Cold sweat, fighting signs of panic, there is no way on Gods green earth that a ship can cope with this amount of rolling. I lay in the darkness realising that if it tilts just a couple of degrees more Id soon be seeing freezing cold water very close indeed.
Whilst the primeval part of me was screaming, the scientist in me couldnt help but be in awe of the controlled damping of the ship. Every part of my being was expecting roll, bigger roll the other side, bigger roll again and then I wouldnt need a spirit level to tell me I was standing on the ceiling.
But I didnt die, I didnt have to make the choice between rushing to the muster station, donning a lifejacket before getting into the freezing cold water of the Norwegian Sea, Arctic Ocean where I would be dead long before help ever arrived (well dead in about 10-15 mins) and digging that bottle of black bush out of my bag, accepting my fate and trying to get as drunk as possible before the cold arctic ocean came flooding into my cabin.
The control on the ship was amazing. Id never been in seas as rough as this before and although my body didnt believe it, my mind knew we would be ok….
The ships tv system has a forward mounted camera so I turned the tv on to confirm I could see fuck all and I would be best served trying to calm my inner cave man down enough to try to get to sleep and at the same time put to the back of my mind that we had to cross this particular stretch of water on the way back as well!
We arrived at the turning point of the voyage in the town of Kirkenes up near the Russian border. It was a beautiful day with lovely blue skies. Of course this was the only day that any of the pre-booked excursions actually took place and of course this was the day I hadn’t booked any as Id things booked for every day on the way up and the way down. The excursions had to be booked the day before so it was off into town I went.
Judging by the huge queue of busses waiting for the ship, the trip to the Russian Border and the trip to the ice hotel were more popular than I thought but there were still a small steady stream of stragglers walking through the snow towards the centre of town.
It was eerily quiet walking round the town with just my fellow travellers visible until you get to the town centre. One thing I did notice was a trail of luminous yellow liquid through the snow on one of the routes into town. Now having watched Alien v Predator again recently I did think this was probably predator blood from an injured predator who had crash landed outside the town in this remote area of the planet and who now was stalking the general populace. Which would explain the absence of people around…
…or of course it could just be leaking anti freeze coolant, but thats not as good a story.
The town was occupied by the Germans during the second world war and was virtually raised to the ground a couple of times during this having been bombed over 300 times. Being so close to the Russian Border and the town of Murmansk it was constantly bombed. One of the results of the fortifications is the Anders Grotta, which might be confused with some sort of Hans Christian Anderson christmas grotto but its a huge series of underground bomb shelters which were built during the war and enhanced during the cold war when Kirkenes was a frontier town of a different nature. The grotto trips have to be booked in advance with a local hotel so no rest from the aimless wandering around town there then.
The town has some russian influence, so close to the border and most of the people wandering around were russian workers so again no joy there. A brief wander in and around the tourist office where most of my fellow travellers were sheltering from the cold and I realised it was time to head back to the ship and get myself a coffee. The way back to the ship was bathed in beautiful low afternoon/evening sunlight and after days of grey it really was uplifting. The ships colours just shone out plus the clear blue sky meant a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights tonight for the first time. I wasnt going to hold my breath which was just as well. First we had to cross that rough patch of sea…
…sitting up on deck 8 in the darkness, occasionally illuminated by the ships headlights you do get a feeling of helplessness. Its probably better to remain oblivious than to think what the hell those powerful searchlights are looking for out there just in front of the ship, in the darkness, in the roughest seas Ive ever seen.. …better just to wait for the thump..
Theres no light on the horizon this far out, which is probably just as well because in the early evening fading light you could see just how low below the horizon the crew safety rail on deck 8 was disappearing into the sea before going skywards a couple of moments later. I did take some comfort in that each rocking movement was damped down in subsequent rolls, just in time to kick off again.
The occasional big wave hitting the viewing deck on deck 8 does bring you back to reality and a wee bit closer to God. Lots of ‘sweet jesus’ and ‘oh god’ and ‘holy fuck’ comments but it did remind me of riding on space mountain in Disney World. Of course on space mountain you know deep down that Disney arent allowed to kill you….
The next port of call was a little town called Vardo, now normally only a few hardy souls leave the ship at these short stops but I think everyone was of the same mind after the last couple of hours being thrown around arctic ocean. It was almost comical watching hundreds of people doing a lap of the town, well I say a lap, it looked like a lap from the ship, up the street, turn right, turn right, turn right again and back to the ship, except that last back to the ship part didnt exist in reality so you had hundreds of people walking past hundreds of people going the opposite way all being polite and saying ‘hello’, ‘hows it going’, ‘hiya’ hundreds of times over and over.
