and put out any conflagrations. Unfortunately the head of the fire wardens (probably like all civil servants… I can hear the protests loudly to this statement!!) was a little corrupt and used to run his own black market gambling syndicate on the side to make some extra coin.. Therefore most of the fire wardens were normally out in the city working on this venture and not actually patrolling the castle! Where the fire first broke out, one of the wardens was off doing an errand for the gambling syndicate and the other (who was supposed to be on the look out) decided he was hungry and would go for an early lunch.. Well the rest is history (literally) and the whole palace burnt down! The final result was that the chief fire warden was severely punished by public flogging.. He had to run up and down in front of where the old palace was and every person watching had to flog him on his way past. Basically he had to keep running (and being flogged) until he eventually died.. Nasty way to die!

Like all civic places in Sweden the palace closed at 5pm so I spent the rest of my afternoon preparing for my trip to Oslo and wandering around the city. Unfortunately there is so much I didn’t get to see of Stockholm—it is such a beautiful and easy city to get around that I’ll definitely put it on my list for a return visit. If you are going to come and stay make sure you stay in Gamla- Stan (the old town) as it is just picture post card and so close to all of the attractions!

So here I say “Adjo” to Stockholm and “Hey” to Oslo (Hey is great because it is the word for Hello in Finland, Sweden and Norway!)

Posted by weary_feet 01:45 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

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