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.

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.