Journey to the Arctic wild
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Journey to the Arctic wild

The sound was like a crack of thunder followed by the growl of a hungry belly. If you closed your eyes you could hear the clunk of ice cubes falling into the bottom of a glass.

In the distance, there was a frantic voice growing louder and louder. “Get higher. Get higher. Get higher.”

We scurried up the embankment as waves, formed by the 14th July Glacier shearing apart, smashed on to the rocky beach covering the spot where we were just standing.

We watched as wave after wave formed perfect barrels. It was a surfer’s delight. The icy cold water rose towards us with every set of new waves. And then, it all went quiet. It was over as quickly as it had started.

The Arctic is one of the few places on Earth that man has not learnt how to control. Nature is the dominant force here and we are just voyeurs paying passage to observe.

The glacier in 14th July Bay, or to give it its proper name Fjortende Julibreen, is 16km long. From the shoreline it is reminiscent of the wall from the Game of Thrones television series. Parts of it shine blue. In other areas. it is a dirty grey.

But it is mostly as perfectly white as the teeth of the American tourists I’m holidaying with.

It is the middle of an Arctic summer so the bay is littered with ice that has been cast off by the glacier. Some of it is not much bigger than my hand and I pick it up out of the freezing water. Other pieces the size of a school bus float gently but ominously by in the water.

The Zodiac driver weaves his way through the ice maze as he takes us back to Le Boreal – our home for 10 days as we journey north from Tromso in Norway to Svalbard in search of polar bears and the midnight sun on a luxury Abercrombie & Kent expedition cruise.

The ship, with 190 guests, 140 staff, all balcony staterooms and suites, is the ultimate way to travel. True, it is expensive, but you will not be disappointed.

Our cabin is as good as any big-city five-star hotel room. The level of service is better. The ship has three lounge areas, two dining rooms, a pool (though not many people were game enough to jump in near-zero temperatures), spa with steam room, gym and a theatre where each afternoon expedition leader Aaron Russ explains details about we saw today and what we are likely to see tomorrow. His motto is to under-promise but over-deliver.

Le Boreal sails under the French flag, with French Captain Etienne Garcia, and the onboard cuisine would not be out a place in an upmarket French restaurant.

Garcia himself is one of A&K’s star attractions. His passion for wildlife is obvious. You can hear it in his voice at 6am on the in-room intercom when he is waking everyone and urging them to look starboard to see the polar bears.

He insists his staff venture on shore so they can understand what it is the passengers are looking for and so they, too, feel a real part of the journey.

A few passengers, who had sailed with Garcia in the past, booked this cruise specifically because he was at the helm and they knew he would do his best to deliver the wow factor they so desperately desired.

There is not much of a routine on board. Perhaps that’s because the sun never goes down, so nothing has to conform with the ticking of a clock.

Meal times vary according to onshore or sea excursions. It is more important to see the animals than to eat.

There are 15 Australians on board with me. There’s a group of 22 friends from Hong Kong but the vast majority of guests come from the US.

There’s no age demographic better represented than any other. At a guess, the youngest person would be 10 and the oldest perhaps early-80s.

Svalbard, where we are sailing, is harsh, cold, remote, and at times frightening. It lies between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole.

In fact, many, many years ago, people would choose death over the prospect of being sent to the area that is also known as the Spitsbergen National Park.

Convicts were given the choice between execution or being sent here for the winter to guard hunting grounds.

Our onboard historian says they almost always, without hesitation, chose death.

Today, like the Antarctic, the Arctic is on most lists of “Things to do before you die”. A large proportion of people on this trip had already sailed with Abercrombie & Kent to Antarctica on this ship.

Svalbard is a naked and frozen land in parts. It has a land area of 62,700sq km and it is Europe’s last unspoiled wilderness. The tourism in this area, an industry since 1990, has shown consistent growth.

In 1991, Svalbard boasted 20,000 guest nights. Last year it topped 107,000.  ...

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