It was that dark evening twilight and all the houses had that norwegian thing of hanging lights in every window, it all looked very magical and well, christmassy to us. A local told me it was to mimic the sun shining through the windows that lights were hung in the middle of each window. Lovely idea, it could be particularly useful on this cold damp rock of an island I live on during winter!
That night was reasonably uneventful from the waking up thinking I was going to die stage and again uneventful from the trying to see the northern lights through the clouds hobby I had developed. Still the food was good, the ship was warm and I was piling through the books on my e-reader like nobodies business.
First stop the next morning was in the town of Hammerfest which like Honningsvag claims to be the most northern city in the world. I wandered up to the Cathedral here in blizzard conditions (that horizontal snow last seen in Canada) along with the hundreds of other poor aimless souls. Hammerfest conjured up two images in my head, one of the Hammer of Thor and the other of an american rapper wearing a range of baggy trousers. I genuinely thought the ‘stop, hammer time’ joke wouldnt get old. I even bet you are singing it now in your head….
….as I stumbled around Hammerfest, trying not to end up on my arse in the snow, trying not to walk into the blizzard directly you can now guess what was playing over and over in my head.
Trust me it does get very old, very quickly and by the time I got to the highly overrated Polar Bear Society which is right on the dock I almost wished to take my coat off and succumb to the elements.
Now this is where I lie, or rather don’t. I was going to lie about the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society because lets be honest not a lot of you reading this will ever see it. Thats the beauty about travel writing and photography, you can lie through your teeth about certain places and never be found out. The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society conjured up ideas of a victorian oak panelled club in central London populated by sirs and various landed gentry double barrelled neer-do-wells guffawing and deciding to invade bongo bongo land.
In fact this single room stuck on the back of the tourist information centre on the pier right next to the ship was formed in 1963 to draw in tourists… …of course nobody is ever going to read this blog so if you go tell everyone its where the ghosts of polar explorers spend their eternity. Oh and theres a huge stuffed polar bear. I was impressed and appalled by this but it made me think I wouldnt want to get on the wrong side of one. I didn’t realise though that most places including the restaurant next door to my hotel in Tromso, my hotel and the tourist office there also have stuffed polar bears in their lobbys/foyers. Taxidermy must be a booming trade here.
Hammerfest was the last major stop before returning to Tromso where I spent the rest of the day wandering round town saying hello to the 300 people who were on my flight from Ireland over and over again as we all waited for the restaurants to open for dinner or waited to die, whichever was closer. Tromso is a lovely town but when a kebab and chips costs about 15 quid you realise that the cereal bars you have at the bottom of your pack that are 2 years out of date because you never really felt _that_ hungry before in places were food didnt require a mortgage…
I felt sorry the next morning where a couple at my table for dinner on the boat decided to go for ‘nice meal with wine’ on their last night in Norway. An eye watering 200 quid for two. ‘And we didnt even have a fucking dessert either!’
So not only were they fleeced but nobody on this trip had seen the northern lights. I had the ‘wisdom’ to book a trip with an Aurora chaser – Guide Gunnar – for the last night as soon as I booked the trip. It might have been a couple of hundred quid wasted if we had seen it every night on the ship but you just never know when you might be unlucky… 5 nights in a row unlucky.
The trip so far had been a complete bust as far as business goes, all the photo opportunity trips cancelled and I would settle for seeing a peek of the northern lights through a gap in the clouds compared to what I saw in my head before I left.
Standing on the main street in Tromso I got talking to a chinese guy from Hong Kong who was obviously not dressed for the weather and who looked like he might be waiting for the same minibus as me. Indeed he was and had flown from Hong Kong to London for a 2 day business meeting and decided to extend it by 2 days to fly to Tromso, go out with Guide Gunnar, stay in a hotel, fly to London and then back to Hong Kong.
I didnt have the heart to tell him I had been here a week and seen feck all.
As we boarded the minibus this english guy (who had kept us a 1/2 hour late) boarded with what looked like his long suffering wife and 4 kids. He then decided to address the bus and said that his kids werent feeling well and if it was ok with everyone if we could be back by 10. Considering it was now closer to 7, the deathly silence that befell the other 8 of us meant that the not swearing loudly at or beating someone to death in front of his kids was reasonably universal.
We drove out into the dark icy night at close to formula one speed on ice covered roads with our guide with his phone glued to his ear. Sweet Jesus let me survive this night.
