Thursday, 1 December 2011

Northern Lights in the north of Norway

One of our most anticipated and envied trips took place this weekend: we travelled to the north of Norway to see the Aurora Borealis - and we succeeded.

Travelling to Tromso
Friday night after work we flew 2h from Heathrow to Oslo in the south of Norway. With no connecting flight to Tromso, we stayed overnight near the airport. My first impression was the cold. My second, the politeness of the receptionist at the Gardemoen Airport Hotel as he explained that we were one letter away from the correct Motel and gave us directions on how to get there. We stayed a basic and comfortable night in the Motel/Hostel and breakfasted on the usual Euro fare plus something brown that might have been goats cheese. Then it was back to the airport on the bus and on a plane for another 2 hours to Tromso ('s' sounds like a 'z'). We landed in Tromso at midday - in twilight. Our (Lee's) research had shown us that the sun was up between 10:40am and 12:20pm, losing 15 minutes a day. I'm not sure where it was rising and setting - but we never saw it.

Saturday in Tromso
We wandered through downtown Tromso: down the main street with its Christmas lights, through the town square where we picked up some street-side lunch and along the waterfront. The centre of the city and the airport are on an island at its widest 3.5km and 10km at its longest. It is part of 'the fiddly bits' or fjordland in the north of Norway. The waterfront was particularly interesting as, as several locals told us, it was at its highest ever level. A storm in the North Sea had led to water levels being several metres higher than the usual high tide. I would never have known otherwise, it was so calm. An indicator that may have been key to a more keen observer than me was where the water had breached the harbour in a puddle, all the locals were clustering and kids were splashing about in their gum boots.

It was dark by 2pm. I had to keep reminding myself of the time. I imagine the lifestyle of a local to be very different to mine. I would find it difficult to motivate myself to go outside when it was dark so much. Although being out of bed before dawn takes on a new meaning. Most people, particularly parents with kids, had some form of reflector on their clothing.

We felt like we had a good idea of the main city centre (is 65,000 people classified a city?) by 4pm when we were picked up for our main event. I had slept on both flights and I slept some more on the 1h30min coach ride to our destination in preparation. 

Lyngsfjord Adventures
On arrival we were kitted out in quilted onesies, boots, mittens and gloves. There were 12 of us who were keen to try the dog wagons - unfortunately there wasn't enough snow for us to go sledding. We split into two groups of six - our group went first to the camp, where we met the dogs - looking less like the stereotypical huskies and more like kelpies in shape. Their fur was thick and they were all friendly, although maybe a little shy at the number of people.
There was:
  • A dog who had just returned from a trip to the north pole (one you would always want on your team apparently);
  • Happy - who was just that;
  • Balu or Blue who was a really tall dog and so keen he had to be chained or he'd jump out of the pens and chase you down when left behind,
  • There was also a 13-year-old dog who was still racing;
  • And a fairly new pup (1 year) that one of our leaders was given when she helped a friend to finish a race - he had a team of young dogs that were so mentally tired that he had been running in front of them for 100km already. She was a beautiful-looking dog who was quite keen on finishing off her neighbour's unwanted food.

While our two guides Amanda and Nora loaded the dogs to take them to the starting point, we went into one of the Sami tents for a feed. We were served a wholesome meat (reindeer?) and vegetable soup served in wooden bowls with a sweet flatbread, about a centimetre high. After we had our fill of soup, a Norwegian dish of flatbread, nuts, brown sugar and cinnamon was served for dessert. Then it was our turn with the dogs.

The owner of the business drove us to his property where we were to start with the dogs. Each cart had 5 dogs. The carts themselves were 100kg, plus the weight of the two travellers - one passenger and one steering/braking/scooting/pushing as required.  Steering felt a bit like a quad bike. We took it very slowly as it was very icy and the main message of the pre-briefing was basically "screw up or screw around, you injure the dogs". It was a trail-ride style, where each pack followed the one in front (apart from our leaders who wanted to cut the corner when we turned around). We travelled 9km all up, 4.5km each way (although it didn't feel that far). My favourite part of the trail was a section of woodland where the road was more of a track with ups and downs and corners and tree
stumps to navigate.

