24th July, The Grand Hotel, Tromsø, north Norway
I didn’t want to write anything more until we reached Norway, for fear of tempting fate. I was convinced that something would happen to scupper the expedition. It nearly did.
Two days before we were due to set off, Teddy Wintringham’s father died. He left a manor in Sussex, ‘some village property’, a tangle of trusts and a clutch of dependants. The heir was ‘most frightfully cut up’(about the expedition, not his father), but although he felt ‘absolutely ghastly’about it, it simply wouldn’t do for him to be gone a year, so he had to scratch.
The others actually talked about cancelling. Would it be ‘responsible’to go without a medico? I had a job keeping my temper. To hell with ‘responsible’; we’re young, fit men! Besides, if anyone gets sick, there’s a doctor at Longyearbyen –and that’s only, what, two days away from camp.
It turns out that Hugo and Gus agreed with me, because when we took a vote, only tub-of-lard Algie voted against. And since he’s the last person to stick his neck out, he backed down as soon as he realised he was outnumbered.
Afterwards, I went back to my room and threw up. Then I got out my map of Spitsbergen. The map calls it ‘Svalbard’because that’s its new name, but everyone uses the old one, which is also the name of the biggest island. That’s where we’re going. I’ve marked our base camp in red. There, in the far north-east corner, on the tip of that promontory. Gruhuken. Gru-huken. I think ‘huken’means hook, or headland. Not sure about ‘Gru’.
There’s nothing there. Just a name on the map. I love that. And I love the fact that none of the three previous expeditions ever camped there. I want it to be ours.
Everyone was nervous on the train to Newcastle. Lots of hearty jokes from the ’varsity that I couldn’t follow. Gus tried to explain them, but it only made me feel more of an outsider. In the end he gave up, and I went back to staring out of the window.
We had an awful crossing in the mail packet to Bergen and up the Norwegian coast, and Algie and Hugo were seasick. Hugo vomited neatly, like a cat, but fat Algie spattered all over our luggage. Gus mopped up after him without complaint; apparently they’ve been best friends since prep school. Thank God I’ve got a cast-iron stomach, so at least I didn’t have to worry about being sick. But every night as I rolled in my berth, I dreamed I was back at Marshall Gifford. Every morning I woke up soaked in sweat, and had to tell myself it wasn’t true.
And now here we are at Tromsø. Tromsø, where Amundsen took off in his flying boat nine years ago and was never seen again. Tromsø: three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. My first encounter with the midnight sun.
Only there isn’t any. The gentle, penetrating mizzle hasn’t let up in days. Tromsø is a nice little fishing town: wooden houses painted red, yellow and blue, like a child’s building blocks, and I’m told that it’s backed by beautiful snowy mountains. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never seen them.
But I don’t care. I love everything about this place, because it isn’t London. Because I’m free. I love the clamour of the gulls and the sea slapping at the harbour walls. I love the salty air and the smell of tar. Above all, I love this soft, watery, never-ending light. Hugo says this is probably how Catholics imagine purgatory, and maybe he’s right. There’s no dawn and no dusk. Time has no meaning. We’ve left the real world, and entered a land of dreams.
Of course, the gulls mew day and night, as they can’t tell the difference, but I don’t even mind that. I’m writing this with the curtains open on the strange, pearly ‘night’that is no night. I can’t sleep. The expedition is really happening. Everything we do, everything, only makes it more real.
I was right about Gus being a Boy’s Own hero. He doesn’t have that square jaw or those clear blue eyes for nothing; he takes being Expedition Leader seriously. The funny thing is, I don’t find that annoying; maybe because I get the sense that the expedition matters almost as much to him as it does to me.
Months ago, he engaged the British vice consul here as our agent. He’s called Armstrong and he’s been busy. He’s chartered a ship to take us to Gruhuken. He’s bought coal, boats and building materials for our cabin, and had them dropped on the coast, to be picked up later. He’s bought a sledge and a team of dogs, and got us permission from the Norwegian Government to overwinter. He’s even engaged rooms for us at the Grand Hotel –which is actually quite grand.
He’s also been urging us to have a word with our skipper, Mr Eriksson, who’s got some sort of problem with Gruhuken. Apparently he doesn’t think it’s ‘right’for a camp. I’m glad to say that none of us is inclined to discuss the matter with Mr Eriksson, thank you very much, and Gus has quietly made him aware of that. We chose Gruhuken after weeks of poring over the surveys from the previous expeditions. It’s not for some Norwegian sealer to mess up our plans. As long as he gets us there by August, so that we can set up the second camp on the icecap before the winter, he can consider his job done.
The amounts of money we’re spending, it’s frightening!
