Longyearbyen, the capital of the Svalbard archipelago - which reflects on the world atlas as a big blob of land north of Norway, and not all that distant from the North Pole - offers an amazing array of activities for adventure travellers, both in summer and winter. This is the land of the Midnight Sun, when that solar orb never goes to bed. On the other hand, 24 hours of darkness might grab your fancy.
Here, Nature is the main playground and the tourist can get their adrenaline pumping with a variety of outdoor activities, dependent on the season, like dog sledging (in summer the sleds run on wheels) or ice caving. You can sign up for ski, snow scooter, boat or kayak trips; go horse riding; hiking (including across a glacier); or take a visit down a coal mine. Also popular with tourists are day excursions, by boat, to Pyramiden and Barentsburg, both owned by the Russians.
Botanists will enjoy the fragile but hardy wild flowers, which greet the world and the sun for just a short season. The wildlife and seabirds are spectacular if you join one of the specialised cruises around the islands. Then there are events such as a ski marathon, a running marathon, and scooter races in the snow. If you are into culture, the Polar Jazz and the Dark Season Blues festivals brighten up winter. Yet another interesting festival’s main emphasis is on arts and culture interacting with nature's own works of art. In March, when the sun finally returns, this much anticipated event is celebrated with exhibitions and concerts.
An interesting aspect is how residents spend their lives in such a farflung outpost. On the day I flew in to join an adventure cruise in the area, a huge MSC cruise ship was tied up to the main dock in Longyearbyen. Despite the fact that it disgorged some 4000 people into the town, they seemed to immerse themselves in the shops and museums. While to us they did not appear too obvious, for the local residents, the arrival of such a ship can be hugely intrusive. Many of them, we were told, climb into their 4x4's and head for a steep mountain overlooking the town. There they have a barbeque, watching from a distance the invasion of their domain.
Coal mining is the backbone of Longyearbyen, though whaling was once king. In 1906, American John Longyear established the first mine here and named the town Longyearbyen. A statue in the town of a miner, armed with pick and headlamp on his helmet, pays tribute to this backbone of the community. During my visit, some exuberant teenage boys were riding skateboards, using the statue's base as a launching pad. Some of the guest houses in the town were once mine hostels. One of these, far up the valley on the fringes of the town, Gjestehuset 102, was once highly sought after by miners as a residence. It was the only hostel where only two men shared a room, rather than four or more, and was also the cheapest. It was reserved exclusively for managers and miners who had been in the trade for decades. 102 is still the most reasonable place to lay your head - which is why is chose it - but obviously somewhere so far from civilisation, where everything is imported, is not cheap.
Everywhere in the town one finds snow scooters. It being summer, most were under tarpaulins, but come winter this is the main means of transportation, having replaced the family car. Longyearbyen is not a pretty town. The hillsides are scarred by mining, with the remains of broken-down mining equipment and unused, rusting cocopans swinging sadly on the aerial highway which once transported the coal to the harbour for export. Big pipes meander above ground around the entire town. In winter, coal from the mines, fires up huge boilers heating the water, which is then transported through these pipes, providing central heating into every house. Incidentally the Gulf Stream, which sweeps up the north Atlantic seaboard, means that Longyearbyen is not as icy as many other places at that latitude.
Despite mining's rather ugly face, there is a certain bleak beauty to the town. A workhorse may be ragged, but it can only be admired for its guts and determination. Besides, nature softens Longyearbyen - which lies at the head of a fjord, in a long valley overlooked by formidable mountains. In winter, with 24 hours of darkness, everywhere is blanketed in snow and a ethereal blue light is the predominant shade.
Man-made electricity shares the stage with the Northern Lights but even in summer, with 24 hours of sunlight, there is a certain luminosity to the air, leaving one spellbound by nature's palette. The community (about 2,000 residents) is mainly young and they embrace the lifestyle. We were fascinated to learn that pregnant women are obliged to go to mainland Norway to deliver their babies. They are flown free and given the best treatment. This is because, though there is a medical facility in Longyearbyen, it is not equipped to deal with things that can go wrong in childbirth.
In the same way, residents are “forbidden” to die on the archipelago. While nobody can control or predict the moment of death, it is frowned upon not to avail yourself of health facilities in Norway. Even if you die in Svalbard, you may not be buried here; your body has to be returned to the mainland. While crosses mark some graves, these date back to earlier years and often were related to mine accidents.
The Svalbard Church, with bright red-painted logs, is said to be the northern most church in the world. It plays a leading role in the town's social scene. A young girl kept some of us entranced as she played her own beautiful compositions on the church's piano. On one evening a week you can also drop by here for Norwegian waffles.
Visitors will hear a lot about “the most northern” - like when a snow bunting launched into song, we were informed it is the world's most northern songbird. Colourful rock ptarmigan strut unafraid around the 'suburbs' of Longyearbyen, as did reindeer grazing contentedly on the short grasses around some of the houses - many of which are gayly painted in an attempt to dispel the somewhat gloomy look of a mining town.
While there are signs to beware of polar bear which sometimes come to investigate, all the young people at the guesthouse were lamenting the fact that they had not even seen a bear in the distance. However, all the tour guides leading people on walking expeditions out of Longyearbyen carry rifles.
*** Incidentally, it can be difficult for South Africans to connect in time with a flight to Longyearbjen after an international flight, and it might be necessary to stay in Oslo, Norway.
Instead of staying in the city centre, I caught the local train from the airport to the city centre, then transferred on the same ticket to the Metro, alighting at the end of the line at Sognsveien. Here, the small Scandic Olympiatoppen Sportshotel (+47-22025735) proved a real find. Located in a hilly forest, beside a small lake, it is where many young Norwegian athletes go for training. Meals are geared to healthy living. Breakfasts offer a mouth-watering array. The rooms are spotless, with comfortable beds and the ever-so-friendly staff are helpful. Metro trains run regularly from Sognsveien.