Sights and lights in the far north: The Northern Lights in Norway
On a week-long ferry ride charting Norway's corrugated coastline, Simon Calder encounters wild weather, windswept Arctic communities, and sees Nature's neon spectacular in the night sky
Simon Calder is Travel Editor at Large for The Independent, writing a weekly column, various articles and features as well as filming a weekly video diary. Every Sunday afternoon, Simon presents the UK's only radio travel phone-in programme called The LBC Travel Show with Simon Calder (97.3 FM). He is a regular guest on national TV, often seen on BBC Breakfast, Daybreak, ITV News and Sky News. He is often interviewed on BBC Radio, particularly for BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme and BBC Five Live.
Saturday 30 November 2013
A November journey along the coast of Norway is susceptible to two kinds of wild weather. The sort you don't want boils up in the North Atlantic and unleashes its Force-10 fury on anything that stands between the seething ocean and the ragged shore of Norway; a ferry, for instance. The type you crave begins 93 million miles away in the furnace of the Sun. Charged particles break away from the corona to rush out with the solar wind and jolt the Earth's magnetism, sending older particles down into the upper air to dance around the Poles.
To maximise the chance of witnessing the spectacle, you need to move closer to one or other end of the world. I don't recommend seeking the Southern Lights. The geography of Antarctica renders access to the promising polar region extremely difficult and expensive. In contrast, to reach the deep north you need do nothing more demanding than step aboard a red, white and black ferry at the harbour in Bergen on any night you like.
Every evening, one of the dozen ships in the Hurtigruten ("Fast Route") ferry fleet departs on a six-day voyage to the port of Kirkenes, the last port in Norway before Russia. Its primary purpose is as the nation's lifeline for passengers and freight, but tourists are welcome as financial ballast.
Hurtigruten does not hurry. Each ferry plods steadily at about 18 knots (21mph) and calls at 34 ports – most of them lonely, windswept communities whose homes huddle around a church. The typical stop lasts half-an-hour. As the gangplank is lowered for passengers, a huge door in the hull opens to reveal a cargo space that can hold anything from cars to pallets-full of Christmas candles. Synchronised fork-lifts speedily offload the essentials for northern communities, and load parcels and produce. There always seems to be a call at dawn or dusk, which I came to call the twilight of the goods. Yet besides being a quotidian component of Scandinavian logistics, the Hurtigruten offers a voyage along a corrugated coast that becomes more extreme with each passing day.
The journey into the deep north begins at precisely the latitude of the tip of Shetland, the northernmost outpost of Britain: 60.3 degrees. In summer, sailing from Bergen would be a spectacular departure from one of Europe's most beautiful harbours; in winter, darkness has long since descended, so passengers busy themselves with discovering the ship.
Finnmarken was built, without undue extravagance, a decade ago. The cabins feel like high-spec budget hotel rooms: spotlessly clean and comfortable, with a television and bathroom. There is a scattering of bars, and a shop selling souvenirs and outdoor gear. The most appealing public area, though, is the panoramic lounge giving a wide-screen view of the Norwegian coast and its never-dull weather. It perches above the bridge, commanded by the reassuring Captain Raymond Martinsen. "You need to know all the rocks and the lighthouses – 'I need to be one cable from that rock, two cables from that lighthouse'. You shouldn't need a map."
The Hurtigruten hybrid, combining public transport with a cruise-like experience, has some strange effects. Many of the northern sights are shrouded in darkness when the ship makes its daily call. On day two in Alesund, the world's northernmost Art Nouveau city, a tour with the sightseeing guide Sidsel Aurdal began long after sunset, and in the rain. She explained how the muscular flourishes of the architecture were bankrolled by Kaiser Wilhelm, who was besotted with the place. But my lasting memory was of the heated public benches where we paused beside the inner harbour.
Back on board, it was time for dinner. Tourists are treated to elaborately prepared evening meals, as well as eat-your-weight-in-salmon buffet breakfasts and lunches. In contrast, the coast-hopping locals mostly sit at the sort of café you might find on a cross-Channel ferry. The Norwegian contingent also endure journeys longer than they would otherwise be – because each day is usually punctuated by a long stay at a port to allow sightseeing.
Trondheim, the treat for day three, was glorious: the low sun beamed from an icy blue sky to ignite the gold of the wooded hills. Warehouses the colours of oxblood and ivory reflected in the river, while autumn-ripe trees framed the mighty cathedral. The city is Norway's third-biggest (after Oslo and Bergen) and was the birthplace of Hurtigruten, 120 years ago. Trondheim stands three-fifths of the way between the equator and the North Pole. In the southern half of the planet, its latitude would place it on the empty, inhospitable Antarctic peninsula. Yet the benign Gulf Stream makes it not merely habitable but a busy, cheery city – whose energy level is boosted by the Hurtigruten's daily delivery of a shoal of tourists keen to explore it.
