Green sky at night: If you're lucky a journey to the far north of Norway will be rewarded by nature's most dazzling light show
Saturday 20 February 2010
Apparently, it's bad luck to beckon the "tricky lady". Even calling out her real name, Aurora, is said to displease her. To be blessed with the hand of one of nature's most bewitching yet capricious dance partners, you're supposed to play it cool. And shivering on the foredeck of a ship, staring up at the inky murk, shrieking: "What's that, oh my God, is that something, is that it?" is not cool. It isn't it, as it turns out, though at the time I was sure that the grey smudge on the horizon was the beginning of something.
On my second night in Norway's Arctic reaches I again attempt to see the northern lights, but a foray into the icy air before bed reveals only falling snow. By night three – my last night – hope is lost: Aurora be damned. And so I get drunk, finishing up after dinner in a communal outdoor hot-tub. It's hard to glimpse the sky through the boozy fug and Jacuzzi vapours. But then, something catches the eye to the north and chatter ceases. Somebody switches off the bubbles, as if the sound might impair our vision. What is that greenish glow? It couldn't be, could it?
Norwegians won't thank me for likening their land to a great big sperm, so I'll go with a tadpole. That's kind of what it looks like – a great big would-be frog swimming south-west towards Britain, were it not beached on the top of Europe to form Scandinavia's upper fringe. It leads with its eye, Oslo, but rewards those who venture towards its tail. I do so the quick way, flying to Tromsø, one of the world's northernmost cities, some 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle.
In early February, an egg-yolk sun hangs low over Tromsø, bathing its brightly coloured clapboard streets in a seductive all-day twilight. There's a buzz in the air, too, the city's residents having emerged only two weeks ago from months of continuous darkness. Knut, my local guide, regales me with more "north" facts. Tromsø, he says, is home to the world's most northerly university, symphony orchestra, botanic garden, top-flight football team and Carmelite nunnery. "The place wouldn't be the same without it," Knut says of the nunnery.
But it's not northern enough for me so, after a pint of Mack (from the world's most northerly brewery, naturally), I pull up anchor (well, someone else does) and set sail, yep, north. The Kong Harald is one of a peculiar fleet of ships that chug up and down the Norwegian coast between Bergen and Kirkenes. At once ferries, cargo vessels and waterbuses for locals, the Hurtigruten ("Express Route") ships now also draw tourists by the thousand. In the summer they come for the fjords, alpine scenery and midnight sun. In the winter, it's the lure of the northern lights that draws passengers on to the dark, icy decks.
Having given up my search for the lights at about midnight, I leave my cosy cabin to find grey skies and, later, the port of Honningsvåg. Ships stop here for a few hours to disgorge their passengers on to coaches for an excursion to the North Cape. This is Magerøya, which is an island (a detail apparently lost on those who market this Scandinavian outpost as the most northerly place in mainland Europe). Not that such a trifling technicality bothers me as my bus rolls in a convoy behind a snowplough – a requirement to clear the route of drifts, which can form in seconds.
This bleakly beautiful, treeless tundra of whipping winds and crater-like frozen lakes could pass for Mars if it weren't covered in snow, which sweeps across the asphalt like white Sahara sands. And when the road stops, Europe's answer to John O'Groats is far more of a spectacle than that of mainland Britain's own northern extremity. Black rock falls into icy seas as great fingers of land reach towards to the not-so-distant North Pole.
At 71°10'21", Nordkapp, to use the local name, shares a band of latitude with the northern tip of Alaska and the frozen upper reaches of Siberia. Temperatures here can dip as low as -50C. The wind strips snow from the ice-rink ground and, it feels, the skin from my face. A well-appointed and, crucially, heated visitor centre provides respite until the convoy returns south.
From the northern tip of Finnmark – Norway's largest but least populated county – my bus is downsized for the journey to its cultural heart. The towns of Karasjok and Kautokeino are some 80 miles distant but jointly mark the centre of Norway's Sápmi country, the vast area of Scandinavia that was home to northern Europe's indigenous Sámi people long before borders defined Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
After decades of discrimination and forced assimilation, Norway's Sámi people, who number more than 60,000, have enjoyed a cultural resurgence of late. And the day I visit, 6 February, happens to be their national day, when the whole country celebrates Sámi heritage and tradition. While they are no longer the nomads of old – Sámi people live modern and often prosperous lives – many still wear the traditional dress of riotous blues and reds, which seem to illuminate the great white expanse that surrounds them.
In Kautokeino, I meet Risten and Ante, a sweet young couple among those who still depend on vast reindeer herds. How vast it would be impolite to ask – these droves of semi-wild beasts are as bank accounts to their owners. Some animals are hitched to sleighs to give tourists rides round frozen lakes. We do so with half a dozen slightly deranged beasts before a restorative bidos, the traditional Sámi meal of reindeer stew and sweetbread reserved for auspicious days.
From Kautokeino I head to Alta, a town that combines a growing modernity with a rich history – the rock carvings at Hjemmeluft are 6,000 years old. Finnmark's largest city is also home to one of the Arctic tourist industry's chilliest contrivances – the ice hotel. Just outside Alta, the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel is rebuilt every winter using compacted snow and huge glass-clear blocks of ice cut from nearby lakes. Everything in its extraordinary, ethereal interior, including large sculptures and a bar, is made of ice except, thankfully, the mattresses and the reindeer hides on which guests lay their (exceedingly warm) sleeping bags. The heated wooden half of the hotel houses a dining room, as well as showers, a sauna and that outdoor hot-tub.
But first I take a snowmobile safari up on to the Finnmark Plateau. Visitors usually hope to see the northern lights here, but it's cloudy again so I'm free to enjoy the thrill of the ride. Each machine has an accelerator lever and a brake (didn't use it). And that's it – you let rip, tearing through the snow and drifting round bends at up to 50mph. I get carried away and keep bounding off-piste behind my guide, who eventually stops to threaten me with a walk home. Sheepish but nevertheless exhilarated, I fall back in line.
Dinner, as I have come to expect in a land of fresh salmon, cured meats and hearty red meat, is delicious – an elk stew with sweet lingonberry jelly. And then, to finish my northern odyssey, I plunge into the Jacuzzi, where that greenish glow seems to be getting brighter. As I climb out of the hot-tub to get a clearer view, impervious in bare feet to the cold air and snow-covered deck, the sky lights up.
To the north and then, suddenly, to the west, shape-shifting drapes of jade luminescence shimmer against the indigo sky as solar winds collide with the Earth's magnetic field. It's a sobering dance of light that is as unpredictable as it is breathtaking. And then, no sooner has Aurora rewarded my patience – or at least impatient indifference – with a show so moving that one almost regrets having witnessed it while wearing swimming trunks, than she slinks back into the night. I retire to my frozen chamber, my head, which will ache in the morning, full of the wonder of one of Norway's – and the world's – most stunning spectacles.
Travel essentials: Finnmark
* Tromsø is served direct from Gatwick by Norwegian (00 47 21 49 00 15; norwegian.no ).
* Hurtigruten (0844 448 7601; hurtigruten.co.uk ) offers a range of summer and winter trips in Finnmark. A four-day Ice Hotel Adventure costs £1,165 per person and includes flights from London, a night on the ship, a night in Honningsvåg and a night at the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel.
* Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, Alta (00 47 784 33378; sorrisniva.no ).
* visitnorway.co.uk ; 020-7389 8800
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