In London, Hugo was in charge of drumming up finance, and I must say he’s done a good job. He has an almost lawyerly ability to persuade people, and he’s cadged discounts from firms hoping for endorsements, and talked the War Office into donating my wireless equipment for free. Everything else is coming out of the Expedition Fund, which is made up of grants from the University Exploration Club, the Royal Geographical Society, and ‘individual subscribers’(I suspect aunts); total: £3,000. Gus says we have to ‘be careful’, which is why we’re buying most things in Norway, as it’s so much cheaper there; but ‘being careful’doesn’t mean the same to him as it does to me.
In Newcastle we bought what we wouldn’t be able to get in Norway: egg powder, Fry’s eating chocolate, and –since Norway is ‘dry’–spirits, tobacco and cigarettes. That’s when I learned that the rich have different priorities. Third-class passages to Norway; then a crate of Oxford marmalade, and two bottles of champagne for Christmas.
In Tromsø, we’ve been like children let loose in a sweetshop. Mountains of jam, tea, coffee, flour, yeast, sugar and cocoa; tinned fruits, dried vegetables, butter (not margarine; I don’t think the others have ever tasted it), and crates of something called ‘pemmican’, which is a kind of preserved meat: one grade for us, another for the dogs.
And our kit! Long silk underclothing (silk!), woollen stockings, mittens, mufflers and sweaters; kapok waistcoats, corduroys and waterproof Shackleton trousers; ‘anoraks’(a kind of wind jacket with the hood attached), rubber boots, horsehide gauntlets and balaclava helmets. For the coldest weather, we’ve bought leather boots made by the Lapps, well tarred, and turned up at the toe. You buy them much too big, so you can stuff them with straw when the time comes.
Hugo got the outfitter to take a photo of us in our winter gear. We look like real explorers. Algie’s as round as an Eskimo; Hugo and I are both thin and dark, as if we’ve spent months on hard rations; and Gus could be Scandinavian, maybe Amundsen’s younger brother.
But it was buying the rest of our equipment that really brought home to me what we’ll be taking on. Tents, sleeping bags, ammunition, reindeer hides (as groundsheets, apparently). Above all, a formidable pile of paraffin lamps, headlamps and electric torches. It’s hard to believe now, in this endless daylight, but there’ll come a time when it’s always dark. Thinking of that gives me a queer flutter in my stomach. In a way, I can’t wait. I want to see if I can take it.
Not that we’ll be roughing it at Gruhuken. We’ve got a crate of books and a gramophone player, and even a set of Royal Doulton china, donated by Algie’s mama. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t going to be quite so easy. It’s as if we’ll be playing at being in the Arctic. Not the real thing at all.
Talking of the real thing, in the morning, we’re joining our ship, the Isbjørn, and its skipper, Mr Eriksson. He’s a hardened sealer and trapper who’s overwintered on Spitsbergen a dozen times. I’ve never met a trapper, but I’ve read about them and I know my Jack London. They’re the real thing. Battling the elements, shooting seals and polar bears. In Norway, people look up to them as ‘true hunters’. All of which I find a bit daunting.
The books say the golden days of trapping were when Spitsbergen was a no-man’s-land. I still can’t get over that. The idea that until a few years ago, a wilderness not far from Europe belonged to no one: that a man could literally stake his claim wherever he liked, without seeking permission from a living soul. It sounds wonderful. But it came to an end in 1925, when the islands became part of Norway.
The stories they tell of that time! Marauding bears. Lethal accidents on the ice. Men going mad from the dark and the loneliness, murdering each other, shooting themselves.
There’s even a name for it. They call it rar. Armstrong shrugs it off as a ‘strangeness’which comes over some people when they winter in the Arctic. He says it’s simply a matter of a few odd habits, like hoarding matches or obsessively checking stores. But I know from the books that it’s worse than that.
And they talk of something called Ishavet kaller, which seems to be an extreme form of rar. It means ‘the Arctic calls’. That’s when a trapper walks off a cliff for no reason.
One time, not long ago, they found four men on Barents Island starved to death in their cabin, despite having piles of ammunition and guns in perfect working order. The man who wrote the book says they’d been too frightened to leave the cabin–for terror of the deadness beyond. It makes a good story. But how could he possibly know?
Rar. Ishavet kaller. Cabin fever. Nerve strain. I can understand why it used to happen in the old days, when men were utterly cut off, but it’s different now. We’ll have a gramophone and the wireless.
And maybe, after all, that’s for the best. I mean, compared to those trappers, we’re amateurs. Algie’s the only one who’s ever been to the Arctic, and that was only six weeks’shooting in Greenland. No sense biting off more than we can chew.
End of Part Two.
Click here to read Part Three…