Cruising the Fjords

Our first glimpse of the northern lights was on the evening of 21 January. There had been some introductory glimmers earlier in the evening but as I was getting into bed at around midnight, Dermot banged on my door with a summonse to come quickly. I pulled out-door gear over my night clothes and hurried up on deck. What I soon realised is that where I thought that the lights were vibrant greens and sometimes blue and orange and red, in actual fact what you see is varying intensity of white light against a dark sky. There are teasing hints of rainbow colours that appear at times, but it is only when photographers capture the sky with slow shutter speeds that the colours become visible. I tried to take pictures with my digital camera but it was a total waste off time. All I got was a dark sky. Tonight, the display has been more impressive.

In many ways, our scenic tour of Norway has been in shades of black and white. We caught the train from Oslo to Trondheim, and given that snow covered much of the landscape and that the trees were stripped of leaves and foliage, there was very little ‘colour’ to be seen. What we did see though was truly magical, with rivers of snow and ice, dramatic landscapes and craggy mountains, and of course there were still the frozen waterways, the small neat cottages with their steep roofs and attic windows, and lights shining from the windows by early afternoon.

The further north we have come, the earlier it has become dark. Today in Tronso, darkness fell at around 2:30 pm. The sky was very clear, so if it had been cloudy, no doubt darkness would have fallen even earlier. This morning, when I awoke in my cabin on the cruise ship, we were anchored in the town of Harstadt. I quickly jumped up and on learning that we still had 35 minutes in that port, left the ship to do a quick tour of the closest streets. That was also totally in the dark of course as it was only 7:30 as I made my way down the gang plank. This limited amount of daylight and extended night really plays havoc with my body clock, as it generally feels to be much later than what it really is. I am ready to go to bed quite early.

I will retire quite soon but have just been nibbling on some chunks of Bacla (dried cod) washed down rather too quickly with aquavit and my stomach is a little uncertain. The boat should rock me to sleep, in spite of the ferocious wind that is raging outside. On my last venture on deck to check out the lastest developments with the lights, I was picked up by the wind and slammed against the railings. That, and the cold, sent me inside again.

For something different this afternoon, while we were moored in Tromso I went dog-sledding. Unfortunately, because this has been a mild winter the snow was not as deep as would usually be the case at this time of year. The locals would expect there to be snow of around a metre deep but it was shallow enough for grass to be poking through in places and much of the snow had turned to treacherous ice. A team of 10 husky dogs pulled a sled with two passengers and driven by a musher. A simple ‘Yip! Yip!’ and a release of the hand brake is all that is needed to get the dogs running. They slithered and slipped on the ice though and where the route might normally have been cushioned by powdery snow, it was instead a hard track of ice, with many frozen lumps, bumps and ridges. The sled bounced from side to side, occasionally becoming airborne and then landing with a spine-jarring thump.

The tour guide also reported that last summer had been un-seasonally warm, with temperatures of up to 25 degrees which is incredibly hot for northern Norway. This upset the dogs as they are not comfortable in this sort of warmth, and also upset the locals as they are concerned that it is indicative of global warming and a change in their environment.

The cruise ship has been a fabulous vehicle in which to explore Norway, as most of the development is coastal. It would be nice though to be able to get on and off the boat in different ports, to explore a little and learn more about each location. That may be feasible, but I have not taken the time yet to check it out. There are not so many passengers over the winter period, which means that there is more individual attention from the crew. In the sheltered waters of the fjords, the ship is very stable although the sea can be quite rough in the sections of travel through open waters. Sometimes the sides of the fjords seem so close that you could reach out and touch. As we travel continuously night and day, you soon appreciate the navigational skills of the captain or whoever is actually plotting the course and steering the ship. Tomorrow (Monday) we will be travelling towards the North Cape and past some ‘Wind Power Parks’. Given the wind that I experienced earlier this evening, the turbines should be performing well.

Searching for the Lights

Strictly speaking I should be drinking Aquavit, but instead I am sipping duty free Southern Comfort as I wait for the sky to light up. I am on the MV Kong Harald, sailing up the coast of Norway between the island villages of Lofotr and Svolvaer. I am on this cruise in search of the Northern Lights, as well as visiting the Arctic Circle and learning more of this part of the world.

