Pole Position.

I have been asked to post this – this originally appeared in a magazine in early 2016, but the magazine’s website since had a revamp, and it has dropped off the radar screen.  Here it is for your pleasure and my indulgence.

Pole Position
By Gerry Pelser

“Where?”  I asked, when my fiancée told me.  I’ve never even heard of the place.  It sounded made up.

“Svalbard,” she replied. At this point, Svalbard could be anywhere and anything from a Brazilian soccer stadium to a Chinese water park.  “An island in the arctic circle, north of Norway.”

“Wait, you mean to tell me that ‘north of Norway’ is actually a thing?  I mean, isn’t it Norway just about as far north as you can go before meeting Canada on the other side?   Why on earth do you want to go to some godforsaken arctic island that…”

“Because there is a total solar eclipse there in March 2015,” Andrea replied.

Okay, now I’m interested.  As a professional photographer, I like to take photos of heavenly bodies, sometimes even those in the night sky.  An eclipse is arguably the holy grail of astronomy, they don’t come along very often, and when one does come along….  I want to see it.  I want to photograph it.

And thus started the journey that took two years in the planning: a solar eclipse that would lead me to the other side of the earth, deep in the arctic circle.

Svalbard is an island archipelago – the southern tip about 650 kilometres north of Norway, and the town, Longyearbyen, located on the main Island of Spitsbergen, is about 2,000 kilometres from Oslo.  (And 2,611 km from Moscow, 3,043 from London and 2,743 from Hamburg!)

As you may deduce from my Norwegian references, Svalbard is a territory of Norway, but is semi-autonomous.  They manage their own business there, and anyone can go there at any time, without a visa.  As long as you can pay your own way, you are welcome.  … it doesn’t have mainland Norway’s extortionate prices!

Most travel articles will try to woo you with the luxury and splendour of the hotels.  Nope, not here.  Was a plain old bog-standard generic Radisson Blu.  Travel mags talk about shopping, labels and designer goods.  Nope, not here.  Shopping here is a few novelties, and a lot of cold weather clothes (chief among which are wonderfully luxurious Norwegian knit jerseys!).  History?  Almost none to speak of – its only been inhabited since the late 19th century and only really became “civilised” in the early 20th century when they opened a coal mine there, so nope, no sense of history. So, what is a place with a plain old hotel, no retail therapy to speak of, and virtually no history, doing on the pages of an upmarket magazine?

Well, quite simply, because its magical.

Allow me to digress a second.  Language is constantly evolving, and when we try to describe something, we put in an adjective.  And when something better comes along than the last thing we added an adjective to, we need to use a stronger adjective.  And as such, adjectives lose their meaning.  “Awesome” becomes a Saturday afternoon movie.  “Spellbinding” becomes an airport paperback novel.  “Breathtaking” becomes someone else’s 11-year old singing Miley Cyrus off-key at a school play.  We have lost the meaning of the true superlative.

In this vein, I did not know what “breathtaking” meant until I saw the view from my hotel room in Svalbard.  A view that is, literally, breath-taking. I looked out of the window, over the small little town, across the frozen fjord, and onto the mountain on the other side with glowing-red sunset-ember peaks, and I literally could not breathe out of the sheer beauty of that vista.    Rocky peaks reach for the sky in a magnificence that no photograph can ever do justice. The frozen tundra, the sea-ice on the fjords, the glaciers… the sheer spellbinding, enamouring, superlative superlative, running-out-of-hyperbole beauty of this place is, quite literally, indescribable.

Immediately upon arrival from Oslo we were ushered into a bus to be taken to a camp outside of town.  Camp Barentsz.  Willem Barentsz was a Dutch explorer who looked for the Northeast Passage in 1596, but inadvertently got stuck on this island no one knew existed.  The crew broke down the ship, and built shelter with it to over-winter on the frozen island.  When summer came, they re-built the ship and hustled out of there.  The current camp is a replica of the original camp, on the original place, where Barentsz built the first human shelter on the island.

A small hexagonal building with a roaring campfire in the middle, where we were greeted with a glass of arctic-chilled Aquavit, which instantly provided a welcome warming glow.  The locals served us up a dinner of a traditional Sami dish named bidos, which is a reindeer soup/stew, and is absolutely delicious.

(Anyone know where I can find reindeer meat in Joburg?).  During dinner we were treated to a few slideshows showing the history of the town, as well as wildlife briefings.

Beer, Bidos and Aquavit – Does life get better than this?

Wildlife is one of the main attractions to Svalbard, with the main act being the polar bear.  In fact, until 1974, when the polar bear was declared protected, the main source of economy, after coal-mining, were polar-bear exports.  The king of these polar-bear hunters was Hilmar Nøis, who bagged at least 300 polar bears in his 48 winters hunting there.  Lately, killing a polar bear is a big no-no, and only happens in extreme cases.  Speaking of bears – no one is allowed out of town limits without a gun.  Bears outnumber people, and while bear attacks are rare, they are not unheard of.  One needs to be prepared for this sort of thing.  (incidentally, there was a bear attack during our stay, but that was because the guy was an asshole and caped far outside of town with no precautions).  Other wildlife attractions feature seals, walruses, the arctic fox and the reindeer – which are as plentiful as Impala in the Kruger Park.  You will regularly find reindeer, having no natural enemies, just walking calmly through town.

