The day before I left for Canada, an email popped into my inbox from the local travel industry. As everything was packed, backed up, shut down, locked, moved offsite I made a cup of coffee and sat down to take the time to read it rather than skim through or delete. In one of the paragraphs there was mention of a trip from Belfast direct to Tromso with 5 days on a ship in search of the Northern Lights in northern Norway.
The price for a single traveler was a bit horrific but it did fit in with my work schedule and as this year was to be the solar maximum for the next 11 years then it was more than likely the last good chance I would get to see them. Straight on to the phone to my travel agent and they said they would get back to me if there were any places left on this trip. Hours ticked by and I rang them again at just before 5. They said they were still chasing it up for me and would get back to me soon. I rang back 10 mins before they closed at 7.
Yes there is a place and they would send me out the details.
No, just take my payment now.
Don’t worry Mr Fox as a regular client we can keep you a place for up to 48 hours so you can discuss it and think it over.
Yes, ok, noone to discuss it with and Ive thought it over. But its not a real ‘cruise’ its a working boat and we have to warn you.
I don’t care, just take my credit card details.
There is no hurry I’ll email you out the schedule, look over it and ring me back tomorrow if you want to go through with it.
Can you look at my account?
Yes Mr Fox I have it in front of me.
See what I’m doing tomorrow?
Oh, you are flying to Vancouver first thing tomorrow for a month.
So will you take my credit card details now then?
Fastest ever sale, 1500 quid or so down but I was going to see the Northern Lights, just that small matter of a month in the snow in Canada to get through first. Id then sit through a month of snow in Glengormley and then try to sell sets of the images on before I go.
This was a real handy trip, direct charter flights from Belfast, bus from the airport to the ship, ship, walk to hotel, bus to airport, home. Very simple indeed.
The flight out I had a window seat and we had beautifully clear weather flying over the snow covered fjords from Bergen up the coast. Id driven along those fjords years and years ago and remembered two things, absolutely stunning country and sooo bloody expensive. Oh and don’t ask for spirits in a bar and dont drink the youth hostel you are staying in dry within hours of arriving. Can I have three more beers please? You have drank all our beers. When are you getting more in? Thursday. This was Saturday night. Prices for a 250ml bottle of low alcohol beer in a youth hostel in Norway in 1997 are pretty much now on a par with a pint of beer in a downtown hotel in Belfast at a wedding reception in 2013. We stayed remarkable sober on that trip.
Forewarned Id bought a bottle of whiskey in duty free in Belfast and warned as many people as would listen in the departure lounge.
As we approached Tromso the sky clouded over and we were told that it was unseasonably warm and temperatures were hovering around freezing when they should be in and around -14C. It was also raining a lot which was turning the snow to slush and ice which again was unseasonal and making a lot of the ground treacherous underfoot.
Listen guys, you should see where I was last month, this is nothing… …well yes in terms of temperatures and the clothes Id packed but a completely different set of problems including not seeing the night sky in Tromso. Still we were heading further north and hopefully to colder and clearer weather.
After checking in to the ship and leaving my bags in my solo cabin ,which was quite nice, shower, toilet, satellite tv, remote viewing of the front of the ship on tv and more than enough room for just me, I headed out for a quick walk round Tromso. It didn’t take very long and I scouted out some locations for the day I would have here on the way back when hopefully it would be brighter and not raining!
Now I am usually very prepared for all eventualities so I’d spent a few hundred quid booking myself on an aurora hunting trip with one of the best guides on the net for the last night of the trip when I was in Tromso. It would take most of the night, get me back late and probably not sleep in the hotel but if you’ve come all this way at probably the best time for a decade then you want to give yourself the best chance possible. Talking amongst my fellow travelers I was pretty much in a minority of one or two as people had friends on last weeks trip and they had seen the aurora above the ship deck every single night of the trip. Well who was to know, the guides get booked up months in advance and Id booked this when I was in Canada so looking forward to a bit of a jaunt through the country regardless. A nice wee adventure at the of the trip then with the pressure to get photos off.
The blue light descended and we left Tromso in the middle of a dark overcast blizzard of a night and a few keen (or stupid) people myself included stood out in the blizzard and cast our eyes skywards before dinner and very quickly reached the conclusion that the rest of the civilised gentry on board had more sense.