On the port side, there is a soft glow, a halo lifting above the horizon that is the beginning of a northern light. It is so soft that at this time, it would not be easily picked up by a camera, and the colour is a lighter shade of grey, rather than the vibrant greens and blues of all the postcards in the ship’s gift shop. My cabin is on the right side of the ship, so I can peep out of my window from time to time to see if the colour is deepening and progressing. We will be docking shortly in Svolvaer though, and I think that until we leave the lights of the town behind, we will not be able to see anything dramatic.

In order to venture outside on deck, particularly the upper deck, I need to pull on an extra pair of trousers, my fleecy-lined boots, padded coat, gloves, scarf and furry hat. Up on the top deck, I added a balaclava as well. It is the wind that is the real killer. A public announcement has just advised that there is a Viking Museum adjacent to the dock in Svolvaer and it will be open at this time of night (9:00 pm) so I might sneak ashore briefly to have a look. Perhaps I will locate some forebears, as I am sure that some early ancestors came from this part of the world.

No such luck. We wandered around the town and only found a war museum, covering the years of the second world war. It was Vikings that I was after, not modern war memorabilia. I am now back on board, waiting for the ship to finish loading and to depart. This particular shipping line runs a continuous service from Bergen to Kirkenes and back again. Many of the passengers are tourists like myself, but others are Norwegian travellers, moving between towns and villages. Most of the Norwegian settlement is on the coast and at this time of year, road travel is very dicey. To travel by sea therefore is very practical.

The glow of northern lights has now disappeared. Hopefully, it will appear again tomorrow night when we are further north. At 11:00 pm I will go up to the top deck for some sort of ceremony that the captain is putting on, with a special supper of fish cakes provided. There was an announcement about this, but sometimes the accent of the woman who is in charge of communication is a little difficult to interpret.

Just after 8:00 this morning, we crossed the Arctic Circle, and so after breakfast we had a baptism ceremony with King Neptune. This involved having a ladle of cold water and chunks of ice poured down the back of your neck (inside your clothing) after which you received a certificate and a tot of mulled wine. This was up on the top deck with a howling wind, but everyone lined up for the ‘baptism’. It was only a momentary shock, but the dampness persisted for some time. I applied the hair dryer to nether regions and knickers after a while to hasten the drying process.

Arriving in Oslo was such a treat. A snow storm started a bit before my aircraft touchdown, with visibility out of the plane windows very limited. By the time I had caught the train into the city and checked into my central hotel, the snow was thick on the ground. I caught up with Dermot and Catherine here, and the three of us rugged up and went tromping through the snow, taking photos as we went. We were all a bit agog at the beggars sitting in the snow, with a candle in a cup placed in front of them. I was also surprised at the number of men, who were not wearing hats, even those who were bald. The cityscape was magical though and we were intrigued with the novelty of it all.

I have just come back from the top deck. I still don’t fully understand what it was all about but think that appeasing the Fjord Trolls had something to do with it. The hot fish cakes were wonderful and the hot mugs of tea served with a dash of rum provided their own heat as well.

Thank God it’s Friday

Just as well it was a short week this week (holiday Monday) as I had an attack of the blahs and the week dragged.  Probably adjusting to the earlier rising with Daylight Saving contributed to the feeling, plus ongoing altercations with young Donald.  He insists that he is still going to school, that he will not get a job and that I cannot make him do otherwise.  Just quietly, he is probably right, but if his intention is to go to school, then he actually has to do that.  I have told him that I am not intervening on his behalf with the school.  It is up to him to do so if he wants to try to talk his way back in.

Normally I ride my bicycle to work, or if the weather is inclement then I ride Jeffrey, my motor scooter.  Very occasionally I take the car, but this means that I must remember to keep shifting it through the day as there is a two-hour limit on car parks.  Thursday morning, I decided to drive as I was feeling tired and lethargic and also the weather was drizzly.  I was running rather late, so when I rushed outside to actually leave, I was not impressed to discover that the car was not in the driveway.  Nor was Donald in the house.  He had slipped out after I had gone to sleep and driven to Daisy’s house.  Needless to say I blew my top and left a very hostile message on his mobile phone.  At times like this I am beside myself with fury.  It’s that casual assumption that he can just take the car whenever he likes that upsets me.  I was also cross with myself that I had left the keys out where he could take them.  I shouldn’t have to hide them though.