After Trondheim, the mighty cliffs and ranges that have guarded the coastline diminish, leaving a straggle of low-lying islands and eerie moorland. The colour spectrum narrows from autumnal gold to 50 shades of wintry grey. The gloom was lightened by the Arctic Baptism, in which the ship's officers – abetted by a crew member dressed as Neptune – celebrate the crossing of the invisible line where the sun never rises on midwinter's day. The open-deck ceremony reveals the unusual spectacle of the captain dropping ice cubes down the necks of passengers, who are rewarded with a slug of Scandinavian liqueur that makes your head spin.Or is that a maelstrom? As luck would have it, the Norwegians gave the world that word for a gigantic whirlpool – of which the most powerful on Earth passed to starboard shortly afterwards, in a hailstorm. Four times each day, the tide shifts 80 billion gallons of the Atlantic in and out of a fjord, creating cauldrons of water resembling giant jellyfish.
You become sensitised to degrees: north and Celsius. The higher the latitude, the lower the temperature – though the sea never freezes. For much of the voyage, a fringe of windward isles protects the Hurtigruten from the full force of the Atlantic. But crossing an exposed patch of open sea, such as the stretch from Bodo to the Lofoten Islands, may make you long to be imprisoned by ice rather than at the mercy of the ocean. Sailing out of Bodo, the ocean initially had the reassuring look and inertia of cold steel. Ahead stood the charcoal silhouette of Landegode, a mighty isle of five peaks. Beyond these northern heights, though, a storm was brewing. Captain Martinsen addressed us. "There is a wind of between 8 and 9 from the west. It will not be much worse than this". A little later: "The wind is now Force 10".
The good ship Finnmarken rocked and rolled for three hours, coping rather better than many of the passengers. The dining-room staff waited in vain to wait on guests who had lost interest in Arctic delicacies such as smoked reindeer. Halfway through the tempest, while I was pining for the fjords and the shelter they offer, the on-board internet delivered an email: "Save up to 25 per cent on our Early Booking Offer. Book your 2014 holidays now!" With priceless timing, it was from Hurtigruten.
The Lofoten archipelago, which scythes out from the far north of Norway, forms a comforting arm to shield the northern navigator from the full fury of the ocean. So you glide from one port to the next, collecting polar superlatives as you go. Tromso is home to the northernmost ABC of aquarium, brewery and cathedral. In Hammerfest, the most northerly city in the world, whose travel agency is filled with ads for Mediterranean cruises.
At 70 north, yacht-filled bays flanked by outdoor cafés are thin on the ground. Instead, the northern soul is rewarded with possibly the loneliest landscape in Europe. Great heaving slabs of raw rock jostle for the sun, which deigns to hoist itself several degrees above the horizon for a few hours and breathe some brightness into a sky stained by winter. Trees stand like spent matches jabbed into hillsides smothered with snow. This elemental bleakness is best observed from the generously heated outdoor swimming pool, which brings a fresh dimension to the notion of steaming north. The pool and its matching pair of Jacuzzis are named for Aegir – the Norse god of the sea.
Thank gods that the skies were clear for the final 24 hours of the voyage. The ultimate extended por-of-call was Honningsvag, home to a significant Sami community of indigenous Arctic people – and one end of the northernmost public bus in Europe. Daily at noon, route 330 departs from the harbourside for the one-hour journey to North Cape. The return trip costs £50, but by the end of the journey I concluded it was a bargain. The road clambers over high passes and beside frozen lakes, all brilliantly lit by a sun that seems perpetually perched on the horizon.
North Cape is Europe's John O'Groats: a location that many people erroneously think is the most extreme point. A more northerly promontory stands a few miles to the west, but the pretender has gained a place on the tourism map by dint of being easily accessible by road. This world's northernmost swizz? No: extreme latitude with altitude. The earth ends abruptly, crumbling into a seething sea intent on claiming more land. Their elemental majesties – earth, wind and water – revel in their naked power. The setting sun acted as celestial searchlight. A massive metal globe on a concrete plinth provides a photo opportunity, while giant bronze discs mirrored the sun in both senses.
Venture due north from North Cape, and the next mainland you encounter is the northern tip of Alaska. Or hop back on bus 330 and go south to the ship for the final stretch around the brow of Norway.
Now, were you to ask my advice on seeing the Northern Lights, I would urge you instead to seek out northern sights. The weather both on the edge of the sun and above Scandinavia can be frustratingly fickle. So you should focus on daytime activities in the far north, and treat any apparition of the Aurora Borealis as a welcome extra.
The ship's officers had promised from the start to alert everyone if the Northern Lights came out to play. Four nights earlier, there had been a flurry of interest when a turquoise glimmer appeared in the sky above the Co-op in Rorvik. But no announcement was made, and no Norwegians turned up on deck to witness it. Only at 6.15pm on the final night was the first aurora bulletin broadcast.
Pandemonium at sea level, just as it was as at 80,000 feet as cosmic particles clashed with the Earth's atmosphere. Everyone stopped dressing for dinner and instead swaddled themselves against the Arctic night. Then we streamed on to deck for a close encounter with nature's neon.
A veil of green wafted above the superstructure, fluttered seductively, twirled and swirled through the heavens and then puffed itself into a great, ghostly pillow of plasma that finally melted into outer space. We were on top of the world.
He paid £759pp for the six-day voyage on Hurtigruten (020 3627 2176; hurtigruten.co.uk), including all meals, for a family of four.
Visit Norway: visitnorway.com/uk
For our latest 48 Hours guide to Bergen, see bit.ly/Bergen48
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