Breakfast and dinner were included in the package and I had been warned repeatedly by the travel agent that this wasn’t a real cruise. No choice of food and you either ate what you were given or should bring a lot of cereal bars. I was warned that there would be a lot of fish involved. Having been to Norway before I was looking forward to re-associating myself with the curried herring and the malted cheese, honestly. I think you should know by now how much I value my grub!
Any worries about the food were quickly dispelled over dinner and breakfast the next morning with the food being superb for every meal. The first dinner was stockfish which was dried cod rehydrated and cooked which was on my list of things to try. I did re-introduce myself to the curried herring (which I now know I can get in my local Ikea!) and the malted cheese. The malted cheese has a story of its own from my previous stay in Norway. When we stayed in the hostel they had a buffet breakfast which had loads of things including various types of herring and this block of malted cheese which you had to cut with a special cheese slicer. You had to draw the cheese slicer across the cheese at a shallow angle and cut a thin slice. Id never seen this before (being a working class oick from the Falls Road) and so bought one of these cheese slicers and told my friends about it. Of course just after telling the story most would go to the kitchen cabinet and take one out but thats not the key to the story. So one morning this guy who was obviously from the same sort of working class background as myself used the cheese slicer, not to get slices but to do a Freddy Krueger type frenzied attack, carving bits out of the block. All of sudden one of the workers at the hostel literally vaulted over the serving counter screaming at the top of his voice ‘DONT DESTROY THE CHEESE!’ now obviously destroy is a bit of a strong word, particularly hurtling towards this startled victim through the air but maybe it was the first English word that came to mind during this assault on Scandanavian Brunost cheese and their entire way of life. As I filled my plate with Gudbrandsdalsost and curried herring most people were heading for their cornflakes and coffee. The Brunost was mostly unknown in the rest of Europe until a lorry load of it went on fire in a Norway tunnel and burned for 5 days. So not only does it look a bit like Semtex but will probably go on a flight ‘watch list’ as well.
Lunch wasn’t included (I see it is for this years trip) because they figured we would all be out on the various shore excursions and getting fed as part of those. I hadn’t signed up for any trips in advance so got myself down to customer services and booked a couple of them including sleigh rides, Nordkapp trip and the husky ride further north. The photos at the customer service desk of the blue eyed dogs really sold that one to me but I was warned not to get that close to them, or annoy them, or touch them or generally look at them the wrong way as they would take my face off. Seriously, that sort of shit may work on the tourists but a well travelled guy like myself? I made notes to wear two sets of gloves and two hats just in case.
The first stop was in Havoysund or should I say the first stop that I was awake for and it was just a quick stop where a few hardy souls got off the boat. The Hurtigruten line is the coastal lifeline for a lot of these towns and carries the mail, deliveries and even a hearse to collect a body at one point. It really does cover all life on the coast of Norway. There are a series of these ships which continually ply the same routes supplying and re-supplying these outlying communities. A lot of the places reminded me of the remote communities in Saskatchewan were people make a home and living in places where in reality human beings have no place being. To say life seems tough here is an understatement. It was scary watching the guys catching the guide ropes and pulling the ships ropes in on the frozen ice covered docks. Not a job for the faint hearted.
The main stop of the day was at Honningsvag where I was due to take a coach trip to the Nordkapp visitors centre. Leaving the Aurora Borealis aside this was going to be one of the highlights of the trip. On my last trip to Norway we were in Bergen and we hired a car and drove to Oslo then up to the Arctic Circle visitors centre where they had a guestbook and in the guestbook just before us was a team who were testing the new Seat Ibiza by driving it to the Nordkapp. We briefly thought this would be a great idea in our hired Volkswagen golf because after all nothing will go where a hire car will go but as we had it on a 3 day hire and we would have to drive through the night non-stop to get it back to Bergen we decided against it. Funny how little things like that can prompt you to go years later.
I’ll still have to wait for that trip because just before we docked the tannoy announced that the trip had been cancelled due to the weather. A few people started to grumble but when it was explained that high winds coupled with sheet ice on the roads had blown one of this mornings tour busses clean off the road, that perhaps cancelling was a reasonably good idea. So there we were 200 of us with nothing much else to do than to wander round the northern most city on the mainland of Norway. Of course the town only has a population of 2400 and so this amount of people wandering round massively increased the population. No cafes or anything were open because usually the tourists just arrive, get on busses and head off to the Nordkapp or one of the other organised tours.
