Fortitude IRL: MTV Visits Svalbard
The land where polar bears outnumber humans awaits - and it's as bonkers as you'd imagine...
Fiction-Land: Svalbard has had many moments in the fictional limelight, but its most current claim to fame is as the prime location in Sky Atlantic’s critically acclaimed Scando-psycho-thriller, Fortitude, which finds an international community living in harmony in a remote arctic town. When their haven is shattered by a violent murder, they’re forced to confront the horror of the wild not only beyond the safety of their walls, but within their very human nature. Cue EastEnders drum solo.
Fans of epic fantasy fiction (and 2007 blockbuster turkey The Golden Compass) may also recognise it as the home to a troupe of armoured polar bears in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, and the backdrop for a saga full of otherworldly beauty, wilderness and a place where the lines between the natural and the mystical blur to dazzling effect.
IRL: Svalbard may sound like one of Thor’s Nine Realms, but the reality is somehow even more mad and mysterious. Situated a mere 1,300km from the actual proper North Pole, a trip to Svalbard is a trip to the very edge of the planet, and as such it’s no surprise to hear the region has a bonkers history. The islands were first used as whaling bases in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it wasn’t until 1925’s Svalbard Treaty that positioned the archipelagos as officially Norwegian.
Since then, it’s become a haven for people from all around the world looking to explore the wilder side of life. But make no mistake - nature rules all in Svalbard, so much so that there are officially more polar bears (3000ish) than human inhabitants (2000ish).
Throw in a host of incredible places to stay (we stayed on ‘the Ship in the Ice’, a sailboat steered into a fjord before it froze over, and there are defunct Russian experimental townships way out into the wild), amazing activities to experience (husky sledding and snowmobiling come as standard), and the Northern Lights on display most of the year, and it’s a land as magical as it is mysterious, and a Must for anyone fancying an Arctic adventure.
Truth or Balderdash? Let’s start with Fortitude, shall we? First up, the presumption that everyone wanders around town with a rifle slung over their shoulder actually isn’t that far from the truth. Due to all the polar bears wandering free, there is a safety zone in the main habitable town of Longbearyen, and anyone who strays outside of the designated area is legally forced to do so whilst carrying a firearm. That said, shooting polar bears is illegal (yay conservation!) so it’s more for warnings and defence than anything else.
In Sky’s arctic sci-fi/thriller/drama, the sleepy town of Fortitude prides itself on its utopian socialist set-up. “You have to have a roof over your head, and you have to provide for yourself - so it follows that everyone has a job, no-one’s poor, and so there’s no stealing and no crime. So everyone’s always happy,” Sofie Gråbøl's Governor cheerfully intones in the trailer. Which is obviously the moment the weird faeces hits the even weirder fan. IRL, that initial description is, again, pretty spot-on. Longyearbyen is virtually free of crime, with the main threat coming from visitors.
As for The Golden Compass? While we wish that there were talking warrior polar bears, you’ll just have to make do for the amazingness of the real things (of which you have a very good chance of seeing them in the wild - we saw baby polar bear tracks ourselves!).
And here’s the really weird kicker - you can’t be born on Svalbard, and you can’t die on Svalbard. Not literally, obvs (it’s not that magical), but pregnant women are sent back to the mainland to give birth due to the lack of specialist birthing medical equipment, and the town’s small graveyard closed its doors over 70 years ago - due to the perma-frost that never thaws in the soil, bodies were failing to decompose. So now the dead are sent back to mainland Norway to be buried. Bonkers.
Must Do: A trip to Trapper’s Station boasts a kennel full of 85 adorable, beautiful huskies, who are all too ready and willing to sled you way out into the vast, terrifyingly remote tundra. It’s also a precise replica of the accommodation and set-up that welcomed the original hunters in the area. In short, expect amazingly hearty food, cosy log-fires and the occasional frozen seal hanging up outside.
But the real kicker comes with a trip to ‘The Ship in the Ice’, the only ice-bound hotel ship in the world. Brave a sturdy snowmobile or husky sledding into the wilderness, and be rewarded with the brain-boggling view of seeing a full-on sailing ship emerge from the wintry wasteland. Manage to get there without a polar bear wandering across your path, and you’re rewarded with a super-homely base, with incredibly NOM-tastic food, drinks and glorious, glorious warmth to ease you into life aboard a ship. From there, there are regular trips out to nearby thousand-year old glaciers, to even further afield huts and much more.
Selfie Mustie: Pretty much everywhere you turn offers jaw-dropping views of the surrounding area, but heading up to the nose of the Ship in the Ice, turning around and selfie-ing with the bow of the ship, snowy cliffs and glaciers in the background takes some beating. That is, unless a polar bear wanders into view. In which case, you should do a little less selfie-ing and a whole lot more running. Oh, and all of this is obviously contingent on being able to take your hands out of your gloves long enough to take a picture before they freeze. Cheery.
Written by @spliggle
TAKE MY MONEY NOW: Prices start from £2,395 per person including flights from London Heathrow, based on two people travelling with single snowmobiles. Find out more here: www.magneticnorthtravel.com Tel: 0845 5195 242
This price is based on two people travelling
If the second person wants to share the snow mobile then the price is £1895 for the second person (£2395 for the first person) including flights
The program may include an overnight stop at Oslo (1 night) www.visitnorway.co.uk. Otherwise it is based on the Across the Arctic Land program with a night at Basecamp Hotel either end - four nights in total and a night each in Ship in the Ice and Isfjord Radio
Price includes accommodation, transfers, equipment, guidance and meals (excludes dinner on day one and four).
Prices will vary according to flight availability