The nice surprise for the week was receiving an email from a woman who I last saw thirty years ago.  We both met, some years before that when we both worked in a bar in Alice Springs.  K was only a couple of years older than me, but by comparison I was very innocent and naive.  She was the most overtly sexual woman I had ever met.  She wore skimpy skirts and low-cut tops, and her long hair, parted on the side seductively grazed those pouting lips.  As the male customers walked into our restaurant each evening, she would look them over critically and assess which were worth pursuing that evening.  Whichever man she chose, she usually got.  He didn’t have a chance.

K half terrified me and half fascinated me.  For some reason she took a shine to me and took me under her wing.  We were chalk and cheese but became good friends anyway.  We had many hilarious nights in the restaurant, and of course after work we would hit the town, living it up until the early hours and exhaustion hit.  I recall skinny dipping in the motel swimming pool at midnight, wearing sunglasses and our knickers on our heads as a disguise.  We probably kept half the guests awake with our raucous laughter and rude jokes.

She took me to my first bush race meeting, giving me more of a run-down on the men that were there than on the horses on the track.  It was their form that she was more concerned with anyway, though of course we did have a bet on the horses as well.  I recall when one famous Australian rock star, well known for his musical roles as well, hit town for a concert.  K took one look at the statuesque figure and said, ‘Duckie, I’m going to have him!’ and she did.  I gather it was a night to remember, for she said to me the next morning, ‘Boy, he wasn’t hiding behind the door when they were handed out!’  By her reports, he was very well endowed.  I think of that every time I see him on TV.

Although she had grown up in Alice, there came a time when she wanted a change, and she decided to move to Townsville.  I visited her a few times and still enjoyed her company although the relationship that she had at that time had brought about an element of more sedate behaviour.  Well, of a sort.

Something intriguing happened on one of those visits.  K and her sister had recently lost their father and were consulting a medium for some belated consultation with their parent.  There were unresolved issues from memory and they wanted to make contact with him.  This was taking place at the sister’s house, after which K and I were going out on the town.  At the appointed time, I drove over to the sister’s house to pick up K.  As I approached the back door, I could hear the conversation happening inside and deduced that the consultation was still in progress.  I didn’t knock, not wanting to create a disturbance but quietly opened the door, crept inside and sat down.

The man was talking in a focused fashion with his eyes closed to aid concentration or to better hear the voices I assume.  Suddenly, he stopped talking and went quiet.  He shifted in his seat and then started talking again.  He said that a young lady has just entered the room, and there is someone here who wishes to speak to her.  He described a young man who had died a short time previously and gave details of the death and my reactions to the news.  The description fitted a friend of mine, and he gave accurate detail of the circumstances and the impact on myself and the fact that I had sent a silent prayer to this friend.  I was told that the friend had received this prayer and wished to thank me.  Nobody in that room knew of my friend’s death, and I had never told K about it.  To say that I was rendered speechless at this encounter would be an understatement.  I wished later that I had thought to ask some questions, the answers to which only my friend and I would know the answers but was not quick enough.

K is now married and living a retired and settled life.  She had a young son (as a single mother) when I first knew her and now she has a granddaughter a little older than my son.  She always had a passion for animals and it seems that she still has a menagerie, with a focus on birds and parrots now – intelligent birds that are as demanding as little children.

I was delighted that she made contact with me.  I had often wondered what had become of her, but as she had married and changed her name, had no way of contacting her.  We shared news and photographs and promised to keep in touch.  She says that she has put on a bit more weight than she used to carry, but then haven’t we all?  In my mind’s eye though, I will still see the vamp that challenged and scared the pants off me when I first met her.  Can’t wait to catch up with her again.

Sailing Down the Murray

Resulting from an impulse Cudo Voucher purchase, this morning I took Father for a breakfast cruise in a paddle boat on the River Murray.  The breakfast was a bit average, but it’s the experience that one pays for rather than the food.  We received a glass of local sparking wine at the start of our meal (pleasant but sweet), but were told that coffee is not included and must be paid for at $5.00 a mug.

