My Farthest North – An Arctic Diary
During three weeks in the High Arctic our heroine reaches her ‘farthest north’ as well as her ‘coldest north’.
With a wry sense of humour, this fictionalised memoir introduces us to a diverse cast of characters, including polar bears, reindeers, walrus, a Polish Arctic explorer, a Russian sea captain, a quirky expedition leader…and the shadowy Eduardo. As she journeys on, our narrator tells Eduardo about everything she is seeing, experiencing, learning and reading. We learn gradually that Eduardo is stuck in his office and couldn’t make the trip with her. Are they lovers?
In northern Norway, night disappears along with the 3G signal. Bravely facing the rickety steps down the side of the ship to the inflatable dinghy, learning to make wet landings, and how to – and how not to – approach walrus, our narrator learns a few things about herself and the difficulty of remaining cheerful in spite of a very cold butt. In Svalbard, euphoria at a polar bear sighting gives way to a ho-hum glacier expedition. In Greenland, Heidi the Inuit Girl welcomes the expeditioners in full Traditional Dress and with walrus canapes, and an Inuit grandmother offers roasted polar bear. In Iceland various threatened species adorn the cafe menus.
In reading our heroine’s journal written for Eduardo, we are eavesdroppers on her uncensored thoughts. Her bouts of bad temper and her unreasonable expectations are all here, along with her wry assessments of her fellow Arctic travellers. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to sit in a small boat above the Arctic Circle, with nothing around you but fog, the disappearing sea ice, the chance of a bear sighting and a severe bout of unrequited love, this story is for you.
All digital formats – epub, mobi, pdf, rtf, lrf, pdb, txt – can be purchased here.
Sound interesting? Here’s a sample of the first few pages….
Saturday 17th July
The great departure day has arrived, and here I am in the Malaysian Airlines lounge at Sydney airport, the smell of noodles wafting through what is otherwise yet another bland airport waiting room. The adrenalin is pumping, or perhaps it’s that unaccustomed cappuccino in which I indulged this morning, being in rather a celebratory mood when I had my last breakfast for some time at my local café.
Luckily, however, it is early days and the excitement has not (yet) transmogrified into irritation. I say ‘luckily’ because already I have had my first minor (I hope) travel incident. My carefully packed carry-on suitcase was weighed and found to be more than double the allowable seven kilograms. *sigh* It was the fault of my camera equipment, my Canon 5D and its fabulous new lens, plus the long zoom lens. I have always looked on pityingly when I’ve seen people forced to repack at the check-in counter, but today that was me, extracting a flat backpack I’d brought along for the polar excursions and promoting it to my carry-on bag; locking up the camera equipment in the small suitcase and sending it off on a wing and a prayer, so to speak. If the airline loses that bag, I’ll have some major camera shopping ahead in Oslo. Much Norwegian kroner will change hands. I can’t go to polar bear country without a very long lens.
Malaysian Airlines Flight 122 to Kuala Lumpur is now boarding at Gate Number 51…
We have been flying for a couple of hours now, over the endless expanse of Central Australia. I see a big body of water below – we’ve not long crossed the border from NSW into Queensland. Perhaps the water is part of the Diamantina River system, which eventually feeds into the huge inland trough of Lake Eyre. There’s still a lot of water in Lake Eyre this season, twelve months after I flew out on a small plane to see it: that still ranks as somewhere in my ‘top five’ sights I’ve ever seen. Antarctica has always – since I saw it in 2005 – been numero uno.
I’m just in the throes of enduring an airline lunch. We started with satay – this being Malaysian Airlines, after all – and warm champagne; the Malaysians are lovely people when it comes to service, but they are weak on alcoholic beverages, being mainly Islamic teetotallers. Nevertheless, I’m happy in Seat 10A, upper deck on an old 747. I like these old planes; the upper deck configuration is cosy. The deck is full today. I am sitting next to an Australian chap who, along with most others on this and every other flight, could hardly wait to pop up the TV screen. Why don’t people prefer reading? I love my iPhone, but TV is mind-numbingly passive.
My reading de jour is a novel, based on history, by an Austrian writer named Christoph Ransmayr, written in 1992. It is called, very dramatically, The Terrors of Ice and Darkness.
