Arctic: Cruising without palm trees - Across the top of Siberia

The icy wind blowing off the Siberian Sea was whipping the white crests off the waves crashing onto the gunmetal grey beach pebbles. I walked past a husky chewing on a huge whale bone on which the marks of flensing knives were clearly evident. The rest of the whale carcass lay nearby but in these near-zero temperatures I could barely smell a musty odour of decay. Anyway, the bones had been picked clean by people who needed food.

Two teenage boys approached from the village. We exchanged names - and Australian pens for Soviet army badges - then they showed me which of the nondescript straggle of buildings along the muddy street housed the general store. Inside, a group of reindeer herders were buying supplies to take back to their summer camp.

This was the Chukchi village of Inchoun, on the north east coast of Siberia. It lies right on the Arctic Circle and is one of the most remote communities in the world. There's no road across the tundra to Inchoun so the 90 passengers of the Kapitan Dranitsyn were some of the few visitors the townsfolk every see. In many ways it resembled Nepal in the 1960s - the people cheerfully lead a hard life (Moscow hadn't paid them for three months) but children walked with us without looking for hand outs and the adults invited us in for tea and offered us gifts without expecting payment.

I was on a three week voyage eastward from Murmansk along the top of Russia to the edge of Alaska through the Northeast Passage. The vessel was the powerful 10,000 tonne Russian icebreaker, the Kapitan Dranitsyn.

"Adventure Cruising" is a new concept in travel. Indeed, a decade ago it would have been an oxymoron. Back then, there was no common link between the "deck quoits and gin sling" cruising set and the Lonely Planet-toting adventure travellers. The change came about when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia had to find a way for its large icebreaker fleet to earn extra money. It found it in Quark Expeditions, a US company (owned by an Australian, Mike McDowell) that charters ships for trips that were mere fantasies a few years ago.

Quark follows the Midnight Sun. Around Christmas its ships are cruising Antarctica - some delving into the pack ice far below the Antarctic Circle. In the northern summer, it operates trips along the Northwest and Northeast passages, Spitsbergen, Franz Josef Land, Greenland and the high Canadian Arctic. It even utilises nuclear-powered icebreakers to crash through the ice to the North Pole. At $US17,900 per person twin share, the North Pole is not a cheap holiday destination.

Despite the cheapest fare for my Northeast Passage trip being $US8950, I was only one of 16 Australians on board the Kapitan Dranitsyn. For that price you get luxury adventure: a large comfortable cabin with bathroom, meals cooked by Austrian chefs, zodiac and helicopter excursions, lectures by experts, and outside windows.

One day I returned to the cabin after lunch and glanced out my window idly thinking "wouldn't it be exciting to see a polar bear out there". There was. I excitedly picked up my telephone and babbled my find to Hayley Smith, the assistant expedition leader who was on the bridge. The ship turned and we found three bears on the pack ice.

In total, we had about 20 polar bears around the ship throughout the journey. The most memorable occasion was when a mother and two cubs came over full of curiosity and played around the ship for two hours. They are so white and cuddly that it's hard to remember that they feed by crushing seal skulls with a single blow.

The danger was easier to remember whenever we landed. The ship's standard procedure was to send out Russian crew members with rifles to stand guard at the furthest point of our excursion. They were to protect us from marauding polar bears that would otherwise see us as a touring smorgasbord.

Other wildlife highlights were bulk walruses and puffins. Walruses are no smarter than they look but they are very social. We often passed a gathering of 20 or 30 walruses clinging to a tiny ice floe and occasionally falling off, oblivious to the attractions of a much larger floe nearby.

Meeting Pacific puffins added to my growing conviction that the Arctic is a freezer where god stores prototype animals. It's hard to believe that puffins' large multicoloured beaks aren't glued on by practical jokers. Their high wing loadings make landings and take-offs onto narrow cliff ledges spectacular and ungainly.

I also saw three lemmings in Siberia. That's a long way from the overcrowding that legend says drives them to mass suicide. A variety of seals made appearances and on nature-rich Wrangel Island we observed reindeer and musk ox. There was also a polar bear walking along the rim of a valley we were visiting on Wrangel.

Dr Nikolai Drozdov, one of the ship's lecturers, related to me how musk ox were reintroduced to Wrangel Island from Alaska during the Cold War. Over the first few months, several were killed by wolves and their Russian custodians were too embarrassed to tell the Americans. However, they received a telex from the USA says that it had noticed that the herd was reduced. That was Russia's first intimation of a new generation of highly advanced US spy satellites.

Nikolai is a Russian television star who has been presenting a nature program to millions of viewers for 23 years. He was also the presenter of "Realms of the Russian Bear" made by the BBC Natural History Unit and shown on SBS last year. I suspect his presence opened a few doors for us.

One of those is a door I would rather have remained closed. Unlike Antarctica where the only resident humans are research scientists, The Russian Arctic was the front line of the coldest part of the Cold War. One of the remnant army bases is at Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point of Eurasia. We landed there to find a group of teenage soldiers standing around in a quagmire littered with hectares of rusting fuel drums, old trucks and boats, and discarded machinery covered with a veneer of broken bottles. I noticed a green ooze seeping out through the ankle-deep mud. Through Sacha, the ship's radio operator, we asked one of the soldiers whether he liked it there. "I hate it," he replied "But, as my mother said, it's better than being shot at in Chechnya."

