Time (Zone) Travel: All Thanks to Longitude

‘Dinner at 7?’ asks my colleague. Beneath us, the Superfast Ferry eases into the Ionian Sea from its Mediterranean berth.
‘Greek time or Italian?’ I query. ‘Or are you being insufferably obdurate, and remaining on UK time?’


I wonder if it is only British people who choose not to adjust their watches when travelling.
London – or nearby Greenwich, to be specific – is, indubitably, the hub of time. It is the prime meridian, the spot at zero degrees longitude where East quite literally meets West. So perhaps the British obsession with the time at home is understandable.
As we steam towards the Adriatic Sea this evening, from Patras to Ancona, I drain the dregs of Chianti and attempt to set my alarm clock. But, simply put, I’m not sure what the time is. What is time anyway?
Well, it is inextricably linked to longitude, for a start.
Charting the world’s longitude was no mean feat. We can now stand anywhere in the world – whether atop Mount Kilimanjaro or floating above the Geographical North Pole – and know our coordinates within a fraction of an inch. Although, at the North Pole it can be any time you would like – it is every time, all at the same time! In fact, you could very reasonably have breakfast, lunch or dinner there, or all one after the other for that matter. Time ceases to exist at this northerly latitude.
Eighteenth century mariners may have cared little for the hour as they plied the world’s oceans, yet they misjudged landfalls as regularly as clockwork. Myriad maritime disasters dogged the finest of admirals; without accurate longitude – and therefore time – risks were high. Nowadays, of course, we take GPS and time zones for granted. We know the exact time in New York, Paris and Singapore, yet modern day travel is not without its time-associated problems.


Early explorers could never have dreamed of jetlag, though Vasco da Gama and Captain Cook – to choose two infamous pioneers at random – travelled far more of the world than most of us have today. Sailing within temperate zones – with clear distinctions between daylight and darkness – offered a regular sleep pattern, at least among the officers.
Nowadays, with electricity and air travel, are we totally out of kilter? Darkness no longer necessitates sleep: we have artificial light and unnatural working hours. And we’re advised to sleep at “normal” times in the places that we arrive, no matter how many hours spent sitting uncomfortably on an aeroplane. Our bodies tell us it is midnight, yet our wristwatches read mid-afternoon. The man to blame is John Harrison, that lone genius who grappled with the thorniest scientific problem of his time – that of longitude.
Harrison’s ingenuity and craftsmanship changed world travel forever. A carpenter-cum-clockmaker, he solved the enigma of longitude, creating an accurate timepiece to withstand the stormiest of seas. By always knowing the time in London, coupled with skilled navigation, sailors now had a reliable means for establishing their whereabouts. Thus longitude was grasped, and world time established.
The West is now obsessed with time – if you are reading this, do you have one eye on the clock in the bottom right-hand corner? Maybe you have coffee at 11, or lunch at 12.30 on the dot? Let me ask this: are we more content than the rice-paddy farmer in Laos? He functions perfectly well without the need for a watch: when it is dawn, he must toil the fields; as dusk descends, he stows his hoe and rests. Clocks around the world, changing back and forth twice a year, make no impact on this timeless way of life.


But for the rest of us, an hour forward or back can cause bedlam. You’ve just missed that train to Philadelphia, or that bus to Boston left fifty-five minutes ago. And that’s just within the same time zone! Throw in international travel, and time issues can become farcical.
‘Italian time,’ replies my colleague, circumspectly. ‘The ship is on Italian time.’
I rewind my watch an hour behind Greek time, turn out the light, and pretend it is midnight instead of 11pm. Mentally, this helps me to sleep.
Maybe when I return home, I will try a day without looking at a clock even once. Could you? Try eating when you’re hungry and sleeping when you’re tired. Somebody, somewhere in the world will be doing the same thing.
By: Barnaby Davies

Published in BootsnAll

photos, top to bottom, by: leoplus, taiyofj, arvindgrover

5 Reasons To Add the Shetland Islands to Your Europe Itinerary

At Sixty degrees North, they are literally the UK’s “Top” islands.
The Shetland Islands aren’t just ponies and Fair Isle sweaters. Shetland is a
magical, ice-carved archipelago thriving in the North Atlantic, with a unique
history and culture. And with its northerly latitude, Shetland can enjoy up to
nineteen hours of sunshine in midsummer. The twilight in this month is referred
to as the “Simmer Dim.”
But what truly justifies the 12-hour ferry journey from Scotland?

