August/September 11

Noorderlicht 27 August-11th September, 2011.

On Saturday 27th August a Beluga Expeditions charter group boarded Noorderlicht for fifteen days of what was originally billed as a hiking tour, but later expanded to include places for those whose main interest was photography. Its members included contingents from Germany and Holland, together with a couple of singles from the United Kingdom and one lady of Spain. Being on a small ship with a small group for two weeks is something that can be fraught with peril, but the company got along very happily for most of the time, much assisted by the lively Dutch sextet, who put others (and especially the United Kingdom duo) to shame by their ability to speak fluently in both English and German. The tour leader was the very experienced Spitsbergen guide and author, Andreas Umbreit, who was ably assisted by Therese Horntrich, making what proved to be an impressive start to her guiding career.

For all his know-how Andreas had not led on Noorderlicht before, and his plans were often frustrated by unfavourable weather conditions and perhaps also (and I am guessing here) by the fact that a schooner inevitably travels more slowly than larger cruise ships, especially in a headwind, and that this was something for which allowance was not initially made. Others had to do a certain amount of adjusting too, and especially the hikers who had no prior experience of walking in Spitsbergen, where there is a distinct possibility that the surface will be formed of large stones and rocks which move beneath you in the most interesting ways, and make going anywhere very hard work indeed. On the first day Andreas, who is a fearsome hiker himself, announced that there would be a walk lasting three hours. The present writer, who had been to the archipelago before, and had heard of 'three hourse' before, didnt much like the sound of this, and decided
to stay on Noorderlicht, which transferred the happy heroes to the shore and then moved to the point where they would be picked up. Three hours later? Well, not quite... The three hours became four, and then five and then six; at least one of the heroes, his judgement perhaps affected by a degree of delirium brought on by exhaustion, insisted afterwards that the total had eventually reached eight. At any rate, the group came into sight at last, although 'group' is hardly the correct term for a line straggling over hundreds of metres, with Andreas striding along at the front and Therese bringing up the rear. After that some never joined the 'fast hikers' again. Instead, they ambled amicably over short distances with Therese and her heavy calibre rifle, taking in the beauties of the landscape and wildlife at leisure, and developing a high regard for their guide's gentleness and sweetness of temper.

This is not to say that the trip was all hiking. Far from it. We also visited a great many sites of historical interest, including a number of old whaling stations and trapper cabins (Smeerenburg, Hamburgbukta, Trygghamna, Sallyhamna, Kobbel Fjord and more) and the aeronautical remains at Virgohamna, where Andreas had secured special permission from the Norwegian authorities for us to land. When Noorderlicht was at sea he gave a number of talks distinguished by the sharpness of his intellect and the extent of his erudition, and it was here that his qualities as a guide were at their most obvious. He and Therese were assisted by a crew who were a delight. Sonja had a smile for everybody and consistently astonished with her ability to produce excellent food from a tiny galley. Peter piloted the zodiac in the most moderate way imaginable, and delivered to the shore passengers who were still dry. Jeroen's dashing cavalier style, by contrast, was
rather more exciting, and quite a lot damper; after a Jeroen crossing in a sea which was distinctly rough, those still on the ship were a little concerned to see him baling quantities of water from the zodiac before making the return journey...

This was a very good holiday; the weather might have been kinder, but the company could hardly have been better; Noorderlicht was superb; and Spitsbergen was Spitsbergen.

Ken Lawson