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Steve and Amanda go Viking

A holiday of two halves this will be, even if one of the halves is a lot smaller than the other (and there's actually a third half, smaller still, if you want to be picky). Confused? It should become clearer as we go along, and if it doesn't, well, that's advanced maths for you...

But to the story: let's get started! This is far from a comprehensive report of everything we did, but it gives the flavour.

Thursday 18 August 2016

And so we head off into the wild blue yonder...

Said wild blue yonder is Reykjavík, and Amanda picks up her race pack for the Reykjavíkurmaraþon Íslandsbanka, or the Reykjavík Marathon as we foreigners say. In her left hand, she holds a bag containing a top she's bought. It's slightly unfortunate that this top is made by a British company and could have been bought cheaper at home (even allowing for the expo discount!), but where would the fun have been in that?

Friday 19 August

But before we can go running, we have to go driving in a big monster truck out to a glacier where they've dug an artificial cavern for tourists.

It's down there!

It's beautiful and fascinating, and educational too. Although it seems solid, there are many subtle and not-so-subtle indications that it's far from static. Some metres below the surface, there's a dark line in the walls of the tunnel: that's ash from Eyjafjallajökull! In one room, a researcher drilled a circular hole in the wall some years ago and it's now almost squashed flat. And without the big steel entry tube and constant work clearing it, the entrance could disappear almost overnight.

Saturday 20 August

Marathon day!

We've done a full marathon report elsewhere, so I'll just repeat this shot and we'll move on.

Post-race back in town, candyfloss is remarkably popular. We are slightly surprised by the honesty of this particular vendor, though.

Sunday 21 August

Today we fly to Oslo, where we will stay overnight before flying to Longyearbyen and beginning our polar cruise.

Hmm... They're deep, these Icelanders...

We find ourselves staying at a rather dingy Best Western a short bus ride from Oslo airport. We really don't want to see the Worst Western :-(

I shan't waste pixels on it here.

Monday 22 August

To Longyearbyen, Svalbard: Spitsbergen as many still call it. Although it's sort of part of Norway now, it still isn't really, and it's outside the Schengen zone so there's a funny little passport-check booth right in the middle of what are otherwise domestic gates at the airport.

Here we are then, and this is Ali, expedition second-in-command. In her other life, she's a primary school teacher in the North of England, and the skills needed to herd eight-year-olds and tourists are very similar.

Lots of places around the world have this sort of signpost, but this is the first we've seen with a polar bear warning. Seems that while they're not actually common in town, it's definitely not unknown for them to wander in on occasion.

Here she is, Ortelius herself, our home for the next nine days. Total passenger complement is approximately 116, which is easily twice that of our biggest previous cruise, but then yer proper cruise ships, like, yer ones where people wear 'cruisewear' (whatever that is), they're like twenty or thirty times bigger again! (Actually, the biggest cruise liner in the world as of 2016 can take nearly seven thousand passengers! Err, wow...)

After we all board in the afternoon, we have various briefings and safety drills and the ship sets out to take us further into the frozen North.

Tuesday 23 August

The voyage has now properly begun.

Our first excursion, by Zodiac. We're off to get up close and personal with a glacier, but not too close. The safe distance is 200 metres, and even at that range, freak accidents have been known when a large chunk breaks off the ice wall and hurls out ice boulders. We have no such excitements, fortunately.

Aha! A mythical bird!

As some will know, we have been to many places where puffins allegedly abound in countless numbers and have never seen so much as a feather of one until now. I did actually eat puffin in Iceland eighteen years ago, and I can quite categorically state that their numbers will never be endangered by me hunting them for food.

Floating chunks of ice from the glacier can form some amazing shapes.

We land further along the shore. As you may deduce, it is not warm despite the glorious sunshine. There's not a huge amount to see here, but the landscape is beautiful in its own austere way.

Wednesday 24 August

Another Zodiac excursion, along bird-filled cliffs.

The Brünnich's guillemots are doing a bit of a penguin colony impression.

This one, if memory serves (ok, if I've not cocked up the Internet search!) is an immature glaucous gull.

Arctic foxes are interested in birds too, but for a different reason...

And we land for a bit to watch some walruses.

Thursday 25 August

Today we're in the pack ice, hunting polar bears.

Hmm... None there...

Ortelius is an "ice-strengthened" ship, not an "icebreaker", which is the next category up. She's fine cracking through thin ice - a metre or two - as we have here, and the crunching and scraping noises are nothing to worry about :-)

Ah, that's a bearded seal. It's not a polar bear but it's polar bear food so it's a step in the right direction. Obviously, the bearded seal would prefer any polar bears to step in a quite different direction.

We end the day without any polar bears, but it's still an amazing place just to look at. We've not quite reached the end of the midnight sun, so although it gets very low and creates some dramatic lighting effects, it still never sets.

On our first night, we didn't think to close the cabin curtains and waking up for the call of nature in what looks like mid-morning is a bit disconcerting.

Friday 26 August

Still on the hunt...

Aha! There's one! After a day without sightings, the expedition crew were getting a trifle worried. After all, it may well say in the brochure that nothing can be guaranteed, but they'd still rather not have a shipful of disappointed people. The first bear is sighted at about 05:20, but the hour doesn't stop everybody rapidly flocking on deck to see.