I have just interrupted this to consume, against my better judgment, a very chewy pavlova dessert, supplied, I assume, by a caterer in Sydney who ought to be ashamed of itself. It was a disgrace to an iconic Australian dessert. In future I will stick to cheese – although the Malaysians are not offering any, as far as I can see.
Back to Ransmayr: his book is a kind of post-modern narrative following the story of an Austro-Hungarian polar expedition in a wooden sailing ship (with seasick Tyrollean hunters) undertaken in 1873; and a single-handed attempt by a young Italian to follow their route in 1981. The first trip is historic fact; I have not yet read far enough to know if the second is also. However, they both passed through the remote High Arctic town of Longyearbyen in Spitsbergen, where I will be next Wednesday, so I am very interested to read about it. So far I have learnt that Spitsbergen and Svalbard are part of a collection of islands in the Arctic Ocean, lying between 10˚ and 35˚ east longitude and 74˚ and 81˚ north latitude. Svalbard is an Old Norse name from the twelfth century and, appropriately, it means ‘cold coast’. Since 1925 Svalbard has been part of the Kingdom of Norway.
The islands of Svalbard are apparently bare of vegetation other than some moss and lichen and an occasional flower on a good day, but no trees. They do, however, feature mountains, deep ravines and fjords, which sounds dramatic and beautiful. The archipelago covers 62,049 square kilometres and most of it lies underneath glaciers. There are no roads. On the good news front, Svalbard is one of the few areas in the high Arctic that is accessible by sea for relatively long periods and ice-free in the summer, thanks to a current of the Gulf Stream. On the bad news front, in summer months the air temperature seldom exceeds 10˚ Celsius; in winter it falls to -35˚ Celsius, on rare occasions to -40˚. In Longyearbyen, my first destination, the ‘midnight sun’ shines from April 21 to August 21. The ‘period of darkness’ (a.k.a. NIGHT) lasts from October 28 to February 14. With each degree of latitude farther north, the periods of both midnight sun and polar night are six days longer. There are some permanent settlements up there, which were founded by coal-mining companies – the Norwegian ‘Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani’ and the Soviet ‘Trust Artikugol’.
The book goes on to outline polar bear survival techniques (for the human, not the bear) under the ominous heading: ‘Danger: Polar Bears’. Apparently polar bears are protected by law: ‘no exceptions’, says the book; but then it describes how to kill one if it is a matter of life and death. If you shoot a polar bear (an exigency which I do not expect to arise in my case), you must report to officialdom and hand in the hide and skull.
This is a seven and a half hour flight. A little more reading, a little sleeping, a little thinking of you stuck in hot Madrid, a little more thinking about the polar ice …
It is a little later and no napping has occurred. This plane is, unusually, very overheated. Perhaps I should relish some warmth while it is available, considering where I am going. I am drinking tea and water to avoid a dehydration headache; and studying my Spanish grammar so that one day – so far, so distant! – I can hold a conversation with you in Spanish. ¡Estudio todos los días! ¡Otra vez y otra vez! *sigh*
But it is difficult to resist gazing out of the windows at the clouds – always a beautiful sight from a plane when the sunlight is on them. Below now are hummocky islands, covered in dark green trees. The route map on the cabin screen has us flying over Indonesia, I think – yes, there’s Dili in East Timor just passed and Jakarta to the west. The clouds, as is so often their wont, look eerily like snow-topped mountains themselves. I cannot describe the clouds in their correct meteorological names, because I didn’t learn them properly at school. I don’t know my cumulus from my stratus or cirrus, or whatever (perhaps I’ll Google® that later).
Only 2461 kilometres to go to Kuala Lumpur. Minus 17C outside and a 15 kpm tail wind. The captain says that he expects us to arrive half an hour ahead of schedule, which will lengthen my stop-over to four and a half hours. If this sounds boring, it is because it is. Long-haul flying just is boring. Oh well, back to those reflexive verbs.
