Svalbard for beginners

Who needs daylight on an archipelago this magnificent, writes Ainslie MacGibbon.

I'm standing at the northernmost ATM on Earth, wearing a balaclava. Emboldened by the anonymity, I look squarely at the camera for once - though my balaclava has slipped so I'm staring with an eye and a nose. Two figures also wearing balaclavas and carrying rifles hurry past me and climb the ramp that leads to the bank. As I correct my breathing (from stopped) and heartbeat (from galloping) I remember meeting the bank teller in the pub last night. Between sips of lingonberry vodka, she mentioned that getting used to seeing balaclavas and rifles around the bank was the hardest part of settling into the job here.

We are in Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Circle and a territory of Norway, with the exception of a Russian settlement. We're staying at Longyearbyen, the administrative centre, at a latitude of 78 degrees north. The equivalent latitude in the Southern Hemisphere would have us standing on Antarctica. So balaclavas are normal and, because polar bears outnumber people on Svalbard, rifles are compulsory when venturing away from the settlement.

It's a grid of only a few streets with a population just over 2000, comprised of miners, polar and international researchers, artists and the self-declared misfits.

Strange as it might seem, Svalbard is a home away from home for Australians - literally. Australia is a signatory to the Svalbard Treaty, which allows citizens from treaty nations rights of access and residence.

I pause to look around the squat streetscape. This is an effort in itself - though it's noon, it's completely dark in December. Street lights are positioned only in key areas. There's one outside the supermarket, illuminating four babies parked outside in prams while their pushers shop inside. At minus 19 degrees, this is normal and "better" for the baby, as one father tells me at the pub. "We bring them in if it gets colder, particularly if there's a wind," he says. I look around for my children - they're inside the supermarket, huddled together under the hot-air jets, like chicks in an incubator.

Svalbard was a bit of a hard sell to the kids: three weeks of 24-hour darkness at an average temperature of minus-30 degrees, while their friends headed to beaches. But the 11-year-old and twin eight-year-olds accept that family holidays usually mean witnessing a different way of life, often somewhere remote - and have learnt that relaxation can take many forms, such as hot-air jets at a supermarket. Now they are here, however, they're enthralled - though the novelty of calling "it's bedtime!" at all times of day has worn off for their parents.

It's easy to tick off "northernmost" experiences here. We land at the world's northernmost airport with scheduled flights. We're staying at Basecamp Trapper's Lodge, where the management decided that "our guests should never have to doubt that they are on Svalbard". They do this by furnishing the 16 rooms with slate, furs and driftwood from the archipelago, conjuring a typical Svalbard hunter's cottage. The "Cognac Attic" has a ceiling of glass that frames the unique sky. For most of our stay we are the only guests, save for a doctor from Tromso on a business trip. Births and burials are not permitted on the archipelago - a non sequitur, but trying to explain Svalbard can lead to many more.

Hilde, the receptionist, brings her children to the lodge before school to have breakfast with ours at the long communal table. Fish paste squeezed from tubes on bread becomes a favourite. Language is a barrier at first, but afternoon invitations to play Lego at their home, or sledding in the dark, ensures universal mirth.

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We walk to Svalbard's school, where children wearing socks skid between classes, speak four languages or more and begin the school year with camp and a reindeer hunt - this far north they're pretty pragmatic about Santa and his travails. The teacher on playground duty carries a rifle.

Despite extreme temperatures at this time of year, walking is the preferred way of getting around, unless you have a skidoo. The museum, polar-research institute, the restaurant and pub are an easy (if bracing) walk from the lodge. The art gallery and craft centre is a three-kilometre round trip (with arctic fox sightings) and the place to understand the attraction of Svalbard for creative people. Artist Aino Grib tells us she came for six weeks in 2003 and hasn't left. She's fascinated by the light. And the landscape. And the animals. And the flora. And the people.

The Global Seed Vault is a couple of kilometres out of town. Most nations have "banked" native seeds here in the permafrost, so crops can be saved in the event of an agricultural disaster. The modest but attractive part of the structure that juts above ground belies the significance of what lies beneath.

Through the lodge we arrange a dog-sledding trip for a couple of days with Kristin, a graduate in her 20s from a school specialising in hunting and fishing skills on mainland Norway. That's remarkable in itself, but it's also impossible to ignore just how beautiful she is. She lives alone in a small log cabin a few kilometres out of town, adjacent to the 92 sled dogs she cares for (and knows by name) and their kennels.

It is clear that Kristin's default view is that people should be practical - she hands us a pencil sketch of the order our dogs are to be harnessed (it's dark, remember), how to identify them, unleash them and propel them around the other expectant and excited hounds by the scruff and with front paws off the ground so they are easier to handle. Once the sleds are harnessed, she calls from the front: "The first bit is steep, lean hard left, if you fall off whatever you do don't let go of the sled, and the dogs will alert us if polar bears are around." That's a fair bit of pressure, given my son is the passenger in my sled, but Kristin is gone before I can ask how I'll know if my dogs are saying "polar bear".

I make it around the bend, although my thighs are burning, and after a while I'm sweating - in minus 30. But then I relax. The silence is startling, only the occasional sound of blades slicing snow. The moon - and northern lights - illuminate a landscape that is magnificent. It feels too surreal, too big, too open, too hard to contain the experience - but I'm smiling and taking big, deep breaths.

On the eve of our departure some locals gather in the restaurant to farewell us. They confess that winter is their favourite time of year, when the black sky takes a blue hue - not the summer months of the midnight sun and tourists. Maybe so but we have decided to return to Svalbard to see it in every light.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Thai Airways/Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) has a fare to Oslo from Sydney and Melbourne for $2140. Fly to Bangkok (about 9hr), then Copenhagen (about 12hr), then Oslo (about 1hr). This is a low-season return fare, including tax. SAS has a fare to Longyearbyen from November to February for about $480 low-season return from Oslo. A shuttle bus transports passengers between the airport and the town of Longyearbyen 15 minutes away.

Staying there

Basecamp Trapper's Lodge has rooms from 1450 Norwegian kroner ($250) and suites from 2100 kroner ($365) a night, including breakfast and hot drinks throughout the day. Shoes are left at the lodge's entrance so pack your best socks. See basecampexplorer.com (click on Spitsbergen).

The lodge can organise winter activities such as snowmobile trips, dog sledding and aurora borealis viewing — staff will come and rouse guests when the northern lights are shining bright. The Polar Jazz festival, Cool Place Hot Music, takes place each February.

Don't miss the fascinating Svalbard Museum and Galleri Svalbard, which has beautiful artwork, jewellery and clothing.

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