Photo: Kitty Terwolbeck
THE CHANCES ARE THAT YOU know absolutely nothing about Svalbard because you have probably never even heard of it. That’s okay though, because to be honest, even I didn’t know all much about it before my tiny plane landed there one dark day last winter.
The archipelago of Svalbard is an offshore Norwegian territory some 1200 km from the North Pole. It was initially founded as a whaling and mining colony but is now morphing into a centre of alternative tourism for visitors seeking a real arctic adventure.
Svalbard proved to be one of the most strange, intriguing and unique places I have ever visited. Here’s why.
1. It’s North. Very far North.
Whilst a Sovereign Norwegian territory, Svalbard is actually almost 1000 km north of even the northernmost tip of the mainland and is actually closer to the North Pole than it is to Norway’s capital city of Oslo. The island of Spitsbergen is the northernmost civilized point on earth and the only people any further North are the rotating scientists and millionaire adventurers up in Antarctica.
The main town of Longyearbyen is the proud home to the world’s northernmost brewery, the world’s northernmost ATM and even the world’s northernmost pick-up bar. Because of Svalbard’s northern extremity, it’s very cold all year long.
Another quirk of its latitude means that…
2. It’s either very dark or very light.
I visited Svalbard around the time of December’s winter solstice and it was pitch black 24 hours a day. It was extremely disorienting to throw back the curtains at 9 am and see the world consumed in total darkness. It became nearly impossible to hold onto any sense of time.
In the summer, it’s the polar opposite. The sun never budges even an inch across the horizon and hangs in the sky all night long for months at a time.
To really appreciate Svalbard, visitors should consider making three visits during their lifetime: once to experience the Arctic Night, another to bathe in the Midnight Sun and finally, one during the twilight between the seasons when the area experiences the eerie, blue light. At this point you could maybe even maintain a normal sleep pattern.
3. Nobody gets born and nobody dies.
Owing to an ancient by-law, any deaths that occur on Svalbard are recorded back on the mainland. So on paper, the territory appears to be a tiny bastion of immortality. In reality though, death does indeed stalk the regions population as the cold can sometimes kill in minutes if you don’t dress properly, and there is an ever present polar bear threat.
As for the beginning of the life process, the local hospital in Longyearbyen is small, basic, and is just not set up to deal with any possible birthing complications. Accordingly, pregnant women are encouraged to travel to the mainland no later than three weeks before their due date.
As a consequence of this…
4. There are no natives.
Nobody is born on Svalbard and instead its population consists of an international, transient cast of scientists, explorers, and prospectors. Because of its challenging environment and distance from the rest of the world, occupants tend to only remain up on Svalbard for a few years at a time before returning to either the mainland or their native countries to raise families and further careers.
Somebody who lives on Svalbard for 10 years is generally considered to be something of a veteran. Furthermore, because of its international population, English is also spoken almost as an official language making it great for backpacking.
5. There are more polar bears than people.
Svalbard is an arctic desert and the town of Longyearbyen pretty much represents the end of civilization and humanity’s final frontier. Beyond the town’s boundaries, nature reigns with awesome brutality and the icy mountains and fjords are home to nearly 3000 polar bears feeding on fattened seals.
Worry not though — Longyearbyen is considered to be a “safe zone,” and signs around the town clearly signify its limits. It is not advisable to stray outside of the safe zone without carrying a rifle, which can be hired with great ease in the town centre.
Occasionally though, people do outnumber polar bears because…
6. The population sometimes quadruples for a day.
The population of Svalbard is around 2000 strong, making it a very cozy/claustrophobic little community where everybody knows everybody else’s business.
However, Longyearbyen is now firmly established as a port of call on a number of the fjord and North Sea cruise routes. During high season, a number of the larger ships all dock on the same day and the population explodes as 6000 day-trippers descend upon the town. The bars and cafes pack out, a cacophony of click-click-shutter photography fills the air, and all locals not employed in the service industry try to stay out of the way.
7. Alcohol is restricted… except when it isn’t.
Another ancient by-law strictly regulates the sale of alcohol up on Svalbard. In frontier times, the hardy types who settled up on Svalbard passed the long dark winters by getting truly wrecked on beer and vodka; eventually, the Government had to step in as the growing alcoholism was undermining productivity in the mines.
Partially because of the ready availability of firearms, the Norwegian authorities have wisely chosen to leave this quirky by-law in place. Accordingly, Svalbardians are still limited to 24 bottles of spirits and 12 cases of beer per year, and this quota is enforced by way of a booze card which is stamped every time a purchase is made in the town’s off-license.
Wine however, is unlimited purely because it was not available in frontier times and therefore fell outside of the scope of the law makers. The town’s bars and restaurants are also exempt and will happily sell you all the hooch you can handle.
8. Nobody pays tax.
In life the only two certainties are death and taxes right? Not quite, because there are neither up on Svalbard! I have already told you that nobody (technically) dies on Svalbard and I am utterly thrilled to tell you that nobody (literally!) pays any taxes either.
In order to encourage migration to the hostile region, the Norwegian government has implemented 100% tax break incentives. This makes Svalbard a considerably cheaper place to live, work and visit than the infamously pricy mainland and also encourages seasonal workers from across the world to come and try their mantle for a year or two and save up some cash.