Brass Monkeys VI: Last Days
I’m a convert. Having always loved jungles and deserts, I’m not prepared to admit another alternative; the arctic snowscape gives you a blank white canvas on which to write your dreams.
This is a wilderness that needs to be captured by artists and on film before it goes. The recent shocking rise in Arctic temperatures suggests that the thinner ice is allowing through enough sunlight to photosynthesise plankton, and the vast white plains will be gone in 20 years.
Svalbard is one of several communities here, but the only one with an airport. It has a main street and a shop selling animal pelts. I met a visitor who’s a Vegan and she really didn’t find anything at all to eat. How could you in a place where nothing grows?
Here’s one of the only stores in town, selling ethically farmed pelts.
If your child ever posts letters to Santa Claus, this is where they seem to end up, in an immense red postbox. Some apparently get answered in Santa Claus, Indiana (nowhere near the North Pole) where they’ve hijacked the idea, but this post box is the real deal.
Dog sledding was much more fun that snowmobiles, and environmentally friendly. If you do it, keep one foot on the brake, don’t be a passenger (colder, smellier) but a driver – it’s harder work but keeps you warm.
The dogs fall into two types; ones from Greenland are aggressive, so they’re crossed with gentler huskies. Still if they’re not running (which they love) they’re fighting. They run until they’re nine years old, then retire. They’re hardy, eat dense meat, but not a lot, and sleep outside. Leading the team into a pristine valley was a highlight.
It’s much harder work than you realise because you have to jump off and push the sledge sometimes, only to find that the dog will heed the lighter load and run fast, meaning you have to jump back onto the runners at speed.
One scary moment – My driver Pete fell off the back and the dogs decided to run. I didn’t realise I was alone as we picked up speed and headed into the valley. Looking around and seeing no-one on the back, I was able to stick out my boot heels and drag us to a lower speed so he could catch up. Chucking out the anchor suddenly is not a good idea unless you really want to compact your vertibrae.
This is really worth considering as a trip. The people are fantastically hospitable and eager to talk, and you all feel united against the elements. Children raised here cope well. I watched a group of kids seated in snowdrifts playing a game, as easily as if they were at the beach. The various modes of transport are not cheap, it’s a complicated place to get to, and it’s a bit more punishing than I’d expected.
You need two sets of gloves, hats, scarves and stuff that might get wet as anything taken outside freezes in seconds. You will fall over several times. I’m covered in gashes and bruises, but big deal, it was amazing and I loved every second.
Heading back to London via Oslo, where I’ll be visiting the Modern Art Museum.