Nick Drake's blogs from the Cape Farewell journey around Svalbard, September 2010. Read the previous entry here.
We woke up in Kinnvika fjord in the north west of Svalbard. From the deck, we saw low hinterlands scattered with snow, rising to peaks; and in the distance a thin white line of sea ice trapped by the wind in the northeastern bays.
The waters were choppy, and the Zodiac rose and slipped and slithered across the black waves as we made the short crossing. We came ashore on a small shingle beach; as before, the landing felt like stepping onto an alien planet – an illusion enhanced by the primary colours and shapeless un-loveliness of our all-weather clothing, and big gloves, and hoods and hats (including NB several desirable high-fashion versions).
We walked towards a tentative assembly of low wooden huts that crouched down to the horizon. The wind had silvered their wood to the colour of the stones and the sky. Several had relatively new roofs. None had foundations; all were held down by angled beams and taut steel cables. Piles of silver wood had lain ready to be burned for decades. There was a Swedish vehicle with tracks and dials, which successive winters had eroded into ferrous flakes. The horsehair of the leather seat was raked apart like a madman’s wig. At either end of the village were two out-houses, each with shovels still set at precise angles against them, at the ready. I wouldn’t want to do that walk by night, what with the wind and the spooky dark and the imaginary polar bears just waiting to pounce. The place was a ghost town of strangely necessary and beautiful geometry, built in response to the elements that influenced it.
After a long walk into the hinterland, which revealed a freezing lake and a stone cairn on top of a peak, from which we could see along the coast and the sun like an old pale silver coin in the mouth of the clouds, we returned to the boat; and then after lunch we came back by Zodiac to enact a project which will be described in another blog. We opened the longest building, drawing the wooden bar from across the door. It felt like opening a tomb, or a long-lost redoubt whose survivors had vanished or perished; almost the first thing we saw was a blackboard with a message chalked in 1966, asking us to leave the place in the same condition in which we found it. Someone had left an ancient pack of Swedish crisp-bread on a small shelf, and above it had scrawled, “I was here”, in German. In the kitchen I found more haunting relics; an old enamel kettle, piles of not-too-dusty plates, and small cups – all washed clean. On a dismal table whose veneer was peeling apart stood an empty bottle of limited edition whisky. In the attic we found many more stacked packets of crisp-bread, a few bags of flour, and acres of crusty asbestos insulation. If we were marooned here, at least we’d have ample supplies of crisp-bread. And then we’d slowly perish of asbestos poisoning.
The door handles were beautiful. The window latches were handsomely forged. And the lost inhabitants had built the one thing you’d wish to bring with you to this high desert; a sauna. There was a neat cast-iron stove with pretty decorations, and on top a grate of beach-stones, baked brown in the vanished heat. Not hard to imagine how popular and essential this little room, with its double-glazed window, must have been during the long polar winter. The wood - perhaps chopped in 1966? – lay prepared in the basket, and the axe lay alongside, ready to chop more (or to serve as a prop in the slasher movie someone could make here on the cheap). A collection of clothes pegs hung on a line over our heads, as we posed on the rake of benches for photos: the latest ghostly visitors, caught in the light from the dusty window, wishing we could light the stove, divest ourselves of our mad clothing, and relish the glorious heat.