They leap from floe to floe, sometimes more elegantly than other times.

Although the first bear we saw was nervous of the ship and wouldn't come close, this one is much more blasé about us.

And better at jumping, too!

Saturday 27 August

Out of the real pack ice again, and another landing.

The local reindeer are an endemic subspecies quite distinct from those of the European mainland, being smaller and shorter-legged with thicker fur to help deal with the cold. It's the most northern-living herbivore in the world!

Looking in the other direction, some fine lenticular clouds over the icy hills on the far side of the fjord, nicely illuminated by the low sun.

Could it be a sunset?!

It looks calm now, but overnight we will sail into some very choppy waters and not everybody will sleep well.

Sunday 28 August

Numbers at breakfast somewhat diminished, and we spend the morning unable to land anywhere.

Still lots of interesting ice, though.

The blue colour is an optical effect, not a mineral deposit or anything. Fresh ice made from compressed snow is white because of trapped air bubbles, but ice at the bottom of a glacier becomes greatly compressed, shrinking or eliminating these bubbles. That causes two things: firstly, the intrinsic blue colour of water becomes easier to see, but the same phenomenon that makes the sky blue is also at work. (Rayleigh scattering; but if you're interested, you probably already knew that.)

A digression:

So last night, this chap is sitting opposite us at dinner and asks if he might photograph us. Apparently, we look very tender and loving together - and you thought we were just indulging in the kind of PDA inappropriate to our years! Sure, no problem, and now we are in the lounge ready for our modelling session.

However, when I say I want a photo of him - meaning just for our album - he decides I need a quick lesson in black-and-white portraiture!

I'm not convinced this is my new photographic direction...

I did ask if he'd send us copies of his pictures, but he hasn't done so yet, so I can't offer up an example.

End of digression, back to the Arctic stuff.

Another Zodiac trip takes us near this dramatic glacier.

Monday 29 August

After another rough night, there's still a fair amount of wind around, so plenty of spray in the Zodiacs.

I think the guys have more fun when there are no passengers to risk falling out.

This is an old trappers' hut - or is it an old trapper's hut? It's really quite impressive in its way. We're not quite sure why they couldn't have made it straight rather than just halting its collapse halfway, but what do we know about old trappers?

The gun is not just for show. We are strictly forbidden from venturing anywhere without a properly trained armed escort. None of the team have ever had to shoot a bear, for which they're all very grateful, but they know that the possibility is real.

Tuesday 30 August

Our last full day in Svalbard.

Ah, that's more like it! The wind has dropped and the skies are blue. The temperature on deck is a positively tropical 5 C, they tell us!

And another walk.

The red on the antlers is blood. Not from fighting, but from shedding the 'velvet' - skin - which covers them as they grow. Close up you can see the tatters of shredded skin hanging down. Later in the season, the antlers will be clean bone, and then they'll drop off and the whole process will start again.

Incidentally, if you search for "deer antler velvet" on the Internet, most of the hits will be for snake oil preparations.

And for those who are suitably insane, there's swimming! Amanda is tempted by the clear blue water, but not by the hypothermia.

But for some, the water is obviously too warm, so they need to find a nice big chunk of ice to help cool down. We're surprised how many people do take the plunge, but for most it's little more than a few frantic seconds and then out again.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are claiming this land in the name of the Emperor or something. Apparently they've been carrying this flag the whole trip and this is the first chance they've had to get it out.

Tonight will be our last night aboard ship, tomorrow we're back at Longyearbyen.

Wednesday 31 August

We disembark from the ship and spend a little time shopping and coffeeing in town before our flight back to Oslo.

This is a much nicer hotel than our previous night here. It's right in the centre of things and easy to get to as it's only five minutes walk from an Airport Express train station.

We have a short stroll in the evening and find a nice taqueria to eat in - Norwegian tacos, now there's a thing!

And on our way back, an illuminated water feature in a little square.

Thursday 1 September

We have until 2pm before being picked up for the airport (strange - we don't quite understand why we had to make our own way here but have transport back), and it's a lovely day for a quick spin round the city centre and harbour, all within easy walking distance.

Yet another thing you don't see every day. A giant sculpture of Kate Moss by Anthony Quinn in a shopping mall!

A spot of elevenses. Skyr is actually Icelandic, and while it's superficially similar to yoghurt, it's not the same thing. Most Norwegian yoghurt is exactly that, but skyr can be found if you look for it, and we've definitely become fans. The strawberries are just strawberries, but very tasty ones. With a little detective work, we've discovered skyr can be had in the UK too, although beware of the "Icelandic-style" stuff made in Germany for a company based in Leeds! Learn all about the real thing at if you can read Icelandic.

More public art, but not Kate Moss this time!

And at one of the city-sized cruise liners I was talking about earlier, they're giving it a lick of paint. Considering the size of their rollers and the size of the ship, I reckon they'll be passing the job down through the generations and their grandchildren may finish it.

Finally, here we are full circle, looking out of an aeroplane window again as we pass over London and descend towards Heathrow.


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