The Franz-Josef Archipelago


9 August 2013

Land on the horizon. The archipelago has kept its promise. The scenery is majestic. Beneath a chilly sun, giant glaciers flow into the icy sea. Temperatures have dropped below zero and a biting wind reinforces the cold. Once again Tara slaloms between ice sculptures: here the Arctic’s most ambitious artworks are on display.

Huge icebergs, sometimes 5 meters high, float peacefully on the blue sea. The schooner cautiously but without hesitation continues her journey through the archipelago. At every nautical mile, the pearl of the Arctic reveals its wonders.

After skirting the towering ice cliffs of Nortbruk Island, Tara headed towards the legendary Cape Flora. Cape Flora is the starting point for expeditions to the North Pole, and the last resting place for a large number of polar explorers. It’s nearly midnight when a green mountain, the top veiled in mist, appears on the horizon.

On the rocky shore, we see some men. Equipped with theodolites,* they seem to be going around the island establishing new maps. In the distance we see their camp, but the Jackson house has disappeared from the landscape. Jackson was an English explorer who, in the late 19th century, spent several winters on Cape Flora. Wearing a stylish suit and high rubber boots, he even welcomed Nansen and Johannsen after their failed expedition to the North Pole.

We try to communicate with the men on land, but our broad gestures and radio calls are in vain. Ah, if only Jackson was here to greet us! After lingering to observe some guillemots* perched on an iceberg, we resume our journey towards the island of Alexandra. There, men, soldiers and park guards are expecting us.

Light rain and thick fog cover the land and glaciers surrounding us. Only a row of rusty storage tanks is visible on the dark coast. Tara will anchor for 48 hours in this inlet. We give a radio call to inform the authorities of our arrival. 20 minutes later, a military truck is waiting for us on the shore, headlights on to indicate its presence. It’s almost like in a war movie. Our small inflatable boat heads directly for the gunmen. Strange feeling, but these soldiers are actually our hosts for the day.

After introductions are made, we embark on a big military truck which turns into our tour bus. Sergey Pisarev, Russian scientist aboard, translates the information provided by our guide, head of the nature reserve. First stop is the Nagurskaya base.

In these buildings, blue metal siding hides an artificial garden: fake grass, plastic trees, illuminated fountain and aquarium with exotic fish. There’s also a pool table, a babyfoot, a giant screen and games for children. Necessary entertainment to pass the time in winter, to forget the cold, and make up for the lack of sun. We take off again in the truck along a muddy track to discover the rest of the island. Despite the big cleanup efforts made since the creation of the park, carcasses of old military vehicles and rusty antennas still dominate this lunar landscape. But footprints of bears inform us that nature has not totally surrendered this place to man.

According to the guards, there are 2 mother bears and their young prowling around. So, whenever one of us plays the unruly tourist and leaves the group, a man with a gun follows close behind to ensure his safety. Just in case the bear should appear… as we hope. We continue our journey to Sergey’s old scientific base. A house in the middle of nowhere, overlooking a lake and the sea.

More than 20 years after his last mission, the researcher finds his old instruments, often abandoned outdoors. “With a small repair, this winch could function again!” says Sergey, enthusiastic and nostalgic at the same time. But already we must leave, and bump along the uneven terrain to find Tara. The sun has finally deigned to pierce the clouds, flooding glaciers and the schooner’s masts with light. The visit was brief, but actually our adventure is just beginning!



Anna Deniaud Garcia

*Theodolite: surveying instrument for measuring horizontal and vertical angles.

*Guillemots: seabirds.