This week, my laptop died.
I was mid-sentence at the time, hovering over which new Spotify playlist to accompany writing a chapter about Peru when suddenly my screen went black. No amount of frantic clicking would wake it up again.
But while I panicked, half-sobbing on my orange fluffy carpet (evidently I was too distraught to remain sitting on a chair), a long-dormant part of my brain spoke up.
“What the hell are you so upset about?” it said, calmly. Because although laptop death is one of the biggest concerns in my current hermit-writer state, there have been so many moments in my life when I couldn’t care less about my computer’s functionality.
It’s a strange contradiction that writing a memoir about five years of my travels has required me to sit tight in London for the best part of two months and type from morning till night. From San Francisco to India to Bolivia to Cuba (and with lots of other places in between) I’ve relived the most dramatic stories of my adventures abroad in a crazily quick space of time, and it’s been nothing short of intense.
But a few days ago I finally wrapped up my first draft. All 120,000 words of it. And with that comes a reward I’ve been anticipating for too long, which most certainly doesn’t revolve around owning a functioning computer.
Sailing from Edinburgh to the Arctic Circle!
Last spring I entered National Geographic’s Travel Writing Competition and thought nothing of it, until a congratulating email from the magazine’s editor informed me that I’d actually won. The prize, a trip to the Arctic with Quark Expeditions, wasn’t scheduled to leave until June 2015: so far ahead in my calendar that for months I thought of it only as this beautiful, wonderful, but essentially unreal trip bubbling away in the background.
As the second year of my Masters programme amped up, I consciously decided to avoid thinking about the Arctic because, well, once I started to get excited I was pretty sure I’d get nothing else done. And of course that plan worked a little too well, because all of a sudden the trip is happening. RIGHT NOW.
So, the details. Once I step off the train in Edinburgh I’ll be boarding an expedition ship and sailing up the coast of Norway alongside around seventy other guests and a team of expedition leaders and crew.
For two weeks, we’ll spend each day stopping off at a different location: starting off with the historic Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands; crossing the North Sea and travelling along the Norwegian coast to the harbours of Bergen, Alesund, and Trondheim; then moving past the stunning dramatic landscapes of the Lofoten islands. I’m also stupidly excited to visit the eider ducks who live on Vega island and kindly donate their feathers to making eiderdown duvets (Fyi, they live in little personalised houses with their names on the door).
Because the ship is smaller than normal, we’ll be able to inch our way into Norwegian fjords and past huge flocks of Norway’s infamous bird species in zodiac boats – and then it’s into open water. Walruses and seabirds, the remnants of century-old mining sites, possible polar bear sightings (PLEASE keep your fingers crossed for that one) – and glaciers. So many glaciers.
The ship we’ll be sailing on has a capacity of 73 guests – which I think is pretty small when you look at how big some of these ships can be – and I honestly have no clue who these seventy-odd people are likely to be.
Bird lovers and environmentalists; documentary filmmakers and keen photographers; those who’ve finally splurged on their once-in-a-lifetime trip, and other competition winners: all options are open, but I’m pretty certain it’ll be a fantastically diverse group who I’ll spend the next fortnight getting to know.
Exploring Svalbard: Norway’s claim to the Arctic Circle
The Quark trip ends when our boat reaches the settlement town of Longyearbyen on Svalbard – but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore this part of the world a bit further. While the majority of my shipmates pack up their cabins and fly back down to mainland Norway, I’ll be settling into a dorm room at the rather lovely-looking Gjestehuset 102 (who knew there’d be a hostel 1000km from the North Pole?).
Also known by its Dutch name of Spitsbergen, this Norwegian archipelago is pretty much the furthest north that non-Arctic expeditioners have the chance to visit. I’m going to spend five days wandering around the snowy streets, exploring the colourful houses, paying a cheeky visit to the Global Seed Bank, visiting old abandoned mining towns and riding snowmobiles.
And, if all goes to plan, trying my hand at sledging with huskies.
A flying visit to Oslo, Norway’s capital city
After I regrettably say goodbye to my first foray into the Arctic, I’ll fly down to Oslo for a fleeting visit. Two days in the capital city of Norway should be enough to speedily see as much as I possibly can before heading back to London to work on – you’ve guessed it – the second draft of my book.
Despite only being away for three weeks, I’ll also probably be sharing images from this trip for months to come. I get the feeling there are going to be a lot of them.
What this trip means to me
The furthest north I’ve ever travelled is to Iceland, where the landscapes are some of the most jaw dropping and humbling I’ve ever seen. The most alone I’ve ever been is on the Camino, where I discovered a connection to nature which I never knew I felt. And the most I know about the links between Scottish and Norse history, the wildlife of the Arctic, marine biology and geology is confined to a page of scribbled facts in my notebook.
I’m so excited to learn everything there is to know about this part of the world, and I couldn’t be in better company to do so, thanks to the frankly awe-inspiring collection of expedition team leaders onboard the ship.
In their professional capacity, these guys include a geologist, glaciologist, ornithologist, and marine biologist; but from reading their brief biographies I also know they’re people with a love for Arctic light, and for the way that humans relate to the Arctic landscape. People passionate for the wild and the remote, with a fascination for the ice shelves and climate change. There’s a man who lived for three months in a frozen tent to study Antarctic penguins, and a woman who speaks five languages and helped put a ban on cluster bombs in Kabul (who just happens to be on board as a marine biologist).
My travelling style has always been about people. So despite this trip’s main focus being the natural world, I get the distinct impression I’ll be looking at it in conjunction with these people as the influencing force behind what I learn.
This trip and its scope for education gives me shivers; that, and knowing just how deliciously insignificant I’m going to feel once I’m bobbing past a huge glacier in a tiny zodiac boat, or watching polar bears living out their lives on ice floes.
I can’t wait.
How can you follow along?
As I’m clearly still social media obsessed, I’ll be sharing as much of the trip as possible when I have wifi (although it’s unlikely for the latter half of the boat trip). Instagram (@FloraBaker) and Snapchat (@ExplorerFlora) are my favourite networks to use at the moment, but if I get the chance to share actual stories they’ll be heading straight to my Facebook page.
And there’s also a chance I’m going to make an attempt at shooting some video while I’m on this trip, too. No idea how that’s going to pan out!
But above all, these three weeks are all about re-embracing my love for full-on, totally immersive travel. Who needs a laptop when you’ve got glaciers, right? So hold onto your thermal-lined hats, folks. Flora’s off to explore the Arctic!!
Have you ever been to the Arctic Circle? Where’s the furthest north you’ve ever travelled?