“Help, we’ve been hijacked! He’s armed with a reindeer antler!”
“Passengers are reminded they are not allowed to carry reindeer antlers or fossils in their hand baggage because they are viewed as possible weapons,” a woman’s voice booms from the loudspeaker at Longyearbyen airport, about 1,300 km from the North Pole.
You already know you are getting to an exotic part of the world when there is a stuffed polar bear in the arrivals lounge of the airport, as there is at Longyearbyen, a Norwegian village of about 1,500 people.
But the warning to any would-be hijackers with reindeer antlers was the biggest reminder to me that things can be very different in the high north on Svalbard, a chain of Arctic islands just 3 hours flight north of Oslo, Norway. Like me, many others looked round in bemused disbelief at the announcement while the locals seemed not to notice anything unusual.
I then flew by a helicopter north to Ny Alesund, which calls itself the world’s most northerly permanent settlement, to go to an international seminar about climate change. The first snow of the coming winter was falling, weeks earlier than normal even though the region still has the midnight sun.
On the way, the pilot pointed through the clouds to a home isolated by a fjord and said that a man would be getting a medal this week from King Harald for long service after clocking up 30 years living on Svalbard.
Most people living on the islands, a former Cold War outpost where the economy is built on coal mining, come for short-term contracts. There is no provision for women to give birth in Longyearbyen hospital and no care for the elderly — if you are not working, the message is that it’s time to go back to the mainland. If you are pregnant, the idea is that you fly south to give birth. For older kids, there is a school and kindergarten in Longyearbyen.
Svalbard is probably the most easily reached part of the Arctic — with routine scheduled flights.
That is, of course, if some crazed fossil hunter doesn’t have other ideas.