Thursday, July 9, 2015
On our third-last day aboard Silversea Expeditions’ Silver Explorer, we were treated to several adventures – as we have been for the past week. In fact, embarkation in Tromso, Norway seems like a dream. It’s hard to reconcile with the fact that we’ve been onboard for a full week; we’ve done and seen so much in such a short time that it almost defies explanation.
Bright skies greeted me this morning when I snapped open the curtains, and I was nearly able to stand on my suite balcony without a coat on. With blue skies, smooth seas and temperatures pushing well beyond 2°C (36°F), it’s positively balmy outside compared with the past few days that have hovered rather consistently around the freezing mark.
I am, as I have mentioned, a horrible creature of habit: I wake at roughly the same time every morning – 6:45 a.m. I shower, dress, and get ready for the day. Part of that day includes stepping outside my suite and collecting The Canadian – a small daily news snippet “newspaper” provided for each and every guest onboard, based on their nationality.
I then take my copy of The Canadian down the forward staircase to Deck 4, where I walk the length of the corridor to the midships lobby elevator. I hang a left, walk down the corridor past the Fitness Center and Gift Shop, and arrive at The Restaurant. I then get buffet breakfast, and one of my favorite waiters (they’re all my favorites) – usually Billy or Jerry – pours me a cup of coffee, a glass of water, and brings me some orange juice.
I catch up on the headlines. I eat breakfast. I relax. It’s a very civilised way to start the morning.
At 8:15 a.m., I’m back up at my suite to put my Silversea Expeditions parka on, followed by my Zodiac life-vest, followed by my Silversea Expeditions backpack. I look like the Michelin Tire man by the time I’m done with it all!
Then I wait for Expedition Team Member Kate to call us down to Reception to disembark the vessel. She makes the call, and I once again walk down the forward staircase, this time to Deck 3. I cross the length of the passenger accommodations corridor and walk aft past the Reception Desk to the Mud Room.
If there’s one complaint I have about the Silver Explorer, it’s that the Mud Room is far too small. The Mud Room on Hurtigruten’s FRAM was cavernous by comparison, and featured racks with metal bars on them that were far easier to slip rubber boots onto than the shelf system that Silversea has – which is spaced just tightly enough that getting two rubber boots in is a challenge.
But hey, that’s nitpicking.
At 8:30 a.m., I disembarked the Silver Explorer for our 75-minute long Zodiac cruise of the Alkefjellet Bird Cliffs on what has to be the most gorgeous morning since I arrived in Oslo last Wednesday.
To call these “bird cliffs” is an understatement. If you watched Alfred Hitchcock’s horror-masterpiece, The Birds, I have two words for you: be afraid. Alkefjellet is absolutely swarming with birds; when viewed against the brilliant blue sky, they look like locusts zipping through the air.
But it is a breathtaking sight – birds zipping around above you. Birds literally falling off cliffs and fighting in the water. Birds nesting. In fact, there are so many birds here that it’s tough to tell that the entire cliff face is made up largely of basalt columns – painted with a thick layer of guano.
I’ll never come to understand how the Spanish word for sh*t became commonplace parlance, but so be it. Our Expedition Staff members describe it as guano, and guano it shall be. Speaking of, my history of questionable luck has clearly proceeded me: I got nailed square on the back with some kamikaze bird guano. It splashed back onto my backpack, camera, and Columbia thermal pants. I spent a joyous half-hour cleaning it all off once I made it back to my suite. At least I was wearing my hat…
Fortunately, because of the fantastic weather an expanded lunch buffet was served outside today – and I couldn’t miss it. I’ve sailed with Executive Chef Pia before onboard the Silver Discoverer, and I know that – hailing from Germany – she makes a mean sauerkraut.
Indeed, sauerkraut and traditional Bavarian sausages were on offer today at The Grill outside on Deck 6, along with hot soup and all the usual offerings. Paired with a beer (German, naturally), it made for the perfect lunch.
Doing the serving: Pia and Hotel Director Marcelo, whom I had the pleasure to sail with back in October aboard the Silver Galapagos. Marcelo has been with Silversea for a decade now, and he runs a damn fine ship. I’d happily sail with him anywhere.
This afternoon, we went ashore at Fakesvagen, Svalbard for a refreshing hike. If there’s one thing that has surprised me about this Arctic itinerary, it’s that the shore landings have been few and far between. Now, that’s likely due to the issue of polar bears –which we have not seen yet, but which can crop up at any time. It’s different in Antarctica – Penguins won’t kill you. Polar bears? Well…
Our guide was the ever-knowledgeable Kit. One guest told me she’d heard Kit lecturing in Houston, approached her, and asked her where and when she was sailing – and immediately booked passage on this voyage. I can tell you what engines the Silver Explorer has, or whether her screws are fixed or variable-pitch, but Kit can tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the world around you.
The hike was decent – there were some strenuous parts, and most of it was up a gradual slope with small sections of loose rock and gravel. Those who were unable to complete the whole walk, or who wished to just go part-way, were able to do so. I liked that Silversea built in that flexibility. Most people were game for the entire hike to the top of the mountain – about 150 metres or 492 feet – and the views were more than worth it.
The thing about these moments is that this could be the only chance you ever have to stand on this spot in your lifetime. You may never come back. This isn’t Las Vegas; this is Faksevagen, Svalbard – as remote, wild and untamed a place as they come on this Earth.
This is a place where the material objects and petty worries of everyday life stop mattering. Your money buys you nothing here. Obamacare, the so-called Grexit, ISIS or ISL or whatever the heck they’re calling themselves these days – it all doesn’t matter. Life here will continue its march regardless.
Like Antarctica, Faksevagen is almost devoid of external interference. There are no airplanes overhead; no motors, no sirens, no chatter. You’re not bombarded with billboards and advertising. You’re not told what to wear, who to love, and what to believe.
You, ironically, mean nothing to Mother Nature. You’re insignificant. You’re a speck. You’re the kittiwake flying through the air. The reindeer scavenging for food. The arctic fox looking for its next meal. And Faksevagen will outlast it all.
Tick. Tick. Tick. These are the seconds of your life that you will be here, on this spot, and they’re slipping by. Once they’re up, that might very well be it. So take five minutes. Sit down. Don’t say a word. Take one long, last look, as the ghosts of those who have come before you have. Explorers like Amundsen and Nansen, Franklin and Crozier, Andree, Peary and Mawson.
These men understood what few do today: that the Arctic is a passionate obsession, worthy of any lover’s desire. It holds you – and it never lets you go.