While I was driving was the first time we saw the Northern lights. A couple in our group had seen them the night before and pointed them out. After the initial distress to our guides for our unplanned stop, we had a chance to observe and take some photos - only a little bit of pressure on Lee as I was holding the dogs in check. It was faint, but very beautiful on the longer exposure on the camera. The movement or 'dancing' of the lights I would compare to sheet lightening in a distant storm, only not as fast (more a flicker than a flash) and not as bright. This may well be inaccurate as most of our view was in the gaps or reflection of clouds.

Our guides returned us safely back, without injury or incident. From there Lee and I were delivered back to the camp where we met our guide for the night, Roy, and the two other couples who were to stay the night. Roy described himself as a very active person who fell asleep if he was sitting still for five minutes - so right up our alley. He was a climber, hiker, photographer, and more. He had brought some toys along for us to try: a couple of unicycles, some juggling balls, a guitar and a mandolin. Lee tried all of these and I tried all but juggling. Throughout the evening we ducked outside to take a new shot of the northern lights, to try a different composition and in the hope that they might be brighter/less clouds/generally better.

Before going to bed around 2am in the cosy cabin we took advantage of the sauna. Robes, towels and slippers were provided, so we felt very fancy. Everything was lit by candles, lamps and the fire, so was also pretty romantic, if you discount the reason being no electricity. Our log cabin was toasty as with its roaring fire. The only, very real, reminder that we were camping - or to use a plane magazine term, "glamping" - was the drop toilet, that will always smell like a drop toilet, no matter how many candles. Breakfast was served a bit after 7am, and was made special by cutting our own large hunks of fresh-baked bread. We were driven back to Tromso with a bit of information about the area and a lot of sleep.

All the staff at Lyngsfjord Adventures did everything they possibly could to make the experience personal and enjoyable. Each activity was seamlessly run and transitioned. The staff appeared to be a very happy family who all lived within the Tamok Valley.

The ~50 people living in the Tamok Valley made their living from tourists or commuted into town for the week. There were few farmers and few fishermen but both were finding it hard. Previously, being a farmer of salmon in the fjords guaranteed you as a millionaire. Now, due to the low price of salmon, and the setup and maintenance costs required to meet strict regulations to prevent disease escaping into the wild salmon, it is a break even exercise.

Sunday in Tromso
The remainder of our day in Tromso we explored a little further out of the city centre. There was a lake marked near the centre of the island and we made our way there following Google maps. It wasn't a long way, but it was uphill. It wasn't the hill that was the trouble, it was the wet and cold weather forming ice. On the way up we were ok, possibly because we were leaning forward. On the way down was a different story. I'm not sure if it's Lee's walking style, but he ended up with a sore backside and wrists after 3 accidents. We soon adopted the locals' method of sliding our feet along the ground without lifting them. Locals seemed to use the controlled slide not just when they were walking but also when they were driving. We wondered what the statistics on road/pedestrian accidents in Norway compared to other countries is, as it was often easier to walk on the road.
The lake was beautiful in the dawn/dusk twilight; a collection of wader birds on an island in the middle, frosty yellow heather around the outside and parts of frozen water. It was also surrounded by locals taking their children, dogs or themselves for a walk (or solitary run).

For lunch, back in the city we ate two different meals combining cow and pig with veges. On the potato we had sour cream and the house garlic butter which had herbs, lots of salt and something that made it red that we just couldn't put our finger on. Once we had finished, all the light from the sky had gone, making photo-taking a little less interesting. We wandered through the town some more until it was time to make our way back to the airport for our two flights back to London Heathrow.

We were exhausted, but flat out congratulating ourselves on two items off the Bucket List:
1) See the Northern Lights (bonus points for photographing them)
2) Visit a place where the sun doesn't rise (or set)

1 comment:

  1. hey karen, found your blog thru lee's facebook post. this trip sounds awesome! do you mind sending me your itinerary?