The Arctic Circle

It feels as though we have packed a lot into the last week. During that time, we caught the train from Oslo to Trondheim, boarded our cruise ship, sailed up the coast of Norway stopping at ports along the way, went dog-sledding in Tronso, visited North Cape (northern-most part of Europe), left the ship in Kirkenes and did a snow-mobile safari. We have heard bits and pieces about the Sami culture (though no where near enough – it is only glossed over by the Norwegians) and have learnt bits about Norwegian history and people. We have dined on smoked salmon for breakfast lunch and tea and have eaten heaps of other fish as well. Our omega 3 levels must be brilliant at the moment.

We have been unbelievably cold, whipped by fierce winds, have been snowed on and I have slipped and fallen numerous times. There is nothing soft about compacted snow. It hurts! Me and icy surfaces so not have a good interaction. I think that I need clip-on grip things on the bottom of my shoes. We have eaten dried reindeer, dried cod and fish cakes and have drunk Aquavit and various other spirits.

North Cape was particularly fierce as the winds and the snowstorm made it difficult to stand upright. We loved it though. We loved being there and we loved the experience. Amazingly, phone reception was brilliant so we took the opportunity to call our nearest and dearest, chirping at them in the middle of the night ‘Guess where I am now?’ Those who were asleep were gracious at being woken up. Purchasing travel sim cards for our phones prior to leaving Australia has meant that we have been able to continue using our phones on the trip, and to make reasonably priced calls.

Kirkenes was desolate, fierce, colder than imagined and covered in snow and ice. My ears hurt so much with the cold, I thought that they would snap off. There are a couple of five star hotels in town, some cheaper ones, and  the Snow Hotel. This has around 20 rooms and is recreated each year, carved out of snow and ice. We had the opportunity to stay a night in this establishment, sleeping in special cocoons in ice rooms but decided on conventional comfort instead. The idea of getting up in the middle of the night to go to the loo and having to wriggle out of a cocoon and make a dash to the adjoining ablutions block was not something that I welcomed.

I was surprised to learn that the 5* hotels were in town, but then learnt that there is a major ship building industry for the Arctic fishing fleet, and also there are adjacent iron ore mines. Outside our hotel, we ran into a young Australian couple who had come to Kirkenes so that he could take up a job with Northern Iron, an Australian-owned company in the region. She had a job with the Snow Hotel. There are corporate visitors and occasional conventions, and the Russian border is only 15 kms away. Sometimes there are Russian visitors from Murmansk, and I gather that Kirkenes is a popular shopping location for the Russian neighbours. We noted that some of the street signs are in Russian as well as Norwegian.

Walking around town, we were intrigued with small stand-on sleds that we saw in use. People pushed them uphill but then scooted along the flat or skied downhill. People stood up on the skis and held onto handles at waist height. A shopping basket or child seat could be positioned towards the front. There were special racks outside the supermarket so that the sleds could be parked securely whilst the owners were shopping. They looked cool. When we strolled downtown in the evening to find a meal, I noticed that one of these sleds was sitting unattended outside our hotel. It was too tempting. I decided to borrow it to take on our search for food. Manoeuvring this contraption was not as easy as it looked (especially when I was nearly wetting my pants with laughter) but I managed to sort of scoot my way down the street. Going down hill was a blast but a little scary also.

Leaving the restaurant, I was relieved to see that the sled was still waiting outside. I had to get it back to the hotel! Approaching the last slope down to the hotel, I was a little apprehensive. The surface of the road was rally icy. I suggested that Dermot might like a turn instead and he readily agreed, asking if I would take a photo of him as well. Good idea. He slid off down the road and I followed, focussing on him through the view finder. With my gloved fingers, somehow I put the camera into video mode and had no idea how to turn it off and so just went with it. The camera captures the moment when my feet slipped from under me and I came down with a thump and a curse. The topsy-turvey view looks a bit giddy-fying, but I soon get back to my feet, steady the camera and start to follow him again. Thump. I fell over again. By this stage I was seriously unimpressed as I think that the dialogue captured by the camera indicates. I minced along very carefully to finally get myself down the bottom. I should have just skied down in the first place. We carefully parked the sled back where we had found it and nonchalantly sauntered inside.

The focus and highlight of the trip  was the Northern Lights. The souvenir long-sleeved T-Shirt that I purchased on the ship says discreetly on a sleeve, ‘Hunting the Light’ and that is why we made the trip in the first place. The views that we had of the lights from the ship were great, and each night they got progressively stronger. We were so fortunate that there was a solar flare happening during our Norwegian tour, meaning that conditions were favourable for strong Northern Light development.

The last night on the ship was a bit rough and the weather did not support standing on the deck staring skywards. Along with all the rest of the passengers, I retired to my cabin early and kept my head down. No Northern Lights that night. We had high hopes for a last aerial display in Kirkenes though. We weren’t disappointed. We were about to retire, having decided when nothing was happening for the night, when a glance out of the hotel window have the hind of a light ray creeping across from the west. We raced down stairs and blocked out the freezing cold for as long as we could while watching the lights unfurl and roll or streak across the sky. It was spectacular and just as we thought that it was dying down, would suddenly start up again. The cold got to me though, as I had taken my thermal leggings off earlier and was just wearing ordinary trousers. We were standing around in about minus 25 degrees by this time and you really need to be appropriately dressed for prolonged exposure. After a while, I just had to go inside but was really stoked when I realised that my hotel window looked out in the right direction, and that if I opened the curtains and turned out all the lights, I could still see the display – with the benefit of oil heating as well. It was worth it. I only wish that I had been able to capture what I could see with my camera but a point and shoot digital doesn’t cut it.

The last couple of days have been in Oslo, but that will be covered in my next post.

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.

Luscious Apricots and northern travels

I’ve thought of my blog often but since late October have not really been near it. In part, this is because with daylight saving, I have things to do in the garden when I get home from work, or general maintenance chores or just generally things that are better done in daylight and by the time I finish up, cook the evening meal, etc. etc. it is quite late and there is little time for contemplative or responsive writing.

On the plus side, I have been over-run with tomatoes and last night I picked the very first apricots from my young tree. They were so flavoursome and such a treat. They were the ONLY apricots as all the rest were lost in storms. I also picked the first of my peaches on a dainty little peach tree. I didn’t eat, but admired my cauliflower head, growing nicely and ready to pick in a day or so. I was surprised at this as cauli is a winter vegetable I think – it has certainly been growing for a long time – but it looks beautiful. I also picked a handful of beans and a cob of corn. Not bad for a very small garden which is largely grown in pots.

This morning I kissed my sleepy son goodbye and left for the airport, which is where I am now sitting. ‘Have a good time’ he muttered ‘and not too much rock’n’roll.’ ??? Not sure quite what he meant, but I wish. Today, I am off to Singapore. After a few hours, then Frankfurt. After another couple of hours then Amsterdam. I will stay put here for a couple of days before heading to Oslo and then travelling to the far North to see the Northern Lights. To say that I am excited is an understatement. Also looking forward to some reflective time away from work.

 I have looked at the weather forecast in Kirkenes, which is as far north as I will get. Minus 9 degrees, and sunrise at 10:35 and sunset at 11:40. Interesting times for an Aussie Girl still wearing the sweat of summer. But, even the cold and the dark will be exciting. Stay tuned.