We had been looking forward to our 11-hour speed boat trip to Ny-Ålesund ever since we started looking into booking a trip to Spitsbergen. It was supposed to be the highlight of our weekend stay. The linear distance is only 114km, but only government, scientists and emergency services are permitted to do inland flights (even though you can buy unfilled seats on scientists’ flight connections for large amounts of money), which is why boat is the only option. This means that the actual distance travelled one-way is roughly 200km.
You pass by some decent whale spotting locations (including 45m long blue whales), a giant walrus colony, and, if going from Longyearbyen by boat at this time of year: your best chance of seeing a polar bear, unless you’re happy with the stuffed variety in the local museum.
We had booked our trip with Better Moments, the highest-ranking Spitsbergen tour operator on Tripadvisor, for a total of NOK 7,980 (approx. £800 at time of writing, far more than our Norwegian Air tickets, which start from under half that price for two persons) for the two of us. They picked us up right on time at 8am from our hotel, Coal Miners’ Cabins, and we immediately had a good impression of our captain and our tour guide (which is important, when you’re venturing into arctic waters on a so-called covered zodiac, basically a large rubber boat with a fully covered cabin).
The captain was frank with us from the beginning, explaining that due to the stormy seas, there was only a 50% chance that we’d be able to leave Isfjorden and make our way to our destination and back. As soon as we left the fjord, the waves were getting bigger and bigger, the rain harder and harder, and the people on board were getting more and more nauseous, with one or two ‘eruptions’ early on.
We tried various different routes and angles, but after half an hour, it was decided that safety goes first (which is great!) and our dream trip goes down the drain (not so great; our kayak tour with another tour operator the previous day had also been cancelled because of bad weather).
Instead, we returned back into the fjord and – after trying in vain to spot a whale or two – anchored the boat 200m off the shore at the abandoned mining town of Colesdalen, half way between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, which (hurray!) even made it into Wikipedia as a two-liner with photo, but – as our guide told us – hardly ever sees any tourists (not so sure if that’s a good thing).
In groups of three, we made our way to the shore on the tiny rubber dingy with its small outboard engine. To me the experience was rather scary, considering that people’s life expectancy when accidentally falling into arctic waters with normal hiking gear on (as opposed to an arctic rubber suit) is usually significantly reduced, unless immediate emergency measures can successfully be put into action. At the same time, there was a great sense of adventure to it.
Like all of the local abandoned mining towns this location was really spooky. We walked around between the ruins of the two very large wooden piers with the wreck of a small freight ship still moored on one of them.
Then our guide and the captain led us to explore the abandoned buildings. You can still see Russian vodka bottles, canned food, old clothes, and plenty of other objects in many of the rooms, which makes for some unusual photo opportunities.
We then started a camp fire, while our captain, who had worked as a full-time hunter in northern Norway and as a bear hunting guide in northern Canada, before starting his current role (what a CV, awesome!), trained us up a bit on what to do in the extremely unlikely event we should encounter a polar bear today. He also told us some entertaining stories from his previous roles, and explained why polar bears are more dangerous than any other bears, including the grizzly.
In short: other bears’ diet consists of plants to an often large, sometimes total extent, whereas the polar bears’ diet is more than 99% meat. They also seem to be fully aware that they’re the biggest land predator on earth, or – more likely – at least that it’s very difficult to stop them when they attack. Polar bears see you as a snack on two legs, they have no fear. You might be lucky with some other bears by lying flat and pretending to be dead. They might leave you alone, but not this one.
We enjoyed our large meals of hot, thick, spicy, chicken soup served in thermos cans, then we took off to explore the area towards Longyearbyen some more. We walked along the old railroad tracks for about one kilometre and across an old wooden bridge, to arrive at a wooden hut called Rusanovodden that was built and inhabited in 1912 by Russian geologist Vladimir Rusanov who specialised in arctic exploration. It is now being used by hikers. We met a group of Polish hikers, who had clearly done a lot of drinking the previous night well into the morning, and were just getting out of their sleeping bags when we arrived at 12:30pm. When we told them that we were disappointed we had not seen any polar bears yet, they left no doubt that they were quite pleased that the same applied to them.
On the way back we spotted a large reindeer buck with huge antlers, that was not at all disturbed by our closing in on him for photos. These animals have no natural enemies on Svalbard, because polar bears do not attack them, as they know they’d be easily outrun by these peaceful, overweight, short-legged, vegetarian creatures.
Did we enjoy our trip to Colesdalen? Yes. Would we recommend you should go there? No. There are so many much better locations in the proximity of Longyearbyen that are a million times more attractive for a day trip. The situation is different with Barentsburg and Pyramiden. Our focus on this trip was initially on wildlife, so we would not have gone to any of these two mining towns, even if we’d spent a whole week or two in Spitsbergen, but we met many fellow travellers who did and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s also nice that Better Moments refunded us 50% of the price without us asking for it.
For a review of Norwegian restaurants click here (for Gruvelageret, Longyearbyen) or here (for Ekeberg Restaurant, Oslo). For more adventure travel click here (for our trip to the Sahara) or here (for rock-climbing in Portugal).