1. Scenery & Walking

Shetland harbour

Scenery: Walls Harbour

Shetland’s coast is spectacular yet varied. From vertiginous, storm-ravaged
cliffs to sheltered beaches of pristine sand, Shetland has it all. And with
nowhere on the main island further than three miles from the sea, the coast is
where you will spend most of your time. Some of the finest walking in Europe can
be found here. And because Shetland is part of Scotland – and has been since
1468 – there are no laws of trespass. It is perfect for walking.

Make your way quite literally to the island above all others – to Unst, the UK’s
most northerly island. Be sure to pause at the infamous bus stop on the main
road, which has become progressively more luxurious and quirky. This much-loved
bus stop began with just a comfortable armchair, but now houses a computer,
television (no electricity though) and even fresh flowers. On last inspection,
there were even some bright pink shoes in a drawer. You cannot miss it; there is
only one road! From here there is a panoramic view.

For those that love reaching the top of a mountain, or the end of a road,
continue to Hermaness. From here it is a three-mile walk to the end of the UK –
well, almost. On the most northerly hill in Britain, you can gaze over the small
rocky island of Muckle Flugga to Outstack, Britain’s northernmost point. But you
can’t actually walk to it. What you can do, though, is consider the charming
folklore behind Outstack. The rival giants Herma and Saxa, battling for the
attention of a mermaid, are said to have hurled rocks at each other, one of
which landed in the sea.

The giants then set off to follow the mermaid to the North Pole. But both of
them drowned because they couldn’t swim! Gazing in their wake, the expanse of
Atlantic lies before you: to the north is the Arctic, to the west is Greenland,
and 200 miles to the east is Norway. But wait, there is a sound carried by the
wind…

2. Wildlife

Sumburgh Head

Wildlife: Sumburgh Head

Over 17,000 breeding pairs of gannets shriek noisily at Muckle Flugga – it is a
twitcher’s paradise. But they are not the sole ornithological draw on the
archipelago, not by a long shot. For those seeking cute, inimitable puffins –
Shetlanders call them “tammy nories” – they can be found in numerous coastal
areas; in Hermaness, between May and September, you can see 25,000 of them in
one fell swoop. Iconic Sumburgh Head, a stone’s throw from the airport, also has
cliffs littered with puffins, as well as kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots and
fulmars. Seabirds-and-Seals offer expert boat trip tours around one of the many
seabird colonies.

The eastern island of Fetlar, with its fertile soils and green landscape, is
known as “The Garden Of Shetland.” And it is home to 90% of the UK’s breeding
population of Red-necked Phalarope. Each summer, these stunning, charismatic
little waders have visiting ornithologists jumping for joy. But if you’re coming
to Shetland seeking birdlife, watch out for the “Skooty Aalins” (Arctic Skuas)
and “Bonxies” (Great Skuas) dive-bombing the unwary visitor! Nesting areas can
be a like a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds – it may be worth carrying a stick.
Perhaps you’re more interested in mammals than birdlife? Well, “selkies” (seals)
are to be found in many of Shetland’s “voes” – long, narrow sea inlets, found
all over the archipelago. Often, sitting with a thermos flask on a remote beach,
a grey or common seal will raise its head only a few yards away. They can also
be found snoozing in the sunshine, hauled out on headlands all around Shetland.
Sea otters, too, sometimes play along the beaches.

Because Shetland lies close to the European Continental Shelf’s edge, the water
is nutrient-rich, providing a diverse and dynamic marine environment. Harbour
porpoises (“neesicks”) frolic in the sea, as do Minke whales, Humpbacks and
killer whales. Maybe you will be lucky enough to see the latter while taking one
of the regular ferries between the eight served islands. May-September is
optimal for whale sightings.

