Midnight sun and polar bears. Nicola Davenport takes an unforgettable trip to the frozen north
'Walk in a straight line, directly behind me. Three metres between each person. Do not lag behind.'You tend to do as you're told when you're trekking across an ice floe towards a seal basking in the Arctic sunshine, in prime hunting territory for hungry polar bears. And when those orders come from an ex-Norwegian army sniper, loaded rifle at the ready, you follow them promptly and to the letter.We are on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, where just weeks later British expedition student Horatio Chapple will be mauled to death by a ravenous polar bear. Despite their protected status, polar bears (est population 3,000) outnumber people (2,000 inhabitants) on this snow-covered land. For this reason, we are forbidden from venturing outside our Scandi-chic lodgings at Basecamp Isfjord Radio without the company of an armed staff member.It's advice we happily follow, and as we step into line behind our rifle-toting guide, squelching our way across the ice, we are on high alert. Every step creates a footprint that rapidly fills with water. We are clad in unwieldy survival suits with integral wellies that make any kind of fast move impossible. It's a joy and a privilege to tread slowly through this pristine wilderness like nowhere else on the planet, the sun bright, the air clean and cold, the water sparkling beneath a cloudless sky.Inquisitive seals pop their heads out of the water to watch our progress, screeching kittiwakes wheel above our heads. I am awestruck by the vast expanses of waterborne ice stretching to the horizon in every direction, huge virgin snowfields, glaciers, in this place that so few people have ever visited.We are just an hour's flight north of the Norwegian mainland, but exactly halfway between Tromso and the North Pole, at 78*10'N staying in the most northerly hotel in the world. Svalbard is the starting point for many expeditions to the North Pole - Prince Harry was a recent visitor to Basecamp's enchantingly rustic Trappers Hotel in Spitsbergen's capital (and only town) Longyearbyen, before his Help for Heroes trek.Originally a base for trappers and miners, Longyearbyen (one main street: watch out for the occasional polar bear) now hosts mainly geology and climate scientists: the Arctic climate is more sensitive than in any other place in the world, so this area is vital when researching the effects of climate change on different species and ecosystems.We have voyaged 28 nautical miles out of Longyearbayen to the far western edge of Spitsbergen, bouncing across the deserted glassy waters of Isfjorden sea fjord past spooky barely-populated Russian mining settlements, cliffs packed with nesting guillemots, and flock after flock of bobbing puffins, swooping fulmars, Arctic terns and little auks. My trip of a lifetime moment, though, has to be the pair of walruses, impressively tusked old men of the deep, who surface just metres from our boat in the bay outside our snug, stylish hotel Isfjord Radio one morning, their huge speckled pink faces calmly staring at us as we gasp at the sight.It's hard to go to bed when you're in the land of the midnight sun - the sky is blue, the sun high day and night - and you never know when another amazing bird or creature will loom into view. From my bedroom window I spot the distinctive blow patterns of basking blue fin whales on the horizon. Wild white reindeer graze their way past, snow buntings peck in the permafrosted scrubby vegetation, eider ducks guard nests on the tundra. Binoculars essential.A refreshing pre-breakfast dip in the krill-laden Arctic Ocean is the perfect pick-me-up. No wetsuit - we were told to travel light as space is tight in the boat - so it's a dash into the water then a matter of how long before the chill, instant and total, forces us out. It's icy and literally breathtaking. My lungs freeze, it feels like someone is sticking icy needles into my skin, I can't feel my feet. But the sense of achievement is massive: how many people can say they have swum within touching distance of the North Pole?It's the trip of a lifetime, but I know one thing for sure - I will do everything I can to make sure I return.
Organise your own trip to Spitsbergen with Basecamp Explorer: www.basecampspitsbergen.com/
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