The Svalbard Maxi Taxi Tour: Get Ready for a Wild Ride!
By Dave Fox
Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway
A dark van with tinted windows rumbles toward me down a bumpy, dirt road. The driver stops and opens the passenger side door. He’s a burly man with a shaved head; a bushy, gray beard; a striped T-shirt, and mirror sunglasses. I spot a gun by his feet.
“Are you Dave?” he asks me in English.
“Ja,” I answer.
“You can sit in the front,” he says, switching languages.
I climb in.
“And where is Dave from?” he asks.
I hesitate for a moment because my answer’s a little weird. “I’m from America. I live in Singapore. And I speak Norwegian.”
Behind me, ten other passengers erupt into more laughter than seems warranted — until I realize it’s not my answer they’re cackling at. They’re laughing because on the way to pick me up, our driver, who looks like a cross between Santa Claus and a Hell’s Angel, has already wound them up with so many stories, he has put them in that giggly state of mind where they’ll laugh at anything.
Welcome aboard the Svalbard Maxi Taxi tour. Fasten your seatbelt if you feel like it, try not to kick the rifle by your feet, and abandon any skepticism you might have about a minivan tour run by a taxi company. Your guide and driver, Viggo Antonsen, is a passionate local historian, a gifted storyteller, and a long-time resident of Longyearbyen, the northernmost, year-round human settlement on the planet. His hobbies include reading good books and sipping dark cognac. Oh, and he knows how to keep you safe in the event of a polar bear attack.
As we drive toward the center of Longyearbyen, Viggo starts our tour with a few statistics. The capital of the Svalbard Archipelago has 2,095 residents from 43 countries.
“It’s super international here,” he says.
Svalbard officially became part of Norway in 1920 when the Svalbard Treaty was signed, but the treaty included a stipulation that citizens of all 40 signatory nations could live there.
The average age in Longyearbyen is 36, Viggo says. Due to its location at 78 degrees north latitude (830 miles / 1,338 kilomters south of the North Pole), the town endures four months of perpetual darkness each year.
It’s a special tax-free zone. So booze is cheap and winters are long, and Viggo chuckles that this leads to a popular leisure activity: “It’s the perfect place to become a mommy or daddy.”
At the spot where John Munro Longyear launched the first year-round settlement in 1906, Viggo fills us in on some history.
The first confirmed discovery of Svalbard happened in 1596 by Willem Barentsz, a Dutchman searching for a northern shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In the early 1600s, the islands became a base for whalers and walrus hunters. These settlements were temporary, however, with few people staying through the arctic winter.
In 1905, Longyear showed up on a cruise ship. An American coal-mining mogul, Longyear saw dollar signs in Svalbard’s coal. He returned the following summer with workers and equipment to launch a mining company.
In 1916, the Norwegian company, Store Norske, set up shop and bought Longyear out. Four years later, the Svalbard Treaty gave Norway sovereignty. The treaty declared the islands a demilitarized zone – which strikes me as ironic, because you’re not allowed to leave downtown Longyearbyen without a gun.
We continue on to an obligatory photo stop at a polar bear crossing sign. As we step out of the van, Viggo grabs his rifle and his pipe.
The polar bear signs are a popular tourist attraction, but they’re no gimmick. Without a weapon, it’s illegal to go beyond them. Svalbard is the only place in Norway that has polar bears. Tourists who have strayed beyond the allowed boundaries have been mauled and eaten.
(During my four days in Svalbard, I never did see a polar bear. In the summer months, they head out to ice flows where they can fish; however, if they get stuck on land in those months, chances are they’re hungry.)
Back on the road, we pass a couple of Svalbard’s closed-down mines, and Viggo talks about the dangers of the industry. Over the years, 769 people have died in Svalbard mining accidents, he says. In one particularly violent explosion, the carcass of a horse was found nearly two kilometers away — blown through the air by the massive force.
Miners on Svalbard feel a solidarity with miners worldwide, Viggo says, particularly when there are accidents.
“In one way, miners are one big family. It doesn’t matter where they die. It’s equally sad every time.”
We chug onward, up a steep hill to the EISCAT radar station where scientists are studying the magnetic interaction between the sun and the earth, and where we get a terrific view of Adventsdalen (“Advent Valley”) and distant glaciers on Isfjorden (“The Ice Fjord”).
We also stop at Svalbard’s Global Seed Vault, where more than 700,000 types of seeds from around the world are stored in a bunker beneath the permafrost, so that plant species can be restored if they are ever lost due to natural disasters or wars.
Heading back into town, we pass the Longyearbyen School, which has around 280 students.
“We have Norway’s best teachers,” Viggo says. “Children in this school have absolutely everything.”
Absolutely everything? Well, maybe not tropical weather or coconut palms, but the northernmost school in the world has a lot to keep students occupied – a swimming hall, a solarium, and a gym (which Viggo calls the “Tarzan Factory”), a shooting range with electronic guns, a hockey rink, and a tow rope to transport kids up a sledding hill at recess.
“A teacher stands in the road with a rifle on polar bear patrol,” Viggo mentions.
In our two-hour spin around the outskirts of Longyearbyen, he keep us laughing and riveted with story after story. It’s been a brilliant introduction to a place he clearly loves.
And I can tell he has many more tales to tell, but a flight is coming in. Viggo must switch from tour guide to taxi driver.
I’m okay with that. Now that I’ve gotten the lay of the land, I’m ready for bigger adventures.
(More stories from Svalbard are coming soon!)
Svalbard Maxi Taxi offers daily tours at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The afternoon tour tends to be less rushed due to incoming flight schedules. Space is limited to 12 people, so booking in advance is recommended. For more info, visit taxiguiden.no or call +47 – 79 02 13 05.