For centuries man has had an insatiable urge to explore new, remote and sometimes hostile and inhospitable territories. It could be the thrill of pitting oneself against nature and the elements, or perhaps an urge to venture into the unknown.
Regardless, I have always shared a similar urge to explore and discover new and fascinating places and, even as a child, I can remember wanting to be left alone to wander through wild places like the Kruger National Park or The Okavango Delta.
Finally, after 31 years, I feel that I have come as close as I possibly can to sharing the feelings of the early explorers. Surprisingly, this experience came not on the continent with which I am so familiar but in the Arctic Circle.
After four international flights and two full days of travel we arrived in the small town of Longyearbyen on the Island of Spitsbergen, home to 2500 odd people and the main point of entry to the Svalbard Archipelago. We had literally travelled to the top of the world.
Allegedly first discovered by the Vikings between 1192 and 1250, the name means “cold coast” and the area was refereed to as being inhospitable and plagued by dangerous sea monsters until it was officially discovered and documented by the Dutchman William Barents in 1596 during his effort to establish a trade route to India via the North Pole.
Stepping on board the M/S Stockholm, a vessel built in the 1950’s, we were transported back in time to an age where the great arctic explorers like Fridtjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen and Salomon August Andrée used Svalbard as a base from which to reach the North Pole.
We were about to follow in their footsteps and explore one of the most remote regions in the Arctic…
Still with its original owner, the Stockholm was built more than 60 years ago is in immaculate condition, still running under the power of the original engine and with the original wooden bridge in tact.
Cruising along the coastline and exploring ancient fjords carved by massive glaciers during the ice age without another ship or human in sight is something quite special and incredibly humbling. The sheer scale of the glacier fronts and Ice-bergs is almost incomprehensible.
Our trip to Svalbard was specifically scheduled for early in the summer and our foray into the Arctic was literally the first expedition of this nature for the season. The coastline and mountain ranges were covered in fine white snow, broken only by the occasional rocky outcrop, endemic Svalbard Reindeer, or an old trappers hut.
Trapping and hunting of walrus (for their tusks, oils and blubber), polar bears and arctic foxes (for their fine pelts) and reindeer (mainly for meat during the summer months) first took place 1700’s by Russian Pomors who were then followed by Norwegian hunters in the 1800’s. These days, almost all of the species on Svalbard are protected.
After exploring the fjords and glaciers of Bellsund and Hornsund in the south, our expedition lead us North to the remote settlement of Ny-Alesund – the northern most settlement in Svalbard at a latitude of 78 degrees and 56 minutes North.
Today the town is pretty much dominated by international polar research institutions, but this was the base for no less than 9 attempts to reach the North Pole between 1896 and 1928. In the center of the small town lies a statue of Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian who together with Umberto Nobile and Lincoln Ellsworth flew to the North Pole in an airship named the Norge in 1926.
They left Spitzbergen on 11 May 1926, and they landed in Alaska just two days later. The three previous claims to have arrived at the North Pole (Frederick Cook in 1908; Robert Peary in 1909; and Richard E. Byrd in 1926 – just a few days before the Norge) are all disputed, as being either of dubious accuracy or outright fraud.
The statue of this weather beaten polar adventurer could not have been more perfectly placed in context as we photographed it amongst some of the heaviest snow and strongest winds we had encountered on our expedition thus far. We left Ny-Alesund and, like so many polar explorers before us, our expedition continued up north where we eventually left the north eastern tips of the Svalbard Archipelago behind us.
The gentle sound of the Stockholm cruising with ease through the frigid Arctic waters were suddenly replaced by an erie and abbrasive sound of massive chunks of ice as they were broken by the bow and grated alongside the incredibly strong hull of the boat.
Here, after 5 days of cruising the cold waters of the Arctic Ocean, having endured temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius, at a latitude of 79 degrees and 56 minutes, surrounded by floating chunks of ice weighting several tonnes, in a remote and seemingly uninhabitable wilderness, our expedition discovered the first polar bears of the season.
It was as incredible as you can imagine.
In a vast ocean of floating chunks of ice which stretched as far as the eye could see, stood one of the most majestic and powerful creatures I have ever seen.
Amazingly, it was not only these massive maritime mammals that were able to thrive in the cold arctic conditions, but a host of other birds and mammals too.
I gained a new understanding and appreciation for the levels of excitement experienced by many first time travellers to Africa just before we left for Svalbard.
Initially it was the thought of seeing and photographing a Polar Bear on the pack ice that got me so excited but this focus shifted to a feeling of real adventure as we boarded the Stockholm and headed out into the cold arctic waters.
Being the first expedition of the season, battling the elements, hearing the stories about both failed and successful polar expeditions which took place from this very region, the possibility that we were (at some points in our journey) the northernmost people in the world. This truly was an expedition and an experience the likes of which I had not experienced before.
All too often we tend to get so caught up in our photographic goals, gear, and post-processing that we neglect the essence of a safari or expedition.
Ultimately, each time we venture out into the wilderness, be it to the drift ice of the Arctic or the savannah of Africa, we are following in the footsteps of the great explorers of yesteryear.
My first trip to the Arctic served as a reminder of how one’s overall experience on a photographic safari or expedition should not be taken lightly. Keep this in mind as Gerry and I share some images.
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