3. Crafts & Culture

Jamieson's Mill

Crafts and Culture: A Factory Tour of Jamieson’s Mill

Knitting is probably the best-known craft in Shetland. To that end, one animal
you will certainly see plenty of is the sheep, an important island resource (and
road hazard). Shetland sheep have exceptionally soft fine wool, used to produce
gossamer lace, the famous Fair Isle knitwear, and fine tweeds. It is well worth
taking a tour of the only mill on the isles.
From 17th – 20th June, Flavour of Shetland is held, a four-day festival of
Shetland music, craft, culture and food. Be sure to sample the fresh fish and
seafood on display, as well as unusual specialities such as seawater oatcakes
and Shetland Black potatoes.

Although Scotland annexed Shetland in 1468, Scotland is spoken of as just
another country that makes up the United Kingdom. Shetlanders are Shetlanders –
an island nation, a people apart. Kilts and bagpipes do not play a part in the
culture here. No, the influence is more Norse than Scottish. After all, Shetland
was the first geographical landfall for 9th century Viking longboats. However,
English – well, a version of it anyhow – is now widely spoken. And no trip is
complete without a tale or two from one of Shetland’s outstanding storytellers.
Get two Shetlanders ’spaekin Shaetlan’ (speaking Shetland) together, however,
and you may need a little assistance in deciphering the gist. Storytelling,
traditional arts and crafts, music and dance all play an important role in the
lives of Shetlanders. The only way to find out is to come and meet them! Will
spooky stories of nocturnal goblins or “nuggles” (mythical water-horses that
live under watermill streams) frighten you?

4. Music

Shetland music

Music: Performers at a Shetland Wedding

Hardly a day passes without some sort of musical event in this vibrant
community. And again, Norse influence is strong. Country dances and impromptu
traditional sessions often take place, but there are a couple of major festivals
too. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the UK’s most northerly Folk
Festival will be held 29th April – 2nd May. For those arriving by overnight
ferry from mainland Scotland, the party starts on the 28th!
Violin playing is known as fiddling in Shetland. And one of the best times to
visit is during Fiddle Frenzy, held 8th – 15th August. This festival is spread
across the islands, and offers a chance not only to witness some outstanding
fiddling, but to join a fiddle school during the day as well. Visitors can
grapple with basic technique on Shetland’s most famous instrument, and learn of
the culture and traditions that surround it.

2010 promises to be a special year – it is the centenary of the birth of Dr Tom
Anderson, a man who saved and moulded the Shetland fiddle scene we know today.
It is also the 50th anniversary of the Shetland Fiddlers. Fiddle playing in
Shetland can be traced back to around 1700, and falls into three categories:
listening tunes, ritual tunes and dance music. This is the year to try out your
musical aspirations in a nurturing environment.

5. History

Shetland historical artifacts

History: Shetland is dotted with historical artefacts.

There are a number of very important archaeological sites in Shetland, one of
which is thought to date from 4000 years ago. This can be found near the
international airport, at Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement, a complex
of ancient settlements within three acres. Beginning with a Bronze Age village
of oval stone huts, we slide through the epochs to an Iron Age broch (fortified
tower). More recently still, there are remains of an entire Viking settlement, a
medieval farmstead and a 16th Century laird’s house. The Jarlshof name comes
from Sir Walter Scott – his novel The Pirates was inspired by the site.

Also in the south of Shetland is the finest of Scotland’s 500 or so Iron Age
brochs. Remarkably well preserved due to its isolation – in fact, it is the best
preserved broch in the world – Mousa Broch stands at a height of over forty
feet. Taking the ferry from Sandwick, across to the island of Mousa, is half the
fun of visiting. You can climb to the top of the tower between the two, thick,
stone walls. Torches are provided in a box at the entrance – it is darker than
you would imagine!

One place you really shouldn’t miss is St. Ninian’s Isle, reached via one of the
very best tombolos in Europe. This is a spectacular bar of golden sand,
traversable at all but the highest of tides, leading to the ruins of a 12th
Century chapel. A hoard of 8th Century Celtic silver was found underneath in
1958. The buried treasure is now stored in Edinburgh, but replicas can be found
in The Shetland Museum.