I didn't go to bed that night. I felt too unclean, just being part of the human race. Fortunately, we sailed into a perfect night with the sunlit clouds reflected in the mirror-smooth water between the ice. Up at 77 degrees north in late July, it was never darker than it is in Melbourne at about 4.30 pm at this time of year. I was reminded of Coleridge's "painted ship upon a painted ocean". By breakfast, I was in love with the world of ice again.

Besides the absence of palm trees and warmth (the temperature ranged from zero to 10 ºC), there are several other differences between arctic and tropical cruising. The most immediately noticeable one is that there is no shipboard entertainment. And that's the way the passengers want it - some of us spent 16 to 18 hours a day outside on the bow or up on the bridge. The captain permitted us all to wander on and off his bridge as we pleased.

Another significant feature of arctic cruising is the terrain crossed. Tropical cruise boats specialise in water in its liquid state. The Dranitsyn is capable of travelling at 15 km/h through three metres of solid ice. That's rather like driving along a gravel road in a bus. The sound accompaniment is like living in a cement mixer.

One memorable day, we were finding some very thick ice heavy going so we called in the Sovetskiy Soyuz, a nuclear-powered icebreaker, to clear a path. We had a mere 25,000 horsepower - the other vessel was governed down to 75,000 horsepower. Needless to say, it caught up with us as if it was in open water. With its help, we reached the most northerly point of our voyage at 77 º 46' north.

By day, ice breaking is an awe-inspiring experience. However, it's a remarkably soothing sensation to sleep by. Indeed, when we came into the open water of the Bering Strait, we were unacustomed to waves. I stumbled to breakfast after a night when the contents of my room rearranged themselves during a moderate swell. "Sleeping last night was rather like sex without the sex, wasn't it?" I asked Dick, an English bird watcher. "I don't think so," he replied. "For sex I tend not to use so much of the room."

Before I left Australia, whenever I mentioned that I was going to Siberia everyone's first questions were of salt mines and gulags. We didn't see any of either. We passed near the site of a gulag but, despite our constant requests, didn't land. A Russian officer explained: "We don't deny that Stalin's inhumanity is part of our history. However, it's not something that we want to show you."

One nice feature of Quark cruises is dealing with Russians. In particular, I remember an afternoon in Siberia sitting by a Chukchi grave surrounded by natural monoliths discussing rebirth with Sacha, the radio officer. And each passenger spent more than an hour flying in one of the two on-board helicopters - I invariably aimed for Oleg's. His English was minimal but he was a most skilled natural pilot and his skills were honed by 8000 hours of flying in polar conditions.

The voyage through the Northeast Passage combines a number of exceptional travel experiences. During our last days at sea we took to the zodiacs to find ourselves surrounded by grey whales, an encounter that added to the earlier meeting with walruses, polar bears and birds. We had seen the best and worst of the human occupation of Siberia - in the Chukchi villages and army bases respectively. We had walked through fields of arctic poppies, Lapland buttercups and alpine forget-me-nots, all making the most of the brief summer thaw. And we were familiar with ice in all its subtle hues and intricate beauty.

During the three weeks we travelled above the Arctic Circle we covered 6600 kilometres and passed through nine time zones. We had been to the northernmost and easternmost points of Eurasia and I now knew a large part of the world that I never expected to see.

Then we came to the most geographically significant point of the trip: Big Diomede Island. Decades ago, when I first looked at a school atlas I noticed the kink in the International Dateline. That kink is to line up with the three kilometre gap between Big and Little Diomede islands. It coincides with the border between Russia and America.

This was once the most politically sensitive stretch of water in the world. Indeed, we were only the second ship that has ever been given permission to land. I climbed up to the now deserted hut where Russian troops once sat with binoculars trained on the huts on the US side. The occupants, no doubt, were looking back. Somehow the tension between the people in this hut with its mouldy mattresses and the troops in the pseudo fishing community across the way was a threat to life on the planet. What a fraud.

The next day we arrived in Providenya and flew to Anchorage, Alaska via Nome. We were thrust back into a world of Pizza Huts and cars with chrome. It was a shock awakening. Even weeks later, when the sun is low in the sky it's easy to recall its golden glow illuminating the pristine realm of ice and ice bears at the top of the world.

If You Go

The general sales agent in Australia for Quark Expeditions is Adventure Associates. Indeed, Dennis Collaton at Adventure Associates is one of the few Australian experts in expedition cruises to both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. He can be contacted on (02) 389 7466 or toll-free on (1-800) 222 141. In 1996, Arctic voyages cost from $US4950 to Spitzbergen and Franz Josef Land. The Northeast Passage voyage (3 -22 July, 1996) costs from $US8950.

Australians need visas for Russia and the USA.

One of the challenges of the Northeast Passage voyage is that you leave Australia aiming for Europe and return from North America. The airline that can take you closest to both ends of the voyage is Cathay Pacific. It flies to Stockholm, Sweden and from Vancouver, BC, Canada. Cathay can be reached on 131 747

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd