Wiggo Antonsen: A welcoming host in a hostile land

Wiggo Antonsen is a 4th generation Norwegian Svalbarding. With a population of around 2000, the icy Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is a place where people are outnumbered by polar bears – it is, even on the best of days, not a place for the faint-hearted. Inhabitants, be they Norwegian or foreign, will live and work on Svalbard for an average of five years before upping sticks and leaving the intensely beautiful, but incredibly tough land behind.

 

Humorous and always politically incorrect, Wiggo makes a living as a taxi driver and knowledgeable guide in Longyearbyen, the island community's administrative centre and biggest town. While showing us the stunning scenery, he claims that he himself is not photogenic at all, although I think we can now put that discussion to rest and declare that he is.

 

This picture was taken in July 2018, just outside one of Svalbard's two remaining coal mines, Mine 7 on the Mine 7 Mountain. On Svalbard, Wiggo says, they like to name things exactly as they see them: on the way to Mine 7 Mountain, we passed Valley One and Valley Two.

 

In the image background, a massive telecommunications antenna can be seen. In just a few decades, Longyearbyen has gone from being virtually cut off from all technological and physical contact with the outside world, to having some of the world's top communications and space technologies operating in and from it. The town also has an airport, which serves both locals and a growing tourist industry with daily flights to and from mainland Norway. Even though the modern airport is considered one of the most dangerous places to land on Earth, it sure beats its predecessor that we passed along the way: an old arctic field between steep mountains, where the only air traffic control pilots could expect was a car parked at either end with their headlights turned on to indicate the two points between which to land! Perhaps it is no wonder that Svalbard is the place to have experienced the worst plane crash on Norwegian territory, when a Russian plane with coal miners and their families on 29. August 1996, due to pilot navigational errors, crashed into the Opera Mountain in Longyearbyen. The accident caused the loss of 141 lives with no survivors, and subsequently led to the total abandonment of the Russian mining town, Pyramiden.

Svalbard, by its very nature, does not gladly greet visitors. For those not quite mad enough to venture on up to the most northerly populated land on the planet to meet the man in person, Wiggo can regularly be seen on "Svalbard: Life on the Edge" on BBC Earth.

All rights reserved. All images © 2020 Britt Embry.