How to Get to the Shetland Islands & Where to Stay

The Shetland Islands are remote. There’s no way of getting away from that fact,
but that doesn’t mean they’re inaccessible. Nightly ferries ply between
Shetland’s port of Lerwick and Aberdeen on the east coast of Scotland. Boats
also leave from Scrabster in northern Scotland via the Orkney Islands. Flights
to Shetland leave from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Inverness.
On arrival, it is certainly possible to travel to all the inhabited islands by
public transport. There are bus services combined with ferry services, but it
may be an adventure and require some planning! You can also hire a car,
available for collection at both the airport and ferry terminal.
How cheaply can you stay in Shetland? Very, is the answer. There is a network of
eight “bods”- buildings once used to house fishermen and their gear – at the
time of writing, but you will need your own bedding. Managed by Shetland Amenity
Trust these unique historical buildings offer a real budget option. They range
from £6-£8 (without or with electricity) per person per night. Check out
camping-bods.com for more details.

A good budget place to start, though, is at the Youth Hostel in Lerwick, a
fifteen-minute walk from the ferry terminal. There are a number of accommodation
options in Shetland, but for those that really want to push the boat out,
consider staying in one of the lighthouses. This is not cheap, but with a group
of up to six people, it is affordable, and offers unrivalled views of some of
the most dramatic scenery in Britain.

By: Barnaby Davies

Published in BootsnAll

photos by Barnaby Davies and may not be used without permission

AC/DC – Crazy Sandra Returns..

“Crazy” Sandra, the avid heavy metal fan, turned up again last night – this time with her partner, Uwe, in tow.

We’re off to a steak restaurant – Namibian, as you may have guessed, likes a steak or three – and a “spaznav” device is produced to find it. I ought to just mention here that we are, in fact, pedestrians.

A farcical quarrel over directions ensues – left, no, right, straight on? Namibian coolly smokes a Chesterfield throughout the squabble, and looks at a shop selling suitcases. He explodes with expletives, his eye wandering from one expensive suitcase to the next, culminating in near apoplexy at the €300 flagship model.

The German couple are stumped, and eventually ask a taxi driver for assistance – embarrassing, I know, but we’re starving.  The restaurant that we seek turns out to be just 150 yards away; a pesky pedestrianised street has caused all the confusion. My infallible method of asking attractive women for directions would have been infinitely more productive.

When we sit down, Uwe gives a little groan. He is suffering from acute tennis elbow, a condition I genuinely thought stemmed from playing tennis. The term must have at least originated in the game, mustn’t it? You see, in my eyes, it just doesn’t add up that a chap moving a computer mouse at work all day can contract tennis elbow.

As we’re chatting about his complaint, I spot some businesswomen wearing paper aprons to protect their clothes. I want one…and I’m not going to shut up until I get one. The accommodating waitress merrily complies and I promptly behave like a child, liberally smearing my apron with ketchup.

Sandra’s translation of the apron’s text is: ‘a bib is nice and saves the fat but only the clothes unfortunately.’ Hmm, it makes sense in German, apparently. Namibian orders a second Cognac and Coke. Oh, I know – I regularly raise my eyebrows in disapproval, too. He’s also been seen adding Cola to good, single malt whisky.

The Germans drop us off at the trucks with bonhomie, waving and saying: ‘thank you for the to eat.’

As I say, that was last night. Today, Namibian is studying a map in his truck  – despoiling the route to Prague with yellow, pink, and blue markers – while Crazy Sandra takes me sightseeing. We’re off to a place called Iserlohn, which has spooky caves. At a constant ten degrees, they would be ideal for storing wine, an idea that might already be in place – only half of the caves are open to tourists.

In 1868, a chap overhead was banging happily away with a hammer…when it disappeared into the depths. He’s jolly lucky it wasn’t a thermos flask that fell through, was my first reaction on hearing this story. Anyway, lo and behold, Dechenhole Cave was discovered.

The tour commentary is in Deutsch.  And, like everything else in this country, photography is “verboten”. Sandra translates all the statistics – ‘1cm of stalactite growth takes 100 years’ etc. – while I decide whether the pretty guide would actually mind if I took some photos.

Sandra discreetly asks – ‘tell her I’m on the AC/DC tour,’ I whisper – and the guide agrees to a few sneaky snaps. Far more intrusive than picture-taking, though, is Sandra’s mobile phone beeping, shattering the serenity. It is a text message from Namibian – a whole week late – telling her he’s watching the Pink concert..

Speed cameras are dangerous..

Speed cameras in Germany are lethal. I suppose they are called “safety cameras” nowadays, which, frankly, is a misnomer. Ostensibly to save lives, the orange flash frightened the living daylights out of me; there was a violent swerve and spilt tea. Could I sue the German government? After all, emasculation from scalding tea is not a laughing matter. I mean it – stop laughing.

 

My argument may not be impregnable, however; there is quite possibly a legal school of thought that frowns upon sipping a steaming cuppa whilst at the wheel. Perhaps I’ll just grin and bear the discomfort. Hey, I bet you’re surprised that we were travelling fast enough to trigger a camera in the first place? Ah, well there are roadworks on the Bremen – Hamburg motorway, and we’d been diverted through a hamlet or two.

 

So there we were (Namibian and Yours Truly) pottering along, minding our own business – at 90km/h through a 70km/h village – and Bam! I was lit up, startled and partially blinded. It was a little while before I could focus on a crossword again, let alone recover from scarred thighs. Luckily, I was in a Left-hand drive; Cowboy, with an ordinary British RH-drive truck, was still squinting a day later, but that might just be because he sits in midday sun without any shades on.

Now you would think after quite such a flash that Namibian might have backed off a bit. No, I’m afraid not. He was just wondering what the sun was doing up at 2am when Bam! He was flashed, too. In fact, speaking to the rest of the AC/DC drivers later, every one of us has been subjected to the curious orange phenomena found on northern Germany’s minor roads.

 

The good news is that, more than nine months after the event, nothing has come through the post. Well, not nothing – I’ve had bills and fan mail, obviously – but nothing connected to razzing it through German villages. My fears have been allayed for the time being, but could the sinister authorities be lulling us into a false sense of security?

 

Perhaps the Germans are waiting at the border for those twenty-nine truck registrations to return – a callous, calculated ploy to precipitate a crisis in rock and roll trucking. We could be incarcerated; the trucks could be impounded. As it happens, we’re all setting off again  – on 7/4/2010 – heading for Oslo to start the Metallica tour. And guess which country we’ll be transiting? Cunningly, in case the above suspicions bear fruit, I’ll be in a new truck. Ha ha, that’ll fox them.

Scotland’s Scone Palace: A Wealth of Regal History

How difficult can it be to locate a water nymph in a fountain? Between myriad copper and green beech trees – 2000 to be specific, all maddeningly grown to thwart human progress – it is proving trickier than I’d thought. Welcome to Scone Palace’s unique tartan maze.

Escaping from 800 meters (2600 feet) of hedged, right-angled paths lies with seeking the highest point – in this case, the bridge.
From here, I have a clear view of the water nymph, the Palace with its immaculate gardens, and, thankfully, the maze’s exit into the towering conifers of the Pinetum.
From this elevation, a whir of flapping catches my eye. A brace of peacocks launch themselves over an ancient village wall, clipped wings thrashing to maintain forward propulsion.
A mildly distressed squirrel rockets up a tree while the duo continue their sylvan journey, necks bobbing rhythmically back and forth.
Ambling through the immaculate Woodland Garden brings me to a bucolic behemoth: the Douglas Fir. This wonderfully jaunty tree – its single, rakish branch looking as though it was designed to amuse children – nobly ranks among Britain’s fifty most notable trees. Botanist David Douglas (who once worked as a gardener here) sent the seedling from America in 1826.

A Fatuous Solution
Rhododendrons and azaleas herald the former Augustinian Abbey gateway, and a view of the ivy-clad Palace.

