The SAS flight from Tromsø descends into low-hanging clouds
until the brown craggy cliffs outside Longyearbyen appear through the
mist just before we land. Shafts of coal mines, the elevated sifting
station, and the pylons of the mine's cable-car system loom out of the
In the tiny one-room arrival and departure lounge there's a loud bong
of an electronic bell as an announcement is made in Norwegian and English
that 'Permission is required from the Governor of Svalbard to go to
areas outside of the settlement of Longyearbyen itself'.
the information counter I pick up a postcard with two polar bears eating
what looks suspiciously like a bloody human carcass. With a sense of
relief, I read the back of the card, written in Norwegian, English and
Russian: 'The photo shows polar bears eating a seal.' But there is also
written the following warning:
TAKE THE POLAR BEAR DANGER SERIOUSLY!
- The polar bear has been protected from hunting since 1973. It
is also illegal to chase, entice, feed or disturb polar bears unnecessarily.
- Close encounters with polar bears can be lethal.
- Be well prepared before moving into the field. Always be alert
and keep to open areas.
- Be correctly armed at all times.
- It is prohibited to carry loaded weapons in the settlements.
Since the 1600s people have been hunting and fishing on the Svalbard
archipelago. The fact that it did not belong to any particular state
was not a problem; there were few people interested in being here and
fewer conflicts. Although in the early 1900s mining activities created
pressure to obtain sole mining rights, it wasn't until after the First
World War that the Svalbard Treaty of 1920 was signed, giving Norway
and the Governor of Svalbard absolute and unlimited sovereignty over
the entire archipelago.
Curiously, while Svalbard is deemed to be under the jurisdiction of
the Kingdom of Norway, Norway is obliged to grant equal rights to citizens
and companies from all the parties to the Treaty to enter and live,
fish and hunt, mine, and acquire property here. The parties to the original
treaty are an eclectic mix and include such disparate nations as Afghanistan,
the Dominican Republic, Japan and South Africa. A citizen of any of
these signatory countries could legally come to Svalbard to find a job
or acquire mineral rights. Of course, they'd have to get a visa into
mainland Norway first, because the only commercial flights to Svalbard
these days are from Tromsø.
I'd imagined the bus route from the airport into town would be through
snow-covered countryside. It isn't. It looks like an instant community,
with mostly new buildings and even new blacktop tarmac on the couple
of roads. The buildings, I notice, are built on stilts above the permafrost,
as are the sewage pipes and the hot-water supply for heating the buildings.
The buildings are all connected by this visible spider's web constructed
a metre off the muddy earth.
As per the request posted on the front entrance to the SAS Radisson
Hotel, I remove my shoes and put them in a neat line with scores of
others. In stockinged feet I check in at reception after taking careful
note of the sign:
To all our Guests
The risk of polar bears in the
restaurant isn't very big
so can you please hang your
weapons in the weapons cabinet
(rifle, gun, revolver).
waiting at the front desk I open a copy of Svalbard Posten. This
issue of 4th August headlines why a Polish researcher shot three polar
bears in one day in self-defence after they tried to break into his
Despite the unearthly hour I feel wide-awake. The midnight sun lasts
from the 19th April to the 23rd August in Longyearbyen. Of course, the
flip side of the coin is that the perpetual night endures from the 26th
October to the 16th February.
Heading down the main pedestrian walkway, I find myself behind a woman
carrying a rifle slung over her shoulder.
'Um, excuse me, but is it really necessary to carry a rifle here?'
I ask, without a hint of superciliousness. I'm paranoid enough to think
I shouldn't even be walking the couple of hundred metres from my hotel
to the post office in case there's a polar bear hiding behind the corner
of a building waiting to gobble me up. I notice the woman has duct tape
over the barrel opening of the rifle to stop the rain getting in.
'No, I've just walked a couple of kilometres from out of town.'
'Where'd you get your rifle?'
'From the bicycle rental shop.'
'You just walk into the bicycle rental shop and they rent you a rifle
with your bike?' I ask. 'Just to go a couple of kilometres?'
She points at the hillside, towards a line of rocky balustrades looming
out of the mist like the ramparts of a giant fortress. I wouldn't be
surprised to see gargantuan gargoyles appear out of the tops of the
gothic parapets. 'A couple of years ago a woman was killed by a polar
bear right up there. That's "just a couple of kilometres".'
'Did they show you how to use the rifle?'
'Have you used one before?'
Hope the polar bears know she's armed. 'How much was it?'
'A hundred krone for the rifle per day and ten krone per bullet, but
you get your money back on the bullets if you haven't used them.'
The rifle looks like a Second World War Mauser that may or may not
work, no matter how proficient the rifleman was. She'd probably have
more effect if she threw bullets at the polar bears rather than putting
them down the chamber and pulling the trigger. 'And you don't need a
'Just need to be older than twenty-one.'
What do kids do when they want to go out to play and aren't twenty-one?
Without a rifle to defend myself, I sidestep into the supermarket,
bypassing a sign asking me to leave my weapons with the cashier on the
way in. At least I don't have to remove my shoes. I buy two expensive
New Zealand apples, and try to visualise someone picking them in New
Zealand, literally half a different world away.
Tourism to Svalbard is only a relatively recent phenomenon. Fifteen
years ago there were no hotels, just the campsite and Funken, where
the coal miners stayed. Visitors had to bring everything they needed,
including tents and food. Longyearbyen was, in effect, a coal-mining
town. The building called Lompen used to be the coal miners' showers
and changing room but has been more recently converted to exclusive
shops catering to tourists.
buildings, colourful imitations of Norwegian mainland architecture are
replete with the steep roofs not needed in this arid climate. Wooden
slat skirts cleverly disguise the mountings on which the buildings sit.
I assume they are designed this way to allay bouts of homesickness amongst
the inhabitants, mostly mainlanders. The majority of buildings have
been constructed in the last decade and it's the employers - the coal
mining companies, the State and the Sysselman's (Governor's) office,
hospital, university and the adventure travel companies - who own most
of these quaint houses.
I walk around to Huset, a pink building that serves as the community
hall, theatre, dance hall and, once a week, the cinema. In the pub-like
atmosphere of the restaurant I order seal with fried potatoes. The alternative
is a combination plate of arctic char, seal, smoked salmon, smoked reindeer
heart, smoked reindeer tongue, fish eggs, scallops and shrimps. Both
the seal and the reindeer have been government inspected on mainland
Norway, so the fact that there are seal and reindeer within gunshot
is entirely beyond the point. The seal meat is purple in colour and
bleeds profusely into the gravy.
slightly queasy after eating the meal, I continue walking back towards
the centre of Longyearbyen, past the cemetery where two wild reindeer
feed, quite unconcerned by my presence. I stop to look at them and can
easily see by their amputated-like legs that these smaller reindeer
are a subspecies endemic to Svalbard, more closely related to the Canadian
caribou than the wild reindeer of Norway. They are so tame it's hard
to believe that they were hunted almost to extinction.
I nervously keep looking over my shoulder to make sure I'm not the
latest addition to Longyearbyen's polar bear attack folklore. Ubiquitous
road signs warning about polar bears don't ease my paranoia. A car goes
by and I resist the temptation to hitchhike. I notice the vehicles here
have black licence plates, normally used on construction sites on the
mainland. While there are only 60 kilometres of roads on Svalbard, there
are 1,500 snow scooters, or an average of one per person.
Shoeless, but within the safe confines of the sumptuous hotel, I head
into The Pub. Sitting at the bar, I notice several of the bottles of
alcohol on the shelves have names, presumably of the owners, written
on the labels. Beside commonplace Norwegian names like Lars and Tore
is one bottle marked 'Jesus Christ'. I ask the bartender why.
'If someone has enough money to buy a whole bottle and wants to keep
it here under the name of Jesus Christ, or anyone else for that matter,
that's fine by me,' the bartender replies in impeccable English.
It's a motley group of Norwegians collected here, a bit reminiscent
of the Star Wars pub scene where the inter-galactic denizens
come to meet. In my few encounters with those who live here, it seems
they are often escaping something on the mainland despite their claims
that they have come here for the nature. They are a friendly crowd,
gregarious, but at one in the morning I take my leave, stepping out
of the completely blacked-out 'Puben' into broad daylight. With the
sun shining brightly, I'm suddenly awake and it's difficult to persuade
myself to go to bed.
Andrew Stevenson 2002. This is an edited extract from Summer Light:
A Walk Across Norway (Lonely Planet, £6.99), with kind permission
from the author. Andrew, a Canadian, lived and worked in Norway for
five years. His book is a deeply personal account of Norway and the
Norwegians, delivered in his uniquely humorous and honest style that
both informs and entertains the reader. A German translation Mittsommer
was published by National Geographic Taschenbuch in 2007.
© All photographs in this article are copyright Andrew Stevenson.
His photographic work, also covering Antarctica, can be seen on his
is available for loan subject to conditions.