I’m on the ground in Malaysia, and it’s around 8.30 pm here. Seven and a half hours of travel down, only twenty-four more to go. It is certainly a long way from Sydney to Norway. I’ve got four hours or so stop-over here in Kuala Lumpur and the same in Amsterdam after the next long leg. The Kuala Lumpur to Amsterdam flight leaves before midnight Malaysian time and is scheduled to take twelve hours forty minutes. But who’s counting?
So here I am in yet another airport lounge. I’ve always liked the Malaysian Airlines KL lounge, but I must say that it is due for a freshen-up. There are quite a few people here, gorging on Malaysian food and free drinks and others (including me) clustering around the few available power points to charge their phones and computers.
There’s free wi-fi here in this lounge, which is a good thing, since I forgot to buy a data roaming package from Vodafone before I left home. I’m going to have to be one of those people who skulk around McDonalds for the free wi-fi – especially if I want to Facebook (a new verb), which I do. But that’s of no concern to you, is it mi amigo … since you are allergic to Facebook? So you will just have to read this story well after the adventure is over, if you want to know how it all was. How much better it would have been if your poor colleague Jorges had not become ill and sadly passed away – for him, of course, as well as you and me. You could have come on the adventure with me, as my co-traveller once again. Although the silver lining is that I now get to have a ship’s cabin to myself. One should always look for the silver lining, don’t you think? Or perhaps not, if you are Basque. We will have to discuss that one day, perhaps with a nice Rioja.
The book I am reading – The Terrors of Ice and Darkness – continues to provide some interesting pieces of information – such as, that Arctic terns (sterna paradisaea) are prone to attack human heads with their beaks and talons. And that polar ice has been estimated to cover between two and five million square miles, depending on the season. The book was written in 1992, so global warming may have reduced the ice since then, I guess.
I particularly enjoyed a description of a meal taken on board the Austro-Hungarian expedition ship in 1872, to mark the birthday of His Majesty Kaiser Franz Josef I (after whom the expedition was to name their discovery of a new land – the Arctic territory of Franz Josef Land) and I quote:
The menu consisted of: turtle soup, fieldfare with mixed pickles, reindeer roast with potato puree, chicken ragout with a salad of French beans, pancakes with stewed plums and raspberry marmalade, concluding with cheese, bread and butter, then black coffee and excellent cigars reserved for special occasions … Count Wilczek provided the requisite champagne.
As Ransmayr points out: … a time will come when there is neither table nor ship; they will crouch on the ice, their hands black, their faces cracked by frost, and chew the raw fat of seals.
Well, I won’t insist on champagne aboard the Akademik Ioffe, but I certainly hope there is no need to chew the raw fat of seals.
Un abrazo, mi amigo.
Sunday 18th July
It is the next day, both here in Malaysia and by my Sydney body clock – 5 minutes past midnight in the case of the former and a bit after 2.00 am in the case of the latter. I think I’m a little light-headed. The next flight has been delayed but only by half an hour or so (I hope). I am trying to decide whether to have what is loosely called ‘dinner’ on the plane at what will be 3.00 or 4.00 am. Hmmm.
In the interim, I have had an interesting conversation on Facebook (indulge me for un momentito, Eduardo). I asked if there was any major city further from Sydney than Oslo. It is 16,000 kilometres travelling between them. A friend nominated Las Palmas de Gran Canaria or Santa Cruz de Tenerife, on the basis – and I quote – ‘if you drilled through the core of the Earth from Sydney, having survived the ordeal somehow, you’d be swimming off the coast of Africa … way off the coast of Africa … but the closest place with plumbing and corner stores would be the Canary Islands.’ I then defined ‘major’ as a place where I have a reason to want to visit, and since the Canary Islands aren’t on my list, I think the answer is … Madrid. Of course, then I remembered that you had told me that before – that Sydney and Madrid are about as far apart as two cities can get.
But it still takes a very long time to get from Sydney to Longyearbyen!
At least I have boarded the next plane now, and I can tell it is the correct one for reaching Amsterdam, because there was just a cabin announcement in Dutch. Such a guttural-sounding language. And yet another hot towel! That must be my eighth or ninth so far. The Malaysians provide a great number of hot towels and very scant offerings of alcohol. Surely the sun can be considered over the yard-arm at 12.15 am? Or maybe not. *sigh*
…….to be continued!