For the Earls of Mansfield, however, this view became a source of disquiet.
In 1773, the querulous Second Earl began to tire of the Palace’s proximity to the village of Scone, complaining that the villagers “come up almost to my doors.”

Thirty years later, the Third Earl’s landscape gardener suggested a marvellously fatuous solution: move the village!

The Murray Star Maze and water nymph.

In 1805, every building was knocked to the ground, and 1400 villagers shuffled – burdened under belongings – two miles to the village of New Scone.
Today, remnants of stone buildings still abound in the Palace grounds, which, incidentally, are the best-known breeding locality for hawfinch in Scotland.

Scone’s claim to fame, however, is as the coronation site of Scottish kings and parliaments.

Robert the Bruce was crowned in Scone in 1306. And Charles II, in 1651, was the last to accept the Scottish crown here.

Before even these early kings entered the stage, however, there sat a special stone on this site: the Stone of Scone.Acting as the “crowning seat” throughout the ninth to thirteenth centuries, the Stone’s history is cloaked in mystery and skulduggery, its authenticity seriously in question.

The water nymph at Scone Palace.

Today the visitor is faced with a 26-inch replica – a stoic testimony to a wealth of regal history. From this vantage point atop Moot Hill, the vista over Perthshire unfolds.
Also known as the Stone of Destiny, the original oblong block of red sandstone – said to be the pillow stone for the Biblical Jacob – has had a chequered past.

From 1296, the facts to the true Stone’s whereabouts become a little sketchy.

Edward I of England filched the legendary rock, transporting it to Westminster Abbey in London. But was he fobbed off with a facsimile?

The Stone was then fitted into a wooden chair in Westminster Abbey, upon which every English monarch has subsequently been crowned, except three: Queen Mary I&II and King Edward VIII.

But had the English troops been fooled into taking a substitute in the thirteenth century? Nobody will ever know.

Scone Palace Douglas Fir
This Douglas fir was sent from America as a seedling by botanist David Douglas.

From Christmas day, 1950, the Stone’s true location became even more baffling. What is certain, however, is that four Scottish university students conducted the most daring of capers, right under the noses of England’s finest detectives.
Armed with nothing but a crow bar and a clapped-out getaway car, they returned the Stone – now showing signs of fragility, and broken into two pieces – to its homeland, successfully evading roadblocks at the border with Scotland.

The story of the raid has now been converted into a film: The Stone of Destiny.

Just a few months later, the Stone – if indeed, it was the same one – was discovered on the altar of Arbroath Abbey. London police returned it to Westminster, amid rumours that it had been copied, while being repaired, by a Glaswegian stonemason.

The Stone of Destiny, since 1996, has purportedly resided in Edinburgh Castle – alongside the Crown Jewels of Scotland.

Provision has been made for the Stone to be transferred back to Westminster when required for future coronation ceremonies. Whether genuine or ersatz, the Stone of Scone was last used at the coronation of Elizabeth II.

The Stone of Scone on Moot Hill

The Palace, like the Stone of Scone, has had an eventful life, though the Palace of today was only built in 1802. It once bustled with forty staff – this, in 1842, when Queen Victoria visited – and in the ’40s it was occupied as a girls’ school.
Loathsome adolescents subsequently set the Palace on fire – twice. Extinguishing the infernos has irredeemably damaged the silk brocade wall-coverings in the Drawing Room. Sunlight has added to their deterioration.
Attempting swift progress through the numerous staterooms open to visitors, I am forcibly impeded. A hunched lady with thinning hair has come to assist me, bristling with platitudes and inveigling me to look at photographs of monarchs.

As I doggedly edge out of the Library, eyeing a magnificent bed canopy – complete with royal coat of arms, no less – she clutches an arm peremptorily.

“We will soon be performing The Faure Requiem – most uplifting,” she says loftily, referring to the efforts of her local choral society.

I detach myself and take a closer peek at a magnificent child’s Sedan Chair, constructed entirely from papier mache.