Just as we were about to board the boat, the sole partially detached itself from my right shoe and I flapped my way up the gangplank.  These shoes, a beautifully comfortable pair of Rockport walkers, belonged to my mother.  After her death in 2003, they found their way into my wardrobe and for the first time since leaving school I found myself wearing black lace-ups.  I have derived an enormous amount of comfort from those shoes, both physical and emotional   I think that I even wrote a poem in the early days titled ‘Walking in my Mother’s Shoes’.

Ever a sandal wearer in both winter and summer, it was a hesitant transition to these shoes but now I love them.  I was adamant therefore that when the soles wore out, they had to be replaced.  Re-soling is a tricky exercise and in my sad experience often not a success.  Slicing off the old sole is tricky and bonding a new sole in its place likewise problematic.  It frequently separates from the shoe again as the bonding does not hold under the stresses of walking.  Frustrating when the upper is still in such good condition.  Perhaps the shoes should be discarded but they are one of my last tangible links to my mother.

The river is relishing the break of the drought, but still flows gently.  As the Captain told us several times, it is the slowest flowing river in the driest continent.  The banks are lined with Willows, planted by early river boat captains, who used them as delineators of the river bank.  In times of flood, when the river spread sideways for huge distances, the trees marked the deep river channel so that boats which had ventured into new waterways could find their way back to the river and the deep water.

The boat was smaller than I expected.  Somehow, the mention of paddle boat brought to mind an image of a massive paddle steamer, playing the Murray tourist trade with faded genteel luxury.  The boat on which we found ourselves was much smaller – intimate even and built in the late 1970s.  It operates seven days a week servicing the tourist and corporate trade, with the Captain and his wife making their home on the lower deck.

It was misting with rain on the river, the day a mixture of greys and murky greens.  The brighter colour of the Willows provided contrast and relief.  Father gave me a potted analysis of the geological history of the cliffs as we passed, analysisng the sandwiched stratas.  Also the history of the river going back pillions of years when perhaps it followed a different path.  In those days, Australia was still connected to Antarctica.

We passed an old house on the cliff top, two straggly looking palm trees framing the view from the river.  We were told that at the time of Federation, the government gave two palm trees to the houses that lived along the river at that time, to be planted in commemoration of the great event.

I excitedly pointed out the high voltage transmission lines that straddled the river as we glided underneath.  Not many people get excited about these giant-like metallic towers that dominate  the landscape in stark silhouette.  In my day job, I acquire land for substations and easements for transmission lines like this and I have learnt to appreciate the geometry and strength of those towers.

I have seen Scandinavian designs of towers in the form of a line of giant men, striding over the landscape and holding the wires aloft with their arms.  Brilliant.  Each tower depicts a different phase of the stride.  I hope they get built some day.  There can still be art form in utility structures.

We watched the river birds, their take-offs and landings and discussed the merits of various river-front houses and houseboats.  We passed houseboats with clotheslines and dog kennels, Australian flags, solar panels and mini wind turbines.  Some were obviously occupied by permanent residents rather than holiday renters.

I nearly cancelled this trip, thinking that father would not be well enough.  He has perked up significantly after his recent hospitalisation with Serum Sickness and the severe allergic reaction is abating.  The Asbestosis is apparent in the breathy response to any exertion,  but he is stoic about that.  Stoic is one of the terms that I used to describe him in my Memorial Reflection blog.  I’m glad that I didn’t cancel and that we got to do the trip together.

Opportunity Cost – to Alice and back

Opportunity cost – a positive teamed with a negative as in the cost benefit analysis.  On her blog Tortoise Tales, Tortoise Mum has coordinated a blog hop on this topic.  Be sure to read what the others have written too.

 I‘ve had plenty of time to ponder the choices that I have made and whether I should have followed the high road or the low road.  Many of those decisions I did make were not necessarily the best ones (strategic thinking not being my strong point) but I acknowledge that each road has resulted in significant learning opportunities and experiences that have ultimately been beneficial.

 Indulging in the tantalising Sliding Doors scenario and ‘what if?’ I have pinpointed what was probably for me the most defining decision of my life.  I was in my early twenties and decided to go travelling.  The plan was to drive up through the centre of Australia to Darwin, work there for a while in the Greek gambling clubs where a young blond female who could run fast could make a reasonable amount of money, and to then set off on the usual overland trip of that time, up through Asia, and progressing through the sub-continent, the Middle East, Europe and the UK.

