Thursday, June 12, 2014

Traveling the Svalbard archipelago by Skidoo

by SABA DOUGLAS – HAMILTON wildlife conservationist, executive summary by darmansjah

I was born in Kenya, so the polar regions have always had a special magic for me, being so completely different. I travelled to the Svalbard archipelago, midway between Norway and the North Pole, to film polar bears. We started at Longyearbyen, where we picked up skidoos to continue through the mountains to Liefde Fjord, where we would camp and film.

With 24-hour daylight we could travel through the night but had to be careful with weather. The further we went, the wilder the landscape became, with thick drifts of snow and frozen fjords. Then one night a blizzard hit us, so we whipped up tents, parked the skidoos tightly around us as protection from bears, and hunkered down for the next 36 hours.

In those kinds of conditions there’s nothing to do but get into sleeping bags and sit it out, piled together for warmth. As the only girl on the trip (ie, the only one who couldn’t pee into a bottle), after 12 hours I had no choice but to go outside. As a result I got covered in sleet, which melted into my sleeping bag. I caught a chill, which later turned into nasty bronchitis, and I had no choice but to go on. I learnt my lesson: do not go to the arctic without a SheeWee!.

When we finaly emerged into clear skies, we rode for another day towards Leifde Fjord through the most dazzling empty landscape. The midnight sun was low in the sky when we spotted a b ear walking towards us on the sea ice. We parked behind a mound of ice and waited. Eventually he spotted s, rising up on his back legs to get a better look. Our safety briefing had said to stay close to the skidoos and start the engines if he came too close, as the noise should care him off. The bear was a young male and very curious. He came closer and closer. Then far too close. Almost 4m tall at full height, the bear was in spitting distance. Time stood still but we held our nerve. Then he caught a new scent and ambled off. Heart beating, I looked around at our wide-eyed crew. ‘That was close,’ said our guide. ‘But it’s rarely the bear you see that gets you.’ We tried to start our skidoos. Nothing. The long stop in severe cold had deadened the batteries! Thank God the bear wasn’t hungry….

It’s almost impossible to arrange independent trip around Svalbard so book an organized tour. Terra Polaris has a 10-day trip for US$1,221 ; the Svalbard tourist board can recommend further operators. Fly from Singapore to Oslo via Singapore Airlines, or fly Malaysian Airlines from Kuala Lumpur. From Oslo, connect to Svalbard vis Scandinavian Airlines..

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