Villagers’ view of the Palace

Exhibits are on a grand scale in Scone Palace: the bed furnishings in the Ambassador’s Room are French damask silk and took seven years to construct; Boulle cabinets in the Drawing Room are inlaid with tortoise shell and overlaid with designs in brass, pewter and copper; and the Long Gallery, at almost forty-five meters, is the longest room in Scotland.
In poor weather, visitors would once have taken exercise here – a quick stroll to maintain one’s constitution. The garishly stuffed bears (holding donation plates) and mounted elephant skulls in the Inner Hall, however, do little to maintain mine.
As I leave, the gatekeeper is wearing a kilt. “That your bike?” he asks. I nod. “Aye, nay bother.” Pedalling precariously along the cattle-gridded drive, I turn back to wave, and take a lingering look at the Palace.
Though the Stone of Destiny is now painfully absent, the resplendent Palace still sits majestically atop its hill in the Kingdom of Perth and Kinross – the Heart of Scotland.

By Barnaby Davies

(from GoNomad)

Barnaby Davies has written for Trucking Magazine (print), bootsnall (online) and theexpeditioner (online). As well as writing articles, 2010 will see him touring Europe as crew for Metallica, AC/DC and U2. He is happiest barefoot and as far from a television as possible.

On Safari . . . In The North Atlantic?

Nobody spoke. At 80 degrees North, the 25-year-old hull creaked in the ice. Camera shutters whirred while expedition staff and passengers stared spellbound. A gargantuan male polar bear stood, flat-footed, only a few feet beneath us on the Norwegian pack ice. Had I leaned just a little further over the ship’s rail, we could have shaken hands. Or rather, I could have lost my video camera and the arm holding it.

It was mid-August. I was aboard the Professor Molchanov on a ten-day circumnavigation around Spitsbergen, Norway. The ex-research vessel, crewed by Russians, was my new home away from home. Built for the Hydrometeorology Institute in Murmansk, Russia, it measures a shade over 233 feet long. Ice-strengthened, she was built for Arctic northern conditions.

The remote Norwegian archipelago Svalbard, meaning “Cold Coast,” is home to the world’s most northerly town, Ny Alesund. If you hanker for northern adventures, this is as good as it gets. Here, at the 79th parallel, you are faced with superlatives at every turn: the world’s most northerly post office, earth’s northernmost historical train, the world’s most northerly “tagged” fox family . . . I could go on.

Svalbard’s main island is Spitsbergen, meaning “Pointed Mountains,” and provides the only international airport. On arrival my plane descended around midnight through the low cloud cover into a fairytale setting. Jagged peaks were draped in snow blankets, and the midnight sun pierced through, turning the fjord an apricot hue. From early April to mid-September there is no night here, and from April 19 to August 23, the sun won’t even touch the horizon. The capital settlement of Longyearbyen, housing approximately 1,800 people, is named after John Longyear, one of the Arctic Coal Company’s founders from 1906.

After a restless “night” I headed across town to my ship. I ambled past haphazardly-parked skidoos, abandoned until the winter months. Under a cloudless sky, the mercury hovered at a comparatively balmy 39 degrees Fahrenheit. In town a sign outside the post office politely requested that guns should be left outside, and the pizza vendor advertised his closing time as 5 a.m. I could tell that this trip was going to be a little unusual. And there, moored and shimmering in the fjord — Adventfjorden to be specific — was the imposing hulk, the Professor Molchanov, my ride for the next ten days.

Each morning, at an unsociable hour for a vacation, Troels Jacobsen, our expedition leader, brusquely awakened us in our heavily-curtained cabins. The ship’s speakers would burst into life at 7 a.m. every morning with the unmistakable voice of Jacobsen, authoritatively quoting our longitude, latitude, and the outside temperature, urging us to get immediately out on deck to witness the stunning vistas. We would then glide to an anchoring spot, guzzle down the remains of our coffee from the buffet breakfast downstairs, and climb down and launch out into the sea in our rubber Zodiac inflatable boats.