This I can say about Longyearbyen:  it has a few amazing restaurants. Chief among these, The Huset (which means “house”). The meal at the Huset is a set menu, and the only reason they do not have a Michelin star is because the judges have not been there yet.  This is fine dining at its best – a week later I had dinner at the Alcorn in Prague, which has a Michelin star, and I can say confidently that the meal, the service, and the ambiance at the Huset is much better than the acclaimed Alcorn!  I’m a foodie, I can write this entire article just on the food-and-wine at the Huset, but I shall refrain from doing so with great restraint – but it is more than fair to say that the meal at the Huset was in the top-three meals I’ve had in my life, and in a moment of unguarded emotion, I might even say it ranks as the best meal I’ve ever had.  (Even better than Andrea’s bolognaise, and that says something!) And if you like your wines – the Huset has the third-ranked wine cellar in Europe, with more than 30,000 bottles of wine.

A main attraction to the town is their gallery – and in their case, it is literally a case of “local is lekker”.  Works of art from locals adorn the walls. In particular, painter Kåre Tveter has pride of place, and his works captures the spirit of Svalbard in abject minimalism that evokes emotion in just a few strokes of a palette knife. The gallery is well worth a visit, and take your credit card along, originals and prints are for sale, and we came home with a few original etchings.

An attraction not to miss out on is the  Museum housed in the university building.  It is the antithesis of your stuffy old museum full of “do not touch” signs and dry-as-dust exhibits.  A light, airy building with interactivity and plenty of open space, makes this a great place to spend a few hours.  I’m not one for museums in general, they tend to bore me – take me to the pub instead – but this one was a very cool exception to the rule.  Despite myself, I had fun in it, and as is the norm of anyplace you go to in Longyearbyen, your hands are a bit fuller, and your credit card a bit emptier, when you leave!

Yes, I said university – most of the activity on Svalbard is research.  NASA has an outpost there, and the surprise is, they have, quite literally, the fastest internet line in the world there.  Free, super-fast wi-fi is available everywhere.  Sitting on a small little island in the middle of nowhere and you have better access than Fourways.  Or New York.  Go Figure.

For the more adventurous, there are plenty of outdoor activities.  Ice-caving, dog-sledding, and something my wife and I did – a seven-hour snowmobile excursion to Templefjorden – a fjord with a glacier at its end.  A 110-kilometre round-trip on a snowmobile in arctic conditions… yes, its tough, but the fact that I can now say “I had lunch at the foot of a glacier on a frozen fjord” makes the trip worthwhile!

Speaking of arctic conditions, I’ve not dealt with the elephant in the room yet: the cold.  Like the beauty, the cold of this place is literally breathtaking.  Walking outside from the heated indoors, I actually cough a few times to get used to the frigid air.  In the four days I’ve spent there, not once did I get used to the that first hit of arctic air in my lungs!  When we landed it was minus 12.  This was the warmest we’ve been. Temperatures plummeted to minus 26, and with wind chill, the “Real feel” (which is actually a genuine meteorological thing) was minus 40.  To put that in perspective: your fridge’s freezer compartment that makes ice for your G&T is minus five.  Your gramma’s chest-freezer goes down to minus 18.  Now imagine eight degrees colder than that!  To say it is “bitterly cold” is an understatement.  Something I wish I took a photo of: outside the hotel, a sign-board was illuminated by a traditional, energy-munching tungsten-filament light bulb; the type of light bulb that burns your fingers blisters if you touch it.  This bulb had icicles hanging from it!  It is THAT cold!

Yours Truly freezing his nuts off. But I had to show allegiance to the ‘Boks. Oh, Talisker in that hip flask – Arctic chilled single malt? The best whisky I’ve ever had! (I’ve lost about 10 kilograms since, I’m not quite as rotund anymore!)

But despite the cold, I can honestly say I was never chilly, really, never mind cold.  There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, the place is very well heated.  Indoors it is always in the mid 20’s.  As for outside, the key is layers.  Wool layers. Don’t even think of cotton! Two or three base layers, a mid layer (one of those sumptuous Norwegian jerseys I spoke about earlier) and a wind-proof outer-layer, two pairs of gloves and a beanie, and you are set to go.  Gloves are a necessity – don’t even think you can go with gloves outside.  A bare hand will freeze to the external steel door-handle.  But even waiting for the eclipse, standing for two hours on frozen tundra waiting for the moon to pass the sun, I was comfortable.

The Eclipse – From first contact to totality

And this is what this trip was about – the solar eclipse…  perfect conditions.  Not a cloud in the sky.  No atmospheric disturbances. Pure, still, super-chilled arctic air delivered, what the veterans of eclipse watching say, was the best one they have ever seen.  The joy I’ve felt when the shadow fell on Svalbard, was the second-most brilliant moment of my life.

The best moment of my life came 90 minutes later, when I wed the love of my life in the world’s northernmost church.  A little church in a magical, indescribable town, in a magical, indescribable land, called Svalbard.