In some mad moment of wanderlust we booked a wild, windy, winter wonderland on the frozen fjords of Norway in the Arctic Circle in Winter. Land of Vikings, Midnight Sun, Northern Lights, majestic mountains and gorgeous glaciers. We’ve booked with Hurtigruten on their Arctic Highlights coastal route from Tromso to Kirkenes with the entire journey in the Arctic Circle. It’s what’s billed as a once in a lifetime trip and the cost will be a life time credit card hit.
From East Midlands airport, we fly direct to Tromso, the legendary gateway to the Arctic to board our boat. Our cruise in Norway, and cruise is an optimistic word, is aboard a coastal ferry with Hurtigruten, the recently refurbished MS Kong Harold. This is no tux or tiara type trip, its bundles of base layers and blubber for this boat trip. Bare skin could be a disaster and besides, you wouldn’t want to get undressed in this climate and assumptions would be made about “masculinity,” lets not forget that we are in the Arctic Circle.
The spring equinox is fast approaching and I was worried that our trip with Hurtigruten to Norway might not have enough of the white stuff. Dispel any thoughts of not being enough snow, there are tons of it. It’s a sharp contrast to Britain where at the point of approx 0.01 mm of snow falling, Britain descends into panic and its a near on national emergency. Just the threat of snow is enough to shut airports, close schools and jack up shop prices despite snow actually yet to fall. 4×4 drivers slowing to a snail’s pace, tank commander ice drivers, an instant blaming of a cold snap during winter as a reason for imminent triple dip recession and other fucknuttery lapsing in a dose of common sense. Any terrorists wanting to screw Britain up only need to throw a few snowballs on the ground. When Britain had an empire it must have only invaded warm countries. In Norway, sling on winter tyres and chill out.
Our voyage in the Arctic Circle takes us from Tromso to Kirkenes stopping along the way to various places including Skjervoy, Hammerfest, sailing through Magerøysund, to Honningsvåg at 71° North, Vadso and Berlevåg. Kirkenes is the furthest we are going to get on our trip, the North Pole, a little less than 1400 miles away and one of the most northerly points in Europe. Some of the places we visit on the way seem so remote, usually because they are, and some so inhospitable. It is cold, bleak, barren and it is also undeniably stunningly beautiful in places. It feels, looks, and with the wind howling, sounds the like the remote end of the world. This feels like the Arctic.
Tromso is not unpleasant, it’s not exactly big or the Paris of the North as some sites have referred it to, its weather is relatively mild, we certainly thought so as munched on ice cream in sub-zero temperatures next to Ishavskatedralen, the Arctic Cathedral, by the Fløyfjellet Mountain looking across Tromso towards the Tromsdalstinden peak. Tromso is known as the gateway to the Arctic. Roald Amundsen must have thought so too, there are statues of him everywhere, even though he flew from here to his death on the Arctic icecap in 1928. With this in mind we head off to the old wooden warehouse of the Polarmuseet (Polar Museum).
If macabre displays of stuffed seals, bloody skinning and whale hooks and other trappings from the Arctic are your thing, knock yourself out. The larger display is about Svalbard with archaeological finds from an old Russian whaling station and nearly a whole floor devoted to Roald Amundsen and Isbjornkongen, the Polar Bear King, Henry Rudi who spent many a year bludgeoning and bashing polar bears. It’s easy to look at whaling and the cruelty of hunting without context of life in the Arctic Circle back then.
The Gulf Stream protects Tromsø from the extremes of Arctic weather, it still gets cold (for us Brits) but things are different as we move north, this side of the land in Kirkenes – we certainly feel the difference. To give you some idea of how cold these places can get, the ice planet Hoth scenes in The Empire Strikes Back was filmed in Norway, below the Arctic Circle, and we are way above the Arctic Circle. Its real cold with real snow. The chances of either one of us becoming a case of spontaneous human combustion, lit from the spark of all the fleece we are wearing seems remote. Chilled to the bones, thermal underwear has never been so attractive, wanted or needed. Wind-chill on deck can be a stunner. My natural layers of blubber i.e. fat, has not helped me withstand the cold chill.
As the ship edges northwards and towards the Barents sea, snow and ice accumulate on deck. One part of our savage winter sojourn was snuffed out when the roads were closed to the North Cape cancelling our excursion and the ports also closed, Force 8 on the Beaufort scale is no fun. There may have been 350 covers for dinner that evening, but only 100 made it. I and most other passengers remained in our cabins where we recreated scenes from the Exorcist with projectile vomiting and making best friends with the toilet. This is not the gentle swell of the sea. My seafaring days are well and truly over.
On deck, when the waves have become bearable, the scenes are spectacular. Heavy grey skies and sea smog obscure and surprise with craggy snowy mountains, and mountains of snow, that rise majestically either side of the boat, rocky waves crashing shores where you are sure that no one can live and in the middle of nowhere, Norway has its surprises with the odd house seemingly plonked down in the middle of nowhere. No jetty, no road, no access. Perfect. Beauty is everywhere in desolation.