The first morning we saw a bearded seal out on an ice chunk, a common sight near glacier fronts. Later, as I was taking pictures of wading Barnacle geese — the islands of the North Atlantic are their main breeding grounds — I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my lens of an arctic fox running along the hillside with a Kittiwake chick in its mouth.

Distracted by the beauty of the glacier Fjortendebreen, we almost missed our first polar bear sighting. He was walking along the shore, close to a beach crowded with seabirds that we’d only just finished visiting. Kittiwakes, Atlantic Puffins, and Purple Sandpipers brought our bird species count to seven for the morning. Not a bad haul.

We then arrived in Ny Alesund, the closest town to the North Pole except for a few military bases. Our group madly rushed to send postcards from the post office, to buy the world’s most northerly socks and hats sporting the words: “79 degrees North,” and to get that important stamp proving we’d set foot here. (There is a rubber stamp in the post office lobby where you can ruin a passport page yourself — and the one facing it — with too much ink.)

A pre-landing brief in the Molchanov’s cosy bar brought home the very real danger bears can pose to humans. Jacobsen toted a rifle as he spoke. There were three rifles in all, one for each expedition staff member. “Always be within 100 feet of a gun on land, and no more than 20 people to each gun,” he explained seriously. Despite smiling while we drank tea attentively, this was no joking matter. “I really, really, don’t want to shoot a bear,” stressed Jacobsen for the umpteenth time. He was adamant that he would never allow a situation to develop where killing a bear was an option.

If a bear happened to be roaming on an island that we planned to explore, we would have to alter our itinerary so as to avoid any dangerous encounters. This happened one day, but a little too late — we were already on the island. A guide spotted a lumbering splodge about a mile away on the opposite shore, steadily heading in our direction. We quickly moved back to our landing site for a swift evacuation back to the ship, then recounted later that night, over a stiff drink, how we’d almost been eaten.

Bear-wise, the highlight came on day six, as we were floating just beneath the 80th parallel. Jacobsen’s scheduled lecture on the “ice bear” — as the Europeans call it — rapidly dissipated when the real thing was spotted from the bridge. I will never fathom how our Russian captain can see a white bear — a mile away, no less — in an icy seascape of an eye-crossingly similar color. But he did, and seemingly right on cue.

The bear emerged from a little ice nook and approached curiously, but not cautiously. After sniffing the hull, jumping back just briefly when a plane flew low overhead, he wandered around to the ship’s stern. Poorly dressed passengers — some had hurried outside wearing only slippers and bathrobes — were turning a bluish color by now, but nobody wanted to go inside. This was extraordinary and spectacular; our guides were shaking their heads with incredulity, quite clearly amazed.

We lay heaped on top of each other, hanging over the rail, as the bear seemed to make eye contact. He raised himself onto his hind legs, standing at least eight feet tall. Barely two yards beneath me now, I could see the striations in his claws and the individual hairs in his fur. The ice compacting under his paws was the only sound as we collectively held our breath. I gazed into his dark eyes, pools of gleaming inquisitiveness, until he quietly retreated into the pristine icy wilderness.

Unbelievably, that same evening, just before midnight, the ship’s intercom crackled with another sighting: a mother with a cub this time. We shivered under a weak sun as the duo plodded over the bluish ice ridges, leaping from floe to floe. We watched, mesmerized, as the cub miscalculated the jumps, plunging its plump rump into the freezing water off the starboard side. It remained unfazed — the thick insulation of blubber means that polar bears can endure temperatures down to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit without increasing their metabolic rate.

Having reached our most northerly point of 80’ 32” it was all downhill now. Well, south anyway. Though with flatulent walruses, Russian trappers’ huts, and calving glaciers still to visit — to name just a few points of interest — the trip was far from over.

On our penultimate evening, as we cruised deep in the fjord system of Hornsund, Jacobsen radioed all five Zodiacs to cut their engines. We floated, silent, simply appreciating the swishing and popping of the glacial ice surrounding us. We were in the High Arctic, at the top of the world, and I didn’t want to leave. This northern realm of the world’s largest carnivore had me under its spell. Then the silence was shattered as the engines revved back up, awakening me from a dream I never wanted to forget.

From The Expiditioner