We travelled out for almost 2 hours and stopped on this mountain valley. The guide got out of the bus and announced that the aurora was arriving. Confused we just sat there for a bit and trundled out of the bus. There was those white noctilucent clouds I had seen before in Canada, Scotland, the north and west coast of Ireland…
…until the guide explained those werent noctilucent clouds but the start of weak aurora. Its not green all the time but can start as whispy white. I didnt know what I was more impressed with, the fact I was actually seeing the aurora or that I had seen it in the past but was looking for green stands instead of white!
For all my North American friends, this sort of sight is what the word ‘awesome’ was invented for. Id only ever seen it before in time lapse and long exposure photography (like my photos here)
To see it actually dance across the sky, trickling down and in ribbon formations was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. One of those times you stop photographing and just look because you may never see this sort of thing again in your lifetime.
Now hopefully by now you all know I like my grub but Id completely missed the blackcurrant punch and sweet and savoury pancakes handed out, I didnt realise how cold it was and for about a half hour forgot I had an urgent need to pee!
Not only was I content, I was happy. Id seen it, Id been there and done that, one of my true bucket list experiences.
Our guide said the display was rated 7 out of 10 on the scale so a damn good experience.
We packed up and headed back to Tromso long after the kids curfew with our english friend grumping away at the front of the bus.
Gunnar’s minibus has a glass roof and he told us to keep an eye out on the way back and mention anything ‘unusual’.
As if driving through norwegian frozen country side and seeing the northern lights wasnt unusual enough.
So right enough about a half hour later, I asked Gunnar if the curtain of green light out the side window was ‘normal’. the sudden screetching to a stop of the minibus and him jumping out and then banging on the windows shouting ‘get out, get out’ either meant we had driven straight into a fjord or it was indeed ‘unusual’.
Unfortunately our friend at the front decided that little annabel or whatever her name was needed her hat put on straight, her fleece zipped, coat zipped and gloves put on in the middle of the aisle. Well she would have if she hadnt been swept aside by the mass of cameras, tripods and winter gear declaring ‘coming through’.
Wow doesnt sum it up. The entire sky was green and Ive never swore so much at a camera before! I knew from Gunnars frantic expression, camera work and torrent of Norwegian going down the mobile airwaves that this was indeed ‘unusual’.
What was happening was a full corona exploding directly above our heads. At times it looked like hands, like a face and it is any wonder that in earlier times people thought it was gods or suchlike.
I rated our earlier experience as truly awesome and this was the ultimate raising of the bar to ‘fucking awesome’.
Oh sweet Jesus! I just couldnt believe my eyes and I make no apologies for saying the tears were streaming down my face. One of nature and sciences true wonders, here, now, after all the journey, disappointment, cancelations. If it were a script no-one would believe you.
Here a 10 out of 10 full coronal overhead explosion on the last hour of the last night of the trip.
Over breakfast in the hotel the next morning I ate very little and went round most people showing my photos of the corona on the back of my camera. Luckily enough most people had seen something as there was a last minute rush to book a couple of the larger tour busses to take people out had been arranged. Still nothing on the network of small minibus aurora hunters jabering on phones truely hunting the aurora down.
A couple of people hadnt seen it and I really did feel sorry for them and offered some prints of my photos knowing full well it wouldnt even come close. ‘These are the photos of a guy I met who saw the Aurora’ isnt quite the same.
Our flight was delayed going back until after darkness and I was talking to one of the guys who hadnt seen the aurora as we walked across the tarmac to the plane.
‘So you came all this way and didnt see the Aurora’
‘Yes but stop rubbing it in’
‘Well I think you should look behind you’
And there it was again off the bottom of the runway the faint green ribbon shapes building.
The guy hugged me, ran to get his wife and I ran up the steps of the plane past people wondering what they hell was going on. I got to a woman who had just boarded and told her. She hadnt seen them and no harm to the air stewardesses who were trying to get her to stay on board with shit like, you have boarded, we are delayed enough, only have a limited time slot….
..the woman must have been in her late 50s or early 60s but she shoved the 10 people in her view out of the way like they were toys. And there it was, everyone on the trip had seen the Aurora, and I was glad, it was complete and I was happy.
For a photographer I have very few photos of my own on the walls but within a week of getting home one of the Aurora photos was printed, framed and hanging in the living room. The rest of the trip was forgotten, that feeling of being a small insignficant human being standing looking up to the sky open mouthed will never leave me, never be forgotten.
A year to the day since I stood there looking skywards its difficult to see how I could ever equal that, never mind better it…
…that is of course until you realise Im writing this in a hotel room in London having started a trip which will lead me to Chile, Argentina and then hopefully set foot on Antarctica in less than a months time. Arctic to Antarctic in a year…
…now wouldnt that be a story to tell…
…to be continued…