For many of us this was the first port of call that we disembarked from the ship so the first people off the boat walked down the ramp onto the ice and promptly ended up on their arse skidding across the ice. There’s only so many times you can stop yourself from laughing but then you realise that being one of the youngest on this trip (obviously the price means only rich old people can go) any one of these falls could end up with a broken hip. I passed word back through all of us queuing the vast understatement ‘careful its slippy out there’ and promptly went back to my cabin for the ice grips for my shoes. A month in Canada and they weren’t out of the box, first trip here and they were on. In fact in the two years I had them Id never used them. One of my friends bought them for me as she didn’t want to see me in hospital again in bad weather with another busted leg. They made a huge difference on this trip as Id never have been able to get off the ship without them. They do sell them on the ship but by the time I realised this they had sold out.
There were some of the Scandanavian kick sleds on offer at the pier and they were good craic but carrying a camera bag, taking photos, trying not to let it run away and the constant fear of yet again ending up in a foreign hospital screaming my lungs out curbed my enthusiasm. So I went to the supermarket to buy some stuff for lunch and some snacks for my room, almost cried when I realised that a few danishes, bottles of coke and water, chocolate and crisps cost more than my weekly food shop back home.
I did a few circuits of the town seeing the same faces over and over again as everyone wandered in ever decreasing circles until they found the one and only cash machine and then realised they need not have bothered as there was nowhere really to spend it anyway. It was overcast and light snow and people were developing that manic laugh which sums up ‘fucking hell Ive paid a fortune to sit on a boat in rough seas and walk around aimlessly in ice and snow in almost deserted wee villages’. Picturesque wee villages, well they would be if it wasn’t fucking raining/snowing and blowing a gale. Now I know how tourists feel wandering around Belfast most Sundays.
Departure time, or more importantly dinner time couldn’t come quick enough. Dinner tonight was a seafood buffet which was excellent and my dinner companions were great company. Staring off polite then as we were all Irish degenerating into the self deprecating, sweary, dark humour that would have most north americans on speed dial to their analyst (or wife/partner). The craic was indeed ninety as we swapped stories of the cash machine, the supermarket, the.. ..well that’s about it really.
With dinner being a buffet and despite the increasing seas outside we all thought we would get some ‘value’ as most of us had missed lunch and a few of us had already partaken of the demon drink earlier that evening.
Got any ice?
Before dinner we were called to see the Finnkirka which is a rock formation lit up at night and sacred to the indigenous people. We couldn’t see it either in the high seas and snowstorm.
There were two dinner settings and the Irish one was the late one at about 8pm so you have to fill your time with something. Normally we had thought we’d be up on deck in down jackets and hip flasks watching natures magnificent light display but as it was howling a gale and snowing and visibility was about 12 inches that’s a lot of time to kill on a big ferry.
Still after dinner the crew came round with huge trays of shots of the Norwegian aquavit spirit. Id tried this before in Forget Saskatchewan a couple of weeks earlier at the Happy Nun as they were of Norwegian descent. Happy coincidence. We raised a toast to our hosts and of course we would all like to try a sample shot….
…after we’d finished our sample shot the crew came round with another tray of drinks and asked would we like another. Of course we would. They then produced the credit card machine and promised to give us another as soon as we’d paid for the first one. Fuck! Ok how much is that? That’s 120 NOK (norwegian kroner) sir. Quick calculation in my Aquavit fuzzy head and I realised Id just paid 12 quid for a shot of something I thought was a little compensation for every trip so far being cancelled. Apparently they sold the most shots they had ever sold to these Irish people. I think a word in their suggestion box about the meaning of certain phrases such as ‘would you like to try a sample’ might be in order.
Still on a day of little event it is another story to tell. We wandered round the deck for a bit and I retired to the upper observation deck, it was getting rough out there, not that you could see anything.
The observation deck was one of the funniest places I had ever been. Lots of older middle aged to pensioner couples sitting around not talking to each other for hours. Brilliant and being only one of two single people on the trip it was easier for them to talk to me than to each other.
I don’t know if it was the drink or the rocking of the ship but it was time to go to bed as we passed the most Northern point on the trip. You could almost feel being closer to the North Pole somewhere out there in the darkness (ok way in the darkness but Im trying to paint a picture here).
Tomorrow is going to be a busy day Kirkenes up near the Russian border and a husky ride and the turning point in the trip.