 I didn’t set off alone – I had a younger sister with me.  We were driving in a 1958 Morris Major Elite called Blossom and were full of youthful confidence and exuberance.  We didn’t get far as substantial rains washed out the Stuart Highway and the floods that we travelled through infiltrated the car.  We finally arrived in Alice Springs in a car with no brakes and not much money for us.  Fixing the car and getting a job to pay for it all saw me staying in Alice a bit longer than I anticipated.  Seven years longer in fact. My sister, who wasn’t the car owner, soon moved on but I stayed put.

 There were a lot of things that happened in those seven years.  I got my pilot’s licence and flew around much of Central Australia.  I started two businesses, the first in soft furnishings and the second in real estate.  Knowing that getting established in real estate would take some time, I also negotiated agencies for modular homes and started selling those as well.  In response to customer request, I also project managed construction of the homes, both in town and out bush.  I landed a contract for 33 small modular units on Aboriginal settlements, and spent days in driving around remote areas, sleeping in the back of my station wagon and supervising delivery and construction of those units.  It was a unique experience and introduced me to aboriginal culture in a way not possible in the towns.

 I built my own home in Alice as well, subcontracting out the construction but doing a lot of the grunt work myself.  Building the kitchen, installing all the air-conditioning ducting – things like that.  Saved myself a heap of money and of course derived personal satisfaction as well.  Carving a garden out of that compacted hard ground was yet another achievement, and I grew some beautiful roses.

 This took up all of my twenties.  It was a strange time in retrospect.  It was also quite a lonely time.  I loved the country and getting out of town and felt such a strong affinity for the Centralian area.  I had more acquaintances than strong friendships though.  In spite of the fact that men outweighed women, there was quantity but not necessarily quality. 

 There were passing relationships and some memorable affairs, but none of them lasted very long, except for one.  It was still disastrous.  I engaged this man as a sub-contractor on the houses that I built and there was something about him that caught my eye from day one.  Perhaps the twinkly blue eyes, the physical strength and solid build, the irrepressible laugh, or the way that he turned up the heat as he looked at you.  He oozed the X factor.  I wasn’t the only one of course, as I was soon to discover he conquered wherever he went and left a trail of devastation in his wake.  There was something about me that kept him coming back for more as well.  Both of us knew that together we had no future, but we could never quite let each other go.  I was the one who ended up with the broken heart though.  Not just broken but totally disintegrated.  Still, many years later he ended up fathering my child but that is another story altogether.

 As I approached thirty, I knew that if I didn’t get out of town soon, I would be stuck in Alice and would drift into a solitary life that I didn’t want and would always regret.  I sold up and closed businesses, let the house and headed south, determined to get some further education and a piece of paper that would give me more choices in life. 

 The Adelaide that I returned to was different to the one that I had left.  My friends had partnered up and moved on.  Paths that once converged were now far apart and our different experiences separated us.  Call me naïve but I was a bit surprised to learn that a woman entering her thirties does not have anywhere near the appeal that a woman does in her twenties.  Also, making the transition from business woman to student meant a loss of status and connections.  I was older than fellow students and had little in common with them, and no longer had networks in a city in which networks were everything.   It was a time of confusing transition.

 That period is now many years ago, and yes I got that piece of paper and a few more besides.  I did have more choices and I have travelled in a variety of directions since then and continue to do so.  I have often reflected on those years in Alice though and the impact that they had on how my life panned out.  It was a spur of the moment decision to stay there, prompted by flooded roads, a car without brakes and no money.  I have always felt though that staying in that town for so long through those years of my life was a significant factor in my not forming a regular partnership as did all the friends that I left behind.  Had I not stayed so long in a place in which I was unlikely to find a compatible partner, I may have found the relationship and family life that I had always assumed would be a reality.  Instead I have had a child on my own, and years later at that.

 Edith Piaf sang of no regrets (Non, je ne regrette rien) and she’s right.  There’s nothing to be gained from dwelling in yesterday.  Sometimes though I wonder what would have been if I’d kept on driving.

Other posts that are participating in the blog hop on Opportunity Costs: click here to view the list.